India

Perceptions of India

When I decided to go to India I got a nearly universal response from friends.  What?  Why would anyone want to go there?  Isn’t it all call centers, poverty, corruption and people on top of people?

Doesn’t everyone get sick when they travel there?  No thanks.  I really don’t want to join you on this trip.  So I went by myself.

As with all travel destinations, there is always a set of trade-offs to consider and, yes, India IS a Third World country with all of the +/- that go along with this status.  On the plus side, there are thousands of years of interesting history to take in and a culture to be absorbed that is very different from our own western heritage. Where else would you find a festival at the full moon of November where they bring 25,000 camels to race, sell, ride, spit and smell up the place?  On the minus side I thought, “Well, whatever.”  Helen Keller famously said, “Life is a great adventure – or nothing at all.”  So I got my visa, shots, malaria pills, Imodium, and Cipro – and thought I’d see what there was to see.

Landing in Delhi after a nearly 15 hour non-stop flight over the North Pole from Chicago I was, to say the least, beat to shit.  Rather than individually booking all of the hotels, tours, etc. myself, I laid out the general itinerary I had researched and got an Indian travel company to make all the arrangements.  It’s a little more expensive that way, but even though the driver didn’t speak English, we (mostly) got where we were going. And when you come out of customs 180 degrees of latitude around the planet, it’s nice to see someone there holding up a sign with your name on it.   Rather than give you a boring blow-by-blow chronology of where I went and what I saw/did, let me provide a few impressions from a two-week trip to northern India that included Udaipur, Pushkar, Jaipur (all in the province of Rajasthan), Agra, Varanasi and Delhi.

I found India to be a land of colorful customs, constant contrasts, culture, castes and controlled chaos.

Pluses:

  • A very long and remarkable history
  • A rich, diversified, enigmatic, mysterious, inscrutable, impenetrable culture
  • A religious tradition that is pervasive and in many ways baffling in its impact on society

Minuses:

  • A lack of infrastructure from roads to schools to water treatment to healthcare
  • An extremely wide disparity between rich and poor, along with in-your-face poverty and destitution
  • Traffic and air pollution beyond description and western sensibilities

Let’s start with the symbol of India; one of the reasons to go halfway around the world to take a look.

When I decided to go to India I got a nearly universal response from friends.  What?  Why would anyone want to go there?  Isn’t it all call centers, poverty, corruption and people on top of people?  Doesn’t everyone get sick when they travel there?  No thanks.  I really don’t want to join you on this trip.  So I went by myself.

As with all travel destinations, there is always a set of trade-offs to consider and, yes, India IS a Third World country with all of the +/- that go along with this status.  On the plus side, there are thousands of years of interesting history to take in and a culture to be absorbed that is very different from our own western heritage. Where else would you find a festival at the full moon of November where they bring 25,000 camels to race, sell, ride, spit and smell up the place?  On the minus side I thought, “Well, whatever.”  Helen Keller famously said, “Life is a great adventure – or nothing at all.”  So I got my visa, shots, malaria pills, Imodium, and Cipro – and thought I’d see what there was to see.

Landing in Delhi after a nearly 15 hour non-stop flight over the North Pole from Chicago I was, to say the least, beat to shit.  Rather than individually booking all of the hotels, tours, etc. myself, I laid out the general itinerary I had researched and got an Indian travel company to make all the arrangements.  It’s a little more expensive that way, but even though the driver didn’t speak English, we (mostly) got where we were going. And when you come out of customs 180 degrees of latitude around the planet, it’s nice to see someone there holding up a sign with your name on it.   Rather than give you a boring blow-by-blow chronology of where I went and what I saw/did, let me provide a few impressions from a two-week trip to northern India that included Udaipur, Pushkar, Jaipur (all in the province of Rajasthan), Agra, Varanasi and Delhi.

