India: A never-ending adventure

By Nikki Swift

The first line of Imogen Heap’s song Hide and Seek perfectly describes my initial thoughts of India: “Where are we? What the hell is going on?” Immediately after arriving in New Delhi, culture shock dealt me a nice punch in the stomach. Taking a taxi to my hotel, I discovered that Indian “highways” are multi-purpose areas where literally anything goes – in addition to cars and motorbikes, main roads are also utilized for social gatherings and cow herding. Turning onto the street where my hotel was situated, I was welcomed by two drunken homeless men partaking in a friendly fistfight. I then experienced what it would feel like to sleep outside during rush hour in New York City — just by staying a night inside my hotel.

Despite my early misgivings, I discovered that traveling in India is a wild, unforgettable experience. At first, I only saw the overwhelming crowds, the heart-breaking images of poverty, and the general filth of the country. Especially in contrast to Japan, I felt like I had just entered the armpit of humanity. However, it didn’t take me long to begin to appreciate India specifically for all of its imperfections and to recognize its masked beauty. The country is alive with a cornucopia of sounds and vibrant colors. So many adventures await you, whether in the northern Himalayas, on the southern beaches, or in the bustling cities. I only caught a glimpse of the massive subcontinent as I traveled around New Delhi, Kolkata, Berhampore, and Goa. A retrospective word of advice: wherever you are in India, don’t underestimate the power of toilet paper. Especially if you want to venture out of the big cities, T.P. is a scarce commodity and you may have to wipe Indian-style (i.e. with your left hand) if caught without. Here are a few suggestions to jumpstart your own expedition in India:

1. Go Make A Difference!

Volunteering was honestly the best thing I did in India, and it provided me with a much more favorable and, in my opinion, real cultural experience than my time spent in touristy areas. Through Go M.A.D., I taught at the Ananda Marga Primary School in Berhampore, West Bengal (about 6 hours outside of Kolkata) with 11 other volunteers. On Christmas Day, we organized parties for 150 students and 18 orphans. There was no snow, no Christmas ham and there were no stockings hung by the fire, but it felt like Christmas in the most magical sense; it was incredible to watch the children open their presents. They were overwhelmed to not only see, but actually receive so many toys. We spent the rest of the week teaching English lessons and playing games with the bright-eyed tots who were smart and enthusiastic students. Although I will always be a foreigner there, I didn’t feel like I was as much of an outsider by the time I left Berhampore.

2. Engage in a two-way anthropological study.

While in Berhampore, I spent an afternoon cruising along a nearby river on a long, wooden boat. Since we were so far away from any major city, most of the townspeople had never seen foreigners before. Consequently, there was a surprising amount of curious reciprocal staring going on between the locals bathing in the river and us.

3. Edge one step closer to nirvana in Goa

Yes, Goa is packed with tourists, but it’s a beautiful contrast to the grime and noise of the cities. If you’ve seen the movie The Bourne Supremacy, you’ll immediately recognize Palolem beach in South Goa. After a taxing afternoon of sunbathing and sipping cocktails, find your inner peace with a session of yoga. Yoga is practiced on the sand in an area shaded by palm trees and surrounded by lush tropical greenery. Another way to unwind is with a Kervala Ayurveda massage: I experienced 90 minutes of pure ecstasy, having intoxicating oils rubbed all over my body in a very stimulating manner to say the least. Warning: Goa’s tradeoff for relaxation and splendor is its high prices.

4. Let’s go to Bollywood!

When you’re tired of sightseeing, catch a Bollywood flick with the locals. Bollywood films are famous for their extravagant song and dance sequences and their melodramatic plots. Although in Hindi, it’s not hard to understand what’s going on. The audience is equally as entertaining as the movie itself, due to the active dialogue that exists between the actors in the film and the moviegoers. For example, when a pretty girl appears in the movie, the men in the audience will whistle and shout freely. When something funny happens, people will explode into laughter and shout back at the screen as if it could somehow respond.

5. Become a true Henna Gaijin

Like the Taj Mahal, visiting a market in New Delhi or Kolkata is an essential part of the Indian experience. However, when your shopping endorphins start to ebb, don’t fret – your market experience is not over yet: for about 100yen, you can get traditional henna painted onto your body and literally become the henna gaijin we know and love to be. Warning: The henna will permanently leave its orangey-brown mark on anything you touch until it dries. Plan accordingly. Then, when you return to Japan, just stick out your arms and your kids will go nuts. Your teachers, however, will probably think you just joined the yakuza. A guaranteed “EEEEEEEE?” hit amongst kids and teachers alike.

TRAVEL TIPS

Getting there

There are many airlines that fly to India, so you can definitely find some good deals. If coming from Japan, I suggest booking early with No. 1 Travel to get a discounted fare.

Getting Around

Although transportation is relatively inexpensive in India, you will most assuredly be ripped off unless you negotiate a price before entering any vehicle. When coming from the airport, buy a pre-paid taxi voucher. Be prepared to physically shove your way to the counter to obtain this ticket. Within cities, I would suggest using auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks) or rickshaws to get around. Trains are by far the cheapest mode of transportation across long distances, but you get what you pay for. Take a train for the experience, but they are regularly late, in addition to being very crowded and dirty (unless you ride 2nd or 3rd class). I would recommend flying, especially if you’re on a tight schedule. With the introduction of many new airlines in the past few years, domestic flights have become much cheaper.

LINKS

Plane tickets to/within India:

www.no1-travel.com
www.kayak.com
http://india.makemytrip.com (This is the best way to buy the cheapest domestic airline tickets outside of India.)

Train schedules:

http://www.indianrail.gov.in
http://www.irctc.co.in (This is the only way to buy train tickets from outside India.)

Volunteer opportunities:

http://www.go-mad.org

Book Accomodation:

http://www.desiya.com

If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me at nicole.m.swift@gmail.com!