“If we didn’t already have our tour booked we would skip India altogether.”
I've lost count of how many times either Lauren or I said that in the lead up to our trip to India. Any conversations we’d had with other travellers were divided into two camps - the lovers and the haters and those that love to hate India. There seemed to be more haters but our enthusiasm was not lost on India because of them, but rather because of the dangers for women. Especially western women and it seemed there was no shortage of people wanting to tell us this.
So when it came time to leave our beloved Sri Lanka for India we weren’t really excited. If anything there was a feeling of dread. Why were we going there again?
We knew we had to change our outlook. 30 days is a long time to be on tour, let alone being on tour and being those miserable people.
So we arrived in Kochi pre-empting the assault on the senses we were told about and read about - the heat, the smell, the noise and the crowds. There was none of that. It was all incredibly civilized at 10am when we landed, a very pleasant 27 degrees and it was as beautifully lush and green as we had become accustomed to in Sri Lanka. Our surroundings and the smiling faces were quickly putting us at ease. Not only the locals smiling faces but also those of our tour companions. To make things even better we discovered we had a Doctor, two Nurses’ and a Pharmacist in our group. Given we were in THE country where you are almost guaranteed to get sick at some stage – we had hit the trifecta!
It didn’t take long for us to warm to our new companions over a love of shared interests; good food, chai, coffee, plenty of sightseeing, fun times, rum and gin. We were also gifted with the most amazing guides who we now call friends. Things were looking too good to be true. Surely something had to go wrong? Right? Well, it wasn’t Delhi Belly - both Lauren and I escaped a month in India without any sickness at all. There was only one thing - not enough Chai stops.
Something I never thought would happen did. I was certain our relationship was solid and we would be together forever. I didn’t know I had it in me to break up with coffee for tea but it seems I have. We both have. There have been endless cups of Masala Chai, days starting with it, days ending with it and just a few extra cups throughout the day because we haven’t been able to get enough. It’s hard to stop when each cup feels like a hug from the inside. How will I ever drink normal tea again?
There will be one cup that will never be forgotten. His claim was that his Chai was the best in his town of Bundi. We’ll go as far as to say it was the best cup of Masala Chai we had in all of India and our lives. He had made art of his craft of crushing his spices and adding them to his pot of simmering buffalo milk at the right moment to get the maximum punch out of his blend of pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and cardamom. There was also the best Lassi in India from a street stall in Jaipur, where it is served in clay cups that you toss away afterwards. A thick, creamy brekkie staple that comes complete with a crusty top that you scoop off and eat with a tiny wooden spoon. Then comes the king of this holy trinity – the food…
Who knew we were going to love the food as much as we did. We certainly didn’t. It’s not really our go to food for dining out at home. Ever. So we never expected that we would end up having a relationship with our food much the same way we did with Chai. Dosa for breakfast with coconut chutney, more curries with rice and chapati for lunch and even more for dinner, maybe throw in a raita and we had perfect soul food. It was also food to help grow our ever-expanding waistlines. Eating the way we have been hasn’t exactly been consequence free but oh how we have enjoyed eating our way around India. Did I mention the Chicken Biryani, Eggplant and Raita? The best Biryani we’ve ever eaten and one of the most memorable meals as it was served in a local home and cooked for us with love.
In the last very short month, it feels like we have experienced, grown and learnt so much about this country and ourselves but somehow we are hungry for so much more. The beating of drums at a Kathakali dance has deafened us, we’ve felt fear in our hearts watching a martial arts show, been woken by the Muslim call to prayer numerous mornings, gone on safaris by foot and jeep in search of tigers and leopards (we saw neither - only evidence of their presence by their footprints). We’ve seen hundreds of cows roaming busy roads with calmness only animals that have never experienced the cruelty of a human hand can have. We’ve visited churches, mosques and temples with one of my highlights being our visit to a Sikh temple in Delhi. Our fascination with them stemming from the fact we knew nothing about their beliefs and values. I have never felt so moved by any other belief system.
We’ve gone glamping, Lauren’s had henna done on her hands, we’ve dressed in a Ghagara, We’ve stayed in two castles. Our first castle stay felt like our very own Best Exotic Marigold Hotel experience complete with far too many local rum and cokes with our travel companions. It was a night of little sleep but memories that will be treasured for a lifetime. Our second castle experience bought with it a pool, sunset drinks on the rooftop and dinner by candlelight.
We’ve gone on village walks, interacted with the locals and constantly had them ask for photos. We’ve learnt very quickly that Indians love getting their picture taken. No sooner would I ask someone permission to take their photo, their friends would gather around to get in on the action. And those smiles. I have fallen in love with those smiles at least a hundred times. We have been constantly reminded that those with the least in this world are often the happiest. Food, shelter, family and faith are King.
We’ve experienced the craziness of Bollywood in Jaipur when we went to see the latest release – Singh is Bling. I’ll never look at Hoyts the same way again. Going to the movies here felt like we were going to a Broadway production. It was so flash but without the price tag. We munched on popcorn as the crowds screamed and ooohed and aahhhed when their Bollywood idols were on screen. The vibe at the movies was electric. It was the same level of excitement and fever on grand final night of the origin. I’ve ridden a camel across the Pushkar Sand Dunes, seen countless sunsets and sunrises and I’ve been mistaken for part Indian more than once.
I’ve been close to death. (Well that’s what it felt like when our bus was making its way up a narrow hairpin bend and a truck was coming the other way just a little too close for comfort). We’ve visited the ruins of ancient palaces, forts and the Taj. The beauty of the Taj needs to be seen to be believed. The story about how she came into existence and the detail of the structure is mind blowing for a structure builtin the 16th century. We've learnt about the 330 million Hindu gods - well maybe not all of them - and celebrated a festival almost every day.
Our time in India has come to a close, miraculously without any Delhi Belly or any other ailments, which is quite the achievement given Lauren was sick throughout most of China. Our eyes are dewy and hearts are breaking as our time is up exploring this beautiful and not to be missed country with our travel family. We both walk away from India humbled by everything we’ve experienced. The moral of the story for us is never ever judge based on what we read in the news or hear of others experiences. Had we skipped India we would have missed out on one of the best experiences of our lives, not to mention missing out on meeting so many beautiful human beings. Lauren and I are grateful that life continues to humble us and show us that despite all the bad there is still so much grace, beauty and goodness in this world.
Namaste India. We love you.