I’ve been in India for more than a month now, and have barely shared anything about it here.
I’ve been too busy living.
India has been such an all-encompassing experience for me. It’s unlike anything I’ve felt in a long time, maybe ever.
The best way I can describe it is that I feel so full here. Like my body can’t contain all of the life that is coursing through it.
India feels like that too. Like it is bursting at the seams everywhere.
Food with so many spices and flavors that every bite is like fireworks in the mouth. Trains with people crammed in so that some are hanging out the doors and the last ones aren’t able to get on. Saris and shawls so vibrantly colored that a group of women anywhere looks like a work of art. Smells so intense and varied – incense, sewage, frying food, dust, smog, curry. So many sounds of humanity – horns blaring, tongues chattering, music drifting, coughs sputtering, brooms sweeping, cows mooing. A pervasive sense of spirituality in the temples that are everywhere, the Namaste or hari om with which people greet each other, the religious necklaces worn by so many. Sun so intense that my skin burns through my sunscreen, heat that completely engulfs the middle part of the day. And so much natural beauty: the powerful and sacred Ganges river that courses through the east, the Himalaya mountains in the north, the tropical forests in the south, and the enchanting desert in the west.
India is everything all at once.
It’s too much for some people; it’s too much for me some days; but I’m captivated. I can’t look away, I just want more and more and more.
I started my India trip planning to spend a few days in a bunch of different places so I could see a breadth of the country in the one month I had allotted for exploring India.
But after two weeks, I realized I was too in love with this country to leave after 30 days. And that I would prefer to get to know a smaller number of places in more depth than to briefly breeze through more places.
A few days is nothing to spend in any place. You can see the sights and take pictures for your Instagram, but you don’t get any idea what the place is actually about, what makes the world go round there, what is important to its people.
With a fruit vendor we got to know in Pushkar
A week or so is enough to just start feeling the pulse of a place. Of course you need months or years to really understand all the intricacies, culture and language. But in a week or ten days you can settle in, build a few relationships, notice what a normal day looks like in that place and what people do in the place.
And that, connecting to and learning from people and places, is what creates meaning in travel for me.
So, on that note, here is some of what I’ve learned from the first few places I visited in India.
A supremely varied city (India’s largest), full of amazing energy and even better food. A lot of colonial architecture left here, and so interesting to me to see the way that the tropical climate intersects with these old buildings, covering some of them in vines and framing them in palm trees. It just seems incongruous to me, since I associate that type of architecture with cold European countries.
Mumbai was described to me as India’s City of Dreams.
I definitely understand why. It is a modern city, the Bollywood capital of India and a financial hub, full of businessmen in suits and commuters flooding in and out of trains at rush hour. It reminded me of a tropical New York.
I spent two days doing nothing but walking around the city, sampling the street food and taking in the energy of the city. When the heat got too much for me (the pictures look grey but it was so hot and humid), I took refuge in one of the nicest Starbucks locations I have ever been in. I had a cold drink and wrote in my journal while a group of young women worked on a project for school, some young professionals interviewed some candidates for a job and businessmen came in to get their expensive drinks to go.
Mumbai street food
But Mumbai also has a darker side. Sixty percent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, in which the conditions of some are pretty rough. I didn’t visit the big slums because again, I don’t believe in treating human beings as objects to be viewed, but I did accidentally wander into a couple of the smaller slums, just blocks from the more upscale parts of the city, and was struck by the disparity in this country.
Of course, we also have a lot of income disparity in the US. We have people living in mansions while so many are homeless or barely scraping by. So I’m not passing any judgment on India – simply observing.
There is a striking parallel existence between an India that is modern and growing fast, with its strong economy making some people very prosperous, and an India in which some people are stuck in poverty, with seemingly little chance of moving upwards. The tide of prosperity is rising in India, but it’s not lifting all the boats.
Still, I liked Mumbai, and it gained a place on my list of “places i could see myself living someday if the right situation arises.” Maybe it’s the wandering spirit in me, but I always assess new places to see if I could ever live there. Just in case.
A beautiful, prosperous city in the Rajasthan region which is a tourist destination for locals and foreigners alike. Some describe it as “the Venice of India.” There are two big lakes, lots of parks, and an amazing palace that takes two hours to walk through.
I met some lovely people here – a couple of young women who were on a break from volunteering at a nonprofit in neighboring Jaipur, a young pre-med American man who shared my love of books and provided some great conversation, and the sweet hostel manager who was trying to learn French and spoke a few words with me each day.
It is a pleasant place, nice to look at, easy to be in, but I didn’t feel much here. No energy, spirit of the city, etc. (Some Indian folks I shared this with later said, “that’s because you were alone. Udaipur is a romantic city!”) Anyway, I spent a relaxing long weekend and then moved on.
The day I arrived here, I shared a rickshaw from the train station with another young woman and when he dropped us off a few hundred meters from our destination, we were confused. But as we started walking, we saw that there was a huge festival going on, completely filling the streets. What a fun way to arrive in a city!
Pushkar is a holy city, with two important Hindu temples and a holy lake. There is supposed to be no alcohol or meat consumed within its limits.
But it’s not an uptight place. The people here are spiritual, they will stop you on the street to tell you about your energy or your chakras, but they’re laid back and friendly. It is a place that a lot of Indian tourists go on a spiritual pilgrimage, and where a huge number of foreigners are staying at any given time.
It felt like a magic place for me – i met so many incredible people here, both locals and travelers. We had beautiful nights of taking motorcycles out to the desert and watching the stars, days of visiting temples and exploring the surrounding area, and evenings spent hiking up to different hilltops to watch the sunset.
I celebrated my 29th birthday here and the staff at the hostel where I was staying surprised me with a cake which we all shared on the rooftop. And as a birthday gift, I treated myself to a massage from a highly-recommended Ayurvedic masseuse. He gave me an amazing massage and then inexplicably also told me some things about what was going on in my mind and some remarkably apt life advice, which he said he felt in my energy during the massage. He said that reading people was a gift he had inherited from his father, who did the same thing. These are the interesting people one meets in India!
I’ll end with this interesting tidbit about India. People here really like taking selfies with foreigners. Random people will just walk up to you and ask you if you’ll take a picture with them. I guess it’s a fun souvenir to show your friends later. When unknown men ask me, I usually say no. But for families or women, I say why not?
Happy Wednesday from me and this adorable Indian family:)