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Discoveries

The first time I was here, which also turned out to be the last time I was here, was 25 years ago. That sounds like a lifetime ago, and I suppose that to any 25-year-old, it actually is a lifetime ago. When you think about it, and I apologise right now for making you do think about it, it's actually only 1999. The thing Prince sang about, when he was still young and funky and - well - alive.





1999. The year the Euro was introduced. The year that Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial started (and finished), The Sopranos started, Praise You was released, The Matrix premiered, Alibaba was founded, Jill Dando was shot, Lance Armstrong won Tour de France number one, Thierry Henry was bought by Arsenal for a mere £10m, Oilers’ #99 was retired and Boris Yeltsin resigned...


And left a certain Mr Putin in charge.


And Remco travelled to India.


25 Years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday. Not because I happened to find myself travelling with the most objectionable travel companion since Katz and not because I remember how handsome and agile I still was back then, as opposed to the slightly overweight man whose panting reflection stares back at me, out of breath like I've chased a jumbo jet taking off whereas in reality I am only one kilometre into a workout. No, I remember coming here because of the transformative experience that it was.


Discovering

I know what you're going to say! Transformative. India. Now then, where have we heard this one before? Am I aware that they appear to have built an entire industry around this? The industry of welcoming seemingly lost souls who can meditate and reflect their way back to finding themselves somehow. Something they could probably do in the comfort of their own home, courtesy of a Peloton bike, or a good book. They don't have to find themselves on an Indian hilltop, courtesy of a Business Class ticket with Air India and a luxury airport transfer to the countryside. Who am I to judge that the yoga mats are more comfortable here than they are at Fitness First? I haven't tried either one. I can't comment on other people's transformative experiences any more than I can comment on the ‘genuine backpacker’ experience that not-quite-genuine backpackers opt for when they seemingly ‘slum it’ to Phuket. I had a transformative experience of my own and I will be honest, there wasn't much yoga-mat tourism to India in those days. There wasn't much tourism full stop.


The transformation might have started as early as on the plane. We're talking a KLM 747 from back in the day when you equated the experience of flying on long-haul flights as something akin to interstellar travel. Nowadays you ensure you’re at the airport two or three hours beforehand. We're talking about the experience of arriving at the airport a week in advance. Packing and repacking, making sure your Visa was in order a year ahead of schedule and patting yourself down for your passport every five minutes. Ordering your Traveller's Cheques, starting on a malaria pill treatment that will take you two years to complete and purchasing several books about Indian culture. You take a short course in Hindi and then find out that in India, there are more languages than people, and that's saying something. But in short, these were the days that we came prepared and I was no exception.


Katz

Let's introduce my own version of Katz at this point. Bill Bryson's larger-than-life travel partner from A Walk in the Woods that I ended up travelling with as well. Like Bryson, for reasons too complicated to explain, I was travelling with Katz even though I did not want to. Unlike Bryson, I believe, I was also sleeping with Katz. Not a lot but enough to wonder about the sense of it all. Katz and I - I am going to call her Katz from now on - had been watching our relationship reach its natural conclusion for a while now. Like a wounded and slightly dying animal or something perhaps a little less cruel than that. You're watching it and you think, ‘It'll die any minute now. I mean, any minute. Definitely any hour now.’ Then you revisit it a week later and upon seeing it alive, though marginally less alive than before, you utter the exact same words. Over and over again. It takes time to realise a relationship isn't dying slowly. You've got to wring its neck. You've got to admit you're not attracted to one another. Then you have to admit that the other person doesn't inspire you. Eventually, you will probably realise you despise each other's existence entirely.


I have a theory that it can take hatred just as long to develop as love. Love develops over time. Unless you're Ross Geller from Friends, you don't love someone from day dot. You develop love. It arrests you after a certain period of time. You wake up suddenly and you know. Within a relationship, I believe hatred develops in the same way and it takes roughly the same amount of time. It's my theory. You don’t wake up suddenly hating someone. They may do things that you do not like but all of a sudden the same things you don't dislike anymore, you actually just hate. You may not hate the person in their entirety. Not yet anyway. The hatred, like the love you felt before, kind of sneaks up on you. You find yourself realising you've hated that person for the best part of a year now. It turns out it was the things they did. It was just them. All of them.


