This is chapter 11 of the Graduate & Live 2016 Summer Tour of Asia, where three traveling freelancers take advantage of their freedom. Ryan's, Aom's and Ashley's journey through India has come to an end but before leaving, Ashley gives a look back to what she learned about this incredible country.
During my time at the University of Florida, I took anthropology courses and read ethnographies about Indian culture. The religions, the food and the practices were starkly different from my own. I started working online as a freelancer and two years later, I found myself with a one-way ticket to New Delhi.On May 17, I landed at Indira Gandhi International. The minute I walked off the plane, I felt an array of new sounds, sights and smells strike my senses. I was
greeted by fast-talking, Hindi-speaking cab drivers, nine beautiful mudra statues and an incalculable number of inquisitive, unapologetic stares.
Visiting India for the first time is like stepping into another dimension. No film, study or conversation could have prepared me for the shock. From every direction, I became drawn in by the cultural differences. The infinite sense of mystery made it even more magnetic.
After spending one month moving through eight cities, India still fascinates me. Home to more than 1.3 billion people speaking 22 official languages and practicing six major religions, the density and diversity is indescribable.
I knew that India has its fair share of problems, but seeing and feeling these issues first hand is incomparable to reading about them in a book. The water is contaminated, the air is thick with dust and pollution and the streets are saturated with garbage. Quite literally, it’s hard to stomach.
Despite the difficulties, India is worth it. There’s no doubt that the complexity of the nation will capture you. It doesn’t matter if you arrange overnight stays in four-star hotels or private rides in air-conditioned tourist cabs. The depths of India, the insatiable underside, tugs at any traveler. It might not always be comfortable, but that’s how it changes you.
It hums like an electric current, restless and without sleep. It moves free from limitation, calling for fearless driving and aggressive vending. Though the culture is known for noise, India speaks its message in many different ways.
India explodes with color. Lotus petals painted on Mack trucks, statues of cows holding dozens of Gods in their bellies, women of every class donning chromatic saris… even the patchwork tarping of squatters communities play a visual melody. The palette becomes familiar, and it is in these details, not in futuristic architecture or materialistic gestures, that beauty is abundant.
In Srinagar, Muslim schoolchildren laugh and play. In Kolkata, children of the same age roam the streets and cry out for charity. In Delhi, rickshaw drivers and tour guides compete for clients. In Dharamsala, visitors practice the art of macrame on a cool mountaintop.
Regardless of the sight or sound, in India, there is no silence.
It comes on quietly. The curiosity to learn more about the inner workings of Indian culture starts slowly and grows over time. A new inquiry might strike at any moment, and each day, an endless stream of questions rushed through my head:
“What’s this green paste? Why don’t Sikhs cut their hair? What do the marigold garlands represent? If someone tells me they’re a Brahmin, does that mean the caste system is still in place? Will the cows get sick from eating so much garbage? Why can’t I find a trash can?”
The questions never end. India is a constant analysis of each person’s level of English and then a subsequent readjustment. It is wondering of how a lifetime of begging will impact a 9-year-old’s psyche. It is asking if Muslims and Hindus can live peacefully, side by side. But really, it is having the courage to ask questions and get the answers you’re looking for.
It’s unpredictable. It’s midday power outages, even in high-ranked hotels. It’s ending up in Kashmir when you promised you’d stick to the plan. It’s making time to take a pitstop to rinse off a sandal covered in cow shit. It’s keeping a scarf to wrap up when entering a religious area, or buying a mask on the fly to stop pollution from seeping into your skin.
Living in India is about really seeing, really realizing the constantly changing atmosphere around you. It’s about getting invited to attend an Indian wedding by a stranger in a hotel lobby, ending up in on a houseboat with a lakeside view, having a tour guide show you a handwritten note from a friend back home or eating dinner with the same child who asked you for money moments before.
There’s a sense of freedom in never knowing what will happen next, if only your awareness is strong enough to recognize it. The atmosphere is alive. And at any moment, there is a new opportunity just around the corner.
The country, bulging and bridging, is a work of heart. It’s compassion for animals. Hinduism, India’s most popular religion, asks its followers to minimize suffering in every way possible. This doctrine of nonviolence inspires thousands to eat a veg diet and saves millions of animals each year.
India is respect for another’s religion, because really, in many cases, there isn’t a choice. India is an appreciation for elders, even strangers, who are affectionately called auntie and uncle.
Lastly, India treats foreign guests like gods. The saying, “Atithi Devo Bhava,” means “Be one for whom the guest is God.” The people I have met in India have embraced me with open arms, sending only love to me and my country.
India is more than a destination. Every moment spent traveling through this country is a journey. Every second is a challenge to begin to know yourself better. To begin to rely on the people you’re traveling with, to start to know their insides, their hopes and their fears, no matter how hard they try to hide it.
There’s no doubt that living in India is one of the hardest things I’ve put my body through. Staying hydrated in intense heat, avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables, breathing in billows of carbon monoxide smog, fighting off packs of merchants armed with Pashmina scarves, just trying to feed their families…
Why did I seek this out? I didn’t really. I was called to be here, called to connect, called by a force I do not fully understand. Called by the need to discover the world. Called by the need to explore. Called by the need to know more.
India is a jarring, mind-altering place. It forces you to question everything you’ve ever known. It has changed me in ways that have yet to manifest -- good and bad. Despite the discomfort, I feel called to return. There is something about it that is just so… real.