As we sit upon a roof top terrace overlooking the incredibly impressive yet foreboding ruins of Hampi we are feeling sad that our time in India is coming to an end. As we reflect on the amazing journey over the past three months our warm memories are interrupted by a loud dull grunt followed by a shrill scream as an angry water buffalo running through the narrow streets causes two french girls to dive out of the way in a scene from the festival of Pamplona. While the restaurant erupts in laughter we are reminded that in India anything is possible at any time and the journey isn’t over until the plane touches down at our next destination. We have heard many words being used to describe India – intense, magic, amazing, infectious, funny, smelly, diverse, hot, crazy – and one thing we can now say is that, at times, they are all true! There have been many things that have helped to make this country feel so special but are too numerous to generalize into one paragraph so let’s take a closer look…
Big hearts and even bigger smiles characterize the small people of this land. Whether in a bustling city, a rural village, or a tourist hot spot the visitor is met by a genuine warmth and inquisitiveness that melts away any feelings of trepidation towards the non familiar surroundings. Everyone is eager to help a foreigner settle in, even if the visit is only for a short while, and will do anything they can to lend a helping hand without expecting anything in return. One thing that is always guaranteed anywhere we go is at the end of a journey there is someone present with some kind words and an offer of a chai and a place to sit. Before arriving in India we’ve been told that the people are what truly makes this country special and after experiencing the welcoming gentle character of the Indians we can wholeheartedly agree. With that being said, the warmth offered to foreigners isn’t the same between the local population.
The social cast system is infamous but due to its complexity is often not fully understood by visitors. Although the casts are not readily identifiable, the system definitely makes it’s mark on society which is often hard to bare. Groups of people are placed in a pecking order that allows some to revel in glorious power while others languish in inescapable poverty. Education, employment opportunities, and even simple respect are reserved for those at the top while the ‘untouchables’ are expected to serve their role as street sweepers, garbage collectors, and servants out of the way of those who abuse corruption to get ahead. As Gandhi describes in his autobiography, he couldn’t even use the same well as those of higher casts due to the risk a drop of water from his bucket infecting those of the others. Besides the cast system, the gross inequalities between genders manifests itself as a disparity that can’t be ignored. As teenagers girls are often married off to an older man, who the parents choose, only to be forced to leave her family and live a life of servitude to her husband and his father. The cities are making progress toward limiting abuse but the poor human rights experienced by the female gender in the rural areas are constant and often go unreported. The moral dilemma of being a foreigner with knowledge of such disparity is a burden as we are treated like gold while watching others being treated like dirt. Luckily as a traveler we are not expected to abide by the laws of the cast system which makes it easier to help those at the bottom. I have yet to find answers to the many questions of how to treat such a delicate situation but I understand the importance of going forward with love and an intention to bring positivity to those in which we come in contact.
From the world’s highest mountain range in the north to the vast coconut groves in the south India encompasses it all. Bustling mega cities, rural farming villages, desert Bedouin camps, and secluded fishing villages all offer a site to see and a lesson to learn from the resilient and talented people who inhabit them. Studying yoga, teaching English, visiting an orphanage, and dining in someone’s kitchen go hand in hand with rock climbing, surfing, para-sailing, and jungle safaris as a good way to fill time. Anything the traveler is looking for can be found within these borders and it will usually provide more than expected.
India is referred to as a sub-continent for a reason – because it’s huge! One common mistake amongst travelers is to try to see too much of the country thinking it’s possible to just zip a few hundred kilometers down the road within a couple hours just as we would in our home countries. We learned this lesson within the first week as the 250 km drive from Jaipur to Agra took 8 hrs. which can only be expected when the fastest the vehicle ever got up to was 70 km/hr for about two minutes at a time. There are many ways to get from place to place – walk, bicycle, motorbike, auto-ricksha, car, bus, train, and plane. Incorporate the random herds of cows roaming the streets which stop to congregate at the most inopportune moments, the roads become a congested mix of rubber, metal and diesel fumes with horns that beeb incessantly with the intention to let the other driver know they are being passed on the shoulder. Roads that only look wide enough for a small car magically open up to allow a driver to overtake another into oncoming traffic toward a brightly coloured transport truck. Yes in India, every inch matters. When walking it is important to pay attention, not only to avoid those on wheels but to ensure your foot doesn’t land in a big pile of manure or slip into a steep ditch. Focusing only on the road may cause a bump on the head from walking into a low lying roof and will cause you to miss all the people smiling with greetings as you pass by.
The most efficient way to travel India is on the famous rail system. Millions of people are transported daily through an intricate web of tracks that span the entire country bringing everyone from all classes to their destination safely. Since everyone knows the train is the best way to get around the premium seats in the sleeper classes book up quickly. If you forget to book a couple weeks in advance or decide to travel on short notice, which we did, you will miss out on the comfort of having a six foot long bench to your self and sharing the space with only a few others in your compartment. What you will get is the general ticket which costs only pennies and is very popular with the common Indian who doesn’t have the same perception of personal space as us from the west. There are also two speeds: express, which one would think is quite fast, and super-fast which sounds even better. In reality express means the train stops at every goat shed in the country side while sitting in the middle of no where for various lengths of time waiting for another train to pass. Unfortunately we had to learn these lessons the hard way when we traveled hundreds of miles up the coast from Trivandrum to Gokarna to find a beach for Christmas.
