My year in India is finally coming to a close. A year ago I was receiving all kinds of India related advice, wanted and unwanted, and avoiding conversations with people who seemed like they might react with skepticism or fear when I revealed that I would be moving to India to study water pollution. In my first blog post I wrote a list of do’s and don’t according to advice I was given. Here’s that list again, confirmed and denied.
Never smile at or make eye contact with someone on the street, especially a man (absolutely true, walk with your eyes to the street, only look up if someone calls your name, this means they know you); don’t drink the water (DON’T DRINK IT); if it’s not boiled, pealed or cooked, don’t touch it (if its washed with filtered water then its fine, eat that carrot!), but it’s rude to refuse food as a guest, so in someone’s home eat everything and just pray (True. I took this chance thrice, got sick once); make sure to eat with the right hand, NOT the left, as the left is used to wipe your butt (essential tip!); use the left to wipe your butt (***disclosure, no one will no if you wipe with the right) (These last two rules exist for purposes of hygiene, many people in India don’t use toilet paper, but use their hand to wipe); nothing has a fixed price and you must barter for everything, if someone suggest 300 rupees, you suggest 3 rupees, this seems ridiculous but you will come to realize that 100% attempted inflation is real (This remains true for certain products, especially autos, but in the last few years daily goods have been given fixed prices so neither you or the seller have control); food poisoning is all but guaranteed (If you live in Varanasi, yes); food poisoning can be overcome (Questionable…just kidding, its true); do not go to a public hospital (DO NOT! I saw 5 different doctors when I had dengue); don’t trust anyone, unless they have proven themselves worthy time and time again (THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE); it may smell like diarrhea in the streets (or decaying flesh); there may be diarrhea in the streets (or unlimited cow poop. Watch out for the splat!); expect that nothing will run on time (and to achieve one thing expect an average of 3 attempts in order to succeed, forming relationships with people you need things from helps, use chai for this); ensure that everything but your face, feet, and hands are covered when in public, except when wearing a sari, then your belly can hang out (true, sometimes I wore my shoulders out if I was in a touristy area); don’t give money to beggars or children (give food); don’t attempt umbrellas in the monsoon, you will get wet (don’t go outside if its raining, the streets become sewers. I had to wade through ankle deep sewage to get home once); police are not necessarily to be trusted (definitely not! Ask me about my encounters with police); there may not be toilet paper, but don’t worry, there should be a hose (there is NEVER toilet paper, there may not be a hose, then your really screwed, but the hose is usually essential, TP or none). If you can get one thing done in a day, consider it a success (Yes!). Finally, I would like to add: don’t try to plan in advance, your plans will change; cultivate unceasing patience and a sense of humor; and don’t be afraid to use your mean face.
It was the little things I loved about India. For example, Indians wear the best t-shirts with inspirational and sometimes nonsensical declarations like ‘open minded’; ‘Dirty 30’; ‘Bad Dude’; ‘Surf California’; ‘I’m the Angry Uncle’; ‘One Day I’ll be Famous’; and my favorite, a couple with matching shirts declaring ‘We’re together’ but walking so that the arrows pointed away from each other. It’s these times when I would wonder if the person realizes what it says on their chest. India is the only country I have been in where people really engage with their own culture. It is all about Bollywood, and different types of traditional and regional music like Punjabi and Pujpuri music. The diversity and depth of music, film, and sports in India is so vast that people are quite satisfied with the options they have, and don’t venture outside the walls of their country to look for something else. I met many people who didn’t know Bob Marley, which was a wake up call for me. Once I mentioned Jesus Christ to a friend and he responded that he had ‘heard of Jesus’, granted he is from a village. Or when I said something about Kim Kardashian, and my friend replied, “what’s a Kardashian?” It is surprising and refreshing to find a place less wrapped up in western culture. India really is unique. It was hard to keep track of all the different aspects of culture, tradition, and society. People are very proud to be Indian and that was nice to see. It is, no doubt, a very different place and living there gave me more new perspective than I have ever gained from a place.
I cannot describe my experience or how I have changed in words because I have not yet processed it myself, but I do know that have become a more resilient, confident, and capable human being. My perspective is broader than its ever been, enabling me to be a better global citizen and a better me. It was certainly difficult at times, like when I had Dengue, or when I came home to find termites had eaten my things essentially over night. However, I also engaged in the spiritual side of India, studying yoga and mediation, engaging with Buddhism and Hinduism, learning about and using Ayurvedic, Tibetan, and Chinese medicine. There is a reason some traditions have lasted for 3000 years, like the teachings of the Buddha and the art of meditation…because they work. There is wisdom in India that I have never even come close to encountering in the West. Sometimes it is buried under a rubbish pile and you have to dust off some dirt or navigate a scam before you get to the real thing, but once you do its like discovering an ancient secret, making you feel as though you are the keeper of a great piece of knowledge.
It is true about the magic and the wisdom of India. They are really onto something there and I still don’t fully understand it, but I like it, and I think it works. Banaras is a polluted, dirty, crowded, and crumbling city, but it is overflowing with intense, positive energy. Like touching a stone that’s been worshiped for 3000 years in the basement of a century’s old home and getting shivers up your arms; or holding an original copy of one of Charles Darwin’s books of which on 2000 copies exist on Earth in the back of a dust, moth eaten library and feeling like you’ve held history!; bathing in the Ganga, and feeling like your soul has just been washed clean of everything dirty; meditating on anger and realizing things you didn’t even know you had been holding onto; standing in a temple surround by paintings of wrathful gods, 100s of years old lion skins, antlers, and aged, stuffed birds hanging from the ceiling; experiencing genuine human kindness; and realizing that all your problems are simply a manifestation of the mind, in reality, you can choose to be in control.
In India, I had some of the most unique experiences of my life and met some of the most interesting people I have ever met. I have seen true suffering and pure joy. I myself have been in states of struggle and bliss. India has changed me profoundly, though I am not sure how this will manifest in my life yet. This has been one of the biggest challenges of my life, and I am excited to step into the next chapter of my life with a calmer, more humorous mind.