We wanted to adore you. We wanted to fall in love. We wanted to feel at home - we wanted to, we really, really did. But you would have no part of it, or us.
Sure, it’s easier to feel dreamy about France, royal about England or continental about Italy. But I picked you, and over the objections of my traveling mates. No ‘world trip’ would be authentic without going either to India, China or Russia I told them…and I picked you of the three. But you didn't pick us back; more like picked on us.
And here we were, Suzanne and me, Indiophiles through-and-through; in love with all things Indian, from the food, to the music, the holiday festivals, the clothing, the people, a little Bollywood too - and especially the blend of all of the wonderfully spiritual and religious undertones. Or at least what we thought those would be like from way over the big pond. Obviously, we fell in love with what we wanted you to be, and not the real India – as it really is, on the streets of India.
Your roads are crowded and your people direct, but your culture subtle and challenging, especially for foreigners. Where was the comforting flute music, the quiet temples and the spiritual atmosphere? Not on the streets, and not in the shops - mostly in the 5-star hotels where we had a few lunches. There, they keep the tour-brochures promises alive for the VIP travelers.
But out on the streets, just walking around and going about our business, daily life in India is a very tough grind, and we were ground down for sure. Three-and-a-half weeks was all we could muster before we left town wondering why you didn’t welcome our love?
We were stared at, followed around and photographed. Are we that different? We tried to blend in and not act the ‘ugly American’, but something about us was noteworthy. Some days it was funny and others creepy, depending on where we were. And the cabbies, tour-guides, and even many (male) waiters were not so subtle about disapproving of our choices. The word dismissive comes to mind.
Plus, the street merchants and kids trying to sell us trinkets would not give up, would not be denied. And the horribly disfigured cripples begging for money at all of the tourist hot-spots are hard to ignore as instructed by the common Indian; “They could all get medical treatment if they wanted to, they are professional beggars and have plenty of money, do not be fooled”. Really? Many days I felt like people didn't see us as people at all, but oddities, intruders, or walking ATM's from which they wanted a withdrawal. How could we have been so naive?
And every safe, trustworthy and “government sponsored” rug/textile/gemstone/statue/marble emporium your tour-guides honorably recommended felt more like we were audiences in an informercial-style late-night TV show - and all claiming only they are the most "authentic whatever" in all of India. By the end, I didn't believe any of them. But, even then as a token gesture, we did buy a small hand-made rug, just to appease you, sort of as an offering so you would see we came in good faith – and we supported your heavily-orchestrated tourism revenue goals.
Was our time here all challenging and overwhelming? Absolutely not; the food was very good and a cold Kingfisher always the perfect accompaniment. But even then India, after we ate your food confidently and with little side effects; we felt we were maybe fitting in, and you saw we came prepared and we knew your cuisine and we were worthy. But we should have known, India, that you wouldn’t want us feeling too bold, too cocky and too familiar – so you gave us Delhi Belly, but only on our very last day. Just in time for a long travel-day out – a parting gift for sure.
Plus, even getting out of the country was a difficult. Far harder then getting in actually, with multiple stops by police, security and no less than six passport checks to get on the plane. We knew you didn't feel us worthy, but you made us practically have to beg to leave.
Am I glad we came to you, India? Absolutely. But you are a hard one to please and a hard one from whom to earn respect. Your people are smart and warm when they know you, but until then, you just get a 30-second unflinching stare. Your old history with forts and temples, amazing, and your recent history with the English, alive and signs still linger everywhere. You’re vibrant, energetic and smart. But sometimes, you're just too much down at the street level.
You even let us walk the same final, fatal steps as the inspirational Mahatma Ghandi - but, as a whole, you don’t suffer fools gladly, and I wondered where his words and thoughts of patience, love and peace were in your daily lives?
We still love you India, even if you are playing hard-to-get with us. My family left scratching their collective heads over my choice - maybe I talked-you-up too much and maybe I set a too high of a bar? We are, however, much smarter and grounded people to have seen how you really live and work and play outside of the tourist brochures.
And speaking of play, I know we have a future together if only because of my new found love of Cricket. I have it about 80% figured out.
Off to Sri Lanka. Please go easy on us.