Finding the real India on my 8th trip

India, Gate, Delhi, travel

India Gate, symbol of Delhi

Starting my eighth trip to India where I began

AMONG SOME TRAVELLERS to India, especially backpackers, a kind of badge of honour is bestowed on those who are committed to experiencing the “real India.” They brag about travelling by sleeper coach and staying in 100-rupee per night flea-bag hotels. I have never bought into this concept because “real” is a very subjective term.

Over the course of my two-plus years living and travelling in India, I have experienced almost every kind of situation you can imagine. I have stayed in simple ashram rooms in Rishikesh and camped under the stars in the Rajasthan desert. I have enjoyed the services of a butler at ITC Mughal in Delhi and the luxury of a Mughal suite at ITC Mughal in Agra. I have couch-surfed with friends in Mumbai and underwent Ayurvedic treatment at a beachside resort in Kerala, on the Arabian Sea.

But, mostly, I have stayed with a Punjabi family in Delhi. This is the family I stayed with on my first night in India, back in December 2005. And this is the family I am staying with now. I don’t reveal a lot about my living arrangements with this family as I want to protect their privacy. My life with my Indian family is separate from my travel writing and blogging career. It is real life.

Delhi, India, Diwali, light, festival, travel

Me lighting Diwali diyas in Delhi 2009

Over 10 years of living with them on-and-off when I’m in India, I have gone through many journeys. I have celebrated births and birthdays. I have been part of their Diwali pujas and Holi fun. I have watched one girl grow from childhood to teenager. She was seven when I first came to India, and we used to pay badminton together on the terrace until it grew too dark to see. She is now planning to attend university next year.

In the family home, I am (mostly) expected to flow with the rhythm of Indian life. Canadian expectations of hygiene, privacy, meal times and bathing are a moot point. They have done their best to make me feel welcome, but I am expected to “adjust a little,” as all Indians do. The single most important consideration they have afforded me is to arrange things so that I can eat my dinner early — about 8 or 9 pm instead of 10 or later. For this I am deeply and eternally grateful. They also make rice for me to eat, as I have to eat a gluten-free diet (Punjabis are big chapati / roti eaters).

I have learned to bathe with a bucket and use water instead of toilet paper. I have learned to eat Punjabi style, rice and dal at each meal, chaaj after lunch, sweets like ladoos and burfi on special occasions and Tandoori paneer, sweet lassi and kulfi on very special occasions. I have gone to the local Shiva temple with them and distributed prasad to the poor. And I have gone to 5-stars with them for lunch.

South, Delhi, India, travel, celebration

Celebrating my birthday with the family in Delhi, 2006

They have taught me more about India and Indian culture than I could ever learn from travel, reading or studying. They have helped me choose my Indian outfits and accessories. They have loaned me shimmering saris to wear at family weddings. They have made appointments for me at the doctor and the beauty parlour. They have stayed up to open the door when I arrive late at night into Delhi. They have shared their memories of Delhi’s past with me, when the streets were empty, and families strolled together at India Gate eating ice cream. They have shared their enthusiasm for the seasons of Delhi, the magic of foggy winter mornings and the relief of summer rain, and made me see the city with poetic eyes.

Above all else, perhaps, I’ve been blessed with their understanding. They’ve put up with my cultural missteps. Unknowingly leaving a taxi waiting for 1 hour. Shutting doors to keep the sacred, cleansing smoke from fire pujas circulating. Wearing too-revealing clothes in the house, in front of the servants. Giving culturally incorrect gifts.

Holi, India, Delhi, festival, travel

Playing Holi with the family in Delhi, 2010

And worse, they’ve put up with my sometimes unreasonable behaviour as I’ve struggled with the frustrations of life in India. Unlike Canada, the power is not always continuous, the water is not always flowing, and local services and business are not always reliable. And in the early days especially, I was not always graceful about accepting and adjusting. I was still trying to get things done Canadian-style.

When I arrive in Delhi on each trip, I am loaded with one or two big bags, and I leave these in the house while I travel with much smaller bags or my small-ish backpack. In fact, my backpack has been in their storage room for years! Though three generations are crowded into a mid-sized apartment (actually, it’s quite large by Delhi standards), they always make room for me. While a Canadian might judge whether they have space in material terms, in India, and in this family, the space is in the heart.

If there is space in the heart for someone, there will always be space in the house.

This is one of the most important things I have learned in all the 10 years I have lived and travelled in India. And this is something this family has taught me through all the trials and tribulations of life we have gone through together. There is an aspect to my association with this family that has been stressful and challenging, and that is too personal to reveal in a public blog. Suffice to say, it has taught me the strength of commitment, the searing nature of love, the unexpected surprises of culture clash … and … perhaps … just a little wisdom.

