I get bummed out when people tell me they would never travel to India. ‘Diarrhea’, ‘scams’, ‘filthy’ and ‘dangerous’ are words that commonly crop up when people list off their reasons for staying away. It saddens me because India is a magical country rich in culture, traditions and teachings.
I wasn’t prepared for the variety of reactions I received when I told people I was going to India alone as a young female. Choruses of ‘be careful’ were sung and I was labelled as both ‘brave’ and ‘naive’. I am a confident and very experienced solo traveller but when it came to India I was extremely nervous, despite the fact I was joining Intrepid’s 16-day Real Rajasthan small group tour. I cried walking through the departure gates at Melbourne airport and in retrospect, I think my nerves had a lot to do with what others had told me. Ironically, a lot of the advice I received came from people who had never visited the country. I believe that like many things, India needs to be experienced firsthand to be truly understood. It’s not all doom and gloom, nor is it entirely sunshine and rainbows. It’s an experience.
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It’s irresponsible to generalise India as a bad place to travel, but I think it’s equally irresponsible to tell an 18-year-old girl who has never travelled alone that India will be a breeze and is not at all different from her home. India is different to anywhere I have ever been. It’s a chaotic land that sits under a migraine of coloured scarves and clutter. You’re constantly stimulated by noise, smells, animals, crowds and culture, but within this organised disorder is overwhelming beauty and humble, generous people.
I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t exceptionally lucky on my trip. I didn’t get sick, I never felt unsafe or ripped off and I embraced the craziness. I honestly believe that you can put a lot of travel experiences down to luck and chance. A bad experience on a holiday is not necessarily the fault of the country you are visiting, luck and chance can share the blame.
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So, what can help you find the good luck in India? You have to be prepared. You have to be open to imperfection. You have to be willing to learn about a culture that is different from your own. You have to smile, try new things and be patient. You also need to manage your expectations. If you want to feel as relaxed as you would lying on a beach in Greece or walk streets as pristine as those in Singapore, then India probably isn’t the place for you. If you can look past these differences however, you may be one of the many people who, like me, extended their visa to stay in this wonderful country.
The first couple of weeks in India can be difficult, but keep at it, and keep an open mind. Open your heart to the people you meet and don’t build walls around yourself. It was only when I opened myself up to India, and gained confidence under the guidance of my Intrepid leader and newfound friends, that experiences started rolling in and strong friendships began to form. There was my friend Deep who walked on an hour round trip into town to recharge my phone credit when I was too tired. There was a lady outside the Dalai Lama’s temple who loaded a plate with momos when I told her I had to walk 4km up the mountain to get back to my guesthouse.
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Then there was my favourite act of kindness. I had spent 11 hours on an overnight bus, which I reached my destination at 5am. Puffy eyed and half asleep I disembarked not realising I had left my journal, full of years worth of stories, poetry and half-realised thoughts on my seat. I was devastated. A couple of days later I received a Whatsapp message from Anik, a local man who had found my journal on the bus and wanted to return it to me. Luckily, he lived only fifteen minutes from where I was staying, so thanking the universe I took a rickshaw to his house. Not only was I reunited with my journal but I was invited to stay for dinner with his family, who I’m still in touch with to this day.
This is India. A loving, caring and yes, sometimes confusing and scary place. Just like America, Spain, Australia or anywhere on this crazy planet. I learnt that the keys are to have an open mind and go with the flow. One day I was talked into paying too much for potatoes and the next a local fruit vendor gave me three mangos for free. Someone pushed in front of me in line for the ATM, but someone else offered me a samosa as a treat on a long train journey.
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Yes, it is a developing nation, but India is just like everywhere else, with its good, bad and ugly. I shed far more tears when it came time to board my plane back to Melbourne than I did at the beginning of my trip. I will always be an advocate for India. Yes, it is a challenge, but the most rewarding experiences are the ones you’re game enough to run with.
Want to visit India, but got no one to go with? Book a small group tour with Intrepid, and you’ll have the perfect mix of time with new friends (and an expert local leader) and alone time.
Hero image: Mirae Campbell
Thank you, Rose for writing this feature on traveling in India. It has a mixed reputation, but the truth is there are many good people in India, especially in the interiors. So, it’s worth giving a shot. But yes, caution should be your mantra.
I like your comment about traveller’s advice from people who have not left home. I was fortunate enough to win an Intrepid tour of southern India a few years ago. I clearly remember walking out of the airport in Chenai at 2:00 am into chaos and feeling very relieved to see my name on a sign (I had pre-booked transport to the hotel). The next morning I was overcome by the smells, noise, traffic, and more chaos, wondering if I had made a big mistake. The next two weeks assured me that I hadn’t. Under the guidance of Chan, our Intrepid guide, our small group made our way around the tip of India, from small villages to large cities, from chaos to exotic entertainment, from jammed overnight trains to boats in Kerala (where I heard yesterday that the flooding has reached to the roofs of houses). On a train one night I talked for hours with a reporter and an engineer about the challenges that India faces. I was appalled at the poverty and the squalor and amazed and humbled at the temples and residences. I never suffered any distress from eating everything placed before me. Of course it was challenging, but our group was very supportive of each other (and most were seasoned travellers) On my final day in Chenai, I was killing time in a coffee shop when I was approached by two young women. We chatted for a while and then they asked me if I would like a tour of the city. Initial alarm bells went off, but I took a chance and enjoyed a wonderful day seeing parts of the city I didn’t know existed, escorted by two dentists who were enjoying a day off work. We dined at the best Thai restaurant I’ve ever eaten at, and they refused to let me pay for anything. The eventually dropped me at the airport to catch my flight back to Canada. One last incident contrasts with their kindness. I had left my back pack in a roped off area while I went into the city. When I showed the man in charge my little piece of cardboard with my bag number on it, he refused to give me my bag. “One hour only,” he said. Of course a discussion, then an argument ensued. I demanded to see his supervisor, who repeated that the storage area was for one hour. After further discussion, I offered to pay an extra fee (I was tempted to have one of the soldiers guarding the entrance to the terminal come over and shoot him, but decided against that) and the man finally smiled and held out his had for the change I had in my pocket.