Days in India: 61
Distance driven: ~3,000 kilometers
Number of times I had to veer to avoid an elephant: 1
Shocks Replaced: 4
Sensors broken by Nissan mechanics while replacing the shocks: 2
Amount they wanted to charge me to fix their mistake: $400
Prison sentence if I had acted on my fantasy of strangling the service manager: 25-life
Distance covered by train and bus: ~1,500 kilometers
Number of times I got Delhi Belly: 1
Number of times I got Delhi Belly on the train: 0 (thank god)
Mother/daughter travel pairs I encountered: 4
Father/son travel pairs I encountered: 0
Word Heritage Sites in India: 28
World Heritage Sites visited: 7
Price of entry to Taj Mahal for an Indian: 20 Rupees ($0.40)
Price of entry for a foreigner: 750 Rupees ($15)
Driving is red, trains are green; could have made a rhyme, but didn’t
A Bit Of Geography
Let’s start with a disclaimer. As you can see by the map above, I hardly touched most of India. I was there for two months and squeezed in most of the main tourist draws in the north. And technically I didn’t even go to the true north, i.e. Jammu & Kashmir. Though, since India claims as their territory where I went in Pakistan… I guess I actually did.
India’s going to catch some flak in this little essay, so keep in mind when reading this that I’m only talking about the north-central states, Rajasthan and part of West Bengal – only a handful of the 28 (and soon to be more) wildly varying regions in India. So no disrespect to the rest of the country, which I’ve heard is a lot more laid back than the deranged and overpopulated north.
And overpopulated it truly is. India shoehorns 954 people into each square mile on average. For comparison: China’s population density is 365 people per square mile; in America it’s 84; in Canada, 9. If India spawned itself into 28 independent nations, which is something the Chinese have designs on, India’s most populous state would instantly become the fourth most populous country in the world. This is crazy.
If I was feeling particularly antagonistic, which was often the case in India, I would suggest to a haughty businessman or hotelier that the country should be split into sovereign states. The teeth-gnashing, eye-popping nationalist tirade that resulted would entertain me for a while, and would then become kind of sad… but then entertaining again. The only explanation for their unbridled patriotism that I could deduce from their spittle-dripping tantrums was that Indians were united by a universal loathing of Pakistan. The compulsion to beat another country at cricket is hardly a strong foundation for nationhood.
Historically, India has been tied together by the Hindu faith, but a modern India can’t fall back on that anymore. There are almost as many Muslims in India as all of Pakistan, not to mention sizeable numbers of Sikhs, Buddhists and godless upwardly mobile urban drones. Given the historical animosity, it’s natural that Indian nationalism is anti-Pakistan in name; however, it is effectively anti-Muslim in spirit. “Muslims are cheats and thieves,” was a common grouse.
Sikhs waiting to enter the Golden Temple, Amritsar
As any guidebook will tell you, India feels like dozens of separate countries and it is my historically uneducated opinion that they should just break up into separate entities and see how things go. It could go like Yugoslavia, which has transitioned fairly well. Or it could go absolutely tits-up. Who knows? Either way, the status quo in Indiadoesn’t seem to be working, and there is little consensus on methods of restoration.
I was trying to summarize India while I was in the country and it felt like describing a castle from the dungeons. Everything I wrote was absurdly negative; I struggled to find a single positive thing to say about a place that obviously has its fair share of great features. But I really struggled.
I waited until I arrived in Malaysia to write this up. I got in quite late at night to Kuala Lumpur and decided to sleep in the airport for several hours until the morning. Apparently, I had completely forgotten what civilized behaviour was like. I stalked leerily through the airport, terrified of being harassed by touts, darting furtively from shadow to shadow, hiding behind scrolling billboards and plastic ficus trees. A baggage porter driving one of those airport golf carts approached me, bored, just wanting to chat. I coiled into a ball and hissed at him. I felt like an abused animal, wary of offers of help, and weak with suspicion.
After all, India treated me like an abusive owner. I just wanted to be friends; I wanted to love it with the unfettered adoration of a wide-eyed puppy. But time and time again, it would sweetly caress me – with the gentle strokes of a sunset over the Himalayas or the supple curves of the Taj Mahal – before beating me insensate with a blunt stick hewn from ossified bureaucracy, coated in street sewage and wielded by an alternately miserable, indifferent and avaricious maelstrom of humanity.
