India is a pageant that rivets. It is intense, overwhelming and genuinely exotic. In every day life, rarely do I have that sharp intake of breath.
I have it in India every day.
Facebooked from Delhi:
“Tonight was a dream. Saw my first elephant-in-the-street. Taxied past the five-story Monkey Temple. Dinner at my hotel, The Grand Godwin. Not so grand.
The crowd: hot tourists, beautiful Indians and the occasional businessperson. I’m outside on the rooftop restaurant at 10 PM. Eating vegetable tandoori. Drinking lime-water (mixed sweet & salty). Reading the Hindustan Times gossip column, “Under Honey’s Hat” while Mr. Bean is on TV and John Denver sings “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane”. The Indian waiters talk smack about Pakistani cricketers in mixed Hindi and English. Wedding drums play two streets away.”
To the civilian, Hinduism seems impenetrable. You sense that it is full of mojo and beauty; dense with imagery, meaning, ceremony and magic that changes by region, family and individual. So, how can you prepare for a place where over 80% of the 1.1 billion people have very, very personal relationships with 3 million Hindu gods? Well, the civilian can’t. Experiencing the devotion that is real here and wrangling random moments of grace are enough.
Faith in the Indian divine is glitteringly, robustly, directly alive.
I teased the hotel desk clerk about the marigolded Ganesh, which sits on the front counter of many businesses. Me: “Ganesh looks very beautiful today”. Him: (without an ounce of smirk), “Ganesh is very beautiful every day”. Ironic distance melts and I feel like I’m missing out on something great. I have never felt so secular.
My friend Barun loves Saraswati. He is being extra observant to invoke blessings in finding a job. Barun went to Catholic schools in Delhi before studying in France and the USA. To him, Catholicism is understandable. He calls it a mini version of Hinduism. Roaringly funny (to me) Barun says Catholicism and Hinduism are completely logical. It is the Protestants who are irrational or, at least lack imagination.
Friends teased that I was going to go native and disappear into an ashram. I didn’t go native (except for sporting a very smart dupata and loving Bollywood music) but travel is never neutral. Especially here. Jai Ho!
Tips for First Time Travelers:
- Sightseeing: A westerner (especially if traveling alone) can be the subject of too much attention. In cities, when your eye alights on another person, even for a moment, expect an interruption: “Hello sir. Where are you from?” I found it necessary to deflect unwanted attention with a thicker skin, even rudeness.
- Precautions: Most stomach ailments are water-borne, tricky when the food supply-chain seems to be based on faith. Buddha expired of dysentery so follow general precautions. Indian pharmacies sell Imodium and electrolyte replacements. Stock up.
- Women Travelers: Women traveling alone can face a lot of sexualized attention. Absolutely go…. but travel with a friend if at all possible. The alternative is to increase your travel budget.
- Expect: High security going into any temple, monument, museum or public transportation. The Mumbai bombings created a new “no-walk-ins” policy in some categories. (I was turned away for a sunset drink at the Oberoi in Agra). Call ahead everywhere and make a reservation to avoid disappointment.
- Hotels: Unless you’re staying at super-premium accommodations you’ll probably be staying in an Indian Market or Guest House. Like any developing country, late at night a westerner may feel vulnerable. Use the general rule of a two-drink maximum. If you think you’re going to be sinning with saints ask the hotel about the guest policy to avoid any embarrassment.
- Before You Go: Even if you are on the tightest budget, make reservations for your first few nights in India. Several Reasons: You’ll need an “address” in India to exchange traveler’s checks or buy a SIM card for your phone (inexpensive). Also, most International flights arrive late at night and you really, really don’t want to be looking for a hotel at 1 AM. Visa required.
- Communication: Internet access and wireless are broadly available. SIM cards and talk time for a tri-band phone are cheap.
- Don’t Miss: Mughal Architecture, Hindu Temples and Heritage Hotels.
- Eat: Indian Tandoori, Garlic Naan, Onion Klucha, MoghlaiLamb, Mango and Lemon Pickles, Vegetarian Sweets and regional specialties like Punjabi red-banana-flower fritters.
- Drink: Fresh Pomegranate Juice, Heritage Liqueurs (lShahi Gulab from Jaipur is made of roses, crystallized sugar, herbs, fruits and milk); and Strong Kashmiri Tea flavored with saffron threads and lightly toasted cashews. Indian wine is up and coming, with Sula Vineyards being reliable.
Written and contributed by Scott Frankum