March 12 — March 26
We arrived in India from Cambodia. Leaving Phnom Penh was a relief and we were looking forward to discovering another country. Everything was set: we had our Indian visa figured out well ahead of time (lesson learned from Vietnam!) so we were just going through the motions at the airport in Delhi. Our flight to Bangkok was late. We barely made our connection on time and no sooner had we arrived at the gate that a flight attendant told us we couldn't board without booking a return flight from India. Nowhere had this been communicated during the visa application. People give US airlines a lot of flack, but I have to say that Delta saved our asses that day: they have a penalty-free 24 hour cancellation policy. Book a flight out of India, take a screenshot, cancel the flight. We had to do the same thing for China so I wonder if all these cancellations for the two most populous countries in the world ever become a nuisance to them.
After a short stop in Colombo, Sri Lanka, we landed in Kochi. We sat in the immigration office and our visa on arrival procedure went smoothly. We made some conversation with the officers and they gave us the trademark sideway nod as we took off. We were traveling at such a rapid clip that it was becoming a ritual: we landed, got some cash, and took a cab to our hotel. India had an interesting setup: you actually prepaid your cab inside the airport. In situations where it's hard to communicate, where there may not be a meter and you're worried about potential scams, I have to say it's a rather good system. As soon as we walked out of the airport with the receipt, cab drivers rushed for our business. There was no official sign that they were legit, so we kind of had to go with the flow.
You can order the cab as one of two kinds, air conditioned or non air conditioned. That sets the tone in an interesting way. Coming from America or Europe, you would expect air conditioning as a baseline feature, especially in a car. What must their frame of reference be that you would pay extra for air conditioning?
We threw our bags in the trunk and sat in the back. Instinctively, we reached for our seat belt and pulled it down to our waist only to find nothing. So we sunk our hands under the seat, trying not to think too hard about how dirty it must have been down there, and ultimately pulled out the seat belt buckle. It was broad daylight so we got a good look at Kerala on our way to Fort Kochi. I always like that first car ride in a new country. There's so many small things to pick up on that inform you about your new environment. The first thing we noticed was how brash the driving was. I've talked about driving a lot, and I find myself saying this quite a bit but I'll say it again: this had to be some of the most gnarly driving we’d seen so far. The road to Kochi was actually rather mild but I'm referring to some of the things we saw later on. At a high level, all the bad habits we noticed in southeast Asia were dialed up to 11. The honking is incessant (many trucks and tuktuks even ask for it explicitly), people drive against the flow of traffic, they refuse to stop and will cut into incoming traffic in ways that defy any westerner’s sense of self preservation, they drive off the road at times and routinely exhibited the most reckless passing maneuvers I had ever witnessed.
Going back to the drive to Kochi, I think the most striking aspect was how colorful everything was. From the storefronts, the people, how they dress, to the trucks and buses painted in some characteristically exuberant patterns. It's a fairly well known aspect of India, still it's impressive to witness. I was also intrigued to see that color and decoration, seemingly optional features in a resource-deprived country, were given such importance where other essential features of life were lacking. It's an interesting contrast with a city like Kunming, which is decades ahead in terms of economic development and basic urban amenities, but remains grey and sterile in many respects.
The sides of the road were under a lot of construction, and much like in Vietnam or Cambodia, small businesses sprouted until we reached denser cities. Before reaching Kochi, we passed through Ernakulam. From what I could see it looked to be a mid-sized city with some taller buildings, sprawling shops and businesses and people all over the place. It was rush hour, traffic was thick, people were out and about and enjoying the final hours of sunlight as the work day ended. We were surprised by the number of churches that we encountered along the way. We didn't think that India would be a place where Christianity would have such a foothold. We would later realize that this is due to Kochi's history as a pit stop in the trade route to the East Indies. Much like Cape Town, control of Kochi ping ponged between the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English over the centuries.