I get the sense that the crush of so many people inclines Indians toward a type of clustered social grouping that prunes away the impulse of goodwill toward strangers. The impromptu camaraderie from all levels of society in Pakistan was conspicuously absent in India. So was any semblance of civic responsibility. This is to say northing of the caste system, which relieves the upper crust from giving half a damn about the rampant poverty because the poor had it coming, damn it (cosmically speaking).
Anyway, it was the British that gleefully integrated the caste system into their fetishistically bureaucratic form of governance. And it’s the British on whom India blames most of its current problems. The evidence is pretty incriminating. Prior to the arrival of the Brits, the Mughal emperor of India had treasury reserves that were the highest in the world. At its peak, India was thought to possess 27% of the world’s income. After the British, it was about 3%.
The Victoria Memorial: One of the nicest buildings in the country, unfortunately built by the British
The British often exhibited a superficially bemusing political cant when it came to different groups in society. One of the sticking points of the independence movement was that the British were unwilling to hand over governance to a group that didn’t represent millions of people, i.e. the Muslims. This seems very humanitarian of them, but in reality it was entirely politically motivated. Nobody’s going to convince me that the British overlords, who included among them one chap who had 110 servants for his family of four, were in anyway inclined toward altruism. (The fellow kept “five horses and, according to the cursed fashion of this idle country, ten fellows to look after them,” according to a contemporary.)
My Own High Horse
Any attempt to change India from the inside seems absolutely futile. From the outside, the most commonly suggested solution to India’s myriad problems involves installing some form of communist government. It seems to work for China, whose top-down approach actually manages to get things done.
However, India clings to the title of “World’s Largest Democracy” as if it’s actually something worthy of celebration. When over 40% of the country is below the poverty line, destruction and pollution of the environment is completely out of control and your government is comically corrupt, an inert and dysfunctional bureaucracy should not be a point of pride.
I’m getting pretty sanctimonious about India here. I know that. After all, I didn’t rip onIran or Pakistan in the same way, despite the obvious failings of those two countries. But that is because I found an awareness in those places that things weren’t totally right. People were more conscious of their country’s shortcomings and would become impassioned with the thought of these things being fixed, even while admitting that their individual efforts would often accomplish very little.
The state of things in India, on the other hand, is accepted by everyone high and low as how it was, is and will be. I saw and felt no impulse from most Indians that things could – and should – be different. And I’m not talking about the very poor, whose main concern in any country is simple survival. Indians, high- and low-standing are just looking out for No. 1, and hustling is just a way of life. It was frustrating to see people shrug off things like the pervasive corruption, racism and disregard for order and each other as just part of who they were. Abusing people of a lower station verbally and sometimes physically, for example, is just how things are done.
I don’t buy into this static madness. I saw enough loathsome attitudes and actions that I found myself emotionally detaching from a people and a place in desperate need of a dose of empathetic compassion. India is the last place where you want to lose your sense of humanity, but I’ve never faced a bigger struggle to maintain it. It needs to change, but few seem to care if it does.
As a rule I try to remain equanimous about love-it-or-hate-it prospects. When you’re faced one of those divisive topics that bisects everyone into two camps (i.e. global warming, alternative medicine, liquorice, Nicolas Cage), it behooves the sensible individual to maintain a level head in face of inflamed rationalization from both sides. A nuanced view is a delicate thing, easily blown away on gusts of rhetoric from blustering zealots. It’s not easy to find a middle ground but, as the riddle goes, the wise man is sure of nothing.
I make no claims to wisdom, and regularly and vehemently defend Cage’s acting credentials with a partisanship that would make Rush Limbaugh jealous. Still, it pained me that it was so difficult to find redeeming qualities in India beyond the World Heritage Sites. It was little solace, but virtually every traveller I met either loved or hated the place, too. If you loved it, none of India’s multitudinous faults might persuade you of a less fervent position. If you hated it, the blinders were on. Nothing could redeem India for you.
