Bagdogra, India (April 15). The time has come for us to leave this amazing country, and parting will be strange.
As crazy and chaotic and over-stimulating as India is, we have come to feel quite at home here, and would like to think that we have gotten at least a good surface understanding of the country and its cultures.
Everyone will ask us what our favorite part was, and my answer will be: The people. They have been extraordinarily kind to us, and their concern and care goes beyond the usual tourist/service staff relationship. We have seen them be very kind to each other, and – though every big city has the same rushing crowds – they demonstrate a sweetness that shows from the very poorest on up the complex social chain.
They adore their children and we did too. We have met so many smart, funny and mischievous school kids who have a grace and poise that would be the envy of many American counterparts. Of course there are exceptions to everything, but so many of the children give the impression that there will be no stopping this country once everyone has equal access to education.
The countryside doesn’t normally impress us with great beauty, accustomed as our Western eyes are to rolling hills and a lot more green. But there is a majesty in even the most remote places. Once we became more familiar with the architectural language, we were able to share the national awe in their historical legacy. What Indians were accomplishing centuries ago is awesome and so often superior to what the West was building and thinking about in the same eras.
And then there is religion. Yes, we’ve seen many temples, and some are astonishing works of art. But what is also amazing is the number of temples we have seen that are not just tourist sites, but living religious houses that are constantly packed with worshipers – every part of every day. The religious spirit here is totally integrated with daily life, and daily conversation. The most humble tuk-tuk driver can share some philosophy by which he lives, and talk about other religions with respect and knowledge.
The people here are proud of their country and very much want you as a tourist to enjoy, understand and like it too. Yes, sometimes we are asked a little too often how much we are enjoying the cuisine of a specific city, or our trip in general, but those who ask genuinely want to know.
There is no sense here that they are exhausted by tourists and that we are just a necessary evil. Hundreds of people have asked where we are from – and it’s rather novel to be in a country where they don’t spot you as an American from across the room. America is a big abstract for most of the people we met – fascinating, but almost imaginary – and certainly not a place they could ever imagine themselves being able to visit.
White skin is very powerful here. That seems to be the reason that so many people want to have their pictures taken with me – at least according to one guide. I have gotten adept at knowing that when someone looks at me hesitatingly that they want a selfie with me. And when I put my arm around them? Then the smiles really come out.
One day I was sitting alone on a bench at a museum when three different families came by at various intervals and wanted the full album of pictures taken with me. When a fourth group – a pair of ladies – walked by and looked at me, I gestured to the bench and smiled encouragingly. They looked horrified and stalked off, probably to report a predator on the premises. Oh well.
There is such dignity in work here. The women who endlessly sweep streets and lawns with their twig brushes, the coolies who carry heavy luggage up and down train platforms, the hucksters with their tourist trinkets, the fruit sellers who start all over every day, the tea-leaf pickers, the street-food cooks (whose kitchens are very reminiscent of Pompeii), the drivers of all types of vehicles, and those who just stamp tickets – they seem to find a pride in their occupation that is rarely seen in the West. To work is to eat, and while there are indeed beggars, there are many fewer than I had expected.
I had also not expected to learn that my husband must have Indian blood in him, despite what 23&Me and Ancestry.com have to say. He devours the cuisine here and could easily spend a month at an Ayurvedic spa, eating gruel for breakfast. Me, I have a fantasy life that involves a hamburger. Thank goodness the palmist said we should stay together.
With only a few exceptions, we have enjoyed every place we visited, and love the breadth of the experiences we shared.
Tonight we are back at the hotel in Siliguri, outside of Bagdogra, where the airport is located. Our flight to Bhutan departs early tomorrow morning. Don has more to tell about his train ride today, but that will come later.
We leave India with real regret, but on to the next adventure!