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Published: August 1st 2008
In the five months I spent on the Indian subcontinent (three in Bangladesh and two in India), I found myself often trying to form an opinion on that part of the world. Since I was volunteering in Bangladesh and living amongst friends and locals in a small village my opinion and experiences were vastly different from the times I spent struggling to get by in India. Everyone has always told me it's a love it or hate it country, and quite honestly, for many years, I had no desire to go there, but I think after spending so much time and enjoying myself in frustrating Bangladesh with all its similarities, I felt on more than one occasion, especially at the beginning of my time in India, that I could actually handle it there. Indeed, the people are constantly "in your face," but in a way I guess that is part of the country's charm (except at the moment it is happening, of course, which can get excruciatingly infuriating). I worked hard at (and succeeded for the most part) on remaining calm, rational and nice, despite situations that might make others blow up on an unsuspecting person. By the time I left, I was so ready to leave that country far far behind.
I know full-well two months is not enough time to form an accurate picture of an entire country, especially one as vast as the one in question and the fact I only explored a small portion of it. However, the last few weeks, I felt myself changing into someone I was not at all happy becoming. I tend to think of myself as a good-natured, jovial, smiley and rather calm person. India brought about parts of my personality I hope never to see again. I stopped smiling, for one, which is nearly unheard of. I often got biting mad; turning angry and bitter at minor occurrences, many times I found they were completely out of my control. I was convinced every rickshaw driver was a crook, all vendors were out to scam every single Western traveler, myself included, and got so frustrated at shop keepers and boat drivers just trying to make a buck. I started looking down at my feet constantly, completely ignoring "You want buy something? Boat...boat?? How much? How much you give me? Special price for you!" I hid behind my sunglasses. I played deaf and dumb. I found it hard to even giggle when I rounded the corner knowing I had duped the hawkers.
The filth, the endless rubbish strewn everywhere, the constant crap one has to step over, around, and avoid at all costs started to really wear on me. I couldn't open a train or bus window without getting blackened hands from the built-up grime on the sills. Taking off my flip-flops or sandals at the end of the day required a bit of precision to make sure my fingers didn't come anywhere near the soles, knowing full-well where they had been through the course of the day. Defecation was everywhere. The locals had no shame. Especially near the big cities as the trains slowed down to pull up to the stations, it wasn't an uncommon sight to see endless heads bobbing in the tall grasses, men straightening up and zipping up their pants. It didn't even have to be kept hidden. People of all ages, though mostly adults, crouched low to the ground to do their business, in plain view of passing vehicles and others. I talked to travelers who witnessed first hand ladies who lifted their dresses and went right on the train platforms. And I'm not talking liquid. Every sidewalk wall I passed stank of dried urine, causing me to hold my nose or walk in the street to avoid the stench. When it rained, dirt turned to mud, and mud can often look like and squish below the feet like something else. Simply yuck. The worst were the farmers who squatted in the rice paddies and other vegetation fields, which rightfully made me lose my appetite for eating any more food in that country. I had never before been subjected to this. Even Bangladesh seemed tame in comparison. India was the most polluted, disgusting, dirtiest, foulest, stinkiest hell-hole of a country I have ever been to. If food drops on the ground, the "three-second rule" definitely does not apply in this country. Just let it be.
In Agra, a dumpy little town, it's only claim to fame the impeccable and gorgeous Taj Mahal, is where one can find some of the worst scammers in all of northern India. The rickshaw drivers budged for no one and would rather a hot, sweaty backpacker with an impossibly overstuffed backpack walk the 5-10KM to town than bargain down the price of the fare, even only for a few rupees. The price was "fixed," as everyone is told, which of course is not at all the case. Everything has a price but many people in this part of the world would rather continue napping than take someone a short distance at a "reduced cost." As a single traveler, there isn't always someone around to help offset the price of transport. This means the entire ride has to paid by one person. This is no fun when it is you. To split room accommodation and rides can save a good deal of traveling costs and many travelers go out of their way to find others to share these simple little things just to "save a buck." I got increasing angrier at the drivers when "negotiating for rides."
