Ever had a love/hate relationship with a person or place? Well that’s India and me. It’s one of the most fascinating places on Earth, but at times it’s a really hard place to love.
I’ve visited India twice now, most recently on a four month journey through a vast swathe of the country. I’m in awe at the greatness of the place: its complex history, grand architecture and dazzling colours and chaos is quite unlike anywhere else. But it’s also brought me to my knees in despair: its noise and dirt, its exhausting scammers, the scale of the poverty, at times it becomes too much to bear. What often comes to my mind is the Indian tourist board’s slogan !ncredible India!, I don’t think they realise just how true it is, on so many levels.
What follows are some of my India loves and hates…
India is awash with fresh flowers and it makes everything bright and colourful. From temples, to shrines in homes and businesses, to flower markets – flowers are EVERYWHERE. In South India many women also wear fresh flowers in their hair, which not only looks beautiful, but smells wonderful. Visiting the flower auction at Devaraja Market in Mysore was a highlight from my last visit, but it’s not only here that the flower markets dazzle and impress.
The noise and dirt
India is not a quiet country. India is a loud, brash, colourful place that demands to be heard. A journey on the streets here, for example, is not a peaceful one. Horns blare out of every vehicle, from standard horns to impossibly ornate horns. It’s a veritable orchestra of horns and India is world champion. Add to this mix the piles of garbage on the streets, the lack of places to dispose of rubbish and the general sense that it’s fine to toss rubbish anywhere on the floor, and you have great noisy mess. I didn’t really get the whole concept of peace, solitude and spirituality that people talk about in relation to India – it wasn’t the place I encountered. Next time I hope to find those places.
Indian kids are some of the most adorable kids you’re ever likely to meet. Their beaming smiles and enthusiastic calls for “selfies” are infectious and brightened up many a dull day. Sure, there are occasions (usually in more touristy areas) where they’ll chance their luck and ask for money or chocolate or school pens, and some of them are pretty pushy, but you can (and should!) brush this aside. Giving them these things just perpetuates a broader problem. There are other, better, ways to give.
Chewing and spitting
Chewing betel nut and tobacco is incredibly popular amongst both men and women and in cities across India walls and pavements are stained rusty red from betel nut spit. This love of chewing often means that you’ll end up having a conversation with someone who sounds like they have a mouthful of food, they’ll tilt their head back slightly to avoid the blood-red liquid dripping out. Then mid-conversation they’ll spit a mouthful out. It’s a really disgusting but hugely popular habit.
Goats in jumpers
Why do they exist? I don’t really know. Because despite some Indians’ claims that they need to keep warm, I think goats have survived a pretty long time without wearing jumpers. But the sight of a goat in a jumper never failed to make me laugh and so I think there should be more goats in jumpers all around the world. And, yes, my fascination with photographing them may have gotten a little out of hand.
Indians love to stare. Whether you’re on the train, walking down the street or eating in a restaurant, if you’re not local then prepared to get stared at. Most of the time the staring didn’t get to me, but there were days when I really wanted to ask what the hell was so fascinating that it warranted staring without blinking. It’s just an Indian thing I guess, but when you’re on a night train trying to sleep and the passengers across the aisle are just staring at you, it gets a little unnerving.
The cost of living
India is so cheap that sometimes that it’s hard to believe. Meals are easy to come by for little more than a dollar and accommodation for less than $5, in short – it’s a budget traveller’s dream. Most months I comfortably got by on only around $450, occasionally even less. Taking local trains and busses is not only cheap but means that you get a real sense of the people here and the opportunity to engage with them more (whether you want to or not).
When it comes to pavements, India sucks. Finding a street with an unbroken pavement to walk on is like winning the lottery. Usually, you’ll start walking along what appears to be a strip of clear pavement and then boom, the pavement disappears, it’s either unfinished (instead lies a pile of abandoned rubble and building materials) or there’s a fence blocking the path or a tree or someone’s shop spilling out onto the street to occupy the space or people sleeping there. This means having to walk on the road a lot…which leads neatly to my next point.
