I wrote the following note in January 2009, a few days after returning with friends from my first “backpacking” trip abroad. It would be my first (and definitely not the last) time in India, having visited Mumbai, New Delhi, Agra, Fatephur Sikri, Cochin, Munnar, Trivandrum, Kovalam, and Kanyakumari.
I wrote this note almost exactly a year before my first solo backpacking experience, having been left alone in Egypt (unfortunately, not by choice), and 16 months before I left for a 3 month adventure to South and Southeast Asia, officially launching The Monsoon Diaries.
Finally, when this note was posted on Facebook on February 9th, 2009, I had no idea at the time it would be the first of many; no way of knowing that I would keep traveling, and that I would keep writing.
My greatest epiphanies from my trip to India would hit me when I returned to the States. Ironic, but not even remotely surprising.
I was careful not to approach India through the lens of a Westerner that fetishized India as this magical land of spiritual enlightenment; I refused to board The Darjeeling Limited. I went to India like I would on any trip — bringing an open mind to figure out the things I needed to figure out without even knowing what those things were. It’s not like my life needed fixing, but rather it needed more questions; questions that were elusive, the answers unreachable . . . but I knew that with every experience I was one step closer to finding profound. And as I watched in quiet observation all the sights and sound of a foreign land, I began to comprehend the realm of the subconscious.
Along the way in Kerala I backpacked with a friend that went to India for an opposite reason than my own — to confirm answers to questions rather than ask new ones. Although we started on opposite ends of a thread, we were able to share our thoughts, trade off ideas, and find our answers in the middle.
I armed myself with my father’s 2001 Nikon D1X SLR camera, a tank of a gadget. With it I was able to capture a slice of time, the eternity of a moment. It was another way of taking what intrigued me that instant, and placing it into another realm of possibility, affording me countless stories through the convenience of playing it back on LCD.
Through these stories I was able to see moments of daily life unfold before me, on the dusty roads of a Delhi highway and the backwaters of Kerala. India is a fascinating place in that there are always people thriving in corners, treating a small space like little insulated microcosms.
Whether its the corner of a street, of a dirt road, of an office building, of a drug store, you’ll find two to three people huddled together, involved at their own leisure, and in their own stories.They can either be quietly observing you, giving the 1000 yard stare, or lost within themselves.
In NYC, which is similarly chaotic, you never see people in corners, let alone their little worlds; they’re always working on a job, walking with a purpose, sleeping on a train seat; they’re part of an everyday script with little mystery for guesswork. Not for people on the other side of the world, however; their mysteries thrive in the constant spontaneity of the ordinary.
If the idea of being poor suggests a sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling of destitution and desperation, then the majority of the Indian people cannot be called poor. They may not have nearly the same amount of material goods as one living in the West; at the same time they do not possess the superficial attitudes toward wealth like we do.
For them, it doesn’t seem it’s about reaching the next financial ladder, feeding the obsession with social mobility, or dreaming to be a future billionaire. It’s a different way of life that requires a completely different state of mind, point of view, whatever you call it. I’m afraid that my own ability of perception cannot grasp it; these are just mere observations. I’ve been to Dharavi and I been to the Agra villages . . . and prior to those experiences I’ve read and heard stories of Westerners traveling to India and becoming shocked at the “conditions of living” there. But either do something about it or don’t gawk at all; I believe these are a people that don’t want to be pitied by foreigners; for them, they dare to survive in a way we would never understand.
While there and coming back I dared myself to confront the vastness of an unknown. And I found out that I could tackle it better than I thought. For too long I lived on an agenda where any room for spontaneity could have been planned for. Backpacking in an unfamiliar land with no cell phone or any means of useable technology, I wondered how life can be more than just different versions of growing up in a country like the United States.
There are other dimensions, other kinds of experience that could require skills beyond anything you’ve ever been taught. You can be stricken with the unsettling possibility that as much as you dare to live life to the fullest, you can die still feeling like you missed out on living.
Well you’ll say duh, we all knew that Calvin, you didn’t have to go to India to figure that out.
Of course I didn’t have to. I knew that was the way things were long before I left. But whether or not you always knew about it, actually exploring it takes on an entirely new meaning. No I never needed India for that, but in one way or another I was bound to confront these emotions.
Either way, traveling anywhere teaches you things about yourself. I didn’t go to India to seek spiritual enlightenment, find closure, or any of the bullshit you read on newsgroup forums. I just wanted to learn something, and I did. And perhaps I still ended up fetishizing India in the end; I’m still learning. But it just so happened that it would hit me the second day I was back in New York City; I realized in the middle of Fifth Avenue that only a week ago I was a foreign man in an undetermined location on a nameless dirt road, where everything around me transpired in a constant state of flux. Some had never seen a Chinese American, I had never seen tea plantations, some never had their pictures taken, and I never held a blowfish.
Back home, I don’t think life for me changed as dramatically as I could have expected it to. But in the minute little subconscious details of the way I act and how I approach new experiences, perhaps something small in the vastness has changed. I wouldn’t know unless I find myself on the spot in the ER, on the train, at work, in the medical school interview, or on a random phone call. I won’t know until maybe I go back.
Probably you’ve noticed it and I haven’t. And although ironic and not even remotely surprising of an idea, I’m okay with that.