India is anything but boring. And somehow I ended up doing everything my guidebook told me to avoid. I reveled in the unhygienic and spicy food from the gar kitchens, was bamboozled by hordes of hawkers and made a contribution to some terrifically earsplitting traffic chaos.
I`m thirsty, sweaty and excited as I take my place in a queue of Indians. 40 degrees and unbelievably humid – in England I would be sunbathing half naked. Here I`m wrapped in a long linen skirt and a T-shirt to cover my shoulders, an airy scarf is elegantly swung over my head in imitation of the stunning Indian women swishing around me. My mind ponders the composure of these women and I struggle to understand why their hair isn’t stuck to their faces like wet, ancient vines.
Anticipation builds as I buy my ticket – 750 Rupees (around 10 pounds) for tourists, 50 Rupees for Indians (around 65 pence). Unfair at first sight, but still a crippling fee for the 80% of a billion Indians who live on less than 2 USD a day. While consideration of the price fades, I rummage through my shoulder bag for my camera. I move through the huge, parted entrance door and there it finally is. India’s most recognized monument and one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Taj Mahal. It emerges majestically from the banks of the Yamuna River. It’s beautiful. Words fail its elegance; the incredible detail simply has to be seen to be appreciated. And so I stop for a moment overwhelmed and in disbelief at the sight. The Taj Mahal has a rich history dating back to 1630 AD. It represents the symbol of true love and intense toil, taking 20,000 workers 22 years to complete. Its sole purpose is to house the body of Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
After an amazing day, the train takes us to Dehli, India´s capital. India became politically independent in 1947, never invading any country in its last 10,000 years of its history. The Republic has 18 official languages, which makes communication as easy as wading through the Ganges. The World’s first university was established in India, Takshila in 700 BC with more than 10,500 students from all over the world studying more than 60 subjects. Ayurveda, the earliest known school of medicine, as well as the number system, were invented in India.
The ancient grasp of figures is somewhat obvious when bargaining over taxi prices. Indians have great talent for extracting special rates from tourists. And so, as the world’s worst haggler, I pay around five times as much as it usually costs, happy in deluded self-satisfaction that I struck a good deal. I finally take my seat in the colorful motor-rickshaw, which had seen better times. The driver smiles and nods reassuringly. While I´m trying to figure out how we are going to make it onto the street through the crowds of people we are already in the middle of it. The horn is in perpetual operation and I´m very glad about it. We seem to almost touch every other of the seemingly million vehicles on the street. Bikes, scooters, cars, horses and cows fight it out for their piece of the road. People apparently tired of living cross the street without hesitation; my driver’s right foot remains blissfully unaware of them. The one thing that slows his propulsion is officially sacred: a cow. To India’s millions of Hindus, the cow is a holy animal that cannot be harmed. This exclusively tender treatment is just one example of the complicated relationship with cows.
Some animals and 15 minutes later, we finally arrive at the train station. My face is powdered with dust and streaked with sweat. I pay the driver and stow my camera, which I dared to wield during the ride in order to shoot a video for posterity.
India is vibrant, colorful and nerve-racking. Life takes place on the streets, 24 hours a day, while privacy is a luxury enjoyed only by the wealthy. Nowhere else on earth does brightness and misery lie so close together, no other country has such evident contrasts. You can see it, hear it, smell it and feel it.
Some people passionately despise this country. It combines all extremes; it is hectic, chaotic, but at the same time lethargic which is often too much for Western people to understand. It is a backward agricultural country and a rising industrial nation. It has a rapid population growth and inadequate infrastructure hampering progress in information and biotechnology industries. Religious conflicts still cause domestic disputes, while Bollywood produces new millionaires daily.
After 2 intense weeks in some of India´s Northern cities I have the privilege to escape the big cities. It is time for cocktails, fresh fish and a bungalow right on a stunning beach: Goa is calling and a 16 hour train journey takes me there.
Located it South West India, Goa is India’s richest state, ranked on top for the best quality of life in the whole country. It offers stunning beaches, places of worship and world heritage architecture peppered with the cultural influence of the Portuguese, who first landed in the early 16th century as merchants, and conquered it soon after.
Goa has it all. While still a Mecca for backpackers and hippies, enjoying music and local greenery at the beaches. However the turning tourist tide means more and more package tourists are conquering the coast, holidaying in large, westernised hotels.
India offers you beautiful smells of jasmine and curry, then turns your stomach with stench. It gives you amazing pictures to savor forever and terrible ones you can’t bear to look at. It is a place where tradition speaks, culture echoes, diversity delights and beauty enthralls. Only an eight hour flight from England away, India is a vivid kaleidoscope of everything you are looking for, making sure you have a lifetime experience and more to take back than gaudy souvenirs. It is impossible to summarize in writing, but I guarantee, you will want to go back as an intermediate.
The White Tiger – Araving Adiga, 336 pages, Atlantic Books 2009, £7.99
Holy Cow – Sarah Macdonald, 304 pages, Broadway 2004, £ 8.99
Hindi for Beginners:
नमस्ते Namaste = Hello/Goodbye.
धन्यवाद Dhan’yavāda = Thank you.
मेरा नाम है Mērā nāma hai … = My name is …
Guest author Sina Brunner has a serious disease: constant itchy feet. She thinks that she has inherited it from her Dad who tried to show her the world from a young age. Growing up, Sina has backpacked in Asia and after working as an Au Pair in Hawaii decided to study Tourism. After her first degree in Germany, an internship in her beloved Nepal and a Masters in Tourism Management in England, she is back on the road, currently making her way back from Australia to Germany by land – raising money for a street children project in Nepal. Find out more on www.travel4more.org and follow her adventure on Facebook and Twitter.Tweet