I am often asked why I so enjoy visiting India. Usually by people who have gone for a short trip and decided it was too much trouble and that they wouldn’t be returning.
To be fair- you never know how your trip might be delayed by a herd of cows in the road (yes, even in a big city) or your hotel might experience a power outage preventing you from sending out that ‘important’ email. Did I mention how thin most mattresses are, that monkeys steal your ice cream and that they bite?? (they also steal laundry)
But I might argue that it is the constant ‘intrusiveness’ that is the most delightful and life changing part about a trip to India.
In the west, we live such fast paced lives. We are constantly bombarded by work. We are constantly serving our need for immediacy- we wait in line for that latest phone with the fastest downloading speeds, we love drive through service and microwave meals, and we need responses like yesterday. We rush through a morning routine, stop by a starbucks for a quick jolt and scarf rather than savor before sitting at our desks sweating with stress from 9-6 (if we are lucky). Maybe we eat a quick microwave dinner before jumping back in our vehicles to meet with friends or we cook ourselves something nice and then we stay up late binging Netflix all to rush again the next morning.
Being in India is almost completely opposite this. Though you may still sit in an eon of traffic- it’s perfectly acceptable to be late (most of the time). Things simply take longer. I haven’t seen a single drive through in the entire country and most people (in my experience) actually nourish and rest themselves so consuming coffee at the level we do to maintain the go-go-go life style is not necessary.
India calls travellers to be present right here and right now. In the morning it’s almost impossible to be distracted or disconnected if you are walking to get to your shower and you want to avoid a cow pie, or if you have to heat up your water before hand. Most meals are cooked fresh from local recently harvested veggies and you simply wait for them. Today breakfast may be ready at 9, tomorrow: who knows….you learn patience. You are being called, daily, to practice self care (living) in a beautiful and ritualized way. You are called to ‘think’ about your routine- to plan the experiences you have. You are slowing down.
I do occasionally do ‘work’ when I’m in India and it rarely goes the way I have been conditioned to expect. Emails take a bit longer and involve a lot of ‘how do you feel, how is your family?’. They are messages that affirm the importance of my emotional well-being as well as the well being of those around me, though occasionally the questions seem like a waist of time- things well eliminated for the sake of efficiency in the west. I’ve sat in on meetings where I wasn’t sure if we were meeting just to have tea or to actually achieve something. I have been frustrated by colleagues who have left me waiting for hours while they deal with a sick child- only to find out that their kid was sick and they had to drive the whole family to a doctor on the back of a single motor cycle while trying to weave through the aforementioned heard of cattle.
At first it’s such an imposition. Waiting, not being in control, dealing with ‘hassels’, having to plan things we take for granted in the west, wondering what’s going to happen and knowing there’s not way to predict even what you’ll accomplish tomorrow down to the specifics. Yet slowing down can be so healing. You learn that you do not have control of everything- though it seems you do in the west with your ability to order pizza or a lyft right now with an app on your phone.
Slowly you can become comfortable with letting go. You learn to relax and enjoy a cup of tea while you wait for a friend. You learn to simply be with yourself with out needing to accomplish anything RIGHT NOW. You engage with the people around you. You learn some of the native language so you can tell the man whom you visit on the corner every day for a small cup of Chai tea how delicious the tea is. You learn to say ‘this is delicious but please stop feeding me, I am so full I could pop’ in Odiya because even when you leave food on your plate the food miraculously multiplies when you are not looking.
If you let it, India is a full unplug from the immediacy we are conditioned to believe is normal. It offers the opportunity to take responsibility for how you feel (sure, you could be upset by a late friend-but they’ll be really confused why you’re angry ‘to see them’-and didn’t you enjoy a cup of tea and aren’t all these new friends who just invited both of you home for dinner tonight an amazing?).
Being ‘bored’ and having to ‘think’ or ‘self occupy’ allows time when you can become very curious. What is around you right now, how do you feel, what do you see, who is near you, what was that word for ‘hungry’ or ‘cold’ again?
If you are looking for an escape, a place to reset, an encounter with eastern spirituality, a rich historical land with living traditions full of delights for the senses, and the occasional call to introspection and awareness there is little that delivers in quite the way India does.