When I asked people about India before I left, they used same adjective: "Amazing". But they couldn't back up the term with specifics. They flung out images and clichés: cows in the street, camel safaris, warm chapati at road side stalls and families inviting you to lunch in their homes. They talked as if reading from guidebooks or tourist brochures rather than recounting experiences. I visited India in September and October, 2007 with my sister, Tara. She introduced me to her budget travel rules:
1. Always spend time before money.
2. Never take a taxi when you can take a cheaper chauffeured vehicle (insert autorickshaw, becak, bajaj, tuk tuk here). Never take any of these when you can take a bus. Never take a bus when you can walk.
3. Never accept the first price.
4. Assume everyone is trying to take advantage of you and work backwards from there.
She shrugged: "There aren't fewer honest, helpful people in India. There are just fifty times the scam artists." We argued about the rules and our experiences over the next month, and came around to each other in some ways, but further distanced in others.
DELHI - The Capital City
A taxi to Paraganj in the middle of the night, collapsing into our hostel room with a mixture of exhaustion and jetlag. Walk around Chaudi Chok marketplace. Visit the Red Fort (and the Kahs Malal within it). National Gandhi Museum.
Delhi alone can be alienating, and the fear of being taken advantage of can keep a wall up. The Indian belief in "baksheer" - money: either tips, bribes, alms, or padding the bill - shows up even in temples.
We walk past a man hunched over on the cement of a curb, his beard in tufts, a raggled shirt collapsed on his shoulders. His left elbow rested on his thigh, his hand hung between his legs as he groped over what the cloth wouldn't cover. We tried not to look at the open gash below the bend in his arm, an open sore almost to the bone. Unsure even if we were walking the right way, we passed in a confused shock. Later, I wondered what Gandhi would have done, or another traveler, or our parents. We questioned the human, the rational, the realistic as we wondered that biting conditional of "should". Self-admonishment for a blind eye gave way to a helpless "but what could we do?" and worries about our own safety, nevermind his. I saw us in the waiting room of a hospital, flies collecting on his arm, on ours. Did he come from one, a hospital waiting room that couldn't afford to keep him? If I helped him, who else was I to stop and help on this, my vacation time? I told myself I can't help them all. The truth was I don't want to help this one.
That guilt pervaded all my experiences, the coin cans in the hands of mothers jangled at the sides of my conscience. I never reached a resolution, of who to give to and what to give and what I owed for being there. So in the end I give nothing.
We decide to see only one state, confining ourselves to Rajasthan, a place of sand and kings, where the bolts of fabric made up for the barren landscape, where I learned to do nothing and think less than that. We embarked on a triangle journey to bring us full circle back to Delhi in a month's time.
AGRA - The Taj City
The insanity of Delhi fed into the overbearing tourism of Agra, a city built on the rupees brought in by the draw of the Taj Mahal. Taj Ganj, the area immediately around the world class monument, stifles with artificiality as it caters to every palate and cultural paradigm and thus robs itself of any authenticity.
After taking in the Taj at sunrise, I conceded it lived up to every expectation, picture, quotation. The Taj Mahal dwarfed even my conceptualized ideal. It is just as white, as majestic, as pristine as every postcard and every recollection you've heard. I watched the sunrise over the white marble and marveled at the stones inlaid in the "teardrop on the face of time". The inlays of mother of pearl and semi-precious stones reflect the light off the polished marble, and every one of the 20,000 workers and elephants who chiseled, carved, bricklayed, and otherwise toiled over 22 years leave a bit of themselves behind in this tapestry of talents.
I visit the Taj, the Baby Taj, and Agra Fort, sidestepping cows. They're docile, sacred animals, and wander where they please. I wonder who owns them, who feeds them, what happens when they die. I only know they're not eaten. While "non-veg" restaurants serve up chicken and sometimes lamb, there is no beef here.
I stopped beside a fruit stand to handle a mango. In the shop beside it, two sheets hung and as the breeze parted them, I peered in to find a skinless, headless carcass hanging, separated from me by only an open gutter. Don't eat the meat.
The couple next to us in a restaurant shared Purell: he uncapped it and squirtted it into her hands, held out and cupped expectantly. The disinfectant smell wandered over, familiar to tourists in the same way the wafts of fried pakora and samosa batter slithered up the local streets.
India is, at first, exhausting. And for reasons which surprised me. Traveler propaganda promised an experience unlike any other - a rush of exciting happenings, Incredible India. The reality is less epic.
JAIPUR - The Pink City
But later I resolved to stop being a cynic and embrace happiness. Despite all the propoganda on scams and tourist traps, I realized most people genuinely want to help, or at least just honestly do business with you. In Delhi and Agra, inflated prices and bargaining are a way of life, but in Jaipur people charged the going rate - the tourist rate, yes, but straight-up nevertheless.