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‘India will change you forever’, I would hear over and over again as soon as we announced we would travel to the subcontinent. ‘Really?’, I thought incredulously, ‘what could possibly have such an impact on me there?’ I had traveled through Central America and South East Asia, and had encountered extreme poverty, dysfunctional cities, violence and fear. I didn’t think that anything could still shock me after the things I had already seen, from the child beggars in Guatemala to the limping stray dogs in Nicaragua and the in-your-face sex tourism in Cambodia.
But nothing prepares you for India. Nothing prepares you for the intense smells, the chaos that ensues when a herd of cows decides to take a stroll along a busy highway, the crazy traffic and the constant honking, the homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, not dozens, but hundreds of them, or the dead bodies you’ll see. You can’t block out the begging ladies who seem a hundred years old and look at you with those heartbreakingly sad eyes while they shyly beg you for money with their palms pleadingly open, and by the village kids that run around dirt roads in just underwear and without shoes because they don’t have anything.
India is a lot to take in. And India is hard to take. Even though you might read this now thinking ‘I feel like I know what to expect when I go there’, when you get there, it will knock you off your feet.
I might have painted a pretty bleak picture of India so far, so let me correct this. I did not hate India – quite on the contrary: I loved traveling there. While many scenes you’ll experience in on a daily basis – the countless stray animals, the beggars, the crazy train rides, the deformations on people’s bodies – are hard to digest, especially in such a huge concentration, there are equally as many things that will amaze you. The incredibly diverse scenery for one, which ranges from deserts and mountains in the north to tropical beaches in Goa and the barren moon-like scenery around Hampi. The ornate, grand and mystifying temples, the scrumptious food that bursts with flavors, the wonderfully welcoming people were all things that made me fall in love with India.
Some travelers find it annoying to be stared at or even have their hair touched, but I have to say though that I was just as enticed by the large families I met. Especially the women, all dressed up in colorful saris, painted with henna tattoos, wearing golden little jewels or bindis on their foreheads, and eye-catching golden jewelry hanging from their wrists, necks and sometimes noses, fascinated me just as much as I fascinated them, the light skinned girl with the bright blonde hair. While they wanted to feel my ‘yellow’ hair, I wanted to run my fingers through their thick black hair. The timid smiles and curious looks, and how we tried to communicate despite their limited English to find out more about each others lives are encounters I wouldn’t want to miss.
The way India changes you is how it changes your perspective on the smallest details in your own life. For one, I just cannot complain about anything in my life anymore – no matter how hard something might seem in a specific moment, I am blessed with a great life, a passport that lets me travel anywhere in the world without any bureaucratic hassle – the fact alone that I am able to travel! Seeing the families in Hampi, a sacred site for Hindus which they are supposed to visit at least once in their lives, who have never left their village before but saved every penny to could to make the trip there, sleeping in the streets and living off cheap street food, made me feel ashamed about my complaints about the too thin mattress on the bed in our basic yet clean $3 per night guesthouse. Back home in their villages these pilgrims usually don’t have running water or a solid, concreted floor in their house. Everywhere I traveled in India I saw women with big buckets on their heads, on their way to a well to get the water they needed to do laundry and dishes.
When I was stuck on an overcrowded train that for the first time I realized what cattle class actually means, with one person in our group in tears and the rest of us on the verge of them, I couldn’t help but think ‘I am so glad that I don’t have to do that every day.’ But it is the reality for hundreds of millions of Indians. I watched women doing dishes and laundry in dirty river water where at the same time an elephant released himself while being bathed; men were shaving and women washing their hair, because this natural ‘pool’ is the only ‘tub’ they have.
And there I was, complaining that our guesthouse didn’t have hot water. These things just stick with you and you’ll never take anything for granted anymore: running water, hot water, a toilet with a flush button instead of a bucket of water to flush with, and being able to drink water from a tap. Comfy beds, a kitchen, a washing machine, a dish washer and other appliances seem somewhat absurd after what you see in India. India changes your perspective on everything, and makes the things you complain about in your daily life seem pretty laughable. I came back a different person than the one I was before, and I can’t wait to go back to India. Because if you are willing to put up with the strenuous aspects of the country, you’ll be rewarded with the most memorable travel experience of your life.
Have you had any life changing travel experiences? Share them in the comments below.