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Traveling India is not for the faint hearted. It's magical and mysterious. It's full of sights and sounds and color. You are exposed to filth, poverty and masses of humanity. Each new place you arrive in feels like a different country. It tugs on your soul, inspires you and awakens adventure. Our family has a hunger for travel and thirst for information and India provides never ending opportunities to learn and grow. Affordability allows for the opportunity to do many fun activities, enjoy unlimited drinks and coffees at cafes, have help schlepping the two bags of clothes and three bags of kosher food we brought and the privilege of having our own driver. But it is also a tough place to travel.
As world travelers the biggest fear as a family is that after India all other travel will pale in comparison.
Here are some random musings about India:
Drivers are crazy. It's not uncommon to be sharing a four lane highway with cows, horse-drawn carts, a flock of sheep and speeding lorries overloaded with goods all heading in the wrong lane. I certainly became mighty religious on every drive often reciting Shema believing it may well be my last words. Before each trip our driver would say a prayer for safe travel to Ganesh and we would recite tefilat ha-derech the Jewish prayer for safe travel. (Hopefully both spiritual paths provided safety). As our driver explained to drive in India “you need good brakes, good horn and good luck!”
Spirituality and family-centric values define Indian life and when you understand this you can see why Indian people regardless of wealth are generally happy and content. Family and Spirituality - a great lesson for many cultures.
People asked if we were shocked by the poverty. I guess growing up in Johannesburg and having travelled in Africa and other third-world places there was nothing I had not seen before. For me the shock is more the contrast of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. In Mumbai you can see a billionaire's 27-floor home with 600 parking spaces that is built for his family of six people and right next door are the famous slums of Mumbai. We stayed in a hotel where we sat at the pool. If you looked left you had the beautiful infinity pool and landscaped gardens. To the right a growing slum....
In India, there is just not a culture of cleanliness. In every hotel I insisted on seeing the room before checking in and way too often I would insist on them re-cleaning the room. I prefer not having the last person's toothpaste in my sink or pubic hair on my bathroom floor. The staff obliges cheerfully but look at me as though I am just a crazy American – they genuinely cannot understand what the problem is.
We visited British era properties with beautiful landscaped gardens. Everything meticulously in place and then you go to the restrooms and they are disgusting. It fascinated that almost without a single exception, we never saw hand soap in bathrooms. Purell is massive quantities is a must.
Another skill one learns in India - you become an expert in using squat toilets.
Eating kosher we have very limited exposure to food and hence we manage to avoid the famous Delhi Belly. However every cup of tea makes you wonder if you will face unpleasant consequences four hours later. Glad to say we survived and did not need to engage our vast antibiotic supply.
There are certain things you just have to get used to - perhaps you will watch a family on a train next to you eat with their hands and then they will start chatting with you in perfect English and you will learn about their prestigious jobs and travels and realize that you stereotyped them based on their eating - just because there cultural norm is not yours.
You definitely have to get used to the Indian head wobble which could mean one or more of the following…….”yes -no-maybe-I don't understand”. After a total of six weeks in India and I just don't get it..... and I must confess after visiting countless temples and reading about Hinduism I still don't quite get it either. The 18,000 gods are a little confusing.
I don't think I will ever get used to spitting either...or tragedy of garbage everywhere. You can be on a spectacular hike and then be shocked at the garbage. The current Prime Minister Modi along with high profile politicians and movie stars are campaigning for a "clean India" there is a long way to go.
The mosaic of religions and the co-existence is spectacular and admirable. Temples, monasteries, mosques all catering to their devoted. Each believing they are right but respecting the others fervor.
I love speaking to local people and understanding their view of the world. A chance encounter with a Buddhist Monk resulted in us being invited to chat with him in the garden of his cottage in the mountains. He entered the monastery at age 6 and never had a secular education yet he was so enlightened about the world and politics. He was very clear that while Jews can benefit from understanding other religions and that the teachings of Buddha are relevant for all humanity but that the role of Jews is to be Jewish.
Usually when we travel we don't advertise the fact we are Jewish. Yet in India to say you are Israeli gets you the warmest welcome and it's one of the few places you can wear a kippa. We travelled the well beaten path that Israelis travel, affectionately known as the "hummus trail". In these towns all the signs are in Hebrew and every restaurant promises genuine Israeli food. The shop keepers play spot the Jew and most of them engage me in Hebrew that's way more proficient than my kita aleph beginners Hebrew. We play spot the Israeli as they either wear Blundstoneshoes or Shoresh sandals. No-one assumes we are Israeli.
When you watch English TV there are adverts every 15 minutes for traveling to Israel. Israel is the destination of choice – I think we can expect many Indian visitors to Israel over the next few years.
India has amazing culinary treats. It has a rich culture of food and thousands of eating joints and restaurants. Somehow Maggie's 2 minute noodle has infiltrated and thousands of places will advertise something to the effect "World famous Punjab Dhaba -we also serve Maggie noodles." Cracks me up each time. Kudos to the Maggie team for their marketing and distribution.
While we travel many long hours to get from one tourist attraction to the next we so often realize we are the attraction. While we are horse riding in the mountains enjoying the view every other horse riding party is taking pictures of the white people on horses. If I could have charged for all the selfies we could have funded our vacation. If you agree to one selfie soon you have a crowd of 30 people all snapping away. They often plop their kids in your hands as props. We are no doubt famous in India.
You realize there are three groups in India. People in the fast paced big cities are westernized and you don't see or feel traditional India. Then people like our driver who comes from a small village but works hard to send his kids to private schools and his daughter is entering medical school next year. He knows that his children will leave the village and choose "love marriage" vs "arranged marriage" and he is ok with this as he sees this as progress. The third group is the traditional people in the countryside. Life is changing and I know we will be back to see more soon!