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Posted by Jessica on Jul 15, 2009
Planting the Seeds for Travel

India was never on our "must see" travel list. Something about it – maybe it was the enormity of it all (how do you choose where to go?) or maybe it was the chaos of the cities (how do you get away from it all?) – made us feel like there were preferable places for us to see. Sure, we were intrigued by all the beauty that India has to offer, and neither of us are ones to ever turn away a good curry. But India never had a pull over either of us.

Speaking to other backpackers during our trip confirmed our instincts: for every backpacker who said they loved India, we'd meet three who couldn't stand it. Travelers always seem divided between loving and hating the country, and sometimes both at the same time. So with so many places in the world to see, why spend time and money on one that leaves many travelers scratching their heads and asking themselves why they went in the first place?

At least that's what we thought until we met Fernanda.

An Italian expat who owns a lovely restaurant on the Thai island of Koh Chang, Fernanda is a firecracker of a character. Her story and specifically how we got to know her should be saved for another time, but it's suffice to say we took an instant liking to her.

One evening, in between her running back and forth to the kitchen, she asked where else in Asia we planned to travel during our round-the-world trip. She listened patiently while we named Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Burma. (This was, of course, early on during our time in Southeast Asia and we had no idea that we'd never make it to Malaysia or Vietnam and that we'd only do border runs into Burma.) And then – with the authority of someone who knew something we didn't know yet – she demanded to know why India wasn't on the list.

Hemming and hawing, we explained we didn't think we had enough time to give India. We mentioned how split other travelers seemed over their time there. We admitted at that point in our trip, we were getting a bit tired and wanted to stick with countries that seemed like better bets. (Looking back, that wasn't too good of an excuse given Vietnam is just about as hotly debated in the traveling world as India.) And we admitted how India just didn't seem appealing to us. At all.

Smiling at us with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, she said that after she served the next customer, she'd come sit with us and tell us why we must visit India one day. And so she did. For the next few hours, Fernanda told us about the sights and smells and sounds of India. She fondly recalled the train rides in the local compartment, surrounded by women in saris in every color of the rainbow. She told us how she felt alive walking in the streets of Delhi, all manner of life rushing past her, washing over her, confronting her continuously. She told us about the people she met, the food she ate, and the places she walked.

Perhaps even more meaningful and intriguing than her stories, though, was something that happened while Fernanda told us her stories. Recounting tale after tale, a faraway look came over her eyes and a wisp of a smile played at the corner of her lips. A woman who already had an intoxicating personality, she positively glowed while telling her stories. And on that warm evening in April, Fernanda was no longer on an island off the coast of Thailand. Sitting with us in her restaurant, we knew she was really back in a place that had felt immediately like home to her.

India, there was no doubt, had a hold on Fernanda unlike any we had ever seen before.

It wasn't until sometime last summer – two years after talking with Fernanda – that Tim and I began considering traveling to India. It had started slowly, I would occasionally bring up something I read about India. Or Tim would casually mention a photo he had seen. But our original hesitations and objections were never mentioned. Eventually it just became inevitable that we'd go. Of course we knew we wouldn't be able to give it the months a country that size needed. But we began realizing that a few weeks there was better than never having visited at all.

Flipping through a few guidebooks from the library, I remember looking over at Tim and asking if he remembered how we originally never wanted to go to India.

"What changed?," I wondered. "Why was it that we had absolutely no interest going to India before, but now we do?"

"It was Fernanda," Tim reminded me while smiling. "The way she spoke about India, the way her face lit up during her stories, changed everything."

And he's right: the seeds for our visit to India later this year were planted by a feisty Italian living in Thailand.

We know that more than any other country we've visited thus far, there is a chance we won't like India very much. It definitely seems like a country that has a way of challenging travelers beyond what they may be accustomed to feeling. But if we feel even a fraction of the fascination and love and intrigue that Fernanda did, I'll consider us very lucky. And who knows, perhaps years from now, we'll help plant the seeds for another traveler's visit there too.

Any tips on where we should go and what we should see while in India? We'll have three weeks there, sometime in October or November (or maybe even early December) later this year. We haven't booked our flights yet, so we're completely flexible as to what part of the country we visit. So we'd love to hear about your favorite places in India. And who knows? Maybe they'll become our favorite place too!

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July 17, 2009 at 10:30am
Well, call me one of the people who hated India! But there were some highlights (and a lot of places I was sorry to have missed.)

Highlights:
Varanasi. Amazing.
Jaisalmar camel safari. I couldn't help but imagine myself crossing India on the Silk Road 800 years ago. Although it was slightly painful on the bum.
Mumbai. I really liked this city after having spent 6 weeks in India (my first stop-through, at the beginning, was more hesitant.)

I wish I'd gotten into the Himalayas, seen Darjeeling, visited a tea plantation, spent some time in Kerala… I think those are all regions I would have liked more, and had lots of positive reviews from people who spent time there. So really, my best advice is to aim for the parts of India that I missed!

Good luck and enjoy!

