Before traveling to India, I thought I had mastered solo travel to a tee. Backpacking for months around Southeast Asia gave me the confidence boost to start venturing farther.

I was proved wrong on the first day I arrived in Kolkata (Calcutta), my entry point to the vast South Indian sub-continent. There had never been a time where I felt so out of my comfort zone than the next couple of hours after stepping out from the glitzy modern airport and into one of India’s biggest and most chaotic cities.

Travelers often described India as dirty, stinky, crowded, unsafe, poor, horrifying, among other negative adjectives that would scare most people away. Not me, though. I was too enchanted by the call of adventure and all my childhood memories of fascinating documentaries that repeatedly made me think, “I want to travel to India someday.”

Besides, purely negative insights about most destinations, although justifiable, are often done with a lack of perspective. In contrast, a lot of travelers have also mentioned many good things about India, their experiences while traveling, and that it is “not as bad as it seemed.”

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Beautiful interiors of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose-Kolkata International Airport

Truly like another world

It had always been my habit to use public transport as often as possible. After walking out from the airport complex gates, I chanced upon a shared taxi that went to the nearest metro (subway) station.

That first cramped taxi ride from the airport was personally monumental. I was completely surrounded by the local experience and it gave me that almost indescribable satisfaction of arriving and feeling that a potentially epic adventure was about to happen. The giggly feeling emanating from the pit of my stomach didn’t last long. As we drove further into the city’s massive suburban sprawl, it was soon replaced by an ambush of confusion, fear, and disgust.

Kolkata’s streets were the craziest I had ever encountered! It was full cars, auto rickshaws (tuktuks), and bicycles. They were all in a rush, dodging crossing pedestrians, and cows, yes, cows sitting idly in the middle of the road like it was nobody’s business. Like a madman, our taxi driver effortlessly sped past the chaos and meandered his way into any opening that the little taxi can squeeze through.

The streets and neighborhoods we passed by were very dirty and it didn’t only smelled of garbage, there was also the frequent repulsive whiff of (excuse my bluntness) wet shit that I liked to assume came from the cow droppings. By the time I got on the decrepit metro and made my way to the city center, what I had seen so far made me think, “These scenes look like they are from a post apocalyptic world.”

I finally made my way to Sudder Street area, where I, regrettably, trusted an overly friendly guy who cheated me into staying at an awfully shabby hotel and buying overpriced train tickets.

I was appalled by what I experienced on my first day in India and moreso that I was culture shocked. I would like to think that it took a lot to shock me, a person who have lived my whole life and visited many countries in the developing world.

I still had one month more to spend in India and a long way to go to my final destination, New Delhi. The only way to do it, and actually enjoy the experience, was to keep an open mind and learn from whatever reality I encountered.

Like in most developing countries, there was a wide inequality gap between the rich and the poor in India. If a traveler insists on taking local transport, eating local food, and staying at budget accommodations, it’s but natural to get his money’s worth. You can’t be a cheapskate, especially in India, and expect comforts that you are used to.

Kolkata

I felt a lot better after walking around and getting a better feel of the city. On one corner, it could smell really bad and on the next, the sidewalks were filled with soothing aromas from textile shops or the alluring smell of exotic spices and curries from busy restaurants.

The city was marred by widespread poverty but it was also dotted with grand British-colonial buildings still extant in various states of grandiosity and disrepair. Kolkata was a place of contrasts and I was strangely allured by it. Such was the charm in most places I visited in India.

Despite traveling alone, it was hardly ever boring. The more I saw of everyday life in India, the more I started to think that anything could happen. India was a very strange and oftentimes highly amusing place.

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Dodgy looking sidetreets of Sudder Street in Kolkata City Center

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Late afternoon at St. Paul’s Cathedral

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Victoria Memorial Hall at the east side of Kolkata’s “The Maidan”

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Statue of Lord Curzon

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Dark skies and crows hover over the reflecting pond

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Crossing the Hooghly River by local ferry transport.

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Organized chaos at Bara Bazar, the commercial core of Kolkata.

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Impressive Nakhoda Mosque surrounded by the busy markets of Bara Bazar

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The stately Writer’s Building in Kolkata’s BBD Bagh

Indian Railways

A huge part of my “India experience” happened during my train rides aboard the Indian Railways. Why take the train? It was unbelievably dirt cheap! A 12-hour train journey on a sleeper class coach cost me only Rs230 (roughly US$3.8 or PHP170). Taking the trains was also an excellent way to make friends with locals or other travelers and discover the scenic countryside landscapes.

