Taylor Davidson shares what he learnt from a two-month trip to India.
Chai © Taylor Davidson
Erica Johansson: Where in India did you travel?
Taylor Davidson: I went to India knowing I had two months to explore, and without a firm idea of where I was going to visit outside of a couple of cities to visit friends. My travel itinerary evolved over time, as I talked to friends, locals, fellow travelers, and just tried to absorb information and learn more about the different places and potential experiences (and also how to actually get from one place to another). Since I was lucky to have a friend living in Delhi gracious enough to let me stay with him, I had a good base to use to explore, as well as give me some time and experience to get comfortable traveling in India.
In deciding where to go, I fought two conflicting principles:
1) The more I saw, the more I realized the more I was going to be unable to see, simply due to time.
2) I have also realized on past trips abroad that you can have a much richer experience by visiting fewer places but spending more time in each place, rather than rushing between places, trying to fit everything in, because you get the chance to explore and see local life much deeper.
So, in the end, I ended up going to:
Uttar Pradesh: Agra
Rajasthan: Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur
Maharasta: Mumbai, Pune
Karnataka: Bangalore, Hampi
Kerala: Trivandrum, Kollam, Allepehy, Kochin
Tamil Nadu: Ooty
Himanchal Pradesh: McLeodganj
(Actually, I have a map to view where I went:
In retrospect, what would I have done differently? I would have spent more time in the hill stations and smaller towns in the south, staying out of the major cities a bit more, exploring some smaller towns for longer periods. But then, I am not a “big-city” person anywhere in the world, so that’s just my preference.
What was the best part of your journey?
Best places: Mcleodganj, Ooty, Hampi, Udaipur, and Jaisalmer. Why? For me, it was about the opportunity to wander the areas, to talk to and interact with locals in a different way than I would in the bigger cities. In each of these places I had amazingly interesting conversations with locals and fellow travelers, and got to explore some wonderful natural scenery.
Best activity: talking to locals in the cities, learning about people and life. While talking to locals was often the most annoying part of the day, simply because of the sheer volume of people that approach solo travelers, I had some amazing conversations and met some great people. And I’m not really a “people person”.
Best singular moment: camping in the desert, under the stars, Christmas Eve.
What did you learn from this trip?
People LOVE having their pictures taken. They also love having their pictures taken with foreigners. Take their picture, and get used to having your picture taken.
About traveling in India:
1) Learn patience. Learn to forget about schedules, and learn to be comfortable without a carefully planned itinerary. India is an easy place to travel without a lot of planning, and it’s definitely the most fun way. The journey may not always be smooth, but it will work out in the end.
2) Learn to ask. Information is most easily available by asking people, and everyone is so friendly and open to helping, it is by far the best way to get information about how to get around, about what to do, about how things work. But don’t ask just one person: ask multiple people, verify and corroborate what people tell you.
3) Learn to answer questions that you might not answer at home. People are very inquisitive, and are eager to ask questions about you, your home, your country. Depending on where you are from, you might get asked questions which are more personal than you would ordinarily answer at home. It is incredibly common for people’s first questions to be if you are married/dating, what your job is, how much money you make, or other similar questions. These are all important ways for people to understand you based on values and beliefs in Indian culture, much in the same way in Western culture we may ask about school, jobs, hobbies, or personal interests. The questions are normal, and whether you choose to be truthful or not, answer them, but remember that you will be judged and “slotted” by your answers.
4) Learn when to be aggressive, and when to be passive. Perhaps the toughest of all, it takes some time to be able to grasp and assess situations appropriately. While people are very warm and friendly once they recognize you as an individual, there is also an “individual callousness” that requires you to be a little more aggressive than you might otherwise. At least that is my experience, as a male traveling solo: it might be different if you are female and/or travel with friends in a group.
Booking: all hotels, travel agents, Internet cafes, etc., will help you book tickets and provide advice, for a commission. All business in India is done through middlemen, and using middlemen to book tickets for you can often save you a lot of time and hassle.
Trains: multiple classes of service are available; take what you’re comfortable with. Trains are a great way to meet people and talk to locals and fellow travelers. You can book easily online with a credit card. If you can sleep on trains (I can sleep anywhere, anytime), trains can be pretty efficient way to travel overnight. If you’re going non-AC class in the winter, take a blanket.
Buses: intra-city buses can be intimidating, but actually quite easy if you get comfortable asking people how to get to where you want: often people will take you under their wing and tell you where to get off or change buses. Inter-city buses are similarly easy, and for some, the popular routes are the easiest way to get around, cheaply and without any advance booking. For some routes you should book ahead, for others, just show up at the station and take the next bus.
Cars: if you have the money, or are short on time, for some routes cars (with drivers) are also an option, and can take you between and within cities quite easily. Definitely much more expensive than buses and trains, but I met numerous travelers who chose to hire drivers to take them between cities, often on self-directed tours between a group of cities.
Boats: I only took one, and if you go to Kerala, definitely take a backwaters tour by boat.
Flights: easy to book, usually does not require much advance booking, much faster than trains and buses for long distances. But flying is much, much more expensive, apt for delays, and you will not get the chance to meet people or see the landscape as you would by bus or train.
Overall: the key, in the end, is to ask people about the route you want to take to get their advice on which method to use, times, schedules, and of the variety of options available.
The diversity in culture, people, places, etc., continues to remind you that the more you see, the more there is to see. Every day is an opportunity for creating experiences, both good and bad. If you have an open mind, interact with people, embrace Indian culture, and bring a positive spirit, India can be an incredibly powerful, warm, inviting place to travel.
To see more shots from Taylor’s trip to India, see the India Close & Afar photo gallery. For more reflections, check out the blog posts Unordered Thoughts from India and Cultural Tourism.