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October 4, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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An Indian Summer

Last summer Salient writer David Smith spent two months working and travelling throughout India. He describes the highlights, conundrums and idiosyncrasies of the vast subcontinent.

Whenever a person asks me to describe India, I invariably tell them the same thing—it is the worst and best place, in every sense.

India is noisy, smelly, chaotic, idiosyncratic, poverty-stricken and plagued by inherent corruption and viral bureaucracy. Yet it is also vibrant, colourful, dramatic, bursting with amazing artwork, buildings, clothes, food, religion and tradition. It is ancient and enormous, yet nascent in its development and sometimes naïve in its outlook. Where China feels rigidly structured, controlled and channeled, India captures the energy of a billion people—just no one knows quite who is driving or where the end destination is.

India can be an overwhelming place. Road rules are optional and the horn is used—rather than as an insult—as an incessant friendly reminder. Westerners often find themselves at the mercy of street vendors who persistently harass tourists in an attempt to sell fake watches or glasses, while pick-pockets are numerous in the big tourist centres. Beggars are common, and the moral conundrum this brings—whether to pay them and face an onslaught of other paupers, or cruelly reject them—can be conflicting and difficult, especially when children are often used as pawns by beggar ‘pimps’.

If you can learn to deal with these anxieties, India can be an amazing place. People are generally hospitable and friendly. Even shop vendors will smile and grin when you show them you aren’t afraid and are ready to buy something if it is at “Indian” prices. On this note, if you don’t feel morally estopped by India’s labour practices, some great deals can be secured with the notoriously cheap rupee—just be ready to bargain.

The juxtaposition between the rich and poor remains stark and unavoidable. I spent the majority of my stay in the IT hub of Bangalore, where BMWs filled with foreign businessmen jostled with auto-rickshaws, and cows serenely ate plastic bags in the streets. Next to the middle-class apartment in which I stayed was a glitzy 10-storey complex built for the wealthy and connected, and adorned with swimming pools and tennis courts. Next door, between the two sets of accommodation was a slum. Often tennis balls would fly onto the tin roofs as missed shots skied into the unfortunate. Nothing like inequality that beats you on the head.

For all its charm, India is also a dirty place. Designated walls provide de facto toilets, and if you happen to stand in the wrong puddle you can find yourself having an unpleasant experience. Pollution is rife in the streets, and it is common to see dogs and cows rummaging through trash for food. I was amazed to see that even wealthy and educated Indians showed a complete lack of compunction about littering. India is a tragedy of the commons writ large.

Pollution is only one of many hazards to consider when travelling through India. In tourist areas the naïve are easily fooled by elaborate scams. In the Paharganj district of Delhi, con-men will try to convince you that the tourist bureau of the Railway Station is closed, and lead you on a merry (and expensive) dance. A multitude of other scams are common, not least ones encouraging tourists to pay off shopkeeper to stop them hitting ‘thieves’ who have stolen food to eat.

As the backpacker district of Delhi, Paharganj provided me with an insight into some of the dodgy opportunities available to tourists. Obscure voices would hiss words to me in passing—“you want hash?” or even, “you want woman”? One man energetically told me that his hooded shirts were made with hemp, expecting that my eyes would light up and I would suddenly rush to him with a fistful of rupees.

However, Paharganj is hardly the epicentre of India’s party or drug scene. If you want to see pot-bellied and aged European hippies, barely-clothed Russian femme-fatales, and the wild youth of newly-moneyed middle-class India, go to Goa. This is the hedonistic party capital of India—a haven of golden beaches, spotted with boozy bars serving British food to package-holidayers, and awash with party drugs.

I remember going to one bar where Eastern European girls preyed on crusty tie-dyed geriatrics, and my Indian friends went wild to washing-machine trance as images of Buddha were projected onto a psychedelic dance floor. While not my cup of tea, Goa certainly appeals to many and its New Years parties are notorious.

Even if you aren’t there to party, Goa has some great architecture dating from its history as a Portuguese colony. If you are into this, another great spot is the state capital of Kerala, Kochi.

