After hearing all the stories of traveller woes in Delhi, we weren’t really looking forward to it, but what I was looking forward to was meeting some of my family in the city. Finishing our tour of Northern India, we had the driver drop us off at the Delhi Parsi Anjuman to meet my Mum’s cousins, Sherry and Niloufer. They were coordinating a tour group of young Zoroastrians, which had just arrived in Delhi (zororoots – helping young Zoroastrians around the world get in touch with their roots). This is also coincidentally where I met my second cousin James, who had come from the US to participate in the tour. It was strange to meet family I’d never met before in a county I’d never been to before, but it was really great spending some time with them and working out exactly how we were related (as Indian families are pretty huge). It felt really nice to connect with such far-flung family, and it turns out James was only about 4 years ahead of me on it – he’d come to India for the first time to meet family too back then.
It also turns out my Grandpa’s older brother Adi, who was Sherry and Niloufer’s father, was a pretty big deal in India, having been Vice Chief of Army Staff and deputy chairman of the Asian Games Organizing Committee, among so many other things which I never knew! His book of condolences had personal messages of sympathy from then-prime-minister Manmohan Singh among others. Hats and I tagged on to the zororoots tour for the day, ending at Sethna Farm – Adi’s lovely house still maintained by his daughters in a suburb of Delhi. The weirdest and best thing was seeing a big picture of my Grandpa on top of their piano, which really gave me a real sense of family. It also made me think of the conversations that must have happened here with all the siblings of that generation – with my Grandpa deciding to head to the UK with his children (my mum included) and his sister deciding to head to the US (James’ Grandma). How interesting a time it must have been!
We said our goodbyes that evening knowing that it probably wasn’t going to be the last time we’d all meet each other in India in the coming years, and we took on Delhi for ourselves for the next 2 days. A family friend had really recommended the Lotus Temple which was beautiful (and a great idea – a place for all religions to pray or meditate) and we enjoyed riding the Metro to get to different places! We also went to the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid Mosque, where I thought it was bad enough having to be covered up in a skirt but you should have seen the get-up they dressed Hats in! We actually quite liked Delhi in the end, which surprised us both.
From Delhi we travelled on to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan on an overnight train – in a 4 person berth with French traveller Cynthia and an incredibly friendly old Sikh guy with very broken English. I’m sure he meant well, but switching on the light at 5am and shouting “Good morning!” to us was a bit over-enthusiastic. Jaisalmer is one of the furthest north-west cities in India in the desert, and we were really looking forward to the change of scenery – it didn’t disappoint! Jaisalmer Fort was very impressive, with lots of small bazaar like shops all around inside the fort and outside. We booked on to a camel safari here – an overnight trip further west in to the desert (only 34km from Pakistan). Our camels were extremely well behaved, and it has to be one of the best experiences of our trip so far!
It was so peaceful and we enjoyed chatting with the other people on the safari and taking in the absolute nothingness of the desert all around us. We arrived at our camp (some peaceful sand dunes) to lay out in the sand and enjoy the delicious Indian food being made by the guides (“Imagine you’re at home, don’t be shy have another chapati!”). It soon got dark and the stars were in full force out here. The plan was to sleep out in front of the stars, but a mixture of rain (which was obviously not too common in the desert!) and seeing a scorpion in our camp freaked people out and we rushed to some shelter a few miles away by jeep. The rain had stopped by this point so some people slept on the roof, but we enjoyed the warmth of the empty house. We got woken up by the most delightful birds in the morning, which came into our shelter chirping away, and we then drove back to camp to ride our camels again back towards Jaisalmer.
From Jaisalmer we went to Jodhpur, which we were surprised was so different. Jodhpur was much more of a city, centered around a clock tower with a very bustling market. We had planned to spend the whole first day doing admin, which was essential as all the Indian trains were really getting booked up – we had no idea we were travelling at the same time as the Indian holidays! This all turned out to be okay after we used the Foreign Tourist Quota on some of the upcoming train journeys (a quota just for us! Wahey!) and also the Cleartrip mobile app which is really simple (and essential) if you want to book trains in India. After an exhausting day of admin on dodgy WiFi, we had booked all our trains and most of our accommodation for the rest of India, which was really quite freeing in an ironic sense. The next day we spent exploring the beautiful fort in Jodhpur, and considering we had seen quite a few forts and palaces by this point, this stood out as the best we’d seen. It looked over the amazing blue city (painted blue to repel insects apparently), and really housed some amazing rooms, paintings and artifacts. It was also nice to have an audio guide for once instead of an actual guide, as we could take the whole place at our own pace. Jodhpur ended up being incredibly successful for us – not only achieving booking all the trains and seeing some lovely sights, but also Hat bought the best wall hanging we’d seen so far by a mile, and I bought some miniature paintings and a couple of gifts. We found the people in Jodhpur really friendly, and it was here that I got outed as a quasi-Indian several times! I think we were both a bit bemused as to how they guessed given how un-Indian I look.
