Now that the 3CMGM batch has been in India for one month and a half, it is time to make a list of a few of our impressions from the country that is known for its spicy food, IT geniuses and crazy traffic.
1. There is a system to the chaotic traffic
When you first see Indian traffic – no, let me rephrase: when you are dropped into the Indian traffic for the first time, you think you are going to die. But there is no escaping it. You don’t get anywhere with these long distances without facing traffic.
By little more than a hair, the tuktuks – which are motorized rickshaws – miss motorbikes that zigzag through cars that don’t respect the lanes.
When I was in the transit bus from one Mumbai airport terminal to the other, I was absolutely shocked when I saw a guy in a green shirt walking through the chaotic traffic. I quote my thoughts at that exact moment: “What the *** Is he tired of life?!” When I saw two other people doing the exact same thing I suddenly remembered that “Right, I am in India now. This is normal.”
I can say that by now I don’t have to hold an Indian’s hand anymore when I want to get food on the other side of the main road in Bhubaneswar. And my perceived near-death moments when being in a tuktuk or on a motorbike have severely diminished in number. I am also getting used to the seemingly useless honking, which is actually the Indian way of saying that you are going to pass the person in front of you.
2. Cows are king, dogs are scum
“Cow! Cow! Cow!” I think it was the most used word on the first day we arrived in Bhubaneswar. Cows are everywhere on the street, between the food stalls, in the middle of a mountain of trash, walking through the traffic… Cars, tuktuks and motorcycles casually stop or drive around them. Nobody would dare to hit a cow.
Also, the cows all have an owner. Apparently, these animals are trained in such a way that they will always find their way back home. Impressive right?
3. Chai is the new Starbucks
The first time an Indian asked me if I wanted chai I had to ask what it was. It is a small cup with very sticky tea. When I tasted it, I had to get used to the stickiness and the bitter sweetness of the drink. But by now… we are all addicted to this typical Indian tradition! Every time we have a break from class or pass the chai shop across from the school gate, we gladly pay the six rupees (9 cents) to have our chai shot. I don’t miss Starbucks at all!
4. India loves complexity
They say it themselves and the non-Indians from our class fully agree: India loves complexity. If they can make things difficult, they will. Ordering a pizza takes 10 times as long. Getting someone to your room to fix the leak in your toilet may take a couple of days. You have to keep asking, asking, asking and explaining the problem again and again and again. But India wouldn’t be India without this complexity. We are learning to love it!
5. Real Indians litter, spit and pee wherever they want
It is mentally impossible for me to throw a wrap, piece of paper or anything else on the ground. I would rather carry my trash around in my bag all day than litter. Not the Indians, though. You finish your chai, you throw your paper cup somewhere. Anywhere. So, yes, India is not exactly the cleanest place you’ll ever set foot in. And when there is too much trash in the street? You just set it on fire. Problem solved!
In addition, I am still trying to get used to the fact that you see men pee anywhere they want to. They don’t bother to go stand behind a tree or a bush or to go in a restaurant to ask for the restroom. You need to pee? You just do it. Same goes for noisy spitting (I swear the first time I thought someone was throwing up).
6. Indian students are super sportive
The first week at XIMB we were mostly by ourselves. But when the other students arrived, suddenly sports were being played everywhere. All the time. Now, you have to wait in line to play badminton, tennis, basketball, cricket, volleyball… And the gym is always full of active, sweaty girls and boys working out. We can really use the Indian students as an example or inspiration!
7. We have lizards, pigeons and mosquitos as pets
During the first three days in Bhubaneswar I collected a total of 37 mosquito bites. Mosquitos are an integral part of the bedrooms at XIMB. Using bug spray, putting the fan on… nothing will protect you.
When we came back from our rural visit, Hellen had a pigeon patiently waiting on her door to welcome her back. And Lisa has a lizard that frequently comes to check up on her to see how she’s doing.
8. Hygiene is a relative concept
Everyday, the cleaning crew knocks on our door at 8am. (Which is too early for most of us – I know, we probably seem like tourists…) First they sweep the floor with a broom while another guy cleans the bathroom. Then they clean the floor with water and that’s it. Very superficial, but at least it’s clean, right?
Another example? In every restaurant you are expected to wash your hands after having finished your meal (and preferably also before). Going to the washroom is the commonly understood sign that you are about to leave and that they can clean your table and bring the bill. If you don’t do it, they will kindly point out where you can find the sink or washroom anyway.
During company visits and also when visiting a temple, you are requested to take of your shoes when you go inside. Even in the slums, the inside of the houses will be kept as clean as possible. The streets, however, are a junkyard. The air is polluted with gasses of all kinds (I have had a cough since I got here). People are spitting all over the place. And I assume you know what an Indian toilet is (think: squatting and no toilet paper).
So yes, Indians do make a lot of effort to keep things clean, but they have a different standard of what is considered hygienic!
9. Indians are kind, grumpy, generous, rude, helpful and trusting
The way Indians speak to each other (in combination with hand gestures) is perceived us Europeans as disrespectful and impolite. However, this is just the way everybody speaks to each other! So sometimes we think two people are having a big discussion about something when they are just telling each other about their day.
The Indians who sit at their stall all day until someone comes to order a chai, chicken egg roll or pack of cigarettes always wear a grumpy expression and will hardly ever speak more words than they necessarily have to. But on the other hand, they are also incredibly trusting! You can get a chai, walk around for an hour, and come back to pay for it without being questioned. You can leave your phone in the charger in a busy train station and leave for an hour… and come back to find it is still there. Just amazing!
10. Eventually you get used to the celebrity experience
I am blonde. I am quite pale, especially compared to the local population. I’m quite tall as well. There is no way you won’t see me walk by in the street. Lisa and Katarin are my two fellow blondies here in India and they, too, are being looked stared at wherever they go. I think that, by now, we have gotten quite used to that. Nevertheless, the snapping of pictures still gets on our nerves a lot. People push their phones and cameras in our faces without asking. Some are more sneaky: they pretend to take a selfie while we just “happen to be” in the background. Others just kindly ask if we would like to take a picture with them or their children.
Currently we have adopted a new tactic to deal with these situations: when someone stares, we just stare back. And when someone takes a picture of us, we don’t hesitate to take one of them also.
As you can see, we have learned and experienced a lot the past few weeks. We are learning to love the Indian way of doing things and are making the best out of every moment.
It seems kind of contradictory, but I can honestly say that I have found peace within myself amongst all this chaos and complexity. I am loving it here and keep experiencing new things, keep being impressed. Every day is an adventure and it makes me feel alive.
So frankly, I think the culture shock will be much bigger when we get back to Antwerp. But that is still a long time away. Let’s see what the next two months will bring!