And so it was with us. The hate was there, just not the realisation of hate. There were little inklings. There were subtle hints and, above all, it was completely mutual. Why did Katz swallow so loudly, is what I thought. Why did I have to clear my throat so often? Why did she start conversations that she never finished? Why did I never start any conversation? Why did she have so many fake friends? Why did I not have any friends at all? Why did she rip up and throw away the books that she'd read? Why did I listen to music and feel the need to explain that music at the same time? When the logical frustrations ran out, the niggly shit started appearing. Then the niggly shit ran out and the nonsensical stuff began. Picking fights for the sake of fights, frustration for the sake of frustration, looking for the exit even though the house fire had started weeks and months ago.


The Cultural Food Chain

India took place somewhere towards the end of all that misery. Katz wanted to go to India. It was her idea, which was rather strange because to me, it felt as if she had the same level of cross-cultural affinity as Adolf Hitler. That might sound like a bit of a dig and if Hitler were alive, I'd certainly apologise to him. What I am trying to say is that here is a breed of white Western people that treat culture like a food chain, with them at the top of it. White Western culture at the top of that food chain. Anything that is not Western European is put under the Western European lens and has to be explained in a Western European context. After all, every other culture is, in their minds, derived from ours. ‘We have had our enlightenment,’ they might say. You know, before they pat another culture on the head and go, ‘There, there.’ People like Katz go, ‘Oh look, these people also have a school.’ Follow that statement with a slight head tilt and a further qualification of, ‘Well, at least they go to school’ and a nod towards the concept that this culture, too, will eventually get there. And they will get there even faster if they listen to us. They're people who think the others will eventually embrace Western culture, they will learn how to read and write real literature, build houses with roofs and so on and so forth. Within that context, every culture, every person within it and every utterance of that culture is instantly met with derision and condescension and you kind of wonder why these people are even travelling here. Why did Kat want to travel to India?


If not to discover and learn for herself; was it only to confirm her own belief that we were, as initially assumed, at the top of the cultural food chain. The belief that allows people like Katz to look at different cultures in that slightly condescending way. Rather than look and wonder, look and be amazed or simply be quiet and learn; it allows them an opportunity to look down. And Katz would. I don’t know if this is why she wanted to visit a country like India, a place, certainly at that time, so alien to our own tiny country it may as well have been located on Mars. It was clear, indeed, that once there, Katz took a strange kind of delight in looking down on all that she saw. Reflecting on all that she saw and scrutinising all that she saw through the lens of her own culture. Explaining all she saw in the only way she knew how, without pausing to understand or perhaps not understand but simply take an interest in.


Since that visit, I have come to understand people like Katz a little bit better. They speak of cultural differences in such a way that they all become cultural oddities. Cultural aberrations. Mistakes that, over time, should be altered. Whatever doesn't align with their predominantly white Western culture and whatever cannot be readily explained through that particular lens is immediately considered an oddity, a mistake that eventually will rectify itself. In this particular way, as I had noticed already, people like Katz view their own culture as dominant, or supremely evolved, and other cultures as merely catching up. Sooner or later, they reckon, these cultures will see the light, so to speak, and adopt what is reasonable, sensible and enlightened. Until then, these little glitches in the cultural matrix were put into four different categories. At least, without giving it too much thought herself, this is how Katz compartmentalised the strangenesses. These four categories were: Quaint, Ignorant, Destructive or Mildly Understandable (given the correct context).


Quaint

Category one, quaint, was whatever would make her tilt her head sideways and exclaim without too much derision or scorn that it was cute. Ultimately, quaint was completely harmless, though it's important to point out that it was also pointless. At least to Katz's one-sided understanding. Why would anyone do this? How was this at all necessary? Quaint was what it was, quaint, but there was no need for it. The concept of having 17 waiters in a restaurant with six diners was, according to Katz, quaint but also completely pointless. Then there was the fact that on the hour, every hour, they broke into a choreographed yet rather hapless dance routine that, in all honesty, was displayed with the energy and vigour that most of its choreography lacked. In all its pointlessness, quaint was only a few steps away from the next category. Ignorant.


