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  • Zoe Cooper

Chaos and the Calm - The crazy and beautiful place that is India!

Updated: Apr 5

On landing at New Delhi airport in the early hours, the first thing I noticed was the smog and the smell of spices!

We're on our way to the hotel and the taxi driver had to stop to ask directions, which didn't bode well but we eventually arrived at around 6.30am. I can only describe the area as the morning after the night before!! It was deserted, with the odd few men sweeping debris, cleaning up some kind of after party! We were obviously too early for our rooms so we had a cup of delicious ginger tea on the rooftop whilst we waited, with the friendly hotel worker wiping away the atmospheric (emission) dust from our table and serving us the spiced tea! We later found out that the 'party' was the night market that happened every night!

Once we'd had a nap, we ventured out with an arranged taxi from the hotel, who took us and waited for us, wherever we chose. When driving to and from the places you were hit by pockets of incense aroma, spices, delicious cooking smells and fumes!! The friendly taxi driver was great but continuously and aggressively beeping his horn to tell people he was there, that they were in his space, that they needed to move, that they had to hurry up! But more of that later!

The first stop was the oldest fort in Delhi called Purana Qila, a tranquil and expanse area, then onto the Humayun Tomb nearby on which the Taj Mahal was based.

Purana Qila

Humayun Tomb

We had another day to explore, visiting Qutb Minar the tallest tower in Delhi, again, a serene place, lovely to wander with lots of parrots and Indian Palm squirrels. Although, as India does, we were under the direct flight path to the airport, which created a contradiction in terms. I chose to wear a face mask while in Delhi, a wise choice when seeing the dust on the inside of my mask! The next time I would need one was the journey to Amritsar, where the superhighway was being built!

Qutb Minar

Another visit was to the Ugrasen ki baoli ancient stepwell. A stunning architectural structure built in the 14th century to hold the city's water. With free entrance at ground level, you walk through the gateway and look to your left and immediately see a 50m stepped drop and only two pieces of rope at the bottom to stop you falling into the pigeon faeces infested water, it was a stunning place but not for the faint hearted!

Ugrasen ki baoli

We paid a visit to the unused mosque Jama Masjid, in central Delhi. Once again, a very peaceful and tranquil place, but hard to ignore the chaos ensuing on the road just outside.

Jama Masjid

I found the horn blowing to be a universal language for India and from that first day of experiencing the traffic, I've created a new word ..... 'Hornology'!! It's part of everyone's every day life in India. Happening hourly, minute by minute, in fact it's a constant! Whether its a scooter, motorbike, tuk-tuk, car, bus or truck, they beep their horns! Whether it's to say they are behind us and passing. They beep to say hurry up. They beep to say move! They beep to say hi, they beep going round a corner to tell people they are there. They beep when a queue has stopped and they don’t know why but need it to move!! There's a lot of beeping!! A lot!

The Sikh temple Sheeshganj Gurudwara was very strict, with covered heads at all times for the ladies, no shoes or socks. You had to wash your hands and walk through a 6ft foot wide shallow area barefoot before entering and it was deemed acceptable to also take a sip of this water! Not me, that's for sure!

The meals were being made for free, for anyone to have, all made by volunteers. The volunteers were there for different reasons; to become better prospects as a wife learning to cook, to repent their sins by giving back their time or just to help others with less. It was a lovely thing to see, having selfless people ensuring food was available to whoever wanted it or needed it. A selfless act but that a whole community was and wanted to be involved in. And I helped too, sitting with the ladies making chapatis!

The thing about India as a whole is it's contradiction! The contradiction is as the title says, the chaos, oh my goodness the chaos!! But also the calm. Wherever you are trying to get to, it is crowds of people and some form of transport at every point coming towards you. I described the driving like dangerous driving but because everyone is, it seems to work somehow!! But make your way to a temple (and believe me they are everywhere! With the town of Mandi that we visited, having over 80 temples alone!) or like the old fort Purana Qila and you are met with a resounding serenity and calm that is so special. The people from India have so many ceremonies, temples and mosques, gods and different aspects to bring them peace, yet living in total chaos! There in lies the contradiction.

