“Holy crap, it’s finally here… India”. That was all I could think of when I arrived in Delhi after flying from Turkey. I had this place in my sights from the very beginning of my trip planning. It’s one of the few countries where I had to get a visa prior to arrival. Also, most of the travel inoculations I got before leaving the US were because of my plans to visit India. I had meds for malaria and stomach ailments as well, so felt physically ready. I don’t believe I could have started my around-the-world trip in India. It felt intimidating to me, but after months of travel, I had the confidence to come here alone.
India is a notoriously difficult country to navigate but still a dream backpacker destination. For me, I had this sense it would be completely different to any place I had ever seen in my life. I say this even after months of travel. I wanted to see the culture, the street markets, the temples, and get to know more about the history and people living here. Of course, since I love Indian food, I was really looking forward to experiencing the famous (or maybe infamous) street food. I planned to stay for three weeks which isn’t really much time, so I wanted some focus and structure to my visit. I needed a plan.
As I got within a month of arriving in India, I began to seriously think about what I was going to do there. I was hoping to find some other travelers to explore this amazing country with. I decided to break away from my usual modus operandi and looked into booking a tour. I researched a few options online, and was really shocked to see how expensive they could be. I thought India would be the cheapest place I’ve traveled to, and these tours were averaging over $100 a day for transportation, guides, food and accomodation. That’s probably nothing for Western Europe or the US, but it’s kind of ridiculous for India really. You can do most of Europe for $40-$50 a day staying in hostels and avoiding restaurants and expensive plane and train tickets. You can do Central and Eastern Europe for less than $20 a day with the right attitude, and willingness to give up some comforts. So the tours online that I found for India were out, but they did give me ideas. I definitely wanted to see the Taj Mahal and Rajasthan, and perhaps the Himalayas in the North. As it turns out, there’s a popular trek in Northern India referred to as “The Golden Triangle” which includes seeing the Taj and parts of Rajasthan. The triangle refers to the three cities of Delhi (the capital), Agra (Taj Mahal), and Jaipur (major city in Rajasthan). That seemed perfect, so I decided I would take three weeks, and do the Golden Triangle, and if time allowed, maybe go up to the Himalaya, but was willing to let that go.
Now that I knew WHAT I wanted to do, I had to figure out the HOW and possibly with WHOM. I decided to revisit an old friend… Couchsurfing.org. On the CS website, you can create activities or events that others are invited to join. I created an activity on the Delhi homepage looking for people to join me on the Golden Triangle trek. A lot of travelers are backpacking through India at any given time, so I thought I had a good chance of finding some others to join me. I had a couple locals welcome me to India, but unfortunately, really no takers on joining me for the trek. As I got within one week of my arrival, I started looking for hosts on Couchsurfing or anyone in Delhi who could help since that’s where my flight was arriving. One of the first profiles I noticed was someone who appeared to be promoting a travel company through their Couchsurfing profile. I laughed at first, and thought, “I can’t believe this dude is using CS to promote his travel company”. That’s not what the site is about. But a further look into his profile revealed that wasn’t really what was going on. Yes, he had his own tour company, but he also had several positive references from people who had actually stayed at his place. Some people had even commented that he helped them arrange for tours, but there wasn’t anything negative from anyone thinking they were getting a host, and instead got someone trying to sell them on tours. The reference and voucher system on Couchsurfing is fairly solid, and the moderators would ban anyone doing a bait-n-switch with users after one or two complaints. To be honest, this situation actually seemed kind of ideal for me… a connection through Couchsurfing who appeared trustworthy and could help me arrange for tours. I was weary after getting scammed in Istanbul, and I had read the scams in India can be even worse. However, I really don’t want to live my travel life in a constant state of fearful paranoia. I certainly don’t want to be one of those people who thinks as soon as you leave the USA you’re guaranteeing yourself to be robbed, beaten or killed. It’s smart to take precautions, but I still want to believe most people are generally good. So I sent what we call a “couchrequest” to this guy Mehar telling him my travel story, and what I was looking to do in India. Within a day, he accepted my request, and assured me he could at least help me get situated in Delhi until I figured things out. He gave me his address, and I told him I would get a taxi from the airport.
