Further, on our Asia trip

It’s interesting to try and capture and document and share as rich an experience as our two week trip through Asia. I took hundreds of pictures and have been posting the best ones here, here, and here, trying to tell a small story with as many of them as I can. It’s sort of a scattered way to narrate what we saw, but it’s also manageable from my end; little pieces, the visual does most of the heavy lifting, and it’s mostly chronological. As I write this I’m a little more than halfway (I believe) through the pictures, so that database on flickr, if you will, should continue to accrete.

But of course, there are lots of experiences that don’t get documented in the photos, other observations, feelings, or conclusions. My recent Core77 article takes one slice at that, but let me try and add some more.

One of the best things about the whole trip was the local connections we had in each city we visited. We didn’t manage to link up with anyone in Bangkok (and we were there for less than 48 hours, I think), but we had a fantastic time with people in Hong Kong, Bangalore, and Mumbai. First of all, these were all professional connections. But these were friends, if not at the beginning then certainly by the end. “Work” was a way to have made these connections (most of which had existed over the Internet pretty much for a couple or years or so), but it didn’t feel like “work” to spend time with them.

I realized that I’m personally pretty lame when people come to visit from other countries; this may simply reflect the culture I live in, I don’t know. People took time off work to come hang out with us, to show us around, to take us places we wouldn’t know to find, to show us how they lived, what their homes were like, what their lives were like. They really opened up to us and shared stories that made us feel connected. We got relevant suggestions for books, stores, souvenirs that were not simply standard tourist advice, but came from people who “got” us and what excited us about their city. One person brought us an extra cell phone that we borrowed for a few days, encouraging us to make international calls since they were free on their plan. And it didn’t seem like it was work on their part; I felt like the time spent together was very mutual.

What a world we live in, in 2006. I can get on a plane and go somewhere on the planet, and I’ve got a connection with someone there. I’ve experienced this Internet-enabled phenom many times before but somehow this seemed the most dramatic.

Separate from the intentions of these friends, the hosting played out differently in Hong Kong and in India. We felt very comfortable on our in Hong Kong, the transit system is amazingly well-designed, there is a lot of English available, and we only had one difficult travel experience. I actually was the most relaxed I had been in months. So the good times and the help we received was a bonus. But India was different – the friend who hosted us and helped us feel relaxed and comfortable played a major rescue-type role for us.

We didn’t like being in India. We never felt comfortable on our own.

It’s probably not too strong to say that we hated our time in India. In fact, we changed our flight and came home a day early, deliriously happy. It’s actually been hard to think about and talk about India, giving me a bit of chest-tightening PTSD every time.

All this would have been different if we could have spent all our time with our wonderful hosts. Those times felt great. And I fear hurting their feelings by sharing our negative experience when we were not with them.

And maybe our negative feelings reflects on us, I don’t know. Lots of people who visited before told us that India was an “experience” but not necessarily a positive one. Others I’ve met since speak positively about it – people who spent more time rather than less time – there’s an adjustment process we didn’t get to go through. I guess all of what I write below would be dramatically different if we spent 3 weeks or 3 months in India rather than about a week.

I feel like we have travelled a reasonable amount – I guess that’s just me normalizing our experience. We haven’t been to Kuala Lumpur, but we’ve been to a fair number of places over the years. We are curious and like exploring and just seeing what’s up.

So anyway, what about India was problematic for us?

There are a number of things that often get cited as problems with India: traffic, crowds, pollution, poverty. Those aren’t necessarily fun things, but I don’t think that was it. I’ve seen traffic, and pollution, and crowds (and certainly have not seen such poverty). They can make a new place like India overwhelming, tiring, dramatically different from home. But they wouldn’t ruin a trip.

The fact was that we just could never be comfortable (except in our hotel rooms, or with people who we had arranged to be with – our friends, or the conference). It just seemed that every interaction, big or small, was fraught with uncertainty and so much extra work. You can’t do anything – get from A to B – get some food – go see a tourist attraction – without a large number of small interactions that are unusual, that are “off script” (at least the script we carry in our Western heads), and that require some amount of negotiation that we had no preparation for.

Much of it had to do with feeling like you were going to get scammed around every corner. And the amounts of money were trivial, but it led to a feeling of being out of control, not being able to relax and enjoy something because your guard had to be up.

Example: we go to a temple (the Bull Temple). We had a driver that day, so he stops, and lets us out. We walk past the people selling stuff and ignore them. We approach the temple entrance (it’s like a room filled with a big statue with one end opened), and there is a chair and someone telling you that you have to take your shoes off. So we do that, and leave them outside the temple. As we walk in, someone joins with us and begins talking with us. a young kid. I don’t care what he’s telling us, I’d just like to look at it, but suddenly we are in a “scene.” In hindsight (and perhaps reading this) you can probably identify coping strategies to deter this, but we couldn’t at that time. It took too much “work” (or think of it as energy, if you prefer). We could not enjoy looking at this big black statue of a bull, we couldn’t look at each other and discuss it, we were forced by our need to stick to social norms to sort of politely acknowledge the information. Can’t hang up on telemarketers? Don’t go to India. At the end of the bull the boy says “I guide you now you give me money?” and then the woman with the chair for taking your shoes off and on also demands money.

It wasn’t clear up front that this would require money; you don’t know when or how you are entering into a transaction, you are a bg white target, and you don’t know the rules. That pretty much sucks.