Ignorant

Ignorant, or stupid, was the culturally inexplicable. It wasn't necessarily harmless. It was pointless and beyond comprehension through the Western lens. It was whatever Katz experienced that could not be explained in any reasonable way. The time she saw the body of a woman laid to rest in a type of decorated shelter, beautifully dressed and the shelter beautifully decorated. Perhaps Katz was taken aback by the sight of a dead body. Perhaps the sight had taken her by surprise. She took her time to rationalise the scene and when it transpired it was impossible to do so, within a Western framework at least, she decided it was stupid. Why would anyone do this? Katz also took great offence to traffic avoiding livestock. It is important to point out that Katz also didn't feel that ploughing through animals was a great to go either. Now I am no longer with her, it will be a mystery forever whether that is because Katz sympathised with animals or automobiles but let's put the woman in a kind light or at least suggest, as a viable alternative, that she couldn't stand the sight of blood. Katz simply did not understand that cows could not live behind a fence. ‘Wouldn't that jut solve everything,’ she said to me after the tenth time that traffic had come to a dead stop and we’d nearly been ejected from our tuk tuk, which, like any other vehicle in this country, seemed to have been fitted with a hyperdrive. I had to agree with her. When seeing your life flash before you because the driver is keen not to hit a stray animal, it is only a conceptual step towards the next category. Destructive.


Destructive

The destructive category is possibly the only category where Katz and I would find some sort of common ground though I don't know for sure. Truth is, for as much as I have imagined that I knew what Katz was thinking about any of the above, we rarely ever debated any of it. I mean, we hardly ever talked, so a debate about any of this would have been rare, if not unthinkable. We found ourselves at the relationship stage that could only be characterised by the death of all but the most necessary and essential communication. We were beyond everyday conversation, pleasantries, compliments (obviously) and also intense discussions about culture. Knowing, or at least assuming Katz's stance and opinion on most of what she saw provided me with enough information that a conversation about this sort of thing would only precipitate our demise. Now under normal circumstances, that might have been a desirable outcome. When the two of you are backpacking India - and your ex-girlfriend has got instant access to hypodermic needles - it is probably prudent to keep the peace.


However, if we had at any point engaged in something like a healthy debate on culture and customs, the destruction category might have been where we’d agreed with one another. This is what I know of and about Katz after about a year of a decidedly unhealthy and, looking back, probably toxic relationship right from the very start. I think we would have agreed on the destructive category and, in particular, the concept of the value of a human life. Immediately after exiting Delhi airport, we were faced with the rawness of life in India. By all accounts, we westerners have it too good. By that I don't mean there is no poverty. Poverty is all around. We just have the good grace of hiding it from view. Seeing poverty makes us wince, so we simply choose not to see it and hiding poverty has worked quite well. One could almost argue that most of the Western world is a well protected compound to which poverty, including our very own neighbour's state of pennilessness, does not have access. Of course, when we travel to other countries, India being one of them, we are forced to cope with the many different manifestations of poverty that we so expertly hide in our countries.


In India we noticed that poverty lives side by side with wealth and wealth lives right next door to vast opulence. Whereas in the Western world the homeless are mostly adult males, India’s homeless are every type of person you can imagine, including the very most vulnerable. Living, eating, sleeping and defecating on the ten square metres that is their existence, sharing it with stray dogs and the tuk tuks that fly past at breakneck speeds. The value of a human life, we could argue, reduced to its chances of making it a life worth living, which look slim at best. But it's too complex a discussion and we are too ignorant of the many elements of this discussion. It is certainly not a good idea to discuss in a blog post and I would probably fall into the trap of Katz's cultural superiority. The trap that makes us believe that for some reason or other, there is a superiority that allows us to make these judgements. The trap that compels us to save one of the dogs. Still, in its most destructive-looking of strangeness, Indian culture, both Katz and I might have agreed, seemed to be slightly more ambivalent to the value of a human life.


But I know this cannot be true. Hence the complexity.


