Making sense of India

It has been said that one is not a “traveller” until one has been to India. I don’t have a lot of patience with that sanctimonious observation. India is challenging and confounding and unfathomable and it will take us weeks to process everything we experienced, but good grief – travelling through India has not earned us a special traveller’s badge.  What it has done is knocked down a number of  preconceptions and stereotypes we had about India that were inaccurate and simplistic. It’s also served as a solid reminder of how lucky we are – we knew it before, but we really know it now.

I’ll begin this posting with a train trip – the famous Shimla-Kalka UNESCO toy train to be exact.  Built in 1898 to connect mountainous Shimla to the rest of India’s rail lines,  this six-car “toy train” runs on 30″ narrow-gauge tracks, and takes five and a half hours to travel 96 km. The tracks climb 4660 feet by running through 107 tunnels and crossing 864 bridges. It is an engineering marvel and it is also hugely popular – the trains are booked months in advance. We missed out on our trip up to Shimla, but luckily for us, our host was able to pull a few strings and secure us two seats on our return trip.

Our train left at 10.25 a.m.  with a gregarious family as our seat mates and open windows for A/C. We got the full Indian rail experience.

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The scenery was beautiful for almost the entire trip and punctuated with sweet little train stations.

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A toy train can feel less like a train and more like an amusement park ride. Our connection to our surroundings was vivid and a bit disconcerting – travelling over a high stone bridge felt like being suspended in thin air.

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This video will give you an idea of our toy train adventure. Please note the carefree, safety-first approach to train travel in India – each door was filled with passengers who sat, stood or chatted on their phones as the scenery whizzed by.


This was a memorable way to end our trip before flying home – 14 hours of binge-watching movies, listening to passengers snore and eating breakfast at 3:00 a.m. We arrived in Toronto at 5:30 a.m.,  and waited for an hour while Indian families hauled multiple massive suitcases off the conveyor belt until finally our two backpacks swirled up and dumped down. We walked out into the cold, snowy air and thought, “what the heck just happened to us?”

We’re still digesting our experiences but so far these are the impressions that have stayed with us and we’d like to share them with you.
India is not for everyone, and after three months of travelling by tuk-tuk, bus, train, plane and ferry across rivers, backwaters, lakes, mountains, cities, villages, desert, jungle and forest, we’re still not sure if it was for us. Our friend Sheila had warned us about the obvious challenges – the garbage, the dirt, the poverty, the beggars – but said, “you must go.”  We don’t disagree and we’re not sorry we went, but we’re not sure if we would go again. Travelling through India is not relaxing. It requires constant stamina, flexibility and energy and there are times when the rewards are not immediately obvious. We met a Canadian woman of Pakistani descent who travels to India every 10 years to see family. She was aghast to discover we were in India for three months. “You don’t come to India for a vacation.

We met many other tourists who had been to India multiple times and loved it. There is only one way to know how you will react – to borrow Sheila’s phrase, “you must go.”

We met an Indian gentleman who wisely said, “there are many Indias in India”. Munnar was  one of our favourite Indias.

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I was nervous about travelling through India, and one of my biggest fears was rats. Where there is garbage, heat and humidity, rats will follow and I envisioned  legions of rodents, outnumbering Indians 2 to 1. The first week we arrived, I saw four rats (all of them dead), and with the exception of one healthy rat running down the stairs at a railway station, that was it. Not another rat in three months of travel.
One fear down, a few more to follow.

We were concerned about the poverty we would encounter and it was far worse than we had imagined. India has the highest rate of undrinkable water in the world, the second-highest rate of TB in the world, and 140,000 children die of diarrheal-related illnesses every year. We saw so many people with foot problems – club feet, inward-turning feet, even feet with high arches and thinly-stretched webs of skin from toes to ankle. We wondered if these were birth defects that could have been fixed in the early years, but for lack of money, resources, whatever, were not.
We were shocked by the number of beggar children on the streets, the wizened and frail older people, and the sheer numbers of people who were not beggars, but were still in dire need. It became a defining quality of India, and it coloured a lot of our positive impressions of the country.

That, and the garbage.  We had been warned about the garbage before we arrived, but with one or two exceptions, the garbage is everywhere…and it’s hard to understand why. It is a problem that is complex and multi-generational, so the desired solution of a clean India seems near-impossible to achieve. The view from our toy train ride from Shimla should have been pristine, but it was marred by miles of foil, plastic, and food wrappers that have been thrown out the windows of eight daily trains for years.

We met an articulate young woman who offered her perspective on the Indian attitude and behaviour around garbage.  “Indians are very clean in their homes, but they will sweep out onto the street and expect someone else to clean up. Traditionally, it is the lower caste who pick up garbage and sweep up public spaces, so Indians consider handling garbage is dirty and not their job.”  After listening to her, this sign we had seen posted in Panaji made a lot more sense.

