How It Began…
It was after 1am as I stepped out into the eerily still alleyway and set off in search of my hotel. I’d only arrived by train in Udaipur at 10pm that night and, after sharing a tuk-tuk into town with another traveller, had wound up sitting on their hostel rooftop watching Diwali fireworks and speaking nonsense for three hours. But now the time had come for them to sleep, and for me to try to find the hotel.
The narrow, unlit, and winding labyrinth of back streets I now found myself navigating had grown still and quiet in the early morning hours. The journey might have been more straightforward if it were not for the task of weaving my way through sleeping cows and stray street dogs curled in the shadows beside doorways, their hooves and paws grating the concrete abruptly like chalk on a chalkboard each time my footsteps interrupted their tranquility. Cramped rows of small houses lined the narrow laneway, creating a haphazard mosaic of brick and stone. Their still, dark, and silent forms adding to an already claustrophobic atmosphere. Only the faint sounds of a few late night revellers could still be heard in the distance, as they set off intermittent fireworks from rooftop terraces, and hollered excitedly into the night air after the flashing explosions.
After about 10 minutes walking through this concrete maze, checking my phone maps every few minutes, I rounded a tight corner and found myself facing about five or six figures sitting under an awning ahead – their silhouettes illuminated only by the red-hot cherry of a cigarette. Carrying all of my clothes in my backpack, my laptop, passport and other valuables in my day pack clipped to the front of my body, my cautious mind began to imagine possible scenarios that might unfold in the next five minutes. Making my best effort to mask my mild state of anxiety, I gathered my hands into the front bag loops and proceeded down the dimly lit alleyway past these unknown figures. I could feel their eyes observing me as I approached, but of course it was impossible to read their intentions in the dark …
India PART 2: Is India As Scary As People Say?
Now, it seems to me that whenever somebody travels to India – or any part of Asia for that matter – they will inevitably receive advice that sound a little something like this:
- “Make sure you get a guide to go to the Taj Mahal, or any other sights, or you’ll spend the whole time lining up. It’s Crazy!”
- “Keep your head on a swivel, pickpockets are EVERYWHERE… It’s Crazy!”
- “Make sure you have your itinerary booked, or you’ll never find your way around. It’s Crazy!”
- “Don’t EVER pay full price! You have to barter… It’s Crazy”
- “Oh, be careful there, the place is full of thieves! It’s Crazy!”
The worst part of hearing this advice is that – after multiple people give the same warnings – it is very hard to UN-hear it! After all, stereotypes have to come from somewhere… Don’t they?
These sorts of warnings precondition the traveller’s mind with all kinds of prejudices about what to expect: the traveller can end up approaching travel as though they were entering a conflict zone on high alert. They keep their eyes peeled for danger, and think of locals as though they were some kind of enemy: sneaky vagrant tricksters the lot of them, who are only out to take advantage of you and steal your valuables!
So when we travel to other parts of the world: Thailand; Bali; Mexico; South America… many of us are probably doing so with prejudices that don’t allow us to see people for who they are or to genuinely meet people. How much of the suspicion of locals and cautious zeal is warranted? And how can we learn to overcome this suspicion and fear, and allow ourselves to judge each person we meet based on our real interactions rather than the preconceptions we carry with us? I learned that it isn’t quite as easy as it might sound.
With a bit of “Mythbusting” Baz Style, let me try to individually assess some of the standard pieces of pre-departure traveller advice I received, based on my recent experiences in India, and by comparing with ‘safe’ places like Australia or the UK. Like most things, I’m guessing the honest truth is going to be somewhere balanced on a wire between two places called “lucky you got that Spot on advice, mate” and “What a load of bollocks”.
WHAT PEOPLE SAY #1: “Make sure you get a guide to go to the Taj Mahal or to see any other sights, or you’ll spend the whole time lining up. It’s Crazy!”
This myth needs to be put to bed ASAP. I did go to see the Taj Mahal because, well, “when in India…” right? And I can honestly say that the only thing to spoil the experience for me was realising I had a tour guide booked for me. Nothing against this fella, but it makes me uncomfortable paying for anyone’s company – and basically, this is what you’re doing. If you can’t figure out that you buy your ticket where it says “ticket”, or you are unaware that the line of people at the entrance is where you need to line up to get in, then yes, by all means, perhaps you should have a guide… and maybe invest in a nanny.
I’m a Mingler1, and believe an important purpose of travel should be the people. One of the best things about travelling is not the nice hotels you stay in; parties you go to; food and drink you consume; or monuments you look at. Much more important than these things are the people you meet, whose stories can open your eyes to a different way of living than your own, and who grow your heart with tales of tragedy and triumph. Sharing knowledge with travellers; swapping tales of sticky situations; of future plans; and favourite destinations all have a far greater impact on you than taking a picture of an iconic building or posting an Instagram picture of even the most spectacular sunset.
