In the haze of a Delhi morning, a rising sun painted the walls of buildings pink; black crows sliced through shapeless clouds, and, with the slow inhale of morning, I watched as a smog-filled city placed pieces of myself back together again. I’ve never really been able to find words to describe the place within my heart that India touches. I’m not sure if I ever will, and I guess that is one of things that I love most about India: she steals your words and leaves, in their place, the blossom of a feeling whose scent stays with you forever.
Crammed in the back of a rickshaw, as we wove through the madness of Delhi’s streets, I traced the faces of a thousand strangers and thought to myself that perhaps I love India so much because it doesn’t try to be anything that it isn’t. India is, wholly, unapologetically, madly … India. All of life spills forth onto the streets; it shouts a billion stories from it’s every street corner, from it’s billions of faces, from it’s winding rivers and endless hidden alleyways. There are cell phone shops next to temples next to slums next to five star hotels. There is chai being boiled and served on the street corner as cows gnaw on trash and block traffic. Car horns ring out along with the bells of temples in a cacophonous symphony. Every smell, every color, every image – a piece to a giant and complex country. What is left is something I could only relate to an abstract piece of art that leaves one amazed, confused and deeply touched, all at the same time.
It is this refreshing breath of an unapologetic, brutally honest existence that satisfies what I feel is a fundamental human need – the need to be, at the end of the day, who we truly are. For those of us who live in a society that is increasingly trying to shape us into the modern, western mold, India is the loving hand that strips us back down to the most atomic level of our self. And it is not only India that does this, it is in fact the act of travel itself. Travel is what holds up a giant mirror to us and reveals, all at once, our light and our darkness. It can be a painful, frustrating, even maddening process, but it is one that I wouldn’t trade for the world; for, through understanding who we are, our perception of and relationship to the world is profoundly changed. We can never be the same, and the river of our life inevitably flows in a new direction.
One month after arriving in Delhi, I found myself sprawled on the thin mattress of a hospital bed in Calcutta, recovering from a minor stomach infection. One of the five doctors that I had already seen that day sat beside my bed, moving an ultrasound over the surface of my swollen stomach. Four other people stood in the room watching, and though I was not quite sure of the purpose or reason for them being there, a month in India had taught me to just go with the flow. As we all watched together the black and white images of my organs rolling across the ancient computer screen, the doctor said something to his captive audience that brought laughter and giggles into the dense air.
“Kya hua?” I said. “What happened?”
A sweet smile swept across the doctor’s face as he looked up at me and said, in his broken English,
“I told them: ‘See? Inside is same. Outside, all are looking different. Inside, all are same.”
Those words stuck with me as I rode in the back seat of on an old Calcutta taxi the next day, my face held in morning light of the Bengal sun. They were simple words, but they touched that deep and unsayable piece of my heart. He was right — on the outside, we all look different. Thousands of years of history, migration, culture, romance and heartbreak make up the myriad of faces that the entire world sees in the mirror each morning. These are the faces of the vibrant and multi-colored tapestry of humanity. Each has its own unique story and it’s own destiny.
And yet, as travelers we quickly come to see that while land and sea, culture and circumstance, might separate us, we are all more intimately connected then we realize. We see through cross-cultural conversation and the meeting of strangers that each thread of the giant tapestry is woven closely to another and that each thread is inexorably connected to the greater whole. In these precious moments of conversation between souls, when the walls of cultural differences and preconceptions are finally brought down, walls within ourselves begin to fall away too. We are free, in those moments of strange familiarity, to be who we truly are and to draw connections from the most genuine soil of our beings.
Rather than build walls, travel breaks walls down. Rather than teaching us to reject the so-called strange, travel welcomes us to embrace it. Rather than perpetuating the rhetoric of differences, travel teaches us a universal language. Rather than telling us who we should be, travel reveals who we truly are. When narrow vision bars us from finding common ground, focusing only on that which separates us – the difference in the colors of threads, so to say – the diseases of intolerance, injustice and hatred are born. This worldview misses the beauty in diversity and neglects the fact that each stitch is what inevitably holds together the tapestry of our world.
In India, it’s the collection of men and women whom I’ve come to call “mother” and “father”, “brother” and “sister”; in Nepal, it’s the ancient looking village women who combed my hair and stroked my feverish face by the fireside on the mud floor of her home; in Turkey, it’s the Kurdish boy who opened his journals and shared his poetry, and a cup of tea, with me; in Australia, it’s the Aboriginal elder who, under a vast starlit night, smoked his cigarette and told me stories of what life was like before the big cities, before his culture was vilified and threatened to extinction. These are the memories that remind me that we can find home wherever we go and that we can find family in any stranger. The truth is, home is less of a structure with a roof and four walls and more of a feeling – a feeling where we feel at one with all those around us and, perhaps more importantly, at one with ourselves.
This is what India, and travel itself, never fails to reveal. In the midst of the maddening chaos and unexpected kindness we often find on the road, we are ever reminded of all the things that bring us together – love, adventure, food, conversation and the shared struggles of our journeys. We are reminded that outward appearances are only surface level and that blood and tissue and the human spirit tie us all intimately to one another. In other words, we come to find: “outside different, inside same.”