I grew up listening to my parents’ recollections of their backpacking trip across India in the 1980s. Mesmerized by their stories, I knew I had to go there.
So, when my partner and I embarked on a backpacking trip across Asia, the time felt right. From our cramped dorm room in Luang Prabang, Laos, we found affordable direct flights to India out of Thailand. We applied for our tourist visas and booked our flights into Kolkata. In studying maps, we figured that from Kolkata we could go by train to Varanasi, and then to Agra. From Agra onwards, we would decide our route as we went.
I texted with my parents endlessly, asking for their advice on how to prepare. My Dad chuckled, “Nothing prepares you for India.” We gathered what tips we could, but in the end, our preparations were minimal. My partner and I agreed to go with an open mind, learning as we went.
When I recount my experiences of traveling India, I am typically met with two responses. Some people convey enthusiasm, telling me they would love to go. Others tell me they could never go to India because they don’t feel “strong” enough. India has long held the reputation of being a difficult region to travel. While there is some truth to this, the exceptional beauty, delicious food, and lessons I learned absolutely outweighed the difficulties.
I will never forget the frustration I felt on an overnight bus trip in Rajasthan. Being budget-conscious travelers, my partner and I found ourselves on the cheapest bus. This meant it was crowded, not air conditioned, and had no bathroom. For over fifteen hours we were crammed into a berth with all our luggage. It was swelteringly hot, but when we opened the window, desert sand was sucked in and it was difficult to breathe. The potholes and frequent honking made it impossible to sleep and by the following morning I’d given into my tiredness: I bawled, crying about wanting to go home.
A day later we ventured out into Udaipur. Known as a romantic city, it is a major destination which features a shimmering lake, ancient palace, beautiful temples and bustling markets. Always interested in markets, we wandered through Jagdish Temple Street, famous for selling leather-bound journals. My partner popped into one of the shops and as he began to chat with the shopkeeper, I felt a hand tap me. I looked down in surprise to see an elderly man seated just to the side of the shop entrance.
He gently motioned that I sit next to him. I obliged, and as soon as I did, he insisted that I eat some of his grapes. I instantly thought, “Have these been washed!? What if I get sick!?”. But despite this valid fear, I couldn’t resist his charming smile. As we ate grapes he asked me in broken English where I was from. The questions kept coming, including ones about my partner. When I confirmed that yes, he was the love of my life, the old man smiled broadly and said, “you make sure he is always good to you!”.
Just before leaving the man took my hand in his, and in a grandfatherly way, patted it. I felt an immense sense of welcome and happiness, and in and instant, the frustrations of the night prior melted away.
Contrasting experiences like this is how India humbled me. The bus ride had been difficult because I am used to the comforts and privilege of Western travel: it had not occurred to me that hot, crowded buses are regular for much of the Indian population. The interaction with this elderly man reminded me that despite differences in culture, lifestyle, religion and more, it is important to focus on what we share. He and I, we shared a love of grapes.
Travel in India will indeed present challenges, and as with all adventures, it is normal to feel anxieties or fear about what you might encounter. As a Westerner, the culture and lifestyle in India is different, and so the frustrations felt are simply culture shock. Perhaps what is so beautiful about travel in India is that for every difficult experience, a good one will counter it, and when it does, you will feel empowered and strong. Upon leaving India, it was the positive memories that stuck with me, and it is those memories that have me yearning to go back.
While my partner and I explored India independently, we realized that traveling as part of a group with a local leader would have made things less stressful. With the support of others traveling alongside you, tough times are much easier to work through. Group travel can remove a bulk of the stress of traveling in India, especially taking care of organising transport and accommodation.
I promise: after a trip to India the tough days will become interesting anecdotes, and what you will remember are the beautiful experiences, delicious food, and wonderful people that you encountered.
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Feature image by Ben McNamara.