Me, You and India, Too.
What NOT to Do When You Arrive to India
The first time I visited India was in 2018. I traveled with my daughter Sophia, who was at the time just a few weeks from turning ten. It was among the longest journeys I had ever taken, over the top of the globe, just shy of 40 hours door to door.
I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do when you arrive to a foreign place ten time zones from home: take a shower and then tell yourself, too early in the day, that you are just going to lay your head on the pillow for a few minutes. It was early afternoon, and I couldn't fight it any longer, and while Sophia managed to sleep for nearly 12 straight hours, I woke a few short hours later overcome with grief and exhaustion.
It was just after 8:00pm and from the white sheets of a fancy hotel bed, I began to cry. And not just a few tears of relief or sentimentality, but a deluge. Hot rivers of tears soaking into the down pillow, flooding out of me as though a dam had broke deep in my heart and could not be plugged up again. After hour three, four, five I started to worry that maybe I would never stop crying. I would try to breathe it away, splash my face with water, only to have it begin again. Around hour six, I sent an S.O.S. text back to my friend in the U.S.
I need your help, I typed through the tears.
And then the text stream went something like a confession. That I had arrived to India wholly unprepared mentally, physically and spiritually. I forgot to lose ten pounds. I brought all the wrong clothes, some of which I left on my bedroom floor as I finished packing in the darkness at 3:00am, the morning after Christmas. I wrote to her that I thought I should feel different, look different, be entirely different to have earned this kind of experience. I was heartbroken that photos might reveal a true picture of a disheveled woman that had entirely lost the pulse on her life.
The Problem Was, I Was Doing Too Much
The problem was, that I had just come off a year where I had managed to produce twenty-seven events in just under 8 months, while mothering three children under the age of ten, while also pushing away grief over my parent’s plan to move away from their home around the corner, while also hosting Christmas dinner for ten people the night before we flew out. Like most women, I was doing too much. And doing too much was an understatement, even if you divide all of that between two versions of me.
I thought I should because I could, but all of that effort only managed to produce this feeling that my life had been built on a bed of quick sand, and if I didn’t keep running and grasping for the next sure thing, we would all be pulled under. I had spent that last year, the last decade, maybe even a lifetime doing so much for everyone else, that I didn’t even know the woman crying in that bed. She was a numb shell of someone that I used to know or wanted to be. And in the quiet of a hotel room 8000 miles away from home, she was lost, and unable to put a finger on her own heart when everything else fell away.
I had come to India because of my daughter, and her lemonade stands that raised enough money to build a playground at a girls school in India. We were invited to meet the girls and bring hope from the First World, and a message that they matter; that their lives have value; that they can also make change in this world. That was Sophia’s story.
My story was that I was brought to India to be cracked open. I did not feel worthy of carrying a message of hope. My hot tears were not falling from heartbreak over the untapped lives of Indian girls, they were falling for my own lost life. The untapped truth that had stitched together the web of lies I told myself from as long back as I could remember.
And then It Cracked Me Open
After the tears dried the following morning, and we boarded the van for the commute to school, India continued to crack me open and pour herself into me. The two hour bus ride unfolded like passing through veils of a dream. Through the city of a roiling and bustling crush of humanity. The poverty and filth can be off putting, but that morning the boot of my own oppression was lifting, and my eyes were seeing clearer. And what I saw out that window looked like the most beautiful tapestry of life lived against all odds.
Out of the city and into the country, a thinner population, fewer houses. And the colors, the colors. Every mile the bus window framing the richness of color in the red earth; the shimmering greens and reds in the folds of the saris; the yellow and orange marigolds hanging in the stalls over stacks of fruits and vegetables. Out of poverty, slices of beauty popped like colors on a blank and dusty canvas.
I felt like my own dusty canvas. Tattered at the edges. Lacking much more than I could claim to possess. I felt so much shame about this. Shame that I only appeared to be what I claimed to be, and a reality that was just smoke and mirrors. I was tempted to arrive to a school of girls, full of wisdom. To sit with them and pour out my heart about independence and education. But on this bus ride, my American feminism was drawn in and quieted, like a raging lion tamed with a whisper. And as loud and crushing as India proved to be, it seeped into me just like that - with a whisper. So subtly and all-consuming, it silenced me into dumb-awe at my whiteness, my privilege, my impatient and voracious ego.