When the train arrived we were caught up with the other sixty passengers all rushing to fit through the two foot wide door hoping to get on before the whistle blew less than a minute later. We used our backpacks as leverage and pushed our way toward the opening then, like crowd surfing at a punk gig, we rode the wave of bodies through the door into the rail car. There was not an inch to spare as people and luggage filled every crack and crevice; I was afraid to inhale as I thought the space created by the movement of my chest would be filled with another person within seconds. Luckily the Indian people are used to this, and felt quite sorry for us, so they shifted and rearranged bags to help us find a place to put our backpacks. After standing for three hours with my nose inches from another person’s ear a man stood up to get off and gave me his seat. I was happy to finally rest my legs but soon found that sitting wasn’t as good as it looked. I didn’t mind sharing the bench with six other people nor did I mind a child’s leg sprawled over my lap with his mom sleeping on my shoulder but I wasn’t happy about the guy standing next to me with his crotch gently pressed against my shoulder, bouncing every time the train shifted. Hours passed and every time the train stopped the crush of people getting on and off in a melee of chaos brought new smiles to see and more questions to answer.
I’ll admit that getting around sounds quite harrowing, and at times it is, but there is order to the chaos and once you figure out how to make sense of it all then the efficiency reveals itself. The main thing that allows a billion people to co-habitate in relative peace is the same thing that allows those same billion people freedom of movement – a tolerance toward each other and an understanding that everyone is just trying to make their own way.
Although we ate curry pretty much every day, the possibilities for those who don’t like veggies with spicy gravy are endless. Most menus include Indian, Italian, Chinese, and Continental options while others go a step further into Tibetan, Israeli, Russian, and Mexican cuisine. There is nothing these kitchens can’t do! India is a miracle for the vegetarian traveler; instead of searching for the one acceptable item on a menu the Indian kitchen assumes vegetables are the choice which is seen through the advertisements reading “we serve veg. and non-veg”. Never have I seen four different burgers and five steak options, all made from potato, cauliflower, eggplant, lentils, etc. With that being said, obviously the best dish the cook can prepare is that in which is made at home which is usually a veg. thali consisting of two curries, rice, yogurt dip, fresh veggies, nan bread, poppadom, and spicy pickle. To go a step further the Tandoori oven (which also doubles as a pizza oven) produces beautiful aromatic bbq dishes wrapped in a mouth watering blend of mild spices. Even the most pickiest of eaters will not go hungry nor will those on a shoestring budget – the average cost of a meal is around 150 rupees (ca$3/1.50 pounds) in a nice clean restaurant.
The tiger is the king of the jungle, the elephant a beast of burden, the buffalo a piece of farm machinery, the camel a goods transporter, the monkey a feral pest, the dog far from a pet, the cobra a dancing star, the goat a source of milk, and of course the cow which is praised as “the most gentle animal in the universe”. Dogs roam in packs after dark and monkeys stalk anyone who carries fruit in a clear bag but the cow saunters along without a care in the world. Camels spit and bite while the buffalo grunts and bucks but the cow seeks affection from anyone willing to scratch its neck. The cobra will kill with just one bite and the goat will raid a backpack in search of food but the cow peacefully wanders in search of anything it might call dinner. As other animals fight for their place in the food chain there are inevitable encounters with humans which always poses risk to both but the cow doesn’t pose a risk to anything. It is the only animal that will allow a partygoer to walk up to it, pet it’s forehead and wrap their arms around its neck in a loving embrace. In India it is certain that no mammal, fish, reptile, or bird will ever meet the stature of the holy cow.
India is a place known for it’s spiritual practice and is one of the only places where every major religion, as well as other lesser known ones, thrive in relative peace. Grand mosques stand proudly across from miniature Hindu shrines housing intricate statues of one’s favorite deity while the Catholic chapels of Goa are amongst the biggest in Asia. Saffron robed Buddhist monks share the streets with Hindu’s Sadhus dressed in orange while devotees of the god Shiva wear all black as opposed to the grey and white worn by nuns such as mother Theresa. One would think all of this theological opposition would be an excuse for constant dispute placing India at risk of internal collapse but the tolerance and acceptance exemplified by leaders such as Gandhi and the Dalai Lama allow for a free expression of faith. Some people have taken this freedom as an invitation to start their own movement, gain devotees, assemble in a rural compound, and live communally while gaining the title of guru by teaching their spiritual lessons. Throughout the country one can find men with long hair, white beards and big smiles offering quick fixes for long term problems or the hugging mom providing solace through a comforting embrace. Many people come to India to ‘find themselves’ whether it be to study the scriptures, vedas, sutras, or to attain emptiness. Regardless of the god being praised or the words being studied, one thing that remains constant is the undying faith of those who pray daily through a ritual specific to their own religion.
India has taught us many lessons and has reinforced the belief that we have ‘won the lottery of life’. After experiencing life in India we are left with the sincere gratitude toward the equality, security, and infinite possibilities we have been given by being born in Canada and Scotland. We are lucky to have the ability to travel the world and learn about other cultures but are even luckier to be able to return to such great countries as our home nations.
After three months of extremely novel experiences we can wholeheartedly say that they don’t call this place ‘Incredible India’ for no reason. As we finish up our last couple days in the country we are left with the knowledge that anything is possible in India but to truly embrace it all you just have to let go. The complete assault on the senses can be too overwhelming to bear upon first arrival but with a deep exhalation and the courage to surrender to Mother India one will find she has a way of making everything work out for the best…don’t resist it – hop on the ride and enjoy!