Former Traveler research apprentice Stephanie Robichaux is in Mumbai, India, on a research fellowship, looking into how the Internet is used to arrange marriages. We caught up with her to see how her project is going, learn about her favorite spots and eats in India, get some India travel tips, and discover how working at a travel magazine has affected her as a traveler.
What are you doing in India? And how long have you been there?
I have been in India for about six months as a research fellow through the George Washington University. I came here to study the role of the Internet in arranging marriages, particularly the process of using an online marriage site to find a spouse.
How has your experience been so far? Highs/lows?
I feel like the last six months has been a series of highs and lows. My first two months here were really tough. Adjusting to a city like Mumbai is quite difficult and being a control freak, I really struggled. There is a huge expat community in Mumbai, though, and I have met so many wonderful people who helped me through the transition.
There have definitely been some highs and lows regarding the research. Although millions and millions of Indians use these marriage sites, many of them don’t like to admit it, so it has been very difficult finding people willing to share their experiences with me. Those who have, though, have been very open and provided me a lot of insight into attitudes surrounding marriage in India.
More from Stephanie about Mumbai after the jump.
One of the first weekend getaways from Mumbai I took was to Nasik, India’s wine country. The vineyards are located in the hills overlooking a lake, and it’s so peaceful and beautiful. There is no smog and no honking rickshaws out there. Just a four-hour train ride away from Mumbai and I felt like I was in a different country altogether.
Also, I have to say, the Taj Mahal is just breathtaking. No photo will ever do it justice. It is one of the only places that has exceeded my expectations on this trip.
Finally, I think Udaipur
is lovely; I have been there twice as well. The main tourist bazaar area is a bit nuts. The streets are narrow and there are rickshaws and cows competing for space and hawkers are trying to lure you into their shops, but all you have to do is plop yourself on one of the hotels
rooftop restaurants, and you’ve escaped. I could just sit on a rooftop in Udaipur and take in the view for hours, especially at sunset. And, I have to say, if you like silver jewelry, it’s the place to shop!
How has your one-year stint a researcher at Traveler prepared you (or, maybe, done you a disservice) now that you’re actually out there in the world, traveling?
Love this question. That year as a researcher really has been a blessing. I mean, I think I’ve learned to be more resourceful and to not trust information from the first person I ask. I know it’s just better to pick up the phone and call a place to ask for information than to spend an hour sifting through several websites. I also remember one of our Golden Rules of not using travel guidebooks to verify information. As I mention in several of my blog posts, I have been misled by guidebooks on this trip, and I really should not have been so surprised!
Because you have the unique perspective having worked at a travel magazine and having traveled frequently now and during your college years, what travel tips do you have for regular folks who don’t breathe travel 24/7 but want to plan a trip?
Read TripAdvisor.com for hotel reviews. Do not trust guidebook recommendations, especially if you’re traveling in developing countries.
It’s important to keep in mind that guidebook authors don’t stay in all of the places they recommend; better to trust reviews from people who have. Also, learn a few key phrases in the local language. Before coming to India, everyone told me, “Oh, everyone speaks English. It won’t be a big deal.” Um, not-so-true. Most rickshaw drivers know very limited English. After being taken to the wrong places several times, I learned enough Hindi to be able to give directions and to say, “I don’t want that” and “leave me alone,” when it comes to dealing with hawkers.
Finally, respect the culture. Maybe this is sort of a given, but I still see foreign women walking around India in shorts and spaghetti-strap shirts. Yes, it’s hot here, but showing legs and shoulders in India is not appropriate. I think respecting simple things like dress code and etiquette goes a long way in establishing a good rapport with locals.
How has your view of travel changed due to your time in India?
I remember when I first visited India during Semester at Sea in 2007, I just fell in love with it. I was obsessed with the food, the colors, the hustle and bustle, everything that I encountered in the week I was here.
And, I told myself, “I will go back and live there one day.” And, now I’m doing just that and I’ve realized that traveling in a foreign country and living in a foreign country are two different ballgames. I think travel allows you to absorb the things about a place that you love and not dwell on the things that you don’t, because you know you won’t be there for a long time. Traveling does not prepare you to live in a foreign country. I do think that traveling, especially to developing countries and places different from your home country, is so important. You can’t learn about the world through books alone, and you won’t learn about yourself until you step out of your comfort zone.
One last question. Your blog, Eat Sweat Diarrhea, subtitled “Mumbai: From the Delicious to the Downright Dirty” brings up food. What’ve been some of the best dishes you’ve tried while in India?
We may need a separate post for this one. You are asking someone who lives to eat. Aloo tikki is my favorite
street food. It’s a fried potato patty with sweet and spicy chutneys thrown on top along with some chopped onions and radishes. I have yet to find it in Mumbai, but in North India, not a problem. Also, the sweet potatoes here…I could write a whole blog post about them. They are white on the inside and are a bit sweeter than the ones in the U.S. You will find street vendors roasting them over hot coals. Then they chop up the potato, sprinkle some lime juice and dry masala powder, and it’s just…to die for. Also, dal makhani. My favorite Indian dish. Generally, the dish consists of black lentils and kidney beans simmered for hours in butter (or cream) and spices. I mean, really, it’s simmered in butter, how can you go wrong? But, on my last trip to Udaipur, my friend and I ate at
Panorama Guesthouse, and their dal makhani was made with white lentils/beans. I don’t know what else was in there, but it was, hands down, the BEST dal makhani I have had in India. I had to refrain from licking the pot.
Want more India? Check out one of National Geographic’s many India photo galleries: Passages Through India, Faces of India, and Indian Weddings. Also, don’t forget to visit Stephanie’s blog, Eat, Sweat Diarrhea.
Photos: Stephanie at Lake Palace and Stephanie, post-Holi. Courtesy of Stephanie Robichaux.