And this goes on everywhere that tourists go. It goes on outside the front of the hotel where you ask them to get you a taxi or a driver, or whatever. You can’t figure out who is playing what role; they all have uniforms or not uniforms, and you don’t know what is going to happen next, so it requires vigilance. You go to the airport and people descend on your taxi and start unpacking your bags and carrying them away. We had to learn from that and prepare for the next time and stop them from doing that if it were to happen again. No one intervenes on your behalf. The taxi drivers don’t care. They don’t close the window when beggars run up in traffic and stick their heads in the cab and start asking for stuff.

It made walking down the street an incredibly daunting experience – not because anything so bad happened to us, but the fear – and it was indeed fear – of an unpredictable unmanageable encounter that could be just around the corner.

We saw a fair number of beggars – small children that would make a pathetic hand to mouth gesture with little piping voices as they clutched at sleeves. They staked out corners and when you waited for traffic to come they would descend. There was nothing to make them stop. It wasn’t frightening, but it was annoying and intense, and it was frightening how I began to see them as pests rather than people; how I began to dehumanize them and wanted to swat them like flies for their minor but persistent annoyance. We didn’t give money, I think for fear of being assaulted, and with that whole “oh, you’ll just be encouraging them” fear lurking. It was often very sad, especially as we walked back to our hotel with leftovers from a restaurant one night. Do we help someone if it means the difference between suffering and less-suffering, only for a brief period of time? I’m sure the moral answer is yes, but we were in self-preservation mode through our foreignness, our discomfort, our naivete.

There was a marked lack of a counterpoint to the odd interactions – the lack of pleasant interactions with strangers. In most places you go, you probably can have someone smile at you, or at least give friendly but not servile service. Again, on our own, we didn’t have that in India hardly at all. The facial expresses we were greeted with looked – to our Western eyes – like a hostile stare. I don’t presume to intuit the feelings behind how we were looked at (though there was a lot of persistent staring that is not appropriate in our culture), but it’s hard not to take away the feeling that you’re trained in – that you are being viewed with dislike. Mostly by men – there are a staggeringly disproportionate number of men on the streets and a woman may find that difficult and uncomfortable – again, even if nothing happens.

We had a nice elevator chat with fellow travellers (from the UK, I think) at our hotel. We were greeted by young children lining up at the famous (yet amazingly crappy) Prince of Wales Museum who seemed excited to see white people and waved and called “hi” – first the girls in one line and then the boys. The “hi” and wave passed down the line as we walked by and it was incredibly charming. And amazingly rare. I think another little child smiled at us as we ate a meal.

(By the way, it was really really crappy – faded dioramas that were covered in dust, lots of dead animals, sad bent railings, with a few lovely new architected wings at the end of the trail)

And the lack of general welcomingness takes its toll. And so it’s easy to look at the lack of development, the poverty, noise, debris, chaos, and filth and be critical, but I kept reminding myself just what was bothering me.

I know there have been tremendous economic shifts that have impacted North America and India in terms of jobs and so on, but I really can’t see how that is working. I wonder if there’s just huge class distinctions so I don’t see the white collar as a tourist. But you look at this place and you think “there’s no way.” There are so many people and so much poverty and illiteracy that you can’t think of the total population as a market, or as a workforce or whatever. Mumbai is one of the world’s largest cities, and it has amazingly low – for example – numbers of people who have been online, ever. It’s not London. It’s got some of what London has, but it’s a lot of different things on top each other. As I’ve written, you’ve got IT parks and poverty right next to each other. You can look at the IT park and say, wow, things are changing. And they are, but you can’t forget the weight of the stuff that is missing. I will say that there was a remarkable lack of denial about all of this – you can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading about these problems (and many more).

As an aside – reading the newspaper was fun. The politics are so dramatic and so complex, it was fun trying to figure it out, as well as see the latest scandals and gossip around the Bollywood stars (scandal being a relative term; it’s a very conservative culture).

Back to my screed: it’s hard to find a chain store. It’s hard to find an advertising message that isn’t incredibly naive, like it’s advertising to children. Reminders of the purity, safety, and quality of products – implying that if you have to think about that, maybe, well just maybe, that isn’t what’s being delivered at other times.

This is just one experience; I know business people from the West travel regularly to Bangalore and other cities to work with their colleagues. I don’t know how that works; I just feel so skeptical. It’s a hard place to go to.

My India pictures reveal stunning images: hovels; a lovely Donald Duck trash bin on a shopping street that is probably the dirtiest thing you’ve ever seen; an international airport that looks more decrepit and chaotic than you can imagine.

I’m not an economist or an international development expert and I wasn’t conducting business in India (though we attended a conference and visited Microsoft Research, so we saw a bit), but for much of the time I had to gape and wonder how this thing we read about is happening.

One last thought – watching what you eat was crazy tough. I learned to shower facing away from the water to minimize what I swallowed. Could you drink fresh juice? What about X? Or Y? There were so many different complex food choices that came up. I opted for caution over exploration, and I still got a little bit sick. Sadly, I also got sick of Indian food (not ill, but rather my desire abated). On our last night we found a restaurant with an amazing looking buffet of every kind of food, including Indian. I had to pass, with great regret, knowing that a week hence I would give anything to be a guest at that banquet. I just could not deal with the thought of the flavors and spices and sauces. Which I truly love.


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