The sound of emphatic clapping first greeted me as I walked into a Tibetan monastery in McLeod Ganj, India. The monastery is located at on the edge of town and my cousin and I had decided to visit. We hadn’t realized that this was examine season! But it turned out to be good fun and a well-timed visit. The monks were preparing for their exams with lively debates!
Pairs and trios of the scarlet-clad monks were spread all over the monastery grounds. The open-air courtyard allowed the laughter and debate to roll across the grounds like a playful child. Joyous sounds echoed off the walls of the monastery and into the surrounding hillside. My cousin and I couldn’t help but grin as we watched the energy ricochet around the space. There was no way we could have planned for this, it was just a happy coincidence and it now stands as one of my favorite memories from McLeod Ganj, India.
McLeod Ganj is the headquarters for the Tibetan government-in-exile, this is where His Holiness the Dalai Lama spends a good deal of time. And with dispensations from India, a large population of Tibetans have permanently lived in this region for more than 50 years. Those who make the long and arduous trek from Tibet into India have brought with them their culture — and that includes the unique style of debate that the Tibetan monks use! The monks use a large, exagerated, single-sound clap to emphasize their points during philosophical conversations about Buddhism, life, and anything else on the table for discussion.
The emphatic gestures — the gesticulating and whip-like hand clap is unique to Tibetan monks and was unexpected when I went for a wander through the monasteries around McLeod Ganj.
The clapping gesture is akin how you would teach a child to make an alligator jaw — arms elongated away from your body, a wide arch into the air as you throw your entire body into the movement, ending in a loud, cracking clap that snaps into the air and hurls sound at your eager opponent. Only the standing monk uses this gesture — he is the Challenger and thus asks questions to the Defender sitting on the ground. Once he has asked the question and done the large clap issued toward the Defender, the Challenger will hold out his left arm in a gesture welcoming an answer.
While it seems rather lively, there is no aggression, this is simply a spirited traditional way for the Tibetan monks to share and debate information. Louder than many styles of organized and cool Western debate, the huge smiles on the faces of these monks is a clear indication that they are fully engaged and enjoying their afternoon. The topics of the debate are varied, but it’s all undertaken with intention. The Asia Society notes:
“The central purposes of Tibetan monastic debate are to defeat misconceptions, to establish a defensible view, and to clear away objections to that view. Debate for the monks of Tibet is not mere academics, but a way of using direct implications from the obvious in order to generate an inference of the non-obvious state of phenomena.”
It’s even more complex than just a debate with clapping, however. Each hand and arm represents a part of the rebirth process with wisdom and compassion all tied into it. There’s a stomp that accompanies the clap, meant to slam closed the door to rebirth. If you’re keen to learn more, George Dreyfus’ book, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, makes for a fascinating read with deep insight into Tibetan Buddhism.
After sitting in a corner of the courtyard for a time, I left the monastery smiling right through my entire body. For hours, the echo of the loud Tibetan debate bounced through my head. And now, years later, thinking of that memory — filled with a breezy courtyard and balconies full of debating, clapping monks — makes me grin. One of the reasons I so love this life of travel is for the random nuances of life and learning that enter my sphere of knowledge.
Legs crossed and boiling hot chai in hand, I sat on the floor in the back of Sunil’s shop swapping stories and chatter. Sunil’s shop was popular, and not just with the backpacker crowd haunting the cramped streets of Thamel, Kathmandu, his friends regularly popped into the shop.
And as is the case with any good chai time, hilarity ensues with a cup of chai in hand. See, chai time is one of those rituals you just don’t mess with in India and Nepal; every shop owner in these areas has own their local chai wallah who knows just the right blend of sugar and steeped spices. Then, as you shop and meet locals on your wanderings, friendships form in the oddest of places so you pause your day to share a chai tea and stories.
That’s how I initially met Sunil, an incredibly friendly Nepali man with a shop in the heart of the touristy section of Thamel, Kathmandu. Sunil’s shop stood out from the pack because it didn’t peddle the same exact cookie cutter souvenirs as the other shops (in fact, close friends, you just might recognize some of those scarves in the photo!).
