India is my favorite place to travel. After my first trip in 2014, I left after just 6 weeks with mixed feelings. Honestly, I had a difficult time traveling there, due to the intense heat (I went in May!), bad food poisoning, and culture shock. However, I understood that there was so much that I had missed- and the little I did get to experience in those six weeks left me enamored and fascinated with the country. I subsequently started teaching myself Hindi and planned another, longer trip to India.
In August 2016 I left the U.S. and headed to Mumbai, where I stayed in a little suburb village called Marve Beach, with a friend I had met on my first trip. My goal of the trip?
I wanted to make the unfamiliar familiar. I wanted to experience life from an Indian point of view as much as possible. I also wanted to improve my Hindi.
I spent my six months in India mostly just hanging out around my friend’s house and spending time with my new group of friends. Every night, after the heat of the day had passed, I’d head out onto Marve Beach with my friends and eat pani puri and channa masala from little carts. Sometimes I’d drink wine or beer and we’d stand around blasting Hindi music from our little bluetooth speaker. My friend’s auntie would come every day and cook delicious Indian foods (her dal, mutton curry, and anda curry were my favorites!).
I also spent some time traveling in Ladakh, where I did a several day trek that went over 16,600 feet! After Ladakh I went to Dharamshala where I did a month long yoga teacher training course at Kailash Tribal Yoga School.
As you can probably imagine, spending six months in India changed me in some ways. Here is a short list:
- I started doing the head-wobble automatically. Even after being back in the U.S. for two months, I still find myself doing the head wobble on occasion, which probably confuses some people, although I think it’s quite intuitive. For those who don’t know what the head wobble is, it’s a back and forth wobbly motion of the head, and can be used to say “yes, “no” “maybe” “sure”, etc.
- I began to feel calm riding in crazy traffic on the back of a motorbike or in a rickshaw. At first, every venture out into the congested streets would nearly give me a panic attack. I would cringe a lot and hold my breath, waiting for an inevitable crash. However, after a couple weeks, the panic response in my body was gone and I became used to the chaos and honking. A few times I nearly fell asleep on the back of the bike, even though we were weaving in and out of crazy traffic and there was loud honking everywhere.
- I started thinking in Hindi sometimes, instead of English. Not long, drawn out conversations with myself because my Hindi is still not advanced, but little phrases began to trickle into my stream of thoughts. Some things just make more sense in Hindi. I still automatically respond by saying some things in Hindi these days even though no one else around me can understand, like “arre yaar”, or “aram se!” or “haan”, or “chutiya” (shhh, don’t tell, I learned all the bad slang words in Hindi!). I also dream in Hindi.
- My Hindi improved. So, I had grand plans of taking daily Hindi lessons when I was in India, but that didn’t end up happening. In fact, I didn’t formally practice Hindi once the entire time I was there! However, just being there and hearing Hindi every day and reading the Hindi script everywhere by default helped me to improve my Hindi comprehension and speaking skills. I became proud of myself for being able to carry on short conversations with taxi drivers in Hindi and shopkeepers. One of the best feelings was to surprise people by speaking Hindi, or when gathered with new friends, to say funny things in Hindi which made everyone laugh. It is still a goal to become fully fluent in Hindi!
- My perceptions on how men are in India changed. The media likes to horribilize things, as we all know. India is commonly viewed to be an extremely unsafe place for women to travel because they will get raped or assaulted. In some areas where there is less education the men may have certain ideas about Western women being easy and may be less respectful. India is a huge country and this is not the case everywhere. I hung out with so many groups of Indian guy friends, and they treated me like a sister! Like, almost to the point where they were too respectful (is that possible?). It is obviously necessary to take precautions when traveling as a single women in India, the same you would do anywhere- don’t wander alone at night, don’t be too friendly with strange men, don’t go out drinking by yourself. It’s best to dress in modest Indian style clothes and to follow the lead of how local Indian women act. But, I guess what I’m trying to say is, please don’t think most men in India are creeps. Many are more respectful to women than the men in the U.S.!
- I became desensitized to poverty. I think my first trip to India desensitized me from poverty. I stopped noticing it as much. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. But one thing that became apparent to me is that just because people don’t have a lot of physical resources doesn’t mean they can’t be happy. I took a tour of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. The tour guide mentioned that the government had built high rise apartments on the outskirts of the slums and gave them to families to live in for absolutely free. However, after some time, a lot of people began moving back down into the slum because they missed the feeling of community. I think it’s common for Westerners to see people living in slums and think “oh my god, look at those poor people! How sad!”. I don’t know if that is the most helpful attitude, and I’m not sure if people living in slums would like to be viewed like that. A lot of slum residents work really hard and have built up industries and businesses within the slum and have pride in their work.
- I became more assertive. India forced me to step out of my comfort zone and be more assertive in some instances- like when a taxi driver tried to scam me. I stood up for myself and even yelled at him “Kya tum pagal ho?!!!” (are you crazy??!). As a introverted person who hates confrontation, this was a big step for me!
- I became better at bargaining and accustomed to cheap prices. Back in the day, used to feel really awkward bargaining and uneasy discussing prices with people. On one occasion, one of my friends laughed at me for not asking for a discount on a scarf I bought in a small fixed price shop (which was only $3). “But- the tag said fixed price on it!”, I retorted. “It doesn’t matter- you ALWAYS ask for a discount. Always!”, he said. Ever since then I felt motivated to bargain, not only to save money, but because it is expected and people would think I was a foolish, naive foreigner for not bargaining. I realized how Indian my thinking had become when I met some friends in Goa and saw them leaving huge tips (well it seemed huge to me) and said they tipped the taxi driver…I was thinking “what????” but then I remembered that on my first trip to India I was tipping like crazy and wouldn’t try to bargain very much.
- I became used to not having much privacy and experienced becoming part of the community. Often, at the house I was staying at, neighbors would freely come in and out of the house. Sometimes I’d be sitting there, doing work on my laptop and look up to see one of the neighborhood’s older Uncle’s standing there, asking me in Hindi how I was and if I’d eaten yet today. Often the neighborhood girls would come in and hang out with me and ask for chocolates and to take silly pictures on my laptop. There is such a sense of community there! I think it would be really strange in the U.S. if our neighbors just came and went from our homes, but it was normal there.
- Overall, I feel I have a greater understanding of Indian culture, mindsets, and lifestyles. Of course, India is a HUGE country with incredible amounts of cultural diversity. But I feel I understand at least a part of it a lot more than before. And just the little cultural intricacies- like not drinking from the mouth of a water bottle (pouring it into your mouth so that you can pass it around and share it hygienically), eating with my hands, using a spoon to scoop food from a shared dish into my palm and tossing it into my mouth, dressing regularly in Indian kurtas and leggings, knowing all the hit Bollywood songs-I feel comfortable with the little nuances of the culture which I didn’t know about before.
Bonus #11: Water vs Toilet paper. Need I say more? After using exclusively water to clean my rear end for 6 months, using only toilet paper feels utterly disgusting and unhygienic. Gross!
These are just 10 ways that India has changed me. Maybe I need a part II?