We are trying really hard to enjoy India, but it is difficult. We have visited over 50 countries and our month and a half in India has been amongst the least endearing. This is tough to admit as a traveler since every country is supposed to be mystical, tantalizing, or some other rubbish term meant to conjure magic feelings in a land far far away. Occasionally, a country can feel more like a visit to a trash pile and smell like urine. When we arrived in Delhi, our expectations of grandeur were quickly replaced with thoughts of escape to, well, anywhere else.
For a country which is so uncomfortable with the sight of bare knees, India is surprisingly accepting of public urination. It is widespread. No matter where, someone will be relieving themselves. There isn’t a wall not soaked in urine, police stations included. It’s as if 1.4 billion people collectively decided to stave off drought by soaking the streets in pee. The omnipresent scent urine blends with the smell of cow (or human) poop and trash mounds lining the roads. People shamelessly throw their trash anywhere and in front of anyone. The rancid wafts of sewage and trash blend with the strong smells of amazing foods, creating a strange dichotomy for the senses. The smog, so thick it looks like fog, gives your clothes a grayish tint and clogs your nostrils, which is probably for the best.India is full of noise. It is absolutely everywhere, saturating each corner of buildings. People yell at you everywhere you go. Car horns blast every second of every day. Drivers hold down their horns while in motion, regardless of whether there is anyone in their path. The city noise is ever present, so much so that it almost become white noise. As we write this, there is a stereo system across the street, hundreds of meters away, which is competing with the clang of a railroad bell for the prize of loudest and most obnoxious sound. And there is no railroad here, just some loud bell which has been going off for twenty minutes. But at least these noises cover up the sounds from the car driving up and down the street blasting political gibberish.Live and let live. This can be seen on the streets of any city in India, as roaming animals are completely ignored. Motor bikes and rickshaws drive around livestock and dogs napping in the street like potholes. The glaring exceptions are pedestrians who are apparently either invisible or targets in a game of wack-a-mole. There is a blurred line between sidewalk and road, with bikers riding on sidewalks piled so high with junk that passage is often impeded and pedestrians crowding the streets.The level of starvation in this country is staggering, with hundreds of millions of people going hungry each day. This one is tough, and something that you have to get used to if you are traveling here. There is nothing fun about walking past limbless beggars, dirty homeless children, and limitless bony underfed or injured animals. You want to help everyone, but the scale is just too massive. Some beggars are caught in scam rings which force them to beg, so offering money actually makes the problem worse. Thrice we have given food to children who immediately hold out their other free hand for money. Several times we have given some of our food to mangey dogs, only to have them turn up their nose and leave it laying in the street. That starving cow with a festering wound, eating rotten cardboard while standing in a sewage puddle will eventually, sadly, just become another part of the surroundings.Despite these unpleasant aspects of travel in India, there is still a lot to love, or at least to try and like, about the country.
The complete removal from convention
Jugaad. A Hindi term meaning to find an unconventional way in any situation. And India does that amongst the best. Too much traffic in the way? Just drive on the opposite side of the street in the wrong direction. Cows living everywhere on the streets with no vegetation in sight? No problem, they eat the trash alongside the homeless. Don’t have a car? Just attach a wheelbarrow to a tiller and ride it through town.India is a removal from convention, and to some degree you have to eat or get eaten. When the tenth person tries to push in front of you in line because you look like you won’t protest? Bump them with your shoulder, hard. They won’t be expecting it and you will have the element of surprise. Then put your arm out and create a fence with the counter, claiming the next place at the ticket window. When the moped tries to drive in front of you on the sidewalk, just stiff arm the guy and watch the surprise as you win the right of way. That rickshaw driver that rolls his bike in your path to block your passage, hoping you will accept a forced ride? Just ignore him and push his bike aside as you keep walking.
This unique culture has spawned a myriad of activities and events which you would never find in Western countries. If you want to feel like you are away from home, don’t go to Paris with every other tourist, try out the camel fair in the desert of India. Or try to figure out why the hell there is a painted elephant standing in your way. Or just try testing your patience to see how much it can take.
