Please don't think ill of me for saying these things. Firstly, I love India very much. I'm looking forward to going back there again one day and spending more time with (a different) Sangam Family. I'm an Aussie girl who has travelled a little, but not a lot and being in India was a big but expected culture shock. So here is everything I discovered from my 7 days in India. Enjoy.
1) Remember, we're running on Indian Time
Okay, so a different time zone makes a huge difference, however in India everything seems to take longer and as we progressed through the week our timetable was not strictly adhered to. A week seriously felt like a month, and when it came to my sixth day in Pune I was ready for things just to be on time and not take so long to work out. Having said that, had we ran on what you might call Lisa Time, we may have missed a lot.
India has 1.237 billion people.It doesn't always have the infrastructure to deal with that, so my introduction to this beautiful country - 15 minutes just to get immigration from the arrivals gate, 45 minutes to collect luggag
e, interesting check points at Customs and a driver who never showed up to take me to my accommodation - was rather fitting.
2) Forget everything you know about traffic laws
I've been assured that everywhere in India is vastly different, but let me tell you that I would never drive in India. There is a lot of traffic (and sometimes cattle) on the roads. 'Lane discipline' warning signs don't do much to prevent the concept being broken. Often. Small gives way to big. Or big gives way to small. It kind of depends who is driving. And, also, 'horn ok please' if you are passing a truck. Or is you are passing anything. Or, sometimes, don't horn at all.
3) Sunday is the busiest day of the week
Sunday is the traditional day off, or as my driver told me 'Sunday is the holiday'. So lots of people doing their shopping, and also stopping at McDonalds on their way to Mumbai. I did not stop at Maccas.
4) Foregoing meat seems pretty standard
While I was away I was determined not to get sick. And I wasn't. While staying at Sangam we had veggie meals most days, a
nd while eating out we also only went to veggie restaurants. Partly a religious measure, but also eco-friendly and cost effective, the idea of not eating meat often wasn't such a bad thing.
The only meal I purchased myself in India was a KFC popcorn chicken combo at the airport. I ate fast food three times while away (twice at Burger King in Kuala Lumpur International Airport). The main reason was because I know how those foods are cooked - deep fried. And while not healthy in any way, shape or form, I knew they wouldn't make me sick, wouldn't be undercooked and were part of an international fast food chain. Both of which I had worked for. So there.
5) Westerners stick out like a sore thumb
Other than my group of Guiding friends, I didn't see other westerners. A few other people had found them, but not me. Even with some Indian clothing and with a smattering of Hindi, we're never going to pass for locals. It is always worth doing what you can to blend in though, you don't want to stand out, you don't want to look wealthy and you don't want to be taken for a ride. I noticed that girls who were there for a longer time than our group wore more traditional clothes, while we wanted to keep our saris for Sunday best.
6) Security is tight in some places, but watch your back
Our friendly ATM man kindly let us go in to use the ATM together - twice. He also looked scary and stood in front of the door instead of sitting on his chair. Airport security was also very tight - no getting in or out without your ticket and passport. Having said all that, I never went out alone and would have hated doing so. Again, being a foreigner makes you stand out from the crowd and susceptible to dangerous situations. The smallest groups we had were in rickshaws (2-3 people) and most of the time we were in a bigger group. I felt safest when I had Indian friends with me - after all, I can speak, like, three words in Hindi AND India has no official national language, so there's no telling whether someone can speak the same language as you.
7) Things are really cheap!
I loved shopping in India, and despite 'going silly' with my money, I probably spent $300 AUD all up, including hire cars to get from Pune to Mumbai. Just as well I had my 30kg baggage allowance.
8) Read everything you possibly can
I read Lonely Planet inside and out (and then reread it when I got back). It really helped prepare me to 'be prepared to be unprepared'. This article by Candice Rardon changed how I felt about my trip - in a great way. It made me a little bit more brave - and a little less bold, which is always a good thing.
9) Everyone else in India looks clean, except for you. Take baby wipes. And leave things behind.
I used baby wipes on everything. I am typically a messy person who will get messy even when I'm not supposed to. I was amazed at how clean Indians looked compared to me - they could be sitting in traffic in a white shirt and jeans and be pristine. Not so much on my end.
At the end of my trip I left my thongs and slip on shoes at the bazaar box, to be sold at the annual bazaaar Sangam holds. It was a good feeling. And yes, I also cleaned my shoes with baby wipes before putting them in the box.
10) India changes you.
It was never about 'us and them', as these trips could so easily be. I'm less rushy rushy now. Things will happen in their own good time. Things - everything - should be more colourful. And I feel like India has a culture you can truly embrace - and more than that - they want and almost expect you too. I'd do my trip away again in a heartbeat. I truly am blessed.