India: Part I

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[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Starting point: Mumbai”][/ultimate_heading]

After 3 months in Africa, my next destination was India. India would not necessarily have been on my bucket list, but I want there for the annual World Congres of the Junior Chamber International, an NGO for that I’ve been volunteering for the past couple of years. It was the perfect opportunity to go to India. You hear good things and you hear bad things about India; every person seems to have a different perspective, but it’s either very good or very bad. Nobody ever returns from India saying: “Wasn’t too bad, but not that interesting/good either”. Either you love it or you hate it. Let’s see to which opinion my experience there have got me.

After the week in Mumbai at the JCI World Congres, where I was happy to meet good friends from all over the world I hadn’t seen in a while, I left Goa on November, the 5th, and took a plane to Mumbai where my friend Anja from Belgium joined me for a 3 weeks backpacking trip across India. She arrived very late that night, because she had had some problems with her flight. We stayed at the Basti – Backpackers Hostel. The hostel in general was quite okay, but the staff was less than helpful: only 1 person spoke some English and they weren’t any help in planing our trip. That was one of the reasons of our misery to come…

The next morning, we started planing our trip and we found out that our second stop, Aurangabad, was going to be quite difficult. It is far away from everything and especially getting to Rajasthan from there was quite difficult. We still wanted to go there, because it’s a place not many backpackers go to (understandable, considering how difficult it is to get there) and because the Ajanta caves and the Ellora caves are supposed to be one of the highlights of India. This is, ultimately, the source of all the troubles and headaches we had in India (you’ll see later).

In the afternoon, we did the Slum tour with Mystical Mumbai and our guide, Anthony, was amazing. The Dharavi slum was quite different from what we expected and from what you see in the famous movie « Slumdog Millionaire » (a movie the people there hate, because of the wrong picture it paints, it seems): people there work very hard and there are no beggars, no starving or dying people in the streets. In this slum you can only see men working: they recycle plastics, aluminium, metals and fabrics and they prepare leather products. It’s a very busy area and people there earn quite good money that allows them to send their children to school. We were very surprised by what we saw. I guess there still are very poor and starving people around and our guide just didn’t go to these areas with us, but still, the general impression was much better than expected.

Anthony asked about our plans for India and we asked him his opinion about how to best get to Aurangabad, telling him that the people in the hostel hadn’t been able to help us… He told us he couldn’t officially help us, but after the tour, he could go to the official tourist information of India, IncredibleIndia!, with us and, being a bit desperate, we agreed. In the tourist information, they scared us that we would not get any buses or hostels/hotels the next weeks because of this Diwali holiday that had just started. Usually I’m not easily impressed by such people, but our guide, Anthony, who seemed like a legit and nice guy, agreed on these difficulties and so I took it seriously as well. Being stressed, a bit afraid of traveling in India and – to be honest – stupid, we agreed to take his offer to get our bus tickets and hotel bookings for us for 500€ (including 1 camel safari in Jaisalmer). I knew that some JCI friends had paid the same amount of money for only 5 or 10 days of holidays in Rajasthan, so this amount for 19 days seemed quite all right to us (such idiots! I should have known better!)…

Later it would turn out to be the worst decision we could have made. The guy was not exactly a scam artist, but he is certainly Indian and tried to scam us best he could. It was so very hard to get from him what we wanted, it was super annoying. It started by the fact that after our payment he insisted on only giving us one ticket at a time, always just the day before we needed it. I was quite angry at that, but I was still positive, thinking: “okay, he’s working for the government, he must be legit and we’ll get everything..” WRONG!


The next day, Anja and I wanted to bring our luggage directly to the cloak room in the train station, because Ahmed, our agent, had told us we would take a train at 7PM. There they told us that without a ticket they couldn’t take our luggage and when I called Ahmed to send me the ticket, he just told me to bring the luggage to his office. When we got there, he told us that, in the end, we would not get a train, but a bus, and that it would only be at 9:45PM. The timing was better for us, but is seemed a bit strange to suddenly get a bus instead of a train (next indication: this would cause us a lot of troubles!). But whatever…

Anja and I spent the day discovering the old town of Mumbai. We really liked this city! It’s huge, but the Southern part (old town) is very English and beautiful and we had a very good time.

[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Aurangabad – more than just caves”][/ultimate_heading]

At 9PM, after some good dinner, we went looking for the bus station, but it turned out that India doesn’t have any bus stations!!! Buses stop at weird places or, if you’re lucky, in front of the bus company offices. Not here though; we had to look for a long time, not knowing exactly where the stop was, nobody could help us; we called the bus agency, but they were absolutely not helpful. In the end, we found a place on the road with lots of people with luggage and it turned out that this is where the buses stop. After all this mess, we were very happy when we finally got our bus! It was a sleeper bus, that means real beds and AC, not just seats where you sit in and barely can fall asleep.

