Around December of last year, I was presented with the opportunity of traveling to India relatively cost-free. I had to pay for my airfare, but other than that all I would incur were minor expenses along the way. I dismissed the idea on the account of not being able to take off work or school and thinking the airfare alone would be too expensive.
As I started browsing all the random cheap airfare sites in existence, I discovered round-trip tickets would likely be under $800. Thus began the list of all the excuses of why I couldn’t go to India: it’s not safe for women, I won’t be able to stay long enough, what if I get sick – because isn’t that a thing? The list was endless really.
The first week of January rolled around, and I revisited the thought, looked over my school schedule, decided I could work while I was there (hence this article), and made the plunge. The list of excuses I drafted up in the previous month took me a few days to come up with, the decision to actually go, took me all of five minutes. I applied for my e-visa, that was approved the next day, and then I bought my plane tickets.
Upon arriving in India, my opinions and ideas had been infiltrated by the media, friends, family and the interwebs of course. As I stood outside of the airport waiting for my shuttle, I took note of every man that walked past me and automatically assumed I was having a near-death experience. I cringed at the stray dogs running around the pick-up area and jumped every time someone honked their horn (which happens a lot in India).
The first day was a huge culture shock. I have traveled to eight countries in the past two years, most of which are located in Europe, so I am not new to the idea of culture shock. However, this was different. It was complete disorientation. What put me in this state of disarray was undoubtedly the level of poverty surrounding me. Being the wonderful and heroic American that I am, I began to reflect on how lucky we are.
Then it hit me.
I am so entitled and ignorant to think that the lens of privilege that I view life through renders me lucky.
How sad, for me, a person who considers herself cultured, and for Americans in general. Growing up, we are told that because people live differently than other cultures, we are somehow “better” than them, or “lucky.”
Cultural diversity is something we claim to celebrate in America, yet when we actually experience true cultural differences, we are quick to think that our culture is superior. The differences don’t make our country better, or other countries worse. It just makes us different.
Once I crossed that bridge of introspection, I was able to enjoy my trip. People are friendly, like smile at you constantly, laugh with you regularly, friendly. Furthermore, the natives are thrilled to share their culture with you. Shashank, an employee at the hotel I was staying at, would make me a new traditional dish every morning for breakfast, and select an India-made wine for me in the evenings. When he overheard the news that I had just picked up my first saree he asked me what color it was. On my last evening at the hotel, he presented me with green and pink bangles to match my saree and to remember him by. Shashank was just one of many incredibly kind people I experienced in my time there.
The food was incredible. I ate an abundance of dosa, naan, tandoor-cooked meats and vegetables, and a variety of biryani rice dishes. Every one of which was different than the kind of Indian food I have had in America. This was quite shocking to me as most of the Indian restaurants I go to in America felt very authentic.
To say the Hindu temples were beautiful would be a gross understatement. They were elaborately fit with huge statues, gold accents, and marigold flowers. I did a full round of ceremony at the Shiva temple, in particular, this would be a good time to mention that while I don’t declare myself religious in any way, I do practice some traditions of Hinduism that fall in line with my yoga practice.
The Shiva temple was the most energized place I have ever been in. Every step of the way felt enchanted and surreal. Shiva is one of the Trimurti, the holy trinity of Hinduism if you will, and the destroyer and transformer of evil. While I am not entirely certain, due to the extreme language barrier, I am fairly certain this specific temple was a branch of Shaivism, believers who hold Shiva above all other Hindu gods.
The ceremony begins by paying respect to Shiva. You are given a bowl of roughly 150 coins, each one engraved with the Om symbol. There are 108 bowls located at the entrance of the temple, as you pass each bowl you toss in one coin and chant “Om Namah Shivaya,” which is essentially an acknowledgment of Shiva’s powers. Once you have discarded 108 of your coins and repeated the mantra with each coin, you toss the rest into a random bowl as another offering.
I did many rituals while at the temple. I performed a pooja for peace, an act of worship where you toss marigold and other assorted physical objects into a fire. I later participated in a planetary ritual where you circle an ornately decorated solar system nine times while holding coals in your hand. You then toss the coals into a small fire pit to burn away all bad energy. When I participated in this ritual, I thought of my own introspective idea. I decided I would release the negative energy I had incurred while mistaking my cultural differences for luck.
Although I only had four full days in India, the list of experiences is abundant. Those memories would not have been made had I maintained my opinion and ideas of the American way being laden with luck. It is my hope to travel more and more with each year that passes. This trip has better suited me for that, and for life as well. We are not better than those who live in countries that live differently than Americans, and they are not unlucky for living differently than us.