I noticed it right away in Mumbai. Karen likewise in Jaipur. It was our constant companion throughout India. The Infinite Stare.
Wherever we went- train station, museum, market- Indians would stare at us. A cold, hard stare. Maybe Indian culture assigns a different meaning or nuance to staring. For us, it was creepy.
At first, I wondered: Is that guy staring at me…
… because I’m white and he hates the British?
… because he’s surprised to see a tourist here?
… because he’s evaluating whether he can easily pickpocket me?
Karen suggested we try various responses to the stare. Meet the starer’s eyes and give a little smile. Or a quick “howyadoin’, bro” nod. Or just stare back at him or her. The only response we ever got was the person turning away. Never a returned smile or an “oh, I didn’t realize I was staring” chuckle.
Needless to say, this trait does not make one feel welcome at the train station, museum, market, or wherever. Never in our India travels did I feel unsafe; I never felt like I was going to get mugged. But seldom did I feel welcome, or that the man on the street was thrilled about me hanging around town for a few days.
One of the bellmen at my hotel in Mumbai belongs in the Infinite Stare Hall of Fame. Perhaps he hated the British, perhaps I wasn’t tipping him often enough. (Side story as an example: I came back one night and went to the front desk to get my key, but there was no one there. I asked the bellman for my key. He said the manager would be there shortly, so I waited. No, no, said the bellman, go upstairs, I’ll bring it to you. That doesn’t make any sense. Why would I go stand in the dimly-lit hallway outside my locked room, so he could bring me the key and then stand there waiting for a tip? I hung around until the manager arrived, to the bellman’s dismay.)
There was a window in the hallway next to my room, where the bellmen liked to sit to get some fresh air. The Hall-of-Famer sat there often. I could walk from the shared bathroom at the far end of the hall to my room and be treated to the Infinite Stare the entire way. What was going through this dude’s mind? Did I detect a hint of bemusement? A grain of hatred? No… just nothing. A cold, hard stare. You can see why I was happy to leave the ironically-named Welcome House hotel.
Customer service didn’t seem to be a priority for those serving customers. The greeting at a front desk or ticket booth was never a hello or a smile, just a dull recitation like “You want to order food?” At first, I theorized that our waiter’s recalcitrance was due to his not knowing much English, but the pattern repeated itself many more times, pushing it squarely into the “cultural difference” category. At Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum, the morose man at the desk didn’t utter a sound- good thing prices were clearly posted. The guy collecting money on the bus, the girl selling bottled water- rarely did they offer a smile or a greeting. When one was offered, it made our day.
I’m certainly not one who wants to see my own culture replicated around to globe (for one thing, I don’t think the planet can support the creation of that many McDonald’s hamburgers). But cultural sensitivity can only excuse so much, and some of these low-level hassles are just plain bad service. When a member of our tour group is told after 40 minutes that the kitchen can’t make the dish she ordered- that’s bad service. When some people at the table are receiving their bills while others haven’t been served food yet, the system is broken. When a taxi driver refuses to use the meter, despite his city’s legal requirement that he do so, well, he’s just being a jerk.
We did (thankfully!) encounter some friendly people. There was the guy who approached me at Churchgate train station before my Dharavi tour. Yes, it turned out he was selling something (“You should come to the racetrack with me”), but once I made it clear I wasn’t interested, he hung around and we had a wide-ranging conversation. He asked about US politics: “Can Rick Santorum really become the Republican presidential nominee?” No, I said firmly, hoping my trust in American sanity wasn’t misplaced. I asked about Indian politics, leading to a discussion about corruption and electoral disenfranchisement. We each named our favorite Hollywood and Bollywood movies. Yes, I have some of each: for sheer over-the-topness, check out Om Shanti Om.
Occasionally, we even received good customer service. On our first evening in Mumbai, we were killed with kindness: a hotel let us make a Skype call for free, and the server at a restaurant went out of his way to make our meal pleasant. Of course, the hotel was the Marriott and the restaurant was Pizza Hut, so I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of Indian warm-heartedness or American job-training.
I want to remember beautiful and intriguing India. The soaring minarets of the Taj Mahal, the jammed trains of Mumbai, the moving Ghandi memorials of Delhi. But I don’t look at India through rose-colored glasses. I also remember that rivers of black sludge flow outside tourist hotels, that skyscrapers loom over ramshackle slums. And that we were greeted on Day One and sent on our way on Day Twenty with the Infinite Stare.