Land of Colors: Wrapping-Up India

This review is a bit arbitrary. During our journey through India, there happened so many different things that – had we to write a summary at the end of every week – we would have changed our mind 6 times in one month and a half: probably India is the country most difficult to grasp. Things that are so usual at home that you never thought about it now became far away from being normal.

Anything can happen here and there are absolutely no limits, neither in the good nor in the bad directions. India’s cities are super green and surprisingly not suffocating, but they are also the dirtiest places in the world with tons of rubbish everywhere. People are incredibly curious and want to know so much about you, but normally they do not succeed in more than staring. They can be the most warm-hearted and caring persons on earth, but in no other country they try so shameless to exploit your information deficits. You see Mahatma Gandhi on each Rupee-bill, but sometimes a small touch is all what is needed to bring Indians to beat-up each other in the open public. The women walking around wear brightest clothes and boldest colors, but family structures and traditions are as rigid as you expect it from every Muslim country. No one would stand up for a senior person, but they always honor pictures of their own late parents at home. The thousands of years old magic god-world is omnipresent, but everyone is interested in and proud of the newest computer programs. India is able to send men to space, but there is nearly no electricity left for the industry (only 4 hours per day). Expensive shining cars are parked next to human cadavers. And the glamorous world of Bollywood is a big contrast to the huge and extreme poverty on the streets.

We also experienced some very peculiar situations while travelling: We saw a sacred elephant walking through Bombay’s streets, collecting money for letting people benefit from his holiness. Cows are ubiquitous and even greet you at the window when you are sitting in the train. And we know that at touristy places they sell lots of pretty useless things, but Mumbai’s “Big Balloons” have made it to the top of that ranking.
Also people can be strange: Indians almost never look at each other when talking. You see middle class people sleeping in the dirt of a railway station. Indians are the most reckless persons when trying to enter or leave a train as first – usually this procedure is indistinguishable from a rugby scrum. And I had the awkward “pleasure” to stand next to a masturbating man at a public toilet. So although some of the greatest achievements of mankind can be found in India, several cultural basics are lacking.

Despite all these contradictions and peculiarities, there are also some aspects in India where we can at least have an idea where they come from.

  • India definitely is amazingly colorful: In movies and temples, markets and cloth shops, hotel rooms, landscape and food, everywhere you see an abundance of colors. And even the sky seems to be a bit bluer in India.
  • India is irritatingly honest, they do not try to hide anything. That’s why you see all the misery and those street kids, but this is also the reason for their curiosity. They are interested in everything and will ask you whatever comes to their mind, without having taboos.
  • When thinking of Europe, you see that in India only few people will take the initiative. There is no web of clubs or associations and you do not see more than a few Indians starting something together, like meeting for football (or at least cricket), travelling or doing some kind of social commitment.
  • Most striking, it is really hard to get into a normal human contact with them, a bit like in Nepal. India forces you to be rude, because that is the only way to get rid of most vendors and touts, a friendly “No, thank you” is not accepted. When people are truly interested in you, they often just stare. If you get into a polite conversation with someone who has nothing to sell to you, sometimes they will see it as a sign that you are ready to give them money – and are really disappointed if you refuse. This does not just apply to children or teens, but sometimes also to ordinary people you meet at normal restaurants.
  • But in India there is a well educated middle class, with which it is comparatively easy to get into contact with. Something comparable was missing in Nepal. These are the people we spent the best hours with and who made our picture of India a positive one.

So far, this may be quite irritating, and that’s not far from reality. Nevertheless, it is our impression that there are two main causes which can help explaining a part of this diversity. First, it seems there is no synthesis of old values and modern ways of thinking. In China, they brought together the old traditions of harmony, obedience and collectivism with what there was the major force of modernization, namely communism (indeed after bloody fights). For comparison, in India nothing like this is in sight. Equality between the castes is recognized as a goal by consent of the people in democratic elections (pretty modern value), but quotas are needed in order to enforce it. Love is one of the most important ideals but arranged marriages are still the norm (90% within the caste). This leads to harsh conflicts as can be seen from personal stories as well from every Bollywood movie. For those who opened themselves to the western way of life it is hard to keep an unburdened contact with traditionally oriented people, including their family. And everyone has the equal right to vote, but egalitarianism does not appear to be an impacting ideal.

Second, the way how Indian behave towards each other highly depends on the persons involved. There seems to be no certain way of how you treat people in general, but how you treat this or that group. Caring for your old parents does not mean you have to be careful towards seniors in the bus. Being polite to your colleagues does not imply treating customers the same way (admittedly in Europe it might be the other way round). Indians can help you so much when you get into contact with them and they like you, but in most cases there appears to stand an invisible wall between locals and tourists, and more often than not between locals and locals. In India we realized what a long lasting effect the idea of principle unity of mankind had in our society. If we had to guess, we would suggest that this may be the reason why so many Indians are in a way passively aggressive and ready to start fighting for minor purposes.

