Thoughts on India
With only one remaining stop on my tour d’India, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and jotting down of random thoughts and observations. My experience here has been mostly positive and while there are so many different ways to ‘do India’, I’m pretty pleased with the way things have panned out and have enough food for thought for a long, long time to come!
UNITY IN DIVERSITY
The biggest take-away for me regarding India is the immense cultural, religious and linguistic diversity that exists. It is incredible how harmoniously this society functions, at least to an outside observer. This is a land where Islam and Hinduism have collided so many times over the centuries and yet it seems that religious tolerance is very high here. Both of these religions, as well as the many others practiced in India, are very particular ways of life, and yet instead of segregation the result has been a blending of traditions. I suspect that so many things in Indian society that I observed and didn’t understand, and so many others further below the surface, are a direct result of these two very different traditions blending over time.
The language diversity also has blown me away. While Hindi and English might be known as the official languages of the nation, there are actually over 1500 languages spoken. At least 20 of those languages are deemed “official” in that each is spoken by over 1 million people. While Hindi is spoken by something like 1/4 to 1/3 of the total Indian population, that leaves something like a billion people who don’t understand the language. Take for instance India’s prime minister. He speaks Gujurati and Hindi and when he addresses his constituents over half of them can’t understand him. When he addresses the people it seems like the United Nations, with all the translators that are required. As I traveled around India this was very apparent. National tourists who were visiting another state would be struggling to communicate with locals – oftentimes we were in the same boat. I found this a fascinating aspect of Indian culture.
Sure, there are many aspects of life in India that do not live up to the “unity in diversity” motto, like gender and economic, but I was still impressed how completely different each state was, yet how it is all remarkably India! We have diversity in the US, but nothing like this.
CASTING A WIDE NET
There are typically two ways I like to backpack – either dive deep into a few well chosen locations or cast a wide net and go for a broad range of experiences within a place. For India, I opted for the later and while it’s been a bit of challenge and a little tiring to be on the move every 2 to 3 days, I’m feeling very pleased with the way things have panned out. The easiest way to segment my time is between North India and South India.
North India is perhaps more of the India we Westerners have been conditioned to expect, through Hollywood, literature, the news, and perhaps a bit of selective hearing. It is the hotbed of chaos, cows in the streets, dusty camels and turbans carefully folded and piled high on Indian heads. It is raw and exotic and maddening. In South India you can breathe a little deeper and get a sense of an order more familiar to a Westerner. In some areas of the South I could actually have considered renting a car to tour around and explore, versus in the North where I’d rather eat fire than ever be forced to drive. The further south you go, roaming cows and wild peacocks are replaced with roaming goats and there is evidence of a better overall economic situation. As you make your way south traditional Indian breads like naan, paratha and roti are traded out for rice and dosas. Some shifts between north and south are subtle, others more obvious.
By casting a wide net I was able to explore the giant metropolitan areas of New Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai. I got to make my way through smaller cities in the desert and along both coasts. It is so true that each region in India is so different from the next. Rajasthan is where I wanted to jump off a bridge more times than I can count, but is also the place burned deepest into my memory. Heading east into Varanasi and West Bengal felt like a right of passage, something earned and perhaps even an area where I could return for a second visit. Tamil Nadu was the most rewarding as it is where I broke away from the well trodden foreigner trail and was able to open myself up the most to the kindness of strangers. Kerala is a state well deserving of it’s self-given nickname “God’s Own Country”, thick with palm groves and a stunning coastline and known for it’s ruling communist party and high levels of education and literacy. Kerala felt more like what I envision Malaysia and Indonesia to be and it is so incredibly different than where I started this journey up in the desert.
I made a point to stay in all sorts of lodging, from 5 star down to a few $5/night rooms that made me question my sanity and in doing so was able to observe and meet people from different economic backgrounds and see how things change from one end of the spectrum to the other.
I also traveled in all sorts of transportation. In total I spent about 55 hours benefiting from India’s famed railway system and about 35 hours on buses. Indian Railways is one of the world’s largest employers with around 1.4 million employees. Massive! You can get nearly everywhere on a train – if you can figure out which train to get on. I traveled in aircon sleeper class, regular sleeper cars, and second class cars, sometimes with an assigned seats and sometimes free-for-all. I love traveling by train and in India it was no different. Bus travel is also great in India because it is a bit more flexible, especially for shorter distances as there are often buses that leave every 15-30 minutes. Again, there are all sorts of bus types and I was on some with aircon, some with fans, some with sleeper beds and some packed so tight my feet didn’t even need to touch the ground. For me, traveling in this way gives you a really authentic feel for local life. It’s always interesting, waiting to see what kind of music is played, what people do to pass the time, what treats and snacks are sold on the bus during pit stops and the ever changing cast of characters that get on and off.
