India is Crazy. Try Joining a Tour
Incredible India is the perfect destination for those who love fast-paced adventure and want to experience a real culture shock. However in order to really experience all it has to offer, I'd advise you take an India tour. The country is exhausting enough in itself and the last thing you need is the stress of researching hostels and transport options as well.
My friend Jen and I took a budget-friendly tour in India which meant I was able to see things I never would have noticed without a guide; we went off the beaten track and made some life-long friends along the way.
Day 1: Delhi
Touching down in Delhi Airport, Jen and I looked at each other. What were we doing? Having never travelled in a Third World country before, we suddenly realised that our spur-of-the-moment booking had quickly become a reality.
Delhi Airport was strangely quiet as we had expected to come head to head with a bustling crowd of people; however once our airport transfer picked us up we were shocked into silence at the sheer amount of traffic, squeezing our eyes shut as we weaved in and out of traffic.
We arrived at our hotel, noted how surprisingly clean it was and passed out on our beds, exhausted.
Day 2: Agra
We didn't get to see much of Delhi as we woke up bright and early to take a two-hour train ride to Agra, which was just how I had imagined India to be. Cows in the streets, traffic everywhere, beeping horns, people preparing food and vivid colours everywhere.
We hired our first tok tok for the day and the driver took us to sites including Agra Fort, the 'Baby Taj', local markets and the Taj Mahal. The tok tok drivers are keen to tell you about their culture and families and ours even took us to meet his son at a corner shop.
The Taj Mahal is mind blowing. It's just like a painted picture with the sun beaming down on it; I think everyone should go and experience its peacefulness.
When visiting the big landmarks you'll be asked to have your photo taken with many Indians, a lot of times I was asked to be in family photos. Sometimes people will video you or try and take photos without you noticing, if you do not like this then just say so and they stop without question.
We were lucky with our tour group as we all got along right from the start - I was happy to sit with anyone and moved around at meal times. Many of the places we ate at did not look like restaurants from the outside, but were lovely inside with amazing local cuisine. The food in North India was my favourite, and the tour guides really come in useful here at they know the best local restaurants and can recommend the tastiest dishes.
Days 3-4: Jaipur
Every trip has one awful moment and this was it. We had a 6-hour train journey ahead and as naive little travellers we calmly waited for the train to Jaipur to arrive at Agra station. However when it did there was a surge of people all shoving to get their seats on the train. Knowing we had reserved seats we calmly let them get on only to find our seats were taken. Thanks to our tour guide we managed to get them to move, but they left behind a long trail of diarrhoea that we then had to draw straws to determine who had to use a packet of baby wipes to remove it and sit in that spot. Luckily it wasn't me!
After that the journey was surprisingly pleasant. Some men did crowd around and stare, which made a few of the girls uncomfortable, but our tour guide stayed with us the whole time. When we arrived we were whisked away in tok toks and checked into our hotel, the Jaipur Inn, which was by far my favourite and worth a stay if you're in the area. After a quick break we were back in the tok toks and en route to see the famous Amber Fort and Monkey Temple.
I never truly understood why Jaipur is known as the Pink City as we didn't really see much pink, but the Amber Fort and Monkey Temple were breathtaking. Unfortunately I have no pictures of the monkeys as they steal phones and bags but take my word for it, they were so cute!
We were asked not to ride the elephants to the top of Amber Fort as they are badly treated, so we trekked up thousands of steps to reach the top. The view afterwards was so worth the sunstroke I ended up with that evening. Always wear a hat!
My friend Jen locked me in my hotel room when they all went out to dinner so I could rest. The power went off, I lost signal, the taps wouldn’t work and then there was a giant thunderstorm; which meant Jen later found me dehydrated and panicking in a dark room when they got home!
We were lucky enough to have our dates coincide with the national Holi festival. This meant getting our drink on with all the other tour groups in the sun, covered in colour. What more could you want? We were advised not to go out and join the street party as it can get dangerous, so our day was spent in the hotel garden with buffets, beer and friends. It ended with a giant pool party and the colours turned the water brown - it was one of the best days.
Day 5: Tordi Sagar
Heavy-headed, we woke up bright and early to be piled into jeeps and make the 4-hour journey to the rural village, Tordi Sagar. It was fascinating to watch children run after the jeeps and see villagers working in the fields. We checked in to a beautiful family run hotel in the middle of the village and set off on an afternoon stroll.
The catchphrase of the day was "one photo, one photo" as the children here didn't ask for sweets or money but just to see what they looked like on your camera. Hours were spent here letting them take photos and watching them push their brothers and sisters out the way. On the walk we got to see ruins of the village well, local temples, the postman and have a go at pottery with the local potter. We arrived back at the hotel to find a home-cooked vegetarian meal had been made for us - the lentil curry was delicious.