As a foreigner, It cost me 750 rupees (roughly 42 rupees to the dollar) to enter the grounds of the Taj, a cost well-above the average day I tended to spend in India. Believe it or not, Indian nationals only had to pay 20 rupees to enter. Many budget backpackers go to Agra, see the Taj from a nearby guesthouse rooftop, take a few photos and leave, keeping that 750 rupees in their pocket and still being able to see the world's wonder. I chose to splurge and see it myself and was surprisingly not disappointed at all. I even managed to get through the gate of the property early in the morning, with the lovely French couple I was traveling with at the time, and managed a few photos with relatively few people in it; one shot in particular with NO ONE in it. This made me happy. It's the little things. It's still a bugger to know Indian Nationals can get in for 20 rupees when foreigners have to pay so much! Though I agree that foreigners should pay more than locals, one shouldn't be able to lump in the retired older folks and the packaged tourist types with money and the budget backpackers with limited funds. We simply don't have that kind of expendable cash for such frivolity. Every once in awhile I treat myself to something special, but I often walk away feeling a twinge of guilt for the money I spend (yes, even when it is only a massage for a few dollars, a "brand name" ice cream as opposed to the local cheapie kind, taking a VIP bus instead of a local one, just for a different change of pace, or paying an extra dollar or two a night for a room)......but this is all-together a different subject.....
Walking along the road in Agra, I heard a squeal and quickly snapped my head to the side following the sound across the street to find a dog having just been clipped by a passing cycle rickshaw. The driver, a fairly young boy, was laughing, seemingly having no care whatsoever about having just hit this poor dog. My first thought (which under "normal circumstances, " mind you, would NOT be the same), was to run across the road and knock the rickshaw over on to it's side. I was so full of hate and anger at this stranger who nearly took out this innocent pooch, I felt I had it in me to do some major damage to him and his rickshaw -- and yes, the strength to push his cycle over. The only thing keeping me on the opposite side of the road was that he had two passengers, but had my brain not processed the innocent travelers as quickly as it had, I may not have been able to stop myself. All this happened in mere seconds. I was seething through my teeth for the rest of my walk.
I found myself meddling in other people's business when I shouldn't have. I was on a 4-hour train ride, and though the fare cost nearly nothing, I still paid for my seat as the did the others sitting opposite me. It didn't take long before the train compartment filled up as we barreled forth towards Delhi. No surprise, as we got closer, we overfilled the seats and the aisles, people spilling over everywhere. So India. A soft spoken teenage boy sat across from me (three people per seat sitting across another seat for three, barely room for another body). About two hours before our arrival at the New Delhi Station, a pretty sizable 30-something man came on board and sat down practically on the lap of this young boy. He had no intention to tell this man to "get lost" and even inched over to make room for him to sit down. There was barely enough room and as it was the fourth man only just had both his cheeks on the seat. I felt it my "duty" to meddle in the poor kids' affair and told the man to stand, the boy had paid for the seat and he had clearly not. He spoke some in English but the angrier I got (cause he was going nowhere) the less English he claimed to know. I guess I don't really blame him for not wanting to get mixed up in some stupid situation, that this imbecilic Western woman sitting across from him had so clearly started. All I wanted to do was defend the young kid and I couldn't even do that. The fourth man got off the train before the final Delhi stop, and when the kid's station came up, he turned to me and thanked me for helping or trying to help him. The look in his eyes and the stance he took told me he wished he was more assertive and could have told this man off himself. I told him to be strong and not to let anyone ever take something that is not rightfully theirs. Something as simple as giving up his seat for a non-paying passenger was enough to set me off. Why? Cause it's India and I was getting more and more pissed off at everyone and every thing as the days droned on.
