India Road Trip
January 1, 1970
by Alina Ema
Have you ever considered driving around one of the biggest countries of the world? Like China, Russia, the USA or… India? My boyfriend and I spent one month driving in India, visiting family and places. In this article I would like to share the adventures of the first week, the beauty and difficulties of it and all the memories gathered along the way!
Dating an Indian
Before I got married, my husband (back then boyfriend) always used to say he will not propose to me until I get to meet his family (face to face) and to see the places where he grew up. In case we ever have to leave Poland and move to India, what if I don’t like it? What if I can’t get accustomed to it or decide I would never like to live there? That’s why it is mandatory that I get to see India before we decide to get married.
We’ve already been dating for two years by December 2015, when the time came for us to go to India. I would have gone even earlier, but he used to go only once in two years and his last time was right before we started dating (my bad luck). By this time I knew that even if I don’t like India, it wouldn’t matter much, he won’t say “I won’t marry you because you don’t want to ever live in India”. But it was more important for him that I get to meet his mom, his brothers and more extended family once before the wedding, than that I like India, where he was not planning to return to live.
I could not say I knew much about India before Michael came into my life. I never had Indian food and I was not especially keen about eating spicy or hot stuff. What was hot for me was mild for him. However, due to his passion about culture, history, geography and so on, he would often talk to me about how India is split into states, the fact that there are so many different languages, religions and traditions, India’s history and politics. I quickly understood that most of the traditions are strongly related to the religion and growing up in a Christian family made quite a difference. He certainly did not worship the cow and did not have any issues with eating meat, which I considered a big plus, because I am a big meat eater. As most of our dating time was in Warsaw he eventually took me out to some Indian restaurants which he considered as close as possible to the “real thing”, and he also cooked a few times, so soon enough I was in love with Indian food.
The journey begins
It was going to be the trip of my life time, with the love of my life…. the whole month of December, Christmas and New Year’s Eve in India, plus one January week in Dubai on our return to Poland, and I was more excited than words could tell. Couple of weeks before, he had to go on a business trip and I had to go to Romania to visit my family, so we were both going to fly to India separately, he from China, I from Budapest, after a 17-hour train trip from Bucharest to Budapest, because Emirates only flies from the capital of Hungary and not from Romania. A 6-hour flight from Budapest to Dubai, then a 5-hour layover which allowed me to see one of the most impressive and expensive airports at the time, with coupons for a free meal in the airport (more Indian food – yummy!!!) and a quick nap on the floor, plus 3 more hours to Delhi, so after approximately 36 hours of travelling, the plane was finally landing and I knew that my love was waiting for me outside the airport.
What was this that I could first see in India, which came as a shock to me? I didn’t know if it was fog or smoke… Eventually I came to understand that it is both, it is the famous Delhi smog. I could only see it on the small windows of the plane, but I certainly got to feel it as soon as I was out of the airport. One thing my Indian sweetheart forgot to mention, or maybe I failed to understand (a question which is still not settled) is that in airports in India nobody is allowed to come inside and wait for you at the exit gate, as in Europe or the States. You can only walk inside the airport if you have a valid ticket for a flight. But as I never saw anyone waiting for passengers as we were coming out the gate and people just kept exiting the airport, I figured I should do the same. It was a good decision, because there he was, with his brother waiting for him. I don’t remember if my first feeling was happiness for seeing him after almost 4 weeks of being apart, or another shock of tasting the dust and smelling the pollution deep into my lungs. I felt like I was a life-long smoker and my lungs are filled in with smoke, though I never smoked in my life. But I do remember it: dust, noise and people, people everywhere! It was fascinating! So different than any place I’ve been to in my life!
We got into the car and I was thinking that my boyfriend never told me much about how I should be (mentally) prepared for India. He just said it was very important to come with an open mind and that’s it. Now I could see everything and the result (which without doubt he expected) was asking him thousands of questions, like a child who is mesmerized with life. “Sweety, why are people so angry and honk all the time?”, “Sweety, there is another guy peeing over there. He’s the 10th I counted in the last 2 minutes. Do you have toilets in India?”, “Oh my God, don’t run that dog over”, “Watch out, there is a car there! And there…and there…”, “Cow!!!Quickly, my camera!” were some of the most frequent remarks flying out of my mouth.
During the 2 days I spent with Michael and my future brother-in-law in Delhi, we met some of their cousins and friends and took care of certain things which had to be done. I also quickly learned that wherever you go you have to carry your toilet paper with you, because they only use hands in India. On Saturday, the two of us left for Agra, the city of the Taj-Mahal…and of my future mother-in-law.
I quickly got used to sitting on the front-left passenger seat, instead of the right one (as in Europe), while he was driving, but for the first few days I kept continuously praying for my life during car travels. As I got more used to it, the prayer time decreased to 50% of travelling time, then lower and lower and by the end of one month in India I would have had the courage to even be the driver (though surviving could certainly not be promised).