On train stops, I loved taking those little cups of chai (masala tea) or coffee, and snack at yummy samosas. Oftentimes, I’d peek out the window (or even the train doors) to take pictures of interesting views we passed by.

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Late afternoon at the Howrah Railway Station and a view of the iconic Howrah Bridge.

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Artsy hanging display at the interior of Howrah Railway Station.

Bodhgaya

I liked the countryside and smaller cities of India best. There were still a lot of dodgy touts but they were not as pushy as the ones I encountered in the big cities.

Many of my friends and family back home wouldn’t put India on the top of their list of places to travel. They often asked me why I would want to go there and I often countered it with a “why not?!” India was more than dirty cities and the Taj Mahal. It was one of the most fascinating and diverse countries I had ever traveled.

A lot of people are not aware that Buddhism had its early roots in India. One destination that I was most excited to visit was Bodghaya, which was where Gautama Buddha, founder of Buddhism, reached “Nirvana” or enlightenment.

I loved that Indian society valued religious tolerance and I learned so much about the different philosophies of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism. It was of course, a major plus, to have gotten the chance to see all the exquisite architecture and art that they inspired.

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Main structure of the Mahabodi Temple in Bodghaya, India

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Locals feeding fish at a large pond at the Mahabodhi Temple

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Selfie at the site where Gautama Buddha attained nirvana.

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Sampling traditional Bihari food.

Varanasi

Situated along the sacred Ganges River, Varanasi is the holiest city in Hinduism and Jainism and one of the oldest living cities in the world. In this modern age, it was interesting to experience a sizeable city that had been left, relatively, untouched by the homogenizing effects of globalization.

One could easily scoff at the dirtiness of the city and the poor sanitation practices of the locals but it will only end in vain. This city and beliefs of its people had survived for millenniums. It was fascinating to observe how it continued to flourish and evolve in its antiquated ways.

Because the Ganges was flooded during my visit, I didn’t get to see the open cremations and the large prayer rituals along the banks of the Ganges River. Instead, I did get to spend more time chatting with other travelers and practicing useful Hindi phrases with the hostel staff.

Thanks to my dark skin and new found skill at speaking Hindi, I was able to blend better with the locals. Sometimes, I even paid the local price on admission fees for tourist attractions.

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Kids playing with “fighting” kites, a favorite local pastime in Varanasi.

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A stray monkey hanging out at the rooftop next door. There was a whole troop in the neighborhood.

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Puja (Hindu prayer ritual) at one of the small ghats in Varanasi.

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One of the many textile factories in Varanasi.

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Fisherman casts a net at the Ganges River.

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Lazy day at the large pond across Durga temple at the outskirts of Varanasi.

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Main structure of the Durga Temple, dedicated to the goddess Durga, the mother of the universe.

Madhya Pradesh

More than the exquisite artistry of the ancient temples and palaces in Madhya Pradesh, the place had an exotic appeal to it that set it apart from other places I visited in India. It was hard to describe but “primal” was a word that popped in my head whenever I tried to. Visiting the temples in Khajuraho, may have left too strong of an impression :) or maybe it was Orccha’s alluring off-beat vibe and strong spiritual atmosphere.

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Dawn at the beautiful grassland landscapes of Madhya Pradesh.

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My first sunrise aboard the train to Khajuraho.

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Indian men taking a refreshing swim during a hot day.

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Indian women in covered colorful sari, traditional Indian wear

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Sunset at the Khajuraho Temples

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Exquisite and intricate stone carvings on the temple exterior.

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Extremely graphic carvings of divine beings in superhuman lewd positions.

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Local woman and a group of kids worshiping Ganesh, the (elephant) god of wisdom.

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Picturesque sunrise at Khajuraho.

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Short walk through a typical small village near Khajuraho town center.

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A Sadhu, “holy person,” in Orccha showed me vultures perched on top of the Chaturbhuj temple that he fed everyday.

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Huge empty interiors of the Chaturbhuj temple in Orccha.

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Built on top of a hill, the Chaturbhuj temple affords a nice overlooking view of Orccha.

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Loved the colors and lines of long shadows during late afternoons.

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Seemingly abandoned Lakshmi Temple in Orccha.

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Cows in the middle of the road without a care in the world. Hindus leave them be because they believe cows are highly sacred creatures.

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Aloo made from crushed freshly made samosa in Orccha. It was the best, I had ever eaten in India.

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Got milk? Cow uncannily takes a peek through the main door of a house.

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The Fort and Royal Palace complex at Orccha

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On a auto rickshaw, typical Indian local transport. Not even sure if locals know I’m foreign.

