10 March 2008

A Confession


Yesterday, I was fortunate to enjoy a most excellent outing to Chilika Lake with my new friends, Takao and Tomo. We saw loads of dolphins, ate fresh tiger prawns on the beach, and practiced each others' languages--naturally, I taught them mostly profanity. The Japanese continue to seduce me, even so far away, with their generosity of heart and kindness of spirit. That same evening, I had to depart Puri. This evening, after another 20+ hour train journey on the Coromandel Express, I arrived in Madras. Actually, the city is now called Chennai, but I hate that name. It sounds like food. I feel justified in my disdain, having met a young Indian guy who himself finds most of the name changes objectionable, his particular scorn reserved for "Bengaluru", Bangalore's new name, which he considers "pathetic." I decided to treat myself to a nice hotel tonight, for just one night--it cost almost $20! To my astonishment, the room still doesn't include A/C, but it does have a TV, on which I randomly stumbled on the George C. Scott movie, "The Hospital", which I've never seen, but maybe he won an Oscar for it? I don't plan to stay here long. Tomorrow, I will finally reach Pondicherry, now called "Puducherry"--I don't even want to say what *that* sounds like.

My Confession

I hate having to go through with this, friends, but when I started this blog project lo so many moons ago, I believe I made a commitment to tell you the truth (more or less) about what I'm doing and, more importantly, what I'm thinking. And tonight, after doping myself on more allergy medications than any reasonable doctor would prescribe, I have been confronted with an infelicitous truth: I don't think I can enjoy India.

No! It cannot be!

I'm sorry, but I realized this only a moment ago--really--and I happened to be next to an Internet cafe, so you're getting breaking news straight from my heart. Earlier today, I decided that India is probably the best country in the world in which to travel independently. Here, you can find the perfect balance between what it is possible to do and what is challenging to get accomplished. Southeast Asia, by contrast, is too easy. You don't even have to think to travel there. The Middle East, on the other hand, is altogether more difficult--I had to learn Arabic, and the hassle is infinitely greater. In India, however, there is hardly the sense that tourists are being catered to. Remember, I travel outside the bounds of guided tours, five star hotel chains, and international quality service. India is built for Indians. Things usually work pretty well, too, even if they can go monstrously wrong. I don't think America, at least, does much better (witness NJ Transit and its lesser disaster, Hurricane Katrina). Anyway, you have to negotiate within the system as it exists. This is often challenging, but it's the sort of challenge most travelers enjoy. I've often said that independent travel is a form of problem solving. The more you do it, the better you get at handling all sorts of complicated situations, especially those with a high degree of miscommunication involved.


I have just realized, I have just come to accept the fact that I just don't trust anybody here (except Kajori and Ananda--I miss you guys!). I've had this problem before: in Egypt, especially. But I was only in Egypt for about six weeks, and by the time my rage-o-meter went red, it was time to go home. This time, however, I'm way past the six week mark if you include the entire subcontinent, and I still have an indeterminate number of weeks to go. Now, I realize what I'm saying is heresy, because everyone loves or is supposed to love India. Secretly, I think the India-lover backpackers only love what they permit inside the highly-protected shell we all walk around with. So the India they love is a highly selective version of India. And I don't hate India by any means. But I don't think I can go on enjoying it for such a length of time if I must constantly be subjected to so many unsolicited solicitations. Every time I walk out of a train station or hotel or, really, any type of building whatsoever (and sometimes there isn't a building so basically every time I walk or even stand still), I have to deal with a whole tribe of people who want to help me. Sometimes, their offers are no doubt genuine. But in any case, they are always overbearing. They won't leave me alone; they won't stop following me, or talking to me; they don't understand English, but think they do, so they say "yes" to everything I say or talk so fast I can't get a word in. And sometimes people are rude. They talk loudly on their cell phones on a night train; they shove you out of the way on the street; they drive like total a**holes, they squeeze five more people onto a seat than can reasonably fit; they read over your shoulder or just take your book; they cut right in front of you when you're in line, even if you're at the ticket window or counter, even if you're talking to the ticket agent, EVEN IF YOU'RE IN THE PROCESS OF ACTUALLY HANDING THE TICKET AGENT MONEY--and, get this, the ticket agent will often take their money and ignore you until you start becoming as rude and pushy as everyone else! I don't want this to turn into a complaint, though. This is just to give you a flavor of my daily frustrations, compounded, I think, by the sheer number of people here (I'm still a country boy at heart) and the increasing heat. What, of these things, couldn't be said about so many other countries? I don't know. I'm just saying it now, about India, because that's where I am, man.

There are plenty of positive things I could say, too--far more than there are negative things, I reckon. But the experience in general is of an intensity that I find draining, on all fronts, and I don't know how much more I can put up with it. I'm a seasoned traveler, so I can probably suffer forever like this. But tonight is the first time I've questioned whether I really want to. I went into a bar for a glass of solace but turned away again when I saw that the entire clientele were men. I wasn't looking to score, but I find roomfuls of drinking men sort of weird. Mixed crowds at bars may not be on so much in India.

I fully intend and expect to refute everything I've said here sometime in the next few weeks. To be fair, I've only scratched the surface of this multifarious country, and tonight's confession, I think, along with my maligning of the hippies, is merely the product of stress and being in a rather pissy mood at the time of writing. I'm not in a pissy mood right now, but I am fatigued by the thought of waking up to another day in a place where everyone seems to want something from me and is desperate to get it.

Thank god for chai. It makes all the difference.


Bradley said...

I share your thoughts on India. And hippies. (though I've been called a hippie plenty of times myself).

The Steve said...

I'm glad to hear that. When I wrote that post, I was most worried about your reaction to it, though you were also someone I had in mind when I referred to "real hippies." I had a feeling you'd appreciate the difference.