Fear is a weird and powerful thing. It controls our decisions and can hold us hostage. I have plenty of fears – too many. However, travel is not one of them luckily. When I talk to people about traveling around the world the one fear that seems to be the same for everyone is that they are fearful of traveling to India. Strangely most people want to travel to India, but often are just too scared to do so. I think that’s why I was so excited when my niece chose her first big overseas trip to be India. And at the same time I was a bit scared too taking a first timer to India!
India is a hard country – I’ve been there 3 times now in various ways (solo, group, and volunteering) and I can easily say that it’s the most challenging country to travel to in any capacity. It’s a lot to take in…a lot. It’s hard to even describe the smells, sights and cultural oddities you see and experience there. I find it fascinating and exciting, but I can see how others would find it a bit intimidating or scary. We are all wired differently after all.
It’s probably one of the only countries that is so vastly different than our North American culture. When you go to Europe, people wear the same types of clothes, the homes are similar, how you get around and shop are the same as living in the US. When you go to Asia, it is shocking, but there are some similarities in dress, movies, transportation, and music. In India there is really nothing there to grasp on to that is familiar; and I think that’s one of the aspects that makes it such a daunting culture to take on.
What are People’s India Travel Fears?
India fears are plentiful; fear of being assaulted as a woman, getting sick from the food, seeing a lot of poverty, being dirty, don’t know how to use squat toilets (which are really no big deal people!!), and fear of being uncomfortable in general. All of these things are possible – yet honestly the odds of getting assaulted as a woman are incredibly low as a tourist…like minuscule. I’ve been there for months at a time and have never had an issue, so I’m speaking from my own personal experience.
The fears are intensified because we are bombarded with articles and news about why we shouldn’t travel to India. Most of what makes the news about India is about natural disasters (the recent floods in southern India), poverty, and women are really taught to be terrified to travel to India – which is sad to me. I know that it’s so much more than these things. I can write until my fingertips are numb and I still can’t combat all of the fearful news out there.
Fear is a weird and powerful thing – it holds us hostage. But I’m here to tell you that you no longer need to be a hostage to India travel fears.
How To Combat India Travel Fears
On my trip to India with my niece I was reminded that the best way to get over your India travel fears is to take a tour. It’s a ‘safe’ way to ease into India where you are supported and logistics are taken care of. But that doesn’t mean that all tours are good tours. I try to find one that fits my style of travel. Do I want to do India in Luxury, do I want a guide with me at all times, or just have a driver to get me around and travel independently?
For me, the most important thing about choosing a tour is how much I can learn about the culture and how local and authentic it feels. I want to go off the beaten path and find gems while also seeing the main sites. It’s important that any tour I choose is one that is consistent with the way I like to travel – local and curious.
A Tour that Will Take Away Your India Travel Fears
Over the years I’ve taken about 7 tours with Intrepid Travel (many of these before I ever became a blogger as a profession). Sometimes I took them because I was traveling solo and I didn’t want to be alone, or because I was with one of my nieces and I wanted to give them a ‘group experience’, or because I wanted to get deep into the country’s culture and I knew I didn’t have time to research how to do that myself.
As soon as we met our tour guide Mohsin, he ran us through the Classic Rajasthan itinerary and I was reminded that India is Intrepid Travel’s sweet spot. I loved my tours to New Zealand and Turkey with them, but they really shine in lesser-developed countries. They shine there because they take situations that are quite intimidating to the average traveler in a developing country and invite you into those experiences with the safety of their local knowledge and guide. They don’t shy away from the local experiences in these countries (like riding local trains and buses) – they embrace them. Intrepid makes a challenging country accessible and by the end you feel like you could do it on your own. Their tours are sort of like the training wheels on your bike…just helping you gain confidence, practice, and knowledge while having some kick ass fun!
What Sets Intrepid Travel Tours Apart in India?
They do all the normal stuff you expect of a tour; get you from here to there, help you communicate, and teach you about the sites/history. But there are times when they go above and beyond that, and for me, that’s what sets them apart.
Local experiences are where Intrepid flourishes. As part of our itinerary we went into villages and rural areas that I never would have gotten to on my own. Our itinerary had us going from big, loud cities with palaces and forts to simple little rural villages where people lived without plumbing and electricity. In each of these places, we’d go out walking around the villages as a group in the late afternoon and be able to mingle with the locals in a less frenzied environment than the cities. We could see how they farmed, worshiped, and lived. We could ask questions and our guide would get answers. And the kids…oh the kids! Kids would follow us around and practice their English with us, play games and generally stare at us soaking in all the oddities about the foreigners as we were doing the same with them.
Another thing that made the village walks special was that we always had a local (sometimes an elder) from the village accompany us to ensure that the cultural interaction was successful and everyone behaved politely. We were told prior to going into the villages to not give anyone anything – no candy, no money, no pens – when you do this it disrupts the whole cultural interaction and reinforces really bad habits, teaching the villagers that foreigners are for getting things. And that encourages begging which is exactly what I don’t want to do.
These village visits were a beautiful cultural exchange that wasn’t icky or one sided. These visits meant more to me than our visit to the Taj Mahal.
Local Guides Who Are With You Every Step of The Way
Each trip has a local guide who will help you through all of the difficult logistics of India and answer any questions you have about the culture. They are with you the entire time and act as your lifeline. In addition to normal guide stuff, Mohsin spent a lot of time explaining things to us about the culture. We had little ‘bus lectures’ about the caste system, marriages, religions, the role of women, and the role of cows…we could ask anything. Mohsin was very open and even answered personal questions about his family and work life.
