#4: India - the good, the bad and the ugly...

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January 7th 2012
Published: January 7th 2012
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India – the good, the bad and the ugly….

When I started this blog, I made a decision to only focus on the positive. Anyone can gripe and complain about all the things that go wrong with travel and all the expectations that are not met. I wanted to share the joys that I find in these experiences. Two weeks into my life as a blogger, I’m going to break that rule. However, it would not be honest or accurate to describe India purely through the lenses of rose colored glasses. Anyone who reads this and decides to go should know what they can expect. In order to end on a positive note, in my writing and in my memory, I will handle the three topics in reverse order. I should mention that I was only there for 10 days and I only saw small pockets of the country. But these are the impressions that I fly away with….

The Ugly: Nearly every bit of India that I saw was profoundly ugly, overcrowded, filthy, chaotic, and filled with mounds of trash. There is a disheartening lack of natural beauty. The landscape was flat and dust was always present. Trees, which could have added to the beauty, were covered with said dust. I don’t think I saw a single flower, save the strings that were being sold for temple offerings. Nicer shops and houses had all the charm of a concrete block. People that were not so lucky lived in tents and lean-tos made out of any material they could find, including copious amounts of dung. There were parts that we passed through that had expanses of green fields, growing mainly wheat and mustard. But, even these verdant oases were lined with litter, more dust and various other visual distractions. We stopped at a village that almost could have been charming, and although it was cleaner than other parts, it was still grungy and run down. The saddest part was that what I saw was so far gone; I couldn’t even imagine a viable solution.

I realize there must be beautiful parts to India. I imagine that the far north, as the land rises to meet the Himalayas must be filled with breathtaking scenery. The tea plantations in the south, if they are anything like Sri Lanka, would be lovely to see. Perhaps someday I’ll see these parts. But, in a country that is 1/3 the size of the United States and has almost 4 times the population, I also imagine my initial impressions are likely the rule rather than the exception.

The bad: The biggest hurdle to traveling in India is the government. This is a country where only 8%!o(MISSING)f the population qualifies to pay taxes, which means that 88 million people are supporting just over a billion non-tax-payers. However, tourism accounts for 6%!o(MISSING)f their annual revenue. It seems the smart government would milk this sacred cash cow. But, nooooo….. Every step of the way they have you jump through hoops – little tiny hoops that are way, way up in the sky. Just getting my visa to visit, in addition to being one of the most expensive I’ve encountered, was a huge hassle. Once I figured out how to navigate the system, it still took many hours and they acted as if I was the first person to ever wander into the embassy and ask for a tourist visa. I was happy to talk to others that had the same experience with the embassies in different countries. Misery loves company!

You’d think that once you’re in, things would go smoothly, but it seems every day there was some inconvenience due to the government. Even leaving the country is a series of hurdles. You can’t even enter the airport without a printout of your itinerary. I’ve been traveling paperless for over two years passing through more airports than I can count. But in India, they won’t accept my digital itinerary at the door. Fortunately, I had a tour company transfer. The representative, who has authorization to enter the airport, was able to go in and get my printout. Otherwise, I imagine that right now I would be setting up my own lean-to in the parking lot of the Delhi airport, waiting for them to catch up with modern technology….

Of the many stories on this topic, I’ll indulge in just one final rant – they recently instituted a departure tax. Like so many countries, the departure tax is a big secret that you only learn of when you show up at the airport with the equivalent of pennies in your pocket. To make matters worse, the tax might be included in the price of your ticket or not. But there is also no way to know that until you check in. So, to be on the safe side, I carefully put aside 1500 rupees (a steep $30) to pay this. I figure I can’t lose; I either pay the tax or, if I don’t have to do so, spend the money on a couple of duty free purchases. Well, I check in and nobody asks for the money. So, after negotiating a few more unique and illogical hoops, I find myself in the brightly lit duty-free emporium! I grab a bottle of my favorite green-bottled beverage and head for the counter – only to be told that they do not accept rupees at duty-free. Let me see if I have this right – they don’t accept Indian money in India!! (“Customs regulation” is all I am told) Now, because it is technically illegal to take rupees out of India, you can’t change them at any currency exchange booths. So, I am left with a wallet full of burnable trash that is printed with meaningless numbers and Gandhi portraits. Anyone want to buy a Gandhi portrait?

And finally….

The Good: India can be a magical place. In addition to the Taj Mahal, there are many other forts, palaces and structures that defy the imagination. Many are well preserved, covered with breathtaking artwork, and spectacular to wander around. There is spirituality and an approach to life and death that seems so alien to a western way of thinking. The people are amazing to watch – everything from their clothing to their expressive faces. I suppose this is why so many people go to India to “find themselves” and seek answers. They are looking for something they have been unable to find in the west.

The food is definitely a highlight. I’ve learned that it’s pretty difficult to find something that isn’t tasty on an Indian menu. Everything I tried was good. Although, in most restaurants that I’ve visited outside of India, they ask for the level of spice you prefer. In India, they don’t ask and most dishes are served at a 4 out of 5 level, which is my preferred spiciness anyway. I love food that makes me sweat and I have a high tolerance, but every now and then my taste buds would send frantic messages to my brain to make me stop. Some travelers do not have such a tolerance and treated each menu and buffet like a dangerous mine field. I would overhear long discussions on the perceived spiciness of each dish before choosing. That said, I also learned that the food you get at many Indian restaurants outside of India is very authentic. So, don’t jump through the visa hoops solely to have a few yummy meals.

I was also surprised to find that McDonald’s does not sell any beef or pork. I know that Hindus don’t eat any beef, but not everyone there is Hindu. I guess it just made me wonder why a restaurant that built their empire on the humble beef hamburger would even bother to expand into India…. However, on my final night, I went to a hotel restaurant. They slipped me a second menu under that table that contained all the forbidden fruit – including the ultimate taboo – the bacon cheeseburger! I ordered mini lamb calzones.

The people of India are generally very poor. Everywhere you go, you will be confronted with an outstretched hand or someone trying to extract all they can from tourists. But, once I navigated through this surface level minority, I found the people of India to be warm, helpful and friendly. I had so many people smile and wave to me, it never ceased to fill me with warmth. As I was passing through security at the airport, I realized that I had forgotten to mail the postcard I always send to my niece. This has happened before and I either found a mailbox behind security or I had to beg and plead with someone to toss it in the airline’s outgoing mail (they balked even though they didn’t even need to supply a stamp!). So, I go to the information desk and ask if there is a mailbox behind security. The young man said there wasn’t, but immediately offered to take it and post it himself. This helpful gesture provided a nice balance to the money debacle. Finding a way to mentally balance the good with the bad and the ugly – that is the real trick of traveling in India.

I’ve been living in Jakarta for six months now. After living in Tokyo, which could easily be called a model city, I have had a hard time warming up to Indonesia’s capitol. When I landed at the airport today, I suddenly found the city to be beautiful – lush and green. It was so much cleaner than I remembered. I even found everything that previously had felt like chaos to be organized and efficient. For the first time since my move, I was happy to be home. I smiled. Travel always manages to give me exactly what I need.


7th January 2012

The good, the bad and the ugly
Again, an amazing description of your trip to India - great creative writing to finish with the good, photos are also terrific, thoroughly enjoyed every word and every photo. I'm looking forward to your next trip just to read the blog!
18th February 2012

We arrived back in China 3 weeks ago from India and we felt the same way...never so glad to be back in what we considered organized and clean. Travel does make you appreciate the small & big things in life.

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