Incredible India

You either love India or you hate it, there’s no middle ground.

I loved it and would love to go back and discover more of it, but Phil, my boyfriend, hated it and has no desire ever to return. But even though it wasn’t for him, he would always recommend India to others – whether you love it or hate it, it’s an experience.

India is hard work.

It’s exhausting, it’s definitely not a relaxing trip, you WILL get sick while there, you will constantly feel like you’re being ripped off because you’re a tourist, you will come face to face with extreme poverty, and, as a woman, you’ll have a different experience than that of your male counterparts. But, despite all of that, or maybe because of it, India is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited.

 

 

I definitely think that you can see India in different ways, depending on how you decide you want to see India. Some people see only the wealthy side to India, traveling to well-off areas and staying in high-class hotels. However, that’s not we wanted to do. We traveled via public transport, we stayed in very basic hotels, and we went to some of the more uncomfortable areas that tourists may choose to ignore.

Photos courtesy of the author.

Let me firstly write about my experience of traveling in India as a woman, because I had two things that kept happening to me while I was there that were targeted at me alone, not at Phil.

The first was that men that we were dealing with in hotels, restaurants, bars, or any public place just completely ignored me.

It was like I was invisible. When checking in, the lobby man would speak to Phil only. If they saw us the next morning, they would smile at Phil, say “Good morning, sir. How did you sleep?” and just look through me. In one particular hotel, I ordered a coffee in the morning. Phil didn’t order anything, but the waiter put the coffee in front of Phil, not me. I took the coffee and drank it. When he came back, he looked at Phil and said, “How was your coffee, sir?”

 

Now, he knew that I ordered the coffee and that I drank the coffee, so I don’t know why he was keeping up this charade of pretending that Phil ordered the coffee. To be honest, by the end of our time in India, I was sick and tired of being treated like I didn’t exist. I don’t know if this custom comes from some warped sense of respect, but, as a woman who can speak for herself, order for herself, and drink her own coffee, I did not enjoy this aspect of India at all.

The other thing I particularly noticed was how many men stared at me.

Now, firstly remember that I was with Phil and/or my brother at all times – I was never by myself. Secondly, know that I have traveled in Asia, and I lived in South Korea, so as a pale, freckly Irish woman with red hair, I am used to being stared at. In Korea, I was constantly stared at and often approached for pictures, but the treatment I got there was quite different from the staring I experienced in India.

 

In Korea, both men and women stared at me and it was because I was different; they were interested in and intrigued by my pale skin or red hair. In India, it was only the men, it was leering more than staring, and it definitely wasn’t out of innocent curiosity. It made me profoundly uncomfortable; it was a very demeaning, disgusting kind of stare. Phil noticed it too, and he was really maddened by it.

 

We all know that there is a huge issue with how women are treated in India. In recent years it’s been a feature in international news, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was viewed simply as a piece of meat rather than a human with emotions and feeling. But I really was shocked, so be prepared for this when traveling around India.

Aside from the above, I did thoroughly enjoy India and all it had to offer.

Our main base while we were there was Dehli as that’s where my brother and his wife lived. Along with Delhi, we went to Agra (where the Taj Mahal is), Rajasthan, Udaipur, Varanasi, and Old Delhi. Old Delhi is within Delhi and it has to be seen to be believed. Here you’ll find the Red Fort, a historic fort dating back to the 1600s. You will also find the Jama Masjid mosque here, which is one of India’s largest mosques. But it’s not only the historic sites that make Old Delhi such an interesting place.

On any given day, Old Delhi is teeming with people. The narrow streets are packed with homeless people, stalls selling all kinds of trinkets, and bars and restaurants everywhere. The sights and the smells are something to behold.

I must admit that when we first went there, I was taken aback by the poverty we saw. Old Delhi is one of those areas that can make a tourist uncomfortable. Many people choose not to go there at all, or they’ll do a quick walking tour through the area. We spent a full day there. When my brother mentioned to his Indian colleagues that he was bringing us to Old Delhi, some of them replied that he shouldn’t be showing us that part of India. Even locals want to separate themselves from the poverty that faces a large portion of their population.

I’ve witnessed poverty before, but I was overwhelmed by this form of extreme poverty concentrated into such a small area.

