What Happens in India…

As I’ve hinted at in previous posts, India is not the easiest country I have traveled in. There are many small things that I noticed that make traveling in India sometimes annoying, sometimes confusing, and sometimes just funny. I’ve been putting together a list of some of the common India-isms that stood out to me (not in any particular order), so enjoy:

#1 Vegetarian Hotels

Vegetarian hotels are a thing in India. “What do they do”, I thought for the first few days, “check your vegetarian membership card?” Actually, it turns out they don’t, because in India while the word “hotel” can mean a place to sleep, it more commonly means a restaurant. Pretty confusing, right? Some accommodations have realized this and use the alternative, very descriptive label “tourist home” instead of “hotel”.

#2 What’s On the Menu?
  • Me, at a restaurant recommended for its biryani (a rice dish): “I’ll have the chicken biryani”.
  • Server: “No biryani.”
  • Me, looking back at the menu of mostly biryani: “Is anything else available?”
  • Server: “Umm… you can have chapati”.
  • Me, picturing a lonely piece of the flatbread sitting on my plate: “So I can have only bread for dinner? Nothing else?”
  • Server, confused: “Yes, chapati.”
  • Me: “Only chapati is available?”
  • Server, after rushing off to consult with his colleague: “You can have tandoori chicken and chapati.”
  • “Okay sure, I’ll have that…”

I had similar experiences to this with unusual frequency in India; for whatever reason, restaurants always seemed not to have whatever I tried to order first, and I had to come up with a plan B. The most frustrating were the times I went to a restaurant specifically for a certain dish, like in the dialogue above. Another time, I went to a lassi (yoghurt drink) shop that didn’t have any lassis!

#3 Standing in Line – Or Not!

Waiting in line in India can be a traumatic experience. Often, there is no line at all – it’s more of a mob urgently pushing itself inward. For example, when buying a train ticket, it is entirely possible for an inexperienced prospective train passenger to be standing directly at the ticket counter and be cut by several other people before managing to get the attention of the ticket agent. I am said person, and it took a while for me to figure out how this game works. Basically, you shove your money through the window and whoever gets their destination heard by the ticket agent first gets served first. People use this technique to skip entire lines – I was once pushed away from the counter by an old woman who shamelessly skipped at least thirty other people who were waiting. I guess I need a little more practice to buy train tickets efficiently in India!

#4 You’re In My “Bubble”

Related to the topic of waiting in lines, the concept of “personal space” doesn’t seem to exist in India. Without fail, whenever I would get into a line (at the train station, airport, security checkpoints, etc.), the next person would fall in behind me and leave exactly zero inches of space between us. Maybe they do it to guard their position in line, but I could never get used to always feeling someone’s bag or belly on my back, no matter how far forward I inched to create a gap between us…

#5 No Bag, Please

Sadly, there is a lot of litter in India (many people don’t bother to find or use trash cans), and the habit of putting every purchase into unnecessary plastic bags doesn’t help the problem. Some merchants ask, though, whether you want a bag or not, and I usually say no. However, whether because of a miscommunication or just out of habit, they often still give me a bag anyway. It’s the thought that counts? (As a side note, some places I visited in India have gone plastic-free, meaning that shops use cotton bags rather than plastic bags. It’s a nice thing to see in a country where the environment is so visibly polluted.)

#6 Express Bus – It’s Not What You Think

“Express bus service” in America: Direct transfer from A to B on the fastest route with minimal stops in between.

“Express bus service” in India: You don’t have to change buses, and you will get to point B – eventually!

#7 Contraband Brews
  • Me, looking at the menu: “I’ll have a coke to drink”.
  • Server, bending close to speak in my ear: “We also serve beer! Do you want that instead?”
  • Me: “Yea, sure, I’ll have one beer.”

A few minutes later the server returns with a bottle wrapped in newspaper and a cup that looks like a giant coffee mug. He fills up the mug, twists the cap back on the bottle, and hides the bottle behind the leg of the table. What kind of covert operation is this??

It turns out that many states in India have strong regulations on the sale of alcohol. In some states, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, only high-end restaurants catering to foreign tourists can afford to serve alcohol legally, leaving other tourist establishments to resort to sneaky workarounds. Local restaurants rarely serve alcohol. So, sometimes it is a little too much of a hassle to find a cold beer after a long day of sightseeing. Fortunately, though, India has some delicious non-alcoholic drinks that I enjoyed trying instead.

#8 Honk Honk

Light turns green in the US: “I’ll give him a second, then maybe give him a honk if he’s too slow.”

Anywhere in India where there is a vehicle, person, or animal: “Maybe twenty rounds of my machine gun horn will get it out of my way!”

This is not really an exaggeration, as most vehicles in India seem to have a “shortcut” button for the horn, and the sounds can range from the standard “beep” to crazy noises that sound like elephant calls or machine guns!

#9 Slippery Floor

One of the most bizarre things that I have noticed in India (and other parts of Asia too, for that matter) is the bathroom situation. I’m not referring to the ubiquitous squat toilets (which I have yet to master), but to the water – there is water everywhere. This is partly due to the spray hose (“Asian toilet paper”) and partly due to the showerheads and faucets that drain directly onto the bathroom floor. This creates a state of perpetual flooding and wetness on nearly every surface in the bathroom. Sloshing my way to a soaking-wet toilet is not my ideal bathroom visit…

#10 Can I Take Your Photo?

As I’m sitting in a museum listening to the audio guide, a couple approaches holding their toddler. Then, without notice, they plop the toddler down next to me on the bench, pull out their camera, and take a picture of us. As quickly as it happened, they fetch the child up and wander off. I wonder what will become of that photo…

This happens all the time in India, not only with toddlers but with people of all ages. Apparently they are fascinated with taking selfies with foreigners, and even more so with light-haired foreigners.

Selfie with Kids in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India
One of many selfies with random Indians… these kids didn’t have their own camera but still wanted to be in a photo!

I hope you enjoyed this list. It’s not meant to be a list of complaints – I just wanted to share some of the things I learned and discovered that made my trip to India a bit more of an adventure than the other countries I have visited. And, while I may have been frustrated at the time, most of these stories just make me laugh now. I’m sure this won’t stop me from returning to India in the future!

3 thoughts on “What Happens in India…

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