Cultural immersion, or lack thereof

Before coming to India, these are the things that people told me to be wary of:

  1. Do not, under any circumstances, drink the water. Always, always drink bottled water. Watch the server, if relevant, break the seal and pour the water into your glass for you.
  2. It will be dirty and smelly everywhere.
  3. The cows and other animals will walk in the street with you.
  4. Indian traffic = the definition of chaos.
  5. Poverty will be extreme.
  6. Beggars, as a result of #3 above, will be very persistent.

So, I think there’s some truth to all of the points above. The water out of the tap while brushing my teeth tastes pretty horrendous, but it’s not anything worse than what I’ve tasted in China or Mexico. The water in Oaxaca out of the tap was notably horrid to me. I’m fine with the animals walking in the street as long as they don’t attack me, and as long as the cars and autos mind them and don’t run them over (no one needs road kill anywhere). The dirt and the smells don’t bother me very much because I’ve visited other developing countries that have similar smells… though I’ll be honest and say that as racist as it sounds, Indian body odor is just… different, and that’s mainly because of the spices that are heavily in their diets. That’s just life.

It’s not just the beggars who have been persistent here, and more persistent than anywhere else I’ve visited, but even the auto/tuk-tuk drivers have been very determined to get our business. At the same time, though, they’ve actually been quite friendly and helpful. They will drive alongside us as we’re walking on the side of the road, strike up conversation with us by asking where we are from, note that Chris has an Indian face, question where we are going and how we are going to go there. Some have even parked their autos and simply walked along side us for blocks, chatting us up. They really do not want to take “no” for an answer here. They’re not even being rude or mean about it; they’re mixing friendliness with insistence on our taking their business. They give us funny looks when we say we want to walk (why would you want to walk in India?!), and they’ve even told us when we’re walking toward the wrong entrance and tell us how to get to the right entrance for tourists.

Chris and I both believe that the best way to see a city is by foot. You will always see and notice a lot more walking around a city or town than driving through it; it’s just a fact. You can see and interact with people, smell the scents and hear the sounds of daily life. You notice more nuanced things, whether it’s how people interact with each other, signs, or little nooks and crannies on side streets. I’m sad when I hear about people who visit places like China and India and want some protected experience within some car being chauffeured from site to site because in that case, you’ve basically lost half if not more of the joys of traveling to a new unfamiliar place. You don’t get a real sense of the city’s energy and vibe that way; it just becomes a method to tick off sites to see off your list and bring that home so that you can tell your friends your bucket list items have been superficially knocked off and done, yet you haven’t really learned much of the culture of that place at all.

In these interactions with the auto drivers, even though their ultimate motive is, of course, to get our business, they’re genuinely there just to make a living for themselves and their families, and they’re doing it in a way that is not only honest, but kind and friendly. If at the end of the day, they get nothing from us, they still would have treated us with the kindness of strangers that we as tourists and citizens of the world rely on. And that gives me faith in humanity.

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