As I could not upload photos here when writing the post, some of the words I enriched with links, so these links can lead you to the photo from where pictures about that particular [geographical] place start. Other links may mean just one particular photo they lead to.
Although I kept writing memos in Russian about my experience in India gradually through the whole month of travelling, and as a result I produced tens of pages in Russian, I feel happy to see the interest in my trip from non-Russian speakers and I am eager to make a summary of general impressions in English too. However, the summary is not a short story either J
First of all, I will note that I planned my month-long trip to go through destinations which could discover diverse aspects of Indian experience to me. Agra was meant for well-known temples and sightseeing (I lost photos from Agra), Varanasi – for spirituality, and also it was planned as one of transit points on the way further down the map to the South of India in search for warmer weather (in the central India it was warm enough at the day time, but quite unpleasantly cold in the early morning when I had my transfers) and some change of nature – more palm trees, widely stretching rocks through green fields, ponds. To Odisha state I was coming for some non-touristic spots, like Rourkela, where I could see more of authenticity, pay all entrance fees like a local citizen (which is sometimes 25-50 times difference), face the reality of lack of the English language knowledge and understanding. Bhubaneswar – the capital city of Odisha, gave me some extension of a bigger city with well-developed infrastructure and opportunity to manage around by city buses when visiting some touristic places, where mostly Hindus visit. There, coming to explore their own country, they were very excited to see me – a white faced foreigner, as a real worthy sightseeing, which, I believe, made their day for some of them. It turned out that people (teenagers who spoke good English and were eager to initiate a chat or younger children with their parents) saw me from far away and stopped to wait for me to get closer in order to make a photo of me with one of them. Sometimes mothers gave their toddlers for me to hold them in my arms for a photo. Further to the South of the state I got to Puri for a longer stay of 4-5 days (in the previous places I used to visit just for a night), seeking to see the fishing village life as I had read about on the internet, and spending some time by the sea, in the place where hippies used to gather. After that, I made my way to the Andaman Islands looking forward to the beauty of the ocean beaches, where I could combine some relaxation with a scuba diving course. After 10 days of life somewhere in the waters of the Andamans (a few days in Havelock Island with its beaches and forest adventures and almost a week in the Long Island with diving (First I learned in the Long Island and then I loved it so much that I took another dive day in the Lake of Kochi, Kerala, where nothing could be seen, no underwater beauties, but I could master my skills!)), I moved to Kerala state, known for its coconut trees, pineapples, Ayurveda healing. Some more sightseeing of castle and fortress in Mysore, on the way up the map in the direction of the central India (where from I was to have my flight back to Belarus from New Dehli), and a two days drop to Mumbai – a megapolis, quite a modern city and the motherland of Bollywood. To my deepest regret, the very thing I was mainly coming to Mumbai for, could not happen due to the restricted time I devoted to that place. Though I was really approached by someone in the street (as I had read about it in forums) and offered to take a part in movie shooting playing some tiny role. Unfortunately, the shooting was planned for a next day of my stay at noon and it was not likely to finish on time before my departure that day. They talked to their manager for me to switch the timing for morning hours, however it did not work out.
So, on my trip, where I changed more than 15 trains, several buses, 8 flights, about a hundred of auto-rikshas, I managed to experience a great variety of culture, nature, sightseeings, divine places, and of course tastes and aromas. The one who says that India stinks – spreads unfair prejudices. At least I did not suffer from it travelling at my winter time. There’s truly lots of litter on the streets and it is mostly always noisy. The main rule of Indian traffic is to beep your horn as loud and long as you violate the rules. You can make a U-turn in the center of everywhere and go in the lane of the opposing traffic, or overtake someone whenever you want it even if the lane you’re coming out to is taken, you can ignore pedestrian walks and whatever else comes to your mind as long as you are continuously signaling. And I got used to it, as well as I got used to bargaining for anything I need to pay for. For better efficiency I used to collect ten rupees banknotes in my wallet to be able to always give the exact amount without doubt whether I am going to receive an exchange from a larger banknote.
Generally, I should say that my impression is absolutely positive about the Hindu. They are welcoming and helping, they are as interested in exploring us as we are in exploring them. During my trip I was lucky to meet people from different classes of population, to talk to them, to see homes of some of them.
Of course our cultures are very different. Most of the differences I accepted as a given, but for one. I could not and can not accept the fact that women have no value and respect in India. As a rule, men do easier work than women. It is the woman who carries sacks with sand and concrete on her head, it is the woman, who cracks coconuts for sale, at the time when men sit in small kiosks organizing flowers for religious rituals, sell food from mobile stalls or sew on sewing machines. In public transportation I was never offered a seat when having my heavy backpack on me, or even a local woman with a baby in her arms could be standing in a crowded bus when men would be sitting around. Also when I had my diving training, the boss had some women hired for bringing our diving equipment from the resort to the boat. I asked once how come women do the hard work, and the answer did not actually explain to me anything: A family provider is considered to be a man. This is why men study and get a qualification, profession. In cases when a man does not support financially his woman, she has to go to work to earn for herself and her children. As soon as she is not considered to work, she has no education and does the hard work requiring no skills.
