As I mentioned in my last post, we recently travelled to India. We were there to tour what is known as the “Golden Triangle” — a tourist circuit which includes Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. The reason you tour the Golden Triangle is to see world wonders like the Taj Mahal, as well as such spectacular historical destinations as the Amber Fort and the Agra Fort. Almost all the travel and touring companies say you need a minimum of a week to see it all. A week in India? Not in my lifetime.
There are many people here in Shanghai who spend a lot of time traveling back and forth to India, and who have horrific things to say about the country. They talk about how dirty the air, water, and land is, as well as the all-pervasive poverty of the country. I actually felt that these folks had to be exaggerating somewhat about how dirty and impoverished India was. Just last year the country overtook Japan to become the 3rd largest economy in the world behind China and the United States. How could a $2 trillion dollar economy still be a completely 3rd world country?
Conflicted about even going to India, let alone for a week, I called my good friend Lisa Johnson, who I knew was going to India about the same time we were considering, and I told her my dilemma. She told me about a great travel company that would do the whole circuit in 4 days, using Western-style hotels during the entire trip. Lisa has never steered me wrong. So I contacted the touring company, called Elegant Journeys, and booked India (elegant journeys.co).
India requires a visa prior to arrival, which we heard took time to obtain, and required much paperwork, as well as a trip to the consulate. So we tried a new internet service that Elegant Journeys suggested, called Indian Tourist Visa on Arrival (TVoA), offered by the Indian government. It allows you to apply for a visa on the web and, if approved, takes only 72 hours to process. There were some technical difficulties, but we didn’t have to go to the consulate, and actually had the visas within 48 hours of finally getting our applications submitted (indianvisaonline.gov.in/).
We flew to India from the Maldive Islands, and landed at the Bangalore airport, which was our connecting city to Delhi. I don’t know what I expected — homeless folks and cows living in the terminals, maybe — but it was a big, modern, well-designed airport, and looked to be running efficiently. Then we got in the customs line and it all went south from there. Efficiency and orderly are not words you use in the same sentence as India. Our Air India flight had been delayed in the Maldives and we already were cutting it close on our flight to Delhi. The flight attendants had given us the wrong customs forms to fill out for entry into the country, something we found out the hard way at the desk. We were up against it, because even though our next flight was also Air India, we still needed to get our luggage, re-check it, and go through security again.
The customs people appeared stunned that their country had an online visa service, and we were bounced around to various desks, as time ticked down. I tried to explain our need to rush, but they argued amongst themselves, made us do electronic fingerprints (?!?!), and then wouldn’t let me go until I filled out a survey on how they were doing. (I didn’t swear then, and I’m not going to now.) We finally made it through, retrieved our luggage and got to the Air India desk in order to recheck them. OMG, what a cluster that was. We were fortunate enough to get in line about five minutes before the monster crowds showed up. We got our luggage checked, which they then proceeded to put in piles behind the desk, as the belts appeared not to be working. We tried to exit the check-in area, but they had blocked all the exits and the only way out was back through the entrance line, which took a lot of squeezing, bumping, and apologies to get out. People would be fired if that ever happened in a Chinese airport.
Security was another nightmare that I will not go into. We finally got to the plane in time for departure because fortunately, but not shockingly, it too was delayed. We got to Delhi late at night and were met by a very nice driver from Elegant Journeys. He whisked us off to the Lalit Hotel in a nice-looking area where all the foreign embassies are located (thelalit.com). We couldn’t see much on the drive in the dark, but the madness of Delhi traffic was hard to miss. The hotel was very western, but checking in, like at all hotels in India we would later find, was ridiculously time-consuming. All luggage has to go through a security scanner before you are allowed in the building. Then copies of passports and visas must be made. (They too were stunned by the online visa.) Finally, the front desk staff gives you all a big once over. Our room at the Lalit was nice, clean, and comfortable, and after a long day of travel, we all slept hard.
