From March 23-31, I traveled to India’s Golden Triangle, which includes the cities of New Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra. We traveled to India during one of the country’s largest festivals, Holi. I’ve been putting off this India post for a number of reasons (laziness, for one). The biggest reason is because it’s no small task to condense all my experiences and mixed feelings into a few paragraphs.
Here’s the thing: India has been my number one dream trip since high school. The colorful fashion, delicious food, breathtaking architecture, rich history, and complex culture have attracted me to this country in ways I can’t explain. I did my best to prepare and educate myself for this trip and I had really high expectations. But, the truth is, I didn’t “love” India. I didn’t hate it either. There was an almost even, 50/50 balance of absolute infatuation and abhorrence.
So let’s start with what I loved. Obviously, the food. THE. FOOD. The Rajasthani curry sampler I had in Jaipur ranks among the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. We ate curry everyday—sometimes twice a day—and never tired of it because there were so many different kinds. Also, the British influence is apparent in the variety of breads and cereals available (which I have been deprived of in Japan). Our first breakfast in New Delhi was one big carb fest with muffins, whole grain wheat rolls, glazed pastries, and more. The snacks were also delicious: either really spicy or really sweet. And of course, the vast majority of food was vegetarian, so I never, never had to worry about hunger!
Next, I loved the architecture. The Mogul period architecture was especially nice. We learned a lot about the history of Mogul Emperor Humayun because he built so many beautiful buildings. If I’m ever a king or emperor, I’ll be sure to spend my time and resources building palaces and monuments so that people will remember me. Also, all the wonderful things you’ve heard about the beauty of the Taj Mahal have not been exaggerations. The hype is true and I have no words to describe how beautiful it really was. The iridescent, white marble changes shades with the rising and setting sun, making it simply mesmerizing. Also, it’s really huge.
My favorite places that we visited, aside from the obvious Taj Mahal in Agra, were the Sikh Temple and Old Fort in New Delhi, the Qutab Minar monument outside of Delhi, and the Amer Fort in Jaipur. For the Sikh Temple, we received a personal tour from our rickshaw driver, Raju, who we felt was our Indian papa during our stay in New Delhi. Without him, we wouldn’t have had the wonderful experience that we did. He showed us around the city, ensuring our safety and enjoyment along the way. Raju took us to the Sikh temple (where he himself worships) at meal time. Sikhs are really lovely people and their religion is fascinating. Every day, three times a day, anyone—regardless of religion, cast, or creed—can receive a free meal at the temple. All the food is donated and the preparation is done by volunteers of different backgrounds. After our experience at the temple and with Raju, I will always view Sikhs as kindred spirits and friends. Qutub Minar was another Humayun monument that was stunning, especially in the fading daylight. The Old Fort in Delhi was like going back to the ruins of ancient Rome, complete with amphitheaters, crumbling columns, and a general atmosphere of grandeur. Jaipur was, by far, my favorite place in the Golden Triangle, and I would have liked more time to explore Rajasthan. The Amer Fort is a huge, ornate fort overlooking Jaipur (“the pink city”). I wouldn’t mind living there in the palace grounds….
I also have to mention the sunsets in India. I’ve always wanted to see those long, hazy, rosy sunsets that I’ve seen in Indian films. I was not disappointed. They were just like that! So…Indian. I’ve wondered why that is. Maybe it’s the dust or the pollution. Regardless, the sunsets are spectacular.
I also loved the lovely, warm, helpful, and funny Indian people that we met on our trip. We had a blast shooting the breeze with our friend “Handsome” in his fabric shop. We spoke at length to a bright, enthusiastic teenage girl about her future dreams studying fashion design at university. We had so many people go out of their way to help us get on the right train or in a reliable taxi. We had a great time dancing and playing Holi with our hotel staff in Jaipur. There were also some fascinating fellow tourists with whom we shared a train car or a chat over tea. We enjoyed hearing about their adventures and took notes for our next travels.
With all that said, I have to write about the bad, and it had a lot to do with the people. For all the lovely people we met, there were dozens more that were rude. I had done my research, so I understood that Indian people can be direct, harsh, and unrelenting. That’s a result of their constant fight for survival and prosperity in an incredibly populous country where opportunities are hard to come by. I understand that the people of India are some of the greatest entrepreneurs in the world. They know how to make the best of their situation and if they see an opportunity, they seize it. However, when you, the tourist, are that constant opportunity, it’s hard to appreciate their enterprising spirit.
