Sugar and spice and almost everything…. nice. India’s slogan of “Incredible India” could not be more accurate in describing this country; you have to see it to believe it. As someone with a passion for discovering the world, I have to say that India for me was the “final frontier”. We embarked on our Aeroplan points trip to India, Sri Lanka and Japan filled with curiosity.
Living in Canada and having a number of Indian-descent friends, I have been exposed to many aspects of the Indian culture, but nothing could really have prepared me for India. My friends, who often visit their relatives there, warned me that we would all get sick in India, as they always get sick themselves when they visit. I was in denial; how could a world traveller who has eaten with locals around the world and never had issues get sick? Well, read on and stay tuned…
Everyone told me that I would be able to smell India as soon as the airplane door opened. They were right! The air was stale and there was no breeze; it felt difficult to breathe. Following formalities, we received a very warm welcome from our hired personal driver service in India, Ashok’s taxi tours. Hiring a driver in India is a great idea; it is extremely affordable and you can create your own itinerary that works best for you. As we were a group of six, our “disco” van was waiting for us. It was night time and when we entered the flashy disco-lighted van, we knew we had arrived in India. A very excited then six-year-old started dancing to Bollywood songs in the van after approximately twenty hours of flying.
Already vibrant and alive to its core, we had purposely arrived in India for Holi (festival of colour) as we wanted to see India at its most colourful state. Our first day driving around felt like complete bewilderment. We were perplexed at the slew of colours and locomotion. The streets were filled with densely populated people dressed in a myriad of electrifying colours. There were cows, scooters, rickshaws, markets, beggars, stray animals, food, garbage, puddles, dirt, luxurious shops and everything in between. There were people sleeping on the streets, doing their bathroom needs on the streets, talking, singing, meditating, eating and dancing. My gaze was constantly shifting between the infinity of bright colours and the conglomeration of people. I felt dazzled and exhausted from trying to get a sense of how this society was structured. There was not a dull moment in sight; it seemed as though everything in India was constantly alive and happening. I didn’t know where to look so not to miss something occurring around me. Though I had never seen anything like it before, I was fascinated by the bustling and chaotic, but engrossing disorder surrounding me.
I had initially wanted to visit Kerala in India, however, when booking the trip, I was unable to finalize my plans for that area; logistically it is not as touristy as the North and therefore less easily accessible when travelling with a child. We created our own version of the “Golden Triangle” and that is how we ended up at the very touristy Taj Mahal. While it is highly visited, the Taj Mahal is as breathtaking as it appears in pictures and it did not disappoint.
At night, we would retreat to our extremely fancy hotels which were all booked on my points. Hotels in India are mostly luxurious and extremely affordable. I used the same amount of Hilton points for 6 nights in India as I had used for 1 night in Moorea, Tahiti.
Certainly the food, the culture, the people and the Taj Mahal were all engrossing, but Holi was the highlight of our trip. Everywhere we looked, there were people selling colourful “dust”. All of us were excited to experience this celebration and my daughter insisted that we participate as well, so we put on our white clothes and out there we went. In India, there is no notion of personal space and on the day of Holi, all kinds of strangers were coming right up to us, politely touching our faces and our bodies while smearing us with those vibrant colours. At first, it felt bizarre having strangers walk right up to us and touching us, but after a few encounters, we got right into it and felt immersed in this tradition. In a completely different country than our own with entirely different traditions than our own, on that day, we felt like we belonged. Though India has different prices for tourists for most attractions, on Holi, we were treated like the locals. My daughter was enthralled for the first few hours, but later started getting extremely annoyed at people coming up to her and smudging colours on her face. By the end of the day, we all looked like radiant rainbows from head to toe and the streets were even brighter than before.
Somewhere in between enjoying local customs and visiting historical sites, we had the opportunity to visit a school in a small village where we distributed small gifts to the children. Although I do not normally check any luggage in, whenever we travel to less fortunate areas, I make it a habit to check in one large suitcase filled with gifts for children. I feel this is a great way to bring smiles to local children and an amazing opportunity for my daughter to learn about how other children live and study. I feel she becomes more grateful with every one of those experiences and understands more about the world we live in. In India, at the age of six years old, following our gift giving, she said to me: “next time when we come mama, we have to bring garbage cans because all the kids were throwing the garbage on the ground”. She also said that she hopes to return one day with her children. I truly hope that those experiences stay with her for life and help shape her into a compassionate human being because that is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.
Our journey was going great; our driver kept us entertained with excellent facts about the surroundings and the food was very flavourful. My vegetarian friend was in heaven with the variety of dishes available and my daughter was captivated by the constant distractions. We were charmed by India and we were already planning our next trip to this land that felt like a perpetual surprise.
On the fifth day of our adventure, I decided to eat at a pit stop with Ashok, our driver, who by then already felt like a close friend. After all, I never get sick when I travel. And then it happened… my only other friend who ate with us got sick within hours of our meal. We had to stop every half an hour to visit a washroom and if you have ever been to one in India, you’d know that they are not exactly tourist friendly. The next day, another member of our group started feeling ill. And within hours, yet another. And then the unthinkable happened: the illness took me by surprise. I was the next one to get sick, followed by another member of our group. By our second last day in India, we were all fighting over toilets and unable to eat anything. My ex-husband joked that in India, when checking-in to a hotel, they should ask how many bathrooms you would like instead of how many beds you prefer. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before and I spent the last day of our trip in bed. It felt like a sad ending to what had been a surreal week in India. It seemed we had taken all the precautions needed: drank only bottled water, ate solely at Tripadvisor restaurants and used tones of sanitizer. The following day, I was extremely nauseous, but thankfully some emergency electrolytes saved me from having to be pushed in a wheelchair through airport security for our onward flight to Sri Lanka.
And so, our trip ended on a bittersweet note. India was astonishing on so many levels and you really have to see it to believe it. Just like no one can truly prepare you for being a parent, no one can truly prepare you for India. It is an ongoing kerfuffle that will awaken all your senses as no country ever could. A culture so deeply rooted in traditions, India is extremely diverse and vibrant; a country like no other. And while India’s eccentric feeling will always be remembered, it was Ashok and the connections we made along the way that truly made India unforgettable. In all my travels, it is always the human connections that stay with me even after the memories of landscapes and architecture fade. If you are lucky enough to feel those connections for even just a moment in time, it is certainly those nuances of humanity that give life a different meaning. So get out there; explore, dream and discover because “of all the books in the world, the best stories are found between the pages of a passport”.