Travelling to India is often a dream of many wanderlusters. The food, the colors, the beautiful dance and sari-clad women has always been interesting to westerners. India is the land of my great-grandmother's birth and has always been a dream desitnation for me, however I've put it off for years because I've read what feels like a million horror stories online of women travellers being sexually harassed, groped and even raped. Although I traveled with my husband Stay on Skill made our experience in this country truly special.
The concept of Stay on Skill is that for a small fee you get hosted by a Indian family and share a skill. I decided to share one of my biggest passions, Latin dance. I am a positive thinker and went into the trip thinking that it would be a good time however I was not expecting a truly life-changing experience.
Our first host was the startup founder Arjun and his wife Prerna im Chandigarh, Punjab. Arjun is sweet and quiet like my husband Boni and Prerna is fiery and sassy like me. A match made in heaven! We got along instantly. The couple's engagement and wedding dates were also close to ours so we were all a bit on a honeymoon buzz. We stayed with Arjun's family which included his wife and parents. His father was a funny guy that was a great sport about learning Latin dance and his mother was an elegant and beautiful woman whose laughter I still miss.
Each night we'd have a dance class with additional friends and family members who ranged in age from 11 and up. In America we don't usually think of Indians as the most open group but this family showed us that not only was this family interested in learning about our cultures they were also interested in knowing us as human beings. Arjuna and Prerna showed us an amazing time in Chandigarh hanging out at Sector 17, a fantastic shopping area with a French design and light show. We literally felt like we were in a Europe for a bit there. We also visited the Rock Garden, an inspirational hand built artistic garden built by Nek Chand and did a sunrise walk around Lake Sukhna which was a beautiful insight into how Indians are fitting wellness and self-care into their daily life.
Chardigarh is an amazing city and honestly, if I lived in India it would be at the top of my list of places to live. It has so many great restaurants and shopping centers as well as many parks and outdoor activities. We'd never have found this gem of a place if it wasn't for Stay on Skill. But we weren't done yet.
Next we went for a short trip to Bathinda with Ahbinav, a young man that we wished we could kidnap and bring back to the states with us. Ahbinav is a perfect combination of quiet and crazy, just the kind of people we love. We stayed with Ahbinav's family where we were able to visited a textile manufaturing company with beautiful silks and brocades as well as visit a 40 aacres farm! It was so inspirational to hear about his father's life story and see the way he's been able to buiild his farming business in only 10 years.
Then were on to our next location, a place I never thought I'd be able to visit in a million years, Dharamshala. The bus ride was long and winding and challenged your ability to keep your lunch down. We arrived exhausted in the middle of the night after I'd had 2 days of stomach issues to meet Puja. As soon as I saw Puja's face I felt a connection, like I was with my friends back home in Chicago. A familiarity that I can't explain.
Puja's family consisted of her mother, whose name I don't know because I only called her Mama from day one, her 10 years old daughter Aloka and family friend Sonika who is another one of those wonderfully quiet but crazy people. Puja and I have so many similar interests in life and style that it's uncanny. One thing we both love besides the color orange is children. Puja would later take us to meet the under-privallaged children she worked with at a local school teaching them English.
It was cold as heck in Dharamashala but Mama and company all made sure we stayed warm. While in high in the Himalyas we went on an amazing hike in the mountains, were sernaded on Valentine's morning with Mama singing the most beautiful traditional songs and little talented Aloka playing tablas! I couldn't help but cry like the cheeseball I am. We also went to Norbulingka a gorgeous temple complete with shopping center and cafe . The dance classes here were especially rewarding as were joined by local kids and friends, however one woman whose name I won't mention for her privacy, danced with me for the first time in her life on her 42nd birthday. To share such a liberating moment with someone is truly a gift and has helped me to remember my purpose in this world.
Our final night in Dharamashala included a presentation of traditional Indian dances and delcicious Indian food. By the time we were leaving Dharamashala we had made friends for life. Puja's family felt like our family and we know that we will be back just to visit them. For anyone a little nervous to travel through India alone, or people who are looking to make real connections with real people, learn about culture, food and community, this program has really made our trip to India worth it. I'm so glad we've connected with these guys and made life long friendships. Until we meet again.