Updated: May 19, 2020
There are few countries that will overload your senses and pull at your heartstrings in quite the way India does. The colours, the food, the people, the architecture, the wildlife, the list is endless. A visit certainly teaches you a few life lessons, tests your patience and, for most, has you leaving lighter than when you arrived. I spent six weeks in India, travelling with a friend. We visited Assam, Kolkata, Nagpur and the infamous 'Golden Triangle' of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.
A description of India is incomplete without mentioning the stares you receive. As a westerner, and additionally a female, you are stared at everywhere you go. Eyes follow you, men and women, young and old, ALWAYS. No offence is meant by this staring, you are just different, and in many areas the locals do not see many, if any, foreigners. During our stay in Assam we travelled off the beaten track and went for over two weeks without seeing another Westerner. Before long we got used to the stares, and, for the most part, smiled when the thousands of selfies were taken with us - If I had a dollar for every selfie taken with me I'd have left India with more money than when I arrived! On one occasion some local young men saw us on a bus. They boarded the bus just to have a photo with us, only to swiftly jump off again before the bus departed! On another occasion, at the Amber Fort, my sister who joined for a few weeks, was handed a strangers' infant and asked to smile for a photograph! At the Taj Mahal, Indian tourists took more photos of us than they did of the building! I could continue...
"India is raw. India is filthy. India is in your face" This was my journal entry half way through our stay. That was the day I saw a little girl of about 6, filthy, crying and completely alone. She lay sobbing on the floor of a busy train station. No one stopped, no one looked at her, they just stepped over her. I'll never forget that moment, it still haunts me to this day. This was one of the most difficult things about visiting India. To feel completely helpless to someone else’s suffering if an awful feeling. There is no escaping this side of India, the only thing you can take from it is an appreciation of how lucky you are. On what might seem like the darkest of days, India teaches you that most of your day to day life problems are in fact first world problems.
One of the draws to India for me was the prospect of seeing a tiger. India is rich with fauna, wild elephants, innumerable birds, one horned rhinos and an abundance of different species of deer. India's jungles are pristine, for all you know you could be in a scene from Kipling’s 'The Jungle Book'.
Being a wildlife enthusiast, and the sister of an architect, I have been criticised for having only a basic appreciation of buildings. That said, when I first saw the Taj Mahal I was completely blown away. It's elegance, beauty and grandeur are nothing short of breath taking; even for an architectural numpty like myself!
Not once during my time in India did I feel threatened or in danger. We travelled on pubic busses and trains, wandered the back streets of cities during all hours and never once did I feel unsafe. The locals that we spent time with were welcoming, friendly and generous. A shopkeeper was so fascinated by us that he insisted we sit down and eat his home cooked cake with him.
A reflection on India would be incomplete without mentioning Delhi belly! Everyone gets it they said, what they didn't say is that I'd somehow acquire four intestinal bugs, lose 10kg in two weeks and then be hospitalised for a week! I only drank bottled water, brushed my teeth with bottled water, became a vegetarian for the duration of my stay, and only ate cooked food. It seems Delhi belly is a right of passage whilst visiting India - I wish any prospective travellers the best of luck!
A first time trip to India is certainly a bit of a shock to your system (in more ways than one). My advice - embrace it and immerse yourself in the culture. By this I do not mean you need to start wearing a sari and going barefoot. Instead, be open to the experiences, take a deep breath and enjoy what India has to offer. You will leave having learnt a thing or two about yourself and the world.