India was never really at the top of my travel bucket list. Although renowned for being the birthplace of many spiritual practices that I subscribe to, there were just too many stories from other travelers that painted a rather unflattering picture of the place. Thankfully, times have changed, and although there are still the obvious dangers and inconveniences that still pepper many an India trip tale, I finally decided to really try something new and out of my comfort zone and booked a trip in January. On the plane ride over, I came to realize that not only was it a new year, it was the year of the Water Snake-symbolizing rebirth, and, the kundalini (a powerful energy that sits dormant in one’s body until it’s awakened) is often represented in the shape of a snake. I took this all to mean that this trip could be highly transformative and that I should do things I would normally not do. All the negative voices prior to my trip from well-meaning friends of what to expect or be wary of, I cancelled out; if I was going into something already thinking of the worst that could happen, then I’d probably be inviting that kind of experience.
Having this kind of attitude, I feel, is what made this trip far removed from some of the horror stories I had been inundated with and I am grateful. Sure, not everything was seamless, I don’t think I will ever get used to the maniacal weaving and highly defensive driving on the streets, but that was, I learned to accept, all part of the flavor that was India. Delhi, the country’s capital, had both the old, the very, very old, and the new. There were massive malls, smaller shopping complexes with fabulous home accessories, fabrics and even food as well as open-air bazaars that consisted of a lot of bargaining and hours of cajoling, begging, and even minor flirtation to get a beautifully spun pashmina for less. I do not posses the fine art of making tawad so it was an exercise in patience for me to watch my friends stand their ground and slice prices away until they felt satisfied and happy with their purchases. My reward at the end of the day was a good meal, and Delhi did not disappoint. Although I wouldn’t recommend street food to the uninitiated, there are many reputable restaurants and cafes that serve authentic local cuisine and western cuisine (should your taste buds not run towards the hot and spicy).
Two lovely Delhi discoveries: the whole of Good Earth in Kahn Market that had everything from clothes, accessories, beauty products, home interiors, fabrics and a beautifully decorated café on the top floor; and the very impressive Parliament Area where all the government institutions are situated. The latter is not the India you expect and is awesome in every way, from its architecture, its greenery and, well, its overall area size, stretching down almost until India Wall.
The rest of the trip was more than just incredible, it was incredibly surprising. I stuck to my guns and tried something new every day, from a super-spicy Tamil-inspired chicken dish (so good, yet so painful to eat) that brought tears to my eyes in Udaipur to taking a stab at printing on cloth in a factory in Jaipur. There were close encounters of the animal kind with me sitting right alongside a snake charmer in Amber Fort in Agra and very tepidly bringing my hand to lightly brush the scales of the cobra as it hissed at me. A rather vertigo-inducing and bumpy elephant ride wedged in between other elephants in Jaipur (offering throat-clenching views) below was unforgettable, and a must for anyone, although I have to admit hearing some of the tourists scream so close to the edge of the road was very amusing. In between the tourist treasures and traps I got my fill of beautiful silk and cotton fabrics, Ayurvedic healing oils, artisanal crafts such as a marble table inlaid with crystals and delicately painted images set on camel bone. A local pastime that I was fortunate enough to experience twice was an Indian wedding, with proverbial bells, whistles, mountains of food and a groom in full regalia mounted on a white steed that seemed to be encrusted in the remains of a disco ball. Both weddings happened on the grounds of two different hotels in two different cities, one much grander than the other with revelry that went on all throughout the night. I imagined that the picture taking alongside the bride and groom must have filled a couple of hours. One couple was even on a stage on a couch and guests had to come up one by one (or in some cases, per family) to have their portraits professionally taken. To wax on about everything I saw, heard, smelled, tasted, touch would probably take way more space than this column allows, India is to be experienced, not just read about. It would be an injustice to simplify what this country can offer in mere words and images.
A trip to India is a trip to heighten the senses, all of them, sometimes all at the same time. There may be those who find this kind of intense stimulation invasive and abrasive, but for those who are ready to embrace it, this land of contrasts can make any other trip pale very much in comparison.