Thursday, 7 April 2011

India 2011: An Introduction

(Evening in the Rishi Valley--a perfect time to take a stroll and see bee-eaters, sunbirds, kingfishers, honey-buzzards, prinias, coucals, and a variety of other exotic-sounding wildlife.)

I've been back from my trip to India for nearly 2 weeks but I find that the country and the experience have still not left my brain. When, out of the corner of my eye, I see gulls wheeling in the distance, my first reaction is to mistake them for the black kites that were soaring and diving all over Bangalore and Mysore (and, I suspect, most of the rest of southern India and perhaps the rest of the country as well). It feels strange to see the quiet and emptiness of High Street after sunset, having recently been exposed to the crowded, bustling markets of nighttime Bangalore, open at least until 8:30 and often until 10 PM. After dark, the Indian air was punctuated not only by the sounds of people, but also by those of frogs and insects and night birds--including nightjars, which I haven't heard for almost a decade; although I love the calm rhythms of water and wind that we can hear from our balcony in the evening, they don't really make the pulse race in the same way that the noises of the jungle do (perhaps because those jungle sounds remind both my husband and I of the nighttime noises of our homelands). And, of course, it hasn't been easy to reacclimate to the weather here, where we have experienced cooler, wetter conditions than the 90-plus-degree sunshine we had nearly every day in India.

For pretty much as long as I can remember, the one place I have wanted to go more than any other is India. I am not sure why or how it caught my imagination, but I'm guessing that it was something about all the colorful saris, the abundance of spices (and tea!), the intricate religions with their ornate shrines, temples, and artifacts, the haunting sitar music and infectious Bollywood numbers, and just generally the fact that it was all so different. In high school I tasted Indian food for the first time while visiting London with my parents; that cuisine soon beat out Mexican and Italian as my favorite ethnic flavor (I have a particular weakness for a meal of mutter paneer, mango lassis, and roti). In college I had an Indian friend who introduced me to Hindi movies (not just Bollywood, but other equally epic, non-musical stories as well). During this period I encountered two of my all-time favorite films, "Lagaan" and "Dil Chahta Hai," which I couldn't help but think of repeatedly while I was in India last month; of course, the more recent "Slumdog Millionaire" also came to mind, as did Thritty Umgar's painful novel "The Space Between Us." Of all the things that fed my desire to travel to India, Gregory David Roberts' novel, "Shantaram," probably tops the list; his writing was so detailed and evocative that reading it was practically a trip to India unto itself.

(Local women walking home after a day's work at the Rishi Valley School. Saris are usually only worn by married women, suggesting that ladies are probably headed home to cook dinner for their husbands. These outfits are probably pretty average by Indian standards, but to my Western sensibilities they are quite beautiful and elegant--I wish I looked that lovely after a hard day's work!)

Yet, despite all my pre-trip excitement, even while I was in India I couldn't help but feel that my experience wasn't as "India-tastic" as I'd expected it to be. This is why I am surprised and interested in my lingering Indian state of mind. The whole trip came about because my husband received academic funding to visit a colleague there and initiate a collaboration. Because I had always wanted to go, and because the timing of the trip coincided very nearly with the milestone of my 30th birthday, I decided to tag along. The first week was devoted to academic activities in Bangalore and the Rishi Valley; the second week was set aside for a mini-vacation in Mysore and the Bandipur National Park. I think maybe one of the things that affected the mood of the trip was that our primary, or at least initial, purpose was work-related; it is hard to really relax and soak up the local flavor when you are talking and thinking shop--especially when you are doing so in an academic setting, which is invariably similar to other academic settings all over the world. Another thing that affected my mindset was my recent trip to Kenya. There were so many superficial similarities between Kenya and India--the heat, the dustiness, the developing-world aura, the crowded streets/roads and psychotic drivers, women in colorful traditional dress, people with empty water jugs biking to a nearby pump--that it was easy to slip back into the mindset of being back in Nairobi, rather than appreciating the fact that I was in a whole new, and very different, place. Because of where we were staying--a friend's house, two difference school facilities, and two different high-end resorts--we found ourselves rather removed from some of the first things you think of when you hear the word "India"--teeming and dense populations, brand-new skyscrapers devoted to IT-related businesses, slums, food poisoning (sorry, but it's true--everyone warned us of "Delhi Belly" before we left!). And yet, we also rapidly encountered some very atmospheric reminders of where we were--there was a huge Hindu shrine next to the road on the way to our hostess' house; our hostess' housekeeper spoke no English and could only use hand gestures to communicate; we were surrounded by people wearing brightly-colored traditional clothes; the streets were lined with vendors selling marigolds and other small flowers as hair and shrine decorations (reminding me of the movie "Monsoon Wedding"); and, of course, there was the pungent smell of the Indian food we had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

In retrospect, I think that our experience in India was less shockingly different than I expected because it felt very comfortable. As in Australia, even though I was conscious of being half a world away from my usual life, I immediately felt relaxed--it was the kind of place I could imagine living quite happily; even though I was conscious of doing things in a different way, I didn't feel surprised or awkward doing so. I think my reaction also reflects the power of both education and the modern media. Thanks to my pre-exposure to India through music, movies, news pieces, and both fiction and nonfiction writing, I almost felt as though I'd been there before. Being able to draw on this wealth of knowledge didn't make the trip any less interesting or fun, but it did remove those panicky "What do I do?!" moments that one is prone to experience when visiting a foreign country where things are done in unfamiliar ways (and in unfamiliar languages). Experience with traveling, in general, also makes it easier to hit the ground running when you visit a new place; this is particularly true when traveling to developing countries, which have the potential to be quite a shock to the system.

After our return, everyone kept asking "How was the trip?" As always, this was a difficult question to answer in just a few words or sentences. Of course, I said that it was good, which it was, but a more accurate answer is that it was complex and, to some extent, contradictory (as interesting things so often are). How else could I describe a journey during which, for example, I was perpetually sick (from a cold, not the dreaded Delhi Belly!) but also had three delightfully indulgent Ayurvedic spa treatments; did not manage to visit a single shrine, temple, palace, or museum, but did take in an abundance of local wildlife; slept terribly as a result of heat, mosquitoes, and a stuffy nose, but used the early mornings to do some great birding; and was forced to abstain from produce for two weeks for fear of contamination, but also ate an abundance of delicious local dishes? I didn't really know what to expect of India, but I do know that, for the most part, it wasn't what I got. But then, I suppose that would have been a bit boring, which is certainly not the word I would have used to describe our trip. I think the best way to think of our visit to India is as an amuse bouche--just a little taster to put us in the mood for the next round (which I hope comes soon).

Coming up: From Falmouth to Bangalore to the Rishi Valley.

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