India found itself at the top of my bucket list because of how easily swayed I was by its vibrancy. The stunning colours of its Holi festivals, the rich and spicy dishes, the architecture, the chaotic cities pulsing with a life a million miles away from my own. As I said, I was studying for exams. An adventure a million miles away from it all was exactly what I had in mind.
So I booked a month to myself in Rajasthan and Varanasi, northern India. The idea was to start and finish in Delhi and spend my last days of the trip visiting my lovely friend Karen who is currently over there studying. After a few online bookings, the whole thing was sorted. It felt almost too easy. It wasn’t until a few months later when I found myself trying to learn to adjust to levels of humidity my Irish self had never before felt that the extent of my impulsive decision truly hit home. I was alone in India. I was woefully pale skinned, blonde, inappropriately dressed and struggling to breathe. I wouldn’t say that regret featured much over the weeks that followed, but god was it overwhelming in that moment at the arrivals hall of Indira Gandhi International airport in Delhi.
Over the next few weeks I would make excellent friends and hear their incredible stories on sleeper trains throughout Rajasthan. We had booked into a tour together and had bonded over how ill-prepared we all were for the “real” India. I grew accustomed to the heat. I relaxed in huge crowds. I stopped noticing everyone staring at my painfully translucent skin. I say painfully because I frequently forgot to reapply suncream and well…you know how that one played out.
But through the chaos, I was lucky to still be able to see India at its finest. I frequently found myself in awe of its architecture, its culture and its people. I visited the mud fortress in the golden city of Jaisalmer, the temple in Bīkāner and I placed candles into the waters of the Ganges at Varanasi. I slept out under the stars in the desert village of Rāiser. I walked through the markets of the Old City in Udaipur and again in Pushkar. I watched all kinds of performances, puppet shows, Bollywood films and dancers. I bought a custom-made sari and had my hands painted in henna. I explored the meandering streets of Varanasi. I embraced everything that this beautiful country had to offer and I couldn’t have loved it any more than I did.
That said, touring India is not for the fainthearted. Several of the travellers that I met told me that they had no idea what they were in for and a few spent their time counting down until it was over. India at its best is remarkable but at its worst, it can be very unpleasant. Rats feature heavily. As does rubbish and filth. The streets turn to beds at night for what looks like half the population. The poverty levels of some of the families you see is astonishing. “Toilets” can be so awful that I think it’s best if I just don’t say any more on that topic. And the whole experience can be overwhelming. I understood where my fellow tourists were coming from. So be prepared for that if you ever plan to visit India. It takes some getting used to.
When people ask me how my trip went, even though it feels like a life time ago now (and it certainly wasn’t) I always tell them about the surreal moment of watching the sun rise at the Taj Mahal. How even just for that experience alone, it was worth it. The school books and the national geographic and every post card that you’ve ever seen will never prepare you for the real thing. While most of the temples, forts and little towns have blended into one in my memory, the experience that I had wandering through them is one that I hope I will always remember. Hailing tuk tuks and fearing for your life as soon as you got into one. Hiding your belongings from monkeys because they’re far more cunning and prone to theft than their cute little faces lead you to believe. There’s far too much to say about India to fit into one blog post but if you’ve managed to read this far, you’ll know that my adventure and my time there really did feel exceptional. I have a few stories that I feel deserve posts all to themselves (such as visiting a cafe run by victims of acid attacks and listening to spoken word and sharing home cooked snacks with strangers underneath Haus Khaz), so over the next while I’ll add them into the blog. For now this will have to do.