To beggars, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, restaurant owners, and street hockers, I was simply a white ATM. I expected a bit of harassment (I had been to China, you know) but not like this. You can say, “No” all you want, but they won’t leave you alone. You can walk away, but they’ll follow you. If you’re ever walking down the street in Delhi and a woman asks if you want henna, run away! She will follow you, she will grab your hand and start to paint it, then ask for money. This wasn’t an intermittent occurrence. This happened every 30 seconds, every day, everywhere. I eventually realized that the only way to avoid being harassed was to ignore people. Don’t look at them and don’t acknowledge their presence, even if they are right in front of you. You have to treat human beings like apparitions that you can’t see. While I’m really good at this skill (just ask my ex-boyfriends about my mastery of the “silent treatment,” haha!), it’s not how I like to treat people and it’s not the way I intended to spend my vacation. Also, everyone wanted to take pictures with us. Not just one, but several pictures with different friends in different poses. The men insisted that you put your arm around them so they could have a picture with a real Western woman. Again, I had experienced this in China, but not to this extent. It was constant and invasive. I eventually refused everyone’s photo-op whether it was a nice family or a creepy guy. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I won’t even begin to elaborate on the “skin tax” placed (blatantly) on foreigners. All prices are increased, sometimes 10x, for foreigners. I think it’s a shame that foreigners like myself, who pay a very high premium in visa fees, plane tickets, and vaccinations just for the privilege of visiting India are treated so poorly.
Then there’s the sexism. I’ve never, never experienced sexism like this before. After the well-known New Delhi bus rape tragedy, my friend and I were incredibly cautious and didn’t take any chances. Still, we were groped in the street during the Holi festival, we were leered at constantly, and men loved making catcalls at us. Women had to pay to use the toilet. Men did not. Women had to go through a special thorough search line at the airport. Men did not. Sometimes men were just blatantly rude to us because we were women. At the airport, I got so angry at the rude, male currency exchange attendant that I threw his pen back at him after the transaction was complete, then went “all redneck” up in the airport. Typical, “Come to my country, son! I’ll show you some good ole boys that will whoop you for treating a lady that way! Etc. Etc….”
Then there’s the corruption. The corruption at all levels of government in India is widely known. Experiencing it firsthand really made me appreciate the law and order that I experience in both the U.S. and Japan. The corruption, I feel, is the key reason that India is struggling to become a developed country. Bribes are all too common. Say you’re breaking the law by stealing electricity to power your house. A police officer or city official will tell you to either cut the power, or pay them monthly bribe money to ignore the problem. Many ordinary citizens are indebted to those who should be protecting them, and until that changes, no real progress towards civil peace can be achieved.
I envision returning home to the U.S. and confronting my Republican family and friends who hate “big government” with the phrase, “Let me tell you about India….” The truth is, people need a government to help them. When people are left to govern themselves, chaos ensues. There’s no clean water to drink, no housing codes, no traffic rules, no one to pick up litter, and no way to ensure safety without a good government. Granted, the U.S. government has plenty of its own corruption (power and money do that), but my country does ensure that my basic human needs are met and more.
An aside: During my trip, I found myself comparing China and India quite a lot because they are both up-and-coming superpowers. They are also the only developing countries that I have visited so far. If I had to choose which country will be the next superpower, I’d definitely choose China. China has its fair share of chaos, but it’s nothing like India. China is working hard to get its act together. It is struggling to bring its country to the level of other world superpowers by using modern business practices. The people of China are demanding a better life and more freedom day by day. India, however, is still doing most things the Indian way (every man for himself), which does not work on the world stage. Many of the people in India are not fighting very hard for better living conditions for fear that the cost of living will go up. Generally speaking, I think China sees the big picture whereas India can only see itself. This is not entirely India’s fault. Britain did just divide the country and abandon it not too long ago.
Back to my trip, I enjoyed India as much as I could under the above circumstances. But I admit, by the sixth day or so, I was fed up. I had to take some breaks to collect myself so that I didn’t go crazy or start shouting at people. The constant hounding and bullying from the local people left me feeling very drained—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I felt they were constantly wanting something–taking, taking, taking–and it drained my spirit and energy. (This is ironic to me since India, being the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, is such a mecca for peace and spiritual enlightenment.) Again, I understand the reasons WHY India is this way, but I’m just not iron-hearted enough to handle it myself. I really empathize with the people living there and their daily fight to survive and thrive. I hope that in the coming years, their fight becomes an easier one. I’d like to go back to India in a different context. I’d like to experience the mountains and deserts, tiny villages, and places of spiritual cleansing the next time around. I know I only saw a tiny part of the country, so I will not yet judge it’s whole based on my experiences.
India is not for the faint of heart, and if you’re planning a trip there, all I can say is: brace yourself. You’ll never feel more conflicted than in this conflicted, complicated, beautiful country.
If you’re interested in learning more about India…
Here’s a link to a great 3-part documentary that I watched before my trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpdoRUMeshw
…and another great documentary about the history of the India/Pakistan partition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amnevwW0MJo