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As many of you know I just got back from almost a month in the Olde Country – India. It was a big and fascinating trip – and there was a lot I liked about it & honestly some big things I *really* didn’t like about it. There was both much fun and much not fun. Some of that had to do with India & some of that had to do with the fact that I was LARGELY BY MYSELF FOR AN ENTIRE MONTH. If you ever want to drive a hyper-gregarious, hyper-talkative person suicidal, send them to a large, fascinating & difficult country by themselves in the non-tourist season FOR A MONTH. Sit back & watch the fun! Anyway, it has been a week since I got back & now that my super-powers are returning, it is time to write up my impressions…
Before I get into what I liked & disliked about India it is important to understand that the key part of any trip is having resilience, curiosity and a good attitude. Normally these qualities are a strong suit of mine. But this trip, “curiosity” was the only one I could consistently muster. A variety of things combined to cause the others to come & go. As I said, the biggest factor by far was that I only had people to really talk to for maybe 4-5 days combined out of my 3.5 weeks in India: NOT GOOD FOR OUR HERO.* So I guess that means maybe if the circumstances of my trip were different my impressions would skew differently…
But that all being said, what follows are my impressions of India such as they are, for better & for worse. Here is the quick list for those of you skimming – feel free to click on just the items that seem interesting. (damn this is a long post! Did I mention I had no one to talk to for a month?)
- Transaction as Argument
- Constant Honking
- Indians Trashing India
- Cheating Strangers Is To Be Expected
I should also state up front that I’m more curious and more demanding of India than I would be of many other places for a variety reasons. Obviously, being my genetic homeland, I’m going to be pretty curious, but also there are many people in my life (my immediate family for starters, but others as well) who expect that I SHOULD have a strong connection to India: “India is your home!” or “You just don’t understand that you ARE Indian” etc etc. This all leads to a closer scrutiny on my part.
Anyway, without further ado, lets get to the superficial impressions that I will attempt to pass off as facts. (hey look! “hubris” – I AM returning to normal!)
Things I Liked:
Let’s start with the things I liked:
Food: shockingly India is a fantastic place to get Indian food 🙂 Despite strong prohibitions from my mother against eating anything on my trip (and for that matter against touching, speaking to, looking at, thinking about, seeing, or doing anything), I tried to sample anything that looked reasonably clean or reasonably cooked. And having done so I can definitely say: Things were yummy. I didn’t eat a lot of stuff I wanted to because it involved “tap” water, or was cooked in sketchy looking circumstances, but I ate a lot of things nonetheless & tried not to just eat northern Indian food (which is what I’m used to). It turns out that even though a lot of Southern Indian food is not in my preferred-Indian-food-taste-palate, it is pretty yummy… And just so you know, I never really got sick.
Music: Indians love music. And they like it loud and often 🙂 Luckily a lot of it is really good. There were various moments where you’d be surprised to hear it. Like late at night in rural Kerala, sitting on a house boat in a sprawling series of vast lake channels lined with villages, suddenly a village loudspeaker system in the distance would start blaring out Hindi movie songs against a peaceful, animal-chirping star-blazing quiet night. And surprisingly, it kinda worked.
Also, I spent numerous nights in hotel rooms late at night watching MTVIndia – which is really just Bollywood movie clips. Like most pop art, a lot of it is horrible trash, but enough are good enough to make it worthwhile & most are pretty entertaining in any case. Like I said in a previous post, there is something about a good Bollywood musical number that gets “joy” right.
Interestingly, I didn’t like the southern Indian music and movie clips (“Kollywood” & “Tollywood” for Karnataka & Tamil Nadu’s film industries) as much as the Bollywood ones.
Assimilation Skill: India is a fascinating cultural assimilator & seems to do it in a different way than the US. At their best, they have a long history of layering cultural influences on top of each other, whether they be Mughal (Muslim), British, or now American (as distinct from generic Western). Here in the US, we are much more likely to fuse things, or melt them together (as much as the melting-pot is sometimes a myth). In India, they seem to be more layered, or even used a la carte as the most appropriate influence to handle a given realm. When this works well – which seems often – the mixes are really cool. This comes through a lot in the music. That being said, there are many times when it doesn’t work out well – where it comes out as empty aping of styles and idioms that they don’t quite understand (this happens a lot in the music too and men’s clothing :-)). But time and time again I was struck by how many cultures were getting integrated at once & how often something worthwhile and very appropriate was being produced. And many times, I was struck by the notion that the thing I was interacting with at that moment, though I thought of it as quite Indian, was also a “grafted on” influence: Mughal food, British infrastructure, American technology, etc etc.
