In India, travelling with insiders can make all the difference. From finding a porter at a busy train station to helping you to dress like a local and sharing a home cooked meal at a family home; travelling with a local is a unique experience.
For me it started before my plane had even touched Indian soil. In fact it started before I boarded my packed plane to Amritsar. As I waited in the busy airport in Kuala Lumpur it became apparent that I was going to be the only non-Indian on the flight. As I waited to have my boarding pass checked I realised that I was surrounded by great big Indian families – grandparents cradling smiling babies, sleepy eyed children in the arms of parents, teenagers in their holiday best, excited young couples and Sikh men in their traditional turbans. What was amazing to me was the sheer number of family members and generations that were travelling together. This was a glimpse into the beauty of India, where family and community are everything.
As I waited people began chatting to me. They wanted to know if it was my first time in India and why I was travelling to Amritsar. On the plane I was offered advice and introduced to extended family members. Grandkids acted as translators so that I could talk to their grandparents. When we landed, I was shown which way to go and asked if I needed any help. Luckily for me I was being picked up by insider guide Ashish, who was waiting patiently for me in the arrivals lounge.
As an outsider you can only get a glimpse of all that India is. With a local guide the road is smoothed, making day to day travel easier. The added bonus is that you will often find that insider guides are able to open hidden doors that offer a tantalising glimpse into life in India. Even as a seasoned traveller to India, I appreciated the wonder and ease of travelling with insiders, who soon become good friends.
There are countless times when travelling with a local made my life easier – from helping me with pre-departure visa requirements to ordering food to suit my dietary requirements or negotiating costs with drivers and porters at busy train stations. But what I really love about travelling with insiders are those experiences that you just wouldn’t have if you were traveling independently.
One of the many highlights of my latest trip to India was attending the wedding of a friend’s brother. I was welcomed by the family as if I was an old friend. Language and cultural barriers melted away and I was embraced by the warmth of an Indian family for the three-day celebration. English speaking locals were on hand to explain the intricacies of the ceremony, a table and chairs and bottled water was provided for the Kangri Dam, or wedding feast; and invitations to dance and try on traditional dress were welcomed. If you find yourself travelling with locals during wedding season (which can vary depending what part of India you are in), you might just find yourself being invited to participate in a big fat Indian wedding.
Whilst in Himachal Pradesh I was lucky enough to experience some other local experiences. In India, like in many other places, I feel that it always easier to travel wearing traditional clothes. Not only is it culturally appropriate, especially in a country like India where it is not acceptable to show a lot of ski; it is also practical, comfortable and helps you to blend in. So on my first day in Amritsar I asked insider guide Ashish if he could help me find some material for a traditional salwar kameez, also known as a ‘suit’. The salwar kameez consists of a long tunic like top with splits up the sides, a pair of paints, either loose and billowing or tighter like leggings, and a shawl, known as a dupatta. Ashish took me straight to the cloth market near the Golden Temple and I was presented with a dizzying array of options. The hardest part was choosing a colour or pattern from the many wonderful options! I settled on two and when we headed up to Himachal Pradesh the next day the boys set about finding me a tailor. I ended up visiting two, one in the main bazaar and another at a local woman’s home. The experience of being measured and then the joy of picking up the outfit a few days later was very special and I enjoyed wearing both of my outfits for the rest of my trip.
After the excitement of the wedding and the serenity of the village setting in Himachal Pradesh, we headed back down to the plains of the Punjab for an 18-hour train trip to the desert state of Rajasthan. Train travel in India is a must do – it is a unique opportunity to meet locals and sit back and watch the world go by from the comfort of a train. There are all kinds of trains and classes in India – we opted for second class sleeper, but many trains have first class or even luxury options. Even waiting for the train and boarding is an experience, made all the easier when Ashish organised a porter who carried our bags and guided us to our carriage.
Once we were on the train it was time to sit back and enjoy the changing scenery. As usual we made plenty of new friends who were happy to share their home cooked food with us as well as good conversations. It is also easy to order drinks, snacks and meals as train employees frequently travel through the carriages taking orders.
In Rajasthan there were yet more insider experiences. Early one morning we woke up early in the blue city of Jodhpur, famed for the iconic Mehrangarh Fort which overlooks the city from its rocky outcrop. As we wandered through the twisting lane ways Ashish organised for a local to guide us up to the best viewpoint. As we climbed higher the area began to unfurl with the dawn and we were offered a peak into people’s homes and morning routines. At the top of the hill we witnessed a beautiful pink sunset against the blue homes of the city that fanned out below us. There was also a temple at the top which I was able to visit before we headed back down to out hotel. On the way our new local friend took us in another direction, asking if we wanted to visit his home. Of course, what a wonderful opportunity. As we entered, we realised that not only did he live in one of the traditional blue home of the city, but that his home backed right onto the fort walls.
On my last night in India, in the pink city of Jaipur, I wanted to visit a Hindu temple. I joined some locals in praying at an altar, and as I did so the temple priest beckoned me closer. In his hand were items that had been offered to the gods that he was now giving back to me as prasad. Prasad, which translates as ‘gracious gift’, is common in both Hinduism and Sikhism. In this temple the priest gave me a gift of fruit, sugar cubes and flowers that had been adorning the gods. What a fitting farewell to this special country.
After returning home it is the memories of these special experiences that have stayed with me – attending a spectacular Gaddi wedding, sharing a meal with new friends, being invited into a temple or shrine – all of which are in the end opportunities to share in community. – Brooke Maddison travelled to India courtesy of Ekno Travels