8 Tips for first time American travelers to India

Traveling to India is a unique experience. And while I did not even come close to covering the whole country, my recent experiences as a first time traveler may help you prepare for your own future trip to amazing India. While much of this advice is pertinent to anyone traveling to India (or on a very long trip in general), I think there are a few things specific to the experience of an American who has never traveled to India before. Hopefully you find these tips useful!

1. Prepare for the time change

No matter where you are coming from in the US, it’s a looooooong way to India. A nonstop flight will take at least 14 hours. My flights, with a layover in Amsterdam, cost me 22 hours. No matter what, you are going to ‘lose’ a day and a half or two days just to travel. (Want the good news? You get those days back when you head home!) Leave on Monday morning, and you won’t arrive to India until Tuesday afternoon at the earliest, and possibly Wednesday.

In addition, many stopover flights from the US arrive in India at very odd hours. My flight landed at 12:50 am Bangalore time.

Fun fact: despite its size, all of India is on one time zone. At my time of travel, the time difference between the East Coast and India was 10.5 hours – you read that right – time in India is not on the same ‘hourly’ schedule as the rest of the world. There is a metaphor there somewhere…

I have a few recommendations to help you manage the accompanying jet lag and time confusion you will inevitably experience.

  • Memorize two three quick time conversions. For example, noon in the US (East coast) is 10:30pm in India. And 3:00pm in India is 1:30 am in the US. This way, whatever time it is, your mind won’t struggle to think about whether it’s a good time to call home or look for the newest Wordle puzzle.
  • Begin slowly transitioning your sleep hours to move closer to Indian time. In the days leading up to your trip, go to bed a little earlier each night. Get up a bit earlier each day. Even a two or three hour shift in the right direction will help.
  • Try a jet lag management app such as Timeshifter. The app not only recommended when and how to begin ‘shifting’ my sleep schedule but when to sleep on the plane, when to avoid sunglasses (to maximize light exposure), when to drink coffee, and when to take melatonin.
  • If your flight arrives in the middle of the night, arrange for a hotel room for that night. You don’t want to arrive at the hotel at 3 am and then be unable to check in until 4pm. You want your bed ready to go!

2. Don’t rent a car

I know, you’re a great driver. So am I. So is Dear Husband. We never ever make driving mistakes at home (she said facetiously). At home, though, there are these nebulous things called “The Rules of the Road”. Things like, use your mirror and use a signal before you change lanes. Follow the speed limit, more or less. No cows allowed on the highway. Following these rules helps us turn our small errors around home into near misses rather than collisions. We also more or less know our way around, and are familiar with the road signage.

None of this will be the case in India.

Perhaps the most surprising part of my trip was the traffic and roads in Bangalore, Agra, and Mysore. I didn’t even visit some of the most congested areas, such as New Delhi and Mumbai, and I can only imagine.

Lane markings? A mere suggestion. Signals? Never. Horns? Constant. Red lights and one way signs? Worth occasional consideration. Bicycles, cows, overloaded trailers, scooters with entire families on board, you name it…. they all share the road and are all going as fast as they can to get there. If they can pass you on the right, they will. If they can pass you on the left, they will. Sometimes with a friendly ‘beep beep’, sometimes not.

Simply put, it’s chaos. Let someone who is local and experienced do the driving for you, whether you hop in a Tuk Tuk, take a bus tour, or hire a driver for your entire trip. I cannot recommend this strongly enough.

3. Get professional travel medical advice

Our immune systems are conditioned to home. American water, American air quality, American insects, etc. In addition, although the COVID-19 world health emergency is officially behind us, there can still be travel restrictions and requirements. Further, I’ll take it as a given that you would probably prefer to avoid landing in an Indian hospital with a serious illness. For all of these reasons, consider professional travel medical advice.

I went to Passport Health, a nationwide chain of travel medical advisors overseen by doctors. I’m sure there are plenty of other options, so ask your own doctor first, particularly if you have any kind of medical issues.

In addition to a tetanus booster, I chose to receive a polio booster and typhoid vaccination. I was also advised that malaria is a problem in India, and chose to take an anti-malarial drug beginning a few days before my trip. I purchased strong repellent as well.

