New views on India

Pedestrians and sacred cattle share space in the narrow alleyways of the old city of Varanasi. ...

Pedestrians and sacred cattle share space in the narrow alleyways of the old city of Varanasi. (ERNEST DOROSZUK/SUN MEDIA)

ERNEST DOROSZUK - Sun Media

, Last Updated: 1:51 PM ET

After two weeks of backpacking through India, I was looking forward to going home.

This was the midway point of a month-long solo journey, and I had experienced my fill of violent diarrhea and hassles from rickshaw drivers, store owners and begging kids.

But somewhere along the road, my perceptions changed.

I began to see that the people of India also exuded great warmth. And I soon realized I felt safer in India than in Europe.

By the end the month, I did not want to leave. The subcontinent had endeared itself to me.

The key to happy travels in India is to get off the tourist trail -- only then can you begin to discover the pulse of this fascinating nation.

I had started out in Delhi under the guidance of a friend who is a local. Then I set off on my own to Varanasi to see the holy river Ganges.

After arriving in Varanasi at 2 a.m. and taking two steps off the train platform, I was approached by a relentless autorickshaw wallah (a driver of a motorised rickshaw) who pressured me to take a ride to a hotel.

While this was my first trip to Asia, and I was clearly not prepared for the amount of hassles Western tourists must endure, I was fully aware the driver would receive a generous commission from the hotel so I declined.

But by then had I learned how to use a balance of aggression and humour to stem the tide of unwanted attention. A joke, a smile or a well placed "f--- off" will almost always ward off unwanted attention.

Still, I heeded the warnings in my Lonely Planet guide that Varanasi could be dangerous after dark and I waited for morning before leaving the station.

When I reached the Ganges, I was struck by the beauty of the rising sun over the river, people bathing, and the solemn sight of public cremations. This was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I was in awe.

Once you spend some time in India your body and mind acclimatize to the country. Sure, diarrhea still hits you -- but by your third round of antibiotics it's not so bad.

More importantly, I discovered the humanity of the people everywhere.

When I walked into a random shop and appealed for help with directions; in the laughs I shared with people who held me up as I was taking pictures while riding on a local bus; and in the seaside city of Diu, a former Portugese colony in the state of Gujarat, where I wandered for a couple of kilometres along the beautiful coastline. As my supply of water ran out, I decided to make my way back along the road, thinking there may be a bus service or something. Well there was, but Diu being a sparsely populated place public transit was equally as sparse. No worries though, within minutes a local offered me ride on his bike. He refused my offer to buy him a drink.

While swimming along that same coastline I was also mobbed by friendly school kids who still perceive a Westerner as a novelty. This was just one of many times I was treated like a celebrity.

And I will never forget the local man who smilingly gave me his blessing that I would not get sick again during my trip. I believe his blessing kept me safe for my last few remaining days in India.

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BOTTOM LINE

MORE INFORMATION

If you are planning a trip to India, I recommend reading Lonely Planet's India guide and the India forums at lonelyplanet.com. For tourism information, visit the country's tourism ministry, incredibleindia.org.


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