India means many things to many people.
Leading up to our entry into the world's second most populous nation, we felt a sense of excitement and anxiety. While in Nepal we met many travelers who had completed their journey through the subcontinent. We had so many questions for them. We listened intently and took notes.
How did one country create so much curiousity and apprehension?
We had been living out of a backpack for seven straight months, visiting South America, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and the Far East, but we knew that India was to be a very different encounter. The descriptions were always the same - India will push you and challenge you, but it will be very rewarding in the end. What did that mean exactly?
We spent over three weeks in India, traveling through the north from Gorakhpur to Mumbai. India did push us and it did challenge us, and it was definitely a rewarding experience in the end.
When we reflect on our journey through Northern India we both have different opinions and moments that stand out. India did not disappoint and the descriptions were accurate and true. We loved our time in Jodhpur, Udiapur, Agra and Varanasi. We had moments in Mumbai and would rather forget Jaipur.
It is a tough place to travel, but not in a way that we fully understood until we experienced it firsthand. That's just it… you have to experience India to understand what all the hype is about.
It sounds like a cliché, but India truly is what you make it.
When we crossed the border into India we had culture shock, a feeling neither of us had felt since our arrival in Ecuador seven months earlier. It is absolutely mind-boggling how many people there are! India has roughly 17% of the world's population… think about that for a moment. The majority of Canada can fit into Mumbai alone! And it doesn't seem to be slowing down any time soon.
Like Cambodia, the majority of India is very young. We were told that over 50% of the population is under the age of 25. It's the opposite of the baby boomer phenomenon in North America. The country has a promising future but it must first get control over its overpopulation crisis and countless social problems.
The country has over 1.1 billion people but over 800 million are considered to be living in poverty, with the majority living on less than $2 per day. It's hard to classify it as an emerging economy with such overwhelming hardship and deprivation.
Although there is a lot of international buzz about India's rapidly growing economy, there is an enormous amount of work that needs to be done internally. There is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the neglected. At times it felt like human life had little value, if any at all.
How could there be so many people living in such feeble conditions? Too many malnourished people sleep on the streets in some of the most unhygienic and polluted conditions we've ever seen. How can a government fail its people so miserably? How does it fix such a colossal social and environmental crisis?
India is filled with contradictions and inconsistencies.
It is a country that has so much heart and promise, yet it can't seem to shake its bad habits. It is a place where men are publically affectionate with other men, but not with women (including their wives). It's a place where astrology and horoscopes predict one's life and death. Where a caste system dictates ones place in society, and where religion is more important than work.
The people of India are very curious, gentle and friendly. Many just wanted to talk to us to hear how we speak English. It's often said that when traveling to a country it is the people that make or break it. We've found this to be true in virtually every foreign country we've visited on this remarkable voyage.
India was no exception… the people were wonderful… at times. Many were also extremely annoying and creepy. We're just not used to having so many random people stare at us uncontrollably! It's almost as if they couldn't help themselves?
We were fortunate to have visited many ancient forts, magnificent temples and glorious palaces.
India has a celebrated history with thousands of years of epic battles, invasions, civilizations and religions. It is unusual for a country with such an illustrious past to be so young… it only recently gained independence in 1947 and is evidently still trying to work out the kinks. We found it strange that many of the forts were over 600 years old but India is only 62 years old.
Similar to many of the Asian nations we've visited, India's national psyche is religion and family first. It was fascinating observing a country so immersed in its religion. It is woven into every part of their lives. You could sense the peacefulness and simplicity of life, a big difference from life back in Canada.
We visited many temples and tried very hard to learn about Hinduism, but there are just too many gods to remember. That said, we identify with the Hindu and Buddhist concept of karma and we try to live our lives based on attracting good karma.
During our brief time in India we enjoyed reading the local newspapers… it's the best way to learn about a country. We knew that India's relations with Pakistan were unstable but were ignorantly surprised to learn that relations are not good with its other neighbours, namely China and Nepal. The headlines focused on Pakistan's role in the Mumbai terror attacks on 26/11, China's constant border trespassing and disputes over land, Nepal's frustrations with Indian Hindu priests filling its esteemed positions, and insurgency battles in the northern Kashmir region. It's hard for us to understand how there can still be border disputes in the 21st century? We got the sense that things could escalate at any moment.
We were told that transportation would be difficult, that the trains and buses never left on time. However we had a much different experience. Every train and bus left on time and arrived on time. They were even quite comfortable, clean and organized… although the stations were dirty, annoying and jam-packed with unhappy people.
We'll never forget the time when we were traveling by bus from Jaipur to Jodhpur. It was a moment that in many ways summarized India.
We were at a rest stop and many passengers, including Cameron, got off the bus to purchase various snack items.Nicole stayed on the bus with her window opened. The woman sitting directly in front of Nicole received a bag of snacks that were purchased by her son.
Beside the 'convenience store', about ten meters away from the bus, was a large pile of rubbish that was obviously the 'garbage bin'.
The woman peeled off her garbage and threw it out the bus window onto the ground below. We couldn't believe it! She saw nothing wrong with this?!
It continued. She kept tossing here garbage on the ground beside the bus.
We wanted to say something but bit our tongues, something we've had to do on numerous occasions throughout Asia. She appeared to be of middle class and had an attitude that said, "It's not my problem. Where else should I put it? Surely you don't expect me to walk over there? It's far too polluted".
This is the paradox of India.
It has an identity crisis. Is it a global powerhouse in the making or an impoverished third world country that can't control its temptations?
The ironic thing is that almost every Indian man wears a collared shirt and is cleanly groomed. Even the poorest rubbish collector or street sweeper has a pressed, collared shirt on. Like Vietnam, makeshift barber shops are set up on the side of busy streets with nothing more than a mirror and a stool. Appearance is important… regardless of caste, wealth or status.
Overall, our travels through India were good with few major problems. We had no problem communicating with English. Hotels were easy to find with many cheap options to choose from. The food was amazing, though we constantly got sick from it. The street touting was irritating but we had lots of practice in Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia.
So what made India challenging?
We contemplated this question a few weeks after our departure from Bombay. It's not an easy answer. It's a combination of congested traffic with relentless honking, ridiculous amounts of pollution and garbage, incessant haggling and touting, uncomfortable and weird staring, constant food illness and upset stomachs, thick humidity, heaps of cow dung on city streets, countless men urinating wherever they please and an unshakable stink that makes even the toughest traveler weary.
At times it felt like everyone was a hustler treating us like nothing more than a dollar bill. Genuine conversations were hard to come by and foreigners were rarely seen except at major attractions.
India is a different kind of place that requires a high level of patience, acceptance and flexibility. It is a magical land with extraordinary people, rich history and incomparable culture. It is unlike any other place on the planet. Without a doubt, you cannot consider yourself an accomplished world traveler until you've visited India.
Although we don't have plans to return, we agree that everyone must visit India at some point in their life. It will not always be easy… but that's what makes it so rewarding!