Adapting to Life in India
Seeing Patterns in the Chaos
Apparent chaos, but only apparent, in the streets of Jaipur, India.
When travelers ask me my best advice for coping with the madness of India, I have only one word: surrender.
Upon your arrival to India, very little will make sense—particularly if you haven’t traveled much in Asia. However, even for the well traveled, for first-timers the subcontinent appears locked in perpetual chaos. If you try to fight the chaos, or impose some sort of structure on the chaos, you will fail, and probably drive yourself mad in the process.
Think of India like jumping into a fast-moving stream—if you struggle and fight against the water you are going to drown, but if you let go and allow yourself to be swept away, you’ll somehow be just fine.
Initial Impressions of India
My first impressions of India were not exactly favorable. I still clearly recall my first few hours in the country when I landed in Delhi at 2 a.m. nearly four years ago. I remember the strong smell that entered and permeated the plane when the cabin doors first opened at the Delhi airport, a strange combination of spices and urea. Next, there is an image of the attendant in the airport toilet, who was sitting cross-legged on a table in the bathroom, asleep. Then the fateful taxi ride to my hotel, through the dark streets of Delhi, streets filled with burning trash, cows, and hundreds of people sleeping on the ground.
Harsh first impressions: Children and cows in the streets of Jaipur.
That first trip lasted only three weeks. I left filled with images of grueling poverty, pollution, and general chaos, but also with a sense that I had experienced one of the most intriguing and colorful cultures on the planet.
Yet so many colorful scenes everywhere: A street cow nosing his way into a private home, Varanasi.
I couldn’t wait to get back.
Events that Settled Me
Two years later, I returned to India again with the intention of settling into a cabin and working on a novel for six months somewhere in the northern Himalayan regions, far away from the heat of the lowlands. I didn’t know where, exactly. I simply bought a ticket to Jaipur and planned to head north from there. Within a week, I found myself in Mcleod Ganj, near Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and a sizeable community of Tibetan exiles.
In the beginning, I had only marginal intentions of fully engaging with the local community. Instead, I was mostly reclusive, spending most of my time in my apartment, writing, going out into town only in the evening and not becoming overly involved with the issues surrounding me.
However, it was hard to remain isolated in such a politicized environment for long, especially with so many daunting figures often in town, and the near-weekly candlelight vigils held on the streets for those who had self-immolated back in Tibet to protest the Chinese occupation—not to mention the frequent demonstrations.
So during my free hours I began reading about Tibetan and Indian issues, attending lectures and protests, talking with locals to find out more about their lives. Each day I became more enmeshed with the issues, and deepened my understanding until I found I had fallen so much in love with the place that it had begun to feel like my home. However, I still did not intend to remain past the six months of my visa.
Then I met a girl, a Tibetan who was born in exile in South India. After a bumpy and confusing beginning, my visa expired and I had to return to the U.S. But once back in my home country I felt no longer at home. All I could think about was getting back to Dharamshala, and the girl I left behind.
After three months in the U.S., I decided to take a leap. I bought a plane ticket back to Dharamshala with the intention of trying out a new way of life.
That was a year and a half ago and I couldn’t be happier with the result.
Tibetan exiles performing a traditional dance during the Dalai Lama's birthday in Mcleod Ganj, India.
Patterns in the Chaos
When I returned to India, again my intentions were very different. From the beginning, I sought to understand this strange country, and with my new eyes I aimed to look deeper, with the mind of an immigrant rather than a transient traveler.
It is hard to express how drastically this altered my experience and perception of India. Whereas before I would simply complain about all the inevitable differences and inconveniences, now I sought to understand them, and to learn to navigate my way through them.
It was during my second six months in India that I really began to see patterns emerging in the chaos. It was still undoubtedly chaos, but the closer I looked the more certain patterns began to emerge, and once you figure out the patterns, the easier it becomes to navigate.
For example, not until I began driving in India did I realize why so many people are honking all the time: the horn is an indispensable tool on Indian roadways, as integral as the indicator or brake in countries with more organized systems.
The more one learns the less daunting India becomes.
