I’ve struggled throughout this experience to find the words for what I feel about India, and mostly failed. Even in the personal journal I kept, my prose is flatter and lamer than usual. Sparse, too. My usual sense of humor while traveling basically doesn’t exist within those pages, but came to life a bit the other day when my boyfriend and I were speculating about what titles I should use for this post.
“I Hate India” – too far, though in 41 C heat in Varanasi it felt true
“Notes on Why I Hate India” – More like a travel blog, but that “Notes on ______” construction is so overused and empty
“Everything and Nothing All At Once” – too esoteric
“I’m Sick of Scarves: Why India and I Don’t Get Along” – a top contender, based on my sweltering in modest clothing for the past two months
Elephanta Caves, Mumbai
“Hail India, Full of Human” – I’ll explain further in a moment
“I Like the Cushy Touristy Stuff, Damn Me”
And my personal favorite, coined by The Russ-
The title I settled on is true, and how people wander about barefoot or in sandals almost exclusively in India makes zero sense to me.
There it is, folks. I don’t like India. I’ve struggled from almost day one on this trip to accept my dislike and allow it to be a valid experience.
Many people come to India and have a life-changing trip. They find religion, they find a culture that suits them, they love the food, the clothing, the movies, the yoga, the music, the “healing crystals,” the language and the sights. There are countless documentaries about India and its culture that play almost nonstop on the National Geographic Channel and others, and endless books about traveling in this country and having it be magical and transformative (Eat, Pray, Love is only the most famous amongst them, and in my opinion the most boring). India is one of the few places that nearly everyone knows, and that nearly everyone seems to believe is a great place to visit. Their tourism advertisements certainly help, spouting the “Incredible India” slogan plastered all over buses and cars and hotels here. It’s a traveling life goal, for me and many others.
And I just don’t like it.
In the attempt to color in why I dislike India and fill out that somewhat scary declaration, I’m pulling quotes from my journals over the last two months. This will not be my only post about India, not by a long shot. But it needs to be first in order to give background for the stories yet to come (how my possession of a vagina prevented me from drinking a beer on International Women’s Day, how to stretch 600km into 21hours, an accidental swim with the dead, and more).
India has stripped me of my expressive capacity, and I need this as catharsis. I intend to get out of the way and hope that something coherent emerges from the words below. Given that they are about India, I don’t hold out much hope.
“Mumbai is waking up to a shitty marching band. It’s a chocolate croissant. It’s “Ladies Only” security lines. It’s metal detectors, even those impossibly placed at the stations. It’s vibrant and loud and scary and beautiful.” – 24 February, Mumbai
“I feel stressed out every time we walk outside. I have to remember that in South America I felt similarly at first and that this time I am not alone, and that generally I’ve only heard good things about India.”- 25 February, Mumbai
“There is so much that I don’t get about India. The chiles and limes strung over doors. The wooden scaffolding on decaying colonial buildings. The different ethnic groups. The clothes and jewelry. In a way, it feels like being reborn…in an incredibly ‘i’m having an India moment!’ way.” – 26 February, Panajim
“So far, that seems to be a part of how India makes me feel…like a bad person.” -28 February, Panajim
Debtor’s Prison, Kochi
“I keep wondering if India will produce a big spiritual shift in me as it does for so many. Then again, I was raised in so much of this. The ‘healing crystals’ and insence and mantras are familiar rather than exotic.”- 3 March, Palolem Beach
“I’m a travel paradox. I don’t want to follow the Lonely Planet Trail, and I want a challenge and I want grit…and then the moment they show up I want to leave and/or cry. The shock of leaving foreigner-imbued Palolem for ‘Real India’ has not worn off yet.
Of course, that ‘Real India’ concept is a tough one. What is the real India? Is it Mumbai? Old Goa? Palolem Beach? The sleeper train last night? Is it malaria tablet dreams in all their bizzare stress? Is it a bus ride? Is it the cow scene yesterday? Is it mendhi? Or curry? Or hijab, or beggars, or the sunrise over cluttered rice fields, green as anything?
