“Don’t worry, sister. This is India.” Our tuk-tuk driver looked back at us with a small chuckle. We’d just explained to him the elaborate scam we’d fallen into, not even realizing yet that he was probably in on it too.
We had arrived in Delhi just a few hours before. Navigating the airport and immigration/customs had been easy enough. However, it was that routine process of getting a cab to the hotel that set in motion a series of events that resulted in three hours of friendly kidnapping…
- Days 1-2: Delhi
- Days 3-5: Varanasi and day trip to Sarnath
- Day 6: Agra
- Day 7: Tordi Garh
- Days 8-9: Jaipur
- Day 10: Delhi
Dates: July 10-20, 2018
The Friendly Kidnapping
One of the most basic rules about travel is to always take an official airport taxi when you arrive. Never go with Joe Schmo in his black unmarked car.
Tim and I know this. We’ve done the whole airport taxi thing dozens of times! We are generally pretty savvy travelers!
So of course this time we went with Joe Schmo. We showed him our hotel’s address and he assured us he knew exactly where it was. But then he passed us off to his “brother”. We got in the car and he asked us to pay upfront. This should have been another red flag but instead we just gave him the money. We later learned we paid about 5 times as much as the official taxi rates. But this wasn’t even the worst of it.
As we neared the city, Tim and I were blissfully unaware of the scheme at hand. We saw signs for the area we knew our hotel was in. “Karol Bagh” read a sign in the roundabout. A large, colorful statue of a monkey, the Hindu deity Hanuman, stood tall over the traffic, baring his teeth.
As we slowly drove the crowded streets, dodging people, cars, tuk-tuks and cows, our driver asked if we could pull up GPS on our phones to get the exact location. Tim and I looked at each other and then explained that we don’t have phone plans. Our driver waved his flip phone, as if to indicate that he doesn’t have a map feature.
I gave him our hotel’s phone number and suggested he could call and ask for directions. He made an appearance of dialing the numbers and then said the phone line wasn’t working.
He then started to head out of the area, back into the roundabout and beneath the monkey.
“I’ll take you to the Tourist Information. They will have wifi and we can get directions there.” he told us.
Annoyed but not yet alarmed, Tim and I simply said “ok”.
When we arrived at the Tourist Information center, we started to catch on that something was amiss. This wasn’t an official TI – it was a narrow shop for booking tours and hotels.
The owner of the store told us that our driver couldn’t take us to our hotel, because cars aren’t allowed on that street. Instead, we’d have to take a tuk tuk. Again we were annoyed but didn’t know what else to do. We confirmed with our original driver that he would pay for the tuk-tuk, since we’d already paid him to take us to the hotel and he was leaving us somewhere else instead.
Then we got in the tuk-tuk and headed back into the roundabout and under the monkey who now seemed to be mocking us.
A man ran up to our tuk-tuk and spoke to the driver for a while. He then explained to us that our road was closed. When we pointed out the other vehicles on it, he then said our hotel was closed. Not to worry, though, he knows a Tourist Information spot that can help.
By now Tim and I had caught on. Drivers and their buddies were taking us to “Tourist Information” shops that are actually travel agents, in hopes that we book something and they get a commission.
We told them we were on a guided tour and that we know for sure our hotel is not closed and neither is the street. Unfortunately, we were powerless to stop the tuk-tuk driver from taking us to his buddy’s tourist trap store.
At this shop we met a man who at least seemed genuinely interested in helping us. He called our hotel and confirmed that it’s not closed. We talked to the front desk and explained the run around we were getting. It would have been nice if they could have sent a car themselves to get us, but all they could offer was the confirmation that they’re open and that they don’t know why we’re having such a hard time getting there.
From here we took our final tuk-tuk, all the way to the hotel. Just two blocks over, the solemn monkey we’d first seen a full three hours ago stood over the bustling Delhi streets.
