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From Embracing the Unknown to Feeling at Home in India

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I stumbled off my long flight from Belgrade to Bhopal, tired and with growing anxiety about my upcoming travels. It was my first day in India, and based on stories I had heard about the country, I thought I knew what lay beyond the airport’s doors: overly spicy food, loud streets, intense traffic, wandering cows, and bright colors. I braced myself for a sensory overload.

But as I prepared to step outside and begin my journey through this new place, I remembered the wise words of Jack Delf, an Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) educator and long-time member: “The quickest way to change your opinion about a country is to visit that country.” I was ready for India to reveal its true self.

The ATTA team celebrates the opening night of AdventureNEXT India at the Tribal Museum. © ATTA / Kristen Kellogg

Over the next few days, the ATTA delivered its first-ever event in East or South Asia, AdventureNEXT India (3-5 December 2018) in Bhopal, supported by the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI) and hosted by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board. Right away, photos and stories started coming in from the Pre-Adventures, and the names I’d been emailing manifested themselves as real people, offering a glimpse into India’s reality. From the local artists and craftsmen to the government officials, the people of Madhya Pradesh put me at ease and made me feel welcome. Everyone displayed a remarkable sense of dignity and kindness of heart, qualities that followed me in the days to come.

After AdventureNext India, I was no longer a complete stranger to the country and ready to embark on my post-event adventure. Together with Akshay Kumar of Mercury Himalayan Explorations, I headed over the Himalayan foothills with two other fellow travelers. While our vehicle played chicken with others on the narrow road curving around the mountains, I admired the mighty Ganges. Emerald green, it glowed in the afternoon sun as it rushed through the steep gorge. Akshay shared the legend of Ganga — one of two daughters of the Himalayas — and I imagined the force with which the river descended to Earth and crushed everything that crossed its path. We went to Devprayag to see the spot where the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda Rivers met to give birth to this most sacred river in India.

From Devprayag, we cycled down the mountain roads to a silver-colored beach in the middle of the Ganga Gorge as lights lit up distant villages. We set up camp and spent our first night by the bonfire, drinking masala chai while sharing stories of our past adventures and plans for those to come.

Nikola Mladenovic (far right) rafting on the Ganges with Tomasz Lipiński (Dolomiti Adventures), Dilshad Master, Huw Kingston, and Askhay Kumar. © Nikola Mladenovic

The next day, my fellow travelers, Akshay, our friendly guides, and I battled class III and IV rapids appropriately called the Wall, Three Blind Mice, Cross Fire, Golf Course, and Roller Coaster on the Ganges. There was, of course, some unplanned swimming, and we even flew over the river, zip lining from one bank to the other and laughing at how ridiculous we looked in safety harnesses. Somewhere along the way, those cold, holy waters of the Ganges began washing away the preconceived notions and stereotypes I packed along with my hiking boots and sunscreen for this trip through India.

My initial anxiety melted away as I immersed myself in India’s stunning natural landscape and generous local hospitality. At the Bull’s Retreat, where we stayed for the rest of our trip, we met the Bull himself. A true living legend in India, Colonel Narinder “Bull” Kumar was one of the first Indians to reach 28,300 feet (8,500 meters) and a member of India’s first successful expedition to Mt. Everest. It also happened to be Colonel Kumar’s 85th birthday, and his family from across India had gathered for a celebration. Akshay, the Colonel’s son, invited us to join a ceremony called havan, which is performed to satisfy the gods and ask for blessings. As a tourist, it felt inappropriate for me to intrude on this intimate family occasion. “Guest is our God in India,” Akshay insisted, and I had to give in. I was no longer a tourist in India.

Later that night, while the whole family sat in a circle conversing and singing, I joined in with a song very dear to me as well, something I would normally not be comfortable doing. Deeply touched by the kindness and generosity of the entire family, I no longer felt like an outsider, a mere observer. Sharing something intimate and personal to each of us, we created a bond. To me, India was no longer a two-dimensional profusion of smells, traffic noise, and intense spices. India was real and defined by helpful people, personal stories, and genuine friends. India was now part of me, and I was part of India.

Participating in the havan ceremony at the Bull’s Retreat. © Nikola Mladenovic

Over the next two weeks, I traveled mostly alone. Naturally, it was not always easy. Travel writer Andrew Evans’ words — “to travel is to know the unfairness of the world, time and time again” — echoed in my head as I witnessed India’s contrasts and complexities. People walked barefoot through sludge in Old Delhi while intricate sandstone carvings on hawelis, mansions in Jodhpur, delivered an opulent display of wealth. Shacks juxtaposed with splendid Mogul palaces and forts. I navigated around cows, which are holy in India, as they blocked busy intersections and felt my heartstrings pull at the sight of all the thin, skittish dogs wandering the streets. But I did not feel overwhelmed, nor did I judge. In the bigger picture, my opinion and presence did not matter. Tourists judge; adventure travelers feel, empathize, and seek to understand.

The scenery drastically changed as I traded Uttarakhand’s mountains for Rajasthan’s sand dunes and Delhi’s drab colors for Jaipur’s pink palette, but the people did not. Friendly and warm, they followed me everywhere I went.

Feeling increasingly connected to India, I was also happy to respond and interact. On the bus trip from Jaipur to Agra, the very last leg of my trip, I sat next to a girl named Supriya. Kind and chatty, she offered me lots of sweets, advice, and tips on Agra and Taj Mahal, and any other help I may have needed. And then she said those words so often repeated on my trip: “Attithi devo bhava. That’s a Sanskrit saying which means ‘guests are God in disguise,’” she explained and then continued: ”You are our guest, you are our God. No need to thank me.”

Abdullah prepares a campfire in the Thar Desert. © Nikola Mladenovic

As I said farewell to her, I felt a bit ashamed of the preconceived notions I had of India. The country is certainly not a simple place, but there was never a reason to fear it. My guide, Abdullah, said it best as we sat between the sand dunes, staring at the night sky in the Thar desert near Jaisalmer: “India is like life itself — messy and unpredictable but still so magical.” Magical, indeed.

5 Comments to From Embracing the Unknown to Feeling at Home in India

  1. Great article, Nikola. Though I have traveled through many countries of the world, I confess that I have avoided India for fears similar to those you wrote about. After reading your experience, I am more curious and less afraid.

  2. Beautifully written piece and sums up so much about why India is so special. It is one of my favourite countries and, every time I get to see a new part of it, I love it even more. I love the noise, the colours, the wandering cows, the beauty of the Himalayas, the peacefulness of the temples, the food (especially) and more than anything the people – curious, friendly, welcoming and so utterly endearing – its great to hear of an India “convert” after such a great event.

  3. Tony jones

    Plenty of articles try to capture the special dichotomy of travelling in India. Very few succeed. You have. Brilliant.

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