So, back to this goofy photo … see, that’s not Sunil in the photo, it’s his friend Bijay. I can’t even begin to remember precisely how Bijay and I discovered we have the same exact glasses prescription (and as blind as I am, it’s rare to have the same prescription), but we did.
So we switched glasses. Um, of course!
Let’s be honest here, his eyeglasses were a whole lot cooler than mine, and sillier, so, naturally, I convinced Bijay set his chai aside and vogue it up with me. I’m still shocked he agreed!
We goofed around on the streets of Kathmandu for several minutes, both of us using the shop’s colorful batik scarves to thoroughly entertain everyone, including those close enough to hear the guffaws as Bijay warmed up to the impromptu photo shoot.
A few minutes later we switched our glasses back, pranced into Sunil’s shop (our abs aching from the strain of laughing so hard) and resumed chai drinking position, legs crossed Indian style on the floor and lukewarm cups of sweet chai clasped in hand.
Is it wrong to admit that I’ve developed a strange fascination with McDonald’s restaurants around the world? This one is in India and, as you’d expect, there was no beef on the menu. Stateside, I eat McDonald’s maybe once a decade … and I even find myself apologizing to other travelers on the road about America’s stellar contribution to the global food industry because this chain is pervasive, unhealthy, and so brightly and gaudily American that it can stand out so painfully next to temples and ancient ruins in other countries. But the interest me because they’re there. A slice of Americana in a strange and foreign land.
Through all this judgment though, I didn’t really think about the different menus in each place until I started traveling. So color me surprised when the Indian McDonald’s boasted an intriguingly diverse menu. My cousin ordered a paneer tika wrap … and it was actually decent (I took a bite).
Echoing the diversities of each country, the menu at Mickey D’s reflects the local cultural norms and food habits, as weird as that may seem considering the golden arches so blatantly scream “American” to me. Oh, and there are actually locals inside these restaurants, I was surprised for a second time.
I’m not going to claim that you have to try a Mickey D’s abroad, but, well … if you’re there, and it’s there … why not at least take a peak, the menus are always different and it’s neat to see how much the food chain had to diverge from the traditional American menu in order to appeal to the locals.
It’s fun and the foodie gods of travel won’t strike you down for entering one, I promise! :-)
Asking for a to-go container in India yields some pretty interesting results… and to be honest this may have been the only time I asked so I’m not sure what I would have gotten elsewhere. You see, a lovely little Tibetan restaurant in McLeod Ganj had amazing momos. I don’t jest; these were some of the tastiest momos my cousin and I had found (and I made a job out of sampling different momos at each new restaurant). I was flummoxed though when faced with what to do at the end of my meal because in the true nature of eating out in India, my need to sample yielded more food than I could possibly eat in one sitting.
But as we got ready to leave, the vegetarian momos looked so lonesome and wasteful sitting on the table and I couldn’t bear to leave the last six on the plate.
So I asked for a way to wrap ’em up and take ’em home as a snack later.
I applaud their creativity and ability to reuse just about anything. And I’m a huge fan of recycling so I won’t fault them on intent. That being said, this is a dog food container holding human food in a country that is, like me, mostly vegetarian.
So here’s a question do you think I ate them and would you have?!
A local artist I met in Udaipur, India (who honest-to-god proposed marriage to me a few days later) insisted that I attend a cultural dance show while I was in the city. We had met on my wanderings around town and then we motorbiked through the city a bit with my cousin and his friend in tow. He hadn’t led me astray on previous tips, so I took his advice and arrived just in time to squeeze into the front row of seats near the children’s area of a cultural show featuring elaborately clothed Indian women showcasing traditional dances.
When agreeing to go to the show, I hadn’t realized was how much I would enjoy various elements of the staged cultural show. The Indian dancing was gorgeous, and this photo so perfectly points out one of my favorite aspects of India—the vibrant colors and ornate decorations.