Exhausted from the stressful jaunt, and kicking ourselves for knowing better and falling into the trick anyway, we immediately did what any reasonable person would do. We ordered room service and ate our feelings in the form of korma, curried chickpeas, garlic naan and mango lassis.
That night we had an introductory meeting with our tour group. There were 8 of us total, plus our guide Sunil. We liked Sunil right away, and were relieved to now have him to shepherd us around.
While Tim and I love independent travel, we know there are some places where it is stressful to travel solo. We learned this the hard way in Morocco in 2014, and vowed to book a small group or private tour in the future for places that felt intimidating to plan on our own.
I expected that India would be one such place, because even my best friend’s Indian dad told us we should hire a guide.
We ended up booking a small group tour with Intrepid, which is the same company we traveled with in 2014 through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Having done two of their tours, I can say they generally do a good job and have better than average guides. We had some frustrating hiccups in the booking process this time, however, so I hesitate to recommend them wholeheartedly or to book with them again if other options are available. That said, the tours are well-organized and have included activities as well as free time. Plus, they prioritize responsible travel, which can be hard to find in a tour company.
The next day, Sunil took us all into the heart of Old Delhi to explore.
We started at the oldest and largest mosque in Delhi, Jama Masjid. In the middle of such a chaotic city, the massive courtyard (which can hold 25,000 people) is an oasis of calm. It was constructed per the orders of Shah Jahan – the same man who had the Taj Mahal built!
From the mosque, we then walked around the narrow, winding streets of the old city. I genuinely enjoyed this part of the day. I enjoy walking around places and observing daily life. The best part, though, was stopping at an older man’s small counter where he was making cups of masala chai tea. Even in the intense heat and humidity of Delhi, the warm tea was delicious and refreshing. Though I doubt any tea would ever top the magic I tasted in Myanmar, masala chai comes in at a close second.
Our last stop for the day was Sheeshganj Gurudwara, a large Sikh temple. This was the first Sikh temple Tim and I had ever been to, and we were impressed by what we learned there. At the temple, volunteers prepare food for the community. They’ll feed whoever wants to come eat.
Sunil explained that this is one of the reasons why people should not give money to beggars. He said most of the beggars in Delhi are actually scammers. They are often begging on behalf of organized crime. Instead, it’s better to support community organizations like this temple who provide for anyone in need.
That night, we embarked on an overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi. When our group arrived at the station, we saw people laying and sitting on the ground, waiting for their trains. Trains frequently run late, and there aren’t many waiting areas or benches. As a result, the station is perpetually jam packed.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long before we could board our train. Intrepid booked us into Three Tier AC, meaning we had air conditioning and sleeper beds stacked 3 bunks high. The middle bunk acts as a back rest for the seat, but then folds up to a bed. They gave us all clean sheets and pillows as well. All things considered, it was decently comfortable, even if I had the middle bunk and couldn’t sit up even halfway before hitting my head on the bunk above me.
We arrived in Varanasi the next morning. Our hotel was admittedly pretty crummy. It was far away from the city center, and there were no restaurants within walking distance (or wifi to look any up). The bathroom door in our room couldn’t be closed without locking you in, and a rotten sewage smell permeated from the drains.
That said, we really enjoyed Varanasi. After resting for a bit, our group went on an afternoon walk along the banks of the Ganges, India’s holiest river.
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities on earth. Set on the Ganges River, it is one of India’s most spiritual centers. Every morning, Hindu priests greet the sunrise over the river with a worship ceremony, and locals bathe along the ghats (steps) or wash laundry.
Along the same river, families cremate bodies of the dead in funeral ceremonies, sending their ashes down the Ganges in hopes of ending the cycle of reincarnation.
Rituals of life and death unfold daily along these shores in a communion I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world.
After about an hour of strolling from ghat to ghat, we cut into the city to walk to the restaurant where we’d eat dinner. Along the way, a procession of shouting men carrying a shrouded load marched by us in one of the shall alleyways. I realized immediately after they passed that they were carrying a dead body.
