Monday, December 24, 2007

Trying Really Hard To Like India

It's OK to hate a place.

Travel writers can be so afraid to make judgments. You end up with these gauzy tributes to the "magic" of some far-off spot. But honestly, not every spot is magical for everyone. Sometimes you get somewhere, look around, and think, "Hey, this place is a squalid rat hole. I'd really rather be in the Netherlands." And that's OK.

For example, the last time I went to India I just haaaaaaated it. Delhi was a reddish haze of 105-degree dust. And while, of course, the Taj Mahal was great … the streets outside it were a miasma of defecating children. I could not wait to go home. (Disclosure: I was there on a previous assignment for Slate. And actually, I loved Ladakh, which is in northern India—up in the Himalayas. But I don't really count Ladakh, because it's more like Tibet than like India. Anyway …)

Now—mostly because my girlfriend wants to come back—I'm back. I'm giving this dreadful place a second chance. And this time I vow I will try really hard to like India.

I'm convinced it's a reachable goal. My plan involves: sticking to South India, far away from Delhi, staying exclusively at beach resorts and luxury hotels, and stocking up on prescription-strength sedatives. But there are other important steps as well, which I will be outlining over the course of this article.

Step 1: Making Peace With Poverty and With Parasitic Worms

After flying into Bangalore and acclimating for a couple of days, we visit a town called Mysore (rhymes with "eyesore"). There's a famous temple here and an opulent palace—big tourist attractions both. But to me, the most interesting thing to see (in any place I visit) is the daily life of the people who live and work there.

For instance, from our hotel window in Mysore, we look down on a pile of garbage. Every night, this pile becomes dispersed as it is picked at and chewed on by rats, then crows, then stray dogs, then cows, and then homeless people. Every morning a woman dressed in a brightly colored sari sweeps this masticated garbage-porridge back into a pile. It is the worst job I can imagine. (Previously, the worst job I could imagine was navigator for a rally-car driver, because I get nauseous when I read in cars. But this woman's job is much worse than that. And really, with this added perspective, rally-car navigator doesn't seem so bad anymore.)

When we leave the hotel and walk down the (urine-soaked) street, we get assaulted by auto-rickshaw drivers, by hawkers, by tour guides … and by tiny children pointing to their own mouths. This last one is rough—at least the first few dozen times. Sometimes these kids are part of a scam. They're forced to beg by adults who run panhandling teams. (We've read stories about teams that cut out kids' tongues, to make them seem more pitiable.) But sometimes these kids are just honestly looking for food. Because they're starving. They might eat out of that big garbage pile tonight. Once the dogs are done.

On the train ride back to Bangalore, monsoon rains slap at the window. I gaze out on wet, destitute slums. Wherever one can build a shanty, someone has. Wherever one could be pissing, someone is. The poverty's on a mind-blowing, overwhelming scale, and you feel so helpless. The money in your pocket right now, handed to any one person out there beyond the window, would be life-changing. But you can't save a billion people and turn the fortunes of this massive country. (You're not Gandhi, you know.) And after all, back in Bangalore we hung out with highly paid IT guys who worked for Infosys. There's a lot of wealth in India, too.

The thing is, if you go to India as a tourist, you'll have to make some sort of peace with all this. Because it's one thing to see poverty on television, or to get direct mail that asks for your charity. It's different when there are tiny, starving children grabbing your wrists and asking for money wherever you go.

For my part, I've resolved to send a check to some worthy Indian charity when I get home. (Suggestions are invited.) It's the best solution I can come up with. Because I'm not going to get through this trip until I've reached an understanding with myself … and until I take some Pepto-Bismol, because my stomach is just killing me. Which brings me to the other thing you'll have to be prepared for.

You will get "Delhi belly" soon after touching down in India. And you won't enjoy your trip until it's gone. My illness takes hold on the train ride back to Bangalore, as my intestines suddenly spasm into a clenched fist full of acid. The restroom—should this come into play—is a hole in the floor of the train. (A sign on the door requests that we not use the hole while the train's in a station—for obvious reasons.)

For the next day or two, I find myself playing a game I call "Could I Vomit in This?" The idea is to pick a nearby object and then decide if, in the event of an emergency, it could be puked into. For example, potted plant: Certainly. Water bottle: Sure. Magazine: Iffy, but worth a try.

