I admit, I’m a fan of independent travel (read: travel on a shoestring) and a seeker of the unexpected, but when I decided to go to India, I felt right to book a guided tour.
The main reason was that I was staying for only ten days and I wanted to see as much as possible, without wasting time looking for transports, entrances and understanding how to get about.
Certainly, getting around has been much easier, so my first need, as I expected, was fully met, however, I grew increasingly happy to have a guide all throughout rural India.
Traveling in Rajasthan can be tricky, despite my guide’s recommendations on basic safety rules, I got sick and spent a whole night throwing up everything I had eaten probably in the past six months, with the result that the morning after I looked like a zombie.
Although I love street food, I haven’t had any in India, I have always been very careful to drink only bottled water and avoided anything “risky”. Probably what got me was some milk-based dish in which the milk could have been expired.
Apart from that, the trip went smoothly, and I have only nice memories. The travel guides I’ve had were great, and I’m happy we are still in touch (yes, thanks to the magic of the Internet..).
Who stayed with me from day one, worried about my being too skinny, encouraging me to eat more than I could manage and solving each every one of my problems in less than no time was not my mom as you might think, but Chandu, a great driver who never gets tired. Seriously, after ten hours drive I was more exhausted than he was.
Clearly an experienced travel guide, he provided me with colorful anecdotes everywhere we went, contributing in unveiling the idiosyncrasies of the Indian society I wouldn’t have been able to capture on my own in such a short time.
From day three, travel agent Sushila joined us. The official reason was that “she had never visited the cities we were going next”, but I believe the real aim was that she was worried about a little girl traveling all alone throughout rural India. Not sure why everybody thought I was 20, but I’m certainly not complaining about it.
In every city there was a local guide ready to take over the stint to show me around and all I had to do was follow, listen and, obviously, take thousands of pictures. Traveling has never been that easy.
In Agra, Danish showed me the Agra Fort and introduced me to the story of love and pain behind the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Taj Mahal with such passion that sometimes I thought he wished he had built the Taj himself.
In Jaipur I was escorted by Bisaj, who explained me Indian complex astrology system, according to which they assess everybody’s “luck” in order to arrange future marriages. When he learnt I was 32 and unmarried, he kindly offered to find out what’s wrong with me and work out my luck. I’m still waiting full of hope.
Jodhpur was a blast. Literally. Escorted by Chhotaram Prajapat, Sushila, Chandu and myself ventured in beautiful Salawas village, in Jodhpur district. After enjoying an otherworldly immersion in nature, admiring shy deers, antelopes, black bucks and peacocks, we had a taste of what village life in rural India looks like.
The tour of the tiny hamlet started with the ceremony of the opium, central part of their social mores, carried out during special occasions and to make up in case of arguments. When everything was ready, I was inevitably asked if I wanted to try it out, and my thrilled “Yes” was met by Chhotaram’s smirk and Chandu’s eye-rolling, who I’m pretty sure was thinking “Oh my God, she’s gonna get sick again.”
Leaving Jodhpur, we drove to Jaisalmer, where my tour of the city was colored by the tales of Papu, or Prem, not sure. Like Chandu, also Papu seemed very concerned about my eating habits, because “not only work is important, you need to take care of your body first.” He still reminds me, so how can I forget.
Apart from my not-eating-enough sorrow, Papu was very busy all the time we spent in the desert trying to find a toilet for me. When I realized the best solution he had come up with was to go behind a tree, I decided to keep it, also because the desert is not exactly synonymous with lush vegetation.
After the desert safari, we “casually” ended up at a 5-star hotel, so after avoiding the tree, I had the chance to try out a 5-star toilet. Still now Papu can’t believe it: “I’ve never met anyone able to keep their wee for two hours.”
The last city I’ve visited was Bikaner, too short time for a tour, so Sushila and Chandu brought me to a temple devoted to mice: thousands of mice darting in and out so fast that at every step I made I was afraid to crash some. Like in every other temple, shoes were not allowed, and since mice are not my favourite pets, I threw my socks out after the holy visit. But I still truly appreciate Indian love for animals.
With the benefit of the hindsight, I think I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy India as much as I did without the aid of my local guides, who have definitely made my trip more colorful and authentic.