I didn’t think any trip could live up to the phrase “it was a trip of a lifetime” until I traveled halfway around the globe to visit our daughter. Fifteen years later, that trip continues to impact my life.
My husband Rich and I had finally settled into our tiny cube of a hotel room after our 15-hour fight, bleary-eyed, stunned, and simultaneously exhausted and wired. We had only been in Mumbai less than 90 minutes and had already been pickpocketed. We no longer had our credit cards, American cash, or Indian Rupees. Upon calling our credit card company, we discovered that my card was associated with his – so my card would no longer work either.
Ok India. We’ve arrived.
Thankfully, the hotel was pre-paid, and our driver was to pick us up the following day to take us on the 4-hour drive to Pune to meet up with our eldest daughter Liz.
A year ago, Liz surprised us by declaring India as her study-abroad destination. Before we knew it, she was boarding the plane to Pune, India at the start of her junior year.
Liz had been living with a host family for the past three months. With her stay soon to end, we had decided to visit and travel with her for three weeks and bring her home with us. Once the dates, plane tickets, and 20-day itinerary were set, we had done all the necessary preparations, including multiple vaccinations, visa applications, acquired travel gear, and sprayed our clothing with a strong insect repellent at the urging of a malaria travel advisory. Finally, we thought we were prepared.
It was a piece of advice Liz had given hastily to me during an unstable internet phone call a few weeks before our departure that would significantly impact our trip – and, consequently, my life.
“Mom, you must leave your western viewpoint at home,” Liz said thoughtfully but calmly. “You and Dad have to do whatever you can to let go of all the expectations you have for how things should go. India is like no other place you’ve been,” she cautioned. “ One thing I’ve learned is that as Westerners, we must meet Mother India where she is. If you can do that – you will have a better experience.”
I trusted Liz knew what she was talking about because she had done this herself in the past few months. While she had seen the wonders of the Kerola rivers from the deck of a houseboat and celebrated many festivals, including the colorful Holi, she had quite a few terrifying ones too, including boarding the wrong bus and not realizing it until being dropped off in the middle of the night in a village hours from where she was supposed to be and experiencing sexual harassment and supporting a fellow student suffering PTSD from unwelcome sexual groping by a group of older men.
During our three weeks of travel, many moments tested us to take off our “western eyeglasses” and see Mother India for who she was.
It had been hours in the car while our driver navigated windy roads and dusty paths, narrowly passing trucks, tuk-tuks, and buses so overloaded it was a miracle they didn’t topple over. Unfortunately, we were stuck in a traffic jam, most likely caused by an animal stubbornly standing in the road or construction closing the road for an undetermined amount of time with no warning.
Sitting in the back of the car with Rich and Liz, I was frantically fanning myself with the guidebook hoping this source of “flowing air” would alleviate how hot and sticky I was feeling. Unfortunately, the car “AC” we had paid extra for blew air far from being considered cool.
Sweat dripping down my back, I opened the window despite knowing from experience that the loud city sounds would no longer be muted and dirt from the road was sure to stick to the sweat on my skin, making the “sponge bath” I’d be taking later that night more of a challenge.
Looking out the window, I took in our surroundings. Dozens of people were standing or sitting along the road, trying their best to find any spot in the light shade. It was then that I noticed them.
A family of four sitting on the ground under thinly laced shade from a bare-branched tree. I watched them — first, noticing their thread-bare clothing, dirty hands, and feet. Then, I felt pity for them — instantly judging how hard and awful their life must be. I imagined they were probably living in the squalor of the slums we had just passed.
Last night, while enjoying a delicious dinner at an open-air restaurant on the banks of a lake, Rich and I agreed that we had never seen this level of poverty. Between bites of colorful and delightful curries and saffron rice, we recalled the massive slums we’d seen smack-dab in the city center, often directly under shadows of expensive high-rise apartments and billboards advertising Gucci and Rolex. We had seen slum after slum – miles and miles of tiny makeshift homes fashioned with corrugated cardboard or misshapen tin sheets on top of one another in a jumble. Such a shame.
As my mind returned to the present moment, I saw something different.
The family I watched was having a picnic of sorts thanks to a nearby paanwalas, a vendor selling paan, a popular Indian snack made with nuts, raisins, dried fruit, and spices wrapped in betel leaves.
The family appeared to be sharing one single leaf. Could this be their only meal of the day?
