Before we get to how we were overwhelmed by India let me state that almost everything in life is opinionated and subjective and travelling is no exception. Where you travel to and the places you like the most depend on a lot of factors, such as:
- Season: is the city packed with tourists (high season) or deserted (low season)
- Weather: Dubai in the summer would be unbearably hot and Patagonia in the winter is completely shut down
- Who you’re with: if you’re not travelling alone the opinions and mood of those you’re with are going to greatly affect your opinion of a place, whether you notice it or not.
- The people: locals etc.
- How long you’ve already been on the road: If you’ve been on the road for months and just want to relax, you’re not going to enjoy a place in the same way you would if you just started your trip.
- And many more…
It was because of a combination of those factors that Dan and I only spent 6 nights of our planned 21 days in India. We were fully aware that we were getting tired and would need a break soon – but we weren’t ready to go home – and had already planned a month of R&R in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We decided we wanted to be in our apartment by Christmas which gave us a month and a half to see Turkey, Dubai and India.
Everyone warns that India can be a ‘sensory overload’; however, we thought that after 11 months on the road all over the world, it would be no problem… But maybe it’s precisely because we had already been travelling for 11 months that everything didn’t go as planned.
We started our journey to India with a three-hour ‘overnight’ flight from Dubai to Delhi followed by an awful five hour layover and a short-haul domestic flight to Varanasi. Yes – we started our journey through India in Varanasi. Probably not the best idea, as Varanasi is generally considered somewhere you should visit after adjusting to India (many people warned us of this although I failed to take their advice). As you can guess, after two days in Varanasi we were hit hard by the cultural, culinary and sanitary differences in India.
Our frustration was exaggerated by the fact that nothing is simple in India. Everyone wants something from you; and while that is true for many countries we’ve visited, it was most prevalent in India. The constant stress of having to have your guard up against a scam gets old fast. Whether it’s a hotel receptionist selling you a train ticket for ten times what you could buy it for online or at the station, a tuk-tuk driver taking you to the wrong hotel to get commission or an ‘official’ telling you your train is cancelled and you have to buy a new ticket (when it’s not actually cancelled) or simply constantly being haggled in the streets by beggars and sellers alike.
Additionally, India is also overly complicated when it comes to finding food and water. They have a huge problem with people refilling water bottles and selling it as the real thing (to the point where the water bottle label from major companies instructs you to remove the label and crush the bottle so this can’t happen). I watched street stalls in Varanasi washing their dishes in ditch water and using water from the Ganges River. No thank you.
Things don’t go as planned, trains are delayed, and the list goes on. Travelling in India felt like constant work.
Needless to say, after six nights in India we were exhausted and sick and started discussing if we really wanted to spent the next two weeks there. Travelling is meant to push your boundaries and give you the chance to experience new things but at the same time it still has to be enjoyable. When you pass the point where you’re thoroughly enjoying yourself then something has to change.
At this point, we were sitting in our hotel lobby in Arga – a town that has literally nothing to offer except its main attractions (the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort) – and we started looking into cancelling all of our previously booked accommodation and transportation.
We had done something we don’t normally do – we planned everything for India. All of our trains and accommodation were booked. We did this for a couple reasons, first, we only had three weeks and wanted to try and fit in as much as possible (again, not our usual style). Secondly, we read that trains sell out months in advance and we wanted to make sure we had seats in the first class trains.
When we found out almost everything was fully refundable we started to check flights. We couldn’t go to Thailand early because we’re planning on getting an on-arrival visa which only gives you 30 days (and we already had an apartment booked for 30 days) so we checked flights to neighbouring countries. When we found a flight for a reasonable price to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, we booked it*.
*Note: checking if everything was refundable and booking said plane ticket took hours instead of the few minutes it should have taken. While attempting to buy a plane ticket online through an Indian booking site, not one, but two of our credit cards blocked the purchase and we had to call our respective companies to allow the charge to go through. Trying to cancel our previous plane ticket we learned that Skype won’t allow you to call an Indian phone number if it registers you are currently in India (seriously!?).
Looking back on it, India was an experience. While we left for the reasons explained above, there were lots of good memories from our short stay. What sticks out for me the most was all the kids smiles. One afternoon in Agra we wandered away from the main streets through a neighbourhood right next to the Taj and it was like entering another world. There were no foreigners in site and hundreds of kids running around. And every single kid that we passed waved at us and gave us their biggest grin with a practiced “Hi” in English. It was innocent and adorable. I cherished the few times we came across genuine kindness. I remember (laughingly) all the people who bravely asked us if they could take a selfie with us! Watching the spiritual rituals in Varanasi was something unforgettable. And, of course, the majestic Taj Mahal was something I had to see – and am glad I did.