By WARREN RESEN
India, as portrayed in slick travel magazines, does not exist. A trip to India is not a vacation. It is an experience and should not be viewed by the gentle traveler as a picture post card event. It is nothing like a trip to Europe. It’s too vast. Too ancient. Too complicated. India is sensory overload. The motivation for your visit is critical to what you get out of it.
This is one of the oldest cultures in the world. Trying to get an in-depth understanding of its ancient religions, culture and people in just a couple of weeks is almost impossible. It was an ancient culture when the Europeans descended. In modern times, India has been ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English.
The Taj Mahal is everything you have been told to expect. The Ganges is an experience you won’t soon forget and of course there are the endless ancient temples. But unless you have some inkling of what India is really like, be ready for culture shock.
Yes, there are five-star hotels and restaurants and world-class resorts. But is it really necessary to travel half way around the world for something you probably have at home? To get to the famous venues of India, the traveler must pass through cities jammed with unbelievable traffic, noise, smog, dirt, poverty, slums, street vendors, beggars, homeless people and more. Even if your stay is at an upscale property, leaving the hotel or resort for a stroll in the neighborhood can be uncomfortable because of the previously mentioned conditions though not necessarily dangerous.
Saris are the usual mode of dress for women. Even women ditch diggers wear them while working as do women harvesting wheat, by hand, in the fields. But today, preferences by young women are for the ubiquitous jeans with saris being reserved for social functions. Despite protestations to the contrary, the caste system still thrives.
India is vast. The official population count is about 2.5 billion people and growing. Our guide told us there are over 1,046 different languages in the country with 15 considered the official languages in different regions. English is the official language for the country and is taught in schools. However, once you leave the metropolitan areas for the countryside, an interpreter will probably be needed.
Other things to consider when traveling here, and something our group of 15 encountered, was heartburn. For days, Pepto Bismol was the mint of choice until we got used to the curry which is in almost everything one eats. Then there is the dreaded “Tourista.” In our group, more than half came down with the malady even though we drank only bottled water and were eating in five-star hotels when it hit.
Trying to describe the different regions of the country is impossible in this brief space. It is no wonder that the guide books on India are among the thickest travel volumes in book stores. But one thing we can all relate to is traffic. I have been to more than 50 countries world-wide and have never experienced anything like the traffic in India’s cities.
The traffic in Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Varanasi and other major cities is something no Westerner, nor anyone not born to the rhythm of Indian traffic, could or should attempt to navigate. It makes rush hour traffic on I-5 on the West Coast and I-95 on the East Coast and everything in between look like child’s play.
Honk, honk, honk, that’s the prevalent sound of Indian highways. Most commercial vehicles have artistically painted messages on the rear that say, “Please Honk, Use Horn or Horn Please.” No self respecting driver would even think of taking his or her vehicle out on the road without a loud working horn. It’s understandable when you are sharing the road with pedestrians, pushcarts, bicycles, motorbikes (carrying up to five family members), bicycle rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, scooters, cars, busses jammed with humanity (sometimes riding on top) and trucks.
The big semis are prohibited from entering the cities until after 11 p.m. They line the roads outside the cities by the thousands awaiting the witching hour.
Add to the mix on the roads outside of Delhi, ox carts, camel drawn wagons, donkeys, cows, goats, pigs, dogs, the occasional elephant, and finally monkeys. Herds of cattle and sheep being moved to grazing lands also use the roadways.
On city streets or highways, the right of way belongs to whomever gets there first. No quarter is given. Drivers will more or less jokingly tell you that keeping your distance means two inches for vehicles and one inch for pedestrians. Leave any daylight between your vehicle and whatever is in front of you and someone will squeeze in.
Vehicles regularly straddle two lanes. Passing, either right or left, is an art. It matters not, and that’s where the incessant horn blowing comes in. Another little joke drivers tell foreigners is: “one has to know the thickness of paint on their vehicle when passing another vehicle.”
If this account of traffic and driving conditions in India’s cities leaves you a little breathless, it is no more so than being a passenger in the front seat of a tour bus and watching in disbelief the actions of drivers.
What keeps everything moving, when it does move, is that everyone knows the rules of the road. If your lane is blocked, just switch over to the opposing lane of traffic. Oncoming traffic will make way for you. The most dangerous thing you can do is stop, disrupting the flow and rhythm. It can get you injured or killed.
Millions of Indians travel the roads on bicycles waiting for the day when they too can afford a scooter or car. With the growing economy of the country, it is bound to happen in the not too distant future. Where they will find room on the already overcrowded road ways boggles the imagination.
If you do decide to visit India, take a large memory card for your digital camera and lots of batteries. India is a riot of color but also a cacophony of sounds.