Words of Wisdom from Experience

Don’t Do India in Two Weeks

India does not lend itself to the package tour mentality. I tried to cover the entire subcontinent the first time, traveling from tip to top and from the far west to the far east. A mistake. Since then, I focus on a couple of areas that I have an interest in, or want to see again based on a previous visit. Then I am free to explore them more thoroughly. India is really many countries in one, and it would take many lifetimes to thoroughly explore a mere fraction of its incredibly diversity.

Bartering in India

Always barter. Merchants expect customers to barter, and are often offended if you accept their first price. It also drives up the price for the locals when merchants think they can charge more. Foreigners are hounded in the streets by hordes offering services, particularly in the poorer states. Service vendors can be very aggressive and persistent. Although hard to tolerate, ignore them, and remind yourself that often they are barely eking out a meager existence.

Beggars

One’s first encounter with a disfigured, one-legged beggar is disconcerting, even downright shocking. However, beggars are everywhere, and poverty is omnipresent in India. When I can, I travel with some form of non-perishable food that I can offer instead of the usual rupees in constant demand.

Eating With Your Hands

This may seem like reverting to childhood, but eating with one’s hands is common practice in much of India, particularly the South. Sometimes, food comes on plates that are leaves from a palm tree. Many restaurants have a sink for the purpose of washing hands. Most Indians also wash their hands before their meal.

Toilets & the Left Hand Rule

Most Indians do not use toilet paper. Instead, they use their left hand and water provided at every toilet to cleanse themselves. For the aforementioned reason, Indians consider it impolite to shake with the left hand. The Indian-style squatters will be familiar to those who have travelled to other parts of Asia, but they may come as a shock to those fresh from the West. It is actually a much healthier form of evacuation than sitting on a porcelain toilet. However, more Western-style toilets are appearing, but the sad fact is that they are not well made, and so they are often more unsanitary than a regular squatter.

Festivals of India

There are numerous festivals throughout the year. One I recommend avoiding is Pongal in south India. Pongal occurs in mid-January. Every temple competes with its neighbour for the decibel level of sacred music it blasts out. It is quite a shock to be awakened at 5:00 am, barely able to hear anything else. The din lasts for a couple of hours in the morning, and a couple of hours in the evening. Festivals to enjoy include Diwali, the Festival of Lights. Celebrated across India in October or November, it is a beautiful spectacle. Pushkar’s camel fair in November is quite a sight, as is Rath Yatra held in June and July in the city of Puri. If you miss all the above, just hang out at a Hindu wedding, a whole festival unto itself.

Footwear

In most establishments, you will have to remove your shoes. Even though the majority of chappals (sandals) are not made of leather, it is still considered polluting to bring leather, thus shoes, inside any building. There is a practical reason for removing footwear indoors: to avoid making deposits of fresh cow shit and other debris that cling to your shoes when you are walking on the filthy streets.

Bollywood Babes & Knaves

See at least one Bollywood movie while you are in India. Cranked out relentlessly like long links of sausages, these films are formulaic fodder for the masses. Like their American cousin in California, Bollywood peddles celluloid fantasies: in the simplistic story-line, the guy always gets the girl in the end, albeit under a hail of gunfire. The starlets are generally well-endowed, scantly-clad Hindi goddesses of the flesh. They swoon, coo and sing their way through the predictable plots, fluttering their eyelashes at anything in trousers.

Excerpt from Nirvana By Installments

Large Cities of India

Avoid large cities as much as you can. I escape Delhi as soon as I am able. I find Indian cities to be uniformly awful, and unbearably polluted with traffic and congestion that defies description. The only exception I make is with Kolkata. It has a soul that is palpable, despite its amazing squalour and poverty. About 70% of the country’s population still live in rural India.

Laundry

India is a hot, sweaty place with lots of filth and grime. One’s clothes get rank very quickly. You can employ the services of a laundry wallah. There will be one attached to your hotel, and many others on just about every street corner. For a pittance, you can have your garments cleansed and starched within a day. Or two. Make sure you find out when the service will return your clothes. If ever, that is. An Indian somewhere is still wearing a pair of my shorts. Never take any clothes on your trip that are particularly valuable. They will endure vicious assaults at the hands of these very proficient launderers. Clothes are beaten mercilessly against rocks to purge them of all grime. It is hard on the material. I know that an extended stay in India will cost me a set of clothes, but there is always a tailor around the corner, ready to stitch up new apparel.

Tailors

Do you want a set of beautiful clothes custom-fit to your measurements, for a ridiculously low price? Then, be sure to pack your favourite clothes so you can pay a visit to an Indian tailor. Every small community has some hole in the wall where you will find an overworked Singer sewing machine, pedaled more often than not by a talented male who will be able to turn any piece of cloth into your own personal fashion statement. Pick out some cloth, give the tailor the clothing that you brought to be used as patterns, and presto! you are well dressed again.

Within a week I have two shirts, a pair of trousers, and a pair of shorts for the grand sum of 350 rupees, about $10. All of the clothes are beautifully crafted, and lovingly fitted to the eccentricities of my awkward frame. I am a walking fashion plate, fit once more for public consumption, and as close as I can get to my version of the modern, well-dressed man.

Excerpt from Nirvana By Installments

Servas

Servas is an international hosting organization that promotes greater understanding between nations. The organization was formed in 1948 by a group of pacifists who were deeply committed to social justice and world peace. Today, Servas provides opportunities for one-on-one contacts between people of diverse cultures. This is NOT a free ride. To become a member, you must go through an interview/screening process. There is a fee to join. You then "rent" a list of hosts in the country in which you wish to travel. It really is a wonderful way to get inside a country and meet some wonderful people. You are required to give advance notice of when you plan to visit, and the host has no obligation to put you up. Visit the Servas International site at www.servas.org.

Visiting Hindu Temples

Non-Hindus are not allowed in most of the temples, particularly the inner sanctum. However, visiting with a local holy man may bypass this obstacle. I spent 2 weeks studying yoga at the Sivananda Ashram, and part of the experience included a 16-hour tour of the temples in the area.