Updated: Jun 8, 2020
The seventh largest country by geography, India’s population comprises 20% of the planet’s humanity. That may be enough of a reason to visit this land of diverse culture, religion, nature, art and cuisine.
The country has preserved its cultural and religious heritage through centuries; its population is 84% Hindu and 14% Muslim, comprising a larger population of people practicing Islam than any other country on earth. While living in harmony under a mostly crowded, chaotic environment, often cramped and dark living conditions, smiles still come easily to Indians as they welcome foreigners. They seemed genuinely excited to meet Americans: we were often thanked for our role in providing security and promise to the rest of the world, a somewhat surprising reaction for us as we immersed ourselves in the culture and traditions and as we celebrated Diwali with our guide’s extended family in Jaipur, or when we engaged with the salesman in the rest stop gift shop. From little children to teenagers to elderly men and women we were continually engaged in conversation as to where we were from, assured that we were welcome and invited to participate fully in their world. Never have we been asked to be in so many “photo shoots”.
"It’s not easy to live in India," explained one of our new friends. Indeed, the contrast between middle class and poor, between life in rural villages and leafy suburbs of big cities is shocking. Diversity is accepted but the people are for the most part homogenous in their choice of dress, devotion to family, belief in tradition, history, nature and gods, even the effect of astronomy on their major decisions. Their beliefs and observation of tradition helps them keep order in the chaos and keeps tempers in check as they race together down crowded streets. As one of my fellow travelers attests: “You cannot fully describe the street scene with someone who has not shared the experience”: Cars, buses, trucks, auto rickshaws, tuk tuks, motorbikes, scooters, pedestrians, cows, pigs, donkeys, dogs, camels, elephants all sharing the road whether you are in a big city, (46 cities in India have over 1 million citizens, while in the US the 9th largest city has just under a million), rural country, or a 4 lane highway crossing Rajasthan. To drive in India you need good eyesight, good brakes, a good horn and above that good luck!
My group of 11 travelers experienced a variety of first-time experiences, all under the watchful guidance of a local guide, a dedicated driver of a 30-passenger bus, and a driver’s assistant. (Plenty of room to stretch!) This is truly the only way to experience India to the fullest. Although we had planned this trip over a year and a half prior, our partner still had surprises in store that made each day different and brought new experiences daily.
“Beyond” “A lifetime of memories in 2 weeks” “Best guiding ever experienced” “Care for each person at an individual level” “Always felt safe and never disappointed.” “Latitude and their India partner made everything seamless” “Let’s get the group back together for Holi 2021”. These are a few of the guest comments.
Our itinerary brought the following highlights, planned and unplanned experiences which we were able to modify with our guide as the trip evolved, all with 4 and 5* accommodations along the way:
· Visit to a temple, mosque and monuments in Delhi to explore history over last 8 centuries
· Visit to Taj Mahal at Sunset and again at Sunrise
· Lunch in a local family restaurant tucked in a small village, followed by entertainment from musicians, Indian wrestling and a camel cart ride through the streets with a building entourage of locals
· Visit to Rathambore National park: 2 Tiger sightings in 4 safaris
· Comfortable stay in spacious cottages reminiscent of African Safari lodge
· Visit to local markets to experience the excitement of people preparing for Diwali
· Visit to “soup kitchen” outside temple feeding 20000 people per day- indeed we joined volunteers in making bread for the hungry
· Visiting textile markets to have pants, shirts and skirts made on order with delivery several hours later (One vendor took a train 12 hours round trip to deliver a shirt that had to be remade to spec for one of our travelers!)
· Enjoying local musicians and dancers
· Stopping on the road to take pictures with a mahout and his elephant
· Participating in Diwali festivities with our guide’s extended family and meeting his wife and niece, cousins: Dress up in traditional turbans, saris and veils, tour of the family home, meeting 16 family members, partaking in prayer ceremony, henna tattoos, floor painting, candle lighting, traditional dinner and participating in fireworks in the street
· Continued Diwali celebrations with motorized rickshaw through streets packed with revelers, on our way to rooftop restaurant and bar owned by our Diwali host with spectacular 360-degree views of Jaipur
· Visit to palaces to view the opulence of past dynasties
· Stay at a local village complete with an hour-long journey on a local train ride through beautiful country, visits to village homes, helping the children practice English, visit to a local school and sharing gifts of books, candy, stickers, and stories of our homes
· Visit to a local home and bed/ breakfast of a famous cook who taught us about unique Indian spices and vegetables in a comprehensive cooking demonstration followed by a typical dinner.
· Relaxing at a mountain top retreat in Udaipur, with visits to a palace, local markets and a bike ride around the magnificent lakes and countryside- importantly done in early morning to avoid the onslaught of traffic chaos that begins mid-morning
· Local street food tour was also an interesting and tasty endeavor- be sure to do this with an experienced guide who understands the foods that are properly cooked and safe to eat
Some interesting things we learned in depth in India:
· Arranged Marriages and how caste and astronomy play in the process
· The Life of Sacred Cows
· Imperial Emperors: The Mughals and their impact on history
· Sha Jahan and the construction of the Taj Mahal
· The Caste System
· The 4 Stages of Life
· Karma and Reincarnation
· The Key Gods: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Ganesha
· Symbolism of the Elephant
· The Confusion caused by Great Indian Bureaucracy
· The Life of Mahatma Gandhi
· Sadhus (holy men) and Faux Sadhus
We couldn’t have been more pleased with our accommodations, vehicle, driver and above all guiding. Our group learned about an ancient and foreign culture and way of living so different from our own. We followed a healthy diet and learned to relax without Wi-Fi and cell service (at times but able to connect when we needed to.) Every stop, every experience reminded us what truly living a full life of adventure is all about and gave us ample pause to appreciate the comforts and structure that make up our lives back home. We were baffled, amused, sometimes horrified, but saw enough humanity, laughter, compassion and fun to make each of us vow to return- next time for Holi- the celebration of color.
If you are interested it would be great to have you join us for the next journey to India in 2022 where we will enjoy the Holi festival in northern India and explore the villages and beaches of the south!