India is one of the most exotic countries I have ever seen!
My husband lived in India for two years working there for the USSR Ministry of Foreign Trade. He is a fiction writer, and one of his books “Hotel Million Monkeys” includes a few stories about India.
At that time, I was still in elementary school. Alex told me a lot about that country, and for many years we talked about visiting India together. One year we even bought a travel book about India. I studied it thoroughly, but because of political unrest (assassination of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991), we decided to postpone the trip.
Finally, we joined a group tour to India and Nepal. What a journey it was! It started and ended in New Delhi. We had the experienced and knowledgeable tour director, Bonita. Bonita (or Bonnie) is an American woman. After graduating from college, she went to India as a tourist, fell in love with an Indian guy, and since that time lives in India.
Our group had local, English-speaking guides in all places that we visited, but Bonita was always with us. She met us at the airport when we arrived in New Delhi, and she said goodbye to us at the ticket counter at the same airport. She took care of all logistics connected with traveling from city to city. Thanks to our travel guide, it was a care-free trip.
You can check out two reliable companies that provide group tours around India. Intrepid offers a variety of trips lasting from 15 to 82 days. G Adventures also offers a huge selection of group tours. Both companies offer great and exciting itineraries. You can choose the tour that fits your budget and schedule.
On the bus ride from the New Delhi International Airport to our hotel, we could see that “we are not in Kansas anymore.” It was late in the evening, and we could see people sleeping on the narrow divider of the highway. The cars, buses, trucks were speeding by, but these poor people kept sleeping there on pieces of cardboard, covered with blankets or burlap. Can you imagine seeing something like this on I-95?
We saw many cows on congested streets, on sidewalks, in ditches, in the fields. Cows in India are sacred animals. People can drink cow milk, but they cannot kill cows and cannot eat beef. The highways are protected from wandering bovines with chain-link fences, but smaller roads are wide open for these animals. Through the bus window, I could see what cows were eating. Garbage, newspapers, pieces of cardboard. Seeing what they devour, I thought I would never eat beef again.
On the way from the airport to the hotel, we saw thousands of people on the streets dressed in traditional Indian clothing (most women in saris, and men in dhoti or mundu). They were walking, squatting, shopping, eating, sleeping, taking a shower from the hose, urinating in the ditches.
After our group had checked in the five-star hotel, my husband and I decided to go for a walk. This walk lasted for about five minutes. Outside of hotel’s grounds, it was pitch dark. Very soon, we were besieged by beggars, most of them were seven-eight years old boys and girls. We decided to retreat to our luxurious accommodations.
Our group spent in New Delhi two days. It’s a huge, overcrowded city with lots of smog. But it has a lot to offer to the visitors. We visited a few famous tourist places, one of them – the Gandi Museum.
Driving on Indian roads
After two nights in Delhi, we hit the road. I believe I am a good driver, but I wouldn’t survive on the Indian streets even for five minutes. Drivers in India do not follow lanes. Four or five cars fill two or three lanes, and traffic looks messy and dangerous.
On the roads, we saw many old, overcrowded, colorfully decorated buses. They looked like American school buses from the fifties or sixties which were painted in vivid colors and decorated with ribbons, fringes, pictures, mirrors. These wonderfully colored vehicles made our long trip from Delhi to Jaipur very entertaining.
Our driver was incredible. Even with extremely chaotic traffic, we all felt quite safe. It also helped that our bus was bigger than other vehicles on the roads.
This part of India is even more colorful than New Delhi area. A lot of camels. Very bright colors of women’s saris: red, orange, pink, yellow, purple. Every village that we passed had vendors selling mounds of familiar or strange looking fruits and vegetables on the tables that lined up the road.
Elephant ride. Not far from Jaipur, we went to Amer Fort. To get there, we had to ride the elephants up the hill. As we were standing in line behind other tourist groups, we watched elephants going up, and down the narrow road.
