India, although on every self-respecting backpacker’s bucket list since the 1970s, remains one of the most challenging for western travellers. Nothing prepared me for the seismic shock to the system on my first ever visit last month.
From the oppressive heat to the crowds of jostling bodies. From the chaotic, perpetually honking traffic to the famous Brahman cows that catwalk down the middle of the road, absurdly confident no one would dare hit them (they never do); everything in India just seems more. Louder. Brighter. Busier.
And more unequal. India’s expanding economy may boast a large portion of the world’s millionaires, but the poverty is never far from view. Nowhere did I find this more confronting than at the country’s biggest tourist attraction.
The opulent Taj Mahal, that ultimate paean to heartbreak and loss, has earned its reputation as the world’s most beautiful building. It is also surrounded by some of the world’s ugliest poverty. The dusty orange streets of central Agra, once home to the mighty Mughal Empire, brim with beggars and hawkers offloading gaudy Taj-related trinkets, while on the outskirts entire families live in – or more accurately on – torn plastic tents.
It is against this backdrop that generations of western travellers have sought the authentic Indian experience. But with most taking the same well-worn route, the fast-paced, seemingly unregulated, and often unforgiving tourism industry that has sprung up in response means they get anything but.
From Delhi’s infamous dodgy travel agents to train station clerks who demand an extra “tax,” to the rickshaw drivers who scoop huge commissions for delivering green tourists to waiting shopkeepers, the scams come thick and fast. Falling for them is a right of passage.
Indeed, I fell for more than one and I’m mostly okay with that. Why shouldn’t struggling locals make as much from us westerners as they can? After all, no matter how tight our travel budget, we are always going to come out of it the better off. Moreover, given all the wealth the West has taken from the subcontinent over the past couple of centuries, I am the last to begrudge some of them reclaiming it, rupee by rupee.
When you are in the thick of it, however, it can feel demoralising. Every conversation seems burdened by the weight of an expected transaction, including for solo females, a sexual one. A few days of this and you start to feel like the losing player in a game where the aim is to separate you from all your money as quickly as possible. As one young Welsh man I met said sadly, “I feel like a walking cash machine.”
All of which means that, on the tourist trail at least, the chances of a genuine connection seems impossible. My frustrated attempts at honest conversations with local shopkeepers and street vendors I spoke to led either to a lighter wallet or inappropriate sexual invitations or both.
Not that meaningful encounters with local hawkers is what all tourists are after. But, in the relatively short time I was there, I was never quite clear on what it is we are after. Is travelling really only about ticking off the major attractions, avoiding the beggars, and insisting shopkeepers knock the equivalent of an extra $1 from the price of harem pants that are marketed as Indian but sold exclusively to tourists?
To be clear; I do not blame Indians for this. Rather, I suspect our enduring love of “doing India” appears to have fomented a situation where enterprising and desperate locals seek to profit by giving us what they think we want. But what we get is an imitation of the real thing.
It feels exploitative to be a part of this, to waltz in from another, wealthier country, get ushered into the famous sites, hang out with other westerners, and then waltz away again. On to the next city, the next attraction, the next “experience.”
Of course, this state of affairs is not limited to India. Perhaps it’s the fact I am no longer a wide-eyed backpacker on my first Big Trip, or my anti-colonialist politics talking here (and colonialism has certainly left its mark here), but it feels as though in India, all pretence is abandoned and what we are left with is the stark, ugly reality of privilege and inequality.
By the start of my fifth and final week, it dawned on me that, to all intents and purposes, in India I am a “white person.” Disheartened at how often western tourists were approached by locals for selfies (the whiter-looking, the more their image is sought), at first I had the luxury of distancing myself from these particular interactions, of kidding myself I had more in common with the locals than the white tourists they seemed to idolise.
But when, in the absence of an actual European-descended tourist, I was also asked to pose in family happy snaps, it became uncomfortably clear to me the lens through which I was viewed.
Certainly, the compliments on my “fair” skin and warnings not to spend too much time in the sun or risk becoming “dark like us” were meant to flatter. But they sent a brutal message that, despite all the work I do trying to undermine it, I too am a beneficiary of white, western privilege.
From walking the streets on my own, to the thousands of rupees I withdrew from the ATM without blinking, to the bikini I wore by the lake in the tiny southern town of Hampi, where tourists sunbake on ancient ethereal boulders while astonished Indian men gather to gawk at the unusual antics of “white people”; all of these signalled a status and privilege that, relative to much of the local population, I had in abundance.
This is capitalism: inequality and division. Where we sit on that divide is nothing more than a fluke of geography.
Of course, this is far from a complete meditation on travelling in India. Repeated trips and longer sojourns will naturally elicit diverse experiences, as will spending more time away from the tourist traps (not so easy for time-restricted solo women). And no doubt Indians reading this would have a different perspective. Nonetheless, in the era of measuring travelling success by how many countries you have “done,” most of us never scratch the surface of the places we visit, nor do we get to know the people.
And this is our loss. If locals see us as a way to make a quick buck in the brief time we cross paths, and we resent them for hassling us or fear them as would-be scam artists, then this is not any sort of human connection, but yet another way that capitalism and the inequality it spawns cheats us all.