While traveling in India a friend asked me, “Don’t you just love India?” At that moment, I wouldn’t say I loved India. I was feeling that special kind of weary frustration that India breeds in you. I was hot and tired, I had been collecting mosquito bites on my face every night for several nights in a row, and I hadn’t walked anywhere unnoticed for two months. I paused and looked around. There was an orange and white striped cart on the side of the road that sold fresh sugar cane juice. There was an enormous black and white spotted Holstein bull sleeping in the raised median of the road, with one back hoof hanging lazily off the edge of the median’s concrete ledge. And there was a large billboard with an advertisement of a television show picturing two men kissing one woman, her face held between them in a ridiculous mixture of anguish and extacy. “Right now, I wouldn’t say I love India every minute, but I am always fascinated by it.” I replied.
The next day I spent the afternoon at the Mysore City Market and fell in love with India again. This market is one of my favorite places in India because of the beautiful fruit and vegetable stalls, friendly vendors, and the air of vibrancy and decay that makes India feel both old and new all at once. I walked through the market’s busting flower isle where people strung flower heads together to sell for puja (worship). Like so many other things in India that I can’t comprehend, I found it unbelievable that so many flowers were strung together every single day and then sold bit by bit to adorn a statue of a god, a dead relative’s photo frame, or even a vehicle. The flower market was bustling and as loud as a crowded restaurant and bathed in a diffused light that gave everything a dream like quality that made me reach for my camera every time I visited the market.
Unless you are in the rare “price fixed” shop you must haggle for goods and services. This is not a talent that comes naturally for me for various reasons and shopping caused me a reasonable amount of anxiety. But, I became better at it by the end of my trip. It helped that my friend Steve is such a skilled haggler that he is often asked by Indians, “Are you Israel?” After spending time with Steve, I learned that people won’t sell something unless they will profit from it; people rarely turn down a low (but fair) offer if you are visibly holding out the exact amount of money you want to pay; and if a person doesn’t accept a reasonable offer and you walk away, they will usually call after you to make a sale if they really want your money. After observing these techniques in action I began to apply them with reasonable success. My last week in India, I found myself refusing to buy a pineapple because the fruit vendor wanted 15 instead of 10 rupees for it – about a six cents difference. (In my defense, it was a really small pineapple.) After that experience I decided India really had “changed” me.
While haggling felt stressful, I almost always enjoyed observing traffic. It sounds crazy, but there is a special kind of chaos that occurs on India’s road ways that almost always delighted me. Every kind of imaginable vehicle share the roads with one another, this includes cars, semis, buses, motorcycles, scooters, motorized rickshaws, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, ox carts, horse carts, camel carts, and even elephants. In almost every town loose cows and feral dogs meander through traffic. At first it appears that Indian’s drive without rules, but this is isn’t quite true. There aren’t exactly rules, but there are guidelines that are followed very loosely. Instead of honking when offended, honking means something like, “Heads up!” You are actually supposed to honk while you are passing someone to alert them to the fact that you are passing them. So, honking is almost considered a courtesy, which explains the incessant amount of honking that you hear in traffic. At night you are also supposed to flash your lights while you are passing someone to alert oncoming traffic that you are in the wrong lane, the opposite of what is considered polite in the United States, but there is a logic behind it.
As is the way in India, if an opportunity presents itself, you move fast to make use of it. This especially applies to passing other vehicles in traffic. If there is room for 2 or 3 people to pass a slow-moving vehicle, then two or three people will be passing that vehicle. Unless there is a traffic jam, traffic doesn’t exactly stop or start, but keeps flowing like I imagine platelets of blood move through our veins and arteries. There are stop lights in cities and if there is a lot of traffic, then people stop at them, but if there is no traffic around, then there is no reason to stop at a red light. This seems more logical than sitting at a stoplight for five minutes for no reason, which often happens to me in Fort Collins.
There is no way that Americans would be able to drive with the casual chaos that Indians drive with. This is because Americans drive way too fast. Traffic works in India is because no one drives that fast. Even on the best stretches of highway, I don’t think that any car I traveled in ever exceeded 55 miles an hour. This is one reason that it takes forever to get from one place to another, even if they are only a centimeter away from each other on a map. People get frustrated with one another in traffic, but it is only momentary. People don’t harbor resentment toward one another and while people may gesture at one another, road rage is non-existence. Traffic is just another place for people to practice the pervasive patience you cultivate in India that becomes a kind of meditation.