India is filled with people who see us as a walking ATM, like our appearance guarantees that we will be easy to trick out of money. We are constantly harassed by hawkers offering to help, as if our confident walk and private conversation indicates that we are in need to unsolicited advice. Any acknowledgment of the advance quickly turns into a reason to visit their shop, or use their guide services. There is no distance too far. People will yell from across the street. Taxis will honk as they drive past, as if we have been searching for one all day amongst the hundreds cramming the roads, just waiting for a horn to blare in our ear. People will try and hold traffic for us to cross and expect a tip for the unwanted help.When walking down the packed streets, you can expect to get shoved from the back, despite the human crowd being at a standstill. Foreign women are guaranteed a finger jammed in their butt from a faceless man in any crowd. This is all part of the experience, inviting a fight or fight response. Half the fun of these interactions is jabbing an elbow at the lady pushing from behind, shoving the old man into a fruit cart who is trying to trample you, or kneeing the closest male in the crotch hoping he might have been the butt grabbing culprit. There is a societal push for more equality of women, but for the time being, your butt is a petting zoo in a grab ass free for all. There is a country of people eager to help when it benefits them, but it is tough to find direction when we actually need the assistance. We have been ignored by shopkeepers when seeking help if they don’t sell what we are looking to buy. They may give a halfhearted wave in the general direction to walk without any distance or landmarks if we are so lucky. (We found this to be apparent more in the North than South.) Generally speaking, strangers don’t want to be your friend unless they want something from you.
Despite the overwhelming number of selfish people, there will be one in ten that will go so far above and beyond to offer genuine help that it almost makes up for the rest. Just when we can’t possibly despise everything any more, someone will go all over town to look for what we can’t find, refusing any payment in return. Occasionally, we will be approached by a person wanting only to wish us welcome to their country, without secretly trying to sell, steer, or photograph us. We have also met some of the most incredibly humble, genuine, welcoming and hospitable people throughout the country. The bar is set low, which makes these encounters truly magic.
If you have ever wanted to feel like a Bollywood superstar, then India is for you. The country is full of, well, Indians. Almost a billion and a half of them actually, and Western visitors stand out here like a man peeing on a police station would in the United States. We received at least a dozen requests to have our picture taken within one day of our arrival, not counting the dozens of pictures secretly taken as we pass. And not just one age group wants us to star in their selfies. Requests come from people of all walks of life. Elderly, children, groups of women, and guides. Our puzzled expressions must add something desirable to the pictures from people throughout the country.We often catch men taking pictures of Megan’s back from behind us on the bus. We have started pulling out our own camera and returning the creepy favor when we catch people in the act. Not stealthily, just right in their face so they know they were noticed.
We tried trading our photo for an explanation of the request, but the answers were all incomprehensible ramblings by people who suddenly forgot English. Usually something about us being a beautiful couple followed by giggling as they walked away. Enjoy the moment, pretend you are a beautiful celebrity couple, and ignore the fading laughs.
Absolutely nothing fazes Indians. The most horrific, unsightly, or incredibly random thing could land at their feet and they wouldn’t bat an eye. Malnourished cattle foraging for cardboard scraps in the middle of the street? Just drive around them. Starving mud coated children pulling at your shirt with their hand out? A mere nuisance. A pack of rabid dogs guarding a trash pile? Live and let live. Nothing will faze Indians. Except seeing a Western person, and all of the cameras come out.
The history and architecture
Stepping into India is knowing you are in a different world. The historical roots go back uninterrupted for longer than most civilizations on the planet. The history is unmatched and incredibly diverse, which can be seen in the architecture throughout the country. The buildings allow you to step back in time, and are unmatched with structures found in Western cultures.
While the vast majority of these buildings are very well preserved, unfortunately, even some of the most ancient and amazing buildings have been neglected from repair. We witnessed this most in Delhi, where several otherwise amazing historical structures have been left to decay.
When you come to India, you WILL get Delhi belly. It’s just a fact. You will be in the worst place and realize that the masala curry you ate isn’t going down without a fight. You will rush to some squalid squatter only to remember that no one in India uses toilet paper, and finally understand why there is a bucket of water in the corner. As they say, masala in, masala out.
