The Grand published the following piece in their November 2014 issue.
Indian food and a passion for eccentric home décor are hardly all my friend Carolyn Young and I have in common. Having met as wee “Wildcats” at Kitchener’s Westmount Public School in the early 1990s, we have a vibrant history of shared interests and stories that spans Toronto, Greece and Croatia. But, after 20-some years of friendship, we kept returning to our love for all things Indian. Surely, a vacation was in order.
An important thing to know about Carolyn is that she is organized – at least relatively speaking. Had it not been for her enthusiastic research and planning, this would likely be an in-depth account of wait times at Indian train stations. Thankfully, it isn’t.
Rather, it is a small collection of tales from our adventures from a posh neighbourhood in New Delhi, through Rishikesh, a yoga town on The Ganges, up to the Pakistan border and into the shops of Jaipur before unwinding from it all on the beaches of Kerala and Goa.
Fluidly connected by a network of trains and airplanes, with only a handful of ever-present wintertime fog delays in the north, this trip became one of our best shared experiences yet.
In a country as enormous and diverse as India, it was essential to pick a few key destinations for the first of what I hope will be many visits. Continuing in that vein, I will share a few select stories that provide a taste of the magic, wonder and intensity of the spectacular subcontinent.
The Chaos, Serenity and Magic
Our adventure began with a touch of elegance in New Delhi. Our parents had thoughtfully gifted us two nights at the Thikana Bed and Breakfast, after reading a well-warranted glowing recommendation in the New York Times. As regular budget travellers, this elegant refuge in a lush New Delhi neighbourhood helped our adjustment to the hustle and horns of the city and to the overwhelming madness of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk market.
Quickly, we worked to attune ourselves to the pulse of the city by navigating the metro and wandering through soothing parks.
We had been told that a trip to India would be incomplete without paying homage to the Taj Mahal, but we had heard unappealing stories about staying in the city of Agra. So we opted to make this quintessential experience a day trip from Delhi. We found our way to the New Delhi Railway Station, where we joined blanket-wrapped travellers in the chilly early morning.
A teachable travel moment unfolded as Carolyn nimbly dodged a railway staff imposter who had convinced me that our train had been cancelled. He assured me that with a payment, he’d solve all my problems. Just before I frantically handed over my rupees, Carolyn intercepted, pushing us through security and onto a train filled with other tourists who avoided a similar fate.
Given that this day was largely an exercise in “monument box-ticking,” we hired a pleasant rickshaw driver for the day who dutifully toured us to all the major sights in Agra. He first dropped us beside a sweater-wearing goat (January really is cold in the north), and provided us with instructions on the best gate to enter the Taj compound.
As Carolyn and I walked through those legendary archways that frame your first view of the Taj Mahal in the early morning light, all my skepticism about box-ticking sightseeing evaporated. As the fog lifted around it, this iconic monument cast a magical calm over the visitors. Its aura – for lack of a better word – stands uncontested among the other iconic landmarks I have visited thus far. I appreciate that this sounds extreme – but this love-inspired masterpiece is more captivating than I ever could have imagined.
However, it was its back view that I found most magical. From the opposing banks of the Yamuna River, you can gaze up at the marble mausoleum. This view nearly eliminates the sight of pedestrian traffic, which otherwise crowds the 360-year-old compound in the late afternoon. With farmers’ fields and garbage-fringed banks of this tributary in the foreground, it felt as though we were receiving a more authentic view of the contradictions and struggles that characterize this rapidly developing country.
A Gastronomical (and Intestinal) Adventure
We were forewarned that at least one bout of food poisoning was to be expected and that humour was essential in coping.
In spite of careful precautions and a dose of Dukoral, Carolyn’s stomach fell victim early on. Always a trooper, she didn’t allow this to interrupt her trip. Except for one crowning moment at a dhaba – a tiny restaurant local to the Punjab province, in the northern city of Amristar.
Having read that a kulcha was an essential local dish to try, we ventured off through the alleyways in search of one particular dhaba that had been recommended. Dutifully, we placed our order and awaited a promised culinary adventure in these debatably clean surroundings.
We knew little about the anticipated dish, and I was personally delighted when the waiter set down a heavily buttered naan sprinkled in seeds and served with a medley of stews, sauces and curries. He asked if he could prepare it for us and, in hopes of being culturally sensitive folk , we gave him permission.
What he did next will stay with me forever.
As flies landed on all surfaces around us, he lifted the naan and crumpled it up in his questionably-clean fists. Not a single piece of the naan was left untouched. He then placed it down in front of us – officially ready for consumption.
