When fellow traveler Adam Taylor Smith sent me his new book about his four month trip to India called “Where Camels Dance and Cows Wander, An Indian Odyssey” I was instantly enthralled.
India is one of those destinations that both intrigue me and make me very apprehensive; and I regret to say I have never been there; I hope to one day create a travel itinerary for it!
In my view India goes from the raw experience of human survival, to the extravagant display of art and tradition in Bollywood movies and local festivals.
From the incredible jaw-dropping architecture of temples, to the simple and rustic structure of the ashrams.
Adam and I had been corresponding for a couple of years because I’ve borrowed a few of his amazing pictures before. But this time, he had something new to show me!
In his travelogue book Adam presents some of the many faces of this immense and diverse land, how he experienced it head on with all its intensity and what we are missing if we choose to stay ignorant about it.
Adam’s e-book includes a free How to Plan a Trip to India digital supplement, with all the basics and practicalities of any journey to this amazing land.
In this interview I asked Adam a series of questions about his trip to India, so he can help us appreciate and understand this magnificent country and know what it really is like to travel there.
Here we go!
1. Why does India both intrigue and make us westerners apprehensive?
I think that in the Western imagination, India represents the ultimate in both the exotic and the unknown.
Culturally, there are probably few places on Earth that are more different from the Westernized world than India.
Although the rapid advance of capitalism in the country is slowly changing that, I believe that its safe to say that culturally, much of India still provides significant contrast to much of the Western world.
So, depending on the person’s point of view, that can either be intriguing or make one apprehensive.
2. How did your trip to India come about?
Before arriving in India, I had already been (nearly continuously) backpacking around the world for over 2 years.
While on the road, other travelers often asked me if I’d been to India. They always had strong impressions of the place.
So, it seemed a logical step to visit the country, as I was already sure that a trip there would be full of discoveries. And I was right!
3. How do you decide where to go in India?
Deciding where to go was relatively easy: I just consulted my lonely planet guidebook and talked to other travelers.
Millions of people visit the country every year, so there is a well-trodden tourist path through the country.
Also, I took climate into consideration, as I started in the North during Winter and then followed the warmer weather southward.
4. How can you navigate India? When do you use a guidebook and when do you use a local guide?
Although some people prefer using guides, I myself rarely did. I primarily relied on my guidebook.
To taxi within cities I usually relied on tuk-tuks: auto-rickshaws that are the backbone of inner-city transport in much of the country.
To get around the country I almost exclusively relied on India’s extensive train network. Checking schedules and buying tickets is easy thanks to the website www.cleartrip.com.
Sometimes I would be waitlisted for a place if the train was full, but almost inevitably I would make it on the train. Canceling tickets through that site is also very simple.
On the rare occasion when I desired to get a ticket at the last minute, I’d try to take advantage of the specially reserved tourist tickets that are sold at some of the major train stations.
Train travel in India is a great value for a Westerner, and the beds in the more luxurious (but still very affordable) coaches are perfectly fine for overnight journeys.
I go into much more detail on this topic in the free planning supplement to the e-book.
5. What will we find in India? What will surprise the regular westerner traveler about India?
Any person can find anything in India, and that is part of what makes the country so special.
Whether you’re looking for a chilly Himalaya mountain retreat, a spiritual escape, a beautiful beach, or an immersive cultural experience, it all can be had here.
There is so much diversity in the country that it would be unfair to generalize about what a typical traveler can expect to find.
However, there are two things that the western traveler will likely observe in most places that they go: it will probably be more crowded than what they are used to, and spirituality will be interwoven into the daily lives of nearly all of the locals that they come across.
Surprises happen every single day for a Western visitor.
A friend once told me that if you sit in a crowded intersection in India for thirty minutes and intently observe everything that is going around you, you’ll see more in those thirty minutes than you have in your entire life.
That sense of constant surprise is what makes visiting India both exhilarating and, at times, overwhelming for the Western traveler.
6. How can a normal person make sense of the strong contrasts in Indian culture? How to put together the temples and Bollywood? How to put together extreme wealth and extreme poverty?
