INDIA. All around me were foreigners, and though we were a tightly packed group of eleven, the stares and dropped jaws made it feel as if our numbers surmounted fifty. We moved as a convoy through ranks of floor-dwellers and the poor, my throat tightening as I coughed my way through the spice cloud of the marketplace.
This was two weeks ago, in the heart of Old Delhi, and I had just arrived to India with a group from Boston College. Our goal was to make it safely to Mussoorie, where we would spend the next three weeks on individual creative writing projects. In the span of the little time I spent there, I picked up some valuable life lessons that will not be quick to fade.
Be conscientious about your money.
Especially since the exchange rate makes paying in India a vastly different experience than paying in America. Instead of doling out $7 for a burrito, one would pay 50 rupees — or less — for a plate of naan, a bready appetizer to parallel that of the customary Italian bread rolls of the States. But considering the fact that one dollar goes for about 55 rupees, that’s not bad at all. It’s just a lot of math, and a lot of counting, and of course, a lot of bartering. If you’re up to the challenge, that is. Sometimes all it takes is the cold shoulder and a huffy exclamation of “too expensive,” and shopkeepers will run to catch you on your way out. Be careful how much you spend on souvenirs: remember, be tough, and you can always get the price to at least 50% lower than what it originally cost.
Be thankful for what you have.
One of the first sights I experienced in the midst of Old Delhi was its narrow alleyways, which hummed with activity from the shops that bordered the grime-filled streets, and the feathery touch of flies as they hovered around dogs, street food and people. Wires hung haphazardly from the rooftops, and the air was dry, hot and tortuously stuffy. Everyone qualified as being way lower than the poverty line we have in the United States — $11, 670 for a household of one — and beggars were plentiful, often crawling around with no limbs.
Meanwhile, we sipped our diet sodas and refused to give up a single rupee, lest a swarm of beggars crowd the proud Americans for more. Coming home to air free of flies was relieving, but as I bathed in my porcelain bathtub, I could not forget the shuffling nubs of the beggars, nor the tainted water, nor the children with stick legs and bulging eyes. To have a roof over my head was a blessing, and to have plumbing was nothing short of a miracle.
Celebrities have it hard.
There was a lot of staring, and a lot of pictures, whether they were blatantly taken from a distance, secretly taken from a distance, or posed for, with a meek approach and a rapid motioning of the hands. It was impossible to blend in, especially for my blonde friends, who were glared at as well as revered. It was important to not make eye contact or you would be bombarded, though the hoard of strangers we came across were just as fascinating to us as we were to them. Now, I can kind of imagine how Ryan Gosling feels when he walks down the streets of NY.
Religion can be great, and unifying.
Every night, the people of Rishikesh come together for a special ceremony by the Ganges River, a body of water so sacred that it has been personified as a god—Mother Ganga. It is a time of eventful togetherness that has become a ritualistic part of everyday life, and serves to bring everyone together — whether they be visiting travelers, shopkeepers or beggars from the street.
The grounds of religious worships in India are beautiful and immersed in so much nature. I didn’t know so much color and diversity of wildlife could be centered in a place so open to the public. Temples in Rishikesh felt like magic gardens, where old men and women sat on the grounds of the temple, and where trees stretched their long limbs to meet each other across the airspace. Monkeys hooted at each other from the rooftops, and there were individual shrines for individual gods.
The individuals of the community come together to form one collective whole, fostering faith and the peace within the self when one knows that he has done right by his god. Religion is good for knowing that we are not along in this universe, that there is a greater plan for us. And for those who are not as religious but would like to reap the benefits of charity, there is always free food set out beside the temples. This goes to show that there is something for everyone in religion.
Community goes a long way.
It was nice to see men holding hands and throwing their arms around each other shoulders. Especially coming from the US, where everyone is much more isolated, and where it is still frowned upon for straight men to show such affection.
When we visited the Sanji school, we noted that the kids were never alone, and were more willing than American children to help each other out, and to help us out. Though we were stared at, we were welcomed at every corner by these mischievous cherubs, and we were never left alone. Everyone was much more together; family and friends were much more unified, and familial units as a whole were emphasized much more than they are in the United States, where independence is stressed for the sake of “breaking away” and resulting entrepreneurship.
Exercise, exercise, exercise.
America is land of the free and home of the brave, but also home of the fattest kind of people. Eat your veggies.
It’s okay to be sentimental.
Let it out. If you are a Westerner such as myself, visiting a country like India, you might feel strange for your Western imposed sense of sentimentality, as I did. There, we were ooing and awing at the forests, village shops and cows that were everyday sights for those native to India. Though we come from homes of comparative grandeur and steel, these sights are allowed to move us.
Remember that your sentimentality is important, not only for the making of memories, but for the sake of tourism, for the sake of your souvenirs. Tourism is so important for the business of the shops that border those narrow alleyways. Sentimentality in any new place provides for benefits on both ends: lasting memories on ours, and a living on the other.
You really don’t need much to be happy.
In Old Delhi, a child who could be no wider than my pinky finger laughed at us foreigners and leaned down to touch my shoes. He was so dirty, yet seemingly unperturbed by the circumstances surrounding him, and ran away to hold the hand of his mother, just a few feet away.
It was then that I realized that taking clean showers is rewarding. Eating clean good is rewarding. Sitting on a stoop and talking with friends can be the most rewarding experience in the world, especially with family close at hand. Truly, you can make the best out of every situation, and find some way that it can be rewarding. We don’t need much to be happy, though we delude ourselves into thinking that the fastest cars, the prettiest friends, and outright signs of affluence are what will ultimately bring us happiness. It’s togetherness, and we have lost that sense of unity through expectation and the need for more, more, more.
As they say in Hindi, “Shabbash.” Good job. We have all done well — no matter how we’ve done — as long as we are together.