Sitting in the back of the car on the way to Indira Gandhi International Airport, I couldn’t help but fall into deep introspection. India is supposed to enable cathartic experiences; to fundamentally force a change in one’s life. I’m not going to lie and say that’s what happened to me, it didn’t. I didn’t gaze up at the Taj Mahal and see the light of heaven, inspired to become a yogi or similar. No, I didn’t have a reawakening in India, but it did make me change the way I look at new destinations. It made me reconsider my worldview and to accept the fact that I do in fact travel with a certain lens; that I’m not the neutral being I thought I was.
It took me a long time to even want to visit India. I’d heard stories from seemingly countless travelers, and very few were entirely positive. India has a way of inspiring binary opinions from those who have spent time traveling the massive country. There’s very little nuance or grey areas, people either love it or, well, they don’t. My partner had a terrible experience there as a young man and that, more than anything else, colored my opinion of the country. It’s amazing if you think about it. Countries spend millions of dollars every year trying to entice new visitors, but usually we are most influenced by those we know or trust. His experience on the subcontinent forced me to disregard a country of more than 1 billion people and whose contributions to world culture and history can’t be overstated. That’s my fault, but it didn’t come from a bad place. It just is. It’s just part of being human, and that’s one of the key lessons I acquired in the streets of Mumbai, Delhi and Jaipur.
It was a process though, one that started as soon as I landed in Mumbai and continues through to this day. My evolution from curious but not optimistic about traveling in India to a person who truly enjoyed the travel experience didn’t happen by accident. It happened entirely thanks due to the patience and kind guidance of Abercrombie & Kent. Sure, they’re one of the top luxury tour operators in the world, but the experience is so much more than nice hotels whenever I travel with them. They enable me to make very unique and personal connections with the communities I visit in ways I would never be able to replicate on my own. The results are honestly transformative travel experiences; trips that touch our souls and change who we are. In regards to India, this evolution was aided through a series of unique moments; instances that brought into better light India and her people. As I noted at the beginning of this post, the biggest revelation for me wasn’t spiritual or metaphysical, but it was very personal. It brought into better light my own natural prejudices and even taught me how to better deal with them moving forward. Although I didn’t spend a month at an ashram, the effects were nonetheless meaningful, and today I want to share some of those simple and yet powerful moments that made it all possible.
The Other Side of Mumbai
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I woke up at 5am, but I was excited. I couldn’t wait to explore the city on an unusual tour as Mumbai woke up and to see aspects no one else gets too witness. India is the king of the side-hustle, and it seems that many people have multiple jobs they work in order to make ends meet. I saw a lot of that during our morning explorations, starting off at the still very dark hour of 5am at the city’s wharf to witness the daily fish auction. People started to stream in with baskets, all there to purchase wholesale fish for customers throughout the city. It seemed chaotic at first, but there’s definitely a rhythm to the event, although certainly not for the weak of heart. From flower merchants to newspaper sorters, I met with many people around the city working jobs only around for a few hours every morning, a side to Mumbai you’d miss if you wake up after 9am. It was also a great way for me to experience daily life in the city, aside from the museums and monuments, and to get a feel for what it really means to be in India. There were many special touches like this throughout my trip, helping make the experience one that was honestly very well rounded. I wasn’t shielded in any way, and for that I am grateful.
It wasn’t my first trip with Abercrombie & Kent so learning about their philanthropy project in Udaipur wasn’t a surprise, but what was a surprise was the opportunity to visit and meet with the kids. Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy supports projects all around the world from rhino conservation to schools like the one in Udaipur. Spending some time there I met a few of the more than 100 girls of all ages who attend classes, learning in a safe and encouraging environment. At the school they are protected from prejudice and even violence, allowed to just be normal kids. I read through their school projects, admired their artwork and even congratulated a budding photographer on her skills. It was an unexpected highlight because I didn’t feel like a voyeur. I wasn’t some weird American there to spend an hour and then leave. I felt welcome and immediately part of the group. It was a fun way to spend some time and to learn more about Udaipur through some of its youngest citizens.
Taj Mahal at Sunrise
I wrote at the beginning that I didn’t necessarily have a life-altering revelation while gazing up at this famous monument to love. And that’s true, I didn’t, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the experience and that it wasn’t moving. I visited during different times of day to experience the site with different colors of light and crowds, but my favorite moments happened at dawn. With so few people there, it was an intimate and almost private experience. Don’t misunderstand, there was still a 5-minute wait to sit on the so-called “Diana bench,” and to grab that one famous selfie also required a wait. But overall, the crowds were negligible and as I waited for the perfect morning light, I walked right into the main mausoleum itself, skipping the hour-long wait that was there the night before. The tomb perhaps was the one aspect that was disappointing, a simple nod to a great love affair. But the complex isn’t about that one final resting place, it’s about a love so deep and profound that it inspired one of the most remarkable structures that the world has ever seen. That’s what touched me the most, this complicated yet gorgeous reminder of love’s strange effects on us and what it means to be cared for by someone else.
India is what you make it
When the topic of traveling to India comes up there are thousands of different opinions and none seem to agree with the other. Some criticize if you take a luxury trip because you’re not seeing “the real India” which doesn’t make any sense and still others bemoan so-called poverty tourism, also correctly pointing out that’s not India either. The truth is that India is a large country with 1.3 billion people; it’s dynamic and expansive which means that it’s all of this and more. You can’t paint the entire country with the same misconceived brush, and it’s only through traveling in India that this becomes clear and obvious. At the same time, India is what you make it to be. If you try to expand your comfort zone a little and enjoy experiences new to you, you will be richly rewarded in return. I’m thankful I finally visited India but I know that I wouldn’t have gone without Abercrombie & Kent. I’m just not comfortable with solo independent travel around the country and I’d much rather have pros but together the logistics so that I can just enjoy my trip. Everyone is different though and so the best piece of advice I can give is to don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t delay, go now because I guarantee that as soon as you visit you’ll want to plan a return trip as soon as possible; it’s just that kind of a place.