India Overview

I was in India (specifically, Delhi, Agra, and the state of Rajasthan) from October 7th to October 23rd 2007. I traveled with two friends, N and J. N speaks Hindi. They were spending much longer in India than I was, arriving a week before me and leaving more than a month later.

India was an experience and I'm glad I went to it. It was substantially different than any other place to which I've traveled, sometimes in ways I expected and sometimes not. Here are some general, pretty unorganized observations:

Being White
A white person in India gets treated differently than an Indian person in a variety of ways.

One gets a lot of unwanted attention (undue attention?). Often this simply entailed many people being interested in us and asking us many questions. Frequently, "where are you from?" is asked before "hello." Indeed, being white walking down the street, we'd be asked this question by random passersby. By one week into the trip, I jotted in my notebook, "so f***ing sick of getting all this attention and having to talk to people just because I'm white."

Other times, this undue attention entailed people staring at us. If we noticed it, sometimes we stared back at them. In America, social rules are such that most people quickly turn away when confronted, but social rules in India are different and staring back didn't do anything. Once in a while, it even got the starer to say something to his friends and then they all stared at us.

One time, while waiting for a train, we decided to have a little fun with the other passengers. We all stood on one leg; the other knee bent slightly so the other foot stayed a few inches above the ground. (This wasn't that easy, as we were wearing packs at the time.) I'm sure the effect was definitely odd, though probably a bit subtle. The rules of the game were to switch which foot we were standing on when it was clear someone was staring at us. Let's just say neither foot ended up exhausted, as we must've switched feet a dozen times within five minutes.

Being white also made us the target of price discrimination. Pretty much everyone--rickshaw drivers, salespeople, etc.--would start negotiations at a higher price when they saw us around. Even the government discriminated, charging Indian nationals one rate to enter tourist sites and foreigners another rate, often a factor of twenty larger. Clearly they're attempting to segment based on ability to and willingness to pay, but I'd be much more comfortable if they tried to do it in a more subtle way, say, by pricing the differential entirely into the fee for the right to use a camera.

In a few negotiations, N, the Indian in our group, got scolded by people with whom she was negotiating. She was told that, in effect, given that she's traveling with white people, she shouldn't negotiate so hard but rather help out other Indians. One rickshaw driver said, "you should be watching out for me." And, he added, she shouldn't listen to the white people when they insist they can get a better deal.

Being white and therefore tourists made us an obvious target for marketers/touts. While walking or even standing around, we received many offers of help, countless invitations to enter stores, and constant streams of people trying to sell us items we didn't want (puppets, chess boards, poster-sized maps of India). After a while, I started telling people I didn't know how to play chess and didn't like puppets. I'd get strange looks but would then be left alone.

Surprisingly, I encountered few beggars. Despite developing nations being known for rampant poverty, I rarely got asked for anything. Walking around San Francisco or Berkeley, I get asked at least an order magnitude more often. I only was asked for food a handful of times over my couple week trip, and was never asked for money from an adult. (I was asked for money from little kids, but then little kids also asked me, surprisingly, for pens, so I can't take these requests that seriously.)

Shopping & Negotiating
Negotiating is often a pain. I say that without having done much of it. (N did most.) Virtually everything in India seems to be negotiable, with the notable exception of restaurants and long distance transportation. We mostly found ourselves negotiating for hotel rooms, rickshaw rides, and, to some extent, drinks and snacks from food stands.

It seems like some manufacturers are trying to sell fixed price goods in a climate of bargaining. For example, water bottles and snacks often had M.R.P. labels, which identified the maximum retail price the item was supposed to be sold for. Nevertheless, some shops still tried to put one over on us. A rare few even argued with us when we refused to pay more than MRP, claiming that their costs were too high. In the end, I think the sneakiest behavior is when stores put a MRP sticker on an item that already had an official, lower MRP printed on the label by the manufacturer. We saw this at least once.