Leaving Ernakulam meant crossing narrow bridges over relatively large expanses of water revealing an intricate bay and a network of islands. The streets narrowed as we made our way into the Kochi peninsula, the traffic thinned out, and the ambient noise receded until we reached the Fort Kochi Beach Inn, a discreet and recently remodeled facility that would be our home for the next 3-4 days. As we settled down, I tested the wifi connection which came in at a whopping 0.05 Mb/s. Here we were, catapulted back to the dial up era. This would be the first of many appalling internet connections we would experience in India. Of course, you don't come to India, or any country really, to browse the Internet, but I’ve been told there’s some pretty useful information there. Asking actual people for information is always good too, but ideally you want to cross-reference with an online source. Having such slow browsing speeds means either foregoing the latter, or taking considerably more time to do it. But most of all, it speaks to the level of infrastructure in the country. Like many who have been lucky enough to work in the Bay Area, I consider the Internet to be one of the most groundbreaking utilities a population can access. The information it provides is freedom-inducing, and helps educate, connect, compare. And I’m guessing that India is skipping out on reinforcing their cabled network and choosing to focus on its cellular data network, but not that many people actually have smart phones and even their 4G networks are spotty. I consider this to be one of the most fundamental infrastructure investments a country can make and it was disheartening to see that India was still so far back in that respect.
That night, we went out to a small restaurant named Dal Roti. I think that translates to bread and lentils. The place was dirt cheap, offered local dishes at two or three bucks and it was amazing. This was a flavor of things to come in India. I had sky high expectations for the food which were met again and again. The flavor, the variety, the refinement and the price are hard to beat.
On March 13th, we set out to explore the peninsula of Fort Kochi. We heard the main attractions were Kochi’s churches, Chinese fishing nets and museums and we started by a stroll on the waterfront. We were running short on clean clothes so Anaïs threw on the last trousers she had: a rather fitted pair of jogging pants. We had had heard of how Indian men’s gaze sometimes lingered in uncomfortable ways, but to experience it was an entirely different matter. Shortly into our stroll, we noticed entire verses of the Koran painted on the palisade of the waterfront specifically outlining dress codes for women. Simultaneously, groups of 5 to 6 men would pass us, their eyes widen open and hooked on Anaïs. As we crossed paths, their heads pivoted to follow her. Both of us were in shock. We didn't know whether they simply didn't realize that we noticed them staring (and would have stopped had we signaled to them that we were offended), or whether gawking in such a manner was just not something that was frowned upon in Indian society.
As the next group passed by, I looked directly back at them in a naive attempt to bring them back to their senses by asserting my presence. I figured that if such staring was indicative of lust, and if refraining out of respect for Anaïs was out of the question, they just might abstain out of respect for a man. It was like I didn’t even exist. Evidently, analyzing these interactions through the lense of a westerner wasn’t useful here.
After a few more encounters of this sort, Anaïs felt so uncomfortable that we decided to search for clothes that would help her pass for a local, reveal less of her shapes, and alleviate her of at least some of the glaring. This was probably one of our wiser moves, and quite fun actually. We stepped into many stores, getting a feel for the market until we found a good outfit at a reasonable price. The store we bought the most from was a small shop owned by a family of three. In accordance with India’s reputation, they showed great hospitality, offered us tea, honest prices, and even suggested having us over for dinner. After some uncomfortable encounters, it was a relief to be able to have a genuine conversation with locals.
The restaurant we tried at noon was the first in a string of slightly overpriced, but truly excellent meals we had in Kerala. Knowing that no matter where you are, you will most likely have a meal that will delight and surprise you is one of the best feelings. Japan and India share this and it really takes a trip to a new level.
At the end of the day, Anaïs had an outfit that wasn't a sari (which is what most women wore in Kochi), but a black pajama with a blue tunic. She looked amazing in that outfit, albeit a little warm. Stares didn't entirely stop, but they diminished noticeably, making simple strolls bearable. I think Indians found her quite ambiguous. She stood strong, wore sunglasses, definitely didn't look from the south of India, likely foreigner, but dressed in Indian clothes, and walked around with an American. In Rajasthan, people thought she was Punjabi, adding to the ambiguity.
On Monday, feeling like we'd seen a good deal of the peninsula, we sought out activities outside of Kochi proper. We caught wind of some scenic falls named Athirappilly, and a more cookie cutter experience in the Kerala's backwaters.
