The Other Side of India – or ‘Why I Had to Buy a Pair of Jeans During the Indian Summer’

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way I look at India. And, by extension, the way that India looks at me.

India train Westerner hippy

From this…

India car Westerner

…to this.

For the last two months, I’ve seen fleeting glimpses of a vast amount of India, whether sitting on buses, sleeping on trains, or fearing for my life in leaking boats and terrifying tuktuks. Many of these glimpses have been caught for posterity through a camera lens; many more have been noted down on paper. I’ve wandered through temples and markets, forts and deserts, rivers and beaches – and every day, I’ve passed countless children, teenagers, adults and the elderly, many of whom have fixed their unblinking gaze on me until I’ve disappeared from view.

To counteract this feeling of unexpected exposure, I’ve made it a priority to speak to every local that I can, feeling the need to connect with the ‘real’ India at every opportunity.

For the last two months, I have also been swanning around the country with my fellow Western travellers, indulging in the mystical, spiritual, and ultimately tourist-invented impression of India. I’ve bought whole-heartedly into the Ali Baba trousers, the anklets and toe rings on each foot, the cool, hippy, cut-on-a-whim-in-a-Rajasthani-bathroom hair and, above all, the awestruck expression at every single sight.

I felt like I was really tapping into what makes this place tick. I felt like I was starting to belong.

And then I arrived on the other side of India, and my Emperor’s clothes were stripped away (both metaphorically; I wasn’t standing anywhere in the nude. Still looked pretty ragamuffin-like, though). My hair wasn’t cool, it was a mess; my anklets and toe rings are actually a signifier of marriage to most people and are thus quite confusing; and, worst of all, I was told that, instead of cool trousers, I have actually been wearing pajamas. And to think I wondered why people kept staring at me!

I’d been so busy drinking in India’s ‘authenticity’, in all its saried, templed, glory, that I’d been conciously avoiding looking at its similarities to my normal lifestyle back at home.

In the cities, at least, a great deal of people in India are always on their phones; they’re obsessed with the latest Facebook updates; they drink Coke; they eat at McDonalds; they use hair straighteners and care a great deal about their appearance; and, perhaps most importantly, they do actually wear jeans here.

McDonalds India burger menu

Of course there’s still a huge dedication to faith in India. I’ve already learnt so much about Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism – and I have the utmost respect for the constant attention people pay to their respective religions. This faith and spirituality is also clearly what draws many of the country’s tourists to visit, including myself, and so it drives a predominant amount of the tourist dollar into the Indian economy.

But it’s refreshing to discover, almost by accident, that India’s spirituality is not the only thing on offer to a foreigner. Not by a long shot.

And so I find myself in a very strange and completely unexpected situation: instead of beginning my travels as a polite, well dressed Brit and slowly descending into hippy-dom, I’ve somehow gone about it completely the other way.

I expected to return home from India as a dreadlocked, spiritual yoga obsessive, all jangly bracelets and irritatingly calm words. Ok, so the bracelets are definitely still in attendance – but I think I’m postponing that element of my personality, at least for a month or so.

The Indian media world is simply too modern and respectable to be tainted by my wild backpacker ways. And I want to make a good impression.

This type of behaviour/clothing combo: taking a backseat for the time being. Not without some regret, though..

In lieu of this decision, though, a problem arose. As my dad rightly pointed out in a recent email, I packed for six months of slumming it, with no intention of spending time with India’s elite. Perhaps shortsightedly, there were no evening gowns or sequin cocktail dresses stuffed into my rucksack. Or, as a starting point at least, I had nothing I would deem as a suitable outfit for a normal day in respectable London company – just baggy teeshirts and (dear lord) the now famous ‘pyjamas’.

Which is how I found myself in the centre of Chandigarh’s main shopping plaza few days ago, willingly handing over my credit card in exchange for a pair of dark blue skinny jeans.

Bye-bye hippy, hello respectability.

Chandigarh India jeans Westerner

At least they were cheap.

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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22 Responses to The Other Side of India – or ‘Why I Had to Buy a Pair of Jeans During the Indian Summer’

  1. misscurrynamnam May 7, 2012 at 7:25 am #

    Oh Flora! I love reading your blog, it almost makes me feel like I’m still there with you. Anyway, in my mind, I’m still with you, pakora. Lots of love!

