I Travelled 15,000 Miles to India and Didn’t “Find Myself”

A stand-up comedian in Pune once quipped: “It’s insane that Americans come to India to “find themselves.” Really? There are 1.2 billion people here. Good luck.”

ver the last 7 months, I travelled almost 15,000 miles within India. And what I found from Kerala to Hampi to Agra confirmed two things:

  • I am surprisingly incompetent at navigation
  • I am, unsurprisingly, still about as close to enlightenment as most 22 year olds.

There was no single “ahah moment,” and there was a lot more complexity than clarity. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a great answer to my new most Frequently Asked Question: “What was your big take-away in India?”

So I’ve been racking my brains to come up with a response less lame and more intellectually honest than, “I found myself.” My results are compiled in this list: what I discovered while getting lost in India.

Travel is the best education

I value my passport as much as my diploma. While I’ve had a privileged education, travel has a unique way of exposing blind spots. Something as concrete as my notion “India” turned out to be flawed, as I discovered the country is really thousands of distinct cultures, languages, cuisines, and economies, all patched together. I learned new norms of Indian daily life that sent my previous sense of “normality” flying out the window. Water pressure became suspect once I took my first bucket shower, and I never paid much attention to sidewalks until there were none. It was humbling to uncover that my way of perceiving the world is extremely limited when compared with the vastness of human experience.

Travel challenges assumptions about people too. I have to admit that I’ve always thought of arranged marriages as a dying relic at best, and an oppressive institution at worst.  After giggling with my cousin and her friends about their prospective arrangements, I became less rigid and more accepting of the fact that I’m not always right. It is easy to judge what you don’t know, and travelling makes the world just a little more knowable.

Go to India with both eyes open

One of my most frustrating memories is of a new arrival to India who spent the entirety of our ten minute conversation complaining about trash. Now, don’t get me wrong, India does have some cleanliness issues. BUT REALLY?!??! You’ve been travelling in one of the most beautiful regions of the world, and that’s all you have to say for it??

In a place like India, it is possible to see only the shortcomings, in which case you will hate the country. It is also possible to live a life of luxury with eyes closed, in which case you will not know the country. But it is my recommendation to go in with both eyes open. Some of my best memories occurred playing football and sipping chai in the slums. I’m not arguing for a naïve optimism, but more for pragmatism. India is both a flawed and beautiful country, and since I believe happiness stems from appreciation of the beauty in front of us, I chose to appreciate the full picture. I’ve found that we seldom have control over our circumstances, but we do have control over our attitudes towards them.

 It’s not the end of the world

I am what some people might call a “Type-A” personality. I like to be in control, on-time, and over-prepared. Thankfully, India rubbed off some of its flexibility on me—though not enough to get me into yoga.

Sometimes, my plans fell through when a cow, a politician’s wedding, or a flood clogged the roads with traffic; sometimes, I had to reschedule a skype meeting when the power or the internet shut off (a common occurrence on Thursdays); and one time, I arrived in Bangalore only to open my cab door and step into a pile of feces. So both metaphorically and literally, s*** happens. AND IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD! Especially when compared with some of the true hardships of life. I have a family, a home, and my health. With all of that in place, I don’t have much right to sweat the small stuff.

 Anywhere can be home 

My biggest worry about taking on the IDEX Fellowship was the prospect of living alone in a new city apart from all the other Fellows. What started as a risk, turned out to be a great decision as I actively made Pune into my new home. I had 6 months in a new place, and I wanted to make the most of it so I put myself out there. I shared lunches with my colleagues, played in multiple football (aka soccer) leagues and volunteered coaching kids, lounged with friends to live music at High Spirits and Shisha Café, trekked in the hill stations, practiced broken Hindi and Marathi with rickshaw drivers, and attended weddings. The result was that I fell in love with Pune, with India, and with the amazing community that welcomed me. The bi-product is that I am now confident in my ability to adapt, integrate, and find a home wherever I next explore.

 In India, everyone is family. And family is what counts

I always found it interesting that in India, respectful titles of endearment are the same as the words for family members. Older acquaintances are all Aunties and Uncles, people you pass on the street might be didi (big sister) or bhaiya (big brother). And language seems to extend into action—the kindness and hospitality of Indians is unparalleled, familial even. For that reason, I can’t take all the credit for the prior section on adapting. The main reason India became my home was that the people became my family.

Friends like Erin, my landlady and accomplice, actually put a roof over my head and helped me explore Pune. And I had plenty of homes away from home where I was never turned away.  Despite the fact that I mooched off their food far too often, the family of my friends Apurva and India (the person, not the country) always welcomed me for dinner and special occasion biryani parties. Whenever I was in Bangalore, there was no question of me getting a hotel because my adopted sisters Devina and Melita always had a place for me in their wild schemes and their house. And while traveling, I actually met the relatives in Kerala I never knew I had, and who showered me with jack fruit and tea and curries and prayers. All of these people are the real reason I fell in love with India, and why it was so hard to leave.

So no, I did not “find myself” amongst the masses, as the comedian suspected. But I did manage to find a family on the other side of the ocean. And that is my big take-away from India.