7 observations from 6 weeks in India

As I scooped a pile of rice off my plate, I was hesitantly observing my surroundings for cues on how to correctly eat with my hands. I had done it before in Indonesia, but never in front of an audience of hundreds. Now in India, the stakes had never been higher with all the eyes on me. I didn’t exactly blend in with the crowd at this small-town temple.

One of my new roommates, and soon-to-be friend, must have noticed my apprehension. He didn’t speak much English, but he signaled to those who did, to instruct me how to correctly eat rice without silverware.

“Cup your four fingers into a half cylinder and use your thumb to eject the food into your mouth,” he explained through our translator.

The lightbulb went on for me. I realized it was so much easier than I was making it. I could now eat rice like a local.

The rice experience was a little microcosm of my life here in India over the past six weeks. I’ve bounced around on trains, planes, and buses from Mumbai all the way down to the southern tip of the country, Kerala.

Being thrust into such a new environment has been rejuvenating, but also challenging.

I’ve learned that India, the world’s most populous nation, is wonderfully diverse. Traveling from one state to the next is like traveling to a new country in some respects: The state populations are bigger than many countries, they speak different languages, and have diverse customs, cultures, and religions.

Therefore, it’s nearly impossible to generalize India into a listicle blog post, but I can report on what I’ve experienced thus far during the past month and a half.

Here are seven observations:

1) Culinary customs

Learning the local cuisine and how to eat it is a fine art while traveling around India. Every region has its typical dishes that include items such as highly spiced curries, doughs that are turned into pancake-esque parathas or tortilla-like chapathis, and freshly squeezed sugarcane whose juice is irresistible in the baking, tropical heat.

It’d be impossible to name all the types of food, but I can confidently say Indians love their potent masalas (spice mixtures ground into a paste), which are often accompanied by rice or roti/chapathi (types of bread). Learning all the names of each food definitely takes some time and skill, something I am still working on.

During my travels in the south of India, I have observed that nearly everyone eats with their hands. From what I’ve been told, they are more inclined to use utensils in the north, but I can’t speak to that yet. You have to get used to having messy hands here in the south. Restaurants will always have a sink near the dining area to wash your hands before and after eating.

Southern Indians often eat meals sitting on the floor. I stayed with some friends in their surf house near the beach and every night we came together for dinner, sitting on the floor and eating with our hands. The house didn’t even have a table to eat at if we wanted.

India is perhaps the best country in the world for vegetarians. Many Indians are vegetarian for religious purposes and vegetarian plates are usually the main section of a restaurant menu. However, as a vegan, it’s a bit more complicated. Indians love their dairy products and you have to tip-toe around their fondness of milk.

My good friend Tanvi whipped up some excellent chapathi, soup, and veggie mix.
Uttapam is like a rice batter pancake type deal cooked with tomatoes and onions and served with a mild sauce. Super good.
For the first day of the Navaratri festival we had a special lunch with these banana leaves as plates. Tanvi, India’s super-star standup paddle racer, is on the left.
When it was my turn to cook we made tacos and listened to reggaeton.
Fresh sugar cane juice with lemon and ginger. Yum.

2) Language is fascinating

For some reason, prior to coming to India, I assumed that most people (all?) spoke English to some extent.

I was mistaken.

India is an incredible linguistic melting pot and many Indians are bilingual, if not trilingual, but English isn’t always as helpful as I imagined.

The country has 22 official languages. The north of the country features languages that mainly come from the Indo-Aryan language family. Hindi, which comes from this group, is the most universally spoken and somewhat of a lingua franca.

Still, only 43% of Indians speak Hindi as their mother tongue — the rest speak it to varying degrees that range from fluent to not speaking it at all, as is often the case here in the south.

In the south, the languages come from the Dravidian family, a language family native to India that is recognized as having some of the oldest tongues in the world.

I always enjoy learning the basics of a local language wherever I travel, but India makes it tough. Literally, every time I get on a bus or train, the language spoken where I board is not the language spoken when I get off.

During my three-week stay in Udupi, I started to catch onto the basic phrases of their local language, Tulu. But now that I had hopped one state to the south, my elementary Tulu is almost worthless. The local language of the state of Kerala is Malayalam.

Then there is English. From what I’ve noticed, those from the middle class, with access to education, from big urban centers, or working in the tourism industry, tend to speak English to varying degrees. Some are 100% fluent, while others can just get by. Estimates say about 10% of the population is proficient in English.