Time in Agra
The Yamuna Expressway has just recently been opened that time and we used it to get from Greater Noida (Delhi) to Agra. Beautiful 160 km road, no dogs and cows, very little traffic and no people crossing the road wherever and whenever they felt like it (but just because there were no people at all over there). The road is built in the middle of nowhere, it does not cut through any villages or towns and it is one of the very few roads in India where you risk falling asleep if you drive by yourself, because it is completely straight and dull. At least it was at the end of 2015. By now the traffic might have increased on it, as a second part of it has recently been opened and it connects Delhi to Lucknow, a city about 600km further away.
We reached Michael’s grandmother’s house after approximately 3 hours of driving, out of which 1 hour I slept on the expressway and 1 hour we drove through Agra to get to the house -that completely woke me up. My mother-in-law was living with her mother and her sister. They grew up in Agra and a few other cities when they started going to boarding school as children. The grandmother was quite old and needed constant attention, so the two sisters took turns in caring for her and the maid was there from morning till afternoon. They were all very warm and friendly and there was no awkwardness between us. Even though I spoke to his mom before on skype, I never knew how the first meeting would unfold. But it was as pleasant as possible and what made it very easy was that they all spoke English, so there was no language barrier.
During those two days that we spent in Agra I got to meet the other two aunts, an uncle, to go to church and attend a church lunch after the service. In the northern part of India, most of the Christians are Anglicans, as a result of the British colonization. In the southern part, however, most of them are Catholics, due to the Portuguese reign. Therefore, I had my first time in an Anglican Indian church for a Christmas service and enjoyed watching the children playing a nativity scene. However, the best part came after service, the lunch – mutton, rice, salads, desert, heaven! I certainly could barely move after eating, it was the first time I ever had mutton and it most definitely became my favorite meat, because I am a big fan of lamb which is quite similar to mutton. But lamb meat is hardly found in India and much more expensive than mutton, so people cook mutton most often after chicken.
Fun at the Taj-Mahal
After lunch we still had the whole sunny afternoon free so we decided to visit the Taj and not postpone it until we return to Agra next time. As soon as we parked the car, several people started to come and offer us their service as a guide, as a photographer, as whatever you need or want. Initially I was against taking a guide, but Michael decided it might be better, so we agreed on the price of 800rp. It was a very very smart decision, because a guide saves you plenty of time wondering where to buy your tickets from, where to take the bus which goes to the Taj from, and most importantly you do not have to wait in the queue if you are with a guide. You just pass it as if it was not there! And the queue was not short at all!
Michael and his mom got the Indian tickets – meaning the price for Indian citizens which was 20rp, and I got the foreigner ticket, which was 700rp, plus a bottle of water (that they never got, haha!). After buying your ticket, you can decide if you wish to walk to the Taj for about 1-2 km, or if you want to take the bus. We took a bus for 10rp/person one way. Then we cut through the queue, there is separate queue for men and for ladies and you must always go through security check, no matter if you enter the airport, a museum or a shopping mall. We went through ours and met Michael again in the outer courtyards of the Taj Mahal. Our guide kept telling us all its history and stories, facts about the carvings, about the Arabic writings and so on, but his best role was that of a photographer. He knew the best places and angles to take pictures and because of him we could have pictures taken of all three of us together! When you get to the Taj Mahal, as it is a mandatory destination, do not hesitate in finding a guide. Whatever payment you negotiate for him, it will save you a lot of headache and the benefits will be numerous!
The Taj was most surely impressive, crowned by a magnificent sunset when our walk was almost done. We didn’t need more than 2 hours to see it through and understand it better.
During our one month in India we came back to Agra a couple more times for certain family business, but we never got the time again to visit anything, so I was happy we decided to do it that first weekend. The Taj Mahal was one thing on my list I was stubbornly not going to miss! I did however get to do a lot of cheap shopping on our returns to the city, buy plenty of shoes which are specific to the area, eat Petha (their special sweet) and amazing street food.
Next stop, Kanpur
On Monday morning, we had to move on with our road trip to visit more family. The next stop was the city of Kanpur, 280km away from Agra which would take at least 6 hours to reach by car. It must be kept in mind that here you don’t get to drive on a boring empty expressway, but a road full of trucks, tractors, cows, dogs and people. In Europe, whenever we went on longer road trips, both me and my boyfriend would drive together, changing every 3-4 hours. I love driving! But not in India. Mainly because of the opposite direction of driving and because of the craziness of it as well. There are a couple of rules in India when it comes to driving, such as: “Survive!”, “Get there as fast as possible (which is anyway two hours late)!”. So during our whole family-visiting-road trip it was only him driving.