    • misscurrynamnam May 7, 2012 at 7:26 am #

      Misscurrynamnam is code for nerdy.

      • florabaker May 7, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

        Do you know, I actually realised it was you from the pakora comment? Ohh nerdy, you are always here with me – especially every time I eat a pea! And you thought that nickname was a bad idea..

  2. Sonu May 8, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    This is beautiful. India is diverse. To a great a deal, you could narrate the common perception and the ambience of India. Although there is a huge diversity in culture, tradition, customs, festivals, climate etc, you can experience the “staring” of people as if you are from Mars wherever you go in India.

    • florabaker May 9, 2012 at 11:25 am #

      Thanks for your thoughts, Sonu! Luckily, the staring is something you eventually get used to if you spend enough time in this beautiful country.

  3. Shivya May 9, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    I always learn something new from a foreigner’s perspective of India! I always thought foreigners who walk around in those baggy ali baba ‘pyjamas’ (don’t they all?) are hippies to begin with – never imagined it was a transformation upon coming to India. Interesting journey of yours in discovering India. I’m going to stick around & keep reading more, Flora :)

    • florabaker May 9, 2012 at 11:24 am #

      I’d always thought I could never look like an established hippy. Turns out that was the opinion of every Indian who looked at me! Thanks for reading Shivya, I really appreciate it :)

  4. gaurav May 12, 2012 at 4:12 am #

    good to see you are enjoying here in india.. do visit rural Punjab

  5. Gauravdeep Singh Bhangoo May 12, 2012 at 4:13 am #

    good to see you are enjoying here in india.. do visit rural Punjab

    • florabaker May 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

      Thank you! I am definitely planning to head into the villages soon, so I’ll make sure to blog about it on my return :)

  6. Ceri May 14, 2012 at 4:06 am #

    The chicken Maharaja Mac reminds me of The Big Bang Theory – yeah, I’m a geek. 😛

    I faced the same problems as you, hun. Two months of travelling around Southern Mexico and I finally found myself in the capital city, working as a teacher for one of the most famous English language schools in the world. I reluctantly went shopping when I realised that backpacker clothes wasn’t going to cut it at the big bank and law firms I’d be teaching at!

    • florabaker May 14, 2012 at 5:31 am #

      YESS the Big Bang reference!! I now also always think of Raj complaining about how many people there are in India.. :p The jeans situation is definitely an eye opener – I’ve been talking to more people my age here and they all assume that foreigners just wear those kind of clothes back in their own countries too. Apparently nobody really has the complete picture!

  7. Sehaj August 5, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Stumbled upon your blog whilst googling ‘hippie pajamas-order online’ HAHA
    Although, I must say, that there is a very strong hippie culture in Mumbai(incase you havnt been there)..so if you ever want to get back to your bagpacker ways, that is the place to be!
    Great to know that you are exploring the place from a completey different and unbiased point of view! Hope you discover much, Much more! Have fun :-)))

    • florabaker August 8, 2012 at 11:18 am #

      Thanks, Sehaj – gotta love Google search! Yes, I remember seeing a lot of hippies in Mumbai (although I didn’t spend long enough there to really absorb the culture). India has many pockets of them dotted around!

  8. Leslie October 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    Lovely post! I’ve never been to India, but I can relate to the travel clothes packing dilemma. These days I just bring the clothes I wear all the time at home, since that way I’m most comfortable. I’ve stopped buying much local “ethnic” garb, unless it’s a scarf or some jewelry I can imagine wearing with my normal clothes.

    This is my first time reading your blog. I like it! Happy travels to you :)

    • Leslie October 1, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

      And I love the McDonald’s photos. A photo essay and reviews of McDonald’s everywhere would be fascinating. I am personally partial to McDonald’s soft serve ice cream, and I’ve eaten it in most countries I’ve visited. Sometimes the texture is a bit different in different places. I can imagine the company invests a lot in this kind of research.

    • Flora October 5, 2012 at 1:29 am #

      Thanks, Leslie! The clothing issue seemed to haunt me throughout Asia – either I was being too hippy or not enough.. and now I’m in England again I find myself wanting to wear the very same clothes I carried around for six months. Funny how things go!

  9. Ally November 19, 2012 at 6:57 am #

    I was suprised they had mcdonalds. The big macs have chicken in them and their actually quite yummy!

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