Run the equator: Leaving Wonderland

Friday, March 7, 2008

Leaving Wonderland

Incredible India

After six rather exhausting weeks we left India on an early morning flight from Kolkata to Bangkok. As the purgatory of contradictory emotions faded behind the silver wing of the plane in the misty morning air I sat buckled in my cramped middle seat thinking that I should be able to say that I learned something from my Indian experience, preferably something deep, something about beauty, kindness or spirituality. Instead, all I could come up with was that I had become more skilled at bargaining for the last twenty rupees, that I learned how to dismiss the touts, hawkers, peddlers and beggars more gracefully, that I no longer got frustrated when people didn’t give me a straight answer and that I could live without toilet paper. A few months before in Egypt, the constant harassment that I had been subjected to had all but drained my reserves of social empathy, but India’s renewed assaults on my patience had in fact increased my tolerance to unwanted human contact and strengthened my ability to deal with ambiguity. In a country where nobody says “no” when they should, and every question is answered with a perplexing side-to-side wobble of the head that could mean anything, frustration and anger won’t get you too far...

Attack of the Alien rickshaws

Every interaction is a bit of a struggle. Going to the place of your choice is a feat of endurance and patience when you have to depend on taxi or rickshaw drivers to take you there; they will try to divert you to the hotels where they get commission for your business (if you’re leaving the railway station or airport) and will ask you many times to reconsider your destination, ignoring each “no” that you blurt from the back seat, increasingly annoyed by their tenacity. Otherwise, if you’re just taking a ride through town you will be bombarded with offers to be taken to a great shop “only for looking”; if you’re hiring the driver for a city-tour the shopping trap may be disguised as “a quick visit to the cultural museum.” “No” is always the best policy; you may feel stupid for having to answer the same question again and again, but you can’t help admire their perseverance and optimism – the available rickshaws sitting idle far outnumber the tourists in search for a ride and the lucky winner of your business will understandably try a couple of tricks to add a few rupees to his evening meal.

Turistas, go home!

I don’t usually require a high level of comfort when I travel; I do well in noisy backpacker places, I’m ok sharing bathrooms, I’m fine enough if the sheets are clean and the toilet flushes, and I don't think hot water at the shower is necessary in a tropical climate. But in India, low-maintenance as I am, I had to lower my standards even more. Cheap rooms in budget hotels are rather gloomy; the crudely painted walls are stained with the flattened innards of dead mosquitoes, hard beds and lumpy, thin pillows are the norm, the weak pipes may catch you off guard with unexpected leaks and water jets when you turn on the wobbly and often slimy faucets; the drain may often be a simple plastic tube spilling its guts over your feet. You’ll pray that the floor is well surfaced and all the water flows toward the drain, but that’s not always the case and your bathroom will end up with a permanent puddle in one corner. There aren’t any bath tubs, shower cages or curtains; taking a shower means flooding the whole bathroom; you’ll wash the floors, the walls and the toilet as well, and if you don’t pay attention you’ll soak the toilet paper – but only if you brought some with you; generally it’s not provided since Indians do not use it.

India welcomes you... noisily

Hotel rooms have switches outside by the doors, which control the power to the plugs and light bulbs inside. Since the doors all have padlocks the hotel staff knows when you are not in your room and always turns the power off if you happened to leave it on. Forget about charging your camera batteries while you are out for dinner. Power cuts, accidental or planned, are frequent, making air-con rooms a less-desirable investment. Beer will be warm and hell only knows what happens with the frozen chicken during the blackout hours (just another reason to become vegetarian!) but internet will generally work – that’s what batteries are for, right?

Indian scaffolding. Advanced technology.

I could continue to add details to the list of little strange things, uncomfortable situations and puzzling attitudes India assaulted us with, from the complicated telephone network made from a patchwork of incompatible operators to the strange but efficient train class and reservation system, from the unlicensed restaurants selling Kingfisher beer camouflaged in tea-pots and white cups, calling it “special tea” to the menu cards featuring fifty-four different types of masala dosa, from the irritating, dumb stares to the almost complete lack of display of public affection between Indian couples… but I’m afraid I would never finish and my blog will be forever stuck trying to cover India.

Shadows and gods

Beauty is everywhere, they say, you just have to know how look for it. And in India beauty is very well hidden behind rubble, trash and smog, a little less so in the countryside; it requires serious training and self-discipline to uncover. Nevertheless, a lot of travelers seem to be successful and find here whatever they were looking for; they leave elated and promise to return, undeterred by all the cow shit, the public pissing and shitting, the diarrhea, the hassle and the filthy toilets. For every tourist who finds his or her blissful karma in India there must be at least two or three who leave in tears, angry, sick and disappointed, and vow never to return before they show the finger to the airport departure hall one last time. I do not belong to either of those extreme categories; I had my share of disgust and anger but I was lucky enough to find peace and beauty when I least expected it; I cursed and rolled my eyes in frustration but I also smiled and went with the flow. I surrendered to India’s ebb and tide of sensations; I merely poked a finger at the magic mirror that opens into Wonderland. I will be back someday, armed with nothing but patience and an open mind.

