Worn daily and for every task, the jewelry and vibrant-colored clothing favored by women in India is traditional to all levels of society. Incredible Indian Tours
By Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge web magazine
Some twelve years ago, a Harris Poll survey revealed that the biggest segment of North American travelers had become what they called Life Enhancers. This group, that travels for enrichment and personal learning experiences, is twice as large as the next groups of travelers — Sun Seekers (the beach crowd) or Play-it-Safers (familiar places crowd). The movement is toward travel that takes your mind as well as your body somewhere: to trips that transform.
If anything has changed in the new millennium, it is that Life Enhancers have gobbled up an even larger share of the travel market, especially with the well-educated, energetic Baby Boomers ever-pushing the curiosity envelope. A big part of life enhancement or transformation takes place as travelers step out of their comfort zone, and that’s where new experiences comes in.
One thing that keeps the Sun Seekers on the beach and the Play-It-Safers safe is that new experiences are not always awesome, predictable, or comfortable. The Life Enhancer seeks out new experience travel because it inevitably has a few surprises not necessarily on the itinerary and it inevitably will involve some element of risk in an unfamiliar setting. With an attitude of adventure and a sense of humor, such moments may become highlights of a trip and an opportunity for learning about the destination as well as about yourself.
Throughout India cows are sacred and they know it! They occupy roads, town streets, and high-speed highways with traffic-stopping confidence. They also receive handouts from locals. Alison Gardner
A desert camel ride in western Rajasthan took us to a three-star tent camp for an overnight stay with plenty of new experiences! Alison Gardner
India has long been a premier destination for western travelers to test their tolerance for new experiences. It is both fascinating and disorienting just how many intense encounters can bombard any visitor within its borders on a daily basis. Upon arrival the assault begins with the press of people and vehicles, overwhelming noise and garbage, sacred cows and undeniable poverty on an unprecedented level for most of us. Left to our own devices, the country can become quite overwhelming and yet it seems pointless to visit such a country only to retreat into predictable five-star accommodation comfort and air-conditioned mini-buses at every opportunity.
In Rajasthan, a cooking class with a very humorous Indian chef allowed us to learn the fundamentals of Indian cuisine and prepare dishes to share. Alison Gardner
On my own 23-day adventure in northwest and north central India, I did recognize that a little hand-holding was going to suit me just fine, but not so much as to become a barrier to experiencing the essence of India. Thanks to a veteran small-group Australian tour operator with a passion for introducing India to clients at a very grassroots level, I was able to join four Australians, two Americans, and two Canadians to explore thoroughly the colorful state of Rajasthan. We then moved eastward to Agra and the fabulous Taj Mahal, on to the spiritual heartland of Varanasi, and finished in India’s capital, New Delhi. This was a “women only” tour, a new experience for me and most of the other seasoned travelers. How would that work?
A henna artist gave each of us an intricate customized design that stained our hands for two weeks before fading away. Alison Gardner
Only two women knew each other beforehand; everyone else was traveling solo, not unusual in a women’s tour, I’m told. There were a lot of independent thinkers and management leaders, six of them grandmothers and five married to men who had other ideas than exploring the essence of India. All being of the same gender, we agreed to rotate roommates for each of the ten cities and towns where we stayed, an excellent way to get to know one another as roomies for two or three nights at a time. Another new experience!
Our leader and cultural contrasts missionary, Debbie Kindness, started Incredible Indian Tours 20 years ago after numerous visits between Australia and India in her twenties. She could not have collected a more diverse menu of daily experiences, accommodations, eateries and transportation options designed to expose us to the Indian way of life with all its contrasts, contradictions and awkward moments. She also knows a good many Indians as friends and doesn’t hesitate to call on some longstanding friendships to act as insightful cultural bridges with her tour groups.
On the road, we often pulled into a trucker’s stop for a traditional chai break consisting of a small cup of scalding boiled tea laced with hot milk. Alison Gardner
With only an occasional a/c mini-van between a few Rajasthani towns, we more commonly piled into bicycle-pedaled rickshaws or auto rickshaws, rickety diesel taxis, camel-drawn carts, or we rode camels and elephants and walked a lot so as to meet people of all ages and professions at the level of their daily lives. In New Delhi with a daunting population of nearly 17 million, Debbie handed out passes to the efficient, sparkling clean subway, showed us the ropes including the women-only subway cars, and encouraged us to find our way back to the hotel after our group walking tour of the narrowest alleyway shops of Old Delhi. We all turned up for evening roll call!
