"This is indeed India, the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty...the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues...the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”
If India isn’t on your bucket list, it should be. From food, to culture, to religion, India is easily one of the most interesting and beautiful places I’ve ever traveled to. This past October, I explored what is commonly referred to as India’s “Golden Triangle,” consisting of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. Traveling through that northwestern circuit, I felt like I got a pretty good sense for the country and its overall character.
India had been on my bucket list for a while, and when the company I worked for offered me the opportunity to go, I jumped at the chance. Though I’d had a vague idea about what I expected India to be like, truly I didn’t know what I was in for. As I started to research the destination more and more and speak with people who had been there before, I began to grow increasingly apprehensive. I was hearing all sorts of troubling things about the intense air pollution, lack of hygiene in food and water, crippling poverty, and manipulation of tourists. As a traveler my mindset has always been not to fear the world, but to explore it, so luckily none of this was enough to actually scare me out of going, but it certainly came close!
Now after having gone and returned, I am so glad that I ignored the negative hype. I can honestly say that India is one of the most special places I have ever been. It’s loud, chaotic, overwhelming, crazy, colorful, beautiful, and alive, and is home to some of the warmest, friendliest people I’ve ever met. Though I did and saw a lot during my trip, one memory is particularly striking and seems to sum up perfectly India as I experienced it...
Riding in a hot air balloon had always been something I’d wanted to try and when I realized I could do it in India, I knew I had to go for it. The idea was to wake up at 3:30 AM, drive out of the city into the countryside of Jaipur, and float through the sky on a hot air balloon as the sun began to rise. It sounded nice enough, but beyond that, I really had no idea what to expect. In the end, what started as an aimless adventure turned out to be an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.
It was 3:30 AM in the middle of Jaipur, India, as I waited outside the hotel lobby for a shuttle to come pick me up for my “hot air balloon ride experience”. The van pulled up to the hotel with the logo for the hot air balloon company “Sky Waltz Balloon Safari” displayed broadly on its side and though the driver spoke no English, only Hindi, I decided I should get in. It was pitch-black and the city was still asleep as we drove out of town, a shocking contrast to the lively hustle and bustle of daytime life in India. After about an hour of driving, we pulled up to a massive, open field surrounded by mountains as we were met by a big group of westerners all standing around in the dark. Our group waited eagerly as the hot air balloon attendants filled up the balloons, blazes of ignition fire lighting them up in the darkness.
My group of eight westerners and our Spanish balloon conductor boarded our balloon as they briefed us on the takeoff and landing procedures, and then all at once, we were airborne. At first it was terrifying as we rose quickly up into the sky, with nothing but the balloon’s basket as a barrier between us and the open air. We started floating up over the countryside as the sun was beginning to rise and the villages were starting to wake up.
We weren’t flying, but floating, rising high above the earth, above everything else, taking in the world from a totally new perspective. It was so quiet and peaceful up there, unlike anything I had ever experienced. There were nine of us total on the balloon but none of us said a word. We just stood there taking the whole thing in, in total awe of what surrounded us. It was completely silent but for the sounds of the villages below; only birds and crickets, the occasional motorbike, and then kids and families rushing up to the roofs of their little houses waving and yelling “Hello! Good morning!” to us, could be heard.
We sailed up over the mountains and glided above the clouds. As people began waking up and starting their morning routines, we could hear the call to prayer in the distance. People would catch sight of the balloon and without hesitation, every single person, regardless of age or gender, smiled up at us excitedly and waved, or waved back when we did first. This trivial action of waving hello was such a foreign concept for me as a westerner; the idea that an utter stranger would go out of their way to recognize me for no reason at all other than simply to be friendly was unusual and exciting. The pure innocence of such a small but meaningful gesture, repeated constantly by every person we encountered, was just so strikingly beautiful to me. How excited we all were to wave and acknowledge each other combined with the rarity and amazement of people in hot air balloons drifting over the country fields was like something out of a fairytale.
People from several of the surrounding village fields watched as our balloon finally began to descend, and came running towards the field where we were sinking down to meet us. Once we had landed, we were met by a group of at least a hundred villagers, all dressed in the most vivid red, yellow, pink, and orange-colored saris I have ever seen. They shyly gathered in front of the balloon, all of us giggling and waving and smiling and taking pictures of each other and together, though still we remained divided by the confines of the balloon’s basket. None of us knew what to do with each other and we were all so interested in the other group. It was like neither the westerners nor the locals even really had any idea that the other existed before that moment and we were all pleasantly curious about each other, wanting to be able to do more, say more, learn more, about the other but just didn’t know how. The humanity in it all was so powerful that I started to cry and laugh at the same time, I was so overcome with emotion brought about by the purity of the encounter. It was the most human experience I’ve ever had.
The longer we stayed there the more people gathered from the surrounding fields to see us. We couldn’t communicate at all, not even the balloon conductor spoke Hindi or the local dialect as he was from Spain, so we tried to gesture to each other by smiling and using body language. We were all very shy with each other, especially some of the other girls that were around my age; it was like we came from two completely different worlds but somehow we were also exactly the same. Everyone was buzzing with excitement and the novelty of it all was overwhelming; it was so unusual to feel so connected to another group that we couldn’t even properly speak to. The villagers standing closest to me indicated that they wanted to invite me to their homes to eat and drink something, which was shocking to me as we couldn’t even speak a common language. I was a complete stranger seemingly from another life and these lovely people still wanted to invite me to come to their homes to feed me and offer me warmth and hospitality. Of course I had to decline and go back to the city with the balloon tour, but the gesture was profoundly touching. I was so moved by that, I can’t even find the words to properly describe the feeling. Despite our differences, we’re all humans, and whichever walks of life we come from, we can still find common ground in basic humanity. Friendliness, warmth, hospitality, and kindness can be universally communicated without any need for language.
I was warned a lot before coming to India about all manner of things; the food, the people, the hygiene; I was prepared for the worst, but in the end my experience was nothing but wonderful and genuine. If I learned one thing from the people in India, I realized how easy it is to just make the first move to be friendly. It’s such a small gesture to smile or say hello and it’s always immediately reciprocated with a wave and a big smile. It was like that all over India, everyone so friendly, kind, and warm, everywhere I went. From walking the streets, to being stuck in traffic, to standing in a hot air balloon amidst a group of strangers; I just smiled or waved, and was always received with the hugest, warmest, friendliest smile, and it was like we had been friends all along. Nowhere else I’ve been have I felt like that. I smiled so hard in India that my cheeks hurt; I still cannot stop smiling just to remember it.
The kindness and beauty shown to me in India was truly overwhelming. Yes the landscapes were expansive, the cities exciting, and the food delicious, but for me, the most extraordinary part of India was the people. Experiencing a culture that breeds this sort of innate warmth opened my eyes to the beauty of the world in more ways than I ever could have imagined. Though my entire journey in India was incredible, it ended up being something as whimsical as a hot air balloon ride through the countryside that turned out to be an experience so profound that I will carry it with me for the rest of my life.
My name is Sophie Mendel, and I’m an American travel writer and editor currently residing in Chicago, Illinois, USA. I have traveled to 42 countries and lived in 5, am fluent in English and Spanish (and always in the process of learning more languages), and love lugging my guitar around the world with me! Follow my travels on Instagram @theunboundedtraveler!