Sorry, I know I promised daily mini blog posts and didn't deliver one. I blame the one person who said NOOOOOO in the polls, the lack of good wifi and the free wine on board. And the fact that I obviously can't do mini. I apologize but hope that these posts will make up for it because, to be honest, a lot of my recent trip to India only makes sense in hindsight.
I am working on a big post about the logistics, the itinerary and what to pack for a luxury train journey through India but for now, I rather share some personal thoughts of the whole trip.
As you may have read, returning to India was a tricky one for me. I really really wanted to love the country as I had dreamed of India for a long time but it just wasn't love at the first sight. It got worse the second time around - I mean, how many people cry when they see the Taj Mahal?! So, I was just hoping and keeping all my fingers crossed that third time would be a charm.
I also kept expectations really low, not so easy when you are hosted on a fully paid trip on a luxury train (which incidentally ours, the Maharajas Express, was hailed to be the best of the bunch!) with some international friends and get to call it work.
But I didn't want to put too much pressure on India and tried my hardest to keep questions at bay. Would I have a great time, manage not to get sick, and most importantly find a stray kitten to take on board? I also wanted to be reconciled with the past few months if not healed.
It seemed a lot of pressure to put on any country especially one as wonderfully confusing and contrasting as India.
I arrived in New Delhi, India with a timid determination. Cautiously optimistic you may say. I didn't bring a big first aid kit, no hand sanitizer, and no warm jersey for Delhi winter - call me daring or stupid!
I stayed at Prakash Kutir, a lovely homestay, for the first two nights, a great option if you are looking for budget hotels in Delhi. I ate some amazing food at the Bikaner House with my friend Joe (if you ever need the best tour guide in Delhi I will gladly get you in touch with him, he is nothing but awesome especially if you are into food!). I took it slow and worked and got acclimatized with India again.
Then I moved to The Ashok (for those who are more looking at five star hotels in Delhi!) where I met the rest of our little crew and we went off to explore Delhi in a day. Together we took a Delhi tour of the old and new city. To be honest I am still not sure if I like it. I think it is a hard to grasp city, hard to like instantly, but too intriguing to outright dislike.
Historical places in Delhi are the Qutub Minar and the Humayun Tomb as well as the president's palace and his beautiful gardens. While all of that was interesting, it didn't touch me. I have come to realize that old buildings and even their history don't touch me anymore. I will take pictures, it's my job, but I don't feel anything.
What I did feel was Old Delhi that we got to see on the second day. The smell, the sounds, the beautiful chaos. The part of Delhi that confuses you, teases you, disgusts, entices or enchants you. Sometimes all at the same time.
Thanks to the traffic there is only so much you can see of Delhi in a day even if you are being driven around in bicycle rickshaws, a sometimes scary and always fascinating process of moving (or not) through the chaos. For the first time, India hit me fully and I think it was the culture shock I finally got thanks to Old Delhi that warmed me up to the city. Dogs on car roofs, women smiling, beggars pleading, men with henna colored hair staring, drivers honking, sweet sirup trickly from my jalebi grabbing fingers, and a dirty cat begging for some chicken from the butcher while sitting on a cage full of chickens still alive. And of course, it being Saturday a neverending array of rickshaws, cars, buses, bikes, and anything with wheels or legs on the road.
The beautiful anchor point for me was a visit to the Sikh temple, one of the best places to visit in Delhi to me. I previously went there for lunch on my Intrepid food tour and I adored the experience and the concept.
Not only is any and every religion welcome (and you will not be judged on your beliefs or lack thereof!) but they also make 10,000 meals for people in need and people, in general, every single day. All done by volunteers, sponsored and paid for, and distributed by kind hearts without any questions ask. You can go there as a visitor, denomination doesn't matter, rich or poor, and have a meal. And yes, you can also go into the kitchen and make some chapatti yourself, though be warned, the ladies don't allow slack and will tell you off if you are not rolling the bread nicely!
And even as a non-Sikh, you can go and sit in the prayer room and sing and watch and just be. It's a spiritual place but it's not being rubbed in your face and I like that.
Mind you, when we left, I was handed a rose (even though I kind of took/stole my teacup by mistake and I didn't give the gurus pudding - does anybody know what it is called?? - like the other worshippers did). Our guide, Jothy, told me afterward that I must keep it for good luck. And yes, I left the cup!
“The restlessness and the longing, like the longing that is in the whistle of a faraway train. Except that the longing isn't really in the whistle—it is in you.”
Indeed, I felt quite lucky when we got to the train station that night. The Hogwarts Maharajas Express awaited us and if you ever want to see a group of grown-ups behaves like kids in a candy store put them on a luxury train and tell them there is free booze.
All aboard, our butler Raju showed us to our cabin and Manhattanite Nikki and I rejoiced - compared to New York real estate it was quite roomy. After dinner which I will tell you more about in the posts to come because one cannot write about India and not mention the food, we went to sleep while the train left the station. To be honest, it took a bit to get used to sleeping on a moving train and the first night wasn't the most restful. But still... every squeak, every bump, every choo choo in the distance seemed to whisper: adventure awaits. And after all, this is what made me fall in love with India in the end.