TOP TIPS: INDIA

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WHY INDIA?

My mum and I decided to go to India for two weeks in January 2016 on a mum-and-son trip. My mum is a counsellor and has worked with a lot of skilled Indian migrants to Australia over the years, and she wanted to better understand their culture.

India had always been on my bucket list as it is such an important country, with predictions that it will have the largest population by 2022, already having the world’s third-largest economy.

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Jetting off from Sydney Airport. Our one-way flight to Kochi with AirAsia via Kuala Lumpur was only 340 USD. Mum flew back from Delhi to Sydney direct with Air India and I went to San Francisco on Lufthansa.

In terms of cost, we averaged 38 USD/day for 14 days including accommodation in private rooms at budget to mid-range hotels, eating out for every meal, all intercity transport, and the occasional private tour guide at attractions. I would consider India to be cheap and good value.


OUR ITINERARY

We spent one week in Kerala, in India’s south, and one week in the Golden Triangle (Jaipur, Agra and Delhi), in the north. There is a big contrast between the two areas, so we were glad to experience the differences.

North = more hectic, more touristy, more ‘sights’

South = more chilled, more beautiful, more ‘experiences’

From those descriptions, you can probably tell which one I enjoyed more, but both were worth visiting.

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Our route: one week in the south, one week in the north

PART I: KERALA

This state is the most educated in the nation and a great introduction for first-time travellers to this complex and diverse country.

Day 1 – Fort Kochi: we settled into a quaint guesthouse in Fort Kochi with fresh lime juice on arrival. Took a stroll to the Portuguese-built basilica in the warm tropical air. Ate a ton of lentils, vegetables and rice. Saw an amazing Kathakali (traditional Keralan dance) performance. Topped the day off watching the sunset over the Indian Ocean behind these 500-year-old Chinese fishing nets, which are still in use.

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The Chinese fishing nets at Fort Kochi

Day 2 – Fort Kochi to Keralan Backwaters: headed by private taxi two hours down the coast to the gateway to the Keralan Backwaters, Alappuzha (Alleppey). Took a boat over to our beautiful homestay, Green Palm Homes, where we indulged in an Indian banquet lunch and took an afternoon siesta, followed by masala chai. This photo was taken during a two-hour guided canoe trip through the village’s tranquil canals. The palm-lined coast framed this stunning rose-colored tropical sky.

Tip: I would highly recommend this homestay over an expensive houseboat, as the houseboats are moored from 5:30pm to 7:30am due to noise restrictions and safety requirements

Day 3 – Keralan Backwaters: started the day at 7:30am with a guided morning walk along the backwaters’ canals, followed by a delicious traditional breakfast of mung beans, coconut flakes and banana leaves. Caught the local ferry back to our homestay, spending the afternoon relaxing.

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The tranquil and tropical Keralan Backwaters

Day 4 – Keralan Backwaters to Marari: attended Sunday mass at the island’s local Catholic church, where men and women were on opposite sides of the church, people were sat from youngest to oldest front to back, and everyone sat on the floor barefoot. The whole service was in Malayalam, but these different customs still made it very interesting.

In the afternoon, we made our way to ‪Marari, a small seaside town popular with both Indian and foreign tourists. Staying in a ‪beach bungalow under swaying palm trees and a bright blue sky 100 feet from the shore was an absolute treat. Mum and I capped off the day by watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean whilst kicking back with a drink on our balcony.

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Palm tree-lined Marari Beach

Day 5 – Marari to Munnar: started the day off with a morning swim in the calm ocean. Went to the bus station in Alappuzha, all ready for a bumpy and bendy six-hour bus ride up the mountains to Munnar.

Mum ended up talking to a lady who was also going to Munnar and invited us to join her and her husband on their fourth wedding anniversary. So we got in their car, heard all about their Hindu-Muslim interfaith marriage, sang Hindi songs, stopped off for some masala chai tea, saw the sunset behind the misty mountain valleys, and ended the night in the same hotel as them, where they had given up the deluxe room with a balcony opening up to the tea plantations for us. Now I know why they call this place Incredible India.

Day 6 – Munnar: woke up early to watch the ‪sunrise over the tea plantations with an amazing view from our balcony. Had another delicious ‪Keralan breakfast of curried eggs, vegetable korma and dosa (rice crepe).

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The most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen

Went on a disastrous self-guided trek up a mountain, but met a couple of farmers who fed us snap peas and cardomam, the world’s third-most expensive spice, straight from their gardens, and led us back to safety.

Day 7 – Munnar to Kochi Airport: we visited the Tata Tea Museum, where we learnt about Mum’s favorite drink and the benefits of green tea over black tea. We loved this quote at the exit to the museum.

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Tata Tea Museum

Our one-week stay in Kerala absolutely blew our minds and really challenged the preconceptions some people have of India being frenetic, crowded and unsafe. Our experience was that it was not.

Keralites are very hospitable and patient people who live in a state with lush mountains, beautiful beaches and great food.

Tip: I would highly recommend coming to Kerala for 7-10 days, especially for first-timers to India.


PART II: THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE

Day 8 – Kochi to Jaipur via Mumbai: flying into hazy ‪Mumbai was a saddening experience, seeing slums built right up to the airport fence. Imagine what it would be like living there. I found it interesting that there was a mosque in the middle one of the slums, with numerous Pakistani flags waving in the air.

