My Indian Friend… Are you Really?

Indian Friend

Indian Friend – Is it Possible to make a true one?

Making a true friend in India, what a touchy subject. I am sincerely hoping that I do not come off as too negative in this post, for it is not my intention.

Arriving at the Pushkar Camel Fair is a lot to take in. As the tourists have beaten you here by many years, and Indians of all sides of life have come as well, it is probably not the best place to make a true Indian friend.

A you walk down the street, following the throngs of people… you will have many people putting out their hands whenever they pass you. Unfortunately you know that giving them money doesn’t fix the problem. So you push on and learn to say ‘no’ or ‘nay, nay’ to anyone who approaches you.

As you walk past the street barrier and the crowd thickens, someone puts a flower in your hand and says that you have to throw it in the lake…

“Holy festival” he says “must do it for respect”. It sounds like some sort of ploy you so you try to give it back, but no go… he won’t take it. He insists on explaining the ritual to you as you walk. Finally you’ve had enough, and forcefully put it back in his hand.

Indian Friend

The Throngs of People at the Pushkar Mela

“No sir, respect festival sir” he says, refusing to take it.
“I don’t want it” you’ll say…
“Why no, sir?”
“I don’t want you to keep beside me” you’ll spit out, and feel a little piece of you die as the words echo in your ears.
“No problem sir, you walk to lake alone sir” he’ll say, undaunted, un-fazed and certainly not hurt by your words… and he walks off. Maybe he was just your Indian friend.

You see him lurking, and watching your every step. He passes off to another guy, who follows you and passes to another guy and another. Finally you get near the lake and the last guy tells you where to go. You go down, he shows you some blessing to do. You see many other people doing it and it calms your nerves… perhaps this is legit. 

At the end, he asks you how much you will donate and tells you that many people donate 10,000 rupees ($200)… You call bullshit.

“How much will you give sir?”
“I don’t know… not much”
“You must give something to the gods sir”
“The gods have no use for money”
“Yes sir, your donation, shows that you love the gods, you give your money to them, you get good luck for you and family”
“At least 1000, sir”
“100” you say, unwilling to believe that you’ve entered negotiations to appease someone who pushed his appeasement of the gods upon you… damn appeasers!
“500, sir…. for your family”
“No more than 100″ you say sternly… giving it to him “take it, or nothing”
“100 for you, 100 for family”
“100 for my family, my life is blessed enough” you say as he takes the coconut out of your hand clearly quite upset with your ‘lack of respect’.
Guess that wasn’t your Indian friend. You walk away not quite sure if you have indeed disrespected the gods or just gotten away cheap from a scam… oh well, continuing on.

Indian Friend

The colours at the Pushkar Camel Fair

You see the fair grounds, and take a sharp left away from it. Who needs to see Ferris Wheels? Let’s go find the camels. A ‘self-proclaimed’ gypsy starts talking to you. You keep walking, but damn this one is persistent. Before you know it, she’s putting some sort of mud on your hands in the shape of a flower.
“I’m not paying you” you say
“No problem sir, just for luck”

Eventually you sit down, she paints on both hands… you realize it’s henna and curse yourself for not figuring out this ploy earlier. You start crunching some numbers… she’s playing the harp strings, showing you her sick family and telling you how difficult her life is as a Gypsy… Finally she’s done. Enter the negotiations… you think about just running. After all, you didn’t ask her to do this. You were just looking for an Indian friend.

“How much you give sir?” She asks like it’s a donation to a charity. “Normally 1000 for each side… normal 2000 for you sir”“No way I’m giving you 2000 for that” you say appalled with her first price. You put 200 rupees in her hand.
“Not possible sir”
“That’s all you’re getting” you insist… these negotiations go on for awhile without much headway, she won’t come below 500 and you won’t go above 200. Of course you know that you shouldn’t start bargaining with your final price, but you didn’t think you were in a bargaining situation… damn! Finally, she asks you to buy her flour for chapatti saying it’s only 300. You agree. It turns out being 400 and she walks away with it in her hand after saying that you’ll pay. Guess that wasn’t your Indian Friend.

