When I first informed people that I would spend a semester studying abroad in Kolkata, they usually didn’t understand why I would want to go to India. They would have that polite yet bemused expression, suggesting India was not a reasonable place to visit for an extended period of time.
As I explained why I wanted to go–the challenge of experiencing a completely different culture– many people still didn’t comprehend why I would want to go to an overcrowded, impoverished, hot, polluted, and culturally confusing country. I can see their point. That version of India certainly does exist, but so does another: cosmopolitan cities, a rich and fascinating history, delectable cuisine, impressively beautiful arts and monuments, and so much more.
Since arriving in India, I have fallen in love with this complex country for these 20 reasons:
1. Incredible Diversity. There is an incomprehensible amount of diversity in India, and yet amidst the diversity there is unity. You can travel though India and experience distinct cultural differences in each region. It’s impossible to make a blanket statement about India, because when you find one thing to be true, somewhere the opposite is also true.
2. Sensory Adventure. India is a country that can’t be explained; it must be experienced. A walk down the street here in Kolkata is a smorgasbord of sights, sounds, and smells: business men yapping into cell phones, beggars clanking their collection of pocket change, colorful saris, chaotic traffic constantly honking, savory smells of street food, the stink of rotting garbage, the muggy heat in full sunshine. It’s a kind of chaos that somehow flows when you least expect it, and you definitely won’t find it anywhere else.
3. Regional Cuisine. Indian food is much more than the catch-all phrase of “curry,” and like most things in India there is a surprising amount of diversity in the country’s cuisine. In the North, you’ll sample clay-oven Tandoor recipes with thick gravy and naan bread, while in the East you’ll find plenty of fish and tortilla-like chapatti, and wafer-thin filled crepes called dosa in the South. There’s plenty of spice if you’re looking for it, sweets covered in silver, and yogurt-based drinks to beat the heat. The best food is prepared within local homes, not in restaurants.
4. Genuine People. The locals here are some of the most genuinely helpful and kind people I have ever encountered in my travels. In my experience, their hospitality is astounding. My host mother once met a traveler at a local market, talked to her for a few minutes, and offered her to stay the night in our home without second thoughts. The students in my classes were so welcoming and gave me their cell phone number in case I had any questions or wanted to do anything–and they actually meant it.
5. Bollywood Culture. Bollywood is a national pastime and a cultural phenomenon. People from all regions and socioeconomic classes flock to the cinemas to see the newest films, and as the actors and actresses are the most well-known Indians in the country there is always some Bollywood star gossip. The movies are often long and full of slapstick humor, song, and dance. Sometimes you have to suspend the laws of reality and probability and just embrace the cheesiness, but they really are entertaining.
6. Study Abroad. Study abroad in India is not really a vacation–it’s an intense, in-your-face cultural immersion whether you want it to be or not. I’m in the middle of a 5-month long study abroad in Kolkata and as difficult and exhausting it can be, I am thriving on the challenge. It’s a place where I can continuously learn. The academic portion is secondary to what I learn just by walking down the street, as there is so much to learn just by asking questions to locals about whatever piques your curiosity. This culture has challenged my views on poverty, privilege, education, family habits, and so much more. I’ve been here for over 3 months now, and I have just barely scratched the surface of all India has to offer.
7. Folk Art. India has an abundance of folk art, which is kept alive in the small rural communities and is being revived in the big cities. Each region has a unique dance style, music, handicrafts, and more. My favorite thing to do here is to shop for rural artwork because the artists are so talented and use the few materials they have to their fullest potential. All the artwork is unique, one-of-a-kind, and handmade, and usually has a story or meaning behind it that offers some cultural insights.
8. Learn a Language. India has over 15 national languages, and literally thousands of local languages and dialects. Many Indian languages are among the most-spoken languages of the world, like Hindi and Bengali. There are many of people who speak English, particularly in the big cities, so knowing a local language is not necessarily required. However, the locals really appreciate it when they encounter foreigners who attempt to speak some of their language. The locals here always have a cheerful laugh when I show of my Bengali skills by counting to 20.
9. Street Food. This is a whole separate kind of food from what you’ll find in restaurants. These roadside specialties are not the most sanitary or refined preparations, but they are absolutely delicious. The street food junkies who enjoy it is part of the experience. They’re people from all backgrounds and classes, and it’s a great way to feel connected to the locals. Besides, it’s a cheap treat. Spicy, savory, and sweet dishes are readily available for less than $1.
10. Big Cities and Rural Villages. India has some of the most populous cities in the world and some of the most remote villages. It’s great to get a balance of both, to witness the hustle-and-bustle of the crowded city life and to experience the peace and simplistic lifestyle of the villages. There’s a lot to learn from both, and by visiting both extremes I now can appreciate how far India has come in its growth to modernization. I always enjoy visiting the villages because it gives me a break from the overcrowded city, and because the people there are incredibly warm and welcoming though they have very little. Try and get a taste of both the big cities and the rural villages, because both are an integral part of India today.
11. Volunteering. There are countless opportunities to volunteer in India from charities, NGOs, volunteer corps, schools, and more. There are more than enough people who could benefit from your time, talents, and donations. Search around for the organization that best fits your interests and available time. During my study abroad experience, I volunteer at a school for girls where some of the girls came from the streets to live at the school. It’s a challenging but extremely rewarding experience that helps me to reconcile with my daily encounters with poverty by knowing I’m contributing to positive action against it.
12. The Taj Mahal. It’s a bit cliché, but it’s a must-see. The Taj Mahal is a truly beautiful piece of architectural art, with a romantically sad story to accompany it. Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore described it as “a teardrop on the face of eternity.”