How do I write about something I have not yet even begun to process? This year, instead of staying home for the holidays, two days after Christmas, I ventured into the unknown, the vast and mysterious India, home of the Buddha.
I have not yet been able to give anyone—let alone myself—an honest answer about my 17-day experience.
It isn’t the 14-hour plane ride, the hungry children, the exotic smells of burning trash, curry, opium and kerosene or the lepers that have troubled my mind. It’s the ease with which I live my life upon return.
The strangeness did not occur while feeling the hands of beggars tugging at my shirt, tapping their hands on my elbows, or when seeing the children, strung out street side, waiting to catch someone’s eye. It was not seeing the hungry, following us from market to market.
For me the strangest experience has been my re-entry to the States. My familiar home suddenly seems more foreign than the one 7,000 miles away I just came from.
For me, the hardest thing has been to remain conscious in a society that has so much, yet still wants more.
India is the dirtiest, most beautiful, friendliest, scariest and the most enlightened place in the entire world. Though I’m no world traveler—this being my first real experience with the foreign — I can’t imagine a place more pleasantly different than India.
A place where the heroes are monks, nuns and Bodhisattvas, India is indescribable. It’s a place where despite the hunger in the city of Calcutta, people will still offer you Chai as you browse their kiosks, though there is no promise of your purchase. It’s a place, so believing in the power of Karma and rebirth that families leave their entire wardrobes to hang dry in the streets, and no one could imagine stealing.
For me, India wasn’t about checking another country off my list of places I have to see before I perish, it was about experiencing the spirituality of a place too immense to know.
I became used to the noise, the constant blaring of the horns in traffic, the barking of stray dogs.
I got used to the food—mostly rice, flat breads, and paneer, a cottage cheese dish cooked solid, divided into cubes and covered in the most foreign of sauces. I got use to the smells—human excrement, trash on fire, petroleum and diesel filling the air.
I became so adjusted to this place that my homesickness was just a nagging desire for familiar food and people who knew the location of Vermont on a map, but nothing more.
Touching down in New York City was a shock. Despite the reputation of being dirty and noisy, it was nothing compared to what I had just experienced.
What do I say about that which I can’t even begin to comprehend? I went to India. The real shock is that despite the slums, the people who live under tarps in trash piles, those who do not have enough seem to want very little more than what they have.
But I feel as though I’m dancing around the issue. In India, $400 is 20,000 rupies. I literally walked through the markets feeling wealthy, like I could have anything I wanted. Do you know what I realized? I don’t really want that much.
America is spoiled. Our lives are easy. Our jobs are cushy. Our homes are big. The difficulty for me lies in the realization of these things. It’s difficult, without sounding preachy, without sounding as if I have seen something you haven’t, even though I have, to try to describe to you the reality of our world versus theirs.
In India, one in every six people is a monk or a nun. The country is overridden by spirituality, compassion and the sanctity of human life. People walk around, coveting the esoteric teachings of Buddhism, the arcane knowledge of Hinduism, the sheer respect of human and sentient life embodied by Jainism.
If I could say anything about India, it is that I have no idea what to say. Anyone who knows me knows I am not easily confounded, that I am a reactionist always poised with a response. If India gave me anything, it was the ability to be okay with not knowing the answers—something that formerly kept me up at night. I have never been less sure of myself and more comfortable with my obliviousness than I am now.
And despite the fact that I am back to being a broke college student, living hand to mouth, I’ve never felt more rich in my life. I’ve never felt more at ease, or more comfortable. I know where I will sleep at night, that when I am hungry there is food, and that I can drink the water without fear of injury or death. I hope to hold onto this feeling forever, or at very least, until my next trip to India.