India

With a history that spans the better part of the last ten thousand years and boasting more people than (almost!) any other country on the planet, India is a country that has so much to offer it is impossible to get it down in one visit, or even ten. From the Himalayan region to the north, through the deserts of Rajasthan, to the lush foothills of the Western Ghats and the famous beaches of Goa, across to coasts along the Bay of Bengal, down to the cone of the South and almost everywhere in between, India is simply phenomenal. There are the usual suspects when one is looking for something to see and do, but with so many temples, mosques, museums, events, festivals, pilgrimages, holy sites and vacation hot spots, it would be insulting to name just a few. It is important to mention, though, that it would be wise to keep a few things in mind. First of all, not every place in the country is safe: centuries-old clashes between Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs mean that present day tensions can and do result in eruptions, so travellers would be well-advised to pay attention to the news. Secondly, India is home to some of the most religious and spiritual people in the world, not all of whom appreciate flip-flopped backpackers trudging through their holy sites; travellers should exercise a bit of common courtesy and humility when trying to enter certain locales. Finally, and potentially most importantly, travellers should always have a plan of escape to tranquility. The never-ending crowds, poverty, pollution, dirt, monkeys, rampant gender and class inequality, heat, humidity and people who want something from you tend to weigh heavily on even the most intrepid traveller from time to time; having such a backup plan can be a cheap and fun way to ensure you leave India with your attitude about the country - and your sanity - intact! ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara


Dancing Through Indian Culture

A colourful Indian dancerEverything you’ve heard about India may well be true: the intensity of the colourful saris worn by the traditionally dressed women, the heat rising off the dirt roads, the spiciness of the food, the cows crossing the country roads, the unbelievably chaotic traffic and the warm, welcoming smiles of the people.

I had the opportunity to experience a little bit of India for myself during a month long trip to Kerala in the winter of 2003, during which I spent studying Kathakali, a traditional South Indian representative dance. The beautiful sights I saw and wonderful people I met that year were part of what lured me back in the summer of 2011, but most enticing was the fact that traditional dance is an essential part of India's rich and diverse culture. From north to south and from east to west, song and dance is an integral part of this amazing country's phenomenal events, religious and otherwise.

Much like Kathakali, Kathak and Bharata Natyam are intrinsically Indian dances that feature their own language of intricate hand and eye gestures and body movements. These dances symbolize and communicate stories significance to the Indian culture. Kathakali, or dance drama as it is known, is an extremely difficult ritualized dance with complicated makeup, costume, gestures and movements that has been an important part of South Indian culture for more than 400 years.

What to Expect: Ten things to know about India

Photo credit: Matt AmbreyChaos. That, and supplying my own roll of toilet tissue were the only things I anticipated before my trip to India. I wasn’t disappointed, although I wish I had been better prepared for other things. After all, you can’t tip a porter with toilet tissue.

1. Expect to love it one minute and hate it the next.

Before I arrived I swore I wouldn’t be one of those people who “still can’t decide how they feel about India,” but I am – and at least now I can understand why. In India good and bad experiences rapidly intertwine, leaving travelers confused and skeptical one moment and delighted and amused the next.

2. Expect to tip everyone, for everything.

Porters, hotel security and waiters? Tip, tip and tip. It doesn’t seem to matter how hard they worked for you – they’ll be expecting something for their trouble. The amount, however, is “as you like.” Keep small bills – 10, 20 and 50 rupee notes [ed. values current at the time of posting of about $0.20, $0.40 and $1.00 US] – in an easily accessible place for these occasions.

3. Expect to drink a lot of chai.

Locals drink chai [ed. tea] three or four times a day, and this number can double in the colder months. It will be offered to you in homes, shops and street corners. Accept and enjoy the sweet, milky black tea; this is one show of service that doesn’t require a tip.

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 Full name: Republic of India

 Population: 1.2 billion (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: New Delhi

 Largest city: Urban Mumbai (by population)

 Area: 3.287 million sq.km. (1.27 million sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Hindi, English and 14  other Official Languages

 Major religions: Hindu, Muslim, Christian,  Sikh, Other

 Monetary unit: Rupee

 GDP per capita: US $3,700

 Internet domain: .in

 International dialling code: +91

 Source: CIA World Factbook