India is a strange country. It is a developing country and is the second highest populated country per capita in the world which in itself makes for a lot of chaos. Being in a developing country is what I would imagine it would be like to step into the past. The people live very simple lives, free from most of the technology, stress (and convenience) of our daily lives. Their main concerns are tending to their households, making sure their families have enough food and water and of course their devotion to their spiritual practices.
The first moment of stepping off the airplane and into India is an immediate attack on the senses. When I arrived it was hot and extremely humid. There is a lot of noise, some from all the people and children but mostly from the car horns. Plenty of countries drive like maniacs with no real traffic laws or etiquette whatsoever which certainly includes India, but for some reason they feel the need to honk their horns incessantly. Apparently this is their way of warning pedestrians and other drivers that they are approaching but I’m not sure how they differentiate between all the horns honking at once. Some of the bus horns even play little tunes. I never have gotten used to this, it can be extremely startling at times. Aside from the noise, there are also a lot of intense smells. Cow manure, garbage, body odor, urine. I am here during monsoon season and I keep thinking that the heavy rains will wash away the smells, leaving everything fresh and clean, but that has not been the case. In fact the rain usually just intensifies the smells.
Visually, there is a lot to take in as well. India is a very colorful country from the brightly colored buildings to the bright and flashy clothing. There are animals everywhere – cows, monkeys, stray dogs and cats…and I have even seen a few goats. And the stares. The Indians look at foreigners as if we were aliens. Sometimes just blank stares with no expression and they won’t even look away when you make eye contact, smile or say hello. You’re lucky to get a smile or hello back. They often take photos of us as if it were some sort of spectacle to see someone walking down the street. It is not uncommon that I am approached with the question, “excuse me miss, one selfie please?” which always ends up being at least five or six selfies with not only them but everyone they are with. And there is no such thing as personal space. The people are not afraid to cut you off, walking right in front of you or even shove you around. There are no sidewalks and the cars drive right up next to you and pedestrians have no rights here.
It is hard to believe all of this is normal in their lifestyle, but it certainly makes you appreciate our culture and way of life in America. Our country is far from perfect but we are very lucky to have the education, conveniences, privileges and freedoms that we have. There is still a lot of oppression in India. Women certainly do not have equal rights and there is no sense of chivalry whatsoever. Men do not hold doors for women, they have no problem with letting us walk on the outside of the street by the traffic, etc. etc. The women often times work much harder than the men and do difficult manual labor including gathering food from the mountains and carrying it back home for their families and of course the cows. I spoke to some Indian women one day while having tea with a friend and they were joking about how the cows have more rights than they do. I sensed that there was some truth to that.
And there is still a very real class divide in India. There is plenty of financial success but sadly the people working for the wealthy are paid very little and are borderline servants. Some of the workers in the ashrams make so little that they sleep on the ashram floors at night (not in the ashram I stayed in) because either they cannot afford a home or their families live in villages that are too far of a commute to make on a daily basis. Many people live in poverty whether it is in the smaller remote villages or even right in the middle of the city. I have spent a lot of time at a secluded beach along the Ganga river and every day that I would go there I would see a tribal looking woman with barely any teeth walk down to the river with a giant jug that she would first scrub with soap in the dirty river water and then would fill it and carry it back to her home on her head.
Despite the chaos, the poverty and the seemingly bizarre way of life, I feel strangely connected to this culture. For my final speech in my senior year of high school we had to give an hour-long speech on any topic we wanted. I randomly chose Hinduism and I had no problem speaking about it for an hour. I love the rituals and chanting the mantras and the pronunciation of the Sanskrit language comes easily to me. After eating the food for every meal of everyday for the past month I am not sick of it in the least and my body seems to crave it. Yoga has been a part of my life for over eleven years now and once I began teaching, I finally felt that I found what I am meant to do. I most definitely feel that I have lived a life in this country before.
There is something magical about this country. Just like with the people I met in Bali, the people here have an innocence about them that I feel is not present in our culture. Technology, privilege and even education can come with a price; the more that we know and are exposed to, the more sadness and stress can come with it. Violence, drug and alcohol abuse, depression and mental illness are rampant in our culture. Despite all the freedoms we have, we are still deeply unhappy as a culture. I can’t exactly speak for the people here but they seem in general, to be happy with their simple lives even though they are not easy. They aren’t aware of the things they are “missing out” on and seem to be able to find joy and happiness in what they do have. Behind the stares and strange looks, I have found that when I have spoken to the Indian people both on this trip and my last one, they are extremely kind and generous. They may have close to nothing but they want to give you the last of what they do have and they won’t take no for an answer. They want to be near you even if they can’t really communicate with you. They are loving and devoted to their families and spiritual practices. They walk around with their arms wrapped around each other and holding hands, even the men. They smile and laugh a lot. It is extremely humbling to have this experience and to see the way other cultures live. I wish all Americans could have this experience and I wonder how things would be different in our culture if they did. I have met travelers from all over the world and traveling is a normal part of their lives. Our lifestyle and culture in America doesn’t usually make this possible and sadly people are not only missing out on some beautiful and amazing places and experiences, but also a perspective that could change our country and our world in so many ways. I am so grateful that I have made this a priority in my life and although traveling like this has not been easy, I plan to continue to make this a part of my life for many years to come.