I instinctively held my breath and my whole body was clenched into a knot as I looked out the front window of the taxi. “Brake, brake brake!” was swirling around in my head wanting to scream it’s way out just as we swerved at the last minute avoiding the car in front of us and slid into a little opening in the next ‘lane’ that seemed to magically appear like a secret door in a video game. I let out my breath and my body’s stress uncoiled momentarily until the next inevitable near death traffic experience. I turned to my niece next to me in the back seat, “Thank you so much for bringing me back to India,” I said with a big smile.
It had been 4 years since I traveled in India; one of the most exhilarating, disturbing, and confusing countries in the world. And that is exactly why I love it. It’s not predictable, it is wrong on so many levels, and yet right too. This dichotomy runs through my thoughts constantly when traveling in India. Traveling in lesser developed, challenging countries is how my initial travels began, but I haven’t done much travel like this in the last few years. The longer you are away from this type of environment, the more fearful you become about encountering it again. I didn’t have any plans to come back to India until my niece, Erin, decided this was where she wanted to go for her Niece Project trip, and suddenly I’m back traveling in India with a teenager in tow.
It was a bold choice for her considering she had never really taken a big international trip before. Most people are scared to travel to India, but for some reason, that I don’t even know if she understands, India called to her and she decided she wanted us to travel to India for our aunt/niece trip.
The Niece Project Is a Lesson in Travel
One of my goals in the niece project is to introduce my nieces to travel around the world. I’m not talking about vacations, I’m talking about travel. Erin learned important lessons around how to get a visa, jetlag, long layovers, what to do when your flight is delayed, living out of a suitcase moving every day, how to deal with the unknown, and patience. She also learned the important skill of being able to sleep anywhere! Actually, as a teenager I think she already had that ability. These are some of the basics to international travel and she’s now well on her way to a thicker passport if she chooses to do more travel.
Teenagers sure can sleep…ok – I’m really just jealous…
Two weeks away in such a foreign environment is tough for a 17 year old, but never once did she say she was homesick or complain. We had just the right amount of connectivity to keep her connected to friends, but also times where she was forced to be in the moment – something we all need more of.
India with Teenagers – Building a Relationship through Experiences
One of my other goals in the Niece Project is to build a relationship with my nieces. Relationships are built through shared experiences – good and bad, and we had plenty of both on this trip.
The Taj Mahal
I had seen it before, but to see someone else experience it for the first time is always an exciting moment. As we walked out of one of the buildings of the Red Fort in Agra and onto a patio, that’s when she first noticed it in the distance, and that’s a moment I’ll never forget. There was a mixture of awe and excitement in that first sighting; it brought back my first Taj experiences dancing in my head. It’s pretty special when you get to witness that moment where something people have only heard about becomes real for someone.
The day we visited the Taj it was sickly hot and humid, but we packed our water and sunscreen and went in with the masses, cameras poised. For Erin it was definitely an exciting experience to roam the grounds, halls, and buildings – and of course get some Instagram worthy Taj Mahal photos. It was her first big bucket list item, but there were many more to come on this trip.
In my many trips to India, I had never visited a tiger park before or done any wildlife viewing. So I was pretty excited about this experience since it was my first time too. We entered Rathambore National Park, on open jeeps rocking back and forth over rutted, dirt pathways. She didn’t have to say anything, I could see Erin’s anticipation and excitement on her face to be on her first safari. From my past wildlife viewing experiences, I knew that an animal sighting wasn’t guaranteed, but I had a good feeling about this adventure. We drove all over the park and saw elk, deer, peacocks, kingfishers, and monkeys. This was all pretty exciting for Erin, but our hope was starting to wane when suddenly in the last 45 minute there was a flurry of jeep activity and commotion. There had been a sighting; 2 young tigers were spotted sleeping in the trees. We spent the rest of our time observing, taking pictures, and climbing over each other in the jeep (literally!) to get the best shot! The tigers were great, but my favorite part was watching Erin’s reaction to the whole experience.
Camel Ride in Pushkar
“I’m scared,” Erin said as she walked up to the tall camels. When you look at them you can’t help but wonder – how am I ever getting on this thing while not falling off! I knew that was the fear she was referring to; they always seem so much bigger and ominous in person. But I knew by looking at Erin that the fear was that good kind of fear; the kind that makes you apprehensive and excited at the same time. She watched as I got on my camel with the help of my ‘camel handler’ and then it was her turn. That worried look on her face turned to terrified and then to a huge grin and laughter as she held on as the camel awkwardly stood up with. She was now perched on top asking to have her picture taken – all was good in the world again. The walk through the town and arid landscape in Pushkar was certainly a highlight experience for her.
Even though the Taj experience was pretty spectacular, it was the simple village walks that impacted Erin and me the most. Human connection is the heart of travel for me. We always had a local and our guide, Mohsin, accompanying us through a small rural village to get exposed to day-to-day life. We watched as people worshiped at a temple, surround a truck to get produce for their night’s meal, and get their hair cut at the local barber. But it wasn’t us just observing them, the locals were just as excited to see and interact with us. We had waves, pictures, singing, dancing, and kids speaking their English homework to us. The kids gravitated to Erin of course and she welcomed them with open arms taking pictures, selfies, teaching them songs, and giving them high fives. One of our favorite moments was when the kids who followed us around all sang their Indian national anthem and waved long goodbyes as we left. It was a little heart breaking leaving the joy behind as we walked off to our hotel that night.
