Here’s another “10 Things…” post. As usual, this is not meant to be a top 10 list or anything like that, rather it is 10-ish random things, some good/bad/neutral, that we experienced during our time in a particular country or region that we found interesting or unique. We write this post together after we leave a place as a way of summarizing our experience.
1. Getting a Lot of Attention as Foreigners
At some point during our three weeks in India, we lost track of how many times people asked us to join them in their group photos. Realistically, we probably starred in around fifty selfies, but it sure felt like hundreds. This slowed us down a bit, especially at the major landmarks, but we got used to it quickly, adjusting to our new lives as celebrities.
In a similar vein, of all the countries we’ve been to so far, Indian people have been the most friendly and outgoing towards us. On all forms of transport and in restaurants, a person sitting nearby would usually strike up a conversation with us. In most countries, our conversations with strangers are often short and limited by language barriers. Our conversations in India — where many people speak English well — were much more in depth. We enjoyed this aspect of travelling in India, because we were able to connect more with people (not to mention the great travel tips they gave us!).
The one downside of sticking out like a sore thumb was the constant attention paid to us by people wanting to sell us something. In our travels thus far, no people have been as persistent as the shop owners and rickshaw drivers we encountered in India. After stepping off a train, we were immediately greeted by a horde of rickshaw drivers shouting over each other to persuade us to ride with them. When walking down the street, we would sometimes be followed for several blocks by a shop owner trying to get us to come look at their wares. One of the more memorable encounters involved a man trying to convince us to buy a rather large drum. After declining a few times, he followed us for several blocks listing off the many great qualities of the instrument. Eventually, he yelled in frustration, “Why won’t you buy this drum? It is an excellent drum!”, suggesting a genuine confusion as to how any reason could exist for which we would not want his drum.
2. Indian Railways
India has one of the largest rail networks in the world and also one of the busiest. For tourists and locals alike, trains are the preferred mode of transportation. Indian trains are efficient, comfortable, and quite affordable for tourists. If you are traveling in India, you can cover huge distances by train cheaply, and almost every Indian city is served by a centrally located train station. During our three weeks in India, we exclusively used trains to get around the country.
The trains are divided into a variety of different class coaches. For overnight journeys, most tourists stick to 2A Class (AC two tier), which is a second-class, air-conditioned, sleeper car with upper/lower bunks. For daytime journeys, CC Class (AC chair car) is a typical air-conditioned compartment with reclining seats, and is perfectly comfortable.
The only difficult part about train travel in India is buying the tickets. For foreign tourists, the online/app-based methods of purchasing tickets are prohibitively difficult. Your best bet is to book through your hotel or go to the train station and buy tickets directly from official Indian Railways staff. A couple days after arriving, we spent an entire afternoon in the Delhi train station’s tourism office booking tickets for the rest of our journey. We emerged from the station haggard from the the bureaucratic process, but victorious, with all of our tickets in hand. Make sure to have your desired train numbers picked out in advance, and book well before your travel dates. During peak travel season, trains can be fully booked more than two weeks out. There are a few seats set aside on most trains as a tourist quota, but they are only available if you purchase them in person.
3. Diversity and Inequality
India is a melting pot of different cultures, languages, religions, and castes. Although India is a Hindu-majority nation, there many Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, and other groups. In addition, each region has its own language (or two) and culture (or two). It can feel like crossing into a different country when traveling from one province into the next.
Hindu temple in Mumbai; Jama Masjid Mosque in Delhi; Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar
In the booming Indian megacities of Delhi and Mumbai, you see luxury high-rise buildings right next to crowded slums. This huge divide between rich and poor can be seen everywhere, but it was most apparent to us in the big cities.
India may be a diverse country now, but it was even more diverse before the Partition of British India in 1947, which formed the modern day states of India and Pakistan.
While visiting Amritsar, we were very close to India’s border with Pakistan. One of the recommended activities in the area is to visit the Attari-Wagah border for the border closing ceremony. We had never witnessed a border closing ceremony before, let alone one between two countries with a tenuous relationship regularly featured in the news. Expecting a modest affair, we were surprised to find huge crowds (especially on the India side) and a mood that could best be likened to a sporting event. Every evening, crowds gather on both sides of the border to watch the dramatic spectacle of uniformed border guards ceremoniously marching and theatrically facing off with the other side. Before closing the border, the guards on each side lower their respective flags and shake hands. Despite the joyful mood of the chanting crowd, nationalism is on full display at this event, and it was hard not to feel unsettled seeing the two sides proudly glorify their differences, especially considering how long their communities coexisted.
