India – the prelude…
I once heard that the more money you spend on a trip to a foreign country, the more distance you put between yourself and the culture you are trying to enjoy. I always believed this to be true and certainly, it makes sense. Riding in a bus or train like a local, living in a homestay, shopping at the market, all these things really tie you to a culture in a way that is more challenging when staying in an American brand hotel serving up American food with American television and entertainment.
So, when I was initially planning my trip to India, I did so with my normal routine – looking at an overview of the country and prioritizing the must-see cities of interest to me, then figuring out transportation between the cities and finding appropriate Airbnb’s in each locale. But while researching transportation between Agra and Varanasi, I only found a night train. Since I would be a solo woman traveler, this wasn’t ideal. Needing to do more research, I put out requests to other travelers on message boards, asking if women travel alone on the night train. I had very varied responses including “make sure you lock your suitcase and belongings IN CASE you fall asleep” (of course falling asleep is the goal on a night train, otherwise, you have completely lost a day when you arrive), and “try not to travel to unfamiliar areas alone if you are a woman”. Both the destination and the origination are certainly going to be unfamiliar…
This got me thinking….
Alec told me that he would be far more comfortable if I was part of some organized tour. Jack though, looked at me dead seriously and said “Mom, I think you are trying to relive your glory days”.
Out of the mouths of babes…
So, approaching this from another angle, I went back to my computer and tried to find an organized tour from an agency. But here it got tricky… Mostly the tours offered were from companies that have been around for dozens of years and offered tours with busses filled with travelers. This is NOT what I wanted at all. First, I didn’t want a cattle car tour where I would be shuttled on and off busses full of tourists taken from one shop to another to peddle local goods. While there was little chance of me getting out of India without filling up a suitcase with treasures from this magical place, I wanted it to be on my own terms.
And then, I found Clique Holidays. I decided to send a Whatsapp +91 88006 55713 message and see if they could arrange what I was looking for without breaking the bank. After a VERY short wait, they got back to me and quoted me a price for a 5–6-day tour including all the places I wanted to see. After a bit more research I realized that I was missing a place that was on my “want” list and I asked if they could incorporate it. The schedule was very aggressive but yes, they managed to make it all work. And the best part, I would be traveling solo with just me and a driver and tour guides would meet me at each destination. The tour included 6 hotels, 3 airplane tickets a driver in each city, and a tour guide everywhere and the price absolutely did NOT break the bank. So reasonable in fact, I worried that the entire operation might be a scam. Back to the computer to do more research, I learned that this company was only in business from June which explained why there were only 4 or 5 reviews. This was good news and bad news. Good in that I wanted a new company trying to make their way in the world. And bad because I had no idea if they would be in business when I showed up. I slept on it, and the following day I decided to pull the trigger and book it. I just had a feeling that this was the way to go.
Now, some of you are wondering why I would want to be alone instead of part of a large group. A little bit of self-confession here, I’m an introvert if I’m totally honest. One of the great gifts of age is the ability to look honestly as oneself and know where you are likely to thrive and where you are going to have challenges. I have a core group of friends whom I adore. I adore my family. I welcome true and honest communication with people, but “cocktail party” chit chat doesn’t appeal to me. And when I travel in a large group, I usually get annoyed in the company of people adjusting to the vagaries and sacrifices of travel. All adventures involve discomfort to varying degrees and travelers having dietary, sleep, communication, or culture shock issues just stress me out. In any bus load of travelers, someone is going to lose a passport, wallet, cell phone or some treasure along the way. Someone is going to be unable to eat spicy food in India or live without their daily meat requirements. People will be acting out due to lack of sleep etc… and given that the likelihood of me making any lasting friendships on such a trip are incredibly low, I’d rather just avoid the downside of small talk with a busload of people wondering why I’m traveling alone in India, or worse, having any of the unfortunate aforementioned conditions happen to me, thus suffering the resultant embarrassment and guilt over having affected anyone else’s journey.
Additionally, all these bodies truly disrupt the energy of a place. Landing in Varanasi on a busload of foreigners would absolutely detract from the unbelievably spiritual nature of this special place. Alternatively, I was able to feel and enjoy Varanasi in the company of just one local guide taking me to all the quaint and special street food places to which he could never take a bus load.
Clearly you can see the benefits of going the way that I did, but many people reading this will choose the busload all day long. The joy of experiencing travel with others is certainly worthy of consideration. But self-knowledge is the crucial element. Knowing in what conditions you are likely to thrive, and where you will struggle is key to planning a holiday that will be unforgettable for all the RIGHT reasons.
As long as I’m climbing down from my high horse here regarding travel via bus and backpack vs. a hired car and driver with a sign bearing one’s name everywhere they go, I’m going to dive right in on the benefits of the car and driver which were previously unknown to me.
On any given trip, cell phone and google maps in hand, I’m navigating my family from one bus or train to the next. Whole cities disappear, swallowed up as they are lost to all but the route I’m navigating. Further, in India, the buses and trains would have seriously impacted the joy I felt observing this amazing place from the (relative) safety of the back of a car, rather than clutching all personal belongings that I felt the need to keep safe. Personal space (or lack thereof) in India, a country roughly 1/3 the area of the US but with nearly 5 X the occupants, is nearly non-existent. Nearly every time we passed an overcrowded bus careening around a bend on what appeared to be 2 wheels, I thanked Clique Holidays and my lucky stars that I was in a private car.
