Our final India observations and travel tips
Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
127Trip End Aug 01, 2007
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India is so bewilderingly varied that is would be easy to make the same simplistic assumption as Winston Churchill did when he said, "India is a geographical expression...no more a single country than the equator." In fact though, traveling there you will find there is a really rich cultural, social, and religious fabric that holds it all the diversity and chaos together. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a more culturally and historically opulent travel experience given the low prices, quality of food and accommodation and ease of logistics that India offers. Some parts of India are so familiar yet a moment later you can feel like you are on another planet.
The National Tourist Board of India has an ad campaign that it has been running for a while with the theme and slogan of "Incredible India". I couldn't agree more, it is nothing short of incredible and is without a doubt one of my top travel destinations. There is a saying about travel in India, "six months after you get home, you'll love it". That certainly was the case after my first visit back in 2002. This country can wear your patience thin, frazzle your nerves, repulse your senses, upset your emotions (and your digestive system), make you question your values, and stretch you to the point of breaking. Balance all that with the unbelievable beauty, unique sites and experiences, rich culture, friendly locals, delectable cuisine, and ability of so many people to function together as a nation is nothing short of inspiring. I love traveling in India and I can't wait to come back...after a six-month break that is!
After this extended stay in India, there are a few things I can't figure out, and some of them are starting to drive me crazy (and I seem to bring them up every day). Todd is getting sick of hearing them, so I will share them with you now:
What is the deal with the power? Everyday there are power cuts in almost all guesthouses and hotels we stayed in. Why is this such an issue? I guess the infrastructure can't keep up with the development. This is probably why there are few very tall buildings in India... it would suck to walk up and down 20 flights of stairs during the regular power cuts.
Why aren't the beaches in the tourist areas more developed? It seems that beaches in some places are not regarded as "hot" real estate. In most places they seem to be more of a dumping ground than a place to relax. For example, the beach just kilometers from the big city of Chennai (which would certainly be expensive property if this were in the US), is a slum and some of the most impoverished area we have seen on this trip (not to mention the overpowering stench of sewage and dead fish).
Why does everyone throw trash everywhere? People seem to have pride in their own shop or home, but not in public spaces. Its almost as if as long as the trash isn't in their immediate area, they don't care and it is invisible to them.
Why do the tools that the workers use have such short handles? Even the brooms have handles that are only 2 feet long. You basically have to bend over to use it, making backbreaking work even more painful. We have seen workers balancing 10 bricks on top of their head climb several flights of stairs, instead of just tying a rope to a bucket and hoisting the bricks up to the roof. Workers also move dirt and sand for major road projects with tiny bowls shaped like woks. Wheels, pulleys, and levers (the tools of the caveman) must be in short supply.
Why do most taxi drivers, shops and restaurants not have change? Every time you try to pay for something with a 500-rupee note (the equivalent of about $10), it is a major ordeal. It turns into a change stand off....shops don't want to admit that they have change, and will ask you several times if you have smaller bills, and then put on a dramatic little play about not being able to give you change. But somehow, they always find it.
Why does everyone cut in line all the time? I think the answer is that there is no such thing as a line. The worst offenders are men cutting in front of women like they don't exist...particularly when getting off of trains and planes. The moment the front wheel of the plane touches the runway, people jump up and grab their bags from the overhead compartment and start rushing towards the door while the plane is literally still screeching to a halt on the runway. This Indian habit really peeved me for the first few weeks here because it messes with the American notion of fairness and waiting your turn that we learn in nursery school, which is the whole reason that a 4-way stop works so well in the US. There are no 4-way stops in India because no one would stop and the entire intersection would just be gridlock. So, if you can't beat them, join them, right? We have gotten really good a cutting now, and there is a certain satisfaction in it.
Why does everyone snore? I'm not sure that this problem is really an India specific issue, as I don't often share rooms with several strange men at the same time. But, all men on trains snore...loudly!
There are several things that I have noticed about India that I really do like and will miss:
Entrepreneurial and industrious spirit of the individual: Indians have to be some of the hardest working people (as a country) that I have ever seen... to the point that I am not sure that people even sleep. Hotel and guesthouse owners are greeting you when you come in a night and smiling hello to you first thing in the morning. During busy tourist seasons, young men leave home for months at a time to work at restaurants for more than 18-hour days, and sleep on the floor of the restaurant every night. It is hard to go somewhere without getting an invitation to a shop, an offer for postcards or a taxi, or asked if you need a guide. There are hundreds of shops lining the roads all selling virtually the same goods, yet they all stay in business.
Cell phone coverage and internet access: No matter how small the town or how "out in the middle of nowhere" you are, there is almost always cell phone coverage. In the 47 days we were in India, there was only one day that we didn't have service and our calls never dropped. Compare this to the service in the US... our cell phones don't get reception in our apartment, and our calls are regularly dropped. And everywhere you go, at the very least some enterprising person has taken a third of fourth hand computer, hooked it up to a dial up connection, set it on a piece of plywood propped up by pieces of concrete and called it a internet café.
