One year ago, I spent two weeks traveling around India. I had been selected by the global communications firm I work for to be a kind of goodwill ambassador from our main corporate office in New York: connecting with colleagues; learning about their work and culture; and doing my best not to cause an international diplomatic incident between the world’s two largest democracies.
I’ve spent the past couple of years picking up the pencil that I put down after high school and making up for lost time in my life-long goal of being a fair-to-middling cartoonist. As such, I saw this trip—the first time I’d ever be traveling internationally all by my lonesome—as the perfect opportunity to set myself a personal challenge: I resolved to draw a cartoon about my experience each day. Because, if I was going to be pushed out of my comfort zone anyway, why not turn up the pressure?
In the end, I managed 14 full-colour cartoons, with a few extras that I finished when I got home. Everything here in colour is a cartoon I drew in India—the rest are little interstitial bits I scribbled out after the fact to provide as much overkill as possible.
Here we go!
I’m a homebody, a family man, and a proud New Yorker—hell, I realised before leaving that I’d probably never been more than a few yards away from at least one fellow American at any time in my life. So as the trip neared, I began to wonder why on earth I’d wanted to take a 14-hour plane ride away from everything I know and love in the first place. It was hard to leave, and I was plotting ways of escape even as I sat in Newark waiting to board.
But as soon as I got to my first stop, Mumbai (where everyone still pretty much calls it Bombay), I saw that I shouldn’t have worried. In some ways, the city was remarkably like New York: larger-than-life, cosmopolitan, and like a chemical dump in certain places.
The eerie similarities continued during lunch the first day, when my hosts decided to ease the transition by bringing me to Starbucks. And sure enough, it was just like a New York Starbucks, filled with tourists desperate for familiarity and bathrooms. The big difference was that I had to be scanned by a security guard before I could go in.
Because it turns out there’s another thing Mumbai has in common with New York—being the target of a major act of terrorism. The Starbucks was in the neighbourhood where, in 2008, a bunch of assholes with guns ran through the streets killing and destroying.
In fact, it wasn’t until my Starbucks experience that I realised the hotel I was staying in—the Taj Mahal Palace—had been the epicentre of the attacks. I generally try not to think about the history of any hotel room I’m sleeping in, but I tried extra hard there.
You can see the hotel in the background of this cartoon, which is all about… the birds! As I learned to my chagrin at the butt-crack of dawn on my first morning, the sky above the city is teeming with pigeons, crows, even hawks. Every time I stepped outdoors I felt like Tippi Hedren.
But the sights, you ask—what about the sights? Well, there were several. One was Haji Ali—this mosque here, which was built on a tiny island right off Mumbai’s coast.
Even more intriguing to me than the building itself was the walkway from the mainland, packed with pilgrims and lined with merchants. The most peculiar of these were at least a dozen guys manning basic, store-bought bathroom scales, where you could weigh yourself for a rupee (about one and a half cents).
By contrast, look at the building looming in the background. That there is the world’s most expensive single-family residence—the Antilla house, a billion-dollar, 27-storey monstrosity that looks like each floor was designed by a different architect. A jarring juxtaposition if ever there was one.
Speaking of contrasts, out on the outskirts of Mumbai there’s a gorgeous, gilt-domed Buddhist meditation centre called the Global Vipassana Pagoda. You can’t even enter it without having something like ten days of registered meditation under your belt.
There was an elderly volunteer outside drinking coffee and extolling the benefits of silent meditation—he looked kind of like an Indian Groucho Marx. He must have been some kind of deadpan comedic genius, because he spoke without overtly acknowledging the irony that, right past a line of trees, there was an amusement park filled with noisy rides and shrieking children. Another perfect symbol of the contradictions of Mumbai.
Okay, here’s another hot spot. Located in the heart of Mumbai, the Chor Bazaar supposedly translates to “thieves’ market”—the joke being that, if you want to find your stolen hubcaps, just wait an hour and head over here.
