Once again, I was wondering what to do with my holidays. A little planning might have helped, but indecision always pushes the time in the wrong direction. As with the year before, my default trip to Uzbekistan would be a bad idea until Central Asia quieted down a bit. I was talking on the phone with one of my Indian IT colleagues in New York, and I mentioned my quandary. "Why are you even asking?" he said. "Go to India." Patriotism aside, it was good advice. We agreed that Rajasthan was probably the best introduction, and from there, everything fell into place.
A company I'd dealt with before had a group going over there. I'd never gone with a group before but it seemed expedient, especially in a country where transportation can sometimes be difficult. My only worry (and it was a big one) was that I might experience the group instead of India. But this was a company that specializes in "adventure travel," so I was far less likely to find people who would whine that the food was too spicy. As it turned out, the group was pretty good. Traveling as a group we were definitely pegged for tourists, but as a foreigner it's hard not to stand out anyway. Everyone in the group had varying knowledge and expectations, but all were good-natured and fairly open-minded. I would have liked to have spent more time with locals, but then again, many of the locals in Rajasthan are involved in the tourist industry, and they came looking for us.
Every region of India is quite different – in customs, clothing, food, music, people and language. Though it's one country now, India used to be many kingdoms. Traveling from Kerala to Uttar Pradesh is like going from Greece to Finland, and even for Indians it's like visiting a foreign country. It being my first visit, I'm not quite sure whether I'm talking about India or about Rajasthan, but that won't stop me from sharing a few impressions.
India does make a big impression, and nothing can prepare you – not China, not Vietnam, not Peru. It's not a country so much as a world. The only thing you can do is to go with the flow until you get accustomed. The sights, sounds (and the smells) can be overwhelming. What I saw was a cross between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution. The streets are crowded with people, vehicles, animals and clutter, which all work together in a somewhat-orchestrated chaos.
For starters, cows roam the streets. They're treated with the same deference as little, old people, and they do whatever they want. A cow will stand in the middle of traffic for hours, and everyone has to go around it. You can go to prison for 10 years for hitting a cow, so if a car has a choice between hitting the cow and hitting you, it's you who had best make a move. Cows also excel in producing fertilizer, and you haven't lived until you've had you first significant squish. The sanitation department, such as it was, was manned by long-haired pigs, some of whom grow to be enormous.
The roads are crammed with cars, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, trucks of various sizes, camel carts or ox carts. Each goes at its own speed, and the amazing thing is that there aren't more accidents than there are, especially with the potholes in the roads and the cow-induced detours. I wonder how people learn to drive under these conditions, and whether these hazards are included in the theory section of the road test. All the motor vehicles are extra-high emission, so even the smallest towns have a cloud hanging over them.
English just doesn't have the words to describe this type of street life. We have words like "bustle", "buzz", "beehive", but they work at such a high level that you only see the wood but not the grain. I traveled with a camera and a pen, but perhaps the next trip I need to bring a tape recorder. Luckily there's nothing to record the smells, so you'll just have to take my word on that account.
In such an environment, people have to speak up in order to be heard. It's loud and aggressive under normal circumstances, since there are far more people working than the market will support. In a heavily-touristed place like Rajasthan, merchants go crazy when a potential customer walks by. With Indian tourists it's open season, and foreign tourists are hunted down with extra abandon. Anything goes – brute force, guilt, manipulation, cajoling – anything short of turning the customer upside down and shaking out their money (though that wouldn't surprise me). Stores hire people to drag you in, and they'll patiently follow you around all day to wear you down. Taxi and rickshaw drivers are also on the payroll, so they end up taking you for a ride as well.
If you do go into a shop, you'll find that salesmanship is practiced as a bone-breaking martial art. It's not what you want to buy so much as what someone wants you to buy – usually, everything in the store. The bargaining is hard, and can get pretty heated. I ended up avoiding the shops entirely. The strange thing is that if I were allowed to browse, I actually might have bought something.
All the time I was in India I was pushed, pulled, poked and prodded at every minute by people asking for something or offering various services. It gets very tiring, and at first, it's hard not to lose your temper. But as time goes on you develop a polite-but-firm way of getting on with your business – otherwise you'll never see what you came to see.
Finally, there were many different types of people, and you'd have to be a professional to identify them all. I still have a lot of questions. The Rajputs wear two earrings. Others have tattoos on their teeth, still others wear turbans, of which there are hundreds of types. Some wore western dress, and some wore more exotic things. I particularly liked the Rajasthani shoes, which have holes like brogues, but are pointy like slippers. I would have come home with a pair if only the shopkeepers would let me come near.
If this doesn't sound like a restful vacation, it certainly wasn't. There wasn't a minute of privacy, but that never occurs for anyone in India anyway. On the other hand, it was vibrant, interesting, stimulating, and above all, it was different. I've been exposed to Indian culture and people my entire life, and it was good to finally start putting things into context (though friends from India tell me I still haven't seen India). In any case, having recovered for a while in the comfort of my own home, I think I could go back for more.