Being friendly is all good and easy when you’re a happy chappy: you have your clean house, you shop at insect free supermarkets and when you’re on a bus, you get a seat all to yourself! People aren’t trying to shove a goat, several caged birds and three kids in there with you.
But what happens when you’re flung out of that comfort zone? Imagine: you’re buying a samosa from a street vendor, trying very hard to ignore the dead dog a few meters away, the cockroaches that are attempting a hostile take-over of the street vendor’s cart, and the fact that he’s about to blow his nose with his fingers. Just at that moment two beggars pull at your shirt to get your attention. How would you react?
My question is: what happens to friendliness when you’re traveling in India?
Fly in your mango lassi
Now, people experience India in one of two ways: they either love it, or they absolutely hate it. There doesn’t seem to be anything in between. I fall in the latter category. Maybe ‘absolutely hate it’ is somewhat of an exaggeration, but I’ve not exactly warmed up to the country.
I’ve often wondered about people who fall into the first category. I always thought that they must have experienced India from within an air-conditioned taxi on the way to their 4 star bloody yoga resort. The sole discomfort during their stay being the occasional fly in their mango lassi or the indecipherable English of Harish the receptionist.
Because if they’ve walked the streets of Dehli, Calcutta (Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) or any other city in India, they must have noticed the crippled, disfigured – sometimes purposely maimed – men, women and children loitering the streets, begging for rupees? Weren’t they stared at, harassed, groped, conned and grabbed between the legs? Maybe they didn’t get chased by a legless man on a skateboard demanding more rupees, or had a woman squirt a puss-filled boil onto them.
Admittedly, when I visited India I was a 21 year old wide-eyed doe who’d never been outside Europe. Internet was non-existent, so I was basically cut off from home. And OK maybe I first opened my Lonely Planet on the flight there somewhere over Quatar, but nothing could have prepared me for this medieval circus.
Of course, during my 3 months’ stay I had lovely experiences as well. I rode a slightly deranged camel named Kalu through the desert for three days (wear a good bra! Or better yet, use duct tape). The boat trip on the Ganges at sunrise was beautiful, if you ignored the occasional bloated corpse bobbing up.
Make empathy glands shrivel up
I’ve seen captivating temples and palaces, strolled the most exotic markets & experienced taste-bud-challenging food. The smells, colours and noises are overwhelming and I haven’t experienced anything like it since. Yet interaction with locals was always agony.
What shocked me most was what the India effect had on my behaviour (and most likely my default-face). I cried when I first arrived, but slowly all the harassing, poverty and sheer destitution of the place numbed me and (horror) started to annoy me. The country seemed to make my empathy glands shrivel up.
Three legged puppy
Back home, a three legged puppy causes me to lose sleep, better yet a three legged ladybug will. But if you’ve been confronted with zero-legged, one armed, deformed, people on the same day, a three legged puppy doesn’t even catch your attention.
I was alarmed to notice that after a while I was scowling and shouting at people and even physically pushing them away. Now I wonder if those India loving travellers have a different attitude and way of coping. If I ever go back, I would certainly do things differently.
How to avoid turning into a crabby, snarling sourpuss when in India:
Keep in mind that some of these people are desperate and by shoving their amputated limbs in your face, they are just trying to get a few rupees to temporarily improve their lives. You might experience discomfort being confronted by such hardship, imagine what living there does to you.
Focus on the good things (India is an assault on the senses. In both a bad and wonderful way)
Appreciate that you have the opportunity to travel. Some locals you encounter will never even leave their village.
Approach every situation like you haven’t just been swindled out of a 100 rupees for the umptieth time (which is actually only one and a half euro).
See traveling in India as an exercise in flexibility. Bring a deck of cards when waiting for your train. It might be 6 hours late.
Realise that sometimes it is necessary to show your teeth. Being fondled by a big mustachioed fella with a betel-nut habit while you’re queuing for a bus ticket, cannot be put down to ‘culture difference’.
If that doesn’t work, book yourself into a 5 star hotel and don’t come out until your flight home is due.
Is India fun? No. Is it an unforgettable experience? Definitely.