My would-be suitor was waiting for me right after the performance, to ensure that I enjoyed the dancing and music, and we followed it the performance the only way you follow up anything in India—with a steamy cup of chai looking out over the Lake Palace. This is one of those unexpectedly pleasant memories because I don’t often go to the staged events as I travel. I’m not sure why either, because although it’s lovely to happen-upon an event as I pass through a town, there are elements of festivals, celebrations, and traditions that I can only bear witness to by attending the staged shows. In this case it was great, a lot of fun, and the women were beautiful. Add to it that I dodged the proposal days later and Udaipur was a highlight on my India travels.
This wasn’t the only time I was able to watch Indian women dancing beautifully! I traveled through India during Holi the Festival of Colors as well, and in Jaipur I was lucky to watch many cultural performances there as well! Here are some of the best dancing shots from that performance as well:
When you travel the world, you discover all kinds of new things: new dishes, new festivals, new cultures, new friends. The list is endless—it’s a parade of new things. Include sweet treats!
Sure, over the years I’ve found my favorite signature dishes that I will forever love thanks to sampling them in a new country—some are local delicacies, and others are just bizarre street eats.
But one thing that surprised me was the sheer number of fun snacks I would discover, as well as new flavors on old favorite treats. Some of my favorite new treats are sweet, some salty. But all are portable and can make a great treat on a long bus ride . . . interestingly, most of my favorites from my travels are centered in Asia!
1. Burmese Treat: Sour Plum Candies
What a delight are these slightly sour treats rolled in sugar and sold throughout the Bagan region of Myanmar! We found a women’s collective making them and selling them on a road-side as we traveled among the various temples of Bagan and we loved them enough that I stocked up on baggies of them to bring home as sweet treats for friends.
Thailand has a version of this treat made with the tart roselle flower (a version of hibiscus) that you can find during festivals and it’s worth sampling, particularly if you can’t make it to Bagan!
Also, jaggery candies are a runner up in Myanmar—it’s this treat of pure cooked sugarcane that you’ll most often find in served as a free dessert in Myanmar (usually there are chunks in a jar on the table). My niece and I stumbled upon a jaggery-making factory in rural Myanmar while riding our bikes and it was neat to see how they make this sweet treat. As much as we loved the experience though, it was the baggies of plum candies from Bagan that kept us in thrall throughout our month traveling across Myanmar.
2. Nepali Treat: Lapsi Candy
Topping my list of personal favorites from around the world is a sweet jellied candy called lapsi. I don’t even like chewy candies, but this one has a mild flavor and it’s deceptively easy to plough through a package in one sitting. The traditional/plain flavor is my favorite, but it was fun to shake things up with the spicy lapsi every few days too!
Nepali lapsi is made from hog plum and then additional sugar. You can also easily find lapsi candy made with chilli and other spices—it’s never the same twice, so you really should sample it throughout your travels in Nepal.
3. Jordanian Treat: Knafeh
I love everything about knafeh and even though you can find versions of it across the Middle East, I truly loved the one I sampled in Amman, Jordan. The version I sampled in Istanbul had the fine noodle-like dough that you can find on some versions, but I was partial to the fine semolina dough sampled on this treat from Habiba Sweets’ small shop in Amman. What makes this stand out so deliciously is that it’s made with a savory cheese, but the dough is soaked in a sweet syrup. The combination of sweet and savory and the delicious texture of the cheese make this a perfectly balanced dessert!
4. Indian Treat: Fennel Seeds
Restaurants in India serve a small bowl of fennel seeds at the end of many meals. This is a custom throughout many regions of the country and it acts as a palate cleanser. These seeds are a mixed medley of plain fennel, sugar-coated fennel, and small bits of crystallized sugar—once you’re used to ending each meal like this, it’s hard to leave the table without craving the strong licorice flavor! This was such a fun sweet treat from my world travels that I even shipped some home to my dad since he’s a licorice fanatic.
Even though I think the fennel seeds is a fun treat for those who had never before tasted it, it’s worth noting that India has other worthy additions to this list, including: makhania lassi, kheer, and gulab jamun. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these on the regular when I backpacked across India for two months.
