Whenever I’m asked, “What’s your favorite country?” my response always elicits a quizzical look.

Really?” they ask – always with incredulity. “Why India, of all places?”

I’m then at a loss for words as to how to answer their follow-up question. It’s a challenge to articulate what I find so compelling about a country that – on its face – is so repellent. India was one of the first exotic places I’d ever been, and the experience – back in 1979 – for a fresh-faced midwestern girl was mind-blowing. It was India that compelled me to seek a career in the travel industry. It was India that busted open my limited world view. It was India that triggered a personal and spiritual transformation that enhanced my life exponentially.

And none of this happened by sitting in meditation at an ashram with a guru and a bunch of foreigners. I lived like a local. I simply traveled around as cheaply as possible for two months with my eyes – and my mind – wide open. I traveled on the hard wooden benches of a 3rd-class rail car and shredded seats of a dusty local bus, ate street food with my (right) hand and slept on mattresses made of string. I observed how the mass of humanity in India lives, breathes, bathes, eats, worships, and survives without seemingly complaining about their misfortune in the lottery of life.

Twenty-five years ago we took a very important group of corporate customers to India for a week on an incentive trip. Naturally, we reserved palatial hotels and planned over-the-top experiences for them with dancing girls and decorated elephants. But there would be no way to avoid the hard reality of what they would witness outside the manicured gardens of their luxury hotel: chaos, poverty, and filth. I wondered how any of these travelers would be able to take it all in and appreciate such sensory overload. But they did. By about the third day of the trip – after questioning me incessantly at the start – “Is it safe to eat? Is it safe to drink? Is it safe to breathe?” – my ladies wanted to shop in the local markets, “… where the local women buy their saris.”

It was my first time back to India, and I wondered about my expectations, too. This time, I would be one of those visitors coming off an air-conditioned bus. Would I still love it, or would I be unable to reconcile the gap in the way I was experiencing India? Would it still feel authentic if I traveled in comfort and luxury?

The answer, of course, was yes. I still love it! India has not lost its attraction for me and I’ve returned a few more times in recent years. But as I’ve evolved, so have the travel experiences I design. Increasingly – especially in developing countries – it’s more and more about the people we meet and the interactions we have with locals. Opportunities to learn and share and laugh – connecting with people who seem different, but who are really just like us at heart – become the most priceless memories for most of my WOW travelers.

With this next journey to India, I’m most excited about the people we’re going to meet along the way:

Our unusual itinerary is a collaboration with a woman who is as much in love with India as I am. Philippa Kaye is a Brit who made India her home in 2006 and is dedicated to creating the best possible experiences for people who visit. Referring to her adopted homeland, she says, “Monuments provide the backdrop, people provide the experiences.” Philippa will be traveling with us throughout our journey, providing a unique perspective and keeping things on track.

Philippa and her 80-year-old father, who visited her in India last year – for the first time.

During our brief pre-trip to Delhi, we hope to enjoy a meal with Marryam Reshii, food critic for the Times of India. She’s fascinated with ingredients, spices, utensils, regional cuisines and grandma’s secret recipes. With equal regard, she explores cuisine from five-star hotels to snacks served up at roadside food carts – and everything in between.

The next stop, in Varanasi, we’ll enjoy a fabulous tour guide with an unfortunate name, Kunal Rakshit. In a destination like Varanasi, the right guide can make all the difference. He’ll help us understand the unique culture and spiritual life by sharing his love and passion for his hometown.  

Varanasi, without a good tour guide like Kunal, would be overwhelming.

In Mumbai, we’ll meet Deepa Krishnan. After 15 years working in global banking technology, she set up Magic Tours to offer insightful and interesting tours of Indian cities to overseas visitors. In partnership with an NGO that works to educate poor children, tour guides are trained to offer an insider view of the city – its people, religions, cuisines, and quirks. We’ll travel with these enthusiastic young people on local transport to see the city from a different point of view.

In Mumbai, we’ll travel on local transport, including the ubiquitous black & yellow taxis.

In Kerala, we’ve collaborated with Gopi Parayil, founder of The Blue Yonder, a tour company that designs responsible visitor interactions with locals that benefit (and not exploit) those local people and their communities. He identifies projects and destinations and helps them transform into immersive travel experiences. One such experience that my WOWees will enjoy is a visit to a rural community near Cochin that is now thriving because of the revival of a crop called Pokkali, a red-colored rice which has a rare tolerance to salinity. A combination of factors threatened to push the crop to the verge of extinction, but they are now harvesting more than 50 tons of organic rice. How did they do it? We’ll learn about this success story and meet the stakeholders the collaborated and cooperated to sustain this rare crop. We’ll enjoy an organic lunch with them, too! It’s a unique and unusual peek into rural life and social entrepreneurship that’s making a difference.

We’ll not just observe rural India from the inside of an air-conditioned bus . . .

During the transfer from Udaipur to Jaipur, we’ll take a slight detour to the village of Ajmer, where we’ll meet artisans from the Anchal Project. This is a grassroots NGO founded by an American woman, Colleen Clines, who was inspired to use design as a tool for sustainable solutions to gender inequality, social injustice, and environmental degradation. Female artisans who were once commercial sex workers (CSWs) in India have limited options to improve their lives. Anchal offers training, education, healthcare and an income – and an opportunity for these women to rediscover their self-worth, their potential and creativity, and helps them become role models and providers for their families and communities.

So, if you’ve read this far and are the least bit curious about India . . . I hope you’ll join me and a like-minded group of travelers on a journey of a lifetime! Details on the website: WOW! India Done Different.


p.s.  I promise you’ll not need to sleep on string mattresses and travel in a 3rd class rail car!

Comments? Curious? Will you come along???