Incredible India! What a brilliant slogan for their marketing campaign, which in two words encapsulates everything about this astonishing country full of history, colourful smells and colourful people.
How does one describe India? You either love her or you hate her ... but you will definitely not walk away without having an opinion. She challenges you at all levels, she will transform you and as I like to say, you will end up being touched by mother India!
I have always considered India my motherland. Although I was born in Yugoslavia, I spent my formative years between the age of 5 and 11 in Madras (now called Chennai). I have always felt that although Yugoslavia gave me birth, India is the country that moulded me and formed me in my most impressionable years. Hence, this country has always been very special to me and close to my heart.
This 10-day trip was a thank you gift for our friends who were also our wedding planners and did a fantastic job on our magnificent 07.07.07 wedding. Since neither of them had been to India before, we thought we'd show them the Golden Triangle, which is what most first time comers to India see. The Golden Triangle involves the cities of Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur which on the map form an equidistant triangle - approx 270 km to each city. Besides these three cities, we also visited the lakeside city of Udaipur renowned for its Lake Palace.
To start, I do not know why a trip to India inevitably lends itself to chaos! Simply getting an Indian visa in Singapore was a completely chaotic experience, which got me mad several times as no one could give me a straight answer or tell me what I had to do.
I'm writing this on the flight to Delhi and I have to tell you that I'm already inhaling and exhaling and practicing my techniques on how to release anger and frustration, knowing that the experience to start in about 5 hours will blow me away. In all ways.
After we landed we went through customs and headed straight for the luggage carousel. As we're standing there, the immigration officer who stamped our passport came by and asked to see our passport again. I was thinking, here we go, they're on a power trip and now they're going to hassle us. At the end, the stamp that he put into our passport said that we arrived 1st of January 2007 and not 2008! He was searching for all the passengers that he stamped to manually correct this error in the passport, otherwise we may have problems leaving the country for the visa was only for 6 months, while it would have seemed that we stayed in India for over a year!
So what has changed since my last visit to India 8 years ago?
Driving back from the airport we were on a highway with five lanes. But on those five lanes there was a row of 8 cars driving in parallel, everyone trying to squeeze ahead. The driver said to us that this is the theory of Happy Chaos. Chaotic behaviour - the same as in 1999! What has definitely changed though are the cars on the road. There were all these modern cars on the road last night, whilst 8 years ago it was all rickshaws and the infamous Ambassador.
The infrastructure has definitely improved. They're building new airports and the roads are being converted into highways. Simultaneously though, the Indian car manufacturer Tata has just introduced their new Nano model, the first US$1,000 car. So on one hand they're building new infrastructure while on the other hand, everyone that moved around by bike and rickshaw before is now going to have a Nano. What will that do to congestion? Urban planning??? Most probably the same as in 1999 ☺
Unlike in 1999, there are ATM machines everywhere now. And globalization has definitely left a fresh imprint here, like in several other Asian countries. Years ago I remember seeing Pepsi signs all across the country. This time around, the Pepsi signs were gone. Vodafone is the new king!
There are many visible signs that India is developing, albeit very slowly. Simply looking at the scale of the project, the more than billion people, you cannot but wonder how this is going to be achieved and at what pace? The Chinese are structured, planners - the Indians are chaotic and a democracy. Makes you go hmm!
Towards the end of our trip I also came to the conclusion that the locals are less in your face than I remember. The salesmen are less aggressive, the streets less crowded and in general, I didn't get as annoyed as I would have expected. Perhaps this is a sign of development, that they need the tourist dollar much less than they used to. Or I have matured and don't get as explosive as I used to many years ago. However, ironically, part of the experience of India is the haggling over every simple thing and getting angry and annoyed. If this was to all but disappear, the Indian experience would not be the same.
It could also be that they just decided to leave me alone this time around ... and that in actuality nothing has changed!!
And this is the fun thing about India … you just never know!
Besides the smells, colours and sounds of India, an important aspect of this glorious country is also its main religion, Hinduism. I'm not even going to try and recreate the story for you as to what Hinduism is, and who the main gods are. As one of our guides told us, there are supposedly 36 million variations and names for their gods. Good luck trying to remember all of them. Of course, the central theme is reincarnation and karma and every time someone tells you a story about one of their gods, you just listen helplessly for at the end it's like a big bowl of spaghetti: tangled, long, messy. You never really know what to believe, since the story keeps changing from person to person. So at the end I've just come to the conclusion that one of the many charms of Indians is their story telling capacity. To me it seems that they've got the main points of the story memorized, as to everything else around it, well sometimes it feels a bit embellished. The stories just grow and grow, again like spaghetti, where the more you eat the more you have left on your plate, and all you can do is simply be patient and listen ... and smile.
