India: love, hate, and avoidance

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India was built by Shah Jahan as memorial to wife Mumtaz Mahal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India was built by Shah Jahan as memorial to wife Mumtaz Mahal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Have you been to India?” asked an acquaintance who was soon to visit her husband, who’s teaching in southern India for a few months. I told her that I hadn’t. I also confessed that I have mixed feelings about traveling there, or to any country that is chaotic and has unsafe tap water.

It’s not that I don’t travel outside my comfort zone. I do. Such as to Morocco, Ecuador, Argentina, Indonesia. OK, yes, those places are pretty tame. See what I mean? I absolutely celebrate the rich diversity in all countries. But the older I get, the lower my “ick” threshold falls. My overly sanitized American standards interfere with my sense of adventure. I say this with shame, not pride. Of course the easy way to get around this is to stay in luxury hotels, eat in westernized restaurants, and stay off the ground and away from the common folk. But what fun would that be? What reality would that offer? I’m either going to travel sort of like a local, or stay home. So I remain torn.

Wanderlust and lipstick by Beth Whitman

Wanderlust and Lipstick: for Women Traveling to India by Beth Whitman

Someone who doesn’t shy away from India is Seattle writer Beth Whitman, whose book “Wanderlust and Lipstick” addresses women traveling solo. Beth recently published “Wanderlust and Lipstick: for Women Traveling to India,” a country she’s visited several times since 1989. Beth has seen many changes there over the years and says travel is now easier and more reliable. But still challenging. The challenges are what make it memorable, of course. Beth reports that the number of travelers to India rose from 3.5 million in 2004 to 5 million in 2007 (wow!), and that the government has launched a campaign to train hospitality industry folks about such things as hygiene, manners, integrity and safety. Of course if things get too hygienic, polite, and safe, there go the bragging rights. You can buy the book at Beth’s website, www.wanderlustandlipstick.com.

One of my favorite travel stories offers a different take on the country. In “Trying Really Hard to Like India,” writer Seth Stevenson starts his award-winning 2004 story in Slate.com with this: “It’s OK to hate a place. … Because my girlfriend wants to come back – I’m back. I’m giving this dreadful place a second chance. And this time I vow I will try really hard to like India.” And here’s the ending: “As they say in really lame travel writing: India is a land of contradictions. A lot of things to like and a lot of things (perhaps two to three times as many things) to hate. It’s the spinach of travel destinations-you may not always (or ever) enjoy it, but it’s probably good for you. In the final reckoning, am I glad that I came here? Oh, absolutely. It’s been humbling. It’s been edifying. It’s been, on several occasions, quite wondrous. It’s even been fun, when it hasn’t been miserable. That said, am I ready to leave? Sweet mercy, yes.”

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4 Responses to “India: love, hate, and avoidance”

  1. Wessel Says:

    India, the “spinach of travel destinations”? I always thought that spinach was a very inspiring positive-thought-evoking vegetable. Maybe it’s because I associate spinach with cartoon hero Popeye the Sailor. But I realize that this might be a marketing trick to convince those who despise spinach. The Dutch expression would translate as “India, the Brussels sprouts of travel destinations”. But whatever controversial vegetable is used to describe the subcontinent, if it doesn’t kill you it only makes you stronger (according to Friedrich Nietzsche: “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker”).

  2. alice Says:

    I would love to go to India and have wondered about finding a teaching position there – in French – but doubt that opportunity exists.

  3. Beth Whitman Says:

    I’d argue that Seth’s problem is that he’s trying to hard. India is a place that comes to you (after you’ve spent 14 hours flying and $1,200 of course). You have to let it happen and unfold before you, not “try really hard” to like it.

    Beth

  4. karel Says:

    Reading the story I thought: What is she looking for. Is this an attempt to get beyond the horizon of consumerism. Do you want to be a spectator of the scene or a bit of player. In the last option I could recognise the author of: Where they went !

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