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.
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.
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.
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.