21 Things I Learned While in India

I leave India tomorrow morning. My feelings about leaving are as complex as the country itself. Part of me doesn’t care about going home at all; part of me wants to leave and never return.

Here I can buy two dresses for $6 and see the most exquisite monuments ever built. But the pollution became nearly intolerable and one bears witness to intense visual and emotional chaos; extreme poverty with slums filled with trash, beggers, and floods of people, traffic, activity and constant noise.

The massive complexity of India led me to one epiphany; it’s an experience I will be processing for quite some time. In the meantime, here are a few interesting things worth sharing.

21 Things I Learned and Experienced in India:

  • Fair skin is a big deal here. I felt like a celebrity here; people staring wherever we went and requesting pictures with me. On the second day, I told Jon Cryer that I understood what he goes through. It’s amusing, flattering, awkward and unsettling all at once.
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The kids all want to know your name, where you are from and shake your hand. And they LOVE getting their pictures taken with you.

  • Got to experience paparazzi and walking the “red carpet” with Hollywood & Bollywood celebrities. Asked Jon and his wife Lisa Joyner how it compared with Hollywood; they said it was more intense and more chaotic here. I understood this after I got fully mobbed by 40 Indian guys.
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I had to take three different pictures to capture all the guys who mobbed me. And they all want to have a picture with THEIR camera. So that took a small chunk out of my afternoon.

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I left the hotel not realizing I’d be walking a red carpet. Or I totally would have done my hair differently. One of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had… especially since it was a surprise.

  • The lanes on the road are a “mild suggestion” – not a rule. Potential head on collisions didn’t faze me after a few days. Indian drivers are the kings of  last minute lane changes and they stay perfectly calm despite passing oncoming traffic with a margin that should have required a lubricant. Every car has “Keep Distance” written on the back. That is a serious waste of paint.
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We were in a rickshaw in this photo and our bike got T-boned by a car going 2 mph. Our driver yelled at him for 10 seconds and we were off again.

  • After two weeks, I’m still not sure what – if anything – is considered a traffic violation. In India, drivers assume the other person will violate traffic laws; in the U.S., we assume the other person will follow the traffic laws. Apparently, fatal accidents aren’t that common in India for this very reason.
  • The streets are packed with cars, busses, rickshaws, pedestrians, tuk tuks, cows, dogs, motorcycles; everyone is going all different directions but somehow it all seems to move. Beeping is used to “talk” to everyone around you and it is CONSTANT.
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Remarkably, this traffic moves. It’s like Tetris with traffic. Take your busiest freeway during rush hour and fill the empty spots with pedestrians and cows. That’s India for you.

  • A tourist bus is one of the fastest moving vehicles on the road. We fearlessly passed everybody. Nothing makes locals light up and wave more than a tourist bus.
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This guy wanted me to sketch my number on the bus window so he could call me. Cause I clearly have a local number and my boyfriend, (photographing the whole charade), obviously wouldn’t mind.

  • You can actually get four people on a motorcycle. Five if two of them are babies being held in the mother’s arms. (Yes, we saw that). It’s very common to see a toddler squashed between two adults on a scooter. Because that is clearly the safest way to transport a kid across town.
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Ladies often ride side-saddle and half the time, they barely seem to have both butt cheeks on the bike.

  • In India, you’ll see plenty of dogs, horses, cows, goats, pigs, camels, monkeys, peacocks – and maybe even an elephant – walking on the streets, laying around town… pretty much everywhere.
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The cow moved when we took this picture and totally freaked me out.

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Only the Americans reading this are swooning. Most Indians look aggrieved when you mention monkeys.

  • Trash is EVERYWHERE, in large amounts. And animals are wading through it looking for food. Few areas were cleaned up (only palaces were immaculately kept). Seemed like virtually all the storefronts, homes and streets had trash out front, all around, everywhere.
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This broke my heart… trash piled up along the road. So many jobs could be created to clean up the towns… So much work to be done, so many people in poverty; let’s match it up and fix this.

  • The smog became nearly untolerable in Agra (near the Taj Mahal). If you comment on the smog, the locals insist that it is fog. No one seems to acknowledge that it is actually pollution. Trust me, that was NOT fog. This was what got me passionate about leaving India at the end of the trip.
  • My first sight of the Taj Mahal stopped me in my tracks. It is exquisitely gorgeous; it felt like walking into a fairytale. I could have stared at it for hours. It is unreal in it’s magical quality.

Hey Taj, don’t take this the wrong way, but I actually think you’re prettier from a distance. I can say that because we now have the Atlantic Ocean between us.

  • I found it fascinating that two Bollywood stars (Dia Mirza and Gulshan Grover) both attributed their success to having prayed and dreamed intensely for their success. There is power in that. Don’t forget intention along with action!
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Hitting the red carpet with Jackie Shroff & Gulshan Grover. True to form, I couldn’t resist moving to the music playing and Jackie complimented me on my dancing.😀

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Dinner with Gulshan Grover. He wanted us to email him a copy of this photo. Probably because a film star who has acted in over 400 movies doesn’t have enough photos of himself.