While not the loudest place I’ve ever been, India is certainly the noisiest. There is almost always some incessant sound emanating from a house, a temple, or vehicle. In the north, it is common to see tractors that have speakers mounted on the front blasting music. These tractors are usually pulling a trailer which is sometimes filled with people and/or a statue of one of the 33,000,001 Hindu gods. These musical tractors are promoting different causes, usually advertising for a guru or a politician. Weddings parties are usually accompanied by a full brass band and one morning we were all woken up by a musical wedding party parading through the neighborhood at seven in the morning. Temples are also a constant source of loud and rockus music day and night. Because India is so crowded, people live close together, and it is common to overhear your neighbor’s day-to-day business for better or for worse. At one point I had decided that India was only quiet between three and four in the morning and three and four in the afternoon, but after a while the sounds faded into the background and with the aid of earplugs, I became a very sound sleeper. Eventually, I came to feel that the noise, chaos, and close living quarters were part of the energy and vibrancy of India that make India feel more alive than any other place I have been.
This trip I was fortunate to experience parts of India off the tourist tract. I learned about public health problems while volunteering at the medical clinic in Mysore, I learned about farming and the dairy industry staying in villages, and I learned about the joys and challenges of the day-to-day lives of Indians. Growing, buying, and preparing food plays a central role in the daily lives of most people. As Americans, we all eat, but food seems like an after thought next to everyone’s busy work routines. Indians spend far more time preparing food every day. They often prepare the same rice, dal, roti, and vegetable dish (in the North), or rice, idli, dosa, and roti (in the South). These foods form people’s identities and also contribute to the growing public health problems in India. When Jag, the doctor at the clinic requested that people stop eating white rice, wheat, and dal, people looked like they couldn’t possibly find anything else to eat if they were denied these foods – and this in a country full of some of the most beautiful fruit and vegetable stands offering a wide variety of foods. Unlike the United States, where the poorest people experience the worst health problems, in India it is the wealthy that are experiencing an increase in diabetes, high blood pressure, and gluten allergies. The desire to appear “modern” has led many wealthy Indian’s to adopt a Western diet, or at least use foods that are highly processed, like white rice. As a tourist, you are never served brown rice because it is “peasant” food.
Family relationships are also extremely important to Indians and it is the reason that arranged marriages are still the norm. Love marriages are becoming more accepted but are still rare. Marriage is considered a marriage between families. Most parents really are concerned about making a match that will give their children a happy life and the interview process is extensive. Future goals, economic status, caste, and compatibility are all taken into account. An astrologer is usually consulted and the children’s charts are compared for compatibility. The astrologer also picks the date and time of the wedding to make the most auspicious start to the marriage. The goal of marriage is to create conditions to raise a family. The number of children a husband and wife have isn’t important, but having at least one child is. Even with the care taken in arranging a good marriage, it happens that there are many loveless marriages in India.
At Jag Therapy many treatments include routine massage administered by a spouse. I observed one husband being trained to give his wife a therapeutic massage and he was visibly nervous touching his wife. It seemed as if he had never touched his wife in his whole life even though they had children together. It was not an uncommon occurrence at the clinic and it always broke my heart to see. Other married couples I observed weren’t in love with each other, but out of duty to their family had made their marriage into a partnership that worked. All of their energy was funneled into providing their children with a better life. In villages where arranged marriages comprise 99% of all marriages, this was especially true. Some husbands and wives live apart for extended periods of time if a husband decides to earn better money in a city and the rest of the family stays in the village. Even though people live lives that would be less than ideal for an American, most Indians make the best of it and are generally happy people. They still have a longing for an ideal vision of romance, as their Bollywood industry is evidence of, but they make what happiness they can in less than ideal circumstances. Many people were endlessly curious about my life and the freedoms I enjoy as an American woman and asked me some rather pointed questions, but I was also curious about their lives in a more tactful way. No matter where they live, humans are always curious about matters of the heart. In my opinion no matter what culture you are born into the human heart remains the same.