India: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The Good

The food

Bhol puri - an example of India's amazing street food.
Bhol puri – an example of India’s amazing street food.

Freshly made pakoras and samosas; greasy garlic naan bread; creamy butter chicken; cheap and cheerful dosa; yummy dahl; all the curry you could ever want; bhol puri (the best street food ever). Life in India can easily revolve around your next culinary fix, and always for an unbelievably cheap price.

Feeling like the most popular person on the planet

Ever fantasised about being a famous celebrity? Now you are! In India everybody wants to be your friend. Smiles and hellos follow you wherever you go, and everyone wants to get a photograph with you. Admittedly, this can get tiresome when it’s the 30th time today and, actually, you just want to walk down the street in peace. But it never failed to put a smile on my face when a child squealed with sheer delight because you waved back at them. This also settles the age-old debate: blondes do have more fun (in India, anyway).

Experiencing the public transport

Cycle rickshaws are one of many ways to get around.
Cycle rickshaws are one of many ways to get around.

From the modern metro in Delhi (complete with air-conditioning and female-only carriages) to the rusty rickshaws bumping their way through congested city streets, getting around in India is always an adventure. The trains are legendary and for a very good reason. Where else in the world are you provided your own flask of boiling water with which to enjoy multiple cups of tea en route (included in the ticket price in most A/C classes)? Sleeper trains are a great way to meet locals and the food provided is actually good. You even get ice cream for dessert. Winning.

 Tea-time

Chai stand in the alleyways of Old Delhi.
Chai stand in the alleyways of Old Delhi.

Speaking of tea, India is a brew-lover’s dream. Black tea is of excellent quality and widely-available. Masala tea (otherwise known as chai) is a reviving sup and the scummier the roadside shack, the better the tea (a fail-safe rule). On trains you can buy a cup of masala tea from the chai man for 10p (you’ll identify him as he walks through the carriage shouting “Chai! Chai! Chai!”. It’s perfect for a spicy wake-up call after an overnight journey. Indian men can be found drinking and gossiping by tea shacks all over the country.

The Bad

Sweet tooth

Jalebi is basically deep-fried syrup. And damn, it's good.
Jalebi, the Indian equivalent of a wedding cake, is basically deep-fried syrup. And damn, it’s good.

Indians are big on sugar. They sneak it into everything, from curries to lassis, tea and coffee. Get used to asking for no sugar with every drink unless you’re a big fan of the sweet stuff. Often hospitality staff wouldn’t accept that I wanted black tea without milk or sugar, and would insist on bringing me the sugar pot in case I realised the error of my ways. Pack a decent toothbrush for your trip to India.

Feeling hot, hot, hot

I travelled in India at the beginning of their winter, hoping to find the climate more manageable for my white English skin. Unfortunately, the north was experiencing an unseasonably warm autumn and temperatures were in the high 30’s pretty much every day. Add to this that in respect to the local culture you must keep covered up from ankles to shoulders and you get one sweaty tourist after a day of sight-seeing.

Getting scammed

A slum community in Ahmedabad.
A slum community in Ahmedabad.

India is a poor, poor country. People are desperate and many are living a day-to-day existence. This means there are a fair few scams to be aware of. From the helpful locals offering to show you the ‘government’ tourist office (their mate’s overpriced gaff from which they can rake in some commission), toilet ‘attendants’ who trap you in the bathroom until you pay them for the privilege of pissing in a hole in the floor, or rickshaw drivers ripping you off, there’s a lot to watch out for. Scams are common all over Asia and standing your ground is the only way to get out of them. On the other hand, sometimes for the sake of 20p it’s worth paying to avoid the fuss.

The Ugly

Poverty shock

We’ve all heard of culture shock, although I tend to view myself as pretty un-shockable on the whole. India is the first country I’ve visited where I experienced what I would call ‘poverty shock’. The way some people are living is hard to stomach. In cities such as Delhi there are people sleeping on the streets everywhere you go. Slums and shanty towns are prolific, and people often lack basic amenities such as fresh water or toilets. Beggars are all over the place; disabled people are firmly on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. It’s difficult to witness and I had an overwhelming feeling that India is in too deep to ever improve the situation. So much of the nation’s population is living on the breadline – where do they begin to tackle the issue? It’s easy to forgive the scammers, beggars and touts their desperation if you take a second to look around you.

Too dirty to clean their act up

Cows forage in the rubbish.
Goats forage in the rubbish.

India is covered, and I mean covered, with litter. It’s piled in the streets, in all the waterways, in ditches and dykes and drains. It’s such an issue that, as with the poverty problem, you wouldn’t know where to begin to clean it up. People do make efforts to clean, which is why despite the amount of cows everywhere you aren’t likely to see any signs of their defecation. But at times it feels like the country is one gigantic rubbish bin. Add to this the smell from filthy streams and rivers (often used as a public toilet), plus the most horrendous pollution I’ve ever experienced in my life, and you’ll always be in need of a good shower after a day outside in a city. Your skin, clothes and hair are constantly covered in a layer of black dust. And if you choose to wear open-toed shoes, your feet will be another level of dirty.

Who let the dogs out?

This dog ruled the train station in Ahmedabad.
This dog ruled the train station in Ahmedabad.

The only time I was scared in India was when I thought I was about to be attacked by a pack of dogs on the beach in Goa. It was terrifying. They surrounded me, barking aggressively, so I threw handfuls of sand at them as a deterrent (the locals throw stones at them – something I would never do, but equally I didn’t fancy catching rabies). As I huddled on a sun lounger, quivering with fear, a local Indian guy came over and thankfully walked me safely back to my beach hut. The street dogs in India are numerous. Most are painfully thin and look in ill health. It’s a good idea to always give them a wide berth as their feral nature makes them very unpredictable. If you fear an attack, miming throwing a stone is a good way to scare them off.

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