If you have been following my travel stories for a while, you know that I generally like to present positive things about the countries I visit. Sometimes I can be a complete jerk, like when I went to Burundi, but usually I’m not. If you just stumbled on this page randomly, you will probably think I am an ass who should only travel to all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean. So be it.
I procrastinated a lot because I didn’t feel like writing this story, but I just can’t avoid the most important aspect of my month – almost – in India, which is the fact that I hated every day I spent there. Of course, India is a massive country and I only went to a few places. But I can say that Kolkata (former Calcutta), Varanasi and Delhi are cities that I hate with a passion. Mumbai is a city that I hate mildly. If I had to rank the 115 countries I visited in order of how much I like them, there is no way India would be close to making the top 100. Probably not the top 105, and I have been to some pretty horrible places.
The Republic of Rapistan
The first reason I hate India is the situation of women. If you ever read the news, the first thing that comes to mind when India is mentioned is, obviously, rape. India is a never-ending source of headlines like this one, a few weeks ago: “15-Year-Old Rape Victim in India Seeks Medical Treatment, Is Raped Again at the Hospital”.
In 2011, the Thompson Reuters Foundation polled 213 gender experts to determine the most dangerous countries in the world for women. India came in 4th, behind Afghanistan, the DRC and Pakistan. And #1 and #2 and #3 have major internal conflicts. At least it can pride itself on having narrowly beaten Somalia. Presumably because of this, you don’t see many women in public. I think the situation is somewhat better for women of higher socio-economic status, but as a tourist, you will only see these women in fancy shopping malls, where they go by car and driver. You know, so they don’t get raped on the way. And on the way back.
This is a typical scene in the Mumbai subway. All dudes, everywhere. Creepy, rapey and overall completely disgusting. Add a roadside bomb here and there and you might as well be in Afghanistan. Housekeeping in hotels, waiters in restaurants, all men. You will pretty much only see men, everywhere.
Some trains have women-only carriages. Mumbai even has entire trains that are women-only. These are guaranteed to be 82% rape-free, 8 times out of 10, or you get 15% off your next trip.
A sign advises women visiting the mall that they should use stones and flower pots to defend themselves. I had to Google “eve-teasing”. It is an Indian euphemism for “being a sub-human degenerate fuck who deserves to be blood eagled on the town square”. If you don’t know what “blood eagled” means, don’t Google it. Your life is much better without knowing. My point is, if you think women should stay at home or be raped if they go outside, you absolutely deserved to be horribly tortured to death.
At some point in the trip, I went to buy train tickets for Michelle and I. After reaching the station, I returned to the hotel and rented a car and driver. Michelle asked me what changed my mind, so I showed her this picture and asked if she would like to go to the station’s enquiry counter while I kept a look on the luggage.
She agreed with the car idea. But truth be told, there is a totally fine tourist ticket office at Delhi’s central station. What changed my mind was the fact that the station smelled like piss everywhere. And yes, there are toilets and yes, they are free.
India is a gigantic toilet inside a garbage dump
The concept of public hygiene is non-existent in India. Of course, there are areas where poverty is a contributing factor, but certainly not everywhere. In every city I visited, it is perfectly normal for men to piss everywhere on the street. Now, pissing on the street has happened to the best of us. You just closed the last bar in town at 4am. Or you are hiking or jogging in the middle of nowhere and you have no choice. But in India the reasoning is quite different. “Hum, I have to piss. Great, there’s a wall. Perfect!” Is the reasoning of the average Indian man.
But the most incredible, inconceivable and disgusting aspect, is people shitting everywhere. I get that homeless people may not have anywhere else to go at night, although the result in the morning is no less disgusting. But homeless people don’t explain why, out of about 1 billion people living without a toilet worldwide, 600 million live in India. Apparently, and I have difficulty believing this myself, many Indians PREFER to shit outside! Read this article if you don’t believe me. A survey of 3,000 rural Indians revealed that in 40% of houses with a toilet, at least one family member refuses to use it.
Of course all this is repulsive, but it also has massive health consequences. According to this paper: Insights and Strategy Case Study: Open Defecation in India (pdf file), the 65 millions kilograms of human shit that ends up on the ground PER DAY, is the main contributor to the death of infants and young children from diarrhea at the rate of 1,600, again PER DAY!!!
In the countryside, it is also a major security problem. For modesty issues, rural women can’t relieved themselves during the day. So they go at night, and on their way, if they are lucky, they get raped. If they are unlucky, they get raped, then murdered. Despite this, the first article I referred to also tells us that even when they have a toilet, many women prefer to go outside because – back to point #1 about the vile, barbaric culture of rural Rapistan – that is the only time of the day when their owners allow them outside the house. I really wish I could unlearn all this stuff and ungo to India.
