To me, India is the most vibrant and exciting place on earth. Read about my experience there and find out why it became my favourite country in the world!
In August-September 2014, I was lucky enough to spend 5 weeks in India on a cultural exchange project. My trip was organised through UK charity ICYE. They organised my stay with an Indian family and my voluntary work placement at Concerns Universe Foundation in Bangalore. I was asked to fundraise £1900 to cover the costs and help the charity. I spent the full five weeks in Bangalore, using my weekends off to travel as much of the country as possible.
My Indian Family
I stayed with a typical Indian family in Bangalore, it was a two bedroom house in the city with very basic amenities. The family were lovely; there was Samuel (father), Mary-Rita (mother) and sisters Susie and Sheeba. Samuel worked in IT, the two girls were studying to become doctors and Mary-Rita was a stay at home wife who spent her days cooking and cleaning.
The family had very traditional values and were very religious, before dinner they would pray and sing together, which I joined in with a few times. After dinner, I spent the evenings talking with Samuel and discussing the differences between our cultures, which enabled me to learn a great deal about Indian society.
In typical Indian style, they were very generous and welcoming and they treated me like a queen! They insisted that I slept in this bedroom while Samuel slept in the livingroom and the three girls shared. I absolutely protested and explained that I wouldn’t mind sharing, but they wouldn’t have it any other way!
My adopted hometown: Bangalore (Bengaluru)
Bangalore itself is not very touristy, I think I saw one other westerner the whole time I was there and that was a fellow volunteer at Concerns Universe! In a way this was what I really enjoyed about it. I felt I was able to see Indian culture for what it really is.
Some pictures of Bangalore…
I worked as a Volunteer Teaching Assistant at Concerns Universe Foundation. The charity aims to provide underprivileged young women with opportunities and training to become employable and economically independent.
My role mainly involved teaching English and conversing with the women to practice their skills, providing feedback to help their language skills improve. As a university student who had travelled on her own, the women viewed me as a role model and treated me with the most utmost respect, which I found absolutely flattering. However, I found this somewhat upsetting at the same time as something that is a norm in my own country and I am guilty of taking for granted, remains a distant goal to many in India.
Exploring India: Mysore, Kanyakumari, Mumbai, Delhi and the Taj Mahal
I spent my weekends travelling to different parts of India, aiming to see as much of the country as I could during my short time there.
What a beauty! Mysore is maybe not top of everyone’s list when they visit India, however it is definitely worth visiting if you are in Karnakata. Mysore is a short train journey from Bangalore, so it seemed like a less intimidating place to visit as I was by myself at this point. I met a lovely girl and her family on the train, from Kolkata. They began talking to me as many Indians did, simply because I stood out and they were curious of where I was from. We became instant besties and her dad got off every time the train stopped and bought us little cups of chai and some snacks, I suddenly felt more relaxed about travelling by myself.
There are very few Western tourists in Mysore and sites worth seeing are Mysore Palace, Devaraja Market, Mysore Hill, the Sand Sculpture Museum and the Zoo. Mysore is the home of yoga, which is definitely worth trying out here.
I visited Kanyakumari, also known as the southern tip of India, where the three oceans meet. It is a beautiful place to watch the sunset.
The town itself is very chilled out and not nearly as busy as anywhere else that I visited in India. There was a lovely little market down by the beach which sold little handicrafts.
Kanyakumari is also Hindu pilgrimage site because of the Bagavathi Amman Temple and you will see many families running into the water at the tip.
I spent the weekend in Mumbai, the home of Bollywood and where the famous movie Slumdog Millionaire is set. I had a great time here, there is lots to see and do. It is a vibrant but busy place and if it was my first stop in India, I think I would have found it to be a complete culture shock. .
I found the contrast between the rich and the poor absolutely astonishing; at one point I remember coming into the city centre on a bridge and as the big buildings symbolising the prosperous financial industry shone in the background, some of the largest slums in the world were in the shadows beneath. That is the harsh reality of India; while it is fascinating and vibrant, the absolute inequality is blatantly clear.
I heard so many horror stories about Delhi and I was a bit apprehensive to say the least, however I HAD to see the Taj Mahal! I was very vigilant in my planning to ensure my safety.