With our painfully slow internet connection, we looked up the waterfall and though it appeared to be only 50km away, Google indicated it would take us between two and three hours to get there. This is so representative of what it is like to travel in India. Getting from point A to point B can be incredibly complicated, unreliable, lengthy, and you often don't even know where to start. The whole process is extremely daunting. By contrast, here in Japan, if I want to get from Osaka to Hiroshima, all I need is to enter my destination in google maps and I will be provided with multiple options involving some walking, multiple local train and subway networks, a high speed rail, and the fare will be indicated for every option. You can do that search, show up at the train station on a whim and get a ticket to your destination without thinking twice about it. The freedom that comes with this level of infrastructure is a beautiful thing. But I digress. In India, Google will actually give you limited public transportation options for some areas, but booking them is complicated, most websites do not take foreign credit cards which forces you to work with agencies (which are basically using the same sites you would be using) who take a hefty fee and provide no value other than having an Indian bank account. Even if you were to rely on a bus for example, there's no telling that it will show up on time or even show up at all. The trains might be late as well, they often require multiple layovers, you will have to dodge multiple scam attempts all the while carrying a huge bag under crushing heat.
In the end, we opted for a private driver for the afternoon. This is definitely a more onerous option and we caved like this a few times during our stay in India. Despite being more expensive than taking a train or a bus, it has been worth it, as it saves energy and time.
The road to Athirappilly was narrow and winding and the driving was some of the scariest we'd experienced, especially considering the fact that we weren't in a bus, but in a small car with no seat belts. The passing was as crazy as what we'd seen in Vietnam, only with narrower roads. At some point, our driver got so close to another car while passing that his rear view mirror snapped loose. He tried to reposition it, but the mirror fell to the ground and shattered. Nothing so bad as to make the driver stop though: he shrugged and stepped on the gas as we made our way up the mountain. Dwellings thinned out and the flora grew into a thick jungle.
The driver stopped for us to grab tickets to the park. There was no line but the clerk was busy. By the time he was ready, another Indian man had walked straight up to the booth, cash in hand, parked himself next to my shoulder handing out bills to the clerk. That was my first taste of waiting in lines in India. I gently shouldered in front of him and got my tickets.
We stopped by a small restaurant for lunch which was excellent. A large family was already eating there which made for a lively atmosphere, but the host seated us in separate, quiet air conditioned room with no one else. We shared a chicken biryani and the restaurant offered us dessert for free. You could tell they made a point of ensuring their foreign guests had a good meal.
The heat was somewhat bearable, but the humidity was already killing us. The path lead to the top of the falls where many people were bathing and picnicking. This being one of the only tourist attractions in the area, we expected to see throngs of white tourists, but the only other people were a trio of Russian tourists that were also staying at the Fort Kochi Beach Inn, and other Indian folks. This would be a constant throughout our trip: white tourists were rare and only slightly more present in the golden triangle of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi ; the rest were all Indians. This didn’t really change much but we still found it exciting to know we were going where so relatively few tourists make it.
A steep path down a hill lead to the bottom of the monumental, raucous falls. The spray from the gushing water hitting the rocks was refreshing. On our way back up, Anaïs struggled a bit because of the heat and humidity. As we paused on the side of the trail, groups of Indian kids in their late teens passed us by. They stared and murmured amongst themselves, obviously talking about us until they mustered the courage to ask me for a selfie. I was taken off guard and wasn't too sure whether they were poking fun at us or were genuinely interested, but I accepted. A couple more of them came and asked for the same thing. This would the first encounters of this type in a long string. They seemed thrilled to get their picture with me. I think it's easy to underestimate how exotic foreigners can appear to locals. I was wearing my Vietnamese cap with a big yellow star in the middle, sunglasses, a t-shirt, shorts and a backpack. Many people mistook me for a marine, or someone from the US military because of that cap. The whole mix made me look very American in their eyes, and from what I saw in India, they seem to look up to American culture as the epitome of cool and hip, which might explain the draw that so many kids had to us over our time in India.
The following day, we signed up for a boat trip in the Kerela backwaters, another popular tourist attraction. Interestingly, the same trio of Russians were there with us. I realized that we had had breakfast at the hotel sitting right next to them two mornings prior, while we were making our planning for the next two or three days. I suspected that they overheard us and decided to copy our plans, which they later confirmed when we started talking with them. Imitation is the sincerest flattery, I was told as a kid. But more than that, it was somewhat revealing of how complicated it is to make plans and gain information about what to do in India. They were obviously struggling, just like us, and saw that we had figured it out and decided to also go to the waterfalls and backwater boat tour. They were a nice group of people who had originally come to India for a friend’s wedding. They gave us some tips for Jaipur (i.e. Don't go there!) and told us to contact them when we made our way to Russia.
