Here is a condensed summary of my overall impressions of my recent trip to India. The trip was business, but I got to see a lot of country. For a full blow by blow, see my trip reports at my travel blog: India Part I and India Part II.
When I was in high school, the Men at Work song “Land Down Under” was one of my favorite songs. One line speaks of Bombay, which to a farm kid from Oklahoma was the most exotic sounding destination in the world. For me, it was always one of these mystical places like Timbuktu. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined then that someday I would be walking the streets of Bombay (although the name has now been returned to the original Mumbai).
The poverty in India is just stunning. We don’t have anything to compare it to in the West. The people that would be considered very poor in the West have it far better than the poor in India. They are literally starving to death. I once asked what happens if someone has a medical emergency in the slums. “If they have money, they live. If not, they die.”
I think in the West we just tune it out when we see it on TV. But you can’t tune it out when you drive by mile after mile after mile of people living essentially in garbage dumps. I think we treat our unwanted pets in the West with more concern than we have for a starving 2-year-old half way around the world. I was frequently asked what I was thinking about, and once I replied “What it would be like to have everyone in India experience a little of America, and everyone in America come see this.”
It really isn’t accurate to call it traffic. It is more appropriate to say that chaos reigns on the roads. It’s just a free-for-all out there. I would never recommend that a Westerner rent a car and attempt to drive. You will spend all of your time in a state of confusion, and you will hold up traffic while you try to figure out what to do. The constant honking (in lieu of signaling) was unnerving. For me, Hell would be having to be a cab driver in Bombay for all eternity.
The roads are shared by people, bikes, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, and cars. I frequently observed traffic going the wrong direction, and it was quite normal to have someone turn directly across your path. We had drivers who took us from place to place, and they would pass people on blind curves and hills, and sometimes they even passed someone in the act of passing someone else. I don’t think we have a proper frame of reference in the West for the “traffic” in India; especially in the big cities.
The population density is something else. I once wondered aloud just how many people I had seen on this trip. Kapil, the guy I was traveling with, said “Probably a good fraction of all the people you have ever seen in your life.” That is not an exaggeration. We traveled around the country, and with very few exceptions there were people lining the streets everywhere. Several times I would observe a crowd and wonder what was going on, but there was nothing going on. It was just a crowd. But it looked like a constant stream coming out of a major sporting event.
Despite the crowded conditions, I only saw violence once – when a man tried to drag another out of a car after a wreck. The people seem to cope quite well. Crime doesn’t seem to be nearly the problem you might expect in a city that size.
But with that many people comes a great deal of garbage. There was trash everywhere, and most of the time you could smell rotting garbage. One night we stayed well north of the city, but every once in a while my room would fill up with a garbage smell. I presumed the wind had shifted from Bombay.
It takes forever to get anywhere. You look at a place, and think “It’s only 100 miles.” 3 hours later, you still aren’t there. We spent 20 hours on the road over the course of 4 days. They don’t have rest stops and such with facilities that I could see. But the people I was traveling with never needed them. We would spend 7 hours in the car and never stop for a bathroom break. Needless to say, I limited my water intake on the trip, as I found that bathrooms were treated as a precious commodity. On a couple of occasions when I was in a meeting, I asked for the restroom and found someone standing outside of it, and a sign that said “VIPs and guests only.”
I traveled by train as well. It isn’t for everyone. If you like hot, sweaty bodies packed in like sardines (and that’s in 1st Class), then go for it. The auto-rickshaw was an interesting concept. The fuel efficiency on those things must be outrageous. They are run by a small motorcycle engine, and they sound just like a motorcycle.
During the week in India, I had meat twice. The total I had was about 3 ounces. I would have guessed that I would be constantly starving, but the food is very filling, and very good. I haven’t had vegetarian like that in the West. They have a carbohydrate (usually a flat bread), a vegetable, and a protein. Rice is always part of the meal. This is one thing that I will take back with me: I plan to incorporate some of these meals into my normal diet.
I will make a separate post on the energy scene in India. I had some very interesting energy discussions while we were there, and toured a sugarcane ethanol factory. India has great potential for producing renewable energy, but with a population over 1 billion, they are unlikely to be able to export that energy in the long-term.
I asked everyone about jatropha. It was funny, because everyone had heard of it, but nobody knew where you could find it. What I was told is that the fertile land is all being used, and marginal land where one might grow jatropha has no infrastructure. Jatropha also takes a few years to mature, so that is an additional complication. My impression is that claims of jatropha in India have been wildly exaggerated.
“Hi, I’m Robert. From Dehli.”
I like to joke around, so this became one of my favorite lines when someone looked at me strangely, or I did something that perhaps was not quite expected. “It’s OK, I’m from Dehli.”
Overall, the trip was a real eye-opener for me. I mean, sure, I knew of these things, but at least for me actually seeing them first hand really sears the memory into my brain.