When Roy and I decided that we needed to get away from Bombay for a break around New Year 2008, we were thinking more in terms of Egypt or Turkey… Blame it on late thinking.. or lack of finances.. or timing of a friend’s wedding.. we landed up in North India.. for 10 whole days… what started as a ‘lets plan a trip to attend puneets wedding in delhi’ turned out into a ‘lets go to varanasi, sarnath, agra, jaipur and stop in delhi for puneets wedding trip’… The entire trip was quite an eye opener..
It has been so easy finding our way around Europe or for that matter South East Asia… Air travel was a breeze.. Rail was smooth as hell… Hostels were welcoming and fantastic… Local travel (metros / buses) was incredible… can go on and on…. Traveling any place outside India on a budget still felt like luxury. We did not realise how challenging it is to travel India on a budget. We have always been used to the luxury of airplanes, relatives homes to stay, cars to drive around, etc. We wanted to do this trip differently, on a budget. Taking trains, living in 500 Rs rooms in small guest houses, eating really local food, avoiding tourist traps… and we did it.
Not having traveled in our brilliant Indian Railways in a long long time, we booked all our sectors by train – Mumbai Varanasi (30 hours almost), Varanasi Delhi (Overnite), Delhi Agra and Agra Jaipur (mini train journeys). E-ticketing on IRCTC impressed the living daylights outta me till the day we landed up in Varansi station only to discover our train to Delhi was cancelled and they dont particularly inform any passengers. That resulted in a freezing journey in second class in December winter for 13 hours, with only light sweaters, jackets and one bright orange woolen scarf between the two of us. After this journey, we were shocked we just decided we had enough of trains and took buses everywhere else.
About 2 weeks before we left for these places, we had decided to book our hotels / guest houses through telephone calls. However, to our surprise, the minute we mentioned we were Indians, we were turned down by most hotels. It is a shame that hotels in your own country prefer foreign tourists to locals. This was confirmed when a Turkish friend called instead of me to make a reservation in Agra for us. After this experience, we just used the internet and booked backpacker places / guest houses. That was easy. However, what was difficult was explaining to the staff at Ganapati guest house in Varanasi and Sheela guest house in Agra how Indians managed to book typical backpacker haunts. They were expecting foreigners as Indians never use http://www.hostelz.com/ to book stuff. Anyway, all’s well that end’s well. No guest house gave us any trouble once we landed up. They were cosy, clean and cheap.. just what we wanted.
Carrying a backpack instead of a suitcase or a regular duffel bag or a strolley brings a completely new image to any traveler. Any part of North India (or for that matter India) assumes that you are from America the minute they see you with a large backpack. It is indeed hard for people to believe that we are Bandra residents who purchased our backpacks in Matunga. Anyway, it has its advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage is ofcourse the ease of carrying a backpack, which beats every suitcase option. The disadvantage is being charged more than what you would get charged anywhere as people mistake you for an NRI. Did it look like I have dollars pouring out of my Matunga backpack?
The food was incredible… Tea from kullads sitting in the steps facing the Ganges.. Italian food in a German bakery in little lanes of Varanasi.. Butter chicken on roof top of a swanky hotel facing the Ganges.. Rice pudding in Ganapati guesthouse.. Petas in Agra… Kebabs next to a bornfire in our guesthouse… (Incredibel punju wedding food in our pitstop in Delhi)… Chinese food in a roof top restaurant in Connaught place.. Rajasthani Thali at this 75 year old restaurant next to the Hawa Mahal… Paan from this Maruti van converted pan shap in Jaipur.. India is food heaven.
What really did we land up doing in all these places…. Ooooops… we did fall prey to all the touristy stuff.. but, we loved it and thats all matters. Starting with the boat ride in the Ganges visiting all the Ghats with a little boy (i was miserable to let a child row the boat but had no choice as he was most enthusiastic about rowing after school to make money), a tour of the Viswanath temple from a money minded con man (who we did not pay finally), an auto tour of Sarnath visiting Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Burmese Buddhist temples and some other Buddha monuments, an evening at the Ganga Aarti ceremoney and a visit to the local multiplex to catch Taare zameen par (which had just released and which I did not want to wait for a week to watch), we did everything in Varanasi that a typical tourist would do.
A pit stop in Delhi for 2 days to attend our friends wedding was coupled with an express visit to the Red fort, Jama Masjid, Humayuns Tomn and Qutb Minar… and a fleeting lunch at Kareem’s.. the original Kareem’s.
In the history of tourism in India, there would be very few travelers who would have made the mistake of landing up in Taj Mahal on Thursday night and leaving Friday night. Friday is the day the Taj is closed. As luck may have it, we reached Agra at 7 pm on Thursday. On finding out about our miserable timing, we ran to the Taj Mahal and sweet talked the security guard, just to let us in for sometime to get a glimpse of the Taj atleast. The sun was deeply burried behind the Taj and all we managed to see was a fantastic silhoutte from a distance. On getting close, we ran our hands over the smooth marble walls and stood amazed at the intricate work. (If only we could see more.. ; ) The Taj doesnt disappoint you whether day or night. The thought of being at a place, which stands tall and monumental, pretty much takes your breath away.
Jaipur was honestly a disappointment. I guess its a classic case of expectation mismatch. I would like to draw a comparison between the Hawa Mahal and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Being such famous monuments, finding mention in every guidebook, one expects something magnificent. Well, my blog on Italy conveyed my disppointment on the Leaning Tower. I had huge expecations (literally)… I thought the tower would be tall and it wasn’t. It was leaning and that was it. With Hawa Mahal, I had expected pretty much the same. All travel photographers have managed taking briliant wide angle shots of Hawa Mahal, making it look majestic. In reality, its about the height of a 3 storey building, in a pretty gaudy pink colour. With contruction going on, the picture aint pretty. And the Hawa Mahal sure did not blow me away. But, let me not be so harsh. The trip to Amer Fort was tiring but worth it. Choker Dani, a resort cum cultural village, was the highlight of the trip… eating local food, checking out local craft work and witnessing local dance performances, it was a total delight. Met an old friend of Roy, who took us to some amazing palace converted into a hotel and drove us around the city showing how a small town has managed to burst into a mall filled city.
At the end of the trip, we were actually dying to get back to Bombay. It was a good trip.. but, I wouldnt say great. We may not visit those places again. But, we are glad we did one budget trip in India. That way, we can value the many comfortable journeys that we normally undertake. Maybe its the charm of something that you are not used to that makes traveling to newer countries magnificent. We take our culture for granted.. we know what its like.. we know the language.. we know the food.. we’ve seen the people.. and it doesn’t charm us as much. I feel relieved just admitting this.
Nevertheless, I am waiting for my next trip in India.. maybe Nagaland, maybe Kashmir, maybe Orissa.. something I haven’t seen.. some places I haven’t been… To visit I am keen… (Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrgh… stop the poetry)