5. Thai Treat: Mango Sticky Rice
This is probably the only true dessert on the list that I would be willing to eat on the regular, as an integrated part of my daily life. Many of the other treats make great snacks, or they are a special dessert you would eat on a special occasion. Mango sticky rice is just straight up delicious. It’s made by slicing up a perfectly ripe mango, adding a side of sticky rice, and then coating the entire concoction in sweetened coconut milk before you sprinkle on toasted sesame seeds. You can find mango sticky rice served from street stalls all over Thailand and I made this a weekly treat during that portion of my round the world travels. Your life will be better once you sample this Thai sweet treat.
The huge Turkish population in Bosnia means that Turkish Delight is an authentic sweet treat here, and its different from what you can find in the U.S. and the West. I confess my first encounter with Turkish Delight was actually reading about it in the Chronicles of Narnia, and it was a full 15 years later that I managed to find this sweet treat. The soft jelly candy can greatly differ depending on your chosen flavor. Think: rose water with pistachios, sweet lemon, and sticky dates with chewy walnut. Like an ice-cream shop in the states, at the shops in Bosnia you pick your selection of Turkish Delight from a selection upwards of 15 flavors in some cases! Although this is not my favorite candy in the world, it’s fun to eat when you’re in the region.
7. Cambodian Treat: Black Sesame Seed Squares
Did you know that such a thing existed as the deep, savory flavor of black sesame? It was not until I landed in Bangkok on my round the world trip that I first discovered my deep love for black sesame—lucky for me it’s used to flavor milk and any number of other delicious treats.
These sesame seed squares are the healthiest treat on this list because they pack in a lot of protein from the sesame seeds. Beyond that, the treat is incredibly simple as a lacing of honey or sugar syrup binds the sesame seeds together. These little powerhouse treats are a great way to tide over dropping blood sugar until you can find some food, and these are my go-to treat for a quick bus ride snack!
This one is actually a treat that I chalk up to my time in Nepal, since that is where I first sampled truly delicious dried/pressed figs. These were the best I had ever tasted and they are abundantly available if you walk into any of the stores in Thamel, Kathmandu—most shops sell little baggies of these deliciously fresh dried figs.
Figs however, were actually first cultivated by humans in Mesopotamia and were essentially the first sweetener used in desserts. Now as someone traveling the world, I’ve made a point to sample this sweet treat in locations as varied as Turkey, Nepal, Jordan, Spain, the U.S., and pretty much anywhere else I can find a selection of figs. I still hold a deep love for Nepali figs, but I admit that a fig jam sampled in Wadi Dana, Jordan made for a memorable tasty treat!
9. Asia: Mango Flavored Everything!
U.S. and European based companies target the flavors of their products to each region receiving the product, and outside of the U.S., mango is a pretty well-loved flavor.
My most fun find was mango flavored Corn Flakes in Nepal—bought as an addition a movie night with new friends, they were a huge hit . . . and so addicting the box was consumed in a few hours by just three of us!
Other mango treats found in the region include: sodas, chips, cookies, yogurt—just about anything that could take a mango flavor is on offer. There was also a wealth of freshly dried mangos as well!
10. Global Treat: Fun Chip Flavors
Mango wasn’t the only interesting change to a traditional flavor that we have stateside. I’ve made a career out of sampling chips from all over the world in flavor combinations that would never make the shelves of a U.S. grocery store. Prawn is a perennial hit in Asia that I’ve never tried being that I’m vegetarian, and I’ve also seen crab.
I am committed to buying every new vegetarian can of Pringles that I find—Pringles makes a dizzying array of bizzare international flavors. My go-to in regular life is salt and vinegar, but I’ve added to my sample list: paprika, balsamic vinegar, ketchup, emmental cheese, salt and seaweed.
This is just a sampling of what I’ve found and loved all over the world. I wrote an entire post about my love for sweet Czech dumplings as well. And across some areas of Asia I found sweet treats made from bean paste of all things (very common!) The world has more sweet and unique treats than you can even imagine.
What are your favorite unusual or unexpected treats from around the world?
