My Experience Traveling to India with Aum Adventures
Last December, I traveled to India for my second visit, this time with Aum Adventures. Based on my experience, I want to warn others about the likelihood of problems traveling through this agency. In fact, a head injury I suffered on the trip led to six emergency room visits when I returned home to Seattle and thousands of dollars of expenses, pain and lost work. Let me summarize the problems I experienced.
17 Person Group Size
Firstly, the Aum brochure mentioned to “Expect anywhere from 8-14 travelers on a trip.” However, they allowed 17 people on the trip which proved unwieldy and played a huge part in ruining it. Aum promised, “We keep our group sizes low so you have the freedom to move around and get involved with your surroundings.” But, 17 people slowed us everywhere. Doing basic things like getting meals became prolonged and unmanageable (often 2+ hours). Similarly waiting for people to load and unload luggage on the bus(es), waiting at ATMs, bathrooms, airport security lines all contributed to ruining the quality of the trip. The quiet intimacy of a smaller travel group, like the one promised to me in pre-purchase conversations, never existed.
Unsuitable Travel Conditions
I’d been to India before and understand the conditions to expect but Aum failed to prepare us for the problems at the Parnath Ashram in Rishikesh, near the foothills of the Himalayas. Arriving late at night in the dark, I hit my head entering the bathroom which had not only a step up but a low knife-edged steel frame in which many foreigners have probably hurt themselves. The force of the blow nearly caused a concussion and I suffered lateral whiplash and compression bruising to my neck.
When I returned to Seattle, I was struck with two months of debilitating headaches and had to make six emergency room visits at the cost of thousands of dollars. A specialist confirmed that the headaches were cervical in source, almost certainly related to the head and neck injury I suffered there. Here’s an excerpt of my medical costs and visits:
But the Parneth rooms were open air as you can see below — and this was winter! Mountain temperatures in Rishikesh were just above freezing, about 33-35 degrees Fahrenheit. The rooms were wide open to the elements. There were rectangular windows on opposite sides of the ceiling to bring cool air in in the summer. And, my bed was beside the wooden window where freezing cold air would continuously stream at me.
Aum’s owner Ashley Melin never told the group to bring sleeping bags, nor was appropriate bedding provided. We were freezing every night — everyone in the group. One of the group leaders got so sick he barely left his room for several days. Many in the group were sickened or weakened or later sickened as the trip went on.
Changing Plans to Optimize Profit
Last fall, Melin had told us it was okay to book at the Delhi Holiday Inn for pre-arrival stays, which we did. However, at the last minute, she changed the hotel to reduce her expenditures on the 17 person group: “The group’s flights pushed the budget out so we needed to find another hotel. It wasn’t the Holiday Inn.”
Because we’d just flown in and were dealing with time changes, jet lag, and a related meetup I’d planned at the Holiday Inn, it was a major problem to change hotels the morning after our arrival. I asked Melin to pay for our pre-arrival at the new hotel, she completely refused. I had to pay it out of pocket.
In 2014, I’d traveled with Sarah Joy Marsh on her trip via Redback Travels, the company Melin ran with her husband — I thought they had just changed the name and later learned that they divorced. Aum Adventures was the new company run solely by Melin. The Redback trip had been wonderful and all the road travel and accommodations were of a good quality for India. This proved not to be the case with Aum Adventures.
Where nearly all meals but two were included in 2014, only “breakfasts” were included by Aum. And, when we went out to breakfast one day, I was told that even that meal wasn’t included.
To save money with the larger group, Melin changed the rail reservations at the last minute and put us in lower class travel for our six hour ride to Rishikesh. There was no area for luggage, the seats were badly broken and it was about as bad as you can imagine it. I understand it’s India but the reason we paid more than $3,585 per person was to have some basic care provided with road and rail travel. None was. One of the unnecessarily changed reservations required a 4 am departure, just to maximize Aum’s profit.
Problems with Tipping
There were also numerous problems with tipping and miscommunication which I’ll just mention briefly here. The FAQ for this trip said, “Drivers, porters and restaurant tips are usually included in the trip price (unless otherwise indicated.)” This was sent out repeatedly in the PDF by Aum. But instead we were asked to tip ridiculous amounts, even for western standards (the equivalent of $76,500 U.S.D. salaries for guides – paid in tips).
Melin had the habit of responding in platitudes about traveling in India being challenging and you should just focus on the enlightenment the opportunity that these challenges bring. For example, when a fellow guest inquired to her about the tips, she replied:
“India is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding places to travel in the world. It has always made me face myself and test me in ways I could never have imagined. One of my darkest times was traveling in the general compartment for 7 hrs with 6 people next to me, 6 below me, and 6 above me in blistering heat on a wood bench. But still to this day, it is one of my most favorite stories and I would tell it to you over a beer sometime if you like! I have always found that just when something or someone tests me, another bright rainbow is usually waiting around the corner that blows my mind and makes me love the people and chaos even more.”
Not only did it seem that she was hitting on him but we found this repetitive style of responding to serious trip concerns to be offensive and obfuscative.
Towards the end of the trip, Aum promised refunds for some of the tips. None were ever provided.
Refusal to Address Concerns
It was Melin’s stubbornness and refusal to respond to travel quality concerns that ruined the trip, day by day and step by step.
From Rishikesh, I did inquire with one of the nearby hotels to see if my partner and I could move to a nearby hotel at my own expense but they were booked for the holidays. I also asked Melin to refund some of the costs from the trip. She responded: “I am sorry that you are having a rough trip. Clearly this is a bad fit. Aum Adventures provides an authentic experience of India, not a first class experience. The $166/day that you are paying covers all guides, all yoga classes/courses, transportation, accommodation, guides and logistical services. There are no refunds at this point. We hope you enjoy the rest of your time in India.”
While the trip’s downfall began in Rishikesh, Melin and the trip leaders just weren’t responsive to concerns. It was three days before more bedding was provided — but it was never adequate for the cold, open air rooms and leaky windows.
The Parnath Ashram is such a low cost destination that it only costs $288 USD per week for an individual – room, board, and yoga – even less for 17 people. That’s where Aum placed us for a week with our $166 per day travel reservation.
There were also lots of other problems on the trip that they refused to address. For the sake of brevity, I won’t list them all here — however, I highly recommend against travel with Aum Adventures.