Still, the “wall” between tourists and locals is not present everywhere. Contact was a lot easier with people of western education, especially when they had gone abroad themselves (the same holds for Nepal). Also in the rural areas, where we were guests and not foreigners, we were warmly welcomed. More surprisingly, it were the rather touristy places where we felt most comfortable. Admittedly, the touts and vendors were almost unbearable here. But the other people did not distinguish that strictly between different groups of people and they knew better how to get along with us in a normal human way. And also in Mumbai, where they are used to meet foreigners, we mainly made great experiences with locals. For example, when we went to a barber’s shop on our last evening, he directly offered us the normal price (and an option to have an even cheaper shave-cream), and when we wanted to give him a small tip, he was very surprised and almost refused. In contrast, in Hospet, a small town in the middle of nowhere, they thought to be so clever to demand 15 times the normal price, and were angry when we showed we were informed. Therefore, getting along with us is actually not too difficult: We do not bite, you can talk with us instead of just staring and, by and large, a smile is never a wrong gesture.

So although in public they are often in an asshole-mode, we are convinced that – sometimes carefully hidden – most Indians have a golden heart. It would be nice if they showed it more often.

India’s Magical North: Rushing through Rajastan

We should be thankful to the Iranians. Actually we had not planned to go to Northern India, but since we had changed our flights anyway, we decided to seize the time and go on a short week-end trip to Rajastan. On the way we got the message that the Iranian visa would not work at all, so we could prolong our trip and include the famous Taj Mahal. And in the short time periods in which we did not sit in a train or enjoyed the sites, we organized our journey to Ethiopia.

Choosing Rajastan was more or less coincidence: in the Bollywood film we had seen, there were beautiful takes of an old town with a lovely palace at a lake. We googled it and found out it was set in Udaipur, only one night away from Mumbai. Spontaneously we booked the bus ticket and went there. Continue reading

Is This Crazy Bombay?

When we were at Hampi, we received the good news that we could “pick up” our Iran visa in Mumbai. We took the next night bus to go there and directly hurried to the Consulate of the Islamic Republic. However, the expression “pick up” was a bit too optimistic by the travel agency we had relied on. It involved a whole application process, an interview and some waiting time to see what happened after the presidential election on Friday, 14th June. There were two good things about it: first, they were the friendliest officers we met so far and second, we quickly adapted to the morning procedure of driving to the consulate to be invited for a tea. But there was also a bad thing about it: they were not able to issue the visa before our planned flight to Iran, which was scheduled two days after the election. So we were stuck here and we still do, waiting for the Iranian officials to give us even more anecdotes about how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs works – or better say not works. Up to now we surely have enough material for a complete blog post on the Iranian visa.

At least it is Mumbai where we are forced to stay longer, having our base camp at Colaba’s “India Guest House“. We had heard so many bad judgements about the city, from “crazy” to “horrible”. But in fact, Mumbai has many advantages. Of course, it is a big town and it is Indian. Yet, it has a charming down-town with lots of majestic colonial architecture, green alleys and a nice sea promenade. It was the first time we discovered urban atmosphere in India. People love sitting at the coast, seize the Sunday to play cricket on the streets and in general are more open and helpful, so making contact is much easier. We spent some afternoons just walking around, declining dozens of offers to purchase marijuana, buying some pre-owned and very cheap books from the street vendors or eating in our favorite restaurant. And after having found the magic potion “Vodka Elotrans”, we never got sick again. Surprisingly, Mumbai offers a national park of more than 100 square kilometers directly at the edge of the city, only one hour away from the center. It is a great place to take a day off and get away from the urban life. The same holds for the “Elephanta Island”, which you can reach via a nice one hour lasting ferry ride and offers some old and quite impressive caves. Continue reading

Feels Like Europe

The year is 1946 AD. India is entirely occupied by the British. Well, not entirely. One small state of indomitable Goans still holds out against the invaders.

Okay, it is not that they are independent, in fact the state of Goa is ruled by the Portuguese. But you cannot really imagine that the Indians obey the PORTUGUESE, so people here must be rather free. Without the magic potion.

Things have changed since the Indian invasion in 1961 and times have become rough. Nowadays, poor Goa is periodically overrun by the Allied European Tourists. “D Day” is around Christmas, usually the invaders debark at the beaches, but normally the attack is hold to a standstill several hundred meters land-inside and the offenders hold the position during a few months, unable to move further. Under normal circumstances they leave at the beginning of the rain season when the climatic conditions start to favor the defenders. Continue reading

Thoughts from the Beach: Religion in India

In India, religion is all around. It influences the people’s every day life and is a main determinant of the country’s culture. Fortunately, here at the beach, there is no temple in sight, so we have some rest and can reflect about our previous experiences …. just that you know that we do not relax on the beach!

Hinduism is fundamentally different from the religions we have in Europe (Steve is Christian whereas I am agnostic). As previously noted, Hinduism is much more concrete. It speaks to the senses: The rituals comprise meditative music, bells ringing, worshipping images, colourful statues and the use of perfumed essences. Moreover, it gives answers and offers help for much more topics than Christianity. If you want to get rich, if you search for a pretty girlfriend, if you are afraid of diseases or car crashes or if you need a quiet hour to calm down, then the Bible has very few specific recommendations to offer. In India they have. There is a prayer, a priest or a temple for all of these problems, such that the devotees almost never have the feeling of being let alone. Admittedly, the fact that you have to pay for most of these services gives a strong incentive to “develop” a metaphysical solution for any problem. Continue reading