When it comes to vacationing, my boyfriend and I have become huge fans of what we like to call “adventure travel”. With such a term, the exotic is paramount, immersion into new cultures is welcome, and shedding any fears of trying new things is essential. Of course, we still enjoy the sumptuous 5-star hotel experience as much as the next yuppie traveller. But we also get our kicks from backpacks, hostels, public transportation, the whole shebang. In other words, forget Miami Beach, bring on the world! Thus for this year’s winter getaway, we decided to take a leap into 'curry country' and test our luck in Southern India.
And as luck would have it... It was fantastic.
The history of India is a long and colourful one, as this subcontinent has been home to a continuous civilization for over 4500 years. Many rich Indian traditions have stood the test of time against globalization; however, over the centuries, invading forces and colonialism have brought new religions, cultures, and modernity to India, to produce the complex cultural medley of today. Interestingly, Southern India was more immune to such changes than their neighbours to the North, and hence developed a distinct cultural character. The differing climates alone can serve to separate the North and the South, but also the mentalities, languages, cuisine, dress and behaviour of each region are unique (and all wrapped up in a vibrant Indian silk bow). But still you may ask, why Southern India??
"Why India?"... Well, to be honest, there were times during the trip when I was asking myself that same question. In no particular order:
- I had the pleasure of testing out many public bathroom facilities ('faint-worthy filth', has a nice ring to it), which weren't typically equipped with toilets, per se ... Oh, hello, hole in the ground.
- One morning I woke up to a huge millipede on my pillow. Need I say more?
- We ate curry for most breakfasts. I never imagined I would be homesick for cereal.
- Stepping off a sidewalk meant putting oneself into imminent peril, as seemingly, there are no traffic laws in this country.
- Some of our travel was by overnight train, where I slept on the top of a three-tiered bunk bed, with my nose 6-inches from the ceiling. The vertigo-inducing carriages heaved along the tracks all night, and were pleasantly infested with cockroaches, spiders and rats (I’m not joking). And the bathrooms… well, see #1.
- With its gargantuan-sized population, at times India was so crowded that it demanded the death of the 'comfort zone'. The train is a very good example of this; as sardined as I already felt, there were 5 people sharing the bed adjacent to me, and thus spilling over into my 'area'. "Goodbye personal bubble. Pardon me, Mr. Patel, you’re standing on my foot."
In all reality, many of the preconceived notions I had about this unfamiliar land….the good, the bad and the odorous….were confirmed. But!!! Any hang-ups I was having about our near-death encounters or the unwelcome company in my bed, didn't last long as I drank in the dynamic, energetic life that is India. To quote Leonardo Di Caprio in the 2001 movie 'The Beach',
"Trust me, it's paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven't tried before. Never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite, and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It's probably worth it."
Even in the time-space continuum that is transportation in India (take your estimated travel time, multiply by 4, add in some animal encounters, expect mechanical difficulties, try not to sweat when the a/c stops working and prepare to be amazed), we managed to cover a huge expanse of territory during our three-week trip. We visited 3 states, 11 cities, 2 nature/animal reserves, and 'the Venice of the East', a waterway conduit of the former Indian spice trade route. We took taxis, buses, 'tuk-tuks', jeeps, and trains, navigated 100-year old canoes and ferry boats, rode on elephants, rickshaws, and bicycles, and last but not least, flew on 'Spice Jets'.
“[There is a] strict species pecking order: pedestrians are on the bottom and run out of the way of everything, bicycles make way to cycle rickshaws, which give way to auto-rickshaws, which stop for cars, which are subservient to trucks. Buses stop for one thing and one thing only. Not customers - they jump on while the buses are still moving. The only thing that can stop a bus is the king of the road, the lord of the jungle, and the top dog. The holy cow.” - SARAH MACDONALD, 'Holy cow! An Indian adventure'
With each new state we entered, the national language of Hindi was lost in regional tongues of Tamil, Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam. In fact, there are 1600 languages spoken across india (and to think that the Quebecois and the rest of Canada can't get along. Sigh). We visited towering temples built from interlocking sandstone or coloured in all chromatics of the rainbow, where Hindus prayed to their some 3 million gods. We saw pristine white churches and mosques, and even a big red synagogue. We made our way through ornate maharajas palaces, prehistoric caves, and squatter cities built from garbage.