Where the cows shit in the town of Varanasi…
Is also where the laundry dries. And don’t think that this is the only option, because they don’t have an electric dryer, blah, blah, blah. Drying on the roof is what most people do. But for some hotels, shit stained sewer docks are just fine.
A lot of men also chew the carcinogenic areca nut, often referred to as betelnut. They spit out the resulting filth, so this is what the ground and walls look like everywhere.
Streets, parks and any open area is covered with garbage. There is simply no interest in living in a clean environment. An inconsiderate person may not care about throwing garbage on the ground in the city centre, but I witnessed the street full of garbage in a small alley that was a dead end. It lead nowhere, so all the garbage was thrown by the very people who live there. If you want to get away from all this filth, find a garbage bin and put your head in it. You can be 99.99% sure it will be garbage-free. Note: don’t do that near a touristic attraction, a foreigner unaware of local customs might have thrown something in there.
Possibly the most annoying drivers in the world
People are generally bad drivers in India and completely inconsiderate of pedestrians. The driving standard is comparable to much of the Middle-East. But what makes Indian drivers intolerable is the fact that they drive by sound. Watch this little clip of a Kolkata intersection and a clip I shot from a motor rickshaw in Varanasi.
In both cases, the honking is perfectly typical and the traffic is not particularly heavy. They don’t do it to blow steam, that is their method of driving.
Many trucks have markings like this: “Horn please”. Basically, if you want to change lane, instead of putting your turn signal, looking in your blind spot and turning, you just turn. If someone is there, he is supposed to honk to let you know he is passing you. You also honk if you are about to pass, to turn a tight corner, if there is someone crossing the road, if someone is not going fast enough, etc. In somewhat heavy traffic, that means everyone is honking, pretty much all the time. The noise pollution makes all the streets everywhere in India 100% unpleasant. At night, at least in Kolkata, it is also apparently acceptable to run red lights, as long as you honk continuously from a block away until you have cleared the intersection. So there is no break from this insanity.
I filmed the intersection traffic from this balcony. I had tea and a 1 L bottle of water and I still got change for my 100 rupee bill (~US $1.35). Following this, I decided to step into the other extreme of the Indian economy.
I stopped for a cappuccino at the Oberoi Hotel, part of a chain of high luxury hotels in India and – mainly – in the Middle-East. It came with cookies and a rose. I expected that instead of costing cents, it would cost 5 or 10 dollars, but when I asked for the bill, the waiter said it was complimentary. If this had happened in Paris, I would have thought I was being mocked. I had mentioned that I was staying south of the city centre and had just came in for a break from the crazy street. I think the idea was to encourage me to come back later for a certainly very expensive meal. In any case, it became my running gag with Indian people that the cheapest coffee I had in India was at the Oberoi Hotel.
I am reluctant to mention poverty, because unlike the other things, this is a development issue, not a problem of collective behaviour or attitude. Furthermore, if a country is poor, visiting it can only help and I have loved my visits to many very poor countries. But I know some people are very troubled by the crippling poverty one witnesses in India and I have to say the scale and visibility makes it a bit more “in your face”. The beggars affected by leprosy in Kolkata are a difficult sight. In some cases, I saw people that honestly made me wonder how they could possibly still be alive. The percentage of children under 5 who suffer from stunted growth due to severe chronic malnutrition stands at an incredible 39%. This is the NATIONWIDE AVERAGE! In a country that sends rockets in space! I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t read it in The Economist.
But although hundreds of millions are malnourished in the country, this is the guy who really made me feel sad. He was cooking potatoes using pieces of coal, I think. This is in Khan Market, one of the least unpleasant places in Delhi, and a good destination for shopping and nice restaurants. Because we went several times, I saw him on different days. Always at the same place. I never saw him sell a potato. Obviously, he does or he wouldn’t come back, but he can’t possibly make more than a few dollars a day. His situation is certainly better than countless millions, but this guy I could somehow relate to. From a distance he looks OK, but his clothes are terribly worn and a little grimy. But he is trying his best. Once I walked past him and he just said in a soft voice: “Potato?”. I smiled and declined without thinking, simply because I absolutely didn’t want a potato. But I felt bad about it. Had he been selling anything I even remotely wanted, I would have bought 6.
Having lived in Ottawa’s Byward Market, where most of the city’s homeless people live, I am sadly used to seeing adult men living on the street. Other than not having a home, they generally have other problems in their lives. Entire multi-generational families, sticking together but all having to sleep on the sidewalk was a very sad sight.
I arrived in India flying from Bangkok to Kolkata. Even by Indian standards Kolkata is a poor city.
