Postcard From: India
By Kate Canfield '11, Contributing Writer
Moving to India is in many ways like traveling back in time. Delhi, a bustling city whose population exceeds 15 million people, is home to water buffalo pulling carts of bricks, women carrying loads of anything from laundry to sticks in enormous woven baskets on their heads and barbers giving shaves using a small mirror propped along the side of the road. Cooking fires burn in front of clusters of tents in slums that lack running water, not to mention electricity. The smell of the city in the morning is that of burning garbage.

My own existence is more modern and middle class, though not Western. When I wake up every morning, I immediately switch on the water heater in my bathroom so that I’ll have hot water to shower. The tap water is undrinkable, so I brush my teeth with bottled water and (don’t forget!) take my daily malaria pill. I gulp down my breakfast, prepared by our resident cook, and set off for the day, greeting our guard with a smile and “namaste” on the way out. I pass several fruit and vegetable carts as I walk to the main road, and after haggling with a few “autowallahs” (auto-rickshaw drivers) in Hindi until I reach an acceptable fare, I’m headed to class at India’s most prestigious graduate school — Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Along the way, I weave in and out of thick, constantly-honking traffic (“The British left those silly white lines on the road,” shrugs the driver), pass several cows and maybe an elephant if I’m lucky, hand over to a begging street child the granola bar I packed and try to avoid looking at the men urinating by the side of the road. Twenty-five minutes and 50 rupees ($1) later, I pull into the peacefully quiet, sweetly scented, shaded campus of JNU. As I walk into the Social Sciences building, I weigh the odds that both of my professors will show up to my classes today. It’s happened before … maybe twice?

India is a fascinating country. It tests all of your strengths and challenges you in ways you could never expect. But once you push through the sights and smells that are initially appalling to a Western visitor, the reward is indescribable. You begin to learn to live as Indians live: as though nothing matters but the present, because the future is completely unpredictable. You learn patience. You learn to take advantage of every opportunity that you’re given because you never know if you’ll have the same opportunity again.

The most rewarding part of the country is the people, from the fabulously rich to the very, very poor. Through a friend, I was invited to the wedding of two wealthy people I had never met at one of the fanciest five-star hotels in the city, and I was not only warmly welcomed and offered lavish amounts of food and drink, but also treated as an honored guest. Meanwhile, I will never forget a moment on my second day in India, when we were sent off to explore the city with a “peer guide,” an Indian student in Delhi, in my case a girl named Navaneeta. She was cute and friendly and spoke near-perfect English, and I remember watching in awe as she negotiated autos and crossed a street choked with traffic (both skills needed to survive in this city), talking to us the whole time about caste and Indian society. Across the street from the famous Purana Qila (Old Fort) was a smaller structure, which we entered by navigating our way through the obstacles of an ongoing construction project. Inside, two girls were hauling water from a well, and they stopped to stare at us. We approached them as they spoke to Navaneeta in Hindi. They were both dressed in beautiful, brightly-colored silk saris, barefoot in the mud, and they were stunningly beautiful, with dark skin and gorgeous dark eyes. We asked where they lived and how old they were; they pointed to some tents set up in the mud of the construction and replied that they were probably around 15 or 17 — they didn’t have birth certificates, so they didn’t know for sure. They never stopped smiling.

My time in India has been an adventure from the very start, and I would not take back a single second. I’ve experienced so much beyond what I ever could have imagined. I’ve been on a pilgrimage to the shimmering Golden Temple in Amritsar. I’ve seen the changing of the guard at the India-Pakistan border. I’ve eaten street food from a tiny hovel along the ancient narrow passageways of Old Delhi — without getting sick. I’ve gotten really, really sick. I’ve slept on a bamboo houseboat in the backwaters of Kerala. I’ve seen the Taj at dawn, mid-day, dusk, sunset and by moonlight. I’ve danced in a Punjabi wedding and at the infamous F-Bar. I’ve played Holi (Google it). I’ve ridden like a queen on the back of an elephant, glass of wine in hand. I’ve been scared out of my wits on a rickety (and I mean rickety) Ferris wheel and been delighted by the breeze on the back of a motorcycle (without a helmet … shhh!). I’ve learned to read Hindi script and to bathe out of a bucket. I’ve stood for hours on a rat-infested railway platform waiting for a train delayed due to fog. I’ve spent afternoons in a small, poorly lit room laughing with women from the Delhi slums as we worked on ways to promote their tiny businesses. I’ve had the most enriching time of my life, and the best of it is, I have no idea what still lies ahead.

Issue 22, Submitted 2010-04-15 14:26:04