India blew me away, and exceeded my expectations. People I meet often tell me that India is both the best and worst experience of their life. In the media and via word of mouth India is perceived as a dangerous country; somewhere you will be robbed, stabbed or raped. A place where everyone is out to get you. But personally, I felt more unsafe at 7pm on the streets of Manhattan than I did at 1am on the streets of Delhi. In this post I will attempt to provide you with a different perspective. I hope to capture the wonder and delights, the quirks and idiosyncrasies; a small part of the essence that makes India so special, so India.
The most hospitable culture in the world.
India has the reputation of being the most hospitable culture in the world, and it really isn’t hard to see why. The amount of people I met by merely walking down the street was mind boggling. In the last month I’ve probably had over 100 conversations with random strangers – on the street, in restaurants, on trains, or in shops. All the conversations follow the same format, and these days I often lead with the bulk of the information: “Hello, I’m John (Jono takes too long to explain), a software engineer from New Zealand. I lost my leg in a tractor accident ten years ago.” This is the bulk of what people want to know, as well as how much I earn of course. After this, people are interested to know where I’ve travelled in India, and offer me advice on where to go and what foods I should eat. A lot of the people I meet want to go out of their way to make sure I’m getting on okay, and finding everything I need. There is a sense of duty that the Indians have to make sure their guests have the best time ever. A phrase I heard a few times was, “In India, guests are God.”
I’ve made lots of friends along the way, and have had many offers of lodging, meals and chai. My taxi driver on the way to the airport told me next time I’m in Delhi that I have to stay with him and his family. I’m constantly fanning off the Indian hospitality. As a one legged white guy with a big orange beard I certainly stand out a little more than other people, but from talking to other travellers, everyone else experiences the same thing.
Religion, and its role in culture.
Religion is so big in India, 80% of the country is Hindu, after all. With records dating back to 7000BC, it seems to me that Hinduism has played a pivotal role in cultivating the warm, welcoming, accepting and generous culture that reigns supreme in India. As with any other religion, it provides a grounding for the basis of ethics and how to live a good life. Generation after generation have been raised with the mindset of sharing and generosity. This, combined with the close quarters lifestyle that 1.2 billion people in such a small area provides, I believe creates a great sense of community and a mindset of tolerance. It is commonly accepted that many things are shared, even between strangers. Men ask each other for cigarettes on the street, and share food with strangers on the train.
Note that I said men above. This is because India still has a long way to go in achieving gender equality. This is where in my mind religion, or perhaps culture, plays a wayward role. I’ve been told (by men) that in Hinduism, women are considered to be of the same social standing as a rat, or a frog. While men are somewhere between that and the gods, perhaps coming in second equal with the cow. The signs are certainly showing that India, or the government, want this change to come about, but when social mindsets contradict religious beliefs, I think it becomes a pretty difficult issue. (I’m currently skeptical of this information, at the very least those beliefs are a common social view.) There are special screening lines for women at the train stations and airports, women only carriages on the Delhi metro, and in the cities you can see Indian women dressed in more western style (read: sexy) outfits. The couch surfer I met with in Delhi refused her own arranged marriage because of a dowry imposed by the in-laws, and is writing a book about live-in relationships in India. Despite some progress, I still experienced a lot of negative attitudes toward women: catcalling, staring, objectification. The attitudes of some of the prettier girls that I observed said a lot to me about how much harassment and pressure they must endure on a day to day basis. Having experienced the male centric culture myself, I would be surprised to see significant changes in social mindset come about in my lifetime. This is my only real negative thought on India.
The food situation.
The spread of food is phenomenal. From curry and chapati; to desserts and sweet, savoury, sour snacks (yes, all at once – it’s called chaat). The variety of food rivals Vietnam, and the ease of acquisition is up there with Japan. As could be expected, in a lot of places the cleanliness leaves something to be desired, but thankfully I wasn’t sick on this trip. My favorite food by far has been Thali. It’s an assortment of different curries, usually three, but sometimes up to eight different types. It’s served with a couple of chutneys, and a truck load of chapati, bati, and sometimes naan. Often places will also serve buttermilk as a drink, as well as sweet mango nectar to wash it down. It’s top notch, and there are a lot of all-you-can-eat Thali restaurants. I also really enjoyed the food I ate in the south – Idly, Dosa, Vada. Such a perfect breakfast, and not something I’ve ever seen in a restaurant back home.
