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Things I learned in and about India

Started: 2010-04-17 14:56:22

Submitted: 2010-04-17 16:07:54

Visibility: World-readable

Having been back for a month from my week-long trip to India, the time seems right to look back on my trip to evaluate what worked and what didn't work.

Using a backpack as my luggage was inspired brilliance. I spent enough time traipsing up and down narrow streets and jumping on and off various transport conveyances that being able to strap my luggage to my back and run for the bus was vastly preferable to the alternatives. My small rolling suitcase is fine for traveling in the developed world but would have bogged me down on the bus transfers from Bagendoba to Siliguri and while trying to find a hotel in Darjeeling. Partitioning the interior of the pack using stuff sacks worked well. There were times when I thought I needed more space, but I managed to get everything I needed in the space I had.

(I did feel a bit conspicuous carrying around a large, brightly-colored nylon backpack, but then I realized that I would be conspicuous in my white skin regardless of what I was carrying, so I didn't let it bother me.)

Having decided that a computer of some sort was important for documenting my trip, and keeping backups of my photos, my new netbook worked well. I wrote six blog posts before returning home, queuing them until I had suitable Internet access to post them. In the past, I've documented my experience in physical notebooks, which required typing them after the fact. The netbook form factor itself was perfect; I didn't have much trouble fitting it into my small hand luggage, and it's the only computer I've been able to use comfortably from an airline seat. Buying a netbook simply for the trip would have been silly, but I was able to put it to good use before and after, so I'm declaring the experiment a success.

Other technological acquisitions were less successful. I acquired an unlocked GSM phone to use mostly for Twitter but also for calling home (being mindful of the 12-hour time difference), but the reality on the ground was less accommodating than I had hoped. My itinerary hopped through the north-east, where the Indian government apparently disallows interstate mobile phone roaming, and once I got to Darjeeling the remaining red tape was enough to convince me to abandon the entire idea. (All of this information should have been available in advance, had I known where to look for it; given perfect advance knowledge I wouldn't have bothered.)

I also ran into trouble with laundry. My packing required me to do laundry on Thursday, the day we arrived in Darjeeling, in order to have clean clothing for the rest of the trip. I didn't spend enough time scoping out the availability of local dhobi (laundry) services, and Willy talked me into doing my own laundry, but we didn't count on two things: My clothing was mostly thick cotton, not especially suited toward air-drying, and the climate in Darjeeling was much cooler and wetter than the rest of India. I ended up wearing slightly-damp clothing for the second part of the trip. I'm not sure what I'd do differently, knowing what I do now, but I would have wanted to improve the situation in some way.

One thing that struck me was the piles of rubbish everywhere. In Darjeeling I would notice a stunning vista of the hillside, step closer to the edge of whatever embankment I was standing on, and then happen to glance downward to see the piles of trash thrown over the edge. In the airport in Delhi signs admonished passengers to use the rubbish bins rather than throwing their trash on the floor, but I saw airline employees tossing discarded luggage routing tags on the floor, expecting someone else to come by and clean them up. Willy quoted Jawaharlal Nehru from The Discovery of India:

The individual will keep his own hut fairly clean but throw all the rubbish in the village street in front of his neighbor's house.

The Indian sense of cleanliness seems especially personal, and extends to their vehicles. Driving around Darjeeling I saw Sumo drivers washing their vehicles by the side of the roads. Every car I saw was spotless. (Nehru notes, "The average Hindu, and even the poorest peasant, takes some pride in his shining pots and pans.") Americans go to India and notice piles of trash; Indians come to America and notice how filthy our cars are.

Nearly everything we saw in Darjeeling overtly referenced the Gorkhaland movement for a separate state, independent from West Bengal's Communist state government in Kolkata. On Hill Cart Road between Siliguri and Darjeeling I saw "Welcome to Gorkhaland" painted on buildings and rock faces every hundred meters, featuring the Gorkhaland colors of yellow, white, and green. In Darjeeling nearly every storefront referenced Gorkhaland in some way. The proliferation of references to Gorkhaland suggested a massive grassroots movement, but cognizant of the history of independence movements in north-east India I wondered if it could be the work of a small but dedicated astroturfing movement.