India's been on my travel-list since I started with yoga practice half a year ago. To be honest, I never imagined visiting India someday, til a work-colleague amazed me with photos of his trip to India and Nepal. The city of Varanasi looked so surreal on his pictures. That's exactly how I got really curious about the huge country of India: the origins of Yoga & the holi city of Varanasi.
Now after I made it back home "safely", I really can't choose if I should start with my "love" or "hate" part of my journey abroad. This is going to be quite a long blog post, because there's so much to write about. I will get into more detailed stories with upcoming blog-posts about Varanasi and the "Ganpati Guesthouse" in Varanasi. For now, I'm going to summarize my good- and not so pleasant experiences.
It all started with my trip to Delhi, the capital of India. My expectations of the capital were pretty low, after I've read too many travel reviews about it, and most travelers were advising to just skip Delhi at all cost. Just for your information, ... Delhi isn't the worst.
I had a typical indian welcome as soon, as I left the airplane on indian soil. The E-Visa appliers were split up into different queues. I had to wait almost 50 minutes to make it to the counter, where my fingerprints were taken, a snapshot, and I was good to leave the airport. I went to the "official" taxi booth and asked for a cab. The ride from Delhi international airport to the city center takes about 40-60 minutes. I didn't bargain on my first cab-ride, and was kindly asked to pay 800 IR (10 euros/dollars). On the way to the hotel the driver told me in a veeeerry broken english, that he didn't know where my hotel was located. So he tried to call the lobby at the hotel, but no one was taking the call (it was already 2:00 am). After several attempts of contacting the hotel, I asked the taxi driver about his plan, and he replied "you choose different hotel!". Well man, I had it all booked in advance, and I wanted to get dropped in front of THAT hotel. So after a couple of seconds of total silence, I asked him for his GPS and I entered the address. So I'm pretty sure that the good man was an illiterate. The hotel was only 3 minutes away. After I got dropped, I had to notice that, the lobby was busy with 2 hotel employees but still no one dared to pick-up the phone.
I told the receptionist that I booked a room for 3 nights at their hotel "GRAND GODWIN". They seemed to be very welcoming at first and offered me a chai (tea) or a coffee, which I gently refused. They picked up my luggage, and told me to follow them to the building next-door. I could feel the taste of "rip-off" in the air. I told them that I certainly booked a hotel at the "GRAND GODWIN" and not at the "GODWIN DELUXE". But they were insisting that I was wrong, and that my room would be ready inside the neighbor building. I was just too tired to argue about it... But I wanted to check the room first. The whole staff, were debating in indian and I could feel that there was something wrong. After they brought me up on the 2nd floor, showed me the room, I agreed to accept it. Of course I tipped the bellboy who carried my backpack. Pretty soon I wanted to get online, but noticed that the wifi password wasn't working. I took the room-key ... Damn! They didn't gave me room key, but a paper business-card. Of course being pretty naive, I still tried it, but obviously it wouldn't open my room. I went downstairs and asked them for a proper room-key, and was told "paper card works, but we can give you plastic card instead (broken english)". By the way, later for my check-out at the hotel "Godwin Deluxe", they tried to rip me off again. On the check-out bill, they added every single payable tax twice, and charged me for a airport pick-up which I never asked for. They charged me double the price, than the one which was set during my booking at the website booking(dot)com.
I hadn't visited anything in Delhi yet, but still I had to manage several issues of incompetence of the indian world.
I got up pretty early, because I couldn't wait anymore to discover India. I left the hotel around 8:00am, and walked towards the main road, which lead to a bridge. I bumped into a local, who recommended to take a rickshaw (tuc-tuc) because walking to the different tourist spots would be way to exausting. "Don't pay more than 20 IR (30 cents)", and of course the first tuc-tuc driver accepted to bring me to a tourist office for only 20 IR. I went to the first tourist office, just to get a free map of Delhi. As soon as I sat down, they were trying to sell me a bus-tour to other indian cities. I told them that I already pre-booked my trip, and that I just needed a map. I left their office as quickly as I could. On the next corner I bumped into another local, and we got into a little chit-chat. After walking a hundred meters, he told me "Hey, it's your first day in the city, I can bring you to my friend's office. If you have any questions about Delhi, they will help you."
