The primary reasons I wanted to visit India was to experience culture shock, to see what a non-Western, one-billion large population lives like, see the on-the-ground images of what an emerging middle-class and developing economy looks like that the financial media talk about.
I flew into Delhi with my brother in February of 2012, toured the country at a leisurely pace and flew out in April, two months later. The first few days were quite an adjustment, but after about a week of experiencing a ‘new normal,’ things begin to smoothen out, to a certain extent. India is overall a safe country and not as challenging a destination as some may think – as we met hundreds of travelers, young, old, solo, couples, from all over the world, who most- using just some basic precautions, I don’t remember anyone claiming a serious incident.
One of the most efficient things in this country is the train-system, which can pretty much get you anywhere in India, for quite a cheap fare, safely and for the most-part on schedule. You can pick and choose which destinations you want to get your taste of India depending on what you prioritize, but below I have highlighted five destinations that I enjoyed and which gave me different glimpses and angles of this complex country: dynamic mega cities, religious towns, hippy-travel meccas, to beaches and mountains.
Send me an e-mail and let me know if you have been to India what other spot left an impression on you or if you have not been tell me what you would like to hear more about and hopefully I can fill you in.
1. Mumbai: I like big cities because of the buzz, dynamism and creative and social outlets of urban life. Mumbai is a sexy, hybrid city of juxtapositions from extreme inequality and poverty to posh, glitzy bars, bistros and rooftops bars. It has the air and pace of a financial capital, although it is not New York or Tokyo, the crowds on the streets and on the trains: construction workers, secretaries, young professionals, shop-owners, street-vendors, power-brokers- have a cosmopolitan bustle and glance as they stride around the Mumbai hustle. It’s a huge city, but taxi rides (rickshaws are not allowed in Mumbai) are extremely cheap. So, look up your destination, write the address down and go visit cool restaurants, cafes and shops on the seaside promenade, Colaba, Bandra and the other suburbs to see what ‘cool India’ looks like.2. Varanasi: is a bizarre, surreal religious mecca, which is one of the most important towns for Hindus- where they come in the thousands everyday to cremate their relatives on the many khats (temples) in the Ganges. It’s a bizarre place, where you wonder, “crap, when I’m having tacos and draft pints in front of my laptop back home, this happens on our planet everyday?…” I wouldn’t say that I had a life-changing spiritual experience here, but it is pretty unique and somewhat emotional to see brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and cousins carrying the (carefully wrapped) corpses of their deceased relatives for their last rites. Just walking around, hanging out and observing all this is a trip in itself.
Tip: you are not allowed to take pictures officially here of the outdoor cremations on the khats, so just be careful because some touts may get in some arguments or harass you for a ‘fee’ to ‘allow’ you to take photos. Also, some petty-drug dealers sell soft-drugs here for those who want to ‘amplify’ their spiritual experience. Unless you just had a brain lobotomy and besides the fact that you shouldn’t need any other substance to make this experience even more surreal than it already is, obviously you should decline to get involved with this type of crowd.
3. Rishikesh: is the one of today’s most unique international travel nomadic colonies, with the new-age crowd coming in-and-out lounging for days, weeks, or months at a time- it’s a calm, mingly vibe I haven’t seen before in my travels. The town was first put on the hippy-route in 1968 when the Beatles came here to attend an advanced transcendental meditation in an ashram by guru Mahari Mahesh Yogi, which ended up playing a significant role in arousing the world’s interest in Indian spirituality. It is extremely cheap to find a simple room here (from $4-$7USD/night) and many travelers hang out here for extended periods doing yoga, eating vegetarian, reading and mingling with other travelers from truly all over the world. We met people from places like Belarus, Uganda, Argentina, South Korea, Russia, Brazil and Europe. The cool thing about Rishikesh, is it’s not a drink-and-party place, so you just hang out, do your thing and meet other travelers sitting in cafes, peacefully reading, chatting with other backpackers.
I’m not an ultra-hippy, but this place was cool and unique and even if you are slightly judgmental to this type of scene, I believe it’s worth a visit to what low-budget, peaceful, contemporary new-age cosmopolitanism looks like. One of my favorite quotes from here was from a 30-something girl from Belarus, “My country is fairly closed, I don’t meet people from other places, here in Rishikesh, I can have great conversations and meet people from all over the world.”
Tip: I went here in April and it was still slightly chilly. In the winter the international-travel hippy community hangs out in Goa, and then I’d say from April to October it might be a better bet to head to these northern parts.4. Goa & Gokarna: Goa is a somewhat similar vibe to the Rishikesh Indian-loving crowd of yoga-spiritualism-non-materialism folks from all over the world, but instead it’s on the beach and there is more of a party scene here. There are literally dozens of beach towns and hotels and hut-shacks to stay at (we stayed in a great place for $7/night for 2 people) You can do your research and decide what kind of town you think fits your mood or ask other travelers (which you’ll meet on the train from Mumbai) where they are headed and what the consensus is for where is chill, party or quiet this year. You can beach-hop and move up and down the coast with mopeds you can rent for $4USD/day. I stayed in northern Goa, in mid-size Arambol and then in a nearby tiny-town called Morjim. A lot of people head south to Palolem too, which I did not visit. Gokarna: is another beach-area, a few hours south by train, which is on a smaller-scale and maybe a bit more charming.
Tip: many travelers use mopeds here because they are so cheap and easy to move around, as buses to move between towns don’t have a frequent time schedule and rickshaws will be slightly more expensive. If you ride carefully and not too aggressively you should be ok, but you do see the occasional traveller on crutches or cast around their arm from a bike injury, so be careful, because an ambulance and quick-ride to hospital, will be more slow and complicating than what you’re used to back home.
5. Visit an ashram: an ashram is an Indian style monastery. To be honest, I wasn’t necessarily feeling my inner-India karma of reciting mantras and cleansing my charkas, but I was curious to see what this atmosphere was like and I figured we’re in India so let’s do it.
A cool Russian backpacker mentioned she had been a few days to an ashram in Puttaparthi (3hr bus-ride from Bangalore) where Sai Baba, who died a few years back, had created a major-world wide following. Again, accommodation is quite cheap and here we got a great, clean room with hot shower for about $3USD/night for two people. The food was similarly very affordable and actually very good too (Western & Indian options), made by volunteers. You can do anything you want during the daytime here or visit the town outside the ashram walls, but it’s recommended you pop-in for a few prayers, there are discussion seminars occasionally (kind of boring the one I went to) and you can volunteer in the kitchen or somewhere else in the complex. The coolest thing was meeting interesting folks from various places like you would in Goa or Rishikesh, but most people here were even more one-notch higher in some type of quest for relaxation, meditation or disconnect from the modern world. You can make your own call if it’s your scene, but it doesn’t have to get heavy or weird- it’s not like you’re in some type of cult where you will be forced to participate in an exorcism. For me about four day was enough to get the vibe and move on.
There are some other interesting places that I visited, but I chose these five destinations to highlight because I think they give different glimpses of the various tastes and sounds of what India is today. Bangalore was also quite a cool city, with its young-professional and expat crowd and Delhi although a bit hectic and very-large, has its trendy and cool neighborhoods like Hauz Khas Village and Khan Market. Southern India, is typically more relaxed, cleaner and farther away from the heavy-tourism circuit of Delhi-Agra-Rajastan– Ft. Kochi and Kerala particularly were quite pleasant in the south. And then there were some hill-towns, nature and hiking options like Sikkim and Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama is based, which I’ll have to save for another visit.