By Karen Edel
We’d always wanted to go to India but knew next to nothing about it. The prospect of organising a holiday with eye rolling teenagers in a limited time was daunting, so we turned to the internet and stumbled across the quirkily named travel agency, ‘Incredible Tour to India’. The charming and patient CEO Ganpat Prajapat gave us excellent advice, booked everything and off we flew to India.
Our driver met us at the airport and took us on an unbelievably breakneck bumper to bumper drive across Delhi, where the ring roads change from five lanes to one lane with no warning, and every driver is racing and beeping everyone else.
It was fantastic. Saturday is wedding night so we saw several spectacular wedding parties with grooms on white horses – all proceeding down the roads against the crazy traffic.
Cows grazing alongside all this mayhem, wedding fireworks exploding in the road, girls sitting side saddle on mopeds looking unconcerned by all the speeding and weaving around, food stalls and fruit shops all along the way. At one point the highway came to a stop and all the cars simultaneously U-turned and headed in the opposite direction, at the same speed. We were exhausted, but too terrified and agog to close our eyes.
We met Ganpat who checked us into the delightful Lalit Hotel at Connaught Place and briefed us on the next two weeks. He seems lovely – and we can’t believe he drove all the way from Jaipur to welcome us to India!
We thought we’d venture out for a walk in the morning – Connaught Place is supposed to be an upmarket area with lots of old colonial buildings and avenues, so we hoped it would be less crazy out there – but no. The frenzy is at full pitch, with hopeful, desperate touts latching on to us every step of the way.
We trekked around, stepping over a zillion sleeping dogs on the footpaths (how they can sleep in the crush of humanity I don’t know). People everywhere trying to sell everything you can think of. One little girl sidled up to Lachlan and snuck her paw into his pocket.
A rickshaw ride was absolutely terrifying. This poor tiny little man valiantly cycled across five lanes of screaming, honking traffic while I clung on with white knuckles. At one point we passed a cow lying down, chewing its cud in the middle of all the cars whizzing past – the place is completely bonkers! For the privilege of nearly killing himself for a large whitey the man charged me less than 50 cents.
Kaziranga National Park, Assam
After a couple of days of touring the fascinating but overwhelming Delhi, we flew to Guwahati in Assam, north-eastern India, for a change of pace.
Our driver drove us four hours east to the Diphlu River Lodge in Kaziranga National Park, famous for its tigers and the Indian one-horned rhinoceros. The Lodge was surprisingly fabulous. We were greeted by eight staff with hot face towels and cold drinks, who swept up all our luggage and took us to our beautiful thatched bamboo-framed cottages on stilts. The Brahmaputra River floods spectacularly every year, hence the stilts.
The resort is right on the border of the national park, so the staff escort us to the dining room/bar in case of tigers or buffalo. The grounds are beautiful, and run on very sustainable principles with recycled grey water and home-grown vegetables.
There are no other white tourists here so we feel quite intrepid. After a couple of cocktails at the bar overlooking the river, a fascinating chat with our host, Ronesh, and a magnificent Indian feast we were escorted back to our cottages to bed – finding hot water bottles tucked in our sheets and shortbreads to snack on. Blissful!
The next morning we were up at dawn to take an elephant ride in the park – very comfortable. The elephants looked well cared for and happy and were accompanied by three or four baby elephants, who checked us all over for treats with their trunks.
We saw wild elephants, deer, wild boar and several massive rhinoceroses at close quarters – it was terrific. After that we had a picnic breakfast surrounded by goats and elephants who loved being hand fed bananas, and then we were taken on a jeep ride around the park, seeing loads more wildlife.
Over the following two days we had four more nature safaris, following fresh tiger prints and seeing rare giant squirrels, gibbons and rhesus monkeys, otters, brilliant bird life and lots of rhinos and elephants. At dusk on the last day we saw a magnificent male tiger. There are only about 100 in the park, so it was extremely lucky.
We were sorry to leave Kaziranga but after three nights (and a lovely outdoor feast and dancing with the traditional local villagers) we had to leave at 4am for the long drive back to Guwahati to fly to Varanasi via Kolkata, arriving a couple of hours late due to fog delays.
