This past week was incredibly special – Dufur, Oregon came to south India. My wonderful aunt and uncle trekked half-way around the world to see the sights, taste the tastes, give much needed hugs to their long-lost niece…and hand deliver a giant bottle of conditioning treatment for my out-of-control hair. It was a perfect reminder of home, the endless love I have from family and friends, and a chance for me to slip back into my American self for a few days. It was a breath of fresh air.
But it was also a chance to show my India to a piece of home. To show them why I’m here, what I see, and how I experience it all. When they arrived to the Rishi Valley, my aunt and uncle had just finished a whirlwind tour up north going from the Taj to the Himalayas (and everywhere in between) and still had a bit of that wide-eyed expression on their faces. Rightly so. Although this wasn’t their first venture East, I’m not sure anything can prepare you -emotionally, physically, metaphysically – for the sensory shocks of India at first glance. The smells, the traffic, the city pollution, the garbage, the slums, the immense poverty, the spicy/sour/sickly sweet food, the people – so many people – babies being toted around on the hips of young kids, women huddling around fires under overpasses, men without legs begging on the street, and the millions of others that crowd around you in markets, on busses, on sidewalks… everywhere. Coming from the west, it’s an immense about to take in and even more to process. It takes time.
This is my second venture to India and so far I’ve racked-up a combined total of about 8 months actually living here – first in a city of 20 million and now in a valley of 6,000. I’m certainly no local and still have an incredible amount to learn and experience, but I do feel like I’ve gained a bit of a different perspective than someone who is simply traveling by. Peel back the surface level – that top layer that attacks your senses with a harsh blow and a punch in the gut leaving you with a head full of frightening “what-ifs” – and that’s when you can actually, truly, honestly start seeing, feeling, tasting India. That’s when you’re really here.
So when I met them at the airport, my aunt and uncle had had their fill of temples, palaces, museums, and air-conditioned bus rides through city markets (maybe…). I got the chance to take them slightly off the tourist trail and give them a taste of my life here. We went on walks through fields of banana trees, sugarcane, and turmeric. I showed them how to pick tamarind off the trees and introduced them to a friend of mine from a nearby village who gave us each a jasmine flower and excitedly toured us through her few acres of farmland. We ate coconuts on the street, drank true, south Indian coffee…lots of it….and they willingly tasted every mysterious food item I put in front of them. They took their first auto-rickshaw ride, learned to be ruthless when bargaining with vendors, and got an informal, hour-long history lesson from the owner of one of Bangalore’s long-time, local restaurants.
Aside from simply spending time with them, the best part of it for me was watching them have the chance to meet the people – adopted family, friends, and strangers – that have entirely made my experience here. The people make India special to me, and it was wonderful to get to share that with a part of my family. But you have to peel off a layer to get there, to see it, to feel it…and it’s not easy.
Unless you have a heart of stone, I’m not sure the sensory shocks of India ever go away, but I know for sure the depth and beauty of this country only gets richer with time…