OYOP: India, Week One. First Impressions.
We have been in India for a little more than one week. From the moment we arrived, it was clear that traveling in this country would be my biggest challenge so far on this trip. In only a week, I have experienced intense joy, beaming as I watched beauty unfold before my eyes at a Rajasthani traditional folk dance performance, and I have shed tears and clutched my stomach in pain as I watched two beautiful Indian women pulled from a rickshaw and beat and slapped by men in the middle of the market street. I would be lying if I thought I might be able to process the intense and contradictory feelings that I’ve had so far in just one week in India, especially through this blog which has served as basically a highlight reel of the sights and experiences we’ve had on this trip at the most superficial level.
India is a country full of extremes, full of contradictions. One cannot travel to India without almost immediately asking oneself the most existential of questions. This is a country of more than one billion inhabitants. In a world with a population of roughly seven billion people, this means that I, or you, or anyone has a one in seven chance of being born in India. And yet it is a country that might as well be a different world from the one I grew up knowing.
I knew in the back of my mind how easy our travels had been so far. Increased global travel combined with the omnipresent internet have made traveling in and around a country these days, even in a completely different language and customs, well, relatively easy. Many places even on the opposite side of the world look familiar and in a couple of days, can feel like home. This is because many countries have, unfortunately, sacrificed local culture for western ways, as if the two cannot coincide. I believe they can coexists, however, as evidenced by our month spent enjoying the unique Japanese culture with all of the modern-day comforts and efficiencies in the world. So far, our time in India has me appreciating that India has maintained its centuries-old mesmerizing and unique cultural identity, but it has me yearning for the cleanliness and social advancements of the more westernized world, not just as a traveler, but for the betterment of the lives of its inhabitants.
We started our journey in India in the cities of Udaipur and Jodhpur in the state of Rajasthan. We tried to “start small” to acclimate before heading to bigger cities. Well, we might as well have begun in Delhi or Mumbai because I’m not sure the shock to our systems would have been any less severe. The streets of India are as fascinating and exhilarating as they are terrifying. It’s difficult to describe, and as James says, no amount of exaggeration could possibly describe the reality of India’s street scene.
Rickshaw drivers swerve around the hundreds of wandering street cows, nearly grazing their legs at every turn. Women dressed in brightly colored Indian garb lead donkeys carrying bricks in the middle of the road and seem deaf or immune to the cacophony of honks coming from every direction. Scooters come at each other from every angle. There are no lanes, just as there are no other rules to the roads. The streets are constantly alive with the bright colors of women’s dress and of street side markets. And the smells are intense and overwhelming, the scent of freshly brewed chai tea prevails in one moment until a slight wind brings the whiff of the cow dung lathered across the streets. My eyes and ears are constantly in motion, struggling to keep up with the change in scenery.
Because of all of the chaos in the streets, I have been able to appreciate the moments of solitude much more freely. In Udaipur, it was dinner of curry overlooking the city’s green lake with a magnificent view of the gleaming white city palace in the distance, as white monkeys jumped over the tops of city buildings. In Jodhpur, it was a rooftop view of the “blue city” while watching kids across the city fly kites from their own rooftops at sunset. These were the moments that left me to ponder the questions of life in this vast country, filled with striking beauty in its people, customs, and clothing, and at the same time filled with intense struggles of poverty, filth, and suppression.
Our experience so far in India has really amplified that right now, we are just simply bystanders, aimlessly traveling around in a world where people are just trying to get by, even just survive. We have met some fascinating characters, people whose lives are vastly different than our own and have so much to teach us just from having completely different customs, beliefs, and ways of life. At the height of our experience so far, we met a village family, who all lived together in a few huts made of mud and cow dung, and invited us into their homes and shared with us a bit about their way of life. At the worst, we spent 7 hours crammed into overpacked slimy, mildewed bus seats, during which James had the wild misfortune of a stomach illness just 4 days into India that had him vomiting out of the bus window anytime the bus came to a halt, when the fresh breeze stopped blowing and the flies started to swarm.
We still have much to learn and process about our experience here in India. So far, it has been a confusing and often frustrating experience at times, and a very uniquely uplifting experience at other times. It is difficult to see poverty and basic levels of sanitation either unknown or ignored with trash, animal, and even human waste in the streets. It is frustrating to see women play such a subservient role in the home and in society. It is magnificent to see an Indian band procession down the streets. It is uplifting to see women of all levels of society look like beautiful princesses in their bright clothes and silver and gold jangling jewelry. It is breathtaking to see herds of camel roaming the countryside, and it is unforgettable to see giant peacocks performing mating ritual dances. It is memorable to learn from the short and long conversations we have with locals about their ways of life, their country and its history and traditions. Above all, it is nothing less than mind-blowing to see a country of one billion people live like nobody else in the entire world and to try to process that one-seventh of the world is here in this country.