Intoxicating, Infuriating, Inimical, Inimitable India

India holds well-earned legendary status among the world’s travelers.  It is an extraordinary place, but I am now going to commence a little public venting and a small call to action.  Nearly everything I have posted so far covers the details of our experience in each location and attempts to offer helpful information should you visit.  I want to write a little about our more personal experience and what life on the road has been like, at least in India.  I feel guilty complaining about anything when I know many think I am living a dream.  But since I am not yet a famous blogger with hordes of followers, there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this it’s because you know and care about me.  And thus you probably want to know how I’m really doing.  Which is: very well, but a little beaten down by this country!  So then I guess this post will be partly about India and partly about our life on the road…and I feel some run-on sentences coming.

There really is no place like India.  I heard that for so many years and always questioned the hype, but having now visited twice and spent a cumulative 25+ days here, I can opine with at least some degree of authority.

Some say India is more a continent than a country.  The diversity of landscapes may have peers, but I don’t think the energy and intensity do.  Or maybe there is a peer for India on a number of elements, but it’s the combination of all that is present in India that sets it so far apart.

For all its glory, India can be a truly maddening place.  I find myself thinking often about the distinction between an experience you are glad to have had and an experience that you actually enjoy.  My preliminary conclusion for this trip to India (and we still have four nights in Varanasi) is that it has been filled with specific experiences I have actually enjoyed, but the overall experience is one I will be glad to have had.

Let me be clear about a couple key points that might distinguish my current trip with one you may take.  First and foremost is budget and independence.  We have stayed in a few places for $20-30/night and only our hotel in Mumbai reached triple digits.  When we visited for our honeymoon, we had a private guide and driver and stayed in 5-star properties.  This was a very different experience.  Another extremely important point is that you will probably visit India on a stand alone vacation, which is an entirely different animal because you focus only on enjoying your brief time here.

We, on the other hand, are blogging, planning the next parts of our trip and dealing with the vagaries of life.  Like when you can’t keep your old insurance plan due to the Affordable Care Act and log on to find your premium has nearly doubled and you have no way of paying it without making a phone call to the US.  Which isn’t perfectly easy due to time changes, WiFi that works a small percentage of the time and SIM cards that apparently are roaming in every state other than where you bought them.  And you can’t just walk into a store and buy a new SIM card because you have to fill out forms and submit passport and visa copies then wait several hours or more.  And the higher roaming rates actually matter when you figure you’ll sit on hold for an hour trying to speak with someone at the insurance company.

So while “down time” in a country where it’s most needed should be filled with relaxation, for us it’s often filled with stress and frustration that nothing works as it should and WiFi cuts in and out.  In fact, just getting anything done is harder and takes more time.  Last week I had to add a “payee” to my online bank account, but I can’t receive a call or text on my US mobile which is how they always validate the action.  So that leads to an online chat session (which sometimes gets disconnected) and takes half an hour.  Most of this isn’t that big a deal on its own, but when over and over there are obstructions to accomplishing simple tasks, it becomes frustrating.  And at times infuriating.

Which leads me to a theme: it is hard for someone who usually feels very capable and in control to feel helpless.  When you can’t really communicate due to the language barrier and your taxi stops at Mumbai’s international airport and then you find out you’re at the wrong place but nobody is really sure and your taxi already left and the taxis and rickshaws pulling up refuse to turn on the meter and want to charge us the same amount to drive 15 minutes to the domestic “airport” as we paid for the hour+ drive from our hotel to the airport…then you finally get in a rickshaw with two backpacks and rolling duffels hoping your knee doesn’t stick out the side since there is zero margin for error and that driver doesn’t really know where he’s going and then the security guards at the domestic airport ask for tickets but we don’t have a printer so I only have e-tickets and then he takes my iPhone and walks away with it and tries to tell our driver that we actually are supposed to be at the international airport but fortunately our driver doesn’t go there and drops us at what eventually turns out to be the right place…and then it becomes clear that what they call two “airports” we would call two “terminals”, albeit really far apart, which explains some of the confusion I had when using airport codes to look into this before…anyway, while all that is happening you wonder if you’re going to make your flight and you can’t communicate and you feel helpless.  It kind of sucks.

Then there is the whole “just part of the experience” topic.  This tagline should be applied often, but I think it also can be overused to justify dishonest behavior that should be frowned upon and not tolerated.  I would say that the power going out when you’re in the middle of doing something is part of the experience.  Or having touts call to you when you walk past their storefront.  Or getting quoted obviously inflated prices constantly because you’re a tourist.  There is a market, and either someone will provide it cheaper or I don’t really need it, or I have to pay the market price at that time.  Fine, I get it.  That doesn’t mean I enjoy it, but I can accept it.

But I draw the line at blatant dishonesty and behavior that is simply rude.  Explaining this away as part of the culture or the experience perpetuates activities that do not help a country, tourism industry or culture in the long run.  It’s acceptable for a driver to take me to a restaurant that pays him a commission if I can’t specifically request a different restaurant of my choosing.  But it’s not OK to obviously collude with the restaurant to charge me more than what the menu says and bring me things I didn’t ask for, then use the language barrier to bullshit your way through why the bill is correct (which for the record happened in Sri Lanka, not India).  It’s not OK to grab me as I walk by, or to cut off my wife to better position yourself to continue to harass me.  And it’s not OK when I pay for transport to a sight for you to take me to a parking area with scamming guides who share commission with you instead of just taking me to the right place.

