You may have read or heard about India, or seen pictures and videos, but nothing prepares you for the sea of humanity that greets you as you walk the streets of the big cities. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes can excite, stimulate, inspire and leave you in awe. I soaked it all in like an idli soaking in sambhar. This was my first time as a tourist in India. I had lived in India for most of my adult life, but I had never traveled as a tourist. And what better place to start off my India Diaries than the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Last month, I finally got my chance with three of my best friends.
North India is steeped in history. Stuff I wasn't unaware off, as I had read my history books well. But being there in person and touching the artifacts takes you back in time. You can imagine and relive the glory days of India. Stories of bravery and justice. Legends and tales of war and love. It can instill a sense of pride and a feeling of hope, that maybe India might one day again be the envy of the rest of the world. The highlight for me was the Taj Mahal. It sits on the banks of the Yamuna, serene and beautiful amid all the chaos. You hear it speaking to you, telling you a story. The marble beauty looks delicate, almost fragile as it shimmers in the sun. But you know it has stood there for hundreds of years, standing proud and aloof as eras have come and gone, mesmerizing countless souls who came seeking her beauty. It is truly timeless.
But as a tourist, you are greeted by more than monuments from the past. There are a lot of characters, who for the better or worse, add color to your trip.
The pestering 'guides' – You can ignore, argue or plead with them to leave you alone. Nothing will work. Some look genuinely annoyed when you call them guides. They say there are students. I am not sure how that is supposed to be better. Maybe next time one of us should wear a hoodie that says 'All Purpose Guide' on the back. I wish there were more signs and information at all the historical sights, so that the guides wouldn't circle us like vultures the moment we get out of the car. Pro tip, read everything in advance or get a guide book if you are interested in the details of the places you visit.
The posers – We had a great time observing young guys posing in some outlandish stances. Movie stars would be put to shame. I can say India has a bright or at least a stylish future. On the other hand, the older folk were the grumpy Indians. Not sure if they have all become followers of Tard, the grumpy cat, or if they are unimpressed by digital cameras. Maybe there were used to posing for paintings and I suppose you can't smile for hours on end.
The hawkers – If guides are the appetizer vultures before the trip, hawkers are the desserts. I credit them for being hustlers. They will try to sell cheap plastic as marble, claim that their souvenir changes color when wet (just a darker shade on being asked for evidence), try to guilt you into buying something by saying 'madame likes' by pointing to the lady in the group. A hawker on the road divider took the cake. He tried to sell me underwear while crossing the road. I suppose just in case I soiled myself as that bus hurtled towards me while I crossed the road. And I see how it is good business. I thought I got a good deal on what looked like rare marble carved elephants. He asked for Rs 1500 for each, I got 3 for Rs 2000. This was after I started to walk away and then he called me back. You know, the whole nine yards of bargaining. True to Murphy's Law, I found the same pieces at a reputed fixed price shop (Choki Dhani) for Rs 450 each. I suppose all that badgering and pestering does work on unsuspecting first time tourists.
Guards – They assert their authority either out of frustration stemming from all the the unruly visitors always doing something stupid or out of the hope in squeezing some cash out of you. Planking or doing yoga in front of the Taj is considered disrespectful and one of the guards asked us to delete the pictures and threatened to throw us out. Incessant whistling and yelling with a sour look doesn't help their image either.
And we have a short 'Only in India' section.
- Where when we couldn't find a restaurant and called them for directions, they told us to wait where we were and an escort showed up a few minutes later.
- Where when you ask for directions, they will say they don't know, but tell you to go straight anyways.
- Where depending how long your shorts are, you may or may not be allowed inside. Above knees is a no go, but two inches longer and you are good to go. Also Fedora hats are considered as a sign of respect as they cover your head but going without covering your hair is disrespectful.
- Where foreigners pay 10-25 times the price and Indian pays for entry to the major landmarks. How do they know who is a foreigner? They ask you to prove you are Indian if you look 'suspicious'. I got 'carded' once. Thankfully I had my Indian DL on me. N.E. Indians probably have a hard time with this racial profiling. One group of Asian looking teens abused a guard in Hindi and told him that that should prove their Indianess.
- Where you take pictures of a monkey and then are pestered to no end for the 'monkey picture fee' by the handler.
- Where the horn is assumed to be a sonic blaster that will magically disintegrate all the traffic in front of you.
And a few observations and tips for fellow tourists.
- Get ready to be pestered for tips everywhere. If you look remotely touristy, or have a foreigner in your group, get ready to be badgered for tips all the time. We once got asked for tips at bathroom in a restaurant because someone handed us soap and paper towels. Be prepared to ignore everyone.
- For some reason, we always asked a foreigner to take pictures of our group. Either because they were probably least likely to run away with our camera or they looked most competent.
- Get a cab for the day as that will work out cheaper than on demand cabs and autos and also, less hassle than driving and parking your own car.
- Stay alert at all times. You never know what random scene or fun experience you might miss. Also it is good for your personal safety.
- Don't have too tight of a schedule. Traffic might be bad, lines might be long. Plus, rushing through might result in a sterile experience. India is about feeling it. And feelings take time.
- Be polite and patient with authorities. Everyone likes feeling important. Budget some time and energy for that purpose.
- Be careful when paying in cash. You might be 'accidentally' short changed. Despite Indians' prowess in Math, for some reason you might get Rs 100 back when you pay Rs 1000 for a Rs 400 item. If possible, provide exact change.
Go ahead, make your own adventure. India is calling, where are you? YOLO!
Thanks to my friends Niki, Nikhil and Sivram for making this trip so much fun.