Tuesday, January 11, 2011

भारत गणराज्य* a.k.a. India

I went to India and did everything I could in the short time I was there. Then, I came back from India…and now I am sitting here wishing to g-d that I had stayed longer.

Nothing I had read- and nothing I was told- could have prepared me for that country. My expectations- although not completely off base, were misguided. I expected to feel suffocated and uneasy- to be agitated. Instead, I felt tranquil. Everything around me was sheer pandemonium, yet inside- complete stillness. I was happy in India- it agreed with me.

The major cities are crowded and dirty- but the crowds are swathed in dazzling colors that dot the streets like little bits of sunshine. I didn't see the litter and pollution- I saw the silk shawls and satin saris waving in the wind, brushing the feet of the women walking in their hand-woven leather sandals. India smells- but it smells alive- a powerful mixture of spice and stink in the air- so potent that its hard to discern what it is coming from or where it is going – and you never know whether the next waft will make your stomach moan with hunger, or completely rob you of your appetite.

Next to every five star hotel, is a slum- a makeshift community of littered paths and huts formed of materials found in the streets and strewn among construction sights. The abundant poverty is a glaring reminder of the fact that India, alone, is home to 1/3 of the world’s poor. But even though nearly 50% of the population falls below the international poverty line- they all smile. I swear, I rarely saw anyone without a beaming grin across their faces and friendly open arms. And regardless of income bracket or mode of transportation- Mercedes, rickshaw or donkey…everyone welcomed us- wanted to share something- whether it was a cup of tea or a simple word. The people of India received us- and took as in as if we had always belonged.

Of course, one must be careful not to drink the water- and I, for one, had a suitcase filled with antibiotics to cure any stomach ailment that has ever plagued humankind- but India was a feast of gastronomic delights. It was a banquet of tastes and flavors and smells. And as a lifelong vegetarian- I had found my culinary paradise. It was the first time in 26 years that there were so many options on a menu, I had trouble deciding. India may be loud- horns honking, donkeys baying, people haggling and animated friends eagerly signaling and saluting one another. But I don't know if anyone can tell me that they don't hear the same amount of noise in Manhattan. I quickly became accustomed to the racket- and within a few hours- I loved it. It was different from the chiming bells of Italian churches- but it was a constant reminder that “yes, I had finally made it to India.” And what a good reminder it was…

Amidst the chaos and the inescapable shifting of people and objects and animals- I felt at peace. And I felt safe- I had a sincere sensation that no one there could hurt me- or would hurt me. Of course, there is always the threat of being run over by a tuk tuk- but that would be sheer carelessness. And unfortunately, our trip coincided with the onset of some major terrorist threats- but that could happen in any nation- to anybody- foreigner or national. So I can’t blame India for being targeted.

What I felt in India was like an alarm clock- but one that wakes you from a dream where you slowly realize that the reality is so much better. Not the other way around.

I know that I have become complacent over the past year. My life is incredibly easy- and good. But I don't take risks…I don't venture out of my comfort zone. In fact, it’s hard to- when an entire country seems to have been created simply to satisfy every human desire on a daily basis.

The India trip, in contrast, was not meant to be comfortable. I wouldn't have wanted it to be. It was fast-paced, stressful and dirty. It was incredible.

India is wild and chaotic and so noisy that it is almost deafening. Traveling in India is a bumpy ride- anyway you look at it.

The vast subcontinent, with its outstanding diversity of cultures religions cuisines and languages would take a lifetime just to get to know. But in that lifetime- one would realize that there is a unity between geographical locations, castes and religions- and it's a harmony I had never felt before in any part of the world. There is an incredible sense of pride in it’s people- a dignity synonymous with honor and delight about its history and heritage- and although I am the first to admit that I have only just touched the tip of the great wealth of wisdom India and its people have to offer, what I do know is that I am hooked. And I can’t wait to return.

I wish I could report some big change in myself but unfortunately, I wasn't there long enough to undergo any transformation. Instead, it was a reminder of why I have always wanted to see India- why I travel, and why I plan to always travel. There is a lot to be said for having a home- someplace to come back to and be enveloped in- and Italy isn’t a bad place to call that “home.” But in this life of comfort and ease, challenging oneself to embark on a few adventures is a priority. I think a lot of lessons can be taken from the people of India. They are kind and welcoming. They enjoy as much as they can and they smile continuously. In India- family is important, self-respect is abundant and beauty is boundless.

I used to travel and hope to change myself in some way. I traveled for inspiration and I traveled to broaden my knowledge and understanding. Even though I still do that- I still hope to learn more about myself and the world- I’m beginning to think that I’m done changing. At the same time, I’m not focusing anymore on becoming a different person. But maybe I’m making a mistake. Because after just a few short days in India- I realized that I could live my life in a better way.

While traveling, a quote by Gandhi kept coming to mind: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possibly. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” Listening to what Gandhi said, and applying it to my own life, I think there is a great lesson to be learned. That no matter where our homes are- or what they are made of- it would be a sin to close ourselves in, under our roofs with our locks and keys- pretending to protect ourselves from whatever is out there in the great wide world- ugly or beautiful, dangerous or safe. It’s all there to discover, absorb and ultimately understand. We should accept whatever may cross our paths and learn from it- but to remain true to who we are. 

And when I return to India, it is with these thoughts in mind that I will confront, yet again, one of the most magnificent places I have ever been. 

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