Mural, Fort Cochin
I feel as if India is just everything, all at once.” – 5 March, Mangalore
“It’s a bad Women’s Day when I’ve had to be a floating head and hands and my vagina prevents me from having a beer.” – 8 March, Sultan Batheri
“We’re coming to terms with the fact that India is at once beautiful and ugly, like the gorgeoushideous massive conch shells covered in silver and gems on display at the jewelry shops. The presence of both reinforces and amplifies each, making the semi-contrast semi-melding of Wow and Ugh so much more potent. An ancient debtors’ prison, covered in beautiful graffiti art, next to a poo filled but reflective canal that mimcks Venezia even as it reeks in the afternoon sun. A red sunsent reflecting off the surf and the fully clothed children playing therein, enveloped in the cawing of a hundred thousand crows who are tearing apart the spine of a fish…
The more I try to understand, the more I have absolutely no idea what is going on.” – 12 March, Kochi
Jasmine and Berries, Clouds Land Munnar
(On the 16 March, a Swiss couple in India was attacked and the woman was gang raped in Madhya Pradesh. From then on, we were debating leaving India early.)
“I didn’t come seeking a guru or enlightenment or even wild elephants. I still don’t even know why I’m here at all, sino por cadena (form one of my favorite Neruda poems, here). Then again, did I ever know why I was in Italy? In Chile? In Korea? Somehow I doubt it, and so this experience is no different. And yet it is.
It’s as if India is humanity distilled. A thousand plastic bottles strewn about a “DO NOT THROW PLASTIC HERE” sign. An open grave, bones and finery askew in the landslide next to someone’s discarded wet underwear. Pickled fetuses. Flower garlands. Gang rape. Ancient carvings. Heat. Dirt. Illness. Birth. Death.
Maybe that’s why India is so terrifying. It’s human. I would much rather deal with nature than with humans and our errors, our capacity for evil. I don’t want to give up on India, but I don’t want to feel in danger. It’s that thing my one-time therapist said before Korea about anxiety, trying to discern the difference between a tiger in the room and a tiger somewhere in Asia.
Except there actually are tigers here. The metaphor becomes more obvious and more subtle simultaneously in India: the danger is real, but there are so few tigers and they are so reclusive that running into one, much less being attacked by one, is nearly impossible.” – 17 March, Munnar
“I feel like such a tool. Everyone I know loves India, and I pretty much hate it at the moment. I keep waiting for India to charm me instead of angering or frustrating or scaring me, and I’m wondering if that will ever happen. It may not…can I be at peace with that?” – 18 March, Munnar
A miracle at the Bangalore science museum
“India: The landscapes are eh, the people are nice, so the adventure will be with your own body! All that inward journey shit is just code for a long-haul bus with no toilet. We’ve been stopped in WTFville for no discernable reason for an hour and I’m literally shaking with the effort of not wanting to lie in my own piss until Bangalore. Incredible India.” – 19 March, between Munnar and Bangalore
“India is trying to be the world’s largest democracy. It’s an experiment for all humanity to watch. Democracy works great in a small, wealthy, educated, equal country (like Iceland). Can it work here, in a giant, poor, stratified, illiterate (30%) one? I often dount it here. But if India gets its shit together, it will truly be a force to be reckoned with…and who better to lead the world into equality and democracy than a country that faced impossible odds to do so?
I really hope it happens.
Yet India also terrifies me as a contender for world power. I am constantly amazed, walking in the trash and heat and dust and chaos…this country has nukes. Pakistan is even more HOLYFUCKWHYTHEFUCK than here.” – 22 March, Bangalore
“My pictures are somewhat dishonest, I’ve realized. They cut out the unslightly trash, crowds, and general blegh that most of the landscape is form of. Those who only look at my Facebook photos will have no idea why I’m so ‘eh’ about India. Most of the time, I can’t or don’t want to take my camera out because it’s inappropriate, needlessly attention-garnering, or dangerous.” – 24 March, Bangalore
“Amazing how a few well-placed money changers can suck the sacred right out of a place.” – 30 March, Pushkar
“I feel like I’ve given India more chances than should be necessary to make a magical impression. Maybe if I found village children exotic and not heartbreaking, I could just take their photo and show off how I got to see ” The Real India” to my friends at home. Maybe if I had some feeling of spirituality from Hinduism and not just comtempt. Maybe if I was stoned out of my mind the whole time. Maybe if I had a lot more money to spend.