In the morning a local guide and driver took us on a riotous trip to the old town where buffalo, cows, monkeys, goats and dogs all share the roads with rickshaws, tuk-tuks, pedestrians, cars and scooters. Completely crazy.
Thousands of pilgrims were making their way to the Ganges, past food stalls and people selling flowers for the offerings and little copper pots of holy water. Once down at the Ganges, we took a little boat ride past kids flying kites and playing cricket, ashrams, pilgrims bathing in the river, people getting their heads shaved by priests and cremations (with goats, cows and dogs enjoying the fires and standing around with the deceased’s family).
Varanasi is such a riot of colour and history, with ancient royal palaces on the banks of the river, Mother Theresa’s old home, funny little guest houses for ganga-smoking hippies and stalls selling mats and oils for the corpses. Our guide took us through tiny narrow alleys all around the historic quarter (Varanasi is the oldest city in Asia he told us, with at least 3500 years of recorded habitation).
He pointed out Hindu temples plated in gold and ancient mosques but it was hard for me to stop gawking at all the animals – we had to squeeze past bulls and water buffalo blocking the paths every few minutes. They paid us no attention at all.
We bought some silk scarves at a weaving shop, doing the tea drinking and chatting with the owner routine for a while before turning to business.
That night we took a stunning boat ride on the Ganges to see the funeral ceremonies and make wishes with floating candles and flowers.
We had a brilliant Agra Christmas at a lovely hotel, with a Christmas morning tour of the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal, plus a very tempting carpet house (in the end we didn’t buy but we really enjoyed watching the men hand weave rugs on traditional frames, their fingers knotting and cutting so fast, it was just a blur).
Christmas was a very lavish feast at the hotel with carol singers, live music on traditional instruments and a pottery man making things – we had a go at making bowls and cups before enjoying table tennis around the pool.
After a couple of days in Agra we drove six hours to Ranthambore in Rajasthan, North west India, with our lovely driver, Yuv Raj.
The driving is never boring with sometimes bizarre scenes of local life streaming past our windows. The kids swore they saw a goat dancing on its back legs, watched by a circle of other goats, through the open door of a home.
Holy men in orange turbans sharing a campfire with snoring dogs and goats in cardigans, pigs, cows and dogs eating rubbish in the street side by side, children riding elephants in the fields, men getting shaved by cutlass wielding barbers. In India, you see things you couldn’t even imagine anywhere else.
In Ranthambore, the countryside is a little like Afghanistan – rocky and sparse greenery, with beautiful mountain outcrops. It’s almost desert country, quite different from lush, jungley Kaziranga.
We have our own safari guide and driver who pick us up in a little open jeep (called a gypsy) at 7am and drive us through the crazy, camel-pig-cow-goat-dog filled town to the national park. It is absolutely freezing – we are dressed in snow gear but by mid morning when the sun gets high it’s lovely.
The driver bounces us up vertical rock tracks to the top of the hills to look for tigers and leopards. We hang on in terror; it’s quite an extreme sport. There are spectacular views at the top.
We’ve seen tiger tracks and there are plenty of different species of deer, some with impressive antlers, around here; but no sightings of tigers or leopards. On the first morning we were delighted to see a sloth bear ambling along – about the size of a fat Rottweiler. Lots of pheasants and peacocks, little owls, wild boar – but no wild elephants or rhinos in this park.
We met a young cowherd in the park who had lost a cow to a tiger a couple of days before. Later we saw the skeleton, and a freshly killed buffalo, but the tiger stayed out of sight.
We left Ranthambore after three days and drove to Jaipur. On the first night we were invited to Ganpat’s home for dinner, which was really gorgeous. His whole extended family was there, standing around watching while we ate a delicious traditional meal.
His lovely wife measured me up in about 5 seconds and an hour later produced a blouse and skirt that she’d knocked up for me – and then got me dressed up with a veil and jewellery, which was hilarious. Robert was given a huge turban to wear, which made us all fall about laughing.
Two weeks has flown past in this most amazing country and we promised Ganpat that we will be coming back soon. A huge success from beginning to end, with the teenagers conceding that they’ve never had a better holiday – and no eye rolling (even when their parents danced in public)!
Ganpat Prajapat, Incredible Tour To India
Phone +91 99837 41818