I really don't know why I even followed the stranger. It was just another tourist trap. One office, 4 guys sitting on a couch, and 1 dude sitting behind the desk. They tried to rip me off for sure... but in the end I bought a city tour by taxi for 4 hours, for only 10 euros/dollars. It actually was a bargain, because I saw most sights within those 4 hours. A cab picked me up in front of the office. While I was waiting I got introduced to every single "clerk" who was sitting on the couch. Of course they all looked like the "world's most stupid criminals". I just could tell, that this wasn't a proper tourist office.
However I was glad that I met Prem, my taxi driver, through that office. Prem seemed to be a genuine guy, and like after half an hour, he told me that he would be working for that office, but recommended me not to trust those guys. They were just after the money, and of course with his broken english, he tried to explaine that they had no good "karma" :).
After the 4 hours, I was supposed to get back to the office. Prem explained me that this was the condition of this sightseeing trip. I told Prem, that I was definitely not going back to their office, and if he wouldn't accept that, I would jump out of the car on the next crossing. Prem called the office, and explained them that I wasn't coming back. They asked for me on the phone. I told them that I wanted to get back at my hotel... but, almost like a threat, they forced me to come back with Prem. I told them to f*** o**, and hung up the call. Prem unterstood my decision and drove me to Connaught Place, a huge shopping lane, in the center of Delhi. I paid Prem another 1000 IR, because I wasn't sure if he would get this share of the "deal", since he didn't drop me at the tourist office. I was glad to be out the cab, and asked Prem for his phone number. He seemed to be a trustworthy driver, so I told him I'd be glad if he could drive me back to the airport for my trip to Varanasi.
After that day, I tried to avoid any contact with locals, because I knew that a short introduction, or just any small-talk would lead me into trouble.
On my second day in Delhi, I just got ripped off by some tuc-tuc drivers. Nothing too bad though, instead of paying 2 euros/dollars, I had to pay 5.
I had a memorable experience on my second day though. Somehow I never accepted a rickshaw ride, if the divers were hunting for customers. I always picked the drivers I had a certain sympathy for. I opted for Jagdish, a punjabi tuc-tuc driver with a well groomed moustache, who was wearing a yellow turban (see the photo above). On my way back to the hotel, I asked him if he was a hindu or a muslim. He explained me that most religious people wearing that specific turban would be worshiping the religion of Sikhism (sikh). To be honest, I've never heard of the sikh relgion prior that tuc-tuc ride. Jagdish suggest, he could bring me to the biggest Sikh temple in Delhi. I gladly accepted the invitation. The visit was for free, and I was shown all of it. I had to wear a head-cover as well, as all the men did inside the temple. Drinking "holy water", tasting a sweet almond dough, and a private tour through the kitchen where they were preparing the free food for the poor people, were the more entertaining moments of this visit. I have to admit that it was a lovely temple, all white and golden. And all the "sikh" people seemed to be very welcoming, they didn't care to see me in short pants, all covered up with tattoos. After the visit Jagdish insisted for a selfie in his rickshaw, and asked me forward the photo to his son's mobile phone, that would make him happy. Well ... that's what I did! :)
Just before taking off for Varanasi, i had to suffer another major panic attack. The ATM at the airport didn't allow me to withdraw any cash, with the reason "CARD BLOCKED". Being stuck in India for 11 more days without any money wouldn't be fun. I tried calling my bank, but their hotline wasn't reachable because of the timezone difference. After my dad helped me out, the bank told him that they blocked my card, because their security service noticed money movements inside of India, and they decided to block my card. SO! Just prior your India trip, contact your bank, and tell them that you're traveling abroad, to avoid this sort of unpleasant surprises.