We reached after darkness settled in. Another uncle and aunt lived here and a couple of their children, so I got to meet more cousins, aunts and uncles. We spent the night at their place, but before going to sleep, Michael’s cousin decided he must take me out to see the city a little bit, since it was the only time we would be there. So off we went on a drive, dark as the darkest night, but still able to see some shops and houses when the city lights were around. Since I decided to try as many things as I can while I am in India (for the experience’s sake), it was Paan’s turn. Paan is a special preparation of betel leaf and a combination of other plants which you can have with or without tobacco. I chose the non-tobacco version. We stop the car and Gaurav (the cousin) goes to this small little kiosk and comes back with a Paan. Michael warns me against it, though he never had it himself. But if I said I want to try it, I am going to try it and nothing can stop me! They tell me I am supposed to eat it all at once and the thing is huge, bigger than the palms of my hands. I put all of it in my mouth and start chewing it and I am almost choking. I get out of the car and with tears in my eyes spit it out before I would throw up. The tears were because of the choking, not sadness that I have to part with the Paan. The taste itself was not bad, but different, and my mistake was listening to these Indians making me eat all of it at once. That’s what caused the shock. If I just took it little by little, I would have certainly enjoyed it in a different way. But that was my first and last Paan experience.
Then we stopped on the banks of the Ganges River, and in the darkness Gaurav took me with the flashlight of his phone as close as possible to the water, on what seemed to be a beach during day time, but quite creepy at night, while I kept looking back to my boyfriend and wondering “Will he be able to save me in case Gaurav throws me in the Ganges?”. Luckily, Gaurav is a trustworthy guy and he never threw me in the river. After seeing nothing of it because of the thick night, we decided it was time to call it a day and just go to sleep!
Fortunately, I got to see a beautiful part of the Ganges at a different time of our one month, once the whole family visiting was done with, but about that I will write some other time.
The second day in the morning we left towards Lucknow, the city of the next uncle, aunt and cousins, approximately 100km or 2 hours and a half away. But before existing Kanpur, there were still a couple more stops to be made: at the boarding school where my mother-in-law was a pupil and later a teacher, where she met her future husband. Then we had to have lunch at the only Chinese place in town where they used to go as young lovers.
Lucknow, the city of chikan
We reached Lucknow in the afternoon, had a glorious lunch of more home-cooked Indian food, more and more tea (as in India you get to drink tea 20 times a day, especially if you are a guest), and in the evening we went out to see the city. We bought cheap sunglasses for me and my mother-in-law, we walked a little and then decided to go back, as the cousins’ two little children were tired and moody. On the way to the car we stopped for what I was soon to find out is called “Panipuri” or “waterballs” in English.
Waterballs are mainly street food and I found them to be very… intense! That’s the only word that seems to me it accurately describes them. I could also say “disgusting”, but not all of them are so. It depends on which flavors you get.
How does it work? “Pani” means water in Hindi and it is one of the very few words I know in this language. “Puri” is a type of bread, unleavened and deep-fried. There is a guy standing behind a small table on which he has 6-8 big jars filled with different flavored liquid. Some is salty, some is sweet. There is also a big plastic bag where the balls (Puris) are. The balls are like small thin crispy bread bowls. The guy takes one and fills it with one of the waters and gives it to you. You need to drink it and give it back to him (though practically he snatches it out of your hands), he fills it again with a different water (flavor) from another jar and gives it to you and the process keeps going until you are very close to throwing up or dying. He does it with unbelievable speed, because while you are drinking he has already filled up the Puris of the other 5 people in your group and is ready to fill yours again. There is no time for you to breath or think, only to taste the horrible or nice flavor of the water. But you don’t get the same one every time, so you can get a nice flavor the first time and horrible the second, a nice one the third time and so on, until he decides to finish and stop serving you. I tried giving up after 4-5 turns, but I was not allowed, as he kept just pouring and pouring and shouting at me to drink it. It was most hilarious and most horrific at the same time. Of course, the Indians like all flavors, but for foreigners there are many which require a certain acquired taste. After the experience and shock of Panipuri I was ready for a good deep sleep.
We spent the following day in Lucknow also, doing a lot of shopping, mostly cheap Bata shoes (where I bought 10 pairs) and chikan kurtas. Kurtas are clothing items for women, that we in Europe would call tunics. The city of Lucknow is famous for chikan kurtas, ethnic wear made of a specific soft material with wonderful embroideries. You go inside the shops and wherever you can look with your eyes, there are shelves with thousands and thousands of kurtas. You sit down on some mattresses and the guys, I would call them sales agents, keep taking them out of their packages and unfolding them in front of you, so you can see in detail the embroidery, feel the fabric and decide if you would like to buy it or not. If it is too big, you can also have it altered, but for that you have got to be in the city for longer than a day. If you don’t want an already made kurta, you can just buy the fabric with the embroidery and get it stitched at a tailor some other time that suits you.
