I have always thought that it would be amazing to stay in one country for a longer period of time, just so that you can really immerse yourself in the culture. Stopping by for a few weeks in some destinations really doesn’t cut it. There are some places that will demand more of your time and always leave you wanting more. India is one of those places. It’s a mesmerising, vibrant country with a diverse mix of cultures and influences. It’s perfect for travellers as it has amazing historical sites, stunning landscapes and countless cultural experiences to enjoy.
Recently I caught up with a close friend who spent a whole year in India. We were chatting about some of her memories and I decided to interview her about her experience. This isn’t a backpackers account of India, it’s real insider knowledge from someone who has lived with a family out there.
Why did you go to India?
I went to live in India for a year to help with a research project and volunteered with a local charity. I will never forget my time there. India is nothing like anywhere else that I have ever been to. On arrival your senses can be sent into overdrive as you take in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
The noise of the horns as auto rickshaws push their way through the traffic, the smells of the food cooking from roadside food stands or homes, the calls of vendors selling their goods and the explosion of colour that makes this country such an exciting place to visit. It is a country with a rich diversity in language, culture and religion and every state has a different charm to it which makes India such an exciting place to travel within.
It’s so culturally different, it’s very diverse because there is such a mix of religions. There’s Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and new religions from Africa. As a tourist I went there to see what it’s all about and also to see some of the Bollywood movies.
What did you like the most about India?
One of the reasons is probably the brilliant array of colour that makes up everyday life in India. Back in the cities of the UK, I sometimes miss the vibrancy of India’s colourful clothing in contrast to the grey and black clothing that can commonly make up the landscape here. Everything is full of colour, from the patterned saris, the spice infused or turmeric stained food to the blue wash painted homes. If you are in North India in March during the Holi festival, known as the festival of colour, then you will experience an explosion of colour like no other!
Another thing I would have to say is the people, the warmth of the people that makes all of my visits very special to me. As a tourist, everyone is friendly and welcomes you. As a resident this warmth was especially true and I was kindly accepted into the local community, especially in the South. Everyone is very friendly and welcoming and more often than not they invited you into their homes. I always left full from the treats that I was offered, they won’t let you leave without food.
The food, well, it’s hard to talk about India without mentioning the food. Our idea of Indian food in the UK is nothing in comparison to what it’s really like in India. The food varies so much when you move from state to state, the flavours completely change. There is a different dynamic in each state where the complex aromatic flavours vary with the spices and ingredients used.
If you go to a coastal place such as Kerala you will get to enjoy a lot of beautiful fish dishes and slightly more creamy dishes that are quite rich. Whereas if you go to Tamil Nadu, there are a lot of great vegetarian dishes using tamarind and I personally feel they make the best “parathas” (flaky pastry bread). I used to love watching the men outside at local the street vendors manipulating massive lengths rolls of dough against these giant slabs. The smell can be difficult to resist. You have it with fresh coconut or coriander chutney or sambar.
Describe India in five words
Busy, vibrant, exciting, cultural, historical.
What are the best towns to visit?
If you are new to India I would possibly start in the South to ease yourself into this wonderful country, because North India is quite full on. The cities of the North can be particularly busy. Once you have settled a bit more you may find the spectacular sites of the North’s classic Golden Triangle route that bit more special.
In the South I would recommend anywhere in the backwaters (everything is on the rivers) of Kerala and exploring its backwaters. Fort Cochin in Kochi (Cochin) is a great, relaxed port with a palace and a mix of architecture influenced by its former colonial influences. Perhaps the best thing about Fort Cochin is its waterfront where you can enjoy sunsets with the picturesque views of the vast fishing nets drying in the evening warmth. I also have fond memories of visiting a French colony in the South called Pondicherry. If you are new to India it’s a good place to ease you in. You can even get French patisseries here.
I actually really liked Chennai, although some people might find it a bit too much. If you are flying to the South that’s where you would fly into. People who aren’t used to India might find it a bit of a shock; it’s a busy city with lots of shops and some really nice restaurants. There is a beach resort near Chennai which is a lovely place to visit. The beach area is called Mamallapuram, but you don’t really go there to sunbathe (it’s not the thing to do there – you can sunbathe around a pool). There are some interesting temples in Chennai and I found it fascinating to watch the fishermen go out.
Definitely make a trip up to the hill stations in the south to escape the heat and to enjoy the breathtaking scenery of the tea and coffee plantations. I have fond memories of Coonor and Ooty in Tamil Nadu. Hill stations were traditionally used as holiday areas for former colonies and so you will find an interesting mix of architecture here too.
I also recommend going to Ooty, which is one of the hill stations. You can go and explore the tea plantations, I would definitely do a tour to see how the tea is grown and go round the factory.
Head to Mysore to see the palace, it’s one of the best palaces I have ever seen. When you travel there you travel through national parks where you can see animals as you drive by. Also in Wayanad there are more hill stations and tea plantations where you can do trekking and hiking.
Finally whilst you are still in the South, if you are flying in or out of Chennai (Madras), I recommend treating yourself to some of the great restaurants there and travelling a little out of the city to Mahabalipuram – a coastal resort with some interesting temples and wonderful scenery.
