Travelling India with Mum

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Something special: traveling like a tourist

My mum came to visit me in India and for some days, I am a very normal tourist. This brings advantages and disadvantages. The biggest problem is that I am not a guest anymore, but a pocket full of money. This problem is not really a financial one, because still, I am spending less money than I would in Germany. I also have a little financial buffer, as I haven’t spent more than 150€ a month so far. My problem is rather that I witness less culture. Or maybe just a different culture than I expect to do. The culture that I see now is folklore, show and tourist-attractions. A world, which has been designed to entertain. Somewhere there is a true spirit, a true story, but it has been shaped to sell it.

Travelling as a tourist can be exhausting and exhilarating. And I finally have new images of me and my mum.

Nonetheless, I am quite able to break the ice with the Rickshaw-drivers, hotel-staff and other persons by speaking a little Hindi. I can try to get to know some people from another perspective, which is a good advantage and interesting for my studies. I am going through the tourist program, but I also get answers besides the “we get a monthly salary from hotel and are very happy, but also we get tips from guests” answers, which have been learnt by heart to earn a little tip. Maybe the hindi answers are also not completely true, because I lack the power of trust, but still it is an information expressed in their own language, which makes interpretation possible. And besides this anthropologically interesting stuff, I was also able to ask if the people in the desert village need an English-teacher. Maybe for four weeks in the month of March. But that is another chapter.


India through Mum’s eyes

What is most interesting, though, is the perception of the country through my mother’s eyes. Recently we have been sharing a room. It was a bright one, with two windows, a huge, soft bed and a wall without black discoloration from shoes, dirty hands or other things that regularly happen here. Even the light switch was not worn or mucky. I was almost disappointed, because I could hear my mum saying: “Well, I would have things expected to be a little worse over here.”

For my mum, the trip was not just a new experience. We also had a good laugh about everything.

But when we were alone in the room, she said: “Oh my god. Look at this room. It is so … cobbled together … and look at the dirty fan … the A.C. has also seen better times before.” Then she started to laugh. A good sign for me, as it showed that she was at least not disgusted and would be comfortable with the room. She just found it funny. “I doubt that any of my work colleagues would spend just a single night in this room.” After an elaboration of which furniture does not match with the others (basically everything), of which parts of the room need to be painted and in which corner, on which window sill and where else you need to clean extensively, I could answer: “Yes, now I can see it, too.” I joined her laughter. But I did not understand completely.

Order and status

What my mum saw as a proof of poverty in the beginning, has become part of my everyday life. I also do not see it as poverty. Even if I am running into the danger of romanticising the life over here, I want to argue that financial issues hardly play a role in this. Of course, you also find slums and people who live in trash and under worst conditions. But the things, which my mum mentioned, are hardly a sign of poverty, but of different priorities.

Overnight train-rides in the cold-windy sleeper class is something that I would not do again with my mum. But at that time, we did not have a choice.

We Germans (let’s forget about shared flats of students for a while) love our order. Our pictures are neatly levelled, the dishes are ordered and even places that you cannot see or use are kept clean. Just in case. Our furniture is perfectly attuned. From the selection of colours to the shape of the edges and the texture of the wood of the side table. Because we want to present ourselves, by presenting our taste. We like to demonstrate our individualism with all the things that we use to design our world. Everyone is his or her own artist.

In Indian cities, you will also find an increasing tendency towards self-displaying (do not read it in a negative way, I love my culture and also my blog is full of self-displaying). No surprise, because it is tempting to improve one’s own status with easy tools. On the Indian countryside however, social structures are far more conservative. You are born into your status and you might be able to rise a little by showing off economical wealth or by doing good work and behaving well. But the borders of your status are harder, if not even impossible, to break. People have to fulfil their duties. To serve the guests, for example. Then you will sit in houses of strangers for just a few hours and will get a wonderful shawl as a present from your hosts, who have already cooked a great meal for you. The money for the shawl could also have been invested into new paint for the living room. But why? After all it is not the priority of the people here. Just like it would not be our priority to gift clothes to strange guests.

Asking the easy questions again

I explain all this to my mother. With a lot of patience, because India is hitting her hard. Basically, India hits everyone who is visiting first. It is loud, messy, colourful and dirty. I also have been overwhelmed in the beginning. Negatively and positively. Every now and then, you need to shut down your walls for a while. It is impossible to answer all the questions, so I have also stopped to ask questions at one point. I started to accept the culture as it is, because the questions were to complex. But since I have been quite more in line with the life over here, it is nice to again listen to the simple questions, which my mother is asking. Why do we, as guests, eat alone, without the hosts? Because the cooking of the food is already a form of relation and not the conversation at the table. Why are people so careless here? Because they are not only judged by their behaviour, but far more by their status through job, caste and family. Why is the food so spicy, even though we emphasized three times that my mum cannot eat spicy food? Because spices are love.

Somehow, everything went well and the trip surely was unforgettable.

And finally, everything is in order, somehow. Not a visible order, but a hidden one in the form of a complex network of relationships and rules about who has to treat whom in which way. Maybe it is a little more complex than the design of a perfect hotel room. For sure, it is too complex for two weeks in the country. And probably also for my six months. But one does not have to understand everything. It is a good start to see, what all can be different. Thanks for your exhausting stay, Mum!


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Shreya Vohra

This was such a real article! Also, a tip: do not travel by sleeper class in trains if your’re one of those people who like neatness and order and if you can afford to spend a little more (basically if you’re like me!) and also, I’d like to believe that the cook did put in less spices because you specifically asked him to do so, but as it often happens, the ‘less spicy indian food’ is generally too spicy for those who aren’t used to it🙈!