Ambushed by India…all of it

I was not prepared for you, India.

I had expected to tolerate you, coexist, to survive you. Armed with countless stories of poverty, heat, struggles, illness and attitudes that run counter to western ideals, I had braced myself for the storms of your cities, villages and people.

I was prepared to battle you as a visitor, to wrestle with your challenges and seek the soft edges of your magic, but not to love you as I have over the past month as you embraced, titillated, amused, inspired, shocked and disgusted me.

You crept up on me, India, with a stealthy approach of a practiced hunter with high kill rate. You surprised me to no end, and I now understand the allure that draws masses to the majesty, dust, heat and sweat of an intense human experience unlike anything else on earth.

Solitude

Solitude

I witnessed the endless smiles amid the boundless suffering of Varanasi in the midst of the worst flooding there in decades.

I basked in the kindness of a shopkeeper in Ladakh who, having failed to sell a garment to me, left his shop to point the way to an electronics store so I could buy an adaptor.

I felt the warm embrace of a camel driver who accepted a small token of appreciation for introducing me to the love of his life, the Thar Desert. He looked silently into my eyes with his, dark pools of clarity, purpose and depth, hugged me, and turned to walk with his camel into the sandy expanse.

I walked the streets of magical Agra, white Udaipur, blue Jodhpur, Jaipur, Pushkar and golden Jaisalmer, guided by the kindness of people who stood to gain nothing by offering their help but a chance to make a new acquaintance.

I stood in awe before the majesty of the Himalayas, gazed in humbled silence in the presence of spirituality and history at Stok Palace and Hemis Monastery in Leh, and joined thousands who walked through the morning dust to sit in the presence of the Dalai Lama and hear the voice of goodness.

I pressed my bare toes upon the precious white marble of the Taj Mahal in a cool rain and on the fiery red stones of Kumbhalgarh Fortress in the afternoon sun.

I exchanged handshakes with your men, shy smiles with your women and enjoyed the company of countless children who swarmed to get close to an oddly large, white visitor who was a friendly curiosity and sometimes had candy or fruit to share.

Like an awkward teenage boy nervously risking proximity to the object of his adoration, I danced with you, walked with you, laughed with you, was repulsed by you, and felt the sting of your cruelty. But not once did you or your people reject me or my awkward attempts to understand, to participate.

An old woman and her grand daughter rest in a safe place amid the flooded streets of Varanasi.

An old woman and her grand daughter rest in a safe place amid the flooded streets of Varanasi.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

In one short month I experienced constant raw beauty from the limitless depths of human kindness. And my brief but sweet dance with you and your wonderful people, India, leaves me perplexed: Why is it that those who have so little are always the ones most motivated to give?

Your enormous country is overwhelmingly rich with diversity of language, culture and custom, yet your people seem connected by unbreakable common threads, silken cultural connections grown over centuries.

Millions huddle in confused masses in your cities as though leaning on one another for survival.

They walk – some barefoot – by the hundreds of thousands along the pothole-strewn yet dusty roads in grinning, tireless pilgrimages to your temples in pursuit of clarity and in celebration of their beliefs. These months’-long walks cement them to one another, and to you.

As motorists, they honk at each other relentlessly and dispassionately, not as an act of threat or warning but as a means of communicating the simple intent to push on by.

As pedestrians, everyone is constantly on the move, and contact with one another is as given as the monsoon season.

No one is ever alone; solitude seems as precious and rare as a clean toilet.

Your people seem to find comfort in constant contact with one another. Boundaries do not exist. Often benignly hostile, always aggressive, the constant push of competition for space, advantage and priority is overwhelming but in an oddly chaotic way, somehow reassuring. That which is normal and expected reminds us that we may continue.

Yet charity abounds and grows contentedly even in the hottest sands of Rajasthan.  Free food, water and medicine are offered for pilgrims beneath vast roadside tents on major pilgrimage routes, bearing testimony to the underlying responsibility Indians feel for one another.

Hospitality and welcome are languages spoken in warm handshakes and cups of chai, which, like India, is unfailingly sweet, and bitter, pungent, and hot. Genuine human warmth is offered by countless smiling villagers who invite strangers into the threadbare confines of their lives and tiny, tidy homes.

We could hear the chants from this group of monks working on a mountainside near the Hemis Monastery in Leh, Ladakh from quarter of a mile away.

We could hear the chants from this group of monks working on a mountainside near the Hemis Monastery in Leh, Ladakh from quarter of a mile away.