The couple looked no older than Liz. The father, thin-faced with a smile revealing crooked yellow teeth, sat alongside the woman I assumed was his wife. Her hair, jet black, was pulled back in a braid. She wore what once was a brightly colored sari – now muted and dusty—a traditional gold ring on her nose and numerous thin bracelets lining her arm. A toddler, running around them, barefoot and laughing, occasionally stopped to draw in the dirt with a stick. An infant, scrawny legs outstretched, was held close to her chest. I watched as he held the leaf to the child, who stopped long enough to take a quick nibble. Then, smiling, he reached over to his wife, gently pushing a stray strand of her long dark hair off her sweaty face, allowing her to take a bite. The look they exchanged was one of pure love and happiness.
Hello Mother India.
Later that week, our driver took us to a hilltop, popular with the locals, at sunset. He promised a beautiful sight. We would soon learn that Indian sunsets don’t last long. You’ve got to catch them at just the right moment due to the short viewing “window.” You’d watch for the setting golden circle to show itself within a thin slice of the skyline sandwiched between the clouds above and the thick smog emanating from the city below. Start to finish; it took less than 3 minutes.
Other families arrived to enjoy the sunset and cool night air. While waiting with them, we sat on a stone wall at the top of a hill, looking at yet another slum in the valley below.
It was then that it happened. I zeroed in on some movement below on the rooftops of those tiny unstable shacks that fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces.
It was as if I was watching a movie, and the camera, after showing the entire panoramic scene, slowly pans in close to focus on one little section, allowing the viewer to be in on an intimate moment amid that massive scene.
Lifting my 35mm camera so I could use my telephoto lens to zoom in on the movement I had just noticed, I focused in and saw a dozen or so children passing something to each other. Upon closer inspection, I saw what appeared to be an empty potato chip bag tied to a string. My goodness, those clever kids had fashioned their own kite! I watched them pass it to each other as they ran rooftop to rooftop – the sky slowly dimming behind them, making them dance in the shadows. The delight I saw through the lens was contagious. I felt their giddiness and happiness. They were kids being kids. I smiled on the inside.
Nice to meet you, Mother India.
On one of our last days, we were riding a tuk-tuk, an odd-looking contraption that is basically a rusted lawn mower with a metal compartment on top. They are loud and annoying but fast modes of transportation because they are smaller than cars; they can easily weave in and around traffic like buzzing bees seeking nectar.
If there is a sound to India, it’s the quick neverending succession of horns honking – so many horns – added to the sound of loudly sputtering motors and people yelling. Everyone is in a crushing rush. Tuk-tuk drivers no exception because the faster they move, the more money they make.
Due to India’s large, diverse population, many religions are observed – Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, and Islam –to name a few. As a result, I experienced amazing religious tolerance as people observed and practiced their religions daily on top of one another.
On this trip to the market, our tuk-tuk driver, without any word or excuse for the delay, pulled over at what appeared to be a statue of some sort. He quickly exited, offered a marigold blossom he had grabbed from those decorating his dashboard to the statue, bowing in a quick prayer or blessing, and just as quickly hopped back in, and we were on our way. During our trip, I witnessed Hindu ceremonies, the lovely call to prayer from an Islamic temple, and the bells of a catholic church, all within a small space in a short amount of time. Everyone honors their own beliefs without judgment and not just one day a week. It seemed these people lived their beliefs every day. This was refreshing. And so lovely to bear witness.
I see you, Mother India. I see you.
I carry the lesson Liz encouraged me to learn on that trip every day. My time in India became the training wheels for my everyday mindfulness and meditation practice. Being able to “meet Mother India where she was” allowed me to witness the love, joy, beauty, and happiness she had to offer. Had I not let go of my Western expectations and allowed myself to zero in on so many mini-miracles — I would have missed the real India. I may have come back like others, only to say they would never return. I would have come back only with stories of poverty, beggars, no personal space, noise, air pollution, sexism, and so much more.
Nothing is all dark or all light. We can choose what to notice and what to let go of. This can be the difference between sadness and joy and love and hate.
Without slowing things down so we can notice, we miss lovely moments every day. I am so happy that I met Mother India at that point in my life. She allowed me to learn how to look past my judgments and western views and to see – and experience — what mattered. I saw her people living their lives as best they could, finding happiness and joy no matter what their day brings or lacks.
This is the foundation upon which I’ve built my mindfulness practice, allowing me to meet my life where it is. To let go of the tendency to judge – myself and others. To connect and practice kindness and compassion. My life is better when I focus on what is happening now rather than worrying about the future or getting caught up in the past.
Thank you, Mother India. Thank you.