!ncredible India, or so the advertisement say. She invites you to the Taj Mahal, exciting curries and masalas, Slumdog Millionaires and Holy Cows. I would not know, because I never went to Agra, they do have McDonald’s in Delhi – serving chicken exclusively, and slum dogs and millionaires all live side by side. And yet I was tirelessly fascinated. What is it with this multidimensional culture, so enigmatic and ubiquitous? Lonely Planet lies. The truth is India cannot be explained, it has to be explored.
For almost a month we travelled together, a group of seventeen excited, seemingly adventurous Atlantic College students. Ready to do our bit of humanity and earning some life experiences in return. For the first two weeks we stayed in Dharamshala, a city in the northern region of the country. Here we worked with an organization called CORD, a volunteer programme with a holistic and religious approach. Their mission statement is to facilitate integrated and sustainable development in rural India. The nature in Dharamshala was surprisingly green, mountainous and surrounded by dense coniferous forest. Here we participated in CORD activities, which involved hearing about informal legal and social justice cases, attending women’s meeting about their micro-credit system, help with rehabilitation for disabled persons, interacting with children, and planting rice in paddy fields. The latter was a muddy affair. New spicy culinary experiences ironically called for a more bland display of affection, as it was a religious and spiritual place. We visited villages, reaching one place to another with crowded public transportation on crazy roads.
One of the most rewarding aspect of all this was the new faces encountered everyday. We met an eclectic group of interesting characters during the two weeks. They added some more flavour to our journey – tikka and masala, it was all novel. On our free days we would venture off to McLeod Ganj, a suburb about 2000m above water, known as the center for the Tibetan government in exile, and the spiritual capital for Buddhism and Tibetan culture. I was puzzled by how adapted the place was for foreign tourists – everywhere you would see internet cafes and continental restaurants. When the group was craving western cuisine, we went to an Italian place and had bruschettas and pizzas, dining together with monks and backpackers.
At CORD, I quickly realized that my Hindi vocabulary was to remain limited. A few phrases sufficed when we entered the homes of the people we worked for. During lunch break we would gather under the electric fan (an essential component in every household) and have conversations while sipping chai tea. Everyone had something to tell about themselves, their life, their village and the country. They were also interested in hearing about cultures all over the world; Holland, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia and South America to mention some. That is the beauty of globetrotting with AC people.
If you have read Eat, Pray, Love, the best-selling memoir about a woman’s post-divorce journeys, the narrator tells about her life at the ashram. Our daily routines also consisted of waking up at early am hours and performing yoga meditation to Hindu mantras. Unlike her, I did not stack up on carbs in Italy or befriend medicine men in Bali – I did however, travel to three very distinctive parts of India. Mother Gandhi is in fact a very divided country in terms of culture and customs. Everything differs from what you eat to what you say and what you do. We moved from living the rural Indian routines to room service.
The quiet life in the north drastically changed as we headed to Delhi, where the busy city life awaited us. The journey from Pathankot to the capital was truly remarkable – night train in India is something every traveler ought to experience. Being in transit has never been more exhilarating as when I stood watching the sunrise and landscape appear at five in the morning. Delhi was intense and crowded. The monsoon rain flooded the streets, but that did not stop the inhabitants from working. When we arrived back in the bustling capital, I noticed the thousands of people that live on the side of the road. The thin bodies living under bridges. Their filthy faces making fires, and washing themselves while the cars roar by. This, and the declining infrastructure was what I saw before entering a penthouse located in the residential area of south Delhi. It was perplexing. Here, like many developing countries, the economical and social contrasts were extremely apparent – even so, all were striving to make their living. But the colours, the colours of the women’s saris, and the colours of everything that exists in a billion quantities are what make this place feel so alive.
The buzz of Delhi were hardly absorbed before we flew west to Goa, also known as the St. Tropez of India. Due to the monsoon season, the sandy beaches were generally deserted. The Portuguese colonized this part for several centuries; nowadays everything established is for tourists. And yes, we were no longer travelers – just tourists. After Goa, we returned back in Delhi to board the plane home.
Were I to rewrite my memoirs from India the gurus would probably appear as the AC boys I travelled with, and funny anecdotes with unmentionable times with the roommates. There’s a particular kind of nostalgia that hits you when you know you’re too young to feel nostalgic about anything. I suppose India have that sway on me. Never before had I been in such a country with a rich mélange of people, culture, history and philosophy. The term Indian Summer will always carry a different meaning from now on. I learnt a great deal about a world I have never known, and it also made me increasingly well-informed about the one I for so long have been familiar with. This is some of what I experienced during the Summer Project. It can only be summed up by saying we did eat, and drink – a lot, we prayed and laughed. We loved. And we lived.