Drivers in India are often selfish and sometimes downright dangerous. If you have a motorbike, car or tuk tuk you are automatically more important than those without one and will show this superiority by horning at anyone and everyone who gets in your way, because heaven forbid you should have to slow down, much better to harass the pedestrians (who have been forced onto the road) to get out of your way. On New Year’s Eve in Mumbai we saw a man knocked over by a scooter, the family on the scooter then jumped off and started attacking the man they’d just hit, as if it was his fault that they didn’t know how to use the brakes on their bike!
There are some fascinating markets in India and I loved wandering around and exploring the colourful produce on offer. Some of the stalls had incredible displays put together by their owners, who clearly take great pride in their work. Devaraja Market in Mysore was one of my favourites, it was a riot of colour and chaos, and a delight to wander around and photograph. There’s pretty much nothing you can’t find in a good Indian market.
This hate is on a par with the spitting. It’s hard to walk or drive down a street in India without seeing a man peeing somewhere. Sometimes you even see them peeing next to the urinals…why not just pee in the urinal? And some days the number of penises I had the misfortune of seeing was just ridiculous (pun completely intended). You can usually smell a popular pee zone before you actually reach it, the pungent stench is unmissable and becomes all too familiar.
I had the good fortune of being in India for a few festivals, and the enthusiasm with which locals embrace these festivals is a sight to behold, they don’t hold back, and go BIG on celebrations. Diwali in Chennai, which I wrote about in another post, was mayhem and an experience my eyes (and ears!) won’t forget. I was also in Varanasi for the Festival of Shiva, which turned the banks of the River Ganges into a sea of candles and floral tributes. I’m still trying to figure out what the placing of bananas and pouring of milk onto the phallic looking shrines meant. Answers on a postcard please.
The traveller’s nemesis. These guys love to mess with tourists, more often than not quoting outrageous prices in the hope that you have no clue of the real price. If you want, or need, to take an auto it involves a tiresome process of haggling, walking away and more haggling to reach a vaguely reasonable price. Then, when you finally agree a price they can still be slippery, taking you to a completely different destination or claiming that the price quoted was per person. It’s tedious and boring, which is why services like Uber and Ola are being used more and more by tourists, their prices are usually cheaper and fixed. But sometimes, just sometimes, you’ll find that rarest of rare creatures – an honest auto driver.
There can be few places in the world with as vibrant and varied a street food culture as India’s and as a result, a visitor to India can try much deliciousness…if you dare. I ate street food on an almost daily basis there, and on the whole it was tasty and didn’t make me sick. There was that one time that it did, and that was no fun in the slightest, but them’s the breaks in India. Fluffy uttappam for breakfast, snacks of mix chaat, badam milk pick-me-ups, smoky grilled corn and my favourite guilty pleasure – a cheese, tomato, beetroot and potato sandwich with a minty chutney. Sounds weird and random, but hands down my favourite thing to eat in Mumbai. I managed to put away an obscene number of these when I was there.
During four months in India I lost hours of my life down to misinformation. Looking for details about a bus or train or the location of a specific place invariably led us on many a wild goose chase, as everyone we asked seemed to offer a different answer*. At times it drove us to despair, when people who supposedly worked for bus or train companies gave us the completely wrong information. Ah, the number of missed buses and connections that we suffered as a result. This doesn’t even include the deliberate attempts at misinformation from scammers or auto rickshaw drivers trying to set us off course for their own gain.
*Many Indians also seem to be incapable of saying the words “I don’t know”, they would rather give an answer, any answer, even the wrong answer, than admit to not knowing. Just say “I don’t know,”…not knowing is ok.