Central Delhi

The next day we took a train to Chandigarh, it was an early start and an experience in itself! The chaos at the station, people begging, people helping with luggage, people fainting! As we departed I was looking out and noticed people wandering around the rough stone on the side of the track. I saw there were a few people stood looking at the train, then I noticed some were squatting whilst looking. It was their toilet area.... a shock to realise for such a developed city and up and coming country, there were households still without access to a toilet. It really impacted on me the fact that this must be their best choice.

Once to Chandigarh we drove onto Shimla, stopping at a small cluster of restaurants and shops of Dharam Pur for lunch. Noticing the sleeping happy dog, the children playing in the construction area and the continuous trucks passing with dusty loads.

We got to Shimla, which is literally built on the side of a ridiculously steep mountain at the foothills of the Himalayas. A steep incline wherever you looked. We walked up some steps outside our hotel and it opened up into a busy modern pedestrian shopping street! Totally unexpected! Who knew!!

There were plenty of monkeys about too, which we were warned not to make eye contact with, they are aggressive and will steal your belongings at any given chance!  We were also advised not to leave our hotel windows open to stop them raiding our rooms! But interestingly, the locals also understood they were living in the monkey's domain, not wanting to do anything to stop them inhabiting the towns.

We were lucky enough to capture an amazing sunset that evening too.

The next day we travelled on Shimla's toy train, now part of the Mountain Railways of India World Heritage Site, the track is from Kalka to Shimla and was completed in 1903, Shimla became a popular summer destination with cooler temperatures in the hills.

Waiting on the platform, overlooking the mountains will be a view I won't forget in a hurry, being slightly terrorised by the monkeys I won't forget either!

In Shimla there was a huge structure, at least 50 meters high and bright pink sat at the top of Jakhu Hill and was a god called Hanuman, seen from all viewpoints. We walked to it from town, a serious climb but well worth it (you need to Google that one!! No photo due to the shear size of it once there!).

On that evening, we were once again lucky enough to see an amazing sunset.

The mistiness you see in some of the images is the atmospheric dust or smog. Even in the foothills of the Himalayas there was still plenty of it! On our way down the mountains from Shimla and Dharamsala of mainly trees and scrubland, all of a sudden there would be green areas, vegetables being grown and mustard (like rape seed oil). There were also lots of cement and brick factories too with incredibly dusty roads to and from them. Our guide told us the Government is working hard to reduce emissions to help improve air quality but there is plenty to keep them busy for a while, I reckon!

Our driver was exceptional and he needed to be!! The tight winding roads in the mountains, then the travelling from town to town was an eye opener in itself. Overtaking trucks on blind bends on the side of a mountain and motorbikes squeezing between the two, plus mud slides from the previous wet season slowing traffic having to drive round giant boulders still on the road.

Our next stop was a trading town called Mandi, a busy stopping point for many and the place I mentioned about the numerous temples there, some with animals outside depicting the god within.

The river Beas running through Mandi.

A bustling town centre.

The local hairdressers!

Happy dogs!

I love the images below, the old lady watching the world go by, or not as the case was at the time when we were stuck in traffic looking at her, looking at us!! And the bricklayers (when I say bricklayers, there really only was one, the other was there keeping him company!).

We stopped for tea and bought a delicious banana at the local fruit stall while three men were dressed on their way to a wedding and the local priest came to say hi.

Along to the way to Dharamsala we visited the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, seeing the workshops continuing to teach the traditional skills so they weren't lost. Another serene place with very happy dogs!

The brass drum shapes above are called prayer wheels. You spin them as you walk past, saying a prayer as you go. They take a bit to push so you need to focus, which helps to focus on your wishes too!

Dharamshala was our next stopping point. A mountainous town where the Dalai Lama resides. Our hotel was based 200m above the central shops - I won't forget the walk home up the mountain that night in pitch black! With no path and the crazy driving continuing.

We visited the Dalai Lama temple, an active place with a lot going on.

And a family entertaining in the street just outside.

