I’m finally trying to catch up on doing blog posts about some places I’ve travelled to over the years, but never got around to writing about and first up, is India. Myself and Phil were there for about 3 and a half weeks back in 2013 and if you’ve read my blog post on “My Top 5 Travel Destinations“, you’ll know it made that list and so ranks pretty highly on my list of places I would recommend to others.
I’ll start by saying that India is either a place you love, or a place you hate, I don’t think there is any middle ground. For me, I loved it and would definitely go back to see more of it, but for Phil he hated it and will never set foot there again – however, it’s important to note that although he doesn’t want to go back, he always says he would still recommend it to people as it is an experience and he would never tell someone not to go there just because he didn’t enjoy it. India is hard work, it’s exhausting, you will probably get sick there, you will constantly feel like you are being ripped off because you’re a tourist, you will come face to face with extreme poverty, and, as a woman, you will pretty much be straight up ignored by the vast majority of Indian men you will be dealing with, or hissed at by women (that honestly happened to me in Varanasi). But despite all of that, or maybe because of all of that, India is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever travelled to.
Ok, lets start first of all with being a woman in India, I had two things that kept happening to me while I was travelling there. The first was that men that we were dealing with in hotels, restaurants, bars etc just completely ignored me. It was like I was invisible. When checking in somewhere, they would speak to Phil only, if they saw us the next morning, they would smile at Phil and 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 a thing but the guy brought the coffee over and put it in front of Phil, not me. I took the coffee and drank it and then he came back and looked at Phil and said “how was your coffee sir?”. Now he 100% knew that I ordered the coffee and that I drank the coffee so I don’t know why he was keeping up this sherade of pretending that Phil ordered the coffee. To be honest, by the end of our time in India, I was pretty exhausted, angry and just plain sick and tired of being treated like I didn’t exist. I don’t know if they won’t speak to women out of some warped sense of respect, but, as a women who can speak for herself, order for herself and drink her own coffee, I did not enjoy it one bit.
The other thing I really noticed as a women, was how the men stared at me. Now, firstly remember, that I was with Phil and/or Gavin (my brother) at all times, I was never by myself. Secondly, remember that I have travelled in Asia, and I lived in South Korea so as a pale, freckley 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 staring I got there was very different to the staring I got in India. In Korea, it was men and woman staring at me, and it was because I was different and they were interested and intrigued by my pale skin or red hair. In India, it was only the men who stared and it was a very different kind of staring. It actually made me highly uncomfortable and 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 and in recent years, it’s been a feature in international news and we’ve all heard about the horrific rapes that happen on a daily basis there, so perhaps, I shouldn’t have been surprised that to many men there, I was viewed simply as a piece of meat, but it did still shock me.
Aside from what I’ve talked about above, I did enjoy India and all it had to offer. Our main base while we were there was Delhi, as that’s where Gavin and Sviatlana lived. Along with Delhi, we went to Agra (where the Taj Mahal is), Rajasthan, Udaipur, Varanasi & Old Delhi. Old Delhi is within Delhi and it’s somewhere that has to be seen to be believed. That’s where you’ll find the Red Fort, which is a historic fort dating back to the 1600’s. 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 it such an interesting place. On any given day, Old Delhi is teeming with people. The small & narrow streets are absolutely packed with homeless people, stalls where people are selling all kinds of trinkets, and then there are bars and restaurants everywhere. The sights and the smells are something to behold and I must admit when we first went there, I was taken aback by the poverty we saw. An old homeless woman grabbed my leg as we walked by and wouldn’t let go for a moment and I got quite a fright! Old Delhi is known for its cuisine and we actually ate our best meal in a shitty little restaurant there. Gavin brought us to it and by the looks of it I thought we would definitely get food poisoning. It was old and dirty and run down and it just looked generally horrible, but Gavin assured us the food was excellent – and he was right, I still talk about the meal we ate there!
The Taj Mahal is actually more majestic than I had anticipated, however, it’s so crowded. Its fine if you are just walking around taking pictures but if you want to go inside to the mausoleum, it’s insanely packed. The town of Agra where the Taj is located is pretty run down, however, there are some other great buildings to see there including the Agra Fort. 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 honesty, at times it seemed like we were a bigger attraction than the Taj Mahal!
