Indian Frustration

Trip Start Nov 15, 2005
Trip End Aug 15, 2008

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Two months would be a reasonable amount of time in most countries; in India, it feels like nothing. It's a large country, but more than that, there's an enormous amount of ethnic, cultural and geographical diversity to be explored. Someone once jokingly commented that it is more like 26 countries than 26 states, but that doesn't seem too far from the truth. Though I only really visited 3 states, I saw historic centres of Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist culture, travelled from crop-growing plains to barren mountains, ate strictly vegetarian in holy Varanasi, rich, meaty Moghul cuisine in Agra, and traditional Tibetan around the Spiti Valley. It may be a smaller country than China, but it is far less culturally homogeneous. "Unity in Diversity" was the slogan chosen when India celebrated fifty years of Independence in 1997, reflecting the way the country embraces the differences in it's people, rather than trying to suppress and contain it. In that respect, it feels a far less alien culture.

Which isn't to say it feels particularly familiar, either. You only have to take one look around, and the colour and vibrancy and filth of the place is immediately apparent. Even in Delhi, cows roam the street (contributing to the 'fragrant' nature of the country) and troupes of monkeys steal fruit from unwary passers-by. Distressing poverty is very evident, street kids present wherever tourists may be, canvas hovels at the edge of every city. Of course, this just makes all those that dress in rags to take advantage of the sympathy, and the constant 'hellomoney' from kids throughout the country, that much more disgustingly repellant.
Though many aspects of Western civilisation can be traced back to India, there is much that has barely travelled beyond the borders of the country, a cultural and spiritual wealth that keeps many people returning year after year. So very used to offering foreigners what they want (for a price), travel here goes beyond sightseeing. There are so many opportunities to learn, and that is perhaps the best aspect of travel in this country. If I choose to return, it will probably be for this reason. Staying in one place for some time, you lessen the frustrations that are unfortunately so much a part of the 'Indian experience'.

These frustrations were, in the end, too much for me to get over. I can put up with discomfort when I travel. I can get past cultural and communication difficulties. What I can't deal with is constantly being seen as a target, a walking ATM. Though I did meet a few nice Indians, it didn't take long before I learned that, in general, if someone approaches you, no matter how innocuously, they're almost certainly after something. Maybe I'm being unfair, but when you have to fight a hundred little battles every day, you get very, very sick of it. In one hotel, it took 12 hours of asking just to get sheets for my bed; because I had made the mistake of paying up front, they had no incentive to actually do anything about it beyond smile and nod and say they would get some for me, then go back to doing nothing when I was gone.
Flexible pricing is a huge irritation - what you are charged is how much the shopkeeper thinks you are willing to pay. It shouldn't be the case that, from the same shop, one day you will be charged 10 rupees for a bottle of water (normal price), the next they will try 15. Sometimes, I found it funny. One hotel owner, carefully judging my appearance, asked 1000 rupees a night for a room (I never paid more than 150). If someone tried to overcharge for fruit (as happened constantly) I would just go to the next stall, buy what I wanted for the proper price, take it back to the first stall and point out just how stupid they were to try to overcharge; this is particularly satisfying if you stay for several days in one town, and can walk past and call them an idiot every single day (I ate a lot of fruit). Forget about getting a decent price from anyone particularly targeting foreigners (souvenier shops, barbers, rickshaws, etc.) As mentioned before, they will lie and whine pathetically to get a few more rupees out of you. Typically, you will hear:
"You are my first customer today! I give you special price!" (twice the regular price - note that this will be said whatever time of day it is); "Pay as you like" (not knowing the proper price, you'll almost certainly pay too much, and then I'll whine a bit and make you pay more); "My friend..." (you gullible fool...")
Even the ATM's try it on - the only one in Lakshman Jhula (Rishikesh) charged an incredible $15 to withdraw cash!

In Delhi, I wanted to get a replacement bridge piece for my glasses. I had tried in China, but nowhere had the right size piece. I specifically asked at the opticians if they had the correct size. They said yes. Half an hour later, they bring back my glasses, "We didn't have the right size piece, so we just forced this one in..." Of course, it fell out three weeks later. This kind of thing is too typical here, but I refused to put up with it. When I returned to Delhi, I went back to the same shop and told them exactly what I thought of them. Their response? "You are very rude. In India, we don't speak to people like that!" Perhaps if you did, this country wouldn't have the problems it does!  Following my snap in Kalpa, I was quite happy to yell at people if I thought they deserved it (such as the fool who tried force me into a fortune telling in the middle of the street by shaking my hand and not letting go, starting on all his nonsense and yelling "Don't refuse my work!" when I tried to walk away) but sadly, more often than not, they do get away with these things. It's usually only small things, but all the time and I found that every day, it just wore my patience down and left me entirely frustrated. Travel shouldn't be like that.