Intrepid was also the first travel company in India to hire female guides for their multi day country trips. This is really unusual to see in India. Indian women normally stay pretty close to home and family, they aren’t really even allowed to travel on their own much – especially far from their home.
“As of 2016, Intrepid has hired more women tour guides in India than any of its competitors, and they’re planning to add eight more to the front lines this year.” — Article about Women Taking On a Male Dominated Travel Industry
But Intrepid isn’t simply hiring female guides for their multi-day trips, Mohsin told us that the owner of Intrepid has a goal to have a 50/50 ratio of female/male guides on staff. Once again, for India (and quite frankly even for North America) this is ground breaking stuff.
Baksheesh Made Easy
Baksheesh is an important part of the culture in India. It is the term for tips; and in India EVERYONE expects one. It doesn’t have to be much. But when you are new to a country, it’s hard to figure out what to tip and who to tip. I can guarantee that the North American tip rates do not apply here, so trying to figure out what to pay is a challenging process. At the beginning of our tour Mohsin, collected $30 each (2,000 rupees) for a ‘tip kitty’ and he tipped on our behalf taking care of everyone where it was culturally expected; hotel staff, drivers, bus helpers, toilet stops/staff, taxis, local tour guides. It made the process so much easier as I would have never even thought of tipping some of these people, nor would have I known what to give them. It was so nice that he just took care of it! And at the end of the trip, he gave us a sheet that we signed off on showing us exactly what he tipped everyone.
Taking Local Transport
There is no better way to get to know a country than taking local transport. And there is no other country where the local transport is so intimidating than in India! On my past trips to India, I never had the guts to take local trains by myself around the country. Instead I would hire drivers.
However, this Classic Rajasthan Trip was all about getting you on the local transportation! We rode the train 4 different times…and I have to tell you…I am no longer intimidated to ride the train in India! We started with some of the nicer trains, air conditioned cars and food service from Delhi to Agra. Then we began easing our way into the less fancy classes of service. And finally we found ourselves riding the local train to Bijaipur in the standard class of service that most Indians take. We shared bench type seats with locals and everyone was lovely. They were as curious about us as we were about them. Sitting on my bench seat with the wind blowing through my hair as the countryside passed by was a highlight to me; it was my favorite train ride we took.
Intrepid purposefully eased us into this class of service and then they also made sure that we took an early local train as it would be less crowded and we only rode it for 3 hours. In addition to trains, we also took rickshaws, taxis, and some private buses. All safe and enlightening experiences thanks to our guide.
A good tour is serious about your safety in India. The first day Mohsin gave us a little card with tips on what to do if we were hassled or in an emergency. But Intrepid goes way beyond giving an information card. They are a well-respected tour company in India and the businesses that work with them are treated well. In exchange the businesses are held to high standards, like seat belts that work – a luxury in India! Mohsin was always great about making sure that all seat belts in jeeps, buses, and taxi’s worked. One time when they didn’t, he handled it right away.
He was also great at warning us of the local scams in each town. When we’d first arrive in a city like Pushkar, he’d do a city walk with us showing us around and getting us familiar with the town. This was to prepare us for our free time we’d have in each town so we knew where to go and what to look out for. Luckily he had also prepared us with knowledge of scams before we were ever on our own. I’m pretty sure I would have fell for some of them otherwise.
Eat the Street Food
What? Eat the food on the streets in India? That is just crazy talk! It’s not for Intrepid. No one will force you to eat street food, but if you have a desire to travel more local and try the local food on the street, Intrepid will give you that opportunity in a safe way.
“For the first few days I’ve chose restaurants to get your stomachs used to India, but today if you’d like to taste the street food on this walk you can,” Mohsin explained as we were about to take off onto the wild and loud streets of Jaipur.
Mohsin carefully picked the vendors we went to on the street, choosing ones he’s been to before and felt safe taking us to. Of course there is never any guarantee you won’t get sick, but my niece and I were excited to try the food on the streets and were willing to follow his lead.
We ate fried treats, tried the local candy, had piping hot samosas, enjoyed a lassie from the best place in town, and watched a chai wallah (tea maker) make the best Masala Chai tea I’ve ever had at Sahu ki Chai. It wasn’t only that we were eating street food, but we walked all over Jaipur among the crazy traffic and horns. Mohsin took this on with the 12 of us when most tour companies keep you safely viewing street life from the bus window, here we were on the ground getting a closer experience! Once again, this walk and food tasting through the streets of Jaipur was one of most memorable days and experiences.
During out trip we stayed in 3 heritage properties that brought us closer to the history, culture and locals. Heritage properties originally were the forts, mansions and palaces of the royal and noble families of India. Even though this was a ‘Basix Style’ tour, we still had some really great and unique properties we stayed at. In fact, my niece’s favorite hotel stay was our first heritage stay at the Madhogarh Castle. Each heritage property offered a unique look into the history of nobility or royalty from years ago. They were by far my favorite properties. So even though this was budget travel, we still got exposure to some historic luxury!
Intrepid’s Classic Rajasthan trip is the perfect training wheels for first time visitors to India. It takes away all of those nasty fears and gets you closer than ever to the culture that is so incredibly fascinating. Travel in India is never easy breezy, but it is easier with a small group tour like this. My niece and I left India with incredible memories and a desire to go back again without the training wheels!
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I was a guest of Intrepid Travel on my last trip to India, however all opinions expressed here are mine from past trips I have taken with them on my own dime.
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