Travelling solo... in India

| November 6, 2021

India had been playing on my mind. My father worked in India when I was a child, bringing back stories and spices, photos and feelings. My grandfather also had business in the Subcontinent before I was born, bringing back ivory and a leopard’s head, as well as tea and a taste for Anglo-Indian food. Times have changed – thankfully – and though my own tastes are a little different, my interest in India grew irresistible.

A big birthday provided the push to do something about it. Would India live up to the tales from my childhood?

First, where to go? I realised quickly that one trip couldn’t take me to all the places I knew second-hand, from Amritsar to Kolkata (Calcutta) to Chennai. But some places are on ‘the trail’ for a reason – how could I go on my first foray to India and miss the Taj Mahal? Plus, I wanted to experience one particular contrast: that between north and south.

Next, what did I want to do? Well, I like history and the associated arts and architecture – Rajasthan sounded good. Food matters a lot to me, and I’m pretty adventurous. Being a biologist, I was keen to see some of India’s breathtaking biodiversity and, unlike in grandpa’s day, it had to be well and truly alive.

Third, with whom to go? Cox & Kings promised a great trip, with lovely hotels to stay in; I knew I wanted to be well looked after! So, I decided on Mystical India, an exploration of the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, incorporating safari time in Ranthambore National Park and a visit to the lake city of Udaipur. Then I took the Kerala extension for a hop down to Kochi and the backwaters of Kerala for the north-south contrast, plus some rest and relaxation before returning to work and winter in the UK.

Church in the backwaters of Kerala

Church in the backwaters of Kerala

The journey certainly didn’t disappoint in bringing those stories alive. Among New Delhi’s grand architecture, a visit to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial seemed an appropriate way to start. Then Old Delhi was the crazy all-out assault on the senses that I had been expecting. On my first afternoon at leisure I was tempted by the hotel pool, but then realised that this was it: treat everything as an adventure and get stuck in… So, a cycle rickshaw ride up Chandni Chowk to the spice market was followed by a good reminder at the Red Fort’s dramatic sound and light show: semi-deserts get cold at night!

Agra brought one beautiful place to visit after another, culminating in dawn at the Taj Mahal. Surprisingly quiet and peaceful at that early hour, the exquisite architecture truly lived up to the hype. What surprised me – perhaps as a child I had been too young to detect this in my father’s voice – was how moved I felt at the monumental expression of what grief and love can aspire to when money and manpower are no object.

The author outside the Taj Mahal

In Ranthambore, the thrilling adventure was all of my own. Having seen lots of wildlife over three exciting jeep safaris with the expert guides, I was happy despite not having spotted the top predator and top prize of the park. But then, with 15 minutes to go, there she was: the tigress known as Noor, nonchalantly walking along a dry river bed a stone’s throw away. That memory is my trophy and my story.

Then on to the palaces, forts and lakes of Jaipur and Udaipur, a procession of mind-boggling history, culture and artistry. A visit to the Jagdish temple in Udaipur was a good contrast. Somewhere on the way it was Christmas: video-calling family back home while drinking masala chai overlooking Lake Pichola in Udaipur, now that’s the way to do it!

Lake Pichola, Udaipur

Lake Pichola, Udaipur

And so down to tropical Kerala – is it really the same country?! A lush, green, watery paradise, here was just the place to relax and let all the good things simply happen. Nearly 40 species of birds caught in my binoculars on the backwaters. At a fabulous feast in historic Fort Kochi on New Year’s Eve I learned about the living riches of Kerala’s artistic culture. I enjoyed glimpses into the classical dance forms of Kathakali and Mohiniyattam as well as various other forms of traditional dance, music and drama.

Kathakali dancers

Kathakali dance performers

So, were those hand-me-down impressions of India from my childhood still fair? Mostly, yes. There is colour everywhere, literal and metaphorical. The roads are crazy, and everything stops (with a weary sigh) for cows. You can shop well, but you must learn to barter, and to say no and mean it if you’re not in the mood! The food does smell and taste fantastic – Indian all the way for me, with cookery demos and chats with the chefs thrown in. Next time, I might be a bit braver and dig deeper into the array of tempting street food at every roadside. Above all, yes, it is socially vibrant; I had many happy conversations with all sorts of people. Next time, I’ll brush up a bit more on the latest cricket news too…

What was different? The biggest thing was rather small, in the end. Dad told me 40 years ago that there were people selling and chewing paan on every corner (and he acquired a taste for it). I only saw one paan vendor, but since it is largely tobacco, I’m quite happy about that.

By treating everything as part of the experience, I wasn’t let down by anything and I had an amazing time. I think I’m hooked, and I’m planning which part of India to visit next. You see, it’s still playing on my mind.

Jeremy Airey travelled on the Solo Travellers tour Mystical India (now called Exotic India). 

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