“Where are you headed next?”, asked the man, “Agra? Jaipur?”.
I was standing in the air-conditioned lobby of a hotel in Delhi as I got chatting with the older Indian man. He turned out to be a tour guide for a bunch of elderly western tourists. I turned out to be a big-headed idiot, but I didn’t know it then.
“No”, I said, feeling a little pleased with myself that we weren’t going to the Taj Mahal or the famous Pink City as did everyone else. “We’re going to Haridwar”.
The man gave me a quick look. “Are you going on a tour?”.
I laughed a little as I shook my head. “Nahh. Just the two of us”, I said, pointing towards Marvin who was waiting a few steps away.
“Well”, said the man and returned my smirk with a gentle smile, “seems like you’re diving head first into real India. Best of luck to you”.
“Are we gonna need it?”, I asked jokingly, if a bit startled – but he was already walking away, leaving me with just one of these indefinite head wiggles for an answer.
If only I’d known how right he was.
When I first travelled to India in 2010, I was an idiot – but at least I didn’t pretend like I had a clue.
I spent about three weeks in the country then, as the first of many stops on my trip around the world with my best mate Lester. We had just graduated from high school and unlike many of our companions, we had little desire to head straight down the adult life road, so one night we got really drunk with a globe on the table next to us and decided to do this.
We were really happy fools, Lester and I, both 19 and privileged enough to be going on this adventure. What should we have worried about? Admittedly, I was never a very careless character, but with the almost ridiculously laid-back Lester by my side, even I was my happy-go-luckiest.
Now, I don’t know how much of my experience with India was based on it being the incidental first chapter of my personal coming-of-age travel tales. I can’t know if I would have fallen the same way for Japan or Argentina or whatever other country outside my Europe-based comfort zone we could have chosen to visit.
All I know is that my blissful teenage ignorance allowed me, or maybe rather forced me, to just surrender to the experience and be swept off by it.
It might sound pathetic, but this trip to India changed everything for me. It was like spending three weeks in the spin cycle of a washing machine – but actually enjoying it like a dizzying roller coaster. The order there had been in my head got shaken, things fell out of place during the ride, many of them coming down not only in different spots, but upside down.
It’s fair to say my first trip to India has left me with an unspeakable fascination for the country. Unspeakable, although I tried to express it a million times to those foolish enough to get me started about it. Unspeakable, because no matter how many fancy words I added to my vocabulary, I could never manage to get across the light that shines from these five magic letters: I N D I A.
Do I even need to say I’ve been wanting to go back ever since?
Anyway, it took seven years for this dream to come true.
And ten days for it to be crushed.
The second time around can be much harder, I realized. I’m sure there was some bad luck to it, too, but I won’t deny I’ve made mistakes along the way that had their share in sending us home on a flight more than two weeks early. As it is with mistakes, I can’t really do anything about them now: Except learn from them and laugh while doing so – and hereby invite you to do the same (or just laugh, that’s fine).
Lesson from mistake #1: Don’t think too big
When I knew that it was finally happening, the next big trip to India, I honestly kind of lost it with the planning.
Is it possible to visit ALL THE PLACES I had always dreamed of going in just under four weeks? Of course not. But hell, I was determined to try.
I wanted to travel everywhere, from Haridwar to Hampi, from Amritsar to Kolkata, from Delhi to Hyderabad, from Varanasi to Mumbai, and I could go on like this for a while.
I wanted it all – and whom has that ever done any good?
When Marvin and I arrived in India, we didn’t really take any time to adjust and let it all sink in. That’s not because we didn’t feel like it – it’s because I had planned for us to visit so many places in such short time. Just in our first week, we arrived in Delhi, explored the city, then travelled to Haridwar, Rishikesh, Mussoorie and back. This might not sound like a crazy itinerary, but looking back, it was. Especially considering that our trip was supposed to go on for another few weeks.
Honestly, I could have known that my plan was overambitious. But I just couldn’t stop myself from desiring to see, experience and explore it all. This is obviously a very stupid thing to do, so don’t be like me, ever. Or be like me, but be prepared to end up overwhelmed, overstrained, overpowered – and over all, have your holiday ruined by it.
Lesson from mistake #2: Don’t think you know shit
This one is not easy to admit because it means looking at yourself from a rather unpleasant angle, but here we go:
Yes, I had been to India before. And yes, I had read every damn book about it that I could get my hands on. And yes I constantly fired questions at everyone I knew who’d been to India. And yes, when there was any class at uni that had anything to do with India, I would be the first to sign up. And yes, I had been slightly obsessed with researching about it for years. Yes to all of those.
