We spent Christmas and new Year in India. It was a fascinating if exhausting experience. I could bore you all with eulogies about the Taj Mahal, which is every bit as beautiful as I expected - more so. But I won't. Instead, here are some random thoughts about the crazy, chaotic place that is - at least - the part of India we visited
- The Taj Mahal is situated on the bank of a filthy, polluted, almost dried up river. The town in which it exists (Agra) is one of the filthiest, grimmest places I have ever been to.
- India's dominant religion, Hinduism, is usually associated with, for Westerners, meditation, and peace. India's northern cities are crazy places, and the contrast between meditative practice and everyday life could not be greater. Interestingly, 'everyday' temples are equally noisy. They actually reminded me more of orthodox churches which are also hives of activity and centred around icons and statues. The 'Eastern' might be the key? Certainly the mantra has been used in Christian context - the Rosary has eastern roots.
- The driving is unbelievable. people use their horns, constantly, at any time, and without any encouragement. In Agra, the tuk-tuks (auto-rickshaws) turned a two lane dual carriageway into five lanes. Our driver was instructed to go back on the same dual carriageway against the flow of traffic by the guide, which he did for 1/4 of a mile until a row with two policemen ensued. We then continued through a wholesale market where we could have reached out and helped ourselves, we were so close to the produce.
- India is a very collective place which made me realise how much I value Western individualism. It is very difficult to be alone unless cooped up in the hotel. The cities are very crowded and manic, and life goes on in the streets. The mode of life is collective
- As a westerner, one stands out like a sore thumb. Not prepared for this, a stroll from our hotel to Connaught Square in Delhi, proved to be exhausting. A small army of beggars and hawkers descend on you and 'go away' registers not as 'fuck off' but 'I might possibly be interested if you talk to me and follow me up the road'. The only way to deal with this is to ignore them. Its hard work but one becomes expert
- The poverty is immense and the problems huge, yet they do operate a working democracy and that has to be an achievment. But the country will collapse unless it does something drastic about its population, and that may take a Chinese-style approach, which is far from democratic, albeit absilutely needed. There are some good 'carrots' - for example, we came across a first-division English-medium school which offers free places to the poor, but only if the mother has two children and is then sterilised. Is this harsh? I don't think so. Many Indians wish that Westerners would get over their colonian guilt and promote birth control as actively as we do so in our own countries.
- Indians cannot be quiet. At the game reserve, the huge clamour and noise made by Indian tourists when a tiger was seen made it absolutely definite that he would retreat into the bushes. And everyone seems to have a mobile phone which they talk about incessantly
- Indian internal flights are to be avoided. Jaipur Airport is no fun for four hours without information
- We went on a cycle rickshaw in Old Delhi. Neither of us are - ahem - svelte. How the skinny bloke who pedalled us managed it is a wonder to behold. The person organising the rickshaws had one leg. We wondered how this happened.