5 words/phrases that describe India:  eclectic, friendly, curious, diverse, hectic

What seems to make the people of India happy? When you’re in the company of Indian’s, especially those you’re meeting for the first time, it’s really hard to tell what it is that makes them smile. They don’t overly show emotion on their face or exude it in their personality, it’s hidden somewhere just under the skin waiting to get out.

A little wiggle of the head…and slightly wider opening of the eyes are all you’ll get, unsure whether it means approval, rejection, embarrassment or simply OK.

But once the relationship extends beyond that initial interaction Indian’s open up like a long lost friend. Handshakes, hugs and helpfulness radiate and the core to their soul becomes clear – helping other people like you’re a member of the family.


What seems to make the people of India unhappy? We rarely came across people who were outwardly unhappy during our time in India. Even those living in abject poverty, with serious disability or seemingly without purpose would still wave, return a smile or give a wiggle of the head. The things that did appear to raise anger levels and produce an air of obvious discontent were more around the usual frustrations we in the west deal with; standstill traffic jams, unnecessary queuing and unfair working conditions. On an number of occasions we came across public protests blocking main roads in both rural and city areas.

Did you ever feel out of your comfort zone while in India? India has SO many different sides it’s akin to a multi-faceted Rubik’s Cube. From the lawlessness of the North East states, to the fiery heat and religious intensity of Varanasi, to the incredibly manic traffic on the streets of Delhi – all are different environmental melting pots of such fanatical magnitude that they’d usually make me wince and retreat.

But since starting this trip these situations have become almost daily occurrences, something Sophee and I grown used to. Whilst we were visiting the inner-city slums of Mumbai, the intensity and rawness of life on show was another level of manicness altogether. Yes, we walked, talked and photographed the locals but something inside me was a little uncomfortable with the situation even though there probably wasn’t good reason to be.


What can other countries learn from India? Curiosity, hospitality, tolerance, how to cook with spices and how to treat cows

Best thing I saw: Three more here I’m afraid! The local cultural dance performance in Udaipur, the sheer number of wind turbines on road to Hampi, something I’d never expected from I country I thought just burned coal and oil, and our spiritual evening on the banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi.


Best thing I heard: Driving through the northeast state of Assam we had our first experience with the Indian Expressways, a series of brilliant motorways criss-crossing the country. At one of the toll booths coming through Assam a big guy walks up to our window with his mates and says to me “no need to pay, come through for free – “my name is Bubbles”. It seemed so odd for this huge guy to have such a ‘cute’ name!

Best thing I smelt: The first rains of the monsoon as we drove across the centre of the country. After spending a week in the unbearable heat of Varanasi, where the mercury touched 48c, our drive south towards Hampi and the west coast was met by looming rain clouds that finally burst in epic proportions.


Best thing I did: Drove the Leh – Manali highway in the northwest of the country. Quite simply the most beautiful and diverse road I’ve driven on the face of the planet. Challenging, undulating, high altitude and ridiculously scenic.


Best thing I tasted: Indian has so many to choose from and three months there gave us a vast range of wonderful foods. From the world-famous Goan fish curry, to the street snack Panu Puri, to the street food vendor on the square In Darjeeing serving chow mein wrapped in dried leaves, to the fresh cheese and pizza at Brown Bread Bakery in Delhi, and of course the thin crust pizza at the Italian restaurant we at the Grand Hyatt in Goa.

Best local character I met: I have to mention three characters here as they all made our stay in India one to remember. Jay in Gulwati, who arrived at our hotel late one afternoon, armed with two bags of his own-stocked tealeaves, following a chance meeting over Twitter. His kindness, local and national knowledge and welcoming family were the best introduction we could have hoped for. Yogesh works for Goa Tourism and was our guide for the two weeks we spent exploring the beach state. From the hug we received when we first met him, to his constant energy and enthusiasm right through to our final farewell with us family.


And last but not least our guide in Khajuraho who took us around the erotic temples. This energetic, government endorsed pensioner loved his job! His warm, welcoming approach to foreigners together with the incredibly amusing descriptions and interpretation he gave to the erotic carvings had us in fits of giggles.

Best surprise ‘n’ delight moment: During our time in Goa we stayed at the Grand Hyatt, situated right on the beach. Now we’ve been lucky enough to stay in some pretty epic hotels over the last few years but this location really blew us away. The vast, luxurious buildings and surrounding gardens provided a welcome retreat from the busyness of Goan city life that was buzzing away on the other side of the entrance gates. But it was the room itself that really made our jaws hit the floor as we walked into it for the first time. Quite simply one of the most indulgent and salubriously furnished rooms…make that suites we’ve stayed in. With a separate bathroom, bedroom, lounge, dining area and office we honestly struggled to find our bags when we arrived. Oh take me back…..


5 words/phrases that describe India: Bustling, multi-faceted, vivid, sensual, spiritual.

What seems to make Indian people happy? Indian people find joy in lots of places. Their family, work and spirituality tend to form a core part of their lives. Contentment is also found in the little things – a friendly chinwag with a local chai brewer, a delectable meal made with love, singing away to the car radio, helping tourists discover India’s hidden gems…the list is endless. The thing that stuck me most about India was the strong sense of community in every state, city, village, suburb and street. The locals all seemed to know and rely on each other, so everyone benefited from a sense of belonging and individual value. 


