Lessons learned from traveling solo in India

by Kim on February 27, 2013 · 51 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.

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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Carmel February 27, 2013 at 8:31 am

Beautifully written, Brian. At this point, Shawn and I don’t have any plans to travel separately, but I do wonder if it might be good for us to explore on our own a bit. I’m glad the Rickshawn Run gave you an opportunity to try it out. I like seeing India through your and Kim’s eyes.

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Thanks, Carmel. I would recommend that everyone try travelling solo at some point. It is a completely different experience.

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Pauline February 27, 2013 at 8:41 am

This post made me want to go to India that much more! I’m sure by the time both of you has finished writing all your India post, I’ll be convinced enough to book a ticket and finally take the plunge to visit India!

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Come to India – you won’t regret it!

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M&T February 27, 2013 at 8:45 am

We had similar experiences in the north, and were really offput by them. One guy was even front-touching-back against Mike at an ATM, peering over his shoulder. The south (Kerala) was so much better. Did you make it down there? We found the people genuinely friendly and helpful. It felt (and looked) like another country.

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:36 pm

I did eventually make it down to Goa, and I agree, it feels completely different in the south. It does feel almost like 2 different countries.

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Jayne Cravens February 27, 2013 at 8:57 am

What a *fantastic* blog! And I’m saying this as a person who is usually left frustrated, bored or even angry from such lists. If I had to explain India to someone, I’d just send them to this blog. “The people are alive in a way that is too hard to explain.” WORD.

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Thanks, Jayne.

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Keirnsy February 27, 2013 at 10:07 am

Brian, You are either equally as talented a writer as Kim or have an amazing editor. Glad to hear about your adventures. India has always been on my (very) short list of countries I’d like to visit, and you guys are making it difficult to keep my mind from wandering away from my cube. Cheers!

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:39 pm

India wasn’t on my list of places to go, but it has turned into a place I will tell everyone to go.

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Patti February 27, 2013 at 10:58 am

Lessons well-shared and well-learned! I don’t do well in crowds and/or having someone breathing down my neck while standing in line. Not sure I could adjust, but it sounds as if you took your lessons to heart. Well done!

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:41 pm

Thanks, Patti. The best way I can put it is that India is a lesson in finding your happy place while surrounded by discomfort/awkward situations.

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Ali February 27, 2013 at 12:24 pm

India scares the sh*t out of me. I’m not sure I could handle it. I do believe everyone when they say how great the country is, but all I can think about is all the crazy, insane, frustrating stories everyone tells about their time there. Maybe I’ll be up to the challenge at some point in my life, but not yet. I’ll live vicariously through you two for now!

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Ali: it is totally worth a visit. It was good to hear so many peoples stories about their crazy experiences, but I almost wish I hadn’t heard anything so that I would be completely surprised. I found myself, after hearing the stories, always expecting the worst, but everything always ended up ok.

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Tyrhone February 27, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Wow, sounds hard, but awesome, makes me wish I had of come with to India when Sarah did the rickshaw thingy.
I was there years ago and it was full of difficult but beautiful experiences.

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:45 pm

It would have been great if you had been here! “Difficult but beautiful experiences” sums it up nicely.

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Rhonda February 27, 2013 at 3:45 pm

What a delightful blog to read. You did an excellent job of explaining the contradictions and chaos of this amazing land. I was rolling with laughter, remembering as most of the same types of events happened to us. Now, I would like to say WE TOLD YOU SO!!!!We told you India was unique. We told you India would change you.We told you India would make you feel alive. I am SO glad that you learned to embrace it, in spite of the challenges!(BTW..hope Palolem is still treating you well!)

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:48 pm

Rhonda: there were many times when I have told myself, “this is what Jim and Rhonda said!”

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bosky bhardwaj February 27, 2013 at 5:00 pm

hi brian…i am Indian and acknowledge and appreciate your views about my country. You being a foreigner it was understandable that you were finding it ‘hard’ to travel in India…let me tell you we ourselves sometimes find it so very difficult to live/travel …but like you said ‘its worth it’.

hope rest of your stay in india is as wonderful n exciting and u take with u lasting memories…best of luck

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Thanks, Bosky. I know I am making memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life!

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TammyOnTheMove February 27, 2013 at 9:44 pm

What a funny post. I can’t wait to explore India next week, but I will bear your lessons in mind. ;-)

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Thanks, Tammy. Enjoy your travels in India!

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Hannah February 27, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Ah, personal space. After five months in India, I’ve almost forgotten what that feels like!

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:51 pm

No kidding! Hopefully Thailand will give you a little more breathing space!

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Sarah Somewhere February 28, 2013 at 7:35 am

Go Brian!! Great post. You did it mate! I always knew you would thrive on the challenge. The first time we went to India, I had my “I hate India” moment, or day, in Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. Yet, it was one of the best trips of my life, and yes, as corny as it sounds, life-changing. Enjoy the rest of your stay, you Mr Desert, you :)

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Thanks, Sarah. I seriously considered heading back up to Jaisalmer to compete in the Mr. Desert competition!

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Ashlie February 28, 2013 at 7:37 am

As hard as it might be, I think I could adjust to the absence of personal space. #4 might be my biggest challenge. I can feel myself getting pissed off just reading about it. I highly value people shooting me straight. But because it was you and not me – I was literally laughing out loud (Oh, India!). Thanks for sharing!

