A Traveler in India
March 6, 2007
So I have arrived safely in Mumbai. My first breath of India and I was glad to be back.
It is said that people who come to India either love it or hate it. I think this is true, although I can’t imagine anyone opting for the latter. India has its difficult aspects, to be sure – the trash, the dirt, the beggars, the ceaseless hawkers and taxi drivers. It can constantly push and shove you, ring loudly in your ears, harass you. Nothing gets done when it is supposed to be done – if at all – and each new day can be a constant barrage of smells, blaring horns, roaming cows, touters, chaos and aggravations.
Although I’ll admit that at times these things aggravate me, too, mostly they are just a part of what makes India…well, India. Fascinating, foreign, exciting and exotic – an amazingly diverse jumble of peoples, religions, foods, spices, languages and traditions. The very reason one travels at all.
There is so much to love about India, and I fear that those who profess to hate it are of the variety quintessentially known at the “Ugly American,” although they may be any nationality at all. They view the entire world through the arrogant lens of their own existence, which is the yardstick by which it compares. The closer their experience comes to their own myopic expectation, the better they like it. They cannot be bothered to expand their minds, to consider that there are other cultures, beautiful and rich and vastly different from their own. To stray outside the comfort zone of how they believe life should be is simply not in them. The Georges V in Paris is good, a cruise around the Mediterranean is good. Anything too far outside their comfort zone is not good.
If these people go to India, they do it on a pre-booked tour where everything is arranged in advance and they stay in hotels run by corporate chains. Guides and drivers shuttle them safely from place to place, while they gawk out the windows of their cars or trains or hotels at the spectacle of India passing before them. Then they go home and tell their friends how poor and filthy and smelly India is.
By they never even really saw India. They never stepped foot of the carefully escorted path, never actually met any Indians that weren’t serving them food or selling them something. They never went to an Indian home for tea. They ate in tourist hotels where all the other faces were Western and dutifully traipsed around the Taj Mahal and Varanasi and Rathambore with their video cameras. And all the while they were completely shielded from the real India.
Why someone would pay a large amount of money to go somewhere and then pay even more enormous sums to be protected from it, I can’t answer for you. I have no idea. I think these people should just stay home and watch the travel channel.
There is a fundamental difference between a tourist and a traveler. One of my favorite travel writers, my friend Rolf Potts, said, “Tourists leave home to escape the world, while travelers leave home to experience it.” Many people who think they are travelers really are no such thing – they might travel the world but they experience very little. The beauty of real travel is that everything is new, nothing is familiar – the people, the landscapes, the language, the culture, the food – the way of life as a whole. And true travelers embrace it all, taking off their personal blinders of habit, experience, bias, perspective and expectations to fully embrace this different new world they joyously find themselves in.
For someone who’s never been, India must be experienced this way. Those who hate it simply have not done so. It must be looked at with different eyes, fresh eyes, and they will absolutely open wide at the splendor, the enchantment, the amazing people and daily parade of life – struggles, joys and triumphs – that pass by every minute.
To find one brilliant and valuable piece of gold, panhandlers would sift through huge quantities of dirt flecked with sparkling gold dust, never taking their eyes off each grain lest they miss the prize – and appreciating each piece of even common dirt because it was part of their essential life.
So it is with India.