The following is a real account of how our visit to see Holi in India went. It is a story format and makes a pretty fantastic tale. If you want tips and travel advice about seeing Holi or traveling to India let me know in the comments and I will get back to you or write up the information.
One year ago we visited India. I never wrote about our trip to India to see Holi because I wasn’t really writing anything personal about my life at the time and that is the kind of trip you need to digest over time. I’ve always wanted to go to the Holi Festival. Holi is basically the original color run. I mentioned my desire to go and how cool Holi was one lazy evening to my partner in crime. Plane tickets were bought, hotels in New Delhi, Vrindivan, and Jaipur were booked and away we went on a crazy adventure. You’ll note there was a lack of transport between locations… More on that in a bit.
Do I suggest making a trip to a foreign country of completely different values to see a festival of dubious nature? I most certainly do, IF you have the right temperament. We went on our own, without a tour, and without a super set plan. The culture shock alone keeps any trip like this from being a relaxing vacation. You are signing up for adventure. Adventure, as often left out of the books, involves a whole lot of fear, uncertainty, boundary pushing, and I imagine haggling for transport on your quest. Going to see Holi was all of the above, but completely worth it.
If you are thinking about visiting India, especially to see Holi, then do your research. We may not have planned every aspect but it still involved a whole lot of immunizations, visa purchases, and study of customs. Remember, Holi is a religious festival first and foremost. I was not about to go trounce upon another countries customs. At best it makes you seem like a turd of a tourist at worst it can get you arrested or killed in other countries.
So It Begins
You are looking at a 14-16 hour flight from the East Coast of the USA. Nothing like waking up from poor airline sleep to see your plane directly above Kabul, Afghanistan. But in reality it is after you leave the airplane that you realize there is no going back. Especially if you land in New Delhi. Customs is confusing, their hand print scanners are the things of nightmares, and the moment you walk out of the airport you are assaulted by the smell of wet, burnt firecrackers (pollution), people trying to hawk taxis and other items. Research pre-paid fares and make sure to find a stand that guarantees the amount to your destination and gives you a receipt. Otherwise you can get taken for a lot more money when you reach your destination. Basically always set a firm price before getting on any transportation. Oh and if you are like us make sure to do all of this at midnight India time. Cause there is nothing more exciting than being in an unfamiliar location in the dark.
If you are like us you will get in a car accident within you first hour, finally make it to an unbelievably posh hotel, and then have to face the fact you can’t open your mouth in the shower. Get 3-4 hours of sleep and then figure out how the hell you are going to get to Agra on your way to Vrindivan.
Oh holy hell, I don’t even think I can describe the metro in morning rush hour in New Delhi. You would need to be there to experience it and that would be one suggestion I say skip if possible. My husband is a big guy. A Big. Red Bearded. Intimidating guy. That afforded us an additional 3 inches of room. If you do manage to brave that insanity then pick a place to meet if you get separated. We foolishly did not and I got ripped away from him by the physical push of the crowd. Panic ensued but some kind Indians physically pulled me from the train and threw me into his arms. Oh yeah, that actually happened and it is an experience i could have done without.
There is a huge long portion of the story where we meet one of the only other tourists we find on the trip. I nice Swede who had been there for a few weeks, taught us to haggle, and got us to a bus to Agra. Not a state bus just a bus. The kind you see in pictures with everyone and livestock piled inside, random stops in the middle of the highway, and no idea of where you are actually headed. It is hence forth the period where we were think “Well, shit, we have made a major mistake”. Luckily for both of us we are of the never give up temperament. Plus once you are stuck in a bus moving further and further away from the only airport that can get you home you kind of have to continue.
But in general people around the world are still people. We found some that were nice, pointed out where to get off, where to get tuk tuks (Also known as three wheeled mopeds of death), and how to navigate the city. Just remember that nice comes at a price in India. The whole economy works on kickbacks and friends Recommendations are based on this process so you can ask for a recommendation of taxi and a person will give you one, but it is likely their cousin or friend’s taxi service, not necessarily the best/cheapest one around.
