Regan Schoultz finds travelling with her partner's family offers a rare insight into life in an exciting, exhausting country.
"How did you convince your parents to let you travel to India with your boyfriend?"
It wasn't the question I expected to be asked over drinks not long after I'd arrived in India. Perhaps I should have: that was what had brought me to the city of Meerut, near Delhi.
I had come to meet my partner's family. It's a nerve-racking experience at the best of times; more so when the parents and family live across the world, speak a different language, and are from a completely different culture to your own.
My partner's father, a prominent lawyer in Delhi, and his mother, a socialite, were nervous to meet me too: a Kiwi, born in Africa, who had little knowledge of Hinduism and couldn't cook roti to save her life.
His childhood friends were curious, a new generation of Indians starting to push their society's boundaries, challenge conventions - to a point. That question about travelling with a man was quickly followed by: "So when are you two getting married? Will you get married in India?"
Aromatics permeated the house, a clean fresh scent, clearing the smells from the street outside.
"You are planning on having two weddings? One in India and one in New Zealand? That's a great idea."
The 24-hour maid lingered in the corner, waiting for a cue to serve dinner. Traffic noises filled the small room from the busy street outside.
"We would love to have that kind of freedom."
Eager to show me India, my new family welcomed me into their home and day-to-day lives: trips to the local market for fruit and vegetables, to the tailor, the beauty parlour, courthouse and the jewellers. They offered me a rare insight into life in India through the eyes of the locals.
And into their customs. We took a family trip to Haridwar, a religious centre on the banks of the Ganges River, four hours from Meerut.
Going away with the Rajvanshis was like a day out with my Kiwi family - loud, hectic and a whole lot of fun - but the activities were slightly different, namely shaving the hair of Arshiya, my partner's 6-month-old niece.
It is a Hindu tradition for parents to shave their children's hair from 6 months to their first birthday. "Why do you think Indians have such nice hair?" was said by way of explanation.
In a shack on the riverbank, a priest said prayers over Arshiya. The ritual was lengthy and a disgruntled little girl let us know how she felt about it. Chunk by chunk, Arshiya's hair was placed between fried slices of potato - an offering to the gods.
When she was bald, her parents took her to the water and set the food and hair to float away.
We attended aarti - a mass prayer session on the banks of the holy river. Thousands of people gather on both sides of the river hours before the event to get a good view.
The session begins when the drums roll, the chanting starts, bells chime and the fires are lit. Prayers sung by thousands electrify the surroundings.
The air is thick with sweat, smoke and emotion emanating from the crowd.
Prayer leaders splash the packed crowd with water from the holy river, a blessing from the gods, while chanting blessings.
As quickly as it starts, the prayer session is over and people surge towards the river to float various offerings to the Hindu gods.
Priests by the riverside bless couples, families and singles at the water's edge while others take an icy-cold swim.
Mansa Devi, a temple at the top of a hill, is another of Haridwar's religious offerings which serves as a place for prayer and worship.
Even the three or four hours it can take in the queue to enter the temple doesn't deter those who have come to pray.
That was one of so many experiences that helped me to understand what I had read about India, before I went, reinforced by my visit ... the constant tension between the ancient and modern, the young and old, the religious and secular, the tradition and today.
Driven by an impulse to experience India's nightlife we flew to Mumbai for a weekend to party.
The city was flooded, the rain relentless, the humidity extreme. Venturing outside frizzed my hair. Looking good was near-impossible.
We dressed up and took a half-hour taxi ride to a hotel (cost: the equivalent of $3).
Luckily, a friend had connections and we were allowed into the 36th floor, filled by two clubs, lots of security and rich young people from every culture, isolated from the world below.
Down there, life was not easy. From an air-conditioned car I saw beggars, starvation and people fighting for basic means of living.
India is a country that suffers from many ailments - corruption, poverty, overcrowding - but it has a rich tapestry of religion, colour and vibrancy.
It is a country where multitudes of people, foreign smells, pollution, rubbish, tooting and shouting combine with an electric sense of life, always busy, always something happening.
It is thrilling and exhausting in equal measures.
I discovered the fabulous Indian cuisine - in my family and friend's home, as well as in restaurants and street food - and lived on roti, curd, dahl and banana smoothies for the entirety of my trip.
And I travelled. Eight states, 10 cities, three weeks.
Three days after we arrived, we visited Jaipur in Rajasthan, otherwise known as the Pink City. Desert landscapes, mountains, camels and beautiful pink buildings with white trimmings began popping up as we neared the city.
It was 5pm and 42C when we stopped at Amer Palace, 11km outside the city. With wet towels wrapped around our heads, we ventured into the heat to explore.
Built in the 16th century by Maharaja Man Singh, the vast red sandstone and white marble structure is fringed by breathtaking views of the city below.
Ancient bathrooms, bedrooms, courtyards and gardens made up the palace. Marble latticework adorned the walls and windows demonstrated unbelievable craftsmanship.
Pestered by willing guides, we explored the cool depths of the structure before the palace closed for the night.
True to its name, the Pink City is built from red sandstone in honour of the Hindi god Shiva. People, rickshaws, market stalls and traffic pack the streets.
Amid the crowds, heat and pungent smells is a thriving marketplace full of bright colours, fabrics and jewels. Tiny stalls and shops selling every kind of clothing, shoes and souvenirs pepper the side of every road, corner and street.
With a little know-how, which my partner's mother certainly had, navigating the multitude of stalls and shops was fairly simple. Knowing the best places to go was the tricky part.
When shopping, bartering is a given. The shopkeeper will begin by naming a ridiculous price followed by a low counter-offer from the buyer. Arguing ensues. One party may walk out the door to make a point and, eventually, both will agree on a price.
It's also a given that if you are a tourist, the price is 10 times higher than for locals. To avoid the foreigners' fee, we devised a plan. Upon entering a shop we would have a look around, find something we liked, maybe try it on and then I would announce loudly I did not like it because the price was too high.
Cue my partner's mother, who would buy the item with the shopkeeper thinking it was for her.
Among new things I was introduced to in Jaipur was a sweet treat called kulfi; a gooey, milk popsicle dipped in more milky, pistachio nut goodness. For the rest of my stay in India, I was hooked.
In the final few weeks, we decided on a change of scenery and headed to the mountains to escape the heat.
Home to the Dalai Lama, McLeod Ganj offered a different India. While the traffic remained heavy on twisty mountain roads, the temperature cooled considerably as we climbed, and houses thinned out.
Not unlike a New Zealand landscape, McLeod Ganj is perched precariously on the edge of a mountain. Trees, dirt roads and fresh, unpolluted air welcome travellers and locals at the hill station. The town is small but thriving. Market stalls line the narrow streets selling clothes, cheap jewellery and souvenirs. Tiny shops are packed full of wares barely leaving enough room for an interested buyer. Tourists and Indians crowd the streets - most have come here to escape the heat of the summer.
Tsuglagkhang, a monastery, is home to monks and the Dalai Lama's private residence. Men in red robes and yellow belts sit knee to knee in the temple singing prayers. Giant cauldrons are rolled out at lunchtime and filled with food for those at the monastery to dig into. Communal meals are a big affair.
McLeod Ganj is peaceful. It is India at a more relaxed pace and it was a beautiful way to finish my journey.
In one month I had been offered the rare chance of being able to experience life in India first-hand. But now I have family there and will return.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific and sister airline Dragonair offer 48 flights each week to six destinations in India travelling via Hong Kong.