Chai is king in India, I’ve had maybe one coffee in my whole month here. There are chai shops on almost every street, selling differing varieties of the staple drink. It’s made by boiling milk, tea leaves, sugar, and an assortment of other ingredients (my favorite is a spicy version with ginger, masala, fennel, and peppercorns). It’s then filtered through a stocking and into a dirty glass cup. It’s so good I found myself drinking 3, 4, or 5 cups a day.
I’ve also become accustomed to eating with my hands, as is the norm in India. Some places have a sink to wash your hands first, but many of the older local-style places don’t. Hand sanitizer is therefore a good pocket accessory. Traditionally you are supposed to eat with your right hand only (because you wipe your arse with your left), and it is taboo to serve yourself more food with the hand you’ve been eating with before washing again. Side note: have you ever tried to wipe with your non-preferred hand? It’s really difficult.
Another locality I’ve adopted is vegetarianism. It wasn’t really a conscious thing, more that all the food everywhere is predominantly non-meat. So much so that it isn’t meat and non-meat. It’s veg and non-veg. And I have to say, these guys know how to make veg food interesting. In the south the food is almost all dal based, and in the north I ate a lot of chickpea curries. There are also healthy portions of paneer (cottage cheese) and curd (yogurt), so I haven’t felt like my protein intake has been lacking at all. I ended up at TGI Friday’s (shame on you, Jono) the other night with a couple of backpackers and I had a big lamb burger with bacon. So tasty, but I felt like crap afterward. Not morally, of course – that isn’t my thing – just lethargic and bloated.
India is so diverse.
India is vast, and traveling around it is mind boggling. One month flew by, and I basically only covered one state and two cities. You could spend three years here and still not see the whole country. Every 50 kilometres you travel transports you into a new world, with new people, new food and new customs. You might even go just outside of a city and find a muslim-only village.
As you move around you also see the different colors that are on display. Women wear all sorts of brightly colored saris, houses are painted bright blues and yellows, or pinks. Tractors in the country areas sport colorful Hindu designs (as well as super loud stereo systems).
The lady in the picture above kept adding pots until she was running around with a total of 11 pots on her head.
State by state, the landscapes change. I spent a lot of my time Rajasthan, a desert state. It was dusty, sandy, and the buildings were made of sandstone. If you go north you find mountains, if you go east you find forests, if you go south you find beaches. From what I’ve seen, everything is stunningly beautiful. In Pushkar, Rajasthan, there is a lake surrounded by temples. It’s a holy place where people come to pray, meditate, bathe in the holy water, or just relax. At sundown every night the chanting from the temples rings out over the lake, putting everyone in a kind of silent trance. In another city, Udaipur, you can sit on rooftops with a serene lake view and watch the sun go down over palatial French colonial buildings. There’s also a 200 year old palace floating in the middle of the lake. I’ve visited forts, palaces, havelis, ashrams, temples and more. All with intricate architecture, based on thousands of years of history.
Manners and personal space.
Neither of these things exist. Spitting is widespread, as is pissing in the street. Forget everything you ever knew about lines and queues, and replace them with pushing, shoving and an ‘every man for himself’ mentality. Getting on and off of a train requires squeezing, maneuvering, and forcing your way through bodies. A seat that was built for three people now seats six. These things are understandable in a country with such a large population, but they certainly take a bit of getting used to.
For me the staring is so funny. I found people openly staring at me for minutes at a time, even if they were right next to me. Sometimes I play a game where I stare back at them, to see who will look away first. Most days, especially at tourist attractions I would be asked to take a picture with a few people. It’s novelty at first, but that soon wears off and it becomes annoying; interesting to have a little taste of what it must be like to be famous though. I asked a few of the people what they would do with the photos. Some said they would show them off to their friends, while others said that they would put it on their wall at home. I wonder how many Indians have a framed picture of me on their wall; more than my own family?
So in closing, India is wonderful, interesting, delicious and tiring, all at the same time. As I said before it’s a country that really exceeded my expectations, and it is a country I will have to visit again one day. Of all of the countries I’ve seen, I think India is the one that I would most recommend to people. It has anything you could want; mountains, deserts, beaches, cities, forests. Modern and old. Trek the deserts on a camel, ride an elephant through the jungle, or visit the Dalai Lama in the mountains. It’s interesting, it’s exciting, it’s cheap, and it’s culturally rich. If we based where we visited solely on the reported crime rates alone, then nobody would ever visit the United States.