On May 1st I left Vietnam for India, on a whim deciding to head Westward. India has, for thousands of years, been a center of the Asian world, and a global power that’s hard to match. I was warned it’s a formidable place with an unshakeable culture that will trample the weak of spirit. For the most part, this is true. I equally hate and love India. And I’ll explain why. However, just as the Yin Yang symbol is balanced on both sides, I suppose hating and loving India is part of the adventure.
Ancient As Hell
Most of May was spent in Rajasthan. This is the northern to northwestern desert region of India and a land that’s always been inhabited by desert kingdoms, including in the last thousand years the Jaipur Kingdom, the Kingdom of Marwar, and the Kingdom of Mewar all founded by Rajputs. To summarize the last millennia of history: ancient desert kingdoms continually war with each other in a Game of Thrones-style bid for power, until Moghuls attack and everyone sort of aligns together to fight the Muslims, and when that threat goes away–they return to killing each other.
(Click images to expand!)
This includes lovely practices such as royals hosting 60-70 harem girls at a time, and if that royal dies in battle–each girl would have to burn themselves to death at the funeral so they could join their master in the afterlife. And hey, I do believe in an afterlife (see my paranormal books on that subject), but I’m pretty sure if I were king I’d find a new fucking harem in the world beyond and save the girls from dying horrible deaths at a young age.
Often, before a girl would burn herself to death, she would leave a hand-print on the wall of a fortress or palace. Today, those hand-prints are visible all around the walls of the cities’ main fortresses as a chilling testimony of a woman’s final moments and a plea for the world to not forget her.
[To be fair, the practice was also implemented by women to avoid being enslaved and raped if a battle was lost. Which is understandable, but wouldn’t drinking a fatal amount of opium be preferable to death by fire?]
Rajasthan was always a dream to visit and it did not disappoint. Unfortunately, I picked literally the worst time–the middle of summer with temperatures pushing 40 centigrade. This, however, didn’t sway me. Some evenings after a rain it was actually cool, and I was able to mark off my list the absolutely beautiful and jaw-dropping fortresses and palaces of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. My favorite being Mehrangarh Fort of Jodhpur, one of Rudyard Kipling’s main inspirations.
If you go to these locations, go amidst the tourist hordes in winter. I am 100% returning to Rajasthan in a future winter so I can wander the sand dunes, ride camels to distant lands and do things I couldn’t do this time because it was hot enough to make an ifrit buy an A/C.
Next Location: The Edge of the Himalayas
By the end of May, i was extremely anxious to escape the heat, so I packed my bags for a flight from Jaipur to Dharamshala. This is in the further north of India–heading into the state of Himachal Pradesh which is on the way to Kashmir and central Asia if one continues northward.
This is no ordinary location. Traversing up the mountains, past Dharamashala, is the higher mountain town of Mcleod Ganj. This is the home of the Dalai Lama and a kind of “pilgrimage” spot for people on religious or spiritual quests of various types (including a hefty amount of hippies both old and young.)
For reasons I’ll discuss in a future article, Mcleod Ganj is one of my favorite locations I’ve ever been to. And this trip is great for numerous reasons. Not least of all my position writing for the local Tibetan interests magazine Contact (www.contactmagazine.net) and tutoring Tibetan refugees in English.
For those not in the know: this town is the focal point of the Tibetan refugee crisis, with new Tibetans arriving every year for the last 60 years. This is because of the Chinese oppression of the Tibetan people, which includes a slow “cultural revolution” style murdering of their culture, including the banning of the Tibetan language. Mcleod Ganj has for decades been the last hope of the Tibetans. However, now multiple generations into their plight, the locals are quite upbeat and optimistic–in a lively town with late night parties and an enormous cafe culture, plus at least some jobs especially in the tourism sector. Nonetheless, many Tibetans ultimately must depart from Mcleod eventually to seek better job prospects. This is where volunteer organizations are needed to help provide vocational training. Meanwhile, many other Tibetans stay in McCleod to pursue the minimalist life of a Buddhist monk.
Indian Culture: Good and Bad
If there’s anyone who’s open minded about other cultures, it’s yours truly. That said, many things people warned me about India turned out to be true. I’ve been musing on this. There’s a kind of unholy trifecta of extreme arrogance, extreme ignorance and extreme selfishness among the 18-45 male Indian population in most of the few places I’ve visited.
(Notice I put this age group because I encountered seemingly no problems from both older Indian men and, of course, no issues with Indian women. Did something go wrong the last couple of generations among men here?)
You have to be constantly clever to make it in India as a prolonged tourist, able to outsmart continuous “traps” set in front of you. It also leaves a person cynical and unable to trust anyone.
Without going into a long rant of different, weird experiences… I’ll just summarize a few of the things I experienced:
- I’ve had even government employees try to not return change and require me getting in their faces to get my money back.
- The driving shows no remorse for anyone. I saw a child almost get run over by a driver who was aware of the child on the road, but assumed, as apparently most Indian drivers do, “I was honking my horn, so it’s their fault if they get hit.” This mentality makes me want to bash heads in.
- Tons of weird experiences and passive aggressive behavior. Staying in a hostel, I came in once to a guy sleeping in my bed. When I caught him, he sheepishly said “Sorry” and returned to his own bunk. This bizarre behavior became so common it stopped being surprising.
- MUCH worse experiences other travelers recounted to me. Like, a girl reported waking up to her male Couchsurfing host… brushing her hair.
- Any possible excuse or method to scam you, will be performed. Even if it’s a random shopkeep upping the price of a bag of chips until you check the real price that’s 20 rupees less (“Sorry.”)
- Complete disregard for the environment. I saw an Indian guy toss his extra large plastic cup on the ground when there was a garbage can nearby. At this point, getting impatient with the bullshit, I confronted him and asked him why. He shrugged and said, “Because I’m Indian.” Now that’s some self respect.
There’s plenty of good elements, too. It’s just the contrast is so black and white between good behavior among hospitable, nice locals and the above examples that it’s easy to feel jaded and angry. My Indian friend in the USA reminds me it’s a “survival of the fittest” attitude born from poverty. While this makes sense, I also have to wonder if that fully explains the examples of extreme arrogance. Nonetheless, I’ll say with Indian hospitality–the closest way to get 15 people taking care of you and giving you stuff is if word gets out that you’re sick. That’s all it takes and soon it’s everyone’s duty to help you out, which is pretty warm and fuzzy approach. One time a Rickshaw driver pulled up to try to scam me. When he realized I was pretty badly sick, he switched modes and started trying to give me medicine instead.
It was hard to leave Mcleod Ganj, a city i’d grown accustomed to via writing for Contact Magazine (where, among other projects, I got to know the personal translator for the Dalai Lama, Kailash. Nice guy.) My final thoughts are that India is a force of power, as it has been for thousands of years. The culture is extremely powerful, and in many ways it’s not a location for a novice traveler. Be prepared for a lot of adjustment and culture shock. A for livability, it would take a lot of adaptation for me personally to call India my home, not to mention the sheer amount I get sick because of the poor hygiene standards with the food. And I’m saying this as someone who’s spent a lot of my life in Southeast Asia. Okay, that’s it for this article. Onward to the next.