India is incredible, as the tourism slogan says. I recently spent 64 days traveling around the massive country, from Delhi to Varanasi to Mumbai to Kerala. I had my mind blown on several occasions by the ancient sites, the chaos, the great food, and the warmth of the people. Here is what I learned.
1. I could survive as a vegetarian
Indian food is awesome. I ate about 200 meals in India, about 180 of which were vegetarian, and I didn’t miss meat once. Okay, once in Bombay as we walked past a street stall frying up kebabs I almost had a meltdown as the smell of grilling meats wafted over me.
The food is universally healthy, excellent and spicy. I prefer the hearty, robust curries of the north which are usually eaten with a pita-like bread called chapatti. The Samosas and Dosas of south India are filling and delicious. With food this good, nutritious, and filling, who needs meat?
2. Indian people can sleep anywhere
Seriously, this may be their greatest skill. We saw people sleeping on footpaths, park benches, medians on highways and on the edge of the street. Some of these people are just taking a break, having a nap. They are nicely dressed and have jobs, they just need some sleepy time.
On the trains, I have to wear an eye mask and earplugs to deaden my senses in order to sleep, but they just pass out like it is nothing. I guess that comes with living in a crowded country, where many people in India have never slept in a room alone their entire lives.
3. Tea with milk, pepper, ginger, cardamon and sugar is awesome
Masala Chai, my new favorite drink.
4. Stepping in sacred cow poop feels the same as stepping in regular poop
One might think that sacred cow poop would somehow feel different when squished between the toes in sandals, but I can confirm that it feels the same as any other poop that I’ve been unlucky enough to step in.
5. Westerners cannot pull off Indian clothing, nevertheless I really wanted to buy a lungi
In Latin America and Africa, we very occasionally see westerners trying to pull off the indigenous clothes. In India, it seems about 40% are trying. Some can pull it off, most cannot.
Having said that, I desperately wanted to by a lungi, or Indian man skirt, as I call it. It is like a sarong that wraps around the waist and can look elegant and stylish when flowing down to the ankles, or is practical like shorts when folded up to become a man mini-skirt. Almost all the local men in Kerala wore them. The humidity and the temperature in Kerala were about the same, both around 90, and I thought the cooling breeze afforded by the lungi would be quite refreshing.
6. No matter how far away I travel, it still hurts that James Harden got traded
7. Indian drivers are all insane
Every taxi driver operates his vehicle like a get-away-car. Indian drivers are ambitious, never satisfied with their position on the highway. Indian drivers spend 1/3 of their time in their own lane, 1/3 in the opposite lane and about 1/3 straddling the two, anxiously looking to pass anyone who is even 1 kpm slower.
Drivers pass on the shoulder, on blind corners, and around hairpin turns on mountain roads all the while blasting their horn as if pushing the horn and not the accelerator is what propels the vehicle forward. They fly right into the teeth of oncoming traffic in a high stakes game of chicken. I have been in tuk-tuks that were run off the road by buses and I’ve been in buses that ran other cars off the road. Indian drivers have all made peace with their God(s) and have a blasé attitude about killing a busload of people or smearing a pedestrian on the street.
I think the below picture subtly sums up Indian driving. There is blind corner and the sign doesn’t say SLOW or CAUTION, rather it simply says SOUND HORN. The man on the motorcycle rounding the blind curve is in the middle of the road not worried about a head-on collision. There is no such thing as defensive driving in India, only 2-minute-drill-desperation offensive driving.
8. Indian people are mellow and friendly
I love the people of India. They are friendly, curious, open, helpful and genuine. WIth the exception of a fe touts, we had nothing but positive interactions with them on our trip and I’d dare say they are amongst the nicest people in the world.
But I must admit, I didn’t have high hopes for the Indian people before I came here.
I work in the tourism industry and almost all the Indians I have met in my life have been at work. Indians always travel with the entire extended family, seemingly the whole damn village. Anytime I look on a manifest and see 40 Patels arriving together, my heart sinks a little. They can be noisy, high-maintenance and they will sometimes bring their own curry and rice to the restaurant and ask us to heat it up.
About six years ago we had a big problem with delayed luggage when I used to work for a tour company. We had four irate Indians in our office all simultaneously shouting at the top of their lungs. They were in my face, excoriating me like I was a referee in a Pakistan vs. India cricket match who just blew a critical call. I was on the phone speaking to someone with knowledge of the bags and I couldn’t hear due to the vociferous complaining. I lowed the phone and shouted at the Indians, “I AM WORKING ON IT!” It was totally unprofessional and spontaneous. I was embarrassed for a second. The Indians and my coworkers looked at me with wide eyes, shocked.
