Travel for Science

7 Things You Might Not Know About India

By Ben Lybarger

While many people imagine India to be an exotic yogic wonderland where existential fulfillment flows from a sonorous sea of heavenly sitars, others have a much darker and equally unrealistic view. Many of the headlines that infiltrate the Western consciousness have been decidedly negative, featuring everything from sexual harassment to terrorism, and while these issues are serious, there is much more to this compendium of contradictions than meets the eye. Whether romanticizing India as a land of magical fakirs or reducing the cultural complexity of the world’s largest democracy to its worst elements of poverty and crime, you miss the chance to connect with what is actually there. Even worse, if you focus on just the bad press, you risk becoming afraid to visit a place that is enormously rich in natural wonders and human ingenuity.

That said, I do understand this fear quite well. It comes up when pondering travel to more places than just India. The most difficult part of my first solo trip abroad was silencing the paranoid part of my brain tasked with generating cold sweats and imagining grisly worst case scenarios. “It’s too dangerous,” that inner voice would plead, “just stay home and eat ice cream instead.”

To be honest, that voice of my outspoken amygdala has never totally gone away. For this reason I’m eternally grateful to the forward-thinking cortical regions of my brain for allowing me to become something more than a puppet of my fears.

While you can be anxious about traveling in general, a lot people do find it especially difficult to quell their runaway imaginations when it comes to India. I’ve heard the idea of going there dismissed as too wild a notion, as though it is exceptionally perilous or culturally incomprehensible in some way that would render the would-be traveler paralyzed with fright and confusion. For this reason, I wanted to share just a few of my thoughts on the subject, derived not just from my own experiences in the subcontinent, but also informed by the borrowed wisdom of friends who grew up here, as well as others who have lived there for extended periods of time.


1. You can be safe in India.

While crime and violence can be found all over the globe, some places have gained especially poor reputations. However, vague statistics and headlines only tell part of the story. What is missing in these accounts are the billions of daily kindnesses and benign behaviors that occur across the country in question. We form this idea, for instance, that in a “murder capital of the world” you are going to be instantly gunned down in the streets by tattooed gang members, whereas those who actually go to such places often have quite different experiences. Consider the case of three adventure travelers who recently decided to visit Honduras, despite the many dire warnings. Their full account is well worth reading, but the following passage can apply to anywhere, from San Pedro Sula to New Delhi:

“When you know nothing about a place besides what you read in major news headlines, you know nothing about a place. The truth is always much more complex, much more interesting, and often much more wonderful than what you’ll read or see in the news.”

Of course, they traveled smart, going to safe places at safe times of the day… much the way people do in Cleveland, Ohio; Toronto, Canada; or any other urban center. You’ve got to use your head no matter where you are. I won’t claim that all places in the world are equally safe, but there are definitely safe ways to travel to almost anywhere.


In the case of India, grim headlines point to a greater risk to women, so I think this deserves extra attention. While “brave” is a term bandied about for solo travelers in general, it gets twisted into a euphemism for “crazy” when applied to women traveling alone in India. Groping, harassment, leering, and worse are expected, and often for good reason (see this and this too). It would be disingenuous to suggest that there are not special considerations for traveling safely as a woman, but the broad-stroke demonization of an entire country and its people is patently unfair, and does not jive with the experiences of many women who have actually traveled there (one perspective and another)

In speaking with my friend C. B. about her many lengthy solo sojourns in India, she reluctantly recalled the simple way outsiders often parse India’s culture on a macro level, highlighting differences between the “the crazy, chaotic, dangerous North and the shanti, kind, simple South.” She admits that despite being leered at and harassed more during her time in Northern India than anywhere else she’s been, she is nonetheless drawn to the overwhelming complexity – the “explosive vigor” and “fantastic animation” – that makes India a place like no other, but which also magnifies some negative aspects as well. However, she adamantly decries the notion of misogyny being a special kind of social ill endemic to India, and can quickly tally the many ways it manifests in cultures around the globe.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the “unsafe India” argument is that it reduces over 1.2 billion people of staggeringly diverse identities and cultures – as well as more than 1.25 million square miles of cities, villages, and countryside – to the same vague and terrifying otherness.

I asked her what she would tell a single woman traveling to India, and she stressed common sense above all else. “Don’t feel shy to take a moment to question and collect your thoughts,” adding that she looks to Indian women and follows their example. Indeed, as most seasoned world travelers will tell you, making even a minimal effort to understand the social norms and expectations of the place you are visiting not only conveys respect, but also greatly reduces your chances of finding yourself in uncomfortable or dangerous situations.

“Also, I don’t show fear or confusion,” she continued, “I might not know where I’m going and it’s getting late and I’m being followed. I stop. I hold my ground. I act like I’m totally confident. I embarrass the guy or men following me by waiting for them to pass me, and then I follow them. But that’s cus I’m cheeky.”


Perhaps the biggest problem with the “unsafe India” argument is that it reduces over 1.2 billion people of staggeringly diverse identities and cultures – as well as more than 1.25 million square miles of cities, villages, and countryside – to the same vague and terrifying otherness.

