Going to India provoked mixed reactions from my friends and family. Many were excited and wanted to hop in my rucksack, but some were confused by my decision to go somewhere so full of people, dust, bad smells and a rather high chance of getting ‘Delhi belly’.
Initially, I was anxious about such a long solo journey, whilst the paperwork and preparation were daunting. However, I got my visa and jabs and prepared myself for the heat, and once I was on the plane it hit me that I was really on my way to the land of cows, tuk-tuks and curry.
After meeting my friend at Delhi airport I had my first experience of Delhi traffic. I have never felt like I was going to die more than during the journey to the hotel. Calling Indian driving crazy is an understatement: lanes exist in paint but not in reality. Somehow, the honking, swerving system works. It sounds terrifying but really, it was one of the things I missed the most, coming back to the civilised traffic of the UK.
We spent our first day exploring before starting our G-Adventures tour. After eating a Rava Onion Masala Dosa for breakfast, so spicy it made us sweat, we travelled by tuk-tuk to a beautiful Deer Park in an area called Hauz Khas. We then experienced our first Indian market, so huge and colourful that I struggled to not buy everything. Haggling was another concept that I was not familiar with but I was soon comfortable bargaining with everyone for everything – a valuable skill.
“The vegetable thalis, samosas and burgers were delicious”
Our G-Adventures tour group was a mix of ages and backgrounds and the friendships I made were one of the highlights of the trip. I would recommend booking a tour as you get to see places that you would never consider visiting alone. We visited multiple different temples, reflecting a country in which Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism are freely practised.
Although not a vegetarian myself, I went vegetarian for the two weeks of my trip and it was worth it as the options were endless. The vegetable thalis, samosas and burgers were delicious, with the palak paneer being a personal favourite. A lot of the time I had no idea what I was eating but this did not seem to matter as it was all full of flavour and occasionally, too much spice.
Our eight day Golden Triangle tour covered such a range of places, making the long coach rides worth it. Delhi is like no other city, constantly keeping you on your toes; Agra is home to the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and the Baby Taj; and Jaipur (the Pink City) was so vibrant. Waking up at 4:30 am to see the Taj Mahal was difficult and there are high expectations placed on seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World but it surpassed these expectations for me. Walking through the entrance and seeing it in the early morning light was surreal.
Although the major cities were incredible, for me the tour’s highlight was staying in a village called Tordi. The people were friendly and welcoming without wanting anything in return and the kids were so happy, eagerly beckoning us to join in with their cricket game. This combined with a camel cart ride to watch the sunset on the sand dunes whilst drinking chai tea and later sitting on the hotel’s rooftop watching the lightning for hours, made Tordi a memorable place for me.
A Bollywood film and coach ride later, it was time to say goodbye to our tour group. We were ready to embark on our next adventure which took the form of a 12-hour overnight train to Varanasi. I was dreading this journey of no personal space, squat toilets and no sleep but it was better than expected and an experience everyone should have when travelling in India.
“It was a ritual like no other and the scale of it left us speechless”
Varanasi was a culture shock. It sits on the Ganges and is split into 88 ghats (sections), two of which are called the burning ghats. Here we saw the bodies of Hindus burning on funeral pyres and the ashes placed in the sacred waters of the Ganges to carry the soul directly to Heaven. Seeing these fires was a bizarre and affecting experience and are a continuous process in Varanasi. At 7 pm every evening there is also the Ganga Aarti which occurs in the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Thousands of locals and a minority of tourists come out every evening for this ceremony which is a spectacle of chanting, singing, fire and the blowing of conch shells. It was a ritual like no other and the scale of it left us speechless.
My best experience in Varanasi was on our last day. Waking up at 5 am, we made it to the Assi ghat for sunrise yoga by the Ganges. I have never done yoga quite like it. There were moves such as crawling on all fours, sticking your tongue out and shrieking, and, my favourite, lifting your hands in the air and laughing as hard as you could. It was a memorable moment sitting there with the locals, watching the sun rise and experiencing the beginning of daily life in Varanasi. You have not been to India if you have not been to Varanasi.
India seems to have a poor reputation in the West, but having experienced it myself I would not hesitate to recommend it. The colours, happiness, religious ceremonies and amazing people captured my heart. I am so glad that I pushed myself through the stress of preparing for the trip and overcame my fears of travelling alone to experience such an incredible culture and lifestyle; an experience I shall never forget.
Images courtesy of Katie Moncur