The most common response when I told people I was taking a two-week trip to India was, “Wow, that will be life-changing for you.” I thought it was an awfully personal thing to say, as some of these people barely knew me. How could they know about my life and how it might change?
They were, of course, completely right, and I wondered if India is just a universally life-changing travel destination, or if everyone who knew me even casually could see it was exactly the trip I needed at this point in my life.
The extremes of poverty and filth in parts of the cities were so intense I felt unconscionable walking around taking photos instead of stopping right there and devoting my life to helping people. Blind boys or men so ancient they looked like any minute they’d just collapse from exhaustion would follow us for a quarter mile, never giving up on their persistent pitch for pens or plastic souvenirs, always for 100 rupees, and eventually just begging for anything we had.
We toured several rural villages, representative of the way 70% of India lives, and we were told not to give the children anything if they begged because they came from good families and “want for nothing.” I thought about what that meant, to want for nothing, and I pictured the spoiled children of millionaires I often see on Fifth Avenue throwing tantrums for another American Girl doll or new gaming console.
I kept asking myself, “What is enough?” and thinking through how you define wanting for nothing. I went into the trip feeling sorry for myself because I had to watch my budget so carefully. More than a few times I thought it was foolish to have even gone to India, instead of saving the money to make life a little better for myself. “But what is better?” I thought, “More stuff? Going out more often for drinks with people who complain the bar is too bourgeois?” I didn’t really know what I wanted, just that it involved more money. I don’t know anyone who feels like they have enough money, as even the millionaires I encountered at work complained about it, but I kept telling myself there was some break even point, an Enough that would make my life more comfortable.
Alipura was one of the more peaceful and beautiful places we visited and in some ways, one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been. It was one of the hottest and most humid days, with temperatures around 97°F (36°C) and higher, so after we checked in and had lunch at the historic Alipura Palace, our leader suggested we hold our orientation walk off until a little later in the afternoon. I decided to take a stroll down the main street of town by myself, and because I was wearing a light-colored skirt I brought a printed pareo to spread out, should I find a nice place to sit with my sketchbook.
As I slowly made my way down the street, everyone stared and said variously charming versions of “Hello,” “Namaste,” “Good afternoon,” and “Yay Obama!” I smiled and said hello to everyone, feeling increasingly conspicuous as a white woman walking by myself, but occasionally standing in one place long enough (often trapped by cows) that I could be ignored and just watch life go by.
The pace was extraordinarily calm. One man stood with an iron that was heated by charcoal. He had a pile of 12 or 13 shirts, and it appeared that was the only thing he had to do that day. He’d slowly, carefully check the heat, iron a panel, pick the shirt up and admire his work, then set the iron aside and turn to the guy foot-pedaling a sewing machine next to him to talk for a while. They’d sip water, maybe one would stretch out with his elbows behind his head, laughing and talking, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. They looked genuinely happy, and so relaxed I thought it couldn’t possibly be a business, but maybe they were just ironing and sewing their own clothes.
Another man came up, and after a friendly greeting and conversation, the ironer started looking through his pile. He pulled up a light blue Western-style shirt that hadn’t been ironed yet. He gestured toward the other shirts, and amiably, the shirt’s owner patted him on the back and shrugged like it was nothing. I imagined him saying, “Okay, I’ll come back tomorrow. Or whenever.” They all stood and talked for a few more minutes, and then the third man walked down the street, greeting everyone as he went.
I contrasted this pleasant scene with the red-faced men I’ve seen screaming at tiny, frenetic women at the dry cleaners in New York, demanding they absolutely must put their shirts ahead of the queue and have them delivered by noon, the women frantically shouting to their staff in Chinese, everyone scrambling around upset over the Great Shirt Emergency, and I thought about how backwards our priorities are, to treat people this way over materialistic things that matter so little.
