I'm reflecting that on my way from Frankfurt into Mumbai four weeks ago, I was seated next a lovely young NRI family (Non Resident Indian) from Chicago who were traveling with their 20 month old twin toddlers for an 8 day vacation... 4 days visiting family in Mumbai and 4 days in Goa at the beach. When I expressed astonishment over such long journey for a comparatively brief stay, the dad looked at me for a moment and then asked, "Have you ever been to India?" When I tell him no, there's another long pause before he tells me, "India is really INTENSE." And, as I've written earlier, it really is. Especially the contrasts: the beauty and the squalor; the wealth and the poverty; the uber modern and the ancient... it goes on and on.
The biggest downside of traveling with a group is that it limits contacts with natives, decreasing opportunities to talk with the locals and get a sense of what their lives are really like. But as I said before (I think), if I had tried to come to India on my own, I would have hidden in my hotel room. What we see in the magazines and movies are romantic images of India, the whimsical and the quixotic. The popular images don't capture the grit and garbage; the scrawny, scabbed dogs everywhere, darting through traffic; the pigs. Yes, there are pigs rooting through the garbage piles on the streets of downtown Jaipur as well in adjacent villages. Actually, it's a pretty good way to get rid of the garbage that the cows won't eat. And I thought that perhaps it was the ideal place to be a pig: Hindus (vegetarians) don't want you and Muslims are forbidden to partake. I asked our guide who told us that the garbage collector and street sweeper class (untouchables) do in fact slaughter and eat them. And, in so doing, further reinforce their position at the very bottom of rung of the caste system.
Being a ground transportation passenger in India requires compartmentalization. First, the traffic flows on the left side so that is adjustment number one.. And, if there are lanes, they have no meaning. Compartmentalization helps you maintain a non-traffic focus so you won't flinch, blanch, gasp or recoil every time a tuk-tuk veers within inches of the bus, or a person/dog steps in between your vehicle and the other one that's moving alongside you. And the horns: they are constant yet they are not hostile. They seem to be the friendly equivalent of a tap on the shoulder to let whoever's near you know where you are. In fact, most trucks have the following message painted on the back: "Horn Ok Please!"
In the cities it is very easy to find people who speak English since it is compulsory in school. As you move towards the smaller cities and villages, there are more creative uses of English. In Bhuj, the word "surprise" seemed to carry some cache. It was frequently included in menu items but that's hardly original. Best uses, however, go to Surprise Beauty Salon and Surprise Plumbing. Another favorite was Ephemeral Business Services.
Will I go back to India? Not right away, but yes, I think it's likely. When I got a chance to speak with people on the street as a visitor (but not strictly a tourist or a shopper), I loved the openness, warmth, and generosity; the huge smiles; the kids waving from the streets. Then there's the diverse geography/culture, the monuments, the history, the art, the wildlife. And the textiles are amazing. I like to think I would be better prepared and more confident.
A lot to think about. From the comfort of my home in the company of Kali and Milo. HOME!