In October 2013, Explore’s Cat Morrissey travelled to India on our Moghul Highlights tour to fulfil her dream of seeing the Taj Mahal. But did the reality live up to the expectation?
"As l stepped off the flight from London to Delhi, the heat hit me. My trip had been seven months coming and with the unusually long build up, the excitement had actually dissipated. I was excited to be in India but also nervous and apprehensive. Would l like the food? Would l get on with the others in my tour group? I had booked an extension to spend time in Baga, Goa after the tour and didn’t want to spend the eight days on tour wishing Goa would hurry up because l was having a terrible time. Overall l felt a sense of happiness that l was off on a two-week adventure but this was mixed with trepidation. Would l actually have ‘the time of my life’ as l had so longed for on this trip?
As a traveller with a constant thirst for exploration l had always wanted to visit India. When travelling round Asia five years ago, the stories l heard made me yearn to ride a rickshaw through Old Delhi, search for tigers in Ranthambore National Park and lastly, visit the beautiful Taj Mahal. My concerns as a solo female traveller were inflamed earlier this year with stories of attacks on females in India. When l mentioned my plans to family members they were very nervous for me, especially my Nan! A tour seemed the perfect way to travel – a tour leader on hand to look after me, a ready-made group of friends and wasting no time in getting to and from the major highlights.
My first ‘wow’ moment came as we travelled from the airport to our hotel in New Delhi, the sight of boys playing cricket on a motorway grass verge in between two lanes of moving traffic made me smile. Their ability to find pleasure from a game of cricket in the midst of chaos bought home to me just how different this world was from the one I had just left.
After a refreshing sleep and shower, we met with our Tour Leader and group - a good mix of males, females and different ages. I realised l needn’t have worried about getting on with people as everyone was very welcoming and friendly. l knew straight away that there would be some good friendships made over the next eight days.
Our first proper experience of India came as we walked through Old Delhi, having been softly introduced to the country with a start in New Delhi, this was a completely different kettle of fish – or smell should l say! The sights, sounds and smells were on a completely different level to what we had already seen. The poverty hit me hard – having relatives back home that had illnesses – as l took in what l could see, l compared it my loved ones; the difference in the way they are treated was extreme. It really made me appreciate the things we take for granted at home. The pungent smell was something that now l cannot put into words. As we waited for our rickshaw ride it was almost over-powering. Again, it was a moment that shocked me, but when you realise that you are literally standing in someone else’s toilet it soon brings home to you how lucky we are to have these facilities easily obtainable at home.
Something that had long been on my ‘to-do’ list was visiting the Taj Mahal. This was my main reason for visiting India and l had very high expectations of the ultimate love token, especially as it was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Built in 1631 by Shah Jehan as a symbol of everlasting love for his Queen, Arjuman Banu Begum. the Taj certainly lived up to my expectations. As we walked up to the Taj itself, l was shocked to find inside just two tombs – of Shah and his Queen – and a series of empty rooms and corridors. Although this wasn’t quite what l expected, just the beauty of the Taj itself was outstanding. We sat and looked at the monument for only a short time but l could’ve spent a whole day there; it really is a feast for the eyes and an object of beauty.
Later that day we visited the site of the ‘Black Taj’, the monument Shah started to build before his son ruled him insane and imprisoned him. Situated opposite the Taj, across the river and surrounded in lush, green gardens, this was actually one of the highlights of my tour. The Tour Leader hadn’t gone into great detail about what we were visiting, so to visit the un-crowded, peaceful gardens and just sit and gaze at the Taj from a different angle was a real wow moment for me.
A game we played whilst on tour was ‘how many people can you spot on one motorcycle’. As we journeyed by bus through the country, different members of the group would shout out when spotting an amazing sight. ‘I have six people, plus the child is carrying chickens in a pet carrier’ was the eventual winner, but we also saw variations of adults, children, pets and babies either squeezed onto or hanging off the bikes as they roared past us. What surprised me the most was that the women, dressed in their beautiful flowing sari’s, managed to remain composed and pristine while weaving through the traffic.
Whilst on tour, one item that is a must-have is a pack of cards. After dinner most evenings, we would either play cards in small groups or join forces for a bigger game such as chase the ace or donkey. It sounds daft, but moments like these are always a highlight for me. You can see the competitive nature coming out in a person once the cards are dealt! Add into the mix a few large bottles of Kingfisher beer at £1 a go and you have an evening guaranteed to be filled with laughter.
On day five we journeyed on camel carts through Karauli to the Royal Fort – up and down, bumping along with a gaggle of local children following us, chasing and giggling. Posing for my camera in their best movie star pose, they wanted to see how the result of their moment in the spotlight looked on the screen. Interaction with local people like this is also a massive plus of being on a tour for me. I travel because l want to meet the people and see the places they live. getting to interact with them in this way is always what i find makes an Explore holiday different from your standard getaway.
At the end of the eight days, my travelling companion and I took an overnight train from Mumbai to Goa. We were travelling on Diwali, the Indian festival of light - this felt like a real adventure as even though we had booked ourselves into the first class carriage, we were still sitting with local people. Many of them stared at us quite openly and frequently. I guess they were just as curious about us, as we were them.
Opposite us, there was an elderly lady whose son had put her on the train at a particular stop. She had a long journey ahead and the son took the telephone number of a young lad who was also in our section. Once the train had departed he called frequently to check on the lady’s welfare and asked the boy to ensure the elderly lady was seen off at the correct stop. The elderly lady shared some boiled sweets she had and we in turn offered round our selection of chocolates – a selection box of ‘Cadburys’ chocolates which were different to say the least. As this was the first time we had been off on our own in India with no Tour Leader to sort any issues, l was feeling rather nervous about the journey we had ahead. The train was due to stop in Goa at 01.35hrs so we had planned when we would sleep and set an alarm on my phone to wake us in time. There was a guard on the train who had a list of where each passenger was to depart so l knew deep down all would be well, but l couldn’t ease my anxieties.
When the lady left the train, l clasped my hands together to ‘offer’ her all elements of my being (a form of welcome in India, similar to that of a handshake) and wished her a ‘Happy Diwali’. She seemed touched that l had done so and clasped her hands over mine and spoke softly to me in Indian. Perhaps she sensed my nervousness during the journey and wanted to offer some comfort? Who knows, but as I smiled at her as she spoke, l realised that l had absolutely no idea what she was saying. She could’ve been telling me that l needed to lose weight or that the boiled sweet had been laced with arsenic. I like to think that her words were a blessing or a thank you for keeping an eye out for her whilst she travelled. l will never know what she said or where her onward journey was to but l would like to think l made a lasting memory for her as she did with me.
Returning home and back to the mundane realities of life, l am grateful every day that l have a warm bed to sleep in and am healthy. The images l saw in Old Delhi will stay with me forever but also so will the warmth and hospitality l received in India. People were genuinely proud of their heritage and wanted to invite tourists to experience that. The majestic Taj Mahal is also a sight that will remain with me for a long time – a sight that well and truly lived up to my expectations and as l try to put down on paper the experience, words simply can’t describe how happy l was to finally be at the very spot l had wanted to visit for so long."
By Cat Morrissey. Cat travelled on our Moghul Highlights tour to India.