My First Day in India

The plane landed in Bangalore India early in the morning. This was my first trip outside the United States and I had no idea what to expect when I arrived.

On the plane we had to fill out an Indian Customs card to give to the immigration officer when we arrived. It asked questions such as where I would be staying and whether or not I was bringing in any seeds, meat, or plants that might carry insects. This seemed like an important concern because before the plane took off from London's Heathrow airport, they also sprayed an insecticide throughout the cabin to kill any insects that might have stowed away on the passengers.

Upon exiting the plane, the first stop was the Indian Customs. I had built up all this unnecessary anxiety over not getting through customs and the immigration officer literally spent 15 seconds looking over my passport and then let me through. He didn't even ask me any questions!

As I exited the airport, the air smelled thick and humid, but cool (the sun hadn't risen yet). It first smelled of burning wood, then of human waste. Within a few minutes, the smells had mostly faded (I think my nose adjusted because I hardly smell anything anywhere now).

My friend had arranged for a driver to drive us to his house. My first impression of the driving was that they're all suicidal and crazy, and that they constantly use their horns to make others aware of that fact. They drive fast, really fast. I will never again think American drivers from any state are crazy.

As we approached the first intersection on the highway, I noticed the traffic light was red. But we didn't slow down. There were other vehicles approaching the intersection, but that didn't seem to matter. As we flew through the intersection my friend told me that there's an unwritten rule that red lights don't matter before 6:30am. Awesome.

Every single vehicle we passed on the highway meant getting really close and then beeping the horn a few times. Most cars don't have side mirrors, so you have to beep to let people know you're passing them. Oh, and the lanes don't matter either. Everybody swerves between lanes or rides right down the middle of them.

There are big speed bumps, even on the highway, that force you to slam on your breaks to slow down almost to a stop. Pedestrians use such areas to cross the road, since they know everybody has to slow down.

There were lots of cars broken down or pulled over on the side of the road. Groups of dogs strolled along the sides of the streets. Construction trucks carried slabs of rock that were the same size as the truck itself. The backs of the trucks read "BEEP HORN" in big faded red letters.

When we got off the highway and the roads became smaller, many intersections had no traffic lights (not that it mattered before 6:30am anyway). Crossing a busy intersection involved barely slowing down and then kamikaze-driving right through the intersection. I still can't believe we didn't hit anything and that nothing hit us.

I was surprised by how many people were already out and about at 5:30am. I was told that lots of people use the early morning to walk or run for exercise before work (though I saw mostly walkers, not runners). They use the recreational parks, which are fee-free before 6:30am. The pollution made the air heavy and hard to breathe. I couldn't help but wonder if exercising in such dirty air was more detrimental to their health than it was helpful.

As we approached the house where I would be staying, I was told that less than ten years earlier the entire neighborhood around the house did not exist -- it was all grass and farmland. It's now full of shacks, houses, little stores, people, motorcycles, cars, horns, dogs, and garbage.

Bangalore was considered a retirement home for a long time -- a place where the elderly would go to settle down (much like Florida in the United States). The reason for this was because of the beautiful weather. Unlike the rest of India, the weather is usually quite mild and cool. The humidity is also very low compared to the rest of the country.

However, over the past decade the mild weather has also attracted tech businesses, resulting in a tech boom in Bangalore. With India's growing economy, the infrastructure in Bangalore was unable to cope with the extreme expansion. Construction is still going on everywhere. Land and home values have skyrocketed -- small plots of land that cost $20k ten years ago, now go for $350k.

The environment has suffered greatly. There used to be over 120 lakes in Bangalore -- now there are only 10! The lakes were drained to make space to build. Bangalore used to be full of groves of giant trees but now they're almost all gone. I drove along a road with over 50 freshly cut tree stumps! And these aren't small trees either -- they must have been over a hundred years old; their stumps over 4ft in diameter!

The contrast around Bangalore is ridiculous. It doesn't make sense at all. You've got people walking barefoot with barely enough clothes to cover themselves living in shacks right next to a property that just sold for $4 million.

