Friday, January 6, 2012

India (and America)


Delhi airport is normal enough. And by normal, of course I mean westernised.

It’s outside that it hits you, firstly in the nostrils. A distinct smell, offering the senses their first taste of the untamed country; yes, you can almost taste it. And it’s a little overwhelming for the white kid whose biggest culture shock previously was walking along Victoria Street in Melbourne. Quickly he comes to like it, once he no longer notices it.

On the Ganges, Varanasi
If I’m going to stand out, I may as well separate myself. My friend’s driver was waiting for me outside – you can’t actually enter the airport without holding ticket or, seemingly, being prepared to take a bullet. I insisted on making my own way at such an absurd hour, but he was just doing his job, I was told. I graciously set aside my pretentious discomfort.

The next sensation is fear. The streets, even at 4.30am, are chaotic. I messaged a friend back home who had recently been here: “Arrived in India, on way to the house. Shitting myself”. Not literally of course, that was still a little over a week away.

Lanes are wasted paint. Indicators aren’t used, horns are held as an announcement of ‘look out, I’m coming past’. Traffic lights are few and far between; you stop only for cows. If road rules exist, there doesn’t seem to be any enforcement. In Varanasi a day later the roads were even more chaotic – think a crowd leaving the MCG on Grand Final day, but some are in cars, some are on motorbikes, some are on bicycles, some in autorickshaws, some on cycle rickshaws, some are pedestrians, some are cows, some are dogs. And they’re all fighting their way through the madness. I couldn’t even tell you which side of the road was the ‘correct’ side. But I was perfectly comfortable in the passenger seat. I saw no accidents and only once heard screeching tyres, but had I been cautiously driving in that chaos there would have been an incident. The locals all seem to know how it works, because somehow it does.
Varanasi with my 15 y/o tour guide in pink

I caught the overnight train to Varanasi about 12 hours after landing in Delhi, at the suggestion of the friend I was staying with. All he said was: “If you want a genuine Indian experience, go to Varanasi”. The people I shared the cabin with on the train were astounded that I was headed there alone.

I’d read about the crime, I was wary of the ‘pushers’, ‘cheaters’ and rickshaw drivers. My hotel was only three kilometres from the station and I had a map – I would walk. I’d walked further, in the dark, without a map in Boston to my hotel. When I found my way out of the station, having told a few people I was meeting a friend so they’d leave me alone, I stood wondering what fucking back alley I was standing in and where the hell I was meant to go. I tried to not look like a tourist; then I remembered I’m white. I’ve never felt so out of my depth. After 45 minutes of walking on roads, trusting traffic not to hit me, attempting hopelessly to cross streets, and trying to work out where I was on my map I gave in and caught a rickshaw. He dropped me off as close as he could, but my hotel was right on the Ganges and I had to spend another 45 minutes or so navigating a maze of unnamed winding lanes to find it.

The room was basic but clean; I was forced to use a beddae for the first (and second) time ever. While waiting for it to be prepared I ate cautiously in the rooftop café, leaving the parts of the sandwich my unwashed hands had touched. Overlooking the beautiful, but filthy Ganges I flicked through the Lonely Planet as a 15 year old kid sat at my table and started singing and chatting to me. He told me how I would spend my 24 hours in Varanasi – I closed the Lonely Planet and said ‘ok’. He even took me to his home as we walked the lanes the following morning.

Varanasi is the oldest continually inhabited town in the world, and spiritually special because of its location on the banks of the Ganges. It was unsettling, filthy and impossible to navigate (without a tour guide … I assume) – it was full on, but one of the best travel experiences I’ve had.

Old Delhi
Old Delhi was even crazier. If I hadn’t been strolling around with a relative local it would have been far more unsettling. I would have been constantly lost, unsure what or where to eat, and the intensely crowded streets – alien in every way – would have heightened my uncertain discomfort. With my tour guide who knew vaguely where we were, casually palmed off pushers and knew how to haggle, I could soak up all the colour, sounds, smells and activity. I loved it. It was a safe discomfort, where you feel alive and can really appreciate it. In India you’ll find all your senses, and more.

From Delhi I flew to New York to meet friends. Two of my three weeks away were spent in America, but just as it was so much harder to take a good photo there – even in New York – I don’t have the words for America when India stands next to it, other than really to compare them.

Arriving in New York, for the second time, one of my first thoughts was: ‘There are so many jerks here.’ It could have been true of any city in any country. Despite the poverty the people in India were, mostly, exceedingly nice and humble.

Americans are incomparably brash and self-assured. It was impossible not to notice the spoilt brats. But their confidence is both endearing and off-putting, and it wavers between individuals; it’s something I wanted to take a little bit of home with me.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the two countries is the contrast within their own identities. Americans confidence seems to be their energy source, to the point that it almost betrays their fear of being without it. For all the constant chatter on the street, there is little discussion. Even reflection is washed up in the shallow ripple of marketing. In 2007 I visited a modest, poignant World Trade Centre memorial; I returned to branding, tours, merchandise and what seems to be an effort to remember by definition, preventing themselves from properly moving on, which is different to forgetting. People are outgoing and loud, but also suspicious and not afraid to tell you to fuck off.

Time for Chai
Indians are quiet and unassuming but won’t even mind if you walk right up to them and take their photo while they go about their daily business.

In India you’ll see the richest and poorest people you’ve ever seen. At times it seems like everyone is just trying to rip you off and make a dollar by helping you out in a way you didn’t need, but most people you meet will want to know if you like their city and will be coming back. The streets can be suffocating but are full of vibrant interaction and the people are so friendly it’s impossible not to be charmed. Especially by those cheeky, ever-smiling kids, who instinctively make the most of what they have and love life.

These are, of course, mere generalisations (because they’re generally true) of a people as a whole, based on brief travel in select cities. I love both countries. I have family in America and will likely return in the not-too-distant future and can’t wait to see more of it. India I hope to return to, but can’t see myself going by myself.

ps. The literall 'shitting myself' ... well I didn't really. But, having thought I escaped free of Delhi belly I just have the most uncomfortable 30 seconds of my life as I sat on the window seat of a plane flying to New York and I was hit with an immediate, desperate need to run to the toilet just as they placed food on the tray above my lap, with an elderly lady sitting between me and the aisle which was blocked by the food cart. As I squirmed and tried to focus, I seriously considered what to do if I couldn't hold it in. Thankfully it passed for long enough but after a few borderline ones, I did try and refrain from all rear wind for three days. Nice, huh. Just thought I should throw that in there.

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