I have been to India for a dozen times, yes, literally a dozen times. When I first backpacked here 7 years ago, I knew I’d be coming back, but I didn’t know I’d come back so often.
I love this country.
My colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic can’t understand my passion for India, most of them had suffered from first-hand experience of Delhi Belly, to them, India stands for I Never Do It Again. We have a leader board of those who missed work for the very same reason in our on-site office, ironically the 2nd place is actually held by a Delhi boy, at least Delhi Belly doesn’t discriminate…
My friends back home can’t make sense of my obsession either, the most frequently asked question is – “What do you eat there?” India to them is a place where busses are overloaded, streets are dirty, curry is the only form of food available, people sing and dance all day… just like the scenes in Bollywood movies.
Then my husband says – “Sweetie, if you fancy some good briyani and samosas, we could just go to Durban…”
My parents frown over the media reports – protests, bomb blasts, and recently, rape cases…
Every time someone heard I was leaving for India, they gave me a sympathetic look, as if I got the short end of the stick; when I told them that I actually love India, they ask – why?
To be honest, I don’t actually know.
I was first drawn to India for its fascinating history, rich heritage, and colorful cultures. When my friend toyed with the idea of visiting India over a drink in Bangkok, I didn’t give her any time to change mind – three weeks later, we reconvened at Panjim airport in Goa, started our month long exploring.
While my friend entered the country from Chennai, I landed in Mumbai instead, and my first night in India was in a Salvation Army guest house (recommended by Lonely Planet), frankly, I was not impressed.
Gregory David Roberts wrote in Shantram that the first three things he noticed in Bombay (Mumbai) were – the smell, the heat, and the people. So did I. I’d add on one more – the noise. Trust me, it wasn’t a good first impression. The noise was overwhelming, the smell was pungent, the heat was suffocating, and the people – Mumbai is home for over 20 million people, what would do you expect?
Then we partied on Goan beaches, strolled in Chennai’s French quarters, drifted on the backwaters in Kerala, stumbled in the caves in Ajanta, enjoyed high tea at Taj Palace overlooking the Gateway of India, admired the sublime beauty of Taj Mahar in Agra, amazed by snake charmers in the “Pink City” Jaipur, paid tribute at Gandhi’s tomb in Delhi, and trekked in Kashamir, we had seen so much, and there were still so much more to see… I was, and am still in awe of diversity of nature India has to offer.
I’d be lying if I tell you it was all smooth sailing, it’s not. A couple of times we were stranded on trains, and another couple of times we were crammed into busses, left frustrated and annoyed. Fellow passengers took great interest in our apparent foreign looks, it took us a while to get used to the staring. Eventually we figured out there was nothing hostile, it was sheer curiosity.
I remember kissed Zeni good bye at Delhi airport before we parted our ways, we reflected on our trip over a coffee, only found we both had mixed feelings about this holy land. So there, I said – I’ll be back.
Two years later an opportunity appeared and I grabbed it in no time, I was back for six weeks, and ever since, I’d come to India every year. Learnt from my first visit, I was well prepared, for the heat, the noise, and the always crowded streets. I spent many early evenings strolling around, chatting to the locals, and I made friends. I’ve become more than an innocent tourist.
Despite the fear of “Delhi Belly”, my Chinese genomes prompted me to take on the local food. Anyone thought Indian cuisine equals curry would be surprised. The selection is wide – taste varies from the south to the north, flavor differs between the east and the west, I once thought “naan” means Indian bread, it is actually only one of over forty kinds. I ate with fingers, struggled at the beginning but after few rounds of practice – hey, food just tasted nicer!
I took this culinary experience a little bit further, during the last few trips, I opted to be a seasonal vegetarian. In the months of my stay, I had never being bored of eating veggies or missed meat. India offers the biggest selection of vegetarian food in the whole world. You wonder how it is even possible the boring ingredients like peas, potato, spinaches, and mushrooms can be cooked in so many different ways yet palatable.
