Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Memories of India

Is there another country in the world that's more memorable than India? Certainly, when it comes to just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere (taking away the landscapes of somewhere like Canada and ancient monuments like Egypt's) the experience of being in India sticks in my head more than anywhere else. What about you? What the most memorable places - for good or ill - you've been to?

These are some of those Indian memories that are the strongest.

More than anything else, India is a land of opposites (Slumdog Millionaire really captures this). Roads filled with everything from SUVs to donkey carts, the filthy neighbourhood next to the Taj Mahal, women in gorgeous saris mixing concrete or sifting through rubbish.

I thought the whole sacred cow thing would be exaggerated. But no, they really do wander everywhere, like stray dogs. Interestingly, unlike New Zealand or European cows, Indian bovines have a big hump on their back - anyone got an idea why? While they're not destined for Burger King, I think I'd still rather be a Kiwi cow. At least they get to grow fat on farm grass rather than scavenge for scraps.

There's more than a billion people in India and you really do notice the numbers. Even at the big tourist sites, non-Indians are in the overwhelming minority. Perhaps the Mumbai attack and subsequent drop in visitors had something to do with it, but mostly I think it's just the sheer volume of people.

Wintry Britain seems really grey after India. We've traded the green and yellow autoricksaws of Agra for the black cabs of London. Then, of course, there's the saris. Every woman wears something most Westerners would only take to a day at the races.

India is a wonderful place, but not for neat freaks. Every road is a rubbish tip. You know you've gotten used to it when you notice human waste on the side of the road and it doesn't bother you.

The magnificent Mughals
With its fusion of styles and sublime mix of symmetry, size and delicacy, grand Mughal architecture is possibly the most stunning in the world.

Decoration at Agra's Red Fort

Entrance to Akbar's Mausoleum

The touts and merchants are bad enough (only in Vietnam and the tourist souqs of Egypt are they more persistent), but when it comes to hassling, India's beggars are something else. Mothers carrying babies, men with fake or real deformities and dirty-haired children approached us almost everywhere - including while we were in a car stopped at the lights on a motorway.

We're both spice wusses, but we did develop a little bit of a tolerance for it. Though not enough for me to chew a green chili like it was capsicum without nearly having a heart attack.

Pahar Ganj
Part market, part tourist trap, part construction site, part rubbish tip, part farm (well, there's plenty of cows), Delhi's cheap hotel hot spot is India in minature. It's a mess, but wow, is it fun.

India is often a full-on experience, but not in Pushkar. The pilgrimage site, a lake surrounded by steep hills and semi-desert, is a chilled hippie haven. And it's got camels. And monkeys. Superb.

Biggest disappointment
Not taking a ride on India's famous railways. A must for next time.

Best random moment
We were in a car driving down the four lane road from Delhi to Agra when suddenly one of the lanes on our side was full of traffic coming the other way - many of the vehicles with men hanging out the windows or sitting on top of the rooves, cheering. Mass insanity? Well, sort of. We soon passed an old man and a teenage boy perched on a cart. The white bearded, hawk eyed elder was intently holding the reins a cantering horse, while everyone else yelled them on. It was, our driver told us, a race. Up a motorway. In the middle of the day.

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