Another shock I got is from the same area. It seems to me, self-respect is killed in a person yet from the very childhood. I saw families travelling by train in cheap classes when they all would sit on the floor in the carriage entrance, and their children would sleep wherever they fall, and mothers would carelessly put those sleepy bodies from one side to the other, when someone would be passing by. When a girl of about 6 years old was romping there and did some careless movement pushing a bit her younger brother or just a toddler, one of the women slapped her on the cheek quite heavily, and the girl just fell down to another woman’s knees and just froze there keeping a hand on her hurt cheek. No tears, no anger or frustration, emotionously. And the woman she fell down to did not react in any way continuing talking to the other one who slapped the girl. I felt really sorry for the child, and not because she was hurt at the moment, but because I saw this was so habitual for her life, so natural and acceptable… L
However, I am happy to note I do not have any negative impressions about the Hindu as I was warned about. No one ever tried to steal anything from me, to hurt me or to cheat on me. Well, some of them do cheat trying to confuse you so that you need to take their services and pay, but I don’t take it personal. Also this seems to be not out of bad soul but just because of their … style of work if I can put it in these words. I am lucky to have met numerous gestures of kindness and support. A few times I had someone run after me to return some tiny amount of change (even 5 rupee – enough for only 1 piece of cake or sometimes half-a-piece), or even once in a street stand where I bought a few packs of banana chips, some nuts and dried fruits in the end of my day, I said when paying, that it was “the right deal” as I was giving them my last money from my wallet. The sales man heard this and started offering me my money back saying I can come and pay some other day and I can keep that for my dinner or riksha or whatever else I may need. While I was disagreeing, another man stretched out of his pocket even more money to me. Only when I explained that I was OK, I had more money in the hotel and I already finished my day and had had my dinner and I was living nearby to walk on foot, they calmed down. This was real unexpected astonishment for me!
Also, it is usual to think that Hindu are dirty. All right, their streets and roads are really messy, full of litter, remains of food, animals excrements, sewage waters and other. At the time of my travelling all this waste did not stink – maybe up to 20-30 degrees is not hot enough and in summer when it is much hotter, it does… but I had read so much about stinky India and had prepared myself morally to it, that I even got disappointed on the minute I left the airport on my arrival! I would better say India smells! And this is very alluring for me, as I am much into food, tastes and smells. So I enjoyed each and every of my 30 days of travelling and was finishing one day thinking about the next one to come sooner so that I get hungry again and can try some more local food! I had no prejudices against eating in the street, from plentiful food stalls, where they cook-and-sell, most frequently putting food to your plate with their fingers, or, what is more exciting, sometimes sitting with his legs folded as a yoga on a surface attached to his bicycle, cutting there on a board cabbage, onions and other vegetables for a salad, mixing in a bowl and selling to you. By the way, they really take onion for a vegetable! I mean, they can use it as the main ingredient for a dish, or as an equal one along with cucumbers and tomatoes when making a salad and this is too much! However, I liked their spices and always asked to make it hot for me, as they tend to make it more simple for tourists. When I was getting my hot portion, sometimes even with a piece of hot chilly on the side, they were looking at me excitingly expecting me to cough or express any other signs of inability to survive it J
So, back to dirtiness. Or, actually, cleanness! The Hindu are not dirty – that’s what I have to say! They take showers, they dress nicely, they used to SEND ME WASH MY HANDS when I used my sanitizer before my meal and took a place at a table next to someone who has already been eating there and paid attention to me coming and told me to go and wash my hands before I eat. I should him my small bottle of sanitizer, explaining I have already cleaned mine, and anyway the man insistently showed me the washbasin. As they eat with their hands, they surely wash them before and after food. And I should say I noticed, they often avoid touching the glass they are drinking from with their lips just pouring the water out into their mouths from some distance.
That’s the true fact that they hardly ever have toilet paper in their toilets, but is this really a cleaner way to do than a water tab, and a bucket with a cup?!