The tour was like most group guided tours: you have to wake up early and feel herded like cattle but there were a few interesting things here and there. The bus ride was properly insane, but at least we were in a bus, we got to navigate down some narrow channels on a small boat and visit some typical Kerala homes and families. We got to see how some truly poor folks lived, in makeshift buildings in the middle of the jungle, with no access to roads. Women wove, some fished, washed clothes, prepared tea. Kids seemed to be coming back from school. They waved at us from above the canal. After yelling “Hello!” with a big smile on their face and making a few gestures, some of them flipped us off, trying to get a reaction out of us. I don't think it came from a place of hatred, they probably thought it would be a funny story to tell their friends. The girls were much more civil: as we made our way back to the starting point, a couple of young girls were bathing in the river with their mother and shouted “Hello!” from the opposite side of the river. Our boatful answered in unison and they asked our names and where we were from, in typical fashion.
The bus drove us to another, larger boat that took us around the bay after some mediocre lunch. It took us a couple of hours to finish that leg of the tour and when we came back to the bus, it appeared that it had broken down. It struggled to start, so we all got out of the bus and started pushing until it was able to ignite. And I'm not talking about a small minivan, but an actual bus, so it really took all of us to get the thing working again. It drove us to an elephant sanctuary. The elephants were shackled up, except for those that had come to us for feeding and petting. It was a little depressing to see such majestic beasts bound to trees and rocking back and forth trying to break free, but still impressive nonetheless to see them up and close (even closer than we had seen them in South Africa!).
We really struggled to find out where to go next on our trip. We read of several things to do along the coast but getting from place to place was awkward. It was hard to make our trip fit around existing public transportation options so at the end of the day, we scrapped everything. We had read great things about Rajasthan, so we simply booked a flight for Udaipur the following day.
It was already dark when we reached Udaipur’s airport on March 16. We used the same prepaid taxi service to get to town. As usual, we reached behind our shoulder for the seat belt and tried to lock it, only to find there was nothing to plug it into. At this stage, we were starting to get used to it so we bantered about it with the driver who half jokingly, half proudly explained to us that seat belts in India were not necessary. We burst out laughing at that assertion but part of me found it so scary that the people who harbor such beliefs are also the most at risk of dying in road accidents.
Our driver took us as far as he could into Udaipur’s center and we wandered a bit until we found our hotel. We were starving and started looking for some food options when we realized that the restaurant on top of our hotel was one of the best rated in town. So we walked a floor up to the rooftop and one of the most incredible views of our trip revealed itself. The city’s main Maharadja palace was directly opposite from us, beautifully lit. The Jain temple adjacent to our hotel felt so close we could almost touch it. Opposite that, Udaipur’s lake along with its palaces, also lit, gave another dimension to the experience. The temperature was perfect and the food was one of the best of our trip. We were completely taken by how exotic, otherworldly and charming the whole experience was. Udaipur was definitely the highlight of our trip in India, and it was only starting.
We geared up for a packed day. After a quick stop at the Jain temple, we visited the city palace, an impressive structure dating back to the 16th century. The palace is well organized for visits: few areas are barred from visitors so you can easily lose yourself in the many hallways and immerse yourself in what it must have been like to live there centuries ago.
We continued the day visiting Karni Mata temple which was under construction, but the view going up the cable car was something to behold. The vantage point on the lake and the mountains surrounding the city was awe-inspiring. We were under the spell of India in that moment. The colors, the views, the food, the people we had met, the history all conspired to craft a unique atmosphere that we will no doubt remember as one of the all-time highs of our trip.
We ended the day walking through the quarter of Udaipur opposite of the river. It was much poorer, with less shops and guest houses and gave us a glimpse of what we would later see throughout our Rajasthan trip.
On Friday March 18th, we organized for a driver to take us to Jodhpur with stops at Kumbhalgarh fort and Ranakpur temple. This day was also one of our highlights in India. The driver took us on a road that went right in between two major transportation routes, through some extremely rural areas of India where we felt taken back in time. For a few hours, we passed by endless wheat fields. The color pallet was surreal: the crop was ripe for harvest and blanketed the hills in bristling layers of gold. Seemingly dead tree trunks bloomed bright red flowers, women in gorgeous saris of all colors worked tirelessly in the fields under the gaze of the scabrous mountains.
Every so often, we stopped in a village for some masala chai and samosas. This is where all the men were (not out in the fields), shooting the breeze, or conducting business.
As we reached Kumbhalgarh fort, construction sites for hotels started to sprout. The driver informed us that the fort was in the process of being listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and folks in the area anticipated tourists to come in droves. We might have visited the area during one of its last periods of calm.
