India for a Second Time


(After meditating inside the Lotus Temple in Delhi, a beautiful structure built by people of the Bahai faith but free/open to people of all orientations for prayer and meditation.)

A common dilemma when scoping international travel is whether to travel to a new place or re-visit a place you’ve already been. Early on in my life, my passport alarmingly unwrinkled, I prioritized the new — fewer days in each country, more countries. More recently, I prioritized the old — more days in countries I’ve already been to (e.g. Switzerland, Japan, Chile). These days, I am feeling slightly more interested in travel novelty. Of course, unless you’re a full-time traveler, why you end up in one place or another is a function of many criteria, such as where your work demands take you. But the broader idea of where you are on the novelty/familiarity continuum is an important one and plays out in my life across all dimensions (work, friends, relationships, travel, food, etc.). I think pretty actively about the extent to which I turn on the novelty spigot in any particular dimension.

This past week, I visited India for the second time, and while work brought me there (keynote speech), I in part agreed to do it because I wanted to have a second go-around as a tourist in this massive, complex, important country. I wanted more depth. India in 2006 kicked my ass. I had some great moments — riding in the back of a rickshaw for the first time in Bombay with a blog reader who was hosting me; going to a Bollywood film with a different blog reader; seeing India Gate in Delhi; seeing first hand the remarkable entrepreneurial energy and optimism of the Indian people that persists today. But gosh, the poverty was so in my face, so ubiquitous, so loud, that it overpowered all my experiences, and when I think back to the memories I have of that trip, the visuals that predominate are naked kids playing in huge piles of trash on the side of the road, stray dogs everywhere, diaherrea, Air India’s definition of airplane seats. These were reasonable reactions, I think, given it was my first time, and it was two weeks at the end of a long six week Asia adventure.

On this trip, I spent only a couple days on tourism activity (so I had more energy) and was steeled to the India realities. I spent a day in Delhi and a day in Agra. In Delhi, I visited and meditated in the Lotus Temple and attended the Kingdom of Dreams Jhumproo show in Gurgaon. In Agra, I visited the Taj Mahal and Red Fort. All told, I enjoyed it.

This time around, I noticed India’s beauty more often. I don’t mean this in some vague travel guidebook sort of way (“the culture is beautiful”). I mean that several times I had a very specific reaction to something that caught my eye as beautiful. For example, I noticed the saris (dresses) the women were wearing. The saris were truly beautiful. I noticed how most transport trucks were painted front to pack in rainbow colors. Imagine if the big trucks that lumber up and down the U.S. highway corridors were each wrapped in technicolor paintings or artistic graffiti of flowers. At the Kingdom of Dreams show in Guragon, I noticed the big bold costumes, and how good random people’s voices were as they belted out Hindi tunes from the seats.

The Taj Mahal was beautiful too, of course. But it’s the #1 tourist attraction in all of Asia (outside of Thailand sex tourism). Your expectations are so high and the actual experience of visiting it is so affected by the thousands of other people gawking at it next to you, that subtle perceptions of beauty are not exactly in the cards. Rather: Get in, take photos, look at the incredible marble carvings done by hand, and then get out, all without someone pick pocketing you.

While I noticed beauty more this time, it’s not like the poverty disappeared in my seven year absence. One weird but reliable litmus test I came up with a while ago for “you know you’re in a poor country when…”: on the drive from the airport to your hotel, how many random piles of rubble do you see on the sides of the road? Abandoned construction and demolition activity is pervasive throughout the developing world. India is no exception to the rubble rule. But rubble is the least of the attractions/problems on the side of the roads in India. You name it, India’s got it. Want to see people taking a shit? Just look out your car window. Pumping the ground for water? Yup. Burning trash? Of course. Sleeping in tents? Sure. Beggars with their arm cut off, holding out a cup? Certainly.

There are hundreds of millions of poor people in India. I wonder how much better-off Indians talk about it, or even notice it. When I asked my guide about poverty in Agra, he told me that many of the beggars are actually not poor, but rather professionalized beggars. Replace “many” with “some” and I’d agree. But he seem on the whole unmoved by it all. He grew up in Agra. He’s been there his whole life. He’s never been outside the country. It is what it is for him. We are all fish in water when in our own countries and cultures.

