While in northern India we hired a car and driver (that’s Laxman with his back to the camera) to take us from site to site, town to town.
The first day of the drive he pulled into a tourist restaurant complex on the side of the highway for us to have some lunch. It was a bland, banal affair with jacked up prices and toned down food. We got back in the car after lunch and asked him not to stop at places like this again. We agreed that each day we would stop for breakfast and lunch at spots that he, personally, would usually stop at.
This turned out to be a decision that showed us the ‘local’ way of life but also mostly had us wondering when, not if, we would be sick.
This was a typical afternoon stop at a chai-wallah, or Indian tea, stand. It was as dirty as you imagine it to be; my only solace being that the milk and tea were heated to beyond boiling. We may have burned our fingers endlessly trying to hold the tiny, hot, glass cups and our tongues on the scalding liquid but we never, ever, got Delhi Belly.
It’s a time that I still frequently think back on as I try to impart the lessons I learned then to my traveling life now.
It comes up more often now, of course. We’re meeting new people all the time; hearing stories of their travels, and telling stories of our own. India is always a source of fascination; whether a person has been and is interested in comparing experiences, or if they have not been and want to know what it was like.
I always try to tell our story emphasizing that it is our story and point out that there are many, many, factors that lead to a persons experience in any place. India is indeed hard but she wails a siren song that is difficult to ignore.
This picture is from the Paharganj area of New Delhi. We were staying just down this street a few blocks. I have no idea why the metal detectors are there as I’m sure they didn’t work although once in a while we were directed to walk through. Oh, India!
Tomorrow my friends Kim, Sarah, and Hannah set off on what-sounds-like one crazy, fun, amazing, bizarre, fun, outrageous, and unbelievable journey from Jasailmer in the north of India, to Cochin in the south.
In a rickshaw!!
They will have to find their own way, drive the rickshaw themselves, and repair it if (make that when) it breaks down. Crazy, right?
I’m so jealous!!
Good luck Team Namaste Outta My Way! I can’t wait to read all about it!
What a great way to start the New Year. What are your plans to ring in 2013?
This is one of my favorite photos from our entire trip.
Pulling into the small, roadside stand I couldn’t believe that there would be a phone at all but our driver was adamant that there would be a phone we could use to contact our next hotel and that chai could be had while we waited.
As he heard our tires on the gravel, a young mans head popped up from behind the small counter the biggest, kindest smile imaginable emanating from his face as he realized there were foreign tourists visiting.
He quickly set the driver up with the phone and set to making us chai all the while looking back at us, smiling.
I am not very good at asking people to take their picture but I did on this occasion and he happily obliged. Later, as were were leaving, he motioned me over and I could see that he had written his name and address on a small piece of paper. He slowly pushed it across the counter to me and motioned to my camera asking if I would send a picture to him. I said that of course I would.
It makes me sad to tell you that I lost that piece of paper and was never able to fulfill my end of the bargain. I hope he forgives me.
I took this picture as we drove through a village in northern India. There was dust and grime and cows and people everywhere; his neatly stacked vegetable stand stood out.
Walking anywhere was next to impossible with the pollution and crowds and dirt and smells…believe me we tried. With no public transit available we took to using autorickshaws to get everywhere.
Yes, the traffic is crazy but the speeds are relatively low and besides no one wants to hit the autorickshaw with the foreigners in it so we were pretty safe.
‘Where are you from?’
‘How old are you?’
‘Are you married?’
‘Do you have children?’
‘Do you like our country?’
Their parents were clearly embarrassed and exasperated but the boys just had to know.
We finally agreed on a picture in exchange for some answers. Aren’t they adorable?
Has India been calling you? Her seductive voice reaching out and invading your imagination? The sounds of sitars and manjira filling your mind? The aromas of cardamom, ginger, cloves and turmeric tickling your nose?
Then you should go.
Have you been wondering if you can do it? You can.
Everyone’s experience is different and many factors led to our leaving early. Now that I’ve been, I have some advice that might help you.
Here are a few things that I think would have made a difference:
Head South First
Many people have suggested that perhaps if we had started in the south, our experience would have been different. Travel legend says that the south is easier, more laid back and prosperous than the north resulting in a better entry for beginners such as yourselves.
I have heard this from enough people to suggest that if you are building an India itinerary you should start in the south. The beaches of Goa are lovely, the backwaters of Kerala are quiet and tranquil…why start in the hustle and bustle of Delhi? Leave that for later when you are hardier…start slow and start south!
Consider A Tour
Someone emailed me to ask if I thought that being on a tour would have changed our experience and I have to say undoubtedly that yes, I think it would have made huge difference.
We managed to see many of the sights on our own, or with a car and driver, but lacked the cultural context for much of it. A tour guide would provide that cultural context along with historical references, local flavor, and general support.