As mentioned before, Indians are very proud of their families, so we praised the mothers cooking, watched her daughters dance and took a walk with her sons to the top of sand-dunes and had Masala-Chai tea while watching the sunset. This is an experience I never would have had without being part of a tour, as it really was in the middle of nowhere.
Days 6-7: Pushkar
In the morning we said thank you to the family and piled back into the jeeps for a 4-hour journey to Pushka, known for its hippy culture.
We spent two days shopping in the markets, learning to ignore scams, and getting gifts for our loved ones. We tried their version of Western food and bathed our feet in the holy lake too.
On the second day we took a 2-hour camel ride to a family home in the dunes where we watched a very talented magician and some different styles of dance. We dressed up in Indian sarees and ate dinner around a campfire. It was an amazing experience although I must admit the camel ride left my bottom bruised for a good three days afterwards.
Days 8-10: Udaipur
We woke up dreading the 8-hour train journey ahead. From our previous journey our lessons were learnt and we waited eagerly for the train, elbows at the ready. Luckily we made it to our stain-free seats and made ourselves comfy for the journey ahead. Some people decided to upgrade to first class but a few of us stayed and enjoyed the train journey with the locals. Our time was spent watching the kids try sweets we had brought from home and letting them take photos of us, and before we knew it we were in Udaipur.
Udaipur is known as the 'Romantic City' and I could see why: it was stunning! We spent three days here, which was our longest time in any one place. We took art classes, had our nails painted with miniature art pieces and explored the city.
Here we found our favourite cafe and indulged in brownie sundaes. I also had my palm read and was told that I was a born leader so I was going to be rich and marry a wealthy man who I won't get on with, however he would bless me with two handsome sons. I went along with this as I wouldn't mind if it actually came true! He did shock me when he told me correctly that I had 3 sisters and gave me their ages... spooky.
The James Bond film Octopussy was filmed in Udiapur so we watched a screening of it with our dinner and let the locals point out the places in the scenes. If you do get to visit Udaipur then be sure to take a boat on to the lake to watch the sunset over the town and see the Lake Palace.
Day 11: Ahmedabad
Seven hours on a luxury local bus later and we arrived in Ahmedabad. Despite sick flying in through our windows from the top deck and splashing some people, the trip wasn't all that bad...
It has to be said that Ahmedabad was my least favourite destination, it was more a stopover on the way to Mumbai than an enjoyable destination worthy of a visit. However we did get to walk around Gandhi's ashram which was interesting, and stop off at the city's shopping centre to stock up on treats for the journey in the morning.
Day 12: Mumbai
This time our 7-hour train journey was a luxury one. With air con and enough space to breathe we had a whale of a time... mostly catching up on sleep. We were met by taxis at Mumbai train station and dropped off at our hotel. It was the first time we actually had a dirty hotel, with rats in the ceiling and lose wires (something I had expected from the start), but it didn't matter as we spent the day exploring the city.
Taxis took us to sites such as the silent tower, where locals leave their dead to be eaten by wildlife, the Hanging Gardens, Mumbai University, the Gateway of India and the laundry square where Indian men wash sheets all day in the hot sun.
Finally we were taken to a slum in Mumbai. We didn't take photos here as we felt it rude to take photos of their homes. The guide led us down a path at the start of the slums and we saw children playing cricket and riding bikes. Many people smiled at us though a few were offensive, we were not allowed to go beyond the main path as we were told it was too dangerous.
That evening we celebrated Bethan's birthday in style at Leopold's Cafe, famous for the terrorism attack in 2008 and its mention in the book Shantaram.
Days: 13-14 Goa
We took a pleasant 45-minute flight to Goa where we got some much needed rest. On the first day we relaxed on the beach and ate at one of the many beach huts along the sea front. We then hit up at Tito's in true Goa fashion.
In the morning we were nice and refreshed so we took a ride to the spice plantation. It was lovely to walk among all the spices and see what they looked like and taste and smell them. At the end of the tour we were treated to a show by the 'monkey man' who cut down banana leaves and were given an amazing organic vegetarian dinner served on banana leaf plates.
Day 15: Goodbye
After an emotional goodbye a few of us checked into a luxury resort and spent four perfect days lounging by the pool, eating local food, wandering through the markets and drinking on the beach. It was a great way to end an unforgettable adventure and I will certainly be heading back to India on another tour to explore further south! If you do decide to go for it then my only advice would be to keep an open mind!