May 26, 2012

Typical Tourist in India

For all my blog bragging (blagging?) about being a seasoned traveller, I still made lotsa of the same silly mistakes as anyone, took the same photos, went on the same tours. There's just some mandatory activities and reactions and feelings that trump any world traveller ego.

1. I got conned at a temple. A holy-looking man in a delicious orange robe silently but insistently motioned me to follow him, as if this was the official protocol. He took me down some passageway, pointed to a big sign saying foreigners have to pay 1,000 rupees, then to a little interior shrine where his fellow con artist did some prayer for me and my family and put the smudge on my forehead. Then demanded an offering. When I coughed up 200, thinking that was better than 1,000, they smiled and put it at Krisna's feet. Then asked for an offering for the next God beside him (there were 3). I said they could share. Then as the tout continued to guide me around the temple and force me to take photos, he asked for a personal gift, so I gave him 100. The whole rest of the time he asked for another 100 to match my earlier donation. It was just so annoying, but he kept being just confusing enough and sacred enough that I was off balance. Then back at the beginning he told me my bus has already started to load and shooed me off, then disappeared. I never did give him more, so the whole thing only cost me $5, but also robbed me of the Peace of mind exploring the ancient temple, and of course wounded my traveller's ego.

2. I stepped in shit. Only once, not every minute like I'd been led to believe. A nice man on the bus pointed it out in time for me to go wipe it off on some rocks and water it down before the bus left. Yuck.

3. I got hit while walking. Swerved just a little to avoid something, and a bicycle hit me from behind. He bounced off me and into an oncoming motorcycle. No-one was hurt, and he re-aligned his handlebars quickly while I apologized then moved along (instinct and training to not hang around an accident scene for fear of blame, extortion, jail - in Africa, we were trained that even if we killed someone with our car, to keep driving to the nearest police station and ask to be locked up for our own protection.) Yes he was cycling the wrong way on a one-way street, but it was still my fault for stepping out of line.

Walking here is a bit of skill but a lot of faith. There are so many people and obstacles and directions and modes of transport (foot, bike, motorbike, car, bus) on the narrow roads that everyone has to rely on the predictability of everyone else. If I want to cross the road I have to do it confidently so that everyone knows what I'm doing, then they can adjust accordingly. If I start to hesitate and dodge, no-one knows how to react, and accidents happen. It's almost the opposite of Canada, where the guiding safety standards are clear rules, external signals, and a cultural expectation of consideration and ceding to others. In India, safety is maintained by each person doing what he needs to do deliberately and clearly, and letting the rest of humanity absorb around him.

It's like a swarm of ants. An ant with a piece of grass pulls it into a busy highway of ants and they all just swarm around and continue together. Or like a small stream joining a river, it all just merges. This whole big society feels somewhat like that. It's just too big and crowded and busy for everyone to be over-concerned with everyone else - consideration here is being smooth and seamless in the flow of the society.

Sometimes that theory works better than others, in my Western perspective. On the train yesterday several people had to sit cross-legged on the floor. Several times people walking through the isle, carefully stepping between them all, got their back foot caught between two particular men sitting a bit closer together than others. Each time, the men just sat there, not moving their legs at all for the person to get unstuck. It happened more than once and each time they continued to sit oblivious and unmoving felt more like the usual negative connotation of "inconsiderate" as opposed to the positive "natural flow" interpretation I've been positing here.

4. People cut in front of me in line-ups. Waiting for the bus, in the Ashram food line-up, at the airport security, pretty much anywhere. I continue to give a bit too much space between me and the person in front of me, trusting in the sanctity of an established queue to preserve my position, but there seems to be no shame among some Indians to just quietly and smoothing slipping in front. Even if I can catch their eye afterward with an indignant Western "shame on you" look, they just smile innocently back with an "I'm an Indian ant being absorbed into the flow of society" smile.

I had more examples in my head, but that's enough to be human again. We travellers learn as much from our own mistakes as from our observations. Testing what annoys us leads to more insight than the signs on the museum walls. I don't have to like or agree with everything that's different here, but I do need to accept the rules (or lack thereof) and prevailing culture and do my best to honour and enjoy and operate within them. Keeping my head up in line-ups and down on the street will get me there faster, safer and, um, cleaner.

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