Mildly Understandable

The final category - Mildly Understandable - was an interesting one because it betrayed Katz's coming of age, you could say, in a cultural sense. Her development and her acceptance. Ours is not a dominant culture and theirs, if you'd like to engage in us-vs-them language, is not an inferior one. This fourth category took some time to establish and even at the end of our holidays and our trials, for that they were, I don't think Katz submitted many of what she had witnessed to category four. However, there was more willingness towards the end than there had been in the beginning. The Mildly Understandable category was, above anything else, an acceptance that our own culture was just as inexplicably diverse and just as daft, as quaint and definitely as destructive. Correction, ours is probably the most destructive of all, believing, after all, that it is superior. This is obviously our main problem. Our cultural - and moral - superiority has allowed us to be more violent towards other cultures. Those we deem subservient. It has been compounded by a serious issue that has plagued the Western culture for many centuries now. Western culture’s gradual loss of all spirituality. The loss of spirituality and, in its place, our belief that we are the divine; and can make divine decisions such as life and death.


Katz's understanding of the Mildly Understandable was more a discovery of her own shortcomings, her own pragmatism and rebellious streak to seek the pragmatic in everything she saw than it was her understanding of India. The realisation that it's not a case of right and wrong, of master and servant and of superior and subservient. It started coming along in tiny steps and, I have to admit, it did for me too for I was just as culturally insensitive as she was. We started understanding that there might be beauty in the divine - just not if we kept questioning it. We didn't have to rationalise everything. Not everything required a methodical analysis and a quest for what was at the heart of this. There can be beauty, there can be something deeply human and powerful in the things that we do not understand. A son burning his mother on a fire for instance. The celebration of life as opposed to the mourning of death. Both of which she managed to witness without comment.


But this was towards the end of our journey. It was not at the beginning.


Meeting Odette

Back to that plane. Where, by sheer coincidence, I ran into an old classmate from the early days of secondary school. A lifetime away even at 24. Decades and decades ago, or at least so it felt. She was sat a few rows down from the lavatories and I did a triple take. The one we reserve for the people we meet for the first time in almost ten years. For teens especially, ten years is a lot of time to develop. Odette was no longer the geeky kid with spiky hair on top and, rather bizarrely, curtains down the side. No longer the girl who wore the one Snoopy T-shirt to school. She had grown into a young woman. The backpacker type now, with just as questionable a sense of fashion before but Woodstock and Charlie Brown had been dropped for tie-dye. It may be difficult to believe but I think I may have preferred the Snoopy motif. To me, ie-dye reveals a blatant disregard to basic looking after oneself. If you patently do not care what your shirt will look like, once you've thrown into a vat of rainbow-coloured paints, you simply do not care. And Odette must have thought, upon setting off for India, that clothes could now be considered an afterthought, a prevention from being naked. Nothing more.


Odette also did a double-take and, in all honesty, might have thought the same about me. Zip-off cargo trousers were the rage and my T-shirt also showed a reckless abandon of fashion; something that Katz and I had fought about most passionately. ‘You are wearing that on the plane?’ After our combined five takes, we exchanged the customary what are you doing here greetings that are both redundant and justified. Redundant because we were both on our way to Delhi. Justified because it led to a backstory. We weren't just going to Delhi, were we? We were leading a life, for starters, which had a story, and now we were headed for another life. So I explained I was going backpacking with my girlfriend without explaining that I didn't want to go backpacking with my girlfriend; I just wanted to go backpacking. Then I admitted, non-verbally, by ending the story as soon as it had started, that there was no more to be said. We were going backpacking. India just came up as a possibility. Or maybe it was the cheapest option at the time. We may as well have thrown an arrow at a map of the world.


Annoyingly, Odette was on her way to something far greater, something that had been thought of and considered for a lot longer than a weekend evening. On her way to a town that I could not pronounce, Odette was going to dedicate the next two years to nursing. She had spent the last three years training to be a nurse and now wanted to see the world in a more meaningful way. She did not say this exactly. It was an assessment after my pathetic explanation of seeing the world with a backpack on. Visiting temples, mosques and restaurants and never ever having any meaningful exchanges with anyone. A visitor to begin with and a visitor when you leave. I couldn't help but be both annoyed with Odette and falling in love with her in equal measure. I had zero altruistic traits. Odette was nothing but altruistic. Odette was also going to do something real whereas I would survey the surface like a skimming stone that would eventually, if not by miracle, make its way back to the shire. I had no purpose in India but to part with my cash for - what - a Number One Cultural Experience Mister! You only have to visit one of the 41,000,000 papyrus museums in Cairo to know that there is no such thing.


