During the past six months of solid travel, I’ve had very little time to reflect back on my experiences. I feel as though I’ve taken in so much, but as soon as one experience ends, we’re on a plane to the next destination with no time in between to breath. Under few other circumstances would I be able to see and learn so much, and for that I’m eternally grateful.
My time in India presented a change of pace. Within the confines of a small, dusty town in southern India, I welcomed the chance to sit alone with my thoughts, free of internet, unable to communicate with friends and family, and void of the resources I needed to fulfill normal obligations.
I thought about saris, the traditional draped garment worn by truly every woman in the conservative town of Badami. By walking down the street in my climbing tank top, I would have committed cultural taboo. Women should not show their shoulders, or wear clothes that hug the skin. Yet, inches of midriff and most of the lower back showed through many women’s saris, no matter their shape, size, or age. I laughed as I imagined myself attending my own family gatherings in a similar outfit. Even more startling is the thought of my grandmothers donning that thin piece of skin revealing silk. But in India, it’s normal. Cultural differences around the world will always surprise us, but they also open our eyes to other perspectives, proving yet again that our way isn’t the only way.
I thought about the faces behind those saris. Beautiful women with perfect skin, long thick hair, and never ending eyelashes.
I thought about how these same women walk with head down, eyes on the ground.
I thought about the pigs of Badami who wander main street feasting on plastic bags until the day they’re served for dinner.
I thought about the tractors, and wondered why a work vehicle would be so decked out in tinsel, every day.
I thought about the monkey with the oozing, bloody shoulder that I photographed. How I turned around only to scream as he leapt onto my back, grabbed the trash from my backpack, and scampered off with his prize.
[Jon Glassberg (LT11) Image]
I thought about the green lake of Nickelodeon style slime, where people bathed and washed their clothes amidst floating trash and the occasional water snake that swam past.
I thought about the disparity between living in “real India” and staying in a nice clean hotel down the street, one with a restaurant that wouldn’t leave me sick for weeks.
I thought about these things and realized that I was spoiled, I was privileged, I took for granted opportunities that most people in India couldn’t even dream. Are these things wrong? Was I helping or making things worse by paying double the fair price for rickshaws and goods on the street (80 cents instead of 40). Those extra 40 cents meant nothing to me, but maybe they could help this man buy a treat for his child at home. Or maybe they would help him buy more alcohol for that night’s romp out with the boys. Would it help anyone’s situation if I stayed in one of the common street hotels rather than somewhere comfortable? By only eating at one restaurant so I could keep from getting sick in hopes of sending my project, was I confining myself to the first world and thereby marring my experience of India?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions. They are confusing and the more I think about them, the more muddled they become. I felt guilty as a tourist who consumed what others couldn’t afford. On the other hand, I was glad I at least spent my two weeks combing those dirt streets, learning what I could, admiring the smiles of little girls who ran past giggling, sweating beneath the winter sun that must stifle life each summer.
I felt thankful I wasn’t on one of those tourist buses that plowed through town as its occupants took photos comfortably from the window. That dropped them within the entrance gates of the temple, where they would pay 25 times the amount a local would pay to walk through the manicured garden, so obscurely out of place amidst the dusty town.
What we learn through traveling can’t be put into words. Sometimes we can’t even form concrete conclusions in our minds about those lessons. But they are there. We see, we experience, and we learn. Even if I can’t tell you what I learned in India, I know that it changed my life. For that I am thankful.