Truths and myths about India

As usual, they ask me excitedly, how it was and did I have a good time, and I try and describe my trip without bursting into a non-stop ramble about every single thing I saw and experience and avoid clichés like “eye-opening” or “life-changing”. And as usual, they smile and say they wish they could go travelling too and that it sounded like an amazing experience. One thing is different, though, because now there are more questions than there has ever been before, and also the slightly puzzled looks. Why did you want to go to India? Was it a dangerous place? I would never travel there myself. I don’t wonder much, nor do I blame them – at the time I booked my flights last January I knew nothing about India either. When I told my mum where I was headed, she acted like I had just told her I was being shot out of a cannon into a war zone.

omg the food in this war zone is delicious in Varanasi
There are a lot of misconceptions and prejudices surrounding a lot of countries alike India. This summer Humans of New York has been posting from Pakistan and Iran, and in the comment sections conversation has been circling around how different people’s perceptions have been from the reality. Of course brutality and human rights violations that have been widely covered in media are part of that reality too, but those things are only a hue in an iridescent mixture that those countries are. As I was reading the inspiring stories, I had to mirror them to my experiences in India because I felt it gets treated the same way as a lot of the more conservative, third world countries as a dark spot on the map. People have their doubts about it, but as they have never had a chance to visit the country, their ideas are based on their interpretations of caricatures in TV series and media coverage.
So I decided to put together some myths about India and look at them, maybe rebuke them, maybe not. All of this is based on mere five weeks of travelling in only one small part of the country, so this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive or even an accurate description of the whole of India in 2015. If your experience is different somehow, I would love to hear about it in the comments! I feel like with everything I learnt on the trip there is still so little that I know about India as it is today, so if you can add something, I’d be very interested to hear.

Camels laughing at your prejudices in Jaisalmer
Rishikesh
Myth: India is dangerous for a female traveller.
Truth: Western girls are exotic in that corner of the world. Even among Indians lighter skin tones are favoured, and there’s even a prevailing racist attitude towards those with darker skin. In commercials and billboards on the roads most models are as white as a Finnish girl, and some even shamelessly sported actual westerners. So, as a rather pale redhead I did get a lot of looks and not all of them were just innocently curious. Sometimes I even got comments from men as I was passing by.

But then again, doesn’t that happen in Western countries as well? I never felt unsafe even when I was walking around the cities on my own. After all, it was just looks – no one tried to touch me. Even the comments I overheard were, even if sometimes delivered in a flirty tone, as innocent as ‘nice hair’ or ‘beautiful’. Of course it helps to be smart. I avoided walking alone in the dark, I didn’t strike up conversations with guys unless it was shopkeepers, rickshaw drivers or someone similar, and even then I sort of kept my guard up, and I tried to wander around in places with lots of people, tourists, or women and children around.

wow I’m so threatened in Varanasi

Women’s safety is an issue widely discussed in India these days. After the rape case in 2012 (which I was reading about in Moscow before my flight to Delhi – probably #1 on list of things not to do before you go to a country is to read about it’s most horrific crimes) there was an outcry for attention to women’s issues, which might stem from the hugely male dominated culture. Nowadays protecting women from harassment is taken seriously, and in public transportation there are even specific women’s sections. It is hard to travel the country as a woman, though, because a lot of men don’t simply talk to you. I had heard of this practice but was still left gaping in dismay when your hostel receptionist blatantly ignored my question and started talking to Ben. At first I thought it was because their respect for women was so low women weren’t considered worthy to talk to, but an Indian guy we met in a Jaipur hostel had a different view on the matter. According to him, men are often afraid to talk to women in case this could be understood as harassment. Having this “power” had it’s perks; when Ben couldn’t shake persistent touts and taxi drivers off his back, one polite and firm ‘no thank you’ from me was often enough to lose them. However, it’s not worth not being talked to.


Agra
Myth: India is dangerous in general.
Truth: Well, I did not die. I think no matter which gender you are it always helps to be smart about your surroundings, in other words stay the heck out of situations that could turn unfortunate for you. People rob people. Crimes happen. News, huh? There are areas in even a place like London where locals tell you to never, ever go. There have been terrorist attacks and there are areas where you’re not recommended to travel (and unless your crazy job requires it or something you should listen to those recommendations), but there have also been terrorist attacks in the UK, Denmark, USA, and France, and in general no one says, ‘You’re going to France, huh? Happy time dying then.’ India can be intimidating just because it’s so different to at least my home country, but I wouldn’t label it as dangerous.

Jaipur
Myth: Indians are creepy and only see tourists as walking ATMs.
Truth: Yes, there are some people who see tourists as wads of cash and cold hard plastic, and even though the constant hollering from touts is annoying, you have to keep in mind that the people there are only trying to make a living. In some way exploiting tourists seems justified to them because if you can afford living in your wealthy Western home and travelling, you can afford giving money to the people in your destination. Even if at home you were scraping by on noodles and ketchup, they still consider you rich.
And it’s annoying. Of course it is. Sometimes in the biggest tourist centres it almost felt like we were not even humans but monkeys. An Indian guy would in plain sight put his camera on my face and snap a picture, then get angry if confronted. In shops some of the clerks seemed to be conspiring to figure out how to squeeze as much money out of me as possible.
What you have to remember though is that we’re talking about a population of more than a billion here. Most of the people we met were genuinely happy to help and talk about their country. After two days of exhausting encounters with all kinds of touts in Delhi we arrived in Rishikesh ready to distrust every single person. A guy selling mangoes who helped us find our hotel was surprised and saddened by our attitude. He told that he had heard similar stories from tourists and said he wished more Indians could see the benefit in making tourists feel like home, because it would eventually help the country itself. Some locals that we explained our ordeals to actually apologised on behalf of all India, even though I didn’t see the need in that. All in all I’d say India is the same as everywhere – there are both good and bad people, and people that are a little bit of both.

