I’ve been to a world away from my own. A place where coffee is replaced by masala chai, piglets are found at the train station, roads have no rules and as one of my favourite quotes from Sense and Sensibility says “The air is full of spices…”. Delhi, the capital of India, the sky is mostly unseen due to the thick smog that covers the city. Its mostly a shabby concrete jungle with the exception of a few newer suburbs which are lined with high walls and fences to keep the ones that can’t afford to live here out. You walk the streets, literally on the street, motorbikes, cows, cars, and pigs dodge you with practiced ease. You find yourself panting and realise you’ve been holding your breath for two blocks, only sucking in sips of air when you think its safe.
What made me want to come here? People asked when I told them where I was planning to spend a romantic 2 weeks with my husband. It just happened, I wasn’t planning to go anywhere let alone India until 8 weeks before we left. It was meant to be. I wanted a cheaper holiday, we have done the Europe thing and know the weight of money needed to fund that! So I looked to Asia as we had also done the standard New Zealand trip as well. Japan has never inspired me to go there yet, neither has Bali or Thailand… and doesn’t every Australian go to these places. No it had to be different and I had to feel a draw to it. As I was staring at Google Maps, studying the world and it hit me, India. As soon as I thought it I was surprised it hadn’t occurred to me before. But it drew me in with the romantic notions India gives to many adventurous women. Far enough to feel on the other side of the world, close enough for airfares not to take up a huge chunk of our small budget. Once your there, its as cheap as chips!
Amongst the filth and mayhem I explained earlier is a stunning country in unique ways you can only experience if you allow yourself to be exposed to them. Expose yourself. Be brave. Its shocking yes, but I just had to look down from my balcony to see a man cutting up fresh papaya for his fruit stall, tailors with needle in hand, marble being hand carved into ornate statues, four children on a single motorbike off to school, ordinary business that seemed extraordinary to me. And the children! Oh the children are so gorgeous and long to interact with you. One little boy called out from the back of a rickshaw, “where you from?” we told him Australia, “Do you like India?” yes! “But not the rubbish” he said smiling. Cute and smart. Even the traffic will fascinate you for days, there is literally no rules! Anyone with any mode of transport safe or unsafe can use the road. You have camels, carts pulled by bulls, bikes, bossy rickshaws, and thousands of motorbikes (an Indians favourite mode of transport). They fit an entire family of four on one motorbike, baby in mothers arms asleep while she balances perfectly side saddle due to her skirt. Amazing. We even saw a lady on the back of a motorbike holding a glass panel the size of a door in front of her! Amazingly they don’t seem to crash anymore than we do, they are very alert drivers.
Shopping where do I start? You can afford anything here. I laugh at the idea that Paris, Hong Kong, London, New York, Singapore are supposed to be the places to shop… pfft to that. Their dollars are way stronger than our Aussie dollar! But in India you can shop till you drop on every handicraft you can think of. Example for jewellery, I bought a yellow onyx (semi precious stone) beaded necklace, its so long I have to double it up over my neck, it cost me $20 aud. I also own a full ruby necklace from Nepal that my mother bought me (Nepal is even cheaper than India) you couldn’t buy that in Paris!
Ok, food. Who doesn’t like curry? Naan fresh from the tandoori oven? But haven’t we all heard the horror stories of the famous Delhi belly? Well its a bit true haha. You have to eat smart here, and that means mostly at your hotel. This doesn’t mean you miss out, we had incredible Indian food at most of our hotels. We were game a couple of times to eat at a market but I’m convinced that’s why I had an upset tummy and some extra trips to the toilet those days. Ginger tablets work wonders on upset tummies. Hotels will make sure they use clean/filtered water in all the drinks and ice and should wash all salad and fruit in it also. On the street you can see some crazy hygiene standards! We also did this trip without getting the travel vaccines! (my nurse sister would be horrified)
Lets get out of the city for awhile. We will go by train, India has a huge train network and don’t be intimidated by the dirty and cramped train pictures you’ve seen. We only paid $20 for the two of us to travel 5hrs south to Sawai Madhopur in an air-conditioned carriage with seats similar to an aeroplane. On the way a group of young Indians played their instruments and sung one of India’s current hit songs, they invited everyone to dance and half our carriage including myself was dancing Bollywood style in the aisle.