The beautiful buildings
India is blessed with some quite stunning architecture, spanning a wealth of different empires, periods and styles. In this sense it’s truly rich and in every state new wonders await, and not just obvious ones. Delve a little deeper into states like Karnataka and you can discover off the beaten path treats like Badami, and even in tourist dense places like Rajasthan hidden gems like Bundi are waiting to be found.
The lack of women
Sometimes I walked down the street in India and it was nearly impossible to spot another female. India is quite literally overrun with men – 37 million more than there are women to be precise. The traditional family preference for boys over girls, and the issue of female foeticide led the Government to ban the use of ultrasounds to determine the sex of babies. I’m not sure how much impact this law has, the problem seems to persist, but one thing’s for sure – India needs more women! The number of women in the workforce in India is also falling.
The country’s gender imbalance creates strange and sometimes unpleasant attitudes towards women and if India is to address these issues then tackling the male/female ratio is crucial.
A bit of a random one, but here goes. Chewing gum only freshens your mouth, but what if there were something that freshened you from the inside out? Happily India has the solution! Feel free to indulge in the most oniony and garlicy of Indian meals and then just pop a Pudin Hara tablet. Give it a little time to digest and rather than having to relive the oniony garlicy taste ad-nauseum (you know the feeling), you get minty freshness instead. Quite literally magic pills. I stocked up before we left.
Indian red tape
While I was in India demonitisation happened. Overnight and without warning, all our cash became worthless. The Indian Government removed from circulation all 500 and 1000 rupee notes, these were pretty much the only notes we had and the only notes dispensed by ATMs. Everyone in the country, had to wait a few days until the new notes were put into ATMs and in the meantime attempt to find a bank to exchange the old notes. The daily limit on the amount of cash you could change in one go was only 4,000 Rs (about $60), for the many Indians without bank accounts, and only cash savings, that caused a huge headache.
After a few days of queuing up at various banks, being given the wrong information (of course) and arguing with a lot of officials, we managed to change what cash we had, but for Indians the saga continued for months. When we asked some locals about it they just seemed resigned to the fact that this is how things are in India and that they have little power to change it.
LOVE and HATE
Cows roaming free on the streets is a quintessentially Indian sight, and not just on the streets, on the beaches, in amongst ruins, on train stations – basically everywhere. For some reason the sight of cows wandering around never failed to lose its charm, my favourite moments were spotting cows queueing up outside people’s homes to wait for their breakfast snack, they would stop at one door before moving onto the neighbours’ doors. But, I also hated seeing these same cows eating plastic bags of rubbish which are dumped on the streets and in bins, sometimes they just gave up on trying to get the contents out of the bag and swallowed it plastic bag and all. Not good.
Dual pricing at attractions
India isn’t the only country to enforce a dual pricing system, whereby locals pay one entrance price and foreigners another, but the sheer difference in pricing sometimes verged on the ridiculous. I understand that charging foreigners a bit more enables the government to charge locals less, and yes of course they have more right to access their cultural heritage than us foreigners. But what about the fact that an Indian surviving on less than a $1 a day is expected to pay the same as a wealthy Indian tycoon – is that fair? Also, where does this money go? Some of the sights we visited were in woeful need of repair, but the money didn’t seem to be put towards that. I understand charging foreigners a higher rate than locals, but when that rate is 25 times higher for some attractions, it just seems like a rip off.
The kindness of strangers
Along with many people trying to make us part with our cash, we also met some incredibly kind and hospitable people in India, who wanted nothing more than to make our experience in their country a good one. Like the people who helped us find a place to stay for the night in a town where all hotels had turned us away as they were “fully booked” (aka for being foreigners) and then invited us over for dinner, or the guys who helped us clean up our rented scooter after we’d managed to drive it into quicksand in the desert (a whole other story, for a whole other post). And then there were the people who invited us into their homes or businesses for a cup of tea and a chat, without wanting anything in return. Meeting these kind of people is why I love to travel and meeting these kind of people invariably cancels out all the other negative stuff.