While riding my Bullet across India, I had a lot of time to think about the experiences that I had and what India was like in terms of a country and its culture. I was in India for 4 months in total, with nearly 2 of those being in Goa which I don’t actually consider India because it’s like a tourist bubble which is not representative of how India actually is. Goa is to India like London is to England; geographically, economically and politically part of it but far removed from it in every other way. But that’s a story for another post.
In this post I am going to write what I think about the country and culture, starting with the country first. It should be noted at this point that these are the conclusions I have drawn from my own experiences. I’m not saying that they are definitely right, wrong or factual. They are what I saw, heard, experienced and felt.
I just wanted to put this out there but I think the only reason people love chai, not masala chai just normal chai, is because of how sweet it is. There, I said it.
The Country & The Culture
From the beautiful sandy beaches of Goa to the mountainous tea plantations of Munnar in the Western Ghats. From the wind swept plains in the barren south to the bustling cities of Kolkata, Hyderabad and Vijayawada; India is an undeniably beautiful, changing, busy and barren land, which has something for everyone.
The cities are large, heavily populated places where millions of people live incredibly close to one another, vying for every inch of land both on the roads and in the home. People flock to the cities in search of a better life, or perhaps just a better paid job. Some are able to make a better life for themselves and their families, while others make a basic living which just about covers their expenses with little time for themselves to educate and fulfill any leisurely pursuits.
In the countryside, just mere kilometres outside of the cities, you will find many local Indian families living off the land like we have done for centuries. Horse and cart are still used, driven by men dressed in sahris with no shoes and an overflowing load of produce. Crops are still picked by hand in many places and processed by hand, too, making crop growing and harvesting an incredibly labour intensive process. But labour is cheap, very cheap. From my experience of speaking to waiters, cleaners, guest house managers, security staff and teachers, they are not paid well by western standards. But, I think I’m making the wrong comparison because I should be comparing to what the living costs are there, and they are also incredibly cheap. It’s not quite so easy to determine living costs for locals because as a foreigner you will always get a foreigners price, that being very much increased. However, there are no standards which the employers must adhere to so it seems that workers are often taken advantage of.
It’s very common for employees to live and work in the same place. Waiters will sleep under a net outside which is held up by the chairs and tables that are used during the daytime. They get up before the restaurant opens and can’t go to bed until it closes and they have cleaned up. It’s a very challenging way of life which would not be allowed in somewhere like the UK.
It’s very difficult (impossible?), to speak with any certainty about what the people of a place are like for many reasons. Firstly, the people will differ from place to place. India covers thousands of kilometres and has many historical influences from the French to the British to the Portuguese and has had an influx of people from many different countries. Secondly, there are many different religious beliefs within India. Mainly Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist so this again will influence behaviour, customs, traditions and societal values and conditioning. Thirdly, there is no one type of person, no matter where you are in the world. And finally, India is developing very rapidly. There are high-tech, multinational companies developing software solutions for people around the world and in high-rise, air conditioned offices and in the very next street there are people who live on the streets, cannot afford shoes and live in poverty. Never before have I experienced such a vast difference in living standards as India.
Another factor is that I travelled through India as a white, foreigner. This changes everything, from the way that you are treated to the prices you pay for things. But it is from this point of view that I can give my opinion.
I have met many different people on my travels. Probably not as many local people without any kind of interest in my money as I would like to have, but I guess that’s difficult, mainly because of the language barrier. The people I have met the most frequently are the hotel managers, staff, cleaners, restaurant staff and anyone working in the tourist industry. Out of all the people I met I found that quite a lot of the people in these industries are prepared to deceive you in order to make more money. Be it lying about having wi-fi in the hotel, to over charging for rooms, you can be sure that you need to keep your wits about you when travelling in India. Having said that, I also met some who were not like this at all so it would be unfair to say that everyone is out to get you but the majority definitely are.
In order to make sure you get exactly what you want you have to learn to ask the right questions and never assume anything because it’s likely it will not turn out the way you expect it to. When getting a room you should check everything; the water in the bathroom, the fan, locks on the door and if the rate per night includes all taxes. Be prepared to tip anyone who carries your luggage or opens a locked gate for you early in the morning. They will expect it and sometimes ask outright for a tip.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
No matter who you meet and what they do you will find that there are a lot of happy people in India. They might be working a hard job but they will still usually be smiling and wagging their head when they speak to you. Often they are very happy to see a foreign person come and stay in their hotel or eat at their restaurant and ask you many questions, like “What is your good name, sir?” which I always found very friendly and polite.
In most of India there are still arranged marriages, from what I could tell. The roles are also still very traditional, in that the man will be expected to work and the woman will be expected to have children, be a house wife and look after the man. I’ve even heard a newly wed couple who were on their honeymoon say exactly this. Well, the man said it and the woman stood quietly next to him smiling. The fact is that men and women do not have much contact with one another until they are married, which is why you usually only see groups of married couples or men on their own hanging around in places. There are times when you see what look like more modern mixed groups but this is not that common outside of the more modern cities like Mumbai.
The marriage age for men is around 25 – 29 and for women from 21 – 25. There is not supposed to be any sex before marriage and I think this is quite strictly kept between Indian men and women but there are definitely attempts from Indian men to sleep with foreign women, that is for sure. In fact, it borders on sexual harassment at times when there are a group of drunk Indian men and one or more foreign women around at a party or on the beach. This is unfortunately why women are advised not to travel alone in many parts of India. I can only assume that it’s because of the lack of allowed contact between Indian men and women.