While I guess I will never know whether these steps prevented me from falling seriously ill, I know that one of the recommendations was, as Mastercard puts it, priceless. I purchased two “DiaResQ” pills. Which leads me to my next piece of advice…

4. Research and understand Indian food

Indian food is divisive in my circles. Some of my friends and family love it, some not so much. I generally enjoy it, although I am not a fan of food so spicy that I don’t even know what I’m eating. Everyone has different spice tolerance, and only you can know yours.

But, even if you love and ingest spicy Indian food regularly at home, be aware that you still have a good chance to contract what’s lovingly known as “Delhi Belly” if you are in India for any length of time.

For the majority of Americans, an Indian menu will contain a number of unfamiliar items. I’ve definitely heard of, and enjoyed, tikka masala. Tikka darbari? Not so much. Tikka angare? Nope. Before I left, I googled “Indian foods ranked by spiciness” and memorized a few of the names on the bottom of the list. I also discovered some very flavorful, rich foods such as dosa and maddur vada, which are grain based and mild.

I heeded the advice and cautiously brushed my teeth with bottled water, and avoided ice in my drinks, even at the swanky JW Marriott. I ate several traditional Indian meals during my first few days in India, but also chose more familiar foods such as eggs and pizza to balance things out. Nonetheless, I fell victim. Suffice to say, white rice became my best friend for a few days.

My best advice? Ask servers, do your research, skip street food, avoid unpurified water, …. and be prepared with your anti-diarrheal medication of choice.

5. Hire local tour guides

While a well-written guide book or recorded app can certainly give you the background and history of a given city or tourist site, choosing to self educate, particularly in India, will rob you the opportunity to really hear about the perceptions and experiences of its vast populace.

Our guides in Agra, booked through Pacific Classic Tours India, and Bangalore /Mysore booked through Hidden Gems Tours, offered great logistical advantages (planned by locals who know and understand that traffic referenced above). They took us not only to the most famous of Indian tourist sites, but to little-known ‘hidden gems’ such as the Bengaluru flower market. I highly recommend both companies.

Most importantly, however, they gave us undisturbed one-on-one time with Indian citizens who were more than happy to educate us about everything from local holidays and traditions, to insight on family life, to the political landscape and economic challenges faced by Indians. While I enjoyed learning about Indian rulers from several centuries ago, I will always treasure the new awareness I gained as a result of these conversations.

6. Absorb a little Indian culture before you go

Whether it’s a raucous Bollywood movie or a fictional book set in India, spend some time before your trip getting to know India. It’s just more fun when you know what to look for – such as the delicate henna tattoos I saw on some of the women attending an engagement party held at our hotel, or the thrumming beat of Indian music as I passed by the nightclub. India’s many customs are unique, and there is nothing like a good story to make them come to life.

I watched Oscar-winning Bollywood movie “RRR” on the plane. I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, but I learned from one of my guides that Indians don’t particularly embrace that film, seeing it as spreading stereotypes about India. A few of the books I read prior to my trip were:

  • The Henna Artist, and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, both by Alka Joshi
  • The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani
  • The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • (parts of ) a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture

Reading A Passage to India and Siddhartha back in high school does not count, although I did that too.

7. Especially for women

So I debated whether to include this section. I am not in any way looking to create a stir or criticize another culture. I also won’t even pretend to be fully educated on the treatment of women in India. I just think American women should be aware that it simply won’t be quite like home when you visit India. This is my perception, not a judgment.

I guess the best way to put it is that different countries make progress on Women’s rights at different rates. Back in the 1980s, walking to work in downtown Chicago in my ‘9 to 5’ office attire, I could expect a whistle or two from a construction worker or a guy driving a big pickup truck. It felt a bit icky, and sometimes intimidating depending on the situation. India is a little like that.

You will rarely see an Indian woman walking alone in the city – only with her male partner or with a bunch of other females. I found out the reason when I took a solo walk around Bengaluru one day. I was honestly was a little uncomfortable when some of the tuk tuk drivers tried to lure me for a ride, shopkeepers beckoned me inside for a bargain, or as I passed a staring man on a park bench. Men you have never met will not hesitate to look directly at you and get physically closer than you are likely used to.