2. India has extraordinary biodiversity and nature.

Admit it, when you think of India, apart from iconic images of the Taj Mahal, the first thing that comes to mind is Rajasthani camel traders traversing the mythic dunes of the Thar desert, shadows cast by vultures overhead providing their only respite from the searing heat. Or maybe that’s just me. Others might imagine the sun-kissed beaches of Goa along the Arabian Sea, or perhaps the mountain panoramas of Jammu and Kashmir. The point is that India hosts a stunning variety of ecoregions and biomes: a country where tigers swim in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans while gharials and river dolphins inhabit rivers in the marshy Himalayan lowlands.

Then there are the semi-deciduous forests of the Western Ghats where the FPI field site is located. This is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world: home to lion-tailed macaques, dholes, gaur, elephants, Malabar parakeets, gray hornbills, purple frogs, and many more. Clearly, there is much more to India than over-crowded cities and the architectural remnants of the British Raj. It is home to some of the most awe-inspiring geography and wildlife in the world.


3. Indian culture is complex but not closed and impermeable.

Equally impressive to its natural endowments is India’s cultural diversity. Although a top reason to travel there, it can also be intimidating to visit a place where the customs, language, and beliefs are quite different than your own. The key is to enter into it respectfully with an open mind, deep curiosity, and warm disposition. Your experience will be in large measure determined by the expectations you bring with you.

While many in the West correctly associate Hinduism with India, the country was actually the birthplace of several major world religions, including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. And while Hinduism is far and away the most practiced religion, Muslims and Christians also constitute sizable portions of the population according to the Indian Census.  Furthermore, there are 645 “scheduled tribes” or Adivasi, which include a stunning array of ethnic and indigenous groups of India.

What struck me about my time in India, more than the best food in the world or the overall sensory overload, is how open and inclusive the people are. I remember feeling extremely upset in Delhi, having tried unsuccessfully to get 5 or 6 different rickshaw drivers to take me to the train station. I ended up alone and lost, nervously wandering around unfamiliar streets (this is actually a recurring theme for my international travels), when a gentleman pulled up next to me in his car and asked where I was going. He graciously offered me a ride to the station, some tips for getting around safely, and friendly conversation just when my spirits were at their lowest.

More than any cliché or tourist postcard image, it is this kind of graciousness and hospitality – even amid the hustle, scamming, and callused urbanity – that truly makes India a magical place.

Another time, I met a man on the train to Udaipur who switched from discussing politics to playfully badgering me with probing questions about my intentions with my girlfriend back home. We spoke for hours, drawing in everyone else who was packed into our section of the lowest class of train car as well as his son, with whom I spoke on this gentleman’s cell phone for at least ten minutes. Upon arrival, he refused to let me find a taxi, insisting instead that he give me a ride to the section of town where I was hoping to get a hotel. He did this even though I was heading to a very congested area nowhere near his home (which, incidentally, he had also offered to me).

I could go on with stories like this. More than any cliché or tourist postcard image, it is this kind of graciousness and hospitality – even amid the hustle, scamming, and callused urbanity – that truly makes India a magical place.


4. Your poor (or nonexistent) Hindi shouldn’t scare you away.

With such cultural richness also comes linguistic diversity. Perhaps the greatest fear people have about traveling abroad is the language barrier. Regarding India, there is good news and bad news. First the bad: India has more than 20 official languages and 447 living languages according to Ethnologue (Languages of the World, Eighteenth edition).  The good news is that Hindi and English are the two languages used by the central government, and thus more than 125 million Indians speak English. However, when you consider that is only around 10% of the population, you soon realize that learning some basic phrases in the local language is not only polite but practical.

For students coming to India through Field Projects International, as well as other organizations and tour companies, it is very easy to get by with just English. These travelers will have planned itineraries and benefit from guides and program managers who help them navigate not just the language and culture, but also the roads and public transportation. As we’ll see in the next section, that can seem like a godsend to a first-timer.


5. Traffic is crazy, but the drivers are not.

India’s roadways are the stuff of legend. For my friends who grew up and/or still live in India, it is a point of pride and source of adrenaline-pumping joy to drive there. But while they all tell amazing, death-defying tales with big smiles plastered across their faces, many of the rest of us wince, flinch, and hold our breath as traffic lights are ignored, cattle congregate on the highways, and cars routinely drive on the wrong side of the road.

This is going to be way more memorable and fun than your boring morning commute back home.

Despite all of this, India’s traffic casualty rates are not significantly over the global average. What may look like total chaos to a U.S. observer is really a just different way of doing business with different traffic norms. It is only a partial chaos. So take a deep pranayamic breath and realize that this is going to be way more memorable and fun than your boring morning commute back home.

