3/3/2014 – As we moved south from the festival site, traversing bumpy roads leading through the outskirts of Thrissur and Cochin, the landscape got progressively wetter and more wild. Waterways lined with large Chinese fishing nets edged the road and the vegetation became denser—coconut palms, mango and cashew trees vying for space with a profusion of rich green shrubs and bushes of flowers. To reach our accomodations for our last few days in India, the bus dropped us at the edge of a canal and we climbed into a low-set boat that slowly chugged up the waterway to the only entrance to our resort—a collection of cottages and buildings built in local style on reclaimed ridges built into the swampy backwaters. Hibuscus and jasmine perfumed the air and cows grazed on the grass between the cottages. Just as we all began to feel the end of the trip growning near, the days seemed to grow shorter no matter how much you savored each moment.
The following day we sailed on a private, traditional houseboat down remote canals, little visited by travellers. Children waved and shouted as we passed and women paused in beating their laundry to smile shyly. We passed fishermen, using the same type of hand-built boats at their forefathers—made of teak and coconut rope sealed with fish and cashew oil—and duck farmers herding their flocks along the waterways. The group had grown relaxed in each other’s company and as we lounged on the covered deck, full from another wonderful lunch prepared by the boat’s crew, it was impossible not feel the collective sadness as we all contemplated the end of our time together in India.
I was shocked by the attachment I felt for the country I’d explored and the people I’d met. Preparing for the trip, I expected it to be a fascinating expereince—intense and informative—but what I didn’t expect was that it would be so enjoyable, so inspiring, so thoroughly wonderful that I wouldn’t want to leave. The more I tried to nail down what it was that had touched me so deeply here, the more evasive the answer seemed.
I had expected to find a land of chaos, poverty and profound inequality. Surely India can be accurately described with all of those words. But now, in restrospect, I would describe it much differently. The India I saw and loved was rife with humanity—in all of its messy yet ultimately compassiate glory. It didn’t take long before the garbage strewn beside the road was outshone by the radiant smiles of schoolchildren, shop keepers and farmers. And while poverty is a real and tangible problem, you’ll find even the most primitive packed dirt floor is swept clean and even the most menial job is done with great care. No matter how basic their subsistance, a remarkable dignity infused the day-to-day lives of the vast maority of the people I encountered.
And chaos certainly does define India but rather than feeling unpleasant, it struck me as incredibly natural—the natural state of humanity, so matter how much we struggle to stifle it in the West. Certainly India has plenty of rules and regulations but the Indians tend to adhere to them selectively, taking care to mind those that reinforce common sense and blithely ignoring those that do not, thus resulting in a kind of loosely organized chaos that is remarkably efficient in meeting the basic needs of millions upon millions of people every day. Again, not perfectly, but when you consider the sheer size of India, the population, the variety of ethnicities, languages, religions and customs—it really is extraordinary that it functions so smoothly. With the news littered with sensational stories of violence and extremism from all corners or the world, India included, it was refreshing and eye-opening to be thrown into the rush of millions of people who as a whole see pluralism as a birthright, tolerance as common sense and kindness as second nature. None more so than our truly remarkable tour leader, Jairaj, to whom I feel eternally indebted for guiding me through the extraordinary clash of sights, sounds, smells and emotions that are India.
** namaskaram **