Some Tips on Surviving and Thriving in India

Coimbatore - Spiritual Farmhouse

Coimbatore – Spiritual Farmhouse

Day 9 (January 24) and Day 12 (January 27)

India moves at a different pace.

It’s not faster – though cars, motorbikes, autos, pedestrians, and animals expertly weave their way through whatever narrow gap is left in traffic. You could argue that it’s speeding up, since its modernization campaign is outpacing most of the world (a fact that backwards Americans fear will lead to better-educated doctors and technicians), but it still hasn’t leapfrogged its industrial and social models just yet.

But it’s not slower – though Indian Standard Time is no joke. People are generally accepting of long queues and unexpected delays, and they react to most changes in plans with a good-natured shrug and patience. (That being said, somehow I am even slower than the slowest Indian.) People might take their time to prepare, eat, and clean up after meals, but that’s just because Indians prioritize food, and thus allocate more time to it.

Simply put: it’s just different.

Mysore - Ceremonial Cow

Mysore – Ceremonial Cow

That can be said about all of India. Despite visiting the Motherland often as a child – many birthdays have been marked by thunderstorms and Pizza Hut – it still shocks me every time I come here. This partially is due to the fact that in the last ten years, I’ve only visited three times. My last visit was in 2009, and I spent the first three weeks of my regular six-week trip grumpily hating on everything (preexisting personal issues and a teenager’s angst).

It’s strange to be surprised that a foreign country can appear so… foreign. After all, the hippie in me ideologically opposes globalization, so seeing the immense difference between American and Indian culture should be a welcome respite from the relative homogeneity I experienced in Europe. But particularly when it is the home of your own culture, there’s a certain expectation that things should more predictable – but the unpredictability that marks my experience in India is merely something most people here accept as inherent to life.

That being said, even to those who live here, India is a land of polar contrasts, contradictions, and intensity. The best way to describe the country, actually, is just that: intense. My photographer side is continually bombarded with stimuli – a beautifully ornate temple might be offset by a group of schoolchildren in colorful uniforms and followed by a herd of piglets eating trash on the side of the road. There are simply too many things to capture photographically, so at a certain point, the camera becomes obsolete in favor of one’s own eyeballs.

Coimbatore - Isha Foundation

Coimbatore – Isha Foundation

Drastic contradictions are plentiful, of course, as is everything in this verdant country. The caste system to a certain extent still plagues the attitudes of many Indians (somewhat excluding the youngest generation). Though opinions are shifting in the way of Westernization, various people are barred from marrying one another or from socializing in a particular way due to societal and historical reasons. A South Indian Brahmin dating a North Indian Vaisya can be a pretty controversial decision in more religious families; imagine dating a non-Indian! (For obvious reasons, I refer to my European-blooded boyfriend as a friend, which is not technically lying…)

In contrast, hospitality is considered a point of pride, and family means everything – people undergo great lengths to accommodate and take care of guests, particularly when they’re blood relatives. When I was leaving Mysore, I thanked my aunt and joked that now she could have some peace and quiet – she replied that I’m welcome any time and that she felt I was running away!

Food is prepared fresh daily, and a constant question is: “Did you eat? How did you sleep? How’s your health?” The first thing my aunt said to me when I arrived at her home in Bangalore – after, of course, she saw my huge backpack and called me “the family gypsy” – was that I was shrinking and that she would fatten me up before I left town. This refrain was echoed in every home I’ve been in since; saying that I “eat air” and that I can’t ride a motorcycle because I’d be lifted off the seat in a sudden breeze isn’t an insult, but rather a call to feed me more.

Moreover, everyone’s an uncle or auntie, even random people you meet on the street. Sometimes, as Indians in America have amusedly noted, those people really are related to you, as the network of family ties is very extensive and the emphasis on maintaining those connections is critically important.

Coimbatore - Yogi Friends @ Isha Foundation

Coimbatore – Yogi Friends @ Isha Foundation

Here’s another example: Indians might appear more conservative than their Western counterparts, but marijuana seems to phase very few. After all, it’s a plant with medicinal properties and has historically spiritual links– while most might not want it used by their children or spouses, due to its propensity for abuse, most rational adults lump it with alcohol but don’t classify it a “hard drug,” like the CDC has.

Still, as my cousin notes, 95% of people are likely to view marijuana with distaste, primarily due to efforts by the government and the legal repercussions of possession and sale. (Interesting fact: Ooty – a hill station resort quite near Coimbatore – is famous for magic mushrooms, and Manali and Mysore boast some of the best weed in India. If you’re wondering where my next trip is…)

I might be totally wrong about this, though. My opinion on this subject was formed by observing my relatives, who might be decidedly more liberal than the average Indian. But just like that, it’s impossible to make any sweeping generalizations about this culture – so much has changed, but so much stayed the same, affecting each individual differently.

Bangalore - Grandfatherly Love

Bangalore – Grandfatherly Love

India has been on the tourist trail for a while, but is recently (as in the past few decades) experiencing a boom in terms of Western travelers, particularly due to its increasing accommodation of Western practices (for example, seated toilets, for which I am incredibly grateful). Tourists come for beautiful scenery, amazing food, serene spirituality, designer fashion, unsurpassed culture, and an ancient history – everything you could possibly want, and not want, is all rolled into one giant, bustling package in India.

Despite my attempts to describe it, India is indescribable. From mountains to valleys, from religion to science, from tradition to emerging trends, there’s something for everyone. There’s no one way to define the country, so if you’re interested, no blog can adequately tell you what you’ll expect. If you want to experience everything all at once, India is the place to go. I must warn my non-Indian friends though: do your research. This country can impress and overwhelm the meek – within a week, you will learn so much more about your likes and dislikes, values, culture, and preconceptions. If I didn’t have family here – hell, if my cousin didn’t help me cross the street – I would most definitely have died already.

But as so many Indians exhibit with humor and dignity, adapting and surviving is something that is borne from this environment. If you want to see a true show of humanity, come to India. If you want to maximize all of your senses at once, come to India. If you are interested in a cultural Tough Mudder, come to India.

People of the world, I’m telling you: you have to come to India.

Coimbatore - Isha Foundation

Coimbatore – Isha Foundation