By Leslie Hanes
Photographer Leslie Hanes travelled with India for Beginners in February and March 2023. She joined the Holi Tour and also travelled on her own, with our services. I know because I saw her several times over the course of her trip that she was very impacted by her time in India. Here, she shares her journey, in her words. Mariellen
Part 1: India calling
I had wanted to go to India for several years, though I didn’t have a clear reason in my mind. I told myself, and others, that I was intrigued by India’s history, culture, and diversity. Ironically, after my explanations, people would often discourage me with their own stories of India and how they felt it wasn’t a particularly great place for a solo woman to go.
In truth, I had a few of my own reservations, but the “calling” of India finally overcame my hesitation. I picked the months of February and March as my time frame partly because of Holi. I liked the idea of the celebration and all the colours intrigued me, partly for photographic reasons.
However, the question remained: how was I to do this as a solo woman in a large country where I knew very little about the customs, the language, or the ins and outs of travel in India. So, I started reading blogs and found India for Beginners, a boutique travel company that I thought would best serve my needs.
With a support system in place, I decided on a five-week journey: the first part would be with a small group of women and in the second part I would experience India at my own pace for an additional several weeks.
Living in Colour
Now fast forward.
It is the last day of my stay in India.
I had started in Delhi and had been through the famous Golden Triangle, up to Rishikesh and a couple of hill stations and then back to Jaipur, and all around Rajasthan. I was back in Delhi and I was to fly home the next day. Before leaving, I was meeting up with the same friend that I had seen at the beginning of my trip. “Oh, look at you!” she exclaimed when she saw me. Then she added, “You know, don’t you, that you are not the same person you were when you first came to India?” She continued to tell me that I looked like I was glowing and something had happened to change me.
Even after I returned home people kept saying, “You sound like you had such a great time, your photographs are wonderful, and we have never seen you so happy!” Many people kept saying, “You look radiant!”
So I started to reflect back on some of the things that happened during my trip that might have helped create this change.
The first thing that came to mind was the Holi celebrations I took part in.
Little did I know that early in my trip I would end up going to one of the most renowned of all the Holi celebrations in India, which takes place in a small village about two hours south of Delhi. Holi commemorates the gods Krishna (from Nandgaon) and Radha (from Barsana) and their love for one another, along with the triumph of good over evil.
So there I was in the famous Barsana. There was much commotion and excitement. I was ready to join the Holi celebration, along with the women in my group. We were all dressed in pristine white clothes (which would be tossed later), our hair and skin was oiled to prevent the powdered dyes from penetrating, and I had my phone in a plastic pouch — which turned out to be the best decision I could have made.
As we walked up the streets to the local temple, people jumped out of doorways and sprayed us with water and powdered colours. The vibrant colours flew out of the villagers’ hands towards us. At first I resisted and tried to duck away, but then it became clear: you just had to fully immerse. If you can’t swim upstream, you have to go with the flow. And the colour was flowing!
My friends and I maneuvered our way through the temple crowds with the experienced help of locals. It was very much like a huge dance party with drums and singing and exuberant crowds. After paying our respects in the temple, covered in colour, we settled just outside the temple where we joined a small crowd of hijras dancing.
(Editor’s note: Hijiras are a third gender in India, neither male nor female. They are often born men but look and dress in traditionally feminine ways.)
We danced with abandon to the rhythmic beat of the music and the full approval of the locals. Eventually, the Lathmar Holi ritual began. I found myself in a crowd watching the spectacle, but the crowd itself was the spectacle for me!
This was the moment when I realized, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I had been living life in grey tones.
Suddenly, I was here in The Land of India with all these unusual things going on and it was in full blown technicolour! For the rest of my trip in India, I experienced everything in those saturated, rich, colourful tones – such as I had never seen before in my life.
Read on for Part 2!