Friday, August 4, 2017

India from A to Z: Impressions of a first-timer

I love India.

Eating the local cuisine can be like having an out-of-body experience (culinary nirvana?). One particularly palatable lunch – butter chicken and nan bread at a Punjabi restaurant in Calangute, Goa – actually made me moan with pleasure. The billed add-ons (up to 20% in government taxes, plus an optional 10% service charge) can increase the listed price by nearly a third, but it's usually worth it. And the people never bore. Sure they can be pushy and literally in-your-face (alpha maleness is such a thing here), but they're also charming and fascinating.

Then I hate India.

The traffic, the noise, the chaos, and the street litter assault the senses and test one’s sanity.

I haven’t had such extreme alternating reactions to a place, sometimes within the span of one minute, since my final year in Buenos Aires. In some ways/areas, the country is surprisingly Western. Connaught Place in New Delhi could be a middle-class shopping area in any European metropolis, right down to its Roman architecture. If I squint and tilt my head just so, I might even be able to swear I'm in London's Piccadilly Circus.

In others ways/areas, India is the most foreign experience I've had yet, just edging out Cusco in Peru. I've lived in New York City, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, and Cape Town, so I know poverty and homelessness, but never has it been more confronting (literally) for me than in Mumbai and New Delhi.

Women follow me through sweaty, crowded marketplaces in South Mumbai, grabbing and imploring. A few use their babies as props, shoving them in my face, because, well, what's a desperate mother to do? If I won't help them, how could I possibly refuse the adorable little one? I can't, so well-played.

During one Uber trip through New Delhi's traffic-jammed streets, I clutch my backpack while watching homeless people go car to car, banging on windows and begging for handouts. One man holds the stump of his half leg up so I can get a clear view, presumably to garner sympathy. It works, but I'm too frozen with shock to reach into my pockets.

Midway through another journey by Uber, a group of young boys carrying stacks of books approach my vehicle one by one, hawking their English-language reading material. One has a collection of short stories by Western literary legends like Oscar Wilde and Leo Tolstoy one book up from the bottom of his load. I'm tempted, and he seems to sense it, but I have to let him down. I'm traveling as light as possible, and Kindle books take up far less luggage space as I trek from town to town.

To be honest, India was never high on my to-do list, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who visited this country and didn’t rave about it. I’m still waiting for that India – the one I’ll dream about and return to for years to come – to reveal itself. (I have high hopes for next week in Rajasthan.) In the meantime, here are some impressions from my first two and a half weeks in India, alphabetized.

Alibaug The Koh Samet of India, only significantly less horrid – and thank Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, I didn’t have to bunk with bloodthirsty mosquitoes at U Tropicana Resort Alibaug.

Bromance Sex between men is discouraged in India and, according to the gay dating app Scruff, punishable by life imprisonment. Got it. In an intriguing twist, though, it’s perfectly acceptable for two “straight” men to cuddle and hold hands as they walk down the street. Step forward, step way back.

Cows with attitude They roam the streets and the beaches freely, stopping and blocking traffic as if they run this town. My friend Juan (who took the photo above and the video at the bottom) says they’re sacred in India, which might be why the dogs, which everyone but me ignores, seem sort of jealous. The sacred status of the bovines might partly explain why every restaurant menu has a vegetarian section with as many options as the non-vegetarian section. (Dishes with diary products are included among the vegetarian listings.) It also must be why it’s virtually impossible to get a traditional Western hamburger here, even at the McDonald’s in Calangute, which, curiously, doesn’t even have them on the menu. The one at Nehru Place in New Delhi has a mutton burger, but as much as I love lamb, it's no substitute for you-know-what between two buns.

(New) Delhi A much better entry point than Mumbai. India's capital city is more manicured and manageable (as in Bangkok, there are strategically placed footbridges to make crossing the congested streets less risky), and there's a higher emphasis on beauty and culture (Exhibit A: Humayun's Tomb, above, a mausoleum precursor to the Taj Mahal in Agra). In India’s tale of two cities, like Melbourne over Sydney, Jerusalem over Tel Aviv, Sao Paolo over Rio, Madrid over Barcelona, and New York over Los Angeles, New Delhi wins.

English It’s one of India’s official languages, but I’m shocked by how few locals seem able to speak it.

Friendship revisited Mumbai is so much more enjoyable with an old mate whom you haven’t seen since your final night in Buenos Aires six and a half years earlier. Griping about the sketchiness that surrounds you is definitely a two-person sport.

Goa It reminds me of Cabo San Lucas. No, it reminds me of Mar del Plata. No, it reminds me of Phuket. No, it reminds me of Bali. If you’ve seen one trendy Latin or South Asian beachside tourist trap, have you pretty much seen them all?

Honk honk The bane of my existence for two and half weeks and counting. Why do drivers do it incessantly and usually without cause? Because they can.

Ink There are tattooists all over Calangute, but I can’t imagine allowing someone who hawks their inking services on the street to permanently deface my body.

Justin Timberlake What is it with the more-than-a-decade-old FutureSex/LoveSounds? I hear it playing everywhere.... OK, in two restaurants, but that's still a lot of 2006 in 2017.