Seeing the Wider Picture
The more I explored India the more vast and diverse I discovered it to be. During my first trip I developed a uniform concept of what India was, based on the few places I had been, namely Delhi, Varanasi, Lucknow, Haridwar and a few other cities in the north. But the more I traveled the more I realized how variegated a country it is. I abandoned my illusion of India as a singe unit and began to think of it as an unsteady union of hundreds of extremely different nations, all with radically different cultures, languages, religions, races, and landscapes—far more diverse than what you find in Europe.
And the more I discovered, the more I came to see the place I had chosen as my home—Dharmashala—within India: a sort of anomaly among anomalies, with a unique culture created by a meeting of Tibetan, Indian, Asian, and Western influence.
Tibetan monks watching a basketball match in Mcleod Ganj, India.
I recall the advice a good friend (and seasoned traveler) gave to his brother to prepare for him for his first trip for India.
He told him, “Begin walking around in absurd clothing, so that everyone stares at you, start paying for everything in one-hundred dollar bills. And most importantly, practice patience.”
The latter, patience, is perhaps the most valuable skill when making the transition to India, as one should be mentally prepared when almost nothing goes according to the plan. If you have flexibility and patience, nearly anything can be accomplished. If you are short-tempered and easily get frustrated, you’re going to have a difficult time. You’ll quickly discover that few things run on time, few things are precisely as they are advertised, and power outages and vehicles breakdowns are a part of daily life, as are things that are lost in translation. But be assured: in India, not matter how impossible the task may seem, there is always a way. Simply take a deep breath, be patient, find the way, and you should be fine.
The other two snippets of advice—accepting being stared at and paying for everything in $100 bills—are also a part of daily life in India. I remember walking around New York this winter with a Tibetan-Indian friend. Wherever we went, he was hesitant to pay for anything with a $20 bill, assuming nobody would have change. I had to laugh. “We’re not in India anymore,” I said. “People here have to give you change.”
In India it seems impossible to get change anywhere, even if the bill is the equivalent of a $5 bill (500 INR). I’m not sure the cause of this unusual lack of change, but it’s certainly something you have to get used to in order to go with the flow. You may often find yourself going around with pocketfuls of 10-rupee notes.
And being stared at is a given. The staring is not going to stop. The more you’re bothered by it the more uncomfortable you will feel, whereas the more you ignore it the more it will feel like an everyday, normal sort of thing. You look strange, so people will stare at you out of curiosity. It is rarely menacing. To disarm the stares a simple smile and head waggle will go a long way.
Physically, I’ve had to learn to navigate an entirely new spaciotemporal environment, one completely different from what I grew up with or made me feel comfortable. As a preface, I should say I grew up in Oklahoma, where space is vast and empty, public transport is basically non-existent and to get anywhere one must drive considerable distances. By contrast, in Dharmashala you must walk nearly everywhere—or rather, hike, as it is located in the Himalayan foothills. Although strenuous at times, this is something I’ve grown to treasure, as it keeps me in good shape and much closer to nature.
The shift in the way locals conceive time has also taken some getting used to. I grew up in a culture in which time has a very specific value attached to it, in which “time is money.” In Dharamshala, by contrast, time is not defined in this way, i.e. how much capital each hour can bring. Time in India tends to be much more fluid. It is completely normal for people to show up late for work, meetings, or social gatherings, and “being busy” often comes attached with anti-social connotations. At first this frustrated me, as in my mind showing up 15 minutes late would be considered rude, but is something to which I have grown accustomed.
Psychologically, the adjustments have mostly been for the better. The clean crisp air and the ubiquitous mountain vistas do wonders for the soul, as does the exercise that is required for getting around such a place.
Engaging with Surroundings
In India, family is everything; and when you are not in the midst of your family, community is everything. Coming from a culture in which there are few community-based activities, this was a welcome transition, though it took a little getting used to, as to be fully integrated into a community I had to learn to let go of myself, which is not easy coming from a culture that so values, or claims to value, individualism first and foremost. With Tibetans especially, often it is not that “I” do this or that, but “we” do this or that. Thus certain aspects of individualism so prized in the West are given up to make the community more cohesive, and “standing out,” or doing any activities that are perceived as feeding the ego, are often frowned upon.
Waiting to make an offering at the temple, Varanasi, India.