Sad to say, but it is the people that really spoil this country. Even ignoring the constant irritations, Indian men (you never meet the women) are really quite unpleasant. They're curious to the point of being intrusive, staring at whatever you're writing or reading, even if that happens to be an online bank statement, and conversation, beyond the tiresome typical questions, inevitably was about sex. Shopkeepers would often bring it up, presumably because they believed it would put you on a more 'friendly' footing and make you more likely to buy, when it would have the complete opposite effect on me. They couldn't seem to understand that it was none of their business, continuing the conversation even if you've made it quite clear you don't want to talk about it, and seemed to feel that you wanted to hear all about their imagined conquests, in as lurid detail as their porn-fueled imaginations could muster. I would usually try to just ignore it all, but I couldn't help but laugh out loud when one guy showed me the picture he was carrying in his wallet of his 'girlfriend' - a photo of a model, quite obviously cut from a magazine.

Still, this is all harmless enough, and infinitely preferable to the treatment female travellers receive. I heard far too many stories of women being groped in crowded places, even when with a partner, and of hotel staff trying to peek through curtains into people's rooms. I feel sorry for them that they live in a very repressive culture, but that's no excuse for stepping way beyond the bounds of intrusiveness simply because someone comes from somewhere else. Neither is the belief that all foreign women are 'loose' - people have been travelling here for a good 50 years, and it's not as if India is exactly cut off from the outside world. They know full well it's unacceptable behaviour, but (sadly) also that foreigners too easily put up with this as being 'part of travel in India'.

Somewhat more disturbingly is how quick they are to become aggressive. The slightest disagreement can provoke a violently over-the-top reaction, as was the case with some Czech people I met. They had been locked out of their hotel (at only 11 in the evening), and had woken the manager to get back in. He took offense at this, and decided to throw them out; understandably the Czechs refused to pay the full bill. This blew up into a full-on argument, and when I came into the situation, five angry young men, one very drunk, another with a hockey stick, were attacking them and an Austrian girl who was not even involved with the dispute, simply because she was another foreigner in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few of us tried to intervene, but were forced out of the lobby and the security gates locked, with the Czechs still inside. Fortunately no-one was seriously hurt, but when the situation had calmed down slightly, one of the Indians (who hadn't even been present at the start of it all) incredibly started to invent a scenario that would have justified their response, completely denying any violence, even though the Czechs were standing right there! Sadly, this wasn't the only incident of this kind I came across.

A certain amount of annoyance also came from the travelling community. I met a lot of great people travelling in India (assume if you've been sent this, you come into this category), but also more pretentious idiots than almost anywhere else I've been. It's one of my pet hates, that some people not only feel that their way of travelling is somehow superior to anyone else's, but that they fell the need to inform you of this and dismiss any of your own experiences. "Oh, you're staying in a guest house? I only stay in temples and ashrams..." And there is this idiotic belief that travel in India is somehow more valid than travel elsewhere. This always comes from people who specify: "How long have you been travelling in India for?" I would tell them the truth, 2 months, not mention the rest of the trip, and be quite amused to hear them take on an almost morally superior air because they had been here for 6 months, and lecture me on how to travel.

This is the thing: travel in India is not difficult. It's annoying. People are trying to rip you off left, right and centre, but they're doing it in English! Yes, you might get overcharged for your bus ticket, but only because there's someone that knows exactly where, as a foreigner, you want to go, and is willing to take the hassle out of arranging the ticket yourself. You're almost always going to be presented with an English menu in restaurants. You'll probably be over charged, and the food (rarely as good as Indian food in England, incidentally) will lead to intestinal discontent at best, illness at worst, but at least you know roughly what you're ordering.

I guess in that respect, India was a good country in which to finish this trip - I had had enough, and was happy to be leaving, returning to a country where I won't be constantly viewed as a potential victim, where I'll only be ripped off as much as the next man, where I will be able to end my day without being so annoyed.
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