WHY INDIA? And where were Alec and Jack?? Some background…
The convo about India happened several months ago with my friend Janie. Janie shared that she was planning a trip to India to escort her husband Azam’s Aunt to see family members. Azam is an American citizen, born in Pakistan where much of his family still lives. Azam’s aunt is an American citizen born in India. She moved to the US shortly after marriage when her Indian husband was accepted to Case Western Reserve University to study. She has lived in the US ever since, currently residing in Dallas, TX. Her family (nieces, nephews etc) still live in India. Here is where it gets a bit complicated. For those who are not well versed in India/Pakistan politics… I’ll do my best to share my understanding with you. Please don’t take this as the gospel truth but rather, if this is of interest, do more research since I’ll be largely sharing what I learned from tour guides and is an overview at best with sweeping broad strokes.
In 1947, the British, as part of their departure from India, partitioned the country with the West (Pakistan) being primarily Muslim and the East (India) being primarily Hindu. One of my guides said this was because at the time of the partition, both Hindu and Muslim followers wanted a Prime Minister from their religion. It was so big a point of contention that the partition was created, and the 2 countries borders were created. After the partition, Azam’s parents opted to move to Pakistan, while Azam’s aunts’ family opted to remain in India. The entirety of both countries is filled with families who have been separated by this partition.
So, Janie and I talked about how we could parlay this trip into an opportunity to see one another. I have always wanted to visit India and knowing that Alec was less enthused, this was a perfect chance to go. Janie, always happy to help a family member and always up for an adventure, offered to bring Lilli Khala to India. She also mentioned that she enjoyed visiting India and since Azam was Pakistani, he would no longer be given a visitor’s visa, so it was the perfect chance for Janie to see his family. As an American born citizen, she was expecting to have no trouble getting a visa. As the conversation evolved, I learned that Janie absolutely didn’t want to see the places in the North of India that I wanted to visit and further, she would be spending time in Bombay with family, so we decided that I would travel for a week alone in the north, then fly to Cochin to meet up with her and her husband’s Aunt Lilli and his cousin Ifaat. We were going to have a “girls’ trip” to Kerala in Southern India.
I got busy making plans, purchasing my visa for India and arranging travel documents, and Janie did the same. Jack, thrilled to have located a “mule” to get his prized Legos from the US to us in Türkiye asked Janie if he could mail some minifigs to her to carry. I sent a few things that I can’t get in Türkiye and all that remained was a few details.
Then I got the call,
Wah!!! Janie’s application for a visa was denied!! She was not permitted to go to India. The only possible explanation is her marriage to a Pakistani born man. I was heartbroken! I felt horrible for her, she had arranged this trip for Azam’s aunt, she had planned the time off. We had all purchased tickets and now the lynchpin of the whole trip fell out.
Breath…. Just breath….
I spent a night thinking about how I felt about the trip if Janie wasn’t going and the bottom line was that, while it was an unfortunate turn of events, I wanted to go to India. I was uncomfortable as heck planning a 2-week trip in India alone, but I was going. Plus, the second part of the trip I would rendezvous with Azam’s Aunt and cousin whom I have never met but whose names I had heard many times over the years. All would be ok.
But here is the broader point here. Can you imagine one of your aunts moving to another state after marriage and suddenly, because the Governors of the 2 states were squabbling, none of the residents of the two states are allowed to travel to see one another??? Because the politicians can’t figure it out, family members are forced to fight with family members?
Anyone else thinking about Ukraine and Russia about now?
It reminded me of a sweet Iranian couple we met in Istanbul who said “We Iranians LOVE Americans! It’s our politicians who can’t get along!”
It reminded me of the heart wrenching moment in the village square in Kas last November when chatting with an adorable couple with 2 very small children (one a newborn). Upon learning that we are American she said she Loved America (though she had never been). I asked where she was from. Her shoulders slumped and I saw unmistakable shame on her face as she said “Russia”. My heart broke as I walked up to her, and we embraced. We both cried in this intense moment of shared humanity as our husbands and friends looked on as we held the embrace for what seemed like minutes. It is always the citizens who suffer when our politicians can’t put humanity first. This poor family has had to uproot and move to Türkiye, leaving behind family members. They are just one family of the roughly 700,000 Russians who have fled to avoid conscription according to one source. She shared with me her pain that her parents either wouldn’t or couldn’t choose more than one source of news long enough to see another side to the story. Rather than be pressed into military service and risking his life to fight his Ukranian “brothers”, he chose to leave and move his family to Türkiye. What a painful decision that would have been.
That is why we travel. For the shared humanity of our experiences. So, while I may not choose to travel and make small talk with a bus full of strangers, I look for these opportunities at finding our shared humanity. Of making meaningful connections with people. And that I did in spades in India. I found so much shared humanity in this beautiful rich country.
So standby for the travel part of the journey in the next blog update. Places I visited in the 2-week trip were:
Jaipur, Agra, New Delhi, Varanasi, Cochin, Munnar, Thekaddy, and Alappuzha.
3 thoughts on “India – The Prelude…”
Love this and so proud of you for trekking out on your own and honoring yourself and needs…you are so right in your description of a large tour group and you were so right to choose the private tour…you would have gone insane with the travel drama that comes from those large groups. ❤️
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It is so nice to be known LOL. I miss you friend
Great, Quality Content for The Ultimate Tour Guide, A lot of thanks for sharing, kindly keep with continue !!
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