Obviously, it’s good to take precautions, so I had addresses and directions for a couple guesthouses I could go to if the CS connection didn’t work out. I was also ready to deal with the Delhi taxi and auto rickshaw drivers which have a pretty bad reputation for ripping off tourists. In particular, one common trick they pull is to pretend not to know where your hotel is, or tell you it’s closed. They then take you to a different hotel where they get a commission for bringing you there. Since I had the guesthouse locations saved on my iPhone, along with GPS, I would know if I was really being taken there. I also knew how much it should cost to get into the city from the airport… roughly 400 rupees which is about $8 USD.
Mehar was still concerned I would get scammed, so he actually sent one of his drivers to meet me at the airport. I was incredibly grateful and a bit relieved, but I was staying guarded. After arriving at the airport, and going through passport control, I walked out of the gate number Mehar gave me into a sea of taxi drivers trying to get people to hire them. I walked around and within about 20 seconds saw someone holding a sign with my name. So far, so good. The ride into the city was interesting to say the least. The traffic was the first thing that struck me, and not just the cars. The traffic in Delhi is a mix of cars, taxis, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, motorbikes, and even horse drawn carts. Yes, even on the highway, you’ll see carts of stuff being hauled around by horses. There’s very little order, and the lines on the road are treated more like suggestions that most drivers ignore. I also saw wild monkeys just roaming around, as well as cows and goats. I laughed out loud, and the taxi driver got a kick out of my entertainment.
Since I was arriving in the middle of the day, and Mehar was at work, we had agreed I’d meet him there. When the taxi arrived, he came out to greet me. He immediately struck me as a friendly person, however, it was also clear he was extremely busy running his business. We went inside and ordered some food and chai and we talked about my travels and couchsurfing experiences. We talked about life in India and Delhi, the cultural differences, and Mehar filled me in on all the things I would need to be careful of while traveling through the country. A lot of these I had read about, but some were new. Mehar asked me about my plans for India and how much time I had. He talked about some different options for tours, and I was ready to say “thanks, but no thanks”. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The prices for the tours he could arrange were around one-third the price of the tours I found online. For less than what I spent roughing it in Paris, I could actually have my own personal guides, get my own room in a hotel, and even my own driver on some days to navigate cities with really no other means of getting around. Mehar explained that his travel company was actually an NGO and focused on offering a holiday experience with more of a conscience. Some of the guides and families he arranged homestays with had fallen on hard times, or lived in poorer parts of their cities. The benefit of this style of travel is you get a more authentic experience and insight into daily life in India. At the same time, you’re helping a family out instead of just giving your money to a hotel. It kind of all made sense now. Mehar’s connection with Couchsurfing seemed appropriate because I imagine a lot of CS’ers look for that kind of experience. There wouldn’t be nice tour buses full of Westerners, or 3 star hotels, or fancy restaurants on this tour. It would be much more authentic and a lot of local interaction.
So the price and experience may be exactly what I’m looking for, but can I trust this guy’s travel company? Still a bit skeptical, once I could get internet access, I googled Mehar’s travel company, Wahoe India Travels, to see what I could find. I want to trust people, but I still felt the sting from Istanbul. I didn’t find any negative references for Wahoe. In fact, I found a blog entry from another American who had used his services and had a really great time. I felt more relaxed about going this route if I decided.
I had an internal struggle with all of this. Up to now, I had done 100% of the planning and booking of everything on my trip. I made it almost half way around the world without talking to a single travel agent. I was proud of that, and the level of independence I operated under. On some level as a backpacker and budget travler, having someone else book stuff felt like cheating. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying I felt like I would be a failure for doing so. Fortunately, I got over such silly thinking. This was India, not Western Europe. The culture is very different. I don’t blend in. It’s cheap to hire guides and get trustworthy locals to help you, so why not take advantage of it. It would mean dealing with a lot less frustration, and I could sit back and enjoy the experience. I decided my three weeks in India wouldn’t be like any other part of the trip so far. I’m not sure when I’m coming back to India, if ever, so I decided to ask for Mehar’s help in arranging for a marathon epic trip and see as much as possible of Northern India in three weeks. In the end, I paid a bit more than if I had arranged everything myself, but honestly, there’s no way I would have done all the cool stuff that was about to happen over the next three weeks. I took tons of photos, and am really looking forward to finally writing about my adventures there in the next several blog posts.
So that was my intro to India. I was feeling pretty good at this point. I had a plan, there would be guides, and people I could trust to help me navigate India. Best of all, my agenda included everything I wanted to see plus a lot of other stuff. More to come…