O shore

In­cred­i­ble ar­chi­tec­ture, rich his­tory and en­chant­ing land­scapes make for the trip of a life­time.

Good - - CONTENTS - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy Natalie Cyra

A jour­ney through in­cred­i­ble In­dia

T he sun had just set on a Fri­day evening as I stepped out­side for the first time in Delhi, In­dia. “Here we go,” I thought, but­ter­flies flut­ter­ing deep in my stom­ach as I was met by the hot, dense air and a flurry of peo­ple mak­ing their way past me to greet loved ones. My In­dian ad­ven­ture had fi­nally ar­rived.

It wasn’t long be­fore I was deep in con­ver­sa­tion with my fe­male taxi driver, who was em­ployed by The Plan­eterra Foun­da­tion’s Women on Wheels project. This is a trusted ser­vice pro­vid­ing safe and re­li­able trans­port for trav­ellers, while also o er­ing a dig­ni­fied liveli­hood for em­ploy­ees from re­source-poor com­mu­ni­ties. Women on Wheels is one of 50 so­cial en­ter­prises de­vel­oped by Plan­eterra (plan­eterra.org). Plan­eterra was es­tab­lished in 2003 by Bruce Poon Tip, founder of global travel com­pany G Ad­ven­tures, which I was tak­ing my 15-day long Es­sen­tial In­dia tour with. My driver did well to dis­tract me from my first ex­pe­ri­ence of the chaotic roads of Delhi, telling me about her young fam­ily, her pas­sion for driv­ing and how Women on Wheels has been im­per­a­tive for her liveli­hood. “My hus­band is [un­able to work] and so I have to work hard. I have an­other job do­ing elec­tric­ity bill dis­tri­bu­tion, door-to-door. This Women on Wheels project has helped me a lot,” she said.

No time to dilly-Delhi

De­spite the jet­lag, I’ll re­mem­ber the next morn­ing’s events vividly for­ever. Af­ter meet­ing the other nine mem­bers of my group, we headed o for our first guided tour, exploring the packed streets of New Delhi. Our guide was Aman, a 17-year-old for­mer street kid, now a part of the Streetkids City Walk Project run by lo­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion, Salaam Baalak Trust (which Plan­eterra works with too). The Trust pro­vides five safe houses across the city, coun­selling, ed­u­ca­tion and sup­port to vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren on the mar­gins of so­ci­ety. With more than 18 mil­lion kids liv­ing on the streets, In­dia has the largest in­ci­dence of street chil­dren glob­ally. We were told that with­out ad­e­quate shel­ter and care, many of these chil­dren en­ter the labour, drug and sex tra ick­ing mar­kets at an early age, and of­ten re­sort to beg­ging to sur­vive. Aman knew from ex­pe­ri­ence – kid­napped at the age of six, af­ter tak­ing candy from a stranger (a cliché, but trag­i­cally true), he lived on the street be­fore be­ing housed by the Trust. What struck a chord with me was that de­spite the most un­set­tled of child­hoods, and hav­ing to live with the re­al­ity that he

will never see his fam­ily again (due to lim­ited mem­ory of his home), Aman showed such op­ti­mism, pos­i­tiv­ity and de­ter­mi­na­tion to make some­thing of his fu­ture. The guided tours, taken by 3500 trav­ellers each year, sup­port more than 5000 chil­dren in New Delhi and help raise funds to­wards col­lege and univer­sity fees for the guides.

For a girl from a small north Auck­land sub­urb, In­dia’s cap­i­tal Delhi (pop­u­la­tion an es­ti­mated 19 mil­lion) in­jected me with a dose of cul­ture shock. Here, the tra ic is noth­ing short of chaotic – con­tin­u­ously toot­ing cars com­pete for space with trucks, rick­shaws, dogs, pigs, cows and, in other parts of the coun­try, even camel carts. Our first main at­trac­tion was one of the largest mosques in In­dia, Jama Masjid. Com­mis­sioned by Mughal em­peror Shah Ja­han in 1644, (also of Taj Ma­hal glory) its court­yard can hold up to 25,000 wor­ship­pers. Fol­low­ing this, we vis­ited a Sikh place of wor­ship called a gur­d­wara (mean­ing door to the guru). Ev­ery gur­d­wara fea­tures a lan­gar (kitchen) hall, where peo­ple of any re­li­gion can come to eat free vege­tar­ian food pre­pared by vol­un­teers each day. An­other Delhi high­light was the spec­tac­u­lar mau­soleum known as Hu­mayun’s Tomb, built in the 16th cen­tury by Haji Begum, the Per­sian­born se­nior wife of the sec­ond Mughal em­peror Hu­mayun. An in­cred­i­ble spec­ta­cle and ex­am­ple of early Per­sian ar­chi­tec­ture, its high arched en­trances and pris­tine for­mal gar­dens would later be­come in­spi­ra­tion for the Taj Ma­hal.