Having a guide yapping on in your ear about how many men labored to carve the marble for the Taj the whole time makes it very difficult to strike up conversation with other travellers, visitors, or locals. It effectively cuts you off from interacting with others, because why would you ask somebody else a question when you have the expert right beside you? Wouldn’t that be a bit rude?
BAZ’S VERDICT: Busted – In my view, you probably don’t need the guide. Instead, discover the wonders at your own pace; read some information plaques; and, most importantly, interact freely with the other humans around you. Perhaps you’ll make a new friend in the process.
I am yet to hear of a better way to strike up conversation with a stranger than by asking a question! If you know of one, please inform me.
Well, put very simply, nobody pick-pocketed me. As far as I can tell, nobody attempted to, either.
I’m no stranger to having things stolen: I’ve had my phone stolen multiple times; my debit card stolen and used to buy $4,500 of jewellery; Another time, my car window was smashed to steal my wallet and iPod; and I recall a particularly annoying case, where somebody had gone to the trouble of hurling stones to smash every window and dent every panel of my car – just for fun. This all occurred while living on the Gold Coast in Australia.
The closest I felt to having something stolen in India was having a man threaten me with “bad luck” after I declined to purchase his trinkets. The man had approached my window peddling small elephant carvings while I stopped to pay a road toll. I wasn’t interested and said “Nahi, dhanyavaad” meaning “No, thank you”. The man then issued me with the warning of voodoo style “bad luck” if I didn’t buy his goods (while eyeing off my bags in the back seat)… Threats really grind my gears, so I hit him with a burning hot teacher’s frown of disapproval for trying to use such a slimy tactic, causing him to tremble in his flip flops like a year 7 student hearing that I’ll have to “make a call home to mum”.
Another question worth thinking about is this: how many people have you known, or heard of, who have made a false insurance claim about having goods stolen while in one of these countries? I’ve heard stories like that, and I can understand the appeal of coming home richer than you left. I mean, they’re only taking money from an insurance company, right? And who is going to doubt their claim in a country with such a terrible reputation? – Motive & Opportunity. Check.
So, perhaps this is a case of which came first: the thief or the insurance cheat? And which one promotes the other? Just a thought 😉
BAZ’S VERDICT: Busted – Perhaps it was because I didn’t flash my cash around; maybe it was because I never woke up in a gutter next to a puddle of my own vomit; or, quite possibly, I was too nice to the locals and they decided to “let this one go”. At the end of the day, without my pocket even feeling the hint of being picked, I have no evidence to support this wild accusation of a nation’s people.
WHAT PEOPLE SAY #3 “Make sure you have your itinerary booked, or you’ll never find your way around. It’s Crazy!”
Another piece of advice which, if you read India PART 1, you’ll know I am disappointed I heard and which deserves to be written on a piece of paper… then swiftly thrown into the fire (in the hope that the symbolism of burning this information will somehow help your brain understand that it is completely worthless).
In The Cities: The amazing thing about google maps and other mapping applications is that they have pretty much mapped out the entire planet. If you own a smartphone & can accept that India is part of the planet, then you will almost find it impossible to get lost! It wasn’t rocket science to get around once I noticed that four out of five vehicles on the road were little green and yellow tuk-tuk taxis champing at the bit to ferry me around the place wherever I desired.
Here’s a simple formula that worked for me when determining what to pay for the journey:
- look at smart phone and determine distance.
- Think of an amount you would be willing to pay, then halve it.
- Ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you there for that amount. If reluctant, bargain.
- Once price reaches midway point between willing & half of willing price, tell him you are not interested.
- IF tuk-tuk driver isn’t bluffed by this hard line approach, begin at Step 3 with the next driver.
Between Cities: Planes, trains, & automobiles – India has all of these, and booking a ticket is pretty simple. Once again the mobile phone will sort you out in one of two ways: Get online and book something when you decide you want to go OR search your maps for a travel agency. Tourism is a strong industry in India, supporting almost 8% (40 million jobs) of total employment, so it isn’t hard to find help if you really get stuck.
The last time I pre-booked internal flights was for a trip to the US, Mexico, and Caribbean. I’d booked two internal flights before leaving Australia: one from LA to Cancun; the other from Cancun to Miami. Through an amazing string of coincidences (a story for another time) plans changed and I ended up travelling with a friend I studied with years before. My flight left LA while I was in Vegas, and I was climbing a mountain in Cabo San Lucas while my plane taxied to the runway in Cancun. The moral of the story is that, when you are travelling somewhere new, you can’t be sure of when you will want to leave a place, or whether you’ll still want to go the same direction that day.
