One voyage to India is enough; the others are merely repletion.
~ Winston Churchill
I had a feeling India would be a bit rough. Like everyone else, I'd seen all the b.s. about the Bollywood scene, and the post-card versions of its attractions. However, I'd also seen the reports on TV, heard about the poverty, and read about the not-so-dead caste system. There's a reason Mother Teresa spent her life in Calcutta, right?
In the days leading up to my visit, I kept my expectations in check, and tried to be prepared for anything and everything. I'll tell you now; nothing can prepare you for India.
While on the trip, one of my fellow group members bought a copy of the Indian version of Vanity Fair, where a Western woman wrote and article describing her trip to India. It was comprised of five-star hotels, luxury tours and air-conditioned transportation. It was fine dining, gracious service and breezy cocktails on a private beach.
That's not India.
The real India is duality in the form of a nation. It is one extreme after another. It is an assault on your senses.
India is hot. India is beautiful. India is dirty. It's hard, sad and rough. It's full of everything you don't want, and so much of what you do. It is exhausting and frustrating and rewarding all at the same time. It's a kiss on the cheek and a kick to the balls in a noisy, rough motion.
India is the smell of curry and fresh flowers. It is the stink of cow shit and human urine.
It's seeing beautiful hand-painted displays in a shopkeeper's window. It's seeing someone's mutilated, deformed foot peeking out from under a greasy, tattered blanket.
It is the peacefulness of standing in front of the elegant, bone-white symmetry of the Taj Mahal. It is the maddening chaos of surviving the street vendor-packed streets of Delhi.
It is the grandeur of the beautiful City Palace in Udaipur. It's the overflowing poverty on the streets next to it. It's being relentlessly harassed by every other person you see. It's playing soccer on the beaches of Goa with local kids.
Our tour was a bit rougher than we all wanted (think 15 hour train rides and non-air conditioned local buses), but it offered up the real India. We saw things as they are for the majority of the population. India isn't seen through a rented limousine whisking you from hotel to hotel.
To see India, you have to go to Delhi and stay somewhere other than the Marriot or the Hyatt. Visit Jaipur and see people going to barbers on the side of the road. Walk through the streets of Pushkar and test your patience with the scam artists trying to give you "holy" flowers. Try to buy miniature painting in a shop in Udaipur and negotiate a price with the shopkeeper without feeling ripped off. Dodge people throwing fireworks in the streets while in a speeding taxi in Mumbai.
The more time I spent in India, the more and more ingrained a thought became in my head that I didn't like. I spent two weeks trying to disprove it, but was unsuccessful. It's pretty simple: No one cares about India.
- No one cares that poverty is so extreme. I saw some things in Africa that made me sad. I actually shed some tears here. No one cares about the hundreds of people on the streets. People sleeping literally in the middle of the train station. People who haven't seen bathing water for what looks like weeks. Dirty ladies in colorful saris carrying dirty babies with caked, matted hair. Girls and boys urinating in the streets, most naked from the waist down. The black faces from the alleyways looking for something - anything.
- No one cares about the heaps of trash on the roads. There is garbage everywhere. Every street, every alley and every open plot of land is loaded with rubbish. Where it's not piled up, it's burning. The only trash-free pieces of land are the temples, and even that isn't an absolute.
- No one cares about the "sacred" cows walking the streets eating garbage. Imagine if an entire feedlot were dropped into downtown Kansas City, and left to roam as they wish. They just walk around aimlessly, looking for food in the gutters, sauntering into the roads, plodding across bridges. In most towns here, there are more cows than stray dogs, and there are a ton of stray dogs. I'm not quite sure about the logic of letting the most sacred of animals eat rotten vegetables in the gutters.
- No one cares about the lakes and rivers. Every open body of water was polluted. Thick green algae or a covering of floating garbage floated on top of nearly every waterway. If in doubt, just take a whiff. You'll always know you're close to open water.
- No one cares about pollution in the air. No matter where you are, your eyes will burn, and your throat will hurt. And this isn't just one city. This is everywhere - every city, every town, every road. Cars, taxis, tuk-tuks and motorbikes spew exhaust and burnt oil into the air like mini crop dusters. People burn trash outside their shops. I don't smoke, but I probably inhaled about a carton's worth of crap in two weeks.
- No one cares about traffic laws. Taking a ride anywhere in India is truly an adventure.
Here's an example. After our third "holy shit we're going to have a head-on collision" moment on a drive from the hotel to the bus station one day, I asked my tour leader (N.P.) about traffic in India:
Me: "So N.P., are there actually traffic laws in India?"
N.P.: <Smile> "Of course."
Me: "The reason I ask is that there are no lines painted on the roads, very few traffic lights, no stop signs, license plates are apparently optional, turn signals must not come standard in Indian vehicles, there obviously no regulations to the types of vehicles on the road (as we narrowly miss two shoddy wooden carts - one pulled by a camel, the other by a small man) and no police regulating... anything."
N.P.: <confused look on his face>
Me: "In other words, who regulates the traffic?"
N.P.: "The police"
Me: "Where are they? I haven't seen any since we got here."
N.P.: <nervous smile, awkward pause, a hopeful look out the window>
Me.: "Right. So, how does it work?"
N.P.: "In India, everyone has a right to the road. Cars, trucks, vans, tuk tuks, motorcycles and people. Everyone and everything has a right to the road, no matter what."
Me: "So dogs, cows, camels, donkeys, carts... they are the same as big buses and trucks."
Me: <internally> Dumb.
That would explain why it takes 20 minutes to move one block. Why you nearly die when trying to walk along the roads. Why drivers don't use turn signals or brakes, but just stand on the horn for endless, painful minutes. No sidewalks. No walkways. No one cares.
No one cares.
I realize by writing this I'm indicting myself. I didn't do, and am not doing anything to change it. I'm as hypocritical as everyone else. I'm not overly proud of that, but I'm not sure where to start. How do you change the attitude of a country toward itself? How do you make people who drive by these things every day stop and take notice of it? Perhaps the recent investment and economic turnaround will start to help the have-nots. Perhaps the growing giant will see what is under its feet.
From the looks of things though, it will be a while.