India – A story of Obsession and Fear

By - February 11, 2011 (Updated: November 21, 2014)

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Incredible India.
Taj Mahal, Agra, India - Forgotten Postcard

Taj Mahal, Agra, India – Forgotten Postcard

I’ve been obsessed with India for as long as I can remember. Whenever I’m asked where I want to travel, my immediate response is always ‘everywhere.’ When pressed to choose my top destination however, India is always number one on my list. Two days ago, I found out my dream of visiting India will come true in March. I have never been more excited – or terrified.

My obsession with India began, as one of my earliest memories, with an ivory replica of the Taj Mahal, in my Grandparents house. I didn’t know what this amazing building was, or where it came from; only that it was the most beautiful and exotic thing I had ever seen.

My Grandfather, on my Dad’s side, passed away when I was very young. I knew he had come to Canada from England as a young man. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned his parents lived in India when he was a baby. The details are sketchy, because he rarely talked about his past, but knowing I have this, ever so slight, blood tie to India, has made my obsession even stronger.

When I was five years old, I met the first of what would become a long, if unintentional, line of Indian friends. A little girl, my age, lived up the street. She and her sister were born in Canada, but her parents and grandmother had arrived from India not long before they were born.

Throughout my school years, I had several other friends, who were first generation Canadians. Their parents had come to Canada for various reasons and settled in my town. I remember visiting their houses and being intrigued by the smell of spices I couldn’t name. There were always statues or paintings of deities I didn’t recognise and each of the girls had the most beautiful saris and jewellery they wore on special occasions.

While these friends preferred hotdogs, their mothers were thrilled to discover I was eager to try all of their Indian delicacies. I would be plied with samosas and pakoras while my friends at macaroni and cheese.  Indian cuisine is still my favourite, to both eat and cook, and curry makes an appearance on our table at least once a week.

Around the time I hit high school, I began my obsession with Indian literature. I carried this with me into university and still today. My shelves are filled with: Rohinton Mistry (my all time favourite), Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and many others. I devour any travel writing about the subcontinent and buy any magazine with glossy photos of the Taj Mahal on the cover.

In university, I even took a yearlong elective class on India, for part of my International Development Studies degree. The class took the form of a weekly lecture, given by different visiting professors and covered history, economics, religion and culture. It was one of the best classes I ever took.

Most recently, Andrew has been linked to India through his work. His company has an office in Bangalore and several of his colleagues have come to Brussels for stints of several days to several months.  They have all had to put with my barrage of questions about where they are from; what they think are the best places to see; when the best time to visit is; and what I should eat.

The visitors who stayed in Brussels the longest, was couple who remain dear friends and who have graciously offered to host us for part of our Indian adventure.  They have already fielded more than 20 emails filled with questions in the few days since we booked our tickets. I know we will be well taken care of in their hands.

But despite all of this history I have with India, and despite wanting to go there more than anywhere else in the world, my excitement at this upcoming spontaneous trip is tempered with fear.

From all accounts I’ve read and heard from friends, India is overwhelming. You are bombarded with sounds, smells, tastes and emotions. You love it or you hate it.

I’m worried that I’ve built India so high up in my head, I’ll be devastated if it doesn’t live up to my expectations. My obsession has gone on so long I can’t imagine my life without it.

What if it all proves too much for me? What if I can’t handle the crowds or the noise? What if I end up getting sick and spending half of my India trip in bed, or worse? After all, my immune system does have a tendency to hate me and India is known for not always being gentle to Westerners.

Despite my fears, I’m so excited I can barely sleep at night. I’ve ordered guidebooks and been scouring the internet from the moment I knew we were really going.

I have no idea how to choose what sights we should see in the limited time we have. I only know that whatever happens, I’m about to have the trip of a lifetime.

What’s your trip of a lifetime? Do you have any fears about it coming true? Have you been to India? Share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.

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Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
- 7 days ago


  1. Comment by manonthelam

    manonthelam February 11, 2011 at 16:53

    Great article! Rohinton Mistry makes me want to travel to India too…good luck in your travels!


    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 11, 2011 at 19:35

      Thanks Raymond! We’re sure it will be an incredible adventure.

  2. Comment by Amy

    Amy February 11, 2011 at 17:17

    You guys are going to have a great time! And no matter what happens, it’s all part of the adventure. 🙂 Have you read “Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure” by Sarah Macdonald? I found it very interesting and learned ALOT about India. I have it if you’d like to borrow it.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 11, 2011 at 17:27

      I have! It’s one of my favourite books and I think I may have to re-read it in the next month 🙂

  3. Comment by Sue

    Sue February 12, 2011 at 03:33

    You are KIDDING!!! I cannot believe that just came up, after we talked about it. Try not to have any expectations, just enjoy it. You will be so busy shooting, you are going to love it. How long are you going for?

    Sue xx

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 12, 2011 at 11:34

      I know! It’s crazy isn’t it? Andrew just happened to find a great deal on flights and before I knew it we were booked. I’m still in shock. We’re there for close to 3 weeks. I’m ready for anything 🙂

  4. Comment by Tez

    Tez February 12, 2011 at 20:23

    So excited for you, Al! I’ve also always wanted to go to India, but more to find out about my heritage and culture. A dear friend of mine lives in Bombay if you want her name and number. 🙂 Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 12, 2011 at 20:38

      Thanks Tez! I’m sure we will enjoy it! I don’t think we’ll be making it to Bombay this time around but if plans change I will definitely get that contact info from you. Thanks for the offer!

