Seeing the world, one country at the time

India in a Nutshell

India’s tourist board has created a marketing campaign called “Incredible India”. The posters are omnipresent at hotels, airports and tourist sites. And it is indeed, incredible: incredibly colorful, incredibly invasive, incredibly crowded, incredibly dirty, incredibly hospitable, incredibly abrasive and incredibly rich in culture, history and religion. It is certainly unlike any country in the world, to the nth degree. They say that it’s a love it or hate it kind of place, but I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s too varied to throw it into one emotional basket. It is more like a stew, full of tasty ingredients. But it’s too hot and burns your tongue and every now and then you practically break a tooth on a bone or chew into a crunchy mass of rubber bristle that you just want to spit out.

Everybody talks about India as an emerging economy, but it is hard to buy the hype when most of what you see is extreme poverty, and even our friends living in upscale, new apartments complain of leaking windows and power outages. The infrastructure is weak to nonexistent and there is a lack of quality. Articles always boast about the high growth of the country’s economy and that may be, but that wealth is not filtering down to the people. The knowledge and the drive are there, but in a fraction of the people. Of course we are talking about 1.3 BILLION people here. The only country we can even compare it with is China, which is closely monitored and run by a Communist state, with tight controls. In contrast, India is a renegade free-for-all nation, where those willing to risk, have a lot to gain. And those who are well educated and most ambitious cannot help but be optimistic. They have all sorts of opportunities at their fingertips. This is a good time to be Indian. For sure, things are better than they’ve been in a long time.

As a backpacker though, you don’t see much of the growth. Every city looks as poor as the next; even Agra, where foreign visitors are pouring in millions of dollars per year just to see the Taj Mahal. The miracle changes are taking place in the tech and business centers like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Bombay. Outside those cities, Indians are still lacking modern comforts and hygiene. To get a western standard, you have to pay hundreds of dollars for a western chain like Marriott or Radisson. But those lack the character that makes India so appealing. Another option is to stay in one of the many renovated, upscale palaces of the Maharajas and Maharanas in Rajasthan. But those were outside of our budget too.

Delhi surprised me at how un-cosmopolitan it is, for being India’s capital. In contrast, Gurgaon, half an hour outside the city, is teeming with construction sites and cranes as tech companies spur growth and consumerism, which is evident in the avenue of modern malls and the steel and glass buildings sprouting up among ramshackle shops and homes. Dehli is where we began our five-week sojourn in India. We flew in just in time to discover that several old acquaintances from work in Virginia were now living in Gurgaon and that an old friend from Equant was getting married and wanted us to attend his wedding. There is so much to see in such a large country that there was no time to waste. Our first stop was Agra, a city which was surprisingly enchanting, to see the Taj Mahal. We headed back to Delhi, where Sanju hosted us for two days while we were guests at his wedding to Geetam, and where we got caught up with the old Equant (now Orange) guys.

From there we headed into Rajasthan, ancient state of the warrior Maharajas. Our first stop was Jaipur, the Pink City, followed by Jodhpur, the Blue City, where Lars asked me to marry him in the shadow of the impregnable Jodhpur fort and overlooking the blue houses of the old city. We splurged at the Jodhpur Palace, with a meal fit for royalty. Next was the beautiful desert town of Jaisalmer, located within the walls of an ancient fort, where we locked ourselves away for two days in a boutique hotel in an old tower to celebrate our engagement. Finally we traveled to Udaipur to see the floating Lake Palace. I emphasize “see”, as there was no way we could afford the “entrance fee” of $150 just to eat at the restaurant, let alone the extra fee for perusing the hotel. But Udaipur is meant to be seen from the shore and from the water, as its location on a lake is enough to put stars in your eyes, no matter what your budget may be. The view of the palace was probably better than the view from the palace, so we consoled ourselves with a boat ride and high tea at the City Palace, equally impressive and perched on a high promontory overlooking the city and the Lake Palace.

From Udaipur we took the long road to Nagpur, which is located smack in the center of the country, though you’d never guess it was such a hub, for its lack of sights and its smaller size. There we were met by Swair, an old Thunderbird friend who is as much a traveler at heart as we are. And yet he had chosen to confine himself to a gurukulam (similar to an ashram) to study the Vedas - the fundamentals of the Hindu religion - for three entire years. He was at the end of his studies and ready for the next chapter, when we showed up to remind him of what lies beyond. We spent a relaxing week there walking in the calm forest and to the local lake, and realizing that India is not only hustle and bustle, dirt and noise, but small villages surrounded by nature and peaceful places of study. After all, India is where meditation and yoga originated, and what is more life balancing than that? We heard birds again and breathed the fresh air and were renewed enough to continue on our journey south. We were well fed and taken care of in our simple home, and enriched by long hours of conversation and learning.

The north of India is a lot more conservative than the south. In Rajasthan I felt naked if my head wasn’t covered, as many women wore veils to cover their head and even their face. In the south, people dress in more western-style clothing and are more likely to speak English than Hindi. We found that in Hospet and Hampi, where we met Arun and his entourage of women. Arun is a friend since the first day of graduate school, and he had brought along four women on a whirlwind tour of southern India. Casey and Kathleen are fellow marathon runners in San Francisco and Lucia and Elsa are Thunderbirds.

After several days together touring the fantastic ruins of Hampi with Arun’s friend Mukund, we regrouped later, in Goa. We lived the good life for a week, hanging out with them at nice restaurants and at the Marriott resort. On the beaches of Goa, bikinis and even thongs are the status quo. European charter tourists have taken over and have transferred parts of home onto the quiet fishing villages and bays of the southwest coast. Being in Goa was easy and relaxed compared to the rest of the country. It was a perfect place to end our Indian tour, knowing we’d barely scratched the surface but that at this stage in our travels, there was no way we could handle any more. The open stares and the behavior of the Indians on the street seemed hostile, rather than curious. Their habits and the lack of personal space grated on us, especially when Lars ended up sleeping with a woman’s toes in his face during one train ride. We missed the smiles and humility of Southeast Asia, where we’d spent seven months. Smiling didn’t seem part of the Indian culture, not even with children. They just stared at us as if we were aliens (which we were). India made us act in ways we never thought we were capable of. We were tired and on the defensive, which didn’t make us open to others and new experiences, as we normally are or want to be.

We had only one more stop in Dehli before flying out, having survived without any theft or harm or sickness - a small miracle, from the horror stories we’d heard. In Delhi we met my old Equant boss Vafa Ram, who was in town for work. After a lot of laughs together over dinner we retired to an expensive upscale hotel because we just couldn’t bear the thought of staying in the world’s grimmest backpacker street again. The next day we were hosted by our Equant friends Saran and Kishore, who took us to lunch, offered us a driver and let us relax and freshen up at their apartment before having dinner at Kishore’s with his wife Priya and their utterly adorable daughter Kira. They took us to the airport where we somehow made it through the countless lines and chaos to board our plane.

Having our friends in India made all the difference. In between local bus rides and run-ins with touts, rickshaw drivers, loud traffic and rowdy crowds, seeing our friends was what made it possible to continue. We found more of a contrast between their lifestyles and those of the masses than anywhere else we’ve been. It really created a balance for us, to see the rich variety that is India. They are partly to blame for the good memories we have of India. Because, let’s face it. Buildings and scenery can be spectacular, but nothing takes the place of friends.