Monday, March 2, 2009

The Rickshaw Rider: An Excursion to India

For about the last five years, I have wanted to experience the one country that most people declare is the most culturally opposite of the United States, and therefore the pinnacle of a travel adventure. That country is India and that experience happened the past 10 days.

Paige and I joined a group from her church that was traveling not to the most highly sought out cultural locations - we missed the Taj Mahal this time - but to what I think is truly the best way to experience a country: Get outta the cities and into the small towns and villages. Our time in one small city and surrounding endless villages (India has 1 billion people) and one large city was exhilarating, and inspiring.

Ongole is a small city close to the eastern coast above Chennai (Madras in the British Empire) and you are aware of Kolkata (Calcutta in the old British Empire), which alone has 60 million people. Yes, 60 million people, and it’s not even the largest city in India…

Some thoughts:

· Just standing on an Indian street, watching the motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, ox-carts, tour busses and herds of goats with goatherders whiz or meander by is worth a thousand pictures and more words. To the outsider it is the antithesis of western order and system, but all the Indians seem to get along just fine…just remember one thing, “honk.”

· Indian food is some of the best in the world, and unsurprisingly the best is in India – what a great 10 days of eating I’ve just had. Nan bread and curry just won’t be the same anywhere else, and ice cream never tasted so good as when it soothes the spice-laden mouth after Indian food IN India.

· Indians do not nod their head up and down to acknowledge communication; they shake their head from side to side in a figure eight, which to the westerner looks exactly like a head-bobble. Doing this as a westerner is great fun.

· Whether the big cities or the rural villages, women and their elaborate, colorful saris is the most ingrained image in my head. Beautiful, simply beautiful.

· The infamous Indian caste system is not as apparent to the traveler’s eyes as I thought it would be, but one conversation with an Indian reveals that it is, like most hierarchical social systems in the world based on race, ethnicity, money and/or class, alive and well….

· To be IN India when Slumdog Millionaire triumphed at the Oscars was simply impeccable timing…and speaking of impeccable timing:

· While in Calcutta visiting Mother Teresa's tomb, we had the privilege of witnessing Martin Luther King III, during a re-tracing of his father's steps through Ghandi's India 50 years earlier, pay his respects, and give a speech to the 150 onlookers. This was unplanned and unthinkable timing, as the 20 photographers and journalists documented, of remembering two of our world's most revered symbols of peace and love. We just sat back and soaked in the moment. Here’s an article about our surprising morning:

· The Indian rickshaw is being replaced by the “auto” or “auto-rickshaw,” also known as the Tuk-Tuk in other countries, but along with the Taj Mahal and the sari dresses, will always be a symbol of India.

If you ever have a chance, go to India.

Keep in mind that your senses will be challenged, your wits will be outwitted and your instincts and intuition will be severely flummoxed, but if your travel motivations are true, it might not be better anywhere on earth. Don’t drive anywhere, cross a street at your own risk, but have the time of your life.

Back to Thailand, for just a few more weeks, next week.

Pictures above:
1. & 2.: An Indian village outside of Ongole. Bright colors and warm smiles...India!
3. Paige, in her beautiful sari, with one of our group's hosts.
4. Martin Luther King III visits Mother Teresa's resting place in Kolkata. Incredible timing for our group who just soaked in the unexpected moment.
5. The classic Indian rickshaw.

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