The good news is that it won't take long before your stomach adjusts to these new microbial nasties, and you're back to feeling fine. Unless, of course, like my friend who was here a few years ago, you've got a parasitic worm and you lose 40 pounds and need medical attention.

Step 2: Escaping Backpackers, Traveling in Style, and Once Again Coming to Terms With Rampant Poverty

I have a problem with backpackers. The problem is that wherever they are, I don't want to be.

Partly, it's that I don't go somewhere like India so I can hang out with a bunch of 19-year-old German dudes (though I'm sure they're lovely people). Also, it's that I look at all these backpackers … and I see myself. And frankly, I don't like what I see.

For one, I'm not properly bathed. And for another, I've got this massive, geeky pack on my back, which dwarfs my torso and bends me near double under its weight. (Because of this, I have, I'll admit somewhat irrationally, refused to use a backpack on this trip. Instead I've brought a wheeled carry-on suitcase, which has worked quite nicely. Just try to call me a backpacker now! No backpack here, Heinrich!)

But above all, I hate the ambience that forms around a backpacker enclave. The ticky-tacky souvenir shops. The sketchy tour guides. The rabbit warren hostels. And the way the locals start to eye me like I'm nothing but an ambulatory wallet.

There are two ways to escape the backpackers. The first is to get off the beaten path, wander around, and discover a private Eden not yet ruined by backpacking hordes. This takes more time than my vacation will allow. So I've opted for the second (much quicker) method: money.

Yes, the simplest way to find solitude is to buy it. Thus we've arrived here at the Casino Group Marari Beach Resort.

This idyllic spot is on the west coast of India in the state of Kerala (the setting for The God of Small Things). The resort's lovely bungalows are tucked between groves of palm trees. The beach is wide, empty, silent. Each evening the sun melts down into the Arabian Sea. By day we lounge around a heated pool eating big plates of samosas. Nearby, in the recreation area, an older Italian woman is playing badminton in a bikini.

Wait, you say, why bother to go to India for this? If a beach resort's all you want, there are plenty back home, right? I assure you this is different for several reasons, such as ...

The food: Each night, we enjoy delicious Indian specialties, prepared by actual Indian chefs, in India. (Pause to lick tandoori chicken from fingers.) You just can't get that at home.

The cost: We're paying about $70 a night for our bungalow. Pretty much anywhere in the States—for a luxury resort with a private beach—you'd pay at least quadruple that. Consider the fact that Sir Paul McCartney once stayed here. When I can afford a hotel Paul McCartney stays at, you can be certain it's a bargain.

The sheer solitude: You'll rarely find a beach this nice that's also this utterly empty. There's nothing here (as my pictures attest). Several hundred yards away are a few wooden fishing boats, which haul up their catch on the beach each afternoon. Also—and I swear this is somehow charming (remember, it's hundreds of yards away)—you'll see a few village folk squatting amid the tides. This is because they don't have indoor plumbing.

The world beyond the hotel gates: Walk outside your beach resort in Florida … and you're still in Florida. Walk outside your beach resort in India and … oh, man, you are unmistakably in India. Lots of heartbreaking rural poverty. Lots of sad-yet-edifying tableaux (which is no doubt what you came here for, correct?). It's sort of the best of both worlds for the tourist who fancies himself culturally aware: Live right next to the picturesque misery—but not in it.

Before you condemn me to hell, please see again Step 1: Making Peace With Poverty. Again, unless you're Gandhi—and you're not—you can't come here without diving head first into a salty sea of unpleasant contradictions.

For yet another lesson on this theme, take our last night at Marari Beach. We somehow end up drinking in the bar with a thirtysomething American woman—let's call her "Debbie"—who is six stiff drinks ahead of us. Between sips of some tropical concoction, she delivers a slurry monologue explaining that she has come to India on business. Her business: designing doormats. No joke.

One of Kerala's big industries is coir—a textile made from coconut husks. On a bike ride we took around the village (yes, "the world beyond the hotel gates"), we could see into huts that had looms and people weaving coir into simple mats. These mats get trimmed and finished (by some big export factory) to Debbie's design specs. Then they get shipped to North America and end up in some middlebrow home-furnishings catalog where you can buy them for $26.99.

