India has always felt like home to me. Long before I stepped foot on its sacred soil I fantasised about being there. I wanted to live it, breathe it and absorb everything the country was willing to give me. I was Indian in my heart before I ever saw it firsthand.
The first time I stepped into the steamy Mumbai air from the safe confines of the airport I felt like I belonged. In reality I didn’t, of course. It wasn’t my country, though I wished at times it was. Life in India stood in stark juxtaposition to everything I had known before. All my ideas about life were slowly eroded as I embraced this new and intoxicating land.
Everywhere I looked there was something wondrous to behold. India was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. There was a vitality and energy in the streets that often is sorely lacking everywhere else. Rich and poor, man and beast, sages and sadhus brushed past me in the incredibly congested streets. Noise enveloped me. Food, oh that glorious food, was everywhere. I was a sponge and soaked up all of the colour and bedlam which surrounded me. I was hypnotised by the maelstrom of activity. It felt amazing and incredibly liberating. I was free.
There was no sense of culture shock though. The momentous shift in my daily reality was thrilling rather than terrifying. Had I travelled to someplace different, Ethiopia or China for example, perhaps that fear would have crept into my soul? In India I felt like anything was possible.
I had been cautioned that India was not a country for the faint of heart, so perhaps I took the warning as a subconscious challenge to embrace the dramatic shift in my life. In truth I just was so thankful to see it and immerse myself in a life I could only vicariously experience as an obvious outsider. What a privilege the ability to travel is. It doesn’t matter where you go. The act of escaping your daily existence to explore the unknown is so powerful. Any destination has the potential to change your life. It is just that I found my own nirvana in India.
When I arrived on my latest trip I was secretly thrilled by my ability to manoeuvre though the chaotic cityscape of Delhi. I walked blithely out into the midst of mangled and angry traffic to cross the road, holding my hand out to stop traffic as Indians do. It miraculously worked. The cars weaved passed me, but for me the thrill was that I had finally started to learn the tricks of the trade. In one silly little instance I felt like I had staked my claim. I wasn’t Indian but I felt like I was. I had no fear. In some sense I had acclimatised to a place which I had no right to place a claim on.
Nothing stands still in India. It is a frenetic and fascinating environment. Yet, despite the vast difference from my normal reality of safe and refined New Zealand, I feel secure within the anonymity that only a mad crush of humanity can create. India manages the impressive feat of feeling mysterious, magical, challenging and comforting simultaneously.
This is perhaps disingenuous coming from a pale-skinned New Zealander who stands out like a sore thumb in some of the lesser visited parts of India. I love being exposed to a whole new world and new cultures. I enjoy being challenged by things which fall outside my comfort zone. It is almost as though I have been pre-programmed to thrive in a world so wildly different from my own. If you don’t share this same euphoria over immersion in the unfamiliar I might recommend first visiting a lesser ‘in-your-face’ destination before venturing to the Indian subcontinent. Grow those traveller legs in your own time. Spread your wings at your own speed. Learn to exist in a world that is not your own. Once fortified with a can-do attitude, pack those bags. India somehow feels so familiar, so welcoming, that once you land it’s painful to leave.
India has such a profound effect on me because it is so diametrically opposed to my regular life. A confirmed carnivore, I happily switch into full-fledged vegetarian mode. Largely agnostic in my day-to-day life, I feel drawn to the way religion plays a part in all aspects of Indian life. Materialism has a far less powerful hold on me as I have begun to eschew the extraneous belongings which so often drag us down. I have a greater appreciation for the world around me. These are the gifts India has given me. The importance of tradition, so often missing in Western culture, but so integral to life in India, never fails to strike a chord in me.
People often ask me about travelling in India and I always encourage them to go. There is a caveat however which applies to this. India will never leave you feeling ambivalent. It’s a love it or loathe it kind of place. It’s slightly unhinged and frenetic atmosphere will likely leave you gasping if you aren’t quite prepared for it. Go with an open heart and an open mind and you will surely leave enriched, enlightened and thankful for the experience.