India – population 1.324 billion people (2016).
Intimidating? A bit.
Friendly? Without a doubt!
When planning my trip to India last year, I admit to being a bit apprehensive. Not about the country itself, but about the sheer volume of people. I had visions of millions of people milling outside the front door of my hotel, just waiting for me to step into the street so they could sell me their wares, be my guide, take me on tours or simply to beg for money.
Yes, it was busy and loud and frenetic, however it was all very manageable. Perhaps I was a bit lucky with where we stayed and the cities we visited. Wherever we went we were greeted with a smile. A smile can overcome any barrier, start conversations and communicate that we are open and willing to learn and share.
On the whole, I found the people of Rajasthan to be unfailingly welcoming and friendly. In some cases no doubt, this was driven by the hope of generating a sale, but a laugh and a wave of my hand and a polite ‘No, thanks’ was enough to allow me to continue on my way.
The tour I joined travelled on numerous overnight trains and public buses. For some reason, I was consistently seated separately from my group, in a completely different part of the train. I was a little nervous about this the first time, but as soon as I sat down all my fears vanished. Within seconds of the train moving off, the Indian families in my compartment would open their voluminous suitcases and unpack their evening meal. As the spicy aroma wafted my way, it was quickly followed by their insistent invitations to join them for dinner.
I had the most interesting conversations with both men and women as the train rattled through the night including a long chat with a young, female microbiologist. She was making the tiring journey from Delhi, 19 hours in total, to meet her husband who was stationed with the army at Jaisalmer. Sadly, they only see each other every couple of months and this visit was just for the weekend. Our conversation covered a vast array of topics, but focussed mainly on Indian wedding traditions and marriage generally. She was a new bride and was still very much caught up in the excitement of it all, and we found that we were equally fascinated by each other’s traditions and ceremonies. In India, a wedding includes at least three separate events – a music night where family members must sing, dance and perform for each other, the engagement party, and then the actual wedding. Each celebration may have anything up to, or over, 500 guests! Can you imagine the cost of feeding and entertaining them all?
Later in the tour, as we were wandering down a street one evening in Jaipur, a wave of colour and noise caught our attention. A few of us couldn’t resist peering through a gap in a fence to watch all the bright lights, dancing and music of the celebration, only to have a man walk up to us and invite us to join them at the wedding! As you can imagine we were dressed in pretty standard tourist attire, but with a broad smile, he insisted we would be welcome. We didn’t need to be asked twice and in we walked to be swamped by the other guests all clad in luxurious fabrics and dripping in jewels. It was a surreal experience as we chatted to everyone, sampled the 100 metre long buffet (I am NOT exaggerating) and met the exhausted and shell-shocked bride and groom. After three days of partying, the Happy Couple must have thought they were seeing things and wondered what planet these scruffy Westerners had dropped in from!
Indian children are especially friendly and they all want a photograph with you. That’s OK when there are only a handful, but when it is a school excursion of 700 children, that can get a little tiring AND time-consuming! The adults are only marginally less enthusiastic for photos with foreigners. I can’t help but think how odd I am going to look in all these strangers’ photo albums. I reckon if ‘taking selfies’ was an Olympic sport, it would be GOLD, GOLD, GOLD to India!
English is widely spoke throughout Rajasthan and it is easy to navigate around the place. If people aren’t fluent, they are generally keen to do their best to communicate in an attempt to improve their English. It is really only the very old people who are a little shy and reluctant to chat.
Before departing Australia, I had read plenty about the need for women to take extra care when travelling in India. I didn’t experience any major problems, but I played it pretty safe. Women in India have an interesting place in society, obvious discrimination in some areas, and then benefits in others. I was amused and interested to find out that women receive discounted tickets on buses and trains and to go to the movies. Go figure?
I realise I have only visited a very small part of this large and colourful country, but I would recommend it to anyone.
Knowing there is a warm welcome waiting for you, plaster on your best smile and sally forth into the chaos.
What is the friendliest country you have visited?