Having other travelers, and a guide, to help us decipher what we were experiencing would have helped us put it all in perspective, helped us understand our reactions, and helped us manage our emotions around it all. I think we felt isolated; from other people and from each other; company would have helped fill the void.
Tour operators and tour guides know the area they work in. They have connections; know where to go, how to get there, and where to stay. They can help you have experiences that you wouldn’t normally have access to and can usually translate so that those experiences are more meaningful.
We considered a tour but didn’t sign on for one because we felt the cost was too much and because we thought we could just as easily do it on our own. I would now argue that the cost might be worth it! GAP Adventures and Intrepid Travel are two companies that I would consider were I to go again.
Make A Connection
Without doubt, all the people that have reported to me that they had a tremendous time in India found a way to make a connection to the country, her people and her culture.
Some people make a spiritual connection through Buddhism and meditation; finding a way to share their beliefs and reaching into themselves to draw out the strength they need. I saw, at the temples, Westerners circling stupas and prostrating themselves and heard of people heading off to retreats and ashrams to meet their guru and engage in silent introspection. It seemed like a good idea…but too far out of my comfort zone at the time.
Yoga is another great way to make that connection. Heading to a studio to practice whatever-form-of-twisty-pretzelly-yoga you practice is sure to find you some friends and a great introduction to one of the oldest forms of exercise known to man.
I’ve seen people make a connection over something as simple as sharing a cigarette lighter at a bus stop…it doesn’t take much, you just have to find an ‘in’ and then be brave enough to take it as it comes.
You can do it.
She is a seductive mistress; the draw is strong; the desire overwhelming; the lure indescribable. It’s not something to pass up for the sake of fear.
India. If she’s been calling you, you should go.
We left in a state of deep despair; saddened that it wasn’t working out, wondering what it was going to mean for us, and fearful that it would mean the worst… that we were going to have to go home.
For a long time I couldn’t talk about our time in India or our decision to leave. I was, and still am, very emotional about our time there and our leaving – it all still seems very raw even a year later.
There was never any doubt that we had made the right decision. In fact, within one day of being in Thailand, we were feeling back to ourselves and the two weeks we spent on Koh Phangan over Christmas were heaven, punctuated often by the phrase “Best. Decision. Ever.” …
But what had gotten us to that point? I still don’t know what caused the perfect storm that culminated in us leaving, but I have come to a few realizations:
I had unrealistic expectations of Jason. I think I wanted him to make it all better for me…and he couldn’t. He was struggling as much as, or more, than I was and so didn’t have the strength to hold me up as well.
Coming to India was not his dream, it was mine and I was upset that he couldn’t stand up to it. I was upset that he didn’t like it and thought that if he just tried harder it would be better for both of us.
I was more than unfair.
We were sick and I refused to believe it should matter. Jason came down with a terrible respiratory infection. I caught it too.
I thought that it would pass and then, once we felt better, things would get better for us. We had hired a car and driver and had an itinerary to keep so we soldiered on thinking it would go away, but it just held on strong.
There were times we could barely get out of bed from exhaustion, we were barely eating and were wracked by coughing but we still forged ahead with the plan until it became clear that we could no longer. We ended up in an Indian emergency room buying medication from who knows who and holing up in our room pretending India didn’t exist.
I wonder how things would have been different if we had taken the time to heal.
I wasn’t behaving how I wanted to behave. I knew at the time that I wasn’t behaving how I wanted and, despite giving myself numerous talking-to’s I continued to behave badly.
I was short with Jason, didn’t try to understand how he was feeling or what his experience was. I was sullen when things weren’t going well and cynical when they were.
I had allowed a rift to form between us and I was too proud to reach across and help fill the gap. I was unable to support him and give him the help that he needed or to ask for the help and support I needed.
It makes me weep now just thinking of how I behaved. I am not proud and am deeply sorry. It fills me with shame but I have to admit that it is perhaps my behavior that was the true downfall of our time in India.
I think that’s why it has been so hard to talk about; because it means looking at myself with unabashed honesty and taking responsibility for my actions. I am finally ready to do that publicly, one year later.
Our year away was one of the hardest years in our 12 year relationship and, for a time, I thought that the three weeks in India might have done us in. Our decision to leave was based entirely on our one guiding principle; that traveling would not be the undoing of us. We left to preserve what little was left of us and to start rebuilding so we could carry on. We were lucky – I have read of many couples that did not withstand stress such as this and ended up parting ways.
I am grateful that Jason had the strength to eventually say that he thought it was time for us to leave and I am thankful that I had the wherewithal, finally, to realize it was true.
I knew traveling in India would be difficult, and yet I am loathe to blame her for any trouble that we experienced. I guess it’s akin to not blaming a petulant child for her actions…she is only as good, or as bad, as her history. I think she does her best, but expects a lot; is unconventional, but wants to please; is wanting, and wanted.