K in Calcutta Do you know India's third city is now known as Kolkata? I didn't until I looked it up on Wikipedia shortly after arriving in the country. A number of Indian cities have changed names in recent years (Bombay became Mumbai, and Bangalore switched to Bengaluru, for instance), apparently part of the country’s effort to distance itself from its past as a British colony. I feel a twinge of guilt for mostly preferring the colonial-era names. Bombay just has a more magical ring than Mumbai, and Mother Teresa's turf will, in my head, always be Calcutta, not Kolkata.

Lotus Temple My second visit to a sacred Baha’i place. (My first was in Haifa, Israel, back in 2013.) How Sydney Opera House is it?!

Mumbai The city where I make my India debut and spend one week. My first few days in Andheri West are a nightmare where crossing the street is like playing Russian Roulette. Thankfully, my lovely and extremely understanding Airbnb host allows me to cancel our agreement without charge and relocate to South Mumbai, which at least has sidewalks and plenty of eating and drinking options. But where is that Bollywood glamour I’ve heard so much about? I just can’t imagine Priyanka Chopra walking these grim, polluted streets.

No singles/partners I am actually turned away from a restaurant at Connaught Place in New Delhi because it has a “couples-only” policy. I’ve never heard of such a thing. But then, this is a country where some hotels won’t accommodate unmarried couples, which means if you're traveling with a friend, you're booking separate rooms.

Oh, my stomach! I’ve been traveling the world for centuries, and my stomach never failed me – until Alibaug. Warning: Don’t only not drink the tap water in India – don’t brush your teeth with it either! After four days of illness, I finally make my way to Dr. Vasudev V. Dukle at Dr. Dukle's Hospital & Research Centre in Goa. I spend 45 minutes of a Saturday morning in a waiting room that reminds me of a medical scene from the 1800s. While watching barefoot nurses and patients pass, I almost expect a dog, or a cow, to walk by. Total cost of the examination, antibiotics, and probiotics: 400 rupees, or around US$6

Pizza by the Bay My favorite place in Mumbai, though I never actually try the pizza. But what is it with the dog playing dead outside? He's in the same position in the middle of the sidewalk two days in a row, only flipped over with his legs facing the Arabian Sea on the second day. Lazy, generic-looking dogs playing dead appear to be a thing in India, and they’ll pass out just about anywhere.

Quiet! The constant barrage of sounds has me considering one of those silence retreats up north. A few weeks ago, I went out with a guy in Bangkok who had just returned from 10 days at a Thai retreat. He said the silence was easy since he's a man of few words, but he struggled with the meditation because clearing your head of all thoughts while sitting in an awkward position is as difficult as it sounds. I was impressed by his chilled-out vibe, until he admitted the reason he kept taking his bag into the bathroom was because he had a bottle of cheap Thai rum inside of it. Apparently, the pints of beer we were drinking weren't doing the trick, so he was going to the loo to take swigs of the hard stuff. Hmm...kind of undermines the efficacy of the whole 10-days-of-silence thing, doesn't it?

Rickshaws Don't underestimate the power of the Indian tuk-tuk! When my Uber collides with one on the mean mean streets of New Delhi, a shouting match ensues, and the rickshaw is the only vehicle that drives away without a scratch or a dent.

Standing on the beach No-one lies on the beach in Calangute. They just stand at the edge of the water in the middle of the day, like they’re at God’s house party.

Taj Mahal One of the few things I’d wake up at 4.30 in the morning and travel three hours to see. It’s magnificent, of course, but pretty much just a glorious photo op, a 15-minute thrill.

Uber The best (air-conditioned) way to get around the urban masses that are Mumbai and New Delhi.

Vodafone Although it’s annoying as hell that it can take up to 24 hours to activate your SIM card, Vodafone India might offer the best data rate in the world. You’ll need everything but blood to sign up (don’t forget to bring your passport and two passport photos), but for the price of 600 rupees (less than $10), you get a local phone number, unlimited free local calls, and an automatic 1024 MB 4G data top-up every day just after midnight.

Wine I’ve never thought of India as a wine country, but the Sula Sauvignon Blanc and Late Harvest are among the best I’ve had anywhere.

eXpats I encounter none during the first three legs of my trip, in Mumbai, Alibaug, and Goa, not even on Grindr. (Naturally, I won't be hanging out with the one I wrote about in this HuffPost essay.) But then, I see only a handful of Westerners over the course of my first two weeks in India. I’m told they’re mostly up north, which, judging from the evidence in New Delhi, appears to be true. I’ve never been particularly drawn to my fellow expats anywhere, but for the first time ever, I find myself looking to spot just one, if only so that we can compare notes. I can't shake the feeling that I'm missing something.

You lookin’ at me? It can’t be my skin color – I’ve seen a number of locals who are darker than me. So what exactly is it about me that has been attracting so much attention? My friend Juan, who is Bolivian, says he gets it, too, so it must be a thing here. I’m not a big fan of being stared at, but I do appreciate it when they at least try to engage me, and a lot of people do here. It makes me feel less like an animal in a...

Zoo Those Mumbai slum tours are icky at best. I’m not really sure how anyone can think it’s a good idea to exploit poverty and the poor for a buck, or rather, a rupee. Our photo op/"cultural experience" is their harsh reality. You'll see plenty of run-down scenery during a regular, unscheduled stroll through Mumbai, Alibaug, Goa, or New Delhi. As for India's poor, they're people, not uncaged wildlife. If we want to gawk at living, breathing tourist attractions, there's always the zoo... or the beach?

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