I’m finally situated and back to normal here in Michigan. I’ll take up where I left off with my last blogpost. My trip continued within my home state of Gujarat, India. It’s quite an adventure whenever I go to India, and a lot has changed since my last visit in 1998. Back then, nobody here had cell phones; now just about everybody does. Internet was an unknown term whereas now people know about it, but it’s not exactly easy to come by. I bought a wireless modem a few days after I arrived in Surat, and due to customer service that is poorer than in the U.S., it took nearly a week and multiple phone calls to get connected.
There’s always a connection to my culture and religion that I feel when I’m in India. I’m not a minority, and there’s no prejudice toward me, (although one merchant called me white). But it can be overwhelming. There are a billion people in this great country and anywhere close to a city is crowded. It’s generally dusty and/or dirty by American standards and there are bicycles, motorcycles, animals, and people everywhere. You hear horns blaring every couple of seconds since horns are used to let other drivers know of your presence and to reserve a right of way. When in a large store, the difficult part was finding my friends and family. I’m used to looking for black haired people amidst brunettes and blondes. That doesn’t work in India.
There are many things we in western cultures take for granted that most people don’t have or just can’t get here. One of these things is a lack of overt corruption. As soon as we left the Mumbai international airport, a police officer saw our out-of-state plates and asked our out-of-state driver for his license. Our driver had to pretend to not have it. He knew that if he gave it, the officer would take the license away and force us to pay for it in court the next day. This is a prime example of how it’s just a pain to get things done at times. You often have to bribe people to get what you deserve anyway. We also take for granted clean drinking water. In the U.S., bottled water is an unnecessary luxury, but in India it’s a necessity for a non-resident. I used boiled or bottled water even when I brushed my teeth.
Hot water is not a given. You either have to heat it right before your bath or heat it in a pot and take a bucket bath with a cup. You pour water on yourself as you need. It’s a little inconvenient, but not too bad because it doesn’t get too cold in most parts of India. Squat toilets are the norm but Western toilets are becoming more common. When you travel, public restrooms can be unbearably dirty and make sure you keep toilet paper with you.
In general, getting anything done can be a pain. Many things are within walking distance, but if it’s not, it takes time to get across town by way of rickshaw. Traffic in Mumbai is horrendous and in Surat it’s bad for a city of its size. You just drive kind of randomly and do what you have to do to get to where you want. Following lanes are optional. There are many traffic circles and few traffic lights and there are still traffic cops stationed at intersections. The way people drive is in a manner I call “psychic, reluctant cooperation. If you squeeze your way into a spot, the other guy will eventually let you in and not hold a grudge or give you the finger. It’s just the way it is. Also, people don’t really think about safety. It’s more of a faith-based system. You have faith that you won’t get into an accident so you don’t need a helmet or a seatbelt.
Litter is everywhere. In “the old days,” they used natural things like banana leaves for plates and burlap for bags. Now they use plastic. The culture doesn’t look down upon littering so it’s everywhere and it looks bad. In fact, it’s an assault on the eyes and one of the things I liked least about India. But it's the beautiful natural scenery and ancient buildings that really make India visually appealing. In America, if a building is 100 years old, it's old. In India, if something's 2,000 years old, it's old.
Also on the impressive side, things are happening in a positive direction. They are building large 6-lane freeways which will really help with travel times. Right now, if you can go 55 mph, you are flying. Average speeds are about half of what they are in the U.S. In a few cities here, rickshaws ad buses have been mandatorily converted to run on natural gas which really helps reduce pollution. I call that progress. For this to happen in the U.S. would take years. Here, the government just says do it because it’s the right thing to do. They find a way.
Food is cheap. Even good food at a restaurant costs little. Six people can fill their stomachs with great food and service for 525 rupees, or $13. In addition, fruits and vegetables of all kinds are available in abundance at every corner. I hardly exercised, ate some rich food full of oil, butter, and whole fat dairy products, (albeit with good fruits and veggies), and didn’t gain any weight. I credit that to wholesome food without fortification or chemicals.
In many cities there, you still have the neighborhood feel where you know your neighbors and the people that run the shop down the street. Kids stop in at neighbor’s houses unannounced. It’s safe to walk around at night just about anywhere. At worst, you might get pick-pocketed. People with ill will rarely have guns and weapons.
People in India don’t use much energy per capita. They generally don’t have air conditioning or cars so carbon footprints are small. They air dry clothes and most of them wash clothes and dishes by hand. This is all changing though as electric home appliances are becoming more prevalent.
The economy is booming, thanks in part to a growing middle class and a developing infrastructure. Real estate prices and the stock market are going through the roof. I just don’t see how the country can grow like this forever with the increasing wealth disparity and hundreds of millions of other people that need to be taken care of instead of being left behind.I don’t know if this is necessarily a good thing or not, but they are starting to build malls and supermarkets in India, just like in the U.S.
I cherished my time in India with friends and family though and while there I missed home, but now that I’m back to normal life, I miss warm sunny days, not having to work, feeling like a millionaire and taking in the rich culture and history. Together, it all makes me realize how American I am but how much I appreciate my Indian heritage.
I have posted some pictures too. The trip made for great photography.