The state of the international airport’s official taxis are a good example of the infrastructure. My arrival was actually really bad. I took the taxi to a metro station, thinking that it would be easier for the driver to find that than my small hotel. 5 minutes into the drive was how long it took before I saw someone shitting by the side of the road. The hotel was supposed to be 30 meters from the metro exit. However, the day being Sunday, the metro didn’t open until late in the morning. I looked for my hotel near all 4 metro exits but I couldn’t find it. It turns out there are 6 exits and #6 was the right one. My Thai SIM card didn’t work in Kolkata. Then my phone died. So I had no phone, no map, not even the time of day. Around 7 am in southern Kolkata, and everything is closed, including all stores that sell SIM cards. Eventually I took a taxi to the one “nicer” street in town, and went to a restaurant, where my credit card was declined. (MasterCard wanted to know why I had wired money to Azerbaijan). Eventually I sorted myself out, but the first few hours in India were not awesome.
The one thing I didn’t experience was touts and the like, mainly because Kolkata is not touristy at all. I went for a long walk in a “university neighbourhood”. It was supposed to be lined with cafes according to some evidently lame website.
It was not. Dudes selling little cups of tea on the sidewalk, but then this means you have to drink your tea in honking traffic, on a sidewalk that smells like piss. Not awesome. I walked outside for more than an hour and only saw 2 foreigners. One was certainly an expat because she was purchasing a mop bucket. The other was a young German-looking blond guy. As he got closer, I realized he had scraggly hair and dirty clothes. He was walking barefoot. I didn’t know what to think. The beggars have shoes! I guess he liked India a lot. His visa was probably expired.
The one nicer street is called Park Street. It has a few international chains like KFC and local places like this bookstore / cafe. The food was surprisingly bad, but the atmosphere was pleasant. I should have noticed that everyone was drinking something, but no one was eating. There were even women there!
At the international chain Au Bon Pain, I had this fusion creation of Masala chicken mac and cheese. Funny that I am so enthusiastic about something I had at an Au Bon Pain, but this was absolutely delicious! I wish I had the recipe.
In the south of town, I went to a local restaurant where I started talking with a local family. They ordered for me and the food was great.
After the meal, they ordered these things meant as palate cleansers. A mixture of salt and fennel seeds, I think. Since I had made only heartfelt positive comments about the meal, I felt no reason to lied about this. “It tastes like soap” was my comment, much to their amusement.
They actually told me honking had gotten better in recent years and they kept telling their own driver to stop honking all the time! I felt bad about always having to ask the eldest son and the mom to repeat what they were saying. The spoke grammatically very good English, but the Indian accent can be so difficult to understand if you are not used to it. The girl was much easier to understand but the younger brother, sadly, could not speak at all. Very nice people.
There are a couple of museums I would have visited but I couldn’t, because they are always closed on Monday and Tuesday was Republic Day. I would have attended the parade, but I feared the security concerns would make it painful. In Delhi cameras and phones were not even allowed near the parade.
In Kolkata, the police and army presence was massive and checkpoints like this were everywhere. The authorities deployed 13 quick reaction force units in the city, whose numbers exceeded 10,000! This was all due to threats by Islamists from Bangladesh to murder people for whatever reason. In the end nothing happened and I went walking in the enormous parks of the city centre.
Unsurprisingly, they were covered with garbage. Many hundreds of families were hanging out, having a picnic while the kids played various games.
Further along I got to a much nicer park, with obviously wealthier people and only partially covered with garbage. But there is a story to me getting there.
To get into this park, you had to pay. And this was the massive line-up. Not wanting to wait for so long, I decided to walk around the park, in the hopes of finding another ticket office with a smaller line-up. Sure enough, I found an entrance with no line-up at all. Just as was walking in, I saw, in the corner of my eye, a sign reading: “EXIT ONLY”. I kept walking, smiled at the 2 security guards and all was fine!
Most often, compared to locals, tourists get screwed. But sometimes, it’s the other way around. In this case, I am almost certain my gain was caused by laziness. They probably felt that to do their job properly, they couldn’t just push me away. They would have to explain what the problem was and tell me how to properly enter the park. In English, because that is one of the two official languages of India. And it was only me. And nobody was around…
The most recognizable attraction of Kolkata, the Victoria Memorial.
And St-Paul’s Cathedral.
All in all, I had a horrible time in Kolkata and I would never go back. But India commonly evokes extreme reactions. “Love it or hate it”, as they say. I enjoy crazy towns in Africa, South-East Asia, or even big Chinese cities that many people I have met strongly dislike. This time I am on the dislike side, strongly.
Like any poor country with lots of tourists, India is also full of scammers, con artists and other lowlifes. I have traveled enough to recognized that many people approaching me fall in that category. But almost all the people that I approached were super helpful and friendly. In fact, nice Indian food and nice Indian people are the best things about the country. So, is that a good reason to visit India? No, that is a good reason to visit London or Toronto. Both have both and neither have people shitting in the street.
On the positive side, my opinion of Kolkata as the dirtiest city in the world only lasted 4 days. Because after that I went to Varanasi. Coming next.