History By the Ton: As an American, 50 years is a historically significant scale, but India on the other hand is crazy-old 🙂 This is not a particularly profound or new realization, but India is so thoroughly old, that things that would be vastly historically significant here, are matter of course there. A good example was a day I was in Kerala & we stopped our house boat alongside some tiny village & there was a tiny path-side temple with a smallish (4-5 ft) & not-particularly-impressive Shiva idol in it. My boat driver explained that it was very old. I figured it was a hundred years old or two – OK – as old as the US – pretty old. After he left, I walked around & found a sign from the Indian Archeological Survey. Nope, this idol, which was basically just sitting by the side of a path, was 2000 years old. To casually display something that old means you have lots of history to go around.
In addition to enjoying the sense of history, particular historical things were pretty amazing. The Ajanta and Ellora caves & the sustained generational burst of creativity and engineering they represent were astounding & a real highlight of my trip, and the Five Rathas in Mamallapuram were pretty amazing as well.
Wildlife!: the peak of any of my excursions seem to always involve wildlife & India did not disappoint. I didn’t get to see a tiger (which was a goal) but quality time with Indian elephants (you just want to HUG them) & seeing a leopard in the wild made up for it. Also Indian Bison are crazy cool (who knew a ruminant could be so impressive?!) so I really really enjoyed my time in the national parks. (Also my time in the national park area was where I met the most cool and interesting people at the wonderful lodge I stayed at.)
Cultural mannerisms: There are a whole bunch of Indian cultural mannerisms that I just love: from the hand gestures, to the rhyming, to the head-shaking to mean “yes”, to the COLOR of women’s clothing, there is just a lot to like.
Mumbai (Bombay): For an avowed urbanist, India’s cities often were pretty grim and harsh. That being said, I extended my trip a few days to see Mumbai & I was really glad I did. This was the first city in India that really seemed to have that humanistic hum to compensate for the downsides of third world urbanism. I wish I had a chance to check out the dancing but I finally did get a brief flu-like thing the last weekend (or maybe it was just heat stroke).
Things I DID NOT Like:
Ok here comes the downers. I really want to stress that I’m not trying to disparage a culture that I really don’t understand very well, but rather just point out things that I found at best annoying & at worst pretty difficult to handle. I’d love anyone to chime in and offer explanations or nuances I was missing. Anyway, here goes, we’ll start with two annoying ones & then the two big ones:
Transaction as Argument: I realize that, in many cultures, things are expected to be bargained for. I’m not great at it & don’t really enjoy it, but I’m fine with it. However, I got the sense that in India, transactions are often not just bargaining, but rather arguments that involve some level of frustration on the part of one party or the other. And I have to say, in many cases the frustration seemed real rather than feigned. Couple that with the fact that many seemingly simple transactions (getting tickets, getting a cell phone, etc) involved a great deal of bureaucracy along with the frustration and the result was a lot of unpleasant business transactions.
Constant Honking: India is an assault on all five senses, and while that is often fascinating, for my ears it never was. In India, car horns are used to signal presence and intent in the chaos of the streetscape & thus blowing your horn is an integral part of driving. The consequences are that to be in an Indian city, or anywhere near a road was to be CONSTANTLY BLASTED by car horns. All. The. Time. At every volume level, and constantly, from 5-6 am to after midnight. While curious and “just different” for a week or so, after a month it was maddening.
- Indians Trashing India:
This was one of the biggest things that really really got to me while I was there. The country is trashed. And getting more so by the second & what is worse is that the average Indian doesn’t seem to care. In every possible setting (village, city, national park), at any time you could someone tossing a plastic bottle, or a plastic wrapper or any piece of trash on the ground. Anywhere, everywhere, all the time. As annoying as that sounds, you have to understand that in most of the places, the ground was already strewn with lots and lots of trash – much of it plastic that isn’t going anywhere for a few hundred years.
At its best, a cleanish city street looked like Mission Street at its worst. At its worst, there were areas of towns and villages that looked like dumps but weren’t, they were just city streets, or empty lots, or government-sponsored tourist centers (I kid you not).
What is really troubling about this is that it doesn’t seem to REALLY bother anyone. They are going to be living with each piece of that plastic for 200 years and no one cares. Most Indians just litter as a matter of course. And even those I met who seemed to notice the problem, didn’t seem particularly outraged or angry, just casually unimpressed (One notable exception was a really cool animal welfare activist who seemed to be trying to do something – but she was the only one I met who seemed passionate about it) This lack of concern just left me agog & feeling incredibly isolated. It was very hard to think of what I had in common with the place I was seeing every day when I was so angry about the trash and seemed to be the only one.