A Little Girly Time
Erin and I had the opportunity to also leave some of the grime behind and have some special girl time in India. A young local woman from the village came to Bijaipur Castle and Hotel to do a little henna tattoo for us. It was incredible to see how fast she worked on complex designs she had memorized. This is traditionally a ritual before Hindu weddings and festivals, but can also be done for these fun, special moments too. In addition to the getting in touch with the cultural female traditions, we also spent our last day in Delhi getting manicures, pedicures, and Erin even did eyebrow threading. Part of the fun of traveling in more challenging developing countries is the part where you get to clean up and feel fresh again, and that’s exactly how we spent out last day in Indi with a little pampering. All for a fraction of the money it would cost at home!
Geckos and Rats
“Is that real?” Erin pointed at the wall with a terrified look on her face. I followed the line of her finger to see a little gecko on the wall by the light. I shrugged it off, “Yes, that’s real. It’s by the light because it likes to eat bugs,” I said calmly without giving it much thought. Little did I know that even though I was completely used to seeing and traveling around geckos, Erin wasn’t. We had quite an episode of fright and panic that night that took me by surprise. Needless to say – I tried to shoo the gecko away and reassure her is wasn’t going to crawl in her bed.
However one person’s gecko is another person’s rat. This could have been disastrous, but luckily Erin slept through most of it. I was up working late in my bed while Erin was sleeping. I kept hearing a weird noise moving around in our room. After continually getting up to check where the noises were coming from with no luck I finally decided to go to bed myself. The noise continued to happen. I got up multiple times trying to get to the bottom of it, and finally just tried to put the covers over my head and plug my ears to try to not hear it.
However, my mind ran wild while under the covers, and I could still hear the noise. I was hoping it was just a really loud gecko, but I knew deep down that it wasn’t. After hearing the noise again I jolted up in frustration and that’s when I saw it. My whole body and mind panicked as I saw a rat running along the top of the curtain rod in the dark. We had startled each other and the rat started to escape down the curtain, but fell off onto the floor right next to Erin’s bed and scurried along the floor.
Needless to say – we changed rooms in the middle of the night. Luckily this was all done while Erin was still groggy and half asleep and had no real idea of how close she came to having a rat in her bed! When we woke up the next morning we could laugh about it. I knew this would be the story that would live forever in our trip memories; there’s always one, and many times it’s the ones that are the worst situations at the time!
Indian Food Experiences
Erin’s biggest concern before we left was what she would eat in India; prior to this point she hadn’t really been exposed to much India food. I knew that this was going to be a bit hard for her, but I also knew you could always find some French fries, naan, or fried rice when you didn’t like anything else on the menu. I love Indian food, but I get tired of it pretty quickly too. So there were plenty of days where we were both tired of the food and ordered fries and cheese naan. But the important thing is that she didn’t starve and she didn’t really complain. She got inventive a few times and had french fries for breakfast (it’s like hash browns – right?), or would just order soup. But she was also willing to try things that were new to her, and even was eager to take a cooking class in Udaipur.
Even though I warned her about the staring that would happen, I think she was still surprised when complete strangers would come up to her to take her picture. The nice people would ask and she’d always agree to pose for a picture with a local. However, there are plenty of people in India who don’t ask and there were people constantly taking pictures of her, which is a bit unnerving for anyone. I of course was always the bodyguard watching over the photo shoot making sure everyone behaved. We learned to laugh about it and be open to it most of the time. There are few places in the world where you can be an instant celebrity – I encouraged her to enjoy it while she could.
It’s not just the country of India that has a potential impact, but it’s also the people we traveled with. We had a great diverse group of countries and ages represented in our Intrepid group. Traveling with the group becomes another part of the overall experience of the Niece Project in my opinion. She became friends with them – young and old. I have this weird sense of pride today when I see when of our group member’s Instagram pictures float across my feed and I see that Erin has ‘liked’ it. Or she sends a What’s App to our India group with a picture of her homecoming date and dress (which she had made in India). It just gives her and I something surprising in common – friends from around the world.
What did She Think of Travel in India?
Everyone has been asking me what Erin thought about it all. Did it change her? What where her impressions of India? Let me just remind everyone – she’s 17 – and not many teenagers just sit around and share feelings with adults. Unlike adults, they don’t mull over the meaning of every little feeling or experience. Therefore the answer to all of these questions is that I honestly don’t know what she thought and how it may have changed her.
However, there were a few instances that gave me some indications; little statements and things that I held onto like golden nuggets. On the 3rd day of the trip we were riding the bus and I was talking about all the craziness that we get to see outside our bus window; cows, camels, poverty, garbage, insane traffic.
“It seems like too big of problem to solve,” she said.
“What does?” I asked.
“Everything. The garbage, unsafe water, plastic; I don’t even know where they would start,“ Erin responded.
It was a really insightful revelation after just a few days in India. It is hard to see and comprehend the social and industrial issues in India. It’s one of the things that makes India so fascinating; like a bad boy boyfriend, you sort of always want to try to ‘fix’ it.
The last night at dinner, everyone in the group expressed how great she did for her first big trip. After all, tackling India as her first country evokes a lot of respect. We all agreed that she could go anywhere in the world now that she had survived India!
Mohsin asked her if she would ever come back to India to visit again. She thought about it for a bit and said, “Yes, I would come back some day.”
I guess that’s the best answer I will have for now regarding what she thought about India. After all of the ups and downs, the country and people did get under her skin enough to come back. For all of its craziness, India is addicting, and that is why I was so happy that she brought me back to India again.
I don’t know that I will ever know her real thoughts about it or if it ‘changed her’ until years later when she looks back on this experience and processes it in the bigger picture of her life. I can only hope that it planted a seed – a seed that develops into curiosity about the world and a desire to learn and see more of it. And I hope she’ll one day learn how to embrace geckos.
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