Well, in the few Bollywood films that I’ve seen there is often an undercurrent of (or at least a nod to) spirituality, so that doesn’t necessarily contrast with the temple-filled landscape of India.
But if one is inclined to see material wealth as opposed to spiritual wealth, I would argue that, in a country where so much poverty exists, it makes sense that the escapism provided by its film industry would often portray idealized worlds of material comfort.
I’m not an expert on Indian history, but I do believe that both the country’s colonial history and its very recent status as an independent nation state play a large part in the disparity between the rich and the poor.
In addition, the legacy of the Hindu caste system has to be taken into consideration, as it institutionalized social and economic inequality for centuries, and this cannot be overcome overnight.
But on the whole, I think that the huge contrasts in Indian society can be attributed to the wide differences in history, language, geography, and culture that have naturally evolved in a place that now has over a billion people.
7. How will a trip to India change the westerner traveler?
Well, the first requirement is to come to the country with a brave spirit and an open mind.
Without these qualities, I think traveling anywhere won’t necessarily influence self-change, and this is especially true for the foreign visitor to India.
At the same time, I believe that people ultimately find what they are looking for. Many foreigners come to India in the hopes of growing spiritually, and they can certainly achieve that here.
On the other hand, some just want to party or relax at a resort in Goa, in which case they will be changed little.
But for anyone who stretches themselves more, who keeps an open mind, they will have plenty of opportunity in India to experience whatever personal transformation that they seek.
8. You had some experience with Vipassana meditation at a meditation center. What was that like? And are you still meditating?
That was one of the more unique experiences that I had in India. For ten days, I and a hundred other participants didn’t speak a single word to each other, and silently meditated for over ten hours a day.
I felt as if I was sampling the life of a monk (although monks typically do speak!) It was a really incredible feeling to quiet down all of the background chatter in my mind, and learn to focus all of my attention inward.
It was also very, very challenging and required a lot of discipline.
Ten-day Vipassana courses are offered all over the world. I would like to attend another one when the circumstances are right. For several months after the course I was meditating for over an hour every day.
I still meditate from time to time, but could definitely do it more often.
9. Do you think a trip to India could bring more inner peace and tolerance in the world? How?
I think that with the right mindset, traveling anywhere can give the traveler more inner peace and make them more tolerant.
When we see that the narrow circumstances in which we have lived our lives are just that, narrow circumstances, than our former ignorance and extremist viewpoints can start to erode.
Because India is such a different world for many Westerners, than perhaps yes, a visit to India especially has the potential to promote inner peace and tolerance.
However, it all comes back to the visitor’s mindset: if they are passing judgment upon everything foreign that they come into contact with, positive change will not result.
10. What are a few of the most memorable experiences you had in India? Would you go back?
Many of my most memorable experiences came from attending local festivals. Indian culture is so unbelievably rich, and countless festivities are held all across the country, all year long.
Depending upon the festival’s popularity with foreign tourists, the Western visitor may find themselves one of just a handful of outsiders present. This in itself is definitely a unique experience!
I would love to go back to India. There are so many things that I didn’t get to see or experience on my first trip, I feel like I could spend another four months in the country and not even do half of what I have in mind.
In particular, I would love to spend some time up near the Himalayas, as I have heard that those areas are absolutely spectacular.
Let’s end it there for today, but stay tuned for part 2 of this incredible interview, there is so much more to come such as safety recommendations and the top places to visit! A not-to-miss continuation!
In the meantime, let me leave you with this thought:
I think in the end my apprehension has to do with the things I would have to face about myself if I went to India; my own prejudice and my own concept of what’s “normal” and “acceptable”.
But isn’t travel about challenging one’s beliefs and seeing the world through a different lens? Isn’t it about stretching one’s own limits and experiencing unexpected things?
If this interview has sparked your interest, you can preview the first part of the book or purchase it as hardcover, paperback or e-book (which includes the free supplement) at his website.
I am not affiliated with Adam’s book, I just think it’s a gorgeous, heart-opening read.
Were any of your fears about India dispelled here? What other questions do you have about India?
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