Last September, I traveled to India, to recruit students for my university. I traveled all over, south to north, east and west, literally ten thousand miles in all.
I wrote a brief post about this a few months ago, but wanted to add some postcards about individual cities, and about what it’s like to travel at warp speed through a country, and whatever flickers of insight you can gain.
There was no time to do any of the things I usually do – – museums, historic sites, people-watching from cafes, etc. Mostly, I saw hotels, conference rooms, airports, and offices. And cabs. Lot’s of cabs. Endless flights and meetings, zipping along in cabs and the occasional auto-rickshaw, everything seen in glimpses as fleeting as a Snapchat. Far removed from it all, not an active participant. Just a pair of eyes, passing through like a GoPro on a badly-steered drone.
And you know what? In some ways, it was liberating.
I didn’t have to do anything, or decide anything. I knew I had to get to such-and-such event or fair at such-and-such time. Whatever happened in-between meant that I was free to live in the moment fully, just soaking it in.
Obviously, a limited immersion. In some ways, like spending an afternoon at an aquarium – – a layer of glass removes me from the fascinating images and lives that I’m seeing, but not fully experiencing. Looking at sea creatures in a tank is not the same thing as swimming through a coral reef.
But sometimes, to be honest, arms-length was kinda pleasant – – in an air-conditioned cab, you don’t feel the humidity, and are safe from mosquitoes. But in some ways too, it cemented my status as an outsider, one who isn’t able to fully comprehend what is happening.
So… these little postcards and snippets are what I was able to gather.
I even had to ditch the newspapers I’d picked up. Unlike our dwindling industry in the U.S., newspapers in India seem to be thriving, and I wanted to bring home a sampling to show people – – lively, entertaining, sometimes strange.
I started jotting this entry during my second-to-last stop, staying in the LaLiT Hotel, Kolkata. It’s a luxurious, modernized place – but what was more of a kick for a history buff – this used to be the Great Eastern Hotel, 175 years old, the first hotel in India with electric lighting. You walk down hallways following Mark Twain and Kipling (well, just a few years behind). I loved that section of town, too – Old Calcutta – majestic colonial era buildings, like a capital in Latin America, large palatial buildings and walled-in gardens.
Kolkata was my favorite stop, Parts of it are like Singapore – massive Victorian-era buildings in pristine condition, gardens, parks, the biggest cricket stadium in India, a huge suspension bridge.
The Victoria Memorial still stands, like a giant white marble palace. Then ultra-modern tall, sleek buildings. Really tall lux hotels. Some neighborhoods are definitely not for me, but if I were to live in India, that’s the city for sure. There’s something special about it even amidst the chaos. Shrines to Durga and Kali (the multi-armed scary-looking one) all over.
I drove into town past a tall building with a sign flashing an ad for some soft drink. And it struck me as being how NYC looks in movies, but not in reality anymore, since so much old neon is gone.
Then I saw an old-school cab in front of a crumbly building and palm tree, and instead of Singapore, it felt like a street in Old Havana. It was a Hindustan Ambassador, a chunky 1950’s-style thing, like one of those dogs that are homely, but you just like on first sight.
(When I got home, The Economist had an article that noted exactly the same impression – – Kolkata’s striking resemblance in parts to Havana.)
Traffic is Chaotic.
The food was interesting. Here, seafood and banana-based food is popular. I steered clear of the fish, but had a meal made with bananas. I don’t recall the details of how they prepared it, but it was delicious. It was washed down with lime juice and soda water, which was also refreshing.
Lucknow seems like Colonial India is still alive. And it has a gorgeous river walk
Smaller by Indian standards, crazy traffic, like everywhere, but manageable.
The only true Old City I was in, the denseness of the streets and the sort of India you’d expect from watching movies – – masses of people of all walks of life, jumbled into one place. I was very glad to have be in a scene that met my expectations, and glad it was Lucknow, a storied, historic, artistic, and multicultural whirlwind.
And I particularly liked the hotel there. While the Lalit in Kolkata was by far the most swank, the one in Lucknow had a wonderful faded glory about it. This was true of the city too, faded but still majestic, at least in the old city. Lucknow was one of the two cities (the other being Jaipur) where I broke my rule to not eat meat. In the land of Tikka Masala, it would be criminal to not partake. It was delicious and rich. My entire time in India was marked by amazing food, and the meals I was able to take in small eateries were in a way, the most authentic experiences I had on this trip. I tried whatever the locals were eating, dishes which I cannot name or even describe accurately, and loved everything I ate.
Ahmedabad was also a unique experience. Famed even by Indian standards for their vegetarian dining options, I ate incredibly well every day. But the highlight for me by far was the tea. Masala chai was offered frequently and I never missed a chance to have some. Chai is familiar in the West, but here they offered it with different varieties, including one I loved most, Ginger – – it has a real kick, but is delicious, and good for the stomach.