Among those firmly in the “hate-it” category were other overlanders, especially those who were driving. When you understand that the sociopathic driving habits and abhorrent road conditions are basically a microcosm of Indian society, that this one aspect of the country would blot out like spilled ink any of the more positive features starts to make sense. But even those who had travelled the better part of the world on public transport had, in general, little enjoyment of the place.
This man is literally holding a semi truck together with his hands and a strap.
Meanwhile, leisurely dozing in the hammocks of the other camp were the drippier of my fellow travellers. To them, India could do no wrong. They were prone to casting about mawkish and romantic pronouncements of India’s “beautiful” people and places while willfully ignoring the leering misogynists, rapacious touts, abusive husbands and corrupt patriarchs.
I was verbosely informed by one incensed spirit-seeker that “India, man. It’s… beautiful, man. The people, are, um, beautiful… man.” With the country’s “Incredible India” marketing campaign in its twilight years, perhaps the Ministry of Tourism would be interested in purchasing the rights to my new campaign: “India: It’s beautiful… man.”
Incidentally, I’ve discovered there is a correlation between the number of dreadlocks per capita and my inclination to commit crimes against humanity.
Bolstering the ranks of these fawning hippies are those who’ve come to India seeking a spiritual salve for personal and emotional problems. Power to them. Travel is an excellent way to gain perspective and pry open the dusty chests of personal insight. But since their opinion of the country is often forged in the kiln of personal absolution, their view is stamped with a redemptive impress that they wholly ascribe to India. The conclusion is that it is India and not their own admirable struggle and convalescence that is worthy of praise. These people should applaud their own personal journey, not India’s perceived guidance. Change comes from within – not the rickshaw-wallah. That being said, seeing the utterly desperate situation of the impoverished masses is a surefire way to put things in perspective.
“Personal absolution is that way, and I can take you for 100 rupees.”
Driving in India is like joyriding through hell. I pull onto the highway, and twelve cars cut me off in less than a mile. I swerve to avoid a drunk man wandering on the road only to find a transport truck barreling toward me on the wrong side of a four-lane divided highway. Veering away, I almost flatten an impromptu cricket match and have to come to a full stop and lean on the horn to wake up several sleeping cows.
My brain grapples with the reality that it is going to be overclocked and stressed to the breaking point until I reach my destination. I start to smell something in the air… what is that? Sulfur? The landscape outside begins to morph and change. Dark clouds descend and the sky takes on the color of permanent sunset. A desolate charcoal wasteland unrolls before me. Fires are now raging in the open plains and orange molten lava boils up from the ground in giant bubbling pools. Ash thickens the air. A lone sapling bursts into flame and shrivels and dies. A demon is driving condemned souls before him, or it might be a man herding goats; I’m not sure, I’m quite delirious. Inside the car my head has morphed into a flaming, cackling skull. Thrash metal blares from the stereo and I’ve lost all semblance of rational thought.
My mood curdled during these long drives and my mind would wander into the dry desert of irritability. I mentally drafted abusive letters to any corporation/government/person/animal/inanimate object that I perceived had wronged me in some way. For some reason the philippics were always in that dictated-but-not-read telegraph tone:
ATTENTION: DIRECTION SIGNPOST ON INDIAN NATIONAL HIGHWAY 2 NEAR ALLAHABAD
Why is there a hole punched through you where the arrow should be STOP I hate you STOP May you be chopped down and consumed in flame ADAM HODGE
Senator Palpatine could have saved himself a lot of time and all of us three bad movies if he had just sent Anakin out to drive from Delhi to Kolkata.
The Good Bits
So about that equanimity I was talking about earlier… Here are the things I liked best about India.
The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the most important building in Sikhism. It floats in the middle of a serene bathing pool and is a world away from the chaos outside the walls of the complex. It’s incredibly peaceful. I must have walked dozens of laps around the pool over a couple days. They also serve excellent food for free (well, by donation) to some 70,000 pilgrims each day.
Golden Temple, Amritsar
There’s also an interesting if queasy museum attached that is full of paintings of all the gruesome ways Sikhs have been martyred over the centuries. For example: Sikhs were boiled alive, sawed in half lengthwise, bricked alive, and made to wear necklaces of the limbs of their infant children. We humans are a repulsively inventive species.
