I’m so conflicted. Let me start by saying, despite what may appear to come across as a critique, I loved India… specifically the “Golden Triangle” area of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, even though I didn’t have enough time to complete the triangle.

So why am I conflicted? Simply put, the only reality I confidently experienced is extreme poverty. Even the gaping chasm of class inequality wasn’t apparent on the surface because so many of the 25 million plus presumably live in poverty. I had very few expectations visiting India for the first time, and there is so much wonder to become immersed in. The balance of the conflict lies in the fact that I was an obvious tourist. And I suspect I had a huge US dollar sign on my forehead (which is ironic, as I’m thinking in Singapore dollars these days). Allow me to explain.

Day 1

Delhi is filled to the brim with a fairly well preserved history, and with a preserved history comes all of the monuments and artifacts one would expect from a country thats modern state is influenced by over 1000 years of military and political conquests. On my first full day, I committed to visiting some of the more popular tourist sites, hopefully leaving time later in the day to experience the bazaars, and with any luck some of the local arts and crafts (apart from the tourist trinkets). I normally like to venture on my own so I can keep my own (snail’s) pace with camera in tow, keeping my head down when approached by peddlers and politely declining any goods or services they are offering.

Man in spice market

I don’t know why I veered from the norm. I’m sure I would have ultimately visited more monuments on my first day, but I may have missed out on the experience… so after turning down a few suiters, I finally humored a younger looking fella with a full, budding mustache. His English was quite good. I was actually very surprised to see how much was written in English, even in the “smaller” city of Agra. He plopped me in a rickshaw, driven by human pedaling power and took me from the Red Fort, which I had intended to tour on my first day. He chauffeured me down Chandni Chowk, literally “Moonlight Square”, as the streets were once canals that reflected the moonlight.

History aside, I got a glimpse of the markets that I wouldn’t have gotten alone. The mustached man and the feverish rickshaw peddler took me through the markets, into the alleys, and up to the rooftops, a venture I likely wouldn’t have dared on my own. I will never forget the aromatics of cumin, coriander, and fennel that hung in the air of the spice market alleys–it was like accidentally inhaling cayenne pepper, but it was completely unavoidable. I did everything I could not to cough uncontrollably. The view from the market rooftop was staggering. I wondered how some of the buildings stayed erect. What used to be a well appointed residential market area had become a dilapidated warehouse for spices, textiles, metal, leather, shoes, and just about any other handmade good you can think of.

The pedishaw commanded presence. Keeping my hands within the frame of the wagon, the steel bars did well to clear a path and punish anyone that didn’t get out of the way. After a bullish trip through the bazaar’s alleys, the other half of the “India tourist” experience began. I read all of the warnings about being dragged to particular vendors where tourists pay an inflated price and “guides” get a commission. That said, the first place he brought me seemed legit with teas and spices tidily packaged and clearly marked, and though I’m sure I could have bargained, the price tag wasn’t astronomical. (The conversion to Sing Dollars is a tricky one… it’s roughly S$45 to 2000 Rupees, so my best reference was 450 Rupees equalled about S$10.) The manager of the spice shop said they keep all of the saffron well accounted for, though I didn’t ask the selling price. I splurged on some masala chai, darjeeling, and mango green teas.

India Gate

From there, by my request, he took me to the metal market where I was hoping to find some filagree. Some of the jewelry was lovely. The shop where we landed was less clear cut. Nothing was openly priced, but I would say that even after politely declining several times, the shop clerk never really wavered from the originally quoted price… often the threat of losing a sale magically makes the item cost less, even when they were making nothing on the original offer. The clerk gave me every sales line in the book. “This will only go up in value. You won’t think about the money you spend today tomorrow, but you will always have this. I don’t even know why I said that price, it just came out of my mouth.” This is about the time that I wondered how much of a cut my newly found friend, and we did have good conversation, was going to get. I wish I had met my Saturday driver one day sooner… I didn’t leave unscathed.

After a fantastic visit to a Jain temple and a great local lunch (which I didn’t get sick from), things started to get very dicey. I should have caught it much sooner than I did, but the trickiness stems from the fact that just about any travel agent can masquerade as an affiliate of the government. Granted, the government does actually have a sanctioned tourist department and an actual government run tourist office, but even the government program seems like a con right down to its name, Incredible !ndia.

Incredible !ndia offered free tourist SIM cards at the airport, and the cubby was manned by another fella with a well appointed mustache sitting on a stack of luggage playing a game on his mobile with an HP all-in-one sitting on a pile of books next to him, almost certainly running a free tourist SIM–though I did learn that the government offers locals data-only SIMs with unlimited data usage for roughly 200 Rupees (US$4). I don’t think these SIMs offer voice or text, but this would explain why everyone has a smart phone with the Uber app and a second candybar phone circa 2001 to talk on. Needless to say I opted to spend a few bucks, keep my Sing number, and let my data roam (the interwebs makes it seem like this SIM is completely legit for tourists with an eVisa, which is easy to get for a few bucks and 4 days advance notice… now they just need to make it seem legit upon arrival).

