India: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Part 2 – The Bad and The Ugly)
April 25, 2020
In Part One I raved about the many highlights of India, but I wouldn’t be telling the full story if I only focused on the positives. This week I want to look beyond the glitz and glamour of the Taj Mahal, pull back the glittering veils of the vibrantly-coloured saris, and step out of the kitchen of tantalising aromas, to enter the deafening din of Delhi and beyond and step into the crap (human and animal) that litters the streets like landmines.
Disclaimer: I love India and don’t want to offend anyone with my personal views. While there were plenty of lowlights to our India trip, none spoilt our experience, and I would still strongly recommend to keep it firmly on your bucket list.
Plus, as they say in Spain, “si quieres el perro, acepta las pulgas” – “If you want the dog, you have to accept the fleas”. So, without further ado let’s investigate India’s fleas.
India: The Bad (in no particular order)
The mountain of paperwork required to obtain permission to sneeze began even before we had left for India.
After a rudimentary search we learnt we could apply for tourist visas online. “An e-visa? Fantastic!”, we thought. It sounded so quick and easy…
Ha. Ha. Ha.
This apparently quick and painless online form seems specifically engineered to make you pull out your own eyeballs and give up in despair. Several teary-eyed hours later, having recounted our life stories and that of our parents, succeeded in the herculean task of uploading a high-quality passport scan as a tiny 300 KB file, wracking our brains to fill out the required section on “visible identification marks” and listing all the countries we had visited in the last ten years, we had sampled our first taste of Indian paperwork. And frankly, we didn’t want to go back for seconds.
Relieved we had satisfied the Indian bureaucracy monster, you can imagine our horror when we arrived at Barcelona airport only to be told our visa confirmations were invalid. Seeing our incredulous expressions and the hopes of our Indian holiday fading from our faces, the check-in assistant was quick to reassure us that about 90% of passengers fail to print out the correct documents (so it wasn’t just stupidity or carelessness on our part). It turns out the correct document you need can only be accessed via a microscopic-sized link hiding at the bottom of your visa approval. Fortunately, the airline staff were very understanding as they see similar cases every day, and we were able to print out the correct documents in time.
FYI: if you’re ever flying from Barcelona El Prat airport and need a printer, there’s a suitcase shop in the left-hand corner of Terminal 1 which gives you internet access and prints out documents for a fee. The lady in charge did everything for us with barely any prompting, as if she was helping first-time clueless India-tourists every day.
Once actually in the country, the bureaucracy only intensified, and the border control staff were having a field day with COVID-19 checks.
After stepping off the plane we had our temperature checked several times, then filled out a series of forms in duplicate which some flustered health care worker with no remaining desk space had to toss on the floor, causing several paper towers to crash down and scattering reams of paper across the carpet.
We then joined a series of winding queues snaking through the airport and waited for what seemed like an age in the noisy din of frustrated passengers punctuated by brief outbreaks of commotion and shouts, presumably from weary travellers fainting in the ever-growing lines.
After about 12 different people had inspected, signed and stamped every square inch of our documents at passport control, we were given the go- ahead to enter the anarchy of Delhi, which no amount of bureaucracy and form-filling will ever be able to tame no matter what government officials may believe.
And if the hoops you have to jump through is a headache for tourists, it must be a nightmare for residents. Just as a small example: one of my friends living in Delhi applied for a driver’s licence which you would expect to be a routine and easy procedure. However, a few weeks later she was informed that the documents she sent, “had gone missing”. It’s unclear whether this was carelessness on the government’s part or (which she expects) an attempt to extract more money by making her pay the application fee again, but either way it doesn’t fill you with confidence.
Having escaped the airport’s slow, winding queues, it was a rude shock to our bewildered and jetlagged selves to be catapulted into Delhi’s heaving and chaotic streets. I had travelled in Southeast Asia before, so I wasn’t uninitiated to frenetic and lawless traffic, but Indian roads are something else. Drivers screech around corners at breakneck speeds like they’re playing Crazy Taxi or Grand Theft Auto and road signs and traffic lights (when they actually work) seem to be suggestions rather than rules. On the plus side, we regularly smashed Google Maps’ estimated time of arrival whenever we took an Uber– handy when you’re in a rush!
Aside from the frantic driving, the liberal use of horns is something to behold. Unlike Europe where the horn is usually reserved (and rightly so) for making other drivers aware of potentially dangerous situations, and sometimes, lamentably, to vent your anger at another road user’s misdemeanour, in India the horn is used whenever someone overtakes, changes lanes, or to speed someone up, to tell a cow to move out of the way … so basically, all the time. The result is a dissonant cacophony as smoking motorbikes, dented cars, broken-down public buses, dusty rickshaws and colourful lorries all converse:
“I’m swerving! BEEP,BEEP,BEEP!”
