Hidden Treasures: Ignorance at an Indian Pizza Hut
On most days, walking through the streets and alleys of an Indian city was reminiscent of standing in line on a Saturday afternoon while waiting to checkout of Wal-Mart. That is, it was really crowded. India was a crush of flesh, a vial of smells, rawness in its most raw form.
And I liked it. At the same time, in terms of culture-shock, India was the most challenging country I had been to (and I had been to about 60 countries). The country was raw—poverty, mangy cows, rotting trash in the summer heat, clouds of vehicle exhaust, the weight of hundreds of bodies shoving toward the exit at the Delhi train station. I value—I may even need—moments of quiet and solitude as part of my day, and that was hard to come by in urban India.
Feeling the mental stress after a couple weeks, I sought out places of retreat. In Delhi this included an almost daily trip to McDonald’s for an ice-cream cone. The ice-cream was nice, but I was really there for was the air-conditioning (it calmed the skin), the televised music videos (it soothed the ears), and the familiar smells (it was August, and the amount of trash piled on the street outside my hotel lent my room anunpleasant odor).
Not far from the McDonald’s was a Pizza Hut, where I stopped for a meal on two occasions. On the second visit I was accompanied by two Chinese travelers I had met six weeks earlier in Nepal. We had said goodbye in Nepal, not thinking we would see each other again. But unexpectedly our respective paths had led us to intersect in Delhi. To celebrate our reunion we descended upon Pizza Hut.
Unlike McDonald’s, Pizza Hut includes table service, which means one might need to leave a tip. I had left one during my first visit to be safe, but it wasn’t clear if this was the Pizza Hut custom (I had tried to observe what other tables did but never managed to know for sure). And so as this second meal came to a close, I leaned over to the neighboring booth where two Indian men sat and asked: “Sorry to bother you, but can you tell me if it’s appropriate to leave a tip?”
“It is not required,” the man named Sanjeev said. “But the wait staff will be very pleased if you do. They don’t make much, and it will help them.”
As I prepared to pay the tip, the two Indian men now had a few questions for our table as well. They wanted to know where the girls and I were from, what we thought of India, how long we would be here. Before long, they had asked if we would like to see a side of India tourists never see. “We are going to a nice club about 20 minutes away, Sanjeev’s friend Abhay explained. “You can ride with us.”
We said yes.
The club had a mellow atmosphere and was indeed a side of India I never would have seen elsewhere, with mostly young professionals winding down after a long day’s work. And this, Sanjeev and Abhay emphasized, was one reason they invited us here: too many travelers only pass through the stereotype of India—poverty, cows, crowds—and fail to encounter the burgeoning middle and upper-classes (of which Sanjeev and Abhay were a part).
I would meet Sanjeev and Abhay again three weeks later when I was back in Delhi, and I would relish our continuing conversation about life, history, and culture. “I trust Time magazine more than the New York Times’ investigative reporting,” one of them would say. Or, “Did you know navigation comes from our word navgat—‘to be able to chart your way?’”
I’ve never been comfortable with the expression “ignorance is bliss,” since I like to think bliss comes from something deeper and more whole than ignorance. But ignorance—at least when it concerns tipping practices at unfamiliar Pizza Huts and prods one to seek knowledge from fellow dinners—isn’t all bad.
Sanjeev and Abhay
Joel Carillet, chief editor of wanderingeducators.com, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. His most recent project is 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia, due for release in August. To learn more about him, visit www.joelcarillet.com.