Jessica the hedgehog
July 17, 2009 at 10:48am
Awww, thank you so much for hopping over here, Malena! I know your adventures in Southeast Asia are keeping you busy right now, but I also remembered you mentioning your experiences in India too…so it's great to get your ideas.

I've been doing some reading on Varanasi and Jaisalmar and they both sound wonderful. It sounds like Varanasi in particular is one of the "must sees" for a trip to India. (And now another friend's email that they sent while they were in India – where they were getting ready to go to Varanasi and mentioned seeing bodies burning – makes soooo much more sense too.) The more reading I do about India, the more I realize that we really won't see nearly anything at all in only three weeks! :)

So really, my best advice is to aim for the parts of India that I missed!

LOL! We will definitely take that under advisement! :)

Deb
July 17, 2009 at 11:36am
I must agree with Malena…India is my least favourite country that I have visited. I had many, many bad experiences there (one of which I have told you guys about already), but I have been trying to think of some positive advice to give you, because YMMV. I am willing to bet your friend Fernanda is not blond – Jessica consider dying your hair black before you go, seriously!

Keep in mind I was there 15 years ago so I'm sure things have changed. I especially hope the men are more accustomed to seeing blond female tourists and do not stare and grope any more.

1. Taj Mahal– visit at sunrise, it is magical. Prior to 8am (check on this time), you pay more to enter, but after 8am the local people are allowed to enter free of charge so it gets packed. If you are there early it is almost deserted and super amazing!
2. Varanasi – ditto to what Malena said. The ghats are fascinating, as is wandering around all the little alleys.
3. Udaipur – peaceful, white city with a nice lake in the middle. btw "peaceful" is relative in India.
4. Jaisalmer – I didn't go there and do the camel safari, but met many people who loved it.

I would have loved to visit the northern parts, but at the time I was there tourists were not allowed in that area. I am going to put in a little plug for Nepal: LOVED IT! I suggest going there instead of India, or at least add it to your list of places to go.

A couple more tidbits of advice: never wear shorts or tank tops, only long pants or a skirt down to your ankles, with t-shirts or long sleeve shirts.
Be very careful what you eat or drink! Bring lots of immodium and gravol.
Be prepared for bureaucracy like you have never seen before – it will take you all day just to buy a train ticket. (And you thought leaving Colombia was bad! ;)) I am hoping for your sake that this has improved!

If I think of anything else, I'll send you an email.

Happy travel planning!

Jessica the hedgehog
July 17, 2009 at 11:46am

India is my least favourite country that I have visited. I had many, many bad experiences there (one of which I have told you guys about already), but I have been trying to think of some positive advice to give you, because YMMV.

Given I know you've traveled to something like 40+ countries…that's definitely saying a lot! It's really good to hear, though, because it helps remind both of us to keep a balanced perspective about our upcoming trip. I have to remember that Fernanda's experience is unique and that most folks who travel in India don't come away glowing as much as she did. (And you're right – she's not blonde!) :)

So I think it'll be good for us to keep in mind that friends of ours weren't fond of India…that way, if we're just not enjoying it when we're there, we'll be able to remember that it's okay for us to feel like that.

That is a brilliant tip about the Taj Mahal. And I haven't seen that mentioned anywhere yet, so thank you! (And of course thanks for all the other tips and heads ups too!) Udaipur, in particular, is one place that keeps catching my eye.

Like you and Malena mentioned, Varanasi sounds super fascinating. Though I'll admit to being hesitant to being touristy near people's funerals. Are people able to walk near the ghats without being intrusive?

July 17, 2009 at 3:11pm
Hey Jessica. Maybe I'll put a blog post together on this, to really collect my thoughts. But put me in the camp of having loved India. It's such an amazing and dynamic place. The travel can be hard sometimes, but the trains make it easier. I did the northern triangle in four weeks – Calcutta > Delhi > Rajastan and back, so that should be doable. I'd read that it was a great introduction. You get to see Calcutta, Varanasi, Agra, Delhi and into beautiful Rajahstan Jaidpur and Jodphur, etc. This is what I did. Lots of recommendations, too. Will have to dig thorugh my old journals!
Jessica the hedgehog
July 20, 2009 at 11:17am
That would be awesome if you wrote a blog post (or two, or three!) about your time in India. I'd love to read it. :)

I can't wait for the train rides. We were able to take a few overnight trains in Thailand and just adored them. I love falling asleep to the sound of the tracks clicking by underneath. :)

Calcutta as well as many of the highlights in Rajasthan are also areas that Tim and I find ourselves drawn to. We're hesitant to include both areas in one trip given they're located so far apart and (perhaps more importantly) because we travel pretty slowly. That said, knowing you were able to see all those sites in four weeks does give us hope! Thank you so much!

Klaus
July 20, 2009 at 2:32pm
I would venture a guess that now there are low-cost domestic airlines and everything can be booked online… but maybe not… maybe foreign credit cards dont work…
Deb
July 21, 2009 at 10:22am
"Though I'll admit to being hesitant to being touristy near people's funerals. Are people able to walk near the ghats without being intrusive?"