Debbie is drinking heavily because her job here is wicked depressing. She buys in bulk from the big exporter, who pays a shady middleman, who (barely) pays the villagers here. The villagers can make about three mats per week—all of excellent quality—and for this they get paid a few cents per mat. The middleman of course takes all the profit.

Debbie, goodhearted human that she is, is on the verge of drunken tears as she describes all this. She knows the whole thing is grossly unfair. And that she perpetuates it. But if she wants to keep her job with the American firm she works for, and still make deals with Indian exporters, there's not a damn thing she can do about it.

And unless you have carefully avoided buying any products made by Third World labor—and chances are you have not—you're really no better than Debbie. Let's drink to that. Believe me, Debbie already has.

Step 3: Getting Spiritual and Getting Medicated

You often hear tourists call India a "spiritual" place. It seems as though half the Westerners here either a) come with the intent to live on an ashram; or b) somehow end up at one anyway.

I appreciate the drive to find deeper meaning. I honestly do. And I'm a huge fan of pantheism. Why limit yourself to one god, when instead you could pick and choose from a sampler of gods? It spices things up. The Brahma-Creator/Vishnu-Preserver/Shiva-Destroyer thing is a badass metaphor, too, even if I don't fully understand it.

But the truth is, I'm not quite wired to surrender my will to a higher power. And, getting back to my main point, I certainly don't see why India should corner the market on spirituality. Why do we get all mystical and fuzzy-headed the moment we hit the subcontinent?

Look at The Razor's Edge—the W. Somerset Maugham classic I've been reading over here. Protagonist Larry Darrell begins as a run-of-the-mill Midwesterner. Then he goes to India. By the time he gets back, he's received illumination and communed with the Absolute. Also, he has telekinetic powers.

I'm not sure I believe in the Absolute. But I do think I would enjoy having telekinesis. Mostly so I could alter the outcome of sporting events. (Oh, wide right! Too bad!)

To this end, I've decided to get me some spirituality here. It seems there exists a sort of Hindu metaphysics known as Ayurveda, which aims to heal both body and spirit (and, most important, has been championed by Deepak Chopra). I figure this will do the trick. And since they happen to have an Ayurvedic spa at our beach resort, I also figure: Why not seek deeper meaning on a massage table?

I arrive at the Ayurveda center and ask for an appointment. Maybe 30 seconds later I'm buck naked in a small room with a smiling Indian man. His name is Sajan. He hands me a loincloth and helps me tie it. Then he guides me to the table, lays me down, pours a healthy dollop of oil on my chest, and begins to rub his hands all over my body.

Understand that I get slightly uncomfortable when I'm made to hug a person I've just met. I've got a thing about strangers touching me. And when it comes to strangers rubbing oil on my upper thighs, well, I get even more ill at ease. (Perhaps if the stranger were French actress Julie Delpy? But does she count as a stranger? I feel I know her so well from her films.)

Still, I've had professional massages before, and I've mostly enjoyed them (once I'm past the initial squeamishness). The key in the past has been the kneading of my knotted muscles—thus dispersing any stored-up tension. But as best I can tell, there is no kneading in Ayurveda. Just rubbing—and gallons of oil. While I hesitate to use the term "molestation" (and there was nothing sexual about it), I will say that Sajan's hands were not at all shy. I will also say that my loincloth seemed unnecessarily small and loosely fastened.

At one point—while my eyes were closed—a second pair of hands came out of nowhere and jumped in the mix. This alarmed me, insofar as it was sudden and unexpected. Like an ambush. Also, soon after this, the soothing tabla music that had been playing came to a stop, and left us in silence … save for the sound of four well-oiled palms, briskly sliding over my torso.

In the end, my spirit remained undaunted, but in no way was it illuminated or healed. This was the first massage I've had where I felt less relaxed walking out than I'd felt walking in.

Anyway, if I want to relax here, I've found a much better method: prescription-strength sedatives. I'd like to thank Lord Brahma for creating benzodiazepines. And also Lord Vishnu, for preserving a loosely regulated Indian pharmaceutical system. I can walk into the "Medicines" shop in pretty much any town over here, plunk down 50 rupees (a little more than a dollar), and walk out with a great big bottle of 2 mg. Ativan tablets.

