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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...


INDIA | Friday, 19 November 2010 | Views [498]

We have written on many postcards that travelling in India has been immensely rewarding, but also immensely frustrating. Some of those frustrations come from outside, some come from ourselves and our judgements - we want to do things 'our' way, it's always hard to know where to draw the line when you are a guest in another's country. We're not good at being waited on, not comfortable with people carrying our bags or seeing servants and maids. It's not always easy to witness the extreme poverty, subjugation of women and unconceivable levels of filth.  Many times we saw tourists who simply couldn't handle it and went off the rails.  Luckily we didn't, but it's true that it presented challenges like no other country.  The phenomenally low cost of things meant that we encountered lots of poverty junkies too, tourists looking for everything ultracheap or to play the big man because they had a little brass.  They searched for 'authentic' India and haggled over sums of money so petty to them, literally pennies, just to squeeze a few more days out of the holiday.

One major frustration is the red tape - India seems to constantly tie itself in knots and/or trip over in form filling and checking. Getting simple things done often feels like doing a three legged egg and spoon obstacle course. Just checking and out of a hotel needed a tree's worth of paper, booking train tickets required specific forms, (different depending on which desk you used), posting was an exercise in hoop jumping and even using the internet required our passports.  We wondered what happened to all those bits of paper - we imagined a man somewhere with mountains of chits, following our movements through the country. But of course, nothing could be that organised here, and nobody could care that much about two backpackers. There will always be jobs for jobsworths. And crazy as it drove us at times, we reminded ourselves that it must be worse for people who have to live there and fill in forms every day!

As a tourist in India, things are not made easy. There are legions of touts, auto rickshaw drivers and others who constantly want to 'help' by taking you to their brother/friends hotel where you will pay extra to cover their commission. But there's little real help: tourist information offices are bad travel agencies, who might pony up some leaflets but can't answer questions, the internet is crammed with sites, but most of them are sponsored or looking for commission. There are two sad consequences of this: Firstly we started to distrust most people who approached wanting to talk to us, taking some of the joy out of meeting locals. Secondly, simple sight seeing often turned into a mission as we trudged along half dug up pavements looking for non-existant streets (or streets that had changed their names), only to arrive and find the sight ill maintained and a tad disappointing.  In Jaipur we were thrown googlies by conmen accusing us of racism for not talking to them.  It's something you get used to but still it's sad to walk through a street saying no, no, no.  Some people find this unbearable - we met a few that had been taken for a ride or thrown totally off balance.

The trains were a fantastic way to travel - we zig-zagged through X KM of the country, trying out almost every class of transport. Oli was delighted with 'Trains at a Glance', a directory of all the train services and timetables which, once we'd figured out how to use it, helped to map out our itinerary, facilitated various last minute changes and gave us all kinds of useless information about each train (like the food menus!). Our decedant first class journey brought images of another era as we shut ourselves off in our two berth cabin. It was a world away from the crammed second class with people hanging out of the doors for the cool air and space it bought them.

We knew that the levels of poverty in India would be shocking, and while there were less beggars in regions like Kerala, people are living in awful circumstances throughout the country. The poverty is all the more shocking because of the way that local people ignore it. Maybe it's because they grew up seeing disposessed people every day, maybe because the problem is so big it makes people feel powerless, so they do nothing. But as a visitor, you can't fail to be affected by the countless beggars, the people living in stations, underpasses and on the pavement outside. India has a strange sort of freedom - nobody stops those people from sleeping on the pavement, but nobody does much to help them either. India is proud to be the largest democracy in the world, but what good is political freedom when you don't have economic freedom? And, while the extreme neglect of millions of people is not an deliberate abuse of human rights, we both felt that neglect on that scale is still abuse - especially considering the other ways that government chooses to spend its money. India is not a poor country - it is a rich one with many poor people. The rich-poor divide is appalling.  It's bizarre to talk to rich kids who proclaim that India has all they need, just like the US, when Delhi has fewer high-end shops than Bristol, a provincial backwater of England, and you have to wade through shit to get there.  India's affluent places are still full of effluent, at least in the cities, and the middle class proper is so small that it can't sustain real shopping centres like Bangkok, Hanoi, KL etc can.

We'd also been warned about the levels of dirt and rubbish. We thought we'd seen plenty of that on our way through South East Asia, but it really was on another scale. Filth pervades everywhere in India.  Like poverty, it's something else people are blind to. The streets are filled with litter, and nobody seems to think twice about dropping their rubbish as they finish with it. On top of the litter, which never gets swept up, is the crap. From people, dogs, cows, goats - they all live and crap in the streets. The filth is really odd - it seems to be a largely Hindu thing.  Muslim and Sikh areas have significantly different levels of dirtiness.  It can't all be hung on poverty, either - the middle and upper classes are just as likely to toss their crap out of the house and into an alley.  Furthermore, in poorer Cambodia they don't have this problem.  There have been people living in this land for centuries - they've chosen not to build toilets, not been priced out.  Also, the use of toilets is so badly handled that it's often just as bad inside as out.  It's not just toilets either, but everything - people cooking food with grime-encrusted nails, the stains on virtually everybody's clothes and the clothes being washed in shitty water.

