First day and first mistake in India
"Old is gold!" harked the driver in a thick Indian accent. I swear if I hear that phrase one more time...suddenly a splutter of life from the engine and the car started. "Told you, old is gold!"
Starting in India has been both a blessing and a curse for a man who has never backpacked before; certainly eye opening! This place is full of awe-inspiring sights, smells and sounds that invoke the senses and leave you with a feeling of wonder, but don't get me wrong, it also has an equal and opposite side to it.
I'm almost three weeks in on what is shaping up to be a fantastic two or three-year adventure learning the ins and outs of music across the globe, as well as exploring as many places as my budget will allow. I'm travelling with a friend of mine whom I met at my last office job in Reading. She has never backpacked before either so it's safe to say that we were both taken aback by our first impressions of this vast country.
We touched down at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport on the morning of 5th January still a little bleary-eyed from the type of broken sleep you get on an overnight flight lasting 9 hours. Getting out into the city, my sleepy eyes were soon widened. Countless tuk-tuks, cars, buses, mopeds and the odd cow clutter the streets.
The narrow backstreets we explored on our first day suffer the same congestion, only here the sun is blocked out by the miles of electrical cabling that somehow balance on makeshift hoists overhead.
Mists of incense fill the air, while the claustrophobic clutter of impossibly small shops and stalls make travel down these streets a no-go unless you're on foot or in a rickshaw. The vast array of colours and smells that protrude from the stalls each jostle for your attention. Glistening jewellery, treasure troves of spices, fabrics in every conceivable vibrant pigment known to man. The display is only made more eye-catching by the refuse and waste that covers the narrow road surface; Delhi truly is a city of contrast.
I'll be the first to admit that despite all the planning I'd done over the past few years, nothing had really prepared me for this. You can read all the guidebooks and travel blogs in the World but you can never know everything. This dawned on me when we fell at the first hurdle. On the very first day. Attempting to buy train tickets to Agra at Delhi Metro Station.
"You can't buy tickets here. Ticket office is closed". The authoritative figure of a man in official looking uniform beckoned me towards him from the sizeable crowd outside the station entrance. "Come, I'll direct you to a place".
Without having time to assess the situation, still half asleep and jet-lagged, we were hurried into a tuk-tuk which ferried us to one of the (many we've learned since) tour companies that are littered throughout the city, from whom we purchased train tickets for our entire Indian journey... as well as a driver and car for a 10-day trip of the North.
The train tickets, we had intended to purchase. The car and driver, we had not. It's only since, that we learned about these commission-based setups and how they entice tourists in when in actual fact, all of this can be arranged by yourself at the station for a much better price! The often confusing scene of a busy station, in a new country, with culture shock setting in, is a sure-fire way of falling for this trick. I'll quite openly admit that I fell for it.
I should note that these tour companies aren't all bad and can actually be a convenient way to explore, but we probably paid over-the-odds for our unplanned tour of the North. Given this was our first day and we were new to all this, weary and jet-lagged, we forgave ourselves, learned a lesson from it and decided we'd simply enjoy the ride!
The car that picked us up the following morning reflected our experiences of India so far. A tired looking white Tata Indigo with one wing mirror, non-existent windscreen wipers, a distinct lack of seatbelts and as many dents and scratches as there are tuk-tuks in Delhi!
Upon starting the car for the first time, our driver, Bampy, harked "Old is gold!" in a thick Indian accent. Suddenly a splutter of life from the engine and the car started. "Told you, old is gold!". I swear now, if I hear that phrase one more time...
Our first 10 days in India took us from Delhi, where we explored the majestic Red Fort, Jama Masjid Mosque, witnessed the hectic backstreets and markets, visited Humayan's Tomb and the modern, yet utterly fascinating Swaminarayan Akshardham Complex, to Jaipur where we climbed to the vast Amber Fort, saw the Palace of the Winds, the City Palace and the mind-boggling Jantar Mantar Observatory.
From there, we drove to Ranthambore National Park for a tiger tracking safari. Unfortunately no tiger sightings this time but a thoroughly enjoyable journey through grasslands and rich jungle which had us encountering crocodiles, bears, mongooses, deer, hummingbirds and parrots (we did spot tiger tracks but that was the closest we came).
Our last stop before waving goodbye to Bampy the driver was Agra, home of the World-famous Taj Mahal. Up at 6am to watch the sun rise at the site, it's majesty didn't disappoint. It was surprisingly quiet given its status. It's safe to say exploring the Taj Mahal will certainly take some beating!
From Agra, we made our own way, via the infamous sleeper trains, to Khajuraho (via Jhansi). The small town of Khajuraho is home to groups of temples in the North, South, East and West. It's the latter that are the most famous and the ones that we visited.
An afternoon in the cooling breeze and peaceful serenity of the complex's gardens provided respite from the previous 10 days' onslaught from the hustle and bustle of the Northern cities. I should also probably mention that the eye-opening temple complex depicts scenes from everybody's non-child-friendly book, the Karma Sutra, right there in stone for all to see!
As I write this, I'm now relaxing on a beach in Goa following a few days in Mumbai - a vibrant city with more art-deco architecture than you could shake a stick at - before moving on to Kerala and Bengaluru for the remainder of my month in India.
You'll also be glad to hear I've started filming the first few scenes for the debut Travelling Drummer video (many of you were probably wondering where the music element of things were going to come in!) Stay tuned for when that becomes available!
After what seemed like a false move at first, falling for a salesman's trick which resulted in hiring a driver for a week and a half to explore the North of India really wasn't that bad. It was convenient, fun and we got to see far more than we would have travelling via train and bus, given the same amount of time; not to mention the insight into local culture from Bampy. I'd go as far as to even recommend something similar if you're only here for a short time and you're not on a tight budget!
I for one though, have found a new sense of self-reliance and will be learning from my mistakes as the journey continues! Isn't that what travelling is all about?