We have been traveling for a year and a half now through 21 different countries. Each country has its own language, culture, food, and natural landscapes. We love learning about the differences and fall back on the similarities to ground ourselves. We have gotten good at finding our way around, knowing what to expect, and settling in to a new culture. It isn’t working in India, either north or south India. India is the first place that is different to us in an uncomfortable way. Everything here is hard.
Visa: India’s visa questions include who your parents are, where they were born, and what their occupation is. Almost as if they don’t want you there to begin with. Americans can get a thirty day visa. We were arriving on Jan. 7 and leaving on Feb. 6, which should be thirty days. Except that isn’t the way they count it. We had to change our flight to Feb. 5. No exceptions and severe fines if you leave late.
Security: Showing a passport is standard at most hotels throughout the world. They have to know who you are after all. India requires all of our passports at each hotel. They also scan our luggage and backpacks everywhere. Granted, there are always separate lines for men and women, but I have been patted down and wanded 7 times in the past two weeks.
Money: In November, India decided to shake up its monetary situation. In a purely cash economy, people weren’t reporting their income so the government eliminated 500 and 1000 rupee notes, forcing everyone to turn them in to banks to get valid ones. Since they hadn’t notified the banks ahead, there was not enough cash to go around so they limited withdrawals to 2000 rupees each day (and now have raised it to 4500 rupees each day). That assumes you can make a withdrawal. When the ATM runs out of money, you are out of luck. One afternoon, we tried eight machines before we found one that was stocked. And if the machine only gives 2000 rupee notes, good luck getting anyone to take it. Daily visits to the ATM are part of life here, but for us, the challenge was getting ahead of our cash needs without getting stuck with rupees at the end. The two bedroom hotel for 12 days cost 30,000 rupees ($441) which they wanted up front in cash. However, a meal is easily only 400 rupees ($6) for all of us. Money converters around the world have stopped exchanging rupees.
Cell Service: We travel with unlocked cell phones and buy local prepaid sim cards when we arrive in each country. In most countries we pay around $4 for a month of cell service and data. India is similar, except, when you first purchase your sim card, there is a 1 day wait period while the government checks you out. This ended up being a 2 day wait followed by another five days of not having service that worked correctly and multiple calls and visits to Vodafone. A week without google maps in a new country is harsh.
Transportation: Our favorite way to get around in many countries has failed us here in India. Uber is pushing hard to develop a presence here with signs in most transportation hubs but they aren’t vetting their drivers so we have had some pretty bad experiences. Then there are the trains. India has the most extensive train system in the world, but, as a foreigner, to buy tickets requires government approval. I started trying to get approval nearly a month before we arrived. I filled out the form and sent in the required email. And then followed up. And then placed a phone call. Followed by 3 more emails. I still don’t have approval. This means that we won’t be taking a train here. Hopefully the buses are comfortable.
Language: So if we don’t use uber, surely one can just get a taxi. Well, yes, except language is an issue. India is an amalgamation of 29 states and 7 territories, all with their own original language. Their historical occupations left them with English as the only common language so everyone speaks English with a very heavy accent from their native tongue. We try to speak slowly to them but the favor isn’t usually returned and I find myself able to understand one out of every three words in most places. Even their body language is different with our standard nod to mean yes replaced by a figure eight wobble of the head. Google translate doesn’t handle accents.
Power/internet: We tend to be heavy internet users and book hotels based on how strong the internet it. In Kerala, it was pretty good as long as we went down to the second floor. Wifi didn’t really reach our rooms on the third floor. In Kochi they shut if off at night. Here in Jaipur, the internet is decent as long as we have power. Even our first couple nights here in a Hilton lost power intermittently.
Filth: There seems to be no garbage removal system in India. The custom is to just throw your trash wherever you are. It is in the streets, sidewalks, and “greenspaces.” Piles of trash and rotten food build up everywhere. And then there is the public urination. For men, the custom is to pull to the side of the road, get out of your car, and pee on a wall. In some places, the urine is so strong that it burns your eyes as you walk past it. They do have “public conveniences” which seem to be open all the time. And then there are the open trench urinals which are basically holes in the ground meant to pee into (or you occasionally see someone sitting to poop). You can smell these several blocks away. For a country that places such a high emphasis on women’s modesty, it is amazing how comfortable men are with doing their business in public.
Animals: Stray cats and dogs are common in a lot of places around the world, but India raises it to a new level. Goats, pigs, cows, monkeys, and chickens wander through the city streets grazing on whatever they can find. Remember those piles of trash? We are told that they go home on their own at night. Elephants and camels aren’t unusual sights either but they, at least, usually have handlers with them.
Shopping: Grocery stores have their own character throughout the world but everywhere has them. Except India. Purchasing food means buying from the guy with the street cart, visiting several market, or answering the shout of someone walking down the street with a bag full of onions. Very few western packaged choices (though we did finally find a small store aimed at expats). Speaking of western choices, we don’t frequent American fast food chains as we travel, preferring to eat locally, but India is the first place that we just aren’t seeing them. I mean never. I had hoped to visit a McDonalds to see how they handle the vegetarian preferences of the locals but haven’t found one yet.
This is just a short list of all the ways India stands out to us, and why we just can’t seem to get comfortable. We work hard as we travel to blend in. We love eating street food and following the locals to enjoy the customs that they enjoy. We try to respect the differences and not judge a country based on our own upbringing, but India is hard. For the next week, we will continue to eat spicy food with our hands, ignore the people that stare at our pale skin or watch us eat, and continue to hope that Indians will work harder to take care of their world but I don’t think any of us will be sad to leave India.