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India Tips From a Road Junky – Yifa Rachael Yaakov

Ask a road junky.

Last week to test how much info road junkies are carrying around in their heads we offered $100 bucks for the best answer[s} to 7 questions about India.

A lot of good info came in, particularly from Omer Waizman, Christine Chew, Nihit Jain, Harman Singh, Ajay Goyal, Manish Banthia and Arif Isuptonogood…

But Yifa Rachael Yaakov wins and we’re sure you can see why:

RJ: Which are the best 5 places to go in India and why?

Yifa: 1. Amritsar.

It is something completely different. Many Sikhs will tell you that you will never see a beggar there. I didn’t. The atmosphere there is special, you can spend hours at the Golden Temple listening to the beauty of the hymns and reading the translations, and it will surely make you smile and warm your heart when you hop on an autorickshaw and see that it is outfitted with blue lights and a super sound system for blasting that bhangra. And the countryside with its rice fields and tiny village gurudwaras is just around the corner. History lovers will particularly enjoy learning more about (partitioned) Punjab, while food lovers will learn to cram tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, chicken biryani, a bottle of whisky and a large sweet lassi into one lunch break.

2. Agra.

They say this city is polluted and full of touts. That may be so. But it is one of the best places in India to experience Islam (this goes for much of Uttar Pradesh). Try coming here on Ramadan; look at the Taj from your hostel rooftop while listening to the wailing ‘azaan’ or go to the opposite bank of the river, stare at Shah Jahan’s monument to Mumtaz and imagine what a splendid sight it must have been back when it was the crowning glory of a city of Muslim royalty, magnificent architecture and fragrant, well-kept pleasure gardens, as its name suggests.

3. Mumbai.

The soul of India, the city that never sleeps. Bollywood, the mafia, businesses and enterprises, shiny new malls, crazy celebrations of any and all holidays, cinema multiplexes, the Queen’s Necklace, Colaba, seaside bunglows and crumbling Raj-era relics, the hip hot spots of Bandra, cricket games at gymkhanas, horse races, couples holding hands on Marine Drive looking out at the Arabian sea… plus, of course, delicious Bombay cuisine, sugarcane juice, vada pao, Parsi food – this city has everything.

4. Goa

The wonder begins on the road: traveling to Goa from Maharashtra or Karnataka, you cannot miss the miles of greenery, the serene sugarcane fields and cowherds with white Nehru camps reflecting the sunshine. Slowly the scenery starts changing, palm trees, churches and the “sussegado” (laid-back) atmosphere.. the sea is king here, as are cheap booze (try kajoo feni), Portuguese houses in pastel colors, an interesting Indian take on Christianity, live music, wild parties (in season – off-season you may get to witness a magical Goa monsoon) and a thousand different ways to serve fish-curry-rice.

5. Hunder, Ladakh.

Ladakh, the moonland, the high-altitude desert, is a wonder in itself; it is a photographer’s paradise and a place where you can observe the unique culture of what used to be a remote Buddhist mountain kingdom. Hunder is one of the most special places in Ladakh – it was once a stop on the Silk Road and you can even see the Central Asian mix of peoples who passed through this area reflected in the locals’ features. Many people here are Muslims – Hunder is not far from Pakistan – and some still own Bactrian camels. Don’t miss the sand dunes at sunset – as the weather becomes cooler, you can sit on the warm sand and marvel at this convergence of cultures within Indian territory.

RJ: What are the Indians like?

Yifa: They usually know technology better than you.

They are likely to give an answer which is the opposite of what they really mean, mostly when the question is very unambiguous, i.e. “do you have lemon tea?” (“ji haan meidam”… 20 minutes later – no tea, and a vague Indian headshake).

They have a vague headshake. It usually conveys neither yes nor no, but rather yes-no. This is a standard and logical answer (see b).

They are warm, open and curious (the Westerner may construe this as tactlessness).

They love traveling but rarely get to do much of it if they do not work in computers/IT- visas are hard to come by and time off work usually permits little more than a whirlwind trip to famous capitals in Europe, or an organized trip to Malaysia/Singapore. Share your experiences with them if you can.

They love their country and are proud of it. They are super-proud of their history of nonviolent resistance (though most of them have never seen Kashmir on a bad day).

They don’t like to exclude any god. At all. 3-D stickers of Jesus can be seen dwelling with small blue statues of Krsna, Guru Nanak necklaces and Muslim paraphernalia. If you have a picture of your god, they will gladly add it to the pantheon.

It doesn’t matter if they’re Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Christians, or if they’re Gujarati, Punjabi or Bihari – they will have Aishwarya Rai (or for the more old-fashioned, Rekha or one of those classical actresses) posters on the wall and they will swear by Amitabh Bachchan. (To fit in, try learning some names – anything with ‘Khan’ at the end usually works – and picking up some Bollywood song lingo.)

RJ: What kind of work can you do in India?

