It’s the 100th post here on CadeParade. In honor of this high and round number, here are some introspective thoughts I’ve had about our travels so far.
Back when Jason and I were discussing the possibilities of this trip, I had an idea that there were two ways of experiencing a country. First, there is the two week vacation, entered into with rollerbags smartly packed and detailed itineraries in-hand. This is the travel I’ve had in the past. everything is a blur as you pack in as many things as possible while you’re in an amazing new country. This can be great, especially if you have only two weeks. You make the most of where you are: see things, take pictures, become amazed at the richness and diversity of the cultures and histories of the planet. Well, as much as you can in two weeks’ time.
Or, try a slower pace. Take the time to actually live in a country, without seeing monuments every day. Interact with people in some way other than related to tourism, and learn to make your own way in a new country.
Maybe it would be the same. Maybe it would be completely different. We had no idea! But this second way is what I wanted to try: to see the sights, but also to slow down, to be mindful, and to get a taste of actually living in a country.
So, we settled down in a Delhi apartment for 2 months. We kept a water pumping schedule and weathered frequent power outages. We bought fruits and vegetables from street carts. Sometimes we knew what they were, but always we would hazard a guess at recipes for the sometimes inscrutable produce. We bargained, sometimes getting a good price, sometimes getting ripped off anyway. (Kidding - I’m sure we always got ripped off.) We figured out how to get to and from places, and where to buy things OTHER than trinkets. Though frequently frustrating, this was a fascinating adventure each day. Most importantly, it was an independent adventure — not planned by any tour agency, no touts.
After a while, I got over my initial anxiety and shyness. I discovered that most people are pretty friendly, that everyone will try to help with directions (whether they actually know where you’re going or what you’re asking for or not), and whatever mistakes are made, we would probably be OK (this in itself is a great life lesson, and one in a bag of intangible souveniers we’ll bring back.)
And yet, even after all of this, we still didn’t really feel like insiders. I decided there must be at least one more level to experiencing a country and that would be having local friends. Friends from Delhi could tell me:
- Why is everyone on our street lighting a fire in their driveway and dancing around it while a bunch of guys play drums REALLY LOUD (thanks Chetana!)
- Why did an elephant just walk down my street, followed by singing monks?
- What are all the foods that we saw everywhere but were too chicken to try?
- That is the difference between acha and tikay and when to use each. (Both mean “OK” - to mix cultural metaphores, they are same-same-but-different.)
The richest experience from traveling must come from the people you meet there, the stories they have to tell, and their unique viewpoints.
In Delhi, Jason and I missed the third level. We played it safe and stuck mostly to one another (whom we love dearly) but didn’t venture out enough to really join a social group. We met several Delhites (Delhiwalas?) who were all so kind and helpful, but we didn’t make the extra effort to really get out there and take advantage of all these wonderful people had to offer.
For example, our friend Arvind organized an outing to Qutb Minar and acted as a tour guide. He also introduced us to Gajar Halwa (A carrot pudding, kind of) which I’m pretty sure we would never have tried without a local suggesting and explaining it and it is now my favorite Indian dessert. He even offered a free Hindi class comprised of seven sessions for any who wanted to learn. We signed up but eventually backed out since we would have ended up leaving in the middle for our Rajasthan tour. Too bad for us.
I met Gladys, who was not from Delhi but there for her husband’s diplomatic assignment. She invited any who wanted to come to her house to have a painting group. It was just her and me usually, but it was wonderful to talk to someone also living there, to share the frustrations of the crazy city.
I went to the Delhi photography club once and met some great people, but in the end I waited too long to reach out and we left Delhi only two weeks after meeting them.
Part of the problem was that it took us so long to get over the shock of the city and become brave enough to venture out that we had no energy or desire to find people. But reflecting more deeply, I realized that, personally, I was really embarrassed to go out and show how ignorant I was. People could label me as a foreigner instantly based on my hair color alone (at least Jason has black hair) and I was so sensitive to the stares that followed my every step. I was sure people were judging me, poorly at that, and that everyone probably hated me because I was foreign, presumptuously traipsing around in their land.
But I learned that even though people stare at you, you still have to go buy toilet paper and toothpaste. The groceries won’t come to your door (unless they do). You can’t stay in your apartment forever. And even though I hated going outside, eventually I realized staring doesn’t hurt you, being different doesn’t prevent you from getting your groceries, and when you inevitably get lost, people are happy (!) to give you directions.
And this, this feeling, has been incredibly freeing. If you accept the fact that everyone will stare at you wherever you go and that you will never really blend in, then it doesn’t matter how stupid you look or what dumb things you do.
Once this realization dawned, everything was better. I didn’t care whether I was being judged. When I didn’t know something (which accounted for most things) I asked. Always respectfully and with a smile… every question was probably a stupid question, but who cares? My newfound attitude also helps when we go exploring. Is there an interesting looking alley? Is that gate to the back section of the public garden open on purpose? LET’S GO!
So anyway, that is off my chest: I’m less worried about being judged all the time, which might seem pretty minor, but it has helped me to actually enjoy the crazy world that exists outside our hotel rooms and apartments.
As we continue our journey, I think more personal changes will become apparent. But, as is the nature of reflecting, a fair distance is required to see the whole picture, and the realizations come slowly. Perhaps the least defined of travel aspirations, “finding oneself,” is the accumulation of inner observations like these. You become more confident in yourself while simultaneously being dwarfed by the richness, diversity, and kindness of the rest of the world.