It is so funny how travel broadens our minds. I remember as a child seeing completely Americanized second generation Chinese Americans and thinking of them as Chinese! Now, after traveling to Taiwan and living there, I see the very same people as pure blooded Americans! I remember my first trip to India. I had spent a lot of time with Indians in America. But, being in their country gave me culture shock for a while. The class of people you encounter in India is substantially lower than the people who are here. If you are Indian and have made it to America, by definition, you are middle-class even if you are a cab driver. The same guy back in India wouldn’t drive a rickshaw if his life depended on it!
I remember having a nice meal at the Radisson.
A five star oasis of cleanliness and manners in a smog infested raunchy boulevard in Southern Chennai. I remember seeing these Indian-Americans walk past the pool wearing shorts speaking English in a loud American accent. There is such a contrast between Indians, and even those who have lived in America for twenty years! If you want to experience the real India, don’t stay at an American hotel chain. Sure, you will still be in India, and the staff will still have Indian habits and manners, but it is not what real India is.
Stay at a regular Indian hotel — a nice one.
Experience being able to order a breakfast of freshly squeezed pomegranate, orange, or mango juice. Experience toast with jam. Have cornflakes with warm milk, but only have that once because it is horrible! The best part of India or breakfast in India is the chai and the coffee. Sure you can get either in America, but American chai has too much cinnamon and sweetener, and never tastes authentic. Madras coffee is very smooth, and no Italian macchiato or latte can compare. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but the real India experience has to include Madras coffee. It’s on the required tasting list!
Enjoy other Indian beverages
You can get Coke in any country, but the Coke in India is much sweeter and tastes so good. After you’ve had Indian coke, you will never be able to drink American Coke again — it will taste very bitter. Enjoy fresh sugar-cane juice by the side of the road. I read that street food will no longer be legal soon in India, but enjoy it wherever you can get it! Indian wine is actually up to par with American wines, although no match for Rhone or Bordeaux. Many of the Indian wineries have paired up with European wine makers, and their wine actually resembles the part of Europe where their partner is from even though the grapes were grown in India.
Drink water from a metal cup
But, don’t let your lips touch the cup. Recently, India is into wasting paper. But, traditionally, people would share the same metal water cup, and not touch their lips to it. It requires good aim, otherwise you will need to change your shirt!
Take a rickshaw ride
Smart people in India take a cab. Rickshaws try to rip you off, tamper with their meters, and are a headache, while cab drivers are much more civil and their companies have a reputation to protect. Rickshaws are also dangerous by the way, so don’t die on my behalf because you liked my article. But, a rickshaw ride is a quintessential part of life in India, as well as of life in many of the other nearby countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc. The experience of trying to communicate with the rickshaw wallas, bargaining, and having near-miss head on collisions throughout your trip are part of what makes India India! You should miss it for the world!
A bus ride says it all
Figuring out which bus to take is a real hassle in India. The buses are typically very rudely conducted and you have only nanoseconds to jump on and squeeze in. Personally, being a sardine is not my style, but this is what life is like for people in India. Do you want to experience India the way the locals do or not? Keep an eye on your wallet too. If you get pushed, always assume someone did it on purpose to distract you while they relieve you of your wallet.
2nd class local train rides
I like to travel first class on the train in India. You mingle with a better class of people, plus you have more room. During rush hour you have to squeeze even in first class. I think they need a new rail system in Mumbai. People hang out of the open doors of trains in India over tall bridges. Once in a while someone falls to their death. There are no safety precautions in India. Life and death of a human seem to be held as valuable as if a rodent lives or dies. Maybe in a few decades they will change their attitude. But, if you travel 2nd class, you can experience the sardine reality of existence that a normal urban Indian experiences regularly, especially if they live in the exciting and bustling city of Mumbai!
Dysentery and food sickness
You haven’t experienced India correctly if you haven’t had vomiting fits, blood in your bowel movements, or some other horrible gastro-intestinal disorder from something you ate. Sure, I drink bottled water, but something always happens. I blame it on potatoes. I always get sick from cooked potatoes, but never from samosas with potatoes. Odd. I once went to the bathroom completely without toilet paper (as the locals generally do) because I had to go all of a sudden due to food sickness. I experienced the real India. I didn’t like it much, but it was part of the traveling experience.
Try Indian street food
Indians love their street food. Even if they become millionaires, they still love the sensual pleasure of biting into a samosa chat, pani poori, or other local foods. They are always very simple, generally unhealthy, and everyone loves them.
Sleeping in a long distance train
This is a part of India that many of the locals don’t do simply because the few rupees that it costs to travel are more than what they have. Traveling first class is expensive, but 3rd class non-AC is not an expensive class to travel in. You see the poor people up front and get to know them in this class. When I say poor, it is not like poor in America who enjoy all types of pleasures unimaginable in India. Poor in India is dirt poor. Their skin tone reflects bad nutrition. They look unenthusiastic and tired. They will probably not have much to say either. It is bearable, but not a side of India that I like to spend much time in. For daily life, I like upper middle-class India. It suits me. People are more like me even if they don’t look like me. The types of jobs and lifestyle they have matches me better. 3rd class non-AC brings you to a very depressing and real version of India. You meet people who are not from the poche city that you are staying in. It is a different world. And traveling is about going into different worlds, even if they are not pleasant worlds. The best part of waking up in a long distance train after having a comfortable sleep with the soothing rocking of the train is to hear the calls of chai walla. “Chai, chai, chai, garam chai, achaya, chaha, ocha, chai, 5 rupees chai!” They say the world chai in all the dialects in a song. I immitate this song all the time!
There is the side of India that I am more familiar with. The world where affluent people go to their high-tech jobs, drive tiny new Hyundae cars, go out to eat, and generally speak English. Then, there are other sides of India, poorer and less pleasant sides. The “real” India could be rich or poor, but if you have not experienced a ride in a 2nd class train in Mumbai, used a squat toilet, or gotten dysentery, then you have not experienced the quintessential India.
Welcome to India, buddy!
(In Pune, everyone calls everyone Bubba. Maybe they had a past life in Georgia or Alabama, you think?)
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