By Connie Bancroft
Whilst sprawled out lazily on a yellow sand lain beach, spooning rich passion fruit into my mouth and taking delight in this strikingly hot afternoon in Vietnam, I find myself reminiscing about my time spent in India. After leaving just under a month ago I have come to realise just how much this truly one-of-a-kind country means to me. It is undeniably true that it turned out very different to what I had expected and this is part of the reason I have been driven to write this article.
Before my departure my work colleagues found much enjoyment in warning me on what I was getting myself into:
‘People will steal your shoes and you’ll have to walk around barefoot in sewage’.
‘You do know people don’t use toilet paper there right? And they just relieve themselves in the middle of the street!’.
‘The dogs will bite you and they all have rabies’.
At the time I laughed along with them, finding the remarks funny and not thinking too much of it. Although a couple these are plausible, and I agree that this country isn’t for everyone, I have an urge to defend India and explain why I fell in love with it almost straight away.
Firstly, I think I need to say that no, not all the dogs have rabies. The average street dog isn’t vicious and all they want and deserve is just a little love and affection – this can sometimes be in the form of a biscuit. After one day of trying to refrain I gave up and made friends with at least one dog a day. Cuddling puppies turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable activity with no negative side effects.
I was also warned that I would probably be spending half of my time in India on the toilet. I have a ridiculous amount of pills in my backpack which reflect my anxiety on the subject; most of these have gone unused.
To continue on the subject of India’s bad reputation, I would now like to tell you about my encounter with a Dutch fellow my friend and I met in Nha Trang, Vietnam. I sadly can’t remember his name so let’s call him Hank. After meeting Hank at our hostel we decide to go out for a couple of beers. Conversation quickly turns to travel stories, which quickly turns to India. Like everyone else who hears of our trip to India he asks, ‘What was it like?’ Although this time it is clear that the question is only asked out of politeness; it soon becomes apparent he has already made up his mind.
Hank is surprised by our enthusiasm for the country, abruptly stating that he would never step foot there. We calmly ask him why and this is when the atmosphere starts to get a little awkward. He shrugs and says, ‘I’ve heard it’s really dirty’. Well this is sort of a given, it’s India and out of all the negative reviews it gets, this is one that stands true. If experiencing bad hygiene and seeing rubbish on the street makes you so unhappy that it would ruin your trip then I would maybe say don’t go to certain parts of India.
Hank’s next point: ‘Apparently Indian people just want to make money out of you and I know loads of people who have been scammed’. This one is interesting because we were there for three months and not one of us got scammed. There are a couple of reasons I can think of as to why this was so. Firstly, we travelled in a group a majority of the time and I am aware that solo travellers have less support and are more easily targeted. Secondly, and most importantly, we did our research.
Online and in the guide books it tells you what to look out for and we were prepared to stand our ground. I knew before I left that Delhi is a hot-ground for scammers and avoiding them is as difficult as avoiding traffic whilst crossing the Indian roads. We were only in Delhi for thirty minutes for a bus transfer when we had an argument with a tuk-tuk driver trying to charge us double than what we’d agreed to. It is common for scammers to hang around at the train station and target foreign travellers getting off the trains. Tuk-tuk drivers tell you that your hotel is fully booked, has burnt down, has been washed away by a tidal wave etc etc, just to get you to travel further with them to get to their mates guesthouse. We once met a guy who was told the whole of Delhi was on lockdown after arriving at the airport. He bought it and ended up spending hundreds of dollars to be driven out of the city for somewhere to stay.
I am aware you can’t be prepared for everything but I do think a lot of these scams can be avoided if you have a decent amount of awareness. You are also more likely to come across problems if you stick to the big cities and this plays a huge factor in India’s bad reputation. We encountered a couple of people who were pretty much just doing a city tour of India: Mumbai-Jaipur-Delhi-Agra. If you do this, obviously your experience of India will be very different and I would argue that you haven’t experienced the real India at all. Cities can be stressful and the people there are more persistent and eager to make money from you.
“I met a Swedish girl who arrived in Goa and got her drink spiked on her first night’.
Hank’s last point is, for myself, the most frustrating. I have to take a long, deep breath, count to ten, and remind myself to stay calm because I definitely don’t want anyone to think I am being insensitive. Having your drink spiked is horrendous and it is obviously never someone’s own fault when it happens to them. I have friends who have been violated in this way during nights out in England. Unfortunately this happens all over the UK and, being the party capital of India, it also happens all over Goa. The state of Goa is the least conservative place in India; it doesn’t uphold the same values as the rest of the country. Because of this, and the expanding drink and drug culture that often causes problems there, I would feel unsafe walking by myself on the beach at night. Would I use this as a reason not to visit the whole of India? No, I wouldn’t. Hank has a distaste for our opinions that nearly matches his distaste for India. This results in an awkwardly abrupt exit after one beer. Goodbye Hank.
I don’t have the space to list all the reasons I love India, however there is one little phrase which may help explain my deep affection for this country. If you visit you will hear the phrase, ‘Shanti Shanti’ time and time again. In Sanskrit, Shanti means ‘Peace’. Following Hindu traditions, Yogis often chant it three times after meditation to represent peace in body, speech and mind. Locals also say it twice, often to express their nations state of being. Peace seems to manifest itself in many ways. It is there when you choose not to let dissatisfaction possess you, present when you discover twenty minutes means at least an hour in India time, and shines through when a local exclaims with overwhelming optimism , “Why not? Everything’s possible!”.
You will have noticed I have a biased opinion about India due to my trip having been such a success. I did not get scammed or spiked, I only got ill once, and dealing with the dirt became second nature to me. However, my love for India goes far beyond its ability to defy people’s negative expectations. My love stems from its people, their relaxed temperaments and the attitude they have towards life and it’s trials and tribulations. From the gentle hearted Swamiji I practiced meditation with, to the smiley chai vendors we visited in the streets, to the wonderful family who took me under their wing. India is full of inspirational people who will remind you to be thankful and accepting of your life everyday.