ON SOLO TRAVEL VS GROUP TRAVEL
I am so, so happy I decided to book a tour for the first half of my trip. I was incredibly lucky by way of the travel mates I ended up with and the fabulous guide who went above and beyond all expectations. By traveling with a small(ish) group on a tour that focuses on “real life experiences”, I was able to travel in a manner similar to what I would have on my own, but with a lot of the hassle taken out. While on the tour, I felt I got a lot more out of my time than I did later on my own and it was great to share the experience with newly made friends. On the other hand, always being in a group of 12 foreigners does tend to change the experience. The restaurants we visited tended to cater more towards an international crowd as that was the safest bet to please 12 people. We couldn’t really go into small shops and cafes as they couldn’t manage 12 customers all at once. We were constantly hassled by street vendors, taxis/rickshaws, and beggars – much more so than when I was alone. India can be a taxing place to travel in and it is really easy to focus on the negative. I found that in a group, negativity breeds negativity – something I wanted no part of.
While intimidating to go off on my own, it was when I most started to feel like I was in my element. I was able to make small connections with people who were curious about me, as I was about them. I felt able to fold into the place slightly more than in the group, where collectively we always stuck out like a sore thumb. People were always coming up and ask if I needed help figuring out the bus/train or directions or anything – something that didn’t really happen in the group. I was able to stick to small Indian shops and restaurants, which I prefer to the places that only cater to foreigners. It was lonelier to travel by myself here in India, much more so than anywhere else I’ve been. While I missed my group mates once I split off, I tried to make up for it in a few genuine experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
And of course, cost is a factor. While in the north and on the tour, I averaged $71 per day. In the south on my own I’ve averaged $36 per day.
AS A WOMAN
I don’t think I need to point out that India does not have a good reputation with women these days. It was certainly a concern to travel on my own in a country that is repeatedly making the news with violence and discrimination towards women. I was more cautious than usual and tried as much as possible to keep a low profile. Other than a lot of inappropriate staring (mostly in the north), I didn’t feel threatened or frightened at all, not more than any other place. I had several women and men commend me for traveling on my own and congratulate me for not letting the media refrain me from traveling to their country. I didn’t see or meet too many other solo female travelers, but they are out there and it’s possible. In a place like India, as a solo, foreign woman, you can sometimes get the best of both worlds. I was able to get invited into a woman’s kitchen and got to take advantage of preferential ticket lines and bus seating – things men can’t do. On the other side, foreign women aren’t really expected to follow all of the rigid gender-based norms. So it wasn’t out of this world that I wanted to sit and have a beer, speak to both men and women, and so on.
THE WINDCHILL FACTOR
You don’t come to India to relax. For the most part, it is a place that tests your patience and tolerance nearly every waking (and sometimes sleeping) minute. It can be abrasive and much too rough around the edges for a lot of people. There is so much noise, pollution, filth, congestion, gut-wrenching poverty, and harassment/unwanted attention. The food can also be a problem for some people as well, as the level of (un)sanitation causes many visitors become quite sick. I feel very fortunate to not have had so much as an upset stomach. I couldn’t, in good conscience, contribute to the plastic time bomb that is India, so I opted to filter tap water for most of my water. I thought that for sure I’d have some digestive issues given that filtering only kills about 98.5% of the bad stuff in water- but I lucked out and was happy to avoid a lot of plastic bottles. I tried pretty much everything I was offered and ate some street food and am therefore counting my lucky stars that I was spared.
In the absence of illness, I’d say that the noise was the most difficult for me to deal with. Drivers in India use their horn like I use my rear view mirrors. You honk, pretty much constantly, just to let everybody know you are there. You honk the entire time you are passing someone. You honk if you are anywhere in the vicinity of a holy cow so as not to risk causing it harm – and there are a LOT of holy cows along or on the roads. Also, in the way some people annoying alter or remove their muffler to make their car sound loader, in India drivers alter their horns so that they are louder and also so that they have a customized tune. Sometimes the tunes go off for 4-5 seconds. I recently shared a day tour through the backwaters with a scientist. He got all precise in his assessment of the maddening sound issue and on a bus ride had calculated what percentage of the time on the road the horn was being honked. On that particular ride his bus clocked in at 18% of the time. With each vehicle on the road honking the horn 18% of the time, hopefully you can sympathize why I was on edge at all times and craving nothing more than a few seconds of silence.
As I recently shared as a Facebook status: “Only 45 sleeps in this country was not nearly enough to scratch the surface or start to make heads or tails of things. It required a daily commitment to not judge and to push past the natural resistance I had to a land & culture so opposite my own. It has been a place where I had to be intentional, every moment of every day, about letting the barrier down so that some of the Indian magic could seep in….and seep in it did. Thank you India for welcoming me, albeit in your own peculiar way.”