The Difficulty of Summarizing India

Learning the meaning of "consistently inconsistent"

Feb-March 2020

Filed under: india

Since returning to the States, we have struggled to write about our India experience. There are many reasons for this; a major one is the range of experiences and emotions we went through while there. Our time in India was both amazing and awful. It is a country we’d love to explore more deeply, but also a place we probably won’t visit again for a long time. Even the tiger safari was 95% not worth it but 5% worth it and that 5% somehow overwhelms the 95% to make it 65% worth it (Brian actually disagrees on this, but agrees that the 5% does overwhelm the 95% in a way that doesn’t make mathematical sense).

In many ways, India defies understanding and expectations which makes it incredibly difficult to set and manage expectations appropriately. It's a place that defies comparison with anywhere else on earth. It's a country of over 1B people, home to a few of the wealthiest people in the world, and millions of the poorest. It's a country that very much embraces modernity and technology, and yet often feels like you're traveling back in time. Our British host at our Mysore homestay told us his favorite saying about India is that it is “consistently inconsistent,” and the inconsistencies keep you on your toes, excite you, and wear you down all at the same time.

With that in mind, please bear with us as we work through how to share even a fraction of our Indian adventure.

Some constant (though inconsistent) themes from our month in India include:

Tuk tuks

Tuk tuks are a central part of traveling in India. Despite taking over 50 tuk tuk rides, the experience never got old, although the constant offers from tuk tuk drivers asking if we needed a ride got old real quick. For the uninitiated, a tuk tuk or auto rickshaw is like a miniature car frame atop a motorcycle. There’s usually room for 2 to 3 passengers and some luggage, although it’s not uncommon for Indians to cram 8 people into a single tuk tuk.

Tuk tuks put you closer to the insane Indian traffic and driving culture, as tuk tuk drivers have no qualms about taking advantage of the small vehicle size, and will inch or speed into the smallest of gaps. Plus there are no doors - you can literally reach out and touch the car or motorcycle next to you. It is without a doubt super fun and super dangerous. Not so fun is negotiating with tuk tuk drivers, particularly at train stations, where they try to upcharge foreigners 5 to 6 times the local rate. More on being ripped off later...

Train travel

Another classic way to travel in India is by train, both over short and long distances. By booking far in advance, we were able to travel rather luxuriously in air conditioning and with reserved seats/bunks in first and second class cars. We loved getting to hang out of the train doors while the train was moving and watching the locals jump on and off whenever the train would stop and wait for signal clearance.

We never quite figured out how the food vending system works, as on one very short train we were given complimentary snacks, tea, water, and a meal, but on one long journey there wasn’t even food for purchase, and on yet another train we were given a menu of food available for purchase and vendors walked through offering all sorts of snacks. We did our best to bring or buy enough snacks to make sure we didn’t go hungry (or hangry), but did not always succeed.

We didn’t love sleeping on the trains, as it is quite shaky. Yet by our last overnight train we managed to sleep rather soundly. While traveling first class, we also couldn’t quite figure out the role of the cabin attendant, who on some trains would set up your bed and on others would only appear with a few stacks of bedding and toss them on the nearest bed.

But all in all, similarly to bus travel in Patagonia, we enjoyed getting to watch the world pass by with an iconic Indian experience.

Getting ripped off

The cost of living in India is incomprehensibly cheap. In southern India, we had all-you-can-eat meals for less than $1.50 a person, where we left so full it would end up the only meal of the day. However, because everything is so cheap, many locals try to get a little extra money from the foreigners by upcharging them. We’re generally fine with paying a little more as a tourist tax, but Indians expect to negotiate. Seasoned travelers say it is important to negotiate so that locals respect you. Also, as you might expect, it is super annoying to be quoted an obviously inflated rate, especially when you’ve paid less before.

When we first arrived in India, it was exciting to negotiate a tuk tuk rate and we weren’t so easily frustrated by the attempts to rip us off. But towards the end we all embraced our Indian motto of “accelerate to anger” when trying to deal with rip offs, touts, and scams. Some examples of when we got ripped off include when we were charged 100 rupees per kg for some fruit that was labeled 60 rupees per kg. Our driver from Mysore to Nagarhole charged us an extra 300 rupees for the return trip. Nearly every train food kiosk charged us 5 to 30 extra rupees as they assumed we did not know where to look for the price of items.

So always look for a price tag, always agree on a price in advance for any service, and always lowball your counteroffer.

The Indian hustle

There are many tourists who return home from India with suitcases full of souvenirs. We are not those kinds of travelers, partially because we had zero room in our suitcase, but also because we are rarely inspired by the tchotkes typically sold as souvenirs. However, because there are so many other travelers who like to shop, particularly in cheap places like India, there are so constantly shopkeepers trying to get a few bucks out of you. We hated hearing the phrase “excuse me, sir/madam” because we knew it was someone trying to convince us to buy something.

However, one benefit of everyone wanting our business was that competition between vendors could get fierce, sometimes escalating into vendors negotiating against each other. In one particularly memorable experience, two guys vying to rent us a scooter bid each other down from 300 to 100 rupees (about $0.70 USD) before one of them lost patience and shouted “Free! My money!” offering his scooter basically at cost, we would have had to pay for fuel. Fortunately/unfortunately, his comrades talked him down from that ledge, and we ended up getting a 100 rupee scooter. It’s so nice when you don’t have to do the negotiating.

Indian hospitality

On the other hand, in many cases the hospitality we experienced at hotels and homestays was extraordinary. We frequently took overnight trains, meaning we would arrive at our accomodation at 7 or 8 am, way before the customary check in time. But each and every time, they would welcome us with a drink or food and offer us a place to chill if our room wasn’t yet available.

We met some of the nicest people in Hampi. Our homestay host welcomed us at 7 am and offered breakfast. When it was time to leave, we had another overnight train departing about 9pm, and our host offered us his family’s room/bathroom so we could freshen up after sightseeing, even though we had checked out that morning. Plus he gave us a free dinner that night. I cannot think of any other accomodation in the world who has been that welcoming.

Also in Hampi, our tuk tuk driver (who was recommended by our host in Mysore) was super nice, gave us a very fair rate (without needing to negotiate), and even introduced us to his adorable baby and wife. And in a strange contrast to the typical Indian tuk tuk hustle, he waited until the very end of our time there to tell us that he was also a guide and had his own homestay. If you ever go to Hampi, let us know and we will put you in contact with him.