Tip: you need to have your flight confirmation or boarding pass printed to enter airports in India.

Air India’s service and the condition of their planes were terrible. There is a lot of competition on domestic routes in India, so feel free to go with one of the low-cost airlines like SpiceJet or IndiGo.

On our connecting flight to Jaipur, we were sat next to a rather obnoxious man, making loud phone calls, demanding water before take-off and flashing his jewelry around. Turns out he was Raza Murad, a famous Bollywood actor. We found this out when swarms of people were wanting to take photos with him at the ‪Amber Fort.

People rave about Amber Fort, but we were underwhelmed by it. I think Granada’s La Alhambra is much more beautiful. Note that compared to in Europe and North America, tourist attractions in India tend to display less information on boards and rely more on private tour guides.

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Amber Fort

Day 9 – Jaipur: we visited the unique Hawa Mahal, a palace in Jaipur’s Old City. This was my favorite attraction in India. Look at those colors!

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The majestic Hawa Mahal

We went to the beautiful Rajmandir Cinema to see a new release Bollywood movie. Although it was all in Hindi, the story was still easy-to-follow, the costumes elaborate, and the cinema-going experience really interesting.

Tip: I would highly recommend going to see a Bollywood movie for the unique experience.

 

Day 10 – Jaipur to Pushkar: we took our first train trip in India from Jaipur to Ajmer. I had never seen such poverty, both inside and outside the train. Out of all of the countries I have been to, India is definitely the most challenging experience I have had.

Tip: the best site we used to check availability and book train tickets was Cleartrip. Sign up for an account at least one week before you arrive in India as you will need to email a copy of your passport to verify your identity in lieu of having an Indian phone number. A number of other travellers also used MakeMyTrip.

Luckily we took refuge in a chilled rural town called Pushkar, with a colorful Hindu temple and tranquil lake lined by ghats, where pilgrims come to bathe. The cows also do a really good job as makeshift roundabouts.

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Cows are everywhere in India

Day 11 – Pushkar: a ride fit for kings through the Land of Kings. Whilst it was a novel experience, note that this photo does not show the full reality of the situation.

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Our desert sunset camel ride

We rode through gypsy camps with young children living in battered tents, saw a litter of pups trying to suck the last drop of milk from their dead mum’s body, and our guide was not only illiterate, but was born with a deformed foot and did not know his age.

Day 12 – Jaipur: we met some friendly folk and got invited to be part of a wedding celebrations. Mahila Sangeet translates as ‘Ladies’ Dance’, where the women dress up in a salwar kurta and men don a kurta. We bought ours from the local clothes market in Jaipur.

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It is on a lot of people’s bucket list to go to an Indian wedding

At this particular celebration of the Singh Family, the women started the dancing, with the men getting drunk on the roof. After a while the men came down to dance too, but a couple were so drunk they fell over.

Day 13 – Agra: the Taj Mahal is, indeed, the most beautiful building I have ever seen, surrounded by one of the most soulless cities I have ever been to.

A pearl in the midst of desperation and poverty. A once, and only once, in a lifetime experience. Truly phenomenal.

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A wonderful way to end our trip

I did not think much of the Agra Fort, but if you have a spare 1-2 hours, you can go there.

Day 14 – Delhi: This is the final reflection that I wrote on Facebook as I boarded my plane to leave after our two weeks in India:

Confronting. Beautiful. Chaotic. Delicious. Majestic. These are the first words that come to mind when I try to describe India after being here for the past two weeks.

As I have said before, for me, traveling is all about expectations. I expected India to be crazy, smelly, dirty, unsafe. Some of these are true; some are not. Neither Mum nor I got food poisoning, or ‘Delhi Belly’. In fact, my belly felt the best it has in the past ten years or so. I imagine it is because of the lack of processed foods here. Indian food is phenomenal.

India was not as smelly as I imagined. Sure, they have urinals on the outside of some buildings in the street, and animals freely roaming the streets does not create the most hygienic environment, but it was very tolerable overall.

The customer service and friendliness of the people are absolutely amazing. I would put India in my top five for hospitality along with the US, Canada, Israel and Japan.

I expected to see more inequality here than I did, far less than what I have seen in my travels through Latin America, the most unequal region in the world.

India was, at times, very frustrating and illogical by my standards. It is a country paranoid about security, yet the systems in place are grossly ineffective and time-consuming. The fact that train stations have an enquiry counter, a booking office and a reservation center, all performing different functions and all on opposite sides of the station, is beyond me. The traffic is horrendous, and little respect is given to pedestrians or public transport.

India is predicted to have the largest population on Earth within the next six years and already has the third-largest economy. I am sure it will change a lot in that time.

I would wholeheartedly recommend coming to India if you are looking for a challenging, eye-opening experience. You will not regret it. But do not come until you are ready for it.

Tonight, I bid farewell to Delhi, which is probably the worst city I have ever been in, full of smog, rubbish and a general sense of uneasiness. The contrast could not be starker, transiting through Frankfurt Airport, one of the most efficient in the world, on to San Francisco, one of my all-time favourite cities, to spend a long weekend with good friends.

Thank you, India. What a pleasure it has been, and what a relief to be bidding farewell to you…for now, but not forever.

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