India debriefing

riding on an elephant in India

A few weeks ago we went to India for a friend’s wedding. I thought I’d share my thoughts.

The wedding was in Bangalore, for an Indian friend of mine who lives in the United States. Tiffany and I flew there from France and met up with my friend Mike and his girlfriend (all 4 of us pictured above on the elephant). We were only in town for a week, so we didn’t get to see as much of India as we might have otherwise. We spent a couple days in Bangalore for the reception and wedding, and then traveled around the state of Karnataka for a few days.

First of all, the reception and wedding were pretty awesome. We bought some Indian outfits to wear to both. For the evening reception we wore what would be considered more flashy outfits, while for the actual wedding we were told to get something more traditional. Interestingly, we managed to buy everything we needed in just a couple hours in the afternoon the day of the reception. Both the reception and wedding were held at the same venue. The photography setup really surprised us. They had a video camera on a boom over the crowd, plus a few other cameras. As at a sporting event, there were large screens that would switch between the camera feeds. The reception consisted of lots of food for the guests while the bride and groom stood on the stage for three hours as each guest came up and gave gifts and got pictures taken. The wedding ceremony itself was the next morning. During it, they did all sorts of things that I didn’t really understand. The bride and groom would mix some spices or something together, then get up and step on them. Sometimes it looked like the groom was putting something on the jewelry worn by the bride. Sometimes the stage was full of guests to help with the rituals. At one point, we were up on stage and we got to pore water on a coconut that they were holding. Then we had to sprinkle rice on the coconut. I almost grabbed the rice with the wrong hand, but I was quickly corrected by the crowd (pro tip: don’t grab anything with your left hand).

In the afternoon after the wedding, we left to tour Karnataka a bit. It seems most of the tourist sites in that region are temples, so that’s mostly what we saw. We stayed two nights in Mysore and one night in Hassan.

The driving conditions were probably my biggest shock of the week. When we first arrived, there was quite a downpour which I guess was unusual and due to tropical storms in that area of the world. Some of the roads from the airports were pretty flooded, which made driving conditions even worse. Luckily we had skilled drivers, which I guess most Indians are. The traffic was nuts. There was no concept of lanes. People and cattle meandered across the road as they pleased. They use horns and high beams completely differently than we do in the west. The horn means something like “look out, I’m over here,” and the high beams mean something like “I’m coming through.” So basically the roads are a sea of horns. Also they are brazen when passing. It is not uncommon to be on a two-lane rural road, with a car in front of you, a motorcycle oncoming, and the driver decides to pass. The motorcycle will get out of the way just enough that you’ll all fit. Also often we came within meters of hitting oncoming buses during passes. After dark, it gets even more terrifying. People walk in the middle of the road, just as they do during the day. Rickshaws and motorcycles often have no taillights. But one way or another, there aren’t that many accidents. In fact, the cars were in pretty good condition, maybe better than in France.

The driving conditions also made for interesting walking. On some streets in Bangalore, there really are no crosswalks. You just have to meander across traffic. We had an interesting incident doing just that. We needed to cross a multi-lane road and Mike had the idea that we should follow a group of Indians who were also ready to cross. This was, in theory, a good idea. However, when we had almost reached the other side, we heard squealing tires and saw that a motorcyclist was coming toward the group. He apparently had tried to aggressively pass a rickshaw on the right, saw the Indian group we were crossing behind, and hit the brakes, sliding on sand and ultimately going down. The motorcyclist and his passenger were OK. We weren’t in any real danger because the Indian group was blocking for us. However, I did get a nice scrape on my arm, that has not yet completely disappeared, from Mike’s girlfriend grabbing my arm in fear.

We were lucky to have very good, trustworthy drivers for the whole time. The wedding party arranged them for us. They picked us up from the airport, drove us to the shopping street, and brought us to the wedding. Then, one of these drivers also drove us all around the countryside over the next few days, seeing temples and tourist sights. As a westerner (with the exchange rates), everything is extremely cheap in India so it makes a lot of sense to spend the money getting a driver you can trust. India can be a daunting place. It can be dangerous for tourists. But having these drivers made it less of a concern and we were never really afraid for our safety.

So overall it was a great experience. I recommend it enthusiastically. The flights were long and expensive, but everything there (hotel, taxi, food, clothes) was so cheap it kind of made up for it. We’re minimalists on souvenir purchases (and in general), but we did buy a couple scarves for Tiffany and a couple ties and a polo shirt for me. It also seems that they accept US Dollars in some places. I hope to write another post sometime about my experiences traveling India with a nut allergy (there were some problems, but we learned) and perhaps Tiffany will write a bit more about the outfits that we bought.

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