This becomes especially key on the overnight train ride from Kerala to Goa. There are cockroaches perched on the wall above my head; across the aisle a man is coughing up phlegm (in a manner that suggests a highly communicable and highly fatal tropical disease); and I'm still trying to shake my traumatic memories of the massage. All of which is making it hard for me to sleep.

I suppose I could call on Lord Shiva to destroy all the roaches. Or the phlegm. But instead I just call on Lord Ativan, destroyer of consciousness. Cockroaches could scurry up onto my face, oil their many legs, and administer an Ayurvedic massage to my eyelids. I'd sleep right through it, given sufficient dosage.

Step 4: Acceding to Chaos

Our first day out in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), we were approached by a man who—I'm fairly certain of this—planned to kidnap us. He gave us this carefully polished spiel about needing to cast a few extras for a Bollywood movie and how we'd be perfect for this scene he was shooting, so if we would just hop into his car with him … Tempting, but no dice. (It sort of cooled our jets when, in the middle of the pitch, this other Indian guy ran over and shouted, "Be careful with this man! This is a dangerous man!")

I'll admit, this Bollywood scam was brilliant. It played on my vanity and my long-held desire to appear in a Bollywood movie (preferably in a dance scene). I salute you, my would-be abductor.

But other pitches were not as well-crafted. For instance, there was this guy who smiled weakly and asked us, with a halfhearted shrug, "Monkey dance?" Our eyes followed the leash in his hand, which led to the neck of a monkey. The most jaded, world-weary monkey I've ever seen. The Lou Reed of monkeys. He looked like he was about to sit down, pull out his works, and shoot a big syringe full of heroin into his paw. Needless to say, we declined the monkey dance—which I'm guessing would have been some sort of sad, simian death-jig.

The upshot of all this: Mumbai is not the place to go for a carefree, relaxing vacation. Just stepping out on the streets can be a difficult ordeal. The air smells like twice-baked urine, marinated in more urine. The sidewalks are a slalom of legless beggars and feral dogs. Hundreds of times each day you walk right past something so unfathomably sad, so incomprehensibly surreal, so horribly unfair ...

The only way to cope is to stop resisting. Embrace the chaos. If you see a woman rolling around in the gutter clutching at the massive, bulbous wart on the side of her face and moaning loudly ... well, that's part of the scenery. No one else here (certainly no native Mumbaian) will pay her any attention. So why should you? Just say to yourself: Wow, that's crazy stuff and marvelously edifying. Doo-dee-doo, keep on walking.

That's harsh and simplistic. The truth is, the chaos can be wonderful sometimes, too. There's a goofy sense of freedom that comes with it. A sense of unknowing.

Back home in the States, it can feel like we've got life figured out, regulated, under control, under wraps. But here in India, nothing seems even close to figured out. Nothing seems remotely under control. You're never quite sure what will happen next, and you're working without a net.

Terrifying? Yes. But also invigorating. On the train ride up from Goa, I perused a women's magazine (sort of an Indian Cosmo) that we'd bought at a newsstand. The cover story was about women who'd lived abroad—mostly in the United States and Britain—but moved back because they liked India better. All these former NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) had gotten homesick ... for the chaos! Yes, the West was clean and orderly. But that was sort of boring. They missed the hubbub, the craziness, the randomness of India.

I see what they're saying. But in honesty, I prefer to see it from several stories up, in the air-conditioned cocktail lounge of the Oberoi Hotel. Ahhhh. Soft music. Lovely view. No legless beggars.

From up here, sure, all that chaos is beautiful. It's amazing to ponder (while calmly sipping a stiff rum and Coke) how 1 billion people manage to coexist in a single, sprawling democracy. It truly is impressive that this country keeps chugging along—massive, bulbous face warts and all.

In fact, I've come not just to like, but to love India—in a way—from afar. It's the underdog. It's dirty, and hectic, and insane ... and I find myself rooting for it.

Step 5: Actually Liking Stuff

In the mid-1970s, famed author V.S. Naipaul (of Indian descent but raised in Trinidad) came to India to survey the land and record his impressions. The result is a hilariously grouchy book titled India: A Wounded Civilization. Really, he should have just titled it India: Allow Me To Bitch at You for 161 Pages.

