Friday, February 10, 2012

Travel Notes from India

• India is many things: vast, crowded, loud, dirty and colorful. But in the end, it’s mostly just heartbreaking. It is simply impossible to avoid the soul-crushing poverty which surrounds you at every turn. Coupled with the vastness, the crowds, the noise, the dirt and the color, it can quickly become overwhelming. Each time we ventured out into the madness, Teresa and I were forced back into the safety and comfort of our hotel after only a few hours.

• The Palace Hotel in Mumbai is spectacular. The architecture is fittingly inspiring. If there is a single criticism I might have about the place, it is that there is too much help. Low labor rates in India mean that luxury hotels can afford to staff their premises liberally. As a guest, every move you make is met by a staff member inquiring if he can help out in any way. While these queries are delivered with a smile and a truly genuine friendliness, it can become irksome if, for example, you simply want to relax alone by the pool for a few minutes. But this is a quibble. The rest of the experience is a marvel (assuming you stay in the old hotel; we did not visit the tower).

• The intersection of modern commercialism and poverty is disturbing. By modern commercialism I really mean plastic coke bottles. Indians are not wealthy enough to worry about whether things look tidy. I think this is because most people have more pressing concerns than sweeping up the street (like figuring out where their next meal is coming from – GDP per capita is about $4,500 per annum, half of China’s and less than one-tenth of the US’s). Unfortunately, Indians are just wealthy enough that all of the corner bodegas are stocked to the brim with plastic coke bottles. As there are no trash cans anywhere, all those plastic bottles end up in the street or in the field or in the alley. The whole country is a garbage pit. I don’t think the Indians even realize it. I remember that the United States had a similar problem halfway through the last century, although smaller by an order of magnitude. We solved that problem with the TV commercial of the crying Indian (Native American Indian! - remember him?). I see the beginnings of a similar cultural campaign in India today. Occasionally you’ll see a billboard entreating people to throw away their trash. Unfortunately, there are no trash cans!

• As a rule, Indians are friendly people with beautiful smiles.

• Certain taxi drivers still call Mumbai Bombay. Chennai (Madras!) is pronounced with a “ch” sound at the beginning, not an “sh” sound.

• From what we saw, Islam seems to coexist with other religions reasonably peacefully in India (at least in the middle and the South, where we were). We saw some signs of discord – security at our hotels was extreme, for instance (the Palace was severely attacked back in 2008 if you remember). But there were no other, outward signs of strife with fundamentalist Islam. Newspaper articles concentrated on India’s civic and commercial interests, not suicide bombers. Things may be different in the far Northwest, but in Mumbai and Chennai, the 30% of citizens who are Muslim seem basically peaceful. Still, Teresa and I both felt threatened when we visited crowded Muslim mosques. We did not feel this way when we visited Hindu temples. I cannot decide whether this threatened feeling was a figment of our own imagination (being post-9/11 Americans…), or whether Muslims actually looked at us differently than Hindus.

• Delhi Belly is real. ‘Nuf said about that.

• There’s no madras in Madras. I think all the madras fabrics in the world are in Fairfield County, CT and Nantucket.

• At one mosque in Mumbai, an entire family with four kids, moms & dads and maybe even aunts and uncles silently, and weirdly, started to surround Teresa and me. They obviously didn’t speak English, and it was impossible to understand what they were doing, but they seemed friendly enough. We looked over to realize that one of the group was taking a video – they just wanted a video of them being with the Westerners. They got the shot, nodded their heads with big genuine smiles and moved on. Very weird. Needless to say, there weren’t very many Westerners among the crush of humanity at this particular mosque.

• India must be seen to be believed. Put it on your bucket list.