All that glitters

Does travel really have the power to shift perspective once the suitcase is unpacked and you’re back in the same routines?
Words Nick Gibbs

The most accurate advice I received concerning travel through India is also the one that needs cleaning up for publication. You wade through mud to find diamonds. Just subtract mud for something vaguely the same colour and infinitely worse to tread in. More than any other, it’s a country that prompts anyone who’s been to offer guidance. You’ll either love it or hate it – both, daily. It runs to its own schedule – saw little evidence of a schedule. It will change you…

The first and last points are closely linked. To find diamonds, I needed to change. Overseas travel inevitably means a high percentage of encounters are with people who make a living from the tourist trade, and on some level, the scams, rip offs and cheats can be justified. We’re here for a holiday, spending what many locals would struggle to earn in a year, to tick another country off an ever-growing list. The expression of a young man I met on a train after learning the cost of my flights will never leave me. It sounds considerably worse in the local currency (70,000 rupee compared to AU $1400), and at the time he was counting his change to buy roasted peanuts at the next station. Peanuts he shared without hesitation.

This view is much easier to take after being home for six months. When every meal, cab ride and souvenir is a battle not to feel cheated, it wears you down. Cynicism becomes the default setting when an overzealous religious man plants a painted bindi on your forehead with no encouragement, and expects payment for the privilege. You’ll be sceptical that every encounter with a local will come at a cost, and much of that scepticism is vindicated. There will be days when you’re tempted to stay in your hotel room, order set-price meal service, and hide from the chaos. But there are no diamonds in hotel rooms. They’re in the streets.

And it’s not enough to walk battle-ready into the disorder. To keep your gaze straight while beggars in the street plead for coins, and every hawker has a special deal just for you. To find treasure, you must stay vulnerable.

The highest and lowest points of the trip came from locals. I spent half an hour with a self-proclaimed guide in the ruins of the ashram where The Beatles wrote The White Album. By this stage, I knew there was a good chance his company came with an ulterior motive, and made it clear I had no intention of money being exchanged. “We are friends now,” he reassured. As the time to depart grew closer, he began to broach the subject of payment in increasingly blatant tones. “What happened to friendship?” I asked. “I usually charge 1000 rupee,” he responded proudly. You like to think you’ll take the high road in these situations. Instead I tunnelled. Arguing with an elderly Indian man over what amounted to spare change is not something I’m proud of, but at the time the principle seemed important. It wasn’t the soothing ashram experience I’d hoped for.

Compare that with my encounters with Deepak. The fact we’re on a first name basis tells you our dealings were regular. He had his hand in everything – money exchange, scooter hire, white water rafting trips – whatever earned a dollar.  Exactly the type you would expect to fleece tourists in the most unforgiving manner. I count him as a friend. I couldn’t walk past his small, makeshift shop without being invited in for a chai which inevitably meant speaking for at least an hour. He was openly interested in Australian life, and soon a network of locals would stop to join the conversation. The younger ones marvelled when I showed them a platypus on the back of a 20 cent piece, and were polite and grateful when I insisted they take it.

Deepak invited me to his friend’s wedding, and persevered with my requests to expand my Hindi vocabulary. The thought that this was a facade to part me with as much money as possible did cross my mind. But the string of messages checking in with my travels long after I left dispelled it. We’re still in touch.

Had I limited our dealings to what was necessary for me to get what I needed, it would have cost me an insight into modern, Indian life. There’s no doubt a willingness to engage meant more headaches than required, and certainly added to the expense. But I would make that trade every time. It’s a lesson that’s not exclusive to travel. Don’t assume strangers are a threat, stay curious and cover yourself in mud. You will find diamonds.

To read part one of this story, click here

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