I recently traveled through India for sixteen days, recruiting students for my employer, a university in the Midwest.
It was kind of a blur – – covering over 10,000 miles within the country – – thirteen flights, buses, taxis, 3-wheeled auto-rickshaws, and the occasional sidewalk sprint, to get to college fairs on time.
Very little free time for sightseeing, but I did have the very great pleasure of talking to hundreds of people.
Bangalore > Chandigarh > Ahmedabad > Lucknow > Hubli > Kolkata > Jaipur.
One of the Kinks’ great songs –“This Time Tomorrow”. On the flight to India, I watched Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” and that was the opening song “This time tomorrow, what will we see? Fields full of houses, endless rows of crowded streets…”
“Will we still be here watching an in-flight movie show?”
In my travel posts, I try to convey something unique I experienced, or showcase a particular element I encountered, that embodies a place for me.
In India, that element is the hospitality of its people.
It’s hard to write a capsule summary that characterizes 1.5 billion people on a complex, continent-sized nation. It’s hard to find words that can describe a place that’s both poor and yet one of the richest places on earth. In a sixteen-day blur, I sped across varied landscapes, from the garden city of Bangalore to a semi-arid city of Mughal palaces to a modern planned city, and many others in between. A nation rapidly modernizing while still entrenched in tradition. I flew over the Himalayan foothills and landed in an airport in Kashmir, where people, surprisingly, looked like me.
The trip was sometimes literally a blur, zooming out of focus as my cabs dodged through traffic, my life flashing before my eyes in some cases, rain streaming down and the windows fogging up.
Neighbors in India are sort of like native New Yorkers. Stacked on top of each other, they’re in everyone’s business and everyone is in theirs, even while an innate sense of decency compels people to thoughtfully ignore each other. Yet everyone shares and helps each other. They are almost an extension of family. The amount of mutual trust in India seems very high to me. Even though there are scams and crime, just like in the U.S., there are also deep social connections, and overall it’s a safe, honest place.
It was like being in NYC and consulting native New Yorkers- my hosts would argue about how best to answer my questions regarding life in India. Hand waving isn’t a big thing there, but hands do move. As do heads. The “Indian Wobble” is a phenomenon that many people have seen, heads moving back and forth, side to side, faster and faster when in agreement. So imagine a mix of Hindi, Gujarati, Assamese, Bengali, you name it, with escalating voices accentuated by constantly moving hands and heads, as the topics would take a heated turn. Add to the dynamic, centuries of caste system, colonialism, rapid urbanization, and you’re in for a lot of mishegoss. Politics was a big source of contention, strong opinions about Modi, Gandhi, and Pakistan. In this sense, they really did remind me of New Yorkers. If cricket was less boring and more like baseball, they’d even be Yankee fans, they love “the cricket” and are even more fanatical about it than they are about politics.
For us, a society of people that values our privacy, this close-knit society, where so much of your life occurs in public, seems crazy. But in India, everything is crazy, everything seems to more-or-less function happily in the craziness — organized chaos & disorganized chaos, if you will, and amongst all that, there is some sort of serenity.
All of that also left me in sort of in a blur.
But I can state, with total clarity, that this was uniformly one of most warm and friendly places I’ve ever been. I was struck by how content people seemed, even the poor. And was amazed by the genuine, deeply-ingrained sense of hospitality. The kindness to complete strangers.
I will count the days until I can return there, and see the place at something less than warp speed!