Looking to round out the remainder my trip since I had planned only one day, I thought my friend was taking me to the government run office in Connaught Place, which is where the Incredible !ndia office is actually located. Fast forward nearly 2 hours and a quarter of my first day’s sightseeing, and I finally smelled the stink of the con and walked out without being scammed. That’s how legit the operation seemed. I’ll never get that 2 hours of my life back, I didn’t get to see the inside of the Red Fort, but I felt good exiting without getting the wool pulled over my eyes. And I feel like I got the other side of the Indian experience. I escaped to a sweets shop as an excuse to get away and devoured the most decadent gulab jamun I’ve ever eaten from Nathu’s… crisp on the outside; floral, sweet, and tender on the inside. Maybe it’s psychosomatic, but it was amaze.

This… this is why I’m so conflicted. The city is amazing. The food is sinful. The people are fantastic… Very welcoming… Customarily hospitable… Relentlessly accommodating. But the entire thing seems to be underscored by an agenda. I think that agenda, and the very way of life in this impoverished city, is guided by the very real threat of extreme poverty. Even exiting a train, the urgency… the scuffle… the fight to claw your way to the front almost made it seem like there was a prize on the platform to be claimed.

Delhi street market

Day 2

Taj Mahal

I don’t want to skip over the awe and wonder entirely. My second day in India was a 5* excursion full of sightseeing in Agra and began with a driver promptly meeting me at 6:30am at the hotel. I initially thought the driver hated me. His English admittedly was not great, but as our time together wore on, he became my second real advocate of the trip. He too cautioned me about buying from places that my guide brought me, despite my second day being beautifully coordinated by a faceless travel agent, the first person I came to trust on my visit, though never met. The driver told me to leave the shop and wander, that prices could be more than 30% higher in the “tour guide’s” shop. While 30% isn’t necessarily a lot on smaller purchases, to him saving 150 Rupees (US$ 2-3) was a ton. (At the end of my sightseeing, he actually drove me to a few other shops, and oddly I ended up back at the place my guide brought me for a small token that I couldn’t find anywhere else–at a price that was unexpectedly on par with or less than the other shops.)

My day at the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort was equally majestic and informative. Being art minded, the impression of the structures is seared in my memory; I’ll have to defer to the Google to refresh my history lesson. I did learn, however, that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum–not a religious site. So people pilgrim here to celebrate the love the Mughal emperor had for his (favorite) wife. The translucent marble was inlaid with amazing semi-precious stones creating designs that will weather the test of time. The entrance to the mausoleum itself was all but organized, as I’ve had more breathing room in a Rage Against the Machine pit. The rush inside the tomb made for a quick view, but the inside is equally ornate. After a couple blistering hours in 41C (102F) degree heat, I made my way to the wonderful Oberoi Hotel for a comprehensive Indian lunch (from which I didn’t get sick). The hotel itself was a jewel in the desert; lunch was on point as buffets go, yet the food itself didn’t warrant the price tag. Lump in the setting, and it may well have been worth it.

The grandeur of the Taj is sharply juxtaposed by its containing city of Agra. Though smaller than Delhi by an order of magnitude, it is equally frenetic, impoverished, and noxious. Bulls commanded the road as motor scooters and pedishaws swerved around the herds. What I initially thought was a natural a sulfur pit was actually raw sewage. From Delhi to Agra, I actually got used to the thick haze and incessant smell, but the stench waxed and waned, so sometimes it became more obvious. At the end of each day, I cleared my sinuses of the pollution my nasal hair prevented from entering my lungs.

Cyclists in Agra

Despite my lovely day, I can’t help but feel it shouldn’t have been less than wonderful with a 5* price tag. Exclusive treatment is often expected with a high end service, but in any situation that treatment often feels inauthentic (since you’re paying for it). My friend on the first day gladly hosted me for “what I thought was fair [to pay him]” (and whatever commissions he presumably made), and my guide on the second day got paid fairly handsomely to be gracious and hospitable. Both were openly concerned about what I thought about the service and “my happiness”. The cynic in me can’t help but feel like both were motivated solely by my pocketbook, which is likely completely unfair–but one lead me to a con, and the other was hired as part of a 5* package. My conflict rears its nasty head again, but my guides were contrasted by my Agra driver (who likely hoped for a tip), but seemed to steer me out of trouble and worked a 15 hour day toting me around. The extreme cynic in me could equally argue he was the least transparent, but after 15 hours with him, he seemed real.

