We left India exactly two weeks ago. As deadlines loom to publish posts about our trip, I am struggling to wrap my head around the experience. I’ve been slow on getting blog posts out from all of our recent trips, including Europe. I’ve been blaming it on writer’s block, or just plain exhaustion. But I do not think that is the full story. Instead, I blame traveling in India.
There was a reason why we procrastinated on traveling in India. It is a place that is hard to travel and even harder to understand. From our very first experience taking a driving tour in Southern Mumbai, and escaping the comfort and safety of the car to see the Gateway to India. To the end of our trip, when we explored Jaipur on our own, and started to feel more comfortable with traveling in India. We felt like we understood India a little more by the end of our trip.
That said, it doesn’t make it any easier to wrap my head around this experience.
Our exposure to the outside world was somewhat limited, by design. Our hotels were mostly airport hotels, and we ate most of our meals in the hotel. We organized a few excursions on our own, and otherwise saw the cities and countryside on our tours with Viator Travel. This limited exposure was mostly due to two primary reasons: our prior conceptions, as well as the reality, of traveling in India.
Prior Conceptions of Traveling In India
Prior to traveling to India, I introduced the concept of #IndiaByMarriott as the theme for our trip. We wanted comfort and reliability. Because, let’s be honest, India is not an easy place to travel. Although I expected to receive a lot more negative comments on that post, from budget travelers who felt like we were not seeing the “real” India, I didn’t. Perhaps there are a good number of people out there who agreed with me, that traveling in India is something that can be accomplished in a comfortable way.
I won’t rehash the views we held about India before our trip, as I covered them in depth in the prior post. I will say though, that we were totally justified in our prior conceptions about traveling in India. Much of our trip was as we expected, although some things certainly were surprising.
The Reality of Traveling in India
Even if I were to receive those types of complaints about not seeing the “real” India, I could counter that we explored India on foot, on auto-rickshaw, and eve rode on an Indian train. Granted, we did a lot of this with local guides, and under supervision. But, still, we rode an Indian train. When we returned to the JW Marriott Mumbai and told one of the marketing managers that we rode the train, she exclaimed “You did what? I don’t even ride the train here.” That made me feel pretty adventurous.
The reality is that traveling in India is just as hard and uncomfortable as I initially thought it would be. As someone who has traveled to 70 countries, and many countries in Asia, I thought I had seen it all. India was a clear reminder that I have not. Even what I’ve seen on TV did not prepare me for the reality.
Driving in Mumbai is pure chaos. Even when a highway has painted lanes, there are way more actual lanes of traffic than the painted lines would suggest. Buses are loaded to the brim, and then some. There’s pollution, both trash and noise, with honking horns unlike anything I’ve seen west of Vietnam. There’s poverty unlike anything I’ve seen, with children sleeping alongside the roads, along with cows, goats, pigs, and even camels. We did not need to leave the car in order to be approached by beggars. This was why I wanted to arrange private and individualized tour experiences in each of the cities we traveled to.
Our first tour in India was a Mumbai street food tour, very early in the trip. We spent an hour exploring the Bandar neighborhood on our own, prior to meeting our guide. We experienced the chaos of dusk on the Arabian Sea. I never before was so welcome to meet a tour guide. He made me not only feel a little more comfortable, but he started immediately to explain the chaos that surrounded us.
The same was true during our morning tour of Mumbai, where we learned about the Dabbawallas and Dhobis, two uniquely Indian enterprises. Not only did our guide explain about the Dabbas and Dhobis, but he escorted us through Crawford market, drove us around Southern Mumbai, and explained the history of the city and the architecture. He also competently guided us through our Indian train experience.
Having someone to drive us in a private air conditioned vehicle from Delhi to the Taj Mahal, over three hours away, and then get us through the intimidating security line to enter the Taj, well, that was worth it’s weight in gold. Of course hearing the history and the legend behind the Taj Mahal was also interesting, but it was the comfort that was provided by our private tour guide that really made the difference to our visit.