Our local guide told us that the elephants make this trek only early in the morning. By the afternoon, they get tired and irritated. Annoyed and angry elephant? The guide continued that a few months ago there was an incident when the overworked elephants stampeded and some tourists were injured. He casually mentioned that there were a few fatalities.
After that event, the local government prohibited the use of tourist elephants in the afternoon. What great timing, to tell us this story just before we had to go on the elephant ride! My legs were shaking, but I decided to be brave.
They put four people on a small platform attached to the animal back. The driver was sitting in front, behind the elephant’s ears, without saddle or pillow. As we were climbing higher and higher, I was getting more and more scared. The scariest moments were when we had to pass elephants which were going down the hill on that narrow road.
Suddenly, the driver turned to us and said something in Hindi. My first thought was: there is a problem with his elephant, and the driver is trying to warn us. I was already shaking from fear; now I was ready to panic. What a relieve it was when a woman behind me figured out that the driver was asking for a tip before we finish the ride. I was ready to give the driver all the money we had on us just to get off this elephant in one piece.
The Palace of Mirrors was an unusual place: on top of the hill, with splendid views, lots of mirrors decorating ancient buildings. I was glad to find out that we would go down by a jeep, not on the elephant. Enough excitement for me for that day.
In the city, we visited Palace of the Winds. From the top floor, we could see the bustling street. At one moment my husband started furiously taking pictures. “Look there,” he said, pointing to the brass band trying to fit into a motorcycle taxicab which could fit two average size Americans or four Indians.
However, this small transport would have to accommodate ten musicians with their instruments: trombones, French horns, trumpets, tubas. It took them a few minutes to get into the cab, and all of them managed to board it. When this little taxi started moving it looked like a gleaming porkypine – shiny instruments were sticking outside, blinding us with sun reflections.
Ride on cycle rickshaws. In Jaipur, we had to get a ride on cycle rickshaws. The bus brought us to the center of town, where the rickshaw drivers were waiting for us.
As soon as our rickshaws left the parking lot, they joined the crazy traffic with cars, buses, trucks, taxis, cows, goats and stray dogs. More than once I felt that we will be run over by some truck or bus, but each time either our rickshaw or truck would make a sharp turn. I asked other people from our group how did they feel during this crazy ride, and each one of them said that they do not want to repeat it, ever. But we had to repeat it, and the next rickshaw ride in Varanasi was even crazier.
Agra is the world-famous city because of Taj Mahal, the ivory-white marble mausoleum and one of the wonders of the world. At the ticket booths, we saw long lines of independent tourists. Our group already had the tickets, so we went right through. The guide gave us a tour and then we had free time to wander around. It doesn’t matter how many times you saw pictures of Taj Mahal or watched videos about this majestic structure – you must see it in person. The grounds are well groomed and very spacious. Even with hundreds of visitors walking, taking pictures, sitting on the grass and benches, I felt that this incredibly beautiful mausoleum was created just for me.
Taj Mahal was built on the bank of a river. When I looked down at the water, I saw a lot of garbage on the river banks. It was as if I just had a meal at a five-star restaurant and instead of walking out from the front door, I opened the door to a back alley and saw an overfilled garbage container. But I was not disappointed and surprised; by now I understood that India is a country of enormous contrasts. My brain might remember the trash, but my heart remembers the incredible beauty of Taj Mahal!
Khajuraho is another must-see destination in India. It has a complex of temples with erotic sculptures which depict Kama Sutra, the ancient Indian text, that we westerners think of as a textbook on sex. This group of temples is another UNESCO World Heritage Site in India.
As we were approaching Khajuraho, I could hear giggles from the back seat of the bus – some people from our group were anticipating seeing the sculptures of men and women in intricate sex positions. The same travelers were speechless when they finally saw this incredible architectural marvel. We all were in awe!
Souvenir from Khajuraho. Towards the end of the tour, we had a funny (at least to me) incident. We walked around another temple. Next to it were huge bougainvillea bushes. I lived in California; now I live in Florida. I know my bougainvillea. But I did not know that in India bougainvillea can be even more beautiful.
