My introduction to India was a late-night Uber ride into a dingy alley of an overcrowded Mumbai neighborhood. I dragged my surfboard and backpack through the steamy, humid city air and knocked on the door of my Airbnb. A drowsy elderly woman, who didn’t look too happy that I had broken her deep slumber at such a late hour, ushered me into the fifth-story apartment. I was shown to my room — a basic accommodation with a bed, a desk, and locked cabinets that I didn’t have access to. It was nothing fancy and could have been cleaner, but it was fine for me. The AC roared to life with blasts of cold air and the wifi was stable enough to work. Things could be worse.
Looking to wash off the grogginess of a day spent traveling, I opened the bathroom door to get my first experience of an Indian bathroom — always a shared wet space for the shower and toilet, usually devoid of toilet paper. I was not surprised to turn the shower knob and discover that only ice-cold water flowed from the creaky pipes. Little did I know that cold water showers would become a common theme in the next three months of my life in India.
The following morning I ventured out of the relative peace of my room to experience the streets of India for the first time. The narrow roads were a labyrinth of shoeless people, cows, fruit stands, and speeding scooters. Navigating was like walking a gauntlet of obstacles; one step in the wrong direction could flatten you under a bus, while a step in the other direction could be on a warm pile of cow shit.
As I studied my surroundings and observed a new set of clothing, languages, food, and customs, the city-goers did the same to me. I could feel their conspicuous glances towards me, the Gora (Hindi for white people), apparently looking a little out of place in this neighborhood.
I began to sense a creeping feeling that I was lost; not just in the city, but in life.
I thought to myself, “What the hell am I doing here anyway? I don’t know anyone. Everyone is staring at me. I’m tired. I thought they speak English here? It’s hot as hell. I can’t find anything that my stomach agrees with. It literally smells like shit, everywhere.”
Indians refer to Mumbai as the ‘city of dreams’ due to the economic opportunities that attract people from all over the country, and the world. For me, it was feeling like the opposite.
Those initial feelings of settling into a new country were just a cocktail of symptoms that included culture shock, homesickness, and discomfort. I had felt it dozens of times before, enough to know that it will pass with a few deep breaths.
It was that feeling, that moment, that marked my baptism into India.
I would later look back on that initial stay in Mumbai as a trial by fire, probably the most extreme place and circumstances that I could have chosen to acclimate to the country. But it sticks in my mind because it was the starting point of a transformation that I underwent over the course of three months. When the day came to finally leave India, I felt a nostalgic sense of melancholy. At the risk of sounding overly cliche, like the Beatles and Steve Jobs did before me, I had fallen in love with India — the people, the culture, the nature.
After dodging traffic and manure for an hour or so in Mumbai, I stumbled upon a humble neighborhood of family houses where the sound of aggressive beating drums caught my attention. With nothing to do and nowhere to be, I instinctively followed the noise until I came across a parade winding through the neighborhood’s compact alleys.
Men pounded drums, and with pure human strength, pushed a burdensome, giant cart with an elephant-headed human sculpture resting on top. It was the last day of the Hindu festival celebrating the god Ganesha and Mumbai just happened to be the epicenter for this celebration in India. Families sat outside their houses and joined the festivities dancing in the streets, drinking hot chai, and singing in languages that I could not understand. As I spectated from the sidelines, one man dancing in the street, who I would later know as Nelson DeSouza, pulled me into the festivities. He forced me to join the parade and later invited me to hang out on his porch for chai. He refused to let me purchase my chai, telling me stories about his life in Mumbai and his family members who are living in the US.
I didn’t realize it at the moment, but this small gesture was the first moment of many that would lead me to fall in love with India. A middle-aged man living a simple life in Mumbai, took it upon himself to make sure the foreigner enjoyed the Ganesha festival just as the locals did.
My sour attitude turned around in the span of a morning. And over the course of the next three months, the people I met and places I stayed reinforced that seed that was planted in an unsuspecting Mumbai alleyway.
Weeks later in Hampi, a man watching me walk on the side of the road yelled from inside his house, “Do you play guitar?” With my scammer sensors blaring, I reluctantly agreed to play guitar with him, but that is exactly what we did. We jammed, played music, and not a dime was requested in return.
In Udupi, my friends Tanvi and Rohan took me into their house, giving me free lodging, cooking me homemade meals, teaching me their language, and gifting me a traditional outfit that I could wear when we visited temples. If I hadn’t felt initiated into India, three weeks of living in an Indian household definitely did the trick.
The shock of my new environment wore off as well.