Varanasi struck me like a lightning. The oldest and holiest city of India was my indian destination with a "wow" effect. Once again I had a typical indian welcome. After my suicidal airport ride stopped at a big crossing (1 hour driving, for 800 IR - 10 euros/dollars), there was already a young local guy who opened the side-door, and helped me getting to the guesthouse. For once, I gotta admit, that I would have never found the guesthouse on my own. The streets were crazy busy with thousands of pedestrians and rickshaws. I followed the guide through very narrow lanes among the old colurful buildings, and after 10 minutes we finally reached my guest house, ... well after I had to tip the young man.
The Ganpati Guesthouse was the loveliest place I stayed at in India. The staff was amazingly welcoming, and the whole place just felt very cosy. I was lucky to get a room without a balcony, but instead my room-door lead straight to a colorful courtyard. There was a noticeable scent of flowers, inside my room and outside, around a mandala-shaped fountain. It was my first moment of pure happiness in India. I couldn't wait to get out and have a look at the ganges river.
I left the guest house, and asked the first locals I met for the right direction to reach the river. And again, the chitchat started, they advise me to visit the "Burning Ghat". The burning ghat is a public holy place where only Hindus cremate their departed in a sacred ritual. People are allowed to watch the whole ceremony, but taking photos isn't allowed, out of respect for their family. My teenage-guide showed me the three main ghats along the river. It was about time to pay a tip, and to spend even more money at his uncle's shop, where I got ripped off. I paid more like the triple for a silk scarf... but yeah, you only live once. I remember how I couldn't stop repeating "this is unbelievable. I saw all those photos of Varanasi, and now i'm standing right in the middle of it". I was so blown away by the very old temple-shaped buildings, all worn off. Many walls were covered with hand-painted letterings and signs. The whole place just looked so photogenic.
Sadly after my first hours in Varanasi, with disappointment I had to notice, that all the boatmen, the locals, the fake sadhus (wanna-be-saints), wouldn't stop asking for a boatride, for prayers, for a massage... You were invited to spend money on bracelets, on floating flower pots, on colored powder. Tourists just couldn't be on their own, and enjoy the scenic views for 10 minutes. Even in the very morning, when tourists were leaving their hotels at 5:30 am to walk towards the "Assi Ghat", for an early morning ceremony, the boatmen started following you, and kept asking for a boatride. The boatrides were pretty cheap, they charged you 4 euro/dollars for a 30-40 minute boat-ride. But it was a real pain in the ass, explaining them that you weren't interested.
It went on like this, for the 4 days I spent in Varanasi. I will write another more detailed blog post about Varanasi, so stay tuned for more informations.
I will keep my summary very short about Agra. It's not even worth mentioning. Well ... once again... I reached Agra, leaving from Delhi, in a very typical indian way. I booked a bus-ticket the evening just prior my departure to Agra. It was a crazy cheap ticket, and the tourist-office guy told me to show up at their office around 06:00 am. That's what I did. While I was trying to wake him up after I reached his place, he instantly stood up, and pretended like he hadn't even slept. He took out his mobile and made a phone-call. When the bus-driver showed up 10 minutes later, he was kinda in a hurry, and told me to follow him. On the way to his bus he asked me in a pissed-off way "Why did you book your tickets 5 minutes ago?". I told him, that I did the booking the previous evening, and that I paid my bus-ticket in advance. "Really? Your tourist-guide contacted me 5 minutes ago, and you gotta be very lucky today, because there was only 1 seat left on the bus"!!