To be clear, I never felt unsafe on my walk, which was in the middle of a busy Wednesday afternoon. But I was glad to re-enter the cool, controlled environment of the JW Marriott.

As another example of what I mean, one of Oldest’s female American colleagues, who has blond hair, mentioned that sometimes people (men, women, and children) would not only stare but just reach out and touch her hair, because it’s so unfamiliar to them. I had read before my trip that “personal space” has a very different definition in India than it does in the US. It makes sense, when you think about the incredible population density in Indian cities. It’s also very true.

GO! And take it all in

Looking back at what I have written above, I realize it may seem like a multitude of dire warnings. Traffic, food, jet lag, personal space … yes, they are all challenges. But with great challenges come great rewards, and that is especially true with traveling to India. So for my final #toptipforindia, I’ll steal from Nike and say: Just Do It.

While you are there, take time to look around you. Don’t just go to the Taj Mahal and post it on social media and spend the rest of your day scrolling. Watch local TV. Look at magazines and billboards. Eat in small local restaurants (with care, see #4 above…). Shop in the little shops and bargain and feel the silk. See the colors, hear the sounds, talk to the people. It’s beautiful, and noisy, and chaotic, and lively. It’s exotic, for an American, and you may just develop a new appreciation for the Stars and Stripes – as well as a taste for even more foreign travel.

A tough act to follow….. Time in Agra after visiting the Taj Mahal

After visiting the Taj Mahal at sunrise, we continued our tour of Agra and environs with our tour guide, Mahesh from https://www.discoverydreams.com/about-us. You will be happy to know that the first thing we did was find a restroom and I was able to fully cleanse my bird-soiled hand before we continued our tour around Agra. Much better. As we exited the complex we stopped for photographs of a lovely red sandstone outer building with an arched passageway:

No, I didn’t call the arches to plan our outfits

Mahesh explained a bit more about the recent history of Agra. Just a few decades ago, the city boasted a population of 6 million whose lives were centered not around its famous monument, but around numerous local factories. Unfortunately, these factories contributed heavily to the locally polluted air, and the government determined that the beautiful marble facade of the Taj Mahal was suffering as a result. Given the value of the Taj as a tourist destination, the decision was made to relocate a number of these factories in an attempt to clear the air. This led to an anomaly for India: a declining local population. Agra is now home to about 2 million people.

Eventually, as so often happens, recognition bloomed that perhaps the relocation efforts had gone too far, and Agra was a city in decline. So, the government decided to use financial incentives to promote the various local arts to the city’s 50 million+ annual tourists: carpet making, marble carving, and jewelry made with local gems among other items. The next part of our tour included artisan demonstrations in each of these areas, along with the inevitable pushy sales pitch. Did I cave and buy something? Read on to find out….

Artisan Shopping in Agra

The showroom of Diamond Carpets (https://www.diamondcarpets.com) is located in the middle of downtown Agra. Our visit began with a quick explanation of the process of weaving wool and silk into beautiful rug creations. We were shown photos of the main carpet factory located a few miles away.

carpetweaving in process
women use their strong toes to edge the rugs

Next, we were taken to the display room, which housed hundreds of gorgeous rugs. One might say they rolled out the red blue carpet for us…

Showing us rugs for sale…. dare I ask the price of this one?

I made the crucial ‘mistake’ of asking the price, assuming it would be completely exorbitant, letting me off the hook with a quick “no, thanks that’s out of my price range”. For reference, last year on a cruise stop in Istanbul, Husband and I attended a similar carpet factory display, where the small but beautiful rug I admired could have been mine for a mere $20,000. So, that was my expectation here. I have a puppy at home, so the rugs tend to come from Wayfair and Home Goods. But… thanks to the government incentives, which included free shipping to the US, the price on the rug I liked was just a fraction of my prediction.

We negotiated the price a bit and I got another 15% or so off the original quote. Mahesh had told us to always negotiate in India! When you buy a rug, you sign the back to ensure that the one you receive is the one you chose. This lovely rug now sits in my office below my desk as I type, a wonderful memory of India. I have no regrets.

signing my new rug!