I found India to be a land of colorful customs, constant contrasts, culture, castes and controlled chaos.  Pluses:– A very long and remarkable history– A rich, diversified, enigmatic, mysterious, inscrutable, impenetrable culture– A religious tradition that is pervasive and in many ways baffling in its impact on society Minuses:– A lack of infrastructure from roads to schools to water treatment to healthcare– An extremely wide disparity between rich and poor, along with in-your-face poverty and destitution– Traffic and air pollution beyond description and western sensibilities

Let’s start with the symbol of India; one of the reasons to go halfway around the world to take a look.

It needs no title or caption.It really is, in my experience, the most beautiful building in the world.(Coming in second for me would be the Sydney Opera House.)Despite having seen all the pictures and videos over a lifetime, actually seeing the architectural paragon “in the flesh” is definitely worth the long journey to get here.

I went on my first full day in Agra to see sunrise at the Taj Mahal.Unfortunately, the sun didn’t rise and it rained like hell.That, at least, kept the crowds down.Even in the early morning mist it was a sight to behold.The next day I went back in a sunny afternoon and it was amazing to gaze at the 360-year-old “monument to love”.Mughal Emperor Shah Jahn took 22 years to build the Taj in honor of his “favorite wife”, who died in childbirth with their 14th child.(Maybe it’s a monument to lust?)The guidebook explains (in fractured English):“For complete two years, he abstained himself from all kinds of pleasures and functions.”One can only imagine!

Sometimes your expectations are so high that in reality they can never be met – but that was not my experience with the Taj Mahal.It is a striking, powerful, esthetically sumptuous, awe-inspiring, tribute to beauty, design and artistic expression.Wow.

Colorful Customs

One of my “reasons to go” to India was to see the Pushkar Camel Fair, an annual festivity that brought camel, horse and cattle traders together with religious pilgrims (Pushkar Lake is a holy Hindu site), hawkers, balloonists, snake charmers, rope walkers, monkey and elephant handlers – and assorted tourists from all over India, Asia and the western world.The noise level was something only a teenager could appreciate and when all was said and done it’s better to have been to the Pushkar Camel Fair than it was to be at the Pushkar Camel Fair.If you know what I mean.

But, what the hell; back to Helen Keller’s sentiment.I did meet some interesting characters at the Fair:

Constant Contrasts

As an “emerging economy” India is, indeed, distinguished by its differences, dissimilarities, disparities and disproportions.Every country has its rich and its poor.But a country where one man builds a 27 story home with three heliports for a billion dollars when 40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day?A country with five star hotels, opulent 17th century forts and palaces (and the Taj Mahal) — amid squalid slums and abject poverty?India takes the cake for contrasts.It is at the same time both depressing and hopeful.Depressing because so many of the people have so little.Beggars are everywhere and while you are told to “ignore” them, this is just not possible.They tug not only at your purse strings, but also at your heart. And yet there does seem to be a modicum of hope.Slowly – very, very slowly – India is beginning to develop its economy so that its 1.1 billion people can see some prospects for the future.They are 20 years behind China, but inching forward on the engine of growth.

Sometimes, two pictures are worth a thousand words in showing contrasts:

Culture

The most striking thing to me about Indian culture is how important to, and interwoven in, the culture is the Hindu religion.The “Rough Guide” tour book accurately says of Hinduism, “Its influence permeates every aspect of life, from commonplace daily chores to education and policy.It has no founder or prophet, no single creed, and no single prescribed practice or doctrine; it takes in thousands of gods, goddesses, beliefs and practices and widely variant cults and philosophies.”85% of the population of India is Hindu and when cows are holy (for you baseball fans, Harry Carry would have loved it here; “Holy Cow!”) not only are there no hamburgers at McDonalds (that was a shock!), but cows wander through all the cities I was in (except Delhi) causing major havoc with traffic.And where there are cows, there is cow shit.You get the picture.

But holy cows are only the tip of the religious iceberg.Hinduism is deterministic and very focused on a multitude of gods that are watching over and “taking care of” all aspects of life.That puts a damper on personal responsibility. But at sunrise from a boat on the Ganges River watching Indian pilgrims as they washed away their sins, purified their souls and cremated their dead, I had as close to a “religious” experience as I get.