The spicy mingling of scents when you step foot into the India is among my favorite memories of my months in South Asia. Before traveling across India on my round the world trip, I had backpacked through Southeast Asia. And although the food there is tasty, India is paradise of flavors for a vegetarian. The food selection in the country is incredible. The country offers hundreds of traditional dishes, and all vary from north to south. Each region has unique dishes and a unique suffusion of flavors.
Walking through the Indian cities, my nose would lift to air like a puppy, catching the scent of savory curries, fried dough, and spicy chai tea. Then I would follow the scent and find the crowd of locals around a tasty street stall chai stand, or a piping hot samosa ready to find it’s way into my hand. I have a deep love of Indian food in every form, so I was in vegetarian foodie heaven. Much of the country is primarily vegetarian — it’s only the far north that really adds meat into the diet. For the first time in my life, I walked into a restaurant and I could eat every dish on offer. Usually, when I eat at a restaurant back home in the States, there is a token salad or pasta on the menu, but even then it’s often a dish that I can order without the meat.
India is different, the entire subcontinent has designed a cuisine intended to taste delicious without meat. There’s no fake meat substitutes and never a need to add extra salt and spices. Each region of India offers a smorgasbord of options. With that in mind, I could never fully cover all the dishes available. Instead, I’ll fun down my favorite eats that I found on my trip. I traveled from Mumbai to McLeod Ganj, stopping along the way. And while I did eat at South Indian restaurants on my travels north, I haven’t had the pleasure of eating exclusively in that part of the country. Let’s dive into my favorite Indian Dishes—if you’re looking for a more comprehensive list, this is explainer on ordering in Indian restaurants is a good start!.
Vegetarian Food Guide for India
Indians deeply understand the concept of vegetarianism, this will not be an issue for anyone traveling through the country. Veganism is a bit different — most Indians consume a large amount of dairy through their yogurt drinks and the paneer cheese. That said, many menus are clearly marked with ingredients and it is easy to avoid the handful of dishes that feature paneer, and all of the yogurt drinks are off limits.
Another boon to the vegetarian traveler is the prevalence of English throughout India. Because of the British colonization and Great Britain ruling over India until the mid-20th Century, English is widespread. Poor and rural areas may not have 100 percent English fluency, but in many of these places the food on offer will certainly be vegetarian, so you’re in the clear.
With vegetarianism spread so widely throughout the subcontinent, there is no need to offer a survival guide to Indian food. The majority of the dishes come vegetarian first, and meat is added only for those tourists and the select few eating chicken or some such. Cows are off-limits (they are sacred in India), so you’ll never worry about finding unexpected beef in your food. With survival covered — you can always find vegetarian food — let’s instead think of India as a tasting ground for amazing vegetarian food. Let’s dive right in, here are my favorite dishes and treats from traveling throughout India.
The Indian Thali
My hands-down ultimate recommendation for a tourist in India —particularly if you’re only in the country for a few days — is to try the Indian thali. At the right establishment, this dish will rock your world. It’s a sample platter, and which curries and dishes depends on the restaurant’s speciality. The thali often comes themed to the region you’re visiting — so you might eat a sample platter of foods from Kerala and the south if you’re eating at a South Indian thali restaurant. Sample these widely and don’t hesitate to
If you have time, visit a thali-specific restaurant, it makes all the difference. I visited the Natraj Lodge in Udaipur and it is the best thali I have ever eaten. For those sampling a thali for the first time, they are often served on a metal tray filled with several metal dishes. Servers circulate the room and fill up your dish as you eat. Each dish is tiny, but the thali is bottomless so think of it as a chance to sample all of the flavors and then fill up on your favorites. The dishes on offer vary, but includes a smattering of dishes like dhal, a paneer dish, something with chickpeas, a potato option, etc. Then they toss onto the plate a handful of onions and lemons, a scoop of rice. and a fresh chapati. Most Indians eat this dish (and many others) with their fingers, so if you don’t have silverware on the table then tear pieces of the chapati to tear and spoon food into your mouth. If you just have rice, the proper technique is described here. Extra tip: Pay attention! They rapidly refill your plate as they circulate the room until you tell them to stop.
