India was exactly how Anna Borisenko expected it would be.

Anna had heard stories from her friends, seen all the movies, and read all the books. She knew it would be loud, the streets would be hectic, and the people would stare.

India was exactly how Anna expected it would be, and yet, somehow, it wasn’t.

Varkala was where a rickshaw driver approached Anna and her boyfriend, Vitaliy, and asked if they wanted to attend the yearly Elephant Festival in a small neighboring village.

Anna and Vitaliy were the only non-Indian people there. The village residents were so happy to have some visitors, they got distracted from the festival. They took photos of Anna and Vitaliy, tried to talk to them, and dancers would stop right in front of them to perform.

The elephants were beautiful and the people were genuinely friendly. They found ways to communicate despite the lack of a common language.   

Goa was where Anna relaxed. She and Vitaliy visited the huge market daily and spent time on the beaches. They felt comfortable in Goa, a nice break before heading north.  

Mumbai was where the contrasts of India became clear.

The architecture mixed together with contradicting influences from traditional Indian style to colonial-era buildings from the days of British colonization.

After exploring one of the more wealthy neighborhoods, full of expensive condos and cars, they took a taxi a few minutes away and were in one of the biggest slums in the world. Anna felt guilty seeing the conditions people were living in and knowing how much she had in comparison.

The colorful cities of Rajasthan state were where Anna found the India she’d seen in pictures and on TV. The White City of Udaipur; the Blue City of Jodhpur; the Gold City of Jaisalmer.

There were palaces everywhere. Elephants roaming. Women wearing vibrant saris. Enormous, bustling spice markets.

Delhi was where Anna noticed the distinct difference between the Northern and Southern parts of India. There were less tourists.

Once, in a train station, a man in the station’s uniform informed them that the ticket office had moved. Anna and Vitaliy thought he was so nice, but found out that he was lying to them to try to scam them into buying fake tickets.

The Taj Mahal was where Anna felt most like a traditional tourist. She stood in line to get a ticket, and again to take pictures. Tourists crowded everywhere. But the beauty of the building and the story behind its construction was not diminished through the crowds.

Varanasi, the City of Death, was where Anna couldn’t help but look.

Hindus bring their deceased relatives to Varanasi to burn their bodies. Whenever Anna walked by the river, at all times of day, there were flames. She tried not to look, but couldn’t help it.

The first time she saw a body burning, she found it strange that the family didn’t seem to mind the tourists taking photos. Having lived in many parts of the world, Anna knew that cultures often have very different conceptions of death, but it felt wrong to her that tourists weren’t respecting the privacy of the families in Varanasi.

India was where Anna learned to focus on the good things about a place.

Traveling through India was not easy. There were times when Anna felt frustrated, annoyed, and overwhelmed. Train travel, the constant noise, and never-ending stares were exhausting. India wouldn’t let Anna forget that she was a foreigner, an outsider.

But Anna learned to focus on the good — the architectural structures, the locals who invited her into their homes, the stories she’d heard. Traveling had made it easy for Anna to see how countries were similar and places had started to blend together in her mind, but India was where she started to see the differences again. There was no place like it.

Anna is a freelance marketer born and raised in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. After graduating from college, she has lived all over the world, from New York to Bali to Brazil. Travel is Anna’s greatest passion, and she shares her adventures on Instagram and her blog.