Nauseating, isn’t it? Anecdotes about India are almost as boring as anecdotes about scuba diving (“There were all these… fish”) or anecdotes about surfing (“The wave was like, woah, and I was like, dude”).
India gappers have become an archetype: floppy-haired students with collarless shirts who “found themselves” by going to a Third World country, eating Europeanised food that the locals would never touch, and travelling along a route so well-worn by budget travellers that you can almost see the rut from space.
It is tempting, then, to dismiss the gap year to India as a contrived, boil-in-the-bag experience that non-gappers can emulate by going to Ealing and chugging a packet of laxatives.
Lots of people do dismiss it in this way, but they all have one thing in common. They didn’t go. They are armchair critics attempting to mollify their envy by pretending it isn’t enviable.
I did go, and I can tell you this: it was wonderful. I don’t mean “wonderful” as a euphemism for good. It filled me with wonder, and still does, more than a decade on. The critics are wrong for about a thousand reasons, but here are the top five:
1. There is nothing sanitised about India. Tourism, rife as it is, has had little impact even on those towns tramped by a million Lonely Planet pilgrims. This is a world where laundry is beaten on rocks, men will shout through your train window at 4am to try to sell you tea, and mothers cling the outside of buses after passing their babies through the windows to be cared for by strangers.
2. Poverty is inescapable. Its scale and intensity means that even the most blithe tourist will have to adapt his or her world view to cope with the shock. It makes Western poverty, with its social security safety nets and health provision, seem like a Swiss finishing school.
3. Westerners are outsiders. They will be stared at and hustled, not through animosity but because of an assumption that they have money to burn. Not only is it exhausting, but for white middle-class gappers it is probably the first time they will have been on the sharp end of racist prejudices.
4. Kindness to strangers is endemic and profoundly touching.
5. It isn’t home. Gap years coincide with teenagers learning to deal with the world without their parents, and being in a country far from home only enhances that experience.
None of this is meant to suggest that India is the ultimate gap destination. Any country resistant to western influences will have the same impact. My point is that India is no theme park or pre-packaged experience. People who spend six months there on a gap year do have insights that people who spend that time at home do not.
But yes, the anti-gappers have a point. Those who have been must learn to shut up about it. I shall not mention it again.