Later that morning I tagged along with my friend to his office at SELCO where he introduced me to almost everyone we met. As usual I struggled to remember all their names (three days later and I'm finally starting to remember them). I spent most of the day trying not to fall asleep as I suffered the effects of a 12-hour jet lag.

For lunch we walked to a local cafe to eat a traditional vegetarian Indian meal. I was amazed by how much of the food in this area is vegetarian. Note that I said vegetarian and not vegan -- they still use plenty of dairy (milk and yogurt). Needless to say, I'm no longer vegan.

I was worried that I'd start to get sick from drinking the milk, because milk in the United States has always upset my stomach. Surprisingly, the milk doesn't appear to affect me here in India.

I'm not exactly drinking gallons of milk, but even the amount that I am drinking (small amounts mixed with coffee or tea, or cooked in food) should be enough to make me sick. My best guess is that the milk is more pure than that in the United States. What's also interesting is that Indian food usually upsets my stomach -- at least it always did when I ate at Indian restaurants in the United States -- but I've been eating spicy Indian food for three days now and I'm fine.

That evening, eight of us walked to a restaurant to have dinner. Everybody I met was so friendly. While most of them worked for SELCO, one of them was an intern from Switzerland -- she had only been in India two months and yet she already seemed so comfortable here. It was incredible how quickly I felt welcome around everyone. I had literally just met all these people and yet they already felt like old friends.

Here are the photos:

And here's a video I shot that shows the neighborhood around where I'm staying. Everything you see in this video was farmland and grass ten years ago!

Here's another video that shows more of the city as we approach the SELCO office. The roads are hardly ever this empty!

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  1. I’m only halfway through the post, but have to make an early comment (because I forget stuff).

    We have a raw milk share here in CO. It would be worth looking up both raw milk and grass-fed farms. Ours is both. Of course there is also the hormone issue, but I don’t know if any grass-fed farms that use ANY hormones (and I’m sure that’s something of which you’re already aware.)

    Pasteurization is wild. I’m no longer a fan of it. Sorry you had to give up veganism for the trip, but VERY glad it’s happening in a way that’s not upsetting your body.

    Ok, back to reading! 😀

    • I still try to avoid milk and dairy here whenever possible, but I do wonder if it’s the hormones or pasteurization that was making me sick from it. And when I say sick, I’m talking sick for three weeks from drinking 1 cup of whole milk (that was a test I did more than 10 years ago and I haven’t dared trying another test since).

      I’m definitely glad my body isn’t getting sick from the milk here. It would be really difficult to avoid the milk without being rude to a lot of people who offer me little cups of tea or coffee.

      • As you get sick from drinking milk, my body reacts badly from NOT drinking milk. I crave milk when in Vietnam and am told not to drink the non-pasteurized stuff… tho don’t know why.

        • There are some pretty serious potential contaminates in milk, like e-coli. I’m not saying they’re common or even likely, but they exist. This is why pasteurization was so widely embraced – to reduce the potential for contamination.

          The farm from which we get our milk employs RIGOROUS testing on every batch of milk to ensure that it is completely free of harmful bacteria. A lot of dairy farms don’t have that kind of testing available, so while the odds of getting seriously sick may be minimal, there is still a chance.

          Not to pimp our stuff, but my wife did a pretty decent blog post from the tour we did of our dairy:

          Raam, Keep the great posts coming. I’m absolutely loving this!

          • Wow, that’s quite a detailed post! Thanks!

            To be honest, I haven’t spent much time researching dairy because when I decided to avoid it, I choose to avoid it altogether. Now that I’ve discovered “all” dairy doesn’t affect me, I’m really curious to know why.

            I’m still on the fence with what I think about dairy (milk-based products, not eggs); I need to spend some more time researching to form a stronger opinion. It seems like in some countries, it’s basically impossible for people to survive without milk.

        • Wow, that’s weird. Did you drink a lot of milk as a child? Maybe your body is missing certain vitamins and minerals that the milk provides and that’s why you crave it.

          • Think back to facebook…. If I don’t drink milk, I do a lot of pondering but not at a dentist office. go figure….

