In June 2016, I traveled to India with my parents and younger sister to attend my other younger sister’s wedding. Previously, my travels had been limited to Nicaragua, Guatemala, The Philippines plus a handful of US cities such as Chicago, Boston and New York.
So it was exciting to not only attend my sister’s wedding but also have a good excuse to visit the world’s second largest country – which also happens to be one of the world’s oldest civilizations and one of the most powerful countries in the 21st Century.
Our visit took us to Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) then to Delhi before flying back to the US. This post will cover general lessons on traveling to India while another will cover traveling on Indian Railways and yet another will look at my visit to some of India’s most famous landmarks.
India is a very long way away from America. It’s also in this odd position halfway between Japan and Europe – so India gets the short end of the stick when it comes to flight schedules. International flights arrive late at night and depart very early in the morning.
My parents took a shorter one-stop flight through Paris. I left Atlanta to stop in New York before heading to Paris.
Here’s my plane taxiing in Atlanta.
One benefit for going the longer route was that I got to fly on an Airbus A-380 from New York to Paris. It’s the largest and possibly most hyped plane in history. I can see how it might have some problems on the commercial side, but as a passenger – it was wonderful.
From Paris to Bengaluru – we had to fly on an Airbus A330. The A330 is a huge plane, but coming off the A380 – it felt like getting out of a comfortable bus into a small sedan.
One thing that was odd in Paris – our gate was a remote gate. It meant that our plane was parked way out in a field on the side of the airport. At our gate – we had to descend steps and get on buses. The buses drove more than 20 minutes around the perimeter of Charles DeGaulle before unloading us on the tarmac. Then we had to board the plane via steps.
I’ve never had to do that at a major US airport – so that was very odd. On the way back, I came via Amsterdam which I prefer to Paris Charles De Gaulle.
Bengaluru’s airport was clean and nice albeit nearly empty when we arrived due to the international flight schedule.
Good Indian food is very hard to find in America. That’s not necessarily because of the restaurant owners but because of the availability of fresh spices. Indian food has *so many* spices in even the most basic dish.
I got to try all types of Indian food on this trip. We of course had plenty of food at the wedding – including this Chicken Masala.
But most importantly – I got to sample a wide diversity of Indian food.
My youngest sister, Hannah, and I got to go out on the streets of Bengaluru to sample some incredible street food with our new friends Philip and Sonali.
Here’s a chaat stand that was delicious.
Even though India is known for vegetarian cuisine, if you head to a Muslim-owned stand, you can get fantastic meats.
We got to eat in some upscale restaurants. We even got eat Indian Railways food (think airplane food on rails) – and see India’s spin on global fast food staples.
But the most interesting part was learning just how different “Indian” food is based on region. Just like the Deep South in America has a distinctly regional cuisine – every region in India has their own very unique cuisine.
My brother-in-law’s family is from Kerala – so we had Keralan food while staying in Bengaluru – such as the red rice and coconut chicken curry.
Once we got to Delhi, I learned how northern Indian food is distinct from southern India. One restaurant that we went to even had their menu divided by region.
Any developing country is going to have stark contrasts. Whether its subsistence farmers using cell phones or cutting edge infrastructure built on top of sprawling slums – it’s somewhat expected when traveling to developing countries across the world.
India puts every contrast on hyper-drive.
The typical rich/poor contrast gets a hefty dose of religion.
The American penchant for hyper-commercialism and marketing gets pared with local sales traditions and un-ironic word use…
India has an enormous part of its economy focused on cutting edge technology while relying on manual labor for everything.
One of the cliches of travel is that it can put everything in perspective. But that’s not a cliche in India. The contrasts are so stark that you can’t dismiss them.
The whole time I’m wondering how stuff functions – and yet, somehow, it does. Out of absolute chaos – individuals live, work and trundle along.
There are innumerable problems, and nothing is ideal. And yet, the country keeps moving (rapidly) along. The chaos and contrasts are incredible to observe – and something that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Everything Is Different
India has plenty of internal contrasts. It’s also the one place, outside of maybe China, where everything is truly different from the West / US. And I don’t mean like India plays cricket and the US plays baseball.
I mean things like the structure of music.
India developed their civilization and culture independently of the West, and you can feel it. Countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua or The Philippines are all unique countries with their own language, culture and history. But they aren’t completely bewildering. They all use romance languages. They share a Western religion. They all have Western-style national narratives.
India’s history and sheer diversity turns everything on its head. The country has languages that come from not one, not two – but three completely different language families. The country started not one, not two – but more than three of the world’s oldest religions.
And even after that general feeling of “wow, this place is really different and diverse” – there’s all the little things, like electrical outlets.
It’s eye-opening, maddening, bewildering, fascinating but incredible all at the same time.
India is infamous for their bureaucracy. According to some authors, it has dramatically improved in the last 20 years. Maybe it has – I don’t know.
But wow – bureaucracy in India in both government and corporate settings is really something else.
One example – this picture is from the Delhi Airport where immigration officials are processing passengers leaving the country. This poor girl was a Tibetan student studying in America on a visa – and was visiting India during the summer. This was the only line to get to the terminal – and the officials had shut down the line with hundreds of people queued to figure out if her visas allowed her to leave the country and fly via Europe. I know many rules exist for a reason – but it was a perfect microcosm of bureaucracy in action.
Job, my brother-in-law from India, solved several situations for us during the trip. But overall, I can’t emphasize enough for travelers to have their papers all in a row. Have backups to your backups and assume that every interaction with an official will result in a delay.
India is such an incredible travel destination – they would do so well to make it simpler for everyone to navigate the system.
*And yes, I fully recognize the irony of an American saying that.
For decades, India grew very slowly. But after 1990, the country’s economy took off. And in 2016, India feels exciting and incredible.
The cities are growing faster than I – even coming from Atlanta – can comprehend. There is a flood of investment with shiny new subways, airports and infrastructure everywhere. If you drive outside of Delhi, you’d think that every construction crane in the world was being used in Noida.
With the rapid growth, there are tons of problems. Wealth inequality was shocking to see. And the environmental pollution was shocking. Here’s a picture of Delhi’s main square looking towards parliament.
That’s not haze or bad photography. That’s the worst air pollution in the world.
The water is bad and there is depressing economic exploitation.
And yet – those are all problems that can be solved (and are being solved). Right now, India has the one critical thing right – that millions and millions of people are moving off small leased farms and into cities for better education, better living and a shot at better life for their kids.
It’s exciting to see – and much better than the alternative.
On the last day of our trip, I was walking through an apartment complex in Greater Noida and saw the one scene that is not unique to India – parents who want to take their kids to play in a park and enjoy the evening.
Traveling to the India of 2016 is nothing like the India you’ll read about in classic travel books like Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. It’s better.
It’s all of India’s contrasts, food, culture, history and different-ness paired with a hopefulness about the future. I’m glad I got to go – and I can’t wait to go back.