Monday, 28 November 2011

More on India

When I was in Southeast Asia and it came up in conversation that I was heading to India later on in my trip, in some people who'd been there there was often a hestitation, as a certain look passed across their faces. It was a kind of frightened look, that also said  'Lord, I hope she knows what she's letting herself in for'. Amongst many people India is regarded as hardcore travel, uncomfortable travel, - enlightening, educational, sure, but hard work, and not always, if at all, pleasant. A common take on me going there was 'Good idea to warm yourself up with southeast Asia first - going straight into India would've been a shock', and that was pretty much my take as well. But when I put this to one guy I met in Cambodia, he smiled a wry smile. 'Hmmm, maybe' he said ', but if you did it the other way you might find yourself grateful for the blessed peace here after India'. I laughed.

Now I see what he meant, and what all those looks meant. Before I go on, let me just say that I love it in India. It is the most beautiful, mind-blowing, overwhelming, fascinating place I have ever been. But it is a massive challenge and, if you forgive the use of the word, it's basically a bit mental. And, yes, I know it's a developing country and there are massive amounts of poverty here, but, having visited Cambodia and Laos on this trip, both of which are per capita poorer than India, there does seem to be something uniquely mental about India.

In explaining this, inevitably I'm going to go back to those cliches I mentioned in my last blog. Westerners talk about the horror of the toilets in India, and the Delhi belly, and all the dirt and the smells. The toilets I haven't found anywhere near as bad as I thought I would (and, here, I can probably thank the preparation I got in southeast Asia). The Delhi belly, I had a mild case of. And the dirt and the smells I've talked about. It's difficult to put a finger on what actually makes it feel like such hard work here at times, but I guess, to a Westerner, there's a general feeling of chaos and things being done a bit of an ad hoc basis. Nobody queues for anything (the English in me coming out here), if you pay for something with a note and the shop doesn't have enough change, they give you a handful of sweets to make up the difference, often in cities it is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to cross the road, and most people, including taxi and bus drivers, drive like lunatics - at ridiculous speed and very dangerously . (As Rory said on our drive to Goa, it's as if they have a reverse highway code here which says things like  'ONLY overtake on a blind corner, when you have absolutely NO idea what is coming the other way'). The railway system here deserves a mention, as being a massive exception to all this and being one of the most brilliant and impressive things about this country (In loads of ways it's run way more efficiently than the railways in Britain).

As a tourist, you are in no way sheltered from this chaos and I've thought a lot about the difference between being a tourist in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (if i can lump them together) and being a tourist in India. I didn't realise it at the time but in the former countries, tourists are completely and utterly spoiled. To give an example, for a fiver a night in those countries, you can find a clean, double room, with hot water, sometimes air conditioning, often wifi, with towels and soap provided and which gets cleaned every day. In India all those things would be rare to find all at once for that price. On top of that it's quite normal that your bedding will be dirty, hot water, if you have it at all, will generally only be available for a couple of hours in the morning and evening, often in the form of a bucket shower, and there are frequent power cuts. Boo hoo, I hear you say. And I agree. Tourists have no god-given right to these things and in those southeast Asian countries the provision of hot water etc may well be at the expense of locals' access to them. And I'm not necessarily complaining (well I am a bit, in my tireder moments). Of course, the reason it's difficult to get hot water, air con etc for tourists in India is because it's difficult for everybody to get them.  But I'm still puzzled. On paper, India is a rich country. Why are resources like hot water, constant electricity still so hard to come by here? Which I guess, in a way, is another way of asking, just why is there so much chaos and poverty in India? Is it a question of resources? Its size? Political will? (I would genuinely welcome any thoughts on this by the way)

Aside from all this chaos, once you get outside the manic hecticness of the tourist industry stuff (the usual tuk tuk/ taxi/ seller hassle) the people here have been, generally, amazingly friendly and helpful. I've never really felt in any physical danger here and locals, often when they don't speak any English, are often keen to help us blundering tourists however they can. Even the women who relentlessly tried to sell us sarongs and jewellery on Benaulim beach were, once they dropped their sales pitch, keen to just chat and give us travel tips.

Last thing I want to touch on about being in India: the whole pain in the arse of being a woman sometimes. Aside from the general stuff about being on your guard etc this wasn't really something I gave much thought to before I came here. People tell you that, as a white woman, you get stared at a lot here, but beyond that I hadn't really prepared myself for much. The first thing that I realised is on arrival in Mumbai is that, even in cities, women are often looked down on for wearing Western clothes (though tediously and predictably the same doesn't really  go for men). In our hotel room in Mumbai, I belatedly read the Lonely Planet's guidelines on dressing for women here and discovered that, in most beaches, women swim in long dresses or in salwar kameez - a tunic-trouser combo. As far as I can see, most women outside big cities like Mumbai and Bangalore wear saris and, aside from these, women are often not expected to show their arms or legs. I had come to India woefully unprepared, I realised, so went out and bought some a few kurtas, long-sleeved tunic type tops. On our last day in Mumbai, I came down to reception wearing one of them and the Indian couple working at reception, who had been quite stoney-faced with me throughout our stay, smiled at me. 'This kurta is much better,' the man said. His wife nodded approvingly. 'Indian people will like you in this,' she told me. When we went to the remote coastal village Velneshwar, where we were the only non-Indians, I didn't swim, as I only had my bikini with me and wanted to observe the local customs. It's important, I think, to be respectful of these things, but I couldn't help but feel the injustice of it as I watched Rory - and other Indian men - spashing about in the water with only their swimming shorts on. Aside from the staring I've had wandering down the street or up and down train platforms on my own, the other times when I've felt conscious of my gender were in the 2 bars we went to in Trivandrum - seedy sorts of affairs in darkened, back rooms, where men knock back massive measures of whiskey and where there were, of course, no women and where I was an object of curiosity.

So, what with poverty and being a woman in India, I realise I've opened a few cans of worms here. Really, though, they're the tip of the iceberg. In general, being here has challenged me and made me think about things in totally new ways (don't worry, though, I don't think I've found myself I'd love to write about all of them, but it'd take me ages, i'm not sure i can afford the internet cafe charges and they probably wouldn't make much sense anyway. In the meantime, anyway, I'd be interested to hear any of your thoughts about what i have said... 

1 comment:

  1. I can so appreciate what youre talking about! I write this in a rather shabby, smelly 150 usd a night hotel in Liberia where this morning I had NO water and in the restaurant I was the only woman. And yet this hotel has a sushi restaurant. Liberia is proper proper poor. But even somi wonder about priorities. Who exactly is a sushi restaurant for? Cannot wait to talk to you about all of this