Incredible India…. this is the recent marketing campaign that the Government of India has coined to promote tourism. I’ll agree that India is an incredible place, but not for all the reasons the country touts. For my 40th, I wanted to experience a developing country with Mr. Moe and our teenage Miss Moe. Because we value experiences more than trinkets, our readers know, our birthdays and celebrations are always wrapped up around an experience. I have long been fascinated with India as I have worked with many immigrants from India. Their culture, foods, and religions has been the fodder of many interesting conversations and meals. My Indian friends always look fondly back on their times in India (they frequently visit, but never intend to permanently return). For our decade, and half decade birthdays, the person celebrating the big number gets to choose the place (with no veto authority by the rest of the Moes). This was the only way I would get to India, as the rest of the Moes had little interest in this trip. I deeply felt that having a teenager growing up in a first world country, now was a good time to exercise the Moe veto-less right of traveling to a developing country.
- We stayed in five star hotels the entire time. These hotels were gorgeous and a small fraction of the cost of stateside hotels of the same quality. Interestingly, our hotels had armed guards and gates, and entering them was like a TSA experience (complete with a pat down).
- Our money went far in India, we were able to have a private driver, tour guide, and five star hotels for the same cost of a group tour. We like to be the drivers of our own destiny, and we really aren’t interested in group tours. However, in India we would not have been able to be on our own.
- Unmatched architecture and religious sites (Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutab Minar, Iran Pillar, India Gate, Fatehpur Sikri, Palace of the Winds) were breathtaking. No picture does them justice.
- There was a general happiness and kindness of the people in the tourism industry, and the general public had an intense curiosity of Americans. Our daughter was asked for many “selfies” with teenage girls and families on holiday (and she happily obliged). It was alarming for her at first, but then she grew accustomed to it. In the end, she decided she had no interest in celebrity status.
- Interesting animals roaming the streets (cows, camels, monkeys, cats, and the occasional dog) were a sight to see. The monkeys especially were fun to watch (except the old grumpy teeth-baring monkey that wanted to get too close to us and was chased away by our tour guide).
- Much of the infrastructure and roads were in good condition and traffic was light between cities. Within the cities was a completely different story. This was because we took the toll roads (a cost worth every penny).
- We rode camels and elephants (twice). Once with the mahouts (elephant riders), each elephant lives with the owners family and they receive their income from tourism. Our mahout took over his elephant from his father. I wish I would have done more research into the treatment of the animals. This was government sanctioned vendors, but honestly I’m scared to research it now. It was a wonderful experience, but I’ll research this more if ever we have an interaction with animals again.
- I cannot overestimate the horribleness of the tipping culture. Everywhere you turned (even when there were ‘no tipping’ signs) we were badgered and badgered for tips – to the state of unpleasantness. I understand everyone is trying to get by, but this was so off-putting and we wish we were better prepared for this.
- Needing money to go to the bathroom. You needed 10 rupees (an inconsequential amount) to use the restroom. This was difficult, because honestly we rarely had bills in these tiny amounts. It was a source of stress for us, and the state of the bathrooms wasn’t pretty.
- Everything felt like a scam (from the begging for tips, to the official money changers at the airport, to the shops with ‘special’ deals). It was hard to tell what was authentic, and what was not. We just felt ripped off a lot. Even the driver knew the store owner’s where they would receive kickbacks based on what you bought. I don’t like to negotiate for a price. I want the price on the item to be the fair price of what it should be. So, in many cases, we just paid more than we should (we aren’t big shoppers anyway). It just wasn’t worth the hassle, and in looking at the state of some of the living conditions – they needed those extra rupees more than I did.
- Dry towns…. We went to Pushkar, a lovely holy city and stayed in a five star hotel. A resort hotel that failed to declare it was “dry”. Mocktails after a long day just didn’t cut it for us.
- Royal women had marble prisons. They were kept in the upper parts of the palaces, guarded by eunuchs where they could view the public via marble cut outs. While this was a terrible way to treat women, nearly every country has a shameful past on the treatment of women and minorities. However, the idea that women belong in the home and are somehow the lesser sex seems to be a sustaining idea in much of India. I was questioned by nearly every one of our service providers, customs, and hotel personnel about my working status. The customs agent told me my fingerprints were difficult to obtain because of likely all the dishes I must do in my house (vs. a faulty machine).
- The crowds were really scary. Westerners like our space, but even New York City had nothing on Agra.
- Water – you have to use bottled water exclusively (even in five star hotels), to include brushing teeth.
- The food was delicious at first, but our digestive systems seemed to rebel by about day five.
- The driving was absolutely terrifying, and in fact our driver did actually bump a rider off his moped. The two cursed at one another (I assume – it was in another language and both had their hands in the air) and moved on. Honestly, with the “road rules” we had no idea who may have been at fault. The lanes and speed limits are merely suggestions. They are adhered to in the same manner one would give a suggestion to a rebellious teen.
- Our visit to the Dhobi Ghat (a well-known open air Laundromat where washers, (locally known as Dhobis)) work in the open to wash the clothes (as part of their job routine) was part of our tour. However, when we looked around – it was obvious that the living conditions for the Dhobis was dire, and the children didn’t appear to be cleaned or schooled properly. They swarmed Miss Moe begging for money and grabbing her hands (we were told not to touch anyone as our hygiene standards were different and we could get sick). This part of our trip felt intrusive, and like our tour guide was profiting off the backs of these families. This saddened our stoic Miss Moe who never cries (she spent a good part of the next few days deep in reflection and shed a tear or two).
- We found India to be very heavy on religion, but light on empathy. There was little empathy by our tour guides, drivers, and shopkeepers for the suffering class. We were told not to look at the beggars, and that those are “just the untouchables”….We went past a water source that our tour guide said was “sewer water”. We saw families bathing in it and asked about that. His response? “Oh, those are just the untouchables”
- The public schools were absolutely not a place I would send my child. Private schools were the only way to go, which seemed to sustain the caste culture.
- Miss Moe received a lot of attention. Some of that attention was unwelcome. She received many leers from men, a few cat calls, and a marriage proposal or two. We took this trip when she was 14…. so, this would be uncomfortable at any age, but extremely so at this age.
- We saw an 8ish year old boy openly defecating in the street. How is this still something that’s happening in today’s day and age? Shocking.
I have such mixed feelings about Incredible India. We intended to go to Mother Teresa’s orphanage to tour and provide donations to the children in need, and also visit Sheroes Hangout (acid attack victims from all over the country host a cafe). We couldn’t emotionally do it after seeing the “untouchable” caste washing used saris in giant burning tubs on the water. We were so profoundly touched by the suffering children and the state of affairs that we returned to the United States so much more grateful, and with hearts heavy for human suffering. We felt (and still feel) a sense of “survivor’s guilt” for being able to enjoy the wonders of a magical land, one of which many of its own inhabitants will never see. I found it so important and valuable to visit this country at our daughter’s current reality of iPhones, Nikes, and first world problems. We remind ourselves often that the only difference between us and the “untouchable” caste, is where we were born.