02 December 2007

Twenty-five things India teaches you

These are the things we've learned while travelling in India:

1. The food here is spectacular. Navrattan curry, Rajasthani thalis, Goan seafood...you really can't do better.

2. The Don't-Lucknow Delhi-Belly, however, isn't. Nor is it confined to either of its two namesake cities. Don't we wish...

3. Hello is pronounced with an accent on the first syllable, and is immediately followed by a loud, staccato, Sa! This is prelude to any number of come-ons: Rickshaw? or Hash? or Where did you lose your hair? Often, it is also accompanied by a rickshaw-wallah planting himself directly in your path and tugging on your arm. This is a great way to attract customers.

4. Another good way: chase two tourists, at full clip, down a dusty street and offer to transport them in exactly the opposite direction that they're walking. When they say "No," start arguing with them. Tell them, "I know you want a rickshaw!"

5. It is perfectly acceptable to name your business enterprise White Negro Advertising (I'm not making that up).

6. Satan himself is responsible for the scheduling of Indian trains (and probably for their upkeep). Not a single train we've been on has been less than an hour late—not even the one that was supposed to take only five hours. Most have been four hours behind. But, as you wait on the train platform, you're never told this; instead, delays are announced in five-minute increments. At one point, three separate trains, running in two different directions, were announced—with marked officaldom—arriving on the same platform at exactly the same time. And no one caught the irony.

7. It is appropriate to grab. Men and women. Front and back. It is preferable, in fact, for this grabbing to happen in the holier cities, and in the holiest times of year.

8. Staring is simply a way to say I love you. Staring at (or touching) breasts is a deeper declaration of undying devotion.

9. Perfecting a profound affect when informing a tourist that his internet usage will be ten times the amount a local would pay is essential for survival. (Especially if you're at White Negro).

10. There are thousands of uses for cheese. And curd is actually good. Especially with bananas and honey.

11. A bus isn't full until there are more people on its roof and hanging onto its windows than there are seats.

12. You can enjoy a Bollywood movie without understanding its actors.

13. Bollywood actors can become gurus (viz: Amitabh Bachchan) or model themselves after Vanilla Ice (viz: Shah Rukh Khan), both with eminent solemnity.

14. Using your horn when you drive is essential. This is simply to make sure that the pedestrian on the other side of the street, minding his own business, doesn't consider crossing.

15. Disposable plates and bowls can be made of leaves and disposable cups of earthenware. This—in all seriousness—is an amazingly environmentally friendly habit in a country in which people don't think twice about littering in a national park.

16. There's always something else. Spend three days on the phone trying to book a hotel, and you'll get a confirmation e-mail saying you're booked "pending your flexibility" to stay at one of three different "sister" hotels. Or, relax, satisfied, in a rickshaw after a heated bout of haggling, until you realize that the definition of where you wanted to go was, unbeknownst to you, also up for discussion (this has resulted in more than a few furious rickshaw drivers).

17. It is perfectly appropriate to charge tourists three times the maximum retail price, actually printed on the side of a bottle of water.

18. The best lassis in the world are found at a roadside stall (using earthenware cups, natch) off a busy thoroughfare in Jaipur. The best omelettes in the world are made at another roadside stall, by a bespectacled man, in the middle of Jodhpur.

19. On public toilets, "Zents" means "Men".

20. Spigots labelled Safe Drinking Water are great place to practice a farmer's blow.

21. Even native Indians die from tainted water. (There have been four deaths in Jaipur so far).

22. Vodafone sponsors everything. Including police stations. And national monuments.

On a more serious note:

23. The love you have for your country is directly proportional to your income level. We have talked to a number of well-off Indian businessmen on trains who have tried to convince us that India was the greatest country in the world. We have also met the less-well-off taxi and rickshaw drivers who bemoan the difficulty of living here.

24. Fervor, devotion, and passion, though—they may be inversely proportional.

25. In 1947, in a letter to her confessors explaining why her new society would need to live in absolute poverty, Mother Teresa wrote, The world is too rich for the poor. It has been a blow to the psyche to find out that, if we're honest about it, perhaps we are too. Coming up against poverty so abject it's ineffable—and not two months before we're set to go to Liberia—has been the biggest psychological and philosophic struggle of this month. There, but for the grace...

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