HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Most Confusing Place

My journey. Black is bus, red is taxi, and green is train.
If there is one thing I learned from my whirlwind two weeks in India, it is this: there simply is no possible way anyone could accurately explain the country. Even though I covered a fair amount of ground on my trip, I barely put the beginning of a dent even in just southern India, let alone the country as a whole. One could spend years exploring the country and still be rather clueless on its intricacies and realities. How could you possibly wrap your head around a country of over 1 billion people? A country made up of twenty-eight states, each of which is unique enough to be a country in its own right; where languages spoken in one area are completely different from those spoken just a few hundred miles away? How does a country that can afford a multi-billion dollar space program, yet can't afford to care for the tens of millions of citizens stuck in miserable, grinding poverty, even make sense? I certainly don't have the answers to these questions, but I'm about to expend considerable effort in trying to make a little bit of sense out of it all.
India was, without a doubt, the most difficult trip I've ever taken and, as a result, it's been the hardest to describe to my friends. When I went to places like Thailand and Malaysia, I could easily respond to the usual "How was the trip?" question with ease: "It was great!" Simple. No other country I've been to, though, even comes close to India in terms of, well, everything. Nearly every day there was an emotional roller coaster: YEAHHH!!! THIS MOTORBIKE RIDE THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS IS EPIC!!!" "Shit, I just got horribly ripped off..."  "My god, I'd rather kill myself than stay on this bus for another minute." And, finally, "This might be the best meal I've ever eaten."

As a result of this, my stock answer to people inquiring about the trip has become: "Overall, it was a hell of an experience. I hated parts of it, and I loved other parts." This usually gets a confused response, but that's fine by me, because I was confused by the trip as well. I still haven't entirely sorted out my thoughts about the trip. Many of the experiences will be hard to top: the backwaters of Kerala, the buffet in Kovalam, the temple in Trichy, for example. But, some of my most miserable experiences also happened there: the extreme boredom of Madurai, standing in the back of a bus full of 90 people for two hours after leaving Alleppey, getting repeatedly ripped off, etc. I don't know how to properly articulate my thoughts on a place that can leave you feeling so high, and then rip the rug out from underneath you so quickly, and vice versa, so often.
I think that's enough about my personal emotions, so let me ramble on some more about the country itself. First: the people. If you've followed my posts about the trip, you're probably under the impression that all Indians are out to get as many dollars out of tourists as they possibly can, by whatever means. While there are people that think that way, I neglected to mention the many incredibly friendly people I encountered. Especially when it came to transportation, locals couldn't have been more helpful.

While many signs in India are in English, as well as the local language, the route signs on buses are not. Since basically every language in India uses a script, I had no idea what anything said. However, whenever I was at a bus station, alone or with Kevin, I could simply ask someone which bus went where, and they would quickly point me in the right direction. On my first two train trips, I had an "upper berth", which meant my little area was above the window, so I couldn't look out and see what station we were at when we stopped. The trains had no PA system, so there were no announcements. However, I quickly found that all I had to do was inform someone in the cabin of where I needed to get off, and they would make sure to alert me when we were approaching the correct station. Without these kind souls, I probably would've ended up hundreds of miles off course.
Many people in India are also intensely curious about Westerners and where we come from, although that sometimes makes for rather awkward encounters. An offshoot of this curiosity is staring. I've been stared at plenty in Vietnam, but mostly in the countryside, not in major cities or towns. With the exception of Munnar, nowhere I went in India was even close to being "off-the-beaten-path". Sure, I didn't go to any major cities, but southern India is a major stop on the international tourism circuit, so I certainly wasn't the first, or even 15,000th, white person to schlep through these parts. Nonetheless, I lost count of the times that I was blatantly stared at like an animal in the zoo.

Two instances really stand out in my mind: the older woman that gazed intently at me while I ate at a restaurant in Munnar, and the family of eight that gawked, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, for a solid five minutes as I sat on a step at the main temple in Trichy. Even making eye contact with them didn't deter their gaze. This unfamiliarity with foreigners on their part, and my inability to understand why they were staring, made me realize how much we take the diversity of America for granted. Growing up in a city in the U.S., you are likely to see people of almost every skin color imaginable on a daily basis. (Ok, maybe not in Alabama or West Virginia.) By the time you spend twenty years in America, there really isn't a need to stare at anyone anymore. Few people look weird when weird is normal.
Another oddity of the Indian people is the obsession young men there have with young white men. In Vietnam, many girls and young women fawn over white guys, which can be equal parts amusing and annoying. In India, its the complete opposite: women would barely even look at me, while crowds of young guys would argue over who could get their picture taken with me first. While this is all jolly good fun, it also reflects an unfortunate reality: India is still extremely unequal, and conservative, when it comes to gender.

This became blatantly clear to me on the buses and trains I rode: no male gave up their seat for a woman, even an elderly or pregnant one. In fact, women actually gave up their seats for men. On one train journey, a man in a seat ignored the standing women, but quickly gave up his seat when he saw me and lay on the floor, despite my protestations. The vast majority of women in India cover themselves almost as thoroughly as do women in Saudi Arabia. This is especially jarring when you flip on the TV and watch Indian MTV, which is home to the gyrating hips and scantily clad women that are so common on American MTV.
I realize this is getting rather long, but stay with me. Moving away from a specific aspect of Indian society to the country as a whole, there is one serious problem I noticed in my time there that I'd like to discuss; one that isn't as headline-friendly as tensions with Pakistan, religious strife, or abject poverty. It is the colossal amount of garbage strewn all over the country. Wherever I went: small mountain towns, the middle of the countryside, or the beach, there was trash absolutely everywhere. There is a similar problem here in Vietnam, but the scale of the mess in India, as with everything else in the country, is gargantuan.

In my view, there are two root causes at work here: lack of trash cans in public places, and complete apathy among the locals. As you ride along in a train, it is hard not to notice the stream of food wrappers, newspapers, tissues, and water bottles flowing out of the windows. I had to work hard to keep huge piles of trash out of the frame almost every time I took a picture. Even if all of India's other environmental problems - carbon emissions, deforestation, poaching, industrial waste - were to be solved tomorrow, it's hard not to think that most of the country's natural landscape has already been ruined. Even if every person in India pitched in, it would take decades, centuries even, to clean up the waste.
So, India then. It is being hailed as one of the next superpowers; a member of the prestigious BRIC - Brazil, Russia, India, and China - Group. However, many experts on the country wonder just how powerful it will become. Economic and military might can only go so far in the face of massive political corruption, poverty, and internal tensions. In the future though, India will have a huge impact on global affairs, if for nothing else than sheer numbers. It's hard to ignore a city of 20 million people, and India will have at least three of those in a couple of decades. That many people will have an impact in unforeseen ways, no matter if they live in the swanky new high-rises in the suburbs of New Delhi, or in Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai that is one of the biggest in the world.
China, the world's other great population power, likes to portray an image of order, discipline, and confidence. India gives off a sharp scent of almost complete anarchy, which may be appropriate for the place that is lauded as "the world's largest democracy." What kind of impact will India have on this century, in comparison to the vastly different China? It's anyone's guess.

Well, I suppose I got a bit off topic there, but I had an itch that needed scratching. I hoped this help illustrate why India is so confusing. People keep asking if I would ever go back to India, and one thing that is clear, is that I can definitely answer with a "yes". You have to learn how to roll with the punches, take the good with the bad, buckle down, use some more cliches, and just go. You can't guess what you'll have seen and done by the time you come out on the other side, but be sure that there isn't anywhere else on earth like India.
Later in the week, we return to our previously scheduled Vietnam programming.

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