Maybe it's the economist in me that made me find myself analyzing the idea of negotiation. Not only does it take time--indeed, as such it can be seen as trading off time against money--, but it's philosophically challenging. I want to pay what's fair. Yet, how should one define fairness? Is fairness paying the legitimate going rate (i.e., pay the same as everybody else for the same product)? Or is fairness paying proportional to the amount of work? If so, then one should pay cycle-rickshaw drivers more than auto-rickshaws, despite autos being faster and more comfortable, simply because the cycle-rickshaw driver exerts more effort. Or should one pay one's true utility for a service? If so, then I should be paying at least an order of magnitude more than the going rate, simply because the value to me of getting to, say, a particular temple, given that I won't likely be back in this part of India, is very high and, since I'm wealthy by local standards, my incremental value of money is small.

Also regarding shopping, I found it interesting that India generally doesn't have any grocery stores. I don't think I saw a single one. Foodstuffs are sold from stands on the street a la a farmers market. Obviously, this requires repeated bargaining--it's not like one can walk into a store, pick up everything one needs, and bargain all at once.

Interestingly, trademark law isn't enforced. Sometimes we encountered nearby establishments with nearly identical names; the only way we knew which was the reputable/authentic/good one was because of the description or directions in our guidebook.

Although meat supposedly plays a larger role in northern Indian cooking than in the south, the majority of restaurants we found ourselves in were nevertheless vegetarian. Apparently, having a larger emphasis on meat doesn't eradicate the fact that many Indians are vegetarian. It certainly has more vegetarians than the United States.

We always tried to go to Indian restaurants and to order dishes we couldn't get in the states, especially those we couldn't get at other restaurants in India (i.e., local specialties of the house or of the region). Occasionally, we branched out and tried Indian-Chinese, which is also generally hard to find in the states. We ended up trying a wide variety of items over the course of our trip. Some were pretty exotic. In one dish, even the Indian I was with didn't know the kind of tuber (potato family vegetable) they used. I certainly hadn't seen it before and she’d only seen it rarely and didn't know its name or where to get it.

Overall, the quality was a mixed bag, not much better or worse in quality than eating in random Indian restaurants in the states all the time. Sometimes it’s great; sometimes it's decent; and sometimes it's none too exciting.

An interesting aspect of restaurants is that they all make their own yogurt, paneer, cheese, milk, cream, etc. Indians are particular about their dairy products, especially given the alleged inconsistency of refrigeration.

As for the highlights, we had better luck with restaurants in Delhi. I really liked Karim’s and Veda. I also liked Bollygood in Jodhpur. We also happened into a roadside South Indian joint in Udaipur which was terrific. (We generally avoided South Indian, as we were in North India.) In addition, Chokola, a cafe in Delhi specializing in chocolate and chocolate drinks, was eye opening. Finally, Lassiwalla, in Jaipur, taught me, one who generally doesn't drink lassis, what they’re meant to be. It inspired me to order two later in the trip, neither of which appealed to me enough for me to even bother finishing them.

Tourist Sites
Two destinations easily top the list of most distinctive, don't miss sights: the intricately carved temples at Ranakpur and the elegant architecture of the Taj Mahal. Perhaps Jantar Mantar, an old astronomy center in Jaipur, also deserves to be on this list simply because it's so different than anything else I've ever seen. Of course, Rajasthan is filled with countless other temples/mosques/guradwaras/etc. and large, impressive, multi-walled fortresses, but none of these stand out far enough above the others for me to call out a particular one.

To me, the most unexpected aspect of Indian tourist sites was how run-down some were. Some seemingly had never been renovated. Most were simply unclean. It’s as if the officials running each site don’t realize how, if we have to walk through dirt and ramshackle streets to get to the site, we’re likely to be in a less pleasant mood while we’re there.

Another thing that surprised me was that many sites allowed booths, often selling highly-marked-up kitsch to tourists, within their walls. Seems like poor taste to me.

Though not a tourist destination, another notably interesting sight I saw in India was the performance of Indian music and dance in Udaipur.