From 06:00 to 08:00 am, the bus was picking up people all across Delhi, fueled up the bus at a gas station, and finally took off after 8 o'clock. It took us 4 hours to reach Agra (my worst bus-ride ever). After the bus had dropped us at the "Old Fort" in Agra, I had to explain them, that I wasn't interested in a tour, and that I just needed a ride to Agra. I got my back-pack and took a rickshaw to get to my hotel "Grand Imperial Hotel". This one surely was my fanciest stay for one night. The hotel had a colonial architecture flair, and it was pretty posh for India. Sadly the neighborhood outside of the hotel, was a pile of dirt. Extreme poverty, and too much filth covering the streets of Agra. After I checked in, and already had paid in advance, the receptionist brought me to my awesome room and started asking me "Excuse me sir. Due to the heavy rain yesterday, a couple of hotel rooms were flooded, and we can't host all the guests who booked a room at this hotel." I got pretty mad, because they put another colorful dot on my forehead upon my arrival, they garnished me with a flower-necklace, I got a free orange juice, I paid the room... and after all that, I was kindly asked if I would agree to spend my night at another 5-star-hotel, which wouldn't cost me a dime. I disagreed, because I was so looking forward to spend one night at their beautiful hotel.
Agra... the Taj Mahal... that's it. That's all I did. There was absolutely nothing else to do, except for the Old Fort. The streets of Agra were extremly dirty, hundreds of tuctuc-drivers handing out their phone numbers. It wasn't a peaceful place, and I was happy to leave.
In Agra, I left in the early morning to get to the train station. I went to their ticket office, and got a train ticket to Mathura, the city just next to Vrindavan. The train ticket was 80 IR, not even 1 euro/dollar. The train station was quite an adventure. I felt completely lost, and had to asked several indians which train would leave towards Mathura. Once I stepped inside the train, I could notice the scent of poo and urine. A passenger invited me to sit right next to him. Jimmy, a university student, was one of the few indians I met, who wasn't after my money. The friendly young man, had to spend 28 hours on that train, to get back home. Honestly, I was glad, I could get out of it, after 2 hours.
Outside of the train stations, the tuc-tuc drivers were flying around me like vultures. I was asked by ten men, if I needed a ride. I gently denied and picked out a driver who seemed cool. The one I chose wasn't cool though. He couldn't speak english, and didn't know the location of my hotel. On the way to Vrindavan, I gave him my phone so he could contact the hotel for precise directions.
Vrindavan was just crazy. It was supposed to be the most traditional, but also the craziest, city for the "Holi Fest" in India. I gotta admit, it was just too much for my taste. On my way to the hotel, I got covered with too many colors. My black backpack was all messed up, my new shirt was all covered up with colorful sand/dust. It went on like this for the next 2 days. Myself, I barely could stay outside of the hotel for 2-3 hours. Every local felt so lucky to color my face, kids were amazed to pour endless buckets of colored water over me. They used big water guns as well, with artifical colors. Those colors wouldn't even vanish after 4 showers. After my first 3 hours among the crowds, my hotel room looked like a mess. I was glad that the room service didn't clean up my room on the next morning, because on the 13th of march, the official holi-day, got just insane. The Hindus were rushing towards the several temples in the cities, throwing all kinds of colors in the air, pushing women, and kids aside. It was a real battle making it inside the temple. I got heavily pushed back by a police officer, because I wasn't barefoot, so I decided not to follow the crowd inside the holy building. Every body aperture was filled up with colors, I had to throw away my clothes, it took an hour to clean my camera, and my go-pro. This was a next-level holi experience. The locals really didn't care, they smashed the colored powder right into the your eyes. I'd definitely recommend wearing goggles!
The hotel I stayed at was total crap. They had no mini-bar, and no shop, where I could buy water or food. Outside of the hotel weren't any shops or restaurants. It almost felt like a survival training, getting plastic bottles of clean water, and killing my hunger with street food. After my lucky catch with the street-food samosas, I suffered a severe diarrhea for the next 3 days. I couldn't wait to leave Vrindavan again.
Because of my bad experience in Agra, and Vrindavan, I decided to not move on towards Jaipur, the last indian city I was supposed to visit on my trip. But instead I turned back to Delhi, and booked a room for my last 4 nights at a hostel. I was looking forward to some chit-chat with travelers. I really haven't had a real discussion with people during those first 9 nights in India. I really missed the contact with people around me. So I thought that a hostel-stay would feel great.