Our first day in India dawned, and I was immediately aware, from the tickle in my throat, that the air was pretty bad. Many call Delhi the most polluted city in the world, and after my two days there, I couldn’t agree more. We were met in the hotel lobby on our first morning by a guide from Elegant Journeys, Sanjay, and got in a van with our driver for our entire stay, Amit. (More on him later.) We drove through the streets of Delhi, India’s capital and most populous city, and that’s when it started. Everything I saw in India I immediately compared with China.
The countries have a deep-seeded animosity toward the other, even though their modern history bears many similarities. They have developed their economies relatively recently and both are members of an economic group referred to as BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). These countries are lumped together because they are emerging economic powers at roughly the same time in their development. China and India have left the rest in their dust, and compete hard to be seen as the economic powers they now are. Almost every Indian who found out that I lived in Shanghai asked immediately what I thought of India compared to China. They were aggressively competitive in the discussion, and clearly had great pride in their country’s accomplishments. And that makes it hard for me to say this; in my opinion, India has absolutely no chance in an economic head-to-head competition with China.
Why do I feel that way? Well, hopefully finishing the tale of our trip to India will provide an answer. We spent much of the first day in Delhi, touring the old city, as well as India’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid, which was huge and very cool. We also toured the Chandni Chowk marketplace where we took a crazy rickshaw ride through its labyrinth of back streets and bazaars. The place was crowded with people, as well as cows and other livestock, all roaming the tight streets. There were monkeys cavorting above us, climbing the corrugated rooftops and jerry-rigged bundles of wires criss-crossing the streets. The bazaars and shops were very cool, though it was hard to believe we were in India’s capital city.
We had lunch in Connaught Place in the center of the city, probably the most Western-looking part of the town we had seen, in a restaurant called Ardor Soul Bar and Grill (ardor.ind.in). The food was good, both Western and Indian, and it was nice to get inside from the dirt and air outside. Even though we were in Delhi’s city center, it was still remarkably 3rd-world. The streets teemed with people, from beggars to incredibly stylish Indians, fighting to cross streets choked with vehicles, cows and monkeys. We wound up our Delhi visit at a place called Raj Ghat, a beautiful memorial to Mahatma Ghandi, that was very peaceful and quiet, a sharp contrast to the noise and crowds of the city.
That afternoon, we boarded our van and headed for Jaipur. It was one of the most hellish rides I have ever taken. If not for the amazing skill of our driver, Amit, I’m not sure we would have made it. We started out on what appeared to be a highway, but like so much in India, it had never been fully completed. One minute we were cruising fast on a three lane roadway. The next we were crawling on a congested, rutted dirt road. On the sides of the road at these junctures were squalid slums and villages, intensely impoverished, dirty, and packed with people and beasts. Sometimes the cows would stand at openings between the two sides of the highway. We were told they did this because the cars going by help keep the flies off them. No wonder they are revered in India. Those are smart cows.
After a really long, hairy ride, we arrived in Jaipur and checked into the Le Meridien hotel.(starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien). Once again, it was so nice to come in from the thick dirt of the Indian outdoors to such a beautiful hotel, with filtered air and water. We started the next day with a visit to the Amber Fort, which consists of a huge palace high on a hill, and a fort even higher. It is surrounded by huge walls, reminiscent of the Great Wall. It has played a long and important role in Indian history and was very impressive, inside and out. To get up to the palace on the hill, we rode elephants, which the girls loved. After lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon touring the City Palace and museum in Jaipur. Then we retired back to Le Meridien to relax and have a nice dinner.
Early the next morning, we boarded a train to go to Agra and finally, the Taj Mahal. I had serious trepidation about taking a train in India, but our travel facilitator got us safely on a first-class train car that was nicer than I anticipated. What we saw inside the train was nothing like what we saw outside. The air was bad the whole way, and we stopped in towns to pick up passengers that were obviously incredibly poor. As we got closer to Agra, slum towns began to appear on both sides of the train, full of the most horrific poverty I have ever seen anywhere in the world. I saw things that I wish I had not. On the last 20 minutes of that train ride what I saw is still painfully seared in my brain. The girls were standing at the train window watching like they were seeing a car wreck. I finally asked them to sit down. I couldn’t believe this was the city that was home to the Taj Mahal.
