Goodbye India

Strange though it seems my time in India is over, I leave this evening on a plane bound for Nepal where I will be spending the next two weeks. While I am excited to be heading for Nepal, I am sorry to be leaving India. India has been at times challenging, at times overwhelming, at times horrifying, at times gorgeous, at times tranquil and peaceful and at times the most magical place on earth.

The India people are the friendliest I have ever met and even when they are trying to sell something they are also genuinely interested in you, where you come from and how you like India. Even the touts, while annoying, are something you get used to and even sort of enjoy after a while, provided you aren’t already frustrated and tired.

I have taken almost 750 photos and traveled nearly 4000 km (2500 miles) in India, two bus rides and two quick domestic flights, but the vast majority of that distance I traveled by trains, in all classes, even regular chair. I have seen everything from depressing squalor to majestic palaces and yet I still feel as if I have hardly scratched the surface. I can’t think of another and certainly have never been to a country with the kind of geographic and ethnic diversity of India. Everywhere I went was nothing like the place before it, and even though it can be overwhelming and hard to deal with at times, I think it’s worth it and I would do it again. I plan to return to India someday and see the Darjeeling and Himachal Pradesh areas as well as Varanasi and Kolkata (Calcutta).

There is really no way to describe or categorize the India people except to say again that they are the warmest and friendliest I have ever met. I have talked with everyone from accountants to hotel owners to waiters and busboys, rickshaw drivers, school children, beggars, shoeshine boys, fruit stand dealers, professional photographers, camel drivers, religious pilgrims, hustlers, con artists, tour guides, bus drivers and just random people on the street. Everyone wants to meet you, know where you are from, what you do, and most of all what you think of India. Nothing makes an Indian happier than the hear you say you love India (though quite a few thought I was crazy because I didn’t mind Ahmedabad).

Still it would be remiss of me to leave India without touching on the subject of poverty. The worst slums and shantytowns in all of Southeast Asia are here in India and at times the poverty of the people can be overwhelming. I have seen things that made we want to cry, but were so shocking I remained mute, temporarily unable to think. But in spite of the obvious and confronting poverty and yes the dirt and cow shit and human waste, in spite of all the pollution, garbage and general filth of many India cities, the people here remain the most gregarious and good natured I have ever met. Just yesterday on the train back from my daytrip to Agra while I was waiting in the station several little boys came up begging for change as they do in every railway station in India. The Indian people generally give a few rupees to the beggars, particularly the older ones badly afflicted and misshapen from Polio or Leprosy, but most western tourists tend to turn the other way or pretend as if the person at their feet simply did not exist. I myself have turned away at times, but at other times I give a few rupees to the beggars, especially the children. Yesterday however I did not have any change so I went and bought a bunch of bananas and gave them to one little boy and it made him very happy. He ate them and then followed me around for the rest of the wait talking in Hindi and playing hide and go seek in the train car until it started to move and then he waved goodbye and jumped off. It isn’t hard to bring out a smile even in the most impoverished and seemingly depressed of Indians; their smiles are never more than a kind gesture away. I have had total strangers offer to share their lunch with me as I walked by them in a park or invite me to have chai with their families, even the shopkeepers who bargain hard insist you sit and have a cup of chai before they try to rip you off.

Several westerners I have traveled with who witnessed me giving money here and there to children have told me I shouldn’t encourage children to beg or they’ll be begging the rest of their lives. But the truth is they’ll be begging the rest of their lives anyway and later many of them will contract Polio or worse from tainted water and will become the misshapen men and women pulling themselves along on their mutilated hands still begging for change. To think that there are opportunities for begging children to improve their lot is naive and delusional. Just as it would be delusional and naive of me to think that I can give anyone more than five minutes of relief from their life.

I could not begin to suggest what India ought to do to help its poor, but I am glad that Bill and Melinda Gates are pouring a tremendous amount of money into disease research and medical help for India and other countries like it. It is painful to see the victims of Polio and know that Polio is a preventable disease. Polio is rare to nonexistent in the west and yet here thousands die of it every year simply because the vaccines can’t get from A to B. I don’t know why the vaccines aren’t distributed the way they need to be, there are probably a thousand reasons but none of them are good.

In closing let me also say that I have spent a good deal of time thinking about cultural differences since I have been here. I have learned to never let my left hand get anywhere near food, I’ve come to the conclusion that squat toilets are actually easier to use, though harder to keep clean than western ones, that lane lines are not necessary, that time is a purely western concern, that driving a rickshaw is actually pretty easy, as is riding a motorcycle, that I can say my name and ask how someone is doing in Hindi, that saying no is impolite, that the sky has more stars than we know, that trains are the best form of transportation and most of all that patience is not a virtue, but a way of life. In spite of that there are some aspects of Indian culture I cannot abide by. My conclusion on cultural differences is that any cultural practice that fails to treat your fellow human beings with the same respect you accord yourself is not a cultural tradition worthy of respect.

And finally for my fellow Americans, please get out and see the world. We are an isolated country both geographically and culturally and the rest of the world is going to pass us by while we have our heads buried in the sand. The rest of the world looks to us, but then discovers that we are often ignorant and ill-informed, that we start wars and fail to allow for anyone who disagrees with us, that we expect and demand that the world bend to our ways when we have never experienced theirs. We have the power and resources to transform so much of the world for the better and the more of us that come out here and see what the rest of the world is like, what they want, what they love, what they would die to protect, the more we will be able to understand and help them. The day and age when we could be isolationist and ignorant came and went before we were born, we owe it to the world to see them on their own terms. So pack your bags, I’ll meet you in Nepal.


Please leave a reply:

All comments are moderated, so you won’t see it right away. And please remember Kurt Vonnegut's rule: “god damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” You can use Markdown or HTML to format your comments. The allowed tags are <b>, <i>, <em>, <strong>, <a>. To create a new paragraph hit return twice.