09 May Keyless To India
It’s official. I am keyless … and not in a touch pad high tech kind of way. For the first time in my adult life, I do not possess a single key of any description. No house key … no car key … nothing. A part of me feels liberated and a part of me feels totally freaked out. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and embarked on my Golden Gap. As I write this I am sitting in Varanasi India, a week in to my “Golden Gap” surrounded by the chaos and contradictions of this incredible country. Amanda, (my travel buddy for the first four weeks of my trip), and I arrived in to Delhi, then went on to Agra, Jaipur and we are now in Varanasi. What a crazy, in your face place this is! The sounds, the smells, the colours, the sights, the traffic, the heat. A cacopohony of chaos!
The only rule on the roads here is that there are no rules. The only thing that anyone gives way to are cows, of which there are many, wandering aimlessly amongst the madness. The traffic is best described, using one of my Mum’s favourite sayings … ” a complete shemozzle.” On our drive from Delhi to Jaipur, our trusty driver, Mr Rawut advised us of the well known Indian driving mantra … “good brakes, good horn and good luck” … and man did we need all three after Mr Rawut decided to channel Lewis Hamilton, weaving in and out of traffic, and honking like our lives depended on it (which they did). At one point he overtook a huge truck by veering onto the wrong side of a four-lane road (not uncommon), only to find another truck bearing down on us. We skidded up on to the verge and then had to manoeuvre our way back across to the right side of the road through a barrage of oncoming traffic. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We came within a bee’s dick of multiple head on collisions that day and required more than a few vinos on our arrival into Jaipur (FYI … Indian Sauvignon Blanc is pretty good.)
Our overnight train trip from Agra to Varanasi was no less horrifying, but for completely different reasons. After wrangling ‘Big Red’ (the worlds largest and heaviest suitcase) onto the train, we were ushered to our ‘first class’ cabin, only to find that it was already occupied by two Indian men. “There must be some mistake” we thought … alas no … our TINY cabin (think of a small bathroom and halve it), housed two bunk beds and apparently we were sharing it with our newly acquainted roomies!! Awkward would be an understatement. The pair of us perched on opposite bottom bunks for several hours before they retired to the top bunks and proceeded to snore like steam trains for the next eleven hours. Let’s just say that this will not be written up in the journal of the world’s luxury train trips.
The noise of horns is the soundtrack of every Indian city we’ve visited. But they aren’t used aggressively … they are more of a, “I’m coming down beside you” … kind of horn. A polite horn if you will. Traffic in fact, could be seen as a metaphor for life in India. Rickshaws, motorbikes, pushbikes, cars and trucks all coexisting in the chaos with very little room to manouvere. And so it is with life in India … a melting pot of religions and castes and cultures, coexisting peacefully but with little or no wriggle room or margin for error. Everyone has an agenda … and understandably so, when the average hourly rate of pay is less than one Australian dollar. Even our tour guides in each city have clearly been on the take. We established this early on when Manu (named after the God of sex as he proudly informed us) ushered us into the premises of Jaipur’s best astrologist. The fact that he was located in the basement of a gem shop should have set off alarm bells, but ever trusting, I proceeded, only to cotton on to the scam when he advised me that the key to my everlasting prosperity and happiness was guaranteed, if I were to purchase a ruby for my ring finger and a yellow sapphire for my pointer. Quite specific and as luck would have it, the completely “independent” shop he was sitting in the basement of, could help me out with both. How fortunate.
Manu was also responsible for recommending we visit Jaipur’s best Ayurvedic massage clinic, which I suspect may have had an entirely different sign out front until two minutes before we arrived. I also suspect that they pulled two women off the street to provide our massages, which left a lot to be desired and little to the imagination. My ‘therapist’ was as rough as old boots. The table had no hole for my face and every time I dared turn my head to the side to gasp for air, she would forcibly yank it back so that my nose was pushed squarely into the table. The real trauma however was when she flipped me over and began what could best be described as a vigorous massage of my chest area, made all the worse when she decided to lean over my head and suffocate me in her ample breast and belly. Don’t get me started on the five buckets of oil that she dripped on my forehead and proceeded to strenuously massage into my head and scalp. This whole experience lay in an entirely different hemisphere to ideal and I may require therapy to recover from it.
Apart from a few dodgy detours, our guides have been our lifeline here. I have no clue how you would navigate this country alone. Guarev, our guide in Agra, went above and beyond when he invited us to his family home for a cooking class and dinner. His entire extended family lives together, as is the norm here in India. They welcomed us like rock stars. Curious neighbours, who had never met white people before, jostled to meet us as we got out of the car. We cooked with Guarev’s wife, did yoga with his dad, played with his son and chatted with all his siblings about life in India, where arranged marriage is still the norm. Guarev, met his wife to be for twenty-five minutes before having to decide whether she was ‘the one’ … a decision that was then ratified by the stars. If their astrology charts had not been a favourable match, then they would not have been permitted to marry. Another one of our guides did not get to meet his wife at all prior to their marriage. It’s like a massive country-wide episode of Married At First Sight! But what is clear is that a marriage here is not between two people, but rather it is between two families, which is not entirely without merit … I can think of a few families that I’d quite like to spend Christmas’ with and I may start putting out some feelers on my return! Considering all offers!
Until the home cooked meal, I had been very cautious about what I was eating. Vegetarian only. No dairy. No salad. Nothing that looked like it could have brushed past the Ganges. But as the guests of honour, we were clearly expected to try everything they offered us, or risk causing great offence … and so I took one for the team. Chai made from unpasteurised buffalo milk, salad washed under the tap, spices that left little to the imagination. And yep … I paid for it the next day. Delhi belly is real and Chai latte will forever be referred to as chiarrhea.
India is most definitely a city of extremes … sounds, colours, smells, sites, heat, poverty and wealth. It is totally chaotic and “in your face” but also mesmerising and strangely peaceful. From the conspicuous beauty of the Taj Mahal to the subtle beauty of The Ganges, everything in India is overlayed with culture and meaning, the epitome of unity in diversity. India is most certainly not for the faint hearted, but I am definitely leaving with a full heart (and a slightly gurgly tummy).
If you want to see more photos of my gap year adventures, please feel free to follow me on instagram at