In the early hours of morning, I waited in line at the border crossing clutching my passport amongst a sea of tourists and locals, anxious about what may lie ahead. I had spent some time in Nepal rafting, hiking, camping. It had been an absolute dream. And although I was incredibly excited about the next chapter in my first solo overseas adventure, anxiety had started to take hold.

Here I was lining up to enter the country everyone had told me to “be careful” in. The country when I told people from my hometown of Camden on the outskirts of Sydney that I was travelling to, responded with “oh, why?”. I had been warned by everyone and anyone to clutch my purse tight, padlock my backpack, don’t go out alone, remove all my jewellery, cover my fair skin and blonde hair. I was prepared for the worst and was greeted by the warm, brilliant smiles of strangers as my bus rumbled along the windy, bumpy, dirt roads. It had taken all of about 3 minutes of driving through the villages and markets to be at ease in the vibrant, bustling, colourful country that is India.

A family enjoy the warmth of the early morning sun in a village somewhere between Nepal and Varanasi | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

The colours and characters of a local market somewhere between Nepal and Varanasi | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Varanasi:

You know when you watch a documentary about a particular place or scroll through an album of amazing photos and then you get there and it’s not quite what everyone made it out to be? Varanasi is not one of those places. No documentary, no image, no article written on Summersite from some amateur will ever do this city justice.

It might feel like every morning spent in India is an early rise and it might become increasingly difficult as those early rises begin to accumulate - but if there’s one morning you need to get your backpacking butt out of bed for it’s day 1 in Varanasi! Grab a 5am tuk tuk (and hold on tight) through the already alive city to the banks of the infamous River Ganges and jump on a boat to see the sun rise.

Sunrise on the River Ganges, Varanasi | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Varanasi, Benares, Banaras, Kashi call it what you like. It’s one of the oldest living cities on this earth of ours and it shows through the immense culture that the city has to offer. It is definitely the most colourful places I have visited, both literally and figuratively. You will be shocked, you will be overwhelmed, you will be confused, you will be at peace, you will feel every emotion humanely possible just by walking along the Ghats of the Ganges.

A busy and colourful Ghat, Varanasi | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Men bathe in the Holy River Ganges, Varanasi | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Bathing, washing, drinking, meditating at Ahilyabai Ghat, Varanasi | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Although I had always wanted to travel to Varanasi and to experience the Ganges, one thing that made me nervous was the idea of death. It’s the holiest city in India and people want to die here. My little westernised backside had always thought of death to be a great calamity, the end of everything. But that’s not the case here and it wasn’t until I had witnessed for myself a cremation ceremony on the Ganges that I understood. Death to the people here is only the death of a body, a natural process whereby the soul moves onwards to the next phase of life. It is a rebirth and it is not a reason to cry.

Men prepare the burning Ghat for the cremation ceremonies, Varanasi | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Note: Varanasi is an incredibly religious city. They worship their cows and there’s about 10 times more cows here than any other place I visited in India. That also means there’s 10 times more cow shit here and I promise you will step in it at some point. Sorry.

Agra:

I jumped on an overnight train from Varanasi to Agra which was an intimidating but essential experience in India. You will see the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich standing side by side on a platform. You won't get a great sleep. You will get stared at. You will have to use a smelly squat toilet that opens onto the tracks below. But if you’re as lucky as I was, you’ll meet some incredible local people, who despite their lack of English will try their best to make you feel at home (and may at times encourage their children to jump into your bed and share your mandarin while they snap photos).

In the city of Agra itself, there’s not too much to see. If I’m going to give you my honest opinion, it’s probably the smelliest city with the worst food and I’ll never go back there. BUT, Agra’s redeeming quality; The Taj Mahal.

Sunrise at the Taj Mahal, Agra | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

I really cannot explain the beauty and magnificence of the Taj, I spent the majority of my visit holding my breath and judging by some of my photographs shaking with adrenaline. It is the most overwhelmingly beautiful place I have ever experienced. Get there for sunrise, it’s worth the early wakeup and long wait at the gates. I promise.

