Why Do White People Travel To India?
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It’s hard to write an article about India – I mean, when you’re a white girl who grew up with ballet classes and whole-wheat sandwiches cling-filmed neatly in your lunchbox – without sounding like a dick. It’s not India’s fault.

It’s filthy and impoverished, existing in a state of finely balanced, bewildering chaos. One billion people live there, eating and sleeping and praying in an endless cycle of human life that is raw and rich. They don’t have time for us; they’re hustling each day to survive. And yet white people have had this fascination with that vast subcontinent for centuries. As colonialists, we lived on intricately carved houseboats in Kashmir and hunted tigers in Rajahstan. Now we love nothing more than months shitting our brains out while shuffling around in purple harem pants clutching a copy of Shantaram. And it’s really hard to explain the appeal of this, or why, even after the hippies gave up and fat, beastly Russians invaded Goa, it remains a rite of passage on the traveller triangle through Asia.

I ended up there by mistake. I was working as a nanny in New York. I spent my nights getting trashed at pretentious clubs and my days staring vacant-eyed at two precocious brats that ignored everything I said. I lived in an empty, soulless apartment with no duvet and an open suitcase on the floor that suggested I’d recently arrived (I hadn’t). By December, I was fed up. I called my parents to announce I was moving to Las Vegas with a friend. I figured I’d work as a club hostess, fill my empty suitcase with cash and rent a condo with a pool. Then India intervened.

My first trip didn’t start with the intention of enlightenment. I was bored and restless and a free plane ticket was chucked my way when a British charity decided they wanted someone to report back on their micro-finance projects. But since it’s India and toilet talk seeps into every aspect of conversation, let’s just say this: shit got real. Instead of Vegas’ easy-time sequins and sparkles, I was thrust into a culture where I was an oddity, a freckled freakshow that provoked one glossy-haired girl in Mumbai to ask why I didn’t do something about all those spots on my face. And I was alone. Without the familiar shield of friends, I lived at the mercy of several wonderful Indian families that acted as hosts throughout my six weeks in Meghalaya, a remote north-eastern state sandwiched next to Bangladesh. I slept three in bed (it wasn’t sexy). I gagged as I ate goat curry for breakfast. I spent 72 hours on a train, trying desperately to avoid trips to a fetid, crusty bathroom that looked like the apocalypse had just hit. I’d traded clubs for curry – and survived.

When I returned to London, several things had changed. One – I was skinny. Whenever white people talk about going to India, the conversation inevitably turns to how much weight they’ll lose. Isn’t that fucked up? 40 per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in India – these wretched, gobby, grime-coated kids that run around in feral packs with hands outstretched for money – and yet it’s still hard not to feel smug when family members clasp your emaciated arm and praise you for basically contracting dysentery while you were away. Two – I was judgmental. For a while, I had an internal monologue that thought deeply obnoxious things like, “Listen to my mum complaining about the English train system. It’s a shame she isn’t as worldly and experienced as me… etcetera.” Three – I wanted to go back.

My parents claim that I changed after that first trip. I think what they mean by that is I became a less frightful version of the self-centred, self-destructive whirlwind of animosity that had wreaked destruction during my teenage years.

It’s difficult to feel entitled when you’re confronted with nothing. I mean, it’s not like Indians are perfect. There’s a lot of public pissing and nose-picking and intense, creepy staring going on. Once, a man who looked like Hannibal Lecter proudly cupped my friend’s breast while she was posing for a photo. But even when the lines are long and the bureaucracy is brutal, they just get on with things. You’ve gotta respect that.

I’ve had three trips now: extended trips that involved quitting my job and throwing going-away parties in case I never came back. Each trip was different and difficult in its own way – varying degrees of loneliness, the back-breaking discipline of yoga twice a day, some nasty stomach bugs – which leads me back to the original question: Why the hell do white people love traveling around India? And I’ve realised it’s because we like a bit of adversity. That may sound rich coming from someone who has grown up in the kind of smug communities that spout liberalism from The Guardian while carefully secluding themselves from any kind of ethnic or socio-economic integration, but that’s precisely WHY India appeals. Life in the West can feel like the inside of a hamster wheel, and nothing pops that sanitised bubble of privilege faster than the sub-continent. It’s a sweating, pulsing hum of humanity, exposing poverty and degradation like a punch in the stomach whilst shamelessly seducing with a kaleidoscope of colors and an infinite cacophony of noise that echoes from the po-faced Himalayas. Rudyard Kipling, who immortalised India through classics like The Jungle Book, summed it up best: “Now India is a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously – the midday sun always excepted.”

Photo by Pip Usher.

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About The Author

Pip Usher

Pip Usher

Pip has been writing since she was a small kid running wild in the woods of New England but she'd prefer to describe herself as a collector of passports and master of grand schemes. Her interests include traveling compulsively and LOLing in an ironic way. Since moving to Beirut, Pip has worked with A magazine and The Outpost.

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    • Nur Turkmani

      Love this

    • alinech

      Great Article..

    • yara

      excellent hook.

    • Shane

      “Life in the West can feel like the inside of a hamster wheel, and nothing pops that sanitised bubble of privilege faster than the sub-continent.” – finely put.

    • Kanan Alexander

      Well written… wish I could write like that

    • Guest

      “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all” Will Durant, American historian

    • Alex

      Are you fucking kidding me? What you wrote was disgustingly racist and complete crap. I’m an American that traveled to India and this is one the worst articles I read! Completely inaccurate. India isn’t “disgusting” or “weird” like the way you make it seem. You labelled the entire nation out of one lousy visit and only see it in negative light, how about the positive? India was like any other country; they had plenty of nice malls and restaurant, great architecture, fascinating culture, lots of beautiful nature and friendly
      people. Yes there are bad parts but also good parts. If you’re only going to
      travel to the bad parts of India then yes you’ll have a tough experience, it’s
      like going to Detroit then saying all of America is like that. Honestly don’t
      bother visiting foreign countries if you’re going to look down on the entire
      culture and people. This is equivalent to Americans travelling to Africa and the Philippines then adopts a child as an accessory. The problem isn’t India or any foreign country; it’s your pretentious and condescending attitude towards
      others that are different then you. Stay out of other countries if you feel the
      need to look down on them and criticize the entire nation. Trust me it’s not hard to write an article about India without sounding like a dick, it’s only hard you’re a self-entitled racist. Unbelievable.