I turned on TV, tuned into music channels, and indulged myself in the Bollywood glamour. On screen girls don big black silky long hair and perfect curves, guys sport six packs and eye-catching biceps… excuse me for the cliche – they are so hot, it’s almost illegal. The forever going on singing and dancing, the upbeat rhythms and sexy moves, and the glittering costumes, all these are just so mesmerizing that the world seems falls into oblivion.
I read the papers, went through page after page of Matrimony classifieds and felt relieved that I am already married. I collected clippings of oddball Indian wedding rituals, but that’s a story for another time.
I watched cricket, on TV, on the road side, in parks, and in stadiums… The passion for cricket in this country is unparalleled, anywhere there’s an open space, there would be cricket actions going on. Sachin is the most popular name for baby boys, after the living cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. In India, there are not one, but at least two national channels broadcasting cricket 24/7 – I thought ODI was a brand when I first visited, now I know the difference between long leg, short leg, and square leg, and every other fielding position… You don’t pick up cricket knowledge here, it is in the air, you just breathe in.
On the uneventful days I attempted to familiarize myself with names of those mystical gods and goddess, and their duties respectively, after all it was the rich tapestry of numerous ancient mythologies and thousands of traditional rituals brought me to India in the first place. It’s riveting yet confusing, however the only story I can recite is the one that young Krishna showed his mother the universe and infinity in his mouth… but if you ever read Life of Pi or watched the movie, you’d probably know the story anyway…
I shopped, till I dropped! Avoiding malls and department stores, I bargained in local markets and shops in alleys. The return was more than pleasing. Impeccable craftsmanship and unique designs often made Indian accessories most sought after gifts among my friends. I have also developed an unwavering liking for Indian cotton over the years, if you see me wearing something simple, elegant, donned with ethnic elements, highly likely it’s one of my purchases from India.
Then I ventured a little further each time too, and each time I was rewarded with nice surprises. Took one hour flight from Delhi, I found myself soaked in the zen spirit of Tibetan Buddhism at the foot of spectacular Himalayas. Then about an hour pleasant express train ride to the north from Delhi, in the Punjabi capital Chandigarh, a rose garden houses more than 50,000 rose bushes over 1600 species. If travel by car for an hour from Delhi, I would be in the new town called Greater Noida, where no car honking, no cow wandering, there may be occasional engine roaring afar from the F1 track, adding on a bit of excitement to the otherwise quiet community life.
From the courtyard of Jama Masjid to the porch of Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, from the lawns in Basillca of Bom Jesus to the hilly McLeo Ganj Buddhist temple, I saw gods’ followers brush shoulders with each other before they entered different shrines. There is respect, respect the fact we are all different; there is tolerance, tolerance of dissimilarities, and there is peace.
It is always the people that make a journey unforgettable, the same for India. Again Gregory David Roberts got it right in Shantram, after the smell and the heat he wrote – “Then there were the people. Assamese, Jats, and Punjabis; people from Rajasthan, Bengal, and Tamil Nadu; from Pushkar, Cochin, and Konarak; warrior caste, Brahmin, and untouchable; Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Parsee, Jain, Animist; fair skin and dark, green eyes and golden brown and black; every different face and form of that extravagant variety, that incomparable beauty, India.”
On these excursions, I met people from all walks of life, from all over India, they are always so readily to assist and so eager to help. It is in India that I experienced the most attentive services any hospitable establishment could offer.
I have been to India for a dozen times, yes, literally a dozen times, and it has never failed to amaze me. There are still so many places to visit, so many things to do. Neither has it stopped surprising me that how much its infrastructures changed and how well its traditions kept.
I have spent lots of time here working and touring. There were days things got so frustrating that I could only laugh, there were also days I felt so touched that my eyes were moist with tears of joy. Each time I leave, I’d be prepared for the next trip again.
If you are thinking of visiting India, I’d suggest you to be prepared, for the noise, the smell, the heat, and the overcrowded streets, the last but not the least, to be prepared to be back here again, and again.