Think pink

We soon moved post­codes and found our­selves in Jaipur, also known as the Pink City for its rose-hued build­ings and palaces. The charm­ing cap­i­tal of In­dia’s largest state Ra­jasthan, Jaipur is fa­mous for its royal past, and boasts many won­der­ful sites in­clud­ing the Palace of the Winds, Jal Ma­hal (“Wa­ter Palace”) and Am­ber Fort set high in the hills. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of this large site over­look­ing the city; I spent what felt like for­ever swoon­ing over the Sheesh Ma­hal (Mir­ror Palace), which fea­tures spec­tac­u­lar mir­ror mo­saics and coloured glass that glit­ter bril­liantly un­der can­dle or torch light.

Jaipur has a unique buzz and en­ergy I ad­mired. Here we saw trail­ers blast­ing mu­sic packed with dozens of danc­ing civil­ians zoom past as we made our way through the “or­gan­ised chaos” (as our tour guide Raj called it), to watch a Bol­ly­wood film at the fa­mous art deco Raj Mandir cin­ema. This was so much fun – we left wide-eyed and grin­ning from the sur­pris­ing amount of cheer­ing and whistling through­out the film’s du­ra­tion by the 1200-strong crowd.

The next leg of the trip had us tak­ing in more tran­quil sur­rounds, in the form of a small ru­ral vil­lage called Dhula, be­tween Jaipur and Agra. We vis­ited four ru­ral towns over the two weeks, Dhula, Ab­haneri, Alipura and Orchha – all welcome an­ti­dotes to some­times over­whelm­ing city life in In­dia. Each brought its own au­then­tic high­lights. Dhula was mem­o­rable for its glamp­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion and sun­set cy­cle around the vil­lage. Alipura for its her­itage palace stay and scin­til­lat­ing game of cricket we had with the lo­cals. Ab­haneri boasted a spec­tac­u­lar 10th cen­tury step­well and wa­ter tank, Chand Baori (Baori is a unique In­dian in­ven­tion for har­vest­ing rain­wa­ter), which fea­tures more than 3000 steps 30m deep, and was the site of Bat­man’s prison

in The Dark Knight Rises. Orchha mean­while had beau­ti­ful tem­ples and ex­quis­ite vege­tar­ian fare. We came back for sec­onds and thirds for the de­li­cious Aloo (Potato) Tikki (cut­let or cro­quette) dish which was coated in the most de­li­cious mango chut­ney ever.

Labour of love

A visit to In­dia wouldn’t be com­plete with­out some time at the sim­ply breath­tak­ing Taj Ma­hal. My alarm buzzed early as a sun­rise tour was on the cards – a great time to visit in hind­sight as the crowds were small and the tem­per­a­ture pleas­ant. De­scribed as “a teardrop on the face of eter­nity” by In­dian poet Rabindranath Tagore, the Taj Ma­hal was com­mi­sisoned by Shah Ja­han as a memo­rial for his sec­ond wife Mum­taz Ma­hal who died giv­ing birth to their four­teenth child in 1631. I found my­self speechless as I took my time to wan­der in­side and around the grounds of the white mar­ble mau­soleum, mar­vel­ling at the de­tailed Is­lamic cal­lig­ra­phy and ruby and lapis luzuli em­bel­lish­ments. It’s no surprise it made the new World Won­ders list - per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal at ev­ery angle, it took 22 years and more than 20,000 labour­ers to con­struct. We re­turned at sun­set to be­hold it from an­other angle, on the site of where an onyx replica had once been planned to be con­structed. That was a truly spe­cial evening, re­flect­ing on the day’s events with my new­found friends (we had also just seen Agra Fort and the Baby Taj), and shar­ing our fu­ture travel dreams and per­sonal as­pi­ra­tions.

Not for the bash­ful

Driv­ing fur­ther into cen­tral In­dia had us at the Kha­ju­raho Tem­ples – known fa­mously for the Kama Su­tra sculp­tures de­pict­ing tantra poses and lust­ful pas­times. There were orig­i­nally more than 80 mon­u­men­tal tem­ples con­structed dur­ing the 9th and 10th cen­turies, with now only 22 re­main­ing, but the con­di­tion and sto­ries of those still stand­ing def­i­nitely makes this worth a visit.

The holy city

The tour was sadly coming to an end, but not be­fore a visit to Varanasi, one of the holi­est cities in In­dia. Death is an om­nipres­ence in this deeply spir­i­tual place, where mil­lions visit to cre­mate their loved ones on the banks of the holy Ganga (Ganges) river, af­ter the body is dipped in it one fi­nal time to be blessed and pu­ri­fied. Goose­bumps rose on my arms as two funeral pro­ces­sions went past us while we sat in a 75-year old Lassi bar. The fam­i­lies were chant­ing “Ram nam satya hai” which trans­lates to “the ul­ti­mate truth in life is death”. With its beau­ti­ful sites, rich his­tory, cul­ture and cus­toms, de­li­cious food and friendly lo­cals, In­dia opened my eyes to the world. This was a jour­ney I’d never for­get.

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