Taj Mahal, Agra | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Details of the Taj, Agra | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Note: If like me, you’re a little blonde-haired, fair-skinned girl that has always dreamed of wearing a Sari and decides to do so upon her visit to the Taj Mahal, be prepared to be more of an attraction to the local people than the Taj Mahal itself.

Tordi:

I was very lucky to find my way into this beautiful little town. I don’t have any pictures to share but I think that’s because it felt a little like coming home for a few days. It was lovely to walk alone through the streets here and not to be hassled. The people here have next to nothing but are some of the happiest people I have come across. A real eye opening experience and an opportunity to relax. I was told that this is the “real India” and I encourage anyone who makes the trip to India to spend some time in a village away from the major cities.

Note: Try not to get too close to the cows even though they look heaps cute. They headbutt you. Hard.

Jaipur:

The pink city. I’m fairly certain a little piece of my heart was left here and I can’t quite ascertain why exactly. I think the happiest I have ever been is floating above Jaipur in a hot air balloon and I highly recommend you do the same if you find yourself in this magnificent part of the world.

Hot air ballooning over Jaipur | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Seriously though, if you're okay with your heart exploding and your insides turning to goo and shedding a couple of happy tears, then ballooning is essential. I will never forget how excited the people in the villages below were to see us. They’d run out of their homes to wave and shout “hello” even though they see this every goddamn day.

A local village from above, Jaipur | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Excited villagers wave at the hot air balloons from their rooftop, Jaipur | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

I really hit the jackpot this morning and our pilot missed our landing spot. 45 minutes of extra time floating in our giant rainbow apparatus and we found ourselves on the other side of a mountain range, landing in a field in a remote village. You could imagine the excitement of an entire village that has never seen a hot air balloon before. We were soon like animals in a zoo as the local people surrounded our basket.

An entire village greets the hot air balloon, Jaipur | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Awe and surprise on the faces of the people as a balloon lands in their village, Jaipur | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

This guy also also asked me to marry him. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t respond. He was cute. Regrets.

My future husband who doesn’t know he’s my future husband, Jaipur | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

You’ll understand why Jaipur is known as “the pink city” after visiting the Old City. It’s actually entirely pink. The colour of hospitality. Streets flooded in marigold, smells of fresh food and spices dancing from the markets. It’s a bustling, noisy, crowded city with incredible shopping and food. I did find myself being touched excessively by the men in crowds here but they were quickly deterred by a firm “no”. Wear a bindi here and they wont even glance at you.

The Wind Palace, Old City, Jaipur | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Men sell marigold on the streets of the Old City, Jaipur | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Another noteworthy visit in Jaipur is the beautiful Amber Fort and Palace. It took 200 years for the construction of this mind-blowing place to be completed. It’s worthwhile paying for a guide to show you around here.

Amber Fort and Palace, Jaipur | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Amber Fort and Palace, Jaipur | Photo by Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer

Note: Cute guy that asked me to marry you; After much deliberation my answer is now yes. Not sure how to get in contact with you so lets hope you find your way to Summersite on that phone of yours.

Delhi:

I wish I had photos to share with you of Delhi but if the commotion and smells and traffic of this city isn’t enough to hit you for six, the infamous Delhi Belly certainly is. Delhi made me tired and skinny and ready for home and I’m glad it was the last place I visited. I understand why so many people are struck with culture shock on their arrival in India when their first stop is Delhi. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my time here though, if you can find a market there’s some great shopping to be had and the food is delicious! Delhi is definitely succumbing to western influences though and I’m sure it will be an entirely different city in 20 years or so. Try and get there before it’s mini USA.

Note: Gastro-stop is no opponent to the Delhi Belly.

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So there you have it. My trip in a nutshell. It’s cliché and all I know, but India has changed my life. I was challenged in a thousand ways and rewarded a thousand times more and I have no doubt I’ll be back there as soon as possible. Go jump on a plane and find yourself in India kids.

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Words and photography // Eliza Sawyer @elizasawyer