Both turban winding and donning a sari are intricate processes, each requiring deft handling of four meters or 13 feet of fabric, or the outcome will be disastrous. A garment factory owner graciously removed his turban and demonstrated his skill in re-assembling it before our eyes. Alison Gardner
Our tour leader, Debbie, exhibited equal ease with accomplishing this challenging task in a sari shop the size of a walk-in closet. Alison Gardner
Each day was a revelation … from learning to drape a sari or create a tight turban (either one of which is made from four meters or 13 feet of fabric!) to taking a lesson in Indian cooking in a little room above a shop; from executing traditional miniature paintings with a single squirrel tail hair brush to attending an exquisitely-decorated Bollywood movie house where a thousand local people spontaneously interacted with the film and its actors, as well as each other, throughout the showing.
On our three-star camel safari into Rajasthan’s western desert, we slept in simple tents or under the stars, stumbling with flashlights in the night to the amazingly-efficient sand toilet where dung beetles stood ready to do their work. Some of our group pulled their beds out of tents to sleep under the crystal-clear starry sky, but I opted for staying in my tent (having observed that our fearless leader was doing the same). In the morning, I woke to find myself sharing the tent with a stray dog the color of the desert sand itself, curled in a tight ball to look as inconspicuous as possible. Meanwhile, my star-gazing compatriots woke to find their night clothes and bedding wringing wet from a surprisingly heavy night dew in this bone-dry, treeless landscape.
Our camel safari tent accommodation included a square sand toilet tent “out back” and a stray dog in my tent as an overnight visitor. Alison Gardner
Having taken an overnight train east to spend three nights at the holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, we rowed at sunrise in a flotilla of rough wooden boats along the waterfront as thousands of Hindu pilgrims flocked to the river’s edge to bathe, as they have done for 2,000 years. We concluded our day back in the boat with a golden full moon rising in a black velvet sky while two musicians played traditional instruments and our boatmen rowed us all in a meditative mood to the far bank of the Ganges and back.
The holy city of Varanasi and its sacred Ganges waters have been a Hindu pilgrimage destination for 2,000 years. Alison Gardner
How many new experiences did I log in a single journey? They were uncountable. Of course, not all were pleasant or enthusiastically accepted though in retrospect some have become riveting dinner party tales. There were two overnight train experiences, second class air conditioned upper and lower bunks of a very slim, don’t-roll-over design with curtains fronting the corridor — physically uncomfortable, high volume noisy whether fellow passengers were chatting the night away or snoring lustily, and risky enough for our leader to hand out chains and locks to secure our luggage to the leg of each bench seat.
Though it was an experience to remember, I will pass on using the overnight Indian Government Railway system as a means of transport again. That’s the way it is with experiences … you need to do them in order to know whether they are keepers or a future “no thank you”. However, I will return to Incredible India now that I am starting to get the hang of it because plenty of new experiences still await me in this land of endless diversity.
Founded 21 years ago, Incredible Indian Tours, www.incredibleindiatours.com, currently offers ten themed tours throughout India and Nepal for a maximum of 10-12 people. The women only “Essence of India” tour takes place November 2018 and February 2019.
A highly-recommendable 2012 movie, The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel, provides a wonderful window on the chaos and colorful culture of Rajasthan. Fabulous acting of the entire cast, and a touching, funny storyline for good measure about a collection of British retirees lured to settle in Rajasthan by the promise of luxury living for a low-budget price. Incredible Indian Tours has crafted an 11-day tour that follows in the footsteps of this movie, including a stay at the real Marigold Hotel itself! Maximum group size is 12 people.
For other richly-illustrated feature articles about personal travel experiences in India, please visit our web magazine’s Travel Article Library.
Photo: Built as a pleasure palace for one of Rajasthan’s rulers, the structure was restored and opened as a hotel in 1971, the luxury Taj Lake Palace Udaipur. James Bond was a “guest” there while filming Octopussy. However, that experience was beyond our budget during a memorable three-day stay in Udaipur. Incredible Indian Tours
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine. Email: email@example.com.