As we battled the traffic on the crowded throughways, we passed transport trucks decorated as though for Mardi Gras. If we weren't already having anxiety attacks at the possibility of being catapulted off a cliff at every turn (à la traffic pandemonium), we had our breath taken away by sights of the undulating tea plantations and rice fields of the South Indian countryside.
Speaking of tea, the Indian chai wasn’t all that I had dreamed, as our variety back home adds many additional spices to the basic black masala tea leaves that are served in India. A bit of a let-down (David’s Tea, you spoil me). However, as we reminisced of our French-speaking homeland while wandering the streets of Pondicherry, a former French territory which felt like a south of France twilight zone, we dined on baguettes which tasted pretty darn authentic. And after days on end of rice next to my morning orange juice... hallelujah.
Although a self-diagnosed lover of all that is monochromatic (ahhh 'greige' ♥), even I couldn't deny the beautiful fearlessness of the Indians' use of Colour. My fashionista senses tingled non-stop with all the luxurious fabrics of women’s saris, tunics and scarves (silk and cashmere and gold, oh my!). Not to mention the intricate embellishments on their clothing, as well as some very impressive "arm parties", to quote one of my favourite fashion bloggers, the Man Repeller. Is 'bedazzled' in Webster's dictionary yet? Even in my attempts to be reasonable, I still managed to succumb to one...two... Ok, five new Indian scarves and a 'couple' bracelets to commemorate the trip. But hey, I still came in way under the Canadian customs limit. That must count for something.
Speaking of colour, my favorite experiences of the trip may have been while strolling through the many vibrantly picturesque farmers' markets. The deliciously fragrant fruits and veggies made me sorry to have to return to the dismal produce section of our snowed-in Canadian grocery stores. Plus, as a side-note, being a person with complicated eating habits (lactose-intolerant, gluten-sensitive, and kosher. Do I win a prize?), eating in India was a dream, as a large proportion of the Indian population are strict vegetarians. Jackpot!
“WHAT IS YOUR ‘GOOD NAME’?”
On top of all that, something that made this trip exceptional for me was that we felt completely immersed in the local daily life, and we made sure to splash around in it. As a tourist destination, most of southern India felt virtually untouched and the cultural authenticity undeniable. In fact, in many of the places we visited, we didn’t see a single fellow traveller. We eventually became accustomed to being shouted at with broken English greetings, and to being probed by curious little hands. At one point, instead of capturing photos of the huge monument that loomed in the background, the local people insisted on taking photos of me on their cell phone cameras (cue severe blushing). Our guide later explained to us that many Indians have never been exposed to western people, aside from the Hollywood actors on their TV screens. To them, we must be famous! And so we enjoyed our 15 minutes ("Mr. De mille, I am ready for my close-up").
Everywhere we went, it was 'business as usual'...Indian style. I.e., utterly fascinating to those living in western modern paradise. For instance, you would never believe some of the things the local people could fit on a bicycle. We watched in awe as they balanced huge loads on their heads, sat in perfect lotus position, and disemboweled poultry and fish in artful massacres, to name a few tricks. They ate with their hands (which we mimicked off banana leaf plates. Good riddance fork and knife!... I have yet to master this elegantly), and all this with a graceful swish of their colourful saris or sarongs.
When asked to identify ourselves, the question usually came as "What is your 'good name' "?, to which, of course, we would ironically respond, "As opposed to our 'bad names'?". As it turns out, it is rather difficult to transmit humour across the language barrier. Ah well. Anyways, by far my favourite 'indiosyncrasy' was the unmistakable Indian head bobble, a local gesture for communication that can mean “yes”, “no”, “maybe”, “ok”, “thank you”, and so on. A bit complicated if you ask me. My bobble attempts were always met with wide, excited, and approving grins, although I’m still not sure if I was saying "yes", "no", "maybe"...