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Yeah, people not giving you a strait answer is very frustrating, but I try and have patience and roll with it as best I can. Its a constant lesson in patience.

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Steve C February 28, 2013 at 10:47 am

Brian, Great Job! I like your idea of listing lessons to be learned. India is certainly one of the taller mountains to climb with regard to number and type of lessons to be learned, speaking from experience. But in the end, we love it! India is like no other.

Then, if you make it to China traveling independently, that is, not within a group, you will experience yet another “mountain” of lessons. Or Russia, another mountain.

My simple point is this. When you are a traveler going from country to country, every day is a new day of new lessons. Each culture has their own view of how life should be. I’m enjoying how the two of you are putting it into words. Trek on!

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Thanks, Steve. India has been challenging enough – I will have to wait a while before heading to China or Russia! One mountain at a time…

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Lindsay February 28, 2013 at 11:41 am

Great post Brian! Sounds like you had quite the adventure in parallel with Kim’s!

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Thanks, Lindsay! It wasn’t driving a rickshaw, but it was an adventure all the same!

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Maddie February 28, 2013 at 7:44 pm

These are all reasons that I think I’d have a full on meltdown in India! I hear all of these wonderful life changing stories from people but I just don’t think I could hack it. Great post, made me giggle :-)

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 10:01 pm

I think everyone who travels to India has a meltdown at some time, but that’s also why it is so great – it pushes you to your limits!

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Sofie March 1, 2013 at 6:11 am

Love this post.
Love how you sum up everything so clearly.
Did you manage to keep your cool with everything?
My problem is that my face is like an open book. If there’s something I dislike I have to reeeaaaaaaaaallly try not to show it, and even then…

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Brian March 1, 2013 at 10:05 pm

I did manage to keep my cool with everything. It was hard sometimes, but its amazing what taking a deep breath every now and then can do for you.

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Stephen S. March 3, 2013 at 9:57 am

I backpacking into India after TBEX Dubin. Haha Your lessons have given me something to look forward to/be prepared for. Looking forward to lesson 9 the most :) Cheers

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Brian March 5, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Thanks, Stephen. Have fun in Dublin!

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Jackson March 3, 2013 at 10:06 am

This is a fascinating and utterly compelling post, stimulating on multiple levels. I am married to an Indian woman and reconciling our cultural disparities has been the subtext of our entire relationship, but certainly a labor of love. What is ironic is how my wife consistently and eloquently refutes my questions/complaints/observations regarding Indian customs and mores. I can hear my wife refuting the claim of Indians not understanding personal space: “You Americans are so distant from everyone, so cold and removed. How are we somehow at loss for understanding because we inhabit space together, which, after all, is what we must do?” Or something like that. Or “In tourist towns the locals always have something to sell because most Westerners visit such towns especially to peruse.” Or something like that. I don’t know. Just another way of seeing things. I loved this post nonetheless, but it inadvertently places the burden of how the experiences unfolded upon something that Indians lacked or didn’t quite understand. Maybe we (Americans) need to make the adjustment. We are the visitors, guests, no?

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Brian March 5, 2013 at 8:04 pm

I totally agree that the visitors are the ones who need to adjust – we are visiting their home and we shouldn’t expect them to cater towards us.

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Paul Farrugia March 3, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Wow Brian, this is one of the best posts I have read on India.

I have not been (yet) so these lessons will be written down. I love the bit about the rickshaw.

Take care,
Paul

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Brian March 5, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Thanks, Paul. Make sure to leave room on your list to write down your own lessons!

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ChinaMatt March 4, 2013 at 12:21 am

Sounds like India would try my patience. I’ll have to prepare myself a bit more before I decide to take that trip…wouldn’t want my Jersey attitude coming out while on a trip.

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Brian March 5, 2013 at 8:13 pm

I don’t know if you can ever be ‘prepared’ for India – you have to jump in with both feet and that is the beauty (and sometimes frustrating part) of it.

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Cherina March 5, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Lovely post, Brian. I haven’t been to India can totally relate to the ‘joys’ of giving up your personal space from my travels through Bangladesh. So many wonderful experiences though in this part of the world!

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Heather March 6, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Oh ha ha! I mean, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! You nailed it Brian. My partner and I who traveled together in India 30 years ago felt like we were there again. The sensations and feelings are as fresh today as then. India changes you, alright … and it was so wonderful to have someone put it into words so vividly and with such great humor. Which, I might add, is the ONE thing you must not forget to pack when traveling anywhere, but especially India: your sense of humor. Thanks for yours.

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Colleen March 8, 2013 at 9:04 pm

This was so great to read. I’m still scared to go solo to India though. I’ve been to China and China was hard (although also easy in a way)… wonder how they compare.

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Montecristo Travels (Sonja) April 9, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Because we travel with our dog, I am not sure we will ever make it to India. But thank you for this post. I have often heard this love hate from people that have been. It’s interesting. I think it is what gives it the mystic it has to those that have yet to set foot … or paw … on her soil.

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Ahmed July 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm

very very good explanation of the real India. The most funny is Indians can not say no to you, and the personal space. Brian i have a humble request kindly you visit Pakistan some time i know you will enjoy too much your time here.
Ahmed recently posted..Oberoi Udaivilas Luxury Villa Hotel Udaipur India

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Kim July 10, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Oh, we would love to visit Pakistan. I know we would love it. It sounds amazing, from everything I’ve heard.

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