India – Beauty in the choas

When we arrived at Hyderabad airport and got our first introduction to India, it was an Indian introduction right away. Because we had arrived after midnight, there was no other way of getting to our hotel than to take a taxi. We queued up and waited patiently. We’ll, as patiently as can be expected after a 7-hour flight, behind a screaming child with some really rather undisturbed parents, in the middle of the night.

When we finally got somewhere near the front of the queue, only to realise it wasn’t moving, we went up to the window to find out why this line was so incredibly persistent. The clerk, playing candy crush on her phone, looked astonishingly undisturbed by the massive line of people knocking down the window. She simply grabbed a sign from under the desk and put it in front of the window. It read: Undersized. Which really can be interpreted in many ways. Like was there a shortage of taxis, were the taxis short or was she just simply calling us names? Two tall, slender Indian boys in front of us overheard us discussing the many possibilities, and informed us that there was only a small number of taxis available and that they had simply run out. According to them this was not uncommon and it could take anywhere between five minutes to three hours before one would become available again, depending on the local traffic but they hopefully would be along shortly.

When having travelled as much as we have, you start to anticipate this kind of situations and can’t do anything but laugh. Ultimately, this is a part of your Asia experience and you try and take things as they come, or in this case, as they didn’t come…
Five Asian minutes later, one of those five minutes that seem to last forever, we finally got in our taxi and were on the way to our hotel. Our first introduction to Indian traffic was already a full blown one. We almost got into a crash twice, almost hit a camel, nearly killed seven pedestrians, ran through every red light and ignored about every single traffic rule known to man. We would soon learn that this was just the tip of the iceberg, as it was apparently quite on the road as it was the middle of the night, and this would not in any way reflect the chaos that commenced the following day. There were busses, motorbikes, scooters, bikes, cars, trucks, carts, horse carriages, camels, cows and finally, the lowest of the lowest in the traffic hierarchy, the pedestrians. At any time, engaging yourself in the monkey bars that is Indian traffic, you will, and need to be, on high alert. All of the captivating chaos was accompanied by a steady symphony of non-stop horns and a blasé attitude.

The street life in India is one like no other. It consists of every possible combination of prosperity, poverty, euphoria and despair, all displayed in its own unique Indian way. There are fancy high-rise malls contrasted by the neighbouring slums, top-notch restaurants in a dim lit, dark and dingy backstreet alley and people wearing the latest Dior collections preceding begging children in nothing more than what can be described as a cloth. Never before have I seen such an extreme in the gap between the have’s and the not have’s. Not in The Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, or Mexico or any of the other undeveloped places I have travelled to.
Then there is the smell, the truly mesmerising, revolting and intricate smell that is so unique to India; an incredibly complex fragrance that varies from anything from the most enticing curries and stews, lotus and jasmine flowers, the sweet smell of incense being burned on every street corner, to the sewage-filled gutters, vast amount of unwashed, sweaty people and warm, rotting garbage that is so characteristic of this exceptionally intense country.

When you think India, you think food. Or at least I do. Whether it is the expectation of the magnificent amount mouth-watering, aromatic street foods, or the fear that once you get that first curry down you, it’s coming straight out. Here too India is a land of contrast and it will live give you a run for your money. Or in my boyfriend’s case, the runs for five fun-filled days. More than a third of all travellers will experience some form of Delhi-belly and it is no wonder with a country so profoundly unhygienic as this one is.

The food, however, when being eaten, is a feast for your palate and you will be spoilt for choice. From Spicy Samosas, aromatic Masala Dosai, the lesser known Dabbeli (a bun filled with spiced chickpea and potato paste, grapes, pistachios and pomegranate), Chapattis, Masala tea, wonderful looking sweets and desserts and refreshing lassis. Here I truly let my inner fatty soar and went about my day according to meals, snacks, tea-breaks, and little bites of everything I could get my grubby little hands on. Every so often I stopped for a snack; spiced masala tea served from big aluminium pots, full of spices, sugar, black tea powder and milk; an onion pakora from a street cart covered in batter, grease and stained red by curry powder; fresh coconuts on the roadside, stood eating from a banana leaf in front of a mosque and joined a large crowd all eating what appeared to be some sort of deep-fried potato ball in a gravy at a local market. I ate some of the best Indian food I have had and encountered the amazingly friendly people that prepared them.

To state that travelling though India is somewhat of a challenge is an understatement, but when meeting this task head on, it can be a great adventure. The trains are Spartan, dirty and anything but comfortable but a great local experience. Here you will meet the many faces of India, and in your face, they will be. I have been stared at for entire train journeys, surrounded by people asking question after question, offered many snacks and drinks, asked to take photo after photo, after photo (in fact this took too long that I remained in the exact same position for about fifteen minutes whilst the person next to me kept rotating), was requested to hold babies, and have even been asked if someone’s ten-year-old boy could sleep in my sleeping bag liner with me… Surprisingly enough I slept well, arrived safe and all my trains left and arrived on time. Unfortunately, not a single person sat on the roof of the train as promised by all the Indian clichés that one expects before actually visiting the country. The metro, on the other hand, is overflowing with people and is not a pleasant place for a woman to be. Luckily there is the women-only carriage where it is a little less hectic (less grope-y at the very least).

Truth be told, India is not an easy place to be. It will throw you for a loop, pushes you to your very limit and beyond, test you in many ways and exhaust you beyond reason whilst invigorating you at the same time. When travelling as a woman there is the added challenge of being in a society in which they do not necessarily have the same standard relation to men as in other parts of the world. I found this to be especially difficult, men wouldn’t speak to me directly but address me through my boyfriend, point black ignore me when ordering food until my boyfriend repeated the order, stare beyond the point of awkwardness and generally made me very uncomfortable. In India, more so than anywhere else, you need to be aware of the cultural differences and respect these if only for your own good. Dress modest, conservative and definitely dress down as you will already stand out like a sore thumb.

The country and its people are colourful, friendly and fascinating. Its history is rich, the culture diverse and its nature lush. This combined with their relentless lack of sense for personal space makes them one hell of a culture to explore and you will not only get to know more about them, you will truly get to know yourself. India is an attack on all the senses. Even those senses you didn’t even know you had.

Leave a reply