I generally don’t deviate from renovation-related posts, but Alex and I just spent 2 and a half weeks in India and the trip was too interesting not to share.
India is a huge country. When we were first planning our trip, it was extremely difficult to nail down an itinerary. It took more time to nail down the states we wanted to see than plan the specifics of the trip. After a lot of consultation with colleagues and friends (and even our vaccination doctors) we decided to focus on two major areas: the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) in the north and Kerala (one of India’s southern states) in the south.
Here is a little graphic of the ground that we covered:
In total we covered 340km by train, 580km by car and 3,250km by air (or 27,400km if you include our flights from and back to Toronto) getting from place to place. In total, that’s more than 4,000 within India. If you add in how much we walked around, explored by tuk tuk or rode around on bikes, it’s much more!
We experienced a lot of different things in India: amazing architecture, overwhelming sounds, devastating poverty and delicious food. We always seemed to be experiencing different extremes at the same time.
There were some interesting experiences that really stuck with us.
Speaking again to the extremes, getting around in India was both extremely easy and extremely challenging. Every train, plane and hired car we took showed up and arrived at our destination on time. There were no major breakdowns or delays and the rides were more or less pleasant, despite the pre-trip warnings we received.
We are walkers. When we go on vacation, we walk everywhere. And we can because we walk a lot at home. Trying to walk around India was almost impossible and it really wasn’t for lack of trying. The infrastructure in India isn’t the same as in the developed world (not surprisingly). Many people had told us that we weren’t going to walk from one sight to another (especially in Delhi) and that we would take tuk tuks or cabs. We figured it was because they thought we were lazy tourists who weren’t used to walking. But no. It’s extremely difficult to get around Indian cities by foot (this is especially true in the Golden Triangle) because the road is shared by all – cars, speeding tuk tuks, swerving motorbikes, cows, goats, you name it.
Not only do you have to manage not getting hit by something, but you also have to maneuver around piles of garbage, people sleeping on the street (the sight of which is emotionally draining), a cow that won’t move, a random vegetable stand (except not a stand – just a pile of vegetables on the ground) and whatever else happens to be in your way.
Getting around was much easier in the south. There weren’t always sidewalks, but because there was less traffic, it was just easier to move around.
In Mumbai, where the infrastructure was much more advanced (not First World advanced, but advanced compared to the rest of India), we walked almost everywhere because they had real sidewalks. They sometimes ended randomly in the middle of a busy intersection (we were still in India, after all), but for the most part they worked.
We actually found the best way to get around Delhi and Jaipur were by bike. We had a bit more of a presence on the road and being able to move with traffic was helpful in maneuvering around the obstacles. Plus, because we were on a bike, we didn’t have to worry about stepping on/in anything.
When we went to Turkey, we rented a car and took a road trip along the coast. It was stressful at times because driving in Turkey can be crazy, but it more or less worked. I really don’t think it’s possible to drive in India as a tourist. We maybe could have swung it in the south, but not in the Golden Triangle. Cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks squeeze into every inch of free space and there doesn’t seem to be any rules that are followed.
One major reason it works is because people drive by sound. We came from quiet little Toronto and were dropped in the middle of a chaotic, loud traffic nightmare. At first the constant honking is overwhelming and even annoying. But it doesn’t take long to realize that the honking is extremely useful. With all those obstacles in your way, you don’t have time to check your blind spots (plus, you don’t just have one blind spot) so you rely on sound to survive. If you hear a honk, you move out of the way. The first rule of driving in India is that there are no rules. And despite the lack of rules, it just works. In all of our travels, we only saw a couple of fender benders.
We took a few different modes of public transport in India.
Our first experience was on the metro in Delhi. We expected a scary, century-old system that felt more like cattle-herding than people-moving. Well, we could not have been more wrong. The system is relatively new (built in the late 90s) and feels much more world-class than Toronto’s system. The trains were clean and the ride was extremely smooth. We also took the train in the middle of the day, so it wasn’t crowded at all. It was extremely civilized, actually.
We took an inter-city train between Delhi and Agra, which was great. We had first class tickets (comfortable seats with AC) and really enjoyed the ride.
The second inter-city train we took was from Kollam to Kochi. The ride was fine, but less enjoyable than our first. We ended up changing our ticket at the last minute because we wanted to get to Kochi earlier than we planned, so we had seats in Second Class. It was still fine, but it was a bit more crowded and the seats weren’t as comfortable.
We weren’t adventurous enough to take the cheapest option, which was more of what you’d expect in India.
When we were in Mumbai we took a commuter train from the centre of Mumbai out to the Dharavi slum. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as a typical train in Mumbai (again, we were travelling in the middle of the day and it was a Sunday) but it was still cozier than our other train rides.