“I’m behind you! HONK, HONK, HONK!”
“You’re going too slow! TOOOOOT!”
“Move out the way, cow! BEEPLY, DOOPY BEEP BOOP, DIDDLY DEE!” (That one’s a lorry with a funky custom horn job.)
I actually thought I was hallucinating when I saw countless elaborately adorned lorries driving around with “Horn Ok Please” or “Sound Horn” painted on the back of them. Who would actively encourage other road users to honk at them? Well, it turns out truckers find it safer for people to toot if they want to overtake. Although the practice of painting such slogans has been banned in the Indian state of Maharashtra, it remains widespread elsewhere.
Of course, the overreliance on horns starts to make sense when you see that people are weaving all over the roads without using their rear or wing-view mirrors (when they exist), and I never saw indicators used once. This constant noisy dialogue between vehicles actually becomes essential to minimise accidents (a major source of deaths every year in India).
On a side note: it wasn’t just the traffic making a racket. Music was often played as if with the express intention of shattering your eardrums, and kitchen appliances like washing machines and water filters often come with musical accompaniments instead of boring bloops and beeps, just in case it was getting too quiet for you at home. It seems the base level of noise is so high that everyone and everything has to be loud just to be heard over the clamour of the bustling background noise.
The Flagrant Disregard for Health and Safety Norms
If India’s racetrack roads weren’t dangerous enough, it seems people are hellbent on flouting international safety standards just for the thrill of it.
Case in point: seat belts.
Most Indian drivers choose not to wear a seat belt (only scurrying to quickly attach it when a police car passes), but that’s their own (reckless) decision.
What really shocked me was that out of the dozens of Ubers and taxis we took during our trip, only 3 of them had usable belts at the back. It’s not that the cars weren’t fitted with seat belts. They were. At first we thought it was a strange coincidence that the cars had buckles which had slipped under the seats, but we soon learnt that the drivers had hidden them from sight and reach. Why on earth would you go to such lengths to prevent people from being safe!?
According to the survey “Seatbelt Use in India” only 4% of backseat passengers use belts, citing trivial reasons for their non-use such as them creasing clothes! One driver we met even claimed it was illegal to wear rear seatbelts! This wouldn’t be so bad if you were driving on smooth and safe streets, but Indian roads are full of crater-size potholes and motorbikes piled higher than you ever thought physically possible with rice, suitcases and sofas, all ready to slip off and slam through your windscreen the next time a dog or camel dashes onto the road.
It’s not just the roads that are a danger to human life. During our short stay we witnessed many a scene to make this health-and-safety-concerned Brit shudder, whether that was historic tourist sites without railings and handrails leaving you one small stumble away from certain death, people jumping on and off moving trains, playing games of cards on railway tracks (!), building bonfires stuffed with fireworks less than a metre away from residential buildings, crazy cows left to stampede around the streets where young children are playing, open sewers that you can easily fall into after swerving to avoid decapitation from the low-hanging tangle of electricity cables …
If I had to single out one the worst aspects of India, for me it would have to be the suffocating pollution. Just a few minutes spent outside in Delhi (one of the most polluted cities in the world) is enough to make you cough, your eyes sting and your snot turn a disconcerting shade of black.
We were lucky that our friends had three medical-grade air purifiers in their house and we could limit our time spent outside, but for the majority of people who don’t have this luxury and have to spend most of their time on the streets, or even live there, the situation must be hellish.
Just to give you an idea of how nightmarish the situation is, here are some facts:
A 2013 study on non-smokers in India has found that they have 30% weaker lung function than Europeans. (See more here)
In cities like Bangalore, around 50% of children suffer from asthma. (See more here)
Why is the air pollution so bad?A number of factors really. Most of the pollution is caused by industry, but a considerable amount is caused by crop burning and vehicles, many of which are old and inefficient diesel clunkers which sit around in Delhi gridlock spewing out exhaust fumes. Despite government attempts to reduce air pollution, major obstacles will have to be overcome to give India a breath of fresh air.
In summary, it would be an understatement to say India has room for improvement. The pollution, traffic, noise and general chaos make it by no means a relaxing destination, and of course for people living in India, life isn’t a walk in the park.
But India frustrates and enchants in equal measure. It has you tearing your hair out one minute, only to reward you the next with the best curry of your life, the most beautiful landscape you’ve ever seen or a heartwarming encounter. And if you’re looking for adventure, it definitely delivers.
Not only that, it keeps you coming back for more. My brief fling with India has certainly whetted my appetite for a second visit: to the South next time!
I hope I’ve given you a little flavour of what life’s like in this fascinating beast of a country in this honest and balanced account. And if you get the chance to visit, seize the opportunity with both hands! You won’t regret it!
Sending you sunshine and positivity,
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