Welcome to India. Now close your eyes and forget everything you thought you “just knew” about this place. Re-open your eyes. Take everything in, the entire sensory experience. India is a place that has no true description. Talking about it as a nation is great when you consider everyone standing to sing the national anthem, at the movie theater, or celebrating Diwali. Every other aspect of Indian culture, however, is regional and cannot be homogenized.
My husband and I moved to Maharashtra in July 2016. Hoping for a fresh opportunity to practice our chosen professions (public health and energy access) in a place that simultaneously houses the greatest population at risk and the highest rates of highly-skilled and educated people working on these problems. At this time, I had only visited India once for about two weeks, several months before we moved. Maharashtra is not quite south India and not quite north India. It is solidly in the middle. It is widely understood to be the cultural and academic capital of India. This the land of Bollywood, pop-up ethnic fashion, and craft fairs. There are dozens of festivals in the area, including, and possibly most famously Ganesh Chaturthi, the celebration of the Hindu God Ganesh. Maharashtra is the definition of vibrant and festive.
Living here is quite different than coming for a celebration, however. We live on a quiet street, with flora and fauna in abundance. It is a virtual jungle in a valley. Most of our neighbors are Indian. They enjoy a festive evening as much as the next person, but usually the old Bollywood dance music ends by ten. It is pleasant and safe; right in the heart of the ancient Maratha Empire. Some might find this academic city slow-paced compared to other areas of India, but we absolutely love it.
Because of our move and since we have arrived, I have learned a great deal about what it means to be an ex-pat in India. I am still learning everyday, but I wanted to share a bit of what I have learned with you. Some of this advice is beneficial to those traveling in India as well as those planning to move here.
1) First and foremost, you will see a lot of stuff that fascinates, horrifies, and inspires you.
That is the feeling of the actual risk you took moving – not your pre-arrival dreams. Your dreams and visions and understanding will fundamentally change, because India changes people. Lean into the feelings enough to grasp the sense of adventure of this thing, but not so much that it brings about unnecessary fears of “what was I thinking?”.
Many regions in this country are transitioning fast. It is a place where traditional cultures come face-to-face with modernity. There are breweries and super hip restaurants that rival those of San Fran and Portland. We regularly take Uber and use apps like the India-only Zomato to find great restaurants. On the flip side, entire days are shut down for festivals between the months of September and December. In the three months since our arrival, we have participated in three holidays, all with between 9-12 days of celebration, that include at least one day with everything shut down. Additionally, the state has mandated “dry days” where no business is allowed to serve alcohol. And nearly every cabbie has a spiritual icon on their dashboard.
2) You will be asked for a lot of things, sometimes just because you are non-Indian.
This can include money, food, and selfies. In your response, go with your gut and accept the decision you made in that moment. People aren’t often offended by your choice.
My most heart-wrenching moment with this was on a drive out of Mumbai. We were stopped at a light and two young children ran up to the door of our car asking for food. I collected some of the snack we had with us in one bag and, thinking the two were together, rolled down the window and handed the bag to the taller boy. In a flash, he grabbed the bag and ran down the road, leaving the small girl behind continuing to ask for food, of which I had no more. These things do happen to everyone here in some way or another – no matter how much change in prosperity is occurring worldwide, there is still a lot to be done for those in poverty. It is an unavoidable reality in India for a whole host of reasons. As a traveler and/or ex-pat you should have an idea about this reality in your head and decide what makes you comfortable – whether that is giving money, food, or a smile.
3) Explore the natural areas as well as the cultural/architectural.
I truly believe this is a good way to remain grounded during your time in India. The Western Ghats in Maharashtra are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are rich in diversity and there are plenty of great hiking trails. Just make sure you bring plenty of water!
4) Make friends with the locals.
They will provide a terrific and necessary support system while you live here and beyond.
This is especially handy when you need help translating or need recommendations for things like a hospital. In my case, it was incredibly useful when I contracted Dengue fever. We had a flood of generous local support from friends we hadn’t even known that long. We were very fortunate to have developed a community in our first month so that in an emergency they came through in so many ways.
5) Getting dressed is an issue, but it is one you may have to make after you arrive.
India can seem like a conservative country from an outside perspective, but it depends greatly on where you live and how you spend your days. You will see great diversity in dress from one area of town to another. There are lots of options for your own style. I have read articles about travelers who choose to pack modesty-focused clothing and others who promote current, American fashions. For myself, I dress modestly. I did in the U.S. and I do in India. It is my choice and, ultimately, it is your choice as well. Regardless, I would suggest that you consider that the primary fashion for a modern Indian woman is leggings, a tunic style shirt called a kurti, and a scarf. You do not have to emulate this style, but be cognizant of the culture around you if you’re choosing to live abroad.
6) Don’t bring EVERYTHING you might miss from your home country, but do consider bringing some things.
You want this to feel like home, no matter how long you’ll be here. I brought my yoga mat, things I have collected for my meditation space, and my collection of fridge magnets. I also brought a bunch of stuff I did not need at all! I was very concerned about not having my favorite body products, etc. and so packed a suitcase full of “what-if” supplies. As I mentioned earlier, India is a modern country and many Indians have traveled and lived abroad. There are many places where you can purchase the things that matter to your daily routine, you do not need to pack all of it. There is also Amazon here, so don’t worry if you forgot something, you just need to consider how much you might be willing to pay to get it.
I would suggest, that if you have a leaning toward natural cleaning supplies (anything besides laundry soap), than bring castile soap with you, it is VERY expensive online. There is a tendency to have the house cleaned every day – including mopping – so you may want to consider how much chemical intake you’re willing to expose yourself and others to in your own home.
Also, for natural brands of mouthwash, I have found the flavour selection a limiting factor. I’m planning to get some that is more palatable to my taste buds when I fly back.
7) Mostly, be safe and have fun!
It is always good to be the normal amount of cautious when living or visiting anywhere on the planet (we do not live in a Utopia of safe passage) – but I can say that I have walked, grabbed an auto-rickshaw, and taken Ubers by myself and never had any trouble. There are a lot of good-willed people in all the places I have visited in India and I rarely feel alone. Just be aware of your surroundings and don’t do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.
This is a guest post by Erin P.
Erin P. is a travel writer, yogi, and food enthusiast. She has two masters degrees and has been studying cultural history and health for 10 years. Erin is currently living and working in India with her husband. Find her blog www.seaturtlemusings.com and Instagram @seaturtle_musings.