I’ve had to adapt my American English a bit to be understood, too.

For example, no one knows what you mean when you ask for the “restroom.” You have to ask for the “washroom” in India. That curry mix they are serving you at the restaurant, that’s called “gravy”, not the gravy we eat on Thanksgiving. When someone says they “stay” in India, they are really saying they “live” there. And when you are talking about sums of money, I have had to learn what they mean by a “lakh” (100k) and a “crore” (10 million).

When I told my neighbor on the train that I am a writer, she understood rider, and asked me what type of vehicle I ride. The way my American accent blended the ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds threw her off. I have been focusing on pronouncing the ‘t’ in writer more clearly so I can be understood.

As a language enthusiast, it’s been fun learning about language distribution in the country. It also is fascinating to me to think how many citizens are unable to communicate with others from a different region because they don’t share a language in common.

This graph shows the percentage of people that speak Hindi in each state. As you can see, the north and south have a big divide. Source.

3) There is plenty of surf

Whilst traveling down the coast of India, believe it or not, I have been surfing nearly every day.

India is not known as a surfing country, but there is plenty of coastlines exposed to the same south Indian Ocean swells that pound Australia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.

That said, the quality of waves isn’t typically world-class, but there are plenty of fun nooks and crannies to surf. I’ve definitely suited up for worse waves before at home in California!

As far as Indian surf culture, it’s in its nascent stages, but it’s catching on. There are many surf schools popping up around the country, and my friends at Kadal Surf School in Udupi say there is more demand for classes than they can handle. Rumor has it the Indians are forming their first surf team to compete in next year’s Olympic qualifier as well.

Surf lessons at Kadal Surf School in Udupi.
Going for a surf with Ram at Mantra Surf Club in Mulki.
Dozens of surf sessions and one photo snapped with an iPhone to show for it. Surfing in Varkala.

4) Religion

Religion pulses through the veins of nearly every aspect of Indian culture. Temples, mosques, and churches abound throughout the country, in apparent harmony, at least from my outsider’s perspective. Between Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Buddhism, India has a diverse range of religions, but Hinduism is the most predominant. After all, the ancient name of the region is Hindustan, or ‘land of Hindus.’

My arrival in the town of Udupi coincided with the first day of the Hindu festival Navaratri, which literally translates to ‘nine nights’ in Sanskrit. It’s a nine-night, ten-day festival that celebrates a Hindu goddess, with each day of the festival containing unique symbolism.

My friends in Udupi are rather devout Hindus, so I was essentially converted for ten days to attend temple with them. We went to the mall to purchase a traditional “lungi” for me, which is a type of male wrap that goes around your waist and covers your legs.

I then attended temple every day of Navaratri, sometimes twice per day, for the next ten days. I learned the whole ritual: take off your shoes, wash your feet, say a prayer (be careful not to stand directly in front of the shrine), walk around the perimeter, sip the holy water, dab your forehead with sandalwood, and then go enjoy buffet-style lunch.

The big meals were the main attraction of each day. Every temple fed thousands of people for free with an impressive production line that was cranking out child-sized cauldrons of rice and vegetarian sides like there was no tomorrow. The food was roughly the same every day, so after 10 days, I was ready for a change.

I am pretty sure these small-town temples, far from any tourist attractions, had never had a foreigner attending their Navaratri festivals, so people were definitely staring at me, not out of disdain, but shock. Despite feeling like an alien, the people always made me feel very welcome. Folks would strike up a conversation and tell me about all their relatives in Pittsburgh or how the guitarist from Soundgarden is from the southern state of Kerala. One temple even did a special offering just for me, which required a crash course lesson on how to properly accept such a gift of bananas.

Getting fitted for my lungi.
Navaratri day 1 of 98394004 with the Kadal Surf School crew.

5) Arranged marriage

I had a general idea that arranged marriages existed in India, but I didn’t realize how prominent the practice is. 90% of Indian marriages are arranged, as in parents seek out a partner for their son or daughter. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone and there is a divide between more conservative and liberal areas.

From what I’ve understood, it’s becoming more acceptable to find your own partner, which Indians refer to as “love marriage.” The fact choosing your own partner is called a love marriage seems a bit ironic to me, because isn’t it a bit implied that marriage includes love?

