An American in India - A first glimpse travel guide

Going to Europe these days isn’t the explosion of cultural phenomena that is once was.  What with the dissemination of US culture throughout most of the European Union, it is the “summer home” of Americans.  Go to Rome and you can easily find a McDonalds on your way to the coliseum.  Wandering the cobblestone streets of London?  Chances are there is a Starbucks within a few blocks.  There is no question that it is an amazing experience, but it certainly doesn’t inspire the culture shock that it once did.  Therefore, it is necessary for us to expand our horizons into considerably more unfamiliar territory. 
In order to thoroughly test your cultural limits and step outside your comfort zone, it is necessary to go much further than Europe…about 10 hours further to the stunning country of India.  India is the ultimate melee of culture, noise and color.  It is non-stop onslaught of commotion and confusion that undermines your grip on reality and leaves every one of your senses stunned.  India is beautiful and tragic.  It is a business phenomenon and an oasis of Zen relaxation.  No other place in the world offers such a juxtaposition of anguish and awe, making it one of the most fantastic places in the world to explore.

Travelers will continue to be astonished on their journeys throughout India, however, the most shocking moments will most likely occur within their first few hours of arrival.  A tourist’s first glimpse of India can be one of either horror or enchantment, depending on their expectations and there is certainly enough evidence to support either reaction.  Driving from the airport in Bombay, you will almost certainly pass mile upon mile of slums, each housing hundreds of thousands of people.  The poverty of India is almost incomprehensible and if you are not expecting to see such suffering, it can create a mix of emotions that preclude seeing anything else in India.  This is a very normal reaction.  However, the hardship of Indian citizens is a difficulty that will be faced with every step you take, and therefore must be anticipated before going.  If you are able to overcome the trauma of your initial impression, India offers has an assortment of wonders to offer its enthusiastic (albeit shell-shocked) guests.  Initially, the straightforward day-to-day experiences will be intriguing enough to warrant documentation.  If you are a non-Indian, it is a concrete fact that you are going to draw attention.  On the other hand, if you are a Caucasian, blond American, you are going to feel as though you are rare species of animal.  Indians will stop in their tracks and stare.  Others will lean out of their Rickshaws to gape open-mouthed at you as they cruise by, because – this is the simple reason – you are just so different.  Your skin, your hair, your clothes, your mannerisms, all of them so utterly foreign in a place that sees relatively few foreigners, is an anomaly that Indians feel is worth taking a second (or third or fourth) look at.  This is a situation that must be recognized and accepted, because it is not going to change.  A better solution is to take the opportunity to (respectfully) look back.  Being the object of such unabashed attention, it presents a reciprocal opportunity to take a closer look at the citizens of this country that you have looked so forward to experiencing. 

India is an interesting mix of expectations and rules.  As a foreigner, you are not expected to always know or follow societal rules, but you will know when you are not adhering to them.  The most important thing to be aware of is that the left hand is dirty and the right hand is clean.  As a left-hander, this was an adjustment.  However, after learning the reasons behind this mystery, it was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make.  As a hint, toilet paper doesn’t exist in India.  If you happen to run across it, recognize that it is there solely for the use of the tourists.  In the “bathrooms” in India, (read hole in the floor that you squat over) there will usually be a hose and a cup.  You clean yourself by splashing water where needed, but if this doesn’t quite get the job done; your left hand is used to wipe the excess.  In contrast to the offensive left hand, the right one is sacred and clean and therefore used for eating.  Another item to which we have become accustomed and yet is scarce in India is silverware.  Indians eat with their hands.  It is a feat that is impressive to observe and even more difficult to master.  They make a ‘cup’ out of their four fingers and then use the thumb to scoop the food into this cup; which is then transferred quickly and gracefully to their mouths.  As a foreigner attempting this trick, you will garner attention and great deal of amusement from the ever-watchful Indians.

One idiosyncratic detail about India is that, while you are there, you will very rarely be alone.  The population of India is approaching 1.2 trillion people, and in the larger cities, every single one of these people appears to be in the exact same place that you are.  This is especially true of the trains.  The efficiency of rail travel in India is impressive, and inexpensive.  It is possible to travel across the entire country, about a 32-hour journey, from Bombay (Mumbai) to Madras (Chennai) for the equivalent of $40.  Traveling by train is a beautiful way to see the country.  The sprawling continent means an amazingly diverse spectrum of terrain.  If you were so inclined, you could see the desert forts of Rajasthan in the north, the beautiful western beaches of Goa and the tropical jungles of Kerala in the south on a single (very long) train trip.  It is also a necessary method of travel in order to see the fantastic hill towns in the south of India.  There is nothing in the world as amazing as simultaneously watching the sun rise and looking down onto the tips of the mountains poking up through the mist of the morning.

A final mandatory experience of India is to spend a couple of colorful and expensive hours at one of the amazing bazaars. This is an event that encompasses every sensation that India has to offer. The scents of cardamom and saffron waft through the air, testing your resistance to gravitate toward the first delicious smelling cart that you see. The air is filled with music so riotous and vivid, it seems as though you could pluck the notes out of the air with your fingers. Your mouth salivates with the anticipation of soon-to-be-had roasted meats and sugary candies so sweet they make your teeth curl. The most important sense however - the one being the most violently impaled by the amazing scene of the bazaar - is sight. It is nearly impossible to take in all of the fantastic and exciting visions before you. There is color and glitter and gold so deep you could drown in them. There are blankets, jewelry, books, and carvings of all qualities, shapes and sizes. It is everything that you could ever want and even more that you never knew that you would want. The prices are amazing and it is almost impossible to stop buying. Haggling is the name of the game and you can bargain your life away. The bazaar is effectively a summation of Indian culture in a single location. The bazaar is an embodiment of India and, like the bazaar, India is an experience that will both haunt and entrance you for the rest of your life.

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Comments 1 comment

Roli 5 years ago

Dear lady,

My name is Roli and I am from India. Your blog reads very local, and interesting about India. There is one thing however, I cannt stop myself correcting over here. The fallacy of using right hand against the left hand is worldwide and the reason is not actually what you have mentioned here. I hope you will recall that English word like 'sinister' and 'gauche' all denote left hand or left handedness and worldwide, in each and every country - they have their own reasons, why left hand is considered inferior. For a more international understanding, go through - http://www.anythinglefthanded.co.uk/lh-info/myths.... and you will know that this is as true for UK or America as for India and for obviously different reasons.

Keep writing

Roli

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