India may seem insurmountable to the US traveler or first time Big Tripper, but the subcontinent is one of the best places to travel and learn more about yourself than any other travel experience.
This article covers three surprising lessons to make India part of your Big Trip itinerary and discover why a trip to India changes you forever, as it changed me.
1. Learn How to Surrender
On my first day in India, I witnessed children begging in traffic and families living on traffic islands.
On the second day, I witnessed three year olds on train tracks navigating through garbage, excrement, and rats for plastic bottles.
On the third day, a shady tour operator scammed me to the tune of six hundred dollars. Three rickshaw drivers, one of whom dropped me off at his office, claimed that his “official tourism” office was the only place to buy train tickets.
On the fourth day, I got food poisoning.
And, not to sound to biblical but on all the days after that, I realized that I could not make India into this neat and tidy vacation. So I surrendered to the trip I was meant to have.
I embraced the crowds, smells, and sights realizing that I am guest here. Instead of judging, I conversed, joked and volunteered. I surrendered to blatant dishonesty in financial transactions, honed my bargaining skills, and developed a much-needed BS detector. And, I grew an iron stomach and a new appreciation for clean tap water.
2. Learn that Patience Virtue
There’s a certain level of patience required for traveling in India. It’s a patience born of queues, inexplicable delays, the unknown meaning of the head waggle, and the realization that your time really isn’t as valuable as my time.
Please don’t misread this; these are all good and necessary travel lessons. Because, in all travel, in life, no matter the destination – things don’t always work out as planned. And it’s patience that I learned in India was the difference between a good and bad experience – for all parties involved.
I learned the granddaddy lesson in patience on I was on my way to Bodhgaya from Darjeeling. This required a jeep ride to the train station in Siliguri and then a train trip to Varanasi, where I would meet up with a driver to take me to Bodhgaya in Bihar.
The trip should have been a day, but it was three days because: there were riots in Siliguri which caused a detour to another train station, the train didn’t go to Varanasi because there were train burnings and more riots in Bihar, and the driver wouldn’t leave Varanasi until he heard it was safe on the roads.
And then on the way, the driver hit a guy on a motorcycle. After that experience, I dropped those ever-present “expectations” and “plans” like baggage at my missed train station and put on my patience pants for the rest of the trip. I couldn’t do anything to change the circumstances, but I could be patient along the way.
3. Open Your Heart
I volunteered at the Shakehands school for street children in Jaipur. On the way to the two cement classrooms, the other volunteers and I saw where our students lived – tarp shacks on the side of the road. A cat-sized rat darted between wood poles that held up the structures. Our students had nothing, I thought, nothing.
The classrooms were filled with about 20 to 30 students during the week and most of them were siblings or cousins of their classmates. I noticed that the older ones took care of their younger siblings with care and attention not seen among American siblings.
Komal, wrote the correct numbers on her younger sister’s slate so Geeta could have the praise for a job well done. Mikesh waited after his small brother received the vitamin biscuits before taking his at the end of the day. I witnessed care and compassion at this school, that I was convinced that these kids had something that mattered, a lot of heart.
Extra Bonus Lesson: Learn what Resilience Really Means
I was in Mumbai on December 1, 2008, less than 48 hours after the 26/11 attacks ended with 175 people killed and left the city paralyzed from a well-planned terrorist siege. My travel mates and I entered the city after being stuck in Lonavla en route from Pune. We all had flights out of Mumbai so we took the risk of entering the Colaba district.
When our group arrived, we were the only backpackers at a very popular Colaba hotel; there were bullet holes at Leopold’s, and candlelight vigils along the Causeway. My travel friends and I talked with shop owners who had watched their neighbors gunned down and had opened up to carry on with business and heal. We watched Leopold’s open among broken glass and recapture some amount of festivity it had prior to the gunshots.
During our walk, a young Indian woman, in perfect English, shared that her and her friends were doing a school project on what had just happened. They asked if we had anything like this in America. Not since 9/11, I shared, but people still came to New York and the city had healed. She shared that she was glad that we were there, glad that we had come back to see Mumbai, happy to see the Indians doing what is necessary to keep the city and their country going.
When I tell fellow would-be travelers or interested parties that my first big trip was to India, for pleasure, the response I most often get is wonder (why?) and disbelief (really?), followed by inquiry (what was that like?). The answers are written in the above reasons, but most of all because it was in my heart it was unlike any other travel experience I’d ever had and I was changed forever.