Each of these experiences, and even just simply hiring a driver at the hotel to tour us around a city, provided us the opportunity to see India, and even to experience India, in a way that felt comfortable and safe to us.
The Reality of Traveling In India – In Comfort
Sure, there are independent travelers out there who can hitchhike across Africa or train across India, and live to tell the tale. But, I think more travelers are like us. I did not want to rough it in India, but I also know I couldn’t handle a large group tour, where we had no say in how we spent our days. Hence #IndiaByMarriott.
Our safe haven from the chaos of India were the Marriott hotels we stayed in along the way. We stayed at four Marriott properties while touring India. The JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, The JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity, the Courtyard Marriott Agra, and the Jaipur Marriott. Two of the hotels are only about 9 months old. In fact, the hallway at the JW Mumbai had that new hotel smell.
Each of the hotels was contemporary, and kept with the feel of the brands around the world, providing a familiar experience in what was otherwise a very unfamiliar surrounding. The staff were attentive, perhaps overly so.
One thing we certainly noticed in India was that there are people everywhere. Literally everywhere. The same was true at the hotels. Walking into the lobby there were always a half dozen to a dozen staff waiting to greet us or help us. The same at the restaurants. At one point at the restaurant at the JW Delhi, I looked behind me, really just trying to scope out the buffet to think about what I wanted to eat next. Quickly, two servers came my way asking if I needed anything. What a change to the level of service at an European restaurant.
What was also unexpected was just how nice everyone was, down to the greeters in the lobby. The greeters are well dressed, pretty, young girls, in the hotel lobby who welcomed us in the morning, or welcomed us back from an excursion. Every time we walked through a JW Marriott lobby, they greeted us with “Good Morning Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman.” I asked a manager whether they knew our names because we were “VIPs.” They are expected to learn everyone’s name. That’s some luxury service in a property with over 300 rooms.
Many of the people we met told us about the hospitality of the Indian people. They are welcoming and wanting to offer everything they can, and then some. We certainly saw this during our Delhi cooking class in a family’s home. Of course, I recognized that we were on an organized tour, but even so, the family went above and beyond.
But, we also saw this at the hotel properties, and not just from the pretty lobby greeters. This was particularly true in the kitchens. Certainly the chefs were putting their best foot forward on the food front so that we would write nice things about the kitchens and the cuisines. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was the time that each chef spent with us, talking about the food of course, but also talking about themselves, showing off their staff, and wanting to tell us everything they could about India. I kept thinking that these chefs were running huge kitchens feeding loads of people each day, so why are they spending so much time with us?
It is the Indian hospitality. And, not a hospitality that was shown to us as bloggers. In fact, I saw executive chefs standing in front of the buffets, explaining unfamiliar dishes to guests. I saw chefs asking guests what they liked and didn’t like and then recommending dishes for them, and then checking in to see whether they enjoyed the food.
Wrapping My Head About Traveling In India
It’s often said that you either love India, or you hate it. Our main goal with traveling Indian in comfort was to avoid the latter situation. In the end, I am not entirely sure I fell in love with India. But, I certainly didn’t hate India, and to me that makes it a successful trip. It was a successful trip because it left me wanting more.
I think this is really why it’s been hard for me to put into words what our experience was truly like traveling in India. We met so many people and ate so much food, many of it new to us. Even in the protective and comforting shell of Marriott, the trip was still an assault on the senses, made us think about Indian food in a different way, and most certainly made us think of the Indian people in a different way.
So, yes, I blame India for making it difficult for me to put my thoughts into words, but it is not because we had a single bad experience traveling in India. Instead, India made our heads spin. And, in the end, I am so happy we went. I think other people should go as well.
There are many more stories to tell about our time traveling in India, so stay tuned.
For more information about India, see our India Travel Guide, for information on accommodations, what to eat, and tours to book.