This image doesn’t really do it justice—imagine three times more goats, five times more lazy kittens and 30 times more broken crap for sale, jammed into one square mile. Motorcycle parts, computer parts cell phone parts, not to mention a positively surreal number of electronic fans and dumbbells. So if you’re in India, and you need used dumbbells, I can hook you up.
Okay, so the other big thing you have to talk about when you travel somewhere exotic is the food. It turns out there’s a lot of it. One day I was brought to a thali restaurant.
Thali is a popular style of eating that combines limitless amounts of multiple regional cuisines in a single sitting. Though the word means “plate” or “dish” in Hindi, the real meaning seems to be “more food than your mind or stomach can comprehend.” Imagine a diner that kept serving you gumbo, hoagies, quahogs and bagels until you commanded them to stop. I had to deliver a presentation when we got back to the office, and I think part of me is still standing there in front of my PowerPoint slides, trying to slog through it.
Oh, and what trip to Mumbai would be complete without a viewing of a Bollywood film? My hosts brought me to one of the city’s last great movie palaces, where I snacked on chaat masala popcorn and watched a really quite charming rom-com called Queen. In one scene, the heroine’s liberated western friend was trying to get her to loosen up by swinging around a sexy red bra. But when the film cut to a close-up…
Culture is a funny thing.
So not too long after the movie, it was time for me to head to my second destination: Bengaluru, which is basically India’s tech capital. When you call up customer service and speak to someone from India, there’s a good chance they’re in Bengaluru.
There’s been a huge influx of cash in recent years, and the road in from the airport was like a chunk of Silicon Valley airlifted and dropped halfway around the world. The highway was lined with manicured green grass out of which sprouted floodlit billboards advertising luxury apartment buildings, pretty much all featuring white people—a truly eerie sight in the middle of the night.
Speaking of driving, Bengaluru was a great spot for observing Indian traffic, which is even crazier than you’d expect. Considering no one acknowledges stop lights or traffic lanes, you cross the street at your own peril.
Many pedestrians employ the time-honoured “talk to the hand” technique as a talisman against getting run over. Amazingly, it always seems to work.
On the flip side, the road is weirdly more personable than in the U.S.
Anyway, I was only in Bengaluru for a very quick day before heading off to Delhi—a city I had actually visited with friends a few years back.
Since my return there officially crowned me as a grizzled, road-hardened expert, I spent my final few days compiling more general observations about Indian culture. If you plan to visit the country yourself, you should probably start taking notes.
Tip one: The subway
Tip two: The Bobble
Tip three: Lala
This one is particularly relevant if you travel for business.
So in my final days, my body decided, hey, you had a good run, but we’re going to party with this cool new bacteria now. So I didn’t end up doing much sightseeing in Delhi.
However, culture doesn’t sleep just because you do. Thrashing through a fever in my hotel bed, I had a dream about a guy who is featured on literally every billboard and TV ad in India.
But to round out the trip, let me backtrack to a sunnier time. Here’s the drawing I made based on Holi, the spring festival of colour, which happened to occur on my last day in Mumbai. After a series of farcical turnarounds, I ended up celebrating in an alley with a bunch of college kids I’d just met, where I was pelted with multicoloured dye and raw eggs and plied with bhaang—which is essentially fermented horse milk liberally dosed with weed. But instead of it being awkward-weird, it was awesome-weird—I was just welcomed into their world and encouraged to enjoy it as much as I could. It was an incredible day, and I got on an airplane that afternoon feeling completely stoned. And that, my friends, describes India in a nutshell!
I’ll close with a little cartoon I made for the one-year anniversary of my trip—in the same style and materials as the ones I did on the ground.
It proves that you can take the American out of India, but you can’t prevent India from being attacked by giant Americans in an absurd cartoon metaphor. Or maybe it just means I miss it and I’d like to go back at some point. Either way, India is an astonishing place, and it can handle far crazier stuff than me—both the real and the illustrated versions.