People-Oriented Travel (Part 1)

This is the first part of a two part series.  See part 2 here: People-Oriented Travel (Part 2).

I went to India last month.

I had two reasons to go to India: my wife’s grandfather was turning 90 and her childhood friend was getting married.  Both events took place in the same week in Mumbai.  We usually jump on any opportunity to travel, and the convenient timing was plenty of incentive for us to head out.

Now, going to India from the USA is not necessarily convenient or cheap.  We had to schedule 8 days of time off from work and hunt for good ticket prices.  By working around weekends we were able to spend 12 days in India with only 8 days off work. And  using Google Flights we found round trip tickets in the $700 range.

There are a lot of reasons to dread a trip like this.  India is almost a 12 hour difference in time zone, which causes some bad jet lag.  On top of that, we wanted to conserve vacation time, so upon returning we’d have to go right back to work.  To make it all worse, I have a fear of flying, so I get anxious any time I have to spend 16 hours on a plane to reach my destination.

My fear of flying


Even with everything working against it, I was still excited for the trip.  Celebratory events like birthdays and weddings are always the most memorable ways to experience a different culture.  They give you insight to things that most tourists will never get to see.  If you’re lucky enough, opportunities like this arise where you can actually participate in the event itself instead of just spectating.

We arrived in Mumbai on a Saturday.

For those who have not been to Mumbai, it can be overwhelming.  There are so many people that I grow slightly claustrophobic just thinking about it.  There are parts where pedestrians, cars, trucks, scooters, rickshaws, and even livestock all coexist in choreographed chaos, somehow reaching their destinations with no clear path.  Storefronts, sidewalks, walkways, and streets simply blend together into one.  It is absolutely filled with people.

Image may contain: 1 person, crowd, sky, tree and outdoor
The streets of Mumbai

This portrait of Mumbai is slightly stereotypical.  The city does calm down as you move away from the center.  But at its busiest, I have not seen any other city that comes close to Mumbai’s commotion and crowds.

Mumbai is also modernizing rapidly.  The middle class is growing and correspondingly its housing standards are rising.  The government is methodically replacing existing slums and impromptu housing with condos.  It feels like the entire city is under construction.

Mumbai under construction

We started preparing for Sunday’s party.

We went to local party supply stores to find streamers, disposable plates, decorations, and other party items.  In India nothing is centralized into a single superstore like it commonly is in the US; instead, you end up hunting through multiple shops to find everything that you need.

It’s easy to lose track of just how cheap things can be in India.  As we walk through the small shops I perform quick rupee to dollar conversions in my head.  $0.25 USD for a pack of 50 plates.  $0.50 for streamers. $0.40 for table runners.  Everything feels way less expensive than what it’d cost in Chicago to throw the same party.

Even with the relatively low prices my wife and mother-in-law try to bargain with the shop owners to receive a discount.  They have tactics – threatening to leave without buying anything, requesting to round down the price to an even number, etc.  It’s a playful back-and-forth with the shop owner to figure out the final selling price.

The bargaining almost always works.  We leave having paid some percentage less than the true total of the listed prices.  My wife explains to me that it is all just a game that you must play so that you are not taken advantage of.

Afterwards we coordinated with restaurants and bakeries to cater a meal for 40 people.  Another back-and-forth ensued, but ultimately the result was similar.  Appetizers, drinks, and the main course; all under $150 American dollars, total.  The price included a beautiful cake, too.

Grandpa’s Birthday Cake

Some forty people came to the party.

It was endearing to see my wife’s grandparents during the party.  Even in their old age they revert to children when presented with a birthday cake – wide eyed and hungry.  The family took turns feeding grandma and grandpa a small piece of cake, a birthday tradition that my wife’s family has carried into the US.

I cannot describe how welcoming and warm my wife’s family is.  Everyone made sure to come talk to me, asking me how I like India, if I like the food, if I had met so-and-so.  My wife described everyone’s enthusiasm to talk to me as both a sign of respect to visitors but also a genuine warmth of character.

It had been some years since such my wife’s family had such a large gathering.  There were lots of smiles, lots of hugs, lots of blessings, and even some crying.  No one speaks about it, but it’s on everyone’s mind: you never know if you’ll get to see someone again when they are elderly or they live on the other side of the world.  You need to take advantage of your time together.

It’s all about people.

I have been lucky enough in my life to have formed relationships with people who have acted as my gateway to other countries.  My best friend from high school invited me to Mexico to stay with his family for a week after graduation: years later I ended up living, working, and studying in Mexico for a year.  My wife took me to India on our honeymoon to meet her extended family: now I have now been there three times and have great memories with the people there.

These adventures have taught me time and time again that the best way to experience a culture is to live and participate in it.  Play a role in the birthdays, attend the weddings, go to the Sunday mass.  It is the best form of travel.

Too long; didn’t read

Travel is best when you interact with others.  As tourists we fixate on the new foods, the unique sights, etc.  But we should not ignore the real beauty of any destination – its people – and should take advantage of any opportunity to experience events and activities with them.

This is the first part of a two part series.  See part 2 here: People-Oriented Travel (Part 2).

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