Learning To Like India: A Five-Step Approach

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A statue next to a temple in Mysore

It’s OK to hate a place.

Travel writers can be so afraid to make judgments. You end up with these gauzy tributes to the “magic” of some far-off spot. But honestly, not every spot is magical for everyone. Sometimes you get somewhere, look around, and think, “Hey, this place is a squalid rat hole. I’d really rather be in the Netherlands.” And that’s OK.

For example, the last time I went to India I just haaaaaaated it. Delhi was a reddish haze of 105-degree dust. And while, of course, the Taj Mahal was great … the streets outside it were a miasma of defecating children. I could not wait to go home. (Disclosure: I was there on a previous assignment for Slate. And actually, I loved Ladakh, which is in northern India—up in the Himalayas. But I don’t really count Ladakh, because it’s more like Tibet than like India. Anyway …)

Now—mostly because my girlfriend wants to come back—I’m back. I’m giving this dreadful place a second chance. And this time I vow I will try really hard to like India.

I’m convinced it’s a reachable goal. My plan involves: sticking to South India, far away from Delhi, staying exclusively at beach resorts and luxury hotels, and stocking up on prescription-strength sedatives. But there are other important steps as well, which I will be outlining over the course of this week.

Step 1: Making Peace With Poverty and With Parasitic Worms

After flying into Bangalore and acclimating for a couple of days, we visit a town called Mysore (rhymes with “eyesore”). There’s a famous temple here and an opulent palace—big tourist attractions both. But to me, the most interesting thing to see (in any place I visit) is the daily life of the people who live and work there.

For instance, from our hotel window in Mysore, we look down on a pile of garbage. Every night, this pile becomes dispersed as it is picked at and chewed on by rats, then crows, then stray dogs, then cows, and then homeless people. Every morning a woman dressed in a brightly colored sari sweeps this masticated garbage-porridge back into a pile. It is the worst job I can imagine. (Previously, the worst job I could imagine was navigator for a rally-car driver, because I get nauseous when I read in cars. But this woman’s job is much worse than that. And really, with this added perspective, rally-car navigator doesn’t seem so bad anymore.) 

When we leave the hotel and walk down the (urine-soaked) street, we get assaulted by auto-rickshaw drivers, by hawkers, by tour guides … and by tiny children pointing to their own mouths. This last one is rough—at least the first few dozen times. Sometimes these kids are part of a scam. They’re forced to beg by adults who run panhandling teams. (We’ve read stories about teams that cut out kids’ tongues, to make them seem more pitiable.) But sometimes these kids are just honestly looking for food. Because they’re starving. They might eat out of that big garbage pile tonight. Once the dogs are done.

On the train ride back to Bangalore, monsoon rains slap at the window. I gaze out on wet, destitute slums. Wherever one can build a shanty, someone has. Wherever one could be pissing, someone is. The poverty’s on a mind-blowing, overwhelming scale, and you feel so helpless. The money in your pocket right now, handed to any one person out there beyond the window, would be life-changing. But you can’t save a billion people and turn the fortunes of this massive country. (You’re not Gandhi, you know.) And after all, back in Bangalore we hung out with highly paid IT guys who worked for Infosys. There’s a lot of wealth in India, too.

The thing is, if you go to India as a tourist, you’ll have to make some sort of peace with all this. Because it’s one thing to see poverty on television, or to get direct mail that asks for your charity. It’s different when there are tiny, starving children grabbing your wrists and asking for money wherever you go.

For my part, I’ve resolved to send a check to some worthy Indian charity when I get home. (Suggestions are invited.) It’s the best solution I can come up with. Because I’m not going to get through this trip until I’ve reached an understanding with myself … and until I take some Pepto-Bismol, because my stomach is just killing me. Which brings me to the other thing you’ll have to be prepared for.

You will get “Delhi belly” soon after touching down in India. And you won’t enjoy your trip until it’s gone. My illness takes hold on the train ride back to Bangalore, as my intestines suddenly spasm into a clenched fist full of acid. The restroom—should this come into play—is a hole in the floor of the train. (A sign on the door requests that we not use the hole while the train’s in a station—for obvious reasons.)

For the next day or two, I find myself playing a game I call “Could I Vomit in This?” The idea is to pick a nearby object and then decide if, in the event of an emergency, it could be puked into. For example, potted plant: Certainly. Water bottle: Sure. Magazine: Iffy, but worth a try.

The good news is that it won’t take long before your stomach adjusts to these new microbial nasties, and you’re back to feeling fine. Unless, of course, like my friend who was here a few years ago, you’ve got a parasitic worm and you lose 40 pounds and need medical attention.