Tag Archives: India

Falling for India

I didn’t think it would happen. As I left the comforts of family friends holding my hand and showing me Kolkata and Delhi, I was actually genuinely scared for my life. If I didn’t get the luck of the draw for tourists assaulted on trains or hostels, surely my short temper would be the end of me with the pinching and whistling men on the street. Never mind the constantly changing balance between animal feces, urine, deep frying, and burning garbage in the street, the instant flooding upon rainfal, and the general overcrowding causing an unmanageable quantity of waste in the streets and tumbling houses.

So, I rocked up in Jaipur a few days ago. Honestly, on the drive in I wanted to leave. The bus was weaving through slums and running over piles of manure faster than they could be avoided. I’ve never wanted a bus not to stop so badly in my life. In even a moment passing you could see small disputes over cents and children savouring small pieces of bread you knew was their only food. “If this is the real India,” I thought to myself “I’m done. I’m going to pay however much it is to stay at the Fairmont we just drove by until my flight leaves next week and I’m not leaving until then”.

I got out of the bus to find my rucksack unloaded into a pile of freshly liquified mud and got stalked for 2 blocks by the thirsty rickshaw drivers that practically licked their lips as they saw my non-indian face in the window as the bus pulled in.

Before I sound like a total B, I’d like to say…the situation for women in India is grim. Nevermind foreign women…alone. To be on high alert isn’t only natural but necessary, and out of self-preservation, everyone must be seen with caution. For example, the group of 4 men who circled me at a food stall that night I arrived, started pinching my ass and calling me a sexy mama-cita until I verbally tore a strip off of them yelling so the police close by would come get them away from me and take me to my hotel safely.

Anyway, a guy offered me a ritzy hotel room for 200 rs a night (like 3.50 USD), so out of dumb curiosity I got in a rikshaw sponsored by him to check it out. Obviously it was bull shit, but the driver who has turned into my Prabu (for those who have read Shantaram, for those who haven’t-do it), showed me Hotel Vaishnavi where I have been happily hanging out since.

The day after the incident I stayed in all day loving my wifi and cable TV. They have a reasonably priced restaurant with room service and I’m almost caught up on One Tree Hill, Grey’s, and Christmas movies from the 1990s. Then yesterday I decided to venture out and do the sightseeing shindig as per Prabu’s directions. I told him I wanted to walk and offered him a 100 Rs as thanks for showing me a good route, which he declined as he pointed me in the right direction.

Two weeks in this country and I still felt off of my game. More than I have anywhere else. I couldn’t quite figure out where I should be walking, if I should be walking…I couldn’t actually read the map at all. I stopped to get some deep fried daal and curry for breakfast and had my first taste of ‘India’. The man gave me a price, obviously the local price, I went to pay him and he said ‘no, pay after you eat’…fair, the locals do it too. I ordered a chai, which he called somebody on his mobile to bring (I didn’t realize he didn’t make it), and ate whatever he served up to me. It was so cheap I would have paid for every piece, but he refused my payment in the end. After an hour or two….I kind of lost track…of him teaching me Hindi and me teaching him English, he said “you are a guest, now you are my friend, a friend and guest to India shall be showered with welcome, that doesn’t mean paying”. Ordinarily I would be under the impression of ‘how am I going to pay for this later’ but my gut told me he was genuine. I accepted his gift and continued as per his directions to the old city.
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As I got into the old city I asked to photograph some spices at the street bazar, the man happily allowed it and asked to buy me a drink. I was taken back until he clarified either a cola or a chai so we could talk. “it is broad daylight, I will not do anything”…red flag! His two sisters came and insisted it was safe, that they would even join. Hesitant, I accepted. We talked for a while as they asked questions about the weather, the food, the music…I concluded by asking why it was they found foreigners to be so fascinating. He replied “in India we are too poor to go away, to talk to foreigners is the closest we will come to seeing anywhere else in the world.” And that simple statement brought me to a new level of empathy with the harassment I had been receiving. Realizing that perhaps some of the ‘hayyy ladeeee where you from’ was genuine curiosity, and in sad way a plea to learn.