I was struck also by the number of Chinese business people that were there. In a country like the US, we assume that the whole world comes to us. But India and China both have trade agreements and rivalries, and there you see the rest of the world interacting with each other, hastening development or maybe looking into expanding their own industries abroad.
Ahmedabad was the only place I had any free time, though I used most of it to sleep, after 8 days of back-to-back flights, cabs, conferences, etc. But that evening, I went with the locals I knew to a restaurant/tourist village. This place was designed like a traditional village, with thatched huts and the like. We ate on the ground, legs crossed (or in my case, a sort of crossed-legs sitting that killed my lower back), and ate off banana leaves. The “Gujarati Thaali” is a true marvel — a spread of all sorts of vegetable dishes and salads, rice, flat breads, with many sides. Waiters arrive at the table from all sides, ensuring there isn’t ever an empty dish. Amidst the traces of smoke from smoldering mosquito repellents, it was a very charming experience and the food was excellent.
We had time to visit an unusual “Utensil Museum” — full of unfamiliar food preparation devices, and chock full of locks and keys – – all of which was surprisingly interesting.
Just outside of the bamboo fence was a mega highway, reminding you that this village is a simulation, and not how many people live anymore.
Chandigarh was a pleasant surprise. A “planned city,” by Le Corbusier and other architects, roughly the same 1960 vintage as Brasília, it felt unlike anywhere else in India.
Initially, traveling from the airport to the city’s industrial center and hotels, it felt like the rest of India. A horse cart on the side of the road, laden with sacks of tea or rice. A man with one crutch, dusty and haggard, going car to car to beg.
But the city itself is almost more like something you’d see in East Asia. Virtually no trash, wide clean avenues. For a semi-arid city, there were still a good amount of trees, green spaces, and as I learned, about a dozen public gardens. The market there was also unique. Rather than a maze-like souk, it was a spacious open-air shopping center with organized rows of tables, and many storefronts aligned in a large open rectangle offering an array of clothing, food stuffs and gadgetry. It was hardly the most interesting city, but I enjoyed it more than I’d expected.
Jaipur was the other city that surprised me. But, it was the opposite reaction. While Chandigarh was much better than I anticipated, Jaipur ([probably the most visited by tourists of all of the places I went) was not as beautiful or luxurious as I had hoped. Dirty, smelling of sewage in parts, I felt it had a bit of an edge I didn’t experience elsewhere.
Men were sleeping at the base of the city gate, while cars roared past. This was the city where people would make offers of whatever they were selling, the instant they saw me, and I felt more watched than others cities, where visitors are regarded with respectful curiosity, rather than seen as a mark.
Even the famed Hawa Mahal palace was a bit underwhelming – gorgeous, intricate and fascinating, but far smaller than I had anticipated. (Much like people always comment, going to a gallery to see “American Gothic,” or Dalí’s “Persistence of Memory,” which shocked me when I saw how small they were, the fame of things can make them seem bigger in our mind’s eye.) This is definitely true of Jaipur’s most fabled attraction. But still, striking and enjoyable to visit.
The Hawa Mahal looks like something out of a fairytale, with its many windows (which I learned are actually the back of the building). The name means “air or wind palace,” with its many tiny window-outcroppings, and was designed for the women of the Harem to look out of without being seen. The women were forbidden to be seen by the populace, and had to wear full veils when in public, so they created this strange viewing gallery, where they could see the town, while hidden from view.
While very short, not much more than an airport stop, I was briefly in Srinagar in Kashmir. And it struck me, that what you see from planes, is often misleading, you really need to go and take a walk to experience a place properly. But flying in over the foothills of the Himalayas, I looked down over what could have been Russia or Canada, not the tropical landscapes I had been seeing.
If you remember my somewhat fishy analogy in the beginning of this story, Srinagar was the closest to what I like about aquariums. I’ve always found them mesmerizing. Perhaps there, more than anywhere else, in the dim light and quiet, looking into an alien, watery world, watching the fish go by is somewhat akin to meditation. Noisy people are out of place. They’re disturbing the reverie. I sometimes wish aquariums would play some soothing ambient music or the like, to quieten the visitors. Srinagar was like that. I landed, it was silent, the mountain air was cool, and it transported me back to the hill country in Chile for a moment. There was an Urdu song (perhaps a prayer?) playing softly in the terminal.
Yes, this was during a period of unrest, and there were also a good many soldiers and police present, far more than anywhere else. But despite all that, it felt so peaceful. To me, for at least one moment, before being shouted after by taxi hawkers, it was the most like being in an aquarium. I found it magical. I guess you take whatever moments you can.