I was no longer intimidated by an Indian bathroom. I became proficient at eating with my hands. I learned how to ride Indian trains and buses like a pro. I adapted to the unwritten traffic laws when riding my scooter. I learned new languages. During my final week in India, when I ordered “chaar bananas” (four bananas) in Hindi complete with the characteristic head bobble that Indians do, I received a smile of approval and reciprocating head bobble from the fruit vendor.
I arrived in India with little to no expectations, just some mixed reviews from foreigners, many negatively talking about how dangerous, how dirty, and how poor the country is. There is a grain of truth to those stereotypes. I can’t write a fluff piece on India without mentioning the alarming plastic and air pollution, or the misogynistic culture and laws that discourage women from showing skin and prevent unmarried women from booking a hotel with another man (in certain parts of the country). But India is as diverse as it is big. It’s impossible to cover the entire country in blanket statements. For every stereotype, you can find that the opposite is also just as true.
The India I experienced was largely welcoming, captivating, and safe. I discovered many Indians, who, in fact, were not too different from myself — travelers, musicians, surfers, linguists, writers.
But after three months of exploring the country from the tropics of the Indian Ocean to the foot of the Himalayas, I felt like the time had come to move on. As I rode my final train in India, 16 hours from the western desert to the capital, Delhi, I couldn’t help but feel a gaping hole of nostalgia for what the country had given me over the past three months. Something was telling me I wouldn’t be back for a long time, if ever.
I have learned during my 13-month-and-counting globetrot that that specific, recurring feeling of longing is the ultimate sign of success. I am glad I listened to my instincts and bought that flight to Mumbai. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
9 thoughts on “Reflections: My farewell to India”
wow interesting trips. Never been there. I love read your trips. thank for sharing
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Types of South Indian Sculptures began to evolve in the early era and the early medieval era, from the time of Chalukyas, Pandya Dynasty, Chola Dynasty, and Pallava Dynasty, the art and architecture of South Indian temples and the archaeological sites of South India. Some of the popular archaeological areas and the places of historical importance are Archaeological Museum in Hampi, Arikamedu, Badami, Belur, Edakkal caves, Elephant Stables in Hampi, Halebidu, Hassan District, Kavala Caves, Mahabalipuram, Queen’s bath in Hampi, Ranganathaswamy temple, Talakad, Tulapurushandana, Vitala Temples and Warangal.
Hi Evan, your Reflections are so wonderful – it lifts my spirits. You are a great writer and your positive view on life is so refreshing. Santa Cruz has turned into a city of whiny people. We need you to come back to remind us how to look at life! Will you be home for Christmas? The yellow house has sold, there is work in progress, slow but steady, and it will be nice to have little kids in the ‘hood again. Safe travels!
Thanks for reading! I don’t think I’ll be back to Santa Cruz in the short term, but most likely by summertime.
Ah! I thought you were heading this way since you left India. In that case, Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!
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Thank you again for taking us with you. I have loved the pictures, stories and video chats. I, too, remember that culture shock and fear as I acclimated in another country but we always find beauty and friendship. You have a wonderful way of balancing opposites and falling in love with each new place.
Love you, miss you and can’t wait to hear more of you travel experiences and impressions. ♥️
Thanks for reading, Mom. ❤
Evan, your openness and willingness to engage with locals, has made a huge difference in your travels. You have had a very unusual visit compared with people who follow the tourist routes and stay in hotels or ashrams, like my three friends who’ve been there. But geez—you never rode an elephant with tigers nipping at its heels just waiting for you to fall off? I thought that’s what tourists do in India. 😂 I too have been alone in a foreign country several times in my life and it does feel pretty lonely but it also forces you to seek companions and community where you are, something that doesn’t happen as easily when you travel with friends and family.
We all think we know India—hey, we saw Gandhi, Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire, Lion or read Midnight’s Children, the Jewel in the Crown or A Passage to India (one of my favorites), and most of us have really lovely friends who were born there, but so few Americans have ever experienced what it’s like to live there as you have. I am sure you will never forget it. And you should know that your postcard got here in something like 3 weeks so the international snail mail is up and functioning. Thanks.
During the pandemic we have been armchair travelers and have loved reading your pieces. (We binge watched Rick Steves last night while packaging up Christmas goodies—pathetic, that.) I had one package left which should have gone to you so I’ll just tell you that you missed out on some maple syrup, Hartland cheese and a home-baked applesauce cake. If you will be home relatively soon I can stick it in the fridge and send it later but I suspect you are far from done with your travels. So, all we can really do is wish you a happy holiday, wherever you are. And remember, in the immortal words of the Cheshire Cat and J. R.R. Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost.”
Love you. Stay safe.
Hi Shelley, thanks for reading and following along on my travels. Glad that you got the postcard. And thanks for the Tolkien quote, it’s good to hear it now and again to not forget!