India. For my first article about India, I shared my extensive route in just two month, took you on a train ride to Delhi, to the Ghats in Varanasi and up to Himalayan mountains in the north. For part two, I interviewed some Indian friends about why locals often want photos with foreigners and why you’re likely to be stared at in India. I also spent some time thinking about secularism and culture and try to explain why visiting India was transformative experience for me.

A group of young boys in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

Photo please? About photos with foreigners and staring Indians

After being back in Europe and thinking about my experiences and questions, I decided to post them to Indian friends I made on train rides, hikes and places I stayed at. Facebook proves to be great tool to do so. From five new friends I asked, I got two comprehensive answers back (yay!). Both are young students from what I would call India’s middle class. It’s anything but representative but I thought it’d be interesting to get their input on my questions. The answers came back somewhat mixed up (or my questions hit a similar topic) so I’ll wrap them up.

How do you think Indians perceive western tourists?
Why do you think Indians want pictures with foreigners?
What happens to the photographs afterwards?
Why would foreigners often get openly stared at in India?

S. studies electrical engineering and lives in Guwahati, Assam

View from the sleeper wagons on my way to Delhi

S: “See we Indians have a very big fascination towards foreigners. These can be traced back to the colonial times when we were being ruled by the British. When ever we (at least the majority) come across people from another land we feel obligated to click a picture with them as a memory. Another reason might be that there is a huge hype about “the US lifestyle”, the American dream. So sometimes it’s out of the respect these pictures are clicked. Usually the photos are posted on Facebook and other social networking sites or kept as a memorabilia.
There is a racial background to this habit too! If you’re white then they will definitely click pictures with you but if you’re black then the number of people lining up to click pictures will increase manifold. This is mainly because we have a very racist mindset and get fascinated by any being alien to our land.
People here keep foreigners at a different pedestal all together. Some people are fascinated by them and often respect them, but in some unfortunate cases the racial mindset kicks in along with the inherent vindictive attitude that Indians in general posses. In such a situation, unfortunate accidents take place. (…)
The greatest difference in between people around the world and Indians (almost majority) is that we lack the moral conscience. This is the root cause of all the evil that takes place, my friend.

A. is from Calcutta and studies Law in Dehradun, Uttarakhand

A: “There are actually two types of views. One is the educated Indian view and the other is the rural Indian view. The educated Indian perceive Western tourists as something of a welcome. They feel proud that their country is a choice tourist destination. And they welcome foreigners as a kilo of manna in their already boring lives. If given a chance, they would chat up a foreigner and try to be friends with them. Now, we have the rural Indians. Some of them see foreigners as a blemish on their country’s landscape. This is because of the fact that since India was under British rule for a good period of time, orthodox values have been inculcated within them. And they are narrow minded so as to change the fact. But, they are opening up now as they see that foreigners are helping them to earn money by tourism. And some of them are really kind-hearted people.

It is somewhat of a pride for us Indians to take a picture with a foreigner, specially for people who see foreigners rarely. Even if they see a foreigner walking on the road, they will openly stare at him/her. Some of the photos do go on FB and generate the local TRPs. It’s a matter of Psychology, I think. Cause we are dark complexioned and it boosts our ego somewhat if we take pictures with a fair complexioned person; a bonus if it is a foreigner. Sorry to say, but thats how a common Indian behaves. Indians do have a tendency to stare at foreigners on the road. And they do it openly, which is worse… This happens because its hardwired into us Indians to stare at people different from us. We differ in the basic things like dressing style, hairstyle, etc. Even if a person with a disability comes, we openly stare at him even though it’s an Indian.”

First of all, a big thank you to my friends for taking the time to answering my questions. India get’s very intense in this context, specially when you’re also confronted with hawkers and the likes. And there’s a recent development related to my questions: more and more people have a smartphone and will take a photo to keep or share with their friends on social networks. The habit of taking photos with foreigners has therefore probably increased manifold.

It’s important to say that I didn’t experience anything really bad and that I’m writing about this just out of curiosity. I think that coming from the western world, you owe most people a smile and some patience, so I was never really bothered by someone staring at me, would occasionally stare back and happily take pictures with locals.

Posing for photos in the Ganga near Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

An interesting point (and happening all over Asia) is the hype about western lifestyle. If you look at big billboards or TV advertisements, you’ll see that dark complexioned Indians will rarely be displayed. In Thailand I witnessed Thais using whitening products, while in India they’re for sale in every pharmacy too. It’s an inverted beauty ideal for us westerners, who strive to become tanned during their holidays. Our consumerist world adapts to (but also twists) the needs of its population and often leaves us wondering.