If you haven't picked this up from the last paragraph ... let's reiterate it ... India is full of stories! Some you believe, some you question, some you understand ... the one constant is that there's always a story for everything. Example: In Udaipur and Jaipur we would see large beehives everywhere. Every castle, palace and shop would have a large beehive hanging from some alcove or another. So I had to ask why the beehives and why don't they remove them. The answer was that during the Mugghal era, the bees would protect the locals from the invaders. The Mugghals would often come to invade and as they started to attack the palace, the bees would be upset and start attacking the invaders. Thus the beehives today are left untouched, as a sign of respect and for the protection they offer.
Poverty with a smile
When you ask someone who's never been to India what is the first thing that comes to mind when you mention the country, poverty is very likely to be it. 'I couldn't handle the poverty' is a common comment from Westerners. Well, let me tell you that I have seen much more depressing poverty in Europe and America than in India. Poverty in the Western world comes with a face of depression, sadness and abandonment. I always say that in India you will find poverty with a smile. They may be living on the street and in a slum, and washing their hair with mud and drinking water from a street-side puddle, but they are always smiling, laughing and living in a familial/communal and supportive environment. Hinduism has a big role in this, for their belief is that the reason they are poor in this lifetime is because they have bad karma from before. So if they perform good deeds in this lifetime, perhaps in the next one they will no longer be poor. Their religion gives them hope due to the central idea of reincarnation. What I tell everyone that asks me about poverty in India is that you have to acknowledge it and feel it, but ultimately there's nothing you can do about it so feeling bad is not going to help them or you. Instead, give them a smile in return, and that's already plenty.
Northern India is very hazy during the winter months. You have to laugh when you ask the people if this is pollution, and they answer 'No, it's smog!' Due to the cold weather, amongst other things, wood burning is more prevalent in the countryside, which leaves a blanket of haze on the surrounding landscape. Take this into consideration when you go to see monuments early in the morning, especially if you're going to view them from a distance. For example, the Taj Mahal was barely discernible from the Agra Fort when we were there.
Recommended itinerary for a 10-day trip
India is exhausting: full of impressions, full of people, full of colour and full of bugs! Get ready for that. Don't plan too much in a short period of time. Make sure you have some downtime - you will need it. This is what we did:
- Delhi - 2 nights
- Agra - 2 nights
- Jaipur - 3 nights
- Udaipur - 2 nights
- Delhi - 1 night
I also recommend you do the trip in this direction, for Udaipur is to me one of the most beautiful places in this world and I like to leave it for the end. It's a magnificent last impression of this beautiful country.
Our whole trip was designed by Designer Holidays from Mumbai. I can highly recommend them for they took very good care of us for the whole 10 days.
How to get there
> Indian Visa: Make sure you give yourself enough time to get an Indian visa! India is chaos. Indian embassies and High Commissions are a good representation of the country. I gave myself only 4 working days to get the Indian visa in Singapore, when I needed 5 and I managed to age a few years in those days being sent from one office to anther and getting contradictory information from every person I talked to. To find out if you need a visa?
> Airports: they're usually a mess, even though a lot of the cities are building new ones which will greatly help with efficiency and capacity. Delhi, for example, is building a new terminal that is to open in 2010 and Udaipur was to have a new airport by March 2008.
> Airlines: India is a very popular destination. So besides regular airlines that fly there, always check with discount airlines as well. If not for international flights into India, definitely for internal flights. These are the ones that I know off: SpiceJet, Jet Airways, Kingfisher Airlines, IndiGo. The national airline of India is Air India.
> never loose your patience with anyone including the millions of touts: keep smiling, joke with them and then say thank you when you enter the safe haven of your tour bus. It's harder for them to become very aggressive if you're not responding to their 'stimulation'.
> Chai does not involve tea leaves, instead it's a mixture of milk, ginger and cinnamon. It is also known as masala tea
> relax, breathe a lot, inhale, exhale, and let yourself be absorbed
and then inhale/exhale some more ...