Ever since we decided to go to India, I’ve developed all possible fears about visiting the place. Apparently I’m really really good at developing fears. I was mostly concerned about being in a situation where I was stuck in a confined place full of people with no air and no way out. Mostly in my head, that would have been trains, train stations and buses but also streets… so pretty much everywhere. Suffocation. These preconceived ideas came mostly from pictures I’ve seen online and on TV. I mean, Google for Indian train.
The other thing I discovered is that anyone who’s been to India has strong opinions about it. I heard all sorts of things before going there like:
“I hated it.”
“You’ll get sick.”
“You’re constantly hassled.”
“You’ll get sick for sure.”
“The best and worst moments I spent traveling were in India and happened on the same day.”
“You can’t be in a hurry.”
“It’s too hot in X, don’t go there.”
“You have to go to Varanasi, you must go to Rishikesh, Hampi is so nice, Mumbai is great, Goa, Shimla, Amritsar, Jaisalmer, Agra, Dharamshala, Pondicherry, Jaipur, Mount Abu, Kerala, oh and Mysore for yoga galore.” (If you look at a map, these places are scattered all over India.)
“The food is great but you’ll definitely get sick.”
“It’s very dirty.”
“Don’t look at men in the eye.”
“You’re a walking ATM.”
“It’s an assault to all senses.”
“Trains are awesome.”
“Trains are awful.”
“Buses are the way to go.”
“Buses are horrible.”
“Planes are so convenient.”
“Traveling on land is the only way to do it.”
Out of what everyone told me, the only thing that turned out to be 100% true was that India was a sensory overload. That was in fact the most rewarding aspect of visiting India, way beyond any Taj Mahal, forts or palaces one might see. Your eyeballs are constantly fed with incredible sights, your ears are overloaded with honking and loogie hacking, your skin feels the dust and the heat, your nose smells the spices, the flowers and also the manure and piss, finally your taste buds are treated with all the complex and rich flavors of Indian cuisine. I’d also add that your 6th sense takes a hit: being constantly alert, making split-second decisions, dodging things all the time, exercising patience with the surroundings, all while trying to maintain a sense of composure.
What I found the most challenging was the noise. The incessant honking. It’s the honking that got to me in Hanoi, it’s the honking that got to me in India. Since I knew I would have to deal with it for several weeks, I trained myself to wear earplugs whenever I needed them, which was pretty much anytime we were outside our hotel room. It might sound a bit excessive but I would even walk in the streets with earplugs and it worked! I could have titled this post: “The secret to surviving India: earplugs”.
Even if I’m painting this a little dark, our time in India was extremely freeing for me. I had an enormous buildup of anxiety about the place, more than any other country we’ve visited. But our journey offered up one fear at a time and let me conquer each in turn. Oh look, we haven’t made any reservations whatsoever. I’m ok. Oh look, we’re in a busy train station. I’m ok. Oh look, we’re on a sleeper train. I’m ok. Oh look, it’s over 40°C out. I’m ok. Oh look, we’re eating Indian food at every meal. I’m ok. Oh look, our taxi dropped us off at the wrong spot in the middle of Kolkata at night. I’M O.K.!
On the upper bunk of an AC2 sleeper train (Kolkata to Varanasi)
Turns out I have overcome all of my fears, including a 6hr non-AC, non-assigned hard seat train ride, being the only white peeps, shaking a million hands, talking broken English the whole time, enduring temperatures of 45°C (113°F) and breathing in the desert dust. I didn’t love it, but I survived it (unlike poor Justin). Oh and what about the (again, non-AC) bus ride down Mount Abu where people were hanging their heads out the window to puke their guts out the whole way? That was a fun one too. I had my window tightly sealed, despite the blazing heat, to avoid any windblown remnants of Indian breakfasts. Could I do it again if I needed to? Hmm, I suppose, perhaps, maybe, sure. Would I do it again if I had a choice? Uh nope. But at least I got through these things patiently without panicking.
That said, we also had fantastic experiences.
The food was delicious.
Vegetarian Thali (Varanasi)
I got an insanely beautiful henna tattoo on both my lower legs and feet (makes me wonder about making that a real one…)
The sweet artist and I, showing off the still-wet henna. It later turned brown. Gorgeous! (Udaipur)
We felt fully immersed in the culture of India and witnessed the full spectrum of human activity.
A street filled with kids getting out of school (Udaipur)
Daily laundry at the ghat (Udaipur)
A pedicab driver’s nap (Agra)
Sharing the street with holy cows (Udaipur)
I learned how to paint a miniature elephant Rajasthani style (more on that later).
The final result of 4-5 hours of painting with a master (Udaipur)
We stayed in a stunning hotel room overlooking a beautiful lake.
The view at sunset from out bedroom (Udaipur)
We saw a wild sloth bear up close (no photo, it was night time).
We learned how to make naan and chapati bread.
Cooking a naan on a skillet (Udaipur)
We interacted with local people.
Getting my picture taken with an Indian family (Mount Abu)
After 4.5 weeks, we’d had our fill and were ready to move on. However, India definitely holds a spot among the highly indelible places we’ve visited and perhaps would like to go back to. Who knows, our visas are good for 5 years.