It was safe to say that we were experiencing equal doses of excitement and nervousness as we walked through arrivals at New Delhi airport to be greeted by a wall of Indian men fighting for us to choose their taxi. We were trying to take in the night scenes and surroundings as the taxi driver pushed, bullied and weaved his way through the evening streets working his way towards our hotel (next to the Gaylord Hotel as it turned out) in the backpacker centre of Paraganj. As we tentatively entered our hotel, via a narrow alley full of neon lights, we were greeted by 4 staff immediately trying to sell us every trip and tour under the sun … not what we wanted after a long day travelling. After some time we managed to make our escape to our room, only wanting a hot shower (Delhi was freezing at night) and some decent Indian tucker, and after dialing 9 (we had to call reception each time we wanted hot water) we went to the roof top restaurant and celebrated our arrival with tea and our first thali.
The next day we set off in search of the train station to buy our sleeper train tickets to Varanasi, acutely aware of the scams with the tourist booking office. After travelling through South America, and South East Asia we liked to think of ourselves as seasoned veterans at avoiding scams, but this was another level entirely! Every person we passed or looked at on the way swore that the booking office had shut during the commonwealth games and moved to Connaught Place, but knowing this was the scam we politely nodded and carried on our journey to the station. When we arrived we asked 2 officials who told us that everybody was correct and the office had moved. Feeling pretty confused we were bundled into a rickshaw and taken to the ‘Government Approved’ Travel agency. Here the very nice chap smiled and showed us that there were no trains available to Varanasi and advised us that the best option was to take a train to Agra and a private car and guide, which would only cost us about £80 each and he could arrange ASAP. B******s to that we thought, swiftly left and took another rickshaw to the train station to hunt down the tourist booking office. After fighting through men trying to physically stop us enter the station we found the correct place and booked ourselves on an overnight train (2AC) to Varanasi. Job done.
We had heard some fantastic stories about long distance journeys on trains, and were excited about meeting the other people occupying our cabin and were not disappointed by the Buddhist Monk, French Woman and Indian Family who joined us. After a few ice breakers we began conversations of Buddhism, lessons on Hindu families and just general chit chat. Chai whallahs selling (only the best milk tea I have ever had, and extremely sweet at that), graram cutlets, handbags, keying’s, thailis, soft drinks, coffee … you name it, this train had it. The setting for India slowly began to sunk in through the sounds of the sellers, the fading dark scenery and the distinct loud sound of Indian music flowing through mobile phones. Night comes and we say our goodnights, put down our bunks and go to bed for the night. The morning comes early at 6am and the Chai wallahs are back in full force and welcomed as a great kick start for the day. Varanasi awaits …. We get off the train and hoards of homeless sit on the platforms, arms stretched out calling at us, thousands of people are everywhere, smells of urine and the filth of dirt and rubbish fill our noises as we rush past and out of the station where we are again greeted by rows of Rickshaw drivers demanding we choose them.
The Lonely Planet suggests that the Auto Rickshaw stand is the best option to not get ripped off so we go there, pay what we deem to be a still extortionate fee of 80p to get to our hotel (which we have not yet booked, but figured that it must be easy to find and that of course they would have rooms available!) Of course we are wrong on all accounts and we still get ripped off as our driver tells us he has a better cheaper hotel for us, we politely decline about 30 times and then he drops us off about a mile from the ghats and the hotels and in the middle of a lot of hustle and bustle. He lies and says he cannot take us any further in his rickshaw and pissed off we get out, have a rant and walk off not really knowing where we are going. Out of nowhere a lovely gentleman comes and offers to walk us into town and to our hotel, we follow him like lost puppies down small dingy alleyways, dodging huge piles of cow poo, dog poo and what I only assume to be human waste. We follow, and soon our senses pick up that we are in the touristy area and relief consumes us only for our guard once to be raised again at the fee our kindly gentleman wants to walk us in the direction he was already going. We try to disappear in a café but he waits and looks at us so we cave and give him 10 rupees, about 13p and he leaves. We are now at Brown Bread Bakery, highly recommended for its breakfast and the fact it runs a local school for poor children who can’t afford to go to the local school. So we had breakfast, which was pretty decent and very sizeable, got recommended new accommodation that was ‘cheap, cheap’, as our original choice was fully booked and then explored the city. Walking around we were shocked at the amount of police with huge guns, cows walking around pooing everywhere, goats eating rubbish and the narrowness of the alleys that people push and bombard on their daily errands. Literally thousands of people crammed in a tiny space, cows walking as they like and filth and dirt everywhere, it was shocking yet fascinating. Vibrant colours of silks and cashmere glisten in shop stalls, bold saris and the sheer volume of people and life overcome some of the negativity we feel to our surroundings. The Ghats again gives us hope for Varanasi as it offers space and the beauty of the Ganga or Ganges, which from a distance looks quite lovely but close up its really quite polluted. Yet the action of washing, life and death all rotate around this Holy and Spiritual Place and we are quite enchanted. We sit on the steps and watch children laugh and play cricket, old men bathe in the water and the constant stream of boats pass us by, along with beggars, people selling things and cows … more bloody cows!!
