I have been wanting to visit India for a very long time. Unlike trips to other destinations in Europe and in the US which may seem to some as exciting and even impressive endeavors, the trip to India held a mysterious appeal of unimaginable complexity. Apart from being located on the opposite side of Earth and thus requiring higher investment of money and time, the key element that made traveling there hard to plan is absolute lack of experience with local lifestyle. Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to have a close friend of mine introduce me to his hometown, Pune, Maharashtra, by being an excellent guide and host during my ten-day stay.
My journey in India began with arriving in Mumbai and traveling 150km southeast to India’s eighth largest metropolis located in the state of Maharashtra – Pune. I’ve heard on multiple occasions references to India’s insane driving style but reality surpassed all stories. Imagine a two-lane road filled with cars back-to-back. Now add to that a flock of two-wheelers (scooters, motorcycles, bicycles) squeezed between cars. Then sprinkle few pedestrians, homeless dogs (and occasionally cows), zigzagging through vehicles, and men pushing large, four-wheeled carts filled with fruits. Ignore all traffic signs (yield, signal lights, and lane dividers). Switch driving side from right to left. Now re-arrange all of the above items in chaotic order and add continuous beeping. Driving through cities or even villages is akin to playing a video game where things are constantly being thrown on your path and you have to dodge them to advance to the next level (i.e. stay alive).
One may ask why such chaos? Partly, it’s due to badly designed system. For example, you’ll see expressways between major cities display speed limit signs of 30 km in places where common sense would be to drive 100 km so naturally nobody will abide by the sign. More importantly, there is no enforcement of the rules. You’ll see that expressways designed for four-wheeled vehicles only is equally occupied by motorcycles which sometimes choose to go in the opposite direction. There is a huge gap in speeds between traffic participants: same road will hold slowest crowd consisting of bicycles, rickshaws, heavy trucks and buses, and much anxious crowd on motorbikes and cars. This forces everyone to pass others continuously creating dangerous situations on the road and the only visible intervention from city authorities was to put up high (and often unmarked) speed-breaker bumps, fondly referred to by locals as ‘car breakers’.
However bad traffic is mostly an indicator of nation’s character; in a country with massive population, there is a natural desire to get ahead which drives the lack in discipline and disregard for rules. Pedestrians ignore perfectly walkable sidewalks and choose to wonder directly on busy roads; drivers don’t bother to adhere to lane dividers even on clearly marked empty roads; slow-moving buses drive side-by-side on two lane roads, creating a huge bottleneck behind them; men stop to urinate whenever they feel like including narrow or high-speed roads; passing on dangerous mountain curves; and constant use of horn, directed at everyone and no one in particular.
Bottom line: don’t drive here unless you grew up here or you are into extreme experiences.
My first impressions of Pune were conflicting: it was mostly very green, with buildings sprouting among lush forest and palm trees; it was also quite dirty, with piles of garbage rotting along long stretches of roads and sometimes directly on streets. Interestingly, city’s slogan displayed on many intersections is “Green Pune, Clean Pune” so I guess they are half-way there. Later I found that contrast existed in other areas as well: modern high-rise apartment blocks were a backdrop to shabby tent-like homes; spicy, mouth-burning dishes were followed by tooth-aching, sweet deserts made with jaggery; and, traditional, centuries-old wedding ceremonies were extensively documented with smartphones and high-end cameras; and long stretches of city slums were adorned by satellite TV dishes. Even with childhood spent in former Soviet republic I have not encountered such a powerful visual moment in which modern, high-tech-social-media-obsessed world co-existed with ancient traditions and simple lifestyle.
Unlike European cities dominated by one large cathedral and a few smaller churches, Indian temples are found literally on every corner, allowing people to pray to one of the gods on their way to work or while out on errands. Temples vary in size from large (typically collection of buildings) to very tiny (size of a dog house). Most common deity you will find is the Hindu God Ganesha, with an elephant head and big belly, known as god of success, wisdom, knowledge, wealth and also destroyer of obstacles. Statues representing Ganesha are found inside majority of temples, usually protected by bars from theft. By the way, it’s easy to spot a temple from far away by their colorful cone-shaped domes.
• Many cars have a customized reverse tune to alert passerby’s they are backing our of their parking spot. For example, one of the neighbors had chosen a soundtrack to “Titanic” as his reversing signal.
• Unless you go to Rajasthan (popular tourist designation with beautiful temples), Agra (Taj Mahal) or Bangalore (frequented by business visitors) you are probably going to be the only foreigner in 100-mile radius. Don’t be frightened, locals generally are very friendly and helpful.
• Despite common stereotype, elephants do not walk on the streets. In fact to see one, you would have to go the zoo just like in any other country. Exception to that might be tourist attractions listed above.
• When it comes to food, you won’t know half the time what you are eating. Many ingredients are not known or not used outside of India and some cannot even be adequately translated to English. It’s also difficult to remember the name of the dish you are eating as pronunciation is not always easy. My favorite ingredients – fresh coconut, jaggery (sugar cane), and flavorful cutting chai made from assam tea with milk, sugar and spices, served in tiny shot glasses.
• If you live outside of India and China, appreciate the air your breathe. Clean air that we take for granted is a luxury most people in heavely-populated countries can’t afford. Same goes for sky – if you live with hazy, smoke-filled, grey sky just for a week, it can be easy to forget that it should have been actually blue.
• Weddings (depending on the region) can be an extravagant and long, lasting four-days, featuring everything you expect to find: coordinated Bollywood dance, singing, colorfully dressed bride and groom, flower petals arranged in pictures on the floor, and of course lots of people.
• Indian caste system continue to play an important part of daily lives. One only needs to flip to Matrimonial page in Sunday newspaper to see that almost every ad has some reference to caste (either only upper caste wanted or caste no bar (i.e. caste not relevant).
When we think of France, we think of Eiffel Tower, when we think of Brazil, it’s usually football, and the US is known for fast food culture. However India is a very complex country where there is no single thing which stands out and could be used to describe in representing the whole country. India is a mixture of many different things; it does not have a single identity as a country. As an amateur photographer, I found it very difficult to capture on camera life around me – so complex was the picture I was seeing that it could not be confined to one shot. To do so would be to give India injustice because I was only seeing a small piece of the puzzle.
Special thank you to my hosts for the wonderful stay in India and everyone else who welcomed me and introduced me to their culture. I hope to come back soon and see more of this incredible country.