Serial Bus

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Have I Been Spoilt by the US?

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Last week, I completed 2 years of stay in the US. Before moving to the US, I had always lived an itinerant life – never staying in one place more than a couple of years (although always somewhere in India). Sometime in 2008, Nidhi and I decided that we will not apply for a Greencard and that we will eventually move to India. We resolved that we will never become too comfortable to move elsewhere. I lived with this faith until our return from a recent trip to Morocco. That you start thinking of a place as home is  proven when you look forward to being back there. Undoubtedly, the trip to Morocco was spectacular in general but we faced a few incidents that shuddered us and perhaps increased the sense of belonging to the US. My apologies as I might be digging the dirty belly of Morocco in this post but there is no point in pretending some things never happened.

Before I relate any of the following to Morocco, I must say that I am surprised at myself – after being brought up in what were thoroughly lower middle-class environs in India, I should hardly be cringing about the difficulties of life in a developing country and wallowing in the comforts of the developed world. Everything untoward that happened to us in Morocco is symptomatic of a conservative Third World country and is as likely to happen to tourists in India too. Yet, when I faced it in a foreign land, I was shocked and sullen. Clearly, I have been spoilt by the US.

1. Bad Taste on Arrival: On arrival in Fez, amidst the chaos at the train station, we somehow got into a red petit taxi. The driver did not use the meter and got a local lady to sit in the front with him. We forgot to protest. Soon, we realized we needed to call the hotel and the lady agreed to let us call using her cellphone. When she got off, we offered to pay but the driver said he will take care of it later on while the lady quietly acquiesced. At our destination, the driver demanded 30 dirhams for ride when 12 would have been the meter-based cost and then, asked for 20 dirhams for the phone call that lasted all of 30 seconds. He said we made a 2 minute call. There was no point arguing because all tax drivers around him seemed to agree with him and we were incomprehensible in any case. Such chicanery left us with a bad taste and made us cautious enough that next time we sat in a cab, we asked for the meter to be turned on.

2. Invoking ‘Shooma’: The next day in Fez, as we returned to the medina in taxi, Nidhi planted a brief peck on my cheek in the course of a normal conversation. Such pecks would go completely unnoticed in the US, however our highly conscientious driver saw it in his rear-view mirror and instantly took umbrage. He made a few gestures indicating to us what maddened him and hurled a few comments at us in Arabic which I am surely were highly offensive – we just understood the word ‘shooma’ i.e. shame. When I tried directing him to mind his business and just drive, his rants became louder. Thankfully, we left soon as our stop came up quickly but for some hours after, we smarted at his complete intolerance towards tourists. Public display of affection is strongly advised against in Islamic countries, but we got our first inkling of how something innocuous can be interpreted as sinful. While we became more cognizant of modesty later on, we swore we could never live in such a place for long where we have to second-guess every genuine act of affection.

3. Marrakech Madness: When we alit at the Marrakech train station, we were very impressed with the train station building as well as the cleanliness. Our reverie was broken the moment we stepped outside the main gate. Two taxi drivers came right at us like torpedoes, imploring us to take their respective taxis. Their jostling got a little uneasy for us after a while, since they couldn’t reach a decision. Then, one of them snapped at the trolley bag in my hand without anything like a permission – as if by clutching on to the luggage, he would have proved his right to take us as passengers. In all this scuffle, the guards at the gate stood like the ones at Buckingham Palace – completely nonplussed at the travails of tourists who they are supposed to help. It was unbelievable that for such a major destination, there was a no regulated system for allotting passengers to taxis and tourists were to be left at the mercy of wolf-like taxi drivers. Due to the taxi union’s internal rules, I am sure a third taxi wouldn’t have agreed to entertain us. We thought that if we choose one of them, it would end the fight. However, it only escalated it. The other guy, who was tall and hefty, came after us and kept coercing our chosen driver even as our taxi began to leave. Thankfully, we did not understand the obscenities that were probably doing the rounds, however he held on to the driver’s door of a moving taxi on a busy road and then, slammed it shut. We were shaken.