Before moving to Dharamshala I lived in Istanbul, which has a population of more than 14 million. Moving to Mcleod Ganj, with a population of around 12,000, was thus an enormous transition. From the harshness and anonymity of a vast metropolis to a relatively obscure (but surprisingly busy) village in the Indian Himalayas there were obviously many changes requiring new coping skills. For example, the strong communal atmosphere mentioned above. A simple walk down the street is never possible without numerous stops to chat with friends and street vendors, as well as numerous invitations for cups of chai. In such an atmosphere reputation is very important, as the things that you do and say spread around quickly, and once you soil your reputation it’s rather difficult to repair. But for all the minor annoyances and inconveniences, it soon becomes clear that there are great rewards and ineffable value for such togetherness.
Another benefit, for me at least, is that life becomes very toned down and simplified. Material distractions are brought down to very low background noise, allowing one to focus more clearly on what they believe to be the more important things in life, such as spirituality, family and personal relationships. To an outsider, one might conclude that there is very little to do on Mcleod Ganj’s two short, narrow roadways. There is one tiny movie theatre that plays pirated films below a restaurant, and little in the ways of shows or sports attractions, but nonetheless the locals never seem short of things to do. It can be as lively as you wish, or as quiet as you wish, and there is never a shortage of interesting people to meet, not only local Indians and Tibetans, but travelers from all over the world.
View of Mcleod Ganj, India.
Feeling One’s Own Culture
In such a multicultural environment, one is bound to feel one’s own cultural upbringing sharply. I like to think of myself as a world citizen, but this is often difficult to project in an environment where one’s culture is so important to one’s identity. In other environments, the wish to outgrow the concept of nationality may be accepted a little easier than in one in which people have had their nation robbed from them and are trying their best to practice and preserve their national identity. And regardless of how much I integrate into the community, to many I will always remain a foreigner.
Sometimes these differences are revealed in social interactions in which much of what is said is lost in translation. When so often surrounded by so many others from radically different cultures, one must always seek common ground when it comes to making cultural references. The music, literature, and important issues I am concerned with will often be unknown by those who surround me, and vice versa.
Language difficulties have been surprisingly minimal, given there’s no shortage of English speakers in Mcleod Ganj, and throughout in India in general. Nearly everywhere you go in India you are bound to find someone who speaks at least a little English, though the more you get away from the larger population centers the harder this will be.
Besides English, Hindi is the most common language in the country, and a good portion of the population is a least slightly conversant in Hindi, although within the individual states the local populations tend to speak their own language, complete with their own unique alphabet.
Indians tend to be very formal when it comes to communicating in English, in part due to their British colonial heritage. For those who are native English-speakers, this might be a bit of a culture shock. If you come from an environment where English usage is much more relaxed, you might need to remind yourself to use formal English when communicating with people, particularly with those in authority. In fact, the more formal your English the more seriously you are bound to be taken
Another thing to keep in mind is that refusing something, or saying no, is often considered to be rude. Whatever it is, it is often better to accept than to refuse any display of hospitality. The downside of the tendency to avoid refusal is that Indians will often rather tell you what they think you want to hear rather than what is truly on their minds.
Immigration and Visa Issues
Visa issues have been the biggest pain in the neck for my continued life in India, as I’ve had, until now, to plan my life around 6-month visa runs to nearby countries such as Nepal, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. This has resulted in considerable unwanted costs, including plane flights and two weeks of accommodations, plus the price of the actual visa fees.
All this began with my first mistake getting a 6-month Indian visa in the United States rather than the 10-year multiple-entry visa, which is possible for all Americans. The 10-year visa costs only $110 more than the 6-month ($63), and is just as easy to apply for if you’re in the United States (you can apply by mail to your nearest consulate/embassy). It takes 7-9 business days processing time if you apply by mail.
At first I opted for the 6-month because I thought it was only possible for people of Indian origin. I later realized anyone with US citizenship can get one, but by the time I realized this I was already in India and it was too late. So when I decided to stay beyond my first 6-month tourist visa, I had to leave and apply to embassies in nearby countries.
