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Step 1: Move slowly. Step 2:  Smile at a stranger.

Musings

Step 1: Move slowly. Step 2: Smile at a stranger.

Megan Harrod

We are spoiled brats.

I've been in India 3 days now. I am, by no means, an expert on India. I have no intentions to save the people of India. I am merely a traveler, with the intention to take it all in. Everyone has their own perception of a place - especially faraway places to which they've never been. Or even, faraway places where they have been. The thing is, just as with everything else in life, each experience is unique. That's one thing I love about this life, because it means we can all share with each other and marvel at the differences in our experiences. 

I arrived to Bombay not knowing what to expect with my visa issue. When I arrived to the front of the line I was told I had to go to the Immigration counter if I had an e-visa. Easy enough, I thought. Though I had been traveling for 24 hours and had arrived late (11:30pm), I was in no specific rush to get to Arushi's, apart from the fact that I felt bad for keeping her awake late. I arrive to the Immigration counter to a group of perplexed foreigners standing in a pseudo-line looking lost. No one sat at the counter we were directed to, and a disgruntled foreigner stood in front of me frustrated that she had given her fingerprints 17 times without success, and even more pissed off at the lack of a proper and reliable system. I sat back and observed, patiently. Meanwhile, behind me quite the line began to form, including a blonde haired women I had seen on the flight, who was not much younger than me, and sighing heavily. She mentioned she was from Minneapolis and we struck up a small, surface-level-Minneapolis-style conversation, before she started to voice her frustration with the wait. What I found amusing was she had expectations that the process should work just like it works in the western world. Expectations. Something that can get a traveler into dangerous territory. She had no connecting flight to catch like others behind her, yet she audibly sighed. Finally, I turned around and said, "Welcome to India...I don't think much makes sense here. I've never been, but I've prepared to be unprepared for this, which seems to make it a lot easier to handle." She looked at me and then reflected, "Yeah, I guess I should just learn to go with the flow, huh?!" Um, yeah...first lesson - and most important lesson - while traveling: go with the flow. I was up in line and made a couple of jokes with the immigration officer, he smiled and gave me the Indian head shake, which - btw - could mean "yes," "good," "ok," or "I understand" depending on the context in which it's used. I find it endearing.

This story gets better from here. I find my way to the prepaid taxi counter downstairs and purchase a cab to Jaslock Hospital on Peddar Road, near Arushi's place. Plan was to call her from taxi driver's mobile once I arrived. Cab was about 600r, or 10 dollars. Very affordable. The air outside was thick with moisture and my clothes were already sticking to me. I showed the driver my receipt and we were on our way. Palm trees lined the street leaving the airport. Traffic was already mayhem, even with the wide streets. Motorbikes zigzagging between cars, taxis honking at each other. Everyone honks. It's almost a way of saying, "Hey, I'm here!" There are no rules here. No convention. My driver was using his arm as a turn signal as cars whizzed by. That was comforting. We couldn't have been going faster than 45mph. Crawling. No worries, I wasn't in a rush. By this time is was about 1am, and I knew it would take a bit to get to Arushi's. It didn't take long before the roads narrowed and we found our way into the city. Everyone seemed to be busy, even late at night. There's this sort of mysterious, chaotic, beautiful flow of life here. Smells of spice, sweet, and smoke filled my nostrils, intoxicating me with a mixture of saffron, cardamom, fennel, mango, incense and more. India is a place for all of the senses. 

We passed by an area where bodies lined the streets - communities of peaceful, sleeping people, many women still dressed in their vibrant saris. These people aren't homeless. They live in the slums, and the roofs to their houses are constructed of tin, making the heat unbearable to sleep in in this 100+ degree heat and humidity. That is reality here. Human life is valued differently than at home in the states. While the white girl from Minnesota complains about waiting in line, thousands of Indians sleep outside on the concrete. We are spoiled brats. 

It didn't take long for me to realize we might be lost. Especially when my driver was about to drop me off at a hospital in an area that didn't look too promising to be Arushi's part of town. Turns out we were nowhere near Arushi's place, and the driver hadn't put on his glasses when reading the address. Welcome to India, where expectations can get a traveler into trouble. Slightly peeved myself, and hoping I wasn't being taken advantage of in my fixed price cab, the driver asked for directions and we were on our way to what seemed like the other end of town. He told me I told him the wrong place. I - with a tone of authority and assuredness in my voice I reserve for situations like this - said to the driver, "I showed you the receipt, with the address. I. Don't. Live. Here." I finally get a hold of Arushi on my mobile, after multiple times trying from his to no avail, and tell her we reached the wrong hospital. About 20 minutes later - an hour after we had started our journey - we reached Jaslock and I told the driver to wait until Arushi came down. He waited patiently, and to my surprise, didn't ask for more money. I know it was his misstep and not my own, but that doesn't mean I didn't expect him to ask me for more money after driving around the entire city. 2:30am and I arrived to Arushi's safely after little sleep and over 24 hours of travel.

I dove right into the culture with Arushi's guidance. I adore living like a local. Day 1 and I enjoyed traditional meals at home with Arushi's amazing family, walked around Bombay and experienced the 100+ degree weather, thankful every sweaty step of the way that I shaved my head. This is a heat like I've never experienced before. Surrounded by cars and their exhaust, sweat dripping down my legs and pooling in between my breasts. Drenched. This is no exaggeration. What I find even more fascinating is how life doesn't stop despite the heat. Construction workers bake under the Bombay sun. Farmers sell their vegetables at the market without a shaded seat. Life goes on. People keep moving because they can't afford not to. Arushi told me yesterday as we walked through the crowded train station, "People in Bombay are always rushing, but they're never on time." It's true. 

I'm not sure you realize how many people live in India. The population of India is 1.3 billion people. The land mass is 3,287,590 km2. The population of the U.S. is about 330 million but the land mass is 9,857,306 km2. That is crazy. You can fit India into the west coast of the U.S. yet there are 1 billion more people in India. Imagine that.

Arushi helped me ward off jet lag on day 1 by wowing me with all the textiles we'd be encountering when visiting the Gujarat region...insanely beautiful Ikat and and block printing textiles that I can see opportunities for in creating everything from bow ties to pocket squares and ready-to-travel clothing. I am in textile heaven, and Arushi is my guiding light. 

The first night I was in Bombay Arushi's mom invited me to a "fireside chat," basically a community of people who meet once a month to discuss a topic in community. The topic was Life and Death. What a beautiful experience to spend time with a group of locals from all faith backgrounds and discuss such a topic. What is the purpose of life? I answered, "To bring joy to others, and do what I can to make others' lives a little bit easier...I can't express the feeling of making someone smile who you did not expect to see smile. The purpose of life is to serve." I believe it more every day...here I look for opportunities to connect with people who don't
speak my language through a smile. It always works. The universal language. 

Life is different here. But it's equally beautiful, and the people are incredibly hard-working and resilient. As I move slowly though it all, I'm consistently reminded of how lucky I am to live where I do and have the family and opportunities that I have, but I'm also reminded of how similar we all are, and how a smile can unite and connect us all, despite the cultural boundaries.