As we prepared to go to India, the reaction of many people we know was quite negative - why would you want to go to such a dirty, smelly, poverty stricken place? Our visit with the travel doctor who tried to prepare us for any and all eventualities made us start wondering if this trip was a wise decision. I am delighted to say that spending almost two months in India has been a highlight in our travel lives, which are rich with many outstanding travel experiences. One of the PR phrases that is used to market the country to tourists is “Incredible India” and I would have to say that is how we have come to think of it as well.
If you are going to spend 16 hours in plane to get somewhere, it better be worth it and India did not disappoint. After taking a similar flight to Australia, we found ourselves in a pleasant country with wonderful people that was too much like being home. In India hardly anything was like home and that’s what made it so fascinating. We have never been in a country that had so little interest in or knowledge of the US. We had to tell people we met that we were from America; the United States meant nothing to them. The better informed would say “We love Obama,” and when we would ask them why, they would say they did not know. We never saw American movies or TV shows either subtitled or dubbed as we do almost everywhere else in the world. People were excited about the 30+ Bollywood films that were being released for Diwali. Why would they need ours? New Delhi was the only city where we saw any familiar fast food places such as Pizza Hut and Subway. Indians have plenty of fast food. It’s just prepared by anyone with a burner on a street corner.
The country has four times as many people as the US and a history ten times as long. During most of our adult lives, India tilted more toward the Soviet Union and disregarded our opinions about what they should be doing and how they should be doing it. And yet we shared what we would call “The American Dream.” Both our tour guides started their lives in extreme poverty. One was the son of a tea plantation worker and the other lived in an agricultural village with 35 residents and dried cow patties so his mother would have something to cook with. The children of both these men have earned advanced college degrees and will have far more lucrative lives. Theirs is a typical Indian aspiration and gives the people an optimism and positive outlook on life that allows them to overlook the dirt and garbage all around. Indian homes, even the most modest, were neat and clean inside and we often saw workers with brooms sweeping the garbage into piles outside, but they never could keep up with all that was being cast aside every day. Maybe more trash receptacles would help???
For us the country was chaotic, especially the traffic. There were no rental car agencies at the Delhi airport. The driving habits are so different, it would be suicidal for any westerner to get behind the wheel even one used to driving on the left. But it worked for them. When you wanted to enter an intersection or walk across the street, you simply started slowly doing so. And people would notice and work around you. Wandering cows, carts pulled by bulls, bicycles, and motor cycles would be accommodated the same way. Only the biggest cities had traffic lights. Otherwise people just took turns, easing into any available opening. The incessant honking horns drove us crazy at times, but this was the way to let others around you know that you were there. Even during total gridlock, we never saw any road rage.
This reflected the Indian attitude toward life. If you believe in reincarnation and that the body you have is just a container and you will have a different one next time, you do not have the compulsion to do it all, have it all, see it all, that tends to typify the stressful life lived by many westerners. People were happy, friendly, and relaxed; they lived in the moment.
The day we left Delhi we watched the construction of a new six story building across the street from our hotel. The skeleton of the building was there, and six workers were on site. The two men spent much of the time hammering. We saw no other tools. Two sari clad women were on the third floor filling straw baskets with sand which they carried on their heads to the edge of the building and dumped on the ground. Two other sari clad women filled small plastic bags with gravel and carried them on their heads up six flight to the roof of the building where they dumped them. At this rate it appeared that the building would not be finished in this millennium. And that was OK. It was better not to use any equipment or machinery that would speed up the task. This meant six people had jobs, even though they did far, far less than one US worker could do with a crane in an hour. The US wrestles with this problem, too. As we struggle with our high unemployment rate we wonder what to do with all the people that do not have the skills that are required in our highly mechanized, computerized world. India has decided to stick with the manual labor at least for now. Is our way of having a permanent underclass that lives on the dole better?
In an effort to win votes Indian politicians subsidize and give out many privileges to the poor, but there is little in the way of the social safety nets that we take for granted in our country. Family and neighbors help one another when the need arises. Indians view our insular way of living with small families scattered all over the country and many singles and elderly living alone as incredibly lonely and isolated. As long as you have family you know that you will be OK. Our guides never made any important decisions in their own lives without consulting family and expected to be called on to give their financial or moral support to their relatives in return. This is why the arranged marriage continues to work so well for them. The marriage is not just between the couple but rather a joining of two families. A marriage increases and enhances your support system.
India was a photographer’s delight. We took about 14,500 photographs and videos over the seven weeks we were there. And we easily could have taken more. The Indian faces and clothing fascinated us. It felt like our white faces and western clothing fascinated them, too. People thrust babies into our arms, swarmed to have their photos taken with us and wanted to shake hands. We will miss being celebrities. The temples and palaces both ancient and newly constructed were so - not Western. Gaudy colors, fanciful portrayals of all manner of gods, images that mixed Asian and Muslim conventions - it was a challenge to notice it all. Indians love bling. It felt like no two saris were identical, but they all were in bright colors, trimmed with embroidery and sequins. Women wore such garments both to serve tea or on a road crew. On motorcycles they were always passengers, riding side saddle.
We are glad that we did not try to tackle India on our own, which we are inclined to do since we generally don’t like tours or group living. And Overseas Adventure Travel provided us with so much support and enrichment we recommend them highly and will book with them again when we are ready for more exotica. It was easy to tolerate dirt and chaos when we returned to first class hotels every night. Travelers worry about Delhi Belly, but OAT selected dining experiences that kept us healthy the entire time. The guides were well trained and knew how to handle older Americans and all their questions. They were open and flexible and worked hard to maximize our experiences every day without totally wearing us out.
We never did like the food although we kept giving it a try. Many of our fellow travelers seemed to like it much more than we did; our taste preferences are just too bland. And when Ken started going on line to start buying Groupons for steak restaurants we knew that it was time to go home. And here we are.