As I write this we are sitting in the Frankfurt, Germany, airport, the first stop on our way home. Already India is receding in my rear view mirror. Before it gets too distant I wanted to write about some general impressions I had.
In preparation for the trip we talked to people who had been to India, and I read a lot of information online from other travelers. One thing I have learned over the years is that everyone takes their own trip; one person’s experiences or opinions may be quite different from another’s. Nonetheless I formed some ideas of what I thought India would be like. Some of it was confirmed—i.e. India is big and diverse. But there were a number of things which defied expectations, both good and not so good.
One thing I heard a lot about was how bad India smelled. I’ve heard people say just getting off the plane was a real shock. Well, I don’t know where people who say that have been, but India is no worse than a lot of third-world countries. Sure, there are sewer and sanitation problems in places, mostly dense urban areas. But those kinds of problems define developing countries. Sanitation is just one challenge among many, and not easily solved. When I think about how India smells I mostly think about the spice shops, and the wonderful aromas that stimulate both the senses and the imagination.
And speaking of wonderful spices, another thing we expected but didn’t happen was losing weight. A few months in a third-world country is part of our yearly diet plan. But I guess this year we’ll have to do it the hard way.
Indian food is noticeably spicy. Usually the flavor of the spices dominate whatever else the dish is made of. But less noticeable is the amount of oil used. There are a lot of delicious deep fried snacks and deserts. Most other foods also use a surprising amount of oil in preparation, as we learned in our cooking classes.
There are many tales of travelers getting seriously sick in India, and we half expected we would too. (Getting sick is one way to lose weight, which has the benefit of taking little willpower). Faye had a few days of intestinal unpleasantness, but nothing more. We followed some general precautions, but ate in a wide variety of restaurants and sampled street food when we came across something that looked good. No problems.
The main thing I heard over and over about India was that one either loves it or hates it, and sometimes both. I would say with a couple of minor exceptions there was almost nothing we either loved or hated. Some things we liked, other things not so much. I’ll list a few examples:
Things I liked:
- Lassis and masala chai–
Lassis are a yoghurt drink, and is something I truly love. They can be flavored with just about anything, but my favorite is cardamom, followed closely by mango and by rosewater. The best lassis I have ever had were in Jaipur, served in disposable—and biodegradable—clay cups. I don’t know what was different about them, but they were outstanding.
Chai simply means “tea.” “Masala” is the combination of spices—usually a half dozen or so—that are added to black tea, milk and sweetener. (There are several kinds of masala for different kinds of food.) Chai is everywhere. It is not always quite the same, but it is almost uniformly delicious. It is particularly good with a little fresh ginger in it. You can bet I’ll be making chai at home.
- Holy cows–
I’ve had a fondness for cows ever since my farm-boy childhood. At home I usually see them in pastures. In India, where they are considered sacred, they are as likely to be found wandering the streets of cities as in rural areas. They are completely docile, and pretty much ignore everything around them, especially traffic. Sometimes they just lie down in the middle of a busy street. I enjoyed scratching their ears and patting them as we walked past. I did feel sorry for those urban cows though when I saw them eating cardboard, plastic and other trash instead of grass. That’s no way to treat a cow, especially a holy one.
Things I didn’t like:
I hate the traffic in India. Imagine a flock of sheep trying to get through a gate, or a school of fish swimming through a small hole. Regardless of what is painted on the pavement, there are no lanes, per se. Any space from one side of the road to the other, and beyond, is filled by whatever vehicle will fit—a car, a rickshaw, or motorcycle. And it isn’t just the density of the traffic, it is the incessant honking. Every vehicle sounds like there is a short in the wiring leading to the horn. Drivers stuck in a traffic jam will just sit there honking their horns.
While close calls are constant, we haven’t seen any collisions. Strange but true. We were in a rickshaw that ran over a dog, but I don’t think that counts.
Crossing streets are a real thrill. We’ve done a lot of faith-based street crossing. I think the secret is to take a deep breath, close your eyes and just walk across. Somehow the traffic just flows around you. It only makes things worse to look at what is coming.
- Beggers and touts—
There weren’t as many beggars as I expected, and the ones we encountered were not very persistent. (Though it is amazing how far a guy rolling along on a little platform can keep up with you.) I don’t think I lack compassion, but throwing a tiny amount of money at a chronic situation doesn’t help. I do have a soft spot for old people though. Somehow it feels like if I can make their life a little better for just a few minutes it is worth it. When you look at their eyes you know there is a difference between begging and pleading.
There were plenty of touts—guys wanting to be guides, or take us to this shop or that (for a commission). Shopkeepers themselves were pretty annoying, trying to get us to “just have a look” into their shop. (If I ever hear the word pashmina again I may have to choke somebody.) But again, they weren’t particularly persuasive or persistent. I have some Guatemalan friends who could teach them a thing or two.
Unfortunately, there is no denying that we stayed in the well-worn rut of the tourist trail in India. In our other travels most of our memorable experiences came from surprises we encountered off the beaten path. That didn’t happen in India; little if anything seemed memorable. Maybe we would have been better off if we had avoided all the “must see” sights.
There is a lot more to India, of course. And maybe some other part would interest us more. I don’t know whether we’ll return or not. It is a big world. Right now I am happy to be going back to our little corner of it, with its quiet roads, peaceful pastures…and secular cows.