PEOPLE AND CULTURE REFLECTIONS

An Argument for India: Guest Post

Today, I share a guest post that wasn’t intended as a guest post.

It’s an email I woke up to last week, from one of my new readers. I get notes regularly (and love them!) but this one caught my eye and woke me up even before I had any coffee. I really couldn’t make this up if I tried – I may not have 20,000 site visitors yet (tongue-in-cheek) but I have the best readers, ever!

Daniel felt inspired to write me after seeing my “Where’s Home, Anyway?” post, asking for ideas on where to move in 2013. He shared his own story and how he ended up being an expat in India. And why I, too, should try it.

On an otherwise normal Tuesday morning, he made me smile, laugh out loud and inspired me with his own leap of faith. And by the way, India was so on my “must-visit” and possibly “try-it-out” list  – and I had been watching a travel video on it the night before – how did he know?

Daniel has kindly allowed me to share his email on my blog – thank you, Daniel, for being so awesome. And you do make a great case for heading to India, as an expat or a visitor.

Have any of you been there or dream of going? I’d love to hear of your experiences.

***

Silhouettes at the Taj Mahal, India - © Le Radiateur (Flickr Creative Commons)

“Dear Miss Lily,

My mother recently forwarded me your blog post “Where’s home, anyway?”, and I really enjoyed reading it. I sympathize with your decision to leave the US and live abroad for a year, and I wanted to offer my thoughts, in the hopes that they help you with your decision (or at least your peace of mind). I also wanted to make a case for you moving to India.

I better say something about myself first. I was lucky enough to be born and grow up in Dangriga, and lived in Belize pretty much full time, until I hit 17 and headed off to Carleton College in Minnesota.

Before heading off to college, I had only visited the US a couple times to see my grandparents. When I arrived at college, I learnt that the school offered several partially funded off-campus programs, and so I was lucky enough to visit a bunch of different countries while doing research, including Ecuador, Tanzania, Taiwan and England.

After graduating, I wanted to spend a little more time in a foreign country, so I headed to Ohio to work at a nature center (Ohio is not Belize, so it counts as foreign). Suddenly, out of the blue, I got an email from one of my classmates: “Want to come to India and start an organic farming company with me?”

In about 5 minutes, all the fears and complications that you mentioned in your article ran through my mind. India? You mean the country on the other side of the world? Where foreigners get diarrhea all the time? Where they hardly speak English and eat raw chili peppers at every meal?

I didn’t speak a word of Hindi, I didn’t really have health insurance, I was not qualified to start a company… I could go on and on. Then I thought “Well….what else do I have to do?” Three weeks later, I had flown home, informed my parents (who were just like “Sure, don’t forget to write”) and was on the plane for Calcutta.

I took precautions, of course. I had enough diarrhea medicine to treat a small town, I had travel insurance, I had a ticket home, and I practiced with Marie Sharp’s pepper sauce until I felt I could handle at least one bite of a chili pepper. After that, I didn’t allow myself to dwell on the issues I would likely face. And you know? Not thinking about all these problems….was not a problem.

I got to India, and because I was so focused on enjoying myself and drinking in as much of the experience as I could, I didn’t notice the inconveniences until I had become used to them.

Now, a word of warning here: there are plenty of inconveniences. India is not for anyone who is fastidious about cleanliness, personal space, loud noises, strange spices, and inquisitive people. After reading your article on “How to be a travel writer”, I don’t think you’ll have that big a problem, but I just thought I’d mention it.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been living here in India, working in Calcutta and Assam, trying to grow organic vegetables and learning how a tea plantation works. I’ve been able to travel all over, visiting organic growers in Chennai (where they eat coconut with everything, and make the best coffee I’ve ever tasted), Kerala (where people go to work in boats down a 100-year old canal system), Assam (where tea plantations can be found every kilometer or so) and Arunachal (where farmers live in bamboo houses and drink homemade rice wine).

Living in India, you will find yourself in the middle of a story whether you want to or not. Even something as mundane as walking down the street can have the following outcomes:

1.  You bump into a group of transvestites begging outside a shrine, and they will not let you leave until you give them money. If you get them angry, they will yell at you, make arcane gestures, and curse you with bad luck. If you give them money, they will bless you, and move to harass the person walking behind you.

2.  You come across a cab driver, parked in the center of the incoming lane, standing beside his car with a pot of blue paint and a tiny paintbrush, refreshing the paint job on his cab. He is completely focused on his task, while morning traffic just curves around him like he’s not even there.

3.  You come across a barber squatting on the sidewalk underneath a huge banyan tree, with a 70 year old man squatting right next to him, getting a shave from a dangerous-looking razor while the barber talks at a mile a minute about how the price of chai was so much lower in his day.

And these are just the day-to-day things. I have managed to run across sidewalk book venders selling everything from Archie comics to Tolstoy novels, temples with real elephants (who will bless you with their trunk if you present a coin), coffee vendors who will hold the coffeepot 2 feet above their head and pour into a cup not much bigger than a thimble (without spilling a drop), and kids playing cricket in the middle of a busy street, dodging every time a car passes by.