Attari-Wagah is located on the India-Pakistan border that cuts through the region of Punjab, which was one province under British rule. Up until the time of Partition, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs (the largest religious group in the area) coexisted in communities there. At the time of India’s independence from the British, the hastily drawn border between India (which is predominantly Hindu) and Pakistan (which is predominantly Muslim) divided the region between the two countries, leaving Muslims who suddenly found themselves living in the new “India” and Hindus living in new “Pakistan”, to scramble to across the new border. This process was chaotic and violent, resulting in the deaths of as many as two million people. Partition was the largest mass migration of people in history, with an estimated 14 million people displaced. In Amritsar, we had an insightful experience visiting the Partition Museum, opened in 2016, which chronicles the process in which Partition was executed and the plight of those affected.
If you’d like to learn more about Partition, check out this video:
Unless you majored in architecture or urban planning, you have probably never heard of Chandigarh, the capital of both Punjab and Haryana states. The city was build in the 1950s and 60s as a new capital for Punjab after Lahore, the former capital of the region, became part of Pakistan in Partition. The master plan was started by Albert Mayer and Mathew Novicki, but completed by Le Corbusier, one of the most famous architects of the 20th century. The city features large “sector” units that serve as self-sufficient neighborhoods and a plan that is based on the human body. There are also a lot of parks and green spaces, which make the city pleasant to be in.
With our guide, Vicky, we visited the architecture museum, Capital complex, Rock Garden and Sukhna Lake. Ironically, the famous Open Hand monument, a signature of Le Corbusier, was especially unwelcoming (located in a less accessible area, had high security, and there were no other visitors), and the most unplanned part of the city, the Rock Garden, was by far the most popular.
The Rock Garden
6. The Golden Temple
The Golden Temple in Amritsar is a truly unique place and the most important site of the Sikh Religion. What makes the temple so special is the beautiful, serene, and inclusive atmosphere. Devout followers visit the temple to pray and give offerings 24 hours a day. People of other faiths are encouraged to visit the temple, and all are welcome to spend as much time as they like there. You are even allowed to sleep on the stone floor of the temple grounds, and you won’t be the only ones if you do! There is also a communal kitchen that serves three meals a day for free to thousands of people.
We arrived to the temple at 4 am to witness the daily “book moving ceremony”, where the holy book containing all the Sikh scriptures is temporarily moved to a new location so that the original pedestal can be cleaned and purified (with milk!). Even at four in the morning, the temple was full of people coming to pray. We briefly fell asleep by the side of the pond while waiting for sunrise and woke up feeling refreshed and calm. After our nap, we proceeded to the communal kitchen to get a free breakfast of chai tea and bread.
Breakfast at the Golden Temple
7. Civil Service Exam
Many Indian students aspire to score highly on the civil service exam and get a good government job. The exam covers a wide range of topics and is notoriously difficult. Despite roughly 1 million Indians applying for the exam each year, only 1000 government jobs are awarded based on qualifying scores. However, if you are lucky enough to get a government job, it is assumed that you and your family will be set for life with a good salary and benefits. Because of this, many people study furiously in an attempt to score highly. This difficult barrier to entry means that many Indian people admire and respect their civil servants, unlike some other parts of the world. If someone has passed the civil service exam, it is assumed they are an intelligent, hard-working, and well-rounded individual.
8. Mughal Architecture
Many of the most famous architectural landmarks in India were built by Muslim rulers. Northern India was the focal point of numerous Mughal invasions during the 12th-16th centuries. During this time, many cities were founded and monuments constructed. To this day many of the most famous historical buildings in Northern India are relics from that time period. For example, the Taj Mahal was constructed by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632. Other famous sites constructed by Mughal rulers include: Humayuns Tomb, Jama Masiid Mosque, Agra Fort and Red Fort.
Many buildings built by Hindu leaders, such as the Amber Fort in Jaipur or City Palace in Udaipur have styles that are heavily influenced by Mughal architecture.
9. Lakh and Crore
The Indian numbering system is, for the most post, the same as what we use in America. The two notable exceptions being the units of lakh and crore. Simply put, 1 lakh = 100,000 units. People use lakh when referring to large numbers or expensive things. For example, a new car might cost 20 lakh Indian rupees (INR) = 2,000,000 INR = $28,000 USD. A crore is equal to 100 lakh, which is equal to 10,000,000 units. The crore is often used to describe large populations. For example, New Delhi has a population of approximately 2.1 crores which is 21,000,000 people.
In India, if you need anything at all, the wallahs got you covered! On our trip, we didn’t see many supermarkets, like we are used to at home. Instead, every specific thing you need has an individual seller who caters to that need called a “wallah”. If you need more fruit, you just call up your local fruit-wallah, who will deliver the fruit right to your apartment. Same goes for milk, vegetables, tea, laundry, etc. When we were visiting our friend’s apartment in Mumbai, the doorbell would be ringing at all hours of the day with some wallah coming up to deliver goods. Wallah can also be a generic term for anybody who is selling anything. People selling coconuts are called coconut-wallahs. Rickshaw drivers are often called rickshaw-wallahs. We even saw a food stand called lime-soda-bottle-opener-wallah!