After reading about Brown Bread Bakery we feel excited and interested to check out the school, make a small donation and see if there is anything else we can help with in our short time there. We walk down and soon get welcomed by the Principal who is keen to accept our donation and a little help painting a classroom which we oblige. The classroom is tiny so we get started, the children laugh and attempt to help, brushing paint on the walls with their hands and scrolling their names everywhere with the paintbrushes. It’s all quite amusing and humbling until two hours in we start to feel a little giddy and almost high, (must be a lead based paint)! We quickly finish, are thanked for our efforts and stumble off in search of food and a bed to pass out and sleep off our paint high.
That afternoon we recover and happen to bump into the Indian Family we met on the train and get a great deal on a boat ride with them because of their great bartering techniques on our behalf. For the next hour our boat effortlessly glides through the Ganges whilst the family interpret the row boat man’s informative speech on Varanasi. Night falls again and our boat joins the masses on the river to watch the evening ceremony filled with dance, colour and Indian Music … it was a lovely evening. As we depart we go to watch the Burning Ghats, (otherwise known as cremation of loved ones). This is seen as a deeply spiritual act, the body is brought down to the river and cleansed in the water and then peacefully placed on the piles of burning wood, where their souls leave their bodies and rise up to the Gods. We both watched with mixed emotions as body after body was carried down to the water past us and then put onto the flames, so after a short time we decided to leave and be amongst the living and the vibrancy of the markets that are Varanasi.
Varanasi and Delhi were two eye-opening and exhausting experiences. People seemed suspicious and unfriendly, dirt and filth were rife and the food which we had such high hopes for was a failure. So Fort Cochi and the south offered an amazing change of scenery, our perceptions of India and our taste buds.
Arriving here, the scenery was green and lush, cows roamed in fields and not all over the streets, and litter wasn’t well littered everywhere. We find a hotel, the owner is delightful and helpful, and we book our ‘Backwater Tour’ for the following day. There was not a lot to explore in this small town but the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. As we walk we see huge groups of teenage and adult men played Cricket in a local park, huge fishing nets and romantic looking decaying boats rested by the Harbour and also our first bin - very exciting news indeed.
The Backwater Tour was the perfect way to relax after the North, we started the day with a small boat ride through the small alleys of backwaters, watching the daily life of those living in the countryside, whether washing pans, clothes or themselves. We then had a tasty traditional Keralan lunch on a Banana Leaf which left my mouth on fire and wanting more. The afternoon was then spent on a large Houseboat, gently drifting and occasionally napping whist the world floated by us.
From here we visited Varkala, a small but touristy beach town where we bumped into an old friend called Michael, we previously first met in South America as well as bumping into our friends from Mendoza, Chris and Cristiane who we randomly bumped into for the second time in 2 weeks and 2 countries. We also had great cheap and clean accommodation, and the best and biggest seafood we have ever had.
Exploring the South was somewhat touristy but also filled with some traditional Indian charm we had grown to enjoy. From Varkala we went on to Allepey, then Kumily where we spent Valentine’s Day visiting tea plantations, learning about spices and doing a South Indian Cooking Course, which was a truly wonderful and delicious experience.
Onwards we visited Mysore on one of the most remarkable and hair raising bus journeys we have ever encountered. The driver tore up the windy roads at what seemed well over 100mph if that is possible, breaking hard constantly to let the hordes of people pile on whilst we slid across our sits, gripping hard at the railing in front, whilst trying hard not to have a man’s crotch in our face and the masses huddled together like sardines. I swear there must have been 100 people on there at one point!!! Anyway it was hilarious and we were glad to get off. Arriving in Mysore felt a bit like Delhi all over again and after a disappointing and expensive look at the Maharajas Palace we swiftly moved on to Munnar.
Munnar was absolutely stunning on the bus journey in, although the town itself leaves a lot to be desired. Here we embarked on an early morning six hour hike through the tea plantations themselves and then having breakfast above it all at Top Station. This scenery absolutely fascinated us, the incredible vastness of the plantations and the intertwining lakes and forests nearby … breath-taking.
Once again we needed to relax so headed to Gokarna. Once again we had not booked a room and ended up spending extortionate prices for a basic room on Om Beach. The beach itself was beautiful though, hardly any tourists in sight, just the odd cow, a few stray dogs and a few Indians on holiday with their families. We relaxed by the sea, caught up on some reading and indulged in our first taste of western food, ‘pizza’ mmm…
After two days we decided to get moving onto Hampi. Our bus was so hot, windows wide open, smelly locals and tourists alike, and minimal leg room, along with the odd mosquito bite and hardly any sleep made this a not so pleasant journey. We arrived at 4.30 in the morning … again with no pre-booked accommodation, silly us!! Luckily we had a rickshaw driver to rip us off but also knock on all the doors to find us somewhere ‘cheap, cheap’ and AVAILABLE. In the end and after Tom treading in a huge pile of cow shit in his flip-flops we found a room. It was rank. Pink, stained walls, urine smelling bathroom, holes in the mosquito net and downright unpleasant but it was a room and it was also 4.30 in the morning.
The next day it got even hotter, we sweltered in the thick intense heat as we wandered towards to Vittala Temple, through the huge stone boulders and spectacular temple ruins reminding us of something in an Indiana Jones. The scenery here surpassed our expectations; the town itself however was pretty small and basic with nothing to do in the evenings apart from sit in our grotty little room. We did visit another local temple though, and fed an elephant, and unwillingly a monkey who tried to attack Steph on seeing she had a bag full of bananas.
The weeks were quickly disappearing and our pace rapidly accelerating towards Mumbai.