I recently got a request for more information about my experience living in India. So for Sue-Ellen and Nathan, I hope the following blog helps with your upcoming trip.
India is a land of glorious contrasts. It’s a beautiful country with mountains and rugged terrain and in the southern part of the country the areas that border the sea are unspeakably gorgeous. There’s nothing like a day in Goa sitting underneath a palm tree, listening to waves crash against the shoreline.
The vibrant colors of the saris, salwar Kameez’s and lenghas worn by the women of India burst loudly against a backdrop of often drab and dusty streets. It’s spiritual, yet it’s that spirituality that has the ability to spark violent outbursts when two opposing views can’t meet in the middle. We’ve driven through religious protests in Kerala that were scary to say the least. It’s a country where there are extreme examples of poverty and shameless touting of wealth. Often these two worlds collide when one has to rely on the other for service.
For me, one of the hardest parts of being in India was the swings between the extremes. On the way from the New Delhi airport, you see hotels like the Radisson with all of its opulence surrounded on either side by people so poor that their homes are nothing more than lean-to’s with tarp or twig roofs. I know that India is still considered to be a third world country and I knew not to expect the same things I saw or had at home. However, nothing could prepare me for seeing poverty at its worst. That being said, even with its poverty, I saw something in India as a nation that I don’t see nearly as often here-the will and the desire to persist even in the extremist of situations. The people of India work their butts off every day. Many times they are doing the jobs you or I may turn our noses up at or flatly refuse to do. But Indians know they have responsibilities to their families and will do everything possible to handle what they need to. You see this in the roadside barbers, dentists, vegetable sellers and others. Mostly everyone has a hustle or gig to help them meet the very basic of their needs.
When we moved into our flat in South Delhi, we weren’t there 20 minutes before woman after woman was ringing our doorbell to see if we needed a housekeeper. This is the spirit of India that has helped the country survive for so long- the spirit that always finds a way to survive even in blighted situations.
For those traveling to India, my number one suggestion is to prepare yourself for the unexpected. In honor of this suggestion, I’ve made a list of things you shouldn’t be surprised to see in daily life.
1 ) Poverty– Kids, the elderly and disabled commonly beg for money. I saw this more in the larger cities up North than in the southern part of the country .
2) Unusual professions– Barbers, Dentistry is sometimes practiced roadside (yes dentistry). While we may find this to be odd, you have to remember that not everyone can afford a dentist with a traditional office so the roadside dentists can fill an important gap in healthcare for the extremely poor.
3) Fast Food Delivery and unusual menu items– McDonalds, KFC, and lots of other places that we have here actually deliver there in India. One of my favorite fast food restaurants in Delhi is Yo China. They have some of the best honey potatoes and crispy chicken wings around. Remember beef isn’t served there (at least not in Northern India. I have been able to get beef in Southern India). So in the place of traditional hamburgers, you’ll find things like lamb burgers.
4) Cows and monkeys everywhere. Remember cows are sacred in Hinduism so you will see them often roaming the streets, eating out of garbage and sometimes causing traffic jams for hours. Monkeys are just an annoyance.
5) Public releasing of bodily functions. I’ve seen more men peeing on the side of the street than I care to even think about. It’s something that is common. There are no roadside restrooms or convenience stores like we have here so the guys just whip it out and go. I’ve even seen pooing on the street but that’s only been twice thankfully. I have noticed that there are signs that warn against public urination so clearly people know there’s a problem with this.
6) HORNS HORNS EVERYWHERE. In larger cities like Delhi and Mumbai horns are used like air being breathed in. People are constantly blowing their horns as a warning to someone or a ‘get out of the way.’ Again, it’s such a problem that there are signs up prohibiting horn blowing but I’ve always noticed that even in those areas, people still beep their horns.
7) Meat hanging out on the open. One of the most disturbing things to me as a person was to see meat or other food hanging in the open uncovered. In a city like Delhi where flies rival the number of people, I couldn’t help but think of the germs, etc. The very first time I went to IME market was in the winter so seeing fish etc out in the open wasn’t a huge deal. But when I went back in the spring when the weather was warmer, the flies were covering practically everything. If thing like this bother you, avoid going to markets.
8) People and peddlers. There are tons of people in India so at any given time night or day you are likely to see people. For some people it’s surprising to see the number of people on a road at any given time but it shouldn’t be. Just as we live day to day and have somewhere to go, so do these people. As for the peddlers, they are common in larger cities like Delhi. I’ve had people try to sale me everything from toilet paper to flowers, to spinning pens while sitting in traffic. This is their way of making a living so don’t be surprised if you are approached. If you don’t want anything say no (pronounced Nay in Hindi).
9) Not every place in India has a Western style toilet. Be prepared for this- especially women. It can be a little awkward if you are not accustomed to squatting. I had an experience in Goa with a place where I was wearing a really long ankle length skirt that I had difficulty holding up to where part of it wouldn’t fall into the sandas. Let’s just say I wound up completely undressing from the waist down in order to be able to urinate properly (TMI I know.. lol)
10) Shopping. In most markets you will be able to negotiate price. Often, the shop keeper will start with something absolutely ludicrous and you will have to negotiate the price down to what is standard. Here’s a little forewarning. The moment they find you are western, your price goes up. I found in the beginning that if I saw something I wanted I would let Manoj negotiate for me. I would whisper or speak low to Manoj to convey my wishes. Only after the price was confirmed would I openly say something because my accent would give me away as being a westerner. Unfortunately some people see “walking sucker” stamped on your forehead if you are western. It’s only been here in the last couple of visits that I’ve done my own negotiations. I’ve found once they hear me speak a bit of Hindi, they don’t try to screw me as much on the price. M only intervenes if the shop keeper is being too aggressive or he sees me getting frustrated.
11) Weather – If you can, avoid going to India during the summer unless you can stand extreme heat. Notice the word EXTREME. It’s not a dry desert heat. You get monsoon rains at the same time and that pushes the humidity level up. Sometimes the heat and humidity are so high, it’s hard to breath. I’ve found that February and Sept-November are my favorite times to visit because the weather is much more pleasant.
I do have a tip concerning clothing when you visit. For men, you won’t see men in shorts too often so keep this in mind. Women, please please please leave the short skirts, spaghetti strapped shirts and shorts at home. This is considered to be disrespectful and will only get you stares and whispers. Also keep in mind that cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Goa are a bit more lenient when it comes to attire but often the villages and other smaller cities are more conservative. In Delhi I often wore Western style clothes (crop pants and short sleeved shirts) and had no problems. In Kerala and other places I wore things similar to salwars or ¾ length sleeves. All I’m saying is to be sensible and respect the area you are in.
I think that’s about it for my tips. If I’ve missed any, feel free to add your own. One thing I do encourage everyone to remember is that YOU are the visitor in their country, not the other way around. Don’t expect them to speak English or carry your type of currency or have the same type of cultural mannerisms you are accustomed to.
Unfortunately, I often see people from other countries come in to other countries and try to act like they are at home. You have to remember that things which may be different or odd for you are not necessarily so for the people of the country you are visiting. For them, this is their way of life so please respect it. Remember, visiting India is about accepting all the country and its people have to offer. There are jerks in every country on the globe so if you run into one in India who you feel may treat you differently because of your skin tone or accent or whatever, take it with a grain of salt and move on. Consider it their loss not yours. Until the next blog….