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One of the lower gates at Gwalior Fort. I loved walking up the old roads to see the ancient forts in India.

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Beautiful carvings inside one of the courtyards at the Man Mandir royal palace in Gwalior Fort.

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Man Mandir royal palace in Gwalior had a more artistic look compared to other fortresses in India.

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Delicious mutton curry for lunch. I had been feeling off and didn’t know why, until I remembered I hadn’t eaten meat for days. Most local restaurants in India were entriely vegetarian.

Rajasthan

I knew what I was getting myself into when I went on a tour of Rajasthan state, the land of kings. Lurking at every corner, were highly annoying touts that constantly tried to sell me something. Keeping them at bay or bluntly ignoring them was a test to my patience and sanity. Nevertheless, the grand fortress walls, seemingly endless maze of charming alleyways, and grand palaces were worth the effort.

Each of my stopovers in Rajasthan had its own distinct character: Chittorgarh, had a massive fortress that was largely untouristic; Udaipur was an artsy lakeside city known as the “White City;” Ranakpur had a huge and impressive Jain temple entirely carved from marble slabs; Jodhpur had the grandest existing fort and was aptly known as the “Blue City;” Jaisalmer had the most exotic appeal; Finally, Jaipur was the largest city and had the most impressive network of fortress walls and palaces.

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Cow foraging on garbage on the active railway tracks in Chittorgarh.

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Early morning walk through the fortress gates of Chittorgarh.

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Expansive view of the city from Chittorgargh Fort

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Ruined Royal Palace at Chittorgargh Fort.

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Overlooking view of Chittorgarh Fort, considered as the largest hilltop fort in all of India.

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Insanely beautiful view of Chittorgarh Fort during the late afternoon. There’s a man-made lake and a waterfall at the side of the fort walls!

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Selfie beside the lake at Chittorgarh Fort. This was the last photo I took before my camera accidentally dropped, partially broke, and became handicapped :( From then on, I had to use duct tape to keep the lens parts together. Thankfully, it still worked occasionally.

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Alluring view of the lakeside city of Udaipur, known as the “White City” in Rajasthan.

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Lots of maze-like narrow alleyways and artsy wall paintings all over the city.

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Old woman gamely poses for a photo at one of the temples in Udaipur. They usually asked me to give them money afterwards.

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Impressive view of multistory houses/buildings and the towering city palace in Udaipur.

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Overlooking view from inside Udaipur’s city palace

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The mesmerizing Peacock Chowk at Udaipur City Palace Museum

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Lakeside view while taking afternoon chai at a lakeside restaurant in Udaipur .

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Joined a cooking class in Udaipur, and learn how to make chapati and simple curry.

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Streetside performance by transvestites, who were balancing stacks of jars on their head. A few hours earlier, I watched a dance show at Bagore Ki Haveli, where a woman amazingly balanced a stack of jars taller than her 4-foot height.

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Intricate designs carved on marble at the Jain Temple in Ranakpur. This particular one carved on a single block of marble, features a tirthankara protected by 108 nagas (snakes).

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Built entirely of light marble, over 1444 marble pillars, carved in exquisite detail, support the Jain temple in Ranakpur. The pillars are all differently carved and no two pillars are the same.

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My favorite part of the temple that had a statue of an elephant ridden by a mahout

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Passing herd of cattle along the rural highway at Ranakpur.

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Interesting interiors of my guesthouse at the “Blue City” of Jodhpur.

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View of the imposing Mehrangarh Fort from a rooftop restaurant in Jodhpur.

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Charming narrow alleyways that wound through Jodhpur city center.

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Another typical scene from narrow alleyways in Jodhpur.

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Out of all the city palace museums I visited in India, Jodhpur was the best preserved and the most impressive. It was totally worth the visit.

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A courtyard inside the city palace at Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur.

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Overlooking view from the fort in Jodhpur. The city was truly filled with blue painted houses!

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Known as the “Golden City of India,” Jaisalmer Fort and most buildings in the city were built from yellow sandstone.

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Beautiful houses hidden within the maze-like roads of Jaisamler city center.

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These houses, called a Haveli, is the local term for a private mansion.

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Perfect view of the sun setting past the desert horizon from Jaisalmer Fort.

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On a camel ride at the Thar Desert near Jaisalmer.

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My first time to visit an oasis. It wasn’t as picturesque as I had always imagined but at least it was an actual oasis :)

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Camels resting after a long ride to the sand dunes.