Chandigarh is a planned city designed by Le Corbusier and according to the government, it’s India’s cleanest city. The streets are ordered in a grid and there’s green space everywhere. It’s India with a muzzle on. I arrived in time for the annual rose festival held in the “largest rose garden in Asia.” There are more varieties of roses than I ever thought possible, and they’re all seemingly named after female celebrities: the “Shakira”; the “Elizabeth II”; the “Barbara Streisand”; and the “Betty White Sport”.
Now with reclining bucket seats and only 2.9% APR!
The other must-see in Chandigarh is a bizarre little park named the Rock Garden of Chandigarh. When the city was first being built, a worker found a little plot of land on government territory and as a hobby began constructing things out of demolition waste – ceramics, glass, metal and the like. The government eventually found out about it, but instead of fining him gave him a team of 50 laborers to finish it. The results are sometimes enchanting and sometimes quite creepy.
Would not want to be stuck here at night.
The Corbett Tiger Reserve is a beautiful park even if you don’t see any tigers, which I didn’t. And after reading Corbett’s accounts of hunting the man-eating tigers and leopards that terrorized villagers in this area in the early 1900s, I’m almost relieved.
“It is never safe to assume that a leopard is dead until it has been skinned.” Maybe it looked like I was cool and composed in an open-top jeep with the engine off, quietly listening for giant predators in the surrounding tall grass, but in reality I was just repeating this quote to myself trying not to pee my pants.
Dinner: Canned human.
The Indian Museum in Calcutta is one of the oldest museums in the world and a fascinating place to walk around. They have everything – fossils, antiques, mummies, old weapons, meteorites, painting galleries, the ashes of the Buddha – and it’s all housed in a giant old mansion in the middle of the city. They grossly misapportion upkeep funding in favor of the archaeological and art sections of the museum, so Buddhist sculptures and Mughal paintings are exhibited in modern air-conditioned rooms while the natural history section looks like Frank Buck’s dusty basement. In the main animal hall, giant old elephant and whale skeletons have pride of place. Hundreds of stuffed critters and creatures peer out from behind old glass cases along the perimeter of the room. The skins of the animals are so old and dehydrated that they’re starting to slowly peel back from the glass eyes, resulting in creepy-looking things like this:
“Hello young one, my name is Jasper.”
It’s a strange, unpolished and ramshackle place, and it’s just terrific. Seeing all the taxidermied animals made me want to put on a safari hat and go stalking – the objective of every natural history museum, I’m sure. And then I discovered these, uh, curiosities tucked away in a small case, which cranked up the freaky factor by orders of magnitude:
Riding an Enfield – The Royal Enfield Bullet is like the Harley-Davidson of India in that something breaks on it every couple of miles. But they’re ubiquitous and make a magnificently asocial exhaust note, so I had to try it out.
Justice comes to town.
I’d never ridden a motorcycle prior to this. However, for only $8/day and a 99% chance of seriously injuring myself I rented one of the largest and most ungainly bikes in India and drove with some friends to a temple outside of Pushkar. Man oh man – what a rush. The throttle rumbled open like a 9.0 earthquake of testosterone and adrenaline. Animals scattered; women fainted; vassals pledged me fealty. I had a WSM – a Will Smith Moment:
The Taj Mahal – There’s so much hype around this place that it would be so easy for it to disappoint, but it really doesn’t. The thing is so shapely, so seductive, I could just stare at it for hours on end, which I did, in fact. The audio tour was also surprisingly informative, and narrated by a guy on a hilariously hyperbolic streak. Take his description of the landscaping, for instance, spoken with utter reverence:
“In short, the excellent features of this paradise-like garden have reached a stage surpassing imagination, and the smallest particle of its description cannot be accommodated by the faculty of speech.”
I want this guy to write my eulogy.
Holi is an annual Indian festival and is observed by lighting things on fire, throwing and smearing coloured powder on people and stray animals, and drinking bhang lassi, a milky beverage spiced with black pepper and laced with low-grade marijuana. The holiday combines the irreverent public intoxication of St. Patrick’s Day with Halloween’s enthusiastic affirmation of dressing ridiculous and the general cheer and bonhomie that are for some reason only socially acceptable around Christmastime.
