On a highway in Chennai, I pass a luxury bus with the words “Incredible India” emblazoned across its side. Underneath, in smaller letters, is an explanation that some genius in the tourism department found necessary to include: “The mantra to woo tourists.”
India is indeed incredible. And if you don’t believe me, just ask some of the tourists who have been successfully wooed.
British tourist, wiping his brow at a juice stand in Bangalore: “It’s incredible how hot it is over here.”
American tourist, sitting in an auto-rickshaw in Mumbai: “It’s incredible how unruly the traffic is.”
Australian tourist, relaxing on a houseboat in the backwaters of Kerala: “It’s incredible how few crocodiles there are.”
India is incredible in many other ways, of course. It’s a country where you’ll find incredible poverty and also incredible wealth. Some of the world’s richest people live in India, the type of folks who would wonder how Bill and Hillary Clinton managed to spend only $3 million on their daughter Chelsea’s wedding — didn’t they buy enough diamond and gold jewelry to put around the necks of the elephants? Didn’t they spend a few million to ensure that a dozen Bollywood stars made appearances, not to mention a former U.S. president?
India’s wealth is evident in the huge houses you’ll see in many neighborhoods and the coterie of servants that the well-to-do employ. If you’re lucky enough to be rich in India, you’ll have someone to do your cooking, someone to do your cleaning, someone to write love letters to your wife. (A man can dream, can’t he?) But you don’t have to be rich to have domestic help in India. Even some of the maids have maids.
What’s truly incredible is the number of businesses in India. You’ll find stores and stands on the side of almost every street in the city, most operated by smalltime entrepreneurs. Now I know what the tourism guidebook meant when it said, “Don’t be surprised if you spot a few people doing their business on the street.” (But I’m still confused about the part that said, “It’s impolite to stare.”)
Very few of India’s retail outlets are franchises — most are independent businesses. McDonald’s, like other fast food chains, has expanded to India, but you won’t find the golden arches in every neighborhood — not yet, at least — and that’s a good thing. I don’t miss having a Big Mac, not when I can have a Big Dosa. I ordered an incredibly big dosa at one restaurant and, being a little careless while handling it, almost knocked over the man in the next table. Many a fight has been started by a poorly handled dosa.
It’s incredible what you’ll see on the streets of India. The other day, I saw a man washing clothes on the side of a street, another man ironing clothes, and a third man standing in his underwear, saying, “Hurry up! I’m going to be late for my interview!”
I’ve seen young women wearing burkas — with only their eyes visible — and also young women wearing short skirts. And you’ll never guess which of the women were listening to Justin Bieber on their iPods.
It’s incredible how much progress India has made in the last decade or so. You can see it almost everywhere. The economy is churning, people are earning, and rupees they are burning. The people who rode bicycles to work a decade ago are now riding motorcycles, those who rode motorcycles are now driving cars, and those who drove cars are now relaxing on houseboats in Kerala.
As the country develops, it may one day be flooded with tourists. Then I won’t be surprised to see a luxury bus with the words “Intolerable India” on it. And underneath, some genius in the tourism department will include an explanation: “The mantra to shoo tourists.”
Photo by JanetandPhil