At the beginning of January this year my mom and I took a tour of North India. It has been a trip I’ve been dreaming about taking for a long time, so I was incredibly grateful and excited when my mom said we could go as an early college graduation present (mainly because who knows when we’ll both be able to take a trip like this again once I start a real adult job)!
Our nine-day tour took us to four cities: New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi. (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur are known as the “golden triangle”, aka the most popular itinerary for tourists.) This blog post is not an attempt to recount every little detail of the trip – I kept my own personal travel diary for that – but, rather, there were certain aspects of India that really stuck in my memory as defining characteristics of the trip. Those are the things I’m going to write about in this post.
1. Traffic. And honking.
So. Much. Traffic. I swear I have never been somewhere that has such awful traffic and such crazy driving – no exaggeration. Drivers in India completely ignore the lines on the road and weave in and out of every available space. Imagine Tetris but with cars, trucks, motorbikes and tuk tuks. It’s actually kind of terrifying – our five-hour drive from Jaipur to Delhi was quite literally the scariest car ride of my entire life. My mother concurs. Our driver was excellent, but other drivers were not. We kept zooming in and around trucks, over bumpy service roads, getting so close to other vehicles at times I thought we would crash. It didn’t help that we were rushing to the airport to catch a flight.
There are so many people in India (with 1.3 billion people India’s the world’s second most populated country), and when you’re driving they all seem to be on the road. The traffic in New Delhi was unbelievable – it took over an hour to get somewhere that was not very far away by distance. And the honking. My goodness the honking. If I were to pick one sound to encapsulate my time in India it would be the sound of a car horn. It literally sounds like a cacophony of beeps and blares. You know how I mentioned no one follows the lines on the road? Well, I learned from observation that there is a certain honking etiquette drivers use to let other drivers know when they’re passing and on which side they’re passing. It still sounds like chaos, but once I figured that out there was a little more structure to the chaos. Safe to say, India is a country in which I will never be renting a car. Or a tuk tuk.
2. Insanely thick fog
Before coming to India, I thought I had seen fog. I had not really seen fog. The fog I experienced in India made any other fog I’ve seen seem like nothing. Every morning, except in Jaipur, we awoke to an incredibly thick wall – yes, a wall – of dense, impenetrable fog. On our balcony in Agra we could not even see six feet in front of us. Our driver said he walked outside and couldn’t see the car at first. The fog slowly cleared up into the early afternoon, but only because the sun came out. They said this was common in the winter.
The morning we were going to the Taj Mahal in Agra we had to change our itinerary because it was so foggy – our guide said we wouldn’t have been able to see anything had we gone when we were originally scheduled to go. Instead, we waited a few hours and got there around 11 a.m. Even then we couldn’t even see the Taj from the main entrance. But, by the time we were done with the tour, the sun had come out and the fog cleared. Thank goodness. We almost went to India and didn’t see the Taj!
3. Air pollution
I already knew a lot about the air pollution crisis in New Delhi (in fact I produced a show about it), but it still was shocking. Even from the plane coming into Delhi I could see the pollution blanketing the city. Coupled with the extreme fog in the mornings, you could see the pollution hanging in the air. We brought pollution masks but didn’t end up wearing them except once in Agra when we were riding in a golf cart. Who knows, maybe we should have, but they weren’t very comfortable and I was conscious of trying not to stick out more than we already did and not be insensitive. The pollution wasn’t as bad outside of Delhi, but it was still quite visible in Agra.
4. Cows and animals everywhere
This was probably my favorite part about my time in India. When I saw the first cow roaming in the street on the way from the Delhi airport to our hotel, I squealed with excitement. Little did I know just how typical such a sighting would be over the next nine days. Cows and bulls roam the streets everywhere. I saw cows more often in India than I see dogs here at home.
Many of the cows just plop themselves along the medians in the middle of roads (even on highways) and chill as cars and trucks maneuver around them. And not just cows, I saw tons of goats, pigs, monkeys, camels and even water buffalo. I thought seeing all these animals out and about would get old after a few days – it never did.
India is for sure one of the most fascinating countries I have visited, and a large part of that is due to its culture of religions. Unlike places like Rome and Greece that are very religious but in one dominant religion, India is teeming with numerous different religious cultures: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and Islam are the main ones. I had taken a world religions class in high school in which we learned all about these religions, so it was pretty incredible to see them in person.
Varanasi, the holy city and pilgrimage site for Hindus, is unlike any other place on earth. It’s called the “city of death” because Hindus believe dying and being cremated in Varanasi is the ultimate spiritual ending. We witnessed from a fort above the 20+ simultaneous ceremonial cremation pyres burn, lighting up the pitch black night sky. That was truly a surreal experience. On a night tour through the twisting and winding back alleyways of the old city, we saw multiple processions of grieving families carrying their deceased loved ones to the cremation area.
We visited Sarnath, a town outside of Varanasi, that was home to where the Buddha gave his first sermon. One of my favorite experiences of the trip was watching the Hindu Aarti ceremony at night from a boat on the Ganges river in Varanasi. The ceremony was honoring the holy river Ganges. Talk about magical.
6. Colorful clothing
Many of the women we saw were dressed exquisitely. Although I’m sure it was typical attire for them, it looked beautiful. People say India is a photographer’s dream because of all the rich variety of colors, another reason why I wanted to go so badly. Much of the colors can be attributed to the women’s clothing.
As we crossed into the state of Rajasthan to get to Jaipur (there are 29 states in India and many states have their own unique culture, including clothing, food and dialect/language) our driver told us to pay attention to the difference in clothing people wore: men wore a different style of turban than we’d seen the men wear in Delhi and Agra, and women had different styles of dress. Our driver pointed to some women walking along the side of the road in brightly colored outfits.
The hospitality we experienced in India was among the best in the world. All the hotels we stayed at went above and beyond to ensure our comfortability, more than anywhere else we’ve stayed. Giving gifts is apparently a tradition in India (as it is in many Asian cultures) and we were kindly gifted little souvenirs along our trip, including small purses, chocolate and a copy of the Bhagavadgita, the Hindu scripture. Our driver even gave us a painting his daughter made for us.
I will admit, neither my mom nor I are big fans of Indian food. It’s just not a cuisine we seek out very often, and we both don’t like curry. But we went into the trip with open minds and a willingness to try new things. We ended up having dosa several times at breakfasts, as well as this potato pancake-like dish I enjoyed. I also liked saffron rice and naan, which I’d had before (but not in India!)
Our trip to North India was incredible and uniquely fascinating – no where else compares to India’s culture. Witnessing the Taj Mahal up close and in all its majesty (thank goodness the fog cooperated!) is something I’ll remember forever. And taking this trip with my mom was extra special, seeing as it might be a while before we’re able to do such a thing again. I hope to return someday and explore the south part of India, which I’ve heard is completely different from the north!
Here is a video I made of the trip, including the Aarti ceremony in Varanasi at the end: