As soon as I headed to the gangway I was welcomed to India by humidity and heat. I knew immediately that I would smell like sweat, sunscreen, and mosquito repellent for the next five days. Still, I was excited about experiencing the country often described as ‘an assault on all the senses.’ I’d visited India previously, but it was nearly twelve years ago and I was just twenty years old. India had changed since then and so had I. I was very curious to see how we would be reacquainted with one another.
I visited a community home for a group of people that society has shunned. We were told that we were visiting with people who were either born male and castrated as children or who were born with both sex organs. It wasn’t exactly clear if that was the case with all of the people we met, but I’m not a fan of classifying people so it’s just as well. As a group, they have been shunned. Society deemed them unworthy of gaining employment. Family members deemed them unworthy of having relationship. Even our interpreter started by referring to them in a manner that was very ‘us vs. them’. As she listened to them and started to see them as individuals, her speech changed. It only took an hour for me to see a change in her. I wonder what would happen if we all gave an hour to listen to someone we’ve judged.
I looked around the room and knew each one had a story. I wanted to know all of them. I wanted to know how they got there. I wanted to know how they survived. I wanted to know how it felt to be forced to form your own community and family. I wanted to know so much more than one visit would permit.
What I found most telling was their perception of the United States. They assumed that in ‘the land of the free, the home of the brave’ we treated people like people. They were very surprised to learn that Americans can be cowardice and insensitive. On the ride home I wondered what the next classification of discrimination would look like. I wondered when we would learn to treat people like people.
One of my favorite activities was going to watch an Indian film at a movie theater. We arrived at the movie theater and noticed immediately how posh it was. Instead of theater numbers, each theater had a name. The film we saw, Vedi, was shown in Plush. We assumed it would cost a small fortune to see a film in the Express Avenue Mall because of the appearance of the theater. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it cost 120 rupees (equivalent to $2.50) to see a movie and 165 rupees for popcorn and a soda.
The movie was in Tamil without subtitles so we didn’t understand everything, but we were able to decipher the plot. An ex-cop was avenging the death of his father and father-figure while trying to find his sister and being actively pursued by the woman in the film that every other man wanted. The film would fluctuate pretty evenly between an action-packed fighting sequence and then bursting into song. I loved it! Sometimes I wish life operated more like a musical. How much fun would our days be if we had spontaneous song and dance routines?
I cannot talk about India without talking about Indian cuisine. I wish I could remember all of the delicious eats I encountered, but there were so many! My personal favorites were the garlic naan, spinach paste, ginger/chili chicken, and the chai tea. As for my favorite restaurant I must tell you about Barbeque Nation. As soon as we walked in the door, wonderful smells told me that I was in the right place, but I was exceptionally pleased with something else. I love a good mojito. I was intrigued immediately when I saw the jal jeera mojito on the menu. I never imagined a drink infused with Indian spice, but I was so curious. I ordered it and it was wonderful! Who knew one of my favorite mojitoes would come from India?
Shortly after we received our drinks two grills were inserted into the table. Skewers of vegetables, chicken, shrimp, fish, and tofu were placed on the grills. Before we could taste all of the skewers, several servers came around and placed coconut rice cakes, tandoori chicken, and lamb on our plates. Everything was bursting with flavor! It was like a spice festival for my tastebuds and I loved it.
As a table, we decided there would be no more rounds of deliciousness. We looked at the flag on our table and surrendered by turning it down. (Yes, there was a flag on the table to signify when you could no longer handle more food.) Our server approached and to my surprise he asked, “Are you done with the starters?” Starters? There was more! We all said we couldn’t eat another bite, but each one of us eventually wandered over to the buffet area. There were noodles, rice, crab masala, and even desserts.
There were more great meals, but there were also many other moments that are worth mentioning, specifically my encounters with the beautiful people of India. I met a man named Khan who made me laugh with his unique sales pitch. In a store where everyone wanted to give you a lengthy show-and-tell of their products, Khan pointed to his crafts and simply said, “Just touch it.” He didn’t need a spiel. We laughed and talked with him for nearly an hour.
Our rickshaw driver, Danna was with us almost all day for four days. We ate at restaurants based on his recommendations. We shopped where he advised. He didn’t talk much, yet he was very communicative. The first day back at sea I found myself missing his mannerisms. I wanted someone to answer me with the same head nod that Danna gave us so often. I know part of the reason we had such a great experience was because of Danna.
I will also remember a young child I saw on the street. She sat on the floor having lunch. When my group approached she stood up and held out her hand. It was clear that she was asking for money and any child begging is difficult to see. What stood out even more is that she looked no more than four, but she was extremely savvy. She approached each one of us, looked us in the eye with the confidence of an adult, made her appeal, and then moved on to the next person. It was calculated. She had been trained and at that young age knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I will probably never forget her face.
I will long remember the children who visited the ship on our last night in India. As I stood in line to go up the gangway I noticed how dirty the ground was at the port. I thought about how filthy my shoes would be until I looked up the gangway and saw about four children walking up the gangway with no shoes. It was a harsh picture for me. I no longer cared about my dirty shoes. I was saddened by the reality of seeing children walking around without what I consider to be a basic necessity.
A short time later I was asked if a few of those same children could visit my room. I will long remember the near shame I felt thinking about the shopping bags that were sitting on my bed. I ran to my room and threw the bags into a closet. I was embarrassed by my excess.
In order to make this entire experience more meaningful I have often asked how I can make this larger than me. It took me several days to sort out all that India presented to me and confronted me with. No where has it been more pressing for me to seek answers than India. I had a wonderful visit and enjoyed it as a tourist, but I am more than a tourist. I saw more. I experienced more. I felt more. I will be impacted for much longer than the six days that India graciously hosted me. Next stop, Malaysia!