I agree with the kid. As an American, our country isn’t 250 years old yet. Sure there are some Viking graves, cave paintings, and native peoples whose traditions extend for centuries earlier. But for the most part, we rarely encounter anything over a century.
But India, where I’m traveling, isn’t like that. In my annual trips over the past six years, the India I’ve visited has been flinging itself into the future of technical innovation. It’s also been working to preserve a past that includes some of the world’s oldest known civilizations.
On this current trip, we’ve seen stunningly sophisticated sites with art and architecture created over five millennia ago.
On earlier trips, significant time was allotted to the never-ending search for western toilets, and even more rare toilet paper. (Much, MUCH clandestine paper napkin liberation occurred at each of our restaurant stops.) But now almost every regular restaurant boasts facilities and even TP.
So yes, India is changing.
Take our current trip for example. It had been planned for months for early January. Then I woke up on Christmas Eve with a toothache. By Christmas Day, there was a swelling the size of a walnut in my mouth, but no boats from our little Scottish island were going to the mainland that day. When I finally made it to my dentist in Glasgow, he confirmed my fears**: I needed two root canals. But it would be months before I could get it done via the NHS, and all the private specialists I tried had offices closed until the second week of January.
**[No, these were not my WORST fears. He’s already been elected. It really helps to keep things in perspective…]
When I told him about our upcoming India trip, my dentist was delighted. “You’re so lucky! India has some of the best dental care in the world,” he told me. “Just get it done there.” I told him I hadn’t been in the habit of considering double root canals a good luck sign, but I’d give it a shot. My friend Jaya recommended a brother’s daughter’s husband with a popular practice in Mumbai. Dr. Hingorani instantly gave me a family appointment and assured me they would fit follow-up appointments around our itinerary. Now that’s India!
So the first morning of the trip found us sharing breakfast in Mumbai with Dr. Hingorani and his wife before whisking downstairs to his clinic for my ‘lucky’ double root canal. My favorite part was the state of the art X-ray machine, whose soothing voiceover recording told me to close my eyes, played a jaunty tune during the scan, and then told me it was all done, congratulating me on doing a good job of holding still with my eyes closed (a life skill developed thanks to my father’s driving).
Hours later, our driver picked us up and we were on the road for a ten-hour drive to Aurangabad and adventure. I couldn’t feel half my face, was convinced I was drooling, and popping ibuprofen like they were M&Ms, so details of that drive are a bit fuzzy.
But I do remember a few things. There were unexpected sights such as the roadside food mall where we stopped for lunch. In addition to the usual Indian food vendors, it held a Starbucks (awesome toilets!), Kentucky Fried Chicken, Baskin-Robbins, Subway, and McDonalds.
And there were also things I expected to see but didn’t. Not only were there no cows on the freeway, but we didn’t see the usual lineup of men casually using the roadside as toilets, while the piles of plastic rubbish we’d come to expect along the roads had virtually disappeared as well. Jaya explained how Indian government initiatives had built over thirty million toilets over the past few years, while others discouraged plastic use. (There are steep fines in some cities like Mumbai for even carrying a single-use plastic bag!)
Loud enough to wake us (and perhaps the recently deceased), a wedding band piped us out of the hotel drive in early morning.
At our next hotel in Pune, we drove in past one wedding in progress on the front lawn. The lobby was full of gorgeously dressed guests, while the attendant who carried our bags told me there were up to five weddings going on simultaneously. He said it was not at all uncommon for guests to attend an entire wedding, give over their gift, and not realize they had been at the wrong wedding until afterwards.
Another thing that has changed in the past few years is the intensity of demand for pictures with foreigners. In an India where everyone has a mobile phone and most have internet access, the polite and even shy requests for photos we encountered our first trip six years ago have grown into insistence that borders on stalking.
Of course, some things haven’t changed yet. Beggars still knock on your car window and hold up their children. If you work up the nerve to cross a street in any major city, you still have to look in ALL the directions, watch out for the cows, and be careful where you step. And unless you want to experience India’s world-class medical expertise up close and personal, you still shouldn’t drink the water.
But if you want to see an India full of stunning historical and artistic treasures, you’re in luck. You’ll find toilets along the way, on-demand drivers to get you there, and familiar fast food choices. You can get a terrific root canal, amazing food, and all the photos with total strangers you ever/never wanted.
Has India changed? Well, a little girl from a small rural town can grow up, go to the States to attend the University of Chicago, and share a flat with two friends. Forty-plus years later, they can all meet up in India every year, to travel, search for toilets, explore antiquities, and watch the future unfold.