I was lucky enough to meet a friend in Delhi, who gave me a whistle stop tour round the city. We visited Sarojini Nagar Market and passed the famous Lotus Temple. We finished with dinner in the Hauz Kass Village, which was absolutely lovely and completely different from anywhere else I had been in India. It is a trendy, modern area which almost has a hipster feel to it. We wandered around the different art shops and boutiques before we went for food and some drinks.
The Taj Mahal
Wow. Just Wow
As I was visiting Delhi alone, I chose to go on a tour of the Taj Mahal, which picked me up from my hotel in Delhi and gave me a guided tour of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. This certainly wasn’t the cheapest way to do it, which would normally be a priority of mine, however it seemed like the safest and it made my Indian family more relaxed! Sometimes you have to take the hit; it’s not everyday you get to visit one of the Wonders of the World. I used The Delhi Way tour and they were great; they constantly communicated with me by email in the lead up and the tour itself was fantastic (the car was a large and air-conditioned and was full of snacks and water). There were 3 other people on the tour which brought the price down significantly and made the tour more fun.
Is India for You?
India is not for the faint hearted. With a population of over 1 billion, it is extremely busy and big cities like Mumbai and Delhi can sometimes feel overwhelming. The poverty is hard to see and impossible to ignore, some of the sights you see are absolutely heart breaking.
It can be dangerous, especially for women. In Bangalore, I was forbidden from going outside alone before 7am and after 7pm (when it was dark) as it was unsafe. When I went away at weekends I would call my Indian family to let them know I was safe. This can make you feel a bit trapped if you are an independent person like me.
That said, India is an extremely interesting place to visit and I have never had an experience like it. If you’ve not realised by now, I love lists! Here are ten things I loved about India:
1 – its character – India (in my opinion) is the most interesting country in the world. It has so much character. Everything about it from the culture, the people and the nature are absolutely fascinating and leave you wanting to understand it that little bit more.
2 – the people – The people are extremely friendly (although very shy at times!) Contrary to this, Indian people can often come across blunt and straight to the point. They will not shy away from asking you something, which I liked as it led to many interesting conversations. In Britain we would shy away from this as we are much more reserved. You just have to laugh it off and not be too easily offended as they do not intend to be rude, they are just very curious about other cultures.
3 – the vibrancy – India is the most colourful place in the world, from the women’s beautiful saris, to the fresh fruit and vegetables, it really is so bright and interesting to look at
4 – the options – there are so many different places you can visit; the country is so large it feels like a continent. There is something for everyone, from the busy cities, to the beaches and the mountains!
5 – the differences between each state – the diversity of culture within the country surprised me and I tried to learn more. India is a melting pot of different cultures, where different states, languages and religions come together. There are slight variations between different states, they all have different languages and slight variations on their cuisine (e.g. vegetarian food is much more common in southern states).
6 – Indian culture as a whole – With that said, there is something very unique about Indian culture, which makes it come together as a whole. The history, the constant celebrations, the curiosity and the traditions make India such a magical place to visit
7 – the food, anyone who knows me is confused as to why this is not number 1, however this list is in no particular order! I spent 5 weeks in India, eating solely Indian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I was not sick of it when I got back. Ok, I couldn’t eat rice for a solid 6 months, but I came back with an even stronger love for the cuisine. I found it to be much more diverse than Indian food back home and I thoroughly enjoyed the different vegetarian dishes (before, I would have always chosen chicken).
8 value for money – At the time of writing this, 1 Indian Rupee is equal to 0.015 US Dollar. Things are extremely cheap, you can get a plate of delicious street food for about 50 cents, probably less in the countryside. A meal in a respectable restaurant will cost around 3/4 dollars for a main dish. You can get a lot for your money in comparison to other travel options, which means you can allow for more time to spend exploring your new favourite country!
9 everyone speaks English – Ok, not EVERYONE, but most people I came across at least had some understanding. In the big cities and tourist spots, such as the Taj Mahal, Indians had better English than people in anywhere else I have visited. This makes things a lot easier if you are lost or ever need to aske for help
10 – it will leave you wanting more – like any good trip does! I personally cannot wait to go back and see more of India. I have a long list of places I would like to visit in the future and I cannot recommend the country enough!