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Of course, the image of cows wandering free in India is an iconic one, but at first it was an unnerving and almost comical sight.  I’ve been told that cows are fed to ensure milk production, but bulls, who have no value, are left to their own devices.
Many animals can be found rooting through the garbage; I once saw a cow with ribs protruding, listlessly chewing on a plastic rope.

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Dogs fare little better – possibly their only consolation is companionship – they tend to congregate in packs. We had just one hostile encounter with dogs; mainly they are either searching for food or sleeping.

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There are so many religions and gods in India, often with much tension between them.  We’re not naive enough to think that a religious person is only capable of good, but the gap between devout belief and appalling violence or disregard for others ( humans and animals) is very hard for a foreigner to comprehend.

Our friend Shelley recommended William Dalrymple and I am currently reading his excellent book “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.”  He writes without judgement and I am keen to gain at least a partial understanding.

Sanitation in India is an ongoing challenge – with crumbling infrastructure, unclean water supply and a massive population straining the systems. We had heard the stories before we arrived – ” Be prepared to squat. Make sure you bring your own toilet paper.” No big deal and no different from many other countries in the world. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer – good to go.

Our reality check  was a little less cavalier. Fifty-three percent of Indians do not have toilets in their homes.  We never witnessed open defecation, but the sight of men peeing in public became so common we no longer noticed.

Away from hotels and guesthouses, the condition of toilets is unpredictable. Sometimes squat, sometimes, western, usually no toilet paper or soap. Almost always dirty. If I entered a squat toilet, I would roll my pants up around my knees to avoid dragging them on the filthy wet floor. That became normal. A clean toilet with soap was noteworthy and in this case, a selling point.

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Based on inaccurate information I read about the difficulties of obtaining a SIM card,  we chose not to bring our phone with us.  Big mistake. Everyone in India has a cell phone – and not just a cheap flip-phone, but a smartphone.  In fact, one can get a SIM card in 48 hours – activate it one day and return with your phone the next  and voila – you can now order up UBER cabs, and have GPS and operate like any self-respecting Indian would. Don’t even think  about coming to India without your phone.

I was concerned about what to wear in India, both for modesty and to cope with the heat. Here’s the best advice I can give you – bring a very few things to tide you over. Unless you  are staying exclusively in Goa, where anything goes, you will want to cover your shoulders and legs, and it can be done easily and comfortably.  Hit the markets and you can outfit yourself for a few dollars, refrain from offending anyone and most importantly, remain cool in the heat and humidity. I bought palazzo pants, harem pants, and a few loose tops with three-quarter sleeves. It felt counter-intuitive to cover so much of my body, but the light cottons protected my skin and kept me much cooler than a sundress would have.
Men can get away with almost anything, but in some places shorts are frowned upon, so a pair of light cotton pants would work well – you’ll stay much cooler, fit in better and not look like such a tourist galoot.   

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We got used to the crazy traffic, used to losing our “personal space” and became quite comfortable with the staring, which was rarely hostile.  We were asked to pose for countless selfies – we were as much of a novelty to them as they were to us.

The one behaviour we could not cope with was butting in line – this happened all the time. It is quite remarkable to watch. You are standing in line – waiting for the ATM, or to buy your groceries, or to go through security at the airport. Suddenly someone appears beside you, then noses in front of you. We silently fumed until we watched Indians  tell the miscreants to move to the back, and we realized, “This is not an acceptable Indian behaviour, this is the behaviour of someone with bad manners.” Interestingly, most queue-jumpers will comply quite easily once they have been confronted.

So, with the annoying, confusing and upsetting aspects of India out of the way, our final impressions are still very positive.

The best part of India? The people, without question. We had so many memorable encounters with Indians we met along the way – conversations in restaurants, open-hearted welcomes in guesthouses, casual chats on the street. We found Indians to be funny, curious, warm, helpful and engaged people, and almost to a person, they wanted to know how we liked their country.

India is so incredibly diverse that it is not possible to pinpoint a favourite place, although that following places stand out for us –  Munnar (mountain trekking), Goa ( beautiful beaches and sublime swimming), most of Rajasthan ( forts, camels, desert), Pondicherry (French influence) and Amritsar (Golden Temple) and Shimla (finally – cool, clean air).

In three months, we missed way more than we saw – you can’t see India in one trip. We didn’t go to any of the large cities (our choice), missed the Taj Mahal (a disappointment – I was sick), and did not get up into the high Himalayas or on to Nepal. We missed the many tiger reserves and bird sanctuaries. Who knows – maybe we will go back again.