(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)
I tried looking out the dusty window to get a look at–what I assumed–was a beautiful scenery, and not just a row of terribly made houses of various proportions. I shifted the weight of the bag to my other leg. There wasn’t any available space for me to put my luggage in the overhead compartment because by the time I reached the train all the empty slots had been occupied by bags belonging to my fellow passengers. Not one to cause any trouble or let such small incidents ruin my adventurous mood, I busied myself with trying to breathe in the atmosphere. It smelt like a communal toilet at an all-male college hostel, but, that is part of the charm of travelling by a train in India.
My mouth watered as I saw the steward distributing trays with packed goodies. The food was here! Finally, some relief for my famished stomach. As he threw the tray at my wobbly, make-shift table with the grace of an orphanage warden from a Charles Dickens novel distributing grub to his most hated wards, I shook my head at this endearing show of familiarity. I took one bite of the unrivalled delicacies placed in front of me and let out a contented sigh. It tasted like it came from home. Specifically, an old people’s home. Because it didn’t have any salt, grain, texture, flavour, or any other qualities that would let us classify it as an item fit for consumption by a living being of any species. As they say, that’s how the cookie crumbles. Or at least I thought that was a cookie?
* * *
Once upon a time, around the early aughts of the current century, the ancients used to share their thoughts with the rest of the world by what a majority of people referred to as ‘a blog.’ Short for weblog, this was quite a popular enterprise for a lot of people: parents wanting to share their experience with other parents, those with a lot of proverbial skeletons in their cupboard looking for an outlet, writers wanting to practice their craft, bar drunks looking for an audience to rant to, people willing to rally against conventional wisdom and those who felt that a certain point of view was being ignored by the mainstream media. The best way to identify a blog run by a person of Indian origin was to look at its title. If it contained either “random” or “confessions” or a Vedic reference, then there was a very high probability of that blog having at least some connection to the subcontinent.
One of the most frequent occurrences on these blogs (and a meme that is still strangely popular on twitter) was nostalgic posts romanticizing the travel industry in the country. The beautiful sights! The amazing journey! The awkward moment when you realize that you’ve been had!
Travelling to our country is not for those who give up easily. We like to make everything much more difficult to accomplish! Trying to book a train ticket using the Indian Railways website is harder than trying to master bullfighting. The government sites that are supposed to provide information look like their developer hired a time travelling teenager visiting us from the 90’s who is colour blind and has only read the first chapter of ‘The World Wide Web for Dummies’ instruction manual to make them.
Not that privatising everything solves any problem. Most popular destinations now have more food courts than actual visitors. Private resorts think that adding a fancy Urdu word to the end of each menu item raises its value by at least a thousand percent. Try our Singaporean Fried Rice Zafarani, a bowel moment stopping exotic blend of two unique food cultures. Our Chicken Khwabgah has been marinated with flavoured yogurt and slowly roasted over a pit heated by the burning embers of the hopes and dreams that you had for your first born which disappeared the minute you realized that you spent all the money that you had been saving for their college education to pay your bill at our hotel. The mineral water being served with your meal was extracted from the bladder of a unicorn then injected with the weird liquid that turns even those sugar pills homeopathic quacks hand out bitter and then sprinkled with the bacteria living in the hands of your designated server.
Safety isn’t really an issue in our country in that most people don’t have any. Flying with our ‘national airline’ is like playing Russian roulette with five bullets instead of one. Our highways are like storage units for potholes. Most of our public facilities are so unclean that some of them probably still have strains of the smallpox virus embedded in them.
We’re also quite friendly to folks who are not like us. The majority of the people of this country are very accepting of those who are different. That is why they don’t stare and make the visitors feel uncomfortable at all. They don’t even treat them like exotic objects flown in for us to admire or treat with disdain depending on the pigmentation of their skin.
The whole tourism industry seems to be built on fleecing people. From the service providers responsible for transportation, to the officials who deliberately misguide those whom they are supposed to be providing help to, everyone is in on the take. Hey, this person is naive enough to trust us. Let’s stiff them for all they’ve got! In fact, getting fleeced is one of the most essential parts of your experience. Your vacation in India isn’t a success unless you’ve been overcharged, cheated, duped, misled, or taken for a ride at least once.
Now, please excuse me as I try to convince this American billionaire I ran into that he can legally lease the Taj Mahal.