Rachel Hunter has a spiritual connection to the beautiful, ancient culture of India, writes Stephanie Holmes
"I love airports," says Rachel Hunter. "They're like a Petri dish of explorers."
The Kiwi supermodel is our guest on the new episode of Herald Travel podcast Trip Notes, available to download now. She talks about her life in travel — her first trips overseas, her global adventure for the Tour of Beauty TV series and book, and the places she adores the most.
"I've always loved travel," she says. "Now is the time when I travel alone quite a bit, and I love that. It's been pretty amazing. Just being able to connect with different people at different times, and you engage with people a lot more [when you travel solo]. The moment you smile, people will smile back at you — that's your passport, and people will connect to you."
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As well as dividing her time between New Zealand and Los Angeles, Hunter now spends a significant part of each year in India. It's a place she only visited for the first time a few years ago, but somewhere she felt an instant connection.
"My first entrance into India was with Tour of Beauty, and when I landed at the airport I saw the yoga asanas [on the airport walls]. I've been doing yoga for 16 years.
"Then I immediately got on a plane to Varanasi, which is one of the most ancient cities in the world. It's a city of burning (where they burn the dead), and you sit there and you see the devotion, the love, the cries, but also the moment of salvation that is there for the people. [Grief] is something that we hide here. So it's a very interesting place to explore."
Hunter spends around three months of the year in India, doing yoga and meditation retreats and generally just exploring what the country has to offer. So is a permanent move there on the cards?
"I don't think I'm allowed," she laughs. "Unless I marry somebody. Anyone out there?"
You can hear more from Hunter in the new episode of Trip Notes, available to download now on iHeartRadio or wherever you usually get your podcasts.
In the meantime, here are some of her top tips for visiting India.
Don't try to cover too much ground
"Like, how BIG is India?" Hunter says, with a sense of awe. And yes, it is huge, with a population of more than 1.3 billion. So if you're visiting, don't try to see it all in one trip. Pick an area, north or south, and take your time to see fewer places, but in more detail. You'll enjoy your trip much more than if you try to cram in the whole country (which, frankly, would be impossible on a short trip).
Prepare for culture shock
Wherever you go in India, whether it's the big cities or tranquil palaces, it's going to feel a lot different to home.
"You can't go there with a lot of ego, because it just knocks you out," Hunter says. "You're dealing with sounds and colour and rituals, it's an ancient, ancient culture. It's beautiful."
Yes, you will at times be faced with poverty, which can be confronting. "But," says Hunter, "you find your way through that."
"You talk to people, you engage with those people, you give what you can — or not. It's all about that human aspect of engaging with people."
Keep your wits about you
India can sometimes have a reputation as a dangerous place for female travellers, but Hunter says you just have to use common sense.
"Of course you have to be wise and watch yourself — but it's the same here [in New Zealand]. You're not going to go down a dark alley, it's the same anywhere else. You have to use your instincts, and India helps invoke those instincts."
If the thought of travelling by yourself is too overwhelming, there are many travel operators offering guided and hosted tours.
"Find that tour that makes you feel drawn to something, and you'll want to go and have your own experience with it," she says.
Prepare for a transformation
Going to India for the first time can have a deep and lasting effect, Hunter says.
"It's a place of transformation, and it has been for thousands of years ... So many people have this amazing moment of transformation, evolution there. And there's a reason — you really connect to the people, to getting out of self and more into an inclusive way of thinking. It's an ancient culture — you can feel that in the land.
"It's a spiritual thing for me, and I think it is for a lot of people. I think regardless of how we see spirituality ... it could be even just 'Oh my god, the colours are so beautiful' — that's an immediate connection and response. You're having a spiritual moment, regardless of what you think of as spiritual."
For more travel inspiration, go to houseoftravel.co.nz