Some guy gives you a tour of the camels “god will pay me” he says… he takes you around

Indian Friend

The ‘Indian friend’ who was your tour guide “god will pay me”

for a couple of hours showing you everything. Seems like a good Indian friend. In the end he only wants money as well. You give him $1 american as you have no Indian rupees left. He does seem fairly genuine anyway. Walking away after you’ve paid him he shouts out to you that he misses you already. Maybe that was your indian friend??

Now a new guy comes up to you, asks you to sit and talk to him… so you do, but show him that you have no money.
“No problem,” he says, “I no need money”. You call bullshit, but sit and talk with him anyway. He tells you that he’s ‘desert person’ and lives in poor village. You heart goes out to him and you sincerely wish you could help. He says that a long time ago, a few Spaniards come to his village,
“They live for three months and teach me English.” Now he can make a little bit of money by selling his instruments to tourists. He seems like a genuine Indian friend.

You talk with him for awhile, and he asks if you would like to see his house… you say sure and walk away for a half hour trek into the desert. You discuss to much extent the benefit of having a white person in the village so that the ‘poor desert people’ can have a way to learn English.
“Rich Indians don’t see the poor,” he tells you… and you know that he’s speaking the truth as you’ve been watching how badly Indians treat each other over the last few weeks. Finally you get to his ‘village’ and realize just exactly how poor it is. It is made up of a few houses which are constructed from sticks, using a tarp to cover the roof. Everyone sleeps on the floor, and electricity is not to be seen. You hope you can help… but aren’t sure just what you can do here. You spend all night with him, and he never mentions money. He is a true Indian friend… and you most certainly will come back and spend a couple of weeks… if only you can think of a way to be useful. His talking to you snaps you out of your daydream.

Indian Friend

Cooking dinner over a hand-made stove

“You know, very cold here at night” He says, as his wife just stares at you, unable to communicate in English.
“What is your age difference?” You ask, hoping that it’s not a rude question.
“She 20, me 32″ he responds.
“You know her before you get married?”
“No, never” he responds, “You married, my friend?”
“No no”
“Oh, girlfriend?”
“Not really… it’s complicated”
“Oh, I think you can get married very quickly my friend?”
“I’m not looking to get married thanks”
“God like you, you very kind, god see true heart, you marry very quickly… good wife”
“Okay,” you respond… and attempt to switch the focus back to him, “So you meet your wife at marriage?”
“Yes… she good wife”
“Does she feel the same?” You ask unsure if you’re pushing your boundaries.
“She know she good wife” he reponds, not quite understanding your meaning.
“How does your system work?”
“I meet her father, he like me, promise her to me”
“How old were you?”
“15 when I meet her father”

You know that it’s part of the traveller’s creed to not hold judgement of another culture… but you find it hard to not see inherent flaws in a system where a girl of 3 years old is promised to a man for marriage. But after all, are you willing to say that the Western world really has the answers regarding marriage? You don’t like this system… it’s not just… but with a divorce rate well over 50% the whole marriage system in the west needs to be rethought as well…

“My tent very bad” he says again snapping you out of your thoughts.
“Yes, I imagine very cold at night”
“But new tent very expensive” ….. son-of-a-bitch… you know exactly where this is going. Don’t do it friend… don’t do it! You’re my only true Indian friend. Don’t make this about money! Make it about my labour, make it about my contacts, make it about my ability  to build you a new house… just don’t make it about money!
“Can you help buy new tent?” … and you did it. were you ever my Indian Friend??? Was this ever about a real connection or did you manipulate every word, every interaction in order to appear worse off?
“How much is new tent?” You say trying to buy time and you consider your options… You’re in the middle of the desert, a good half hour walk away from the city and it’s dark. Even if you can find the right route, there’s no telling if you’ll get there in one piece. The one thing you have going for you is that you showed your ‘Indian friend’ that you have no money on you… keep that up!

