I have long been obsessed with this beautiful country and her people, food and culture. If I had had more time, I would have loved to travel from North to South and back, but as it was, I made the most of my short trip and did as much to soak up all of Mumbai and Kerala as I could. I plan on going back many, many times during the rest of my life. Here are 10 things that I want to tell people about India.
|Gateway to India, Mumbai|
|Beautiful kids in Bandra|
You might find this hard to believe, because in Western society this is not the norm, but the people truly care. I first discovered this caring nature through spending time with my absolutely wonderful tour guide, Lakshmi. Lakshmi took me under her wing and cared about me like a mother cares for her child. It was truly very important to her that I understood the culture and that I had a good time in India.
|Evening street food scouting in Mumbai|
I stayed in a relatively peaceful neighbourhood about 40 minutes outside of the city center, called Bandra. Even here, the energy and the air is always electrifying. And I don’t mean that in a New York kind of way. Like, the pace of life is peaceful and there’s really not much of a rush, but the mood and the colours and the spices – the city has a lust for life.
3. Yes, you do see a lot of poverty
Before I went to India, people had basically put a fear in me that the place would be so overrun with poverty that I would constantly be walking around clutching my little heart, tears streaming down my face. And yes, you see a lot of poverty in India. But in Mumbai and Kerala at least, I found that as a South African, it was nothing that I don’t experience at home.
4. Slum tours are not what you think they are
|My sweet Reality Tours tour guides. They live in Dharavi and on this day took me to their favourite local canteen for a dosa. They wouldn’t let me pay.|
Personally, I’ve never been one to advocate township tours in my own country. I admit this was largely due to the fact that I was uneducated. In my far removed state, I imagined a bus load of white people in safari gear snapping pictures of kids in townships with their long-lensed Canon 5D’s. But my experience in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums, could not have been more different.
5. Eat the street food!
|My favourite street food of all time, chaat at Chowpatty Beach|
Westerners love talking about how getting sick is inevitable in India. Terrible tales of an uncle that straight-up died from a viral infection he got from just one single block of ice in his bottled water, are told with relish. People practically fall over themselves as they regale you with stories of stomach bugs and Dheli Belly, passed down from generations of previous travelers.
Don’t let this keep you from experiencing the mouthwateringly delicious array of street food treats that await you. As soon as I landed, I decided it was now or never and if I was really going to die from an ice block, then so be it. Even though I had been warned against eating meat, my first meal consisted of steak, done on the fire and a drink with ice. Obviously, I ended up surviving.
The best thing I ate while in Mumbai was a street snack served at Chowpatty Beach called chaat, made of chickpea flakes that looked like corn flakes, finely chopped tomato, red onion, coriander, red chili and green mango, tossed in loads of salt and lemon juice and served in a small newspaper cone. They tasted kind of like what Doritos might taste like if they were made by hand by an Indian man but 1000 times better and they cost the equivalent of ZAR1.
6. The surf is great
|Surf crew at Soul & Surf, Kerala|
In Kerala, the surf is still pretty much a secret. A small group of mostly Brighton natives and a few Indians have put together a surf school at the place I stayed in North Cliff Varkala, Soul & Surf. The waves are pretty consistent and we ended up surfing the small-waved main beach every day. The experienced surfers surf a point break not too far away. The water is clean and warm; just perfect for anyone new to surfing. We had absolute beginners surfing with us who were popping up and riding waves within a week.
7. Look, it’s hot
I was there in winter and I never once slept underneath a cover. By the last week of my three week stay I had become used to the heat, but for the first few days I couldn’t comprehend how people could live and do actual work in that heat. Heat doesn’t really bother me, so I was pretty happy, if sweaty. But yes, it is very hot. Not in the same way that the African sun bakes your skin off your nose, but in the way that sweat runs down between your boobs even when you’re just sitting still.
8. If you’re into yoga, visit India
I only started practicing yoga about a year ago, but I took to it instantly. If yoga appeals to you, a pilgrimage to India will do wonders for your connection to, and understanding of, the practice. The wonderful thing about India, and Kerala in particular, is that yoga is just a way of life. You’ll see rickshaw drivers lined up on the cliff tops at sunset, saluting the sun in their shirts and slacks as casually as if they were having a smoke and a chat. There are hundreds of studios and schools in Kerala, offering different practices. I attended daily classes at Soul & Surf where I was staying, on a rooftop overlooking the sunset. It was almost as hot as my hot yoga studio here at home.
9. Solo female travel is safe and easy in India
|Shopping a Mumbai Street Market|
Along with the warning not to consume any ice, came many warnings about being a female travelling solo. Once again, I think I have my South Africanism to thank for the whole experience being pain-free. Of course, I did only visit Mumbai and Kerala – cities like Delhi and the more remote parts of the country might be a different story. If you’re planning on travelling alone, just make sure that you act sensibly.
Book a tour-guide for a couple of days while you get acquainted with the city and the customs. The tour companies will more often than not book you a female guide. A friend who lives in Mumbai explained the much-publicized culture of “cat calling” very succinctly on my first day in the city:
|The boats at the Gateway to India|
In Indian culture, women are covered up at all times in public and generally dress very modestly. There isn’t a culture of public skin-bearing. Shoulders and knees are covered and even in “risqué” Bollywood movies, at the end of a romantic scene actors don’t even kiss on camera! Now try to imagine Indian men, most likely uneducated on our culture outside of what they see in films, watching Hollywood sex scenes. This is the image that we portray to them of Western women – prone to getting naked and up for a casual romp. Introduced to Western women on the bus, the train, the beach… They have hardly seen two naked shoulders at once and here we are sauntering around in micro-swimwear.
I found that in Kerala the men did stare. But from my personal experience, this is more in a nature of fascination than perversion. The men stare at your with mouths agape, fascinated by your white skin and casual nudity. I never felt leered at. Honestly, I felt more like a circus side show. I am not denying the culture of violence against women in India, or anywhere else in the world – again, I can only comment on my own experience. All I can advise is that you act with the same caution with which you would act anywhere in the world. Just stand firm and don’t stand for anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.
My experience was that travelling solo in India was a very easy and pleasant experience. It allowed me to explore my own interests at my leisure. Such a dream come true!
10. India truly is a country of diversity and acceptance
|The Basilica of Mount Mary, Bandra|
One thing that really struck me about India was an experience I had when I went on a religious tour of Bandra, Mumbai. Originally a Portuguese settlement, Bandra is home to mosques, Catholic and Anglican churches, Hindu and Paarsi temples…and they all operate harmoniously, often cross-pollinating.
The tours I went on in Mumbai were booked for me by Flight Site, through goIndia. Find and book flights, accommodation, experiences and more here. My tour-guide, Lakshmi, was an angel from heaven and I highly, highly recommend booking with her. She was caring, knowledgeable and she went to great effort to show me things that she knew I would be interested in, as she got to know me. She also introduced me to various locals from all walks of life, which made my experience all the more special.
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UPDATE: AUGUST 2014
I’m planning a month-long trip back to India in November 2014. I’m trying to crowd-fund the trip and if everyone who reads this post contributes just $1, I’ll be able to make that dream come true! If you enjoyed this post, please contribute here: A Month In Incredible India