But does that mean I know shit? I don’t.
My ignorance wasn’t really the problem though. After all, I did have the time of my life when I came to India for the first time – and that was without having any clue. The problem was my presumptuousness to think that I knew.
Well, surprisingly, everything about India is different from what I know (which is most of why I’m so crazy about it) – so OF COURSE, I didn’t know. And of course, this was going to be a demanding experience. If it were a walk in the park, why wouldn’t I just, you know, take a walk in the park at home? I might know what I’m getting myself into there.
There’s a thousand good reasons why travelling is so great, and about nine hundred of them are that you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. And that’s good. You just have to be humble enough to acknowledge that you don’t know, and honestly, you’ll probably be fine most of the time. I wasn’t humble when I went to visit India for the second time. And guess what? India punched me in the face for it.
Lesson from mistake #3: Respect the place you’re visiting
This kind of falls into line with number 2, but it’s still a specifically important issue if you’re travelling to a country so tantalizingly different from everything you experience in your everyday life.
I say respect, but I don’t mean it in the sense of “don’t act like a jerk” or “take off your shoes before entering the temple” because seriously, just no. I’m gonna take you, beloved reader (and myself too) to be a decent human being who doesn’t need affirmations like that.
What I want to adress here is something different: I mean respect the magnitude of the experience. Respect what it is going to do to you and acknowledge it. It means don’t assume everything is going to work out 100 percent – no matter where you’re going.
India is SUCH a vast country – how could I have assumed to travel around much of it on a rather tight schedule for four weeks without really allowing any room for familiarization, mishaps or missed trains? That’s not what respecting a place looks like.
Lesson from mistake #4: Know who you’re travelling with
This is another major thing I apparently decided to not think about before boarding the plane: Just as I’m not a careless teenager anymore, I’m not accompanied by one either.
Today, I travel with my boyfriend Marvin, who had never been to India before, and who much more significantly also happens to be chronically ill. Now of course, I knew both of these facts – but did I properly consider them before heading to India?
Sure, I wanted to show Marvin as much as possible of why India had put such a spell on me – but did I acknowledge the fact that he might take some more time to process our first impressions because they were his first impressions, too? You won’t be surprised to hear that I didn’t.
To be fair, I don’t think I could have prepared for what came next though. I couldn’t have known that his little cough would turn into a burning fever and raging infection in just one day. Even if I’d known, what could I have done about it? These things happen. Being sick abroad is of course unpleasant for everyone to say the least – but unlike many 20-something-year-olds, taking it light and breezy when it comes to health risks isn’t really in the cards for us.
Of course, when Marvin wouldn’t get better for days, we could have seen a doctor in Delhi without a problem. But here’s when my last and the most uncomfortable insight came along:
Lesson #5: Know where your wanderlust ends
It has been incredibly hard for me to admit this to myself and others, but that doesn’t make it any less true. When faced with the choice of seeing a doctor and then continuing to travel despite Marvins condition OR going home early to see a doctor in Germany and have him recover there, we both rather quickly reached the point of really, really badly wanting to go home.
By doing so, we lost more than two weeks of our holiday that we’d been looking forward to for months. We lost a lot of money. And a lot of experiences. It wasn’t an easy call we made. But it also wasn’t a medical necessity. We weren’t forced to cancel our trip. It was reasonable, no doubt. But it was a choice – and a deliberate one.
I can’t even begin to express the rush of relief I felt when we agreed on going home. Sadness and disappointment, sure. But most of it was pure, honest relief to leave this crazy place behind, no matter how much I’d wanted to go there in the first place.
I know it may sound ridiculous, but as someone who’s so often been the subject of “where’s she going now again?”, as someone who’s been away from home to travel for a year, as someone who writes this blog, as someone who really, really loves to travel, accepting the fact that there’s certain limits to my desire for venturing abroad has been tougher than I care to admit.
I guess I didn’t want to think of myself as less of a traveller, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. My love for travel is something I see as very defining of who I am, and having this enthusiasm challenged made me feel more shaken than my first delhi-belly from a chai booth at the roadside.
Whatever it might have cost my ego though, I’ve come to accept that sometimes, the travel bug isn’t the strongest influence in me – and that’s fine. Sometimes homeward is the way to go, even if the alternative is being by a beach in Goa. There’s no need to prove my wanderlust to anyone – I know that I’ll be back. I’m looking at you here, India!
What is your experience with India? Do you have a country that you have a similar connection to? Have you ever gotten sick abroad? Do you think all my lessons could easily be summed up as “Don’t be an idiot in India”? I agree! Let me know your thoughts in the comments!