India: Steaming in a real Indian summer

Northern India in the hottest months is a mixed bag of joys, writes Alice Peacock.

In Delhi, the traffic operates within the laws of physics rather than the laws of society — lanes are ignored and instead, as many tuk tuks as possible squeeze side-by-side on the road.

The system is not without its stresses.

As our tuk tuk driver swerved to avoid a cow meandering into the oncoming traffic on one of the city’s main roads, the air was filled with a constant chorus of horns. Most vehicles bear the war wounds of crashes or nasty scrapes and there was little room for the locals who wandered in between vehicles selling food and jewellery. I would never have thought I’d have the opportunity to buy a freshly-cooked poppadom from the window of a taxi, while sitting at a red light.

The temperature was edging close to 40C — a dry heat that seemed to add to the general madness of the city.

With my older brother and a friend, I had chosen to travel through northern India — somewhat unwittingly during the peak of summer.

While the “off season” had its benefits with a lack of tourists and cheaper prices, the heat made it difficult to stay calm and collected amid the mayhem.

Finding a hotel room, car or restaurant with a hefty air con unit became top priority, as did tracking down a mango lassi in just about every place we stopped.

Late into the morning of our first day in Delhi, when getting set to leave the hotel to explore, we met a woman who had been floating around the city for the past three months or so. While perpetually unimpressed with everything — from the coffee at the hotel restaurant to Delhi itself — she had rafts of recommendations for local favourites.

Upon her direction we wound up at a hole-in-the-wall joint for lunch, a tiny restaurant fitted out with a total of five seriously unstable tables. All were occupied and as soon as one group left, another came. The lack of room also meant that the tandoor — a clay oven used to cook naan — sat on the pavement just outside the store. A chef stood alongside it, hard at work at a bench where he was flattening out balls of dough into discs. Once they were shaped into saucer-sized rounds, he stuck them to the sides of the tandoor to cook.

The food was incredible and came as a timely reminder that Tripadvisor would only take you so far — more often than not the local picks were the best of all.

Although I had experienced markets and had a dose of haggling before in Bali, the markets in India were a different ball game. Strewn through the streets of Old Delhi, where I had led my male companions on a mission to find the silver markets I had heard so much about, they were an absolute attack on the senses.

Stacks of fat mangoes lay out in the scorching sun, rows of silk scarves clashed with brightly coloured pashminas and the person manning each stall would heckle and tease anyone wandering past.

“Two hundred”, they would propose, which was the equivalent of around $4.30. And if you began to walk away: “One hundred!”.

Much of the time, what we were being offered would remain a mystery, but you got the sense it was all part of a big game.

With the direction of a rickshaw driver we were guided into an arcade, where rows of stalls with sunny baskets of turmeric, vast bowls of dates and dried chillies made up the spice markets.

After recovering from fits of cinnamon-induced sneezing we made our way through, and I finally found myself in among window fronts gleaming with silver.

As the trip went on, we discovered that stores and stalls would largely begin to whirr into activity late in the morning. A 6am alarm followed by a run before work did not equate to success as it did back in New Zealand. Life was slower — though maybe this could be attributed to the state of their coffee.

It’s safe to say that after few days, we were all missing a Kiwi flat white.

After a couple of days in the bustling capital we moved on to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We were welcomed to the city by Khalid, a 20-year-old tuk tuk driver and cricket enthusiast, who based himself outside our hostel.

He keenly took us under his wing, agreeing to drive us to the Taj the next morning and asking about New Zealand. Specifically, he wanted to know exactly how much we all loved Kane Williamson, the Black Caps captain and IPL star.

En route to the Taj the next morning, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. The lines of tourists, series of security checks and foot covers to protect the huge complex, were a rigmarole and after seeing a raft of pictures I somewhat felt I had already been there.

However, confronted with the structure of shimmering white marble, you couldn’t help but be impressed.

The construction was commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife.

The work took more than 20 years and is maintained to preserve the finicky paintwork and carvings. Each Friday the site is closed to the scores of tourists, entry available solely in the afternoons to Muslims for prayer.

After our trip to the Taj, Khalid roped us in to come along to the local cricket team’s training. For the fact that we had interrupted the boys’ last pre-match practise before a big game the next day, they were incredibly accommodating. Despite this, they made no secret of the fact a female wanting to actually participate in cricket was an anomaly.

One of the more experienced players was 14-year-old Dev. He told me he played every day, and it soon became clear this guy was not here to mess around.

Keen to impress, I bowled a few balls, then much to Khalid’s amusement I took hold of the very heavy bat. After a warm up swing I hit a couple of balls.

I thought I had done fairly well, but I was soon informed by our polite, but blunt, wicketkeeper, that I would have been out many times over if I were not a guest.

Luckily, I was with two seasoned cricketers who were able to reverse the damage I’d done to the sporting reputation of our home country.

After an hour or two playing in 40C heat we were melting. For the safety and sanity of all we returned to the safety of our air-conditioned hotel.

Our time in Agra was concluded with a cooking class, a great experience which resulted in a not-so-great bout of Delhi belly.

Fast-forward 12 hours and I found myself halfway to Jaipur on a train, in a carriage one of my companions had sworn was second class but felt far, far away from the lap of luxury.
Sitting in a claustrophobic carriage made my waves of nausea a whole lot worse — an empty stomach and 40C heat did little to help.

Seven hours later we arrived at our destination, a rooftop restaurant aptly named the Peacock Palace, which promised European food. I ordered conservatively, thinking a mango lassi would be a good way to line the stomach.

After my first sip, I found I was wrong. A dash to the bathroom and the mango lassi was no more.

A short sit down on the floor of the bathroom quickly escalated and next thing I knew I had my cheek against the cool tiles, vaguely appreciating the royal blue and white patterns. I pondered whether this was the lowest of the low.

Some time later knuckles rapped against the door and a familiar voice called out. “You still in there Al?”

My brother dragged me out of the bathroom and out of the restaurant, watched by a bemused waiter.

Thankfully, our sickness was short lived.

Pushkar was next on our route — a day trip squeezed into our travels on the late recommendation of a friend.

The small lakeside town was a welcome break from the madness of the bigger cities, although it was still a bustling place that would make the streets of Auckland seem quiet.

A Hindu pilgrimage town, it borders the Thar Desert, in the northeastern state of Rajasthan, curling around Pushkar Lake.

The lake itself is a sacred Hindu site where thousands of locals bathe and pray.

The town is also home to hundreds of temples — which meant a faint hum of chanting and praying could be heard throughout much of the day.

After lunch in a lakeside kebab store, we carried on to Jodhpur, “the blue city”.

It became clear this would be the highlight of Rajasthan soon after we arrived at our accommodation — Jodhpur Heritage Haveli.

We arrived a little before it started getting dark, which meant an evening beer at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant was paired with a view of the sun setting behind the Mehrangarh fort, a former palace, which towers over the city.

We made our way up there the next morning — quickly ditching the decision to walk in favour of a tuk tuk.

The sweltering heat was made worthwhile once we saw the views from the fort itself.

The landmark blue buildings that dotted the city stood out from the brick and stone, with a thicker labyrinth of blue in the older parts of the city.

Looking down on it all from above offered a moment of peace.

This all disappeared, however, when half an hour later we were back in a tuk tuk, zooming through a symphony of tooting and shouting.

Silly of me to expect even a moment of quiet from this city, really.



Singapore Airlines

flies Auckland to Delhi, via Changi, with Economy Class return fares starting from $1294.

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