5 Things I couldn't leave behind in India
I spent 3 months in India when I was 20 years old. I left India, but some parts of my experience would not be left behind.
While I was there I was completely alone. I didn't go with a travel partner, I didn't have a guide, and there was no one to pick me up from the airport after 30+ hours of travel time. I was alone.
This experience has shaped me a lot. Part of me remembers India as this totally freeing experience, I was completely independent in another country where my meager funds could actually afford an apartment and food! And shopping! Oh the shopping! At 20 years old I was given the opportunity to test my self and be tested by the world and- in most ways- I came out on top.
I came back with all of my limbs in tact, all of my memories were clear and mostly good, I had friends in other countries I would stay in contact with over the next 3 years and my health was more or less perfect.
However, as in any hero's journey, there were and are pieces that stayed with me, some of them are great, some of them are not so great, but all of them make me who I am today and for that I am grateful.
1. The memories of smell
I hadn't been in an Indian food restaurant for quite some time, maybe a year or more, until last week and it was a really interesting experience for me.
I've grown up in a very typical anglo saxon household with very typically British and occasionally Canadian meals (see ketchup chips). The diversity in my food only ever came up when eating sushi, or burritos... but then I am from California and thats all we eat here anyway.
Indian food has an incredible variety of flavors and spices and of course, smell. The smell of Indian food cooking was something I only experienced when I was living in Varanasi and the smell of cooking food, incense and burning trash is all you smell all day everyday. I never expected to be washed away by my senses so intensely when I stepped foot into The Maharaja restaurant with my family.
They say that smell is our strongest sense tied to memories. I experienced smells I hadn't smelled in three years, tastes that brought me back to my first thali and street chai. It was incredible how not only my mind wandered back to the streets of Varanasi, but that my demeanor changed. I felt my self quieting my actions, trying to stay as unnoticeable as possible, and I noticed I put my left hand under the table to keep from being rude.
I had a visceral reaction to the food and the smells. I don't think it was a bad thing, but I do think it is something that I carry with me. Maybe at my next Indian meal I will notice something different.
2. The power of 'No'.
You have to get good at telling people 'No' on the streets in India. As a tourist you are in high demand by the local street vendors. I had a gentleman follow me and a friend for a good half a mile pestering us to buy his product, then after telling him firmly 'No', he came back an hour later in a totally different part of town to try and sell us something. I was pretty angry that he followed us, and I finally got him to leave us alone. Unfortunately, my friend told me later he found her taking a solo walk and she bought his product just so he would leave her alone.
My 'No' got pretty strong in cases like that. Hers didn't.
The power of 'No' isn't just something you say to someone, it is something you do with your whole body. Saying 'No', means you are denying someone access to your personal space, your time, and your attention. You cannot give one and exclude the others, if you give someone your time, they have your space and your attention is distracted. If you say, 'maybe' and give someone your attention, then they have your time and your space is compromised. If you give someone your space they are pretty hard to ignore and time is wasted.
Saying 'No' was powerful for me. It helped me define very clearly my boundaries. I brought this back from India, my time, space and attention is limited and I don't give it away to everyone. Maybe this is a little bit harsh, but I think it has helped me weed out the people in my life who slow me down, waste my time, or cause me to feel stuck.
3. Acceptance of the things I can not change, and the power to change the things I can.
This is a funny one to me. I think the realization came to me one day when I was sitting in a train, my bag was chained to my seat and I was about 10 minutes from home. And I had to pee. So so badly.
My options for a bathroom were the following.
1. Unchain your bag, take it to the train bathroom with you, try to keep from slipping as the heavy bag weighed you down near the pit toilets slippery surface while the train rattled back and forth.
2. Leave your bag chained to the seat and navigate the pit toilet without it.
3. Hold it. Brave the auto-rickshaw ride home and deal with it then.
All of these were things I had done before and things I could definitely do again. But it was in that moment that I realized, I was unable to change my circumstances. I think every 20 something has this realization at one point or another. Especially as a young person, we usually have a way out. There is always someone else to blame, someone who will take responsibility for your actions and the consequences are never really that bad.
Anyone who has been to a public high school can relate.
But this was mine. I could sit and suffer through my bladder bursting, or I could risk my bag being stolen or dropped into a pit toilet. I chose the first. I like to think I chose it without much show of personal struggle, I though to myself calmly, "Well, you got yourself into this mess and now you have to deal with the consequences."
This same mantra, "You got yourself into this mess and now you have to deal with the consequences." was something I got to think to my self over and over again. Hungry? Food is far away and you have to pay for it. Thirsty? Same same. Sick with food poisoning? You know what you ate was bad when you were eating it, this is your own fault.
Traveling in India gave me a calm understanding of the things I could not change, but also gave me the ability to change what I can, as best I can and as soon as I can.
4. Absolute love of my body
Varanasi is a beautiful city, full of life and color and excitement, it is a hub of different languages, cultures, people, religions, food, noise, color and sounds. It brings so many people close to things they didn't understand before and awakens things in people that they didn't know they had inside them.
It is also a city with a lot of poverty. There are wild dogs running in packs, disabled people with little or no access to the health care they need and death is everywhere.
In order to respect all of these different cultures clashing in one place, I spent a considerable amount of time in clothing that covered my chest and legs down to my ankles. This was inline with the fashion and clothing worn by all of the local women and most travelers/tourists who stayed for a reasonable amount of time. I don't think women should have to wear anything against their will, but I strongly believe in following cultural practices when you are the foreigner in someone else's home city. It makes life easier, you blend in more, you draw less unwanted attention from men, you can be subject to less scams and of course it reduces the stares.
I didn't think much of it when I was in India. I was spending so much time focusing on other things, but when I got home I realized how much I missed seeing my skin. I missed the feeling on sun on my bare legs, I missed the freedom of tank tops and a gathered an appreciation for my body in a whole new way. It was like coming home to myself.
I think all women struggle with body image, and before my travels I definitely did, but when I came home I was just so happy to see my body after months of keeping it hidden from the sun that my relationship has changed a lot. I love the vessel I have been given, and I am so glad it carries me around the world.
5. The itch to travel again
Obviously. Or I wouldn't have started this travel blog. My spirit for adventure had just been satiated with a taste of India. I had a friend that left India and traveled all through south east Asia by train, her pictures almost made me miss my flight home on purpose. I think especially Varanasi, since it is so full of so many different types of people, it makes you see how little you know of the world. How much is out there.
And the people who you meet as travelers are just as eclectic. Students from Seattle, a large group of 20 somethings from Australia, solo British girls traveling with just a back pack and a smile, one or two Brazilian guys who always want to get a chai, and a large group of retirees from Canada who paid the tour guide so they could take a picture of a cow. None is better than the other, but all have a great story and all of them got the urge to travel. The best part is to ask them why.
As I finish this list I can't help but think of more and more things I learned from India. But attention spans are not infinite, and I will just have to save that for another day. Until then.