I’m having an identity crisis over India. If I’m a traveler, how can I dislike this ultimate travel destination so much? Maybe I’m not really a traveler?” – 31 March, Pushkar
“Nothing has changed since yesterday. India just doesn’t have the magic of other places I’ve traveled. There is always a qualifier, always the relief that it’s not even worse. The feeling that I should be grateful it isn’t complete shit is annoying, and not what I look for in travel.
We’ve seen a wild tiger, temples, monkeys, holy sites…and all my photos make it look amazing. The truht is that I’m editing out a lot and I’m really not sure India is worth the hassle. The only reason I’m happy with it is that is hasn’t hurt us. Yet.
If the only reason to like a place is that it hasn’t robbed or raped or bombed or sickened you too terribly, then what is the point of coming to that place at all?” – 1 April, Pushkar
“Is this a test, oh you universe? My belly is unwell, leaking probably, and you send me a 20 year old piece of junk that’s been in an accident with no AC and no tail light.
Annnnnnd the techno starts. Good God.” – 1 April, between Pushkar and Haridwar
“We’ve been here [at our ashram] almost two fulls days, and half our instruction seems to have been about poo. How to poo, when to poo, what to think while pooing, what poo does, how poo thinks…” – 4 April, Santosh Puri Ashram
“I have no idea what to write. Today we swam with the dead.” – 5 April, Sanotsh Puri Ashram
“India is the incarnation of suck. Especially here, the philosophy that has arisen from the absolute suck of the place is one that allows a way to let India just suck and codify, even sanctify the suckiness until it becomes immutable.
The only way to have peace is to accept it and stop trying to think of good, bad, clean, unclean, black, white. Instead of trying to change the suck, one has a sacred duty to embrace the suckus quo and strop struggling.” – 5 April, Santosh Puri Ashram
“Tiny red and yellow ants somehow found their way into my underwear and bit me all over my bits.” – 9 April, Rishikesk
“‘You’re going to be so confused in Benares,’ she said. ‘Just remember that you have to look through India to see what’s truly happening.’” – 10 April, Haridwar
“I stand in amazement that vegetarian food could give us such incredible food poisoning.
It’s hard to know what to say about this trip. We’ve seen so much and liked so little. I’m tempted to simply not write. To just leave it out, a two month omission.” – 11 April, between Haridwar and Agra
The Taj Mahal
“Everything burns here. The sun on my arms, the dust in my throat. The mosquito bites on every knuckle, hand and foot, and all the unmentionable places. The sting of knowing we’re getting ripped off and knowing there is no other choice. The feeling of heaving mucus and bile into my nose, sat on a toilet and spewing from both ends of my digestive tract.
The news burns. The water, hot or cold, burns. The piels of fabric I have to wear to be decently modest burn and prickle and raise rashes. The food burns my hands. But more than anything, India burns trash. Everywhere, and at all times. The glow of it stays behind my eyes on night buses. It chokes the air. It burns the muzzles of the trash cows, making them living barbeque effigies. Or sacrifices? They are supposed to be holy, so are they just burning on the trash prye alive? Cow sati?
Paris may be a moveable feast, but India is a moveable inferno.” – 12 April, Agra
Maybe the title for this post should have been “A Moveable Inferno.” Maybe it will be the title of the post I next write, trying to synthesize this mess of impressions into something bordering on coherence. In the meantime, thank you if you’ve read this far. Draw your own conclusions about our time in India, based on this limited view. Tell me what you think, it might help me to understand my own thoughts.
Whatever India was, it’s over now.