I hear you, V.S.—this place has its problems. As you point out, many of them result from the ravages of colonialism … and some are just India's own damn fault. Still, I've found a lot to love about this place. For instance:

1) I love cricket. The passion for cricket is infectious. When I first got here, the sport was an utter mystery to me, but now I've hopped on the cricket bandwagon, big time. I've got the rules down, I've become a discerning spectator, and I've settled on a favorite player (spin bowler Harbhajan Singh, known as "The Turbanator"—because he wears a turban). I've even eaten twice at Tendulkar's, a Mumbai restaurant owned by legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. Fun fact: Sachin Tendulkar's nicknames include "The Master Blaster" (honoring his prowess as a batsman), "The Maestro of Mumbai" (he's a native), and "The Little Champion" (he's wicked short). His restaurant here looks exactly like a reverse-engineered Michael Jordan's Steak House. Instead of a glass case with autographed Air Jordans, there is a glass case with an autographed cricket bat.

And in what could turn out to be a dangerous habit, I've begun going to Mumbai sports bars to watch all-day cricket matches. These last like seven hours. That is a frightening amount of beer and chicken wings.

2) I love the Indian head waggle. It's a fantastic bit of body language, and I'm trying to add it to my repertoire. The head waggle says, in a uniquely unenthusiastic way, "OK, that's fine." In terms of Western gestures, its meaning is somewhere between the nod (though less affirmative) and the shrug (though not quite as neutral).

To perform the head waggle, keep your shoulders perfectly still, hold your face completely expressionless, and tilt your head side-to-side, metronome style. Make it smooth—like you're a bobble-head doll. It's not easy. Believe me, I've been practicing.

3) I love how Indians are unflappable. Nothing—I mean nothing—seems to faze them in the least. If you live here, I suppose you've seen your fair share of crazy/horrid/miraculous/incomprehensible/mind-blowing stuff, and it's impractical to get too worked up over anything, good or bad.

(This is a trait I admire in the Dutch, as well. They don't blink when some college kid tripping on mushrooms decides to leap naked into an Amsterdam canal. Likewise, were there a dead, limbless child in the canal … an Indian person might not blink. Though he might offer a head waggle.)

4) I love how they dote on children here. (I'm not talking about dead, limbless children anymore, I'm being serious now.) At our beach resort in Goa, there were all these bourgeois Indian folks down from Mumbai on vacation. These parents spoiled their children rotten in a manner that was quite charming to see. In no other country have I seen kids so obviously cherished, indulged, and loved. It's fantastic. Perhaps my favorite thing on television (other than cricket matches) has been a quiz show called India's Smartest Child, because I can tell the entire country derives great joy from putting these terrifyingly erudite children on display.

5) I love that this is a billion-person democracy. That is insane. Somehow the Tibetan Buddhists of Ladakh, the IT workers of Bangalore, the downtrodden poor of Bihar, and the Bollywood stars of Mumbai all fit together under this single, ramshackle umbrella. It's astonishing and commendable that anyone would even attempt to pull this off.

6) I love the chaos (when I don't hate it). Mumbai is a city of 18 million people—all of whom appear to be on the same block of sidewalk as you. If you enjoy the stimulation overload of a Manhattan or a Tokyo but prefer much less wealth and infrastructure … this is your spot. (Our friend Rishi, who we've been traveling with, has a related but slightly different take: "It's like New York, if everyone in New York was Indian! How great is that!") And whatever else you may feel, Mumbai will force you to consider your tiny place within humanity and the universe. That's healthy.

There's more good stuff I'm forgetting, but enough love for now. Let's not go overboard. As they say in really lame travel writing: India is a land of contradictions. A lot of things to like and a lot of things (perhaps two to three times as many things) to hate.

It's the spinach of travel destinations—you may not always (or ever) enjoy it, but it's probably good for you. In the final reckoning, am I glad that I came here? Oh, absolutely. It's been humbling. It's been edifying. It's been, on several occasions, quite wondrous. It's even been fun, when it hasn't been miserable.

That said, am I ready to leave? Sweet mercy, yes.



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