The fort was imposing and wondrous at once. Its walls extended far into the horizon. In fact, it's the structure with the longest walls after the Great Wall of China. The fort used to protect a large complex of dwellings and temples, many of which are well preserved. After a steep climb, it yielded some glorious views and invited visitors to imagine what it must be like to stand guard as a sentinel, watching for enemy armies approaching, or just contemplating how isolated they must have felt, behind treacherous mountain ranges as far as eye can see.
After a brief lunch stop, we traveled to Ranakpur temple, one of the holiest places in Jainism. It was built in the 15th century and is in incredibly good condition. The temple is made of immaculate marble and is several stories high. This was probably one of the most breathtaking sights in India, and possibly one of the most underrated. If prompted to choose between Ranakpur and the Taj Mahal, I would much sooner choose Ranakpur. The level of ornamentation, detail and symmetry is of the type you can only find in structures built by men truly dedicated to building something greater than themselves. It was also interesting to observe some of the uniquely Jain rules, such as removing all leather items before entering the temple. Menstruating women are prohibited from entering.
After visiting the temple, we made our final stretch towards Jodhpur. We arrived as the sun was setting. Jodhpur was a much larger city than Udaipur. The taxi had to leave us at the entrance of the old city. We kind of questioned his willingness to take us all the way to our hotel but when we reached the old town we immediately understood that he was physically unable to. The streets were minuscule, and cluttered with stalls, people, mopeds, cows and tuk-tuks. We hopped on a tuk-tuk which wasn't even able to find our hotel (even though he said he knew where it was). The streets were so incredibly hectic, swarmed with people. I had never seen anything like it. We had to walk with our bags across the streets to reach our guest house. We struggled so hard to find it! After asking a few different people, we ended up locating our hotel only to discover that the owner had given our room to someone else. He missed the notification from booking.com. Anaïs asked for his phone and called the UK customer service center and managed to find a nicer place for us to stay, the Juna Mahel. It was a 16th century building with a lot of cachet but dusty as hell. The owner was very gracious and offered us a choice of several rooms. It also had a beautiful rooftop view of the city and its typically azure houses.
That morning, we started our visit of Jodhpur with its Mehrangarh fort. The fort was perched high up on a hill, overlooking the city and the hills far in the distance. Much like the city palace of Udaipur, it was composed of a maze of courtyards and hallways. Back in its heyday, the women of the court were confined to shaded rooms in which narrow, intricate patterns carved through the wall served as their only outlook on the outside world. The interior was lavish, especially the throne room in which the sultans hosted foreign delegations. Women weren't allowed in those rooms either, but secret alcoves allowed them to spy on the meetings undetected. The armory was also effective in plunging us into the past. In a slightly morbid way, it’s fascinating to see how creative people got when it came to designing weapons to slay enemies in the most treacherous ways. An interesting example would be the blades affixed on a metal structure held in a clenched fist. The most elaborate versions of this exhibited a clutching mechanism which prompted the blade to open up like a flower, revealing a smaller blade inside. This emphasis on close combat weapons was embodied in some sultans’ initial refusal to use rifles, which were considered cowardly. Swift defeats were instrumental in changing the minds of those attached to a more honorable tradition in warfare.
We transitioned to the Jaswant Thada, as small temple down the hill. We met yet another group of Indian students there and happily submitted to the ritual of the group picture and selfies. The gardens of the temple were sumptuous and yielded worthy views on the bustling city down below. The distinctive feature of the temple, was its thinly-carved marble walls which glowed orange and red as the sun set.
We took another tuk-tuk to the Umaid Bhawan. This palace was built roughly a century ago. The local governor had it built in an Art Deco style that clashed completely with the old city of Udaipur. Black and white pictures of the governor littered the walls of the palace and emphasized how recently this had all been built. His progeny still lives there and based on the pictures and documents exhibited in the palace, it appears that the lot of regular Indians hasn’t improved dramatically in the past century.
Our tuk-tuk dropped us off at the clock tower plaza, which was surrounded by a dense and chaotic market. We found a hotel with a rooftop terrace overlooking the madness and settled down for a drink before diving back in to rejoin our hotel.
