If you ever get the chance to go to an Indian wedding, take it. People save for years to put on a display of food, dance, music, celebration, and pure opulence, for days on end. For the last ten days I’ve gotten to join the insanity, dance to the endless drums, and do a bunch of touristy stuff to boot. I only saw a small part of the country (from Delhi to Agra basically), and only lived the 5-star tourist experience, but that little exposure was enough to both delight and horrify me. You need to go.
I’ve wanted to visit India since as long as I can remember. As a kid, my grandfather told me stories about his childhood there during the Raj, and then again in the early days of his military career. I used to think that Indian food was what all grandparents gave their grandchildren for breakfast, and what your dad cooked when the grandparents came over for dinner. Basically grandparents equalled malasa in my mind. My favorite poems were all Kipling, and when I drew or painted, the Taj Mahal was almost always front and center (regardless of whether it was a drawing of Superman or not). So when my friend, Prateek, invited me to New Delhi to meet his new wife and celebrate with their families, I jumped at the chance.
The first thing that hits you in New Delhi is the pollution. Nothing you read can really prepare you for the air quality. The winters are even worse due to the millions of people who burn wood or coal to heat themselves. I’ve never had to think about an air quality index, but I discovered that Tampa was a 38 when I left, and New Delhi was a 401 the day I landed. It’s so bad it has its own Wikipedia page. I was there 10 days, and never got used to it. Writing this after being back for three days, I still have a persistant cough, psychosomatic or not. This perfectly illustrates the biggest take away I have from trips like this: remembering to appreciate how good we have it in the US.
While many parts of Delhi (old and New) are marble coated, air-conditioned, commercial spaces, the vast majority is in pretty rough shape. As you move away from the city center, buildings are literally crumbling from disrepair. In parts of Agra, filled with tourists being rushed in an out, are completely collapsed buildings that have become informal dump sites, with scavenging dogs and cows being fed cabbage. People sleep in the streets, and beggars rap on the windows of your Uber, all while the coffee shops and carpet emporiums neatly sweep the dust off their doorways. We accept American Express.
The disparity between wealth and poverty is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’ve never been anywhere in Africa or Asia that come even close. I walked out of a clothing store on a market square to see two men, both with terrible deformities and missing limbs, pulling themselves through the crowds on carts 5 inches off the ground, begging for change. Stepping between the space the two carts created, a woman in a sari and her daughter found a clear path to their brand new Range Rover.
Regardless of circumstance, everywhere we went we were treated extremely warmly, but frankly. Indians don’t pull their punches. When they talk about the problems the country faces, it’s all very honest, and often brutal. The only times that the conversations diverted from the path of warmth+humor+frankness were during any negotiations of commerce. There is a deal to be had around every corner, but as a “Westerner” it can be exhausting to keep up. Other than that, people were the same as everywhere else in the world. We discussed the weather, politics, religion, and cricket. It was so good to talk to people who understand cricket!
On the hospitality side, or the service side, I don’t think I’ve every experienced anything better. People would go so far out of their way to help us and to make us feel comfortable. People were so friendly, and so accommodating, that I think I tried not to ask for too much; the level of effort being put forward almost made me uncomfortable. There was more than one occasion where I would ask a question like, “how do we get to the spice market,” and the next thing you know is someone is taking you there by the hand.
“Foreigner privilege” might have something to do with this. Tourists represent a significant revenue for a developing economy, so we might look like dollar signs with legs. This does feel really weird when done at the institutional level. At ever temple and tourist site, there are separate queues for foreigners. The line at the Taj Mahal for Indians was probably a 3 hour wait, but for us there were only two people in front. The tickets for tourists are about 10 times as much, but that’s still an insanely small amount for an American.
The one place this did not hold true was the airport. Our flight left at 3:30am, so we figured 11:30pm would give us plenty of time. In the end we made it, but it was cutting it close. The security “line” was more of a disorganized mob; people fighting, yelling, pushing, and trying to get to the front. It took two full hours to get through, and I’m amazed the authorities didn’t step in.
Would I do it all over again? Absolutely. As much as it sounds like New Delhi is hard on the senses, overwhelming, polluted, and dirty, it is still magical. There are centuries of life and architecture and food and religions, all living on top of each other. I’ve never been to anywhere like it, and I am extremely grateful for the experience.