During Holi week there is the constant threat of water balloon and squirt gun attacks from balconies and roaming groups of children. Kids get a free pass to mess with adults this week, and the little urchins take full advantage. It’s hard enough avoiding homicidal rickshaws and other traffic in India, but when you’re constantly on the lookout for water balloon sniper nests in the balconies above, it’s like a slow ride up the Mekong in 1970.
On Holi proper, the anticipation that has been building up all week explodes in an orgy of colour fights, furious drumming and an all-out suspension of the social status quo. It’s a social equalizer par excellence and prejudice against caste, gender and ethnicity is cast aside in favor of shaming the unpainted. You expect to get coloured; you expect to get doused in paint and water; you don’t expect to be bodily dragged through the muddy brown liquid that has been collecting on the floor all day, but you suck it up and take it anyway.
I know labour is cheap in India, but surely a mop would be more efficient
As on St. Patrick’s Day, if you’re doing it right, you’ve already had your first pint before a proper breakfast. Also like on St. Patrick’s Day, most have hit a wall around mid-afternoon. If you’ve been drinking bhang, you receive a nice back-handed slap from the concoction around that time, and you’re put out of commission anyway. I don’t know what happens in the evening, but come the morning there is a rainbow mess to clean up and stray dogs emerge timidly, no longer fearing the coloured wrath of marauding groups of small children.
People prepare their cars for the carnage
The clean-up from Holi depends on the fiendishness of your fellow Holi revellers. Most use a standard, easily removed coloured powder while other diabolical rascals use an oil-based paint, which is next to impossible to scour off without removing a few layers of skin with it.
Walking the ghats in Varanasi – Varanasi is the holiest pilgrimage site for Hindus, and the faithful from all over come to bathe in the River Ganges. Dying here is supposed to release one’s soul from the cycles of rebirth. I came across a cremation at sundown and I watched for a good while. Here’s what it was like:
A group of men negotiates with the wood-wallah for the exact amount they will need, and they place a small shrouded body on the platform next to the water. It looks like the body of an old woman. A couple of yards away a man in a loincloth concentrates on digging a small ditch out of the sand by hand; this has nothing to do with the cremation, he’s just there, digging away with a peculiar concentration. Three men are chatting jovially as they shampoo themselves in the river a couple of feet beyond. A kid standing adjacent to the family, unrelated, runs around them with a kite, and the paper whips through the air and crackles mere feet above the heads of the men preparing the pyre. Yells echo down the ghat – a cricket call disputed.
The fire-wallah goes through the appropriate motions and the kindling is lit. The sun dips below the horizon. Lights blink on. The kid brings down his kite, winds it up, and goes home. The cricket game is over and the mosquitoes have come out. Flames lick the body and dark smoke climbs into the darkness. A tout arrives and begins to badger me about coming back to his house to buy hash. The power goes out. Moonlight and flames illuminate the sullen, quiet faces of the men squatted next to the body. The tout is still chatting incessantly in my ear. We are standing upwind, but later I will smell the cremation as I walk back into the city. The water reflects other fires all down the crescent riverside. The moon grows brighter. A dog barks. The fire crackles loudly and the night is hot. I’ve seen enough.
Later, the family will put the bones and ash in the holy river. If they can’t afford enough wood to burn the whole body, the government-trained snapping turtles downstream will take care of the rest.
Rajasthan is the “Land of Kings”, and any place where royalty comes in plural is bound to have a slew of castles, forts, palaces, temples, and the like. My favourite spots were the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, the Palace of Winds in Jaipur and the immense astronomical observatory constructed by a space-happy Maharaja, also in Jaipur. Sadly I didn’t have time to go to either of the monkey or rat temples.
Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur
Palace of Winds, Jaipur
Jantar Mantar, Jaipur
However, my favourite city was actually Udaipur, which sits on a man-made lake, and is where they shot the Bond flick Octopussy. Incredibly, I still have not seen this movie, despite it being on repeat in every single restaurant and hotel in Udaipur.
Rajasthan has some other hidden treasures, like the world’s largest cannon, turban and sundial.
Bodhgaya was one of the last places I went in India but might be my favourite. Despite the attempts of the Indians to crazy up the place, the area around the main temple complex remains remarkably serene. I sat under the fig tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment but nothing was forthcoming.