I bought a hematite crystal and asked for it to be made as a macrame necklace (which I love and costing a whopping £6.50!!), a Himalayan shawl as a present for my mum, and a marble carved elephant tea light. Then, my travel partner Miss Drama Queen of the Century (also known as Maria) decided to faint in the restaurant! Quite clearly unwell, I put her in the recovery position and dashed to collect my beloved necklace before returning to find the restaurant owners looking for me, thinking I'd deserted my friend! I managed to get her back to the hotel by taxi and after insisting she was fine, I deserted her again to go to a yoga class which was fab but a slightly surreal experience. Taken by a young guy in his twenties that looked like the actor who played Freddy Mercury (Rami Malek)!, counting to five on each stretch in the style of Om in Yoga (like Onnnnnnnnnne, Twoooooooooo, Threeeeeeeee, OK you get my drift!), it was great but I had to focus! Unfortunately for Maria she got progressively worse with fainting, sickness etc and realising she needed treatment, our guide Pancham and I had to get her to hospital..... the hotel room was on the 5th floor with outside areas, steps and winding stairs. She fainted 3 times just to get to the lift. We got her into a taxi and on the way to the private hospital, I asked how far it was, 2km was the reply, what I should have asked was how long will it take us to get there, which was an hour! The young lady doctor was amazing, calling everyone ’Baby’ and telling us about her separation from her older husband that wanted a slimmer wife. Maria was treated for dehydration symptoms and put on a concoction of drips for 3 hours and walked out a new woman! All to the sum of £25!

We next travelled to Amritsar, seeing a stretch of a new superhighway being built from the outskirts of Dharamsala to the Pakistani border at Lahore, with earthworks for around 150 miles and seemingly with limited environmental or safety protections from rubble falling onto the road or other's where JCB’s were literally digging in riverbeds. Face masks were definitely worn for the majority of this journey!

We stopped for brunch at the Jyoti Resort and I chatted to the happy security guard who was very diligent in his work. There's nothing more that I love when travelling than just standing at the side of the road with my camera to see what passes by. A man on a trailer leading a trotting horse, a walking funeral making its way to the riverside for the cremation, plus many scooters passing with 2, 3 or 4 people on them, mostly in only flipflops, with the ladies sat 'sidesaddle' and the kids squashed in between!

We got to Amritsar and there was a Ring Ceremony in the hotel, a big affair where all dress up in bright magnificent outfits to celebrate the event.

These kinds of celebrations and weddings are a big deal in India and big business too. With hotels, sometimes surrounded by rubble, but still with a colourful and professional set up available to all.

As we wandered through Amritsar it continued with the usual chaos ensuing! This street being part of the the pilgrim's walk and a continuously busy stretch from all walks of life. You can see the temple in the background.

We entered The Golden Temple to this sight, a truly amazing experience. Someone described it like something out of a James Bond film set, with the sunset lighting up the temple like it was from another world.

And one of the many guards, making sure the rules were strictly followed. But I do have to say, the people are so naturally friendly and almost curious of us westerners, which there weren't many of us on our trip. We found here in Amritsar even more so, thinking of us as lucky, wanting to touch us when passing or asking for a selfie. At one point they were handing Maria their baby and joining an orderly queue for their turn!! Another time, walking through the center of Delhi a young man approached me, asking for a photo, I initially worried why but they genuinely wanted a photo!

We sat people watching for quite a while and it was just mesmerising. So many there for their own personal reason, contemplating life.

That evening we headed to the station for the overnight train, these were open areas with 6 bunks per section, a snug set up and when the middle bunk was lowered everyone had to go to bed!! I got a round of applause for getting onto the top bunk!! And surprisingly had a good nights sleep too!

The next morning we arrived at Haridwar train station and took the hours drive to Rishikesh through the Rajaji Tiger Reserve and National Park, following the Shakti Canal, which controlled water flow leading to the Ganges River ahead. It was the dry season, with vast expanses of a river beds. It's hard to imagine these will be flowing and high in the rainy season.

Haridwar train station

I couldn't help noticing the vast difference from place to place too (and believe me there is plenty more to see in India than my 2 week trip!), with Delhi's noise and smells and people, Shimla's views, monkeys and cold nights! Mandi being the poorer trade town with many temples and Amritsar and surrounding area with serious smog!! Rishikesh was definitely the most vibrant and also with the most westerners I'd seen on the whole trip, all looking for that spiritual experience.

We crossed the Ganges River on the crazy and iconic Janaki bridge in Rishikesh.

And on towards the Chaurasi Kutiya Rajaji Tiger Reserve and abandoned ashram. The Beatles had stayed at the ashram in the 60's, helping them to produce their 'White Album'. I love abandoned places, wandering around the dilapidated hotel rooms and seeing the old plumbing work, wondering if Ringo had been sat on the loo there!