South Indian Dosa
So, with all of this sampling and taste testing for six weeks through India, I have several favorite dishes: tomato aubergine curry, palak paneer, and bhel puri (it’s the crunchy – I love the crunch thingies!).
Cousin H (also a vegetarian – how ideal was that!) was mildly obsessed with the South Indian dosas – and when they’re good, they are incredibly tasty. I like them. Not a favorite, but they’re pretty unique.
The key to a dosa is the incredibly thin and crispy layer on the outside and the one drawback is that you can sometimes only order dosas for dinner (what about every other time of day?!). Inside is any combination you choose – traditionally very potato based.
Note the small white creamy side dish – this is the light and cooling coconut paste used to alter the flavor of the dish or cool your palate after a particularly spicy bite!
Curd, Lassi, and Dairy
The dairy in India is phenomenal. Most restaurants receive a daily delivery of fresh curd (I know this because I am an early riser and often had to wait for my breakfast until the delivery of fresh). Curd is essentially a type of yogurt, what differs is mostly the way the milk is processed into yogurt and which strains of bacteria remain after the process.
Curd and Yogurt Fruit salad and curd is a treat in India. The fruit is tasty and fresh and the yogurt is pretty amazing in tandem. Although I have always loved dairy, it was my time in India that kickstarted my use of yogurt and curd in so many different ways. It’s easy to start the day with protein-packed yogurt, then add it to pasta sauces for an evening dinner. One note of caution, however, be careful eating raw fruits anywhere in the country. In fact, completely skip unskinned apple and grapes — these are often contaminated with the local water supply and will be a fast way to get a parasite.
Cucumber Raita Indian food also makes use of curd as an accompaniment to spicy dishes. A dallop of a curd in a side dish cools burning taste buds, or the best addition is the cucumber raita. This traditional side dish is often served in a tiny bowl with the meal, and it’s diced cucumber and yogurt mixed into a refreshing concoction. It’s also easy to make, and this cucumber raita recipe would be tasty for those looking to infuse the flavors of India into the kitchen.
Lassi Drink The lassi is a staple of the drink in the Indian diet. Although this drink has crossed over to Indian restaurants in the west, it’s definitely not just a tourist import. I watched families, couples, and chatting men slurp down a delicious yogurt lassi drink with their meals.
One reason the lassi is so well-loved is due to the digestive properties of yogurt. All of that good bacteria is a powerful and needed force against the contamination issues rampant in the country. For other travelers — especially vegetarians who may be eating more vegetables and fruits than others — I recommend using dairy as a preventative measure in your diet when traveling the country; it helps keep the GI tract in good working order.
And really, the lassi is an easy addition to any meal; it’s no trouble at all to order one of these! I most often opted for the traditional and refreshingly simple “sweet lassi.” But then a rare find in Pushkar produced the Makhania lassi; it’s infused with saffron extract, almond extract, cardamom, and rose. Then it’s topped with cashews, pistachios, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and a sprinkle of coconut. My mouth waters at the memory. In fact, I have made it using this Makhaniya Lassi recipe back home and it’s stellar. Plan on sampling these drinks widely and try the unique and fun flavors offered in various regions and cities.
I landed in Italy after six months in developing countries, and it was a shock to the senses in some regards. I remember having culture shock when I landed in Bangkok all those months ago. I didn’t expect the reverse culture shock of landing back in the Western world. Having my bestie Jenn fly over for this leg of the trip gave me new perspectives about my months spent traveling in developing countries. For me, after five months of backpacking, I had lost track of the delineation between my experiences and my life back home in the states.
Jenn, however, had no such confusion. She arrived with shiny-clean clothes and a backpack that smelled distinctly better than mine — what is that funk?! Jenn knew two things about herself when deciding to join a leg of the RTW trip: she definitely wanted to meet up somewhere, and she had no wish to travel in developing regions. Props to her for knowing herself well enough to not embark on something she couldn’t handle. My experiences in South and Southeast Asia are among my favorite, but there are many easier places to travel, and these places have equally beautiful sites and cultures.