Contrasts scream at me wherever I go. Injustice and inequity tears at my soul and sears my heart, always leaving behind a taste that is sublime yet repulsive.

I scowl at the slums ringing the New Delhi train station, where every patch of dust, rock and filth seems occupied by a makeshift home to warehouse people with nowhere to go, nothing to do. Poverty presses close to the air conditioned safety of multi-car sleeper trains that slither their way through the depths of human desperation like snakes hunting in swampy water.

India consumes people – its own as well as those who visit. It is impossible to be a passive visitor here; India demands your participation and full attention at all times.

It is a place to get lost or found, to escape or gain freedom. It is a place where individuality seems irrelevant yet the personal pursuit of things that really matter – family, spirituality, meaning, and history – is cherished above all.

I will never presume to understand you, India, or for that matter, to really even know you.

But I have felt your hot kiss against my sweaty brow, and I have known the love of a place of startling, pressing need yet abundant with gifts to share with strangers. And I will carry all of it – every parcel of hopeless beauty and timeless mystery – with me wherever I go.

      16 comments

      • Francie

        Beautiful…

        • Norgie

          Dear Skip,

          You didn’t even mention your illness! From that, I assume your Malaria is of no consequence and not worth mentioning. I hope that is the case.

          Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about India. And what beautiful pictures! My favorite is “Solitude.” Your writing is also beautiful — a pleasure to read!

          Love and Happy Travels!
          Norgie

      • Skip… The essence of your words & photos are impeccable. I feel like I am by your side with Gabi as I read your stories. This sentence struck me as an iconic line: “solitude seems as precious and rare as a clean toilet.” Something to think hard about for sure. Wishing you love and good health! Don’t forget to brush your teeth…. :-)… Love, Roberta

      • Jack Jackson

        Beautifully said and presented. A testament to your reporting and writing skills.

      • Barrie Evans

        I love the fact you could hear those monks chanting from a quarter of a mile away. The power of the chant.:-)

      • Jo Ann Augeri Silva

        As Gabi says, one of your best. Deeply felt, beautifully expressed. I think you have found your true calling: interpreting the fascinating, sometimes impenetrable places you visit with such clarity that you transport your reader to your side. Stay healthy and write more, please.

      • gill

        beautifully written ..thank you Skip for sharing your insights and experiences .

      • John

        Your travels and storytelling are a true inspiration.

      • Abigail

        Ah, so you were bitten by more than mosquitos, then! You definitely got the India bug…

        Beautifully written, Skip – it brings back the overflowing heart and churning brain that I had when I left India. It always seems easier to talk about the dirt, the smells and the craziness than it is to explain why India is so captivating, but you’ve done an excellent job!

      • your writing art it take me with you to understand your feeling and take me to visit India! It is incredible Frank!

      • Phil

        Well done, Skip! It reminded me of my time in India, and captured why it was so hard to summarize my trip when people asked me how it went. There’s no simple answer to that question. It was also a challenge to explain my complex reaction to “Do you think you’ll vacation there with Jen?” While it has the Taj and Himalayas, it’s hardly a vacation destination in the typical American sense. The experience is just as you describe, leaving you exhausted, humbled, impressed, in love with the people, frustrated at the magnitude of the issues, etc.

      • Gillian Rhodes

        What a beautiful writeup. Often in adventures like this I feel like there are no words, and indeed there aren’t — but somehow you’ve found the ones that tap into that place of no words, so the words are not important, but the feeling they convey.

        With that said, I’m speechless, for what more can be said about such a profound experience — and an equally profound reflection of it?

        Thank you.

      • Iris Bray

        As always I am mesmerized !!!!

      • Ah, India. You have captured some of the hard-to-define reasons why I want to go back.

      • oliver timmins

        While the writer of the article spells a weave of glamour and awareness of the poverty in India which has been reported by others time and time again, , I for one would have preferred to be told about the present day India , its richness in fortitude , its achievements and progress in engineering abilities , its successes in the field of sciences, its capabilities of catering for the many millions that reside in this truly complex but beautiful land

      • Trish

        Skip!
        I was deeply touched by your writing on India. It expressed perfectly the sights and sounds, the smells and the smiles that I experienced myself last year as I journeyed through the different regions on a never to be forgotten adventure.
        You have a real gift for getting to the heart of your subject, – and I felt I was alongside you in all your beautifully descriptive passages of words.
        Thank you.

      Leave a Reply to Norgie Cancel reply

      Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

      This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.