Posted from Ao Nang, Krabi Province, Thailand.

6 comments:

Gani said...

I thoroughly enjoy reading your travel blogs on India. I am an Indian living in US so I can empathize with your experiences, but as you rightly pointed out with a little more patience and an open mind you can immerse yourself in India.

Anonymous said...

Hello Fritz,

my brother told me that you have also been in India and to read your comments. I just came from a big round trip in India and i can say you have right in your description of his strange land. I was schocked from this country, and i was for the first time in my life happy that my vacation is over. Back at home where the air smells..like heaven.
But the other part of Asia is beautiful, so the next part of your trip will be ok.

Cristina Ozunu

bhaSkar said...

Hello all,
now as you both guys were talking about India being an Indian I kinna felt offended but here's a little look of what India really is and I really feel ashamed of you my dear friend that you agree with these guys have you seen India that is a subcontinent with a 5000-year old history. A civilization united by its diversity. Experience the richness of culture, the glory of the past, the turbulence's and triumphs. The landmarks of each era, the achievements of each age, the legacy of the regime. As you walk through history, through India's geography, through the religious, linguistic and artistic chapters, your interpretation will be your very own discovery and I am very sorry that you guys made wrong interpretations, do you guys know that when the wright brothers weren't even born we have already had airplane in the form of "pushpak vimaan" from ramyan and when you guys did'nt even knew about medical science, we had test tube babys in mahabharata when a lady from the epic gave birth to 100 childeren at a time, we have the, India has 22 officially recognised languages, But around 33 different languages and 2000 dialects have been identified in India, there are the largest number of english speaking people in India as compared to rest of the world and infact many words of english derived from the most ancient language of India called sanskrit for eg matra became mother, brahtra became brother etc, when it comes to the no. of doctors scientists and engineers we are only 2 countries behind, we have the third largest army in the world, we are the ones having the oldest history in the whole world, we respect and live with each and every religion right from hindu's to muslims to catholics and celebrate more festivals than any other country in the world I think thats it if you wanna know India more come visit us again with an open mind because it takes a lot than just money to know India and about the hotels, restaurants & taxis you said well if you were just here to travel in taxis and stay in hotels than my friend you shouldn't have came here in the first place because we do not invite you here to just roam in taxis and stay in hotels and if you would have spent a little money than I think you would have found the best hotel in the world in India and you can google the best hotels in the world and see what comes up, with no offense to America after the second world war most of the doctors were being call from India in America and if you see you will find all the Indians on big positions in all over the world even if you take a look at the forbes listing of top 10 richest people you would find that 4 of them are Indians so don't underestimate India because you just cant get all the good things in one place name any other country in the world that has all the good things without any of the bad things.

thanks

with regards
bhaSkar

Big Fat Rat said...

Stream-of-consciousness hate mail from third-world-greatness fanatics is always welcome. It makes for an entertaining read, much more so than hate-mail from offended Americans. Keep up the good work.

Angad Kapoor said...

I live in India and study in the USA. This is a pretty accurate description of how it would be to backpack around India. Patience and an open mind definitely take you places. Just thought Id add that living accomodations can be much better off in the big cities like Bombay, New Delhi, etc. But as with everything else in life, nothing is free - expect to pay standard hotel rates when getting yourself a room in an upscale hotel. And as always, if you have firends living in India that always proves to be helpful in making things a bit easier to deal with.

Shahwar Hussain said...

Hi there,

You certainly can enjoy India much more with an open mind and lot of patience. An OPEN MIND is the key to enjoying any new place. Unfortunately, an overwhelming number of tourists travel with a preconcieved notion of a place, and that is the undoing.
I agree, most of our cities are a far cry from those of many Western cities and the crowds can really get to you. But if you scratch the surface just a little bit, maybe you will find what you are looking for - peace, tranquility and spirituality (if that’s what you want).
As for the dirty hotels, the very cheap ones can be dirty so you can do well to stay in mid range hotels. Taxis drivers are no saints and will try to fleece tourists and it is the same story everywhere you go.

If you have a friend in India do contact him/her before you start your journey. It will make life much easier for you. In spite of all the negative and horror stories many tourists say, there are many people who come to India and find what they are looking for. Lot of what you said is right but there are many other positive things which you haven’t mentioned. I hope the next time you come to India; you will have a much better time. You are always welcome to India.