  • You can have dental work done by a self-proclaimed dentist sitting on a blanket on the sidewalk. I would have taken a picture but the shock of seeing this prevented me from acting fast enough.
  • Hospitality in India; whether staying at a royal palace or at a bed & breakfast was phenomenal. We arrived at the Taj Falaknuma Palace by a horse drawn carriage. As we walked up the stairs to enter the castle, fragrant rose petals were gently tossed upon us from the balconies.
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Staying at a palace means you are treated like royalty from start to finish, in every way, every day. The nuances and details of hospitality were simply divine.

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I picked up a handful to take with me. They were so fragrant and beautiful… arriving at night and being showered with petals as we arrived was simply magical.

  • Don’t ask how I know this, but when a camel gets aroused, it shakes it’s head and makes weird gurgling noises. This is a good time to leave the camel alone.
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In case you were wondering, camels don’t wear these outfits at home. Just when they go out.

  • Girls aren’t allowed to play cricket. But it’s a huge sport in India. The local kids let us play with them; however, I struck out three times, even with a guy helping me swing the stupid “bat”. Michael immediately and miraculously became a cricket rockstar and hit two beautiful shots on his first try. Cricket is stupid.
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On the third attempt I really just wanted to swing it like a golf club. I might have had a shot at making contact given that the ball seemed to land near my ankles each time.

  • I danced to a lot of live traditional Indian music. While the music and lyrics were totally foreign to me, and my movements were totally foreign to the musicians, we merged and connected in ways that reminded me why I love dancing. Once I figured out how to merge my movements with their music, it wove us together in mutual appreciation. The challenge of this gave me a huge high.
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Between songs they would sit quietly for several minutes; I didn’t understand why; I’m used to bands going right into the next song, so I just stood there staring at them waiting for another song. I eventually learned to sit down and just wait.

  • Before you go negotiating for merchandise in a foreign country, make sure you REALLY grasp the exchange rate. I spent 15 minutes fighting with a guy to give me two dresses for 210 rupees, which I later learned was equivalent to $3.50. My final offer was only 6 cents over my original offer. This led him to violently throw the dresses back into the rack, stalk away and scowl at me like I was a heinous criminal. After my tour guide intervened, we settled on $5.83. She got an earful from him on what a horrendous person I was. Look buddy; I’m not cheap, I’m on vacation. I don’t do math on vacation.
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Check out the dress I got for $3.00! I’m sure the guy is still cursing my name to anyone who will listen. I’m probably the reason he now hates all Americans.

  • When you go into a store, once you start looking at merchandise, someone will stand immediately next to you the entire time. Sometimes they don’t say anything. Apparently it doesn’t have anything to do with the value of the item you are looking at; my buddy with the $3 dresses did the same thing. The only time we talked/fought was after I asked how much.
  • I cannot emphasize enough the importance of sticking to toast as your last meals before you (and your travel companions)  start the trek of a 22 hour flight back home. Bad time to risk food poisoning. I know because I’m sitting right next to it.

Breakfast at the Taj Falaknuma. “Um… I’ll have an omelet and mango juice… And can we get a little less “fog” so we can see the city we are towering over? Please?”

  • Keep toilet paper on you everywhere you go. On the rare occasions that I was blessed with TP, it was allocated to me on my way inside the bathroom. And I only got two sheets. Single ply. And don’t forget to tip them for this grand generosity.

These reflect only the experiences I had in Delhi, Jodhpur, Hyderabad and Agra. Other parts of India may be completely different. For this trip I was traveling with a group of 65 American philanthropists to launch a clean water program in Hyderabad. 

We had the honor of having actor Jon Cryer, talk show host Lisa Joyner, hollywood producer John Williams (Shrek, Seven Years in Tibet), playwright Gretchen Cryer and Journalist Lee Cullum included in our group. The trip was led by former US Ambassador to India Richard Celeste and his wife Jacqueline. 

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A remarkable trip of fascinating experiences with a phenomenal group of people!

About Epiphany

epiphanies on life and spiritual living as I chase wisdom - one insight at a time.

Posted on January 14, 2014, in Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. This is an incredible blog. I wished I would have done this when I returned from India in 2010. I leave for Kolkata in a couple weeks and I will definitely follow your lead. Beautiful blog and you captured it so well.

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    • Thank you so much Candess! It was fun to sit down and reflect on some of the striking elements of this trip. I hope you have a fabulous journey to Kolkata! Safe travels! Please let me know where and when I can read your recap from your trip!🙂

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  2. Nicely done, Karen: striking as well as humorous.I look forward to seeing more photos and reading more of your perceptive narrative.

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  3. Karen, I thoroughly enjoyed your blog–I can relate to much of what you wrote, since I am still processing my two weeks in India in November.

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  4. Mike Coughlin

    Karen,
    I just Came across this wonderful recap of the India trip…more than a year later and your writing made it seem very recent!
    What a great summary, you really described it well.
    Hope you and Michael are doing well, I enjoy your posts on Facebook.
    All the best.
    Mike Coughlin

    Like

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