“Sorry, sorry – traffic is very bad today.” My auto rickshaw driver calls over his shoulder as we idle in a traffic jam on a sweltering Bangalore afternoon.
I’m not at all sorry for the slowdown; I’ve spent the last 10 minutes white-knuckling the bar on the back of the driver’s seat as he hurtled us in and out of harm’s way. Indian traffic is a little bit like a game of bumper cars at an amusement park, only a lot faster, a little scarier, and without some of the safety features that, as a Floridian, I quickly realize I take for granted.
Dogs, cows, and fearless pedestrians weave themselves into the mix while every single car, rickshaw, motorcycle and bus driver blows their horn continually lest the rest of us forget the imminent danger we’re all in. The air is a hot, sticky, lasagna of exhaust fumes, spicy street cart food, clouds of incense, cow dung, jasmine, sweat, and garbage.
“That’s OK, just let me out here. I’m close enough to walk the rest of the way.” Indeed, I can weave in and out of this gridlock faster than any vehicle can maneuver.
And that’s how I find myself in the middle of an absolutely fantastic Hindu festival on a Sunday afternoon, taking in a riot of colors and sights and sounds and smells that I would have completely missed if I had stayed on my intended route. Parade floats hand crafted with thousands of exotic flowers trundle down the crowded streets, filling the air with their heady perfume and clouds of incense smoke.
In between floats, groups of teenage boys with drums bliss themselves out with their music and parents lift their small children into the air to be blessed by the presence of the religious idols nestled among heaps of fragrant blossoms. Elderly women offer spicy food and refreshing coconuts from blankets along the parade route; large families and groups of friends huddle together to share food and rinse each other’s hands with water from plastic bags.
A beaming Indian woman in a royal blue sari touches my arm and urges me to make my way deeper into the maze of alleyways bursting with celebration. Groups of locals stop to ask my name, where I come from, and if I am enjoying their parade. Everyone is smiling. Several ask shyly to pose for a picture for me. The joy in the air is palpable and it’s impossible not to be caught up in the celebratory atmosphere. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Throughout my travels in India and all over the world, this scenario has played itself out over and over again. Every time I decide to step out of my comfort zone and explore, I am rewarded with incredible experiences not listed in any travel guide. It’s not always a festival, although I do seem to have a knack for stumbling into celebrations of all kinds. Sometimes the reward for my wandering is a fantastic meal, a beautiful hidden vista, or a conversation with a stranger that ends up staying with me forever.
Especially if you’re a solo adventurer, you’ll find yourself a magnet for the kind of locals who love to meet travelers.
While wandering around a temple in Yangon, Myanmar, I was approached by an elderly monk who was starved for conversation and news of the outside world. I’m not a naturally outgoing person; I’m terrible at small talk and as socially awkward as they come, but I forced myself to have a conversation with this man that ended up being one of the most enlightening, influential moments of my life. For two hours we drank tea and he told me about his life, his love for his country and its peace-loving people, and how he survived the 1988 massacre by hiding under the bodies of his slain brothers. I hate to think that I almost just kept walking.
Some of the most beautiful sights I saw in India were complete accidents; I was on my way to a guidebook destination and thought, “This road looks interesting; let me just have a little wander…”
Candy-colored Hindu temples climbing into the sky, royal poinciana trees shedding bright orange blossoms over a colonial-era cemetery, sacred cows given the honor of a tilaka blessing along with the rest of the gathered faithful. None of these things were on my well-researched itinerary, but they’re some of my favorite memories and most cherished photos of my trip. Planning will only get you so far; at some point you have to put the map down and just let yourself experience whatever you find.
That’s how I ended up in India to begin with; my plans to visit a friend in Thailand fell through and I found myself with two free weeks before I was due to arrive in Sri Lanka to begin my three month visit. I never expected to fall in love with the country, but as I sat in the airport on my last day, it felt like I was leaving home behind.
My advice? Get up early. I know you’re on vacation, but there are sights and sounds and smells that only happen while a city is coming alive and you’ll miss it all if you stay in bed until noon. Find out where the locals get their coffee in the morning, watch the mist burn off the nearest body of water, see troupes of uniformed children heading off to school, listen to the local bird life welcoming in the day. You’ll feel like you have the whole neighborhood to yourself (and you can head back to your hotel for an afternoon nap by the time all the other tourists show up).
Follow your ears as well as your eyes. I’ve encountered so many great experiences by taking heed of an interesting sound and following it to its source. My current favorite musical group is an Indian pop trio that I discovered when I heard them playing in an Irish pub in Bangalore and wandered through a row of backyards until I found the source of the music. Like old temples and churches? Listen for chanting and you might discover some beautiful ones that aren’t on your map.
Solo travelers are given a lot of instructions for staying safe on the road. Take a taxi to and from your destination, avoid eye contact, wear headphones to keep people from talking to you, do everything in a group so you’re never wandering around alone. I’m not one to advocate risky behavior but it’s perfectly okay to disregard some of that well-meaning advice. Yes, be aware of your surroundings and trust your intuition, of course, but talk to strangers sometimes.
Wander off down an interesting looking street and see where it goes. Strike up a conversation with a local and ask them about their life.
Never be afraid to jump out of your rickshaw and go exploring. You never know what you might find.
Want to witness the stunning chaos of India for yourself? Check out our range of small group adventures.
(Image credits from top to bottom: iStock, Leslie Price x4, iStock)