Lessons learned from traveling solo in India

by Kim on February 27, 2013 · 52 comments

Kim’s note: Another post from Brian about his time traveling solo through India while I participated in the Rickshaw Run. Read his first post about his Jaisalmer Camel Safari here

Immediately after leaving Jaisalmer my struggles traveling solo in India began.

I took the train from Jaisalmr to Jodphur.  I purchased my seat well in advance to make sure I’d be assigned a seat number.  I learned Lesson #1 shortly after boarding the train: Seat numbers don’t mean a thing on Indian trains.  It’s basically every man for himself.

Eventually I settled into a seat by the window where I could watch the landscape slide by and watch the sun set over the desert.  Not long after the sun went down, we pulled into a train station where many more people entered the train. Here is where I learned Lesson #2: If someone thinks 7 people can fit onto a bench designed for 3 people, they will try like hell to get 7 people onto said bench. While I didn’t have 7 people on my bench, I did have 5.

So away the train went, 5 people on a bench for 3, and the man next to me is convinced my leg is his personal armrest. I already knew he didn’t speak English because when he sat down, I said hello and was given a head waggle in return, so I couldn’t simply ask him to remove his arm from my leg.  Maybe if I shake my leg a little? (Shakeshakeshake). Nope. Well, maybe I can just move my leg over a little? (Leg moving). Nope. Now he’s just moved closer to me and I have less room than I had before.

Right about now is where I learn Lesson #3: Personal space is a foreign concept in India. In the United States we have a large bubble we like to keep around us as our personal space, an arms length is usually a good rule of thumb. But in India there is literally no personal space. If you are in line somewhere and someone is standing behind you close enough to touch you, it does you no good to move up an inch or two. As soon as you do, the person behind you will move up an inch or two and bump up against you again.

Eventually I arrive in Jodphur and get my leg back to myself. I find a rickshaw and head to the hostel I booked in advance.  When I arrive at the hostel (around midnight) they tell me they have no rooms available. Lesson #4: People in India don’t know how to say no, even in email. They will tell you what you want to hear, even if they can’t, or have no intention of, following through with it

Traveling solo in India. Jodhpur manCome into my shop. I give you very good price.

After about 10 minutes of arguing, I get a room at the hostel “annex” which is down the street, through an alley, down another alley, up some stairs, and around the back of another building. Once I see the room I can’t complain: It has two beds, a western toilet, and hot water.

I wake up the next morning and have breakfast with a few people from Germany whom I’d met the night before. We have a lovely day exploring the city. We go to the markets, taste sweets and spices, shop at an art gallery, and even go to a high-end textile shop. (Did you know that Richard Gere buys textiles in India?  Well, he does, and I have seen the {many} pictures proving it).  All in all, it’s a very nice day, and I see one of the benefits of traveling solo in India: You meet new people and have experiences you otherwise wouldn’t have.

Traveling solo in India. Jaipur weaverA man weaves a rug in Jaipur

The next couple of days, I wander the streets of Jodphur alone. As I walk, everyone wants to talk to me. At first, I think to myself, ‘Wow, these really are the friendliest people in the world’.  However, after the fifth person invited me into their shop for tea, then promptly started pulling out their goods to sell me, I became a little skeptical. Lesson #5: In tourist towns, many people have something they want to sell you, and they will sell you anything they have. To be fair, most of the people were incredibly nice people. Sure, they were trying to make a buck, but you can’t blame them for that.

Traveling solo in India. Jodhpur, the Blue CityJodhpur is also known as “the blue city”

As I continue to explore the streets of the blue city, I discover Lesson #6: A big red beard in India stands out like an elephant in an ant farm. Between the shouts of “Mr. Desert!” and “Ali Baba!” people ask me how long I have been growing it (5 months since the last shave), and if I color it (nope), if I am Muslim (also nope), then which religion am I, (I got tired of trying to explain it, so I said ‘naturalist’ and pointed to the tattoo of a tree on my arm.) This provided Lesson #7: Everyone is religious in India and they expect you to be religious as well.  There is no concept of ‘not religious’ here. After they closely examined my beard and tattoo and touched them both (remember Lesson #3 about personal space?), they determined that what I said was true and, with a waggle of their heads, went on their way.

After an 8-hour train delay I headed to Jaipur, determined to put all of my lessons to use. My first day in the new city I spent inside, watching movies and cricket, because I needed a break from being a traveller. On the second day I set out to explore the pink city. Try as I might, I still got duped by a salesman who “just wanted to talk to me” (Lesson #5), but managed to escape with just a 10-minute conversation. After that, it was a rickshaw ride out to the Monkey Temple, then back to the hostel for dinner and to call it a night. I was thinking this might be my smoothest day in India so far. Oh, if it were only that easy.

Traveling solo in India. Monkey temple JaipurBrian at the Monkey Temple

On the ride back, I thought my rickshaw driver was lost, as we seemed to be going a very roundabout way back to the hostel. At one point, he pulled over to the side of the road and asked if I could wait a few minutes. Figuring he was going to get directions, I agreed to wait. After about 20 minutes, he finally came back out, handed me a piece of paper, and told me “your rickshaw.” I can only imagine the look of confusion on my face, because he simply started laughing.  He said “your rickshaw” again and I said “yes, my rickshaw to my hostel,” to which he replied “no, your rickshaw.” In my confusion, I look down at the piece of paper he has handed me, and I realize it’s a bill of sale. He was trying to sell me his rickshaw! (Lesson #5 again: Selling you anything). I tell him no, I only want him to take me to my hostel.

I finally get back to the hostel after the driver tried to increase the price of the ride by only 200 rupees more than what we had agreed to. It is at this point that I really need a drink.

By the time I left Jaipur on my way to Goa, I was actually looking forward to my 24-hour layover in the Mumbai airport. Did I mention that the Mumbai airport is known as the ‘airport from hell’?  But I was so frustrated with India that 24-hours in airport hell sounded pretty relaxing. 

As bad as this might sound, India has been one of, if not the best, countries I have visited so far. The people are alive in a way that is too hard to explain. There is life in this country. There is a pulse here that I haven’t felt anywhere else. And for those reasons, I love it here.

Traveling solo in Jodhpur IndiaJodhpur, India

Lesson #8, and the biggest lesson of all: Travelling in India is hard. It may sound obvious and many people will tell you this, but you can’t know this until you are here. India tries you in ways you can’t expect or anticipate.  But just like many other things that are hard, it is also worthwhile. I don’t regret a minute of it.  I feel like I have grown in ways that are not possible anywhere else, which brings me to…

Lesson #9: India will change you. I heard people tell me this, and I guess I just poo-poo’d it, thinking it would be like any other country. But it’s not like anywhere else. It’s India, and it will change you. If you keep an open heart and an open mind, it will change you for the better.