I continued down the street to find groups of children staring as I took photos of decrepit buildings and street vendors. I offered to take a photo of them and got a posse for blocks as they wanted to show me all sorts of colourful things and, of course take more photographs. As we walked down one alleyway a calm and proud woman pointed at the camera then at her and her son, I calmed the children and took a photo. The look in her eyes was incredible. A sense of attachment that I don’t think a Westerner could fully comprehend, just to the image of her and her son. The connection I sensed to hers led me to get a copy printed for her. She attempted to repay me the small fee. I declined, and gave her son a hug while she cherished the photo. With his impressive English he told me how happy his mother was that he would have something to remember her by. Something so simple but such a big impact; a reminder of how we can leave somewhere even just a little better than we met it.
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I continued wandering the old city meeting many charming locals including a stunning elderly woman sewing bangles. Her scowl was impressive as her eyes pierced through the tourist taking photos from afar…as I asked her if I could take one, honestly assuming she would reject my request, she smiled and said “you ask, I smile”.

As I headed back to the hotel I started to feel absolutely vial. Perhaps it was wearing a tshirt, crops, and a scarf in 41 degree heat for 5 hours of walking, perhaps it was the ice cream lassi…maybe I had bad water. Either way I felt like I was going to drop to the floor at any moment and my stomach was expanding like a balloon. A pair of older men waived me in to their tire shop just outside of the city gate. They cleared off a seat, cleaning it off and placing it beneath a fan, instantly fresh bottled water and chai were at my disposal and they were calling my hotel to send a driver. Not only did the men reach out to help me no questions asked, but I felt, finally, at ease to accept it. I didn’t think they were telling me to come in to rape me, I didn’t think they drugged the chai. It was almost like Kua and his train station crew…It probably sounds super dodgy, but in the moment the humanity overshadowed the logic.
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My Prabu picked me up, dropped me back at the hotel free of charge and everybody checked on me for hours. I laid in my bed watching A Cinderella Story sipping oversweet chai and as I stared at my recently finished novel, Shantaram I remembered what Vikram said, “That’s how we keep this crazy place together — with the heart. Two hundred fuckin’ languages, and a billion people. India is the heart. It’s the heart that keeps us together. There’s no place with people like my people, Lin. There’s no heart like the Indian heart”.

For the first time, I believed it was in fact true. The friends I had stayed with had never met me before, but they welcomed me to their homes and lives without hesitation. Yes, some are creepy, but so are men back home. I looked at every unique moment of that day and saw events that only happened out of love. Yes, a country with a billion people living, in some cases, virtually on top of each other there needs to be love, but their heart is beyond themselves, and I had the gift of receiving it.

If India isn’t proof not to judge a book by its cover [or its first 10 chapters] I don’t know what is. I’m still on high alert, but I believe for the first time that I’m going to be fine. That there is more heart than there is bad. And I’d like to believe that is true of everywhere even if we don’t all show it the same.

India travel tips…so far

Get a mobile phone. You need it to book anything online…and anything online is easier than dealing with Indian travel agents.

Book trains at the post office, either 2AC is a good benchmark to aim for.

Often, flying is worth it…less than 100 bucks and way quicker/safer….plus the airports are a great reprieve from the otherswise dirty streets of India

1.25L of water is probably 18ish rupees. Don’t pay more than 7 for chai, even that is high…and know that you are literally getting 2 ounces of beverage.

If somebody shows you 5 fingers for a price, it is 50 not 5.

Samosas aren’t that great here…parathas, chapatti, and curry however are a whole new world to the west. Ohhhh and the Thalis-yum!

Tourist bus means round trip…and it is also often all Indian tourists

Ashrams are not as glamorous as even eat pray love makes them out to be.

Thums up is like spicy coke with 10 times more sugar.

They like to salt fresh fruit juices, and put sugar on fruit you buy in the street.

Look carefully where you are stepping…there are many animals in the streets dumping the garbage they consumed for lunch, and nobody cleans it up….and it doesn’t really smell much worse than the rest of the street.

Eat with your right hand, something about wiping your arse with your left.

Wash your hands often, and especially before eating…there’s always a surprise that requires you to eat with your hands

Taxes are not included and they are high. Tipping is also expected…for pretty much everything it seems, or maybe I’m just a foreigner so they try…haven’t sorted that yet, but I did have to justify not tipping the guide who yelled at me in Hindi for 20 minutes about not being late returning from the Taj then waited 2 hours for the Indians to come back.

