The Beautiful Mess That is India
After thirty-eight hours of travel, five airports, four countries and five different airplanes, we finally made it to India. I have to admit before leaving on this trip, my anxiety was through the roof. We were leaving the comforts of the Western World for the unknown complexities of India. This is a story of the Beautiful Mess that is India!
Prior to leaving the US, the only real thing I knew about India is that it was the birthplace of yoga. I knew a few names of some influential Yogi’s (Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar to name a few) that were discussed in my yoga teacher training but after that, I knew very little.
Despite my lack of knowledge, I have always been drawn to this country. You can imagine my excitement when we were invited to join a yoga retreat by one of our former Workaway hosts, Josie.
Josie’s retreat was being held at Satsanga in North Goa. The pictures of the resort looked amazing online and still knowing hardly anything about India, Karl reluctantly agreed to embark on this adventure with me.
Despite feeling an intense pull towards this country, I still had some doubts. Over the last few months while living in and out of hostels, we had met a lot of people who had already been to India. I enjoyed asking these well traveled souls questions about this sacred land. Every response was different.
We heard a lot of nice things about India, but we also heard some unflattering stories. I’m not a psychologist but I’m guessing it’s part of the human psyche to only remember the negative and dramatic stories. Some of the stories that stuck out were about women being groped on crowed trains and buses or people walking around in knee high trash.
From the outside, I didn’t understand in a culture full of yoga and spirituality why these things would be allowed or tolerated. I was even more baffled when our tour guide in Munich, a young, well-traveled male, told the story of having to stop and take deep breathes before stepping foot outside his flat. He would have to prepare himself to be bombarded by young children begging for money, adults asking you to ride in their rickshaw or women inviting you to buy their stuff. All these stories made for mass confusion and doubt whether we should even be traveling to this country.
The real anxiety wouldn’t set in until I did a little bit more research about India. As I was researching, I quickly realized that none of my favorite travel bloggers have written or been to India?!?! How could this be?? This added much more confusion and very little answers.
Feeling desperate and even more confused I turned to the comforts of a book, which I do a lot when feeling desperate and confused, for the answers I needed. I chose Cultural Shock! India, by Lynette Seow, and it was just what I needed.
The book is written from an expat perspective for future expats. However, I found it very practical for anyone traveling to this country. It had lots of detailed advice about customs and culture that you may not find in other travel books. As I began to read this book, I started to feel more comfortable about traveling to India.
India is beautiful because the people are beautiful. The sunsets glow and the colors are incredible. The food is delicious and you can feel the spirituality oozing out of every crevice.
On the other hand, India is a mess. There’s profound poverty in your face ALL THE TIME. Unflattering smells waft through the air and trash is everywhere. The streets are chaos and horns are beeping non-stop.
It’s such a complex and contradictory place but this is why avid travelers, like The Audacious Duo, love it so much! It’s not only the birth place of yoga but it’s also home to four world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sufism). It’s currently the world’s largest democracy, the oldest living civilization and home to over 1.2 billion people.
Even though India is a sacred place it does not come without challenges; prejudice towards women being one of them. To me, it’s the Indian women that make the paradox that is India not seem so messy. The Indian woman are wrapped in brightly colored clothing called sarees. They walk around making the mess of India look so damn beautiful. I never thought teal, yellow, orange and five different shades of red could look so freaking good together.
It’s not just the woman of India that are full of color; buses, markets, buildings, temples and even the cows are draped with color. Keith Bellows is quoted with saying in Culture Sock! India, “it was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.” I completely agree.
Just like the clashing of colors it all just seems to work out here in India. Just when you think your rickshaw is going to ram head-on into another car or hit a cow standing in the road, the rickshaw veers back into its designated lane and all is well. I found the best thing to do in India is to trust that in the end, it will all work out. Otherwise the paradoxes that are India will send your head spinning.
One of these many paradoxes is the loads of slums, beggars and trash that sits right next to one of the big, ornate beautiful shrines and temples that adorn all of India. While the poverty will test your consciousness, the temples and shrines that avail the Hindu religion (over 70% of Indians are Hindu) will have you in awe.
According to Culture Shock! India, the caste system, in which you are born into, was originally developed with intention for upward and downward social mobility. Unfortunately over the years, it’s become more rigid and oppressive. It’s within this system that a person’s identity is first, followed by the group identity of the family, followed by the collective identity of the caste. This leaves zero room for a larger community to pull together for the common good of all Indians.
Although there are laws protecting the lowest class, the Dalits, from discrimination there is still massive prejudice against this class. As you walk the streets in some places in India you can feel it. The beliefs of the Hindu caste system don’t excuse the behavior for bigotry but it does at least help explain the beautiful mess that is India and puts to rest some of the inconsistency.
If I’ve learned one thing in all our travels so far, it’s that there is always a silver lining somewhere. Here in India, the lining lies in the poverty that breeds resourcefulness and ingenuity. Underneath the trash is an opportunity to find treasure and one can always escape the madness by finding solitude at the plethora of local temples, shrines or ashrams.
As Seow says: “Journeying through India is really about going deep whilst spanning wide, rediscovering humanity and insanity in all possible places and particularly at the final destination-ourselves.”
We went on this trip wanted to learn about other cultures and engrossing ourselves in the lives of other people, our own anthropological experiment of sorts. This trip to India has been a deep dive into the lives of people who live different than we do in the Western World.
In fact, there is very little that I can find that the Western World and India have in common. This is precisely why India and our travels here have been so profound. It’s opening our minds to a more in-depth understanding of the world and a keener sense of humanity. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Traveling to India has made us see a different world and we can never go back to what we didn’t know. My vision of the world has been stretched beyond belief here in India and I will forever be changed.