“India is one of those trips that gets better the further you’re removed from it,” my friend Steve tells me as he’s driving me to the airport, “The stories you’ll tell later on will be totally worth it, so try and keep perspective.” I knew exactly what he was referring to.
I have a painting on my wall that reads, “Travel is Life,” but just because I love traveling doesn’t mean it’s all excitement and ease and pleasure. The actual travel part is exhausting; planes, trains, buses and cabs that are generally crowded and usually desperately uncomfortable. (Boats, however, are awesome. Always choose boats when given the option.)
There other things that are uncomfortable as well: in my opinion water closets are one of the worst offenders. They are small bathrooms which include a shower, but without a curtain or any barrier, so when you shower you have to sidestep the toilet, and everything in the room gets soaked. Your clothes and towel have to be balanced on some tiny surface that you hope stays dry, or left outside the door. Once you’re finished the entire room is wet, so when you re-enter later on – to brush your teeth or look in the mirror or use the toilet – you have to either wear shoes, or strip off your socks and enter barefoot, and either way your wet feet track that soapy shower water all over the floor in the main room. It’s just plain stupid.
The reason I travel is to experience differences, but many MANY times those differences have left me desperately wanting my own home, my own bed, my own bathroom, my own kitchen, my own culture. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing, realizing just how much I enjoy my “regular” life, learning to recognize and appreciate the usually mundane details.
More times than I can count, the inside of my head has screamed, “What am I doing here?!” But the moments of enjoyment and wonder far outweigh all the complaints.
And since nobody wants to hear about the parts of travel that suck, those of us who indulge our itchy feet learn to either keep our trials and tribulations silent, or if they’re worthy enough complaints we turn them into glossy tales that somehow sound exciting, even though they weren’t. Which, funnily enough, is exactly what happens in our own brains; given enough time the tough parts tend to fade away, or somehow become exotic and romantic, hence Steve’s sage advice to me.
. . .
Present time, January 16: My first day in India. I’m a relatively seasoned traveler, and I’ve been repeatedly warned about the unique challenges in this country. I’m ready. I arrive at my hotel around noon, not having slept in nearly 48 hours and I can’t sleep now or I’ll be ruined. I’m hungry, a little bored, and anxious to explore, plus, I need to keep moving so I don’t fall asleep. I envision myself checking out the neighbourhood, discovering a cozy coffee shop or a sweet market, having an awesome meal, then telling my friends all about it when they show up around 6pm.
The guy at the front desk points me in the right direction and I head out. Almost immediately a pretty girl of about 12 trots to my side and starts chattering at me, not unpleasantly, but her eyes are pleading. I can’t understand her words, but I know she wants money or food or both. A man appears at my side and warns me in English not to give her anything, because as soon as I do every child in the vicinity will show up for a handout. Hmm. Ok.
The man asks me where I’m from and how I’m doing and what I’m looking for. He’s not pushy, but he’s completely unshakeable, and the Canadian in me is far too polite to speak sternly, or simply *gasp* ignore him. Sigh. The girl, behind the man’s back, catches my eye and shakes her head in a gesture that clearly means I shouldn’t accept any help from him. Right. Ok…
So they are quietly warning me about each other, and it would be comical if I weren’t so overwhelmed. I’ve been “exploring” for about 6 minutes, on a quiet street, and I’m this >-< close to turning and running.
Instead, I forge ahead, other men calling out questions and offering assistance, the first man and girl sticking to my side like glue, a second girl joining my unwanted posse.. I’ve gone about three blocks. I really want some authentic food from a street stall sizzling nearby, but more than that I want to be rid of all the attention. So I duck into a shiny red and black restaurant that has a big glass door, and flop into the first booth. There are seven tables and five staff members, which seems like overkill – I soon discover this is commonplace: even the six by four foot stall selling shoes on the street has four guys who are eager to spend 20 minutes helping you try on 20 different styles – which is kind of awesome customer service, if you can get past the total overwhelm.
I order and eat, painfully aware that I have no idea how to do so properly or politely. There are too many little bowls and plates, there’s only a single utensil, a spoon. I just get on with it and the servers try to keep their staring discreet.
I feel better and step outside to continue my exploration. Immediately the man and two girls pop up and begin trotting along at my elbows. I deflate.
The girls hustle me toward a tiny stall filled with packaged snack food. I’m bewildered and completely unsure what to do. The stall-keeper asks if I’m going to purchase them something. He looks at me with nonchalant disapproval, which seems contradictory but is another thing I soon encounter all over the place. Even if they think it’s a bad idea, Indians are too polite to tell you not to do it, they just look at you with that peculiar expression, which makes you second-guess even your most confident decisions. The guy manning the desk at my hotel did it to me repeatedly during my stay, and it made me want to shake him and demand that he give me some sound and definitive advice, because damn it, that’s his job! Instead, he just kept agreeing to whatever it was that he thought I thought I wanted…
Anyway, the shopkeeper is looking at me, the girls are bouncing in expectation, and there is a gaggle of other spectators waiting to see what the white girl is going to do.
I turn and walk away rapidly, trying not to hyperventilate.
I go straight back to the hotel, trying and failing to fend off any more attention or questions. My outing lasted less than an hour. I’ve been in India for less than three hours, and I’m bordering on panic.
I tell myself I’ll never be able to navigate my way through these streets. That I’ve made a horrible mistake in coming here, wasted my time and money. I replay Steve’s advice and wonder what stories I’ll be able to salvage, or create, for those at home, who expect tales of grand adventures…
I spend the next five or so hours locked in the hotel. My friends finally arrive. The one who’s previously been to India chastises me for going out alone, which increases my anxiety and makes me a little bit angry. We eat. They talk. After 51 hours I finally lay down in bed to sleep, hoping Day 2 is better.