Neil and I really couldn’t fathom going all the way to India without packing in a bit of tourism, so once the wedding festivities were over, we flew up to Delhi to experience India’s Golden Triangle: Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.
And as a Western tourist, this is probably as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing the “Real India.”
Until now, my Indian experience could be summed up thusly: Slumdog Millionaire, Bollywood Romances, Russel Peters.
The country is, in fact, everything and nothing like those.
We’d opted to book a five-day private tour, so we had a hope of seeing the key sites in the week we had planned. That left us a day on each end to explore Delhi on our own a bit, which was exactly enough time (for me at least) to experience, throw a tantrum about, and get over, the unnerving experience of being a caucasian tourist in a developing nation.
In India, acknowledgement is an invitation to barter. Saying no means you are just playing hard to get. Stepping outside becomes an exercise in self-preservation. Every encounter is evaluated on the merits of how much energy I have, and whether I have the mental fortitude to talk my way out of the situation if it turns out to be an especially persistent tout.
But, and here is where India starts to shine, it is almost always worth it.
Sometimes (especially closest to the major tourist attractions) you’ll just get into a shouting match with a jaded rickshaw driver. But most often you’ll end up engaged in a colourful negotiation with a driver or vendor, which is really just a treat to behold, even if you end up fleeced (remember, a fleecing in India is paying £5 for something that should cost £2) or laughed at.
And very occasionally, you just get to chat with a local who wants to know what you think about his city, country, and tell you about his friend who moved to Toronto, and works in IT. Or shake hands with a group of young guys, on vacation themselves from a more rural part of the country, and pose for pictures with them, so they can go home and tell their friends about the real! live! white person! they met!
I still can’t quite put into words what a different kind of place India is from anywhere I’ve been before. It’s absolutely a land of contrasts, with the marvel of the monuments and architecture, the strange mashup of technology, bureaucracy, and local customs, the devastating level of poverty right next door to immense wealth, and the inescapable, unrelenting mass of humanity.
I hated it as much as I loved it, and in retrospect, I think that’s the hallmark of some of the best adventures you can have.