“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd
Once I made the decision to travel to India, I asked anyone I knew that had already visited India for their experiences. Like the country itself, the opinions were extreme. No middle ground whatsoever.
On the plus side:
“India is magical.”
“India is amazing.”
“India will change you.”
On the negative side:
“India is a hell hole.”
“India is hell on earth.”
“In India, you feel like a rock star from hell.”
The word “hell” being the common denominator on the negative side was a bit disconcerting.
Arriving in India
Any description of India that I could give would be incomplete without the smells and sounds that accompany each moment. The country can only be experienced in moments. She won’t let you look into the future. I would realize later that this was a gift.
The stretch of highway leading away from the New Delhi airport innocuously merged into a chaotic matrix of traffic spearheaded with the incessant clamour of horns. Every type of wheeled transportation barring a unicycle was on the road. First rule of driving in India is that there are no rules. The second rule is that traffic must always move forward. Static vehicles equates to road chaos. Looking at the immense traffic volume, movement would be impossible, but the seeing-eye traffic seemingly had a mind of its own. There was an inexplicable flow that worked.
I flinched more than once as my driver drove into oncoming traffic and vice versa. Many cars and most tuk-tuks had no side mirrors or had them folded in, as these mirrors become a hazard while threading the vehicles through wispy traffic openings.
In a blink, we were driving through the slums of Delhi. The impoverished neighborhoods and its streets flowed with a sea of humanity mixed in with some cattle and the odd goat. Like the flow of traffic, daily life moved in the same way. The pace was brisk and steady. My senses peaked and overloaded like no other time in my life. Life was happening around me; it was exhilarating to see and feel while simultaneously, the extreme poverty painfully saddened me. At stop lights, I had difficulty looking into the angelic faced children covered in filth peering into my window begging for money. It’s a sight you never get used to.
I assumed that once we drove past the slums, we’d soon get to my hotel. Suddenly, we stopped and my driver motioned that we had arrived. I did a double take in disbelief. The decrepit buildings of the neighborhood looked like a second rate jigsaw puzzle assembled by a mason on acid.
As I got out of the car, I was greeted with an anorexic cow slowly clopping by, and I suddenly had to retreat back into the car as I saw a wave of traffic coming towards me. It was Bollywood Thunderdome outside. I kept expecting Mad Max to blindside me with a sucker punch for making such a rash decision to venture into this part of the world.
After checking into the hotel, I took a quick walk around the neighborhood to get my bearings of the area. Within minutes, while avoiding near misses with cars and tuk-tuks, I saw a pile of fresh cow dung the size of a volley ball, mice the size of Twinkies and men’s urinals openly displayed street side.
If you’re a germaphobe or a control freak you will have difficulty travelling in India. I’m the type of guy who flushes public toilets with my feet and likes schedules and a plan to a certain degree. To last a week in India was going to be a challenge for me. I’d have to adapt or let the country paralyze me.
Within 6 hours of arriving in India, my first lesson was to be present. In that first walk through the streets of Delhi, if my mind wandered a little bit away from the immediate moment, I was liable to step into a big pile of cow shit or get hit by a car. There was no time to think about the meaning of life or what I was going to have for dinner later that night. I was only concerned with what was in front of me. Like the cars with their side mirrors removed or folded in, I only focused on what was immediately ahead of me. A simple, yet effective way to live, I thought.
Why come to India?
I was asked this question often when I told people that I was travelling here. I’d tell a half lie and say that India seemed like an interesting place to visit. I was afraid that the truth would make me look like a condescending douchebag on some sort of esoteric gap year.
The proverbial, “I’m going to find myself.” or “I’m looking for answers.” was closer to the truth. Yes, a bit douchey. In retrospect, my dilemma was not looking for “answers” to my life; it was trying to figure out what the right questions were.
India’s 5,000 year old culture steeped in religion, spirituality and mysticism was the magnet that drew me to India. Seemingly, I was not alone. One doesn’t come to India to experience an all-inclusive resort or a holiday cruise. Many of the travellers I met seemed to have a “purpose” for coming to India. People’s situations ranged from career breaks (like myself) and slow travel to charitable and volunteer work to life changing events such as divorce. Whether it was time spent at a yoga ashram or meditation centre, there seemed to be a “reason” for being in India.
