India From Top to Bottom 2005: From Kannyikumari to Kashmir
South India, Rajasthan, and Kashmir
"So where are you going this summer?"
"Really? Why?" That's the most common reply. That and "Oh, how do you deal with all that poverty?" Replies such as these are are more a reflection on many Americans' perceptions of India and less on my decision to travel there.
A shame, really, since India is one of the greatest, most beautiful countries in the world.
Lisa, my girlfriend who accompanied me on the first half of this trip, and I have been enamored with India's beauty, spirituality, and culture. But during this last visit, I was wildly impressed by their progress as well. The first clue of this progress was while purchasing tickets at a train station. I saw a wheelchair ramp, something that I never saw in India just five years ago. And walking out to the train, I noticed that one of the cars of the train was reserved for the disabled. And now many of the toilets in the train stations and airports and other public facilities have wheelchair-accessible toilets. Surely one of the best indicators of how great a country is how it treats its citizens that are in need of help.
And of course, there were many other signs of progress: the near-absence of power shortages in many parts of the country (euphemistically called "load shedding"), improved roads (the tollroad between Jaipur and Ajmer, for example), the mushrooming of its middle class, many tourists from overseas traveling with small children, a greatly improved phone system, a reliable postal system, garbage cans everywhere for people to use, anti-dowry posters from the government, the clean and efficient Metro in New Delhi, the subway in Calcutta (Kolkata), their Army providing aid to tsunami victims in other countries, sending aid to people in Afghanistan, its impressive software and computer industry...
One barometer of progress in India has been ice cream. That's right, ice cream. When I first traveled to New Delhi, one could get ice cream at Nirula's in Connaught Place, maybe one other place. Elsewhere in the city, it was difficult if not impossible to get. And in most other cities - forget even thinking about towns or villages - ice cream could not be had. Now, of course, you can get ice cream literally anywhere, even in villages and small towns. But why is this so important? Because it indicates several things. You need a reliable, constant power source to store ice cream. And you need people with enough money to buy ice cream in the first place.
Or how about the cleaner air in Delhi? The first time I stayed in Delhi, the city was choked in black exhaust. I'd have black residue on my forearm if I walked around for several hours. When I returned home, I coughed up black phlegm for several weeks. But now, one can visibly see the difference. Sure, the exhaust is still pretty bad, but it's considerably better than before. Air quality in Delhi has improved significantly since a Supreme Court order mandating its bus fleets to convert to run on cleaner-burning compressed natural gas (CNG) came into effect in 2002. And now, the taxis can be retro-fitted to run on CNG as well, with more cities following suit.
Indians sometimes seem to have an inferiority complex. If you point out the progress their country has made, they'll often say, "Yes, but China is ahead of us. They're more advanced." And of course, that's true. But in my opinion, what India has done is far more impressive than what China has done. It's much easier for a country to have a singular vision if they are essentially a dictatorship. India is a democracy; China is run by the Communist Party. India has labor unions; China has prison camps, labor camps, and no labor unions. India has four times the amount of people living below poverty level than China. India is, as of this writing, 57 years old; China is 5000. What India has achieved is, in my opinion, nothing short of miraculous.
Yes, of course you can say that they still need a lot of improvement. No one will argue with that. Poverty, population explosion, AIDS, the need for stronger infrastructure, sex trafficking, child labor, its poor treatment of Kashmiris (although this is improving), all that. And obviously, what would help is if India can improve relations with Pakistan. This 50+ year conflict with Pakistan over a poorly-drawn map during Partition has inflicted a terrible toll on both countries, with billions and billions of rupees siphoned off to fuel a war with their neighbors when this could be going to help their people instead.
Oh, and about our trip...this trip took us from the very tail of India (Kannyikumari, the southern tip of India) to the very top - Kashmir, Heaven on Earth. Although this was my fourth trip to India, there is still so much to see of this fantastic country. You're gonna see pictures and descriptions of the most fantastic caves that you thought only existed in Indiana Jones movies, vibrant pictures of Hindu temple life, towering shrines, terraced paddy fields, neon cities, sacred mosques, colorful Tibetan monasteries rising up out of green farmlands, the beautiful lakes and dramatic Himalayan peaks of Kashmir, and some of the sweetest people in the world.
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