We left India in mid-October, and for a month and a half I have been trying to sort out my jumbled reactions. India was splendid, India was sobering. It was delightful and difficult, heartwarming and utterly baffling. The more I try, the harder I find it to write coherently about our time there. So I’m throwing up my hands and throwing out some random impressions. Here's the first batch:
- Other travelers’ accounts had led us to expect an onslaught of beggars, heat and nasty smells the moment we came through the airport doors in New Delhi. But the brand new terminal we arrived at held us a little longer in the gleaming insulated bubble of air travel. There was no onslaught, no clamor. And from the back of an air-conditioned taxi, the roadside scene didn’t seem any more challenging than, say, New York’s Chinatown.
- Cattle in the streets—check. Piles of litter—check. But we’d seen these things in other countries, and it was other details that stood out as distinctly Indian. Women in saris rode sidesaddle on the backs of motorbikes. A wooden rickshaw with a school’s name hand-painted on the side carried six little girls wearing immaculate uniforms and black braids tied with ribbons. A policeman with a rifle on his back directed traffic from a pedestal with a permanent umbrella over it.
- It didn’t take us long to make our first cultural blunder. Changing planes in Mumbai, we obliviously got into the Gents security line and were sternly redirected to the Ladies line. It turns out that women in India get wanded by a female security guard in a tile-lined booth—the first of many gender divisions we would encounter.
- The elaborate plantings in New Delhi’s parks and in front of its big hotels seemed incredibly green and lush after dry season Africa. And as we were touring the city on our second day, we were caught in a deluge—a tremendous, sky-opening downpour—that surrounded our taxi with grey walls of rain. Almost instantly, the roads developed small lakes and the cars and rickshaws forging through left arcing wakes behind them. I suddenly realized why some people talk with pleasure about the monsoon season. I hadn’t been in a real rainfall for months, and the abrupt reprieve from the steamy heat was exhilarating.
- As our visit went on, we had no choice but to adjust our ideas about personal space. At first, I was startled when, say, a fellow passenger on a train reached over and moved the book I was reading closer to him so he could see it better. And I had to laugh when a waiter in Khajuraho pointed to the thin slices of green pepper I'd put to one side of my plate and said, “This is good for health!” A hotel manager in Agra ingenuously summed up the cultural divide. Our first hotel room there opened directly onto the restaurant and the curtains didn’t quite close. When I told him the next morning that we were changing hotels because we needed more privacy, he asked me blankly, “What is privacy?”
- On train platforms, people slept on the floors or sat in groups on cloths they brought along for the purpose. The smells of urine, sweat, excrement and betel were inescapable. We saw a man turn away from the crowd and pee against a freight train standing in the station, oblivious to the hundreds of people all around him. Meanwhile, others waited to wash, drink or brush their teeth at the trough of cold water on the platform. Despite the challenge of keeping clean, almost all the passengers looked spotless and well turned out, most of the women in saris or the pants-and-tunic outfits called salwar kameez.
- In the stations there were endless staticky announcements in Hindi and English to tell us the trains were running late and to assure us over and over that the inconvenience caused was deeply regretted. Sleeper-class passengers in trains standing at the platform gazed out windows with horizontal bars. They bought tea in paper cups from the chai man when he came along with his big battered kettle or exchanged coins for samosas served through the window on squares of newspaper. Men pushed four-wheeled carts piled high with burlap sacks along the platform. At one less-touristed station, a row of young boys gathered around us the instant we arrived and gaped at us until I shooed them off, suddenly finding myself mimicking the imperious attitude I'd seen some middle class Indians display. At another station, I smiled to see a sign just past the platform that said, “Kite-flying area ends.”
- From the open door at the end of a train car leaving a city, you see tarp-covered hovels crowding right up against the tracks, then flat, green fields, then the bar of a railway crossing and behind it a cluster of rickshaws, red tractors, bicycles, motorbikes and wooden carts pulled by water buffalo. So much of India is so incredibly crowded that I was always surprised and relieved to see these wide, green spaces.
- Garbage and filth are everywhere in part because of insufficient infrastructure, but also because many people seemed to have no interest in keeping public areas clean. The walls of a spiffy New Delhi shopping area were stained with red, reeking betel juice. People spit and shat everywhere. Once when the train we were riding was in a station, I walked to the end of the car to put some crumpled Kleenex into the garbage container under the sink there. A man was standing in front of the bin washing his hands, and a railway worker held out his hand for my trash. I gave it to him thinking he’d wait till the man moved away and then put it in the bin. But he didn't--he just tossed the wad of dirty Kleenex out onto the platform.
- A news item reported that a woman whose husband had run off with a younger woman was set upon by the husband’s relatives, stripped naked and prodded through the streets of her village, the assumption being, apparently, that she was somehow to blame.
- From a boat on the Ganges at Varanasi, we saw the burning ghats, yellow flames shooting into the night sky and faintly illuminating the grey-white building behind them. The tourist in me automatically reached for my camera before I suddenly realized, wait, these are human beings burning. These are somebody’s relatives. It was disquieting to know each bonfire contained a body—we were too far away to really see that, for which I was glad—but it also struck me that allowing death to be so visible on a daily basis makes for an honest, inclusive view of life.
To be continued.