Suddenly, from behind the bushes, a small Indian man came to our local guide and addressed him in Hindi. The guide told us that this man is his friend and he has unique souvenirs for sale – small bronze containers filled with powdered dyes in six different colors. He was selling these containers for the deeply discounted price, just $3 each.
The sun was bright; the sky had incredible blue color; bougainvillea was dripping with beautiful flowers; we were enchanted by the temples we just walked through. This little container looked like an ideal ending to the perfect sightseeing day. ALL of us (almost 25 fools) bought that bronze souvenir. Even I, a person who hates shopping and buys only spices, teas, and coffee on my travels, bought one. How would we use these dyes? No one knew.
I still have this container at home. I make sure that when I dust the shelf with this mysterious souvenir, I do not drop it. Nonetheless, I did drop it once on the white porcelain tile. The souvenier scratched the floor, and I spent a lot of time wiping the “rainbow” of colors. Was that the purpose of this mysterious container?
Beggars in Khajuraho
We encountered swarms of beggars everywhere in India. I felt sorry for those children, mothers, old people, lepers, blind people, holding out their hands for money. But when we gave something to one, dozens of other beggars surrounded us.
We stayed in four-five-star hotels. Across the street, poorly dressed people were burning campfires to cook food and to keep warm. I was glad that we traveled with a group. Our guide protected us from the onslaught of beggars, and we always felt very safe. I cannot imagine how I would protect myself if I would travel alone.
Our tour director warned us that a number of beggars we encountered in the previous places in India would pale in comparison with a number of beggars in Khajuraho. She was correct. Wherever our group went in Khajuraho, we were surrounded by young and old, all asking for money. We tried not make an eye contact with them. We made sure that none of us gave them even a coin because after that it would be no end of begging.
In the afternoon, after we came back to the hotel, my husband and I decided to go for a walk. Radisson was away from town, on the small country road. The hotel had spacious, beautiful grounds, but for active walkers like us, it was not enough. We found out that there was a small village a mile away, and we decided to walk toward it.
On the deserted road, we saw a young man on a bicycle, who was moving in the opposite direction, towards our hotel. A minute later, the same bicyclist made a U-turn and cycled towards the village. We thought it was strange. A little later, we saw the same young man walking quickly towards us.
He was nicely dressed: black trousers, white shirt, tie. He started talking to us. It made us somewhat uncomfortable. We turned around and started walking back to the hotel. The young man also turned around and followed us. He told that he was poor and needed money to go to college. We tried to ignore him, but he was persistent, asking for money. We even mentioned to him that we were paying our own daughter’s college tuition (ever checked the tuition for Georgetown, anyone?)
He kept on talking; we kept walking faster and faster. Finally, we reached the gate to our hotel. We passed the guard, and what a relieve it was not to be harassed any longer! All hotels in India where we stayed had tight security, and we always felt safe at the hotel’s grounds.
Varanasi is one of India’s holiest cities. Our group stayed at the Radisson hotel. My husband and I were lucky to get a two-bedroom suite with king beds, two huge bathrooms, two flat-screen TVs, one per each room. The view from our windows was a different story. All that we could see were a rusty, unfinished building, and a shallow, polluted river with oily stains on the surface.
After we had a look at the “view” we stopped looking outside and concentrated on what we could see inside. Our suite was on a concierge floor, where we could have free espresso, cappuccino, Indian tea, and desserts. We felt like VIPs.
The food at this hotel was one of the best we ever had. In the evening, the waiters walked around the restaurant, offering different dishes. It was almost like a buffet, all-you-can-eat, but you were served the food at your table. If you liked something, you could ask for it again. The breakfast buffet was fantastic!
Of course, Varanasi is famous not for the Radisson hotel, but for the Ganga Ghats, where pilgrims come for the religious ceremony, for Hindu temples, Buddhist landmarks and much more. I described our trip to Varanasi in my blog “Life and Death in Varanasi.”
A few years passed since that group tour to India, but I still vividly remember many episodes from that journey. It is the way I try to live – to have a life full of memorable moments.