India is definitely a ‘sensory overload’ sort of place. And while holiday snaps are great as a visual reminder of what you did, what gets forgotten is the rest of the sensory experience, so before that happened to me, I wrote it down.
One major revelation from visiting India is that Indian restaurants in the UK are misinforming us. The long-held belief that Indians eat their food waaaaaay hotter than we could handle is a lie. The domino effect of that lie is that idiots then order the hottest (and most expensive) thing on the menu to prove that they can handle it. But for an authentic Indian meal, go for flavour, not heat.
We ate almost exclusively vegetarian food for the entire tour – tons of deep, complex flavours – and the hottest thing that we ate was some tandoori lamb. We ate too many excellent dishes to list them all here, but here’s a top tip: if you get the chance to have a cooking lesson as we did in Orchaa, do it. The full meal, cooked in front of us in the sitting room of a local woman, was the best food we had on the whole trip – aubergine curry, pumpkin curry, mango chutney unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before, handmade bread. The experience of sitting on her floor while her family just carried on their normal life around us is one that will live long in my memory.
It’s hard to really explain how a country feels to touch, so instead, here are a few of the textures that really stood out for me on our tour:
- Riding a camel out to the sand dunes and feeling its muscles move underneath me
- Those same sand dunes beneath my feet as we sat with a cup of masala chai and watched the sun go down
- Sitting on the dusty leather of a cycle rickshaw or tuk tuk, driving around a city
- Incredibly smooth, brightly coloured silk at the factory visit in Varanasi
However, from a purely personal point of view, I have to tell you about my top touch experience of the whole tour: a wet shave at the barber’s next to Hotel Moments in Delhi – the best wet shave I have ever had. Not only did they shave me, they also massaged my face and scalp, plus they gave my back and shoulders a much-needed and gratefully-received rub down (two weeks of minibus travel had taken its toll!) – and all for less than £1.
The smell of India’s cities takes a while to get used to. As you walk out of the airport or the train station, you can smell the heat. I don’t mean things that are warm because of the heat – I mean the actual heat. It knocks you in the face as if to say “brace yourself”.
For every waft of delicately spiced street food, there’s the slap in the face as you walk past one of the city’s public rubbish tips, handily located right outside a metro station. Luckily the smell of animal waste is masked by the fug of exhaust fumes. And then when you walk into virtually any commercial premises – shop, restaurant, cafe – the all-consuming smell is that of nothing at all, until your nose reconfigures and can start to pick out the delicious aroma of someone else’s lunch or the sweet incense burning in the corner.
For me, the sound of India is unmistakable – it’s car horns. Sure, there are plenty of other noises that fill every daylight hour and beyond (barking dogs, the world’s calmest cows, that apparently-patented foghorn noise that the IPL cricket organizers play every 30 seconds and that comes out of every TV in every bar and restaurant) but it’s unarguably the car horns that stay with you the longest. Upon arrival, the sheer noise and frequency of the horns is a real shock.
I live in London, and up until I arrived in Delhi, I thought London taxi drivers were the most horn-happy around. Not so – in India, the car horn is used as a sort of second language. It usually seems to mean “hello, I’m in a car” but can equally mean “my car is bigger than your car, get out of the way”, “do you want a lift?” and “even though I’ve been sat in this traffic jam for half an hour, maybe using my horn for the millionth time will make it move”.
But – and this is the weird thing – after a couple of days you get completely used to it. By the time we reached Jaipur on the third day of our tour, the horns were basically Classic FM – background music that you don’t even realize is playing apart from the occasional jarring dischord.
By the final stretch of the tour in Varanasi, I was picking out actual pieces of music in the horn symphony. A strain from The Man With The Golden Gun here, a long-forgotten advert there. On reflection I’d have got a better night’s sleep had the hooters not been parked directly outside my hotel window, but at the time, recognizing the middle 8 of Wonderwall was a minor triumph.