My emotions overwhelmed me when I began thinking about how special it was to me when my dad died that we had a funeral that felt authentically in accordance with what he would have wanted. I thought about how much it must mean to that family to be able to say goodbye to their loved one on the Ganges. If Hinduism is right, then they are freeing their loved ones from a painful cycle of life and death reincarnated time and time again. What a powerful honor to be able to do that for your loved one!
Before arriving at the dinner restaurant, we visited a silk factory. The man who owns the shop was one of the nicest we met in India. He was kind, knowledgeable and didn’t pressure us to buy anything. He also served us masala chai tea, which you know made me a happy girl!
Even amid the stresses of the crowded city streets, the thick, sticky air, and the pungent odor of the roaming cows, eating in India was always a delicious event. Tim and I eat Indian food a lot when we are at home in Wisconsin, and we loved almost every meal we had in India.
That night, we got a thali, which is a single plate with several sections for different curries, daal (lentil soup) or veggies. I loved it, because I was able to try many different things! We also had rice and garlic naan, staples of an Indian meal.
The next morning we all got up with the sunrise to take our first boat ride out on the Ganges. We watched the morning ceremony, performed by Hindu priests facing the river. Then we embarked on our small wooden boat to watch the city and its people wake up and welcome the day with morning rituals of their own, from bathing to doing laundry.
We were back at the hotel in time for breakfast. After a short rest, we ventured out with the rest of the group by tuk-tuk to the town of Sarnath just 13 km away. In the 4th century BC, Buddha gave his first sermon here. A 34 meter stupa (Dhamekh Stupa) with brickwork dating from 200 BC marks the spot. A nearby temple, called Mulgandha Kuti Vihar, dates much more recent (1931), but the beautiful wall frescoes inside depict the life of Buddha in honor of the significance of this spot as the birthplace of one of the world’s major religions.
We also visited a Thai and a Tibetan Buddhist temple in the same area.
That evening back in Varanasi, we all ventured back into the river to witness the evening ceremony. Being the off-season for tourism in India, most of the other boats around us were full of Indians on a pilgrimage of sorts to India’s spiritual epicenter.
During the ceremony itself, lights illuminate the buildings along the ghats, while priests chant and perform dance-like rituals. I felt grateful to be able to witness something that clearly means so much to Hindu people.
The next day, we had a leisurely morning before getting on our second overnight train of the trip, this time bound for Agra. Accommodations in this train were identical to the other, but unfortunately our train was delayed overnight while we were on it. We ended up being on this train for about 20 hours before we arrived in Agra. It was uncomfortable being in such a small space for such a long, uninterrupted amount of time.
Thankfully, one of the world’s most iconic treasures awaited us there. We only checked into our hotel briefly before heading out to the Taj Mahal.
Walking towards the gates of the Taj Mahal, I felt butterflies in my stomach. Along with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal is one of those places you’ve just always known about. You can’t remember exactly when you learned about it, but sometime when you were a child you saw a photo or a teacher told you or you saw it in a show or movie.
And for me, I always thought of it as a palace of Aladdin and Jasmine proportions, where ancient royalty lived in decadent luxury.
I was wrong. It turns out the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum. Shah Jahan commissioned it in 1631 as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. Legend has it, that on her deathbed, she asked that he give her a token of his love for her. And this is what he came up with.
Her tomb rests in the very center inside the mausoleum, and his is right beside it, breaking the almost perfect symmetry of the entire complex.
There are large brick gates to the north and south, a mosque to the west and an identical building (though not technically a mosque) to the east.
The grounds are wonderful to walk in, especially in the late afternoon when the light is just right and it’s starting to cool off. The inside of the mausoleum is admittedly not as spectacular as the outside, but it’s still worth seeing for the historical aspects.
One thing we noticed all over India, but especially here, was that Indians love to take photos of foreign visitors. Sometimes they would ask permission, but more often they would try to slyly sneak a photo. Men were especially aggressive and persistent towards the two English black girls in our group. It was almost enough to taint our experience, and was definitely uncomfortable regardless.