      • Raam, I went to India with a couple who had been there 4 times before I met them. That helped tremendously. I was told that when I ordered coffee which is nothing like our American version to order it hot and to also order the milk hot. Heating it should kill any bad germs in it. I never got sick from the food on either of my 3 trips. Our rule to follow was that if the food or drink wasn’t served hot, don’t eat or drink it. We did drink bottled water all the time. A friend who loved the yogurt got sick several times.

        • I got sick a bunch of times during my six months, but nothing serious. I was definitely taking more risks, but I had to because I was there for six months and couldn’t spend all that money on drinking water! In south India, I drank the water they served at the table in restaurants and I wasn’t too careful with fruits or veggies.

          Oh and I love Indian coffee, but I definitely missed the strong black coffee I was used to from back home! 🙂

  2. Excellent post. I was watching a bit of BBC after work and they were talking about Bangalore and how families are selling there ancestral land for high profits. Kind of sad really…

    From the description, photos and video; if it weren’t for the people, signage, trash and COWS lol I’d might think you were in Viet Nam.

    Bring me back a Lambretta! The three wheeled vehicles!

    The photo of the building construction. It looks almost like a photo I took back in 1999 (construction wise) with the bamboo scaffolding. It’s amazing that they don’t tip over with the slightest breeze.

    Probably re-read this a few times and ask a few questions later, but some of us have 3 1/2 more hours to work (ugh). I’m sooo jealous. Sounds like you are having a lot of fun and learning lots. Wish I could be there. Take care.

    • Those lambretta’s are EVERYWHERE. Those and the scooters/motorcycles (though I’m sure there’s even more in Vietnam).

      It is really quite sad what’s happening to the city. The younger generation is just destroying anything historical that might be here. The big corporations like Google and Microsoft employ thousands of people in huge technology parks that contain multi-million dollar high-tech buildings.

      There are slums literally 100 feet from the buildings. When we were on the raised freeway, I could see in the reflection of one of the big glass buildings people standing in the slums a few feet away. (It would have been an incredible picture. Unfortunately it went by too quick.)

      The employees at one of the big tech parks (mostly people native to India) grouped together to help pay for a raised freeway that had only one exit: an exit to the technology park. They did this to avoid seeing all the poverty down below. I traveled on it and you literally can’t see anything except the tops of the buildings. The roads down below are already wide and don’t even get very crowded.

      The friend that I’m staying with runs SELCO, a company that provides solar and other sustainable energy solutions to poor families around the country. After talking to them for the past few days, I’m really beginning to appreciate the work they’re doing for the people here.

      I hope you do ask questions later! 🙂 Live vicariously through me!

  3. The pictures aren’t shocking to me but that’s only because I’ve been to Vietnam and it pretty much looks the same. Also, people drive crazy in Vietnam just like in India. However, they do have side mirrors, they just don’t use them.

    • Yeah, I have seen pictures and videos from Vietnam and it definitely feels similar. I’ll have to see for myself when I go there! 🙂

  4. Hey Raam,

    Haha I had to laugh when I read your description of driving in India. That is how I still feel every time I visit – even though I ought to be used to it by now, I don’t know that I’ll ever truly get there.

    What’s also funny to me is the level of education of the drivers. I don’t know that there are really much standards for being a driver in India, some of the ones I met didn’t even have legitimately licenses. And yet we trust them with our lives.

    And truth be told, they are much better than I am than navigating that crazy traffic, so I’m happy to trust them rather than even attempt to drive myself 😉

    • I thought you’d enjoy that part. 🙂

      I’m actually getting used it already, but I knew recounting my first impression of it would be invaluable and fun to read. It really did leave quite a first impression.

      And I totally agree. I consider myself a very capable driver, and I still wouldn’t dare venture into the traffic. I definitely gotta try learning how to ride a scooter in Vietnam when I visit… I heard it’s quite an experience.

      • I’ve ridden on a few scooters in Viet Nam. Crazy…. in 1999 on back of Mai’s scooter, “Mai… car, TRUCK…. look out for that lady…” We actually had a lil kid riding a bicycle hit the back tire and fall over but Mai kept right on driving. I closed my eyes only to open them at the time she crossed the center line and was headed towards a semi truck.

