India through American eyes - Travel story

I have always loved to travel and travelling alone never bothered me. I had been to Australia, I had seen most of Europe, and because I wanted to my next trip to be somewhere new, I decided that I would travel to India. A few of my friends cautioned me that I might not want to travel alone and that I should perhaps travel as part of a tour group, or go with companions. At the age of 37, I was no stranger to travelling alone and I loved immersing myself into new cultures and meeting new people. I was a savvy traveler and had my mind made up; I was going to visit India.

India through American eyes - travel story

I would need a visa; I already had my passport. I visited the Indian embassy to apply for my visa and began to plan my trip. I would fly from Los Angeles to Delhi, and I would stay in Delhi, there was plenty to see there and of course, I was going to take a trip to see the Taj Mahal in Agra. As a seasoned traveler, I knew to look up the weather of where I was going to be so I knew what to pack.

I was not going to be there in summer, as all of the guides recommended not going in the summer; Delhi would be too hot and too uncomfortable for tourists to feel comfortable in the summer and so I was saving myself the hassle of traveling in the heat and was going in cooler weather. It would still be warm and since my last few trips were to cooler locations, I would need some new traveling clothing.

Cotton was the way to go and I preferred to travel in pants so I bought some cotton pants, and some loose, long-sleeved and short-sleeved shirts. I packed a scarf, a light jacket, and sneakers with a pair of light sandals to wear as well. I pack lightly, and intended to purchase some local clothing when I arrived. Paying attention to what the locals wear is a very good way to know what local clothing to buy because they live in that climate and they know best what to wear.

Pickpockets are a common menace for travelers and so I always carry a travel pouch that carried most of my money, and my travel documents. The pouch was easy to conceal under my clothing, and if my bag were ever stolen, I would still have my necessary items. I was warned of the mosquitoes and so mosquito repellent went in the bag, as well as my camera, a universal adapter for power plugs, toilet paper ( I would find out later that this was a most necessary item), sunscreen and some antibiotic hand sanitizer.

It was a crowded flight from LAX in Los Angeles but I felt my excitement rise as the plane began to descend towards Delhi. Finally, I was about to get off the plane at the Indira Gandhi International Airport and I was excited but tired. The people on the plane had been friendly and I was looking forward to interacting with people. Some tourists prefer to stay close to other tourists, but I loved to get to know the people in the countries that I visit. We shuffled slowly to customs, always a lengthy process. After a long wait, it was my turn at the customs counter and a stern-faced young man stamped my passport, fully ignoring my greeting to him. I did not let this deter me, as perhaps he was having an off day, and plus, he saw so many people come past his counter daily, it must be a big chore.

Arriving at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, India
Arriving at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, India

On the way to the baggage area, a porter offered to push a baggage trolley for me, for a fee, but since I packed lightly, there was no need and I declined. I collected my bags, found the Thomas Cook currency exchange to get exchange my dollars for Rupees and to get travelers checks. I was ready to head to my hotel. I went to the counter and paid for a prepaid taxi receipt for a taxi ride to my hotel. This was a little confusing, because in most places, you get in and tell the driver where you need to go, and then pay. I was told that this was the safest way to take a taxi from the airport and so I took my receipt and found the taxi waiting outside.

The driver was very friendly and I told him the name and address of my hotel. I had been warned to not hand over my receipt until I was at my destination so when he asked for my receipt, I just held it up. Several times, he offered to take me to a better hotel than the one that I had booked but I said “Nahi” in Hindi and he stopped offering and instead began to talk.

The streets were crowded; and not just a little crowded, but crowded to the point where it seemed like we were stopped more often than moving. I saw buses with people sitting on the top and bunches of motorbikes on the road, it was quite the scene and there was lots of honking. It was a noisy trip. He was friendly and made a few suggestions of things to see in Delhi, and he recommended that I try chaat. I thanked him for his input, and handed over my receipt when we were at the hotel in Paharganj area of Delhi.

The hotel was westernized, and I had a very nice room, it was hot and my clothing was sticking to me. I unpacked a few items, and after slapping away a few mosquitoes, I used the insect repellent and that seemed to keep them at bay. Although I was weary, I wanted to go and explore. I would look for some local fashion to wear.

