Often when people go to a new place they first observe how different it is from their home. That was certainly the effect that going to India had on me. But because India is such a different place from anywhere I had been before, I focused on all of the major differences: the big things that immediately stood out and made me realize I was not in Kansas anymore (I mean Boston). I think this was understandable. After all, watching monkeys climb on buildings while cars whiz by on the left side of the road and a delicious curry sits not so comfortably in your belly it is hard to look past the obvious.
But now that my program has come to a close and the whirlwind of adventure has slowed down enough for me to have a chance to stop, breathe and think about what I have experienced, I realize that what really made India… India, was not the big differences. What really defined each day were the little things, the small differences that make daily life in India feel different from the U.S. When I was busy taking in the big things like the elephants and the temples and the food, it was the little things underlying those experiences that really defined my India experience, even if I did not realize it until my time was over. So in no particular order, here is a brief list of some of the little things in a big place:
1) Things happen when they happen: it’s hard to call this a little thing because it was very apparent in certain situations. Setting up for my program took weeks once I got to India because of all the paperwork and bureaucracy and traveling between cities in India takes an extremely long time because it is such a big country. What I didn’t really notice however was that “Things happen when they happen” did not only apply to those particular instances. It is truly a state of mind that seems to apply to everything and everyone. In the U.S. we cannot get places fast enough, cannot get things done quickly enough. The best example I have is that in America if a web page does not load on my computer in one second then I am furious but in India it took me thirty minutes to turn on a computer, plug in my USB, and print a document off it and I can honestly say I did not get frustrated once. When you live in India you start to realize that waiting for a rickshaw, or waiting for food, or just waiting to cross the street because traffic is always insane just isn’t that big of a deal because at the end of the day you will get that rickshaw and that food and get across the street… and if you don’t then you just try again tomorrow.
2) You gotta do what you gotta do: This may seem to contradict the previous little thing, but when something does need to be done, you just have to do it. The best way to illustrate this is that one time I was biking to the post office and I needed to cross a busy road. As I mentioned before however, traffic is very intense in India and there was no opening. Finally someone came up to me and asked why I wasn’t crossing. I pointed out that I was afraid of the traffic and he said, and this still sticks with me to this day, “You will never get across the street if you wait for the flow to change.” So I sucked up my worries and lo and behold I was able to move across the road by going with the traffic. In the U.S. people are always trying to build a better mousetrap, trying to find solutions to problems that keep people from having to really do anything, and that just isn’t the way life is in India. There aren’t any washing machines so clothes are done by hand; if you stay at a hotel and you ask for an extra key card they just tell you to come downstairs if you get locked out; if your commute to work is too far to walk but too close to rickshaw then you just have to bike there. All of these seem like really small things but you gotta do them because India is not really about “waiting for the flow to change” as much as just diving into it.
3) Life in India is all about extremes: It should seem strange that the other two little things contradict each other. On the one hand you have to be patient, on the other hand you can’t just wait for a simple solution to reveal itself. People talk a lot about India being a land of extremes where a wealthy international mall can be literally across the street from a neighborhood made out of cardboard; food is either so spicy it destroys your mouth or so sweet it may as well be straight sugar; and on and on it goes. But what I think I showed above is that in a less obvious way day-to-day life itself is all about extremes. Every day in India feels like an adventure in a way that living in the U.S. just doesn’t. Whether it is going to work, getting lunch, walking through the park, or even just sitting in your room there is always this feeling of knowing that at some point something different will happen that will make the day unique because there is simply no middle ground in India. This is not always a good thing and it is certainly not always a bad thing. It is just… India.