It’s been a couple months since I left India, last washed the dirt from my feet, scrubbed orange Holi powder out of my ears, and felt my stomach settle for good as we flew out of Delhi. My partner David and I traveled for five months across thirteen countries, but when people ask us about our trip, India somehow seems to dominate every conversation. If I’m at my computer, editing photos from India or writing about my experiences there, I’ll find myself lifting my head up in a fog, wondering which country I’m in because thinking about India takes me back so suddenly and deeply.
Before David and I arrived to India, we were prepared for the worst in terms of scams and overwhelming interactions. One of the unfortunate truths about travel in popular developing countries, especially in their big cities and most touristic destinations is that you sometimes need to become emotionally detached from the people. Because so many people make their livings off tourism, you become a commodity, not a person, and are seen as a large breathing wallet that must be milked for all its worth. With this mindset comes an incredible number and variety of scams that are breathtaking in their creativity and complexity. You can learn all the scams in one country, just to be fooled by a whole new one the first day you step foot in the next country.
Emotional wariness is necessary because if you blindly trust, you will be soon parted with your money, time, and confidence. Friendliness is faked, only to be replaced by anger and denial if you follow them far enough down their rabbit hole then try to back out. Compassion and guilt are punished through heartbreaking scams performed by starving children and even if you simply give money to child beggars, at best you perpetuate a horrible system that continues to exploit society’s most vulnerable. One of the hardest things to do in the world is to coldly shoo away begging third-world children (I lessen the pain by donating to a reputable children’s charity for the area I will be visiting).
So, the emotional armour goes on. Forged with the steel of past scams, strengthened by the tears of children (kidding…sort of), and armed with the knowledge of every dupe to be laid out before me in my next destination, my amour is impeccably strong. I have been lied to countless times, driven around aimlessly by tuk-tuk drivers, forcibly given items and angry animals to hold in return for payment, and was even once punched by a child beggar. Been there, done that, not a lot gets through my armour these days.
All of this sounds terrible and scary, but once you have been through the ringer a few times, everything becomes easier, both for you and the locals. Things move quicker, they don’t waste your time with lies, you don’t waste theirs with uncertainty. It even becomes fun, this game of haggling and scamming. When you’re in the know, you can clearly show where you draw the line, and though touts will still try, their efforts often come with an unspoken wink. Once the dust has settled from these encounters, you emerge a stronger, more confident person overall and learn to deal with difficult situations from all walks of life.
So no place did I come with heavier armour than India. To me, this was the big one, the ultimate test, and I was ready to prove my strength, to learn and to grow. In a country of 1.3 billion people, so many of whom are desperate and in poverty, the treatment towards tourists reaches new heights of cultural dissidence, even delving into new realms for me like assault on foreign women. I admit India was the first country I have been apprehensive to fly to.
I was both ready and not ready. I was ready for each scam and sales pitch that came our way, never really bamboozled or taken in. But I was unprepared for how steadily and frequently they came. In Cambodia, you might encounter a few beggers a day, a couple people approaching you during your trip to try to sell you something you don’t want or need. In India, it’s non-stop, every time you step outside. It’s both an easy and hard country to meet locals…easy because someone is ALWAYS approaching you, hard because more likely than not they are not interested in actually making friends, but trying to get money out of you. Indians are incredible salespeople too, going in for long-winded conversations before weaving in their pitch. In a strange way, I also found people to also be paradoxically sincere and emotional as well, so you understand they are trying to get you for all your worth, but you also see their yearning, their needs, and their struggle. This constantly triggered my compassion, but that would butt up against my distaste for being lied to or feeling like my guilt was being exploited, so every day was an emotional roller coaster. There was frustration, anger, confusion, guilt, pity, and the desire to help in impossible situations…all before noon. It was exhausting.
One day in the small town of Pushkar, David was feeling especially exacerbated and complaining to me about the local scam that we had read about and witnessed. Pushkar has a small lake that is considered sacred and people will float flowers in the water for as offerings. This is a lovely ritual, but has created a market opportunity for people to approach you to ‘give’ you flowers “for the lake” and escort you to the water’s edge all while waxing on about local tradition. After you’ve offered the flowers, it’s time to pay up for your experience. Once you are used to this sort of interaction in other countries, it almost makes sense…you don’t get anything for free. But the lack of disclosure of the cost or outright lies saying that it costs nothing until it does especially rankles David’s nerves. Even worse is that the practice has devolved into people forcing flowers into your hands then demanding payment immediately. It becomes a ludicrous game of ‘if I can make you touch it, you owe me money.’ David was lamenting how ‘able-bodied middle aged men’ were making their living stuffing flowers into strangers’ hands. At that very moment, an able-bodied middle aged man waving flowers interrupted David’s rant. Before he could even finish “for the la-” we had spun around and both yelled NO! in unison. He scuttled away.
In another challenging experience, we were exploring parts of Varanasi when an Oliver-Twist-like gang of young boys charged us on the street. They were holding a jar of colored powder, another scam we immediately recognized where someone will approach you to put a symbolic mark on your forehead (a common ritual in Hinduism) and then ask for money after. The kids had a less sophisticated approach and just started yelling ‘money money!” as they surrounded us. They backed us up against a rubble pile and a rather mean-looking kid with a janky eye held up a scythe-shaped stick across my waist to block my way. They started to try to smear power all over our faces, but we shouted no at them and I pushed pass my stick kid until we could make our escape. Luckily, the boys thought it was great fun that they had gotten some powder on David and didn’t pursue it further. It wasn’t a very serious encounter, but came at the end of a day where we had started to relax a little and showed us that we should always have our guard up.