Indian Friend

One of the houses in the village

“15000 for best one” you hear him say
“How much was the cheapest one?”
“6000, but it not very good”
“I have no money with me”
“I know friend, I don’t need now… but when we go back to your hotel, you go in and get it” …and the plot thickens. In the very least, you can get back to your hotel.
“I can’t give you 6000″
“What can you give me?”
“I don’t know” and you go into a long narrative about how you would’ve loved to stay with him for a couple of weeks and leave money if he never asked… but now that he’s asked you  don’t want to give anything… you’ll pay for the food. Eventually you settle on 500.
“Thank you” he says without going into negotiations.
“I borrow bike to get you back to town” and apparently this is a new negotiation. He speaks to his neighbour who owns the bike, who will lend it to him for 200… he asks you for it and you say no. Finally you end up saying you’ll pay 100 of it. 600 total… just around $10… ridiculously expensive for India, but this is your own fault, so you’ll have to let it go.

Finally you get back to the city, and just say ‘screw it’… you take out the american cash you have hidden away in your bag, give him a $10 and bid adieu… crushed.

A very, very expensive day in India. How did you let yourself get into this?

Indian Friend

Where all the camels hang out

The question is how to grow a thick skin without allowing it to harden your heart.

You’re convinced that you can make some real friendships with Indians while you’re here. How are you going to go about figuring this out though? Clearly your system today didn’t work… you ended up paying 3 days budget for things you didn’t need/want.

You know that there’s another side to this story. In fact, you’re pretty sure that you’re only looking at the symptoms and aren’t even remotely getting to the causes or the root of the issue. It is unfair to leave it as such a one-sided view… are you not just adding to the problem? You’ll have to revisit this issue shortly, and attempt to articulate to the best of your abilities the manner in which cultures get adversely affected due to tourism and the exploitation from the western world.

You decide you’ll go back to an old trick that you learned a while ago. Volunteer and learn the language. You’re certain that if you get into a proper volunteering position, you’ll meet locals that will interact with you on a different level… and of course you know that you have to speak the language if you ever want to change the manner in which you are viewed.
Maybe you will find a true Indian Friend yet.

You might find that in a couple of weeks you have almost the exact opposite problem with too many Indian friends as part of the hazards of being a small town traveler, or that life in a giant sandcastle is a great way to make true Indian friends.

 

 

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52 thoughts on “My Indian Friend… Are you Really?

  1. Ashley and Alex

    We haven’t been to India yet but we have encountered this somewhat in Southeast Asia. I definitely felt the same way. You try to connect with people but then they just ask for money. It was easier for us in Europe because we could blend in more and not scream TOURIST but it is much more difficult when you are in other countries and you want to help these developing countries and these people but at the same time…. You said it really well and I am sure most travelers can relate.

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      You’re totally right, in places where you stick out like a sore thumb (and the tourist path is fairly beaten), it’s hard to get away from these sort of situations. S.E. Asia is certainly up there as having it’s fair share, there’s no doubt about that… you’ll have to let me know what you think when you get to India. :)

      Reply
  2. Margherita @The Crowded Planet

    I totally get how you felt. We spent four months in India and had experiences like this almost every day. I blame it on those ‘do-good’ travelers who walk around handing out money, not knowing that they’ll just further the problem. Unfortunately, a lot of money are spent on drinks and gambling. Still an amazing country though. An experience that keeps growing on you after you’ve left the country.

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Yeah… Margherita, I totally understand where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure if there’s much sense in figuring out who’s to blame… especially in India. I mean I’m sure some of it goes right back to the tension that was raised by British Occupation and all that jazz, add the amazing population density and the caste system and then the tourists that give stuff away to ‘help’… The causes are plentiful and compounding… But you’re absolutely right, it is indeed an experience that just keeps growing on you while after you’re left the country. :)

      Reply
  3. Bob R

    I have bought friends while on the road. Not in the truest sense of either word of course; call it a friendly relationship instead. In several places if I needed an interpreter or a guide for a few hours or a day, we negotiated a price, and that was that. A couple times they were hustlers who approached me for money first. They wound up taking me on a tour of an area or neighborhood I would never venture to or through on my own.