That night, Anaïs became worried about a numbing sensation that she had felt in her arms for a few days now. It had originally started with tingling and now grew to full on numbness depending on the time of day. It was getting late, but we could no longer ignore it, so we hopped on yet another tuk-tuk to a hospital that was recommended to us by the owner of our hotel. The front desk was crowded with a bunch of people but we were told to go into a room down the corridor where a doctor would see us.
The room was already full of patients. An old man was lying down in a bed and another younger man was lying in a stretcher next to him. Families of both patients crowded the room. The doctor began hearing us out only to be interrupted on and off by the other patients and their families. They seemed in worse shape than we were so we didn't protest. We were the only white people in the room. Things finally calmed down and the doctor gave us his prognosis. He thought it was most likely an issue in Anaïs’ spine, between her shoulder plates, as this is the area that controls your arms. We weren't expecting anything to be wrong with Anaïs’ back so this was a little offsetting, and we feared we were facing an ordeal when he advised us to take an MRI of her back. Now, in the US, MRIs are a scary thing, partly due to what illnesses one can diagnose from the images, but also due to the cost. We asked for a quote and he gave us an estimate that seemed acceptable and even potentially very low compared to what we would have paid in the US. We moved to the neighboring building for the exam. Anaïs got into the machine and I sat in the control room with the technician. He confessed to me that he had been putting in extra hours because his colleague was sick. That meant 12+ hour shifts multiple days in a row. The guy looked exhausted. He started the machine and the UI looked like the something straight out of the 90s. The scan failed a first time. He reset the application and I realized his machine was using Windows 95. He restarted it again and it failed a second time. In the meantime, Anaïs was lying down in the MRI scanner not knowing what to expect. He restarted everything once more, including the scanner itself and this time it finally worked. I realized by standing in the control room that MRI scanners make incredible amounts of noise. The timer read 15 minutes and Anaïs was lying in a tube, strapped down, amidst ear-shattering blasts. I felt terrible for her. When the exam was over, she explained that she had one of the worst panic attacks she had ever experienced during the exam.
The images finally came out and the technician made some preliminary readings that the doctor later on confirmed: part of her spine was slightly compressed, which lead to the occasional tingling and numbness in her arms. We were relieved to hear that the cause had been identified. The ailment would supposedly recede in time if we limited Anaïs’ exposure to bumpy roads, busses and tuk-tuks…
We went to pay, but they couldn’t operate the credit card terminal, so we asked our tuk-tuk driver who had been patiently waiting all this time to take us to an ATM. When all was said and done, the ordeal cost us $120, transport and all. Granted, the whole experience was slightly sketchy but at the end of the day, we had a competent diagnosis, a quality scan and an understanding of the issue and how to solve it. Once again, a foreign health care system punched over its weight, delivering things we couldn't obtain in the US at a fraction of the cost (both in time and money). They were more disorganized and had less resources and cut some corners, to be sure, but at the end of the day, it was effective.
Next morning, the hotel helped us book a bus to Jaipur. Our plan was to swing across the golden triangle to see Jaipur and Agra (where the Taj Mahal lies) before exploring India further east. The trip was long and hot but much cheaper than renting a taxi and much faster than the train. We made it to our hotel by night time and explored the city the next day. We were impressed with how busy Jodhpur was at first, but Jaipur made it all seem like child’s play. Larger streets were equally packed, dust filled the air and the solicitations from vendors and scammers intensified. Jaipur is reputed for its many palaces and attractions, but something about what we saw felt manufactured. Prices were much more expensive, places were packed, there were many more foreigners than anywhere else we had been until then. We started to feel what I call tourist creep, which is when the increase in tourism slowly warps the experience of a place. There are a few aspects to tourist creep:
A subsequent share of economic activity is devoted entirely to tourism. Past a certain threshold, you're not visiting a place that exists in its own right, you're visiting a place that only exists because you are coming to visit it. You don't come to see how people live, they work and live for you to come see them. It becomes difficult to be a discreet spectator of a foreign and exotic society when in reality, the spotlight is on you, and every experience attempts to conform to the tourist’s expectations. Ironically, one of the few ways to get a glimpse into how locals think is by observing how they view you. This happens in small ways, in what people sell you, how they try to sway you, but my favorite example is probably from my time testing games at Atari when two Indian Q/A testers asked me what strip clubs to go to. They asked, expecting me to know about it because they thought that going to strip clubs was a totally routine activity for the denizens of France.