By far, however, the most memorable aspects of the trip were not the individual sights but rather experiencing life in India:

  • the chaotic bazaars such as those in Old Delhi
  • the vast markets and never-ending invitations to enter shops, especially notable in Jaipur
  • the constant negotiating
  • traveling the roads, especially by rickshaw
  • the aimlessly wandering cows, dogs (yes, they were wild but not feral), and even, in some places, monkeys and baboons. And the occasional, not-aimlessly-wandering pack animals, like donkeys, camels, and elephants.
  • hearing people's stories about their lives and hardships. Cycle-rickshaw drivers are especially talkative because their vehicles are quiet and travel slowly.
N, who grew up in India, said that after one day of exploring the bazaars and seeing dirty India (e.g., open sewers in Agra), she’d seen more real India than in her life up to that point.

Of all cities we visited (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur), we found Udaipur the most pleasant. Except for Agra, it's smaller than the rest, meaning it felt cozier. That also meant we ran into some other interesting travelers multiple times (a plus). Udaipur's crooked streets generally have a European feel and it even has some European cafes/bakeries. Its many rooftop restaurants make for pleasant dining. The shopkeepers are less pushy than at other cities. And it's certainly cleaner and better smelling than Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Agra. Unlike those three cities, we weren't in a hurry to leave it.

Health & Medicine
I'm happy to report I didn't get sick. Sure, I took precautions. I only ate from a street vendor when I saw the food cooked, fresh, before my eyes. I was conscious about where my water came from and whether it was filtered. I carried bottles of water constantly, always checking the seal before opening and crushing them after finishing. I wonder if carrying water bottles constantly made me drink more or less than at home. Sometimes when we stayed in nice hotels, I almost made the mistake of rinsing my toothbrush under the tap--in clean, quality places, it's easy to forget that not everything that enters the room, such as water via pipes, is clean.

We had to be conscious about bathrooms. Although bathrooms in hotels and fancy restaurants were usually fine, we avoided going near the bathroom in average eateries.

In a similar vein, I’ll note I only got one bug bite the entire trip, despite not using any insect repellent. (I didn't use insect repellent because I wore long sleeve shirts and pants, so effectively my only exposed skin was my face and hands, two places one normally doesn't put insect repellent.) I also didn't get sunburned. I used sunscreen most days. (Some days I forgot or was too lazy.) I probably escaped burning because on most days it was too hot to be outside in the mid-day sun for too long. Yet, by the end of the trip, my lips were peeling. I wonder if it was the dry air or if my lips somehow became sunburned.

Indeed, the fact that I visited an arid region during the driest season meant there was lots of dirt and dust in the air. More than once I wrote in my notes that I can't wait until I'm home and truly clean. Even if I left my hotel, pleasantly showered, by the time my rickshaw arrived at my destination, I was fairly dirty again.

If I had gotten sick, I'll note that one can get medicine over the counter (at stores Indians call chemists, not pharmacies) that normally requires a prescription in America.

I’ll also note that people don’t seem to workout in the sense they do in the states. I guess it’s due to the heat (why exercise when roasting?), the lack of time (must work to eat and live--why do anything that costs extra energy, when calories cost money?), and the absence of a cultural pressure to look physically fit. Or, maybe working out is unnecessary. In general, except for a few sari-enshrouded women, Indians are skinny.

Another cultural phenomenon that I only consciously noticed halfway through the trip was that, aside from J and N, I interacted with practically no women. Shopkeepers were men. Wait-staff were men. Rickshaw drivers were men. Guards were men. Ticket booth people were men. The only time I think I spotted women were, rarely, at some vegetable stands, and, somewhat more frequently, behind the desk at hotels for tourists.

Road Rules
There are few road rules in India. It's a thrill ride! The two big rules are:
  • Use your horn all the time.
  • Big vehicles rule.
People, sometimes even in major cities such as Delhi, ignore traffic lights. When two vehicles approach each other on a narrow road, they communicate to each other (about who’s going to change course) with lights, hand gestures, and, of course, horns. I’m not sure if there’s a real system to it.

In cities, scooters are very popular, as are rickshaws. (Rickshaws are small, green-and-yellow, three-wheeled vehicles without doors often used as taxis. The driver sits in the front in the middle.) Different cities seem to have slightly different scooter and rickshaw designs. I think the popularity of these two types of vehicles stem from their price and their size—they can fit into small streets that regular cars cannot.