I’ve found it interesting to observe dating in this context. It has so many implications. I’ve seen people who are stressed out by the idea of getting an arranged marriage, looking for a reason to delay, and heard of others who look forward to the practice. I sense that in some cases it removes the pressure of dating and finding a partner like we experience in the west — if you don’t find a partner you can always fall back on the traditional method.

6) The TP paradox

The fact that Indians use the hole-in-the-ground style toilets that are prevalent around the continent, and the world for that matter, is not what surprises me. What I find funny is that what “grosses” out westerners about Indian bathrooms is exactly what grosses out Indians about western bathrooms.

Westerners are not used to using a hose to clean after using the toilet. Meanwhile, Indians can’t imagine going number 2 and not cleaning with water. They are not fans of the dry wipe, and I kind of get it.

It just goes to show how relative our perspectives are.

7) Beach pollution

I don’t want to paint a negative image of a country that I have found spectacular, but I got to tell the truth: The trash problem on the beaches of India is extreme.

Let me tell a story.

My first full day in Udupi I was riding my scooter around getting a lay of the land, checking the sand bars to see where I would find the best waves. As I was sitting alone on a relatively empty stretch of beach, an elderly woman dressed in colorful, traditional clothing emerged from the beach-side cottages with a bag of trash.

She gave me a quick look of acknowledgment, cracking a slight welcoming smile, and then proceeded to open up the trash bag and nonchalantly dump the entire pile of waste on the sand. I was watching her incredulously, wondering why she would do such a thing. But as an outsider, I didn’t dare say a word.

When I told this story to my friends, they informed me that there is in fact a trash collection service, but some people just find it more convenient to dump it on the beach. They don’t care, or lack education about the consequences of their actions.

Anyway, my little experience with the old woman in Udupi is a small example of a big problem. Most of beaches are littered with trash, even in the more remote areas. In the metro areas, it’s a borderline catastrophe. The water looks like a guaranteed nasal infection, at best.

I know pollution is not a unique problem to India, but damn, the littering problem has been extreme in my journey down the coast.

A random stretch of beach in the southern state of Kerala.
You could not pay me enough money to swim in the bay of Mumbai.

The future: A blank slate

I’ve now traveled nearly the entire length of India’s west coast, from Mumbai to Kerala. Along the way I’ve participated in festivals, stayed in hostels, crashed on friends’ sofas, surfed, taught surfing, ridden trains, and met a host of new people, some I can now call friends.

I am coming up on the one-year anniversary of my travel around the globe, and the trip is taking on a different direction, or lack thereof.

Up until now I have had a clear goal and mission, always with my next destination in mind, and a reason to go there. I went to Brazil to learn Portuguese, to Chile and Colombia to visit friends, to California to attend a wedding, and to Indonesia to surf some of the best waves in the world.

Now I have reached the southern tip of India and I am thinking, what next? Do I hop over to Sri Lanka? Linger in India’s south? Head north to the Himalayas?

It’s not necessarily a bad thing — just a new orientation of my travels. It requires a bit of mental recalibration to keep the motivation to travel alive. My inner voice goes back and forth between staying here longer and getting a new stamp in my passport.

I suppose it’s a ‘good’ problem to have — the problem I’ve been yearning to have.

I’ll end this post with a Gandhi quote I read at a Mumbai museum that I find to be increasingly relevant for my travel:

“There come to us moments in life when, about some things, we need no proof from without. A little voice within us tells us you are on the right track, move neither to your left nor right, but kept to the straight and narrow way.”

“There are moments in life when you must act, even though you cannot carry your best friends with you. The ‘still small voice’ within you must always be the final arbiter when there is a conflict of duty.”

“I shall lose my usefulness the moment I stifle the still small voice from within.”


One thought on “7 observations from 6 weeks in India

  1. Thank you for another wonderful article about your travels. I love the way you weave history, information, observations, insights, and personal experiences. I particularly love the pictures of the smiling faces of the friends. You must attach the skim lesson video to this.
    I am reminded of your kindergarten teacher, Shan, stopping me one day to tell me how amazed she was of your knowledge of the world. She had pulled down the world map and asked if anyone knew where Ireland was. You raised your hand and walked up to the map and showed the class the location. She asked about a few more places and your hand went up each time. You also identified the capitol cities and exports! Your sister,Erin, spent the summer before kindergarten focused on maps and geography. We had a summer full of books, games and maps related to her chosen summer theme. So, thank you, Erin!
    Keep listening to that inner voice ❤️❤️❤️


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s