India was an odd experience for us, I think it’s fair to say. We had less than two weeks, which is really not enough to see such a vast country, so we ended up with a bit of lounging in Delhi and a whistlestop tour of Rajasthan.
The first few days were really tough to get hold of and both of us felt a bit uncomfortable. Having gone from the very basics of the tea houses in Annapurna, we were staying in 5-star luxury, and while the prices weren’t comparable to London, they were certainly more expensive (especially for food) than our recent experiences. We’re not trying to do this tour on a shoestring, but we are trying to keep an eye on things. Added to a certain, shall we say, intestinal delicacy on my behalf, a punishing heat and our own overly-optimistic stubbornness about walking around cities, we really didn’t get on that well with Delhi. There were a few notable exceptions, on our first morning we made it to Fabindia, a clothes store and got access to some new, lightweight togs. Amy in particular enjoyed the colours and styles available.
While I was disappointed with the Red Fort (not helped by the aforementioned heat/digestion), the Museum of the Struggle for Indian Independence there was very affecting, and the National Museum had a great collection. But I think in general the hustle, bustle and intensity of Delhi got to us and we didn’t really settle there. I wouldn’t call it culture shock, but it was a tough start.
Out on the road, things started improving. Travelling by car is pretty miserable all-in-all, but was the most efficient way for us to do what we did – and the organised guides generally added a lot to the experience. The first guide was a touch oily and obsessed with taking us to shops, but once we put our foot down on that things got better. Having previously done trips similar to this (e.g. in Sri Lanka) a lot also depends on the driver, fortunately ours (Prakash) was quiet, reassuring and efficient. Certainly, he showed an impressive ability to deal with a variety of terrain and obstacles, from empty motorways that warn you not to exceed 80kmph or your tyres will burst, to the menagerie of cows, buffalo, camels and monkeys that interposed themselves with surprising regularity on our journey.
Almost all the guide books refer to the omnipresent spirituality of India. I think that I mentally scoffed a bit at this before we arrived, but as we moved through Rajasthan it definitely started to become clearer. It’s easy to focus on the secular cacophony and beauty of the cities and palaces, but some of the more affecting parts of our tour were experienced with a religious background. The Islamic tombs near Agra (including, of course, the Taj Mahal), the mosque in Ajmer, the Brahmins in Pushkar, the Hindu temple in Udaipur and the Jains on the way to Jodphur, there was rarely a day where we weren’t experiencing the local faiths in all their glories.
We definitely settled and relaxed a lot through our week-long rush in Rajasthan, there was a lot of driving and sight-seeing, but time for relaxing too. The decrease of the sort of crowds we experienced in Chandni Chowk certainly helped, and by the time we reached Pushkar and Udaipur we were much more comfortable. By the time we returned to Delhi, we were able to approach it better, taking metros and auto-rickshaws, visiting the Qutab Minar and going shopping for our upcoming return to Hong Kong for my cousin’s wedding.
I regret the time to took to adapt to India, but I guess it was inevitable really. Across 5 weeks in the subcontinent we got off very lightly in terms of any adverse reaction to food. As much of a fan of curry as I am, I have to say it got a little wearing (and heavy!) day-in and day-out. Similar to our experience in China, I feel we really only scratched the surface of the country, enough to give us a taste and a need to return. To anyone coming to India, I can’t recommend Rajasthan enough, we had a great tour of the cities here – and definitely get out beyond the classic ‘golden triangle’ of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I’d love to return and see more of the mountains and tea stations up north, as well as the beaches and water down south. I think I’d probably skip the big cities though.