Saturday, May 5, 2007


Three weeks from today my Indian Airways flight will depart from Hyderabad for Bangkok. After a week in interim, between Cambodia and the beaches of Krabi and Samui, and the quick highlights of Seoul, Korea, I'll arrive back home in San Francisco, California. It's currently a mix of emotions, as my departure will mark a close to the time I lived in India. It will end an exciting and fascinating chapter in my peripatetic life abroad, and has broadened me infinitely.

Six months ago I did not know that I'd have the chance to live in India. Nor did I think I'd have to chance to visit 10 more countries, explore secular Turkey, travel solo through the Middle East, relax in the Maldives and trek in Nepal, bathe with elephants in Malaysia, and hopefully see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia's Siam Reap. Life comes at you fast, but opportunities are not inspired by fortune; I firmly believe that they're the consequence of assiduity and resolve. In my final weeks in India, I'm trying to take a step back from my experiences and enjoy the day-to-day nuances of life here that make it different from my life in California. India cannot delude itself into yet thinking that lifestyle here is on par with that of other developed nations, but there are unequivocally pockets wherein you can find parallels.

I've undoubtedly lived a privileged life in India. Between 11 drivers and a 2000 sq ft marble-floored apartment, I realize that my daily life has been the furthest thing from ordinary. But it's hard to apply Western, or American, conceptions of luxury in a country where population, labor supply, and a generally low cost of living allow for formerly upper crust services to become simply above average. What I mean is that in India, even non-essential services are quite cheap because the demand for work is high. I saw an ad for a local Hyderabad apartment in which for under 4k Rs, (~$100) you could live in a furnished, all-amenities apartment fit with daily maid service. That standard cannot compute in the US. So while I accept, and sometimes deplore, our extreme privilege in India, it's not entirely accurate for me to judge my living standards with an American eye.

Many of my co-workers dine at the fanciest restaurants and call their favorite pub "Dublin," the posh underground bar at the ITC Sheraton. Granted they're IT wizzards who are doing well by local standards, but it's difficult to know exactly where to draw the line. There are discrepancies in certain prices, for example Hyderabad rent vs San Francisco rent, but flight costs are identical. So while local wages are based off the purchasing power parity of essentials like food and rent, there are certainly global disparities. The fact that I'm paid in dollars affords me certain relative privileges not shared by my Indian co-workers which are accentuated in certain spheres, such as travel, when no alternative exists. An Emirates flight to Dubai costs the same despite the currency of the salary. And that flight is cheaper to a Brit, and cheaper still to the Maltese.

Reflecting on this allows me to understand, if still feel indignant from, specifically "foreigner costs". Ecuador does it terribly with flight costs to the Galapagos Islands. It's less extreme in India, but a 1000 percent mark up for a white face is common. Charminar in Hyderabad, but one example, charges 10 Rs and 100 Rs depending on skin color. Despite my beard and floundering Hindi, I can't escape the "foreigner tax."

Some of these ponderous situations require introspection for which words do little justice. I should pay more, but yet I don't feel as though it's fair or right. And while I'm happily willing to donate, and likely would, I'm indignant at the fact that the color of my skin demands a higher price, especially despite my local status, burgeoning knowledge of Hindi, and growing appreciation of India's rich diversity. It's the typical, 'I'm not a tourist, so don't treat me like one,' mentality. But at root, I am a tourist, I am paid in dollars, so wihle it's "unfair," it's probably "right."

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