I'm not sure where else to put this comment, so I'll put it here: pollution was pretty bad. Most cities we were in had smog/haze, likely due to all the diesel engines. This made traveling in open vehicles--our usual method of transit--less pleasant than it could've been. Delhi, surprisingly, seemed to have some of the cleaner air we encountered. I thought the air there was better than that in Los Angeles. I'd expected worse.

I'm also not sure where else to put this comment, so I'll put it here: it's impossible to get anywhere quickly. Walking is slow because we end up talking to people, whether touts or rickshaw drivers. They're attracted to us like ore to a magnet. Rickshaws are slow, partially because negotiating takes a while. They are also slow because we often end up hearing life stories. (While the driver concentrates on story-telling, he tends to slow down.) And cycle rickshaws are just generally slow.

I suppose if we were willing to spend more money, just as better-off Indians could, we could have our own designated vehicle, thereby skipping the extra conversations and negotiations. Wealthy Indians owned their own scooters or other vehicle. Yet, even in this case, our speed would be limited to 35 miles per hour at most simply due to the poor road conditions and lack of traffic rules.

Wealth Disparities
There are striking disparities in wealth. Many people earn the equivalent of two or three US dollars a day, while others make hundreds in a day. From the Taj Mahal, we saw people bathing in a river; meanwhile, the entrance free for foreigners at the Taj was roughly two weeks salary for many of them. Later, in Jaipur, a shopkeeper we were negotiating with bragged that he made a deal for hundreds (or is it a thousand?) dollars that day, and showed us the US bills to prove it. Many rich people feel no qualms about spending the money they have, such as at a fancy hotel or a restaurant. We had our own proclivities: we negotiated for things that normally require negotiation; we stayed in inexpensive hotels; yet, we didn't blink much of at eye at paying substantially for quality meals or drinks (which tend to be steep). By substantially, I mean sometimes we'd have meals that cost the same as a night's stay in our hotel.

Perhaps more striking, given the quantity of poverty, is that there's little begging. Although touts often tried to convince us to go somewhere or buy something we didn't want, we rarely got asked for anything directly. Furthermore, the rare times we encountered beggars, they invariably asked for food, not money.

For some reason, many people think of non-first-world countries as being unsafe. (I didn't have this preconception and was surprised after I returned and people asked me about safety.) I felt quite safe traveling in India, whether getting in rickshaws driven by people I didn't know who I'm not sure knew where they were going, or simply walking the streets of various cities at night. Sure, sometimes I made sure I was aware of my surroundings, but I never really felt unsafe. In particular, I usually have my guard up when walking in Berkeley or many parts of San Francisco at night. Yet, nowhere in India did I feel as nervous or unsafe. I suppose it could be because I wasn't attuned to the danger signals in India, but I truly believe it's simply because there's less crime.

Traveling Styles
Usually, when I travel, I try to run around and see as much as possible. J and N, meanwhile, have a significantly different philosophy. They like taking it slow, experiencing a place, sitting and sipping coffee or lassis, and maybe seeing a sight or two a day. As soon as I understood and got used to their philosophy, things worked out pretty well. We both compromised somewhat. I'm sure they ended up seeing more than they would have had I not been there. And I know I ended up sitting in cafes more than I would have otherwise. Nevertheless, I feel as if I didn't miss much. We generally stayed in each place long enough that'd we still end up seeing mostly everything even at the slower pace. (Of course, had I been on my own, presuming I was able to speak Hindi (!), I'd have been able to see everything more efficiently. But that's no big deal.) And for the few destinations I missed, I simply had to realize that, for instance, I'd naturally be seeing enough fortresses on this trip and thus it wasn't necessary to see a particular one.

This trip made me wonder what makes a city/place comfortable to visit alone? Given that I didn't speak the language, there were definitely activities we did as a group that I wouldn't have attempted arranging on my own. I'm not sure what factors come into play for me. Is it simply the language? Is it the difference between first- and third-world? Is it the need to negotiate so frequently? Is it the lack of good maps? Is it the annoying presence of touts, who are presumably more aggressive if one is traveling alone? Is it the question of general safety? Does it have to do with the amount of pre-planning done? I wish I better knew what affects me, as it would help me plan trips in the future.

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