India can leave you speechless

Morning on the Ganges in Varanasi India

Morning boat rides along the Ganges are a common tourist activity. Photo by Terri Colby

“India is a world within a country.”

That sentence from a new Indian friend sums up perfectly the experience of a first-time visitor to this amazing place where you will be left speechless by the many overwhelming images that just might cause your camera finger to tire.

Maybe it’s in Agra at the Taj Mahal, whose familiar iconic images do little to prepare visitor for the fabled monument to love. Or maybe it’s in Varanasi where the spiritual bathe on steps that disappear into the holy and historic but filthy Ganges.

tourists at the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is a stop for most India tourists. Photo by Terri Colby

But it’s often just the everyday street scenes—in their majesty and beauty or in their wretchedness and despair—that can leave their imprint.  A memory of a beggar girl of about three-years-old, doing gymnastics in the middle of a traffic jam on a main street in Delhi, remains lodged in my brain, months later. Garbage piled high in the ancient alleys of Varanasi stays with me, as does the image of a bull strolling through a shop there at night. That scene drew nary a raised eyebrow from the locals. But there’s so much more.

I saw my first camel on the road to Jaipur. About an hour outside Delhi, glancing out the window of our air-conditioned Toyota, I looked across the highway median to see the dun-colored animal pulling a battered, wooden cart with a group of sari-clad women huddled in the center, like flowers in the desert. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles rushed past. And they were gone before I could point it out to my husband.  Another of India’s small miracles.

The culture shock on any trip to India can be daunting, no matter how much you’ve prepared. There’s a kind of sensory overload of crowds, colors, smells, dirt, sound and despair.

cow in shop in Varanasi India

No one was surprised when this bull wandered into this shop in crowded Varanasi, India's holy city along the Ganges River. Photo by Terri Colby

Normally, I never take tours arranged by travel companies, preferring instead to find my own way. But I would recommend that even experienced travelers book a tour company for a first-time visit to India. We used Luxury India Holidays, and they booked everything within our time frame, arranging flights within India, but more importantly arranging drivers and tour guides in selected cities.

After a 15-hour flight from the U.S., we arrived in Delhi and breathed our first fresh air in many hours when we left the airport. The air carried the scent of smoke from wood fires and burning cow dung used as fuel by the poor, many of whom live in makeshift shanties along the road.

Driving in India is a dangerous game best left to the locals, who aren’t surprised by the time it takes to get from place to place, in part because of poor roads, in part because of horrible traffic. Our driver took us through a large swath of the state of Rajasthan, home of the maharajas and the Amer Fort. It took us more than four hours to drive the little more than 100 miles from Jaipur to our tiger safari at the Ranthambhore National Park, mostly because of bad roads.

While much of it must have been annoying for our driver, the excursion was a non-stop visual feast for us: camels pulling carts along the road, women in jewel-toned saris harvesting crops with a sickle, traffic jams like none you’ve seen in the U.S., filled not only with trucks and cars, but with bicycle rickshaws pulled by strong young (and some old) men, motorcycles, horse- or camel-drawn carts, herds of goats, tractors, slow-moving cows, tuk-tuks—a kind of open-air taxi about the size of a golf cart—and even, once, an elephant milling about in all the confusion of a stall caused by an accident.

Rickshaw riders in India

Tourists as well as locals use bicycle rickshaws for transportation. Photo by Terri Colby


India is huge, with more than 1 billion people in an area about a third the size of the United States with its population of just over 300 million. Unless you have time for a months-long trip, you have to make some choices ahead of time about where you want to go and when. Monsoon season rules out some areas in some months and temperatures in excess of 100 degrees rules out other areas at different times. The north of India is part of the Himalayas (you can see Mount Everest at sunrise), which can make it too cold and snow-packed for travelers in colder months.

India is a country of extremes, in almost every way imaginable, the combination of which gives India its magnetic pull. You will see very wealthy people and in-your-face beggars; large, modern cities and rural villages so poor that women in saris harvest crops with a sickle; ancient temples and palaces that share the landscape with plastic-and-tin roadside housing for the modern-day poor; landscapes of mountains and beaches, the tropics and deserts.

And it’s a love-it-or-hate-it place. For me, its pull is impossible to ignore. Get more information at the official Indian tourism website .