India – one of the largest countries in the world, in both land size and population. Last year I had a chance to visit this amazing country for a week-long work trip that took me from New Delhi, to Bangalore to Mumbai. Well brief in nature, this trip introduced me to three of the largest cities in India; it was shocking and intense, warm and colourful, fascinating and disheartening all at once.
As is often the case with work travel, this trip was filled with multiple flights, countless hotel check-ins, long days and sometimes longer nights. Left with little time to actually explore the cities themselves, I was only able to uncover a tiny fraction of understanding in each of the places I stayed. It was enough, however, to open my eyes to the many fascinating qualities of this country. Here are a few thoughts and observations that defined my time in India.
Traffic and chaos.
What I experienced in Delhi (to the locals it’s simply Delhi) was unlike anything I’ve seen before. It seems like no rules apply when driving here. Yet there are rules, the most prominent one I discovered being the use of your vehicle’s horn. I have never heard so much honking in my life! At first I thought, wow, people must be really angry drivers (an observation based on our use of horns in North America), but in India the horn is simply a means of communication to say “I’m here”, “I’m passing you”, “I’m turning” – pretty well every move a car makes is communicated via horn. Staying in your lane is not common practice, in fact on many roads there are no lanes. Common sights along your drive may include cows ambling along the road (considered sacred in India, they are given free-reign of the country), Rickshaws – tiny open-air vehicles that weave in and out of traffic hurriedly carrying a passenger or two, and scooters or motorbikes often carrying a whole family – babies included, helmets not included.
Side streets of Delhi, with a parked Rickshaw.
History and culture.
This country has both in abundance. From ancient times, to the medieval era, from early modernization to current day India, there is so much history here. Driving around Delhi, past the grand Delhi parliament complex, over to India Gate, a grand war monument in the middle of the city, provided a quick glimpse into some of the city’s historical sites. A visit to Dilli Haat, one of the best markets I’ve ever visited, is a great introduction to India’s culture. Checking out the artisan stalls, you see examples of handicrafts and artwork from across the country with an emphasis on painting and embroideries from Northern India. While here I purchased and incredible painting that now hangs in my dining room at home – it’s my most treasured travel purchase to date.
India Gate, New Delhi
Market shopping at Dilli Haat, New Delhi
Heading south from Delhi to Bangalore (Bengaluru), one can notice that this city feels different. Not only does Bangalore have more of a tropical feel, they city seems more modern in some ways. The technology capital of India, with an emerging emphasis on education and industry, it’s a city that is experiencing population growth and boasts one of the strongest economies in India.
View from my hotel, Bangalore
Mumbai (still largely referred to as Bombay) is the largest city in India. A sprawling city that lies on the coast of the Arabian Sea, Mumbai is the home of Bollywood – the institution that has introduced Indian culture to the world through music, films and television. It has a younger, more dynamic feel than Delhi – its a city where many young working professionals live, work and play.
In all that was wonderful about my visit to this country, I cannot write this blog entry without commenting on the social disparity. It was unlike anything I have seen before. I think what struck me most deeply was the juxtaposition of lavish wealth and astounding poverty. Flying into Mumbai the vastness of the slums is overwhelming. From the sky this is almost all you see. Tin rooftops, crumbling structures, garbage and dirt. It seems to go on forever. Down the street from my Mumbai hotel (set in one of the richest areas of the city) was the Dharavi slum – one of the largest slums in the world. Every day wealthy locals drive past this slum to their comfortable jobs, and back to their luxurious homes. It’s a reality I cannot imagine. What’s even more unbelievable to me is the emerging tourism market that promotes and conducts “slum tourism”. Turning poverty into entertainment, Westerners can take a tour and gawk at the locals. Human curiosity aside, this is something I will never understand.
Warmth and hospitality.
A common observation across this large country was the warmth and hospitality of the people. In the interactions I had with students and families, I always felt welcomed. There was vibrancy and a sense of pride I saw in all those I connected with. Food also serves to bring people together in India, as it does in many cultures around the world. To comment on the food in India, and the variations across this vast country, would be another blog entry completely. Let’s just say it is really, really, really good.
Sunset in Mumbai
India is a country of many extremes. It’s not an easy place to travel, and not a place I would recommend for those who are new to the travel game. But it’s a place that left me with a lasting impression; one that I have yet to experience anywhere else.
What to read?
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
OK, so technically this is a work of fiction. It is, however, loosely based on India’s transition from British colonialism to independence. It also provides a social commentary on the cultural differences across the country. A controversial book in India (Rushdie was sued by India’s Prime Minister in 1984 and asked to remove a sentence that she felt directly defamed her and her family), Midnight’s Children was positively received in Western countries, winning the Booker Prize in 1981. Well not a history book, it is an entertaining story that offers some insight on growing up in India during a rapidly changing era.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
When I first read this book back in 2004, I was overwhelmed by the story. Reading it again more recently left me with a similar sensation – this is a book that will hold up over time. It’s a story of knowledge, of disparity, of courage and personal triumph. “Pi”, a boy from Southern India, sets out on a quest for spirituality and later finds himself stranded alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. His only companions are animals, he shares his escape with a ferocious tiger and he must reconcile his fears in order to survive. Martel, a Canadian author, is an amazing storyteller. This is a highly emotional book that will excite your imagination. In my opinion, it’s a must read for all.