I've got to admit, when I arrived in India, I wasn't smitten like I am by so many other countries. The smoggy skies, soundtrack of screeching of horns, trash-strewn streets and the smells (oh, the smells!) of New Delhi welcomed me, and I wondered what the hell I'd gotten myself into.
Before we traveled to India, other travelers tried to describe this country to us, but they always came short of words.
"India can't be explained," each of them would say. "It can only be felt. You just have to go and experience it yourself to understand."
It was as if all people who had traveled to India were in some sort of secret club, and their answers were maddening. But now, after spending a month and a half in this country, I get it. Ben and I have become members of the secret club, and I understand what each of these people was trying to say.
It's true: India can't easily be described, but I am going to do my best.
This may sound made up, but I don't think I ever really experienced culture shock until India. Not when I ventured overseas for the first time and made the cobblestoned streets of Florence my home for my semester abroad. Not when I strapped on my backpack and headed on a 3-month trip to South America. Not even when Ben and I moved to South Korea for one year to teach English.
In all those situations, I had expectations and I was well prepared.
In truth, I had no idea what to expect going into India. And I was more overwhelmed at the prospect of traveling this gigantic country than I was prepared for it.
My first moments in India were spent absorbing the sights from a taxi window. Cattle weaving through traffic, enjoying their holy status. Grown adults using the street as a bathroom. Garbage strewn about liberally as if a trash can had never been invented.
I was immediately reminded of a part in the book Eat, Pray, Love when the author was advised, "Don't touch anything in India but yourself." From the get-go, I made that my rule. Though it’s harder than you may think.
After just an hour in India, a word to describe this country came to mind: Messy. And at the time, I meant that in a negative way. Dirty, unclean.
We had just come from Myanmar, a country where the people seriously charmed us. And when we arrived in India, we felt, well, not all that welcomed.
It's not that we didn't meet nice people, but overall, the people we met those first few days weren't nearly as friendly as the rest of those we encountered in Southeast Asia. Unless they were trying to sell us something, of course.
And then were are the stares. I’ve been stared at a lot in the last couple years. Being a gringo in South America will bring some curious looks, and giggling teenagers (and adults) stared at us shyly everywhere we went in South Korea.
But for some reason, the stares in India felt different. When I smiled at the onlooker, I wasn’t always met with a smile in return, and the stares often continued, unashamedly, even after locking eyes with them.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who absolutely adores India, and travels there on every occasion she gets. I was surprised to learn that the stares still bother her. She has come to expect them, yes, but I suppose it’s not something you can easily get used to.
Our first time in India was a lot of things – chaotic, noisy, beautiful, hot, colorful, uncomfortable, exciting, unique. But if I'm honest, we weren’t quite sure if we wanted to return.
A couple weeks after leaving India, we were trekking in the Himalayas of Nepal and had a long conversation about India with a lovely Spanish couple we'd met earlier in the day. The wood stove crackled behind us as we spoke of our experiences in the country to our south.
Although India is right next door, the hot chaos felt a million miles away with snow-capped mountains as our backdrop.
They talked about how the treatment of women in India made them uncomfortable, and how there were some cities where they constantly felt like people were trying to scam them. They talked of being sick for weeks because of something they ate. And we nodded along. Somehow they put into words what we had been feeling about our experience.
But then they told us of some beautiful people they’d met, and some places they visited that just couldn’t be explained in words. We knew it then that we weren’t finished with India.
I may not be selling India very well at the moment, but keep reading. Stick with me. I stuck with India. In fact, Ben and I decided to return for a second time because we felt like we were being pulled back because there was just still so much left to experience and so many people to meet.
And now, after spending 3 more weeks in India (6 weeks total), I still think “messy” is a fitting word to describe this nation. Though now I mean it differently. Like when a child makes a finger painting and hands it to you, still dripping with paint.
Messy, yes, but charming and colorful too. Full of unique beauty, and while it may not have the perfectly straight lines of the framed paintings on your walls, it may just be one of your favorite pieces of art.
To be honest though, India isn't an ideal travel destination for everyone. There are some places in this world that I think everyone would love. The Philippines, for example. Or Italy... yes Italy! I may be biased because I studied abroad in Florence, but I truly think there is a city for every person in that country.
But I'm not sure about India.
If you're not okay being uncomfortable and patiently peeling back the layers of a place and a culture, then I don't think you could appreciate India.
If you're not interested in learning and getting out of your comfort zone, then India is not the holiday for you.
If you are traveling to find comfort and cocktails on the beach, I don't think India would be a great vacation choice. (Sure, there's Goa, but if you're not willing to venture past the tourist resorts what's the point? You won't be experiencing the real India.)
But, for those of you who are seeking a transformational experience and are willing and excited to jump headfirst into a realm that is unlike anything you've ever experienced, then India may just be the perfect destination for you.
It may just teach you more than any other place in the world. It may become your favorite piece of art.
India is unapologetically dirty. One has to look past the flies, the garbage piles, the people using the streets as a bathroom... If you can stick with it (and your perpetually dirty feet), you'll see some of the most exquisite temples and palaces in the world. You'll eat food that will have you question why you ever mess with Indian restaurants at home.
And you will experience a culture that can't be described in words - only felt. You can explore ancient cities that look as if they came straight out of a bedtime story, and observe a level of spirituality that can't be matched anywhere in the world. India is certainly a special place.
A smelly, colorful, crowded, vibrant, hectic, crazy place.
India is kind of like that tattooed, foul-mouthed friend that, once you can get past their rough exterior, you are mesmerized by them and can't get enough. And I’ve met plenty of people who are absolutely infatuated with this place. Those who never really leave.
The travelers you meet in India are looking for something different than those you meet in the Thai islands. They know travel here is not easy, and not only are they up for the challenge, but that’s what draws them here. India isn’t a place you go to sit on the beach with a bucket of rum, after all. (Well, Goa may be one exception.)
I get how people are mesmerized – India is bright and vivid, with a culture unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The chaos, while maddening at times, can be enthralling too.
I like India, and I am oh so curious about its people and culture. But my relationship with this country is not one that’s effortless. It requires work. I don’t think India will ever enrapture me like the Philippines. I don’t think it’ll charm me like Colombia, or make me fall madly in love like Italy.
There are those who will disagree with me, but isn’t that a beautiful thing? If we all gravitated toward the same places, there’d be no point in traveling – for we’d always be surrounded by the same people.
India, you have challenged me more than any country has before. I've had a couple horror stories here (see #5), but I've also had some moments that make my heart smile. You have introduced me to some beautiful people and shown me glimpses into a complex culture.
India, you have taught me that my expectation of comfort is quite a bit higher than I thought. I enjoy air conditioning (in 100ºF / 38ºC degree heat!), trash bins, and cute coffee shops more than I ever realized.
And while I didn't always find traveling easy while I was in your colorful and hectic embrace, I find myself craving more.
India, you have opened up a whole world I never knew existed, and there is so much still to explore. I can't wait to return to you, India, and experience more of your wild and addicting beauty.