Talking about toilets, a public one is twice cheaper for men (1 rupee) than for women (2 rupees)! Once I decided to find out why and joked to the man who was collecting money at the entrance (again a man – a job demanding a qualification??? J ), he could not explain clearly, but he gave me a discount of 1 rupee, when I jokingly promised I would not do there anything more than men do J
So, you see, the Hindu can be fun and friendly! And at some point I realized that and I opened more to them. Because we are objects of observation for them too! Not less than we like to look at their faces and dresses, to take pictures of their life routine, they want to look and explore us! Sometimes they modestly hide behind each other furtively taking a photo of a white person. Those who are braver may come up and ask for a photo together. Several times moms gave their babies for me to hold so that they take photos of them with me J When I was walking in poorer streets where people had all their life out there: cooking, washing clothes, brushing teeth, children playing, – an important thing was to look at them with an open face and smile, and then they were happy to have you there and they would do what they were doing with better effort, or slower, showing for you how they do it if you want to take a photo. A good smile gives a much better effect than when tourists come and look at them like in the zoo, only taking and never giving.
Children love to come and ask for a photo with my camera. So it was never hard to take some good shots of them. Sometimes the Hindu wanted to touch me or shake my hand, which is considered to bring them happiness. Let it be ! J
In areas where there are more tourists, mostly at railway stations, you can find lots of beggars, often children under 10 coming up to you and “asking for food”, which I write in quotation marks because the gesture they continuously do – taking their hand with fingers folded together, up to their mouth, as if showing how you put food into your mouth, – does not mean they are hungry. Several times when they caught me eating some fruits on my way from a train after a night trip, I shared some fruits with them and there was hardly one or two who let me go after it. Others persistently stand near you or follow you with repeating the same gesture with your fruit in the other hand. I heard giving money, or maybe any charity in India is prohibited, because they really want to stop this destructive behavior. So people, like taxi drivers taking me and other travel buddies around several places of sightseeing often warned and made sure to tell that we should not give out any money, or pay any extra fees at the entrance.
Also, like anywhere else, sometimes when someone really helped me to find the way out, or to arrange buying something, and when we were parting, the person would feel responsible for me and he would instruct me not to trust anyone else, like I trusted him and keep careful. J This is so cute!
Generally, travelling on my own always felt better than keeping someone else as a company. When I am on my own, I have more perspectives to explore! I happened to meet in person locals of different ages and from different population stratum. I was lucky to visit their homes to see some life from inside. Homes of middle class are really tiny and simple. There’s only one room – right at the entrance from the street, which is no bigger than about 3×3 sq.m, and there’s a smaller kitchen through a doorway (no door) and as I visited two different homes, both had their kitchen with the floor at some lower level than the room. At one of the homes, they washed dished right on the floor, and there were two cabinets for dishes with table-surface on them and a fridge, and a small portable stove. In such a place they live about 4-5 people together. They all sleep in one bed (maximum a king size). And, as you know, the Hindu are always happy! They are always very proud to tell about their religion, to show their temples and lead you through the whole round of ceremonies.
Their English is funny sometimes. Unfortunately sometimes it is very poor. Students tend to have better English and they even asked me, as a foreigner, how I would evaluate it and whether I felt comfortable understanding them J They ARE cute, I tell you J
It’s been a month already since I came back and I still drink lots of masala chai, which I brought with me, but I miss the one which they had there. Tea is a big part of their life. They have plenty of tea stalls with freshly boiled tea and jugs of cookies. They drink small cups many times a day, starting from a cold morning (In central India it was really cold at night – about 14 degrees C) (I used to watch this at 4am when taking an early train) when men wrap up their heads in scarves looking like old ladies from a village (my belarussian perception)). It is a pleasure to be watching a Hindu making his masala chai: crashing ginger and spices, boiling milk, mixing all together, then filtering it all, and, when serving, pouring from one cup into the other for several times from some high distance so that your chai becomes foamy. To my deepest regret I had to face that not all of states in India drink masala chai and had only regular very sugary tea with milk. The same about some culinary peculiarities. Had I found some dish I liked particularly and I made effort to remember its name, I could not get it anymore since I changed a state!
Also there was no sense in trying to learn any words or phrases in their language, because after 3-4 days I was in a different state with a different language!
So, to summarize, India is so diverse that I would not mind spending another vacation there again, although usually it is preferable to go and see a new destination.
Highly recommended by me (provided one condition: you agree for a less fancy life and avoid luxury hotels and guided tours – as this will smear out all of the experience)!
P.S. and a few words about the Andaman Islands. It is just gorgeous there! Islands can never be unattractive… life there is beautiful, lazy, monotonous, full of coconuts and palm trees, clear ocean waters, breathtaking sunsets and sunrises, escape from civilized internet connection and – HEAVEN! Even though the islands are considered a part of India, it is not dirty there, neither you can see lonely cows and goats.
Also recommended, but for me it’s a bit too much of nothing-to-do rest, and what saved me was a diving course which I took and am very happy for that and can’t wait to dive more and more!