Seeing how different Jaisalmer and Jodhpur were to each other was really interesting, but Pushkar was another bag altogether. We weren’t expecting such a hippie place in India! It was a lovely small village-like place, with a small-ish lake in the center of it, but we both thought the number of foreign tourists far outstripped the number of locals. Every evening we went to the Sunset Restaurant to watch the sun set over the lake, and every evening a drummer would start playing and hippies would dance for a good hour – even a priest (we think!) joined in on the first night! We weren’t surprised at all to hear that tourists apparently flock to Pushkar for Holi festival as it’s a big rave out here. Sure enough we saw a couple of videos on a waiter’s phone of the festival this year, with trance-like music and thousands of tourists squeezed in to the tiny square, drenched in colour.
There really wasn’t a lot to do here apart from enjoy the sun & the food – which we did 🙂 . We spent some time with another traveller here, Michele, a chef from Switzerland, and he took us to a couple of restaurants he’d been recommended by others – Funky Monkey which had amazing pizzas and The Laughing Buddha which was a very small place overlooking a busy street serving incredible Indian food.
Next we headed to our final stop in Rajasthan – Udaipur. We’d been fine with the heat up until we reached Udaipur, but now it was scorching – reaching about 40 degrees! And, like every other place in Rajasthan, Udaipur was again completely different to its neighbouring cities. Its main feature was its huge lake (Lake Pichola), with a couple of different islands and a very grand hotel (Taj Lake Palace) sitting in the middle of the water. It’s a very pretty city, with lots of rooftop restaurants which light up at night, a grand city palace (with snooty hotels attached) and lots of artists selling miniature paintings. On the first night, we had dinner with Michele and Cynthia (who were both in town) at the Jaiwana Haveli rooftop restaurant, which gave us spectacular views across the lake.
In our time here we also enjoyed a boat ride to one of the islands (Jagmandir) and exploring both parts of town either side of the lake. But the stand out thing here was that we got caught up in the Mewar festival – a massive celebration that had lots of dancers and carnival music all around! It was so hectic but we enjoyed it so much – everyone was in such a good mood!
We followed the procession down to the river but because it was so packed we decided to head to a restaurant on the other side of the lake. We got amazing views and had a lovely candlelit dinner, with the boat procession passing us by on the lake in front of us.
We left lovely Rajasthan the following day to head to Mumbai, this time deciding to fly as there were no direct trains (and it took less than 2 hours which was going to help us with squeezing in as much of India as possible). Mumbai turned out to be the cosmopolitan paradise we really hoped it would be, and Hats got extremely excited by the fact there was a Pizza Express here; so after dumping our bags at the hotel we headed straight out to our favourite chain. I was dubious at first (should we be going here when we’re supposed to be enjoying what India has to offer?), but after tucking in to the garlic bread, pizza, and chocolately dessert I was so pleased by our decision. Having stayed mostly vegetarian throughout India for my stomach’s sake (only breaking the habit when around family), I was happy not to have paneer again! And the food really did taste exactly like at home – more than can be said for the Dairy Milk out here! After feeling very content we headed back to our hotel room to find at least 3 cockroaches and a big lizard in our room. We switched rooms and had a slightly edgy night’s sleep hoping there weren’t any more creepy crawlies in our room (there weren’t, although I missed the lizard somewhat).
Even though it was technically slightly cooler in Mumbai compared to Udaipur, we found it felt a lot hotter, probably because of the humidity, so the next day exploring the city was a bit of a struggle. It felt like every half hour we had to escape to an AC restaurant to have a cold drink. We stumbled across a really nice lunch spot called The Pantry before we endured probably the worst taxi ride ever – this guy was crazy! But we eventually arrived safely at Gandhi’s old residence when he stayed in Mumbai (Mani Bhavan) which has now been turned in to a small museum. We loved this place! It had so many interesting letters (including a letter to Hitler) and pictures of Gandhi, along with quite a lot of detail about his life, which we only knew a part of. We then went to a really nice bakery/cafe called Theobroma, before we headed to dinner at my Mum’s second cousin’s flat in Colaba. Their apartment was amazing, and we found out that with the kids living there it’s now in the 4th generation of family. They put on a wealth of food for us (yay for meat!) and a nice cold beer went down incredibly well after the struggle of the heat of the day. After the meal, the son drove us to the InterContinental hotel so we could enjoy a rooftop cocktail at the Dome bar overlooking the bay of Mumbai.
The next day in Mumbai was a lot more cultural. We’d booked a tour of a Mumbai slum (Dharavi) for today – which I was initially quite uneasy about, but this was all due to my preconception of a ‘slum’. On the way, we visited the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, the biggest outdoor laundry facility, where most of Mumbai city’s laundry ends up. We then proceeded to Dharavi to see the commercial and residential sectors, and we quickly realised that although the living space is very cramped, this wasn’t abject poverty. People had jobs (either in the city or in the commercial sector of Dharavi), the kids played in the small open spaces, and more importantly, they owned their land. The Government passed a law nearly two decades ago giving the occupants the right to the land, and provided them with electricity and clean water. Sure enough, each registered house had a number on it, and electricity box and a tap outside. There was a real sense of community here, and kids would come up to us just to talk to us, not to sell us something or ask us for something, like in most of the rest of India. Our tour guide and our driver both still lived in Dharavi, and for them the tour was to help get rid of the misconception of the word ‘slum’ and to show us it’s just a way of life, and actually with fewer possessions and money people were still very happy (they tried to say they were actually happier than city-dwellers, but I think that’s quite subjective).
We left Mumbai shortly after the tour to head to sunny, beachy Goa, which I’ll cover along with the rest of the south in the final post on India! 🙂