Freelance writer Emily Stott, who worked for Northern Life before continuing her career in the south of England, is taking on a six month trip with her boyfriend, travelling to the USA, Southeast Asia, and India.
Clouds of colour flew through the air in bursts of garish pinks, sunset reds and neon yellows. Canons shot flower petals into the air whilst rhythmic Bhangra music blasted from speakers creating a wave of spontaneous dancing throughout the crowd.
This was the Holi Festival, India’s Hindu colour festival. A beautiful and often rowdy festival which involves locals and tourists alike chucking brightly coloured powdered paint in each other’s faces.
The festival signifies the beginning of spring and a chance for new beginnings, and saying it’s a lot of fun is a big understatement…
After travelling around South East Asia for the last four months, it was mixed emotions when we left Thailand at the end of February and said goodbye to a region that has provided so many amazing experiences. In the last edition I had just left Vietnam for Cambodia where I saw the amazing Angkor Wat, then on to the stunning limestone mountains of Laos and the white sand beaches of Thailand. Now I am in India, the final stop on our six month travelling sabbatical… and so far it has been an amazing but crazy experience.
We started our journey, as most travellers do, arriving in Delhi, green and new and not knowing what to expect. What we did encounter was absolute chaos. I enjoyed spending time in the capital city – but I’m not sure if it’s something I would want to repeat.
The incessant horns blaring, the hectic streets and standstill traffic all make it very overwhelming. In Delhi, the amount of touts, tuk tuk drivers and friendly strangers wanting to sell something or know where you hail from is never ending. Not to mention, the unique experience of pedestrians taking third priority on the roads, traffic number two and the vast amount of free roaming cows number one.
The first words that the hostel owners in Delhi asked when we arrived, even before hello, was ‘did you get scammed?’ This says all it needs to. My advice would be, stay sceptical, stay wary, but enjoy the city for what it is, an interesting and bustling place.
Our first day in Delhi consisted of a taxi tour to see Parliament and the President’s house, as well as India Gate, the monument originally built to commemorate Indian soldiers fighting for the British empire in the First World War.
It took me aback to first see the body of a man being burnt on the waters edge
The house of Indira Ghandi, India’s first female Prime Minister who was assassinated by her own guards just metres from her home, was also a very enlightening experience. The Sydney Opera House-styled Lotus Temple, a monument to Ghandi and the red fort, made it an exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable tour.
There are many things to love about India, from the beautiful landscapes, its architecture and people… but the food is fantastic. As a vegetarian, seeing a tiny ‘non-veg’ section dominated by the plentiful vegetarian fare on every restaurant menu feels like I’ve stepped into some alternate reality. Even Mcdonald’s is mostly veggie and cruelty free. Wow. And from Thali to fiery curries, an array of tasty breads and rice, there really is so much good food here. It is by far the tastiest cuisine of any country we have visited on our trip. The only downside, and it’s quite a big one, is the inevitable and horribly severe attack of food poisoning that all travellers seem to endure during their first week or so in India.
After Delhi, we moved on to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. A terrible bout of the dreaded “Delhi belly” meant that we stayed here much longer than the day trip many opt for, until three days later we were well enough to make it to the world famous white building. It isn’t a cliché, the Taj was so beautiful and beyond impressive. The detail on the building is incredible and when you first take in the full sight of the marble mausoleum it actually does take your breath away. Something about it being such an iconic landmark gave me an incredibly surreal feeling, as though I couldn’t believe I was actually there.
Mark and I must have taken hundreds of photos of the Taj, but ended up being asked to pose for almost as many selfies with Indian tourists. They were especially in awe of my boyfriend’s pale skin and ginger hair. Amidst the beauty of the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world, what they really wanted was a picture with Mark from Suffolk.
From here we travelled by train to Varanasi, a mystical place on the Ganges where ancient narrow streets weave down to the vibrant ghats. The bathing ghats burst with life, as women wash their hands, feet and saris in the holy water, while men dive in head first and scrub their beards. Boats set out every morning at dawn to watch the tranquil sunrise over the water and then within minutes, the area has come alive. The bathing ghats are as much a celebration of life as the burning ghats are a celebration and a sombre goodbye to the dead. I will admit it took me aback to first see the body of a man being burnt on the waters edge while the family grieved on the steps nearby. It gives the place an ethereal feeling, at once tranquil and at other times intense.
Thankfully, we didn’t see any floating corpses (as we’d been warned) on our sunrise boat ride but I think the intoxicating smell, the cows and dogs foraging around the burning piles and the sight of feet poking out from the fire, was more than enough for me. Just a few days later, we headed north in search of a place to chill out.
Trains are definitely the way to travel in India. Seeing varying landscapes whizz past the window while having a cup of chai tea feels like something out of a film. Most of the trains we have travelled on have been overnight journeys however, equipped with reasonably comfy
bunk beds and blankets – and it was this way that we made our way to the edge of the Himalayas.
Rishikesh, a chilled out town famed for yoga and meditation, was our next stop. It has a stunning backdrop of mountains and the blue, sparkling Ganges. Although admittedly neither of us are interested in yoga or meditation, it was still a lovely place for some much needed down time. Rishikesh is also known as the town where the Beatles took time out to write the White Album in 1968, and so the 60s pop icons are a favourite with cafes. Fans can even visit the now overgrown ashram where they stayed.
An overwhelming, eye opening and awe inspiring experience
After drinking all the healthy vegetable smoothies we could handle, we headed to Rajasthan and to the city of Jaipur just in time for Holi. The two day festival began with bonfires and celebrations on the evening of March 12th, and continued with the country-wide paint fight on the morning of the 13th.
We began with our hostel celebration. Even before breakfast, we were covered in paint from having it smeared on our faces, thrown in our hair or chucked all over my new white outfit.
Once out on the street, the real fun began, from strangers shouting ‘Happy Holi’ from their motorbikes and then smearing paint on our cheeks to the government run party in town, which was an explosion of colour and music.
The venue was a safe place for tourists and families to “play Holi” away from the often rowdy atmosphere of the streets. By 1pm the morning’s partying was coming to a close and now exhausted we made our way back to the hostel, stopping almost every few seconds to be showered with more paint. The arduous task of removing the colours afterwards didn’t dampen our spirits and the evening was followed by drinking and music.
Holi celebrates new beginnings which resonates strongly with myself as our trip comes to a close and a new chapter begins. But, for now, my time in India continues as we head into the desert for a camel safari. This incredibly vast and vibrant country has not undelivered. It is an overwhelming, eye opening and awe inspiring experience – and I’d go as far as saying exploring India should be on everybody’s bucket list.