It’s loud, it’s chaotic, it’s busy, it’s beautiful, it’s friendly, it's colourful, it’s India. Don’t expect anything less.
Everyone kept asking me “How is India?", and I honestly didn't know how to respond except for my usual "good". Everything is good. "How are you?" "good". It's my go to answer, even if I'm not good. I would never have this conversation - "how are you?" "well this morning I was just ok, and after lunch I was really great, and then I got tired so I was just fine, but now I'm good again...blah blah blah". That would never happen. I'm just good. But India is not good. It's not, not good, but it's more than good. It's also worse than good. Good is just not the right word to describe India.
Even after being asked a hundred times, I still didn't know what to say when people asked me how India was. But now that I'm out of India and I've had some time to reflect on my experience there, I finally found a word to describe it. Overwhelming. It was overwhelming in every sense, good and bad.
Overwhelming sounds. The first sound I heard when getting off the plane in Delhi was people talking, and I never stopped hearing it my entire time there. People were always talking, and there were always people around (1.3 billion, give or take a couple) so for my entire month in India I almost never didn't hear a person talking. It's a strange thing, coming from an unpopulated country where people tend to be ok with silence. If there's nothing to talk about, why talk? We just sit there quietly and think, and then when something worth talking about pops into our minds, we talk again. Not in India. People are always talking. Since I don't understand Hindi, I didn't understand any of the conversation going on around me about 99% of the time. What were they talking about? How could people possibly have so much to say? What kind of story takes so much time to tell with barely a breath in between sentences? I don't know if I'd be able to talk that much if someone offered me a million dollars. I just truly don't have that much to say. Someday I'll come to India with a pair of those live-translating headphones, and I'll finally know what everyone is talking about.
The second sound I heard was, of course, the honking. Cars, motorbikes, tuktuks, etc. There's hundreds on each road, and they are always honking. If a car cuts them off, they honk. If a car stops quickly in front of them, they honk. If they want to pass a car, they honk. If a car is beside them, they honk. If they are feeling happy, they honk. Always always honking. You get used to it. No you don’t.
The sound of music. It seems someone is always playing music. Hindi music, western music, religious music, any kind of music.
The muezzin, or call to prayer, coming from the mosques. I got used to this sound when I was in Morocco. It starts out softly, and then grows as more mosques join in with their own call. I love it, although sometimes at 5 am when the first call comes out, it's a little annoying as I hardly ever (never) want to wake up at 5 am.
Overwhelming sights. Have you ever been casually walking down the street and ran into a parade of elephants, camels, girls dancing, a holy-looking man sitting on a throne and a marching band? I have. It's normal in Jaipur.
Have you ever seen streets lined with bags, shoes, clothes, decorations, souvenirs, cups, doors etc. so colourful you can barely take it all in? India is full of them.
Have you ever seen women dressed in beautiful, brightly coloured saris, who smile and giggle as they walk past you?
Have you ever ran into a group of people pushing a large, ornately decorated contraption on wheels with 10 horns attached to the side of it down a busy street, looking like they belong in a circus or some sort of Wes Anderson film? It's normal in India, especially in wedding season.
Have you ever seen a group of cows and dogs sitting inside a large trash dumpster, eating their lunch together? It's normal in India, and it's not just lunch, it's breakfast, dinner, midnight snack, etc.
Have you ever seen a group of children, dirty and shoeless, playing in the middle of a roundabout while their parents, also dirty and shoeless, sit around a fire and try to sell whatever they can just to make a little bit of money, enough to feed their children and themselves for the day? It's normal in India.
Have you ever been walking down a street lined with trash and faeces, and saw a group of people laying in the gutter with flies crawling all around them, and not known if they were dead or living bodies? I have. Again, it's normal to see in India.
Every where you turn your head, everything you look at in India is something new. Your eyes will be constantly filled with sights that you can't even begin to comprehend, and good or bad, it can be very overwhelming.
Overwhelming smells. This might be the one that people who have never been to India think of most when they hear about the country, and they aren't wrong. When you walk down a street in India, any street, there's a combination of cooking, cleaning, defecating, building, etc. all going on at once, and it creates quite a smell. You can walk past an oil shop, and smell jasmine, and then walk past a samosa stand and smell curry and potato, and then walk past a public toilet and smell urine and shit, all in the span of 10 seconds. Good and bad, the smells in India are one of the most overwhelming things about the entire experience there.
