and the Cliffs of Culture Shock
Everyone tells you that travelling to India is going to be a shock for a Westerner. You'll see cows in the street, suffer from the food, be appalled by the poverty, and never have toilet paper. Well, much of it is true.
For me, the cows and poverty were easier to take. And I love Indian food and have always had TP in the room. What devestated me was the trash, dust, noise, crowding, and poor hygene of the city of Delhi. Our first two days were spent in Delhi and New Delhi, and they were miserable. Cars honking constantly, the stink of urine on the pavement, a constant pall of dust in the air, and a barrage of people whose sole motivation seemed to be to deceive you into shopping in the markets. Cobblers would harrass you for half a block to fix your shoe. Touts are everywhere, ramming thier goods in your face, and one "No" is never enough. We stopped consulting our map to try to navigate the city, since it only made us more of a target. We were offered help three times, always with the same result...after a moment of "Where are you from...oh, I have a friend in the US" and "Where do you want to go" you are told "No it is closed today, I'll take you to the market" which then took several rounds of "no" to the point of almost having to say bluntly "Go away!" The only solace could be found in the beauty of the architecture and sights, cut off from the conniving populace at large.
It made us very sad to feel that way. We travel places to meet people, enjoy the culture, and travel within the realm of the society we are visiting. Having to mistrust everyone, all the time, was disappointing at best, stressful at worst. At one temple, a man led me around, telling me all the best spots to take a photo from (which I had already done over the last 20 minutes). I followed around, and repeated all I had done, thinking I was avoiding being rude. At the end, he was angry that I would not give him a tip. Every act of kindness seemed to turn into a debt that needed to be paid in cold hard cash.
We left the city, and I hoped Agra would be better. Not so much. A boy tried to trick me into paying him for using the toilet (some of them have a fee, but not this one). Agra was less crowded, and began to show some of the delights of India (cows in the streets, camels pulling carts, goats and dogs roaming free) but was still mixed with the unpleasant cacophony of honking tuk-tuks, crazed motorcyclists, and filthy streets. After a flurry of touts, the Taj Mahal reminded me of why I came to India,--but the respite was short-lived, obliterated by the need to walk back through persistent vendors to our taxi.
Leaving Agra, we finally visited a smaller town, set scenically below an ancient fort, now used as our hotel. We walked down into town, and when someone in the group asked a child if a photo was OK, he said "One photo!" Again, I was put off. But as we continued to walk, children charged our group smiling and crying out "One photo! One photo!" We took their photos, showed them the camera's display, and they ran off in delight.
Each day in India has been easier. The rural coutryside has less litter, but just as much dust. The small towns are still close, crowded, and dirty. You still have to look down as you walk, or risk a cow patty on your shoes (or worse). But as we drive by, the children wave, offering us a "hello" or "goodbye" as we pass. And the adults offer us a "Namaste" that comes with no sales pitch. We bought oranges in the market: we asked for two, but he gave us three. I don't know if he sold us an extra or threw in a freebee, but I don't care: the transaction was pleasant and smooth. (Besides, 40 rupees is less than $1.)
As Jenni and I head into our last week in India, I dread returning to Delhi a little. But Delhi is not India, no more than Paris is France or New York is the United States. We'll manage in Delhi, even if it means skimming over the worst of it as best we can in a private car. It is not how we would prefer to handle things, but traveling means adapting, as well as accepting situations for what they are. But Dehli is five days away, and as our guide has often stated, "India is in the little towns." You are right, Yaddu, and thank you very much for showing them to me.
So I have climbed my Indian Mountain. Like any climb, it is tricky, tiring, and leaves you a little bruised. But the views at the summit, the reason you chose to climb in the first place, make it all worthwhile. In all likelihood, Jenni's yoga will bring us back to India. With this trip's pitons in place, I hope to enjoy the climb even more.