How did you discover your passion for leading tours of India?
I fell into tour guiding by both choice and chance, but the latter is always the best part of any occurrence. For me, the “chance” part ensued because I was originally set out to be a scientist. From a young age, science had always fascinated me, so I went on to study microbiology. In my late teens, I loosened up my future plans a little bit, and soon found that I was actually more interested in a aviation than science. Still, aviation is no travel guide! After one and half years working as cabin crew for an international airline based out of Istanbul, the company went bankrupt, and I was left jobless. By chance, a friend mentioned that your guiding may interest me, so I said I’d give it a shot, and, since day one, I have loved every minute of the profession. Almost a decade later, I still wake up excited for each workday; I can’t imagine a different way of life.
How did you manage to turn your passion for showing people around your home country of India into a profession?
In India, the process to become a licensed guide — the only way people can lead tours in our country, as per the regulations of the Ministry of Tourism — is arduous, so it was no small feat founding Soulfit Journey. It’s a jolly good thing I was so committed to the goal because the exams the license entails are tough, and the competition is rough too: 6000 people apply for 20 spots. Cutthroat doesn’t even begin to describe it! The licensing involves six months of full-time training, followed by exams and a criminal background check. Why is the training to become a tour guide in India so rigorous, you may be wondering? Because the government wants to make tourists feel as safe as possible, a reasoning and goal I am entirely on board with. I would do the training and exams over and over again if it meant keeping my job as a tour guide; the work to become a guide is worth every drop.
How did Soulfit Journey come into the picture, and what is the meaning behind the name?
Many tourists come to India for the yoga, and as a yogi myself, I wanted to create a company that centers around the practice, but, most importantly, I wanted to create something different, something more interesting, unique, and fun. In other words, a tour guiding company that smashes yoga and travel together! None of this go-to-one-place-and-stay-there-and-do-yoga-day-in-and-day-out nonsense; Soulfit Journey takes yogis’ practice to the next level by adding the fascinating element of travel. This way, not only your body gets a workout, but your soul too. The result: balance, wholesomeness, and an experience in India that touches (and improves) every sense of your being. After experiencing Soulfit Journey’s real, non-commercial yoga coupled with authentic travels throughout the country, I guarantee you’ll return home more vibrant, as well as more culturally aware and knowledgable. How’s that for a 2-for-1 deal!?
In working for Soulfit Journey, what has been the biggest highlight?
One highlight has been going in on the business with my family: my wife owns the company, and my brother-in-law works for us too. Spending the day practicing yoga and sightseeing is unbeatable, but throw family into the mix and you’ve got one pretty perfect lifestyle. Beyond that, I thoroughly enjoy getting to know people from all over the world. Anybody who can speak English is my guest!
What does a typical day look like for you?
One word: exciting! But what makes it exciting? Well, I awake at 6am, freshen up, and then head straight into a yoga practice — my day must always begin with yoga; it’s grounding, and it makes me feel more at-one with myself — after which I meet up with my guests, lay out the plan for the day — guests tend to love itineraries — and embark on the day’s adventures. From late morning until well into the evening, I spend my time explaining India’s history and exposing people to its colorful culture. Throughout the day, I make sure my groups and I stop at fruit stalls not only because our tropical fruit is sublime, but because hands-on-experiences are enriching. At dinner, my family and I talk about the day, and then we wrap it up, head to bed, and repeat the process the next day. Repetition could get boring at a desk-job, but as a guide who spends 90% of the time either leading tours or practicing yoga, repeating schedules is not a problem at all.
What is the best tour you have ever lead?
Cliché as it may sound, all my trips are amazing, which means that each tour has been my best. It helps that, for the most part, people who travel are innately pleasant, while those who are grumpy tend to stay home; this means I’m always surrounded by amazing people. I’ve also been working the trade so long that I can anticipate guests’ needs, which makes the tours run smoothly, and smooth travel makes for happy people.
Have you ever had a bad guided trip?
Sometimes we come across one or two bad eggs who are demanding and not prepared for the Indian culture, but I make sure they don’t spoil the trip — this is where licensed guides’ training comes in handy; they teach us all about psychology and how to best understand people. The “bad eggs” just need a little reminding that India is a developing country; they need to understand that what makes it unique can also test one’s patience. For guests whose expectations are too high of India, and thus who feel disappointed and unhappy, I simply remind them that countries, like people, are different, and that we must accept everything for what it is, and India is a lot. The silver lining of more challenging guided trips is that, ironically, they remind me why I love my profession so much; they remind me that I am more than a guide: I am a friend, psychologist, doctor (in the sense that I patrol suncream application and water consumption), story teller, historian, and comedian, and it’s these many hats that makes tour guiding so enjoyable.
What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve ever had on a guided tour?
I experience funny experiences more often than bizarre ones, and with each trip and it’s different people, you can bet they happen very often. For example, once an Australian guest approached me asking for an apple, but with his thick accent, I thought he was saying “i-pill,” which is an emergency contraceptive pill available in India. Needless to say, the chap was confused when I escorted him to the pharmacy, but we soon figured it all out!
Another time, I thought it was odd that a Scottish man kept telling me, “I’m thirty, and my wife is thirty-two.” I simply nodded, thinking it was a bit odd that he was making such a specific point about their age difference, but by the third time (and after he picked up an empty water bottle; thank goodness for props…), I realized he was saying, “I’m thirsty, and my wife is thirsty, too!”
Since we all know that no job is perfect, would you mind sharing some of the downfalls to being a guide in India?
The only downfall is that, as a guide, you have to sacrifice a personal life: everything becomes public. That said, it becomes one stunning public life!
As an experienced guide, can you think of any tips that people should know about before going on a guided tour?
Don’t hold back on reading tour guide books. For India, the optimum one is called Holy Cow; it’s not too long or overwhelming. But if reading’s not for you, on YouTube you can watch a 6-part series called The Story of India, which is also extremely informational. Also, remember that when you sign up for group tours, you must work as a team, and there’s no “me” in “team.” In the end, I believe that people who sign up for tours like the ones Soulfit Journey offers do so not only to experience India, but to expand their “love bubble.”
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
To San Francisco to visit you, Hannah!