Leaving Kerala, we begin to enter into an emotional grapple regarding our relationship with India. As we travel through Mumbai, Rajasthan and Agra, we see many sides to this massive country, as is only fitting for one that holds a billion people and multiple religions, languages, cultures and ethnicities.
But the fact that it isn’t always pretty doesn’t sit easily with either of us and we find moments of joy overshadowed by periods of aggravation. The Lonely Planet is quite right in describing most travellers as ‘swinging between loving and loathing’ as they navigate their way through this diverse place.
And there are definite loves to be had here: The ever changing landscapes. The food, as generous and warm as our hosts. The culture, straddling both past and present, always colourful, always fascinating. The festivals, vibrant, soulful and energetic.
Yet even for seasoned travellers like us it is difficult to ignore the loathes: Aggression and invasion from touts in touristy areas, to the point of being bullied and stalked. Feeling like every conversation has a scam coming at the end of it. Seeing so much rubbish and wondering how people can disrespect where they live so badly. Questioning how a country that has a billion dollar budget for a space programme can have so many people begging (it gets to the point where we are fending off multiple beggars per hour) and living in street squalor.
But who am I to judge, coming from a country that has had five prime ministers in the last five years! So, we learn to treasure the joyful moments as being greater than the sum of their parts, simply because, for better or worse, there is nowhere quite like India. And here they are:
Glorious views on the Rajdhani Express from Kerala to Mumbai
And the five star service and legendary meals served to your seat in AC1 class – it’s like being in your own travelling hotel room, curled up with a book as raindrops etch their way down the window.
Going from backpacker to flashpacker at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai
An entrance we’ll never forget – two dishevelled, bleary eyed backpackers coming off an overnight train, our beat up taxi dropping us in front off a cavalcade from the governments of Nicaragua and Jordan. Security staff eyeing us curiously before carefully asking, “You have a reservation here, right?” Glamorous, dressed up guests in the lobby on their way to dinner wondering if we’d lost the memo about the dress code.
We don’t care. After staying in budget guesthouses we’re here to take our fill of the breakfast buffet and its harbour views, laze by the Olympic sized pool, drink in Mumbai’s first bar, take in the wonderful artwork and architecture and stash away the free room products of course.
Finding the Great Wall of Mumbai
I love hunting for street art when in a new city so can’t resist the challenge of looking for ‘The Great Wall of Mumbai’ on Tulsi Pipe Road, despite taxi drivers having never heard of it.
It’s not your usual edgy, slick, hipster street art but a social initiative that has encouraged young people to share their messages for positive change by painting murals on the wall that follows the railway line between Dadar and Mahim. It might not be professional, but it’s certainly inspiring.
Dinner by candle light in Jodhpur
With rooftops and heritage buildings aplenty, it’s not hard to have a romantic meal in the famous city of Jodhpur. We ate overlooking the iconic Mehrangarh Fort at the highly rated Indique restaurant, and dined on the lawn at our hotel, Ratan Vilas, a beautiful, family-run heritage property that was of course built by a Maharaja in 1920.
But you know what was equally memorable? Having the most delicious, creamy masala chai and tasty masala cheese omelette in the hot, loud, dusty bazaar amidst the din of honking rickshaws, barking dogs, shouting vendors and screaming children.
Oh and did I mention the fort is pretty spectacular too….!
Spiritual encounters in Pushkar
After dodging multiple cows (and cow pads) in this holy city’s narrow alleys, watching visitors perform their bathing ceremony at the edges of the lake, and taking our own blessing from questionable holy men, we decide to head for the hills, literally. A motorbike ride through the countryside takes us to the Aloo Baba, a 70-year-old bearded holy man who has stationed himself in a temple outside Pushkar living only on potatoes for the past 18 years.
We unfortunately need more sustenance than that so stop in what seems like the middle of nowhere for a peaceful lunch at Old Shiva’s Garden Cafe (just follow the sign on the side of the road on the way back to Pushkar). We watch Shiva himself pick our lunch ingredients fresh from his garden before whipping them up into delectable dishes.
Experiencing local treats in Jaipur
Armed with our beautiful pink map courtesy of the very trendy Moustache Hostel, we hit the sweaty streets of Jaipur in search of tasty local fare. And we’re not disappointed. Lassis from the ‘real’ Lassiwalla (there are imitation vendors on either side) are cold, creamy, sweet and lemony, while at the Indian Coffee Club, an old school joint hidden off the main road, the dosas are crispy and spicy, and the coffees are frothy.
The team at Moustache are also inspired enough to arrange tickets to the Dandiya dance night, which is part of the nine night Navrati festival to honour the goddess Durga. Not only do we dance with strangers into a sweaty, colourful frenzy, and pose for endless photos, but we feast on the mile long buffet featuring dishes from all across India.
The one and only Taj Mahal
Even more beautiful in real life and worth the sunrise visit…Need I say more!
Oh, and more Navrati dancing down a side street in Agra where the locals insisted we get up and dance in front of everyone…Phil was particularly on form in front of the crowd!