An old homeless woman grabbed my leg as we walked by, refusing to go unseen. When she wouldn’t let go for a moment, I got quite a fright! Taken aback by what I saw, I realized that these people are living in such dire conditions that they will literally reach out and grab you to make you look. Unfortunately, everything I had read before going to India said not to carry cash around, so I had nothing to give this woman. There were hundreds of people just like her everywhere I turned in Old Delhi.

Old Delhi is also known for its cuisine.

We ate our best meal in a run-down little restaurant there that my brother led us to. By the looks of the place, I thought we would definitely get food poisoning. It was old, dirty, and disheveled, and didn’t look like a functioning restaurant from the outside. In any other place, I would have completely disregarded the building, but my brother assured us the food was excellent – and he was right! I still talk about the meal we ate there. The lesson learned is not to judge restaurants in India by how they look, because you may just be passing up on the best meal of your life!

The Taj Mahal is even more majestic than I had anticipated, but it’s predictably crowded.

The crowds are fine if you’re walking around taking pictures, but it’s insanely packed inside the mausoleum. While we walked around the Taj, taking in the impressive sight, we were approached by numerous Indians who wanted pictures with us – it brought me back to my days in Korea! And honestly, at times it seemed like we were a bigger attraction than the Taj Mahal.

 

The surrounding town of Agra seemed to be quite poverty-stricken and dilapidated. However, there are some other great buildings to see there, including the Agra Fort.

 

While in India, we took an overnight train from Delhi to Rajasthan so that we could do a safari in Ranthambore National Park. We found the train very confusing for numerous reasons.

Trains in India are an adventure.

For one, we couldn’t figure out what carriage we were supposed to be in until a local pointed out that the names of passengers were posted outside the carriage. He found ours for us somehow, even without our names.

 

Secondly, no stops were announced on the train, so we had no idea where we were at any given time. We had set our alarms for an hour before our estimated arrival time to avoid missing our stop. Our train was delayed by over two hours leaving Delhi, with no explanation as to why (apparently this is a regular occurrence).

 

We assumed this meant we would arrive into Rajasthan two hours late, however, this was not the case. We arrived at our destination on time. I still don’t understand how. We almost missed our stop, not expecting to be there for another two hours!

As I mentioned, we were on an overnight train.

We were in a small pod containing two sets of bunks. Phil and I were assigned to the bottom beds. At one point, the train stopped, and an Indian family entered our carriage. We presumed they had booked the top bunks. However, instead of climbing up top, the lady literally sat on me where I slept on the bottom bunk. The man did the same thing to Phil.

 

We were totally confused as to why they were sitting on us. We had paid for those beds, we were exhausted, and we wanted to get some sleep. After some glaring looks from me, Phil asked the man where their seats were. He pointed to the top bunks, to which Phil responded, “Can you please move to your seats? We paid for these seats, and we really want to get some sleep.” They did eventually move up to the top bunks, but not before the woman loudly made it clear to us that she was not happy. To this day, I don’t fully understand what happened.

Once we finally disembarked, Rajasthan did not disappoint us!

Ranthambore National Park is famous for the elusive Bengal tiger. They run tiger spotting safaris. We stayed near the park at Tiger Moon Resort for three days. We heard from many other guests who had done several safaris without managing to catch a glimpse of a tiger. Now, there are many other animals to be seen in the park, such as deer, leopards, hyenas, wild boar, and lots of bird life, but everyone wants to see the tigers.

 

You can do your safari in big canters (big open top buses holding 16-20 people) or open jeeps holding 4-6 people. We did ours in the jeep and were amazingly lucky.

During our first safari we saw not one, but TWO tigers.

In one case our driver pulled up right beside the tiger and shut our engine off. I have to admit, my heart was leaping out of my chest. I held my breath, afraid of attracting the tiger’s attention. It was an AMAZING, surreal experience that I’ll never forget. Needless to say, some of the others back at our resort were not impressed that we saw a tiger on our first trip, but what can I say, it was the luck of the Irish!

 

On our second day, we did a safari in the morning – no tigers to be seen – and then we spent the afternoon at Ranthambore Fort, which overlooks the park and has stunning views. We spent some time wandering around the fort with our guide and then as we were leaving, the most amazing thing happened.

 

We were on the way out of the park, driving quite slowly, when a tiger came right out of the bushes beside us and walked in front of our car. It paced along slowly, giving us the most amazing photo opportunity. The tiger eventually sauntered back into the bushes – we were ecstatic! How lucky were we to see another tiger up close without being on safari?

On our trip to India, we also went to Udaipur.

