Since I first visited India in 2001 I have observed that the country elicits passionate reactions from Western tourists – most either love it or hate it and feel very strongly about their response. I happen to fall into the “love it” category, and for a while I struggled with explaining why to haters or people who have never been. Then on one of my first trips for business, a co-worker came up with the best description I have heard…India is like a Richard Scarry book – there’s something going on everywhere you look.
Despite knowing this effect India has on first-time visitors, I have recently found myself becoming increasingly defensive of the country and people I am fortunate to visit a few times a year. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that for those who are not impressed by the Jewel in the Crown, maybe you are the problem and not India. As a rebuttal to these nay-sayers, here are 5 complaints I’ve heard and my top 5 reasons for loving this crazy, chaotic country.
1. “It’s dirty”
Your mom’s dirty. Okay sorry, that was childish. Yes, the sheer number of people living in tight quarters in India’s cities results in a waste disposal challenge that sometimes means trash and other refuse ends up in public. Guess what, that happens in New York and London too, but I bet you would like to visit those cities. Also, I have noticed a huge difference between 2001 and today in the ability of cities like Delhi to cope with excess waste. Most importantly though, it would be a real shame if a little garbage or, ah-hem, “other” waste prevents you from seeing the rich history of a Mughal temple or the bright colors of a group of women in saris. Just wear closed-toed shoes and watch your step.
2. “I just want to be air-lifted in to see the Taj Mahal, and then air-lifted out.”
This is a direct quote from a conversation I had recently. The Taj is quite magnificent in person, and there’s a reason it is one of the “new” 7 Wonders of the World. However, if the impressive temple is the only reason you want to visit India, you will no doubt be disappointed. Check out this video instead and save yourself the $2000 plane ticket.That said, I still recommend seeing the Taj Mahal if you are planning a trip to India. It is definitely worth the trip (not via air-lift). If you’re feeling adventurous, the Indian national rail runs between Delhi and Agra and can provide a true slice of local culture. Otherwise, any of the major hotels can arrange a car rental with a driver to take you in air-conditioned bliss to Agra. This is also quite an experience, and you’ll no doubt see some interesting sights along the way.
3. “Don’t you get sick from the food/water?”
You may have guessed from previous posts that the authors of this blog like to eat. So it will come as no surprise that I jump in the deep end when it comes to food and try everything. While I have never fallen ill while in India or after a trip there (knock on wood), I do know other travelers that have…perhaps my stomach is stronger than I would have imagined. That said, the food is one of the can’t-miss experiences of India. The spice, flavor, and variety make it among my favorite cuisines in the world. My attitude has always been that I would rather taste a delicious dish and risk getting sick than miss out. The bottom line is that India is a feast for the senses, and to deny one of them is to lose a significant chunk of the experience. But seriously, don’t drink the water.
4. “There’s so many people, they never seem to leave me alone.”
This is another quote from a first-timer on my most recent trip to the sub-continent. I will admit that the sometimes overly attentive level of service in most of the luxury hotels can be un-nerving, especially for Americans who like to fancy ourselves as low-maintenance, do-it-yourself types. And with a population of just over 1 billion, you’re going to run into a fair number of people on the streets, many of whom have an active curiosity about goras, or Western foreigners. Personally, I have found that a smile or even a quick conversation with the curious children or others on the streets is a lot easier than annoyed indifference, and provides more happiness to all parties. I’m not recommending engaging everyone you pass in a heart-to-heart, but their curiosity is not animosity so there’s no reason to be put off. I’m also not going to pretend that the extreme poverty that still exists in India doesn’t result in pick-pocketing and begging, particularly targeted at tourists. But just like anywhere, if you use a little common sense and common decency it doesn’t have to affect your travel. Plus, Indians are some of the most hilarious, charming, endearing people I’ve met, and the people are one of the biggest draws of the country.
5. “But really, what else is there to see besides the Taj Mahal?”
This is like asking what else is there to see in the U.S. besides the Statue of Liberty, and India has a history that’s goes back about 4,000 years more than the Statue of Liberty, so yeah, there’s plenty more to see. Here’s just a few including some I’ve seen and some on my short list for future trips:
- Ganges River and Varanasi – holiest place in Hinduism, you can see the floating funeral pyres of deceased devotees. Just don’t swim in the river.
- Ranthambore Tiger Reserve – located in the northern region of India, this is one of the few places where you can still see the endangered tigers. My grandfather had an amazing picture of a massive female tiger that he took from the back of the elephant he was riding in India.
- The markets of Old Delhi – this is where you can bargain, smile, and shop your way through the streets in search of spices, fabrics, jewelry and trinkets galore
- The beaches of Goa and Kerala – Ever seen the Bourne Supremacy? If it’s good enough for Matt Damon, it’s good enough for me.
- Mumbai – Bollywood, Slumdog Millionaire, financial center…Mumbai is both the L.A. and the New York of India.
So the next time you hear someone pooh-poohing India, ask yourself if maybe they are the problem and not this thrilling and challenging country.