I still enjoyed our visit to the Taj Mahal, but my absolute favorite site we visited on the Intrepid tour was the Agra Fort the next morning.
Built in the 1500s as a military fortification, it was later converted into a palace by Shah Jahan (the same man who built the Taj Mahal). This fort/palace eventually became his prison when his own son kept him in captivity here during the last 8 years of Shah Jahan’s life.
The walled complex covers 2.5 km in circumference, and there are seemingly endless rooms and courtyards to explore. You could easily get lost wandering here! I loved imagining what palace life would have been like. As it turned out, the Agra Fort was the royal palace my childhood self thought the Taj Mahal would be!
Making it even better, we visited early in the morning when it first opened. This helped us avoid India’s crushing summer heat and all the crowds.
Unfortunately, this was also the day I developed what’s often called “Delhi belly”. In other words, traveler’s diarrhea. Even more unfortunate was that we had an 8 hour drive from Agra to the small village of Tordi Garh where we’d be staying the night.
Thankfully with the help of hydration salts and a lot of water, I kept things together during the drive. When we got to the heritage hotel we were staying at, I decided to skip the village tour and rest instead. It was absolutely the right decision for me. Tim went out to explore and take photos on my behalf. Admittedly I felt relieved to hear that I hadn’t missed much.
The next day I felt a world better. This was a good thing given that we had another 4 hour drive to Jaipur.
On the way to Jaipur we visited the beautiful Amber Fort Palace. Built around 1600, the fort has an extensive palace complex. There are stunning painted gates, marbled columns, walls of mosaics and tiles, and many courtyards. My favorite part of the fort was the elaborately painted Ganesh Pol, one of the gates into the palace.
Once in Jaipur, a local guide walked us around the city. He didn’t explain anything to us and even talked on the phone with his friends during the “tour”. I felt disappointed. I think there were probably many interesting things to see and learn strolling among the bazaars and past various palaces.
Our time in the Golden Triangle of India was ending. Though we saw many beautiful places, this region of India was pretty stressful to travel in, even with a guide.
After this quick week and a half whirlwind tour, if I’d learned anything about India, it’s that it’s a complicated country full of contradictions.
Violence against women is a serious and prevalent problem. Lonely Planet states that in the 3 years prior to 2015, an astonishing 24,771 women were killed in “bride burnings”. A type of dowry death, these burnings occur at the hands of a husband or his family when his wife’s family refuses to pay additional dowry. Encouragingly, male tuk-tuk drivers slap stickers on their vehicles in support of ending violence against women. Nevertheless, women in India persist and are joining the professional workforce and political positions in steadily growing numbers.
While the Indian economy is also rapidly growing, not a day went by where a woman or child didn’t approach us begging for money. Poverty pours out into almost every city street, while the wealthy live a life of gated communities and private drivers.
With regards to the environment, the Delhi Airport claims to be one of the “greenest” in the world. However, the city itself is seemingly irreparably littered with plastic trash, particularly along the train tracks where passengers toss their garbage out the windows.
In so many ways, India is moving forward, but it also seems to have one foot solidly planted in the past. With over a billion people living in India, cultural change is slow and difficult to encourage.
Of course, there are also many things that should never change. Indian food is the best in the world. India is the birthplace of two major world religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, both of which are largely peaceful on the world stage. Both religions also revere animals and we can all learn from that. And then there of course is the unique intermingling of life and death along the mighty Ganges River.
All of these things, good and bad, are part of India. It’s an incredibly challenging country to travel in. It can also reward patient travelers with immense beauty and thought-provoking experiences. Even if you mostly hate your time there (which, admittedly, Tim did), you can’t deny that it’s unlike anywhere else in the world. That in and of itself makes it worth visiting.
In the words of an Indian man I once met, don’t worry sister. This is India.