Another very commonly asked question is that of pay. A lot of Indian guys (because no Indian girl would ever strike up a conversation with a strange, foreign man) will want to ask how much you earn. I think it’s human nature that you want to know about costs and potential earnings from other, foreign places. Especially for Indians and England because a lot of them see it as a very developed place where they can earn lot of money and send it back home to their families, while making a better life for themselves. It’s not possible to compare just based on pay because the Indian rupee is only 1% the value of the English Pound.
I started my mentioning how extremely different the living conditions are in India and I would finish by saying that India is a place of extremes. Extreme wealth, extreme poverty, extreme weather, extreme values.
It appears on the face of it to be a very free country, you can ride the wrong way down the street, go against the rules and do what you want when you want. However, this is my perception as a foreigner and not an Indian national. After many conversations with Indian people, I would say that it’s not a free country at all. For starters, the caste system is still very much in place. Also, if you are fortunate enough to be in charge somewhere, then whatever you say goes. There is no negotiation with subordinates. They have to do as they are told and get shouted at often.
From what I can see the people are often hard on one another when it comes to getting something done. It also seems as though people are willing to accept their fate, that whatever hand they are dealt there is no way to change it. I’m not saying that all Indians are like this, because obviously everyone is different and things differ between the various cultural differences in such a vast country. But from my experience it seems as though this is how the majority live. This is not just my opinion, either, this is the opinion of many local people who I have spoken to.
I have had to question whether this is such a bad thing…When you have choice and freedom, does it make you happier and give you a sense of being able to achieve more in your life? All of the people that I have met here have been very happy, even though they are working long hours, doing hard and often times dirty jobs with little chance of it getting any better. The paradox of choice…?
Another part of acceptance that I see a lot is the acceptance of others. It seems that people are happy to accept one another more readily than we are in places like the UK. People are happy to let each other get on with whatever they want to do without complaining about it too much or allowing it to cause any problems.
Having ridden my Royal Enfield Bullet thousands of kilometers across a large amount of India I could talk about this subject for hours…Don’t worry, I won’t! But there are some interesting points to be made about the road, which I have covered in a different post. I would like to say in this post, however, that the culture of the people seems to spread onto the road. At first I often found myself getting very annoyed about the way people drove. Trucks would be overtaking other trucks on blind bends, forcing oncoming traffic to leave the road. I didn’t see anyone else getting annoyed, even when the people were putting other people’s lives at risk. I concluded that it came back to the acceptance of others actions again.
I found myself thinking that the way in which people use the road in India is more in sync with the thought that “It’s our road, not my part of the road”. By that I mean that there shouldn’t, and often isn’t, any marking down the middle of the road because that separates two sides. Why should we not use all of the road as necessary. It’s like an automatically adjusting flow control. When there is more traffic coming down one way, they should use the full width of the road if nothing is coming in the other direction. Why not? When needed they will move back across as cars come the other way.
It’s also not uncommon to find cows, goats, chickens, children and old people crossing the highways, playing on them or herding their cattle up/across them. When this is happening the traffic has to avoid/stop so as not to hit any one of the obstacles. It’s a really dangerous way to use the road but I think it comes back to the lack of possessiveness of the people and the acceptance that the road is there to be used by all.
And on a similar note, farmers are not against blocking off one side of the highway to use it for drying their crops, such as chili peppers, forcing the traffic to use one side of the highway for both directions for a kilometre or two.
Throughout all parts of India, especially within the cities, pollution is a massive problem. The attitude towards rubbish and waste disposal is terrible. The beaches, waterways and everywhere you go is full of rubbish and waste. No one cares about it. If you ask for a bin you are just as likely to get told to throw it on the floor as you are told where the bin is.
The cars and trucks have no controls over what levels of pollution they are allowed to emit, or if they do no one sticks to it. Often times you can see the thick hazy smog in the cities rising up in the hot sun. You get back home after being out in the traffic for only 30 minutes and your face has a layer of dirt across it.
Love Hate Relationship
Sometimes you love it and sometimes you hate the place. One minute you will be really annoyed about an incident that happened where somebody tried to rip you off, then the next you will be feeling very happy because you met a very nice and friendly person who helped you in some way. It really is a roller coaster of ups and downs that just continue throughout your whole trip there.
There are places of paradise around many parts of India. It could be the small guest house where the owners are amazingly friendly and helpful, or the local restaurant that looks after you and remembers your favourite dish. The secluded beach or the mountain resort that was really peaceful. There are so many places to explore that you could spend years there and never see everything you wanted to.
Not in my Back Yard
There have been many times when I have asked for a bin to throw some rubbish in and the response has been for me to throw it on the ground, just metres away from the shop where I have asked for a bin. The general consensus seems to be to throw rubbish and litter everything without any concern for neighbours’ property or the environment. You just have to take a look at most beaches to see what looks like a dumping ground of beer bottles, empty package cartons and all kinds of litter on the ground.
When the shopkeepers sweep up they don’t have a dustpan, just a brush and they sweep the rubbish into the street or away from their place to their next door neighbours.
If you take a walk down many a beach you will find waste pipes running out into the sea and the sea being littered with human waste, toxic chemicals and plastic packaging that is no longer needed. Then the dogs, cows and other animals come along and start to eat the rubbish, including a lot of plastic and cardboard which is not good for them. It’s a real mess in most places that you go to.