  5. Great post! It was really fun to read. Ok, so no longer vegan…what’s this I hear about coffee??? When you get back here, I’m gonna make you a kick ass meal with a little cheese and you will love it!

    • Thanks Jessica!

      I’m no longer vegan, but I still try to be whenever possible. I don’t choose the non-vegan options if I have a choice!

      Oh, and coffee. :[ (that’s my shame face) My no-coffee spree ended when I had some black coffee on the plane ride to try and hack my sleep cycle and adjust to the new timezone (it didn’t work). Now I just need to make sure it doesn’t become a habit… which shouldn’t be too difficult since it’s a little difficult to get pure black coffee around here anyway… they always mix it with milk, which I’m trying to avoid.

  6. Awesome pictures, Show me where you eat and sleep. How are you connecting online? Show me a solar panel that is powering the house or using car batteries like cambodia. Have you mingle with the locals? I am asking all these question without even reading the blog. SORRY! =) Show me a picture of the wildlife like snakes! Find a badmitton court and show me a few games. SHOW ME SHOW ME!!!

    • I’m staying at Harish’s house right now, so I feel like it would be an invasion of his privacy if I posted pictures of his home! I’ll send you some pics so you can see what it’s like.

      I’ll see if I can get pics of the solar panels.

      I’ve mingled with the locals, yes. I’ve already made half-a-dozen friends — some that work at SELCO and some that are friends of those who work at SELCO.

      I’m getting online at the SELCO office and at Harish’s house. I’m waiting for SELCO to get me a broadband card and SIM card… then I’ll be able to get online almost anywhere. There’s lots of paperwork involved, so I’m really lucky that SELCO is getting it for me (of course I still have to pay).

      I’ll have plenty of wildlife when I go live on the farm in Ujire later this week (Saturday most likely). The farm is 9 miles from the nearest town and it’s on the edge of a wildlife preserve… so I’m sure there will be plenty of interesting things to see. There are elephants there and I heard there are king cobras!

      Now stop being lazy and start reading! 😀

  7. Very cool,Raam…Loving the glimpse you are giving me at a place I will probably never make it to.India seems like a country in transition,from what I’ve seen in your videos.I really believe that the “Pacific Rim”countries are the next world superpower.

    • Thanks man! I love the idea of providing a window to a distant place for my readers… places they would probably never go but would love to know what it’s like.

      India is very much a country in transition and many studies show that India and China will be the world superpowers within the next decade or two. With the amount of work I’ve seen going on, that doesn’t surprise me!

  8. Welcome to India , Raam

    Hope u do have pleasant stay in India, Keep posting , we love it !!!!!

    Can understand , you feel weird seeing the surroundings but i assure that , you will start loving it

    Try to learn the language of locals ( just few basic welcome words) becoz in India there are almost 16 different languages , where ever you go, u can find ppl with different slang

    Find out their culture ,festivals and vegi food habits ( all will vary throughout India) hope in US u can find just Punjabi or Tamil – Indian Restaurants

    Dont feel harsh , Raam .Try to see every country u visit in different angle, don’t compare with US.Easy to find faults , but hard to find positive . I m sure you will enjoy it . I know in the above article , you didn’t but felt comparison.

    Let the post keep coming and enjoy ur nomadic travel

    Manish , Chennai ( India )

    • Thank you Manish!

      I love your advice about looking for the positive in every place instead of the negative. It’s so easy to compare new places to the area you’re already familiar with, but what’s more important are the positive qualities that the uniqueness of each place gives it.

      I hope you don’t think I’m only talking about the negative… I love India already and I can’t wait to explore and see more of it! I definitely want to learn some of the local language. I already know a few words, but I want to learn more.

      If you would allow me, I would love to visit you in Chennai at some point in the next few months. I will be in Ujire (West of Bangalore, near Mangalore) for the next few weeks, but then I will most likely start traveling around. Perhaps you can show me around Chennai if I visit?

      Thank you for the comment and for reading! 🙂

  9. Before long, most of the things you mentioned that shocked or confused you during that first day will be the very same aspects that will make you never want to leave India in the end!