So when Katz came to speak/yell at me in that passive aggressive tone partners reserve for potentially illicit liaisons, including two-minute chats with fellow passengers; I don’t think I was all that upset. All that unhappy or all that inconvenienced. Odette was ruining my pre-arrival experience. She was not my girlfriend. My girlfriend was asking me what had been taking me so long and why I couldn't have told her I was talking to someone. My girlfriend was saying that she had been worried. For what if something had happened? Odette was not my girlfriend and the main reason for this was that deep down, I preferred backpacking my way. This way. Snogging a ski instructor instead of a student nurse, you know you're not totally going to slum your way through the subcontinent. Just a little. . Just the tip. I just didn't want to be this backpacker. I wanted to be Odette's boyfriend. But I only wanted to be her boyfriend because of what it would say about me. I just didn't want the commitment of it. I didn't really want to be her boyfriend, even if I was falling in love with her.


The Arrivals Hall at Delhi

Landing in India now, I still feel like both that 14-year-old and that 24-year-old. My features have changed but recently I was told that I hadn't changed. To me, like most men, I just get greeted by my dad each time I look in the mirror. I missed the arrivals hall at Delhi airport. A quarter of a century ago, all I could see were people. Two long gates at either side of a walkway held back hundreds of people holding signs and children, waiting expectantly for family members, husbands, wives, colleagues and loved ones to appear through the huge sliding doors that gave way to this crowd of people. I missed the chaos. That's not to say that Delhi has abandoned its chaos but there is more of a feeling of space. Delhi is still crowded but I can remember that during my first visit, I never had any space whatsoever. It was difficult to move around. Large four- and five-lane roads have been added to the landscape.


So have Starbucks, KFC and a lot more McDonald's than the one we managed to find 25 years ago. In addition to the one Pizza Hut we visited back then, where the waiters suddenly stopped serving to do their dance. There's still a conversation to be had on every street, which was true then but it was more difficult because of the language barrier. Not impossible, as I found on, for instance, the train from Delhi to Chandigarh, where many people frequently engaged in conversation. A rather one-sided conversation, it has to be said, as it was mainly in Hindi or Punjabi (and the fact I don't know which one will explain the one-sidedness of these chats) but it stopped no one. During one of the many stops, a man lept out of the train, as is usual, to buy me a cup of tea. We stood there, me inside the carriage for fear the train would suddenly leave - him outside, completely indifferent to even the first jolts of the train as it started to pull away; and we had an entire conversation. Me in English, him in what I assumed was Hindi. About the weather. Six in the morning and already the sun beating down on us as if we'd done something wrong to it. I thanked him for the tea, wanted to give him some money. He waved it away in that style that still, to this day, makes me wonder what it means. The Indian headshake - the one that means yes - is still hardly decipherable and it catches me off guard each time. Each time, for a split second, I think it's a no. Then it turns out to be yes.





But no, I wasn't to pay for this tea. And then he disappeared down the track.


What you learn about India when you visit India is that it is like that headshake. Inexplicable. You could spend a lifetime of visits to this country and not appropriately replicate this headshake. Equally, you could continue to visit this country until your features resemble that of your granddad and it will still be a mystery. I accept the lens through which I see others and through which I attempt to explain that which I cannot explain but the more I visit, the more I accept that there are certain things that require no explanation. They are not scientific. They are human.


I don't think India is for people like me to understand. That's not why it's there and it's not why we visit - why we are so fascinated when we visit. I just accept the privilege that I am able to visit in the first place. I embrace that privilege. Maybe that is what I realised, as I tend to realise each time I step onto a plane and each time the doors of that plane allow me to spill into a new country. I realised it as I drank my tea. Indian cha, the sweetest thing you've ever tasted in your life, like liquid sugar. I drank my tea and sat in the doorway of my train, watching life on the platform pass me by. I am just really lucky.


When you travel with a view of valuing the privilege of travel and a view of accepting that it is a privilege, you may not understand much about what you see, about what you hear or about who you meet.


If you are lucky, you might just understand a little bit more about yourself.

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