As our day continued, we also visited a marble carving exhibition and a jeweler, making a few more small purchases. Hopefully we helped the local economy.

Artisans insert gems into marble

Agra Fort

Today’s agenda included the two less famous but equally historic buildings in the Agra area: 1)Agra Fort, and 2)the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, also known as the “Baby Taj”.

Agra Fort, an enormous red sandstone complex, dates to the 14th century and once housed the members of the Mughal ruling family. At the time of the Fort’s construction, Agra was the capital of this northern region of India now known as Utter Pradesh, to be replaced by Delhi about 100 years later.

Imposing entrance to Agra Fort

Covering roughly 94 acres, Agra Fort borders the same Yamuna River as the Taj Mahal. The Fort is full of both Islamic and Indian architectural influences, as well as much of the same carved marble as seen at the Taj. In the heat of the midday March sun, it’s not difficult to imagine royal court members seeking cool shade in its many arched, open air corridors.

Inside Agra Fort
a peek at the Taj Mahal through one of the Fort’s windows
Tourists inspecting the gold infused ‘master bedroom’
The Fort’s courtyard almost looks like a University campus quad…
Touring Agra U

Baby Taj

After a quick traditional Indian buffet lunch, we wrapped up the day at the the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the Baby Taj due to its similar architecture: a central marble dome surrounded by four tall minarets. Given the nickname, we made the natural but erroneous assumption that this much smaller monument was inspired by its larger cousin. Nope!

I’timad-ud-Daulah was an exiled emir of Persia, and also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s favorite wife who is entombed in the Taj Mahal. Baby Taj was commissioned by one of I’timad-ud-Daulah’s daughters in 1622, almost 10 years before construction began on the Taj. Both buildings represent a period in which local architectural trends had shifted toward more white inlaid marble and less red sandstone.

Like the Taj Mahal, the grounds of the Baby Taj include symmetrical gardens criss-crossed with water courses and walkways.

Baby Taj – a much smaller tomb than its more famous neighbor, as illustrated by the humans in the doorway

Perhaps the most notable difference between the Baby Taj and its more famous cousin is lack of maintenance. The structure’s interior shows its true age like a Real Housewife without her makeup.

faded carving surrounds an interior doorway
inside the dome, imagine the vibrance long ago…
View of one of the red sandstone entrances from inside the Baby Taj

Unlike the heavily trafficked Taj Mahal, here a visitor can get close to the monument to inspect the beautiful carvings, take interior photographs, and experience the peaceful setting. Despite the damage wrought by age (and gem thieves), the authenticity of this structure shines through.

Around Agra

Our long, hot day in Agra came to an end in the late afternoon, as Mahesh transported us back to the Doubletree to relax before tomorrow’s journey back to Bangalore. Once again we reflected on the divergence between the tourist-filled, opulent royal structures surrounding this former capital city, and the lifestyle of its current inhabitants.

A typical Agra streetscape
children play as mom watches from the doorway
A family walks among the crumbling buildings
Monkeys climb the walls of an old factory

Evening in Agra, with puppets!

A review of our day in Agra wouldn’t be complete without mention of the late night entertainment. Too exhausted to explore any further, we dined at the Doubletree’s restaurant, Kebab-e-Que (https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/dining/) where a guitarist played the same 4 chords on every song. I kept hearing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, which became tomorrow’s ear worm, because of course it did. We left the restaurant full of good food and wine and ready for bed, only to find the lobby decorated with candles and greens and the number “60”. Shamefully, we did not ask what this was about. Maybe the 60th anniversary of the hotel?

I honestly do not know what was going on here

The lobby festivities were highlighted by a young Sikh performer who showcased his family’s handmade animal menagerie. Waiting for us, alone, he could not contain his excitement at finally having an audience.

I bought the bright red elephant in the back 🙂
A little culture in the Doubletree Lobby! Turn sound on

Our new friend had also set up a stage for a very unique puppet show. He invited the boys to don turbans …

Awesome headwear

If you are my age, you may remember ultra-kind Mr. Rogers and his somewhat creepy puppet show in the Neighborhood of Make Believe? This was kinda like that.

