When people ask me, “did you like India?” I answer honestly: I say no.
No, I did not like India. I did not like the dirt and the grime, I did not like smelling rivers from blocks away, I did not like seeing piles of trash accumulating on the corners of city streets, and the abject poverty was heartbreaking. I was solicited to constantly, I could hardly breath the pollutant rich air, and I was constantly looking behind my shoulder to see if all those stares were simply because I was a foreigner or if they something malicious (and on at least one occasion, they were malicious.)
India is overwhelming in every way; there’s no release or escape. It’s as challenging a destination as I’ve ever visited, and I’ve been to some crazy places (like the West Bank and Siberia in winter.) Yet for all it’s difficulties, for all the frustrations and challenges of traveling there, India continually tops the list of places to which I’d like to return.
The first bus I rode got into an accident as soon as it pulled out of the station. The respective drivers disembarked and tense discussion immediately ensued, quickly escalating to yelling as a crowd gathered. I thought we would be there all day and that the bus would be canceled, yet the discussion stopped as suddenly and unexpectedly as the accident had occurred, and we were inexplicably on our way shortly thereafter.
Weeks later, I left the country after a man put a toothpick in my ear in an attempt to sell me something, a culmination of nonstop solicitations over the course of the previous month. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or more appropriately, the toothpick that broke me. That was trip #1. Not one to be discouraged, a year later I returned alone, and then I returned once more the following year as I passed through Delhi on the way to Nepal.
Why I want to go back
I want dearly to return to India. I’ve seen much of the south and northwestern parts, but there is so much to the vast country that one can never really do more than scratch the surface of one place at a time. The heat and culture simultaneously envelop you, and once you make peace with the chaos it all becomes sort of… beautiful (with the exception, of course, of the abject poverty.)
I want to return to India because traveling there has taught me a lot about life outside of my own little westernized bubble. And at risk of sounding overly westernized still, traveling there has also taught me a lot about me because there’s no safety net. How do I handle situations when I’m not in control? How do I handle being challenged by others, what do I do when I feel ripped off? How do I deal with the unexpected?
Because you will be challenged, you will be ripped off, you will find the unexpected, and you won’t be in control. And in the end, that’s what makes it so enjoyable. You don’t like “it” so much as what it has taught you.
Keep calm and carry on: Staying sane in India
There may be a reason yoga is performed so often in India: it helps people center themselves amidst the chaos of their lives. I’ve never really done yoga, although I imagine it would help and I’d like to try it sometime. In the meantime I came up with my own personal way of staying centered and staying sane while traveling there. Once I got this down I felt like I had hit my stride, and that I could continue traveling in the country for as long as I wanted and in the face of any challenge.
1) Go with the flow.
Understand that few things will go according to plan. When I took a bus from Jaipur to Agra, it made no sense at all. I showed up at the right time and place, and no one was there. At all. Realizing I may have been duped, I waited around a while. A local man soon showed interest in my plight, and through body language and hand signals he guided me down an unmarked and unpromising side road. Soon a loaded bus pulled up and the man waived goodbye to me as I boarded. I was utterly unsure of where my final destination might be, but I was willing to try. I was thoroughly confused – I was the only one there, I wasn’t at a bus stop of any kind, and a random man had guided me to the unmarked spot. Everything worked out just fine, and I got to where I wanted to go.
Things won’t work in your hotel room, you won’t be able to see all the sights you want, your food order will come back wrong, and you will be ripped off. Just go with it.
2) Pace yourself.
When I first started traveling I wanted to see IT ALL. I still do, but not in the capitalized sense. I once would have been happy to rush from sight to sight, seeing the tourist landmarks but quick to miss all the small things that constitute present day life for those who live there. Now, I have a far more relaxed attitude towards travel. I want to go slow. I want to spend time at the cafe, slowly sipping coffee as I overhear conversations, meet locals, and generally plan my day. If I can see one major tourist sight in a new city, it’s a huge success. If I see nothing but share some great stories with fellow travelers, or if I can meet a few locals over a beer, that’s a huge success too.
3) Find a place that’s yours and spend time there.
This may be mostly because I’m an introvert and I need some me time to recharge, but I suspect that we all need a place to call our own. Find it, whether it’s a hotel room, a restaurant, or a lookout point. In a country of 1.2 billion people, it’s really hard to find your own space, but once I did and I devoted myself to spending time there, my trip became 100% better.
4) Appreciate the oddness and the beauty around you.
It’s easy to get frustrated when you go out. It feels like people are rushing everywhere around you, happy to bump into you should you not get out of their way. Cars, cows, and motorbikes all speed by. It feels like a mess. Realize that this is normal here, and that you are now a part of it. There’s no escaping, so make your own way through, and try to appreciate the experience of being awash in it all.