In Kolkata I was on the street finding myself in an argument with a taxi driver, seated in his cab. Boiling mad, I reached into the open window and grabbed hold of a taxi driver's arm and pulled him towards me, nearly taking him through the window. It took a few seconds to realize what I was doing before I let him go and walked away, foaming at the mouth. I had just tried to talk some logic with this man who was not at all listening to me, completely in his own world over and over repeating some BS I had no interest in hearing. He wasn't giving me any of his attention but demanded all of mine, and I just snapped. "Normally," I would have walked away before getting physical. This scared me; the fact I not only lashed out verbally, but with physical force as well. I knew at this point it was nothing but a countdown to the following evening when I headed off to the airport.
Constant noise, people arguing, bickering, fighting over anything, everything and nothing, horns blasting day and night, dogs, roosters, kids, screaming, shouting, loud voices everywhere. Even when you think you are alone, you aren't. The noise is 24/7, the headache lasts the same. Where oh where is the peace and the quiet? This constant pandemonium didn't help the worsening mood I was finding myself getting into day after day.
Finding myself getting mad at stupid, petty stuff and not having fun any more, I knew it was time to get out. Time to leave India. The novelty wore off quickly. NO disrespect for anyone of Indian decent or for those of you who love or ive in the country. These are mearly my thoughts, opinions and experiences. Believe it or not, there is still more of the country I want to explore and will someday go back, but for now, for then, I had to leave. I needed time to relax and time to clear my head. Northern Thailand was calling my name.
I always tell people if they aren't happy in their situations, get out. We live in a free society and those of us who are fortunate enough to travel, can choose where we go and how long we want to stay. If you are in an unhappy marriage, get out, move on. Life doesn't end at divorce. If you don't like your job, leave it. There are other jobs, even temporary ones to help you get by while looking for "just that right one." Why stay somewhere in which you aren't content? Now it was time for me to practice what I preach. Why do you think I left India? All I had to do was see how it was changing me into a person I didn't even want to be around, and knew it was time to leave. So, I booked a flight to Thailand and skipped out of India. Never before was I more happy to arrive in Bangkok. I saw this "clean, uncluttered city" in a way I had never seen before in all the times I had been there in the past five years.
I am now in northern Thailand and enjoying the real land of smiles, the genuineness and the unspoiled, uncluttered beauty this country has to offer.
A little add on for y'all:
Below are a few things I have taken away from my last year and nine months on the road (with no "end" in sight). One night
about six weeks ago, I just started writing these down, having given them absolutely no thought before that very minute:
western ways and rational thinking don't come into play in india (nor in Bangladesh).
one must go with the flow.
eventually the train/bus/jeep/rickshaw/taxi will get to its destination. or for that matter, arrive.
around some corner, close or not, there is always someone who speaks english. at least enough to help.
you are never truly lost.
learning at least a few words or key phrases of the local language (but how many languages are in this country
alone???) really helps to make friends with the locals, or at the very least, put a smile on their faces.
guidebooks are heavy and often not needed as the first western traveler you run into will have one. you will have no
problem borrowing one.
writing in your journal is a must. taking photos are a must.
too many photos can be too many.
make lasting memories, constantly.
always remember how far a smile can go.
a smile has the same meaning the world over.
work will always be there. traveling is not easy as you get older. do it while you are young. or young enough. Or
young in the mind ( :-) )
heavy rucksacks are just no fun.
having an ipod on long bus journeys can make all the difference. thank you steve jobs.
traveling with a laptop is fun, frustrating, useful, frustratingly cumbersome, but so very worthwhile. just make sure it is
a small and lightweight one.
not having an "end date" makes travel so much more spontaneous.
you are never truly alone. there is always someone, eventually, to travel with, if for a few weeks, a day or two or just to
share the cost of transport from point A to point B. sometimes it takes weeks to find another traveler. don't lose faith.
they are out there. but often traveling in the opposite direction.
there aren't any "real" untouched places left in this world. unless it's in the arctic.
the famous murphy, as in the guy with the law, takes place everywhere on this earth. there is no escaping murph.
going to bed late and having to wake up early is never fun, even when you are on holiday.
and one I must add, as will become clear and evident in a future email, as I write this today, July 26, 2008:
sometimes doing nothing is pure bliss.
Enjoy life and keep living it.......the way YOU want to!
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