I don’t think I’ve ever heard of another country that divides opinions like India. Whenever you read or hear about travel experiences in there, they are always about nothing else but either strongly loving or hating the country. I think I ended up doing both at the same time. Prepare your Imodium and I’ll put both of the perspectives in words.
Already at the airport, I got a little nervous when listening to other Western travelers’ India stories as the only first timer in the group. I was told about the kind of intensity and scam attempts to expect and how the term “India gets to you” might come clear to me at some point. When arriving in notorious Delhi, I immediately developed the kind of an invisible barrier around me as described to me.
The healthy suspiciousness ended up being needed as we right away ran into the first and biggest scam attempt I experienced. In short(er), there was a group of around a dozen of guys working together to manipulate us into buying railing passes for several hundred euros. The act consisted of seemly random people controlling our moves with small lies hidden in whole conversations. They had programmed their own fake reservation system and our salesman had decorated his office with a picture of him shaking hands with the president of India as in being rewarded for his “excellent service on tourism industry”. He even had a copy of a Lonely Planet book stating that he was the main author of it. Then there was the “stranger” in the restaurant who after half an hour of chilled discussion dedicated his life on advising us on how extremely expensive and difficult it is to travel in India. And the “professor” on street telling how he recognized the Finnish language as a dear friend of a professor of University of Helsinki. As you are starting to get the picture, I have to say I was absolutely amazed by the dedication, time, planning and psychological aspect of the scam.
Being the most obvious looking tourist around, it first felt like people came to talk only when they wanted something from me. The selling and scamming attempts were rarely direct but sneaky and psychological instead, which is why it was difficult to trust people like I normally do. I did of course meet good and even very good people but unfortunately failed to give everyone the chance when always being reserved.
After the culture shock and learning how things are around, my feelings started setting as I figured out how to behave as a tourist myself. When touring around Rajasthan region, I soon got to know the praised features of the country. The truth is that there is probably no other place so interesting and wondrous as India. It seemed like you could simply take a step forward and snap a picture from every direction. All around you there was something incredible or even bizarre happening that you had never seen or imagined before. All the life happens on streets; starting from handicraft workshops to barbers giving haircuts in the most random locations.
They also happen to have my favorite cuisine in the world. Even if the amount of spices was often a struggle, there’s no going back to westernized Indian restaurants once I got to try the real deal.
In the following weeks, it sometimes felt like I was balancing between the two extremities of emotions. For a while, I could wander around with my eyes glancing from excitement. Admiring the colors and wonders seen and the scent of numerous spices and incense sticks. On the other hand, few meters further I could step into a pungent stink of urine. It could be that in the end of the same walking trip, I was totally fed up with the cheeky salesmen, dirty and insanely crowded streets and especially the amount of pollution of all kinds. The noise of traffic with it’s illogical and outrageous honking sometimes tore my ears off. Light pollution was in the form of a million neon signs, and the world’s most polluted air was seen and felt as a thick, grey fog that you could be coughing out back in the hotel.
While shutting down the negative emotions, I saw some incredible and memorable places from Jodhpur’s fortress and blue city to Udaipur’s lake views and Jaisalmer’s deserts. Especially the last one was one my favorites and had the best chai teas that I found. While driving around the desert area and rural towns with a motorbike, I remember realizing how god damn far away from home I was. In different areas even in the same region, the whole atmosphere could be entirely different, which once again states how much time you can spend discovering the whole country itself.
My last destination, Varanasi, was nevertheless the most impressing and interesting city I went to. I had seen some pictures and clips of this sacred city and had the false image in my mind that the holy Ganges river is more like a puddle. Instead, the stunning buildings, ghats (= riverfront steps), bathers, boats and worshipers could be seen all around the five kilometre strip that you could walk back and forth the whole day.
Intensity also peaked at the riverside as boat ride salesmen and masseuses declined to give up and the whole observing was so energy consuming. Seeing the open-air cremation and the remains being thrown in river was also heavy, or at least confusing. Back at the hostel I could be out of energy for even a couple of days in a row. Even so, Varanasi is probably my main recommendation for anybody visiting the Northern half of India.
During the month, I saw, experienced and/or heard of several crazy incidents that I preferred to gather up in a list form. Please note that some of the cases mentioned are only based on rumors and are therefore not supposed to be taken seriously. Anyway, some of the memorable moments are such as:
- Seeing people at the desert take the “drinking water” from a jar and pour it through a sieve
- Being laughed at when asking if there is a toilet nearby
- Hearing a story of hostel friend getting kidnapped and jumping off from a moving tuktuk
- Hearing a story of the same attempt happening to another hostel friend who apparently stabbed the driver to escape and was told “not to go to that area since it’s dangerous” as a response from the closest found police officer
- Hearing a legend about a fake ambulance
- Having the doctors tell us that my ex is either pregnant or only having her “body still not used to India” as she kept having high fever, throwing up and even fainting in front of them while us being told that she’s healthy
- Seeing people drink water from the most polluted – yet holy – river of Ganges where not only cremation remains and dead bodies, but also sewage and industrial waste are dumped in
- Hearing and reading about the bizarre cannibal tribe “Aghori”, the monks of which basically meditate using alcohol and marijuana, catch bodies from Ganges and perform flesh eating and urine drinking rituals
- Hearing about people traveling to Varanasi only to beg money for their own cremation
- Hearing a rumour that there is an asylum for such beggars, which anyway kicks out the ones who don’t die in two weeks from their arrival
Phew. Quite a set of stories. So far I imagine that my point about the contrast of feelings is getting clear when thinking of the overall picture. Sometimes you can really be in awe and wonder if you can ever get over your life presumably seeing so boring and colorless back at home. Sometimes you can walk around wondering if you really are in a country that has a space program. In the end the chaos and pollution really did get to me. I felt like I needed to get out and couldn’t wait to breathe some fresh air again.
The thing is that no matter what kind of negative experiences you may eventually run into, nothing can take away the hugely positive and exciting features of the country. Neither of the perspectives is the absolute truth, so it’s better to focus on the positive sides, and you are more likely to have a trip to remember.
Few years ago I met a humanitarian photographer and a lifetime traveler who told me how he promised himself every time not to go back to India anymore, yet always found himself on a new trip. I didn’t really know what he meant with that until now. The same seemed to have happened to the airport friends I mentioned in the beginning. All of them were going back for several months lasting journeys. And to be perfectly honest; while thinking back to my trip and going through the colorful pictures, even I found myself missing the intensity and insanity of India.