Look at these creepy little people in Jaisalmer
Agra
Myth: Everybody gets sick in India.
Truth: On the third day of the trip Ben got sick. We were taking a train from Delhi to Haridwar and later suspected the dubious patty things that they served on the train as the culprits for his condition. He was bad for one evening, then better, then the next evening worse than ever. I swear it was one of the scariest nights of my life when I stayed awake (and woke up several times before the morning) to make sure he was finally sleeping soundly. He drank 18 litres of water that night, had severe stomach aches and probably a high fever but was still shivering. However, antibiotics tackled this classic Delhi Belly problem and two days later we were hiking in the Himalayas. We met quite a few other travellers who had experienced the same, so yes, getting sick is very common.
But does it happen to everybody? I never experienced any of Delhi Belly, in fact, for the better part of the trip my stomach was functioning even better than it often does at home. (Yes, I just wrote that because it is painstakingly normal to discuss bodily functions at the dinner table in India. Only with other backpackers that can relate, though. Maybe chit chat about something nicer with actual locals.) I did lactic acid bacteria for half of the trip and after I ran out of them, I started getting mild stomach cramps, too, so I would definitely recommend getting similar kind of medicine to give your immune system a heads-up that something dodgy might be coming its way.
Oh, but I did get a cold in India, because why the hell not. This is one of those things that could only happen to me,

Accidentally turning into an album cover in Rishikesh


Myth: India is dirty and poor.
Truth: Unfortunately India is one of the countries with the biggest gap between the poor and the wealthy, and it shows. It’s impossible to steer the streets without coming in contact with the homeless, and the old scrawny women selling trinkets from their baskets, and skinny kids with huge eyes smiling and extending their arm towards you. And a billion people also produce a lot of trash. There is, in general, no sense of waste disposal. Trash is thrown on the nearest pile on the street, and some of the hotel rooms don’t even have dust bins. Some areas don’t have proper sewage systems, which results to smelly open sewers. It would be unfair to only pinpoint one culprit, but just to say, the British reign left them in a mess.
Westernising India is trying to tackle these issues as best as it can and as the progress continues, the country will slowly become cleaner and cleaner. However, until the caste system has been completely erased in people’s minds, there will be little done to the wealth gap.

Jaipur
Just your friendly neighbourhood goat watch in Jodhpur

Myth: Public transportation is a disgrace and trains are always late.
Truth: We had had our doubts about travelling within India before arriving, so the first time we stepped into a train we were nervously excited. You know those pictures that you sometimes see of train carriages loaded with humans? As a foreign tourist I doubt you would ever end up in one of those carriages. In general the carriages are simple but relatively well-kept – I’ve seen public trains in worse condition in Australia. As to trains always being late… I’d say it was about fifty-fifty for us.
In Delhi there’s also a metro system that is parallel to those in Western countries in quality. It is weird stepping down from the noisy, dusty streets into this modern underground train with spotless structures and AC. It’s like you forget for a second where you are until a rush of every freaking person on Earth jams into the same car and you find yourself unable to even move. Definitely take the metro outside of rush hours.
Buses tended to be a bit more sticky. Seat belts are pretty much unheard of, and some of the buses are clearly made thinking of the skinny Indian figure. Ben was pretty much a head taller and half broader than a normal Indian guy and just looked like someone had taken his kitten away when he first witnessed the tiny little bus that we had to spend twelve hours in.

All nice&cozy in sleeper class

And yes, there are a lot of accidents on the road. India’s road and rail systems are still developing, and with the vastness of their network they take a lot of work to maintain as monsoon rains and landslides take their toll on them. There’s also many kinds of different vehicles from cycle-rickshaws to brand new Mercedeses, not to mention dogs, cows, monkeys and people, on the roads, so everybody’s going at a different pace. However, India doesn’t even come close to the countries with highest fatality rates in road accidents. In the cities there is often so much traffic that driving fast is impossible which also helps to prevent crashes.

Jodhpur
Agra

Myth: It’s difficult to travel in India.
Truth: Even though millions of tourists travel to India every single year, the country’s tourist industry hasn’t yet reached it’s full potential. This is about to change, however, as this new young generation of travellers is starting to explore India. The concept of a hostel is still moderately unknown to Indians, but more and more are popping up in the biggest cities, and I’d say that within the next five or ten years the country’s tourist industry – as well as the whole country – will have experiences a drastic face lift.
As things are now, it feels that they are doing things in a more complicated way than would be necessary. Booking trains, for example; it seems you can’t book online with a foreign bank card, and booking the tickets at the stations is painful. Imagine long, unorderly lines of Indians who have no idea what a queue is, separate booking and inquiry offices and officials who don’t speak a word of English but who want you to fill in a form which then tells them which tickets to book… Yeah, that.

Rishikesh

On top of this maps are useless because rarely the smaller streets are marked on them, and if you try to ask for directions, there’s a good chance that the person doesn’t understand English or just points you to whichever way because they don’t want to admit they don’t know. Maybe things would be different during the high season, but during monsoon the few hostels were rather quiet and socialising was at times hard, especially without the social lubricant friend alcohol. (Drinking is a bit of a taboo and night life is near to nonexistent as bars close at 11 p.m. latest.)

Travelling India was harder than, say, travelling Australia or Germany. However, I got to where I needed, I met some great new people and somehow in the middle of all this mess managed to have a blast. Even when India threw me a challenge, I loved taking it. With a bit of determination and loads, LOADS of patience India is not impossible to travel – even if you’re going there without a tour operator.

Hemkund Sahib

Do you have any prejudices about India? Would you travel there or have you already been?


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