These are light-hearted examples, but every day we dealt with these situations and many were much more emotionally complicated. In Jaipur, we met a nice tuk-tuk driver who brought us from the train station to our hostel. He wanted to drive us around all the sights the next day and we agreed, but asked him to not take us on any ‘detours’ or extra stops where we would be shuffled into a store and pressured to buy something. This is common practice and allows drivers to charge less because they get commissions on each stop. We agreed on a price for the day with no down haggling from us. The next day, he did take us to all our stops, but then on the way back started to pressure us to visit a guru. We kept saying no, but he kept pressuring and then took us a very long route back so he could try and stop at different tailors to take us to. When we said no for the last time, he was silent for a while, but then started profusely apologizing. “I know I promised that would not do that, I’m sorry.” He was genuinely upset. We told him it was okay and not to worry about it. Then, when we were almost back to the hotel, he made an illegal U-turn to get us onto our road and a cop pulled him over. At this point, I did feel bad for our guy and tried to get him out of hot water, telling the cop I asked to make the turn, hoping my tourist status might get us off. No luck though and we were waved off while our driver was pulled aside by the cop and presumably given a ticket. I worried about him making even less money than he hoped for at the start of the day. These are all the weird emotions that arose in India…compassion and guilt for someone who previously tried to rip you off. My armour still has a lot of chinks in it.
There were a lot of frustrating parts of India. But there were also so many wonderful people and fascinating experiences. In Delhi on our first full day in India, a man named Rahul helped us through the chaos of the metro system and accompanied us to the magnificent temple of Akshardham. We’ve had experience with people trying to tag along and acts as guides, then demand money, so we were torn at first about Rahul’s intentions. We awkwardly asked him… “are you a friend…or a guide?” When he realized what we were getting at and adamantly insisted that he would accept no money from us, we were convinced. He later brought us back to his home where his wife Pooja cooked us an amazing homemade meal.
In Udaipur, we met a couple running an art shop whose passionately joyous dispositions were infectious. I had stopped to look at the hand-painted postcards on the outside of the store when the owner, Shyam, invited us inside. He talked about how he had designed and drawn everything, pointed out some of his larger paintings on the wall, and introduced us to his wife, Vimala. He told us he would draw us a small, quick sketch…no charge! I really liked him already, so I was willing to watch and wait for the other shoe to drop. David, however, was over this old trick and doing everything he could to not look at the sketching. Shyam noticed this and pointed at him.
“You watch, no charge! You don’t watch…1000 rupees!!” We all burst out laughing at this hilariously self-aware joke and our wall officially dropped down. The sketches were, in fact, free of charge and we spent time just sitting in their shop, talking. I loved that Vimala also painted and was Shyam’s equal behind the front desk. Their lack of hard sell was so appreciated that we ended up buying a lot of art from them and discussing different selling tactics in the States and India.
In Pushkar, we found our way into an ice cream shop that was just opening. A older man was the storefront owner and had renovated it from a leather store to an ice cream parlour for his son, Ravi, who was now running the business. Ravi was loud and passionate about the benefits of ice cream and believed ice cream brought happiness and laughter to everyone. “If you have a laugh one time a day, the doctor will stay far away from you!” he proclaimed exuberantly.
Celebrating Holi in Jaisalmer, we encountered another group of young boys, but these kids were only curious in gently interacting and asking questions about us. One of our group was wearing a turban he had loosely tied around his head, and the boys insisted on tying it correctly for him, with expert know-how. So many welcoming people we met were eager to share their culture and customs with us. They wanted to know what we thought of India and were equally excited to tell their own stories of travel and experiences with foreigners. When we did talk with Indians we actually got the chance to know, I was taken aback by how gracious, sincere, and open they were. I delighted in their honesty and thoughtfulness.
Ultimately, I found nothing to be black or white in India. My feelings about the country fluctuated wildly with each new experience. Some days I was sure I hated being there, only to have something happen that would make me feel not so bad. Other days I would just start relaxing, finally feeling in my groove until I’d be thrown completely by a negative interaction. There were no fully good days and no fully bad days. People say that you’ll either love or hate India, but I found I had room in my heart to both love and hate this wild country. I’ll admit that the love came a bit after my time there. During our visit, I was too exhausted to do anything be soak it all in and frustration was easier to feel than appreciation and reflection. On our last day before we flew out of Delhi, we were staying in a hotel room where there was no drain in the bathroom (for reasons we can’t begin to guess at), so there was a small lake under our bed from showering. We were counting down the hours before our plane took off.
But once I put some distance between myself and India, all the frustrating experiences became great stories. All the fluctuating emotions sunk in to form a widening of my character. India isn’t my favourite country in terms of how it looks or makes me feel, but it was like taking my first trip abroad again, complete with all the struggles and discoveries. There are so many people that you are bound to meet the bad with the good, but all of them just paint a greater picture of the vast breath of humanity the world has to offer. My time there made my universe bigger. There is simply no place in the world like India and that alone makes it an awe-inspiring, magnificent place.