Honest India

(This post was originally published on life-offtrack.com on October 19, 2011.)

India can be quite assaulting at times. I’ve heard people call it overwhelming. Lonely Planet calls it “bamboozling.” But let’s be honest. It’s assaulting.

First of all, there are the horns. Every single moving vehicle on the road from bicycles to auto rickshaws to cars to trucks have ear-piercing horns, which drivers use about as often as they use the break and gas pedals.

But just when you thought the horns were assaulting, you meet the touts. As a foreigner in India, you are the primary target for all kinds of touts: vendors, drivers, would-be tour guides—all wanting your money (and if they’re good at it, to rip you off) at every given opportunity no matter what time of day or day of the week. You are constantly being bombarded by “where you from?” and “where you going?” not because they care. It’s clear they believe by engaging you, you’re more likely to follow them into a store, get into their auto, or give them a tip for their information.

The scams are similar to ones that we’ve encountered in other countries including the simplest of them all: jacking up the price on everything from water to rides. But in India it feels institutionalized. And in some ways it is. When visiting the sights in India, as a foreigner you are often charged 25 times more for admission than Indian nationals. I understand they do this so their own citizens can afford to see the landmarks of their cultural heritage, which is very important. But it also sends a message to touts that it’s ok to charge foreigners more.

These kinds of experiences make you so defensive that even when people are just being nice, chatting you up because they’re curious or really do want to practice their English, you’re waiting for the moment they break out the full sales pitch or demand money.

And you get stared at a lot no matter what you’re wearing. I always thought we blended in but that illusion has been fully shattered. By the end of our time in India, I stopped noticing the stares for the most part. But every once and awhile it would still make me feel super self-conscious. My two favorite kinds of stares: 1) the slow stare and 2) the backwards bike stare.

The best example of the slow stare happened one day Nellu and I were walking home from the store. Eight shirtless, grown men stood perfectly still only slowly moving their heads with dumbfounded expressions on their faces as we walked by. I couldn’t help but laugh. I wanted to shout, “We really can’t be that interesting!”

The backwards bike stare is just what it sounds like. People on bikes (motor and manual) stare back at you even as their bikes continue to move forward up the road. Sounds safe, right?

I don’t want to make India sound all bad. It’s certainly not. It’s just a lot more upfront, even honest, about it’s not-so-niceties than a lot of other places we’ve been. Its bad and its ugly aren’t hidden. They’re all out there, right in front of your face and sometimes in your face. Even the scams are relatively transparent and easy to spot once you’ve got your wits about you.

The good news is that the good is right out there too. We’ve certainly seen the good in a lot of people that we’ve met and the hospitality we’ve been given in so many places around the country. And sharing our experiences with our new friends only made things better. It turns out that you don’t have to be a foreigner to get harassed every five seconds at Connaught Place in Delhi. I was feeling bad by having such strong negative reactions to the constant bombardment, but locals often feel the same way. Knowing that helped me take the harassment in stride.

The food in India is diverse and delicious. The country is chock full of color and beauty at almost every turn. And the Taj Mahal really is amazing.

Oh and I almost forgot my favorite thing about India—the Indian nod. It is this strange head swagger response you get to questions that looks more like maybe than yes, but it means yes. Our friend Hamilton described it as the head gesture equivalent to “it’s all good.” I asked our host Nyamat, a Delhi native, to demonstrate:

The challenge for us on this trip is to stop reacting so hostilely to the bad. As full-time travelers, we already feel exposed, which makes any negative situation grate on us further. But we can’t let the bad dominate so much that we miss the good. In the weeks that we spent in India, I think we largely came to peace with all of our experiences there and even look forward to going back.


You may remember from our earlier post that we attended a fundraiser for Nyamat’s work at the Real Medicine Foundation. At the party, we chatted up some of Nyamat’s American co-workers and other expats. We wanted to know if they had similar impressions of India. They did but added some insight. “India will give you both its best and its worst,” they told us. I don’t think we could have found a more honest assessment.

~ Molly