I realize I have yet to include something about my recent trip to India, and I’m already preparing for another foray within Asia in a few days (I go to Thailand for the Chinese New Year holidays). So before this carries on any longer, I’d like to say a few words on my two-week trip to India.
I’d always wanted to go to India. Back home I’ve had many friends of Indian descent, and I have always loved the food and the fashion, so this trip had long been on my wishlist. I knew I’d have a substantial time off between semesters at CUHK, so it was a no-brainer to attempt to go to India, especially as the weather (in the South) is at least bearable in December-January.
I joined a tour group, which is the usual course for me, as I often can’t round up enough people to travel when I would like to or how I would like to, plus, it’s useful as I don’t have to think much. I went with GAP Adventures, a touring company I’ve used a few times now, whose tours are relatively inexpensive and have an emphasis on cultural experiences. The flexible schedules also allow each of its participants to do as he or she pleases. The particular tour I enrolled in took us from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and other great sites, then across Rajasthan through Jaipur, Pushkar, Udaipur, and Mt. Abu, an overnight train to Mumbai, finishing off with a few days in Goa. It seemed to cover a lot of the basic sites I’d wanted to see in India, plus I managed to meet up with my friend Namit in Mumbai during my one day in town.
When I met up with Namit in Mumbai, which was close to the end of my tour, he was anxious to hear my impressions of his homeland. Unfortunately, I did not quite have anything obviously good to say. For starters, it was just that night that my stomach finally succombed to what some call the “Delhi Belly.” I was, not to gross you dear readers out, suffering in the train restroom nearly every hour on the hour from 2AM til arrival at about 10AM. I don’t think I ate anything particularly unsanitary, but that my system was just unaccustomed to the incredible spices (Indian food is just nothing like the way it is in India) and all the ghee on top of ghee on top of ghee.
To sum India up in one word, it is “profound.” It is just an experience like no other in the world. For starters, while I’ve been to other “third world” countries, none ever seemed so impoverished. The population just impounds the experience, and worse, while touring at some of the grandest palaces and forts in the world while poverty encircles every other moment, you can’t help but notice it even more. In spite of this, there is just so much color — from the multi-tin spice racks to the bright sarees all around. Also, it seems people, no matter how little they have, don’t appear all that unhappy at all. People are still doing their thing and most importantly, smiling.
It definitely got me thinking about China — where things are a trillion times more organized under a Communist regime, and yet I did not get the same sense of personal happiness during my visit in 2006. On the other hand, living conditions in India are beyond sub-par. You’d be hard-pressed to find a trash receptacle, and for those who asked – yes, animals (mostly cows) do roam freely in the streets and people (men and occasionally women) will relieve themselves wherever they find themselves.
So, under the influence of harsh diarrhea, all I could mutter to Namit was how dirty the country was. I wish I could have explained it better at the time, but I was just so floored by the amazing contrast between the rich and poor, I truly felt pained witnessing this. It just did not seem necessary, and yet it was very much a part of the norm in India.
Things got progressively better as I headed south. Obviously Mumbai presented far more equality, yet still there were interspersed throughout the city several slums, made up of what appeared to be piles of rubbish really! Goa was the most egalitarian. Not only were the environs simply gorgeous, and things a whole lot cleaner, but I did notice quite a few women business-owners, like the lady I met when I went to do my mani-pedi for $6 USD, and her restaurant-owner client, who needed a hair consultation in preparation for an upcoming event.
Another area of great and somewhat disturbing contrast was conservatism and religious following. On New Year’s Eve, my group, made up primarily of girls, went to a party at a hotel located just outside of Pushkar. Our guide thought there’d be a decent mix of tourists and locals, so that it should have been an appropriately fun time for us as outsiders. And at first, it was quite fun — the garden was festively decorated, the tikka incredibly good. We split a bottle of whiskey and looked onto the dance floor, which soon became occupied by young men only. When we got onto the dance floor, it began as a fun novelty experiencing a ratio of 10 adoring men to 1 woman, especially as Indian men seem to really enjoy dancing without any restraint – unlike Westerners (for the most part). Yet, at some point, things suddenly changed, and the men would grope us without any provocation — and hard too!
One of my travel-mates was especially shaken by the event, and said how for some unknown reason she’d actually felt as though she had done something wrong, even though her brain well knew that was not true. She just felt such grief over the whole thing, and definitely invoked some of the rape cases we read in Criminal Law.
As for me, I was just overwhelmed by fascination, just watching (and unfortunately, also physically experiencing) the men behave as animals. Without regard for whatever they’d been taught in school, temple or home, we women were just sex objects for them to assault (you really can’t use the words fondle or even grope here, as it was such a violent and painful act).
It seemed odd that the men would behave this way considering how conservative Hindu culture is, and yet, sex is all around them too. Indian television, particularly all the Bollywood videos, are just replete with sexuality; worse, Western women, in spite of India’s own sexualization of its own kind, are considered walking sex. The whole experience really changed my vision of man-woman relations. I don’t think I really understood what objectification and sexism meant until this experience, which I hear can be quite commonplace in various places across the Middle East too. It’s a sad but true reality.
In spite of whatever discomforts I experienced in India – both socially and physically, I felt my personal horizons on the world and myself broadened drastically. I’m not sure if I could have grown this much this fast but for the unique grand contrast and extreme experiences that is what it means to visit India.
So now I do understand what everyone else who have been to India meant when they just said it would be an experience I could only have before I could understand, and that there is just no way to explain it. I understand why some friends were afraid I’d hate it. But honestly, I want to go back! Let’s see if I can do some light trekking in the Himalayas in May…