Both my Indian friends were apologetic about India or asked me to be gentle in my writings and a quick google search shows you why – there’re plenty of India visitors asking the same questions but more like in with “WTF are they staring at?” tonality, instead of wondering of the cultural background of the phenomenon. Perhaps it is the absence of personal privacy in public spaces, due to overcrowding. On other hand, due to the variety of cultures, religions and ethnic groups, Indians could be also used to the diversity (obviously not in rural parts, but definitely in the big cities) but that’s not the case.

I don’t intend to deliver a complete answer, but as usual just point some heads towards a topic. If you’re travelling in India, be sympathetic towards everyone, stare back in a friendly way or just walk away if you need to, and most importantly give people a smile, since you’re most probably a lot better off in life then most of them.

In India you can fix it all

A shoe repair man in Himachal Pradesh
Did I really want this upgrade?

Change of topic: Up in Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh, the soles of my sneakers were pretty much worn off and I wasn’t anywhere near a good shoe shop. I approached one of the mobile shoe repair men and asked him if he could do something about it. He was like “wear my extra pair and come back in half an hour”. So I did and had a good laugh about the outcome. He cut out rubber parts and glued them to the soles of my shoes. Some special nails finished the job and I wondered if those wouldn’t be making it rather uncomfortable to walk with. The fix was great and held for about a week and I was surprised on how sturdy it was.

While we’re living in a throw-away society in our western consumerist world, it was refreshing to find so many good handicraftsman in India who would fix and reuse pretty much anything you’d bring them. From the vast shopping possibilities in Delhi to the small repair offices in smaller towns, in India a lot of things are repaired and reused. By my own philosophy of only buying what I really need it felt good to travel in India and get things fixed for very little money, instead of buying them again.

Of course there’s also another perspective in India and the country struggles with a huge waste and sanitation problem. Sharply contrasting with New Zealand where I had been working for the Community Recycling Network a few month earlier, it felt like this huge growing population was generating so much untreated waste that it made other countries amazing efforts look insubstantial.

These contrasts are perhaps the meaningful thing when’re travelling, since they alert us on how different the world is and how we can learn from each other, be inspired and work to change things for the better (yes, I’m an optimist)!

Secular India, a country for every kind of belief

The Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya is the main place of worship for Buddhists

To write about secularism and culture in India will probably fill several books and to even understand all the facets will require the reading of even more, so I gave up on my bold plan of writing about this, and reduced it just a short (but hopefully meaningful) comment.

My main motivation originated from the learning that secularism in India is different from how we define it in the West: “Secularism in India means equal treatment of all religions by the state. Unlike the Western concept of secularism which envisions a separation of religion and state, the concept of secularism in India envisions acceptance of religious laws as binding on the state, and equal participation of state in different religions.” (Wikipedia).

It is impressive on how religion has found so many way to be celebrated, thousands of gods, rites and different believers in this pluralistic, multi-ethnic and multilingual society. “Four world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—originated here, whereas Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam already arrived in the 1st millennium CE” (Wikipedia).

Secularism in India also means that different religions have different applicable codes of law. It struck me what a huge task it must be for a government to rule by this principle and how peaceful and harmonious all these ethnicities co-exist in India. Still, Secularism is a politically charged topic, specially regarding the Hindutva moment (the Hindu nationalist party). So if I just got your attention, you should read “The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen” (thanks Dorte!). I haven’t fully made it through the book but my understanding of Indian culture is growing with every page.

Street sign near Manali, Himachal Pradesh

India, a transformative experience

Elephants in the streets of Delhi

It’s hard to wrap this up! In India you’re challenged by the sheer contrasts of reality. You’ll have the ugly and the beautiful, the happy and sad, sometimes all of it happening at the same time. Some say that you’ll either love India or hate it. I definitely loved it.

Travelling in India sometimes reminded of the feeling I had when racing through terrifying dense city traffic on the back of a motorbike taxi in Surabaya, Indonesia: I decided to close my eyes and just feel the wind and let things flow. In India you gotta let things flow, give in and be carried away. There’s this obvious realisation: that there’s no good without the bad, no perfect world, but enough beauty and purity in it for it to be a world worth living for.

During my last day in Delhi I wandered through the buzzing city jungle, saw everything from elephants and cows to every single vehicle with wheels you could imagine, amidst a huge crowd of all kinds of people. Shortly after, I sat in an airplane, flew to Frankfurt and drove to a small village in Bavaria to see my family for a few days. The village was a like a ghost-town, in the middle of the summer almost no one was outside, just a car once in a while, everything looked clinically clean. I wondered: “Where are all the people?”

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