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10 Things About India

In November 2013 I spent 3 weeks in India, exploring Mumbai and Kerala. This wouldn’t have been possible thought without having filled out a india visa online application and making sure I had everything prepared. I knew that there would be a lot of preparation, but it was all worth it in the end.

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
1. The people are truly wonderful

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.

Daily, she took me sights that were not on my itinerary, according to my interests – most often, this had to do with food. Lakshmi took me to the cleanest, most delicious street food vendors and she almost never let me pay. The same can be said for two young tour guides I met in the slum, who took me to their favourite canteen for lunch and wouldn’t allow me to pay even though I was the tourist and they lived in a slum.
Another example is a wedding I attended. In India it is common to invite everyone to your wedding – friends of friends, etc. At the ceremony, the guests allowed me to greet and pay respect to the bride and groom first, because I was a foreigner and they wanted me to feel welcome. The bride and groom both shook my hand and thanked me sincerely for attending their wedding.
2. Mumbai is electric

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.

Of course, you are always shocked and your heart always aches for people who are less fortunate, but it’s the spirit of the people that keeps your own spirits up. I never want to allow the fear of poverty to keep me from connecting with people. The smiles and the heart of the Indian people combined with an African sensibility meant that I was never in a state of utter shock, but mostly in a state of awe at the way these people run this city of 1 billion so efficiently, effectively and beautifully. There are various ways of responsible donation, one of which is going on a slum tour.

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.

The tour is run by Reality Tours, a non-profit organization that facilitates several projects within the slum to uplift the community. Tours are taken on foot, guided by a charismatic local, who advises guests on customs and community respect. The tour visits the many different recycling facilities within the slum while the tour guide does a great job of explaining slum life. Much like the township communities in South Africa, the slums are not only inhabited by poor, unemployed, homeless people.
The slums were built by those coming to the city from rural areas to find work and the communities are run by local municipality. There are hospitals, schools, police stations and industries within the slum. I learnt so much about the way this fascinating country works, while the funds from the tour went to various programs that benefit the community. Guests are not allowed to take pictures and locals have given their consent for the tours to visit their community.
I highly recommend doing your research before going on a tour. Make sure that the community is not being exploited and that funds are being distributed responsibly. But this is one way to learn more about the country and her people than you could learn from just visiting the city.

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.

This just further whet my appetite for Indian street food and for the next three days I was devouring everything within my reach. I loved pani puri – a crispy shell filled with a mixture of flavored water, tamarind chutney, chili, masala, potato, onion and chickpeas and wada pav – a patty of deep fried mashed potato, served on a soft white roll with green chutney and a salted chili. I ate and ate everything in sight and I still dream about those street stall feasts.

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. Also, if you plan on doing the majority of your traveling by train, make sure that you are aware of the PNR status of your Indian railways booking to see whether or not your ticket has been cancelled ahead of your journey.

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.

When I went to visit the Basilica of Mount Mary, a beautiful jewel and icon of the city, built in the 1700’s, I was truly inspired to see Hindu women, lighting candles in Catholic faith. I met this beautiful Kholi woman who told me, “First we were just Hindus, but now we have every religion here in Bandra. But I don’t mind, because if you cut me, my blood is red, if I cut you, your blood is red. We are all the same.

I spent 4 days in Mumbai, where I stayed with a great British couple who I booked accommodation with through Airbnb. I also spent two weeks in Kerala, surfing and practicing yoga at Soul & Surf.

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.

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

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3 comments

  1. Awesome!!!

  2. Hi Natalie – love your posts on India! I’m planning to go in November and want to get hold of your tour guide Lakshmi – is she with Goindia? could you post her details? ta.

  3. This is such a great post. My main worry about visiting India is definitely the poverty. After reading this India doesn’t look that scary anymore.