What seems to make Indian people unhappy? At face value, it’s easy to assume Indian people are angry a lot of the time. Their intense gazes, loud bellows and public squabbles can be a bit confronting for first-time tourists; however, it wasn’t long before I realised this intensity was simply part of India’s ultra-expressive rhythm (which I fell in love with). Once I took the time to chat to the locals, I discovered they’re actually very optimistic, joyous people. Any serious frustrations tend to live in the political arena or relate to family and reputation.

Did you ever feel out of your comfort zone while in India? Funnily enough, the things that usually make tourists feel awkward in India actually made the experience more intriguing for me – the intense aromas, constant stares and raw poverty. The only thing, which really tested me, was the quality of life of the animals. It was pretty confronting walking past the chicken shops, seeing how they were housed and slaughtered for food. India is also packed with street dogs and cows, often in serious need of medical attention. I really struggled with the idea that they’d live their days in pain and there was no one looking after them. The other thing which pushed me outside of my comfort zone was the lack of food hygiene. At first, it didn’t bother me – I was way too eager to sample the exciting street food. But, after three bouts of food poisoning, I was over it. All I wanted was clean, healthy food and it was hard to find. 


What can other countries learn from India? How to celebrate and have fun. There’s a constant sense of festivity in India – it’s both uplifting and infectious. Blaring music adds melody to public life; technicolour saris fill the streets with vibrancy; locals embrace each other like jovial family members. Indians know how to enjoy life, no matter which walk of life they’re from. They’re also masters in hospitality. Locals supported Ben and me throughout our entire 3-month stint, offering us everything from free meals and traditional clothes to valuable travel advice and administrative assistance. We felt very welcome.


Best thing I saw: The enchanting views along the Leh – Manali Highway. Offering everything from towering, snow-capped mountains and epic Mars-scapes to lush, rolling hills and dramatic deserts, this precious part of the world is the most beautiful region I’ve ever laid eyes on.


Best thing I heard: Indian music – it’s so darn catchy and impossible to sit still to. Even the jingles they use in the ads. They are forever tattooed to my brain! Ben and I saw a Bollywood movie in Mumbai and it’s the first time we wanted to dance in the cinema aisles. Fingers crossed we get invited to an Indian wedding one day – joining the guests on the dance floor would be a brilliant experience.

Best thing I smelt: Once my nose had grown accustom to the scent of open-air tips, car fumes and excrement (animal and human), it learnt to focus on the mouth-watering scent of rich curries and delectable street foods. Every time I got a whiff, my “I’m so over Indian food” claims would go out the window. The aroma is so homely and alluring – there’s nothing better.  

Best thing I did: The road trip along the Leh – Manali Highway (one of the world’s highest roads) is hard to beat. It totally blew my mind. I was like a fish out of water – my mouth constantly opening and closing in awe of Mother Nature’s divine work. So beautiful, it has to be experienced in everyone’s lifetime. I also really enjoyed taking time out at a detox/yoga retreat in Goa and then throwing myself back into the chaos during a gritty cycle tour of Delhi. Varanasi was the best place I visited in terms of capturing the essence of India in nutshell. It was confronting, captivating, visceral and full of energy. I loved the place.

Best thing I tasted: It’s so hard to narrow this one down. Not only is India home to the best food in the world (in my book), it also offers the biggest array of delectable local dishes which change from town to town (at times, from street to street!). Some of my most memorable food experiences include: Goan curry (the crumbed fish just collapses off the bone in one moreish bite); Jalebi (it might look like an oily, rubbery pretzel but it tastes like sweet heaven); chai tea (I’m now addicted to the stuff); smoky tandoor (chicken, lamb, vegetables – you name it and I’ll devoure it); flaky, chicken stuffed naan in Assam (carby goodness worth packing on the pounds for); and gulab jamun in Guwahati (honey-syrup soaked “donut balls” with a sweet liquid centre – OMG!).


Best local character I met: I crossed paths with many wonderful people during my time in India, from the delightfully eccentric and wildly extroverted to the uber curious and humbly helpful. I’ll never forget Yogesh (or Yogi Bear as I call him), our happy-go-lucky guide from Goa Tourism. Exploring Goa with Yogi in the back of our Land Rover, his wide toothy grin always on display, was both an insightful and comedic experience. He got tipsy with us, turned us into his personal photographers, helped us get under the skin of the local region, shared stories about his struggle to find a lady, welcomed us into his home, pampered us with lovely gifts, wined and dined us and, essentially, gave us the keys to Goa. By the end of our tour, we were sad to say goodbye to our new, dear friend.

I’ll also never forget Jay, a young tea entrepreneur from Guwahati. He walked into our lives bringing gifts of tea and gulab jamun and has been a Tweet or Facebook message away ever since. Not only has Jay continued to share local wisdom and invaluable advice with us throughout our journey, he also helped me reclaim my beloved Kindle when I left it in a hotel. I’m in complete admiration of his unconditional generosity and can only hope Ben and I get the chance to return the favours one day. What a beautiful, lovely young man.


Best surprise ‘n’ delight moment: Before arriving in India, I had a clear picture in my mind of what it would be like – the people, the landscape, the smells…the reality was much more multi-faceted, gripping and delightful than I’d imagined. During my three months in India, I fell in love with the place. It’s intriguing depth took hold of me mind, body and spirit. From the intoxicating spirituality of Varanasi and extreme rawness of the big city slums to the unmatched natural beauty of the north and enchanting tea fields around Darjeeling…from the Hippie-soaked beaches of Goa and the dramatic landscapes of Hampi to the wildly erotic temples of Khajuraho and ambitious dreamers in Mumbai…it’s impossible to get bored in India!


Sophee Southall