Arriving in Milan, my cousin and I slogged off of the plane — we were sweaty, dirty, and I had a small sugar-ant infestation in my backpack. (Perhaps I should have left the half-eaten Snickers behind in Delhi?) Jenn took one look at me and started a list of all the crazy differences in my perspective and earlier travels compared to what we were about to face in Italy.
Now, this list is not to be seen as a discouragement from travel in less developed countries — I had wonderful experience and it shifted my perspective in profound ways. Although I love Europe, I know that it was only by adding Asia to my travels that I could build a deep and nuanced consideration of our global community. I count many of my experiences as the most transformative on my journey.
And also to note, I understand that some of these point to deep fundamental issues facing developing countries, such as lack of government stability, poor transportation infrastructure, systemic education issues, and more. Consider reading up on why the developing world is developing before you travel there. It helps keep everything in perspective if you better understand root causes.
This is more of a brief look at some of the more endearing, hellacious, charming, and weird things I’ve contended throughout my months traveling in developing countries. Jenn and I compiled this list throughout the three weeks we traveled together. We made a note every time Jenn exclaimed, “Are you serious! That happens?!”
1. Shots. Lots and lots of shots are needed. They poked me relentlessly for weeks to administer them all in time. And shots don’t guarantee that you won’t get sick. You will get sick. The shots simply offer up that you probably won’t die from your sickness. There are only a few shots you need when traveling in other developed countries, but far more when you venture off the path a bit.
2. Drinking the local water results in illness. It just does. Sadly, I did it anyway once or twice and I came to Italy sporting a rockin’ case of giardia. Plus, I almost died in Laos of dysentery. This is a very real consideration. Of note though, unlike the Western world, the medicine to fix my illness was just 80 cents in Nepal. What are we even doing with our healthcare system in the U.S.?
3. Squatting over a ceramic floor toilet is a luxury. In the U.S., we basically have just one style of toilet, and even going to Europe is a shock when you see a squat toilet. Boy aren’t those the good days though. These squat toilets are actually better for you though. Of note though, ceramic squats are the good ones — sometimes they’re just a hole!
4. Life is lived outside. The air takes on a different quality. In India especially, it’s a smell I will never forget. It’s a country scented with a beautifully fragrant mingling of urine, cow dung, exhaust, incense, and humanity. Sounds potentially gross, but makes me a bit nostalgic for that wacky place.
5. It’s a crowded place out there. Space is a Western luxury, by and large. In the cities of South Asia, people swarm you, watch you, talk to you, and possibly pet you. In India, the women would stroke my hair and hand me babies, pretty much just because I am light-skinned. Life is lived in close quarters so you will get up close and personal with each new country. But perhaps the best thing, eventually you become wholly accustomed to it and unfazed.
6. Pick your battles. Every culture is different, and that’s not just in developing countries. Landing in Japan is like a slap in the face with different cultural practices. In developing countries though, that’s where to often find the starkest differences. You can’t freak out over it all. Some seemingly unpleasant things will be a fact of life. Pull on your humanity and remember to keep perspective when it seems like shit is hitting the fan.
7. Chaos. Everywhere. Sometimes it’s organized chaos. Often times it’s not. And while there are some notable exceptions to that, for a first-timer in a place like India, it feels like life is running at a frenetic pace.
8. Amenities, toiletries, and creature comforts are very basic. Chalk this up to quirks. Somehow I found a jar of Skippy peanut butter in Dharamsala, but I spent three months searching for Q-tips. What you take as a baseline normal part of life might not be normal at all where you’re visiting. Usually they have a local work-around, though, so ask a bit about how to solve your dilemma if you can’t find something on the road.
9. They have public transport figured out. So much of the world outside of the U.S. has taken public transportation as a key concern. Trains run through India, buses dart across Southeast Asia. And while transport can sometimes be amazingly on time, it also might never show up. Learn to go with the flow and don’t pick this as a battle because you won’t win. Just embrace the experience and go with the flow.
