Oprah and I were in India at the same time.
In fact, we just missed each other in Jaipur. I was walking to the train station, fending off rickshaw drivers and sweating under the weight of my backpack just as she was disembarking from her chartered plane and being escorted into the car that was waiting on the tarmac.
I know these details because I read them in the Hindustan Times the next day, not because I stalk Oprah. Jeez, people.
While Oprah and I may have had very different experiences on our inaugural visits to India, she said something that I could immediately identify with.
She was quoted in the Hindustan Times as saying,
“I want to thank (India) for my first visit here and my last visit too.”
I saw the interview on the news in Delhi, and when they asked her why it was her last visit, she said, “I don’t know.”
I know why, Oprah.
Whether you’re sleeping in five-star hotels or in a top bunk in sleeper class, India gets under your skin.
It wreaks havoc with your mind: how can you haggle with a rickshaw driver over pennies, then spend the equivalent of his day’s wage on a $5 feast? How can you leave food on your plate, yet deny money to the children who kneel at your feet in the train station?
Even if you’re herded through India by an entourage of bodyguards and publicists, you can’t be immune to its reality.
A reader, Kieran, commented on one of my posts and summed up his thoughts on India very nicely:
“I had a love-hate impression of the country when I was travelling there but months after I left I began to appreciate my time there more and more.”
Some people fall in love with India the second they set foot in the country. Others turn tail and run, vowing never to return.
The rest of us…we’re not quite sure what to think. We’re too busy being overwhelmed.
Love-hate is exactly how I would sum up my feelings about traveling through India.
Fresh lassis, juice and fruit.
Of course I was going to love something food-related. I usually alternated between pineapple and banana, but only because it wasn’t mango season. Sweet lassis are also high on the list. Also fresh fruit muesli with honey and curd. Mmmm….
Rickshaws, cows, goats, beggars, touts, tourists, cowpats, dogs, trash, honking horns, people carrying enormous parcels on their heads, anonymous puddles of murky liquid, pigs, camels, elephants, cyclists, all going in every direction at the same time.
Within seconds of jumping in our rickshaw in Agra, our driver hit a cyclist. Minutes later he nearly hit a camel.
I banged someone with my elbow in Pushkar. When I turned to apologize, I saw that it was a cow.
If crossing the street in Vietnam is like playing real-life Frogger, walking around in India is like being in a pinball machine.
Genuinely nice people.
We met so many Indians who were bursting with pride for their country (“I love my India!”) and so welcoming. There was the guy on the street in Delhi who talked cricket with Jared, wished us a happy new year, then pointed us towards our destination. There was the little girl on the train who was too nervous to talk, but by the end of the journey insisted that we become facebook friends so I could teach her English. There were the owners of the Shubh Laxmi Guesthouse in Varanasi who gave us a late checkout (until 10PM!) while we waited for our overnight train to Umaria. People like these come up just when you need them, reminding you of the humanity that abounds in India.
The sales pitch.
Sometimes it feels like you can’t walk two meters without getting snared by someone who wants to know where you’re from and where you’re going so they can hit you with an offer of a ‘very cheap’ rickshaw or a slew of souvenirs to take home.
I saw a shirt I liked in Jaipur, and when I tried to find out how much it was, the exchange went like this:
“How much is this one?”
“Come, come inside, I show you all shirts.”
“I don’t want all shirts, I want this shirt.”
“Come inside, I show you.”
“How. much. is. this. shirt.”
“How much did you pay for your scarf?”
“100? I can sell it to you for 80.”
“But I already have this one.”
“It’s not real pashmina.”
“That’s ok. How much is the shirt?”
“That’s ok?” Big sigh. “This one? You like this one?”
“This is very good quality, hand embroidery. 500 rupees.”
“Oh. That’s too expensive.” I had bought a similar shirt in Delhi for less than half the price.
“It is only $10. In your country, that is nothing.”
“I don’t work in my country. I work in Korea.”
“Oh, in Korea? What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“Can I ask you a question? How much do you earn?”
That’s when Jared stepped in and said no, thanks, we were leaving.
“I’m tired of being viewed as a walking dollar sign,” he said. “I don’t need to tell that guy how much I earn so he can try to justify ripping me off.”
I didn’t buy the shirt.
The colors of India.
The blues of the houses in Bundi, the pinks of Jaipur, and the bold, sparkly fabric of the women’s saris. No one could ever accuse India of being a visually dull country.
I hated seeing the cows eat plastic bags and assorted trash. It’s hard not to notice that among the beauty of India, there is also the crap people toss aside – in the rivers, in the fields, on the road, out the window – trash is everywhere.
Peace. Possible when you know where to find it.
Peace was sitting at a cafe and watching the chaos from your chosen sanctuary. Rooftops are best, but roadsides allow you to observe as life goes whizzing past, something you can’t do when you’re amongst it.
They’re people. It’s not their fault, especially the kids.
I could write a whole post about this, and I might in the future. But for now, I’ll just say that I hate the way I become callous and numb inside when there’s an unwashed child tugging at my pant leg, holding out her dusty palm and shifting the baby on her hip. I stare harder at my book and try not to feel it when she kneels down and touches her forehead to my shoe. I can’t crack for her, because then I’d crack for all of them, and there isn’t enough money in my wallet to cover that.
You get the idea. There is so much to love about India, but there’s a lot of things that taint that love.
Unlike Oprah, I’m not ready to say that this was my last trip to India. I’m curious about the south, where I hear the pace of life is slower, the mangoes are juicy, and the beaches, if you look hard enough, are beautiful and virtually deserted.
It’s only been a week since we left India, but I think Kieran’s right. The more I think about it, the more I value my time there. And give it a few months, years, or maybe even decades, and who knows?
By then, I might be ready to go back and try it all again.