Jackie writes:

I’ve been back to Pittsburgh only a few days, and since arriving back stateside everyone has asked how my trip was, what the weather was like, the food, what do my friends do, and many more questions. I feel like a bit of a broken record repeating myself so often, but I can’t blame the curiosity of my friends, family, and coworkers. Most of the people I know will likely never go to India—it’s not a typical vacation destination, and my short and limited exposure and perhaps some news reports, or national geographic, is as close as they will get to know India.

Before this trip, I was not a world traveler, and in fact this was my first trip outside of North America so the anticipation for this experience was elevated that much more. Getting to India was not nearly as difficult as I had anticipated, and having the trek over broken down into two flight segments helped greatly (Pittsburgh-Paris-Mumbai there, and Delhi-Paris-Pittsburgh on the return).

Chris and I on the plane in Pittsburgh ready for the adventure to begin

Small world

I was constantly reminded in my experience in India, getting there, traveling within, that it truly is a small world. On the plane from Pittsburgh to Paris, I saw a gentleman wearing a hat of my alma mater Eastern Michigan University (I told him I went there, and was happy to see his hat, he told me his son goes there and plays baseball). In Paris, I saw a gentleman wearing an Indiana University (Bloomington) sweatshirt (also my alma mater) and in Mumbai airport customs line I talked with college students from the University of Michigan (Go Blue! Michigan is my favorite college football team). In Puri, we rented a boat and our cruise director was sporting a Nittany Lions hat (I have since been told that Penn State has the largest alumni association in the world, but in India it was still a shock to see something from so close to where I live here in Pennsylvania). In Bhubaneswar, while Chris and I were waiting to get on our plane to Delhi, we saw a young man wearing a Cincinnati Reds hat, and while I’m not a fan, it made me smile to see a reminder of my friends back in my home state of Ohio who support the Red Legs.

While in Puri, Gina, Corey, Chris, and myself were taking in the sounds and sights of the Bay of Bengal, and while walking along the shore we ran into Corey and Gina’s friend from VSO whom they haven’t seen in months and who happened to also be enjoying the beaches of Puri that day. Of all places, and times to be where we were, it was amazing to see and feel how small the world can be.

Tough Spirit

Immediately upon arriving in India, I noticed that the people of this country were made of a different spirit than myself, and most Americans I know. This spirit is resilient, tough, and beautiful all the same. When driving through Mumbai from the airport, I kept saying to myself “do people live there? Or there? Or there???” And I knew the answers to those questions were always “yes.” From small one-room shacks, to tarps draped from wires, to huts on the side of the road, I knew that those were the dwellings common of many families in Mumbai and throughout India. Because these homes are too small for the entire family to sleep, many people we saw at night sleeping outside on the ground with blankets, on carts, on tables, in rickshaws. I know I have a hard time getting comfortable enough to sleep on a plane, and I felt a pang of guilt comparing my woes to people who sleep on the ground in a bustling city on a daily basis.

It’s amazing to me to think the Indians I saw are capable of getting a good night’s rest when sleeping on the ground; it’s as if most of the country is walking around sleep deprived, a little restless, but everyday. Sleep is a luxury, and the Indians seem to have perfected the ability out of necessity to sleep anywhere, anytime, and on a moment’s notice. While we were staying in hotels and houses in our adventure to India, I will note that the beds I did sleep on are not fluffy or soft, they are firm, very firm. I came back to America with a newfound appreciation for my pillow-top mattress and down comforter.

Indian men and women are capable of sleeping in less than desirable places, and also have the capability of enduring some of the hottest heat known to mankind. While we were there it was only the beginning of summer, and while it was one of the hottest Marches known to Mumbai, I didn’t see many Indian men or women sweating. Really. I was desperately wishing to wear shorts and tank tops, but knew that this would have caused a stir since most Indian women are wearing saris and their bodies are covered by their everyday wear (on our last night in Mumbai I was a bit daring and wore a dress that went to my knee without leggings on underneath—I don’t think most Indian men have seen that much skin on a woman in awhile, or ever). I couldn’t believe that these women with long dark hair, wearing long dresses, were still not sweating in 107 degree heat with so much material covering their body. I tip my hat to these Indian ladies, who are much tougher than me when it comes to such hot weather. On the flip side, perhaps they would have something to say about my ability to endure running in below freezing weather? Perhaps.

