After nearly two months in India we are getting ready to say good-bye and move on to our next destination — Thailand. I haven’t been nearly as productive as I thought I would be in terms of blogging, which only means that Lori and I have been busy traveling — which is afterall sort of the objective of all of this, isn’t it?
I must confess that there’s a deep part of me though that would like the blogging to just happen on its own; that would like it if my thoughts somehow magically translated to posts without me having to take any time away from seeing sights, relaxing, or in the case of this past weekend, visiting with friends from the U.S.
A huge disadvantage of being perpetually behind on blogging is that by the time I get to posting for a particular location it might be a month or even two late. This is especially interesting when writing a China-based blog while in India. One solution I’ve found is that I’ve started to post out of order — some Indian posts mixed in with China (and soon interspersed with dispatches from Thailand). Looking over our India posts, I’ve noticed that there is a negative skew and I do apologize for that. I don’t apologize for the posts — I try to be as honest and fair as possible, and I must admit that one of the bonuses of bad experiences is that they often make good stories. What I regret is not having the time to post the good stuff in a timely manner as well — and there’s been lots of it. My hope is that will begin to iron itself out in the weeks to come.
Regarding India… let me just say that we are but short-term visitors in this vast, complex and diverse country — two observers who bring their own biases and experiences in tow, through which their travels are processed and related. This is our experience and only our experience. Your mileage will certainly vary. We speak from the vantage point of not only having backpacked on $20/day/person for two months in India, but having spent much of our professional and personal lives studying and working in developing countries with poor and underserved populations, as well as traveling extensively throughout the developing world. We didn’t specifically come to India seeking enlightenment or to find ourselves (though a serendipitous nudge in the direction of either is always welcome). We had few illusions of what we would encounter here, but arrived with a sincere hope that, like many places in which we’ve lived and traveled, we’d come to love the culture.
What became glaringly obvious a few weeks into our trip, however, is India is just as diverse as any other place on Earth, if not more so, rendering such statements as “I love [or hate] Indian culture, music, food, etc.” completely and utterly ridiculous. The same can absolutely be said for China and the U.S. Yet I suppose it’s only human to want to compartmentalize. We Americans are as guilty of this as much as anyone. What does it mean to be American? What food do you eat? What music do you listen to? Do you live in the mountains or the desert or the plains? What do you look like? Yes, America is a melting pot, yes we are a nation of immigrants, but are we so arrogant to believe that we are alone in this respect?
China and certainly India are by no means homogenous nations, yet somehow in the West, our culture colors these places as such. An Indian person is a Hindi who wears a turban or saree, has a dot on his/her forehead, talks in an endearing sing-song style and eats tikka masala every meal, right? S/he couldn’t possibly be black or white or Christian, or Muslim right? It might surprise you to know, given India’s history, that 11% of the world’s Muslims live in India (180 million, in fact). It might surprise you even more if I told you that that equates to more Muslims than the entire population of Pakistan!!! India’s also got 40 million Christians — roughly the population of all of Argentina. India’s an incredibly poor country too, right? Well, according to the World Bank numbers for 2011, India’s got the 10th highest GDP in the world. Who’s #11?: Canada. YET, 20% of India’s population lives on less than Rs.550 per month. That’s $10 USD — not per day, per MONTH. We hear about individuals living on $1/day, how about $0.33 per day? Surprised? We were.
Have we enjoyed our time in India? Most definitely. Do we like Indians? Well, as with all people, there have been some we found to be quite lovely individuals and others who we hope we never see again. Did we like the food? Yes, we took quite a liking to Rajasthani and Keralan cuisine, non-veg tandori thalis, certain curries, parathas, dosas and other tasty treats. We found people to be the friendliest in the states of Rajasthan and Kerala and least friendliest in urban tourist centers in the North. We enjoyed the Himalayan scenery, cultural influence and cool temperatures in Darjeeling, the rich desert heritage and end-of-the-world aura of Jaisalmer and the far West. We found Kerala’s backwaters and beaches to be stunning, the people genuine and down-to-earth. And of course, India harbors some of the most beautiful cultural monuments and heritage sights we’ve ever seen, such as the Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar, and Mehrangarh.
We made our way around this huge country mostly by train (AC3, Sleeper and Unreserved class), buses, ferries, auto-rickshaws and a few overpriced taxis. We saved a heck of a lot of money taking local transport and, in retrospect, wouldn’t change any of that. We found overnight trains to be quite comfortable and Indians to be far more respectful and tidier than their Chinese counterparts on similar trains in China, but again, that was our experience. We found India to be devoid of hostels for foreign travelers and as a result ended up spending the majority of our nights in budget guest houses, which turned out to suit us fine. There is a tremendous range in quality, amenities and professionalism that doesn’t necessarily correlate to the price of accommodation. Half of the places we stayed at had air-conditioning, hot water, and oftentimes wifi — the rest did not. I’ll post the specifics in the near future with details on budget, etc.
India’s a hard place to travel in. We find that a lot of Americans in particular tend to romanticize this place to a large degree. We wonder how many who come here in search of peace and the answer to life’s big questions go home unfulfilled, disappointed or even hating India. I suppose that many Westerners want so desperately to believe that mysterious and magical places still exist. Indeed they do, but not in the way that Western culture and media claims. And when our expectations fail to match reality, we find ourselves feeling betrayed and angry and in the process miss the good stuff. In the first few weeks of our trip, we frequently questioned why we had chosen to come here. We expected it to be a challenging place, but didn’t expect to be challenged and driven to the brink of madness with seemingly no payoff. But we ultimately gave this place our patience and erased our preconceived notions and expectations and in the the end were greatly rewarded for doing so. I’m not sure if or when either of us will be back to India, but in the end of this go-around I can say our time here was most definitely worth the time, effort, cost and frustrations. It is my firm belief that any place that can honestly challenge your beliefs and expectations, take you out of your comfort zone for a while and teach you something about the world as it actually is is certainly worth visiting.
Namaste, India. Now, on to Thailand!