What You Should Book: Travelling with the flexibility and freedom to go where and when you want is awesome! However, booking accommodation for the first night or two can make entry a little more pleasant. Landing in a new country hungry, tired, sorting out currency and a sim card, without a base camp to get your bearings from can turn out pretty frustrating.
BAZ’S VERDICT: Plausible – Booking accommodation for at least the first night is a pretty great idea! I find running on a time schedule to be a constricting and unnecessary part of travel, and I found getting around to be no trouble at all. However, planning could have merit in circumstances where you have limited time, or if you have to be at certain places by a certain day/time.
Some Helpful Info:
- You can save an area of maps on most map apps (while in Wi-Fi range, or before leaving home, or if you get a cheap Sim card in country)
- Even if you don’t have any reception, your GPS on your phone will still work via satellite – just make sure you have an international charger & don’t run out of battery
Ok, maybe there is some merit to this piece of advice – Negotiating prices is pretty healthy in India, and the first price should probably always be halved… But it’s important to note that you can negotiate with someone without being a rude, arrogant twat about it.
I enjoy the odd spot of people-watching. I tend to observe tourists even more than locals, and I notice a lot of jerks! Those travellers with a certain air of entitlement and superiority about them, as though this country is their own personal playground, and the locals are merely illiterate peasants put here to dress funny, and to provide entertainment and comfort.
This arrogance is particularly noticeable in the marketplace. It always amazes me to see an English speaking tourist talk down to a store owner with such condescension, as if he were speaking to an illiterate, worthless fool… Meanwhile, the store owner is conversing quite fluently in what would most likely be his or her third language.
BAZ’S VERDICT: Confirmed (with conditions) – Yes, most definitely learn to barter: it is a healthy and enjoyable exercise for both parties. However, be decent about it. Remember that the person serving you is also a human, the major difference being that you were born in different parts of the world.
To address this gem of unadulterated discrimination and generalisation, I think I’ll finish the story I began at the start of this blog.
…Words of warning from friends back home echoed through my head.
“Be careful” they had said, “The place is full of thieves!”
Before I could help it, my imagination got to work. Something like an Aladdin scene conjured up my mind: First, a trained monkey distracted me with a funny trick and a dance. Meanwhile, the king of thieves himself was sneakily cutting a hole in my pocket with the lightest touch, nimble fingers caught my gold coins in absolute silence, and quick as a flash he vanished into the night before I knew what had hit me. The genie just watched on with that overplayed smile on his face – Jerk.
Then my rational brain got in on the argument as well. It reminded me of nights out in Australia during my student days. That familiar sense of apprehension that I had better be prepared for a fight, just in case I said “hello” to the wrong girl; or if somebody didn’t like what I was wearing. I mean, if there was that much cause for concern in a ‘safe’ place like Australia – What sort of troubles should I be worrying about right now, walking down a dark alley, alone, with all my valuables on me, at 1 in the morning!
But as I strode past the shadows in the dark, trying not to appear tense or anxious, a voice cut through the night: “Hello, friend. Happy Diwali! How are you? Where are you from?”
We all chatted and laughed for half an hour before my new-found friends helped me find the way to my hotel.
BAZ’S VERDICT: Busted – I think that no matter where you are in the world, whether it be India, France, or Australia, you are going to find thieves or people willing to take advantage of you. During my time in India I came across a couple of sneaky salespersons, and some people in desperate situations asking for help, but at no point did I genuinely and legitimately feel in danger of being stolen from or harmed.
For one thing, nearly everybody I met was so damn friendly – I have far more stories of people helping me out and then NOT taking anything when I offered, than of people trying to take advantage.
Baz’s Final Thought
In my opinion, it isn’t necessarily the country you visit which should be a worry to you. More important is your own style of traveling which will shape the interactions you experience: Act like an entitled jerk, and expect to be mistreated by your hosts. Go somewhere with an open heart, an accepting mind and malleable viewpoint; practice sensitivity and compassion towards others; be generous with your time; show respect and a willingness to learn from others, and you can (usually) expect to be treated with some mutual respect in return.
We are not born with over cautiousness and suspicion of different people. On a scale of curious to cautious, we are born with an attitude somewhere way down near the “Curious” end of the scale, and as we grow up, we learn caution from interactions, experiences, and from concepts our friends and family impart on us. It can sometimes be difficult to remain open and accepting of others in the face of this, but I would encourage everyone to try.
“When I look at a person, I see a person – not a rank, not a class, not a title” – Criss Jami
1Mingler – Somebody who likes to engage and communicate with others