If you go to the North, you have to visit the sites of the classic Golden Triangle route and see the Taj Mahal. Delhi has some wonderful gardens and museums which act as a nice escape from the busy city life. The Indira Gandhi Museum, Lai Qila (Red Fort) and the gardens (Lodi Gardens) are also worth a visit in Delhi.
Along the classic triangle route, many often include a trip to a national park to spot tigers and wildlife, such as the famous Ranthambore National Park. In my case, I also enjoyed the national parks of the South so don’t be put off if you can’t make it to the North. As in any tourist destination, you may get approached at some of the classic tourist sites, but a friendly response of ‘no thank you’ is sufficient if you are not interested in the goods or services on offer.
There are lots of people who will hassle you but if you are in traditional clothing they won’t approach you as much. The Golden Triangle Tour is a ‘classic tour’ in northern India, so it is a must at some point when you go to India. In the tour you are usually also taken to Ranthambore National Park to see the tigers, although I prefer wildlife parks in the South as I found they were less busy.
Also make sure you head to the really green parks in Delhi. If you can go for Diwali or any other festival then you will have an amazing time. If you can push up further North you may like to try some trekking in some of the states such as Himachal Pradesh which has spectacular views and offers great 2-3 day treks through the Himalayas. Be sure to choose a company with safety credentials. You can go up trekking in the mountains that border with Nepal and see the most stunning scenery.
Jaipur and Jodhpur are also great cities to visit. They have good historical sites such as the Amber Fort, Hawa Mahal and Mehrangarh Fort which is one of the largest forts in India.
What did you think about the food?
The best advice I can give people when it comes to the food in India is try as many different things as you can while you are there. The vegetarian food is fantastic; there were so many varieties of dhal (lentil dishes) from a rich buttery ghee dhal to a lighter tomato version. From the South I would recommend paratha, samba and the delicious chutneys. I must say that I never ever saw a mango chutney in the South of India like you get in the UK and I’m not sure they would stand up to the delicious freshness of chutneys on offer. As a thirst-quenching drink, you have to have a lime soda. When in the North if you are looking for a mouth-watering dessert you must try “Gulab Jamun”, a sticky sweet ball coated in syrup that will certainly satisfy any sweet tooth.
Go to the train station or cheaper local places to eat out, I personally thought the food was a lot nicer there than at some of the more expensive restaurants where the food is a bit heavy. Get a lunchtime Thali, it’s basically a tray and you get a bread of some sort, dishes made up of a rice pancake (a dosa), a little bit of Dahl, various curried vegetables, with some Samba (a very light tomato soup) and different chutneys.
I also really enjoyed Lady Fingers or Okra – you get them in the UK now in supermarkets, they are a green vegetable cooked with tomato and lots of garlic. If you ever eat in the local cafes then you will get rice with yogurt afterwards to help calm your mouth after a spicy meal. In India they call it curd rice.
What are the main sites you should see?
- Taj Mahal
- The Hill Stations
- Mysore Palace
What is public transport like?
Trains are good, you would want to go into the air-conditioned sections. First or second class is fine. We used this website http://www.indiamike.com/ which is the best way to book train journeys. Sleeper overnight trains are a good way to get about in India, they are very cheap and safe.
When it comes to buses, they’re probably easier to use in the North because people speak English so you can ensure you get on the right bus. If you are going long distance then you can go on a bus but it’s cheaper to hire a driver and car or go on a coach if there are a few of you. The buses can be very busy and when they are very packed, if you have backpacks or suitcases you may struggle to fit on board.
If you are just going short distances then opt for a bycicle rickshaw (like a tuk-tuk), it’s a fun and quick way to get around. Don’t forget to negotiate your price first if they are not using meters in the city that you are in. It’s the most fun and the best way to get about as you are right down on the street level. In India they are called auto rickshaws.
Can you remember any interesting stories?
In the hill stations you really have to protect your food because it gets stolen by the cheeky monkeys. I remember eating lunch and some monkeys came and stole our chapattis (like a naan bread). I learned my lesson after that, but that didn’t stop the monkeys getting a sneaky snack occasionally.
Any helpful travel tips?
One thing I certainly learnt living in India is that a great way to help cope in the smouldering heat was to wear the traditional cotton clothing that is on offer in India. I also found this meant that I didn’t have to worry about ensuring I was dressed respectfully, especially for religious sites (you never know where a beautiful small temple may pop up on your travels).
I loved wearing my “salwar kameez” and “dupatta” (a long tunic, trousers and a scarf). Anywhere you go in India you need to look out for my favourite shop Fab India. This is a small, luxury chain shop with beautiful traditional clothing and hand painted soft furnishings. You will not be taken advantage of if you are wearing clothing that is more suitable, people in Western attire really stand out and get targeted by street salesmen. It’s also a lot cooler than wearing your own clothes and will help to protect you from mosquitoes.
Men can get really nice cotton shirts here that are perfect for the weather in India. Women should pick up a tunic or two for their travels in India.
In India most of the time you will be in very busy cities under a merciless sunshine; a handkerchief is recommended to mop up your sweat as it gets so hot. It sounds gross but you will be far more comfortable if you have one.
If you have time during your trip to India go and see a film at the cinema. Everyone shouts, laughs and cheers throughout the film. The experience is nothing like back home. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the film; it’s really about taking in the atmosphere and having a unique cinematic experience.