I had a fantastic meal to finish my second day at a local fancy restaurant, Chicken Inn (and I didn’t get sick). There was a queue, but it was well worth the wait. A meal at a local restaurant costs about 300-400 Rupees (US$6). I don’t know how much street food costs, as I didn’t tempt fate, but I suspect it’s roughly half of that at most. A half order of anything at Chicken Inn was 400 Rupees. I briskly explored the menu and ordered a “small” sample of the Reshmi Kabob to start, the butter chicken as my main, garlic naan as supporting cast, and phirani (Punjabi cold rice dessert) to finish. With a beer, my total came to 2000 Rupees (US$40, which is a $$$ meal in the States), so yes, this was likely a very fancy restaurant by local standards.

Agra Fort

Day 3

My friend from the first day offered to connect with me on my last day to take me to some more sites. While I would have highly valued his insight and inner knowledge of the city, I was skeptical of being conned and losing another day. I also felt the urge for some lingering and self-exploration. I only made it to 2 landmarks on my final day, but I also had the chance to sketch and take the train, which I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. I had read praise for the Delhi metro, but my experience was not praise-worthy. The stops are very spread apart (the city is sprawling and not at all pedestrian friendly, so getting to a station is difficult), the trains are very slow, and some of the lines are incomplete, so areas of the city are still not covered. I was clearly the only foreigner on the sardine-packed car–people took obvious notice, which was slightly uncomfortable. A token cost me 19 Rupees (about US$0.50) to go about 5km; the journey took about 1 hour and 10 minutes. The same trip via Uber would have cost about 100 Rupees (US$2.00) and taken about 1/3 of the time. As a local, the train likely makes perfect sense. As a tourist where a 1 mile Uber trip costs US$10 at home, Uber is a no brainer.

Akshardham

The two sites I visited on my final day were both beautiful. I had time to linger and sketch at my first stop, Humayan’s Tomb. I was completely unprepared for the entrance protocol at my second stop, Akshardham. After my hour and 10 minute train ride, I learned they don’t allow ANYTHING into the complex. No mobile. No camera. No pen. No paper. They even wanted to check my watch, which two gentlemen both eventually conceded was unnecessary. I had already come this far, so I took the calculated risk to check my camera and mobile (that’s a cell phone) in the cloakroom. (I did manage to pocket a fine liner [ink pen] and sneak a 2-minute sketch on the back side of a receipt.)

The queue for the cloakroom was 30 minutes. It was in this queue that I learned the functional radius for Indian personal space is zero. The patron behind me literally walked into line, bumped against me, and stood there–in contact. When the queue moved forward, said patron was nice enough to shovel me forward. The queue for security was another 15. But admission was free (you get what you pay for), and the complex is wildly ornate. It was built in the 19th century, so some of the stone work seemed manufactured (vs hand carved), but even with machines the level of detail in the pink sandstone and marble was stunning. Worth it in the end I suppose.

My final meal at Indian Accent, an Asia top 50 restaurant, was phenomenal. Food and service were impeccable. After 7 courses, which was actually 6 plus an unexpected addition of their house special pork rib, I made the mistake of trying to learn about the tipping culture, but the hostess had trouble understanding my question resulting in a very awkward, lingering moment. (I’m still a bit unclear on tipping etiquette–it seems to be completely optional if a “service charge” is levied, but well appreciated if the patron thought the service warranted it.) At the end of the awkwardness, I went back and left a tip, whether is was appropriate or not. I decided to go for my final (and only) cocktail at a “great cocktail bar” called Quote in Connaught Place. Even in the trendiest part of town, the building was in complete disrepair. A 2-flight walk up a crumbling staircase led me to a quiet cocktail bar blaring the ManU game, complete with crazy whistling and hollering Premier League fans. Rather than order a cocktail at what was a clearly mislabeled sports bar, I had my first, last, and only local beer, a Kingfisher, before making a brisk walk back to the hotel.

Despite the trash and poverty everywhere, Delhi is one of the most photogenic cities I’ve visited. I never really felt unsafe in and around the city, though I guarded my belongings closely, and even then was cautioned about using my mobile so openly.

India (Delhi and Agra) is decidedly the most impoverished place I’ve visited, in both extremity and scale. While Cambodia is impoverished and Vietnam requires a good haggle, I think the difference with India, and the root of my conflict, is the complete lack of transparency. I spent my whole trip trying to figure out what was authentic versus what could be a con. But authentic or not, the people were lovely. The sites, the history, the cuisine, the scents, the colors, the culture, the density… they were all like nothing I had ever experienced before… I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat, and somehow I didn’t get sick.