"And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home."
Wendell Berry

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

India: First Impressions

India is both easier and harder than I thought it would be.
Individually, the challenges aren’t exceptional. There are plenty of Western toilets and toilet paper is much more common here than it was in Thailand. I can manage the open stares, and dressing conservatively certainly helps. Though the traffic is a complete circus and on a whole new level from any road antics I’d previously witnessed, New York cabs prepared me at least a tiny bit for the necessity of complete faith in your driver. And, as Ad said, “From what people had said, I kind of thought it would be a sea of child amputees.” It’s not. But neither is it like anything I’ve experienced before.

“The only problem in India is no problem,” several different vendors have told me over the past few weeks. Yeah but… can you really help me fix this actual problem?

My arrival at the airport gave me an early glimpse into what I would come to know (and, gradually, to sort of love) as India’s reliable unreliableness. At baggage claim, I followed the instructions on the screen for my baggage carousel. It wasn’t running. I checked another one that said “Bangkok,” but learned that it was off of a Thai Airways flight, not my Air India plane. I was pointed to the other side of the airport (there were apparently two baggage areas at opposite ends, though no signs indicated this). I trekked over there, waited in line to enter the area, presented my passport and ticket again. Got inside. No luck. Went back to the other side. Line. Passport. Ticket. Rinse and repeat for around an hour. In near-despair, I asked an official-looking airport person where the lost luggage counter was so I could file a claim. He didn’t answer, but started walking with me. On our way, I spotted my backpack rounding the corner of a carousel inexplicably labeled “Tel Aviv.” I gleefully snatched it off the belt, and the “official” picked up my daypack. I asked for it back repeatedly. When we got to the door (twenty paces away), he said I owed him 100 Rupees.

I definitely struggled at first, here in India. Everything seemed so unnecessarily complicated, from getting a taxi to ordering food to printing a train ticket at an internet café. Garbage and poverty were everywhere. Beyond just language (many people speak English), there was a serious communication barrier; I could not explain myself, at all. There seemed to be no lines; whoever shoved most forcefully and with the most gall was first. Interactions with most men felt either predatory or dismissive. The touts had an aggression that was exhausting. “Yes. Madam. You buy.” “No.” “Cheap price for you.” “No.” After awhile it started to feel like everyone wanted something from me; every interaction seemed loaded. I felt guarded here in a way I’d never been, felt pressed in and pushed on. Any one of these things would’ve been manageable. But it was everything at once, all of the time!

All of this leading to…. DUN DUN. Culture shock. Recognize it. Accept it. Overcome it.

There is much to love here, too. The vivid pinks, blues, greens, and yellows of the saris. The rhythm and expertise of the taxi and motorbike drivers as they weave and dodge, their horns speaking an intricate language. The exquisite mixture of spices and diversity of flavor in endless curries, dosas, thalis. The candy in the street stalls, tasting of pistachio, milk, and molasses and so, so sweet. And the people, curious and pushy and beautiful and resourceful, and full of the joy of life.

India is a place that constantly surprises in the amount she can give and take away. I just needed to settle in and throw my expectations out the window.

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