THE BEST EXOTIC MINDSET
My first ever trip to India did not teach me how to ‘find myself’, it taught me how to find adventure, or rather, how to let adventure find me.
We’ve all heard the cliché’s about visiting India for the first time, and just to get it out of the way I’ll tell you now that yes, it is a heady assault on the senses. But contrary to the other big stereotype, I will not tell you that I ‘found myself’ whilst I was out there. What I did find was a formula for adventure that will get you results no matter where you are and I’m so glad that I discovered it in India.
I knew that a trip to the sub continent would present me with an adventure of some kind – it was inevitable. I was about to step into a country renowned for it’s vibrant and utterly unique culture, a culture that’s said to engulf you the moment you set foot off the plane. In short I was about to face a barrage of new experiences and it would be near impossible not to come back with some worthy tales to tell as a result. However it turned out that the most memorable chapters of my journey may never have happened and it was thanks to my open mind and the shedding of my instinctively cautious skin that they did.
I was visiting India with three friends for ten days and it just so happened that we would be touching down in New Delhi on the opening night of Diwali (a Hindu festival, otherwise known as ‘the festival of lights’). We’d heard all about the deafening fireworks, bright lights and party atmosphere that accompanied the festival and were slightly bewildered when we took our first hair raising tuk tuk ride into the centre of town, Connaught Place, to find nothing.
When I say nothing, I mean the streets were near enough empty, many restaurants were closed despite it being 8pm and there was no sign of the infamous fireworks and colourful illuminations we’d been told to expect. When we asked our driver why there were no such celebrations, he informed us (with a trace of amusement) that we’d landed on what was the equivalent of Christmas day – not in the religious sense but in the sense that everyone would be celebrating at home with their friends and family. Now, whether it was the look of disappointment on our faces or just an excuse for our driver to clock off early and join his own family for the night I don’t know, but what happened next was my first introduction to open minded, adventurous, reckless abandon and what followed that, was a brilliant night…
Our tuk tuk driver, a perfect stranger, asked if we would like to join him and his family for the evening’s festivities and insisted that we would be most welcome. Instantly I was torn. I’m ashamed to admit that my first thought was to avoid what sounded like one of the many cautionary tales found in guide books warning of conmen taxi drivers or worse, but my other thought was that this could be an opportunity of a lifetime – a chance to immerse ourselves in the ‘real India’ by celebrating with a local Indian family and start off our trip with a bang – literally!
So after some deliberation we accepted his kind offer and sped off into the night, heading for an unknown destination and with a dizzying mix of anxiety and excitement.
It turned out that this one dubious decision transformed our first night in India from a potentially steady introduction to the country, into a loud and breathtaking encounter that we’d all secretly been hoping for. As we approached the small town that our driver called home, we were met with the warming glow of hundreds of candles adorning the windows and balconies of the many houses that jostled for position there. Overhead and hanging from the walls were cascading fluorescent lights twinkling and flashing – as you can imagine we were wide eyed and open mouthed as we took in the festive scene. That is before a sudden and ear-splitting crack shook us out of our ‘oooohhhing and ahhhing’ and had us ducking for cover. We had just encountered our first Diwali firework and true to legend it was as much a mighty sound to be heard, as it was a beautiful sight to behold.
Before we knew it, we were being ushered into the family home to meet brothers, sons, wives and daughters. They accompanied us to the village temple where we made offerings of fruit to elaborately decorated shrines, we then returned to the house for countless glasses of whisky and endless trays of fruit and nuts, before joining the family for candlelit prayer. Now, I must add here that the cautionary voice in my head quaked at the thought of eating food and drinking from glasses that may have been washed in tap water, as a result I did exercise some caution (avoiding some peeled fruits), but I did enjoy the whisky and certainly didn’t live to regret it!
After prayer we headed out onto a small green, where we joined the rest of the community for the dangerous and thrilling activity of setting off fireworks. The technique is simple: hold the firework in your bare hands, light the worryingly short fuse and throw it into the air just before it explodes. I say the technique is simple, but one of my friends gravely mistimed the throwing of his firework and subsequently suffered extreme tinnitus for the rest of the evening. However this wasn’t a problem, as the rest of the night consisted of dancing in the street to full – volume bangra music, which managed to penetrate even his shell-shocked eardrums. The night ended with us piling into a taxi and surrendering ourselves to yet another nail biting ride through the streets of India and back to our hotel.
This impulsive and exploratory approach to new experiences continued for the duration of our trip and led to many more memorable moments. One such moment saw the same tinnitus stricken friend of mine, giving a rickshaw driver a ride of his own (much to the shock and bewilderment of many a bystander unaccustomed to such a sight). He made a valiant effort, tackling the gruelling ride despite the intense heat, but eventually he ground to a halt and returned the handlebars to their rightful and highly entertained owner.
Our new found boldness also saw us part of a crowd that stormed a line of armed security guards as they attempted to hold us back from a car race we had paid to see (which happened to be the inaugural Indian leg of the Formula One Series). I hasten to add that we were not the instigators of the charge but were happy to be swept along with it, feeling childishly rebellious as we sprinted towards the race track, arriving just in time to see the all important start.
I would love to recount each and every fleeting yet unforgettable encounter, but all good things must come to an end. In fact, my trip to India ended as it had begun – with an exciting journey into the unknown, invited by a near perfect stranger who promised a further glimpse of ‘the real India’. My friends and I had met a young (and rather good looking) café owner on our last night who I got on with very well. I returned the following day to say goodbye and was offered a ride on the back of his motorbike to see the side of India tourists don’t see and he also wanted me to meet his family. Of course I accepted, but not before nipping over the road, back to my hotel, to tell my friends where I was going. Of course they were nervous about letting me go alone but given our track record thus far, they knew that I was unlikely to be perturbed and didn’t’ try to stop me.
What followed was the perfect reward for my ‘risk taking’ – a thrilling and disorientating ride through the narrow and ever winding back streets, of which my escort evidently knew like the back of his hand. I was whisked past low hanging lines of laundry, women in colourful saris going about their chores and rowdy children playing ball amongst a scattering of stray dogs. After this whistle stop tour I was welcomed into his house to meet his family and his soon to be married niece, before heading up, up and up onto the rooftops where I was greeted with a vast and spectacular view that spread out before me.
I could go on endlessly about the many experiences we had during our short stay but what I’d really like to do is impart one thing – the importance of being open and willing to seize an opportunity, because that is when real adventure can be found. All sorts of things can happen in a playground as culturally rich as India, but as I said before, many of my personal highlights were not a given just because I was in India; they were offered to me and I took them. It may sound like I’m encouraging you to embrace reckless behaviour and disregard any sense of danger, surrendering yourself to all kinds of risks but I’m not. I’m simply saying with good judgement and a good dose of open mindedness you may get that much more out of a place.
Adventure is a mindset – be open to new experiences and adventure will find you.