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Great point Bob, we certainly tend to forget at times that there are absolutely some negotiations that we rely upon greatly as travelers. There is no doubt that the ones that go smoothly tend to be forgotten and yet the one or two bad ones (in hundreds) stick out in our memory. Thanks for this account, it certainly adds another side that I’m not sure if I shed light upon.

      Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Thanks so much Maria… I’m not quite sure if I deserve THAT much praise, but the book that you speak about is currently in the process of being written… story by story, line by line, pen to paper, the old-fashioned way… (it’s also weighing down my backpack fairly impressively)

      Reply
  4. Bente Vold Klausen

    Very well written article and I could easy relate to it. This is a very difficult theme and as western travellers we are confronted with this problems very often. Poor people struggle to survive and we are walking banks, filled with money – why not try to get some of it, they think, make us pay? We are the lucky ones that can travel as we do and we have to be the ones accepting this situation. The only way to do something about it is to work for world peace and democracy on a long run. So not easy!

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Yeah… sigh… The most unfortunate part about it (from my perspective at least) is that the very way that we live in the Northern countries is only possible through the exploitation of the Southern countries… I guess what I’m saying is that unless we change the way that we live in the so-called developed world, we actually need the so-called undeveloped world to stay undeveloped… on the bright side, we know that we can start with ourselves, so it’s we don’t have to feel quite as helpless as you might think :)

      Reply
  5. Rashad Pharaon

    Part of me feels very bad for the Indian family. God knows how hard their life is and what their day to day struggles are, including no social security net from the government. I can imagine that this behavior is driven by desperation to feed a family, and not by a heart of darkness.

    I experienced similar situations but brushed them off–I hope it didn’t dilute your experience. You seem to have had a great trip :)

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      A huge part of me feels bad for the family. There is no doubt that they don’t do this by choice… Nor is it some evil scheme behind the works… this is the offspring of a completely unjust system that we benefit by… Dilute my experience? If anything I would say that it added to it… not in a comfortable, happy way… but in a very real and touching way… I cherish greatly my time spent in India. :)

      Reply
  6. Elena (http://gonewiththebackpack.blogspot.com/ )

    I had a similar experience in so many countries…never been to India but I can imagine how frustrating and tiring it could be. I guess you just have to accept it is like that and ignore them. I´ve been hosted while travelling (couchsurfing) by real friendly Indians and was amazed by their generosity and hospitality (I remember now a few of them – in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, in Christchurch, NZ, in Tokyo, Japan… and I´m sure more that I can´t remember now. I´m still in touch with some of them

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Hi Elena, this sort of thing can occur in so many countries for sure, and can take its toll… For me, personally, India was just a bit more than any other country… mostly because it never stops. But, that being said, it is still well worth it… such an amazing country. And honestly, it’s only within India itself where meeting friends that are not primarily seeking cash is so difficult. I went to India with one of my best friends who is Indian, and stayed with his family for a week for his brother’s wedding… they were absolutely amazing, certainly no qualms there… But his father told me to delete any Facebook contacts that I made (his own family) because they would certainly ask me for money and/or help emigrating to Canada… India is… well… India… there’s no words to describe it. Accept it I agree, but ignore is almost impossible.

      Reply
  7. Michael Huxley

    I know exactly what you mean by this! It can get SO tiring after a while with constant friendly introductions and then the obligatory money exchange. It is constant. All the time. At least money will always buy you friendship, right?

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Yep, that’s exactly how it feels. I hear so many people say that after a couple of months in India they were tired and ready for a bit of a break… Think you hit the nail on the head for what makes the place so tiring Michael!