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Sunset view from the sand dunes that were largely untouristic. Notice the sand wasn’t ruined by foot prints yet.

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Spent the night camping on the dunes with a group of fun travelers. This sunrise photo was taken the morning after.

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Odd buildings at the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. These ancient astronomical instruments were used to measure time, predict eclipses, and make celestial measurements, among others. India was a pioneer of ancient advancements in the field of astronomy and many others.

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View from inside the famous Hawa Mahal in Jaipur India.

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Massive flock of pigeons hovering over the Albert Hall Museum.

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Impressive collection inside Albert Hall Museum, including an actual mummy sarcophagus.

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The stunning fortresses of Amber and Jaigarh in Jaipur.

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Man feeds pigeons at Amber

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Loved the beautiful shadows cast on the exquisite stone pillars.

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Lovely Persian gardens.

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The Hall of Mirrors, the most impressive part of Amber City Palace.

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Peaceful sunset view at the lakeside in Amber.

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Overlooking view of Amber from Jaigarh Fort.

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View of Jawa Mahal during the early evening, the best time to take a picture of this famous Jaipur attraction.

Agra and New Delhi

It was no surprise that I would travel to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, a truly iconic building that needs no introduction. I couldn’t stop smiling the first time, I laid my eyes on its timeless beauty.

Nevertheless, seeing the Taj Mahal only seemed like a “cherry on top” of my fulfilling Indian adventure . It was definitely a must visit, but it wasn’t the only worthwhile attraction in India.

I didn’t find New Delhi to be as chaotic as other travelers had described. The city was rather relatively clean and well planned, which seemed like a world apart from Kolkata. I was relieved to finally be in a city that offered the comforts of modern conveniences.

If not for two Filipino travel bloggers, Marx and Paula, who were also traveling to New Delhi at the same time as me, I would’ve just spent my last few days lazing around to get some much needed rest. Great thing that I didn’t!

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Photo of the iconic Taj Mahal from the side. The building seemingly took different forms when taken from various angles.

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Even up close, the Taj Mahal was still insanely impressive. There were subtle hologram-like details that left me in awe of the great amount of effort and artistry required to construct this world icon.

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Late afternoon at the Agra Fort.

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Beautiful long shadows at the arch filled halls inside the Agra Fort.

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Massive gate of the Great Mosque in Fatehpur Sikri.

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Hall of vibrant red columns at the City Palace in Fatehpur Sikri

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Selfie with the Taj Mahal during the late afternoon.

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Peaceful dusk view of the Taj Mahal conveniently taken from the rooftop restaurant of the guesthouse I stayed in.

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Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi

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Exploring Humayun’s tomb with Paula and Marx

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Late afternoon at Lodhi Park

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The India Gate at New Deli.

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Neon signs at Paharganj, the backpacker hive of New Delhi

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Night view of the main street in Paharganj.

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After almost a month of eating mostly local food, indulging at Western food was a welcome diversion.

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Jantar Mantar at New Delhi

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The towering Qutub Minar at New Delhi.

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The Qutub Minar was best appreciated up close. I didn’t expect it have such intricately beautiful carvings.

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Flower-inspired main structure of the Lotus Temple, the mother house of worship of the Bahá’í faith. It is open to all regardless of religion.

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Quick photo before witnessing the lights and sounds show at the Red Fort in New Delhi.

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Clean and modern mass transit station in New Delhi. This one was the platform for trains headed to New Delhi International Airport.

During most days on my trip in India, I often ate local food, drank chai at sidestreet stalls, and refilled my water bottle at drinking faucets at temples. Someone told me prior to my trip, that traveling to India was the best way to lose weight because every traveler eventually gets sick (upset stomach) from eating local food. I was so fortunate that my stomach didn’t fail me and I got to indulge in delicious Indian curries as much as I could.

I found it difficult to describe India in absolute terms because it was so diverse and constantly changing. I described Kolkata, my entry point to India, as a dirty city. To be fair, not all parts of the city was so and not all places, even the big cities, in India was as bad. I’ve been reading a lot of news about drastic improvements of the country’s infrastructure and rise as a global superpower. I wouldn’t be surprised to see its cityscapes change if ever I visit India again.

Originally, I had planned to travel India for 3-whole months but I shortened it to 28-days, so I can also spend a month-long trip, trekking at the Himalayan mountains of Nepal. I was only able to visit a small part of India. Next time, I would love to travel to the Indian Himalayas, the more laid-back southern states, and the country’s fine wildlife reserves.

My trip to India was fulfilling and life-changing. It wasn’t always perfect but I am definitely going back!