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This week on the Savvy Traveler, Rudy returns! Welcome back!

Rudy's View: Extreme India

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A few weeks ago I traveled to India for the first time. I was invited as a guest of Oberoi Hotels and Malaysia Airlines so from the beginning I could see this was going to be a pretty cushy trip. The press information showed extravagant hotel rooms with private gardens and marble bathrooms. And the itinerary looked great. We would start in Delhi, take a train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Then we'd travel to Jaipur, the Pink City, and finally wrap up in the Himalayas. But when I told friends here in America that I'd be traveling to India, there wasn't much interest in the places I would stay or the cities I would visit. What surprised me was that everyone had a passionate reaction to India itself. About half of them said, "Oh my god, India, I've wanted to go there my whole life!" The rest said, " India...I would never go there, why would you want to go there?"

Now, I've traveled a fair bit...through Asia, Africa, South America, Europe and never have I gotten the kind of heated response that India seemed to inspire. So I decided to talk to Americans who have spent enough time in India to form impressions from the inside. I lucked out during our second night in Delhi when we were invited to the residence of the American Ambassador, who's been stationed in India for the past three years.

"People aren't lukewarm about India. It's a place that you love - and most people do fall in love with it - or you are put off by it. We've had 256 house guests at the ambassador's residence. and we've had three only who went home disappointed, so our sample is probably skewed a bit by our enthusiasm and by our ability to open doors for folks. But it is true, people have strong responses to India and what I find is...and I caution people...it gets under your skin. You come and you're likely to come back."

His wife believes the negative images of India come from a media that's only interested in earthquakes and train crashes. When I told her about the conflicting reactions I received towards India, she noted that those reactions reflect the reality of the country.

"Well, that's true in India, because everything in this country is true. India is immensely wealthy. On the other hand India is immensely poor, so that's surprising to me that the reactions to India are just as astronomically different because the haves have so much the have nots have so little and the country is so ugly in so many ways and so immensely beautiful in so many ways. And women are treated really, really well if they're from the right part of society and really badly if they're not. So are men, so are dogs, so are cows, so are goats and what have you."

That definitely jibes with my experience. At times I found India immensely confusing. I mean, this is a place where I'm told the dialect can change within the space of ten kilometers. There are so many strong religions and elements of so many cultures that you need a reference library just to read the front page of the paper. On the other hand, much of Indian life happens completely out in the open. Driving through the streets of Delhi you see men getting haircuts and a shave on the side of the road. I also saw people going to the bathroom, sleeping and cooking right out in the open. Writer Paul Theroux was on tour with my group. He's been to India a number of times and he thinks it's these images of poverty that put off so many tourists.

"I think it's the fear, the fear of poverty the fear of difference, the fear of strangeness. It's the alien. India's highly colored, populous, a billion people, hundreds of languages, different sorts of food. It's like the elephant in the dark room, there's a fable of one Indian touches the leg and thinks it's a tree, another touches a trunk and thinks it's a snake, no one knows what the elephant actually is. People are just groping in the dark. But it's out of fear and it's their fear. Whenever anyone says, 'you shouldn't go there it's dangerous, it's poor', whatever it is, and poor just means they don't have a Bloomingdale's charge card, y'know, for most people that's their yardstick. But when they say that they're really talking to themselves, they're thinking out loud saying they wouldn't go and they're trying to prevent you from not going to make themselves right. People say that to me about Africa, they've said it to me about South America. I was in Equador not long ago, people said it. People have said it to me about India for years. But really, people are talking to themselves when they say not to go. It's baloney what they're saying."

That was the consensus among the Americans I met in India. Everyone seems to accept that India is a country of extremes, and therefore inspires extreme reactions. Matter of fact, when I spoke with Mr. Oberoi, the owner of the hotels we stayed in, he said, quite bluntly, that if you don't like extremes you shouldn't go to India in the first place. It's a country where you're bound to have experiences, good and bad, that will stay with you forever.

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