I think it’s safe to say everyone was a little perplexed when I first shared that I would spend the fall backpacking in India. I’d never expressed specific interest in this country, and I’m not exactly known for my love of spicy food or knowledge of British colonialism.
To be frank, I did more or less just… end up here. Kim and I were hungry for a backpacking adventure, and after brainstorming for a few days we landed on India as our destination. Next thing I knew, I had a plane ticket, a bottomless supply of digestive aids, and hardly a clue as to what the next months of my life would be like.
I’m a traveler with few expectations. Very rarely have I formulated an idea of what a place will be like before I get there. I think that’s because my curiosity about the world is quite general; I’m more fascinated by the greater unknown than I am by any particular location. India was no exception to this. Before coming here I had only a rough sketch in my mind of what it might be like. I knew I’d see the Taj Mahal, eat delicious food, practice yoga, and be really, really hot — but that’s about as detailed as it got. I expected I’d experience the biggest culture shock of my backpacker life to date, but I wasn’t expecting that to happen in any particular way.
Turns out, that happened in many ways. India escorted us through the full gamut of emotions, and then some.
Certain things we loved right away. The food impressed us from our first breakfast to our last dinner (although it will be a loooonngg time before I eat curry again.) We were immediately wooed by the vibrant colors of the clothing and the cities, and by the vibrancy of the people, as well. On every leg of our journey we met a gracious stranger, or a generous new friend, or a memorable character who captured our hearts. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with the sights, either; the Himalayan peaks took our breath away, and I literally cried when I first saw the Taj Mahal. The backwaters and plantations and beaches we explored in the South immediately became some of my favorite places I’ve ever been.
Other things we grew to love more gradually — the swelter of the desert, squatting to go to the bathroom, the chaos of the train. We soon became pros at eating without utensils (or so we fancied ourselves,) and our mosquito-swatting skills reached an all-time high pretty quickly. Day by day we adapted to the customs of the home and became comfortable accepting the generous hospitality that had once overwhelmed us. By the third week we were eagerly awaiting the next cup of chai we’d share with whoever it might be.
And then there were things we never quite adjusted to. We consistently felt under the microscope, unable to escape the penetrating stare of locals who were stunned to see two young white girls roaming around. At times it was challenging to endure all the attention generated by the novelty of our presence. We also never grew accustomed to the intense prominence of poverty and pollution, although we mentally prepared ourselves for that ahead of time. It’s par for the course when you choose to travel to a developing country.
Overall, I must admit: I came here sporting an embarrassingly watered-down Western understanding of Indian culture. I had no idea that every time you cross a state border you encounter a different language, cuisine, predominant religion, standard of living, literacy rate, et cetera. In Uttarakhand we were strictly vegetarian, but in Goa we ate fish or meat daily. We learned a few Hindi words in the North that we then traded out for Malayalam words in the South. In Rajasthan we attended a Muslim wedding, in Maharashtra we participated in Hindu traditions, and in Kerala our generous hosts were Christians. Every few days we were acclimating to something new.
So, I guess the best tagline for our India trip is: it was a learning experience of unparalleled proportion. We had days loaded with adventure, days that seriously challenged us, and days that blended into each other and were actually pretty boring. But regardless of where we were or what we were doing (or what wounds we were nursing,) every day we felt we were being educated. Every night we went to bed feeling enriched, and every morning we woke up grateful to have another day of learning ahead.
Even after spending months here, we’ve only just scratched India’s surface. The scope of the cultural diversity makes it feel more like we tried to see 10 countries in 1 week rather than 1 country in 10, and as I think about all we saw and experienced, I can’t help but think about all we didn’t see or experience. I’m not sure if my travels will take me back through this country in the future, but I’ll count myself lucky if they do.
We ran to India with open hearts, and it welcomed us with open arms. And for all that it opened our minds to, we couldn’t be more thankful.
Namaste, India. You were one hell of a ride!