This behavior should be condemned, and frankly when fellow countrymen see it happening they should intervene.  I would like to think if I were in the US and heard somebody trying to scam a traveler that I would help them, either immediately or at least right after if I were concerned about the confrontation.  But in India this behavior seems so ingrained and such a part of the culture that the assistance almost never happens.  Obviously I don’t mean this is the case for Indians as a whole, but those in and around the tourism industry certainly seem to abide by it.

I keep thinking, as well, about the broken windows theory that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point.  It’s been a while since I read it, but I believe he talks about William Bratton implementing this criminological philosophy as police commissioner in New York.  If you don’t know it you can read all about it elsewhere, but the basic concept is that removing the petty crime and indicia of lawlessness or vandalism etc. ends up having a major impact on reducing overall crime and improving well-being.

I understand how difficult it will be to implement this in India for countless reasons.  But the way you see people litter with such little apparent regard for its impact is sad.  And a thousand other things that might contribute to better quality of life.

India is endowed with truly phenomenal assets.  It has natural beauty and history that few countries can compare with.  The food is great.  The culture and accessibility and breadth of religions I believe are incomparable.  The US has religious diversity, but it’s not as though you witness it on a daily basis or feel like it’s a prominent part of your experience unless you make it so for yourself.  Here you see Jain and Hindu and other temples and mosques and constant prayers and processions and festivals.

Of course India is exceedingly diverse, so as I wrote in earlier posts the south was much more mellow and relaxing than the rest of our trip has been.  If I write that India is like life on speed, clearly it only seems that way in some areas.  Not on the backwaters, in fact just the opposite.  Not in Munnar, and probably not in many other areas.

India is often described as an assault on the senses, and I fully agree.  Jenni summarizes it nicely in her Madurai post: “sights (colors, people, animals, things everywhere), sounds (essentially continuous honking along with the myriad of other city noises you hear), smells (yeah, lots of those… by the time you realize you smell sweet flowers and think to inhale deeply, it’s been replaced by some other foul smell and you regret taking that deep breath), touch (lots of people and stuff, not so much space), and tastes (obviously you know by now from reading my blog that I love me some paratha, and India has a hell of a lot to offer in the culinary department).”

I’ve been baffled by the “market” and thought process of some of the drivers and others with whom we interact.  It seems hard to find the middle ground between a total rip-off and full fairness.  I expected negotiation to be more effective.  Like in the Mumbai airport example above, when the driver quotes Rs 350 and I counter at Rs 100, that ends it.  The guy who ends up taking us got paid Rs 75.  Is the first driver so confident that another tourist he can hoodwink will come by in the next 30 minutes that it’s not even worth it for him to take me for Rs 200?  It is a personality trait of mine that I get hugely upset at things that make no sense to me.  India is not gentle on my head that way.

It has distressed me that I’ve adjusted my habits in a way I didn’t aspire to.  I am so tired of the misleading info and touts that I sometimes refrain from asking a question, even if it might lead to interesting conversation or enhanced knowledge.  I do this because often I don’t trust the response any more, and because I strongly suspect it will just lead to a sales-push or other self-serving answer.  Me: What are your favorite places to go?  Him: Yes I can take you there what time should I pick you up do you have a pen so I can give you my number is that your friend or your wife…

Our honeymoon was fantastic, though at times I felt like I was missing out on the “real India” experience while we were cocooned in a fancy hotel and always accompanied by a guide.  On this trip I wish we had a bit more of that!  Perhaps the appealing middle ground to me would be staying at some nicer hotels (even if not top of the line and/or not every night), more assistance with the transport and some guided days, while still allowing some time for exploration and the sensation of uncertainty and wonder that is intoxicating in moderate doses but exhausting in excess.

Some assert that the more high-end trip is always better.  Others argue the point of travel is to immerse yourself in the culture and live like the majority of locals do, and that high-end travel can be antithetical to these goals.  There is no right answer.  And I think the relative merits and enhanced comfort that comes with spending more varies depending on location.  But after the amount and degree of frustration we’ve experienced so far in India (which I’ve obviously covered only a fraction of in detail), if you can afford it then I’d opt for more luxury and comfort!  And I don’t recall thinking this mattered much in Thailand or Cambodia, for example.  I’m eager to see how I feel about the budget/luxury/independent/guided balance in Thailand, Laos and elsewhere.

So, there, I said it.  I have prided myself always on my ability to adapt and my comfort with traveling.  It is hard to admit it has been challenging, but that’s the truth.  I am tired of nothing ever working right and constant harassment.  I am excited for Varanasi, and I fully expect to return to India many more times.  Just hopefully with some combo of a bigger budget, (more) local friends or an acceptance that I won’t try to complete any tasks like blog posts or bill paying.  Right now, I am so ready for 8 nights on the beaches of Thailand!

4 thoughts on “Intoxicating, Infuriating, Inimical, Inimitable India”

    1. thanks, Bob! by the way, if we can sort out our visa issues on the road, we will meet my Dad and Linda in Central Asia in the spring…and I owe that inspiration to you.

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