Writing about my recent trip to India is not easy. Not because I didn’t have a good time, because I had an incredible three weeks. And not because there is nothing to write about. That’s just it. There is so much to write about and a raft of far more talented people than me have already done so. Beautifully expressive phrases as well as the more clichéd variety, ‘it was an assault on my senses’, or ‘I was in sensory overload’, have all been used before. How can I possibly convey the Indian experience with words?
Even taking photographs was, in a way, disappointing. A picture may well paint a thousand words but it falls short of conveying the vastness, the intensity of the colours of saris, peacocks, spices, rock; the proportions of forts and temples and wide open desert; the backing track sounds of a multitude of horns, temple bells, cows, dogs and people that accompany any view. Or maybe I just don’t have a good enough camera.
Regardless. The fact is, India, or more specifically, Rajhastan, surpassed all my expectations.
I expected a lot of colour. But I hadn’t counted on how much colour there would be. Saris of all colours, vibrant and rich, at times sparkling with gold or silver thread were everywhere. Western fashion has not reached the villages and towns of Rajhastan. The women all wear their saris with pride, often with a colourful veil covering their heads. And they wear them all the time. Obviously, perhaps, but I hadn’t expected to see such vibrant and beautiful attire being worn to dig ditches at the side of the road, to pass bricks up along the chain to build houses, to walk barefoot down the road with a bundle of branches on their heads or a basket full of dung.
I expected a lot of new sounds. But I hadn’t anticipated the incessant sound of beeping horns. And when I say incessant, that’s exactly what it is. Not only do they sound their horns as we might to alert people who are pulling out without looking and to avert accidents. But they also sound their horns when they are coming up behind a cyclist, or pedestrians walking along the road with their backs to the car, or to trucks they’re overtaking, or to buses…just because. Then they toot to say thank you once passed or they might give more of an angry toot if the original toot had no effect. Often it’s not only one toot, but several. A lot of the trucks have a tune toot. Incessant.
Another constant was the sound of bells, drums and singing or chanting at certain times of the day. These came from temples, be they large community temples or smaller family places of worship. These calls to worship and sounds of praise and offering became familiar and almost comforting, as they represented faith, family and a history stretching back over centuries.
I expected to smell a lot of different scents. To be honest, and I’m ashamed to say this, I expected India to be a lot more dirty than it was and I expected I would smell this imagined dirt. I didn’t. Exhibit A; the 30km cycle tour we did in Udaipur, cycling through the town, and out around the lake and through rural villages and farmland. The aroma of chai being brewed on the side of the road, the spices mingling with the almost burnt milk. Incense being burned in tiny roadside temples. Floral scents from vines and flowers growing. The sharp smell of cow dung. And then the most delicious scents of curry simmering and chapatti being cooked over the flame.
I knew that cows were sacred and revered. But I had no idea of the status that gives them in realtime. Cows wander freely in cities, villages, countryside and across roads. Completely unperturbed, cows wander across the road, taking their time and in no way concerned with holding up traffic. Gods exist within the cow, which is why Hindu culture do not kill cows for meat. Another more earthly reason is that cows provide milk for drinking and cooking and in so doing provide a lot more ongoing sustenance than killing a cow for meat would yield.
I knew that the curries would be authentic and better than I had tasted elsewhere. But I hadn’t anticipated loving them so much that I’d be happy eating curry at breakfast, or at least a masala omelette or Indian breakfast bread. I didn’t get sick of the curries once and was constantly wishing I could have the recipes of the dishes I was eating.
Then there’s the history, the architecture, the vast landscapes, sweeping skies and the warmth of the people who want to know where you come from and how you’re enjoying their country.