It’s hard to say what the first thing you’ll notice about India will be.
It might be the traffic – all noise and chaos and confusion. The lanes are nonexistent, cars and motorbikes and rickshaws weaving in and out of each others paths with no apparent logic or sense of safety. The drivers honk their horns at every available opportunity, and crossing the street should come with hazard pay. What you won’t know immediately is that the Indian driver is a skilled defensive driver who honks his horn, not to urge people out of his way, but as a friendly notification of his presence.
You might be struck by the heat and weight of the air. The sun is rarely seen, and temperatures hover in the low 80’s, to attempt a guess, but from the first five minutes after stepping out your front door, you’ll feel just a little bit sticky as the mugginess clings to your skin like a light coat of paint. You won’t feel warm, but after ten minutes walking around the crowded streets of downtown Jaipur, you’ll feel a tell-tale trickle of sweat slipping down your spine. The only time the air clears is right before the rain starts to fall.
You’ll likely notice the poverty that hides around every corner, as children in brown, torn clothing with unwashed hair approach you. They won’t speak more than a few words of English (hello, please, money) but they’ll motion to their mouths or stomachs and hold out their hands and their meaning will be unmistakable. And you’ll want to give, every time a little girl holding an even smaller baby in her arms approaches your open-aired auto rickshaw, but you’ll have been warned in advance that most of the begging children work in something of a network, run by an adult or several who take their “cut” of the “profits.” And your wallet will stay firmly in your backpack, and you’ll feel terrible.
It’s the cows that will make the biggest impression, I’ll wager. Hundreds, thousands of them, walking in and through and around traffic, their hoofs making slow, unhurried steps as they meander through the sardine-packed buses and motorcycles that careen through the streets like there aren’t hundreds of farm animals in their way. You’ll see camels, as well, hitched to large carts or wheelbarrows, their awkward gait making them stand out five blocks away. Pigs, goats, dogs – they’re all there. But it’s the cows who wander into the streets, enjoying their status as India’s most sacred beast and knowing that no one, not even the most reckless and insane Rajasthani driver, will dare to strike them down as they chew on the patches of grass in the highway median.
For me, however, the most lasting impression India has made on me yet is the staring.
I’m a white woman wearing Western clothes – a Triple W threat. India, I was surprised to learn, has a shockingly low tourism industry. It is not frequented by tourists the way many other developed or developing countries are, meaning that my fair skin and I stand out in a big way – particularly when I’m surrounded by other English-speaking students as we make our way around the city. And people watch us.
I mean watch. These aren’t the casual or subtle glances someone might receive back home for, I don’t know, wearing a weird hat or singing out loud. This isn’t even the more blatant staring that’s discouraged by an indignant look or glare. When I walk down the street, people will stare at me as I pass them, then turn around and look over their shoulders at me. My friend talks about how an entire busful of locals craned their heads out their windows to stare at him in his rickshaw. I have literally stopped traffic, as on more than one occasion a motorcycle pulled over, its occupants watched me as I walked past, and then continued on its way.
They very rarely talk to me – children will, and beggars will, and shopkeepers will. But the people on the sidewalks and streets, in the shops and restaurants, men and women alike, will simply watch, silently, as I go about my business.
It’s hard to know what to think. I’ve never felt so exposed, so significant before. On the one hand it’s a bit of a rush, as such a large amount of attention is bound to be. But on the more prevalent side, it’s incredibly uncomfortable, being subjected to such scrutiny. And it says something about the status of Americans and Westerners in the rest of the world, where our mere presence is something fascinating. I’m not sure what it means, and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about that quite a lot over the next fifteen weeks.
Right now I’m learning to live all over again. I’m eating wonderful food and quickly becoming addicted to my three to five cups of chai a day. I’m living with a very sweet couple for my homestay (who deserve and will get an entry all to themselves) and I’m learning Hindi every morning at school. I’m filling my wardrobe with local fashions (no saris yet, but soon) and I’m looking around me every morning as I take my rickshaw ride to school, breathing in the slightly pungent smells and seeing the buildings and the people and the animals and…I’m in India.
So, until next time, namaste.