India is vibrant, colourful and full of life. Many towns are filled with the hum of street bazaars, which give an almost carnival feel any night of the week. Twisting, turning streets reveal delights and surprises from a cart laden with the glossy treats of the jalebi wallah, to an alley way overflowing with sari fabrics. The country drips in history, which is tangible in the North's forts and palaces. The South takes a more laid back approach with its lazy backwaters and palm tree fringed beaches. The cities cultivate cosmopolitan cafes and thriving art communities.
How do you separate one from the other? The carnival atmosphere in the bazaars comes from the crowds, from the haphazard stalls selling everything from rip off sunglasses to live chickens and from touts trying to convince you that you need said chicken. The answer, as Follow Me East discovered, is to embrace it all.
It was unexpected, so many people warned us off the capital, but what we found was a uniquely and unashamedly Indian city. The street markets buzz, the street food is delicious and plentiful. Old Delhi is a maze of lanes and alleys overhung by a knot of electrical cables that almost block out the sky, but gather your courage to venture down them and you will be rewarded with fading architectural glory, hidden temples, spice markets, flower markets and some of the best street eats in the city. New Delhi, is a complete contrast with its impossibly wide boulevards and its imposing, almost arrogant buildings of government.
From the tried and true dishes, which have been exported to the West, to the new discoveries, many of which we never got a name for, we ate to the point of gluttony in India. The flavour-full dishes of the South: coriander infused cafreal; chili fried seafood; subtle idly with its piquant coconut chutney companion. The quick and easy street food of the North: chloe kulcha and chaat. The all-India standbys of dahl, kadai curry, paratha and it's delicious breakfast time incarnation, stuffed with cauliflower or potato and served with bitter, fresh curd.
Another unexpected discovery. This cosmopolitan city could slot in alongside East London or New York's East Village. With so many tempting cafes we were regularly over caffeinated and full of cake. The Portuguese left their architectural mark on the streets and buildings. Surrounded by lazy backwaters, rice fields and villages. The pace of life is very relaxed.
We'd seen so many pictures of it we thought we knew exactly what the Taj Mahal looked like, but nothing compares to the original. Seeing this magnificent building up close was an absolute highlight of India. It is simply majestic. The pristine marble, the fine stone work, it is worth every penny and all the time spent queuing.
And so we return to Darjeeling - India's decompression chamber. Our journey to Darjeeling was not straight forward. We arrived in the pitch dark and bracing cold, but it was instantly clear the pace of life was very different in Darjeeling. No one clamored for our trade.
Darjeeling comes with all sorts of romantic connotations as the hill station retreat of the administration of the British Raj. This comes through in the old colonial buildings, the dining rooms with cosy fire places and the abundance of places to indulge in afternoon tea. It is a prettily situated town, perched on the side of a mountain, surrounded by tea plantations and set against the backdrop of the mighty Himalayas.
There is lots to do in Darjeeling. Trekking, monasteries, visiting tea plantations. We did none of those things. We strolled the streets, took afternoon tea and generally allowed ourselves to unwind. It was the perfect place to analyse our time in India and to finally say farewell.