Udaipur is famous for the Shiv Niwas Palace where some of James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed. We both enjoyed Udaipur. It was a total change of pace compared to Delhi – not as overwhelming.

 

There’s a big Hindu temple there called Jagdish temple. We mistakenly stayed in a hotel right across the street and the bells constantly woke us up. This same hotel also advertised itself as having hot running water. We stayed in basic hotels throughout our trip in India, and the majority of them did not have hot running water. This was going to be a real treat! However, upon checking in, we soon learned that the hot water came out of a tap and to shower with it, you had to fill up a bucket and pour it over yourself – luxurious!

 

The temple itself is stunning and boasts spectacular architectural detail. It should definitely be visited if you are in Udaipur.

While our entire trip to India was full of adventure, discovery, amazing sights, and great food, the highlight of the trip for me was Varanasi, without a doubt.

Varanasi is in Utter Pradesh in North India and is one of the holiest cities in India. It’s situated along the banks of the Ganges, which is, of course, the most sacred river to Hindus. Varanasi draws in Hindus who want to bathe in the Ganges or those who are ready to die and want moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth). It is a fascinating place. Made up of tiny winding streets, it’s easy to get lost here. As you’re making your way through the narrow streets, don’t be surprised to come across cows blocking your path.

Varanasi is surreal and eerie, and not for the faint of heart.

Stroll along the ghats by the water, and you will see the intimate rituals of death being carried out right before your eyes. The burning ghats are where dead bodies are burned and then put into the Ganges. This happens 24 hours a day in Varanasi and is particularly bone-chilling at night. Sipping chai at night watching a bonfire, you can easily forget that you are actually watching a person’s funeral.

 

The sights & smells along the ghats, along with the attention you draw from touts as a tourist, can make for a very intense experience in Varanasi. Boat trips along the Ganges will take you right past the burning ghats. It’s so surreal to see the circle of life happening out in public.

On the one hand, you have bodies being burned and put in the river, and on the other, a mere 20 feet away, you have people bathing and washing their clothes in that same river.

While the locals are more than happy for you to watch the funeral proceedings on the banks of the Ganges, tourists are strictly prohibited from taking pictures of this intimate time for a grieving family. The local people are not afraid to tell you exactly what they think if they see you taking out your camera. I made this mistake on my first night. I wanted to capture what I was seeing to help me to explain it to family and friends back home. Two local men immediately started shouting when they saw me taking pictures, telling me to erase the images or they would seize my camera. I quickly deleted the pictures, and then they left me alone.

The Gange Aarti

Varanasi has to be seen to be experienced, it’s very hard to explain to someone who has never been there. The region plays host to numerous religious festivals and rituals, one such being the Gange Aarti, a Hindu fire ritual performed on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi every evening. This is definitely a must-see in Varanasi, but get there early to avoid the crowd.

Because Varanasi is a holy city, it’s also a “dry city,” i.e., no alcohol to be found here.

However, if you enjoy a few beers while on vacation, you can still find them, you just have to be quiet about it! We asked at our hotel. The man we spoke to immediately hushed us, brought us to the corner of the lobby, away from others, and said he had “a boy” who could bring it for us later but that we would have to drink it discreetly. He stayed true to his word, and a boy did deliver some beers to us later.

 

Overall, I loved India and thoroughly enjoyed our trip there. To be honest, it’s hard to capture the full experience in one article. I highly recommend it as a destination everyone should visit. Whether you love it or hate it afterward, you’ll be glad you experienced it.

Will it be exhausting? Yes. Will you get sick? Probably. Will you be pushed out of your comfort zone? Definitely.

Many people travel to India and see a very different side to it than we saw. We stayed in cheap, basic hotels (I use the word hotel very loosely here). We traveled by train – and not in the first-class carriages either. Others go to India and see only the wealthy side: the flashy areas and the fancy hotels.

I personally think it’s doing the country a huge disservice only to see the rich, flashy side of India.

After all, according to a report by the Brookings Institution a few months ago, a third of Indians are poor, and over 70 million people are living in extreme poverty in India. Now, I’m not recommending traveling to India as a poverty tourist.

Instead, go to India and don’t avoid the reality you find there.

Rachel is Irish but has been living in Toronto for the past 4 years. Rachel has a passion for travel and has previously lived in South Korea and Australia. When she's not working, you'll find her blogging about travel, or planning her next trip! Read her blog, connect with her on Linkedin, or follow her on Instagram.

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