4. Touts and Louts: Sometimes, we just beat ourselves for not letting go of our guard. There were numerous cautions in each guidebook about the menace of faux guides. These people attach themselves to you at every tourist center and exasperate you into buying their services. On other occasions, these are insistent representatives of some restaurant or attraction, who make it their mission to holler at and pester every passing tourist and entreat them into using their services. One such place was Djemaa-Al-Fanaa, the medina square in Marrakech. As its famous food stalls went up in the evening, the call-out boys went into overdrive as we walked past the stalls. Many of them, mystified at our color, would pry even more and ask us where we were from.

4. Faux Guides of Medina: However, nothing prepared us for the incident inside the medina of Marrakech. Here, we approached 2 young guys at a street corner and sought directions to the next place we wanted to visit. We just wanted to them to point out the general direction however, one of them seemed very eager to help and offered to walk with us. We didn’t see any risk as it was a crowded medina. He must have walked with us for about 50 meters when he pointed us to a street that we wanted to be at. We were about to thank him profusely when he suddenly asked us to pay for his help. Initially, we tried to make him see the injustice in asking for something he did not originally seek but obviously, he was adept at what he must have done several times before. He asked us to give him some money as a ‘gift’. When we asked how much, he wouldn’t say. When we protested, his other friend surfaced mysteriously and both of them started to appear more and more intimidating. Finally, we handed off some dirhams to them and parted ways. Again, he seemed to threaten us as we were leaving – good thing, we didn’t understand the Arabic and were soon in a taxi that whisked us away.

With these experiences, we grew very paranoid about approaching people for help anywhere in Morocco. We were scared that if we did that, they would smilingly help us and then, coerce us into giving them money for every small favor. We asked directions of only shopkeepers (who couldn’t offer to walk with us) and otherwise, we approached only our hotel managers and official guides with questions.

Besides the run-ins with some unsavory characters, the general lack of organization at public places, the ad-hoc nature of various facilities (including the tortuous security checks at the airport), the unwittingly unprofessional (even if helpful) conduct of the local businesses and widespread pollution in big cities left us extremely raring to come back to the US. Yes, our experiences made us smarter about traveling but no, we would not prefer to live in a heightened state of nerves all the time.

As we landed at JFK, we sighed relief. We figured that while we are happy to explore developing nations, we have adapted too much to a developed country to feel comfortable in less organized places. Besides, most people in a prosperous country are genuinely helpful and honest – the latter in part due to the dependable and systematic nature of public facilities (like airports, taxis) and law enforcement. In a country that is developing and unfamiliar at the same time, you need to constantly look over your shoulders and your senses always need to remain engaged. I can now understand why most westerners term their first face-off with India as ‘overwhelming’ and ‘shocking’.

The more pressing issue for us personally is whether we can shake off this cocoon of comfort ever and go back to live amidst the confusion and squalor of India. I suppose we can but the rites of passage will be more painful than we ever imagined. As I say that, I wonder if my response will remain affirmative in another couple of years.


Written by serialbus

April 5, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Posted in Anecdote, Living, Travel, USA

Tagged with , , , ,

One Response

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  1. Mohit,

    It has been two years for you in the US. India has changed in these two years, and it is changing everyday. You will have to spend some time at length to grasp all the changes. I get surprised every time I visit Hardoi, and it is about 300 Km from Delhi.

    The spectrum of developing nation is wide, and what happens in one place or country almost does not happen in another one, within the spectrum. Even within India, there is such variation in behaviour, temperaments etc. etc.

    US is a great place (though I have never been there!) and I am a kind of fan of this nation. I understand (based on speaking with friends like you who are in the US)that it can be uncomfortable shifting to India, but there is so much more that you can do. India is the right place to create marvels like Aravinda Eye Care, and this is the right time.

    I invite you to visit and read about role models. A little research there never fails to sweep me off my feet.

    Cheers! More in the call tonight!


    September 12, 2009 at 4:49 am

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