  5. Comment by Louise

    Louise February 13, 2011 at 20:37

    Hey, I just learned something new about you. I didn’t know you had a crush on India. So much better for you that you’ll go. I’m already looking forward to seeing your photos!!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 14, 2011 at 11:55

      I’m surprised you didn’t know that already 🙂 Sometimes I feel like I talk about it so much that people must be sick of it by now, but maybe it’s not as bad as I thought 🙂

  6. Comment by Amy

    Amy February 14, 2011 at 06:16

    I really connected to your post – I’ve been fascinated with India since watching Gandhi in high school, and have been longing to go ever since. Last summer, many years later, I finally had the chance to go, and I had similar fears about it – people either love it or hate it, it can be totally overwhelming, etc. – but I LOVED it. I can’t wait to go back again someday. I hope you have a wonderful trip too!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 14, 2011 at 11:56

      Hi Amy, I loved the movie Gandhi too and I think I need to watch it again. It’s great to know you had such a great experience there. I’m sure we will too!

  7. Comment by simon

    simon February 14, 2011 at 10:11

    Recently I’ve been trying not to read too much about a place before I visit it. I prefer to discover it in the moment, rather than just seeing things I’ve read about already.
    My wife and I visited India (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer) about ten years ago and loved it. She was a little overwhelmed by the crowds and noise for the first couple of days but then acclimatised. Halfway through the trip we bumped into another Western couple who were obviously having less fun than they’d anticipated. They kept saying “We hate it! We want to go home!”. But I’m sure you’ll love it. The only unpleasant aspect for me was the pollution. In Agra the air is *filthy*. At one point walking down the street I blew my nose and it turned my handkerchief black, and my throat was stinging from all the traffic fumes.
    But that was only in one town and on one day. The food is fantastic, the people are very friendly (they’ll all want to talk to you and practice their English), and you’ll take more photos than you can imagine.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 14, 2011 at 11:58

      I think you’re absolutely right Simon. I think some of the best trips we’ve had lately were to places we didn’t know too much about. I think it’s easy to visit a place with preconceptions and then be disappointed. I’m looking forward to having a few of my illusions shattered and I’m sure there will be many things about India that surprise me 🙂

  8. Comment by Helen

    Helen February 14, 2011 at 16:31

    Hello Alison,

    I’m enjoying your blog.

    I live in India because of my husband’s work. I am based in Gurgaon, which is near Delhi. Although I would never have chosen it as a holiday destination before, now I’m here I can see that it packs a mighty punch. One of our goals is to leave having seen as much or India and around as possible: Delivering that is one of my jobs. Next week we begin an extensive tour of Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan with my parents who are visiting.

    As you can see we are reluctant bloggers so details of that trip will get out there sometime … However I would highly recommend a site called India Mike. It is forum based and you can literally type in any question on India (in the right forum of course) and you will get very good feedback. The community is very knowledgable and helpful with everything from itinerary planning to the best places to change money. I’m a real fan.

    I wish you the very best of luck.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 14, 2011 at 17:30

      Hi Helen, Thanks so much for stopping by. I will definitely check out both the website you recommended as well as your own. Thanks for the great tip!

  9. Comment by Andrew

    Andrew February 14, 2011 at 20:53

    I am looking forward to shattering some of my pre-conceived notions about India. I know I have them. We all do I think. I remember believing that it was always warm in Spain and Italy… well… I’ve been in both places during snow storms. 🙂 I think this is one aspect of traveling that I really love.

    It will also be great to see our friends in their own home and be able to learn more about their lives. That’s a really special way to visit a place, getting the local flavour and insight.

    Of course I’m also looking forward to the food! Oh and the elephants! And the tigers! And a scooter ride? 😀

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 15, 2011 at 10:18

      I agree, it will be great to see where/how our friends live and have our own expert guides 🙂 It makes the trip that much more special!

  10. Comment by Frank Zweegers

    Frank Zweegers February 16, 2011 at 17:02

    India, is indeed really interesting.

  11. Comment by Jen

    Jen February 19, 2011 at 14:42
    Hi Alison – Yes, my obsession went so far as to marry someone from the country 🙂 So I can understand 🙂 I need to get off my butt and read some good literature from there as well! I hope we can find the Paul Merton DVD set we have in our moving mess… if not maybe you can find some episodes on youtube…. must see!

    Also check out part 2 – our wedding video 🙂

    I look forward to one day traveling more in India and perhaps living there for some time…. I read a book last year called “Dreaming in Hindi” in a bookclub… it gave some insight into the language…
    Take care,

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 20, 2011 at 13:08

      Thanks Jen! I’ll definitely check out the links and I’ll have to get more of your story. What I’ve heard so far is pretty interesting 🙂

  12. Comment by Angela

    Angela February 20, 2011 at 12:13

    Aww Alison, I just got back from India, I traveled throughout the state of the Rajasthan and visited the Taj Mahal too. Truly overwhelming. I’m posting some of my feedback on my blog, it is a country full of contrasts, very fascinating. I’m already planning my next trip to India!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison February 20, 2011 at 12:43

      Oh I’m so glad you enjoyed it! We are getting so excited to leave and I’m already planning our second trip lol.

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  14. Comment by Geoff

    Geoff March 1, 2011 at 00:24

    I can’t wait to hear how the trip goes – I’ve been obsessed with visiting Pakistan for similar reasons – my father was born there in the 1940s when it was still part of the British Empire, and he lived there til he was six. Hearing stories about it from him and my grandparents always fascinated me and I long to go and see where he was born – unfortunately it’s in an area of the country that’s not very safe right now so will have to hold off a bit longer and hope things improve!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison March 1, 2011 at 09:25

      It’s funny how are family history can influence our travel choices today. Here’s hoping Pakistan will find peace soon and you’ll be able to visit your family roots 🙂

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