Culture Clash

While visiting India, we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to see so much of the country. We landed in Mumbai, visited Koraput, stayed in Puri, and Chris and I had a brief visit in Delhi and Agra. I remember waking up on the overnight train from Koraput to Bhubaneswar and walking to the part of the train where the cars connect, and I was blasted with the fresh air of the country passing by that early morning. This is one of my favorite memories of my entire trip, it was my private moment with the country, connecting to the land and the people, and appreciating everything that had already been and anticipating what was yet to come. My friends were tucked-in quietly to their bunks, and I was waking up to the sun rising in the Indian countryside. I was viewing the workers in the field, the small rail stations we whizzed past, and thought how amazing it was to have had the opportunity of a lifetime to see so much of the land. I am forever thankful for Corey and Gina allowing Chris and I the opportunity to visit them and to host us (and put up with me!).

Throughout the country there was a consistency of something I didn’t expect to see so blatantly—there is a constant clash within their culture, things are not as beautiful as they may appear. The scenery we saw, some of the rolling hills in Koraput, the seaside beaches of Puri, and the shores of Mumbai. Women in saris walking around town, and storekeepers selling their goods—all of these sights I took in and found striking, fascinating, and beautiful. Looks can be deceiving though. When you looked closer, you could see that the women in saris were walking over garbage, and animal carcasses/feces; storekeepers were often sweeping wrappers and discarded items from the front of their store into the street or in the front of someone else’s store. The beaches of Puri and the shore of Mumbai were not like typical beaches in America. I show pictures now to those who ask about my visit and it looks like it was gorgeous, but it is hard to explain to others and to erase from my mind the images I saw of men and women using the beach as their bathroom, bath tub, garbage receptacle, and laundry facility all within walking distance of each other on the same shore. It hurt me to see such a beautiful piece of shore with crashing waves, to be such an eyesore and health hazardous place for people to enjoy.

There are no garbage cans, no one comes by your house weekly to collect your rubbish, it just doesn’t happen. It isn’t to say that the Indian people are wasteful, because they aren’t. They will go to great lengths to recycle, reuse, or recreate items (think clothing turned into rags, plastics turned into pellets, and more—we got to see this in the Dharavi slum tour). It is just a contradiction within the culture that I noticed, that there is so much beauty in the land and people that live there, with such a practical ethic and efficient mindset, yet their surroundings are often ridden with garbage. It just didn’t make sense to me, but I’m sure there are a lot of things in America that Indians would say don’t make sense either.

The Taj Mahal

As I’ve mentioned before, India is surrounded by beautiful landscape—amazing architecture of Mumbai buildings, historical structures like the Konark Temple, gorgeous green rice fields in Koraput, and I cannot forget the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, the Taj Mahal. Gina isn’t as enthused about visiting this landmark, but after viewing it, I will say that it is unlike any other temple, museum, or fort I’ve ever been to, and it was worth every bit of the 750 rupee entrance fee (if you find yourself in Delhi, take the three hour car ride each way to Agra, you will be thankful you did. So Gina, go with Corey to see this, and anyone else debating visiting something that can be perceived as cliché touristy, don’t hesitate and just go. Really.). The story of the building is one reason to see and appreciate the magnitude of this structure, such a grand scale of a gift to honor someone you love. The pictures I show now from my trip almost look as if the Taj Mahal is fake, like I wasn’t even there, and had a background made and stood in front of it to have my picture taken. The majesty of the jewels used, the smooth white marble (it felt so cool to the touch and was so welcomed on such a hot day), the symmetry of the towers, archways, and fountains—I was in awe, and have never felt so humbled and amazed by, of all things, a building.

Really, we were here.

I wanted to show some Pittsburgh love while visiting the Taj Mahal and brought my Terrible Towel along with me.

As I wind this entry to a close, I know that this trip is yet to fully sink in. I’m still scratching the surface on reflecting upon my experience. I have learned to appreciate so many things about America (clean running water, soft beds, green leafy vegetables to name a few) yet I want to adopt the Indian way of life and diminish the extra and non-essential material things I have in my life. I am sitting here in this warm coffee shop back in Pittsburgh glimpsing at the remainder of the henna on my hands while drinking a chai latte (nothing is as good as Corey’s chai, and I miss this daily ritual tremendously), and thinking of the memories I am so lucky to now have. Seeing my friends, making new ones, and learning so much about the world and the tiny glimpse of it I got to see in another country. I am a changed person because of this journey, and as hard as I may have struggled during my visit to accept some of the ways of the Indian culture, I find myself now wishing I could go back again.