Living in India, and especially Calcutta, forces you to slow down and take a different perspective on life. You want to start work at 7 am? That’s fine, but nobody else starts till 10. You arrive on time to a meeting? That’s ok, but the other person will be half an hour late. You want to work from 9 to 5? Go ahead, but chai break is from 12 to 3, and you have to leave work at 4 to beat the traffic.

At first, you may want to tear your hair out, curse all Indians, and get on the next flight home. If you stay however, you’ll find that it slowly begins to grow on you. You will get to know the chai vendor down the street, and learn what time he makes fresh Jalebi (which are the best sweets in the world in my opinion). You’ll learn which barber gives the cheapest haircuts, which taxi driver overcharges, and how to avoid the beggars who will chase you 3 blocks asking for money.

And one fine day, you’ll wake up, hear the honking horns, breathe in the smoky air, change into your sweaty clothes, and realize that you love it here.

Anyway, I hope that this email helps you with your decision. If you want more information, or contacts, or anything else, feel free to email me!  I really enjoy reading your blog, and it’s helped alleviate a bit of homesickness to read about someone else’s adventures in Belize.

Anyway, I have to go. I’m in the field and the monkeys are getting into my corn patch again, so I have to go chase them off. Cheers!

Daniel”

10 Comments

  1. I don’t understand why my grandson has not visited The Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Enjoyed his account of life in India. It is so typical of him.

  2. Hi Ms. Cecilia, thanks for sharing! That is so funny – clearly I assumed he had! Perhaps this post will guilt him into going before he leaves india. :-)

  3. This is great, coming from an India, who lives in Calcutta – Daniel’s email gives any traveler a beautiful perspective of life here. Just be prepared for contrasts everywhere you go !

  4. I agree, Avantika, Grateful for the inside scoop that Daniel shared. I love contrasts, keeps life interesting!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Went to India a few years ago for a nephew’s wedding.) It was all Daniel says and more. Stayed In New Delhi for an 8 day wedding celebration. Unbelievable activity including much music, flowers, more music, sight seeing ( and we did see the Taj Mahal, a must for travelers, incredible!!) Noise and activity non stop with 24/7 people, honking, people, animals, music, people etc…Took an additional week to see Rathambore ( a tiger preserve) where a tiger jumped up to our open jeep, mind boggling ( his paw prints were the size of dinner plates!) and beautiful., Jaipur where we rode elephants and camels on our way to forts and palaces. Driving or rather riding as I woud NEVER even attempt to drive.. was an experience and I was so proud of myself as I only screamed once when we came upon and elderly man weaving rope fibers as his legs stuck out into the traffic on the highway. Everyone going 65 MPH had to swerve around him and he did’t seem to notice. One more notable thing was their idea of mattresses….you sleep on a hard board wth a “mattress “that is about 1/16th” thick!! No exaggeration….took some getting used to!! People were very friendly, poverty was very evident, and we were there during the attack in Mumbai, kinda scary. Tons of history and lots of curry.

    BTW Daniel is my nephew so we know he isn’t exaggerating at all!! We miss him a lot and looking forward to seeing him back in the states.

    Go to India, you will not be disappointed,,,,,

  6. Hi Patti! Thanks so much for sharing. That sounds like an unforgettable trip!! And lots of curry – swoon. :) I’ve always dreamed of going to India for a wedding and wearing a sari (I know, kind of cliche of me but they are so pretty). Plus when I’m abroad people always ask me if I’m Indian for some reason, even in the Caribbean (which I’m not, I’m Ethiopian) – it’s been kind of a joke among friends who witness it on my travels – I keep answering “no I’m African!” Ha.

    I always think you need at least a month to go that far, but it sounds like you did your visit in two weeks? India has definitely moved way up on my potential expat countries list.

    Enjoy your family reunion next month!

  7. Brilliant post. That’s how I felt/feel about living in rural Korea!

  8. Thanks, Kaylee! I imagined rural
    Korea to be much quieter. I guess not?

  9. I couldn’t agree more with Daniel’s account of life in India. Run in with transvestites, homeless children, amazing food (street food include), fun people and parties, coolest and hippest sik dad and many more. i was initially worried about getting sick and eat little (with help from friends) but that went out the window one week later (takes a few days to get used to food)

    I was in india for a wedding and chance to explore part of asia. I arrived on diwali, so there were fireworks all around. After the wedding, another Indian friend asked – wanna see the real india, of course i said sure not knowing what to expect. So we got on the train to a town called LUCKNOW. Not too many people know it but it was one of the most amazing places i have ever seen. In the center of Lucknow is the amazing park (all tiled) probably the size of manhattan. To cut a long story short, the 6 hour train ride back turned to 12 hours (solo). With a driver scheduled to pick me up in Delhi and no way to contact him about 6 hour delay, i was on my own. Having lived and traveled in places where i don’t speak the language, I stayed cool. Everyone in delhi was shocked how i made it back cool in this circumstances. Experience is everything.

    Being in india will take you through a whirlwind of emotions and leave an impression that will stick with you for life. If you want a travel experience and adventure, that’s the place to GO! Thanks for sharing Lily and Daniel.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing, Assen! “Experience is everything” – oh how true. I’ll remember your tips when I plan my visit to India.