In that whisper, I heard that this was not a time or place to show up talking and knowing. Or to present my daughter as a white angel come from across oceans to rescue the underprivileged and needy. That would have been the most tragic disservice to all of us. And to my great relief that was not the expectation. No one greeted us with the assumption that strangers were going to do anything but arrive and spend time together.
When one lays down the need to always volunteer to fix things, then there is hope to be the one that’s saved, and that is exactly what happened in the presence of such beautiful and hopeful girls, and young women. In them, it’s easy to see that almost nothing is needed to claim a life that’s full of value. The question was not what they would learn from me, but what I would learn from them.
By day five, the jet lag began to subside and I could feel the tingle returning to my fingers and toes. I could hear myself laughing out-loud. I was smiling without effort. My voice sounded different without the strain from stress and exhaustion. I was a long way off from a full expression of myself, but I felt fluid around a firmer and more grounded center. I felt ready to see, open to learn, quieted enough to hear. I had space to breathe, and I was breathing.
There is so much about India that feels forgotten. Not as in left behind, but actually forgotten. A certain set of values that we no longer prescribe to or feel we need. I let the idea of humility plant a seed in me during those few weeks. I let the idea take hold that perhaps there was more for me to do here apart from being a wedding planner - a job description that started feeling sharp and untrue on my tongue.
It was during those weeks that something else took hold - a joy and ease around writing. An honesty around my lived experience. An idea that perhaps writing is what I'm meant to do. An inkling that maybe I should start a blog. It might not be what earns me a living, but it is most certainly my truest vocation and that felt far more important than any employment I could ever find.
So I said, I’ll come back, and when I do it will be as a writer. It will be with something to share besides the idea that success looks only one particular way. It will be with the idea that in the conversations over lunch with the girls, that they would be able to tell their stories, and that their stories would look so much like my story. Our own oppressive thoughts, it turns out, is our souls greatest enemy. So, knowing your worth, and fighting for it is your greatest achievement, even if you only end up fighting with yourself.
In the Weeks That Followed
I continued to lay down those oppressive thoughts. Sophia and I left the school and traveled to New Delhi and Old Delhi, to the ancient spice market that is almost untouched by time. We pressed on to Agra to the most amazing human-built thing I have ever laid my eyes on: the magnificent Taj Mahal. From there we hopped to Jaipur and landed during their kite festival that was made famous by the heartbreaking book, The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
The whole trip was surreal. Like going back in time. Like finding India as a lost gem in its own time capsule. Despite the filth, on the backdrop of unimaginable poverty, I was smitten with India. I was giddy, in India. I was full of childhood wonder and amazement, in India. As the miles rolled under our hired car I could feel things moving and changing really deep inside of me. Irrevocable change. Tethers to the wrong commitments weakening, and the idea that I could find a feeling of freedom wherever I go, maybe even right where I live back in California.
I always thought the problem was that I didn't move enough. I didn't have enough adventure. But what I started to hope and maybe believe was that adventure and movement lives in me, and that travel is just a piece of what I crave. That what I really wanted was to have the feeling I get from travel be the shape of my life both inside and out, no matter where I was on the map.
I came home changed by so much on that amazing journey. Dragging my husband's duffle bag behind me, weighted down with gifts and souvenirs in an attempt to bring home with me the spirit of what I had captured on the other side of the globe. India is the birth-place of so many things that have infiltrated our western culture - yoga, mantras, meditation, eastern medicine, and native spices that bring Ayurvedic healing. India is also the birth place of my own healing heart. It cracked me open, it poured into me all manner of possibility and a new way of seeing a world that looks lost and destitute but is actually brimming with hope and ingenuity. India was my starting point. That new lens was my commitment. That was the beginning of a new story who's next chapter wanted to be told.
Chapter 2 coming next week....