Having spent so much blogspace complaining about the failings of a developing country, which, it can be rightfully argued, may not be very gracious, I have to dedicate some space to the things I loved about this trip.
India has a very exciting history. Once you get your Mughal emperors right (tip: focus on the sequence), you can really see the impact that the different rulers had on their people and how it was shaped according to their interests and beliefs. Akbar, of course, holds a special place among them for his forward-thinking ideas. Nevertheless, India is more than its pre-Raj or colonial history. Modern Indian history is well-documented and preserved. Teen Murti Bhavan was definitely one of the highlights of my stay, as was observing the role of titular nobility in modern times. India may not have turned out to be as colourful as the posters make it to be, but the rich tapestry of cultures, beliefs and people definitely made up for it.
Which brings me to the other highlight of my stay, the people. From the bell boy to the subway passengers, Indians were all very polite and nice. We accidentally crashed a pre-wedding party in Agra. The aunt welcomed us and asked us to stay and dance with the bride. Before leaving, she heartily wished us to have a pleasant and safe trip. We met many women and children happy to be pose for us and highly amused by the foreigners that were roaming the narrow streets of their village. I was even invited to a school to attend their celebrations for Independence Day, which included a taekwondo demonstration by the girls of the school.
I also saw far fewer children labourers than I expected, which was a relief. There are organisations that try to take care of the children, provide them with a safe environment and help them return to school. Of course, a lot more work things to be done, but there is definitely awareness. And as I mentioned before, there is acute poverty. However people can always find a temple which offers everyone, no matter their religion, as much food as they can have, a public washroom or a pump where they can wash their clothes and cheap hygiene products which can cover their basic needs. People of different financial means can get by and seek ways to imporove their lives.
On a personal level, I was lucky to have had such an excellent tour guide. I doubt he slept more than five hours per day, yet he was always cheerful, well-organised and made sure we had a personalised experience, though we were a group of 14. He was protective, but in a discreet, non-paternalistic way. He was intelligent, educated and fun to be around. Then there was also the wonderful mother of a friend of mine who took excellent care of me and helped me discover the loveliest parts of New Delhi. She was a warm, intelligent, strong woman whom I hope to see again, this time with me being the host.
Furthermore, India does have a special atmosphere. My trip happened to take place during the holy month of Shravan Maas, when devotees of Lord Shiva carry water from the Ganges to their home towns and, more often, villages. In every place we visited, we encountered groups of orange-clad boys and men, both reverent and excited to embark on a trip far away their small agrarian communities. These festivities also accentuated the omnipresence of religion in Indian people’s everyday life. The divine is present in the morning prayers and the melodic voicing coming from the places of worship in every city and village. Devotees are driven by their faith to help feed and shelter the poor and protect the vulnerable, supplementing the government’s social services. Even the word “auspicious” is constantly used by educated and illiterate people alike. Varanasi is the centerpiece of this relationship, housing religious establishments and retreats of different faiths where people go to find God.
Another highlight was definitely nature and those pretty corners that only a local can show you. From the Raneh Falls to Betwa river, to Lodhi Gardens, from the Raj Mandir Cinema to the bookstores/coffee shops in Delhi, from the beautiful sunrise in Varanasi to the sunset in Tordi and the starry night in Alimpura, every part of India had a little gem of serenity and beauty to offer. The countryside was quite an experience, also thanks to the heritage hotels in which we stayed. Especially the one in Alimpura could easily have been the Third Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Finally, despite the frustration that certain development issues may have caused me, I couldn’t help but see the good work done by the authorities in different areas, especially education and healthcare. Yes, the quality may often be low, but education has never been more accessible in this country. Yes, much more needs to be done for affordable housing, yet the government has many schemes that provide people with basic amenities, such as toilets. Yes, hospitals are often overcrowded and the staff is overworked, yet public health campaigns are helping people make better choices for themselves and their children. For what it’s worth, a country of over one billion people was declared polio-free in 2014. The situation is definitely getting better for this generation and the next.
On a final note, when I went back to Indira Gandhi airport two weeks later I found it very pleasant and really enjoyed the decoration. My trip to India, without being a perfect experience, which was never the goal to begin with, was definitely a very exciting and educational one. I definitely want to go back and visit the south. And who knows, maybe in 15 years from now when I talk to my niece about my first trip to India, she will look at me mystified by the difference in the country.