Watch out for the snake… and turn the sound on

Our time in Agra truly came to a memorable end! Once again I would like to thank Mahesh and Shakul at Pacific Classic Tours India (Trip Advisor Link: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g297683-d6758183-Reviews-Pacific_Classic_Tours_India-Agra_Agra_District_Uttar_Pradesh.html) for arranging a fabulous trip to all of Agra’s highlights. In addition to checking off an ultimate bucket list destination and a Wonder of the World, we learned so much more about India’s history and culture. We were also once again surrounded by kind, friendly, colorful people who helped create the best travel memories.

The Taj Mahal. And, birds gotta do what they gotta doo doo…

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it’s the first thing most people think of when they imagine visiting India. Although I don’t always like to follow “can’t miss” and “must do” lists, come on… it’s the Taj Mahal!

So, as soon as I knew I was headed to India, I researched the best way to visit the iconic structure. The Taj is located in Agra, a small city in the north central part of India and almost 2000km from Bengaluru. The closest major city is New Delhi, about a 2.5 hour car ride away.

A word of advice

Many tour operators offered a “day trip” to the Taj from Bengaluru. This would have involved:

  • hotel pick up at 6 am
  • 45 minute ride to BLR airport
  • waiting around the airport
  • 2.5 hour flight to New Delhi
  • 2.5 hour car ride to the Taj
  • An hour or so at the Taj, and maybe lunch
  • 2.5 hour car ride back to New Delhi
  • waiting around the airport
  • 2.5 hour flight back to BLR
  • 45 minute ride back to Bangalore city

No, thank you.

Instead, I chose a trip arranged through https://www.discoverydreams.com, leaving on a Friday morning, with two nights in Agra, and returning on a Sunday. Best of all, the company (also known as Pacific Classic Tours India or PCTI) arranged the trip via a direct flight to Agra rather than New Delhi, saving a lot of time in the car. This tour is only available on certain days of the week, as the direct flight from Bengaluru to Agra only operates on a few days, and the Taj itself is closed to the public on Fridays for religious purposes.

Take your time with this place, it’s worthwhile.

journey to agra

The flight itself was uneventful but the arrival was a bit different. We flew on IndiGo, a quirky no-frills airline reminiscent of Jet Blue or Southwest in the US. Riding buses to the tarmac for a domestic flight experience at BLR provides that up close and personal experience:

That gorgeous baby had more gold jewelry than I do

Unfortunately, I have no photos of our arrival at Agra airport, because it is actually a military airport that only recently opened to commercial air traffic. NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs and armed guards greeted us. Next, we were required to take a bus to the prison-like gated entrance of the airport. Although the 1/2 mile bus ride was purported to be free, one of the armed guards wanted to collect a fee of 50 rupees (about 61 US cents). Needless to say, we riders complied.

Our tour guide for the next two days, Mahesh, was positioned at the airport entrance gate to meet us in an air conditioned vehicle. The airport was only about 10 minutes from the small city of Agra, where our package included delicious late lunch at the Salt Cafe. Then off to our hotel, the Doubletree Agra https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/

My room had a teeny tiny view of the dome of the Taj Mahal. A newly constructed elevated railway obscures the view from this side of Agra (unfortunately including the now inaptly named “Taj View Hotel” nearby). Progress and history compete as everywhere.

my first “view” of the Taj Mahal

Taj Viewpoint in the evening

After a short rest at the hotel, Mahesh picked us up again to get our first real view of the Taj. Since it was a Friday, and the mausoleum was closed, our only option was to proceed to the north side of the Yamuna river to the “Taj Viewpoint”. We dodged rickshaws, stray dogs, monkeys, children and camels on the approach to the viewpoint.

Since the monument is completely symmetrical, from either direction the view is identical. The view you are most likely familiar with looks across well-designed entrance pools and gardens; From the rear, the view crosses a nearly dry riverbed full of weeds, cows and goats grazing . The striking divergence of the opulent marble monument, the pollution-hazed sunset, the peasants with their cattle, and my own sheer wonder added to my sense of awe.

and there it is…..
and here we are!