Graduating from head bobbling (I hope you've been reading from above, otherwise, awkward), i even tried my hand at the local pastime of negotiation. One day, I haggled to get the price of a silver anklet down to $1 cad, only to find out at the next tourist trap, that I could have had 5 anklets for that price (%#@@!!!). Back to the drawing board. We also made an outing to a local movie theatre where we saw our first ever 'Kollywood' film, something that can only be described as the younger, country bumpkin cousin of the Bollywood movie. It was 3 hours long… with no subtitles! Luckily, the exaggerated quality of the acting helped to convey the general message (and luckily there was intermission. Drown me in popcorn, please). We gathered that the story was of a love triangle involving an elephant trainer, his elephant and an Indian tribe leader’s daughter, a 'spicy' rural romance epic. The story eventually concluded in a truly appalling denouement: everybody dies and the hero doesn’t get the girl (wtf??). The end. Suffice it to say, we were thoroughly depressed. So much for happily ever after. But... all was not lost....because darn, those songs were catchy. I’m actually still listening to the soundtrack (is there such a thing as 'showtunes addicts anonymous?').
A RUPEE FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
IIn spite of its beauty and charm, visiting a nation like India can be bittersweet, as it is impossible to ignore the stark difference in quality of life compared to our own. Indeed, the degree of poverty in India is severe, and life for the average Indian person is not easy for many reasons. Modern convenience can be scarce, and work is often manual and sometimes backbreaking. Access to clean water is not to be taken for granted; in one village we visited, the only government-issued clean water source in the entire town, was turned on once a day for an hour, and sometimes not at all. Furthermore, we came across countless disease- and handicap-stricken people, not to mention small children who had been taught to beg for money and food from strangers. Heartbreaking was the word.
While visiting Mumbai, we took a tour of one of the city’s largest slums, Dharavi. This two-square kilometer area is home to close to one million people, making the population density between 270,000-400,000 inhabitants per square-km (as a reference, the density of Manhattan is 10-20x less than this, and they've got mega-skyscrapers). Many of the 'buildings' that make up this slum city would be better described as 'huts', patched together with bamboo logs, mud, sheets of metal, and dried leaves, and piled on top of one another if the physics of construction allowed it. Snaking between the huts were narrow, uneven alleys, heaps of refuse, and open latrines when we least expected them. The landscape, as far as our eyes could see, was miserable. But as we delved further into the depths of the slum, the people we met were not. On the contrary, all whom we encountered were laughing and smiling, poking their heads out from their small homes, trying to get a glimpse of the foreign people who had wandered into their midst.
It was here that we understood the essence of the south Indian way of life. Our guide explained that no matter how difficult their lives seemed to us, in fact, the local people were grateful for all that they have compared to others even less fortunate. Despite their hardships, they were content, humble, and showed unconditional love for their neighbours.... Quite a concept, don't you think?
"A NATION'S CULTURE RESIDES IN THE HEARTS AND SOULS OF ITS PEOPLE." - MAHATMA GANDHI
#FIRSTWORLDPROBLEMS a.k.a. WE ALL NEED TO PUT A SOCK IN IT
When we arrived back in Montreal, everything seemed a little bit shinier than when we left it. Our apartment seemed more spacious, our white porcelain toilets more pristine, and my closet more full, despite my long-archived complaints that "I have nothing to wear" (Ok Mom.. you win). This trip gave me a taste of the exotic, the chance to make-believe I was (Mrs.) Indiana jones, but better still, it reminded me of what a fortunate life I lead, and of the little things that make this existence so wonderful. On that note, I am happy to announce that southern India has definitely made it onto the DEANE’S LIST for being an exceptional travel destination. Does it make yours?