We spent six weeks in India, the longest of any country we've visited. For all that time, however, we feel like we only became acquainted with India... It's such a huge country that there are giant regions we didn't even come close to seeing. That said, we enjoyed our time and already have a rough plan for what India trip 2 could look like someday. In the meantime, here are some final observations from the sub-continent.
Most Indians are Hindus, and most Hindus are vegetarian. Ergo many, if not most, Indians are vegetarian. This creates many interesting cultural facets, our favorite is the vegetarian culture dominance of labeling all food items either "veg" or "non-veg" instead of "meat" and "vegetarian" as in pretty much everywhere in the rest of the world. You'll see the "veg" and "non-veg" labeling all over restaurants, billboards, menus and at first it's a strange adjustment to constantly remember that meat is called "non-veg" instead of, well, meat. I even once read a magazine article of a Indian celebrity chef saying that she was the only person in her family “who had never eaten non-veg.” How's that for a culturally specific double negative?
Overall, Andrew and I didn't mind the vegetarian heavy cuisine one bit, since we don't eat meat all that often at home and vegetarian Indian food is just so darn good. But when you are in the mood for "non-veg" it's not even all meat, mostly just chicken and lamb since cows are sacred in Hinduism (so nobody eats beef, ever, even non-Hindus) and pork is a no-go in Islam, India's second largest religion, so the few meat-eaters don't it, either.
India’s obsession with vegetarianism was often taken to entertaining extremes, such as the vegetarian certification visible on almost all mass produced food and beverage products. Bizzarely, the vegetarian “green-light” extended not only to products that obviously have no carnivorous content, like potato chips and coca-cola, but also to products that we thought should be entirely non-edible anyway, like hand soap. Rest assured, when you come to India, your bathroom products are also meat-free.
2. Copy cat businesses.
Indians are clever about jumping on a good business idea. This is taken too far, however, in the common practice of copy-catting successful businesses in both name and product- particularly those that appear in tourist guide books. For instance, there is a well-known ex-pat run lunch shop in Varanasi called Brown Bread Bakery, but two imposters with almost identical signs sprung up right next door! We had the same experience with a famous tandoori shop in Jaipur. In both cases, we had to sleuth out the right one by comparing street numbers, phone numbers, and exact descriptions from our guide book to find the right one.
3. Limited sense of privacy and personal space.
When we were in China, we noticed that waiters would stand at the table as soon as you had sat down and wait there until you were ready to order. In Chinese culture, I’m sure this is considered attentive service, but as Americans, we felt we had no space to honestly deliberate the menu before ordering. India has a different tableside custom that we hadn’t anticipated - looking in the bill folder at what tip the customer left before they walked away. One time we were at a restaurant that had an end-of-service survey that I diligently filled out, only to have the server pick it up and read it right in front of us before we left. In the waiter’s mind, the meal is finished and the transaction complete so it’s obviously time to look at the results; the idea that the customer might want some space or anonymity with their tip simply doesn't fit the norm here.
Similarly to the early tip-viewing, Indians also have a more straightforward approach to waiting in line. Simply put, if there is any space between you and the person in front of you in line, someone else will jump in and take the space. They aren’t trying to be rude or aggressive; to them, there is a space in line that isn’t filled so they can go ahead and take it! The idea of leaving personal space between line-waiters just isn’t a thing. We had multiple occasions in India where an entirely well-meaning person would just jump right in front of us in line without thinking anything of it. We learned to stand close and try to box our potential line jumpers with our elbows.
4. Eye liner on babies.
Walking around India (and later Nepal) we couldn't help but notice the tradition of putting black eye liner on baby and toddler girls. Having since looked this up on the internet, we've learned that the eye liner is called kohl or kajah, and is traditionally made from grinding lead sulfide. Parents in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere apply it to their babies eyes, often soon after birth, with the mistaken belief that it will strengthen or protect the child's eyesight. Other's believe it will protect their child from the evil eye (which is a fascinating, pan-religious superstition I've seen all over the Middle East and Asia, if you have time to read the Wikipedia article on it.) Apparently this eyeliner practice has been linked to lead poisoning in children. Soooo...that's terrible. Get on it, Indian health departments.
5. Chewing fennel and sugar after meals.
At almost every Indian restaurant, the waiter will place a bowl of sugar granules and fennel seeds on the table when the meal is complete. Simply scoop a small quantity into your hands and toss it back into your mouth, chewing and enjoying the refreshing palette cleansing taste of sweet licorice. On a related note, most Indian restaurants use these horrible napkins made largely out of plastic that stick to your fingers and don't absorb anything - it's super annoying.
6. Trains, trains, trains.
The Indian railway system is pretty darn impressive, all things considered. It provides affordable transportation all across the country to millions of citizens every year. We took trains constantly, from two hour jaunts to overnight sleepers and at varying class levels depending on what was available. There were definite frustrations when some of our trains ran an hour or two late, but compared to stories I'd heard about six-plus hour delays, I think we got off pretty easy all things considered.
For our overnight trips, we found our second and first class sleeper cars all in all not that bad with individual or compartmental privacy curtains, fresh linens, and shabby but decently maintained facilities. For our day trips in chair cars, we often got snacks and water included in the already quite low ticket prices, though when for-purchase dinners were available, we were usually deeply disappointed in what we received. Most other passengers were friendly and polite. Finally, using a squat toilet on a train wasn't so bad after learning to do it in China, though I'll admit we were pretty squicked out that they toilets let out directly onto the tracks.
The last thing I'll point out it that it is very difficult to book tickets as a non-Indian citizen from outside of India. You have to use a private corporate website that is linked to the government railway system to book if you want to use a credit card, but even registering for an account is a complicated seven step process involving emailing different systems administrators, making up a fake phone number, and only accessing the government train website within very specific business hours. For the whole complicated process, as well as information about what different train car classes are like, check out our favorite international train blog, which has been a godsend on our trip through Asia.
Indian trains have a lot of room for improvement in car upgrades and time management, but they manage an incredible logistical feat at prices affordable for the average Indian. Overall, I give them a B+.
Northern India was a bit rough with it's pushy vendors on the tourist circuit, but overall we loved our time in the country. India has beautiful sights, amazing food, and friendly, hospitable people. We'd highly recommend it to other travelers, but perhaps urge people to spend more time in the South and come with a sense of adventure and flexibility.