The bus stopped a few times during the night for washroom stops (in India it’s not called “toilet” but “washroom”; sounds more fancy, but they are not). The bus ride was quite okay and we arrived safely in Aurangabad at 7AM. When we took a tuk tuk to our hotel, we were a bit disappointed: it was a cheap hotel and the staff was not very nice; only 1 person there spoke any English and he talked to everyone like he knows everything and we have to be taught: “Do this, this is good for you”. I wanted to punch this guy more than one time…

Our stay there made us decide that we didn’t want any shitty hotels from this agent anymore but only good hostels that we chose ourselves. So we looked up places we wanted to stay in for each city we were going to and sent him a list. He was like: “oh, I can’t give you this… don’t you want that?”. We were furious and I claimed I would cancel the payment if he didn’t send us by evening the confirmation of all the hostels we wanted. It was so annoying that we had to make threats and insist relentlessly until getting what we wanted. Fortunately, in the end we got what we wanted, but it was still going to be difficult and unnerving (see later Jodhpur)…

Luckily, there were 2 French guys in our hotel (Benjamin and Rudy) who also wanted to see the Ajanta caves that day, just like us. So the hotel manager offered to go with them by car instead of taking a bus. They agreed to let us come along and we actually became good friends during this trip.

They had had a bad trip so far: their luggage had been lost at the airport in Munich and they had been scammed by the hotel about the taxi price for the visit of the caves in Ellora and Ajanta. They took it with humour though and they had a good time anyway…

The caves in Ajanta were absolutely beautiful and the trip to Aurangabad had been worth it, even though it’s quite far from everything and difficult to get to and from. The Hindu and Buddhist caves in Ajanta conserved many original colours and were quite well preserved. It showed what a great culture India had been during the early centuries A.D.

The Ellora caves that we visited the next day (by bus and alone because Benjamin and Rudy had been there the day before we arrived) were very nice as well, but only the Kailasa temple was really impressive compared to the Ajanta caves. This temple was huge and absolutely stunning to look at. I would recommend everyone who visits India to go see these caves!

Good to know: don’t go during Diwali: there are just too many Indian tourists and there is nothing worse than Indian tourist! We got asked by 1000 people to take a selfie with them (it seems white people in India are a zoo attraction), they are shoving you around and don’t really take the time to appreciate things. We observed this not only in Aurangabad but also everywhere in Rajasthan, worst of all in Udaipur in the palace museum.

Anyway, like I said, the caves are magnificent and definitely worth a visit.

[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Udaipur”][/ultimate_heading]

After visiting the Ellora caves, we took another nightbus, this time to Ahmedabad. 2 bad things happened during this bus ride: 1) the bus didn’t stop for toilet breaks and when we went outside to relieve ourselves during a traffic jam, I fell into a deep ditch I hadn’t seen in the dark and broke my big toe (fortunately I landed on rubbish bags and so I didn’t break more than that); 2) our bus was almost 2 hours delayed and we were very stressed we wouldn’t get the next bus to Udaipur. Fortunately, we did! We had to overpay a tuk tuk driver (as there are no bus stations in India, our drop off and hop on points were 25 minutes by car from each other) and we were constantly on the phone with the bus agency, but in the end we managed to get our connection bus!

After this stressful night, we arrived at 5PM in Udaipur and took a tuk tuk to our hostel, the Banjara hostel. The staff there was super nice and the rooms big, the beds incredibly comfortable and the AC not too cold. They were connected to a restaurant on the roof top that had quite good prices and really good food. We spent a lot of time up there enjoying the view.

During our first evening, we only had a beer and dinner there and went to bed very early after such an exhausting journey. This was the best night I had had in a long time…

On our second day, November 11th, we visited the city palace and its museum. Because it was Sunday and still Diwali season, the crowd was incredible and during the first part of the visit, we almost suffocated in the small corridors between all the annoying Indian tourists who never stopped shoving and pushing you around. Fortunately, at one point the way was a bit confusing and many tourist went to the exit instead of continuing the visit. So, the second part was much much better!

The city palace is huge and very beautiful. Since it was our first visit of an Indian palace, it was quite interesting to see the difference with European palaces: much less gold, more white and open, many fountains and much less superficial splendour. I really liked it.

After this visit, we had lunch and then wanted to take a boat to the small island on the lake, but there was such a huge queue that we decided to do this the next day. So, instead, we went shopping and discovered the beautiful narrow streets of the old town.

At 4:30PM, we were back at the hostel and got the best spot in the restaurant: the highest point on the roof top terrace (there were 3 levels) from where you have an amazing view over the magnificent sunset behind the lake and the mountains and – later – over the illuminated city. Later we were joined there by a girl from Montreal and an Indian guy she had met and we spent the evening talking to them.

The next morning, Anja and I went to the ferry station quite early and took a boat to the island. It was very nice there and we enjoyed the sunny morning.

Later, we went back to the hostel where I got some rest (I was feeling a bit sick after having eaten some bad watermelon at breakfast) and Anja walked around in the city. At 4:30PM, we got a tuk tuk to the famous Monsoon palace to see the sunset from there. This palace is pretty worn down and not nice to visit, but the view from up there over the city, the lakes and the mountains is amazing! The sunset was much better from our hostel, but I can definitely recommend you to go up there if you’re in Udaipur to enjoy the beautiful view.

That night, we took another night bus to Jodhpur and we were surprised that for once it was easy to find the bus stop at the bus agency. 😄

So, about our first week backpacking in India, I can only say that we had had a very good time enjoying beautiful India, but that we didn’t like Indian people who always try to take pictures of you, selfies with you and try to scam you in any way they can…

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