Well, all good things must come to an end. And I’m nearing mine at least vis-a-vis my time in India. Not to worry though; India will keep its American presence in balance as Bush arrives as I depart. I feel like it’s a bad trade for India though. In preparation for the state visit the boulevard in the diplomatic district is lined with the Stars and Bars. It’s very refreshing to be in a country on the other side of the world and see American flags … that aren’t on fire.
In fact as a whole India is quite refreshing as an American destination (perhaps a well kept secret as we’re few and far between here; I’ve met only marginally more Yanks as Finns if that illustrates the point). It is perhaps the most pro-American country in the world. Therefore while you may get a hard look or be forced into an extemporaneous explanation of American foreign policy in many other countries (if you’re not drawn and quartered), in India, no need to be defensive. As part of the standard 20 Questions that foreigners endure here, everyone wants to know where you’re from. When I say “America” it is met with a fairly standard response: “Ah, America — good country!” It’s the same if you’re from England or Australia or basically any other country that’s on Indians’ radar (thus, the Finns are met with quizzical expressions unless they are misheard as having come from Eng-land rather than Fin-land). But Indians aren’t too concerned with American hegemony or our collective stance on Danish cartoons. If one has a brother, cousin (or the unique Indian combination of “brother-cousin”), or uncle who is living in New Jersey, America is good and that’s the end of the story. We’ll ignore the trifling fact that New Jersey is not really America.
Your mind may be wandering and you may be wondering how it is that I’ve managed to get a few entries and an e-mail update done in the past few days. If not, bear with me because I needed some transition here. Well, I managed to find a hotel room in New Delhi which has not only broadband Internet access but also has a computer in the room. This might be fairly unique anywhere but I mention it because (a) it’s India where one would assume such things don’t happen, and (b) my room cost me a shade less than $7 per night. Now don’t go thinking that it’s a glamorous room. It’s not but it has a big bed, a Western toilet, cable TV and a hot water shower.
Indians are friendly — even towards Americans. Actually I’d say there’s a healthy amount of pure curiosity that is expressed as friendliness but we’ll leave it at simple friendliness. That’s always a good thing as a foreign visitor. In fact there’s a saying here that the guest is [a] god. And you do feel well treated in general — again, while it may not always be smooth sailing, the vast, overwhelming majority of tourists I’ve met say that traveling in India is far easier than they anticipated. But the other major selling point of a trip to India (beyond all of the culture and history and quotidian laughs you get) is the one that I have managed to gloss over but is very much at the heart of having a great experience here: the country is so very, very cheap.
You can stay at really, really nice hotels and eat really, really nice meals here. India has, by some accounts, the best spa resort in the world now. There truly is luxury to be had here. But with even a very minimal budget you can do a lot and enjoy yourself while doing it. Almost every meal I’ve had has been well under $5. Well under. More like $2. And that’s often at a sit-down place with real tablecloths. Coke in a bottle will run you about $.30. An all-you-can-eat buffet will set you back a dollar. Travel a few hundred miles by train and you’re talking $10 or $20 unless you go deluxe and the price doubles to a whole $40.
When I was in Mumbai I ate at what may be the top place in town and thus perhaps the top restaurant in the country. Maybe it isn’t but it’s still a big deal.
For less than $20, here’s what I had:
A starter of a half-dozen types of bread (a whole wheat, foccacia with onions, rolls, etc.) with regular and herbed butter followed by my soup, cold carrot and ginger with dill and sour cream. Then my main course: fresh saffron fettuccine with roasted eggplant, peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, bocconcini and pine nuts. That alone set me back a whole $7. Then I had some dessert (how can you not): a date and almond torte with ginger and caramelized bananas served with pink peppercorn ice cream and jaggery rum sauce. Add some drinks and the meal comes to the cost of a large pizza back home.
I mention the extreme affordability of India not to gloat or hold it up as a place where you can live like a king. You indeed can live in a higher strata but what the difference in buying power between dollars, euros, pounds or yen means is that it’s a lot easier to just explore and not worry so much about missing things or facing tough trade-offs. With the exception of the Taj Mahal and a few other landmarks, entrance fees are anywhere from $.10 to $2 per person — very palatable even when nearly every major attraction in India also has a domestic rate which is usually 10-20 percent of the foreigner rate. You can hire a taxi or rickshaw for perhaps $10 for the day. If that. And because meals cost about a dollar you can order at will and not worry that you’ll break the bank if it’s not what you expected and you have to order something else. When you get cheated it’s almost laughable that you got taken for an extra 10, 20 or 100 rupees — a quarter to two dollars. (Still I’ve had my moments where I had to stand on principle and waited twenty minutes for a cabbie to give me the right fare — usually a difference of $.50.)
It makes jumping in very easy. The major cost of touring India is just getting here.