Trains and buses can also be challenging. As someone who has traveled a lot in Latin America, I counted on being able to inelegantly fumble my through the public transportation. In India, though, this is significantly more difficult. From ubiquitous Delhi con men and rickshaw drivers receiving tour company kickbacks, to schedules only being posted in Hindi and ticket windows mobbed by crowds that shove their way ahead of you, every small step forward feels like a monumental victory. Also, bear in mind that buying train tickets on the fly won’t often work, since many routes (at least in the north) sell out in advance. While this did save me money by forcing me onto the local buses, it also cost me time. The solution is to plan ahead, or better yet, travel in conjunction with a program that helps with logistics but doesn’t simply push you through a maze of tourist traps and stale, overpriced buffets.


6. Conservation ethics are alive and well.

It is a common, self-serving misapprehension to believe that those in developing nations care less about the environment than those living in end-stage capitalist states. This has come to the fore in India lately because of Modi’s bewildering statements about global warming, toxic foams in Bangalore, and the attacks on Greenpeace. The image many are left with is one of India unapologetically pursuing a coal-fired future and rapid development in the flaming footsteps of “first world” trailblazers.

This is not altogether inaccurate, as a recent article in Scientific American reveals the inequitable gains of the coal boom benefit certain segments of society at the expense of not just forests, but also the country’s many poor. In response, the widely publicized protests against coal mining in Mahan that got Greenpeace in hot water had gone far beyond just publicity stunts, involving the grassroots organizing of affected villagers by homegrown activists. Of particular note is the creative activism of Sofia Ashraf’s viral parody of a Nicki Minaj song, which was re-purposed to highlight mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal caused by a former Hindustan Unilever factory.

Such activism is not born of a vacuum, nor is it solely imported by neo-colonial conservationists. There exists a strong history of conservation in India: from the centuries old religious land stewardship of the Bishnoi to the Chipko environmental movement of the 1970s to the founding of Sanctuary Asia in 1981 and the Wildlife Trust of India in 1998.  More recently we’ve seen Indians protest the killing of a man-eating tiger in Ranthambore, as well as innovative modern efforts to protect the sacred Ganges, showing the mainstream’s focus on India’s economy ignores a widespread undercurrent of concern for India’s wildlife and ecology as well.

Personally, I find it hard for me to cast stones when I live in a city made famous by a burning river.

Furthermore, one should bear in mind that an arguably larger proportion of the U.S. population emphasizes economic development above environmental stewardship, and are infamous for a rampant denial of accepted science in service to this philosophy. Even those of us who care about sustainability, myself included, live lifestyles that use far more resources and create far more waste and pollution, than the average Indian does. Personally, I find it hard for me to cast stones when I live in a city made famous by a burning river.

Beyond the many trained conservationists in India, as well as indicators of concern among the general public (see also a 2013 poll showing 83% of Indians very concerned about environmental threats like climate change), the country has historically also taken steps to preserve its remarkable natural endowments. Although certainly not with many troubles and land-use conflicts, it is no small feat that the second most populous nation on earth has a network of protected areas including 103 national parks covering almost 5% of the nation’s land mass. By comparison, the U.S. protects 12% of their land mass, but with a mere fraction of the population.

Nevertheless, the challenges facing conservation and development in sensitive areas like the Western Ghats and other areas of India are immense. In an interview with Mongabay last year, amid sober assessments of the efficacy of environmental law in India, Dr. M.D. Madhusudan from the Nature Conservation Foundation highlighted what I think is a key cultural difference in how Indians relate to nature as opposed to the historical Western ideology of control and dominance:

“People by and large in this country are willing to live even with large and potentially dangerous animals within their own production and dwelling settings. Whether it’s because of high tolerance levels or a benign indifference to wildlife or an active conservation ethic is debatable, but the fact is there is cultural space.”

That not only gives hope to a complicated ecopolitical landscape, but again reinforces the notion that conservation strategies built upon a deep cultural understanding are more likely to be effective. In addition, it is worth noting that the relatively new National Green Tribunal is making waves with its reported zeal and efficiency, an unexpectedly positive indicator on the legal front.


7. India will change you.

While I am adamant about India not existing solely as a backdrop for “discovering yourself,” I will argue that you can learn more about the world and your place in it by visiting India. It is all about how you visit. Is it to accrue tales of the exotic, gain yoga cred, commodify a culture and purchase trinkets to impress your friends? Probably not.

More likely you’ll want to make connections with the people, immerse yourself in the history and culture, and learn about the flora and fauna. Maybe you will even start to reflect on how all our fates are entwined, both economically and environmentally. In creating these dialogues, you inevitably grow as a person, beginning see your home and yourself from a different perspective. Without the eye-opening benefits of trips to places like this, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

It is a fear that, when managed and overcome, makes you something different than you were before. More adaptable. More alive.

Part of this kind of experience does rely on fear to make it meaningful: the fear of being challenged by the unfamiliar, of leaving the comfort of certitude. It is a fear that, when managed and overcome, makes you something different than you were before. More adaptable. More alive.

In the end, my advice is to go to India and see whatever you can see… which will never be enough, no matter how long you travel there.

And by all means, do some yoga.