We didn’t take any public buses because we weren’t sure how safe they were. Buses are also generally more difficult to navigate than heavy rail (like the metro or commuter trains) so we just stayed clear. We probably should have taken one in the south where it would have been a lot easier. Plus, who doesn’t love a good Communist bus?
Part of why we chose India was for the food. We love Indian food and are lucky enough to live in a neighbourhood in Toronto that has great Indian food. India has some of the best food in the world, but as travellers, we had to be careful not to get sick (another example of India’s extremes). Hygiene practices are obviously in other countries are different than in Canada, and with that can come some issues. And we weren’t interested in eating a tourist places. We wanted to go where the locals ate.
We had read a lot about how to avoid the infamous Delhi Belly and the best advice we got was to eat at places that were busy and where families were eating (especially women and children). For the most part we kept to this advice and we were fine. Delhi was a bit of a shock to our intestinal system, but we didn’t get food poisoning and our stomach issues never impacted our trip. I’d say we had Delhi Belly Light. However, our uneasiness forced us to venture away from curry and eat more biryani, but who can complain about that?
We had some really great food. Curries, thalis, dosa…
We didn’t eat as much street food as we expected. We weren’t staying away from it (despite many warnings to foreigners), it just never seemed to work out.
We did eat out of the back of a van in Munnar, though. It was probably the best biryani we’ve ever had.
The produce was really amazing and readily available.
But we had to shy away from anything without a peel, and peeled fruits were difficult to eat (since we were sans kitchen or basic utensils).
We ate a lot of bananas, though. Particularly in the south where there were so many varieties!
The best was when we were in Kollam and a man climbed up a tree to cut down some coconuts for us. The coconut water hydrated us like crazy (to counter all the sweating) and the coconut meat filled us up!
By the end of the trip we were pretty sick of Indian food. Luckily Mumbai (which was our last stop) has some amazing international options. We ate at some of the fancier places (but not touristy) and mostly ate Burmese food.
We generally spent anywhere between 200 and 1,000 rupees ($4 and $20) for a complete meal – for both of us. Meals in Mumbai were slightly more expensive, especially because they add a crazy “prepared drink” tax of 25%, even for non-alcoholic drinks. We could have eaten for even less, but it was so cheap that we felt like we could go all out.
The architecture in India is pretty fascinating. I can’t possibly do its history justice in this post, but all of its major architectural feats are representations of the country’s evolution over the centuries and is influenced by its culture, religion and economy.
One of the oldest structures we saw was the Agrasen ki Baoli, a stepwell in Delhi, believed to be built around 400BC (but rebuilt in the 14th century).
Most of the sites we saw were part of Mughal architecture. The Mughal dynasty was a Muslim empire that ruled mostly in northern India in the 16th century. The greatest examples of this era include the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, Humayun’s Tomb and many more.
The Taj Mahal definitely took the cake. The hype is completely justified for this amazing temple. It’s part of Mughal architecture, which also included several other temples and forts.
We saw several forts in northern India, but Agra Fort was really something.
The colonization of India by the British, Portuguese, Dutch and French also had a significant influence on the country’s architecture. Both the Gateway of India in Mumbai and India Gate in Delhi are perfect examples of this British influence.
The Taj Hotel in Mumbai, which is probably one of the fanciest hotels we’ve ever seen, was also built by the British.
The Dutch, French and Portuguese had more influence in the south and we definitely saw signs of their colonization when we were in Kerala. Also the fact that we saw so many Christian churches is another sign of the Portuguese and French colonization.
There were several other impressive buildings, but as with everything in India, much of this amazing architecture clashed with poor housing conditions and deteriorating buildings.
The biggest juxtaposition was in Mumbai. Almost everywhere you went you could see slum housing with luxury high-rises in the distance.
India is home to more than a billion people. A billion. This means that there are people everywhere. Even when you’re driving to one of the most remote places, there are people.
One of the biggest challenges for me was the inability to connect with anyone. We chose to go to India because we were interested in the culture, food and daily life of the Indian people. But we were only ever seen as rich tourists and our skin colour made us targets for scams (which worked a few times). Given how lucky we are, I can’t really complain much about this, but it made me extremely lonely (I don’t think Alex was affected in the same way). The only time I ever felt connected to anyone was when we met other tourists and could share our crazy stories.
We had moments where people wanted their picture taken (particularly with us) and it appears we connected with them, but there was always this distance.
All in all, we had a great trip and we’d definitely go back. We just don’t think we can eat Indian food for another couple of weeks…