To this American, it is almost impossible to describe a trip to India to friends. I find I have to do it by anecdotes. And I also realize that about half the people I speak to, when I mention India as a destination, are reluctant to travel there.
I usually start off by describing our drive down a street in Delhi. I asked our guide what those two men were doing on the sidewalk–one seemed to be looking at the other’s head?
Typical India Street Scene!
“He’s cleaning out his ear-wax,” the guide explained, matter of factly. I stopped the car and took a closer look. Yes, that’s what was going on. One fellow held a cotton swab. I had missed the paper sign in front of the two of them–translated as “cleaning for 75 cents.”
Quite simply: suspend belief. If you do that, you can enjoy–be thrilled by–India. Do not apply your Western sense of values to how people in one of the world’s strongest economies, in a country with four times the United States population, should behave. Because they don’t. It’s India.
Street entrepreneurs abound: I thought snake-charmers existed only in movies. I was wrong. And I discovered I didn’t need to go to a watchmaker if I needed a new band. A fellow had a whole array of watch parts spread out on a blanket on the sidewalk, and was actually repairing timepieces right there.
Yes, there are people sleeping on street corners. But we never were accosted by hordes of beggars with hands out, as a stereotypical movie scene would have it. In fact, even those street-corner vagrants did not have the demeanor of worn-down, ill-fed, ill-clothed forgotten people.
Street scene: I’m talking to a taxi driver about the fare before getting in (the cabs have meters, but many of them are conveniently “broken” or hidden in the glove compartment so that the driver can set the fare). A man in a turban walks over. He tells the driver that only one-fourth of what he’s asking is the right price. Then the stranger tells me, “You can trust me. I’m a Sikh.” He shakes my hand and walks away.
Speaking of vehicles: we pull up alongside a motorbike. Man and woman and child. Woman’s holding a baby with one hand, man with the other. Four on a bike. In front of us there’s a truck. On the back of it, in big letters: “Please honk.”
Need A Lift?
Why would you want someone honking at you? Because the truck did not have side-view mirrors, and the driver wanted to know if someone was coming up to him and wanted to pass. Simple courtesy, right? More polite than many truckers passing me on the Long Island Expressway.
But these are the kinds of moments that you come away with from India. As much as visiting the Taj Mahal or other grand structures, it’s these one-off elements. When you think about your trip to Paris or St. Petersburg or Istanbul, it’s probably the memory of a visit to some famed monument or building that stands out. In India, it’s a montage of moments that you’ll never experience anyplace else.