High concentrations of tourists attract scammers, pickpockets and other folks trying to take advantage of you. This kind of predatory environment is a sure way for most people to put their guard up and enter every encounter from a defensive standpoint. This sadly gets in the way of potential genuine and authentic interactions.
Feeling objectified. Most people only interact with you for the prospect of making money. Sometimes, I imagine that I'm a walking stack of cash. My first experience with this was years ago in Morocco where people would walk up to me and act extremely friendly. Invariably, and in short order, the conversation would steer to my wallet and I would have the burden of cutting the conversation short. Unusually high prices also contribute to this. If you know the cost of things by virtue of having traveled in a country and visit a tourist-ridden location where everything is overpriced, it quickly alienates you.
Of course, this is nothing new and anyone who has been abroad feels this at one point or another, but it's no less of a turn off when it happens. Jaipur really reeked of tourist creep to us so we decided to be on our way the next day. We took a taxi this time as the distance was shorter.
We had been warned that the so called golden triangle could feel like this. At this stage we were eager to pierce through this triangle and rejoin a calmer, more authentic part of India. But Agra stood in our way. Difficult to skip out on one of the wonders of the world in the Taj Mahal. We arrived by night at a decent looking hotel with a rooftop restaurant and a view on parts of the city. In the morning, we set off for the Taj Mahal. We didn't know it at the time, but we were embarking on one of the worst ordeals of our stay in India. To be clear, there is far worst than what we experienced, in the grand scheme of things, but it still felt quite epic to us so please indulge me while I go on my white tourist rant.
It started with a tuk tuk ride. I estimated the price based on the distance and suggested a decent fare because I didn't feel like haggling. The driver took it without hesitating but he drove us three blocks away to the gate farthest from the Taj Mahal instead of bringing us the entrance I had in mind. Technically he did what we had asked, but for the price we paid, he knew he had screwed us. So we walked to the ticket booth under the blistering heat, ignoring solicitations for rides to the monument. There were different booths for foreigners and locals. The price for foreigners was exorbitant which I'm usually fine with when it comes to monuments and museums. What follows is partly my fault because I knew it would be expensive and I knew I might not have enough cash, and part of me knew that despite charging western prices, they wouldn't take western payment methods. Sure enough, they didn't take cards and despite having lots of cash, it wasn't enough. They indicated an ATM was around the corner. That wasn't quite true, it turned out. After looking for a few more minutes while fighting off the hordes of solicitors and tuk-tuks, we found one. Out of order. We had to walk all the way back to the initial gate (i.e. the wrong gate) before finding a functioning ATM. Already tired from the friction and inefficiency of every interaction we had had, we caved in and hired a tuk-tuk back to the entrance. The 100 meter stretch leading to the ticket booth was without a doubt the most challenging gauntlet of our trip. The street was lined with small gift shops and children swarmed us offering all kinds of products and services we had no interest in. They were begging us to store our items with them. Why would anyone want to store our items with random kids off the street? I simply looked straight ahead and ignored them but they persisted with a pugnacity that I believe only Agra can manufacture. After a while, the absurdity of the situation was so blatant that I looked at the most insistent of all the teenagers and snapped at him ‘I have 10 people trying to get my attention that I've been thoroughly ignoring, what makes you think that what you're doing is working?’. We went in line for the ticket booth and the kid stood there looking at us. We got the tickets from a guy behind a small table (not an actual booth), which was an act of faith given how prevalent ticket scams are, but miraculously, it got us in — but not before passing the metal detector and bag check. The guard in military apparel with a semi automatic rifle didn't just look into our bag, he asked us to open every small compartment and zipper. He found an electric water purifier (steripen) and told us we couldn't enter given that electronics were forbidden. In addition to the fact that this rule makes no sense, he ignored the fact that we had a camera and two iPhones, which seemed to pose no issue. I asked nicely to go through. Then I begged him. Then I lost my patience and called BS on their rules.
All of a sudden, the lockers started to make sense. As I stepped back out, the kid I spoke to was there waiting for us with a wide grin across his face. Defeated, I followed him into his father’s shop. To my astonishment, they didn't charge anything to store our goods.
We went back into the line, and the security guard felt it necessary to search our bag once more. He managed to dig out a small headlamp that I had forgotten we even had with us. Of course, he threatened to send us away. I was so exhausted from the nonsense we had to deal with for a simple tourist attraction that I threw the headlamp into the trash bin and entered the Taj Mahal’s gardens.
