I was very fortunate to be able to travel to India for work this year. I had never really thought about going there before, so it was cool to be pushed into that environment. Here’s a few fun things that I learned about the country along the way:
Security can be tight. I wasn’t very familiar with the security situation in urban India, nor the history behind it, until I arrived.
It was half past 3 A.M. when my ride from the airport pulled into the JW Marriott in Bengaluru. Maybe for the best, I was too tired to react when two guards appeared, greeted us with Namaste, and began to search under the hood and in the trunk of the car. When I got to the front door of the hotel, I was again stopped by soft-spoken guards, asked to put my luggage though an airport-style scanner, walked through a metal detector, and wanded by an agent.
Here’s a few other security features I noticed:
- Vehicle checkpoints outside hotels
- Body and luggage scans when entering hotels and tourist spots
- Security guards observing individual rooms in an office
- Boarding card and passport checks outside airports
Later in the week, I got to visit the site of one of the more recent sites of an internationally-covered violent attack in India, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. In 2008, the hotel was a central target of city-wide attacks by the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group. My understanding, educated by local colleagues, is that much of the security I saw sprouted from the aftermath of those events.
Driving etiquette is a bit different. Indian drivers have nerves of steel and love to make use of every inch of space on the road.
I’m not normally a fan of driving, but it was pretty awesome to be on the road for the first time in Bengaluru. During rush hour, you really get to appreciate how expert Indian drivers are at navigating roads packed to the brim with other vehicles. Whereas in the United States gridlock looks like ranks and files of cars across a few lanes, traffic in urban India looks a bit like one of those free-the-block mobile games: cars, trucks, and motor bikes packed anywhere they can fit, all slowly moving in the same direction, albeit at different rates.
If thousands of cars idling away, spewing exhaust into the heat of the summer (think the morning commute from O’Hare to downtown Chicago, if that’s more familiar) spurs your despair about climate change, though, do your best to avoid this one.
Dietary restrictions are universally appreciated. Nobody makes assumptions about what you can and can’t eat– they’ll ask.
I learned later that since 2006, all packaged food in India must be marked with a small green or red symbol indicating whether it is vegetarian or non-vegetarian. Just about every restaurant I visited marked food on the menu using the same system. Even on the domestic flight I took, they asked everytime I was offered food.
I remember watching an episode of Parts Unknown once where Anthony Bourdain made a comment to the effect of, “I’m not a big fan of vegetables, but people here really treat them like first-class ingredients.” That’s how I felt in India. Everything was great.
Many cities’ names have changed. The Bombay I had heard about as a kid is still there, it’s just that (almost) nobody calls it that anymore.
When British imperialism ended in India, many cities and states started changing their names, primarily to realign spelling with or adopt the non-British name used by locals.
This reality first hit me after I had booked my flight to Bangalore. Why did my confirmation say I was landing in Bengaluru?! It turned out Bangalore is now Bengaluru. Bombay is Mumbai. Kolkata is Calcutta. Et cetera.
Anyway, India is awesome.