Overwhelming taste. This one tends to be more good than bad. Unless you hate Indian food. Then you should probably not taste anything there. Or if you try and order pasta. In my experience they weren't very good at cooking pasta sauces. But if you order local cuisine, you will hardly be disappointed. One of the things India is best at is flavours and spices. A simple looking sauce will be so full of taste your mouth can hardly handle it. Even the food that gets you sick (and you very likely will get a case of Delhi belly, just deal with it) tasted amazing at the time. You'd never know that in 12 hours you'll be squatting on the side of a hill next to a road with people driving by and honking while you empty your system in a very non-solid way (that was a made up scenario).
In India I was overwhelmed 99% of the time. I loved it. And I hated it. But mostly I loved it. India isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s not a tropical vacay. It’s not a weekend in the mountains. It’s not a carefully orchestrated bus trip around an exotic place where everything looks wild and exciting from inside the comforts of your air-conditioned 48 seater greyhound. It can be all of this, but deep down it’s still India. It’s loud, it’s chaotic, it’s busy, it’s beautiful, it’s friendly, it’s colourful, it’s India. Don’t expect anything less.
Check out my photos and stories from each city below!
Click on the photo square to see the full version :)
Jaipur was my favourite city in India. It encompassed everything I was hoping to see, and in my opinion it depicts the real essence of India (or at least what I believe it is). I have a whole separate post you can check out here. It's mostly photos. You'll see why. Ok I'll tell you - it's photographer porn there on every street corner. The buildings, the people, the temples, the forts, the animals. My camera had a workout for sure.
Agra more than just the Taj Mahal, but who goes there and doesn't see the Taj Mahal? That would be ridiculous. Of course, visit the Taj. It's a bit expensive, you have to wait in line, and there's a million tourists, but if there wasn't, then would it be so great?
Rishikesh is the yoga capital of the world. You can tell by all the skinny white Westerners that wander around, wearing elephant pants and prayer beads. It's a beautiful town set in the lower Himalayas. The famous Ganges river runs right through it, and it's the good Ganges near the source. The water is pristine and turquoise and there's hardly any trash or dead bodies in it, unlike down river in Varanasi.
I spent way too long in Rishikesh but it was so relaxing. I even did yoga once. I was with an English girl named Jo and two Swedes, Erik and Axel. The boys had motorbikes and Jo and I convinced them to let us ride along on their journey through the Himalayas to Nainital. Actually they are just very nice boys and invited us (but probably later regretted it).
The ride was typical Indian-style; epic in both good ways and bad. The views were some of the best I've ever seen and the ride was smooth; at least from the passenger seat where I got to sit back, relax, take it all in and not worry about the traffic or the boulders falling from the cliffs in front of us. The boys might have a different opinion of the trip.
The people were friendly, especially when we broke down, which was often. The towns were small and non-touristy, the hotels were cold and usually dirty, but the owners were nice and accommodating or our western needs. The food was good, until it wasn't good and made us all sick in turns. Jo and I had especially bad experiences right off the start. I won't go into detail as I don't think Jo would appreciate me telling everyone the ins and outs - especially the outs - of it.
It was truly a once in a lifetime experience and I can't thank the Swedish boys enough for letting us hitch a ride on their iron horses.
I left Jo and the boys after Nainital. They headed towards Nepal and I hopped on the train to Jodhpur. This was my longest train journey - 17 hours (which really means 20 hours in Indian Railway talk) - but I had a 3rd class AC carriage (which is actually the second lowest class, not the lowest) so it was fairly comfortable.
Jodhpur is referred to as the Blue City of India, but I have to admit, I was a little underwhelmed by it’s blueness. This is only because I’ve been spoiled in the blue town department by Chefchaouen, Morocco, which is totally and completely blue in the middle.
That’s not to say I didn’t like Jodhpur. It’s a cute little city that actually reminded me a lot of the old Medinas of Morocco, with it’s city walls and forts.
I spent a couple of days here relaxing after a long train journey. I did some laundry, laid in the sun, slept a lot, wandered the streets a bit and went zip lining. Yeah, you heard me; zip lining. I couldn't resist. It wasn’t the best tour I’ve been on (obviously Treeosix Adventure Parks is the best), but it had some really nice views of the old town and the Mehrangarh Fort, and it was safe enough (you best believe I safety checked it before buying my ticket).
I definitely could have toured more around Jodhpur, but I was nearing my one month mark in India and I was tired. Tired but happy to be there.