If the past 30 minutes sound bad for me, they were worse for Anaïs who had to deal with the dirty stares and judgemental looks from the men outside. We were so appalled by the experience that we needed a moment to recuperate. We sat down on a short stone wall and Anaïs, also looking defeated, expressed how exhausted she had grown from dealing the passive, constant weight of men staring. At that moment, I suggested that we cut our stay short and go to China early. It didn't take much to convince her.
Making that decision gave us a sense of respite because there was now an end in sight, but Agra wasn't done with us yet. During our visit, Anaïs told me that inside the monument, where it was dark and jam packed, men groped her without her being able to see who it was or call them out. I felt angry and powerless. At the end of our visit, we sat and watched the mausoleum to take it in one last time when two Indian tourists asked us for a picture. I'm usually always happy to oblige, but we were so out of it that we politely declined. They stepped back a few meters and not-so-discreetly snapped a few shots of the rare birds. Upon exiting the site, we went to retrieve our belongings in storage. They were still there. We had no intention of purchasing anything from the shop so we tried to pay them for storing our items, but the shopkeeper wouldn't let us, insisting that he was happy to help.
That night, I got sick from the food at the hotel. I woke up in the middle of the night and vomited copiously. The bus we had reserved the day prior didn't arrive on time. Then we learned it wouldn't arrive at all, apparently because it was Holi festival and the driver didn't feel like working that day. People at the stop who were supposedly working for the bus company would not help us find an alternative or refund us. It took a couple of French women (who had also been ripped off) and their tuk-tuk driver to suggest an alternative bus to Delhi. Living on a prayer, we hopped on to the tuk-tuk and went to a travel agency to book tickets. I was still feeling like crap from being sick, probably with a fever, struggling to stay hydrated. We finally got to the new bus and soon enough the whole thing was packed and everyone was ready to go. The driver came up to his seat and lifted an lid off the motor (the engine is accessible directly inside the bus). Apparently something might not have been working quite right. He stepped back outside and hung out with a couple of friends, sipping tea. After waiting 20 minutes, I marched out of the bus and asked for an ETA. He said he didn't know because the bus had an issue. I came back out another 20 minutes later and they said they were still waiting on passengers to get their luggage at the hotel. 20 minutes later, Anaïs went out for a few minutes. When she came back in, she explained to me that she had pulled her phone out and pretended to be talking to Redbus, the bus booking website, with someone from quality control. She voiced a complaint about how slow the crew were to get going. The crew, paranoid, asked who she was on the phone with. She explained. They gave a 5 minute ETA. She pretended to tell Redfin about the new ETA and threatened to call back. No sooner had she explained her trick to me that the crew were starting up the bus. In a matter of minutes, they fixed whatever was wrong with the motor by sticking a piece of gum on a leaking tube and we were off to Delhi.
The ride was long and rough for me, but we eventually made it. We shared an Uber with the two French women we had met at the bus stop. Uber in India is incredibly cheap compared to regular taxis, maybe 5 times cheaper. I really wonder how the drivers manage. Uber is very proficient at developing local features. Since it was Holi festival, the car icons were replaced with colorful icons. I also noticed the S.O.S button on the top right. No doubt a remnant of their sexual assault issues which made the news a few months prior.
The hotel we stayed at was probably the worst we have encountered during our stay. On our second night there, I spotted a cockroach fleeing under our bed, a fact I carefully concealed from Anaïs, for the sake of her sanity. We spent a full day before taking off to try and enjoy the city. We had some decent food and visited some ramparts but that same night Anaïs fell sick from the hotel’s restaurant. I was taking antibiotics and already feeling better but she felt horrible. She managed not to vomit, although I wonder if it might not have been better for her to expel whatever she needed to. She was a hot mess on the plane, shivering and all, but she did her best to conceal it since we didn't want to get quarantined.
Despite having some of the most exotic, raw and authentic travel experiences in India, we left feeling like the country had kicked our asses and expectorated us after a string of misfortunes. India is a special place that leaves a deep impression on any visitor, as much for its positive aspects as for its shortcomings. The lack of basic infrastructure, the rampant poverty, the outrageous treatment of women, the omnipresence of grime and dust, the unreliability of services, the ever present scamming and scheming are unfathomable. Yet for each of these ordeals exists an inversely delightful experience, be it the seemingly inexhaustible sources of excellent food, the curiosity of its people, the explosion of colors, the elegance of its architecture and the lingering flavor of its history.