We came home. We came home after almost 1 year of gallivanting and 10 countries visited during that time. It’s strange, but I’ll talk about this feeling soon enough. Some more time has to pass for me. To be able to explain the type of feelings and sensations that assault you after such an adventure. But until then, what I have to mention is that now, every time we meet an acquaintance, the first question asked is: “Which place did you like best?”
I don’t like hierarchies. I’ve never been good at making lists because it’s hard for me to decide, to choose. I actually have a speech to explain why it is so hard to answer a question like the one above; every place has its own special thing that either fascinates us or simply stuck to our soul. BUT, this time around, I, funnily enough, do have a definitive answer. And it’s an answer that will never change – INDIA!
It’s the most hilarious when I meet up with people that know me really well. They usually pose the question differently. “Which country did you like best and please don’t tell me is it India?” And why not India?! But most of them expect an answer along the lines of New Zealand or maybe even Indonesia or the Philippines. And every time I end up disappointing them. Because I smile and spell it out for them with pride and joy – I-N-D-I-A.
I’ve decided that my first article when we got back to be about my answer to the mentioned question. I know how important it can be to know things about India before getting there. And maybe this way I would somehow quell my longing for India. And it hurts in a way, every time people get shocked by my choice. Every time people roll their eyes when I say that India will always be deeply rooted in my heart. It’s not a coincidence that we ended up going there three times in less than two years. That says a lot! So now I’m going to try and tell you about my India.
Actually, it’s kind of hard to write about it, try as I might. Why? Because it’s like trying to explain to someone why I love my parents. I could write entire pages, but still, after every full stop, I would definitely want to add something more. That’s the way I feel about India, too. And I truly wish that as many people as possible get a chance to live the Indian experience the way we got to do it. But enough chitchat, time to get to work!
Is India dirty?
Yes, India is dirty. Let’s just get that out of the way. I’ve been asked way too many times “How could you like a country where there is an abundance of garbage and trash?” not to start with this issue. Yes, it’s true, in almost all areas that we’ve been to, with the exception of Kerala, garbage was prevalent in the streets. Garbage made up of leftovers, plastic, and God-knows what else, mixed with the poop of the wandering cows. And boom: a cocktail that can make your eyes water and make you want to cover your nose. But people don’t really understand the sheer population of India. When the population numbers in the billions and most of it are unfortunately uneducated, would you really expect them to sort their trash? And recycle?
Yes, education is very important. And few people know that at the time of Independence, when the Brits finally deigned to leave, the rate of educated population was only 12%. And this percentage only increased to 74% in 2011. The impressive number of uneducated people, combined with the heavy population density, contributes to the ghastly image of trash in the street.
Imagine all the smells
I’m not trying to make up excuses for them. I’m perfectly aware that they need to improve their street cleanliness. But, at the same time, I can’t say that there are no areas that are clean. We’ve actually walked happily around areas in which there was no flood of trash. Most of them were in Ladakh and Kerala.
Yes, India smells. And it doesn’t smell of roses. As I’ve mentioned earlier, trash and dung mixed together basically make you run. And maybe this will sound strange, but you actually get used to it. Once you manage to get past these details, learn to ignore them, you start to enjoy the place you’re in without being bothered by the smell.
Too many reasons to avoid India
Another reason for which some travelers avoid India are the diseases. Because, yes, they have malaria, typhoid, Hepatitis, diarrhea (the nasty one), cholera etc. Most of them are due to lack of proper hygiene, access to fresh water, poor sanitation. And as a traveler, you really don’t want to get sick. But you can avoid them.
There are drugs and good mosquito repellents to keep you away from infected flying creatures. There are vaccines for typhoid and Hepatitis. And for diarrhea, you just have to be careful what and where you eat. We have NEVER been sick in India! And trust me, my stomach is pretty sensitive. We just used our common sense and were more careful. So going to India doesn’t mean leaving it sick!
Oh, let’s not forget about the traffic! That’s really insane and it’s hard to be on India’s side here. In most of our bus rides, I was pretty sure we will die. I am actually surprised we are still alive. But after seeing Indians’ driving skills we opted for trains and planes. Which is really pleasant. Going on a train in India can be an adventure, but usually a fun one. We never had problems in the trains and would gladly recommend them. It’s not as fun as being on the streets though. Where you can see a mix of cars, tuk tuks, cows, monkeys, elephants, horses, bicycles, motorbikes etc. It’s like being in a fantasy movie!
Why do Indian people stare at you?
Yes, people stare at you in the streets. And they will want tons of selfies with you! A lot of travelers have told us this, and they were deeply disturbed by all the staring. When we first set foot in Delhi, I honestly felt naked. I could actually feel all those eyes upon me, I had the feeling that I was prancing about naked.