      Reply
  8. Surya Bhattacharya

    I’m sorry you had to experience this :( I don’t even know what to say. India is a fascinating country, and even we, who have lived here all our lives, can’t claim to understand it. It’s unfortunate you had to see this, but like you mentioned in an earlier comment, you were overwhelmed by the friendliness of people in Jaisalmer. It’s also sad sometimes that next time someone actually does come to be be a friend, s/he won’t get the chance thanks to earlier bad experiences.
    But anyway, let me tell you :) India is full of amazing people, and has its fair share of jackasses as well, maybe in the same proportion as the rest of the world. It’s just that because of sheer absolute numbers, the possibility of bumping into the jackasses is more than the rest of the world, see? :P

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      I certainly don’t want to take much away from India with this post… I really hesitated writing it to be honest because I knew it would be very hard. But eventually decided that it wasn’t fair to my readers if I didn’t present the hard days, and man was this ever a hard day. India is probably one of the most fascinating and interesting places I have ever been and I’ll certainly return. I like your theory on the jackasses, hahaha… but I don’t know, I wouldn’t even call them jackasses… I guess I would say that in a country obsessed with money, they can’t help but reach for a bit of their own pie. However, as you say, it’s a place where understanding is hard to come by… You have to just go, experience the ups and downs (and their certainly are ups), and not get too jaded…
      PS… Jaisalmer was after this, and it was certainly my attempt to get over the knot in my stomach that this experience had left :)

      Reply
  9. Emily

    Great post, really well written! It’s so frustrating being in a country where everyone seems to see you as a walking wallet – especially when you just want to make some friends!

    Reply
  10. Karen Warren

    Oh yes, this is so familiar. We had this all the time in India. You can’t blame people really when western visitors are so well off compared with many of the people that you meet. But you can’t give money to everyone – we contented ourselves with putting money in a box at the airport before we left but there’s always more that can be done… And as you say it would be nice to be able to mix with people on a more equal basis.

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Hey Karen,
      you’re so right, you can’t possibly lay the blame upon the locals that live in the country with the greatest income disparity and then see these people from Northern countries, these white skinned invalids that seem to just be made of wealth… And unfortunately, not only can you not give money to everyone, but in reality giving money, in most cases, only leads to exacerbate the problem. It’s a tough mix, and you always feel (especially in India) like there’s more that you could’ve done… more that you should’ve done… more that you would’ve done, if only…

      Reply
  11. Dave Cole

    Very interesting perspective on a visitor’s experience in the developing world. I’ve certainly had many of the same feelings while traveling in a destination that has such an income disparity with my home country.

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Hey Dave,
      Absolutely. Any time that your a visitor in a country where the average wage is but a fraction of the minimum wage in your own country, there will be some issues that arise, such inequality does not just float easily past… Yet, at least in my experience, there’s something different about India. Maybe it’s that it’s been exploited for so long by fair skinned, English speakers… Perhaps it’s the shear population density, or even the income disparity within the country itself… Perhaps some of it stems from their very religions, where fables and fantasies are woven into the very culture, thus making misrepresentations and falsehood a commonality within the fabric of the society itself… I can’t say that I know… but there’s something beautiful, something exotic, and something (at times) quite frustrating about India.

      Reply
  12. David @ That Gay Backpacker

    Well India is really huge so it really changes state by state. My 1 month experience in Kerala was nothing but positive. So many people wanted to talk tome on the street, and wanted nothing more than to talk. They were actually the friendliest people I have ever met.

    Of course, Kerala has 100% literacy, most people speak English, and there is virtually no poverty…

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Hi David,

      You’re absolutely right, India is very big and it varies not only state to state but even city to city. I never got to Kerala, though have heard much the same from many different travelers. Furthermore, I wrote this post in an incredibly low point, probably one of the lowest I’ve ever had as a backpacker.

      I think it’s important to show not only the ups, but also some of the downs in traveling. Not, of course, to give people back home ‘the fear’, but rather to show that all lives have their high points and low points.

