Here comes another installment of bullet points containing my condensed thoughts about India. Warning: some of these opinions may seem sweeping, unfair generalizations, but as it often happens when you’re a tourist and you see only the superficial side of things, the truth doesn’t matter as much as the way you perceive it.
- India is the dirtiest place I’ve ever seen (for a while I thought it was Egypt). It’s difficult for anybody coming from the Western world to understand why mere meters away from the spotlessly clean temple or palace where you are requested to take off your shoes in order to enter, lies a mountain of garbage in open air. It’s the curse of all developing countries where social conscience is not yet mature, that people consider their home limited to the four walls of their houses (which, no doubt, they keep clean) and look at the street and the outdoors as a sort of no-man’s land where all sorts of refuse can be dumped with impunity. We’ve always thrown the trash in the alley behind the house. Why should we change our ways now?
- Indian cities are unlike those I’ve seen in other parts of the world. In my opinion, they can’t even be called cities: they’re reminiscent of some sort of chaotic, crumbling beehives; they appear like gigantic villages built hastily of a patchwork of construction materials, without a plan and without points of reference. There is no city center in the traditional sense, no visible street signs, few direction indicators and almost no traffic signs. If there is any street numbering system it is - by and large - not used. In fact, most hotels and restaurants listed in our travel guides are identified only by the street they are located on. Taxi drivers are supposed to just “know” where your destination is, and they often do in small towns, but in larger cities you have to help once they get to the street you gave them. How does mail ever get delivered here?
- Communication – so far our experience on this trip has been that people who deal often with tourists – taxi drivers, hotel attendants and restaurant waiters – are the ones most likely to speak and understand English, whereas people working in government-related jobs – train station, post office, museums – would often just shrug or shower you with a long answer in their language, although their own common sense must tell them that you can’t understand. In India the situation is somehow the opposite, and unfortunately, the bunch that seems the least accustomed to English are the waiters. I haven’t been in any high-class restaurant, but on the average waiters here are quite unhelpful. Questions about the menu are mostly met with blank stares, and special orders are a recipe for disaster (Angela’s request for a separate side-serving of milk for her coffee has often produced unexpected, sometimes hilarious results). There's nothing wrong with not speaking English - although, at least in theory, it's supposed to be one of the official languages of India - but nobody will tell you that they didn’t understand what you said; they will just assume. More than once we have asked “do you have Pepsi or Coca-Cola?” only to be told “Yes, one Pepsi, and one Coca-Cola?”
- One category of service providers is particularly loathed by tourists – the rickshaw drivers. The ubiquitous little, open and noisy three-wheelers can fit the two of us and our backpacks; throughout India we have preferred them to the more expensive taxis. However the drivers are an awful lot; they always ask an outrageous price for the fare, and more often than not, when you land in their territory loaded with your backpack, not knowing where to go, they see you at their mercy and refuse to negotiate. On our arrival at the Canacona train station in Goa, there were five of us tourists who got off the train. We would have taken three rickshaws to Palolem beach, but none of the drivers was willing to slash their over-inflated price by more than 10 rupees. We decided to boycott them en masse, and walked the 2 kilometers that separated the station from the village. The drivers, rather than cutting the price, drove past us back to town in their empty vehicles.
- Indians seem to be unusually fond of their government – being associated with the government in some way appears to give a measure of stability, confidence and trustworthiness to any enterprise. The hotel’s number of stars is awarded by the government; this bank is an enterprise of the government of India; that bus station is certified by the government; here’s the government tourist office; we’re visiting the government incense factory.... Hell! even the packs of stray dogs living on the beach must be sanctioned by the government. I made that last one up, of course. On the average Indians, like any other people, must think that politics is dirty and all politicians are corrupt, but the truth is that the government, as an abstract nationally-representative entity, has a very conspicuous presence in public life.
- More communication please? – It’s commonplace truth that you don’t really know a country until you know its people. But that’s not always easy. Indians of all ages are quick to ask tourists where they are from, but their opening lines rarely lead to any meaningful conversation and you will inevitably end up trying to avoid any contact. The touts will speak to you in order to lure you into their sales talk, but many people on the street, especially younger men, would address you with the same exhausting, irritating question: “What country?” To avoid future unwanted attention (guaranteed to happen if I tell them I am from America), I follow the advice of a friend of mine who spent some time in India on her own trip around the world, and I say that I am from Guatemala. They have never heard of Guatemala and they don’t know what to do with the answer (Romania would have done just as well, but Guatemala sounds more forbidding). They turn their heads around and move on without even saying good-bye. I used this answer a lot since I came to India, and you know what? Not one of those “friendly” locals has ever asked me where Guatemala is.