Sunday, January 9, 2011

going back to India

A friend of mine leaves for India on 8 March, 2011. He asks me for travel advice. His request spurs me to slip back through the aperture of my digital camera, sift through my emails home, read back on my diary to reminisce about the culture shock and how I went to the subcontinent looking for a grand adventure, to find only myself.

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 accep
t 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 experie
nces, 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 ov
erbearing 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. Autorickshaws pursued me for blocks and many minutes, no matter how many times I insisted I would rather walk. At first, a sense of humor armoured me against their eyes, and I laughed through each new approach. But then I became unsure if they were humoured in return. It was unnerving, and I brought my back up instead of relaxing into the culture. Who am I as a tourist with the same colour skin and heritage as past colonizers to suggest how I should be treated? Instead of answering I look away, at the temples and the palaces and the cows walking down the street.


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.
There's an upside to politeness. It's not false or phony or disingenuous. It opened up opportunities and left a sweeter taste in my mouth. Tara and I both got colds: it's the dust in Rajasthan, that desert state. I had the sniffles and a bit of a head cold, while Tara was virtually incapacitated, and a little feverish. She regained strength after a few days and copious amounts of tea with lemon and honey.

Jaipur bustled with old bazaars and new money, the old walls of the crumbling Pink City hankering down against the 25 million population outside.
I visit the Birla Temple, white marble glowing in the sun. The bazaars full of fabric and bags of spices, the Hawal Mahal, the City Palace. The Jantar Mantar is an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque collection of architectural astronomical instruments. The Raj Mandir, world's most gaudy cinema. The Amber Fort outside the city.


PUSHKAR - The Ghat City



In Pushkar I rejoiced in the tranquility of a lakefront town - or rather, pond centred. Towns like Pushkar are more laid back, and it's easier to enjoy the views of pilgrims bathing on the ghats.

We sat on rooftop restaurants and watch sunsets over the water.

I started to notice my judgment of other travelers. I looked at them and decided who they were, what they were doing in India, without knowing a thing about them. I didn't think to compare them to me - I couldn't possibly be one of them. The ones wearing American Eagle t-shirts are fearful and unadventurous, new here, greenhorns, they order toast and Marmite at breakfast
and sandwiches and spaghetti bolognese at night. I wonder why they came to India if they never wanted to leave home.

And then we found "Honey and Spice", a shop that sold tofu and toasted nuts and espresso instead of heavy gravies and Nescafé, and I ate there every day. I had to cede defeat on the above point and let go, once again, of my tendency to We go also go on a bike ride and climb a mountain.

UDAIPUR - The Lake City

Udaipur threw the net of its tourism close to the famous Lake Pichola where Octopussy was filmed, but when we struck out into the city itself we couldn't find a vibe to define it. The city's stagnation mimicked its lake and my mindspace, so that I could drift quietly among the algae and collect my thoughts to bring them together and sprout a lily.

We arrived the night of a street festival, with lights hanging above the city and kids smashing hand-held sticks together in celebration. We ate overlooking to famous lake. We visit the City Palace.
A havali beside the river housed clothing exhibitions and we returned in the evening for a traditional dance performance. I posted home two packages from the local post office - set aside a day to do this, and I was told to resign myself to possible never seeing anything in them again. Despite my misgivings, the packages actually arrived home before I did.

JODHPUR - The Blue City


Jodhpur leapt out as our favourite, laid back and liberal whilst still catering to our palates and our desire to blend in. Atop our guest house after the sari market and a plateful of Indian sweets, we reflected that the atmosphere here is laid-back, less frenetic. Tara says it's more liberal, less touristy; more acceptance, less hassle; more strolling, less gawking. We visited the sari market where women threw bolts of silk and embroidered chiffon at us for 50 rupees a piece. After five swathes of fabric I pulled back,
scampering away from the insistent women who wanted us to buy their wares. Accustomed to forward pushes by men and rickshaw wallahs, my first experience of overeager women overpowered my stamina for resistance and forced me to withdraw. I worry I should have bought more, should have found a use for another three or four.
The palace sat above the city in a walled-in fortress. When we looked down from above, the blue buildings of the Brahmins glowed up at us. We visited the fort, the market (full of cows and saris), a mausoleum, and the palace. We drank saffron lassis - rather we ate them with spoons, tasting equal parts citrus, cream, saffron, and sugarcane. The thickness of the yogurt rolled like ice cream over our tongues and mingled with the sweet bite of sugar.