Like I said in an earlier post, my guess is that a generation ago, all of an Indian’s trash was biodegradable & since the climate is VERY good at biodegrading things, tossing it on the ground actually made good sense. Unfortunately, those habits coupled with India’s newly gained first-world plastic production have become a disaster. (I have seen similar habits in other developing nations, but none of them had the NEARLY the problems India has – probably because they lack India’s relatively recent production capacity.)
Cheating Strangers Is To Be Expected: Ok, this is a huge and perhaps horrible generalization. It is also perhaps a vast misunderstanding of a very different and potentially equally valuable set of cultural norms. I hope to hell I’m wrong about this – maybe one of you Indians who reads this can set me straight or explain my misinterpretation. But this is what things seemed like to me & it was the biggest problem I had with India. I asked a couple of Indians about this as delicately as possible, but never felt I got a real handle on what was going on.
In a nutshell, it seems that in India, it is completely OK to cheat or swindle anyone you don’t know personally. It isn’t an outrage, it is to be expected. There doesn’t seem to be much of a sense of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This really sucks.
It started when I got off the plane & the guy changing my money casually cheated me out of a meaninglessly TINY number of rupees & when I demanded a receipt to show that his calculations didn’t match what he was giving me, he explained that it would take 30 minutes to get a receipt. I left, since it wasn’t worth the time, but it did lodge in my mind. I quickly learned that this type of behavior was what I should expect & I was supposed to always be on the watch for it. My relatives explained that you had to constantly check every receipt & and my guide book insisted that I should always negotiate fares & the like before I got in any cab.
It should be noted that this wasn’t just because I was a tourist: it seemed that in India, it is completely OK to take advantage of anyone not in your social network. Of course, in the U.S. people get cheated & swindled too, but it isn’t expected to be every transaction, or most of the time. In general, here there is a sense that when you are being treated unfairly, it is the exception rather than the rule. In India, it seems the other way around. Maybe this was just my perception & maybe it was skewed by the constant warnings from my relatives and Mom, but I don’t think so.
I was very curious about this & really hoped it wasn’t true, but I think it might be. There were certainly examples of people going out of their way to be fair & nice (a mango seller I overpayed, chased me across the market to return a small but significant number of rupees (which made my day)), but the general sense was of course I was going to get swindled.
I began to get hints that it was culturally deeper:
- There was a tour guide who explained a story about the god Shiva cheating in a dance competition & he ended with “thus cheating itself is part of the religion.”
- I read “Thug: The True Story of India’s Murderous Cult”, a fantastic book about the extinct hereditary strangler cults known as Thuggee who roamed far and wide strangling & robbing their victims after befriending them while traveling. The stunning thing was that in their home villages they were respected & valued members of society even though everyone knew what they did. They were robbing and murdering strangers so it was OK.
Obviously this is all a VERY superficial understanding of a very VAST culture with MANY MANY subcultures, but nonetheless it really suggests something difficult for me to accept.
So that was my trip to India. Like all good trips, I’m not quite the same person who left & some interesting questions have been answered and a few more have been created. I really want to say thanks to all the fine folks I met along the way & my relatives for all their patient assistance. I’m very happy to be home and surrounded by my people even if it is
June January Junuary! (or Jucember?) here in SF (brrr!)
* The obvious question is how did I manage to be alone in a country with 1 billion people stuffed into a landmass only a third as large as the U.S.? Well:
- There weren’t a lot of Western tourists – it was the HOT season. Sane people go in the cooler season. I went when I had time 🙂
- I couldn’t really talk to a lot of the Indians: a large part was language barriers, but some part was me (next bullet), and some was the “cheat a stranger” stuff described in the “things I didn’t like” section. Since I was traveling by myself, and thus mostly talking to people I was paying for services from (like drivers, merchants & hotel staff), I ended up only rarely feeling like I could trust them & thus rarely felt like opening up to them.
- I need to be better at meeting folks when I’m in situations where I don’t think I have much in common with people around me… I know that is going to sound weird to all of you who know me as very extroverted and very amiable and gregarious – but there it is – there is much more to this than I have time or space to go into in this post…
When I could find folks to talk to, it was great and interesting. Some of the guides, & a driver of mine, all the wonderful staff and guests at the Jungle Retreat, and the travelers I talked with made all the difference. Also, when I was in situations where money wasn’t involved, I found folks to be super helpful, cheerful and very curious about me (the strange quasi-Indian). Thus in hindsight, if I had been traveling slower (& taking more trains and buses, rather than cars & planes) I would have probably had more interesting interactions with people (and less carbon emissions). Even though I would have seen less, it would have been a better trip…. Next time!