After a half hour so of wandering, photographing, and simply gazing in speechless amazement, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow, we will visit at sunrise and learn more about the history of the Taj Mahal. But for now, driving away from the Viewpoint, I was struck by the “neighborhood” here. Just 1/4 mile from one of the world’s most famous monuments, people live with no running water, no electricity, wandering animals, and scattered trash. One of humanity’s greatest architectural and artistic accomplishments and societal failures in such close proximity. Jarring, to say the least.

Across the river from the Taj Mahal

Despite jet lag and travel weariness, I had trouble sleeping that night.

Sunrise at the Taj mahal

The next morning, we arose early to arrive at the Taj Mahal just before sunrise. The ethereal light attracted plenty of other visitors, but knowing the heat would rise later in the day, we knew this was the best time to be here. As a bonus, the photography is a bit surreal too. In some of the photos, the Taj almost looks like a painted backdrop.

crowds at the Taj gate at sunrise.
spooky look toward the hazy sunrise
that iconic view
here we are standing beside a painting of the Taj Mahal…. (jk)
fun with angles and perspective

A little brief history of the Taj Mahal: The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1631 as a mausoleum by the Mughal emperor at the time, Shah Jahan, to house the remains of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Per our tour guide, she was one of one of three wives, and bore him 13 children. Pregnant with their 14th, on a camel back ride across the country for some royal purpose or another, she became physically distressed and lost both the child and her life. Construction was completed in 1648. I’m thinking the Shah felt a little guilty… hence the huge marble structure that virtually glows in the sunlight. There are two smaller mausoleums on either side of the structure for the other two wives that seem like (and most likely were) an afterthought.

Details of the Taj Mahal:

Of course I knew the Taj Mahal was a white building, and made of marble. What I didn’t know is that each and almost every inch is full of carvings, jewels, and intricate writings that can only be seen up close. Here are a couple of photos attempting to capture that detail:

The entrance approach up close
close up showing both the colorful inset stones, gold leaf, and some of the damage inflicted by years of people and weather
another close up from outside

One of the more fascinating aspects of this detail is the red stone shown below. Holding our iPhone flashlights up to the stone created a unique glow that blushed across the entire stone. Sadly, many of the 28 types of jewels originally used in the Taj Mahal’s construction were stolen over time.

The yucky part

By now, you may be wondering about the bird doo doo referenced in my title. OK then, since you asked….

The indoor of the mausoleum houses the tombs of both Mumtaz Mahal and the Shah who created the tomb. No indoor photos are allowed. I do have this one, though, which shows my hand on the railing that keeps visitors from touching the inside walls:

I guess I really am over COVID, because I probably shouldn’t be touching that….

Inside of the Taj dome are 82 foot walls. While the structure is enclosed, the doors are tall enough that a few of the birds that surround the monument must find their way in periodically. They happily nest in the windows and carvings above. I don’t know what kind of bird blessed me, but my hand was exactly as shown on one of these railings when PLOP! a cold, nasty liquid was discharged right onto the back of my right hand. Oh, my kingdom for a tissue…..! I’ll bet there aren’t too many people who can say they have been pooped on inside the Taj Mahal. I feel soooo special. Karma for life, anyone?

bird, schmird… I’m still smiling .. check out the fun reflection in my sunglasses – thanks Mahesh!
Taj Mahal at sunrise

In my next post, more to come about the rest of our time in Agra, which included artisan demonstrations, a visit to Agra Fort and the “Baby Taj” monument, and a… puppet show. Yep, a puppet show.

How do you spell colorful chaos? B-E-N-G-A-L-U-R-U….

Hello readers! It’s been awhile, and I have so much catching up to do. Since my last post, I have gleefully emerged from COVID and travelled to Greece, Rome, Spain, Turks & Caicos, and more. Also, after over a year of ‘commuting’ from the Delaware beaches to New Jersey, I have also thrown in the proverbial towel and retired from banking. So you know there are many more great trips (and more blogging) planned!