Washing hygiene is questionable at best. Most food is served, and eaten, by hand. Soap is not widely used, and cross contamination with non-purified water happens regularly. But the food, regardless of the questionable preparation, is certainly a reason to visit India. The spices and flavors burst from every dish. It is nearly impossible to identify the range of seasoning used. Foods are being prepared everywhere you turn, as chefs fry up dosas, sauces sizzle in cauldrons, and chai is boiled around every turn. There are chapatis, parathas, rotis, naans and dozens of other breads being cooked up and used to mop up curries. Spices are sold by the truckload, giving you a convulsing cough and burning lungs as you pass. You could sample a different dish with every meal and never try everything.Fresh brewed chai is available everywhere. Most streets have vendors boiling, filtering and pouring tea with an array of flavors. Masala chai, ginger chai, saffron almond chai frothed with thick creamy milk or made with strong local tea leaves. This is typically sold for a mere 10 rupees, and brings instant acceptance when you join the locals for a cup on the street corner.
Cooking classes are widely available in local homes, with conditions ranging from the unusual (with a complimentary cockroach audience) to professional (only sometimes with a cockroach audience).
Everyone generously offers to sell us their goods for several times the going rate. Most also get offended when we refuse to pay the stupid Westerner price. We overheard an Aussie and a Brit discussing haggling on a bus ride the other day, and they concluded that arguing over a mere few rupees was generally not worth the effort, since the merchant could just hold out for some American to come and overpay later. We take it upon ourselves to not be those Americans. We will argue over 10 rupees if it is the difference between getting overcharged and paying the local price. And this is half the fun. The reward being the look of disbelief when you purchase something for less than it has ever been sold to a visitor, along with the extra $0.15 in your pocket. We take it upon ourselves to keep tourist prices from growing too fast.If you are able to pay the local prices, India is a wonderful place for travelers. A routine lunch for two is $1-6. A tuk-tuk ride to most anywhere in town can by arranged for $1-2. This haircut? A mere 100 rupees ($1.50), so cheap that we added on a straight razor shave.
If you have thought that air travel was too easy, or just wanted more hurdles at the airport, India has the answer. Domestic transfers may get sent through the international terminal, requiring a full rerun through the security process while trying to catch a tight connection. Security will keep you safe by making sure no one has a tiny pair of keychain pliers with which to methodically disassemble the plane. Your pair of tweezers may also be up for grabs at the second security check during your connection. Your boarding ticket will get checked again as you disembark, just to make sure you haven’t teleported into the plane mid-flight. It will be checked again when you get to the front of the immigration line, which you will have to cross since your domestic flight was routed through the international terminal. It will be checked yet again when you get to the immigration desk, just to confirm that you did in fact come from India on the domestic plane that just disembarked, which is the only one in parked in the entire terminal. But you will feel extra safe.
Looking towards an improving future
India hardens you to pain and suffering, which is an unfortunate reality and against natural compassion. You are forced to put up walls and ignore people, which is foreign to Western culture where it is customary to acknowledge others. The country has the makings of an amazing travel destination, but it could be so much better with three major, albeit difficult, changes. More tourists would come and bring their money which would benefit the country as a whole.
- Focus on the trash problem. Get the junk off the streets and moved to where it belongs. It stinks, it is disgusting, and it is deterring visitors. Educate citizens on littering, recycling, and keeping their country clean.
- Fine excessive car horn usage. It is incredibly annoying, and totally unnecessary. It makes walking on the streets a chore, and keeps visits to restaurants or guesthouses with proximity to the road from being relaxing.
- Do something about the animal problem. There is no reason for cows, dogs and pigs to fill the streets. They are bony, starving, and defecate everywhere. It is really sad. Implement spay/neuter and shelter programs, and then continue to live and let live.
India is the neti pot of travel. It can be hard to take and makes you want to vomit, but it is supposed to be healthy and will certainly make you feel better about yourself. Jugaad.
If you know anyone planning a trip to India, make sure to pass along this enlightening (and slightly satirical) depiction of our impression of India. Also make sure to also check out the 15 Most Impressive Things to See in India and our India Travel Survival Guide.
You can view our previous posts from Nepal, including Trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary and Trekking the Annapurna Circuit. Also stay tuned for upcoming posts on route highlights from North and South India, along with future posts from Australia!