We saw the Taj Mahal from a distance. Don’t ever go with luggage as there is no good place to store it and they won’t let you take it in. Plus you have to fight a gauntlet of vendors and slums to get to any of the gates. The Red Fort was amazing but on the whole Agra was one of the poorest and dirtiest locations we saw. We managed to snag a taxi to Vrindivan find our surprisingly wonderful hotel and basically collapse. Holi was the next day, we had barely slept, and frankly the all day adrenaline charge we had had was more than enough to have us pass out.
See Holi, It Really Is That Wonderful
We made it. It was the start of Holi, we were in Krishna’s birth village, and it was the start of the festival. Despite our general misgivings we decided to walk the 1 mile to the village. We both wore outfits that we didn’t mind getting stained various colors. I also made sure to have a 3/4 sleeve loose blouse and full length skirt on. We planned on making our way to the main temple and I wanted to make sure to follow the general dress and customs.
Walking was the BEST PLAN Ever! As we got closer to the town a tuk tuk comes veering off the road. Apprehensively we stood our ground, but to our surprise and delight a number of men jumped out, give us gigantic bear hugs, wiped colored powder all over our foreheads, and jovially yelled “HAPPY HOLI” the whole time. This was the process that was to continue for the next two hours of our lives, EXCEPT it also included thousands of pictures. We had managed to find the authentic Holi experience, which meant we were some of the only tourists there. My husband’s height and beard made us of immediate interest from a distance, my blonde hair just drew everyone. For the first time ever I finally understood why celebrities lose it. There is something exhausting about only being able to make it three feet before someone grabs you and takes a picture. But we kept smiling because everyone seemed so delighted to wish us a happy Holi.
At one point I had, had a little more than I could take so we started cutting down some of the side streets. The crowds were less thick and we could watch the main happenings on the main street from a less involved distance. It was an amazing site to behold. Shouts of laughter as kids and adults chase each other around with colors while streams of brightly colored powder and liquid dye filled the air. Processions of orange robed Hindu Monks cut through all the chaos, reminding everyone that while this was a celebration it was also a religious festival.
As we stood watching we noticed a bit of chaos behind us at a gate. Seeing as we hadn’t died yet we, as in Adam, decided we should go check that out. As headed down the alley Adam screams simply “MONKEY!”. Yep a large, over waist high, temple monkey decides to jump down next to Adam. Because, you know, we hadn’t already seen pigs, cows, dogs, camels, and horses. Of course all I can think is that we weren’t in time to take the recommended rabies vaccine before our trip and their direction was to stay away from local animals… Yeah, that can’t happen in India. The animals are as thick as the people and you will be up close to all types of livestock and apparently monkeys. Since no one was bit by the monkey we continued to the chaos which was a number of people attempting to enter a temple. At that very moment they open the gate to let a number of people in and out. So what do we do? Well of course we just push ahead and enter the temple.
It was an oasis in the middle of chaos. Everyone is hushed, you can hear chants and music across the courtyard. We had to remove our shoes (much to Adam’s worry as his have gotten stolen in the most unusual circumstances), but the cool marble of the temple walkways felt amazing in the warm sun. Light filtered through colorful nets and garlands containing thousands of marigolds and bells. A cool breeze blew as we entered the temple proper. The hush, sprinkled with the beautiful marble carvings, and spring decorations everywhere gave it the most surreal feel. The temple security made everyone back away from us so that we have a few moments of peace from the picture taking bonanza. We actually met one of the only other American’s on our trip. He was Krishna monk who helped us sneak out the back of the temple. As he showed us around he explained his life’s goal was to serve and help. That he could reach a state of grace through such acts. Hearing such conviction in such a setting will always stay with me and remind me that for every awful thing we see there are good things as well.
The Holi experience as a whole was amazing, we slipped around the back of the village making our way back to the hotel. We had only one rough experience where some young mean got a bit rough and handsy with me. Let’s just say I threw some elbows and my husband picked me up and carried me from the crowd. They actually ended up apologizing, but I would be wary to travel Holi as a single woman, alone. We never did make it to the main city temple, but I think that was good. Our trip led us to the back streets where we got to meet some of the residents. When we finally made it back to the hotel we had to spend close to 45 minutes removing as much color as we could. It still left my skin splotched and my hair a lovely shade of purple and hot pink. We snagged an evening massage and passed out with the knowledge we would have to figure out how to get halfway across the country to Jaipur in the morning.
To be continued when arrive in Jaipur…