I left saying I would never return, but I don’t say that anymore. The country has an un-describable hold over me that I can’t deny. I will be lucky if there ever is a next time, but I will approach it with caution and respect taking the lessons learned from this time and apply them wholly and thoughtfully.
We entered India one year ago today.
It is a place that I had been looking forward to seeing for many, many years. I was nervous and apprehensive but, more-so, I was excited. Finally I would be able to see what this great, magical country had to offer.
I learned, more than anything, that India is hard. But I also learned that it has great beauty, deep history, resilient people…and camels!!
In September I shared some stories and slides from our trip to family and friends. It turned out (despite my nerves), to be a fabulous evening and I had a great time. One of the stories I told was about our time in India.
I had a friend film the story-telling for me. I thought I would share it today as I remember back to arriving in my most-anticipated country. I apologize for the poor quality – we were not set up for filming so it’s pretty dark but it gives an idea of how the evening went.
There wasn’t any one event that made us leave India early. There was no tragic event, no-one was unkind, we didn’t get robbed or ripped off, we didn’t even get really sick. Sure, in the end, we did both have bad colds that made it that much harder to deal with, but it wasn’t like we had classic ‘Delhi Belly’ or anything like that.
No, it was just a slow build up to realizing that we just weren’t enjoying ourselves. The dirt, the garbage, the smells, the poverty, the noise, the staring, the inability to walk anywhere…all added up to us often not even wanting to leave the hotel room. We weren’t laughing and relaxing and chatting about what we were going to do next, but rather were often convincing ourselves that maybe, just maybe, the next place would be better.
It’s true, travel is not always fun and games, sunshine and white sand…but we felt that we had given it a shot and didn’t want to spend anymore of our precious time not having fun. We’re glad that we went as we would surely have regretted not going, but I’m proud of us for realizing that it wasn’t working and deciding to leave. That was always part of the plan…be flexible, stay somewhere longer if we want, leave a place early if we’re not liking it.
Although we left early, we certainly didn’t leave India without some observations and thoughts…and not all of them are bad.
The food in India is very good. We loved the curries and the breads and liked trying new meats such as goat. Having the car and driver allowed us to stop at some very small, local places where we enjoyed chai and paranthas for breakfast.
India is both clean and dirty. The insides of buildings and hotels can be very clean but they just dump all the garbage right outside…sweep it right out the front door. Shopkeepers are constantly sweeping the storefront but, when the floor is dirt, and the stoop is dirt and the street is dirt, I often wondered to what end.
There really are cows everywhere. Unfortunately most of them do not look very well and can most often be seen rooting through garbage piles for food. They are often in the middle of the road and traffic just routes around them – they don’t even appear to notice.
People in India and helpful and not-so-helpful. A lot of them would come and point out an attraction of tourist office for us…and give us completely incorrect information. At first we thought that maybe they were trying to scam us except there never seemed to be anything in it for them to give us the wrong information. I came to the conclusion that maybe they just wanted to talk to us and so seeming helpful was a way to be able to do that. More than once I ignored a persons ‘advice’ only to find that actually they were being helpful – I went out of my way to apologize when this happened as I probably seemed quite rude.
Indians are very proud of their country and their towns. We were in the Jasailmer Fort, surrounded by cows and cow shit, people begging, broken down buildings and the unmistakable stench of human sewage running in the open grate beneath our feet and our guide says to us ‘”welcome to beautiful Jasailmer Fort”…seriously, it’s like they can’t see it (or smell it).
Indians like to stare. We’ve been stared at plenty on this trip but never like it was here. It was like dropping a monkey in the middle of a shopping mall at the height of the Christmas rush…everyone staring to see what it will do and unable to take look away. I was the monkey and the staring was incessant. Sometimes I just could not believe it.
We left India shaky and unsure what we wanted to do. We knew we didn’t want to go home but wondered if continuing on our planned itinerary was still going to work for us. Should we just stop and settle in somewhere for a long time? Were we done with being on the move? Should we head to Europe or New Zealand where the culture is familiar and easier? We felt shell shocked and done with ‘hard travel’. We got on the plane and headed to Thailand planning on spending Christmas on the beach to try and figure out how to spend the next 5 months.
Within one day of being in Bangkok we realized that we had made the Best Decision Ever. We quickly relaxed, we were laughing again, and looking forward to going out to find a bite, or a drink, or to see a sight. We are ourselves again and realize that we can continue with our original itinerary but, now that we have some extra time, we’ll be able to slow it down a bit which will be nice.
And so we are currently headed to southern Thailand to work on our tans and spend the holidays on the island beaches. Best Decision Ever indeed.