With all the shopping done and our feet tired, it was now time for a lovely home lunch and tea with the family. Then, in the afternoon, we went to meet an old friend and colleague from my mother-in-law’s young days and barely escaped eating more lunch, but we could not avoid two or three cups of tea or coffee during the 1 hour of our visit. As soon as the visit was done, we left towards our next and final destination, Faizabad, situated 130 km west of Lucknow or 670 km west of Delhi, where Michael’s grandfather lived, from his father’s side. The only relatives from his mother’s side we got to visit were in Agra. Kanpur, Lucknow and Faizabad were the cities where family from his father’s side lived in.
Faizabad, the city of his childhood
In Hindi there are different words used for same degree relatives depending if they are from the mother’s or the father’s side. In this case, Dada and Dadi are the parents of the father and Nana and Nani the ones of the mother, though Michael always called his grandmother “Granny”. This was due to the fact that my mother-in-law was raised more in a British culture than a Hindi one. She is what is known as an Anglo-Indian, meaning that one of her predecessors who were completely British married and Indian or an Anglo-Indian. Anglo-Indians’ culture is still heavily influenced by the British culture in terms of food, religion, clothing, language, education etc.. She only learned how to speak Hindi after she married Michael’s father who was Indian.
In Faizabad we stayed for 3 days, with Dada and the uncle and aunt who lived with him and their sons. Faizabad certainly does not have anything specific or very interesting from the touristic point of view, but I got to see the places where my future husband grew up to the age of 15. He showed me the school he went to for 8 years and the military school where he had to go for 1 transitional year. He showed me the house he lived in, introduced me to his best childhood friend and even met some of his old teachers when we went to visit the school. We also went to the place where his Dadi and father were buried. It was an enriching and touching experience for me, and it was so important to him to be able to share these things with the woman he was going to marry. Now and then, whenever we talk about certain things from India, I can relate much better to them and I can put a face with a name when it comes to the people in his stories.
Faizabad was also the city where I saw the first monkeys walking on the streets or on the top of the houses, just like stray cats in some of Europe’s cities. It was another moment worthy of my camera!
We took the whole family out for dinner on our last evening there and on Friday morning we were ready to go back towards Delhi.
I strongly recommend spending a couple of days in a small, non-touristic town if you find yourself in India and living with the locals. Life is very cheap in this kind of places, food, clothing items, you can enjoy it all and the locals know the best deals. There is also a much lower risk of being tricked when negotiating to buy something. As a blonde European woman I was lucky to have my boyfriend and his family. I am not saying it is dangerous to travel in India by yourself, but it can certainly be more difficult. And I am sure everyone has or can make at least one Indian friend who would be more than happy to show off the beauty of his country!
The relatives in Faizabad were ending the list of those we had to visit on our first road trip in India. It was a very successful trip, no car accidents, not even a scratch (which I still count as a miracle from God), and his whole family was fond of me and accepted me with warm and friendly hearts and, as per the tradition, gifted me something, as the wife-to-be of their nephew. Because they all belonged to a Christian culture, they were not judgmental of Michael’s decision to marry a European, though it was important to them that the girl he marries is a Christian too. But this was important to him as well and here we had no issues because, as a matter of fact, we met each other at the International Church in Warsaw. Therefore, everyone was happy their Michael met a Christian beautiful blonde European girl that loves him and he loves her, and they can get married and settle down somewhere in Europe.
The end of one week
From Faizabad we returned straight to Agra and reached the city after being on the road for more than 10 hours. About 30 km before the city I informed my boyfriend I needed to use a washroom. He kindly told me that either we can stop now, or in half an hour we’ll be home, can I still hold it for that long? Sure, I said, I think I can hold it for half an hour. Not 5 minutes after deciding to wait for the home toilet and after passing a gas station, we found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere, for what was going to be the next two hours. I can 100% truthfully say that was the one time in my life I was sure I was going to explode! Oh, wasn’t I happy to reach Agra and run straight to the bathroom… The moral of the story, if you just think you need to go and you are close to a place that has a toilet, go no matter what. Do not postpone it! Do not decide to wait for 10 more minutes! They can always become 10 more hours in India!
We spent the night there and then traveled to Delhi on Saturday, where we met Michael’s younger brother who came from Dubai to spend Christmas with us. One week of road trips through the state of Uttar Pradesh passed and I got to meet my family-in-law and understand more of the Indian culture, habits and lifestyle. Three weeks were left for me to decide about how I like India. But I already knew I loved it, its people and its crazy ways! Living there would not be easy, but very much possible if one decides one really wants to.
Now it was time to get ready for the rest of our India adventure, travelling with my boyfriend, his two brothers and his mother through a different state. But this is a story for another time!