The owner of my guest house in Jaipur, based on his interactions with his guests, gave me a simple but eloquent metaphorical theory of why people travel to India. He says:
People in the Western world have nice homes. They make everything nice on the outside of the building – beautiful to look at. But on the inside, the building is empty. They look for something to put inside. That is why I think people come to India.
Admittedly, I was ready to trade in the big screen TV’s of my persona for a decent wood burning stove for my soul.
India, the puzzle
India confounded me from the start. Other traveller’s I met often referred to it as the “India Way”.
For example, as I left the Delhi airport, my driver gave his parking ticket to a man standing a foot away by the exit gate. The sole job of the attendant was to put the ticket into the slot of the gate to raise the automatic arm to let us out. Why my driver couldn’t do that himself still befuddles me.
Another example included watching a man at a construction site strap 2 stacks of bricks onto his back secured with only a bit of burlap and heavy twine. Meanwhile there was a nearby wheel barrel that could have made the task easier.
There were many examples of such inefficiencies that I observed. Paradoxically, India and its 16 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are home to some of the brightest math and science minds in the world. I saw a documentary a few years back about the pressure put on kids trying to earn a spot at the IITs. One disappointed student in the documentary failed to earn a spot and his consolation prize was a full ride scholarship to Cornell University in the United States.
But that’s what India is: a living breathing paradox; a story of extremes.
India’s overloaded traffic and the daily hustle of local commerce was no reflection of how people’s personal lives were. The contrary was true. Personal lives moved at a pedestrian pace, seemingly with the intent that life can be enjoyed more deeply and shared more easily with family and friends.
Amid the squalor of India, I’ve eaten some of the most delicious street food in my travels. Each city and region of India was completely different from one another. From dirty slums to mystifying temples and stunning beaches, every place that I visited possessed varying personalities and offered a different energy and experience. India will not bore you. I promise you that.
The country challenged me on many levels: physically, mentally and emotionally. India is the only place that I’ve travelled to that I hated and loved, all at the same time.
It’s India Bro!
Nothing could fully prepare me for India with its intense smells, abject poverty, ubiquitous vagrancy and the never-ending beggars in the form of malnourished children and anorexic old men and women. These were difficult things for me to digest. I could never out run this; the entire country seemed to be one big slum.
Little came easy for me in India. A couple bouts of heat exhaustion, flight delays and stressful train travel that included a spirit breaking 28 hour train trip due to a 15 hour delay. During this ordeal, I seamlessly transitioned from disappointment to anger, to frustration, to tears, to laughter and back to disappointment. This was a chorus that I knew well by the time I arrived at my destination.
I met a number of young men throughout my time in India. Whenever I had that “deer in the headlights” look, they’d say to me with a smile and bobble of the head: “It’s India Bro!”. I would repeat this phrase often during my travels in India. I would eventually stop trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube that is India and remind myself: “It’s India Bro!”.
India hugged me into her bosom which I initially resisted. Not until I opened up my mind and heart, could I embrace her back. At the end of 5 weeks, she gifted me with a bit of patience and compassion. I had gratitude for the simple things of my life; an appreciation for running water and a bed to sleep on. I now appreciate that food and a full belly is a luxury.
However, the real gift of India was acceptance and mindfulness. She has a mind of her own. Things happen in India on her time and she doesn’t wear a watch. Whether I was stuck in gridlock traffic or in a 15 hour train delay, that’s where she wanted me to be. I had to surrender my controlling instincts and fully experience where I was at – good or bad. India didn’t give me much of a choice most of the time and in retrospect, I’m grateful for that.
Raw and honest: India doesn’t put on airs. She doesn’t pretend to be something that she’s not. Regardless of the people’s circumstances, they often had a generous hand to offer. Inspiration was found in the people’s indomitable will to live anchored in their unwavering faiths.
I initially landed in New Delhi with the notion that I was going to travel through India. Ultimately, it was India that travelled through me.
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou
I’ll be following up with more posts shortly on India regarding more specific places and events. Please stay tuned and thanks for following my blog!
Have you travelled to India before? I would love to hear about your experience. Please share!