We had strict instructions to be out by 4pm as it would soon become dusk, the gates are always left open for animals to wander in on a night, which was slightly unnerving .... the question is, do they check all the animals have left on a morning when opening it back up?

We then had a walk through the streets of Rishikesh, seeing the diverse people and I loved it.

We watched the Ganga Aarti, a daily ritual performed on the banks of the Ganges River at sunset and gave aarti flower offerings to the river (banana leaves holding flower heads, a small candle wick and incense), lighting the candle and incense then making a blessing to a loved one, which I did, another special moment I will cherish. We then went to the Chotiwala restaurant with a living mascot... Literally, a man with a painted pink body and face and an upright ponytail, sat at the entrance to the restaurant, ringing a bell every time someone came in. Another delightfully bizaar and contrasting aspect of India!

We left Rishikesh for a night camping in the nearby jungle with Whiteworld Expeditions. A 15 minute walk to a very serene and peaceful valley bottom. A relaxing spot to read and contemplate life, especially after the few days of chaos and hospital visits! Monkeys were heard all around and apparently a panther had been seen here, jackals could be heard and snakes and tigers are in the vicinity too. I needed a wee about 3am but was too scared to go!!

We returned to Rishikesh for a wander and met a boy on the beach who was saving for a push bike, he was about 11 years old and selling the aarti flower offerings (for 20p). We chatted to him for a while, making sure I kept an eye on my belongings again, just incase, but of course he was lovely and genuine (the old cynic in me!), he had excellent English and was definitely smarter than his years. We chatted for a while then he gave us both a flower offering for free, which we of course paid for but either way, he had the charm, resilience and shear determination to reach his goals, and I'm very sure he will.

We walked the small alleyways near our hotel and found The German Bakery everyone mentioned and had delicious pancakes. And a funny story, on the train back to Delhi that night, I continued to read A Life Without a Tie by Ray Martin, a man deciding to leave his high flying job in London and travel the world without a home for 14 years. I had been reading his book on and off for a while but decided to continue with it on the train while I could. As I was reading he happened to be in India, not only in India but in Rishikesh! And when I read further he said of an amazing cafe called The German Bakery!! I'd been there that day! Crazy coincidence!

On my last day I had scrambled eggs and mushrooms on toast with sour bread for brunch, it was also unexpectedly spicy, but still delicious!

And the food, oh my goodness the food was delicious!! The most basic dishes of yellow dal and naan bread or aloo gobi (literally translated to potatoes and cauliflower) were ridiculously good too. I chose to go vegetarian after having food poisoning for 2 weeks in Vietnam, and it worked! Thank god! I was also advised to drink a can of coke a day to keep the bugs at bay, also a good move. I'm not sure which one worked but will do both again if I ever revisit!

The people in India looked after their animals well, whether it was feeding scraps to cows in the streets or the happy dogs wanting a love rather than food.

I was walking through a narrow alleyway with a bull coming down the same path! I gave way!

So I leave Delhi and fly to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I'm queuing for the toilet (bare with me!) and an older lady comes out of the cubicle, ladened with a suitcase, a rucksack and a handbag over her shoulder, she catches the side frame of the cubicle which knocks her into the other side and her tired face says it all, so I smile and say to her, 'Keep going, you're nearly home!' I had no idea if she was English, if she was on her way home or just starting her journey but thought my words of encouragement might help her a little. Coincidentally I met her again when boarding the same flight! She was a lovely lady that was great to chat to, and told me she was on her third flight after a 6 week holiday staying with a friend on the Galapagos Islands or some far flung place! We continued to chat as we collected our suitcases and as we parted she said, if you get chance have a look at a book called 'Mainly by Bike' by Ann Wilson. I had a look and Ann had travelled the world on a push bike at 59, a woman after my own heart! Such adventure and courage! A great inspiration and a fantastic read!

You always change a little after a trip, altering your perspective slightly and see what isn’t serving you anymore. India definitely is a place for self reflection, to see and acknowledge what good you already have in your life too. To be grateful for what you have, when others have a lot less and to continue to be true to yourself and work hard.

I summarised, that, like Hilary said ‘Life is Good’ - Hilary was another traveler I met on this trip, a 79 year old dog walker from Ireland, saving money for her next trip, she was happy and her quote will stay with me, because life is good.

If you weren't sure about travelling to India before, I'm hoping this inspires you to visit this amazing and diverse place - the chaos and the calm!

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