The train station was pure madness. Beggars, hawkers, and travellers everywhere. Fortunately, our Agra guide Nitin saw us in the chaos and whisked us to Amit and his waiting van. We visited the Agra Fort, which was cool, but hard to see because the air was so bad. (No matter what anecdotal evidence you present them, Indians insist this is fog. When I suggested to Amit that this was like Shanghai on a bad air day, he said: “It is fog. If it was smog, I would leave India.”) After lunch, we took a horse-drawn carriage to the entrance of the Taj Majal (unclear why), and entered its grounds.
The girls (including Karen) were giddy, and I have to admit, so was I. You go through a massive gate-tower to get on the grounds where the Taj Mahal is located. When I came out through that gate and saw it, I knew we had done the right thing by coming to India. It is breathtaking to see. Like the Great Wall, it is something you have seen in pictures, and known of most of your life, but you never think you will really ever see it in person. The Taj Mahal is truly one of the great wonders of the world, and we had an amazing time touring it. To say the girls were thrilled is the understatement of a lifetime.
We left Agra to return to Delhi late that afternoon, satisfied with all we had seen. The drive back was on a new super highway that India had recently built to connect the two cities. It was six lanes on either side and, unlike the one to Jaipur, never turned into a dirt road. Their were groups of hitchhikers every few miles or so, who would run out onto the highway to get our attention and, on a few occasions, there were groups of children in the road begging. The air again was horrible, and there were factories spewing pollution all along the way. We stayed in The Grand hotel on our last night in India, which was nice, but we hardly noticed as we were so exhausted (thegrandnewdelhi.com).
Overall, we all felt the the trip to India was exhilarating. The people we met were wonderful. The culture of the country was remarkable and rich, exciting to behold up close. (I’m not sure how authentic it was, but the girls loved seeing a snake charmer do his thing.) And the history of India is deep and complex. My thoughts didn’t end there, however. How could such a country have so deeply ingrained, massive poverty? A country of 1.2 billion people, and many of them in a poverty not seen even in many 3rd world countries. The consistently dirty air can only be poisoning much of the populace. The water that I saw many drink, wash, and bathe in, is polluted and disgusting beyond description. Yet so many Indians I know are well-educated and cultured. I never expected India to look like it did.
So that’s why, in my opinion, India is absolutely screwed in the economic race to the top. China too has bad air and water, polluted land, and poverty (though nothing on the scale of India). However, they have better odds of fixing those problems because they are a communist country. India is screwed because they are a democracy (the world’s largest) and can’t easily fix many of the big problems they face, including its caste system. I believe in democracy and capitalism as much as anyone. That said, when China decides it has too many people in poverty in the countryside, they scoop up a few hundred million of them, move them to the cities, give them jobs, and put their kids in better schools. Then bam, they have a new middle class. It is rarely pretty, but its effective.
India has a caste system that historically has kept hundreds of millions of its people at the worst levels of poverty. To pull the lower caste folks out of their predicament, or even end the system, would require support from other castes. As in all democracies, that means different constituencies with competing goals have to support each other to make huge societal changes. If one group perceives these changes to be at their expense, they won’t support them, instead voting against what may benefit the other group. Though India has made great strides in the past several decades in ending caste discrimination, in my opinion, India’s social and economic inequalities doom it to 3rd world status for the foreseeable future, no matter how big its economy grows.
India is an epic place. Its history and culture are spectacular. But the poverty of so many of its people is also epic, which I just never expected. My feelings about India are about more than just whether democracy or communism could bring the country into the 1st world. They are about how you lift so many people out of such deep poverty without bankrupting the country. The Indian people are wonderful, but I will say this trip gave me a new appreciation of China. So many folks slight China, contrasting it to Western nations that have been developing for a century, but I believe there is no way this country would abide by anything like the caste system. China is far, far from perfect, but India has a long, long way to go to catch up to it economically, and socially.