The First World – through the eyes of the Third World

Travelling in first world countries as a third world tourist, you assume your experience will be a validation of your carefully manicured opinions (honed by many impressionable hours of ‘downloads’ – as they say in the corporate world – from Hollywood and television of course). But it does turn out to be an eye-opener as well. Some thoughts and observations from the land of cool-iyat:

One lesson which you learn very quickly is when to speak. You want to ask someone directions, place an order at a restaurant or maybe just contribute your $0.02 in a conversation, you DO NOT INTERRUPT. You wait politely for the conversation between the previous conversants to finish if you’re the third guy or if it’s just you and someone else, you allow him to finish (even if he’s wrong, even if you disagree) and then, only then – do you speak. Note that it is ‘wait for the conversation to finish’ and not ‘wait for a lull in the conversation where you can enter and steer it your way’. I think for a generation of brought up on Group Discussions with 15 participants and just 10 minutes, classrooms with 50 students and where only the first correct answer matters – this is natural. If you want to be heard, you want be noticed – speak up and speak up loud & fast. Also symptomatic of a lot more things I am sure. And it’s not an easy thing to get rid of. Even after making this observation and resolving to rectify myself I find myself continuously interrupting – my boss telling me what I should do is punctured by my telling him I’ve already done this, my colleagues opinion on something is hijacked by my telling him my seemingly better & more holistic opinion, my flat-mates erroneous take on the movie we watched is corrected by me before even hearing him out. It sure is tough to change!


A friend of mine remarked with more than a hint of exasperation after seeing yet another couple cuddling up on the metro as if no one else was around, “Are all these public displays of affection really necessary”? Although this is something which pop-culture flowing in from the west does steel you for, it is something that does take a bit of getting used to. The ease with which people display their ‘lauu’ is disconcerting. But while it may not be for everyone, but I actually have concluded that it’s nice. You see a couple kissing at the bus stop in front of you and what is your first reaction? You will probably look away, feel a bit awkward but I am quite sure you will smile (at least inwardly if not openly). Art Buchwald taught me back in school – and it is really quite obvious as well – when you smile, you feel good. When you feel good you’re more likely to be more cheerful, hence behave better with people around you (i.e. spread more cheer) and eventually contribute your small bit towards making the world a nicer place.  We really need to let go our high-handedness and let people who want to kiss in public go right ahead. (I know the correlation is weak and there is probably a  flip-side in antagonizing the many scarred Ranjhanaa-ish people around, but in principle at least…)


Also one of the first things you see a lot more of across the Occidental world is the number of people with dogs. More so the number of people who can travel with dogs all around. You can actually buy a separate train ticket (man+dog) in some countries. And I’m sure all these people couldn’t possibly imagine what a big deal it is to travel around with a pet.


Likewise, and while this may not be the best follow up to the above statement, but I can’t help but draw a parallel in my mind – there seem to be a lot more disabled people all around. Everywhere you see people on wheelchairs – sometimes wheeling themselves, sometimes being pushed around – in museums, in parks, at airports and restaurants. And then you realize – it can’t possibly be that the number of disabled people is higher over there. It’s just that even they live normal lives which is why we see them more than we do in our part of the world. And that is really such a nice thing. Or to look at it the other way around, it should make us shudder to think what kind of lives disabled people lead in our society if we don’t even see them in public at all…


The first ‘wow moment’ –  you drink water from a tap in a public toilet (okay, call them restrooms if you must). Bottled water is expensive, tap water is drinkable blah blah…but it still seems very very weird. This is something Hollywood does not teach us about!


Of course you can’t compare – we have a single entity managing the whole system whereas they’re dealing with a dozen different countries. Likewise there’s a billion people of different demographics waiting to clamber upon our trains in contrast to a much smaller & homogeneous pool. But I really think that if only our trains were a little prettier, more well maintained, stations a bit cleaner i.e. we get a leg up on our face validity – I think the backbone of our system is much better. Even our website has a better model if only that godforsaken server could ever handle the expected load. European railways is the glib talking, sharply dressed, MBA student who makes a pretty presentation based around gas. Indian railways is the guy who will fold his sleeves, explain things on the back side of a notebook and eventually get the job done for you.


I have had many a discussion dissing the trams of Kolkata, sniggering along with people about how pointless they are, how they are solely a service for geriatrics which blocks up the middle of the road and how in general the use of the tram is a bygone concept in itself. I admit that I was myopic and poorly-informed, a visit to the First World convinces one about how wonderfully useful & convenient they are…


The more I traveled the more disappointed I was left feeling about what kind of tourist I am. On one side there are the sophisticated (I am trying really hard not to use the word ‘nerdy’ here) travelers. These are the guys & girls who hobnob with the tour guide and make them go “Wow! Good question” (always made me envious that :-/ ), visit every museum in town and not get tired even if they don’t have any benches, are thorough with their socio-political & geographical lie of the land thanks to that very dog-eared copy of Lonely Planet which is being hauled around. They will visit every must-see destination and leave more worldly wise than they arrived.

On the other end of the spectrum are the fine folks who couldn’t care a rat’s ass about the apparent pretentiousness of the above mentioned activities and have their priorities set straight – they’re here to take a break & have a good time. To party like there’s no tomorrow. To do every thing that is frowned upon at home. To never have too much blood in their alcohol system to steal a cliche, to leave the breathing of fresh air for that family weekend whenever it happens, to visit every nightclub in accessible distance, crawl through every pub, party on every beach & give vent to all of your most primal instincts as long as you don’t return carrying venereal diseases.

Unfortunately – too many us Indians I felt (yours truly included) seem to be stuck squarely in the middle of this continuum – unable to make a decision of whether to go this way or that. The general lack of tourist etiquette & worldly-wiseness seem to  restrict us from leaning towards the ghissu side completely. Also we’re not used to reading maps (Hey, Google Maps orients itself okay!), walking around for 4 hours in a museum or not cracking our own lewd jokes in our native tongues whilst the tour guide is trying to explain something. At the same time our inhibitions (and dare I say colour of skin as well?) hold us back from going completely loco on the party side either. Not to mention the need/desire to tick things of every touristy bucket list that you will be handed out from the railway station to the hostel (& click photographs in every permutation at those places for good measure). Long story short, felt we’re not doing justice to either and we’re not creating much of a legacy as tourists either (I found tourists to be a great brand for the country they hail from- Employer Branding on a super macro level this). Then again we could argue as we always do that not having a strength also means not having a weakness 😐


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