After I yelled at them, the Indians were totally docile and mellow. We were able to reunite them with their bags and they were happy, thanking me profusely for assisting them. Since that moment I just assumed that in a country of 1.2 billion people it was necessary to scream and shout to be heard.
9. India is a very safe country for tourists
I never once felt afraid for safety, was never intimidated to walk down any street. This is a country with almost no muggings or thefts. It is great to be able to walk around with our cameras and visit ATMs and not be a target.
It is a sharp contrast to Latin America where you have to be vigilant at all times for your belongings and locals constantly warn of the ladrones. In India, we didn’t meet anyone who was robbed or had a violent mugging; in Latin America we frequently meet travelers who have been relieved of their possessions, often at gun or knife point.
10. Trains in India are one of the most enjoyable means of conveyance in the world
Trains go just about everywhere in India, they are mostly comfortable and the journeys are always interesting. We rode in almost every class of train, from the cheap Sleeper class of the common Indian to the AC 2nd Class with businessmen and foreigners. On the trains we met people from every walk of life. Everyone on the train seems to be lost in profound thought as they look out at the scenery or toy with their cell phones. Even the children seem pensive.
Moreover, trains have bathrooms and vendors. There is nothing worse than being on an overcrowded 3rd-World bus suffering extreme dehydration but afraid to drink water as there is no way to know when or IF there will be any bathroom stops. Vendors come through the train at all times, selling water, soda, chai, snacks, curries and samosas. It is possible just to jump on the train hungry as someone will materialize with food to sell. I love it.
11. The cheaper the transportation, the more helpful and friendly the locals
On the dirt cheap buses and lower class trains, the locals have been very curious about us and have been eager to help. On the Rattletrap Express Bus between Pushkar and Bundi we were adopted by a local family who escorted Kristi to the restroom at stops, helped us obtain seats, and as we pulled into town, the man, with father-like pride, pointed out the palace and fort Bundi is famous for.
On the more expensive classes of trains the wealthier Indians would assist if we asked, but were not as openly friendly and or helpful.
12. Kristi Bell has an iron stomach
In a total of 2 months in India and 4 months in Africa (dating back to our last two trips) she has yet to get a stomach illness. I’ve been sick three times in that span. That is half a year eating street food and dining at dubious budget establishments with no sickness. Impressive.
13. Old School James Bond movies are cheesy, campy and the basis for the Austin Powers movies
We were in Udaipur, the setting for the Bond flick Octopussy, and several of the bars, cafes and restaurants had signs promoting a nightly showing of the movie. We mocked those establishments thinking we’d never watch it, but one night we found ourselves at a cafe when it started to play on the TV. We decided to watch.
I was blown away by how silly the movie was. I guess I was too young or too oblivious to realize how corny the older movies were. I can only remember the excellent Daniel Craig movies, with their dark and serious tone. Kristi also informed me that the Austin Powers movies resulted from Bond. I…had…no…idea. I am enlightened.
14. In India, as a t-shirt I saw so succinctly put it, YOU CAN PISS IN PUBLIC, BUT YOU CAN’T KISS IN PUBLIC
While I was in India, I saw a story in the Daily Oklahoman about a mother in Piedmont, OK who was fined $2500 when her three-year-old son peed in the front yard as a cop drove by. In India, I read about a couple who was arrested for kissing in public. In America, couples kiss in the streets all the time. In India, men piss in the streets all the time. I’ve seen dozens of kids pooping in the street. Some of this is due to the large number of people in the major cities who are homeless and lack of public toilets, but most of the men we see wetting a wall are just lazy.
15. The world’s most disgusting urinal is in Ajmer, Rajasthan
16. Indian newspapers are fascinating to read
India, the world’s largest democracy, is a paradox. It is a country that is rapidly modernizing, a world leader in business and technology. They have built a nuclear bomb and put rockets into space. And if you call tech support someone in Bangalore might be the one who helps you.
But reading the newspapers illustrates the issues facing the country as it moves forward. Stories of gang rape, child marriage, people detained over Facebook posts, and environmental catastrophe share space with stories about big business, the U.S. presidential election and the national obsession of cricket. I loved reading newspapers on long train rides or in cafes and every time I finished I felt like I knew India better and somehow less at the same time. I am sure I will continue to follow news of India the rest of my life.
17. Male Bollywood dancers are almost as bad at dancing as I am. Almost
What are some lessons you have learned while traveling?