JAISALMER - The Golden City

Or the Sandcastle City. When we arrived here wallahs attacked our bus trying to drag us to guest houses - business seems to have been slow. We evaded them and found our own, walking through the dust and sand.

In Jaisalmer I woke up exhausted by India. I'm not sure if it was the heat or the desert or Tara's insatiable desire to explore, but the idea of walking, or doing yoga, or taking a picture, all seemed too much to begin to attempt.

I continued to renegotiate my travel ideals. "Experiencing India" for me must be, very specifically, a white tourist experiencing tourist India. My brief encounters with the locals were only that, and generally operated in the defined roles of buyer and seller. Gandhi would say, attack the system, not the individual. And unless I want to take on the reform of India's tourist trade in any constructive sense, I decided I may as well play along.

While in other cities the fort is only for show, here people still live within its walls, and the sanitation and growing infrastructure wreaks havoc on the foundations. I visited the fort, the castle inside it, as well as a Jain temple. I paid 50 p to get my hair cut and end up with one side an inch shorter than the other. From here we ventured into the desert for our camel safari.

Being out there on the sand, barefoot and hair full of campfire smoke, reminded me of every solitary beach I'd sat on and every camping experience I'd attempted. I wonder if I experience things only to put my past experiences in some kind of context. I travel to bring into relief the changes in me, the truths, that are usually submerged in normality and routine.

BIKANER - The Last City

Sitting on a train to Bikaner from Jaisalmer, we looked outside to the ornate sandstone benches, carved with intertwined flowers and curlicue, and resisted conversation with the solitary local who wanted to practise his English. The train station formed yet another paradox, where its immaculate construction and cleanliness, absent of grime and urine, seems a crater of cleanliness with all the culture and vivacity scooped out.

In Bikaner, crazy drivers careened around motorcycles and shouted at pedestrians. After a month I thought I'd grown accustomed to the pal-mel driving laws, but India continued to surprise and shock.

We go to the palace and the fort, and we ready ourselves to go home.
Our tour of the Rajasthani triangle, the desert cities of Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaislamer, and Bikaner reveals in each a fort and a palace, but also with their own definitive style.


back in DELHI

We visited the Ba'hi temple which
inspired me with its description of inclusion of all faiths, but when I arrived I felt an emptiness and lack of cohesion in the high ceilinged empty hall.

We found the place of Gandhi's assassination. I knelt in front of the shrine and made an offering to atone for my being there without understanding why.


India holds fragments of deconstructed colonialism, with leftover English grandeur and attempts at modernity. All the cities make it harder to imagine another life - I'm still not sure if this is the India everyone falls in love with. Gandhi wrote a commentary on the Western man's difficulty in accepting a culture so different from their (our?) own: "Our different ways of living, our simplicity, our contentment with small gains, our indifference to the laws of hygiene and sanitation, our slowness in keeping our surroundings clean and tidy, and our stinginess in keeping our houses in good repair - all these, combined with the difference in religion, contributes to the antagonism."

For all the garbage strewn about the cities, and aside from plastic bags, an Indian probably produces as much waste in a week as we do in a day. There was a simpleness, a way of living that does not strive to emulate the West. Statues of Ganesh, identifiable by his elephant trunk, sat in shrines adorned with strings of pink and orange flowers. Men prayed to him as others stepped next door into open public toilets, where only a crumbling wall of tile separated them from my sister and I passing on the sidewalk. If a toilet isn't to be found, people squat on the side of the street, or urinate on fences. Urine trickles and pools in dust, the smell swirls in the heat.


As I squatted over a toilet in a stall without a door as shit fermented in a pile beneath me and a woman in a sari squatted across the room, I repeated like a mantra, "Just piss and go." On my way out a boy and his sister sat on their haunches in the hallway, and I stepped over the trickles of their pee. Out on the street, I walk past a water pump, and further on a trough of open taps to rinse and clean men's hands and necks while urine drips down around their feet.


India took my breath away: it is an amazing, vivacious country. Vivacious and exhausting in equal measures. My introduction to the subcontinent was like a torrid one-month affair, pulling me in and pushing me away in equal measure. My subsequent analysis of it was just as complicated. The culture clash, everything from the predominantly sexist gender roles to the ubiquitous vegetarianism to the car honks and cows on the road, at first overwhelmed and then swept me away as I resigned myself to just ride the wave.



1 comment:

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