      Quite frequently, my friends back home, via facebook, are fooled into believing that all my days on the road are nothing but fun and games… a giant holiday with a backpack really.

      But, not long after this, I found myself in Jaisalmer and was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people there, writing about it in both The Hazards of Being a Small Town Traveler and Life in a Giant Sandcastle.

      Happy to hear that Kerala treated you so well. India’s an incredible and fascinating country. I’ll certainly be back and, when I do, I hope to get down there and see what you’re talking about.

      Reply
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  17. girjaa

    Stef, this is so well written…with the theme chanting thru out ‘is he my Indian friend?’. I love the opening and closing and how much you reveal who YOU are in this and what the true adventure really is: how you are as true as possible to your own self, developing a wiser if not thicker skin, and after all this ‘convinced you can make real Indian friends”. that speaks volumes

    I also think there are larger Perspectives to reflect on/consider, not just that “did you manipulate every word? etc”. Is it even possible to find friend in these circumstances, across the great divide of apparent wealth, health, access to food, education, comfort, ideology and sociological rigidity re class etc.? This is how they support themselves and their family, with likely no other source of income. So in the end he was a friend as friend could be, AND with poverty chasing him, HAD to ask for something. so we end up redefining what friend means when crossing all those great divides..
    That’s why I love your ending…language, volunteer etc to build connections.
    In Kullu, we were never to give money etc…and over 30+ years, the villagers of carpenters, cooks, etc grew around the Ashram, and were comparatively speaking (across their own cultural lines) well off..

    Thanks for trying so hard.

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Well, I’ve added a tiny little paragraph speaking to the other side that you’re mentioning… and can’t stress just how much I agree with you.
      To be honest, I didn’t know how to work the two sides into the same post… so went with one side first, and will be posting regarding the other side shortly.
      Thanks for your input and the compliments, I’ll certainly do my best to bring out the other side to the bet of my ability.

      Reply
  18. Jade

    Acabo de leer este post y no sé, siento muy triste o algo. Entiendo perfectamente como sientes y conociendote puedo saber cuanto frustrante y dificil es.
    Ya tenias este sentimiento en otro pais ? tan fuerte ?

    Pero de verdad.. yo sé cuanto dificil eso es, pero conociendo sus situaciones es una reaccion logica, no ? Si escribes el articulo estuviendo el indio, que pasa ? Estas muy pobre y ves personas en tu pais que tienen tanto dinero que pueden comprar un boleto de avion. Crees que quieres estar amigo con el ? O quieres intentar convencerlo de ayudarte ? Porque realmente lo necesitas.. el problema es que tu vecino y tu hermano, y todos los habitantes lo necesitan, y el blanco es muy cansado de eso. Entonces si lo llevas a casa tal vez el va a gustarte bastante para tener ganas de ayudar..
    No digo que es bueno, intento decir que hay dos lados.. India es muy pobre.
    Espero muchissimo que vas a tener la oportunidad de tener interacciones con alguien no para dinero, conversaciones que van mas profundo. Creo que estar un voluntario es la manera buena. Primero los locales que trabajan en la organizacion pueden verte de una manera diferente, no solamente como un turista.

    A ver, pero buena suerte con eso..!

    Reply
    • Jonny Jenkins Post author

      Si, pensaba que este post es un poco triste…
      De verdad, tienes razon completemente, el no tiene eleccion, y el necesita muchisimo… sus vecinos tambien.
      Estará muy díficil para explicar el lado del impacto de los blancos en lugares asi… y el impacto de la diferenecia rico-pobre… porque de verdad, creo que es las cosas asi que empezé el problema al prinsipio, y ahora es solamente los efeitos que vemos ahora…
      De verdad, es casi imposible para mi explicar como siento sobre eso en español (aun es díficil en ingles)…
      Mi proximo post estará sobre el otro lado, y los problemas que blancos llevan cuando ellos viajan.

      Muchas gracias para tu perspectiva, creo que es muy importante.

      Reply
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