Yifa: As an English-speaker you can work at call centers, teach proper American/British accent to call center workers, or work/volunteer for NGOs, at orphanages, in ESL/other education.. you can work in journalism or photojournalism, or set up your own tourist venture like a trekking company or a guesthoust… there are many opportunities. :)

RJ: How to stay healthy & sane in India?

Yifa: Fruit juice is healthy and mega cheap! Depending on the season you can get shakes in flavors you may never have tasted back home, like mousambi (sweet lime), chikoo and more.. just make sure to ask the juice walla not to add water or sugar.

Aunties prescribe papaya and dahi (plain, or as a meal i.e. curd rice or dahi idli) for indigestion. Some say bananas help regulate the digestive system. If all else fails go to the chemist/medicos – for pennies you will get pills that make everything okay again (but only as a last resort).

Eat nuts and dried fruits even if they are a bit expensive.

Try the local organic store/Fabindia shop for some Indian food/tea/spices you can be sure are healthy.

Explore the wonders of Ayurveda and local remedies; learn about the benefits of plants that don’t grow back home, like tulsi and neem. Learn how to use familiar old spices like turmeric in new ways to boost your health.

Remember that you can never have too much lemon-ginger-honey tea; as for regular chai, don’t go overboard…

Eat big healthy breakfasts and regular meals. Don’t eat big meals at night because the food may not be fresh.

Anything that has just been deep-fried in front of you, i.e. a samosa, is usually all right.

Peel all fruits if you haven’t the ability to wash them thoroughly. Don’t buy anything that has already been cut on the street, i.e. a plate of watermelon cubes.

Don’t eat too many milk products or meat in places where refrigeration is not common.

Stay away from salads at restaurants.

Eat at crowded restaurants/dhabas with a high turnover.

Drink lots and lots of (mineral) water.

Do some exercise even if you don’t feel like it.

Don’t stay in the city for too long, go to Himachal or somewhere green if you feel you can’t breathe anymore…

DON’T go to a butcher shop (you will retch).

Don’t put the A/C on ALL the time.

Don’t always opt for the cheapest option. (for example, splurge on a taxi here and there)

Don’t be alone for too long.

Don’t stay in tourist concentrations for too long.

India’s not some drug wonderland for Western tourists. Be careful and use your brain. (The same goes for renting a bike when you don’t know what to do with one on normal roads, much less on isolated mountain highways…)

Take things lightly, never say never and remember that everything (sab kucch) is possible.

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RJ: What’s it like to date in India?

Yifa: Caste system and arranged marriages aside, the basics are just like anywhere else in the world, really – but more old-fashioned (in a good way, maybe). Instead of looking into each other’s eyes over romantic bowl of pasta pomodoro, you do it over a delicious dosa, then head out to see one of the country’s many magical landmarks… India makes you more inhibited and makes things unknown and kind of wondrous (not to mention full of mystery and mischief): am I allowed to hold your hand in public? Is it out of bounds to kiss you goodbye? I wonder what these people must think of us…

RJ: What are 10 key things to understand about India?

Yifa: 1. Indians operate in a different time zone. To understand this, you must realize that they use the same word to signify ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’.

2. India is one big family. Everyone is someone’s uncle or auntie.

3. Many things have happened since the days of the Rig Veda, Upanishads and Yoga Sutra. India has absorbed many, many cultures. Embrace them all even if the locals don’t.

4. Watch at least one episode of a soap opera (“serial”). Very quickly you will learn the most important words in India – “shaadi” and “pyaar” – and will be ready to tackle Bollywood song sequences, without which contemporary Indian culture cannot be understood.

5. India is being pulled in a million directions but the most obvious direction is Up. This country’s heart beats so fast that it is hard to keep up. Technology, economy, military, Miss World/Miss Universe wins – India’s cracked them all.

downtown Bombay

6. When floating through India’s spiritual supermarket and wondering who to pay for a bit of enlightenment, it is best to remember Ghandiji’s immortal words about absorbing cultures without being blown away by any of them, and the Dalai Lama’s wise words about trying to find truth in your own familiar old culture and religion, because not everyone is meant to be a Buddhist.

7. India was colonized and Partitioned. What you see around you is living history. Think about it.

8. The classic religious texts of Hinduism embody this constant tension between the obligation to pursue dharma – cosmic/world/social order which means marriage, children and a job – and the wish to head out into the wilderness to meditate. This tension still exists in a way today, and it is interesting to try and observe its modern incarnations.

9. It consists of 28 states and 7 “union territories.” Each is unique and proud of it, but to understand India you must try to understand them all, each with its own history. The most important differences are in music and food – Punjabi music and food have practically taken over India (not to mention the UK…), but South Indian cuisine is loved by all.

10/ There is much more to India than slums, ashrams and “authentic-nobody’s-ever-been-here-before” mountain village treks. If you let it, it will make you smile, laugh, and sometimes cry; it will make you sing, dance, communicate, love and really live.