We were happy to find English language newspapers available almost everywhere, Oli quickly found his favourite - The New India Express (only available in the South), and the Times a close second. Disappointingly, the papers themselves are pretty thin, with a scant 16 pages each day, especially cmmpared to the 60 page+3 supplements epic Malaysian Star. We both enjoyed the current affairs magazine, India Today, which had features on politics, news and current affairs, including a mammoth survey of the population on politicians, film stars and the state of the country.  Book-wise, Kushwant Singh (a Sikh author of many books, from history to fiction to a series of joke books who is now 90 years old) was a wonderful companion. Emma cried reading the Train to Pakistan, Oli delighted various people we met with Kushwant jokes and his potted history of Indian religion and politics is a sound base for an Indian view (or Sikh) of their history. There's so much modern Indian fiction on the shelves, some badly writen, some beautiful, but all offering perspectives on India and its people, capturing different attitudes of society. With 10 weeks of travel and lots of long journeys, we had plenty of time to immerse ourselves in modern Indian fiction. 

India is also the most open country we've visited: so much happens in public, presumably because there's so little private space, which grants visitors glimpses into people's lives that are both vivid and at times uncomfortable. Especially people who live on the streets and in stations. Money certainly buys privacy in this overpopulated country... We saw men showering naked, people cooking their dinner, people shitting anywhere and everywhere, people fighting, people sleeping. The dogmas preventing public displays of affection remained - it's OK to defecate in public, but kissing is most definitely taboo.

The attitude to private space and posessions also surprised us. Cramming 12 people or more into seats meant for six, regardless of who actually had tickets, or staring unselfconciously at the foreigners were commonplace. Our card games were almost guaranteed to attract a rapt (and disconcerting) audience, and even reading or doing nothing could keep our co-passengers entertained for hours. No matter how long the journey, few people brought anything to do, so watching us was about all they had to pass the time. People also thought nothing of picking up our books and anything else we had out, turning them over carefully, trying on our sunglasses/hats, taking pictures with our camera. Our initial protectiveness relaxed over time, but it was always hard to resist an instinct to grab when a stranger picked up OUR stuff! 

But, for all this openness, there were states where we hardly saw any women in public. It was men in cafes, men in bars, men working in hotels, men walking in the streets. We wondered if the women were kept hidden at home, or certainly kept out of reach of potentially risky foreigners. But when we got out into rural Tamil Nadu, a different picture emerged - here were the women doing in the fields doing backbreaking work, picking tea, digging carrots, carrying heavy loads... And still, here were the men in the cafes, sitting by the roadsides, smoking, chatting, "supervising". It didn't seem a fun place to be a woman. We read about "Eve-teasing" in the papers, at times Emma found the invasive eyes intimidating, in spite of efforts to remain covered and dress respectfully. We felt that some men looked for excuses to make physical contact, saying hello and shaking both of our hands but lingering over Emma's, brushing against her in the crowds and in one case, grabbing a breast in the back streets of Delhi. We stopped with a friend we'd met along the way in a rare bar in Trivandrum (outside of the cities, drinking is unusual) and were the only females there. As with so many things, India can make grand claims about women - they've had a female Prime Minister in Indira Ghandi, but the uneducated masses lag so far behind. It's outdated to expect a women to burn herself on her husband's funeral pyre, but still actively discussed. There's still a taboo for a women to re-marry if her husband dies and often she will be cast into penury, forced to beg for money.
Just as you're ready to think the worst of humanity, as you read of horrendous exploitation, or turn away from police beating a street hawker, there are always simple gestures of kindness to restore your hope. An old lady stops to give to a beggar, a man stands to give his seat to a lady, strangers share their food with us. India may be home horrendous neglect, abuse of power and massive poverty, but it is also the birthplace of Ghandi and Mother Theresa (don't start Oli on this subject).  Perhaps that's part of what gives India its contradictions: it has so much of everything. In a population of a billion people, every walk of life is magnified (and distorted), conflicting stereotypes can live side by side happily. Too many saints, too many sinners and too much of everything in between. Tourists often attract the touts, conmen and beggars, but in India there we came into contact with so many of them every day, they crowded out the ordinary Indian people! Many Indians are very well-mannered and strangely posh.  It's a delight to ride on trains simply because it allows you to talk to so many Indians and hear their thoughts on the country.  

We've dwelled here on the hassles and negative aspects that await in India, but that is not to say India was without its wonderful experiences. We had well beyond our fair share of adventures and special moments, some cliched, some scripted by the guide-book, and some that were just ours. We saw wild elephants (and tame ones!), we ran alongside the Queen's Baton Relay for the Commonwealth Games, we were extras in a movie, we took high tea at the Palace in Udaipur, we marvelled at the Golden Temple.

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