You will see people living in conditions way poorer than in South East Asia. You can’t save them all, but be grateful for what we have at home.

They are conservative…but Sarees show skin, look at one and judge what you think is relative.

Markets are outdoor malls….bazaars are what Western folk would call a market.

Traffic is bad. There are actually cars vs. just motos in SE Asia, it’s a whole new world of traffic jam

If taking a bus to one place, expect to stop at 10 other temples, marble shoppes, and often for food, it took 7 hours to get to Agra from Dehli…a 200km journey.

Use big bills wisely, and be careful not to rip any.

Book in advance…my new found spontaneity is not serving me well thus far.

If you are a girl alone and you have even the most distant of connections, this is the time to use them.

More Indians than you think speak English, be nice and they will at least try, be harsh and good luck.

East v West

I started this thought process a couple months ago on a walk in Laos with a new friend Aaron (who plays in a reggae beatles cover band called the Yellow Dubmarine-check them out!)…How is music different from East to West: not only in style, but in importance, in its role to culture and society. I wouldn’t consider myself to be a musically inclined person; I played the piano for 10 odd years, the flute in band, and sang in elementary choirs….otherwise I’m the person that just found out about last summers hit tune and play it on repeat failing miserably to remember the words, which is usually coupled with me not knowing who is singing or what the name of the song is. So, perhaps I’m not the best person to be dissecting this particular subject matter…or maybe I’m the perfect one, who knows.

Starting with what I do know…music in the West; not just North America but western Europe as well. Music in the West is an industry, when you’re a kid in piano lessons the goal is revolved around royal conservatory exams, and the ‘cool’ pop music is a fortune in sheet music stores. American/Canadian/everywhere in the world Idol, The Voice, X factor…all those talent shows, utilize not the love of music, but the desire to be famous from making music as major money makers. Because of the massive paycheques and fanatic fame involved with being a ‘successful’ musician in our culture, music is based off of this ‘package deal’ of good looks and charisma just as much as the voice. Furthermore, concerts are major income not only for the performers but for the venues and tourism of cities. Music that can’t be performed in concert, or that wouldn’t appeal to high ticket prices is typically scuffed away from production companies that want, as all western culture wants, the best bang for their buck.

All of this is fine and dandy, I get that it’s an industry, I don’t really resent it either…it is what it is. What is interesting to me though, is how music in the East is such a contrast. Playing instruments is a way of coming together, not for 5 members of a band, but for communities of people. The songs that are sung or played have meaning, are often passed down, and sit in a range that anyone can join in to. The east doesn’t prioritize music as a money making deal, but as a way for people to come together, to create together, and it is genuinely seen as an art versus a profession of fame. Not to say that musicians in the west aren’t artists…but half the time they don’t write their own lyrics or their own music, what is produced is what will sell, not what feels good to sing or means anything important. Also, the Father in the family I stayed with in Kolkata had been selected to sing in the soundtrack to a Bollywood music…regular people rarely get such an opportunity in the West because its about marketability not raw talent.

It definitely sounds like I’m super against western music but I’m not…I just think the attitude towards it in the east is much different and worth mentioning. Religion in the east is a completely different story as well but I’m really not in the mood to start great religious debates on a leisurely travel blog.
I will however say that it is incredible the devotion and full-hearted belief people in the east seem to have regarding their religious affiliations, but how non-judgemental they are. I’ve been judged and attemptedly forced into religions/churches back home by people who don’t live the words of their doctrine themselves, but here…here I’m staying in an ashram in a temple, nobody asked me for any religious statement, nor do they force me to believe anything. Here they see religion as a personal choice not a societal requirement and I think that might be my favourite part of the East in general. Not necessarily religion but the sense of ‘this is me, my family, and my life, and nothing else really actually matters’. I respect it. I think it is amazing to see what the human race will endure here in order to make a living for themselves and their family…the working conditions, the hours worked, the hygiene (lack there of) facilities available…you couldn’t pay a North American business person enough money to do what people do here merely to put dinner on the table. Yet what do we all complain about: work. What do they complain about: nothing really…occasionally a bad chai. A lesson to be learned I think….but a lesson much easier pondered than lived.