Yes, in hindsight I could have picked an easier country with a much lower culture-shock level for my first out-of-Europe travel experience. After all up until then I had only been to 10 countries, easy places like England, Sweden, France or Italy.
But I was hungry for more and probably totally underestimated what I got myself into when I handed my hard-earned cash over to the travel agent for a 2-week tour of India. Next I bought an India Lonely Planet, got my visa sorted and made an appointment at the travel clinic for various injections (obviously the least fun part of traveling!). A couple of days before my departure I started taking Malaria pills and that’s when it all became very real: as in I got really sick every time I took them!
Then departure day came and went all in a blur: flying to Heathrow and on to Delhi, successfully checking out the plane and various goodie bags (hey, this was my first long-haul flight!), unsuccessfully trying to identify the food served, finally landing in Delhi, waiting for ages to get our bags and then meeting our guide. Slightly more memorable was the taxi ride to our hotel, crawling along an unpaved road dodging potholes and uhm... cows! They were simply parked between cars: Audi, Opel, cow. And occasionally they would wander right onto the street. Now this was something to get used to! And I did – over the next 10 days I probably encountered more cows than I had ever seen before in my life.
Here I was in a country which had been under British rule until 1947. With independence the country was split into Pakistan and India and some 25 years later East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
India is the home of Mahatma Gandhi, Darjeeling tea, Bollywood, Cricket, curry, spices, colorful saris and holy cows. And this is the country were Big Macs and pretty much everything else is made out of chicken as not to offend Hindus who don't eat beef and Muslims who don't consume pork.
I unintentionally even became vegetarian for the duration of the trip as it was just too easy with so many delicious food choices (little did I know that two months later I would actually go veggie for good!).
Over the next couple of days we encountered not only cows, but monkeys, snakes (incl. charmers), Indian elephants and many, many stray dogs (now the tetanus jab made perfect sense). We visited Delhi’s Friday Mosque (shoes off/headscarf on!), wandered around Rajghat – a memorial garden to honor Mahatma Gandhi, saw the India Gate and then left behind this big bustling place to head to Jaipur, the Pink City.
Here we stayed at a Haveli, a guest house that seemed like an oasis in the middle of the desert. It was in a busy & dirty side lane, but when it opened its gates there was endless tranquility behind them. The noise of the cars and tuc tucs drowned out by the constant bubbling of the fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Pure heaven!
Next we visited Amber Fort. The fort had been built in 1592 and was surrounded by the second largest wall in the world (after the Chinese Wall). The day we visited they even shot a Bollywood movie at the fort!
On the next day we went on to Agra in the region of Uttar Pradesh to visit the famous & mysterious Taj Mahal. But on the way there we stopped at yet another fascinating complex of buildings: Fatehpur Sikri. This red sandstone fort is a ghost city 40 km south of Agra. The palace is a world heritage monument today.
The next morning we got up early to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal beside the Yamuna River. We patiently waited until the gates to the Taj would open and we could peek in to see this stunning marble building bathed in golden sunlight. Surrounded by a mosque on each side it simply looked stunning.
The Taj Mahal, which is also referred to as the “Monument of Love”, is in fact a marble mausoleum. It was completed in 1653 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. Today there are replica tombs inside the Taj Mahal for visitors to see. The original mausoleum with the graves of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal is underneath the marble floor. There were some 20,000 workers involved in the building process and now, not surprisingly it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
This was day 3 and by now I had also figured out how to stop me from getting nauseous every time I popped a malaria pill into my mouth: by eating a seriously huge breakfast – which is kind of a challenge for someone who usually doesn't eat before noon. Well, challenge accepted & problem solved. That was the moment when Malerone and I became friends.
Stay tuned for part 2!