India was wonderful. Before arriving, I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t handle the heat, smells, culture shock, crowds, or food very well (mostly based on a terrible Indian airline experience in 5th grade). Although we still had to contend with airline food, I wisely chose the vegetarian option (always the safest bet in my experience) and the rest of my fears were almost instantly relieved when we landed in the 7th largest country in the world.
The people we interacted with in India were for the most part really lovely. The food was so delicious and always served family style (so portion control was a bit hard to maintain). It was decidedly hot the whole time two weeks we were there, but the temperature and humidity weren’t that terribly far off from Midwestern summer weather and I tolerated it fairly well.
Most of our India experience was spent in Chennai (on the southeastern coast). The last few days were in the northern city of New Delhi (with a day trip to Agra to see the iconic mausoleum). We did a few corporate visits, attended local church services, saw the main tourist sites in each city, and did tons of shopping. Probably the worst part of India was needing to take precautionary malaria pills (which gave me stomach problems and a few nasty dreams). Other than that, I 10/10 recommend an India holiday!
Dinner on the Bay of Bengal. Naan bread. Brilliant colors in the saris, sunsets, and local produce. Paneer masala. Humidity. Paying for toilet paper (and then squatting) in public restrooms. Seeing peacocks (we accidentally hit one in our coach bus), monkeys, snakes, cows, and goats walking down the road. Trying to remember to use bottled water to brush my teeth. Visiting one of the largest mosques in India. Eating out of a freshly cut coconut on the beach. Touring a granite factory with a bucket hat for head protection. Mahatma Gandhi memorial. Rickshaw tour of the the largest market in the country. Touring the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal (wearing plastic footies to not damage the stones).
During one of our shopping excursions in Chennai, I saw the caste system in action. Our guide, who was obviously of the highest caste – indicated by her gorgeous saris and jewelry – had an almost altercation with some ladies who were none-to-happy about her presence with Americans in the marketplace. At the beginning of the shopping experience, she explained that she couldn’t walk through the market with us. However, we met up with her in a public square to the disapproving eyes of some of the locals.
Although I’ve seen varying levels of prejudice in my life, I don’t think I had ever seen it directed against people of the same race or ethnicity. America is infamous for its racial discrimination, but not necessarily discrimination amongst homogenous people groups. India, however adopted the caste system over 3,000 years ago – dividing its citizens into four main hierarchical groups based on Hindu religious traditions. For thousands of years, whichever caste a person was born into dictated whom they could marry, what type of work they were allowed to pursue, and even which parts of town they were welcome (or unwelcome) in. As a Western observer (who also grew up being encouraged to “be whatever I wanted to be”) the caste system was very perplexing to encounter. In my opinion, prejudice of any sort does nothing but harm people and create toxic social constructs. Recognizing this, India has made changes over the past seven decades. Beginning with India’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, the new constitution attempted to address past injustices by introducing job quotas in educational institutions and government areas. Although many Indians still hold fast to the caste traditions, the overall influence has lessened as the country and its people have continually modernized.