Under the glaring light of India’s sun, my relationship with this South Delhi family is a tower and a beacon and reduces into insignificance many of the trivialities of travel in India and my career as a travel writer and blogger.

Maybe someday I will tell the story about how I discovered the real India.

Photograph of Delhi's pink sunset in India

Pink sunset from the terrace of the family home in South Delhi

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34 Responses to Finding the real India on my 8th trip

  1. Gaurav Bhatnagar October 25, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    The other day when you said that it is not easy for you to be in India, I was wondering about what keeps you coming back. Now I know. Yes, as you would have already seen, India is a country with extremes and moderates. On one hand people will accommodate you in smallest of the houses and on the other they would reject you on your face. Having read this post, I believe that your relationship with India is there to stay for long. πŸ™‚
    Gaurav Bhatnagar recently posted..Gender equality in Responsible travelMy Profile

  2. Yogesh October 25, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

    Very interesting story of the family and your connection to them.

    It’s very Indian in saying that we are always taught

    “You don’t have to have big house, but big heart”

  3. Brock (Edges Of Earth) October 25, 2015 at 4:39 pm #

    Ahhh, for so many reasons, this is a place that I want to visit. Sooo very different from our western-culture, and for that reason, I want to visit and experience a different way of living.

    Sounds like it will have it’s stresses, but oh well – so does every other country.

    Definitely on my list of places to go – near the top!
    Brock (Edges Of Earth) recently posted..My Decision To Travel The WorldMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward October 26, 2015 at 12:38 am #

      I don’t think anyone ever said India was an easy country to travel in! But it does have its benefits. For me, India is the most personally transformative destination.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Celebrating 6 years of BreathedreamgoMy Profile

  4. Yogi saraswat October 26, 2015 at 3:22 am #

    Happy to know about you and your blogging but most part of the happiness is that you have a family here in India too . If I appreciate our culture it will not easy to describe but it should be from the side of foreigners . continue your blogging with comparison of your nation and India wherever required so that we can be familiar with your culture too.

    • Mariellen Ward October 26, 2015 at 4:00 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Yogi. I have an entire section on travel in Canada, which should help shed some light on Canadian culture.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..5 reasons to love Kumaon nowMy Profile

      • sunil bendale October 29, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

        We know the greatness of Canadian people of ‘Newfoundland town of Gander’ ,how they hosted thousand of stranded travellers on 9/11 !!


  5. Siddhartha Joshi October 26, 2015 at 4:31 am #

    That’s such a beautiful post Mariellen! Enjoyed reading every bit of it…such relationships make life (and travel) so fulfilling…
    Siddhartha Joshi recently posted..Durga Pooja Street Festival in NainitalMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward October 27, 2015 at 12:41 am #

      Thanks Sid. For me, immersing in a culture is a big part of the joy of travel. I am in the tradition of Freya Stark who lived in the Arab quarter in Baghdad. I find simply being a tourist to be very boring, frankly.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Tips for first time travellers to NepalMy Profile

  6. Swati ( The Tales of a Traveler ) October 26, 2015 at 10:39 am #

    Such a lovely post Mariellen … Travel has a new meaning when you meet people like this and kudos to the family who helped you experience the real India … and as we say in India ” Atithi devo bhava”
    Swati ( The Tales of a Traveler ) recently posted..Win Business Class Tickets to Great BritainMy Profile

  7. Jon Fuhrmann October 26, 2015 at 11:37 am #

    This is a lovely piece, and a lovely way of life. Punjabis rock – Amritsar and Himachal Pradesh have been my favourite places to visit India so far. Can’t wait to go back, and this brought it all out again πŸ™‚
    Jon Fuhrmann recently posted..Why I love travelling India – but not DelhiMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward October 27, 2015 at 12:42 am #

      Hi John, thanks for your comment. I can see from your blog post title that you didn’t enjoy Delhi. I could change that. I love this city … though i recognize it takes time to get to know it.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Celebrating 6 years of BreathedreamgoMy Profile

    • Shreya November 4, 2015 at 12:52 am #

      Yayy! I live in Amritsar. Small city but easy and happy life. Love it to the core!

      And hey! You cannot not Delhi! Delhi is pure love!

