India is at once a study in incredible contrasts. Incredible beauty and incredible sadness. Incredible wealth and incredible poverty. The incredible hospitality and the heartwarming friendliness of the people is in stark contrast with the appalling status and treatment of women that still exists in social norms throughout the country.
I believe traveling opens your eyes and widens your heart. It can certainly get you out of your comfort zone. But that also can be where the magic happens. For this and subsequent posts I will share about India, I am going to choose to focus on the beauty and the history I discovered. Yes, India is crowded with 1.3 billion people, the second most populous country after China at 1.4 billion. By contrast, the United States has 329 million people, and is about three times the size of India. Yes, there are people living in squalor and unbelievably poor conditions. But they have meaningful lives, and I believe they would give me the last piece of food they had if I was hungry.
For this trip I opted to join some friends who had booked a 15-day group tour with a company they’ve traveled with numerous times and highly recommended, Gate 1 Travel . I’m not a “tour bus” kind of traveler; I much prefer to set my own itinerary, do my research and book all my arrangements on my own. However, I’ve always wanted to see India and there are some countries where it makes sense to let someone else do the planning — and the driving — for you, especially where there may be a big language barrier like China or Japan. India is a big country and we covered a lot of ground, and now I know there is NO WAY I would ever drive there. (More on that later.)
I came to India by way of Dubai where I stopped to visit my friends Payal and Amit, along with their adorable children Dhruv and Arya. Arriving in India was definitely an eye-opening contrast to the wealth, newness, cleanliness and modern conveniences of Dubai (the city is only 48 years old). My Dubai daily views of many still-under-construction skyscrapers made of glossy metals and glass were replaced by centuries old buildings, palaces and forts constructed of sandstone and marble across India.
But I learned SO much about this country I have longed to see, much more than I ever expected. Much of that is thanks to the amazing and talented tour guide with whom we were blessed. Aparna Rajawat was so incredibly knowledgeable — she has a PhD in history! — along with being fun and really good at her job. I learned about history, religion, architecture, social norms and the ruling empires of the past, along with the changes that continue to bring India into a more modern culture. Aparna shared another role she has that really struck a chord with me and others on this trip; I will share more about that in a separate post because it is so important.
Aparna said “When you come to India, come prepared with two pockets. In one pocket, keep it full of patience. In the other, carry no expectations.” Truer words were never spoken. Experiences in India spanned scarcity and excess, spectacle and sorrow. Just when I thought I knew what to expect I was surprised at every turn.
Before leaving my Indian friends advised “Get ready for sensory overload.” And boy were they right. From the moment you step outside onto a busy street or drive in the traffic, your senses are assaulted from every direction. The sheer volume of people around you. The constant — and I mean constant — honking of horns by cars, buses and rickshaws. The glorious colors everywhere, especially in the clothing worn by the beautiful women. The smells emanating from every space and corner as there is someone cooking something everywhere. India is famous for its “street food,” which sadly I didn’t sample as my friends warned me to stay away from it unless I wanted to spend the rest of my trip in the bathroom.
Today I have never been so thankful for plentiful, clean drinking water in the U.S., accessible anywhere you go. I have a new-found appreciation for simply walking over to the tap or drinking out of any public water fountain and never giving it a second thought. I typically drink a gallon of water a day, so the water bottles supplied by hotels and on our bus became daily treasures that I hoarded.
I have a new-found appreciation for a lot things, which usually happens to me when I travel but especially so in India. Everywhere in the world people are working to make a life for themselves and their families, and in some places it’s just harder than in others. God bless the people of India, especially the women. They couldn’t have been nicer, and I have so much respect for what they are accomplishing and achieving.
Stay tuned. First stop, Delhi!
“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”
Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian independence activist and the first Prime Minister of India