Delhi Street Food
Delhi Street Food: Photo by Sebastian Baryli

I left the hotel, and entered the crowded street. I have to say that I was not prepared for what I saw. I knew that India was a country stricken with poverty, but what you read does not impact you as much as what you see when you are there. I noticed that groups of tourists were often able to walk unhindered, while I was besieged by some begging children the minute I hit the street. Beggars seemed to be at every corner, and the streets were dirty. Flies were everywhere, and I was glad that I had worn long sleeves; it was keeping them from being able to land on my arms.

It was a unique experience, and one that was both fun and a bit scary at the same time. People were far from being standoffish; in fact, the store owners were welcoming and friendly; eager to have me stop and look. I was greeted by nearly everybody I passed; however, there was a far creepier aspect to being out in India, one that made me feel very uncomfortable, the staring and the attempted touching from the men in the streets. Even though my shirt was loose and not revealing, I was stared at, not a quick glance and then away, but long stares at my breasts. I was also brushed up against a lot; it seemed like when the crowds were bigger, the men would press up against me on purpose. I had far more beggars asking me for alms than tourists traveling in pairs or even men walking alone; I had discovered the downside to traveling alone in India. I would experience this every time I left my hotel.

Despite this, I enjoyed talking to the other people that I met on the street; the street vendors and shop owners were especially courteous. I found what I was looking for, some clothing that might allow me to fit in a little better and feel cooler in, salwar kameez, kurtis, and a dupatta. They would pair nicely with my pants and would help keep the bugs and the sun off my arms.

I stopped at a restaurant and had butter chicken with naan for dinner, along with some soda. A stop at the bathroom confused me; I had never traveled to an area that used a squat toilet before. I found myself in a bathroom stall that had no toilet, but it was clear from looking that I was to squat over the hole in the floor to go. There was a bucket with water nearby and there was a hook on the wall. It took some getting used to, and I was very glad that I had a travel-sized soap in my purse to use as well as toilet paper, because there was none in the stall.

The next day I went sightseeing in Delhi; it was the same wherever I went; I was stared at and even touched at a few times. However, for the most part, the people continued to be friendly towards me. I saw the India Gate, the Qutub Minar, and the Raj Ghat. I sampled street food and found that the chaat was wonderful. I stuck to bottled water, not wanting to trust the tap and I had some truly wonderful eating experiences.

Pond India Gate
Pond near the India Gate

I continued to explore Delhi, seeing Humayun’s Tomb, Red Fort, the Lodhi Gardens and the National Museum on Maulana Azad Road. Every excursion was a mixture of seeing poverty up against the backdrop of people who were well off, and then many tourists as well. Trash was all over, there did not seem to be much regard for sanitation. Despite the repellent, I felt a few mosquitoes especially at night. The heavy traffic made navigating the streets difficult and there was always the staring and the men pressing against me.

The highlight of my trip was the Taj Mahal; it was a marvel to behold. In fact, it is breathtaking. Pictures do not do it justice but I took many. I bought more clothing, the colors worn in India are so colorful and bright, there was color everywhere, from their clothing to their food, and it was as if the country was infused with colors, especially reds and yellows.

For one day I was confined to my hotel room; I had eaten street food that did not agree with me, or perhaps it was a bottle of water that was not fresh but one thing is for sure, I did not feel good. My stomach was very upset for about a day, and the hotel was very attentive but once I felt better, I continued to explore Delhi.

As I boarded my plane for my trip back home to Los Angeles, I knew that I would come back some day to India. As much as I found the stares and the unwanted attention unsettling, the people, the food and the sights made it a positive experience overall. There are some places where pictures and stories cannot properly encapsulate the overall experience of a place, and that is India. Dirty and teeming with people, but the people was friendly and warm, the food was delicious, and everything was so colorful.

It was an experience so unlike any other trip that I had ever been on and I knew that I would be back.

You may like these posts:

Namaste World. I am Diya. My life in India: (Multiculturalism for Children). Teach kids about India

India for kids