We stayed in luxury tents and awoke to the sound of monkeys in the trees above us. We were here at Sawai Madhopur to find tigers in Ranthambore National park and we left for our morning safari at 6:45am. The air was crisp and cool as it blew past me in the open jeep, adventure! Sixty tigers call this reserve their home and its divided into 6 zones, only a certain number of vehicles are allowed in each zone every day. The first safari we were given zone 2, here there were lots of creeks and riverbeds, dense vegetation, lots of trees. We saw spotted deer, antelope, wild bore, monkeys, eagles, and even a cute owlet (sml owl) in the hole of a tree, fast asleep, but no tigers. That afternoon we were given zone 6 for the second safari, this was more open with golden grasslands covering smooth hilly ground, mountains dotted the horizon that surrounded us and it felt a bit like Africa. We saw the same animals as in the morning and even heard the warning calls of the peacock, monkey and deer to alert everyone that a tiger was near but they died off and that means the tiger has stopped moving. Unfortunately wherever it was lying was completely out of sight.
On our last safari the next day in the afternoon we got to see a sloth bear! They are even harder to sight than a tiger so I was pleased. It started to rain and we hid under a big tree for a bit, till I said I didn’t care about getting wet and wanted to keep looking (most of the others in the jeep agreed) so we moved on. And thank goodness we did for while all the jeeps had been busy getting out of the rain a sneaky tiger had walked all along the road we had come in on, leaving freshly made footprints. Our guide discovered them! And he said “hold on tight, it’s luck time!”. My inner child was going “wee, wee, wee” but I kept my cool on the outside.
We drove like mad over a bumpy road up a hill and stopped in open grassland, perfect for tiger spotting! A few other jeeps noticed our quick movements and joined us on the hill, spacing themselves out. Finally one to our left signalled. We slowly drove over and there is was, my cool façade melted away and tears welled in my eyes. The best things in life are the simple things. The real things. He was rolling in the grass, soft belly fur showing us how cuddly he is and then he looked up, yawned and showed us why we don’t cuddle tigers.
This moment will live on in me forever and this is why I never believe a holiday is wasted money and I prioritize them in my life. Rich memories make me wealthier than a man with 5 houses! I saw the endangered tiger in its natural home, wild and free. Exactly where God created it to be, not in a zoo or behind bars. So I let my tears come, despite being alone in this act. It stood up and walked through the ensemble of jeeps only metres from us, nothing between us but air. We drove off that evening into the sunset, everyone was on cloud nine.
Next we arrived in the city of pink Jaipur, just in time to celebrate Diwali in its finest moment. Diwali is the equivalent to Christmas for Hindu people, it goes for 5 days and every day has a different meaning. Diwali means festival of lights and everyone, decorates their homes and business’s with twinkly lights, they light oil lamps in clay jars and buy marigold necklaces to hang in temples. Some tourists were wearing them as necklaces but I resisted as I saw no locals were doing it, we did get some later on as a welcome gift in a hotel. Another big part of this time of year is sweets, Indian sweets are sold on every corner and are very different to our sweets but still quite yummy. We watched the city light up with fireworks as we sat on a wall of a 300 yr old fort drinking kingfisher beer.
We saw the Taj Mahal in Agra and I found a new appreciation for the beauty of marble stone. This stunning statement of love is as iconic as the Eiffel tower and stands so proudly after all these years, a love story never forgotten.
Our trip ended up in mad Delhi again and we got to experience Indian food at its best… in the family home. We learnt so much more than just cooking, we learnt about their lives as the young married couple taught us family dishes. They live in a two room apartment, one room is the kitchen the other is for sleeping and eating in. We ate our cooked food right next to their bed. They live with his Dad and also their two month old baby girl, all sleeping in the same room, beds right next to each other. They have no hot water in the kitchen, no oven, just a portable gas stove with two burners that sits on the bench. Also Indian fridges are small, a bit bigger than a bar fridge. It seems they shop for food every few days at local markets so don’t really buy a heap at once, I don’t think a shopping trolley exists here haha just a basket or bag. Preeti makes all her dairy products from the fresh milk she gets from the buffalo next door. Yes in the middle of Delhi, not a blade of grass or backyard, there are buffalo’s to milk. I got to hear what’s its like to give birth in India, I was amazed to find out that even there you can give birth for free at the hospital, but its not good, so she had paid the equivalent to $800 USD to birth in a private hospital. This was a huge expense for them, needless to say they are waiting 5yrs till they have another baby.
On our last nights we dined on the rooftop of our hotel, two men sat on a mat playing traditional Indian music with instruments I cannot name. Candles, fireworks, beautiful music and food, surrounded by such intense culture and there I was with the man I love. We laughed and one time I cried (not again! I know) because I felt so full I could burst. So blessed to experience this, the good and bad, to feel it all. To have family that look after our boys in our prosperous Australia, a place I am privileged to call home. A place so many of these people wish to go. The sun sets through the smog on the horizon creating a golden glow over the city, people release lanterns into the night sky from the rooves of houses to celebrate the holiday. India has filled me and made me feel every emotion from sadness to elation. My romantic notions of India have not been shattered only confirmed.