Incredible India – Is It Really?
India was one of those destinations I was both somewhat afraid and absolutely intrigued to go to. Afraid not in terms of danger but in terms of what I would see namely the overwhelming poverty that always seems to be emphasized by the media.
I had once heard that a person hasn’t traveled until having been to India. I had been to many countries before going to India but this statement left me with the desire to experience this part of the world so different and removed from any place I’ve ever been before. And so, I took this statement as a challenge.
At the end of November 2014, we packed our bags and headed to the land of Hindu gods and temples, the Taj Mahal, Maharaja palaces and sacred cows. This was our longest trip yet – 52 days of riding on rickety overnight buses, crowded trains and more rickshaws than we care to count.
After spending 10 days traveling around Sri Lanka, we landed in Chennai – this overnight stay gave us a small inkling into what was waiting for us. The next day we started our long journey traveling from the beaches in the south to the Pakistan/India border in the north experiencing several changes in scenery, culture, food and weather along the way.
MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS – BEFORE & AFTER
When we told people we were going to India most people asked why would we go to such a poor country? With so many places to see why choose India? It would have been easy to smugly answer Why not? but the truth is that although India is for the most part undeniably poor it also has so much to offer in terms of culture and diversity. Have a look for yourself by clicking below on some of the places we visited.
Upon our return, the question that was most often asked was if we got sick from the food or water. We’re happy to say that neither of us had the dreaded “Delhi belly” or anything else for that matter. Yes, we did eat street food but we only drank bottled water (although we usually brushed our teeth with tap water).
Another question I was asked was if India had changed me in any way (it often has that effect on people who have been).I, myself, had heard and read about people going to India and coming back enlightened or with a whole new perspective on life. But in my case, the answer is no, India didn’t change me which isn’t to say it didn’t effect me in any way. The thing is that I had already had my enlightening (for lack of a better word) moment when I went to Brazil many years ago. It was the first country where I came face to face with the brutal reality of extreme poverty – the kind where mothers sleep on the streets with their crying babies.
Although each of my travels brings me closer to a better understanding of how I want to live my life and what’s truly important to me, Brazil was the country that had propelled me even more so in that direction. So, to be honest, India merely helped in re-affirming my outlook on life which is always a good thing to do anyways.
WHAT SHOULD WOMEN WEAR?
Despite quickly becoming a leader in the very modern field of information technology, India still remains a very conservative country. Most women and young girls continue to wear traditional saris which cover up their shoulders and legs. For some reason, showing their belly is acceptable though I don’t suggest doing this if you’re wearing Western clothing. Girls wearing more contemporary clothing also tend to cover their shoulders and legs (and bellies in this case). Dress ethics are more lenient in some Southern cities with resort-like areas; wearing a bikini on the beach is fine but not to walk around town (shorts are okay).
Another important dress etiquette is to cover your butt at all times when wearing form-fitting pants (leggings for example) and to never show any cleavage. I know all this sounds very “dictatorial” but it’s best not to attract any unwanted attention (and to respect local customs) – some Indian men can be very intimidating when it comes to staring (read below).
In Mumbai, being the most cosmopolitan of cities in India, I noticed some younger Indian women and girls wearing shorts and tank tops (though as a foreigner I do suggest playing it safe by dressing more modestly). Throughout my travels in India, I actually didn’t always cover my shoulders and felt comfortable not doing so but when I wore a more form-fitting top I usually wore a scarf. I have to add that it was very cold in the Northern states so I was covered up more than enough literally from head to toe (not pictured)!
DID YOU KNOW?
Being that India was long-ruled by the British making English one of the official languages (the other being Hindi), we were both very surprised that many Indians didn’t speak or understand English. We understood why once we found out that most parents don’t insist (for various reasons) on sending their children to school – explaining the absurdly high rate of illiteracy in the country except for the Southern state of Kerala which has the highest literacy rate of about 95%. That being said, language was rarely an issue – there was always someone who spoke enough (or very good) English to help us out.
ONLY IN INDIA….
Incessant noise, air pollution and garbage are omnipresent and part of everyday life in India. The endless honking of cars and rickshaws are sure to drive you temporarily insane. The problem is such that some cities actually forbid drivers from honking! The air is heavy with dust, smog, fumes and smells of urine and animal/human excrement (!). As for garbage – I had never seen so much rubbish piled high or littering the streets – it really is alarming!
One thing I wasn’t aware of is that Indians (mostly men) stare – a lot. Unlike in Western countries, this didn’t seem to be considered impolite. I’m guessing Indians stare at foreigners simply out of curiosity. It’s quite harmless but we just couldn’t get used to being somewhat of a novelty. One time in Bhuj, we were discretely (or so we thought) waiting at a bus station when a significantly large crowd started to gather around us just to stare at the strange-looking foreigners. It was awkward to say the least. With almost a billion people in India, it was sometimes difficult to keep people out of our bubble. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that concept even exists in India.
Also, Indians loved to have their pictures taken – even if they didn’t own a camera. No problem, they simply asked us to take a picture of them with our camera and then smiled proudly at their own image never to be seen again. They also asked to take pictures of us with them – young and old, men and women – all wanted a piece of us. This happened very often everywhere we went in India. At first we found it amusing but after many weeks of traveling the picture-taking felt a little invasive and a lot bothersome. That being said, I will add that most Indians were very friendly and always smiling when it came to taking pictures.
And lastly, let me introduce you to the head-wobbling – a mannerism proper to India. Even after nearly two months of traveling in India, we still couldn’t figure it out. What is it you ask? The best visual reference I can think of is a bobble head – the small figurine that is stuck on dashboards of cars. It’s a mix between a yes and a no making communication quite laughable and confusing at times. Each time we asked a question (not always necessitating a straight yes or no answer), we were answered with a head wobble. Trying to discern the answer, we would ask if that meant a yes or no and – guess what? – we would be answered once more with a head wobble. At times, we even tried using the head wobble ourselves only to be looked at strangely – perhaps a bit of reverse psychology was at hand?
IS INDIA REALLY THAT INCREDIBLE?
As an interior designer, India with its vibrant colors and intricate architecture was the epitome of inspiration. India was everything and nothing I expected. It was chaotic and unapologetically
dirty filthy. At times it was harsh and other times it welcomed us with open arms. It was relentless touts* and friendly faces. It was unbelievably beautiful and disturbingly ugly. It was homeless street kids and Starbucks. It was heart-breaking and heart-warming. It was contradiction at its best.
India is a country that refuses to leave its visitors feeling lukewarm – it aims to either leave a bad taste in your mouth never to return again or a longing in your heart questionably aching for more. It’s really all up to you – your outlook will determine the outcome. And so, for all those reasons, India really is that incredible!
*a tout is (usually) a guy who tries to sell you anything he can to make some money. Need a room? His cousin owns a hotel. Hungry? His uncle owns a restaurant. Looking for silk shawls? Follow him – his friend owns the best shop in town. Touts can be aggressive – they tend to follow you around until you give in – but not at all dangerous. It can be very annoying but the best way to get rid of them is to just ignore them.
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Have you been to India? What was your favorite place? What are your thoughts on this incredible country? Leave your comments below!