Castes

India is the only country in the world known for and by its very formal caste structure.While the Indian constitution has outlawed discrimination based on caste, you cannot legislate culture or custom that is embedded in thousands of years of history.Discrimination is now undoubtedly less than it has been historically, but manifestations of this form of social stratification were very evident.I had eight tour guides (all male) at various times during my trip.Six were married, two were in their early twenties and not yet doomed to this fate (yes, I have a slight bias here).All were in or were about to be in “arranged” marriages.In each case the parents had chosen a spouse for their son from a small list of possible partners based primarily on caste and, within the caste, on astrological compatibility.Horoscopes had been carefully reviewed, phases of the moon at birth considered and choices made.The six married men were happy and the two betrothed were looking forward to the eventuality.So you want to be hypercritical?Consider this:The divorce rate in the U.S. is 54.8%.In India it is 1.1%.One thing traveling does for you:It teaches you not to be judgmental.Cultures are different, not good or bad.(But it IS hard to imagine this social custom.And it doesn’t seem to be changing much.)

Controlled Chaos

Yes, the cows were everywhere.They were most evident in the streets, but not only there:

I hate to say it, but one of the more memorable aspects of India – that sticks prominently in my mind – is the traffic.The holiest city of India has 1.5 million people and has been in existence for 1,000+ years.  Its small, narrow streets were not made for the modern world, but the modern world has arrived anyway.  Imagine a city this large with no traffic signals, no stop signs, no concept of “middle line” in the road, no sidewalks, no one-way streets and a “rush-hour” that runs from 8 am to 10 pm.  Throw in bicycle taxis, auto-rickshaws, animal drawn carts, people walking and occasional bodies being carried down to the river – along with unattended dogs, goats, water buffalo and cows that are free to roam the streets at will.  This is Varanasi.  A two-hour “city tour” consisted of two 15 minute stops, a “drive by” temple “visit” and 90 minutes sitting in traffic.  A visit to Sarnath, where the Buddha first preached after his enlightenment, was six miles from the hotel; it took an hour each way to get there and back.

Trying to understand “rules of the road” (both an oxymoron and a conundrum, all at once) in India was a mystifying challenge.  What I derived from hours of forced observation was that the primary objective is to keep moving in the direction you are going, at all costs. Don’t stop and don’t let anyone or anything – a car, bike, cart, person, motorcycle or animal – inch forward in front of you.  When you are forced to stop (every few feet) by the general crush, others seem to have the obligation not to hit you.  When you are moving, you are obligated not to hit someone else.  Since cows are sacred, they have the “right of way” (such as it is), wherever they may be. If/when you do hit someone or something you are only going 2 miles an hour so it’s not a big deal and you come to a stop, probably not having hurt anyone.  The external car mirrors are turned in (so as to be dysfunctional) because there is no need for them and those that had not been turned in have been knocked off.And the horn noise! It was one continuous, catastrophe; a constant crescendo and cacophony of confusion.

I had thought traffic in Udaipur, Jaipur, Agra and Delhi was ridiculous – which it was.  But Varanasi took the cake.  A New York or Parisian cab driver would not last an hour here.  But the cows survive!

Conclusion

It’s a shame that one of the major things that sticks in my memory of India is the traffic (I didn’t discuss the air pollution), but it is hard not to be influenced by such chaos when it affects everything you are trying to see and do. Putting that aside, the cultural, historic and religious aspects of India that brought me here in the first place were remarkable and memorable.The temples, forts, palaces, fairs and people were unforgettable.Mahatma Gandhi was a major and positive force for mankind not only in India, but in the world.His museum in Delhi was refreshing and enlightening.In total, 20% of my time in India was truly fascinating.What percent of your daily life can you say that about?

“Say what?”Some friends from along the road. Glenn Detrick — December, 2010