While in India, we took an overnight train from Delhi to Rajasthan so that we could do a safari in Ranthambore National Park. Don’t even get me started on trains in India because they are very confusing and we had a very weird experience with an Indian family who sat on top of us as we slept in our bunk beds!!! But Ranthambore National Park did not disappoint us! Ranthambore National Park is famous for the elusive Bengal tiger and they run safaris where they will bring you out so you can hopefully spot a tiger. While we were there for our 3 days, we stayed at Tiger Moon Resort nearby the park and we heard from many of the guests that they had done lots of safaris but had not managed 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 we were amazingly lucky because during our first safari we saw, not one, but TWO tigers. And we didn’t just see them in the distance, we got up close and personal with them. In one case our driver pulled up right beside the tiger and shut our engine off and I have to admit, my heart was leaping out of my chest and I was afraid to breath in case I attracted the tiger’s attention. It was AMAZING and so dreamlike and I’ll never forget it. Needless to say, some of the others back at our resort were not impressed that we saw a tiger on our first go, 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 in the afternoon we went to Ranthambore Fort which overlooks the park and has really 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 road on the way out of the park, travelling quite slowly, as there were some canters and jeeps ahead of us, when a tiger came right out of the bushes beside us and walked in front of our car. It was terrifying and absolutely fantastic!! The tiger just walked along in front of car, slowly, giving us the most amazing views and we caught it all on camera! Again, it was somewhat scary as the car in front wanted to look at the tiger too so kept stopping, meanwhile, the tiger kept looking back at our vehicle and our driver was getting nervous that the tiger was getting agitated so he was screaming at the car in front to drive. The tiger eventually sauntered back into the bushes – myself and Phil were ecstatic when we returned to our resort! How lucky were we to see another tiger up so close when we weren’t even doing a safari!!!
On our trip to India, we also went to Udaipur, famous for the Shiv Niwas Palace, where some of James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed and we both really enjoyed Udaipur. It was a total change of pace to Delhi, not as overwhelming, slightly more relaxed and had some great markets and restaurants. There’s a big Hindu temple there called Jagdish temple and we mistakenly stayed in a hotel right across the street so the bells constantly woke us up! This same hotel als advertised itself as a hotel that had hot running water so we were very excited! However, upon checking in, we soon learned that the hot water came out of a tiny low tap and if you wanted 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 and should definitely be visited if you are in Udaipur.
While our entire trip to India was full of adventure, discovery, amazing sights and food, the highlight of the trip for me was without a doubt Varanasi. Varanasi is in Utter Pradesh in North India and it’s 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 and as you’re making your way through the narrow streets, don’t be alarmed to come across cows blocking your path. Varanasi is surreal and eerie, and not for the faint of heart. A 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, at it’s particularly bone-chilling at night. Sitting, 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, makes for a very intense experience in Varanasi. You can take boat trips along the Ganges, right past the burning ghats and it’s just so surreal to see the circle of life happening out in public. On one hand, you have bodies being burned and put in the river, and on the other hand, a mere 20 feet way, you have people bathing and washing their clothes in that same river.
Honestly, Varanasi has to be seen to be experienced, it’s very hard to explain it to someone who has never been there. It plays host to numerous religious festivals, and rituals, one such being the Gange Aarti which is a Hindu fire ritual and is performed on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi every evening. It is definitely a must-see if you are in Varanasi, but get there early as there is usually a big crowd!
Overall, I loved India and thoroughly enjoyed our trip there and to be honest, it’s hard to capture the full trip in a blog post. I highly recommend it as a place that everyone should visit and whether you love it or hate it afterwards, you’ll be glad you experienced it. Will it be exhausting? Yes. Will you get sick? Probably. Will you be taken 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 travelled by train and not in the first class carriages either. Others travel to India and see only the wealthy side, the flashy areas, and the fancy hotels but I personally think it’s doing the country a huge disservice to travel around India and only see the rich flashy side. Afterall, according too 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 saying “go to India and look at the poor people”, I’m saying “go to India and don’t avoid looking at the overwhelming poverty that exists there.”