Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, travelers either love India or hate it—there is no middle ground. India is chaotic and outside of most people’s comfort zone, but there is an incredible magic in the chaos. After visiting India 15 years ago, I was lucky to embark on my March/April 2015 trip a little more prepared for what I can only describe as “sensory overload…on overdrive!” Although I was prepared for India, I was not prepared for my reaction: I fell head over heels in love with the Indian subcontinent, and I fell hard! I am without any doubt more than a little lovesick for India since having returned home.
My experiences in India on both my trips felt otherworldly, but especially this last one. It has left me wanting to explore more of India, a vast country that encompasses so many cultures, languages and religions. While Africa is undoubtedly the pinnacle of wildlife destinations, the same is true for India with its smorgasbord of culture. Culturally it is the most amazing place on the planet, in my opinion!
Our two and a half week itinerary was ambitious and jam-packed. After landing in Delhi, we visited Humayan’s tomb, the predecessor to the Taj Mahal and one of the only monuments in Delhi I’d not visited on my prior trip. It is truly awesome and a must-see when in Delhi. I also re-visited Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque located in Old Delhi and one of my favorite sights in India’s capital city. Also a great place for kids to run barefoot after a long haul flight, as it is a huge open area inside the gates, and it is a requirement to remove shoes to enter.
From Delhi we flew to Central India and the state of Madhya Pradesh, where we spent a week exploring India’s jungles including Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench National Parks. Pench was the park that Kipling’s Jungle Book was based on, although he never visited the park himself. We were rather unlucky in that there were very early unseasonal rains, which messed with the movements of the tigers and tiger sightings. We saw only one tiger and it was so far it was a speck in the distance, but we did hear a tiger roar, which left us speechless as its powerful roar echoed through the jungle! We were also super lucky in Pench to see two leopards, a male and a female, and also a wild dog pack! All were quite skittish and difficult to photograph, but we were the only vehicle at both sightings, which was fantastic and unusual! Hands down, Jamtara Wilderness Camp outside of Pench National Park was my favorite of the camps in Central India. It truly is special and has a star bed option, where you can sleep out under the stars on a raised platform and enjoy the nighttime sounds of the jungle…with one of the staff of the camp sleeping below close by!
Next up was Bombay for 2 nights, a city that, like New York City, never sleeps! With its 20 million people, half of whom live in the slums and shantytowns that border that city, and traffic that makes LA’s seem like a walk in the park, Bombay was the epitome of the chaos that is India’s big cities. But I loved the vibe and the people, so cosmopolitan and alive. The Elephanta Caves, an UNESCO World Heritage site with its fabulous rock art dedicated to Lord Shiva, are accessed by boat departing from the beautiful Gateway of India. The caves were fascinating and well worth the stifling heat endured to visit them in mid-April! (Side note: The best time to visit India is Oct-Mar for most pleasant temperatures.) The staff and the beauty of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel made us feel like royalty. The stunning art deco palace wing and wonderful staff members were such a treat and a great way to acclimate back to city life after a week in the jungle.
We spent our last 5 nights in Rajasthan, the Princely state, which is nothing short of enchanting. We felt like we were in a fairy tale every single day. Udaipur and the iconic Lake Palace in the middle of Lake Pichola, where the James Bond film Octopussy was filmed, did not disappoint. We ended in Jodhpur, the Blue City, visiting another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Mehrangarh Fort. I am still dreaming of living in the stunning fort, which sits up on a hill and can be seen from most places in the city.
Between Udaipur and Jodphur, we squeezed in a night at Jawai Leopard Camp, which was my favorite wildlife experience all-around because it was not in the national parks. Here leopards live in the caves and rocky hills, a landscape that reminded me a great deal of northwest Namibia, and walk amongst Hindu temples that dot the landscape. The leopards’ main source of food are the goats of the local people, but amazingly there is no human and wildlife conflict. This is simply how the people and the leopards have shared this land and co-existed for generations.
On our last morning at Jawai, my little daughter, our guide and I embarked on a brief village visit, while my colleagues stayed back at camp. This might have been my favorite hour of our entire trip. As we drove through a little village, a particular house/compound with a wall around it caught my eye. There were three older men with turbans sitting out front that just screamed “PHOTO” to me! I asked our guide to please hit reverse and ask them if I could take a photo. We stopped in front of the gate of the house, and within minutes a crowd gathered. We got out of the vehicle and I started snapping pics. There was an older woman who began pointing and telling me to take photos of different people. The crowd grew and we were invited inside the gates, where there were buffalo tied up. One of the older men with a turban picked up my daughter and told our guide that she was going to stay and live with them! My daughter, only 2, was a little perplexed but rolled with the punches and mostly wanted to touch the buffalo, which seemed like a terrible idea.
There was a young boy, approximately 11, who I predict will be mayor of the little town one day, and he proceeded to play host for our visit. They brought out two plastic chairs and offered us chai, tea. The guide and I could not say no. They were so hospitable, friendly and just lovely. The crowd continued to grow, and pretty soon there must have been 30 people or so gathered. We snapped photos and laughed with them a lot. Our guide from camp was from Pune, a totally different area, so he did not speak the local language. Such is India, so many languages! It was totally spontaneous and their hospitality was so genuine. The guide said he had never stopped at that house but would definitely be back. This was perhaps my favorite hour in India. I felt so humbled that we were welcomed as guests into this amazing little home in the countryside of Rajasthan. I took so many photos in the time we were there, and those are some of my favorites from the trip.
I reconnected with my love for photography on this trip and got my photography mojo back. As I keep saying, there are a billion people in India and I wanted to take a photograph of every single one!
Photographing elders and kids is perhaps my favorite, and I was also so very lucky and fortunate to have had the opportunity to bring my 2yr old daughter with me. Every kid she met was a friend and language was no barrier. She happily spoke to them in Spanish or English and was spoken to in Hindi! This also meant lots of opportunity to photograph Indian children and my daughter with them. Lucky me!
There is something magical about seeing the world through the eyes of your child. Who knew that traveling with a toddler could be such fun!? She was the life of the party, as she bowed with folded hands and said “Namaste” to greet everyone we met. I think her teachers and classmates will think she’s making stories up when she starts school: “I went to Africa when I was 1 and India when I was 2.” …Wait, WHAT?
Now I am back home, but India still fills my daydreams and nightly dreams alike. I’m completely torn between my love for Africa and my love for India for completely different reasons. There is no way I could choose one over the other, and from a self-proclaimed safari junkie with almost two dozen trips to Africa under my belt, that is saying a lot!
I feel blessed, lucky and privileged to have had the opportunity to explore so much more of this amazing country on this return trip! Enjoy the photos, enjoy the ride. And if incredible India is on your bucket list, I’d love to help dream up your trip to this magical, mystical place.