Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

I KNEW YOU WERE AMERICAN BECAUSE YOU’RE SO PARTICULAR…

about the spicy food, about the toilets, about the dirty streets, about the crowded buses, about the late trains, about the coffee, about the bad roads, about the crazy drivers, about, about, about.…This was said to me by the owner of a hotel in Pune, who took a liking to us and helped me buy  a small duffel on wheels to spare my back while I was recovering from my knee injury. I wasn’t that bad, was I? Gullvi laughed so hard I wanted to smack her, but realized that he did have a point. He met me just after an all-night trip on a third class train during which I hadn’t slept. I made the mistake of asking if the toilet had a seat, or would I have to squat in my comatose condition. I also complained about the Nescafe, so he instructed the cook to grind real coffee. This took ages, while Gullvi was having a caffein-deprived meltdown. The coffee finally appeared, ground, in a small cup…just add water. It was a riot.

So you see, like-minded travelers, sometimes we don’t realize how critical we appear to our host countrymen. I learned a lesson that day and, henceforth, tried valiantly to keep my thoughts to myself, saving the complaints for my journal. I realized, also, that many of the criticisms we have are those that the Indians, themselves, are aware of, and, just like the school children and teachers I spoke with at the Ajanta caves, they crave positive feedback about their country.  A sense of humor goes a lot further than complaining. And what harm can an innocent cockroach surveying the bathroom do, anyway?

Here are a few nuggets I gleaned during my three months in India. Short and sweet.

  • “It’s the same, but different.” How many times I came upon that reply when the person whom I was asking didn’t know the answer. “What is the difference between chapattis and naan?” “They are the same, but different.” Such answers give you something to ponder for the rest of the day.
  • Nobody likes to disappoint, especially in India, even when it comes to directions. You may not know where something is, but you give an answer, anyway. If you’re looking for a restaurant or a guest house it’s always just five minutes “that way,” indicated by a sweep of the arm, which could mean anything. I soon stopped asking, or just added an extra fifteen minutes to the estimate.
  • Every man in India over the age of 18 wears a moustache...well, almost everyone. I started asking why and here is what I gleaned. “It’s a tradition.”  I said, “For how long?”  He said, “About twenty years.”  I said, “That makes it a tradition?”  He said, “Well, the ladies like it.”  “Oooh, so that’s it.”  “No, not really. It’s just that it’s macho.”  That was the bottom line. Then I asked the one man I met who didn’t have a moustache why he didn’t, and he answered, “Because I don’t need a moustache to prove that I’m macho.”  How about that!
  • A frequent and, to me, sad sight from the train windows outside major cities was miles of shacks made of corrugated metal or wooden boards with scraps of cloth and cardboard for roofs—slums with no electricity or water, rising from the dirt beside the tracks. Invariably, standing outside these hovels would be women dressed in colorful saris, watching as their small children played in the mud. Frequently, in the early morning, school children would emerge, clean and beautifully groomed in their school uniforms, headed for school. Incongruous, but hopeful.
  • Yes, I have drastically changed my attitude toward India as a result of this trip. I have found the people friendly and open, especially the children, and the men are helpful and not always trying to make me “happy.” The young people invariably approach me with respect and a huge grin…”Grandma, Amala, Mother…what’s your name, where do you come from, do you like India, tell me about your family.”  There is a great difference between the treatment of older people in India and the U.S. Older is better. I can live with that!
  • Deference is still shown to Westerners, much to my embarrassment. Sometimes it’s funny, as when I tried to buy a beer from the state liquor store on New Year’s in Ft. Cochin and, being the only woman, was waved, ceremoniously, to the head of the line. The line was long and you stood outside and bought your liquor at a window. I protested, but they took me by the arm right up to the cashier. I got so flustered that I dropped my bag, couldn’t find my money, and held everyone up for quite a time. Nobody complained, just nodded pleasantly.
  • Then there were other times, like after I injured my knee and went to the emergency room in Udupi. There were dozens of people ahead of me, but I was ushered in immediately. I can’t imagine that this is a holdover from Colonialism. It seems so wrong. However, if it is, they get back at us by charging a lot more for transportation and admittance fees, as I’ve said before.
  • How does India deal with garbage? That’s easy, they throw it in the street, the river, on the beach, or in the yard. In Gokarna, big holes were dug in the beach, the garbage thrown there—plastic bottles, glass, everything—and the cows rummaged in it for days. Eventually, the sea helped cover it. But the worst and most unhealthy part is that they burn it. And it doesn’t smell like roasting marshmallows. Here is a photo to give you the idea.

In all fairness I did see signs of improvement in Tso Pema, where a truck would circulate around town each day and people would throw in bags of garbage, and in Darjeeling, where the piles of trash were picked up early each morning.

Just to warm your heart on this wintery “spring” day (we still have snow on the ground), here are a couple of sunsets from our cabin in Gokarna

In my next few blogs, I shall wrap up India and upload some pictures that relate to the previous blogs.

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3 Comments

  1. Trees

    I recognise this, beautiful how you can see this in words and bring it in your blog. love Trees

  2. Carmen

    Meg! So gorgeous and thought-full…keep writing so I can keep reading!

  3. Meg Noble Peterson

    Thanks, Carmen…you’re a doll!

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