Ever since my husband and I set the wheels in motion to move from France to Australia, an extended “transition trip” to India was always part of the package. This vast, diverse country has long enticed us with its colours, culture and cuisine, and seemed to us to be the perfect place to mark the end of one chapter of our lives and prepare us for the next, offering healthy doses of adventure and time for reflection.
After years of resting in the hypothetical, our trip to India has finally become a reality, and we are currently touring the (relatively) more tranquil south. So far there has been plenty of both adventure and reflection. Most adventures involve roads, either being in a vehicle on one or trying to cross one, and reflection is inspired by the luscious green landscapes of banana plantations and rice paddies, palm-lined golden beaches, intricately carved temples, sumptuous palaces, age-old traditions that humble me with their beauty and detail, and bountiful kindness from the couples running home stays. The cuisine is also surpassing all expectations, as we realise that the repertoire extends far beyond palak paneer and butter chicken. Fragrant spices permeate all dishes, and every day we are introduced to things we have never tasted before, using ingredients that don't even exist in the countries where we’ve lived.
We thought we would see more foreign tourists but most of the time, we are the only white faces to be seen. Internal tourism is huge, and also it seems that there are simply so many Indians that foreigners get diluted in the crowds. Almost all the other foreign tourists we have met fall into three rough categories: 1) like us, doing a long trip to mark a life transition of some sort, 2) older couples who love India and are here for the umpteenth time, and 3) those looking for some rest and relaxation after a particularly stressful period. No matter the age, gender or background, however, we all have one shared experience: being the subject of countless photos. Our faces are stored in the phones of literally hundreds of Indians. Approaches vary. There is the “hello, what is your name, which country are you from, can we take a picture?” approach followed by a handshake (preferred), and it's simpler cousin “hello, selfie?”. Then there are the “I'm pretending to take a photo of this very interesting wall which the white people happen to be in front of” and the “I'll time my selfie for when the foreigners are walking behind me” approaches; subtle-not-subtle. The most brazen approach of all is walking right up and, without a word, taking pictures in our faces. While being highly irritating the moment, this phenomenon has also tapped into the “reflection” part of our trip, for how different is it, really, from all the photos I've taken who look different and exotic to me while I've been on my travels, including in India? We're not accustomed to being on the other end of the lens.
India is teaching me the art of waiting. Waiting in line to buy a train ticket, then even longer when the person at the counter you were waiting at goes on their tea break. Waiting for the delayed train to arrive, then almost getting on the wrong one when the one scheduled to arrive on the same platform afterwards actually arrives first. Waiting for the theyyam performance (traditional ancient dance in northern Kerala where intricately costumed dancers and musicians invoke Hindu gods) to begin, which was supposed to start at 4:30am but is delayed until after 6am so that enough relatives can find their way around the bus strike to attend. Waiting over an hour for a kalarippayat martial arts demonstration to begin at a local training centre, after we had already arrived an hour late because our driver got lost. Time has a different dimension here, and nobody appears to be in any particular hurry. But everything so far has been well worth the wait. In the interim, I am getting good at chitchat with strangers and am making impressive headway with my book...
Taking public transport is when I feel most immersed in Indian daily life, and the least like a tourist. We were not expecting the degree of gender segregation – women-only carriages in the Mumbai metro, women-only sections in the public buses and boats, signs in public transport reminding men that every woman is someone’s mother, wife, sister, daughter. This just hints at what we have heard and read about gender inequality and violence against women in the country. Taking a public bus is a hair-raising experience. The driver bulldozes his way through by riding the horn, taking advantage of the fact that he is generally the biggest vehicle on the road and thereby creating a third lane for himself. Indian trains, on the other hand, are very relaxing (when you can afford a higher-class seat or berth). They crawl through the countryside, allowing one to watch humanity pass by through the window. Food and chai generally come to you, or you jump out when everyone else does at one of the major stations where the train stops for a reservicing, and buy yourself a biryani or some banana chips. The fold-down beds, complete with pillows, sheets, blankets and reading lights are comfortable, and if you’re lucky, you can make friends with the Indian family next door. This happened on our 20-hour train trip from Mumbai to Hospet, where I ended up playing cards, snakes and ladders, and Indian Monopoly with two kids then being invited to share a meal with their parents. This cross-cultural curiosity and kindness is heartwarming.
Visiting Hindu temples is an other-worldly experience. In Madurai, the Meenakshi temple has four towering pyramid-like gate towers, with intricate carvings of gods painted in psychedelic colours showing an array of emotions, from coquettish to ferocious. Venturing inside, there are whole families dressed in their best having meals or sleeping on the ground, others praying to gods with an elephant head or multiple arms. There are candles, fresh flowers, more psychedelic colours floor to ceiling. A procession winds its way through, led by a dressed cow, followed by a decorated elephant (who will bless you on the head with its trunk for 10 rupees), followed by drummers and chanting singers, and then by anyone who wants to join in. It is exhilarating, and makes the European churches I'm used to seem utterly glum.
Too soon, our southern adventure is drawing to a close. While it has been lush, laid back and rejuvenating, we have heard that the north is a world apart – we will soon see for ourselves...