Strictly: Shah

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It’s been a little while since my trip to India, so you’re probably wondering why it’s taken me this long to blog about it. Well, the sad fact is that nothing weird or borderline dangerous happened to me on this trip, and that’s pretty much where 95% of my blogging material comes from. I mean, I was in India, so any time I got in a car or even went near a road it was borderline dangerous, but that’s obvious danger and therefore not the sort I tend to accidentally stumble into. But, despite the lack of classic material, I will try my best to construct a witty and interesting post around my holiday, because it really was a great trip.

I travelled to India with my mum, and the whole thing was pre-organised which is actually pretty rare for me, so not worrying about how to get from one place to another (and not having to take any death buses) was a nice change. For anyone who knows my mum, you will know that two things she hates in this world are dirt and food with slightly questionable origins, so the fact that she even agreed to visit India, a country known for having both of those things, is pretty impressive. The fact she survived the week, and returned home in one piece, is even more so. We went to India for a wedding, but as we were going to be in the country it seemed foolish to not do the classic ‘Golden Triangle’ trip, so we booked onto a 5-day tour that would take us to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur – the historical heartland of Northern India, if you will.

Our first, jet-lagged and tired, day was spent exploring old and new Delhi. Now, I know cities, I’ve visited my fair share and right now I’m living in a city state, but I’ve never seen anything with traffic quite like Delhi. It was honestly nuts and I spent a fairly significant part of that first day thinking that my time was up. By the end of the trip I was pretty familiar with the horrors of Indian traffic, but Delhi was certainly a baptism of fire. It was also a baptism of sightseeing fire, man we did a lot of touring around on that first day and it pretty much set the standard for the rest of the week. There were ancient Muslim sites, palaces, mosques and final resting places, but the highlight of Delhi was, without a doubt, a rickshaw around the terrifyingly ramshackle streets of the old quarter. The city was built in two halves, the ancient quarter of the old Mughal Empire and the new city built by the British. As you can imagine the British half is filled with grand, imposing buildings and wide, tree lined roads which would be nice to wander down if the traffic wasn’t so utterly terrifying. The old city, set behind what little remains of the city walls, is completely different. Centred around the imposing Jama Masjid (mosque) the streets of Old Delhi are what you would expect to find if you went hunting for Diagon Alley, except there are way more people, and a crazy assortment of power lines overhead which definitely do not look health and safety approved. The rickshaw ride through these streets was nail-biting at times, but also utterly fascinating. I don’t understand how it’s possible to wander around these streets without getting completely and helplessly lost, but people must do it because there is a wealth of things to find. We saw ramshackle food vendors leaning haphazardly against traditional sari shops, and a whole street dedicated to stationery shops, which seemed a little excessive but obviously stationery is important in Old Delhi.

After our day in Delhi it was time to head to Agra, and the heart of the old Mughal Empire. The day before we had seen Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, one of the first Mughal rulers, and now it was time to head to the old Imperial capital and one of the most famous sites of the Mughal Dynasty – the Taj Mahal. I’m not sure I could have ever travelled to India without visiting the Taj and, well, before I knew it I was walking through the gateway and being confronted with a sight that’s been marvelled at by countless travellers before me.

So, what would you do if you were at the Taj Mahal, learning about the love story behind its construction and actually walking around on the ridiculously shiny white marble it’s made from? Re-create the pictures from Princess Diana’s visit, obviously. I didn’t spend my whole time at the Taj pretending to be a British royal, but it was pretty fun. I’m not going to try and retell the story behind the construction of the Taj Mahal here, we had a brilliant guide who did a great job of telling it, and I will just mess it up by trying, but let’s just say that the building is as beautiful and breathtaking as its origin story. And very satisfyingly symmetrical. We also saw the Agra Fort which was interesting and cool but ruined slightly by the fact we went there straight from the Taj – it was really no match. However, there is a very good view of the Taj from Agra Fort, and you can almost imagine the Mughal rulers sitting on the ornate fort balcony, looking at it from across the water.

The final stop on our Northern India tour was Jaipur. We got there via Fatehpur Sikri, the one-time capital of the Mughal empire, founded in the 16th century and abandoned a mere 15 years later. Jaipur was my favourite of all our destinations. It really lives up to its reputation as the Pink city – thanks to the terracotta colouring of the buildings, and I actually did not feel like I was going to die wandering around. The Maharaja of Jaipur still lives in the City Palace, and on our visit we were lucky enough to run into a visiting delegation of something of the other, who turned up in all their royal finery complete with camels, horses and, for some reason, dancing men dressed like horses. The highlight of Jaipur, however, had to be the Amer Fort which is accessible only by elephant ride. We were both pretty apprehensive about doing an elephant ride, but after some welfare concerns a few years ago the treatment of the elephants was reviewed and is now strictly monitored. And it was pretty amazing to approach the fort in the same way the maharajas would have got there, on the descendants of the elephants they rode. Inside the fort the Mirror Palace was far and away the best sight – a hall quite literally made out of thousands of different types of mirrors, you can imagine what sorts of photo opportunities I managed to get in the way of there. One thing I found surprising throughout our visit to Jaipur was the lengths that the Maharajas went to to hide their women from the world. The rulers of Northern India were allowed multiple wives and often had a harem within their palace as well. The women were not allowed to be seen, and so elaborate screens were created to allow them to watch the world outside without the world being able to watch them. The screen looking down onto the courtyard inside the Amer Fort did give a pretty good view, but I cannot imagine being hidden from the world like that.

Jaipur marked the end of our trip to Northern India. It was a very fleeting visit, and I could have happily spent twice as long walking in the footsteps of the Mughals and Maharajas, but it was time to head to Mumbai and see what was in store for us there.

Compared to where we had just been I wasn’t particularly enamoured with Mumbai. It was as busy as Delhi but seemed more spread out, with the actual sites to see quite few and far between. We of course did the really touristy things – The Taj Mahal hotel, India Gate, the Gandhi museum at Mani Bhavan, some of the famous markets and the gothic masterpiece that is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus but Mumbai is probably the first place in Asia that I’ve visited and not fallen at least a little bit in love with (and I am not counting Manila in this, because I really hated Manila. I mean, I only saw the airport but that was more than enough). It might just be because I got pretty badly car sick on our sightseeing day, but I just wasn’t enamoured. One unforgettable thing we did manage to do in Mumbai, however, was visit the Dharavi slum, one of the biggest slums in India. A ridiculous percentage of Mumbai is made up of slums, basically just illegal settlements, and something crazy like 50% of the population of Mumbai lives in slums. This is mainly due to the cost of living in the city, compared to the average wage. In Dharavi there are whole communities and even industries – it’s famous for processing recycled plastic. Each community lives in a different part of the slum, and walking around down the tiny alleyways that separate the houses, sometimes so small your shoulders would be scraping both walls as you walked along, was a really, really eye opening experience. There was a strict no photo policy in Dharavi, but Reality Tours (who run tours of the slum, given by current and former residents, as well as running an NGO inside it) provide photos free of charge online. They’re really worth a look, I promise. It’s not only that there are slums in Mumbai which is surprising, they’re right in the middle of the city. There are countless others as well as Dharavi, and although that was the only one we visited we did get to see Dhoby Gaut from above. This is not only a slum, but also a massive laundry – all the hotels and big businesses in Mumbai send their laundry to be done here. It’s truly and utterly nuts.

Our time in Mumbai ended with the wedding, a night where I was fairly unwell thanks to 8 hours in the car, but where I had probably 5 thousand pictures taken by Indians curious about the handful of white people. India, you were crazy but I had a great time.

Leah Out X

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