  8. Nitin October 28, 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    the main point of attraction for foreigners to india is joy, festivals, parties,beaches etc last time i had my girlfriend she came from europe mainly to celebrate holi etc
    Nitin recently posted..Got 4G LTE Device? Airtel welcomes you to the world of 4GMy Profile

  9. Lori Henry October 28, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

    A lovely post, Mariellen. I have never been to India but your website is a nice way to be introduced to it before I make the trip one day. Thank you for the wonderful information and personal stories.
    Lori Henry recently posted..Scary Halloween Stories: Haunted Places in WalesMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward October 29, 2015 at 3:32 am #

      Lori, I think you would love it here because you appreciate culture, dance and music, and India is certainly a gold mine for the type of tourism. I hope you visit one day, and happy to help you plan πŸ™‚
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..5 reasons to love Kumaon nowMy Profile

      • Lori Henry November 11, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

        Mariellen, *when* I do begin planning my inevitable trip to India, I will let you know (and consult your blog thoroughly. Dance, of course, will be at the top of my list for experiences to seek. πŸ˜€
        Lori Henry recently posted..Luxury Dubai Hotels: A Photo EssayMy Profile

  10. larryadams October 29, 2015 at 2:27 am #

    Hi Mariellen ,

    It is was a pleasure to read your blog, you seem to have a deep connection with India I would be great if you post some more informative details for travellers in India since you have a long experience of stay there.

    • Mariellen Ward October 29, 2015 at 3:33 am #

      Thanks for your comment Larry! Have you searched around the site? I’ve published 400+ articles on Breathedreamgo and dozens more on other sites too. I’m also available to provide itinerary consultation through the Plansify site (see sidebar). Cheers!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Lakshman Sagar: Feast and fantasy in the Rajasthan desertMy Profile

  11. Renuka October 29, 2015 at 4:29 am #

    As usual, I got something unique to read here. Appreciate the fact that you discovered India so deeply and respect how it’s different from your lifestyle and culture. Hope you are enjoying your stay here. πŸ™‚
    Renuka recently posted..Why I Loved Being In Agra And LucknowMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward October 31, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

      Hi Renuka, It’s so awesome that we know each other know πŸ™‚ Thanks for your comment. I feel very privileged that I’ve been able to get to know India so well (though there’s always more to learn of course).
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Tips for first time travellers to NepalMy Profile

  12. Chilo October 29, 2015 at 5:36 pm #

    hola Mariellen,

    great website, well done.

    as you seem to have and in-depept and up to date finger on the pulse of India , am ondering if you could recommend an Ashram ( or a Guru) with a focus on yoga / quiet life / meditation etc ? or if there are any other solo female adventurers out there that have actually lived the life you write about, but in a monstery or ashram ?
    Planning an extended trip to India and very interested in spending a month or so living with a spiritual community, ie simple, non-commercially focused as many of the on-line ones seem to lean towards tourism / courses etc.

    excellent writing also, most enjoyable


    • Mariellen Ward October 31, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

      Hello Chilo, Please type “yoga” or “ashram” into the blog SEARCH bar and peruse what comes up. I’ve written extensively about a couple of ashrams in India. I don’t know anything about monasteries, however. Good luck.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..5 reasons to love Kumaon nowMy Profile

  13. Leena Walawalkar November 4, 2015 at 2:46 am #

    This is such a sweet story and so well-narrated! I totally agree, that is there’s space in the heart, it gets automatically created in the house. Being from Mumbai, and having been brought up in match-box houses (in a joint family with tons of relatives), I can totally relate to this πŸ™‚

  14. Vaibhav November 19, 2015 at 1:50 am #

    It was heartening to her your experience of staying with an Indian family. Hope you keep coming back to India.

  15. Laia December 22, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    I really enjoyed your post and your experience with the family in Delhi.
    I agree that “real India” is a subjective term. I read that South India was not “real India” as the north, but I was in the South and it is. A lot of people say that to experience “real India” you have to eat street food, but I was staying with Indian friends and they told me they never eat street food because they get sick. And I traveled by local bus thinking that it was more “Indian” and then learnt that my friends prefer to travel by car or taxi when they can afford it!
    So… what is “real” in a country with so many people, languages and religions?
    Laia recently posted..The 10 best experiences of my round the world solo tripMy Profile

  16. Lilje December 25, 2015 at 9:08 am #

    Thank you so much for your insightful posts. They have been a real help for me planning out my own first Indian Experience. Will keep following your adventures also in the future <3
    Lilje recently posted..Route, practicalities, budget and other “serious” stuffMy Profile

  17. Hannah @GettingStamped February 8, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

    We visited India in 2015 for the first time, and I know we will be back!
    Hannah @GettingStamped recently posted..Swimming Pigs – The Bachelor | BahamasMy Profile

  18. Discoveredindia February 18, 2016 at 4:19 am #

    Hi Mariellen Ward, Nice to see that you travel India so frequently and also felt great to see that you are enjoying the culture of India also.

  19. Tom February 21, 2016 at 7:47 pm #

    This was such an interesting and inspiring post – it helped me a little more with making a decision on where to travel in 2016. I wish you all the best.

  20. Nomadic Foot June 20, 2016 at 7:41 am #

    your post makes me feel proud of India. thanks for this beautiful post.

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