Updated: 1st June 2016
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I’m not really one for group tours. I like to be in charge of my own adventures. But when you are travelling with a purpose beyond just ticking off the sights, sometimes there is a time and a place for a knowledgeable guide and a tribe of travellers with a passion.
Exploring the Golden Triangle of India (Delhi, Agra & Jaipur) with Hands on Journeys was one of those times.
I am going to be totally up front here. I first joined Hands on Journeys in Cambodia/Vietnam last year volunteering my time as a photographer to support their new venture and again on this trip. I didn’t ‘have’ to write this review but I am doing so because I truly believe in this project. So many people get in to ‘Voluntourism’ for the wrong reasons, but Simla, the founder of the company did so for all the right reasons. After surviving a brain hemorrhage a truly responsible company was born which garners my full suppor tand I hope yours if you consider exploring this part of the world
Touring the golden triangle with Hands on Journeys
Hands on Journeys is a small group tour operator. Specialising currently in Cambodia/Vietnam and India they focus on blending travel with ’empowerment tourism’ – seeing the sights, discovering a local way of life and creating opportunities for local communities to grow by providing jobs, not taking them away. If you are limited on time, looking to make an impact but also want to see the beauty of a country you will be hard pushed to find a better option.
Their mission is simple: Travel, Inspire and Giveback… let me break that down for you.
The thing that makes this tour for me is the freedom it offers. You might have a guide (or a new friend), you might have a bus (or an ojek, boat, bike) to take the group around and you might have an itinerary. But you have time and freedom to travel, to explore and to understand on your own. This isn’t your typical group tour, far from it. You have a group leader and knowledgeable guides with you throughout, but quickly they become your friend and a never ending insight into their country and your questions whilst breaking away from the group is never frowned upon.
WHERE DO YOU STAY?
The accommodation is a mix of 3/4 star boutique lodgings. Forget well-known hotel brands and think converted historical homes still family run and independent accommodation with rooftop pool views of the Taj Mahal and you get the picture. Each hotel has been hand-picked and most of the providers support the projects that Hands on Journeys works with.
WHAT DO YOU EAT?
Many meals are included, but there is still enough free meal space to hit up the street markets and hunt out hidden gems. Meals range from traditional Thali (A huge selection of Indian treats) eaten by hand on the floor through to lavish 9 course set meals. You’ll get a taste of India (with some western food thrown in). What I really loved was the range of the dining options. From traditional villages, dance performances, the hip and modern in Delhi right through to beautiful remote garden restaurants. The research has been done here and you aren’t falling into another cookie cutter set of group tour dining options.
If you want to get an idea of how delicious and interesting Indian food is, these three Rajasthani dishes are a great introduction!
WHAT IS INCLUDED?
The tour includes all your transport internally, most meals, accommodation, all entrance fees and of course, the funds which provide so much value to the projects within the community. There are no ‘optional extras’ other than those you choose to hunt out, so the price you pay (except for flights, booze and the occasional meal) is essentially ‘all inclusive’.
So where do you go…
After a quick pit stop in Delhi post arrival, the first stop is the historic pink city of Jaipur, so named after the red brick work and paint. Here we visited some of the most beautiful architecture in the country.
Amer Fort or Amber Fort is a great example of Hindu design but the fantastic views of the city below and its surrounding wall are two more reasons to visit this impressive site.
Janta Mantar is made up of 13 architectural astronomy monuments. It is incredible to witness this huge sundial and understand how in years gone by people could gauge time.
Palace of the Winds otherwise known as the Hawa Mahal is one of the most breathtaking buildings I have ever witnessed. Constructed of red sandstone it was originally built so women of the house could see outside activities without being seen themselves.
Maharaja’s City Palace in Jaipur is a beautiful complex of various buildings. Somehow, I got separated from the group here and on trying to find them inadvertently ended up with an armed guard showing me the kings private quarters… sometimes you just have to get lost right?
The Water Palace or, Jal Mahal, situated within the serene lake of Jaipur is a beauty to behold, which is good as access to the public has stopped and this building now sadly sits empty.
Elephant Conservation Village. We spent half a day at one of the few Conservation villages within Jaipur. Many of the Elephants in this city tragically spend their days taking the long climb to Amer Fort with tourists on their back. Sadly, on our visit they broke their promises of conservation and as we bathed and fed these majestic creatures we saw tourists arrive just for a quick ride on the animals. Since then, this activity has been removed from the tours and exchanged for a half day Indian cookery class. A lesson that conservation is not always as it seems.
Agra has a slower pace than other cities, which sounds crazy given the amount of tourists which flock here annually but it is for that reason that it is better cared for.