One lesson from this trip is the value in spending targeted money to make certain complexity go away. In 2006, I tried to take the train from Delhi to Agra. But when I arrived at the train station, I entered a scene that resembled an unruly drunk crowd at a Mike Tyson Las Vegas fight. The decrepit station packed with people as far as the eye could see, with no one queueing whatsoever to speak with the agents, ridiculous smells, and touts surrounding me, following my every step, pitching me on a rickshaw ride or pulling at my pockets or trying to get me to buy some stupid pin with the India flag on it, leaving me so confused and exasperated that I left the train station and vowed to walk aimlessly in Delhi for as long as it would take for the touts to give up and leave me alone. This time around, an air conditioned car pulled up my to hotel, a car that featured cold water bottles and towelettes, and over the seven hours of roundtrip driving I listened to several of my favorite podcasts and dozed off peacefully. An English speaking guide met me in Agra, hopped in the car, and took me around the sights. And the whole day cost me roughly $315 USD.

From the safe confines of the car for many hours, I had plenty of time to contemplate the traffic around me. The traffic situation in Delhi is a mess, though not as bad as in some places, like Jakarta. Cars don’t drive in lanes. Enough roads in the city/country do not have lane markers that no one seems to have internalized the helpfulness of staying in place as opposed to drifting across the full width of the highway. In the book Traffic, I recall reading that when people change lanes they think they’re optimizing for their own speed, but it rarely turns out that way, and all the lane changing causes slower overall speed on the roads for everyone. Amusingly, most trucks in the India on the back bumper contain the words “Blow Horn” — encouraging other cars to honk their horn to alert them to their proximity as they drift around. At least the honking in India tends to be practical; in China, where car honking is maddening, I think it’s more habitual than anything.

Three other random points: 1) Last time, it was only at the end of my visit that I realized that Indians rock their head side-to-side to indicate acceptance, agreement. I thought everyone was mocking me. This time, I knew exactly what was happening! 2) As in China, everything in India is wildly overstaffed. The medium sized hotel gym had four people staffed there, trying to be helpful, when I was the only person there. It’s like this all over. 3) Russ Roberts’ must-subscribe podcast recently had a conversation with noted economist Jagdish Bhagwati on the India economy. Ignore Bhagwati’s LOL-worthy self-regard (“this article I wrote would be what would be cited if were to win a Nobel prize”) and there are some interesting nuggets on the pro-trade, free market reforms he claims led to Indian economic growth in the 90’s, and some of the current reversing policies that may be responsible for the recent slowdown.

Finally, a thank you to all the Indian business leaders and HR managers I met the first part of the week. An extremely impressive group, and left me optimistic about the future of India. I’ll be back.

6 comments on “India for a Second Time
  • Interesting point on the novelty/familiarity continuum. I’m definitely still on the novelty side in terms of travel. I often think of a related continuum of options vs. constraints. Through most of our lives growing up, we’re in a world of options where we’re told we can be anything we want to be and are encouraged to experiment with playing different sports or trying different hobbies, etc. Then you take your first job, and even if it’s a great one that you’ve been dreaming about, the second you take that job, an infinite number of other doors and other possibilities for your life start to close (or at least it feels that way at the time). I think that this forced shift on the continuum is something most of us are unprepared for (I know I was) and is the main driver of the “quarter life crisis” and general disillusionment many experience in their mid twenties.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences in India. I’ve never been and since I’m firmly in the “novelty” camp (for now), the fact that I’ve never been puts it near the top of my list for my next adventure!

  • I remember reading your observations post your 2006 visit to India. It was a very jumpy yet honest account of a 19 year old western tourist. Seven years down the line, I read your report above and I see a more accommodating, thawed-by-experience all rounder (The sarees and the multi-hued trucks were there even then). Wish you a few more trips so that we’ll get to read about the real India as observed by an articulate cross-country traveler, in a report that dares to go beyond the messy, squalid urban setting as seen out of a car window.

  • As a student who is currently studying abroad, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I am interested in traveling to many countries and would like to someday have a job that enables me to travel the world. Taking time to notice the beauty in a place is something that I think is very important while traveling. In my opinion having an open mind and being willing to try experience new things and cultures is essential to becoming a successful traveler. The beauty is everywhere it is just up to you to take the time to recognize and appreciate it. Thanks for sharing your observations and thoughts!

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