I’ve been in India for three weeks now. So far, this trip has been the best experience of my life. I’ve met incredible people, seen amazing places, and enjoyed once in a lifetime experiences. However, despite the excitement, life in India has not been without its challenges.
Bangalore is not a tourist city.
Consequently, the local population is not accustomed to seeing foreigners. When I walk down any street in the city, I am literally the only white person. Everyone stares unashamedly. Motorcyclists pass by, craning their heads to keep me in view. Boys nudge their friends and gesture. People take pictures without asking. I am constantly a target. Most rickshaw drivers try to charge two or three times the regular fare because I have white skin. Vendors refuse to barter. Beggars follow me, occasionally tugging on my arm. White skin is automatically associated with wealth. And some people treat me like a walking ATM. Which is ironic because India hates my credit cards. With a passion. I have never been denied so many times. I have to pray every time I pay. And carry plenty of cash.
I can’t travel anywhere by myself.
Although I have not experienced anything worse than uncomfortable stares and a few shouts from men, it is unwise for women to travel alone. In the U.S., I’m used to getting in my car and driving wherever I want I want to go. Here, I have to plan my outings and activities with at least one other person. We have to decide together where we want to go, how we want to get there, and whether we should walk, take a bus, or hire a rickshaw. Simple trips to the grocery store require coordination, communication, and cooperation. There is a toilet shortage in Bangalore, and in most other areas of India. When I leave campus, I have no guarantee that I will have access to a restroom. The public restrooms that do exist generally charge a fee for use. The city of Bangalore is currently building a new metro. The train stations were initially built without bathrooms. Restrooms were added to the stations only after the city received complaints, mostly from women, about the lack of restrooms. Public urination is a significant problem.
“No urination here” signs are plastered on walls throughout the city.
The standards for cleanliness and hygiene in India are very different than they are in the U.S. The sidewalks and streets contain trash, dirt, and debris. No one uses soap. The majority of washrooms do not contain soap or toilet paper. Hand washing consists of rinsing your hands with water.
Tap water is not safe to drink.
I have to drink purified or bottled water, which can sometimes be difficult to find. On campus, there are solar powered water purification machines. However, outside the campus, the water can’t really be trusted. I stock up on the campus water, and carry a water bottle with me when I venture out into the city. At restaurants, if the water isn’t bottled, I can’t drink it. However, bottled water isn’t always reliable, either. Some vendors and restaurants will reuse water bottles, refilling them with tap water. So I have to be vigilant. I also can’t order anything with ice because it's generally made from unfiltered water. Raw fruits and vegetables are also sketchy. I’ve mostly stuck to fruits with peels and cooked vegetables. Street food can also be dangerous. For example, there have been cases where street vendors selling pink cotton candy colored the sugar with industrial garment dye instead of food coloring. I have experimented with some street food. Only the vendors approved by my Indian friends, though.
My hostel (dormitory) does not have a washing machine. I wash all my clothes in a bucket, hand ring them, and scatter them around my room to dry. As far as I can tell, there are no dryers in India. Everyone hangs their laundry out on clotheslines, balconies, windows, or stairwells. Due to the high humidity, it can take days for clothes to dry. When the monsoon rains come, they pour buckets. And flood the streets. Which is particularly inconvenient when the rickshaws, my main mode of vehicle transportation, lack doors and windows.
No one speaks the same language.
Bangalore is a very diverse city. People from different states in India all speak different mother tongues. While English is widely understood, it is not always widely spoken. I am studying Hindi in school. However, despite being one of the official national languages of India, Hindi is predominantly spoken in Northern India. Southern languages such as Kannada and Malayalam predominate in Bangalore. All this diversity is fascinating to experience. However, it makes communication very challenging at times. Everyone is in the same boat, though. Students from North India struggle as much as I do to understand and communicate with South Indians. Interestingly, English functions as a unifying language for most people.
No one answers a direct question.
I have yet to convince a food vendor to tell me what ingredients are contained within a certain dish. People decide for you what you want. Innumerable times, I have ordered a specific meal only to be categorically denied. The vendor either rejects my request outright, shakes their head, or gives me something completely different. Whenever I order, I have to be prepared with a list of at least three options. I usually end up with the third option. Unless, of course, a random friendly stranger takes the liberty to order for me. I’ve actually met a lot of my Indian friends this way.
There are bugs.
Not quite as many as I expected. But still. Yesterday, I went to make my bed. As I pulled the corner of my blanket back, a gigantic cockroach scampered out from beneath my sheet. I’m not exaggerating either. I have a witness to corroborate the enormity of that cockroach.
The beauty and wonder of India is filtered through a lens of deep hardship and pain. Starving dogs wander the streets. Impoverished young children wander the streets half naked, wearing no shoes. Slums crouch next to expensive technology offices. Nothing is hidden or sugarcoated. Most of it is simply ignored.
All in all, life in India is a daily struggle.
But despite the challenges, frustrations, and my own blunders, I’m still alive. I learn something new every single day. And I’ve never enjoyed living life more. Honestly, I didn’t expect my transition to life in a foreign country to go as smoothly as it has. The kindness of the people in India has made my adjustment pretty painless. The lack of easy access to resources like clean drinking water has definitely taught me a huge lesson in gratitude. But, quite frankly, I’ve come to realize that many of the comforts and conveniences of American life are trivial and unnecessary.
My family and friends are the only luxuries I truly miss.