But you need to understand something – no one is giving you the stinky eye (meaning that no one is looking at you maliciously). I’ve never felt violence or aggressiveness in their staring. Yes, as a woman, it’s a lot more difficult, because most of the times you only see men in the streets and it’s not exactly comforting to have all those male eyes on you. But the minute you get it through your head that they are just curious, that most of them associate you with the former British colonists, and that many of them have never seen a white skin before they saw you, that ultimately, they’re just fascinated by you, you begin to relax.
How to deal with the staring
The first few days, I was scared to tear my eyes from the ground. I would walk around with my shoulders hunched just to avoid their curious gazes. Then I realized that it’s not ok, it’s not their fault. Curiosity is a normal thing. Imagine a dark-skinned person suddenly popped in our country during Communism and was randomly walking down our streets. I’d bet your bottom dollar that EVERYONE WOULD HAVE STARED AT HIM. It’s the same way with Indians, only it’s the other way around. So I became a bit more confident, I started to raise my head and look them more often in the eye.
Our second time around in India, I was way better prepared. Especially because I’d read countless books on India’s history and I tried to understand their way of thinking as best I could. So this time, not only did I meet their eye, but I actually smiled at them. I wasn’t smiling in a provocative way, nor in a malicious one. I was trying to share as much warmth as I could through just one smile. And surprise, surprise: I got countless smiles back. It was even better when I’d smile at a boy. He would blush and get flustered and not know how to get away from my gaze. From that point onwards, I started walking around more at ease and started seeing details that I would’ve otherwise overlooked.
India is really a poor country
Yes, India is a poor country. And yes, it’s a country of opposites. Where you could see a man dying next to a barbed-wire fence circling the luxurious villa of some magnate. Yes, we saw much more poverty than we ever thought we’d see. Truth be told, we did wander in a lot of non-touristic areas. And even so, we hadn’t been prepared for some of the things that we’ve seen. And yes, it happened to me more than once to close my eyes in pain and feel the tears.
It’s a life lesson. But it’s a lesson that makes you appreciate life so much more. I’m not saying you should go to India like you would to a show, to see its poor people. I’m just saying that I’m not ok with tourists avoiding the poverty-stricken areas, tourists that hop on and off their buses only at tourist attractions. No, the poor are part of India, they should not be ignored, should not be avoided. And believe me, these experiences make you forget certain thoughts. The ones like “Oh, time to change my iPhone 6 with an iPhone 7”.
Does everybody really want to rip you off?
“Everyone is out for your money”. I’ve heard this line so many times in relation to India. At one point it was just futile to disprove it. No, just because everyone sets a bigger price doesn’t mean they want to steal as much money from you as possible. It’s perfectly normal for them that you, the happy tourist on holiday, should get a higher price than the poor local. And bargaining is in their blood and in their culture. It’s a game you have to play with a smile on your face. Don’t go in there thinking everyone is a crook that just wants to steal your money. A poor, uneducated man will have a different way to try to earn some money. It’s just a matter of perspective.
India’s amazing people
You’re probably wondering why I’m so optimistic. Or possibly what made me accept so easily all these issues and “ugly” sides of India. It’s simple: the people. Yes, the people won our hearts. And I don’t think it was just our luck that we met so many kind-hearted Indians. And their curiosity rubbed off on us. Because starting from their deliciously detailed stories about gods and heroes, we began reading. And reading. And reading. We started to ask ourselves “Where do all their habits and beliefs come from?” and “Why is India so fascinating?”. And as we were reading and getting more and more enraptured by their stories, the fascination only grew stronger.
I truly believe that when you want to discover a country, you have to read at least one book about its history and its culture. And to try to interact with as many natives as possible. I couldn’t stop at just one book. India is by far the country that I’ve read most about. And when you have this land with such a rich history, with such a varied culture, with so many stories and legends that entrap you, it’s not hard to jump the “I love India” bandwagon.
I love India and I’m not afraid to say it
And yes, I love India. I love her for her colors. For her food that would light my mouth on fire. (Food was a step-by-step process. The first few days, we’d stick to the Western restaurants. But we eventually started eating local in the most unexpected places. And now I’m running around trying to find all those beloved spices that caressed my senses. I am currently struggling to remake some of the recipes taught to me by the locals).
I love her for her curious, loquacious, warm and friendly people. I love her for her multicultural diversity. I love her because she gave me the Dalai Lama just a few feet away from me. Because she made me curious. She made me want to know more and read more. About the Sikhs, the Hindu gods, Jainism, Islam, Mughal architecture, and the history of the subcontinent. Oh, almost forgot! I love her because now I’m listening to Hindi music on my phone and I’m speaking to my family with “tikay” and “achha”, and making myself a nice cup of chai first thing in the morning.
Thank you, my dear India. I know this relationship has only just begun. And it’s the start of something good.