I sat in my seat, skeptical but excited. On a good day, Carolyn would probably have held the same mentality.
However, on that particular day, I looked across the table to see someone whose face had turned a unique shade of greenish-grey. Impressively, she took a series of bites before admitting defeat and requesting we beeline back to the hotel. I stuffed my mouth full of a few last delicious bites, before paying the bill and scampering away.
However, the adventure was not over. We got incredibly lost in the winding streets of Amritsar. Our absolute lack of Maaji language abilities and our poor pronunciation of our hotel name did nothing to aid in a speedy return to our sterile bathroom. Eventually, we found our way back through a combination of miming and sheer luck.
To this day, I am sure that Carolyn would have loved the dish had she been in better health. That said, I left Amritsar never more impressed by a person’s capability to soldier through illness.
This is probably a good place to emphasize that the food throughout the rest of our trip was sensational and significantly less eventful, digestively speaking.
In spite of Carolyn’s frequent bouts of nausea, we still made it to the notoriously theatrical border- closing ceremony with Pakistan (soldiers doing high-kicks and humming competitions were involved – seriously), and to the remarkable Sikh Golden Temple.
The Glitz of Jaipur
When Carolyn and I first planned this trip, part of the intention was to adorn our Toronto apartments with Indian-inspired flair. A hint of glitter and a splash of colour seemed exactly like what our places needed to get through the dreary and grey urban winter.
With that in mind, we set out with wallets full of rupees to the shops and bazaars that make up one of India’s oldest fashion and artisan capitals, Jaipur. Immediately, I was swept up by the glamour of the city.
All of a sudden, I simply had to update my drab collection of neutral-toned travel clothes. Carolyn by contrast, had her heart set on finding the perfect elephant-inspired bedspread. Indicating that to shop owners prompted an eruption of swirling fabrics. Each contending cloth was theatrically presented, with an accompanying “special” price. Our preference for perusing caused no end of dismay – though our persistence on insisting we were only browsing prevailed, at least sometimes.
Jewel-adorned shoe stalls followed – with ballet flats and sandals stacked sky-high around us. Stare too long at a pair and a dozen shoes are somehow simultaneously slipped onto your feet. Hot pink not your colour? Never fear. A million other options are available. Browsing block- printed fabrics, a barrage of bangles and nearly every other trinket you never knew you needed consumed us until we spent our final shopping rupee.
Wallets empty and both of our backpacks bursting, we drew ourselves away from the ever-alluring bazaars and sought refuge within a cheering crowd of Bollywood moviegoers.
The Raj Mandir Cinema is, in true Jaipur style, modelled after a bedazzled pink cupcake. Chandeliers and pink cream frosting décor brought to life a childhood dream of living inside a Polly Pocket world. The exuberance of the movie – and the captivating beauty of the stars – sent me into a new realm of fascination with Indian movie culture. My simple style of jeans and sweaters just seemed so mundane. I found myself pondering a personal re-invention, which I have thankfully abandoned since leaving Jaipur.
My original inspiration for travel to India came from a documentary shown to me in a Grade 12 “West and the World” course at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute. The documentary highlighted everything from commuter to luxury tourist trains. While our trip lacked these two extremes, we did manage to take a spin on classes 1, 2 and 3.
Our private suite on our sole first-class voyage was by far the most comfortable; however, the experiences in the cramped quarters of third class were among the most memorable. A 17-hour train trip from Kochi to Goa left me with ample time to chat with wandering strangers. Conversations about the Indian education system brought an element of depth to a somewhat self-indulgent trip. An opportunity to chat with two recently reconnected childhood best friends gave me the chance to hear a new perspective on the country’s development over the decades while their lives ran parallel.
While my initial excitement over train-cuisine faded as I tasted more and more non-train meals, my love for what the trains revealed continued to grow. Of course, on some overnight trains, I’d have done anything to drown out the constant rumble of heavy snorers and other reminders that other humans were so close by.
And with all of that, our three-week tour ended. India had impressed, amazed and completely charmed both of us. Our trip was of course about far more than the monuments, the food and the shopping – but tales of yoga on the Ganges and deep relaxation and seafood filled days on the shores of the Indian Ocean will just have to wait. I have since mentally planned countless return trips that go deeper in exploring the cuisine, the cultures and – of course – the style.
Carolyn and I parted ways at the Mumbai airport – her, returning to Toronto and me moving onwards in my travels to Mozambique.
Now we are back to anxiously watching airline deals in hopes of finding inspiration for our next adventure.