Friday, May 10, 2013

Part 1: Traveling in India not as someone who loves India, but as a tourist



Garlanded on the bus.

I haven’t had time until now to update the blog, and even now, it must be brief because I have to be up in less than eight hours for a sunrise tour of the Taj Mahal.

Yes, that means I have moved on from Delhi to Agra.

Though I love being in India more than I can put into words, I’m slowly coming to hate the tour experience. We are shepherded around the city like sheep, going nonstop at monuments until we’re returned to the hotel exhausted just before dusk. Or today, when our “oh, only six-hour!” drive from Delhi to Agra took from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. There is no time to shop, no time to walk around, no time to even seek out a restaurant other than the hotel’s before the sun goes down.

And in both Delhi and Agra, as two young, foreign female travelers, venturing outside in itself is a feat, and venturing out around dusk or dark is downright terrifying. The way many of the men in Delhi leer openly even during the day is enough to make one’s skin crawl.

So the tour’s stranglehold on our daylight hours has all but choked the life from my trip so far.

It means I haven’t seen a film. It means I haven’t entered any stores. It means our hotel was a 20-minute walk from Connaught Place but we never made it there.

A view of India from a tour bus.
It means I haven’t even had authentic Indian food in India. (Unless you count some godawful deserted Rajasthani-themed tourist trap restaurant the tour guide took us to in the middle of Haryana. Where the butter chicken I shared with my sister was like half-assed tandoori chicken dumped in pizza sauce.)

Yes, the hotel restaurants have Indian food — and yes, I’ve had fresh mangoes and idli and dosas at complimentary breakfast — but when you’re looking at a Rs. 1500 meal (yes, really), it seems easier to take the cheaper items on the menu.

In case you haven’t caught on, yes, the hotels are incredibly upscale. The Delhi hotel is probably the swankiest one I’ve ever stayed at — anywhere, period — and even with the favorable exchange rate, I’d never be able to afford staying there on my own. How a Groupon-bought tour package includes it astounds me.

Even from the swanky hotels, there are the little things to remind me that I am somewhere foreign. Going through bomb checks and metal detectors every time we get to the hotel is strange. The power flicked off at least a half dozen times a day in that swanky Delhi hotel. The waiters and I had several frustrating miscommunications the first night at the hotel restaurant. Each toilet I encounter flushes a different way.

Those things are frustrating at times, yes, but they are nothing compared to the frustrations I have felt in being made to be an entirely dumb American tourist in a country that I have long loved from afar.

Just being in India is almost an overwhelming, otherworldly experience for me. I love India as much as I ever have, dirt, heat, crowding, poverty and all. If I believed in past lives, I’d be inclined to say I was born in India during one of them. For a country girl who couldn’t take too much of New York’s trash and crowds, I didn’t even bat an eye at Delhi’s garbage and bustle. (But maybe I did at Delhi’s traffic. That my friends, is scary stuff.)

But any knowledge I have of India has been pushed by the wayside so that the tour can go out of its way to
make sure we are the most glaring of tourists.

At the Jama Masjid in "gowns."
Case in point: I was made to don an awful mumu type “gown” at the Jama Masjid. I was wearing a salwar not to cover my head. After I noticed that it was in fact only tourists who were made to wear this, I was rather upset. Would any curious, visiting non-Muslim be subjected to this? I somehow doubt it.
kameez, minus a dupatta because our tour guide had advised me

The result of such actions? I think more people have taken photos of my tour group looking like a tour group than my tour group has taken of other people. It’s become something of a game of diverting my face when I notice a random person — usually a man — taking my photograph.

I hope to escape this tomorrow and at least make it out to a movie while in Agra, even though I know Agra is a mostly despised city whose only redeeming factor is the presence of the Taj. Just escaping the tourist group’s clutches for that long would be a welcome relief.

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