This place is an enchanting melting pot of influences, encapsulating its history as a Portuguese, Dutch and British outpost, and has a prominent Jewish quarter. Travelling the old town by bike is fantastic. An unmissible highlight is St Francis’ Church—the original burial ground of Vasco da Gama and the oldest church in India, dating back to 1503.
Religion is hard to avoid in India. Whether locals are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Sikh, most Indians are guided by some deity. But perhaps even more than their devotion to their religion, Indians love a good festival.

I was lucky enough to spend Christmas in Bangalore. I couldn’t help but be amazed at how everyone got into the spirit of Christmas—whether or not they were Christian. And when I say ‘spirit’, I mean it. It was bizarre and refreshing to find people relating to the occasion purely as religious event, rather than a consumeristic orgy of materialism. I kept wondering whether this was what the West was like 200 years ago.

If you want to feel the beating heart of Hinduism, Varansi is India’s holiest city and emanates with an often creepy other-worldliness. This settlement lies on the banks of the Ganges, and is lined with 7km of ghats (steps) where locals and visitors come to bathe in the replenishing waters of the mother Ganga. Indians who can afford it also send their newly-deceased from all corners of India for public cremation and interment into the river. Fires burn day and night, providing some surreal experiences when combined with religious chants, thick fog, and milling stray cows.

This place is well worth a visit, if only for the irony of seeing the holiest river in India used for drinking water, bathing, toileting, the interment of dead, the watering of livestock, and as a vast rubbish dump.

Varanasi is only one of many obvious hot-spots for tourists. Everyone’s favourite is Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. This giant mausoleum was built in honour of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s deceased wife. Yes, it is as impressive as you’ve been told.

While the Taj is a truly spectacular piece of architecture, it is symptomatic of exactly the kind of tourism any visitor to India should avoid. Aged and wealthy foreigners are shipped from monument to monument in air-conditioned capsules, enclosed from the dangers outside, until they are deposited once more into the confines of a suitably secure luxury hotel. This is the way to spend weeks in a country without ever engaging with the culture.

Undoubtedly the best way to see India is on foot, with a pack. You can’t help but inhale the place, and having everything in one bag gives you the flexibility to follow your nose. I found that some of the best spots weren’t those in the tourist books, but places I learnt about from other travelers. Pre-booking accommodation is unnecessary in most towns, so it’s best to leave yourself open to new opportunities.

Travelling like this—with trains, rickshaws and budget hostels—is great fun, and facilitates the inevitable discovery of that other common form of tourist: pilgrims on their journey for “meaning”.

Hampi is an idyllic spot a day north of Bangalore, nestled by the Tangabhadra River, and fuelled by the masses of Western tourists searching for the “authentic” Indian experience. Here it is common to overhear British and American voices waffling about their journey of self-discovery and sharing Yoga tips. Westerners wear faux-Indian garb as a badge of cultural sensitivity, and if you don’t too, one can feel the penetrating eyes of judgment fall on you. Whether or not this is your buzz, the place is fantastic, with surreal boulders dotting the landscape, and an array of amazing ruins and temples that make up a UNESCO world heritage site.

In Hampi, I was lucky enough to meet a Dutch couple who had been coming back to India every five or ten years. They told me how the place was constantly changing. 25 years ago, no one had phones or computers, there were no high-rises, and few people had cars except for government workers. They had no doubt that in ten years things will be different again.

Therein lies the appeal of India. India is old and immortal, breathed with the patina of time, massive and unbounded. It is a diverse and contrasting place, rich with the tradition of a hundred cultures. But it is also in a constant state of evolution. The place you visit now will be different in the future, driven by an onslaught of development and integration into the world economy.

But while India will change and ebb and flow, her defining characteristics will stay. She will remain wild and chaotic, idiosyncratic and overwhelming, and, most certainly, confusing. And for many that provides exactly the cocaine for more. Here the journey is never over.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Jenna says:

    Riveting article, thanks:)

  2. Encee says:

    To this good article, I would add that for female tourists from other countries, India can be unsafe, dangerous.

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