Reapplying from countries outside India is simple enough, but can be taxing if you have to do it over and over again. In addition, sometimes the visa officials will grant you a 3-month visa instead of a 6-month visa, especially if they see you already have a bunch of 6-month visa stamps in your passport. This has been the case in Nepal lately, which used to be the easiest place to go for a visa run. Bangkok, Thailand is probably the most reliable place to get a new 6-month visa out of your home country, followed, perhaps, by Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Note that all this is based on the experiences of someone with a U.S. passport, and your experience will be different depending upon your country of citizenship. Only Americans can obtain the 10-year tourist visa in their home countries, and some nationalities, such as Israelis, face difficulties obtaining visas outside their home countries.
The situation is also much different if you’re looking to get a work, study, or business visa—all of which are only possible in your home country. As a freelance writer who works for non-Indian publications, I can live in India only on a tourist visa. If I wanted to get a work or business, visa I would have to return to my home country and submit the necessary documents.
Relocating to India
Depending on one’s culture of origin, those who have chosen to relocate to India, either permanently or temporarily, should be prepared to make a considerable transition. To many, India will seem like an entirely different planet—particularly Westerners who have traveled little or not at all. This is because India is an entirely different planet.
Different people choose to come to India for different reasons. Some come for missionary or humanitarian work, others to retire in a peaceful environment where they can live and be taken care of for comparably much less than it would cost in Europe or the U.S. Still others come for spiritual or business reasons, or to pursue a career in journalism, or even to do academic research.
Your purpose for coming will be the most decisive factor in how and where you choose to live in India. Your options are nearly inexhaustible, and the vast differences between regions are difficult to appreciate for those who haven’t spent much time in the country. The differences between places like Kashmir, Manipur, Mumbai, or Kerala are like the differences between countries on opposite ends of the world. Not only are the dominant religions different, but so are the appearance of the people and nearly the entire makeup of the culture. Plus, there are different languages to deal with. But unlike in Europe where language differences aren’t all that significant, in India different languages often use entirely different alphabets and have emerged from entirely different language families.
Yet suggestions on how to adapt to life in India might not hold true everywhere in India. Different regions will pose different challenges, and there is also a vast difference between city and rural life.
Choosing a Place to Live in India
Despite the varying factors listed above, choosing where to live in India will not be too difficult, as your location will depend almost entirely on your purpose for being in India, as very few people choose to settle in India without a specific purpose in mind. If your work or project is dependent on being close to a large city, you’ll most likely be looking for a place in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Calcutta, etc. I personally try to avoid big Indian cities as much as possible, as I find that they tend to be loud, dirty, expensive, and generally unfriendly places. But for some, they cannot be avoided.
The smaller and more rural side of India is what I most prefer, as there is far less chaos to cope with on a daily basis and people tend to be much friendlier. But depending on where you go, you will have to cope with certain issues such as cultural isolation and the absence of a number of comforts and services, including painfully slow internet connections, frequent power outages, no air-conditioning in hot weather, and no heating in non-insulated houses during the cold winters (in the north). These are simply things one must become accustomed to if you choose to live in such parts of the country. The more such inconveniences bother you, the more you are likely to have a bad time in India. Resigning oneself to such inconveniences will bring you peace of mind. As I said, surrendering to such conditions is the key to enjoying life in India.
If your work or project in India does not restrict you to a particular place, then climate and environment will also play a major role regarding where you choose to live. As far as climate and landscape is concerned, India has it all: tropical beaches, snow-capped mountains, jungles, and vast deserts. For those not accustomed to the heat, those who choose to base themselves in most places in India are in for a stifling time. Not only can temperatures be desiccating during the summer months, but considering that most buildings are not air-conditioned means it is more difficult to escape the heat. The heat is always with you—when you wake up and when you go to sleep. And leaving the windows open to let in the breeze may also mean opening a door to the mosquitoes.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of places in India with a far cooler climate than in the low lands. Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in particular are known for their ideal climate, and during the hot summers you can, like the British Raj once did, escape to the cooler airs of the mountains along the northern border. However, these same places in the north also tend to have very cold winters, and in non-insulated homes without gas heating it can get pretty frosty.
Other factors when choosing where to base yourself include political unrest and language. Certain places in India, such as Kashmir or the Northeastern states, experience more unrest than others, and at times can be downright dangerous for foreigners.
Such are the many considerations if you are deciding where to live, thrive, and surrender yourself to the land called India.
The author, David Jennings, on a motorcycle trip in Himachal Pradesh.