A trip to India is an all out assault on the senses and intensely challenging at times for the lone traveller. There are massive gaps between the super-rich and gutter-poor, seemingly justified by ancient cultural hierarchies bound by religion. Life sometimes seems to have little value, especially in the big cities. Begging is commonplace. Religion is an integral part of Indian society, with several different religions often co-existing peacefully alongside one another, something that India should be commended for, although there are still occasional fundamentalist attacks.
Tipping is virtually mandatory (well, to foreigners, anyway) and is usually accompanied by my favourite phrase: “Whatever you like sir” followed by hurt puppy dog eyes if the tip is too small. No-one can say no to a puppy, right? Speaking of language, I found that, despite India having no less than 21 official languages, I could understand much of what some people said to each other due to them using so many English words, mixed with their native tongue. It seems that English is slowly taking over as it’s a common second language.
The cultural differences between Westernized society and Indian society are stark; it feels like stepping on to another planet when the jet lag is kicking in. But there are also big differences between Indian states and a sizable city/countryside difference as well. You just never know what’s around the corner. Which makes me wonder why they overtake on blind bends.
A couple of cultural idiosyncracies that I find strange are the head wobbling, which seems to have no meaning, and the lack of personal space. When one of my internal flights landed, I stood up from my aisle seat, waiting for the doors to be opened, when I was pushed from the side. I was just about to glare at the passenger in the middle seat, when I saw that the man from the window seat had one leg either side of the man in the middle, straddling him like a champion pole dancer, hunched down under the hand luggage hold, trying to gently headbutt me out of the way! I guess this ‘me first’ mentality is the way that city dwellers cope with the over-population and ensure that they don’t lose out.
It’s perfectly normal for them to wait in line, actually touching the person in front. On another occasion, I was unable to alight a small tourist train as a man had literally thrown his children on as it was coming to a stop and was climbing on himself, even though I was taking up room. Breathe in and squeeze is the only way to extricate oneself from such a situation.
There are some truly world-class sights in India, although they are allowing their architectural gems and picturesque landscapes to deteriorate due to neglect and pollution. Litter is pervasive and much of it will not simply disappear, so they really need to tackle the problem. And I don’t mean by sweeping it up into little piles and setting fire to them (the current preferred choice!). The air quality will never improve until the fires are stopped and the traffic reduced. All I’ll say on the standard of driving is this: India is number one in the world for road fatalities at 135,000 per year! I can imagine that many are not reported. I witnessed a body in the road being driven around rather than attended to.
I have to say that I was surprised with the quality of the food. Allowing for the fact that some establishments seem to include salmonella as an active ingredient, the other restaurants didn’t impress me. I never knew if what I had ordered would be what I received. The spice I could handle, the fear of the unknown I could not. I ordered steak… I received roadkill with garlic. Yum. I had to use certain phrases to avoid causing offence, such as “That’s the first time I’ve eaten that”, “That was both unexpected and unusual” and “Where’s your toilet, quick!”
There is no doubt that India is truly incredible. I could not believe my eyes on a daily basis. But there is arguably at least an equal number of negative as positive experiences. That’s what makes India such a unique destination.