10. Nothing will faze you, which is really not such a bad way to live. I found that a result of traveling in Nepal was a total desensitization to boisterous political demonstrations that might lead to mayhem. It’s not that I wanted it to happen, but that frenetic fear was gone. When you’re on the road, you’ll figure it out if it’s serious enough to call for it.
11. You’ll learn to be really comfortable talking about bodily functions. Diarrheal illnesses are real. You will get one, it’s just a matter of time.
12. You’ll learn to be really comfortable talking about your travel companion’s bodily functions. You will know as much about their bodily functions as you do your own. It’s just a fact of life on the road and an open topic for discussion. I’ve even broached the subject with random travelers because, hey, we’re all in this together.
13. Pop songs that normally make you sneer become the new favs. Many songs that are a decade old have just hit it off in the places you’ll visit. And boy do they embrace them with enthusiasm. Once there’s a hit that seems to go over well, it plays incessantly. These songs though, they’re another layer of nostalgia because they invariably link themselves to places, events and smells. Summer of ’69 reminds me of tubing in Laos. And I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have listened to Shaggy in the past three days — were nearing a dozen!
14. It doesn’t make sense. If you didn’t grow up there, then some of the quirks will just not make sense. But it will be interesting, if you allow yourself to be open to curiosity in each new place.
15. A lot of unexpected things are just a bit harder to do. Finding the right train takes a while. Using dial-up speeds in an internet café could be a half-day project. Finding that book you want to read may take months of combing tourist book swap shops. But there’s time, so what’s the hurry?
16. Outside of the US, some places just don’t queue … they just don’t. The idea of a neat line of people waiting until their turn — sometimes that doesn’t exist! In India, a few times I had someone throw an elbow to advance toward the vendor. Those it’s weird, I learned to gently shove, and give a good push right back at them.
17. Traffic and cars. Nothing I read prepared me for sheer amount of traffic — and that’s saying something, I lived in L.A.! Lines in the road are often nonexistent, and your mode of transportation will think nothing of dodging through oncoming traffic. If it’s faster than waiting on the correct side of the road then it’s fair game. And helmets on motorcycles rarely exist. This is changing in many parts, but helmet laws are rare in a lot of places. Oh, and motorcyclists can accomplish great feats — I’ve seen some talking on a cell phone, eating a sandwich, and safely transport an entire family. They keep it interesting, that’s for sure.
18. Oh, and really: It still doesn’t make sense.
19. Their idea of modesty is much different than ours. Dress codes vary by country, and many are becoming more Western in style, but only a bit. Modest dress codes are in order in much of the developing parts of Asia. And it’s kinda nice. Once you embrace the modesty of the developing world it’s hard to go back. I love my Indian kurta with all of my heart. It was only after some distinctly strange looks in Milan that I shoved in deep into the recesses of my pack and pulled out other more fashionable items I had last used in Australia. They are a bit obsessed with fashion there, I guess. But even then, I pulled it out for long travel days.
20. The people are generally incredibly and overwhelmingly warm. Most people in the world want you to visit their country and enjoy it. To explore and have a good experience. The kindness if very real and countless people offered me meals, conversations, and friendship.
There is so much to love about these less-structured countries. Most people call them “developing,” but really that’s a term for the economists. These countries have developed cultures, food histories, and long histories that dates far back into history. I know that Jenn will never join me in many of these places, but I have a special place in my heart for the swath of countries I traveled on that part of my round the world trip.
The best I advice I can offer to new travelers is this: Recognize that control and certainty don’t exist. Just surrender. As a Westerner, you have to abandon the preconceived notions. And definitely abandon the need to control every moment and circumstance. You could try to force everything into a sanitized version of what you expected. But what is the fun in that? It’s all better when you are just floating along with it, adrift in the well-meaning chaos.
Jenn’s list began to balloon out of control by the end into the most minutely hilarious additions, but really these are just some of the top reasons to dig in and love every moment of traveling in developing countries! :-)
If you’re planning a trip, why not head over to my travel planning resources page for the nitty-gritties on everything you need to plan the trip. And my country guides offer a great overview of what you should know before you go, as well as how to travel responsibly in each new place.