Bengaluru’s state government building, Vidhana Soudha, lit up in bright colors for the celebration of Ugadi, a New year holiday

For my first post retirement trip, I went for big adventure, thanks to my Oldest child. He took a short term work assignment in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) India, therefore I HAD to go visit him. It was my first trip to Asia and my first trip to a country more populous than the United States. With only a few months’ notice to plan the trip, I started where I always start: with a map and Google.

Bengaluru is located in the southern third of India , in an area that was once part of the Mysore dynasty. From here, it’s over 600 miles to Mumbai and over 1300 to New Delhi. Bengaluru is known as the “Silicon Valley of India”, due to the predominance of tech workers: in addition to its own budding tech industry, this area primarily functions as the back office of American and European Big Business. In 2023, Bengaluru is expected to grow by 6%. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in a fast growing nation.

India is geographically about one-third the size of the lower 48 states, but its population is nearly 4x that of the US. In April, 2023, it is believed that India has now achieved the status of becoming the most populous country in the world, surpassing China. In fact, per Pew Research, India’s population has grown by more than 1 billion people since just 1950.

Arriving in Bengaluru, the pace of that growth is evident. BLR airport’s terminal is new and arguably a lot nicer than Newark, and additional terminal work is underway. In fact, there was construction pretty much everywhere. An elevated train will soon whisk travelers from BLR to the central city, currently about a 40 minute ride on the highway. Along that highway, signs selling suburban real estate and newly built high-rises abound, along with looming office parks boasting familiar US and European corporate logos.

All this growth comes with a cost, however. From my hotel window, the air pollution is evident. Bellandur Lake, the largest in this ‘garden city’, famously caught fire in 2015. The pollution is a function of vehicles, road dust, trash, and construction. I won’t go on a climate change rant here, but I have serious concerns about the future livability of this city if things don’t improve.

Hazy sunset from the 12th floor of the JW Marriott, Bengaluru

And traffic? I will henceforth NEVER AGAIN complain about the traffic on Rt 1 in Delaware or the Garden State Parkway. It’s difficult to describe, but I’ll try. Imagine, if you will …..

getting up close & personal in Bengaluru traffic

1)no obedience to lane markings

2)drivers ignoring traffic signals and one-way street indicators;

3)all sizes of vehicles, from bicycle to scooter to agricultural cart to semi-truck sharing the same road and lanes, with no rules governing left, right, fast, slow, or otherwise;

4)construction cones and barriers everywhere; and

5)horns. Never ending horns.

“Beep Beep Beep” was the lullaby to which I fell asleep each night in my hotel room 12 floors up. In India, they use horns to let other drivers know they are overtaking them. Which is … constantly. To the left, to the right, it doesn’t matter, just beep beep and keep going. Other vehicles drive within inches of one another. You can count the chin hairs on your neighboring driver. My American vehicle would never make it here, because it beeps a warning whenever something is a couple of feet away, and includes an auto brake feature. In India, it would simply melt down.

But from within all the chaos stemming from Bengaluru’s fast growth and dense population, shines India’s radiant heart. The people I encountered in India were simply beautiful, inside and out. Warm, and always willing to share a smile and an education. Despite the pervasive and unending traffic, I never saw a single ‘flipped bird’ or heard a curse word.

Indian food is loaded with spices, many unfamiliar to Americans – because to Indians, a lack of spice is cold, bland and tasteless; a true metaphor. Their thirst for knowledge is evident in the familiar sight of schools under construction and uniformed children toting books. Their love of bright colors as reflected in clothing, temples, and food is palpable. From what I experienced, India’s cultural motto might well be ‘the more the better’! Whether from buildings, vehicles, colors, spices, or people, the buzzing chaos somehow combines into a fascinating harmony.

boy in bookstore
Dresses for sale on Commercial Street, Bengaluru
Bengaluru Flower Market
Bengaluru Flower Market at 6:45 am
Smiling woman at Bengaluru Flower Market

From our tour guides, to Tuk Tuk drivers, to hospitality personnel, to shopkeepers, everyone I met shared a sense of vibrancy and positivity. India may be challenged by pollution, fast growth, and poverty, but if its peoples’ attitudes matter, these challenges will be faced with relish in the decades ahead.