Expression of religion: While the majority of people are Hindu, all the world's major religions are represented here and seem to coexist side-by-side peacefully (most of the time). There are religions practiced here that I had never heard of like Zoroastrianism, or knew very little about like Sikhism, all with a very interesting philosophy and devoted followers. And I was amazed at the extent that intense believers will go to demonstrate their devotion... some holding their arm above their head forever, castrating themselves, or only walking on their hands. All in all, religion is a way of life here for the majority of the population, and every week seems to bring a Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim holiday.
All in all, this has been one of the most rewarding traveling experiences we have had so far. The range of emotions we have gone through and variety of things we saw was overwhelming...and we only traveled through a small part of the country. This is a very complex culture, and we were only just beginning to understand it.
Katie and Todd's top travel tips for India:
India, like the USA, is a huge country that takes lots of time to see properly. But a well-planned (and flexible) itinerary, combined with a few strategically positioned domestic flights and overnight trains can enable you to have a really diverse experience in a compressed time frame.
When planning an itinerary, be sure to allow yourself time in less hectic locales (like the beaches of Kerala and Goa, the Kerala Backwaters, or the chilled-out village of Hampi) to decompress, relax and regain your sanity. Indian cities will run your ragged, and without planning for some time to relax and enjoy the natural beauty and slow pace of small town life, you'll burn out fast!
The train system, although occasionally late, is an amazingly efficient, comprehensive and wonderful way of getting around, seeing the countryside and interacting with locals. Stations are usually conveniently located in the center of towns and many major cities have foreign tourist offices in the station to assist with advance bookings.
India can be really cheap or extremely expensive depending upon how high your standards are. Staying at a Hilton in India costs actually costs more than in the USA, but usually you can stay nearby in clean, safe, and simple guesthouses for only $10-$30 per night. In most towns you would be hard-pressed to spend more than $5.00 on a meal.
Indians are some of the most approachable, helpful, and curious people we have encountered on this trip. Most people you will come across speak at least some English, and approaching a local for directions, help, or conversation is usually warmly received. Be aware though that especially at train stations and tourist sites, you might have people approach you offering assistance with the expectation of baksheesh (a small tip) or a visit to "their uncle's carpet shop" in return. The easiest way to avoid this is to get assistance from people that you seek out rather than those who approach you.
Bargaining is how most prices are set here. The rate is negotiable on taxis, many hotels, and almost everything else that doesn't have a posted price. About the only way to get the haggling skill down is to spend a bit of time here, find out what others pay, and be overcharged a few times. You'll figure it out eventually but even when you do get "ripped off" it is seldom for more than a dollar or two. Just expect any price that you are quoted to be close to double the "local price" and negotiate accordingly, but always keep your cool and be ready to move on to another merchant, cabbie, etc if you can't agree upon a price. Never get in a cab, rent a hotel room, or do ANYTHING in India without asking, "how much" in advance or you are just begging to be seriously overcharged.
If you get very far off the beaten path, get used to the fact that you will be stared at as if you were a ten-foot tall green martian. In most of India, staring is not viewed as impolite or threatening and locals outside of well-traveled areas seldom encounter non-Indian persons. Even at heavily touristed sites (like the Taj Mahal), you will encounter Indian visitors who would like to pose for a photo with you, remember that they are usually just curious and you could very well be the first non-Indian person they have ever met!
India is very safe. During our two months here we never felt threatened or feared for our safety (except from the crazy driving!) Other than the normal precautions you might take against pick pocketing and hotel security you will find little to fear here. There are a few scams around to separate you from your money but you will find there is little in the way of threats to your personal safety.
In India there is a rather strict social separation of the sexes until you are married. This lack of mixing combined with the portrayal of women on American TV and Hollywood films (both of which are widely broadcast in India) has seemed to give many young Indian men the idea that western women are "loose" and more approachable than local women. You might find being stared at, offered "assistance", or occasionally followed by young Indian men to be a bit disquieting. An easy way to keep this to a minimum is to do as Indian women do by dressing modestly in loose fitting clothes. Keep in mind that in this culture it is never appropriate for an unknown man to touch you and nothing will get a creep away more quickly than a loud scolding or any type of public shaming. All this being said though, assaults against women tourists in India are extremely rare and you are unlikely to find the stares and adolescent behavior more than a minor bother.
There is so much good literature on India, read as much as you can before traveling here. A good guidebook is indispensable but if you have no background on the history, religion, culture or idiosyncrasies of traveling here you'll find much of your journey to be consumed just getting your bearings and figuring out the bewildering array of unusual customs and rituals that you see. There are tons of great Hollywood, Bollywood, and documentary films about India as well that are worth investigating before a visit.
India is still very much a developing nation, with all the poverty, beggars, trash and economic inequities that go along with that. Be mentally prepared for this, since as a western tourist you will be a magnet for beggars. Giving money is rarely a good idea, since it will seldom be used in the way you intended it. Offering food or instead directly giving to a local organization that is working to help the indigent is a far better way to help and become part of the solution.