Growing up, one of my favorite Disney movies was “The Jungle Book”. I mean, what’s not to like about a boy raised deep in the jungles of India by a fun-loving group of animals that sing and dance? In recent years, I’ve taken to Bollywood films, movies produced in India’s entertainment capital Bombay. The films are known for their epic stories, deep character development and spontaneous dance sequences. In short, they’re fantastic.
But the films only teased my fascination with India in the same way that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or just about any kungfu film did with China. It made sense then that the next time the travel bug bit, my finger was clicking on the “Book Now” button for a roundtrip flight to India.
My itinerary, a three-week trip from March to April with my friend Brian Peach, included the heart of India before swinging out into the country’s western frontier near Pakistan. Of course I’d see the Taj Mahal, but I’d also visit the sacred Ganges River with stops at numerous temples and towns. Then I’d head into Rajasthan, the land of kings and a state known for its beautiful cities and diverse landscape.
From college courses and my general interest in Asia, I knew the basics about India’s ancient past and its many religions. I knew the food would be spicy, that the nation’s population of close to 1.2 billion could be unnerving, and that there wasn’t really going to be a menagerie of jungle bears and cats prancing about. But that last part was ok – at least there would be cows roaming freely in the streets and maybe a few monkeys here and there.
What I didn’t know was how deeply I’d fall for the country, its people and its culture.
India was incredible, a true attack on the senses that left me mind-boggled and amazed.
The narrow streets of the old cities teemed with an odd concoction of people and animals, colors and culture. Traffic, dominated by the tiny half-cab, half-rickshaw called a tuk-tuk, moved slowly, allowing me to take in the scenery before suddenly whirring off at faster-than-necessary speeds. Back alleys provided a peek into the past, with shops and storefronts selling roughly what I imagined they sold for the past hundred years or so. The air had the rich smell of spices: masala, cinnamon, an assortment of peppers and multi-colored other things.
Hindu women rushed about wearing bright colored traditional saris while carrying baskets on their heads. Well-mustachioed Sikh men had turbans atop their heads. Muslim women kept their faces covered. Despite the heat – average temperatures hovered in the 90s for most of my trip – everyone wore slacks or dresses. Shorts, particularly at holy sites, are considered inappropriate since they allow the knees to poke out. Unnecessary exposure of body parts is frowned upon.
Kids vied for my attention, shouting “One photo please”, always with the polite “please” on the end. After each photo, they’d rush to my side to look at my camera screen before screaming, shouting and running off. A few adults also wanted their photos taken.
Everyone I talked to greeted me with “namaste”, a customary Indian welcome.
Half-dead stray dogs found refuge in any shade they could as cows ambled about in search of food and an occasional scratch on the chin. Cows, considered sacred in the Hindu religion, can come and go as they please – or sit in the middle of the street blocking traffic, which happened on a number of occasions.
The food was an explosion of flavors I’d never tried before. The dishes –usually a curry, rice with vegetables and buttered pita bread called nan — were spicy as expected, which had worried me given my strict stomach, but sat better than most zesty Chinese dishes. There were a few inconveniences, but most bathrooms were easy to find or have someone point out directions to.
And this was just in New Delhi, my first stop. The rest of the country offered even more experiences.
One thing that remained unchanged across India was the people’s interest in me. Their questions followed almost the same pattern in each region: Where are you from?; What’s your name?; and then either “Do you like India?” or “Are you married?” It was comically similar to what most people asked me during my travels in China, sans questions about my salary.
Something about the way the Indians asked and talked, and badgered me about finding a wife sounded more genuine. It wasn’t feigned interest for the sake of being polite but actual curiosity, followed by amazement when I told them I was from New York City (it’s just easier to tell foreigners that than trying to explain where my hometown Tamaqua is).
Their response was always: “New York City, America are great places.” My response was the same too: “Yes, they are. But India is a great place too. And I really love it here. Now can you point me in the direction of a bathroom?”