Take care to be respectful, and it is not welcomed to take pictures or go walking up to watch, so keep your distance. I snuck some pictures using a zoom lens and hiding behind a wall, and from a boat tour, but I was careful not to intrude or let anyone see me taking the pictures.

The funeral pyres are close to the water, so you can walk along the main path without intruding.

Be prepared for the smell of burning bodies 24 hours a day, but you get used to it. :)

It is fascinating to just sit and watch the activities – people bathing, washing their yaks, doing laundry, bodies floating by, funeral processions, weddings, sadhus, etc. There is always a lot going on!

Jessica the hedgehog
July 22, 2009 at 3:05pm

I would venture a guess that now there are low-cost domestic airlines

*nodding* I think there are a handful in India, definitely. Flying between a few sights would probably help us move quicker too. So it's something for us to keep in mind as we think about possible routes. (Though I am looking forward to a few long-distance train rides too!)

Jessica the hedgehog
July 22, 2009 at 3:08pm

It is fascinating to just sit and watch the activities – people bathing, washing their yaks, doing laundry, bodies floating by, funeral processions, weddings, sadhus, etc. There is always a lot going on!

Deb – This is the part that sounds the most interesting! One of our favorite things about traveling is being able to people watch and just take in the sights and sounds of another place. Varanasi sounds ideal for that kind of activity.

That's good to hear about the other parts you mentioned and it fit in with what I was hoping/expecting. Part of me was worried that simply being there would be considered intrusive. But it sounds like there's so much activity that a few extra folks (who are careful about being respectful) won't make any difference to the madness!

July 25, 2009 at 3:03pm
Mind you, I am Indian and all my family is from India, so I have a different perspective on the country than most travelers but . . .
I think the reason so many travelers hate India is because they expect that it will be like Thailand or other places where you can easily manage and move about as an independent backpacker. The difference is that India has a lot more people in it. Think about it like this: in Florida, where we live, it takes us about 5 minutes to travel 3 miles; however, when visiting New York City, it will take at least 20 minutes to go that same 3 miles. Now multiply that 20 minutes by 2 --– because there are about twice the number of people living in Mumbai as there is in NYC. You can't expect to move quickly and rush around. The country just isn't made for that type of travel. My grandparents, who have lived their entire lives in India, allocate a whole day just to doing simple tasks like getting medicine and produce.
Second --– and this is something that really irritates me --– is that a lot of backpackers think that it is important to do everything themselves. If you want to have a better trip in India, hire someone to help you. It is incredibly cheap to hire a travel agent (like $5 or so) to buy you a train ticket and, for me, at least, it is worth that $5. India's most abundant resource is people; take advantage of that.
About getting sick: I am very careful about not drinking the water and even using bottled water to clean my toothbrush. Even still, I get sick in India. I just try to go slowly when I am sick and not push myself.
The reason I tell people to go to India is because there is a feeling of joy and vibrance that I have never experienced anywhere else in the world. In India, people live with the hearts and their minds open to the world. There are no bland houses or people, everything is colored in pastels and bright reds and greens. It is chaotic and amazing, all at the same time.
Jessica the hedgehog
July 27, 2009 at 1:40pm
Thank you so much for this awesome perspective, Akila! :)

My grandparents, who have lived their entire lives in India, allocate a whole day just to doing simple tasks like getting medicine and produce.

I know someone will probably laugh about what I'm about to type…but I swear that reminds me of when we lived in DC. Simple tasks like grocery shopping took forever because of the traffic, the road blocks, the traffic, the tourists, the motorcades, the traffic… :)

I'm really looking forward to the slower pace. It's how we enjoy traveling the most too, so if things take much much longer, c'est la vie. I think it's all about the expectations you have going into a place. I agree that if someone expects it to be like home (or like Thailand or what have you), they're bound to be disappointed and frustrated. (I'm not saying that frustration can't occur even when you're prepared for it, but at least you have a chance of minimizing your frustration by being prepared to just go with the flow.)

Second --– and this is something that really irritates me --– is that a lot of backpackers think that it is important to do everything themselves.

That's an interesting observation. I've always thought the opposite of most backpackers we meet! It seemed like many people we encounter are all too eager to have their guesthouse arrange a tour or book their bus tickets…and then they're always surprised when something goes wrong because they didn't do any research themselves! :D

Tim and I enjoy doing things on our own because we like to see how things work. And we also see those everyday things (like going to the train station to get a ticket) as part of the fun in traveling too. We're lucky in that whenever we travel, we have such a flexible schedule/approach that if we can't go one place, then we'll just pick some place else on the map! So I'm looking forward to buying train tickets in India on our own (again not to save money or anything like that) because buying train tickets in India seems to be such a source of confusion. I kind of want to see what it's all about! That said…

India's most abundant resource is people; take advantage of that.

Excellent, excellent point and it's definitely something I know we'll keep in mind. Thank you so much! :)

Andy E
July 30, 2009 at 12:53pm
It's the most amazing country. I've been 3 times, and will bore you rigid with details of each, when we come over in a few weeks!
Jessica the hedgehog
August 3, 2009 at 1:57pm
We're very much looking forward to it (both your visit and the India details)! :)

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