Prayer wheels, Bodhgaya
I also met two of the more interesting characters I’ve come across on these travels in my hotel. I noticed a Nissan Patrol outside with European plates, so naturally I hunted down the owners. What I found: Two Slovenian tantric sex teachers who had driven to Goa, and had plans to ditch the car, fly to Madagascar, buy an island off the coast and set up an exclusive self-sufficient tantric community to weather the coming global cataclysm in 2013-14.
Yeah. Unfortunately, the huts they were staying in on the beach in Goa burned to the ground in the middle of the night with all of their possessions inside, including laptops, phones, clothes, passports, and $15,000 in cash, forcing them to drive back up to Delhi to get new identity documents before going island shopping. They seemed to be taking the loss of all of their stuff pretty philosophically. Apparently, they charge around $50,000 per couple per course, which might explain why. They were really nice guys with some outrageous stories, and I chatted with them well into the night. Before I left the next day, they assured me that I was alright by them, so if I find the right partner, I’m more than welcome on their island. So, any ladies looking to avoid the coming apocalypse on a communal sex island… hit me up.
A man for every occasion: There’s a guy for everything in India – the wallah. The auto wallah drives the rickshaws, the chai wallahs serve you tea, the pigeon wallah gets rid of the pigeons roosting in your air conditioning unit, and so on. It’s mostly a make-work thing. You have to find some way to keep 1.2 billion people busy, so multitasking is frowned upon.
Surprising myself: Turns out I quite enjoy cricket. I’ve progressed in my knowledge of the ridiculous terminology since Pakistan: I now know that it’s pretty good if you hit a six off a googly on a cabbage patch. Turns out I also enjoy Bollywood films, particularly the song-and-dance numbers. Didn’t see that coming.
The head waggle: This uniquely subcontinental dialect of body language can be absolutely flummoxing if you don’t know what’s going on. Indians – and Pakistanis, too, actually – do a little lateral nod-like movement in response to everything. Usually it’s a form of agreement, but really, it’s entirely contextual. It could mean yes, no, maybe, sorry, don’t eat that it’s poisonous, etc. Want an amusing spectacle? Set a bunch of Indians of various social standings to meeting each other, and watch the heads start waggling. It’s like a bobble-head store during an earthquake.
Too helpful by half: I learned very quickly that if I asked someone a question and he hesitated for even a heartbeat, he had no idea what he was talking about, but was still going to give me an answer anyway. It was nothing malicious, it’s just that Indians can never admit that they simply don’t know. This trait was particularly aggravating when asking for directions.
Odorous India: Smells are the first thing you notice in India. 20% are good – spices and the like; 75% are nasty symphonies of exhaust, urine, heat, excrement, dirt, metal, and people. The remaining 5% are strange, ersatz smells that you thing you recognize but you just know shouldn’t exist where you are. Case in point: I was driving through West Bengal and caught a whiff of what smelled like freshly baked cookies. The only buildings for miles were pipe-wrapped factories spewing exhaust and chemicals into the sky, and I’m damn sure they weren’t cookie factories.
All the noise, noise, noise: The sounds of India are deafening. If you’re out in public with 1.2 billion people, it’s going to be noisy. No surprise there. One of my last days there I found myself suddenly alone in an air-conditioned museum room entirely cut off from the rest of the building. Silence. Eerie, unnatural silence. I almost had a panic attack.
Earlier I said that there were only two types of travellers in India, the lovers and the haters. There’s actually a third variety who are actually probably the majority – those who leave with a temporary psychological stress disorder. Ask one of them about their time in India, and they might pinch the bridge of their nose, or rub their temple, or scratch their head and look past you vacantly. Then they’ll shake their head and say something like, “India… it’s crazy,” or they’ll sigh and tell you that India was “intense.” It’s the familiar requiem of a person who has endured an emotionally and physically taxing experience, but is still digesting the whole thing, sometimes years later.
I guess I fall into this category. Like a freak show, it has to be seen to be believed, and you’ll leave disoriented, indignant, or maybe even stimulated if you’re into that kind of thing. In any case, you’re not going to forget it any time soon. The best way I can describe India is that it’s an experience, and if that’s what you’re after, it’s unlike anywhere else.