Fatehpur Sikri located outside the main city of Agra, the complex was constructed in the 16th century and now consists of various palaces and mosques. It was perhaps my favourite place we visited as the span of architectural styles and history here was by far the most interesting.
Taj Mahal – I think we all know this one, but if you want to see some of the best tips for photographing and exploring it check out my Taj Mahal guide.
Agra Fort if you haven’t guessed yet, is another fort! The towering walls on the outskirts of Agra hide beautiful gardens and palaces. Sadly, construction work had much of it closed off on our visit.
Delhi, the capital of India is a mind-blowing sensory over load. Loud, brash and in your face it gives you a glimpse into the chaos, crowds and pollution of this giant of a city, here we took the time to see some of the best attractions in Delhi.
Qutb Minar is the highest red-brick tower in the world. Built in the late 1100 it is a victory monument to the fall of a Hindu state.
Jasma Majid is one of the largest Mosques in India, built by the Mughal empire this towering building not only is a place of worship but heading to the top of its towers gives you a panoramic view of Delhi below.
Water Lilly Temple is a strange and modern place of worship, often compared to the Sydney Opera House. It’s a church dedicated to the Baha’i faith which is a relatively new, and intriguing religion.
Delhi Red Fort I’ve gotta be honest, I was completely ‘Forted’ out by this point! Another impressive Mughal emperor and his palace, protected from the outside world.
The word Inspire gets thrown around so much these days, especially in the travel blogging world. We all want to inspire you to travel more and when I saw it in the tagline I couldn’t help but wonder… what?
I guess the thing is once you are on a journey like this inspiration is everywhere, or perhaps you are just more open to looking for it?
My stupid western privileged mind had made a rough assumption that most of the inspiring would come from us. But it wasn’t. It was the people we met and the stories we heard that did the hard work.
From the photographer on the streets of Jaipur with his 150 year old camera continuing his great granddad business through to Sonu who had moved to the slums of Delhi from Nepal to try to open a school. Each day my eyes were opened and my heart inspired to want more for both myself, but also for the world around me.
One of my favourite moments of the tour was at a road side stop from Jaipur to Delhi. A wrinkled and beautiful lady sat as her husband tended to his cows. My first reaction was to photograph her but when I did it was through Polaroid. As we pulled away and I saw her slip the small photo of her and her husband down her top I was reminded of these little gifts we can leave as we go and that these memories would out weigh the photos I was capturing.
The tricky part. When it comes to Volunteering abroad it is so easy to come in guns blazing. To ‘know what is best’ for these people. To take action and question later. Jeremy at TravelFreak wrote a powerful piece on this after our time in Cambodia.
Simla has had those two-way conversations. She spent years volunteering across the world after nearly two months in her coma. Grasping the concept of what was so wrong with much of these charities and causes around the globe she set out to do it differently.
If you want the kind of trip where you are building schools, teaching children or distributing medicine then this is not for you.
But unless you are a skilled plumber or builder, qualified teacher or professionally medically trained I can promise you one thing – there is a local who can do the task much better than you and would rather have the pay packet.
This is where Hands on Journeys makes a difference. Funds collected from the tours provided job opportunities. From our tour alone 3 ladies were employed full-time for six months as teaching assistants, two toilets were built by professional locals, 5 water filters were constructed and distributed and materials were given to women empowerment groups so they could create their own products and retail them.
When we arrived, much of the work had been done. But we got to meet those who would benefit and support the new teachers in the classroom. Add the finishing touches to the toilets with paint. Assist in the construction of new book shelves and the re-decoration and understand the lives of those we have impacted.
You may not feel you have done as much as you can, but what you have done is provided a school which won’t collapse because you are so far out of your depth trying to construct it.
About 30% of the time on tour is spent within the communities and projects with the other 70% spend travelling.
India is a country with class division as obvious as the moon at night. The caste system here makes it hard for people to always get ahead, many parents knowing that children’s teary eyes provide more short-term value than their education.
Stepping into the Slums of India can be daunting. If you want to talk about culture shock this is it and perhaps it is not somewhere I would venture as solo as I would elsewhere which Jen, from the Social Girl Traveler wrote about from a women’s perspective.
I left with people in my heart. New names and faces that would always remain with me. Whats app numbers to check in and keep in touch. These people don’t need saving, they need opportunity in a world that is vastly unfair and I felt here it was given with the most respect and thoughtful way it could be.
Want to get involved?
Would I recommend Hands on Journeys? For sure… This isn’t a sales pitch and I really didn’t see myself getting so invested in a ‘Group tour company’ but I made friends with the people I met and the causes that are supported and already have plans to return next year and visit those who shared their world with me and continue my support.