A group of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen came up to me, touching my hair and saying friendly things I didn’t understand in Hindi. Their saris were so exquisite I thought they looked like princesses, but they were transfixed by the Hawaiian pareo I was carrying like it was nothing. They wanted to pull it out to its full length to look at it, and they were touching it to their faces. One woman said, “So beautiful” in English, and asked, “You sell?” She started listing numbers, I think, and I shook my head no, feeling like such a spoiled brat when I remembered that I’d nearly given that pareo to charity but brought it with me to India in case I wanted to use it as a cover-up at the pool in the next city.
Later in the afternoon we toured the whole village as a group, and everyone dropped what they were doing to wave and smile at what I jokingly thought of as the White People Parade. Once we turned down some of the side streets they lost interest, but one of the women who had admired my pareo came down an alley to pat my arm and say, “Hello, good afternoon” again and smile warmly. She didn’t want anything, she just said hello because she recognized me. I was stunned by what a friendly, human thing it was to do.
We spent some time on a guava farm that was my own personal heaven. The family had owned it for generations, and they were able to grow enough to feed and support their families. If the weather was bad in a year, their community helped them. The family who owned the palace would not let anyone in the village go hungry. It seemed like the most literal embodiment of a bucolic paradise I could imagine. I spent some time laying on a stone half-wall, staring at light filtering through trees and listening to birds and insects, finally finding the peace and calm I’d been seeking for the whole trip.
As we were leaving and the sun was starting to get low in the sky, the farmer in the photo above crossed in front of me. I felt such a swell of envy it was startling, thinking to myself, “This guy has no idea how lucky he is.”
I thought about how strange it was, to be so jealous of a rural farmer in India when I had a nice apartment and a fancy job and more shoes than I could count back in New York. I thought about the people I knew who had grown up privileged, unimpressed by anywhere they traveled or anything they did, their only joy fabricated in drugs and material consumption. I thought of the blindingly pretentious conversations I’ve sat through with people wearing designer clothing lamenting the lack of authenticity in experience while treating their servers and staff at stores as subhuman. The complaint about authenticity, it seemed, was another version of saying nothing was good enough.
I thought about all these people and how well it would do them to spend an hour or two on this guava farm, watching the serenity and sense of purpose with which this guy walked around. I joked that I should start a rural Indian painting retreat for disaffected artists and millionaires, but I realized how cynical it was to assume that people’s search for authenticity as something they could buy was their own shortcoming.
I was ashamed of myself for how much I’ve complained about my student loans or not having a lot of spending money to go out in the city compared with my friends. I thought about how incredibly lucky I am to have an apartment of my own, to be able to afford food, to travel to see my family pretty regularly, and even though I gripe about co-pays, to be able to see a doctor and get medicine when I need to. The amount my parents spent on orthodontistry when I was in high school would probably feed some of these families for a decade, and here I am grumbling to myself that Invisalign braces aren’t covered for the tooth that turned when my wisdom teeth came in. I thought about the pareo that I carried thoughtlessly down the street like it was nothing, when to the women in Alipura, it was as ostentatious as if I were wearing a diamond tiara (I later did use it to sit on some dirty steps while I was drawing, and I felt incredibly guilty).
But it wasn’t just about different standards of wealth. Everyone I encountered in India, however tattered their clothes or modest their homes, was happy. They seemed truly proud of a recently-painted dung house because it still bore the dates of a wedding they threw for all their friends and family. They did not feel sorry for themselves or lesser because they lived modestly – they seemed to feel lucky. As our leader said, they came from good families, they wanted for nothing.
I think it’s how you define wanting that determines how satisfied and happy you are with what you have.
Culture shock is a massive understatement for what I felt when I returned to New York and a job in a luxury industry. The city streets that had felt so familiar and glamorous to me for years now felt precariously hollow, the gilded and sculpted details of my favorite buildings little but monuments of exploitation and greed. I’ve spent the rest of the summer going through a bit of a rebellious Marxist phase more befitting a college freshman, but I’m glad for it. I’m glad my eyes are opening again with a different perspective and a refreshed outlook.
I was finally able to find what I truly wanted for, and it wasn’t material. The desire I felt for a simpler, spiritual life, family, love, a connection with nature, and a calm pace has stayed with me. India did change my life when I realized that I was the one to be pitied for not having those things, and I am the one who needs to make changes.