This entry is excerpted from an email I crafted to my auspicious first visitors from my motherland to my new home in Mumbai. Perhaps it's some useful advice for anyone visiting.
So as you get ready for your first trip to India, your first trip to Asia, and your first trip to the real 3rd world, here are a few ideas and suggestions! As for poverty, hustle/bustle, and street chaos, though I can't speak for the places that I've not yet visited, I can elaborate on the nature of Mumbai and on my general impressions of travel within India.
Loads of People!
This country is teeming with bodies. You may very well be taken aback by the sheer number of human beings walking, talking, and sharing the same public spaces as you. Along with this volume of people, it is crucial to appreciate the way Indian society is organized and how the people must act in order to get along day in, day out. If 1.1 billion Americans were pushed into a country 1/3 the size of the U.S., they wouldn't last more than a few days. Indians are not only surviving, but they thrive in many ways. The vibrancy of the masses is something worth trying to comprehend, even though there is the latent fear of being caught up in the chaos of the crowds from time to time. While there are unfortunate mob incidents infrequently, Indian mobs are also often known for chasing down criminals and enforcing positive street justice. But, generally, learn to love the smells and the noises, the salwar-kameez and the turbans. Some of the ethnic garb, especially in Rajasthan, is bound to be absolutely enthralling. If the masses are difficult to appreciate, it is at least possible to be captivated by their colorful vestments and dynamic interations...Regardless, you will surely appreciate the private space of your lodgings even more upon emerging from the public domain in which you are swimming in a sea of sarees.
Simple Gestures Mean Much
With this juxtaposition of calm private space in which we are privileged to enjoy the luxury of many square meters exclusively cordoned off for our own activities and relaxation comes the issue of perspective. We have, and most Indians have not. There are small things that you can do here and there that will mean a lot to the strangers you meet. You cannot save India from its grueling poverty. You cannot uplift hundreds of millions. But, you can strive to make individual connections, if you are so inclined, by picking a few small items to bring that would make someone's day. Also, Indian people can often be so appreciative of a seemingly unimportant smile, wave, or nod, but these reactions to your presence will in turn evoke your warmest sentiments, allowing you to appreciate how they've made you feel welcome. Sometimes, it's not even worth contemplating the big picture or the scope of negative issues which you witness. Put yourself in perspective, and then try not to dwell too excessively on the negatives. People will appreciate you when you reach out and merely say your name or country of origin. These simple declarations will almost always evoke tens of grins, head wiggles, inquisitive gazes...
People are Puzzles
Since I am inclined to study people, I am rather acutely aware of how people go about their business in the context of their personal lives and in broader social, economic, and political networks. From a social science perspective, this country is unbelievably complex. Caste, ethnicity, language, and politics are vast categories that cannot be fully understood so quickly. Yet, there are so many fascinating aspects of how occupational groups function, how culture and caste intertwine, who speaks which language in which situations, and how you feel you could become a part of the society that you are observing. Think a little bit beforehand about which of these things you are interested in exploring so that you have some idea of what you want to come away with in terms of knowledge. You'll pick up a few phrases in Hinglish! You'll also learn a few bizarre caste details that will baffle you! You'll also be amazed by the way that it all comes together...
Spiritual Phenomena Deciphered
We have all had quite in-depth conversations about spirituality, but you will undoubtedly have ample time to explore this domain during your time on the subcontinent. You may be awed by the sense of serenity that pervades in Hindu temples and Sufi shrines. There is a good chance that you will feel soothed by the visuals, sandalwood scents, and ritual activities of these sites. You will come across so many gods and goddesses that you might fill up your Blackberry's memory with all the deity nomenclature. However, these are all just earthly representations of forces, visions, dimensions. The human form and the images of the deities overlap a great deal here. Indian society has the ability to deify virtually any person who has spiritual sway for a given group. Certain of these deities might win over your allegiances, but most importantly, you will find some peace in the atmosphere of concentration and devotion that exists in most spiritual space here. Spirituality is also to be grasped in nature, since natural space away from commotion is often hard to come by. Nature can be found just beside a stunning monument to some dead maharaja or far off in some woods where sadhus and sanyasins wander. Yet, the monumentality of human creation can create a spiritual feeling indeed, and we will likely be struck by the grandeur of many of the historical sites.
Fun and Relaxation are Key Elements
At the end of the day, you will be traveling as tourists for the purpose of enjoying some quality leisure time. It is very worthwhile to leave plenty of room for laughing and singing, bonding and frolicking. You will have lots to do and too much to see, but just remember that you should leave some time for simple enjoyment, whether in the context of an interaction with a rickshaw driver or while watching Hindi soaps in the hotel room. Dining, strolling, and viewing are part of your learning experience, but they also should be an opportunity to absorb yourselves in a whole different place and forget about being productive or busy or meaningful. Fun in India definitely does involve some planning and organization, but that being said, we've got lots of room for entertaining ourselves!
Travel Health is Integral
You will be most at ease if you calmly think about how much time you want to spend in transit, what foods you are comfortable eating, and when to sit back and relax after a tiring adventure. The food is to be enjoyed hedonistically, and we will probably be eating most of our meals in clean establishments that are recommended by other folks who've traveled in India. You might have some digestive issues, but it is all about being comfortable with the eating experience. Just be mindful of what is clean and what is not. In terms of travel distances, it is crucial to rest during in between times so that these inter-city voyages don't tire excessively. We can't see everything in the several weeks that you're here, and so we have to fit a reasonable amount into each of the days. It's great to be ambitious about the number of sites you have on your list, but we should always be mindful that stuff in India can take a long time. Lines, bureaucracies, decisions, negotiations...All of these things can be taxing to the Nth degree when involving local, parochial, outdated procedures. But, remaining mentally unbothered by these obstacles is key.
Stuff to Buy
It will be more than plentiful. It will be ubiquitous. You will find so much to purchase that you won't know which consumption bug hit you. Take it slow on the buying, since we will have time to pick up the goodies. Get a sense for how much an Indian would pay for something - and how much it is truly worth to you - and then go into the bargaining process prepared to come away only with the result that you desire. We will surely happen upon saffron treasure after sapphire nugget after elephant sculpture. Go all out if you know how much you will be content to spend. There will be tchotchkes of all sorts to bring back, and so get excited about this ethnic shoppers' paradise.
This is one of the most practical ways of capturing the memories that we will want to bring home. You will be able to take away a lot of visual evidence of your voyage, and the vast majority of your photo subjects will appreciate your desire to photograph them. Just be mindful that this technology does not rule over your other senses to the extent that you experience things predominantly through your camera. But, the photos will be supreme. You will indeed snap some of the best shots you've ever laid eyes upon.
Bon voyage et a bientot!
In sum, this expedition to the Hindustani heartland will be extraordinary. I'm enthralled to be embarking with you on a trip to the real Hindi belt, and Rajasthan & Varanasi in particular will be incredible to experience for me. I've just listed a few (hopefully not too many) things above that recently came to mind, and I hope they are useful for readying yourselves for a profound trip.