31 October – 7 November 2010, India
Nearly three and a half months after wrapping up the Asian leg of our journey, we boarded a plane in Amman, Jordan bound for New Delhi, India. Given that we were eventually flying to South America, one might question why we chose to backtrack over 2,000 miles. While searching for plane tickets from the Middle East to Argentina, we discovered that flights were incredibly expensive. A desire to visit the Indian subcontinent caused us to research additional options. It turns out that the combination of flights from Jordan to India and then onward to Argentina would cost us less than a one way ticket from Jordan to Argentina. Eager to explore this country that enchants so many travelers, we excitedly made our way to the land of rickshaws, sacred cows and spicy cuisine.
Our Indian itinerary was determined one whole month before stepping foot in New Delhi. This was a necessity given that we were visiting during Diwali, one of the country’s most important festivals. Historically, Indians celebrated Diwali in their hometown surrounded by family and close friends. While still the case for a lot of Indians, we discovered that many now hit the road during this five day holiday. Between Indian tourists and people traveling to and from their hometowns, train seats are in high demand during Diwali and sometimes sell out months in advance. Although we disliked the idea of having to plan ahead and commit to a schedule dictated by plane and train tickets, it ended up being for the best given India’s massive size and our three week timeframe.
Our instincts told us that New Delhi was not a place we wanted to spend a lot of time…and they were right. Our two days in India’s capital city were spent recovering from our red eye flight, eating ridiculously delicious food and easing into the chaos that seems to define life in India. Once acclimated, we headed to Jaisalmer, India’s Golden City set amidst the dunes of the Thar Desert. Unable to find available train seats that would take us all the way from Delhi to Jaisalmer, we flew to Jodhpur and then finished the remainder of the journey in a third class train berth. This was our first experience with train travel in India and we were pleasantly surprised by its quality and efficiency. The berths were simple and the train cars showed their age but there was plenty of space and we departed and arrived exactly as scheduled. Our berth and those surrounding it were filled with Indian families. One couple and their adult son had traveled all the way from Kolkata, nearly 60 hours by train from Jaisalmer. The berth next door was filled with a large family that passed the time easily with games, song and laughter. The atmosphere on the train was festive and the excitement was contagious. By the time we arrived in Jaisalmer, Jason and I were itching to do some exploring.
Many visitors spend their time in Jaisalmer atop a camel slogging its way through the sand. Given that our last camel ride in Mongolia was about as enjoyable as a Filipino bus journey, we opted to forego the heavily advertised camel tours. Instead we spent our four days in Jaisalmer wandering the narrow streets of the old town, exploring ornately decorated ancient mansions known as havelis, visiting the city’s massive fort and soaking up the atmosphere of Diwali. I have no doubt that Jaisalmer is always a colorful, magical place but being fortunate enough to visit during Diwali enabled us to see the city at its finest. Known as the Festival of Lights, many Indians celebrate with family gatherings, glittering clay lamps, fireworks, strings of electric lights, bonfires, flowers and sweets. Houses throughout the city were lit up like Christmas trees, the streets were filled with vendors selling strings of flowers, and candles lined the ledges and stairs in front of people’s homes.
One day while heading from our hotel to the nearby fort, we heard the distant sound of beating drums. As the sound of the music grew closer and more intense, we realized we had stumbled upon a Diwali parade. Fighting our way through the crowded alleyways, we encountered dancing, music, floats, camels, confetti and an endless sea of people in brightly colored clothing. It was like we stepped onto the set of a Bollywood movie and I couldn’t help but feel blown away by the energy and excitement of the Indian people. For many Indian businesses, Diwali marks the beginning of a new financial year and money earned is considered a good omen for a prosperous year ahead. At least that is what we were told repeatedly by shop owners encouraging us to make purchases. Despite their eagerness to make a sale, they often seemed more focused on celebrating and thus weren’t too pushy. In general, spirits were high and we actually enjoyed walking past shops and being constantly greeted with smiles and shouts of “Diwali specials!”
We were initially frustrated when we found out we were visiting India during Diwali. Sitting in our hotel room in Egypt, four weeks before arriving in India, we started doing research and were shocked to find that most train tickets were no longer available. Mapping out our itinerary for India was time-consuming and we questioned whether or not we had made the right decision. One month later, standing in the shadow of Jaisalmer’s golden colored fort surrounded by music, laughter, candles and lights, that stressful night back in Egypt was a distant memory. As travelers we always dream of being able to experience something real or authentic while visiting a country and so far India was making it very easy for us to do just that.