“In India even the most mundane inquiries have a habit of ending this way. There may be two answers, there may be five, a dozen or a hundred; the only thing that is certain is that all will be different.”
Eric Newby, Slowly Down the Ganges
In this vibrant country the only thing that is certain is that nothing is ever certain. A question will be met with ten different answers, an object will have a dozen different prices and a train will have a six hour leeway where it is still considered ‘on time’. We personally enjoy certainty and the pleasantries of things being on time so initially India was a challenge, but as time rolled on, it actually was quite liberating to not be able to rely on the constraints of time.
Our last couple of days in Jaipur were spent with our tuktuk driver affectionately known as ‘Mad Max’. As we read through his guest books in the back of the tuktuk as Jaipur rushed past, we wondered why people called him Mad Max… but as the days wound on it became increasingly obvious. The only tuktuk driver to not use his horn excessively (perhaps it was broken), he made up for it by slapping the back of his friends’ tuktuks as he drove past giving them the scare of their lives. He also made so many different noises and sang Bollywood songs. As we were driving along the road he would suddenly say something like “want to hear machine noises?” and then begin imitating ambulances, police cars and tuktuks for the next 15 minutes. An absolute legend.
The pink walled city of Jaipur was definitely a highlight of India for us. It was stunning, packed with people and surrounded by incredible forts, castles, temples and markets. We climbed up to the Sun Temple avoiding eye contact with hundreds of monkeys in an attempt to avoid possible attacks, and arriving at the temple provided us with a stunning view of the 4 million-person city. If you are ever in India, visiting Jaipur and having a tuktuk drive with Mad Max is highly recommended.
We caught a bus to Agra which took a couple of hours, but with air conditioning and reclining chairs we felt like we had totally lucked out! We eventually arrived and headed straight to the Red Fort, the site of Mughal power in India and an absolutely stunning attraction! As you wandered through the tall red walls and admired (polluted) views of the Taj Mahal, it was easy to be transported to another time.
Before the sun was up the next day we were awake and in a bus to the Taj Mahal. We prayed that it was not going to be too polluted and that waking up before sunrise paid off. You have to walk for the last kilometre before the entrance because the Indian Government has banned pollution production within a kilometre radius of the Taj because it was starting to turn yellow…
We were the first people to be let in and it was absolutely surreal! The towering marble structure was so peaceful and majestic before the onslaught of selfie-stick wielders. We walked around and explored the gardens and tomb, trying to comprehend the amount of money, hours and time that went into creating this internationally iconic symbol of love.
To get to Varanasi we had to jump on a sleeper train which was something that we were not overly excited for, to be honest. With no idea what to expect, we arrived at Agra station and just hoped that the train would not be too delayed (by our standards). As we arrived, there was a notice over the speaker system that a train had been delayed by a casual 7 hours and 45 minutes (what?!), but thank goodness ours was only delayed by half an hour.
The train was delayed further overnight but that was expected. The whole thing was rather an experience and although we were lucky to have beds, you are definitely packed in like sardines! With no doors, curtains or separations, you get to know your new Indian neighbours very well. I woke up the next morning to realise that the guy beneath me had a semi-automatic rifle propped up underneath my bed as I slept unaware. Apparently he was the railway police which seemed like a bit of overkill, but anyway. Vendors come up and down the train selling chai and samosas which kept us going until we arrived in Varanasi at lunch time after 16 hours on board.
Varanasi is an incredibly spiritual city and we were extremely excited to visit and see all the different rituals taking place on the shores of the Ganges. We were not disappointed and witnessed life, death and everything in between. People would wash their clothes and take a holy dip in the Ganges, which we were definitely not game enough for, apparently some people even drink the water! Walking along the ghats demonstrates the transience of life as you would walk past young kids joyfully playing with kites, and then 2 minutes later be walking past a live human cremation. We thought we would be utterly freaked out by the whole burning dead body thing, but it was actually really peaceful and serene. Life carried on all around these ceremonies, and it was a reminder that we should not be so scared of death as it is a natural process that inevitably will affect us all.
We arrived at the main ghat for the evening puja which is a ceremony where five priests summon all the gods. It involved a lot of people cramming around to get the best view and a lot of smoke, but it was a fabulous experience to witness.
The next day was difficult as Modi and the Japanese Prime Minister were visiting Varanasi to sign a landmark trade agreement which meant that most of the roads were blocked. Traffic in India is blocked enough without actually putting physical barriers up, so getting around was a bit of a nightmare! But it meant that the streets were a lot cleaner than normal and there were lots of celebratory flowers decorating the surrounding buildings. Although it did mean that none of the boats were running so we were unfortunately unable to go on the morning or evening Ganges boat rides.
India was a country that always intrigued and inspired us, and we could not wait to one day visit. It definitely has not disappointed although we feel even more intrigued the more time that goes past. We only explored such a small portion of the country and already the customs, traditions, foods and attitudes varied so much. One day we hope to explore more of the differences throughout the country which make the world’s largest democracy such a cultural melting pot and enigma.
Next stop: Nepal!