“You went to India this summer!??” The surprise and near wonder I hear in people’s voice is almost universal to the reactions I get when I tell people I spent my summer in India. Their reaction is very natural. There is something wondrous about traveling to a foreign (perhaps “exotic”) country, and moreso to spend an extended period of time there. Although, I really enjoy traveling, I don’t love it, and I am cautious to overly romanticize it. I read an article about how to travel long-term, and I think most people who have traveled a good amount (as I have) would agree with the article that traveling is worthwhile, but it is filled with many of its unique downsides as well.
One thing I was careful about when I came to India was to not just allow myself the easy, tourist experience. I am grateful for Reya who had a similar heart, and who as well had family in the area that could give me a taste of what it is like to live as a local. Of course, simply spending 10 weeks in a city helps to give you a more “local” experience of India — or at least as local as you might be able to get, as a clear, temporary foreigner who doesn’t know the language. As well though, during my time in India I also got to spend some time with Reya’s family in Mumbai — an overnight stay where I got to know her family and cousins, in an experience that gave me just a bit of insight into what a parallel, nuclear family in parts of India look like — and Pune — in which I flipped through wedding photo albums with Reya’s great aunt. I also was able to some time at a local church in India, filled with English-speaking youth (Indians, but not locals to Pune, a young university city). Through this church, Word of Grace, I was able to talk to people my age and get to know about their lives. I was invited over to the pastor’s house on several occasions to eat a home cooked meal or study the Bible, as I met his young children and spent time with the church community.
Perhaps, the most standout of these experiences was when Reya and I agreed (perhaps foolishly) to take a 27-hour non-AC sleeper class train ride from Pune to Delhi. 27 hours. Sleeper class. Almost everyone told us not to do it. Our co-workers, who are definitely better-off than the large majority of India, would not take the sleeper class themselves, not only because of the duration of the trip and the non-AC, but also, to be frank, because the type of people that you would encounter in the sleeper class are much different. These people tend to be the lower-class and the middle-class (middle class being very different from what it is in the States), and most of the people we talked to had concerns for Reya and I whether we would be comfortable or even safe traveling on this train.
I was pretty adamant about taking the train though, justifying to myself that this is how the majority of India travels! And I wanted to experience it too, rather than just coming to India as a wealthier foreigner who avoided anything uncomfortable or potentially dangerous. Granted, it definitely could have been dangerous (getting harassed, getting our things stolen, simply getting lost because we were traveling by ourselves…), and there certainly needs to be caution in undergoing these “adventures” as well (caution that we took), but in the end I am grateful for the experience.
The 27-hour, non-AC part of the train definitely was not great, haha, but it was not as bad as we expected either. We got through it, just as the thousands of Indians who travel by train everyday get through it. And through it — even if, objectively, it was not a “pleasant” experience — we were able to experience for ourselves India more as it would be for a local.
These are not the exciting, exotic stories that people may want to hear about my trip to India. They are not the amazing adventures or the sensational sights that some people may associate with foreign travel. But they reflect a real, normal, and a times mundane part of India, that I am grateful to have experienced. I am grateful for these experiences, the people I met, and the insights into Indian culture in and of themselves, but also as well for how they ground my perception of India into something that is closer to reality.
For me at least, seeking for a genuine experience of a country is more honest and respectful of the country that I am visiting, for it leaves me with a more accurate picture of what life is actually like for the people of the country. It leaves me a better picture of what “India” actually is.