Alice Sullivan is a teacher and writer based in Prague. She writes about mental health, intersectional feminism, and travel.
When I decided to go to India, it was a spontaneous decision. There was this expectation that I was going to have an amazing cultural experience. I did, but it wasn’t exactly the Eat, Pray, Love moment where you find yourself and are enlightened or whatever. I slept through the sunrise yoga experience in Jaipur because I was hungover. I’m not that type of girl.
However, India does provide a massive culture shock when you arrive. It was honestly a bit scary and very chaotic, even on the taxi ride to my hotel. The first time I tried to walk through the crowded streets, I watched about four men try to push a cow out of the way of a tuk-tuk as they had caused a huge line of traffic.
It was exhausting and draining, especially with the sunrise hikes and long hot days. I embarked on a group tour with a planned itinerary to make it less overwhelming to try to see as much as possible.
Honestly, I don’t think I would do a group tour again, because it was too fast-paced and I didn’t like being surrounded by other people constantly. I was scared by the stories from blog posts telling you not to travel to India alone as a woman. There were times where I was glad to be in a group, but I don’t think it is necessarily needed everywhere.
Where to Go?
India is a huge country. The two-week trip took me from Dehli to Goa, changing location every 2–3 days. In hindsight, this was way too fast-paced, and I would return to India without a rigid schedule to experience more.
In two weeks, I…
- Saw the Taj Mahal (bucket list item)
- Got henna in a village in the middle of nowhere
- Explored Amber Fort (there was a part on an upper floor that was literally a maze)
- Climbed sand dunes in Tordi Sagar
- Experienced the kite flying festival with a local family
- Hiked up to a temple at sunrise in Pushkar
- Rode a camel through the desert
- Visited local businesses for gemstones, fabric printing, and pottery
- Got a scarily accurate palm reading
- Took a cooking class in Udaipur
- Visited the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
- Rode a cable car up to a viewpoint over the lakes of Udaipur
- Enjoyed the beaches and partied in Goa
The highlight of my time in India was getting to experience the less touristy things. Of course, seeing the Taj Mahal is amazing, but it wasn’t the best part of the trip by far. I loved going to the smaller villages, and I got a traditional henna tattoo from a local business there. The cooking class I attended was in the house of a lady in Udaipur, and we ate all of the food she taught us how to make together with her family for lunch. We saw a slightly terrifying fire show, but our guide explained to us that this skill is passed through the family and it is a great honour for them. I was still stressed out by the flaming pots on the ladies’ heads while they were dancing though.
My favourite of all of these experiences was the kite flying festival. Of course, I would love to visit India for Holi when I go back in the future, but the kite flying festival experience was much more intimate and I loved it. I actually have a tattoo of a kite, because of this trip. We went to our tour guide's house to do this with his family, which was just an incredibly special part of my adventure. We flew kites with his nephews on the rooftop of his house, while his Mum shared her pakora recipe with us and we drank chai tea. The sunset was beautiful and you could see thousands of kites in the sky from around the city all evening, followed by lanterns when it got dark. I am not a fan of the environmental implications of that, but the amount of plastic trash I saw in India was generally a huge eye-opener for taking care of our environment anyway.
Read More from WanderWisdom
In Dehli, I didn’t do anything except eat dinner, but it was my first meal in the country and excited me for the next two weeks of constant curries. I had one of the best curries of my life at a rooftop restaurant there on the day we visited the Taj Mahal in Agra. As the trip went on, I was running out of dishes that I hadn’t tried yet and I wasn’t even sick of having two curries a day. Some people on my trip were literally sick, but I had the added benefit of not eating meat and I managed to avoid “Dehli Belly”.
Luckily, India is a country with plenty of vegetarian options due to its large population of vegetarians. I am vegan now but was vegetarian at the time. Dairy is unfortunately used a lot in the curry dishes, but I am sure it is possible to ask for it to be omitted from certain dishes. Masala dosas are naturally vegan and one of my favourite Indian foods. I don’t think it would be too difficult to return as a vegan. My tour guide was vegetarian himself and would often give recommendations for the best dishes to try in the restaurants for a traditional experience. We visited a holy city called Pushkar where there was no alcohol, but also no meat dishes at any of the restaurants. I really enjoyed it!
For every positive, there was a challenge. This was one of the most intense trips of my life for many reasons. At Amber Fort, I cried when I saw elephants being used for tourists to ride up a hill (and loudly complained in front of middle-aged American tourists using the service to make them feel guilty about their animal abuse). I did actually cry several times witnessing animal abuse or dead animals, but I would like to clarify that animal abuse exists all around the world and I would have the same reaction anywhere. Anyone that tries to tell you that farming practices are much worse in certain parts of Asia is wrong because the horrors of industrial animal agriculture are just much better hidden in the western world. I cry at trucks full of pigs in the UK the same as I do the cages strapped to the back of motorcycles in Vietnam.
The majority of the included activities in my tour felt manufactured to make more money. For example, taking us to a gemstone cutting place connected to a jewelry shop or a fabric printing demonstration that led to a place selling handmade silk pyjamas. I still enjoyed myself, but I prefer to spend my money on experiences than souvenirs. Although, I would potentially go back and buy a ring for my birthstone if I had the money. All I brought home from India was spices to recreate the things I learned in the cooking class and some cute magnets I bought from a child.
I was conflicted about taking a camel ride in the desert, because of my views on animal rights. If I could go back and change my decision, I wouldn’t have decided to participate. I was assured by my guide that the company chose a place that cares for their camels properly and I honestly felt peer-pressured into doing it by the rest of the tour. This is another reason why travelling alone is preferable. I will admit that I didn’t see any evidence of abuse or ill-treatment during the experience, but the fact that camels are being exploited for tourist money is enough reason to not want to do it.
We didn’t go out drinking very often, but when we did I enjoyed the vibes of Indian nightlife. One evening in Jaipur, we went to a fancy bar where the prices of drinks changed according to their popularity, with prices going up and down on screens similar to the stock exchange. For my budget, this was wonderful as I could go for the cheapest option and try a different cocktail every time for very little money.
We only went to a proper club with dancing once during the trip. This was in Goa on our last few days. We started in a restaurant, where the happy hour drink prices are wildly inexpensive and you were able to get 2 cocktails for just £1. Then, we went to a giant club that let us in for free (we later found out it was because we are white women and that the men only got in because they were with us). The bar had a Ladies Night deal where women could drink for free at a certain bar all night. This was friendly for my budget, but the reasoning behind ladies’ night is just to get women drunk and to make it easier for men to get laid. It’s gross and unfortunate, but we found a solution. Women were allowed to dance on the bar, men were not. So, we stayed up there for the majority of the night to avoid men touching us.
India is 100% worth visiting if you get the chance. I didn’t even get to explore the South, which I have been told multiple times is the best part. I want to visit Kochi, Kerala, Chennai, Hampi, and many more beautiful places. An Indian lady I met while I was travelling recommended some places in the northern regions too, including Meghalaya and Spiti Valley.
Don’t let the inevitable culture shock scare you from having an amazing experience in India. It is a life-changing one. I'm definitely going back one day.