“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley
“India.” One word that often strikes fear into the hearts of Americans contemplating not only ancient architecture, surreal landscapes and amazing food, but also severe stomach illness, chaotic traffic, lecherous men, mind-bending heat and even packs of raging monkeys mistaking your arm for a banana. This might sound a little exaggerated to your average Indian, but these are often the types of thoughts that spring to the minds of my fellow countrymen. Perhaps this is the reason my wife and I were paralyzed with excitement, and a little fear, when a contract was offered to be an Illustrator with The Times of India for one year. We had a house, comfortable jobs, and good friends, but how could we turn down an offer to move to an entirely different culture(s), half a world away?
We arrived in Delhi on May 29, 2014. Immediately India’s campaign of “Shock and Awe” had begun. Exiting the airport we were blasted with crematorium-levels of heat and rushed through what seemed like an ant-pile of people to a jeep that careened us into the chaos of Delhi traffic. I knew there were over 300 million Hindu gods, but wanted to quickly find the one responsible for Traffic Safety and make immediate offerings. Crowds of people, cows, garbage, dust and monkeys could be seen from the window through our jet-lagged eyes and we thought, perhaps, we had arrived on the movie set for a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller
At first adapting was quite challenging, and simple tasks seemed to involve a massive amount of effort. Obtaining an operating SIM card and cell phone plan seemed more logistically difficult than an elderly couple completing all the moves of the Kama Sutra in one night. Mailing a package of goodies home for my mother’s birthday took three hours, and multiple interrogations, in a baking post office. Obtaining an operating Wi-Fi Dongle was cause for celebration after one week of dealing with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
We almost gave up and went home, but after a few weeks we began to relax. The traffic, food and chaos didn’t seem so frightening anymore. Americans are quite individualistic, and pampered in some ways, and believe they can rise above their situations and create their own destinies. This is helped by an efficient system and infrastructure that is already in place and a culture that allows this viewpoint to have some degree of merit. This is why India is such a challenge to Americans: you might have some autonomy, but you have to surrender to the chaos around you or you will surely go mad. Only a few things might be in your control, and just getting to work, and being at work, can take up most of the day (not to mention actually working).
One year has passed quickly, and it is difficult to reflect on how this country has changed me.
Perhaps the biggest change has been my level of patience. Small things don’t bother me much anymore and I’ve become accustomed to some degree of suffering without too much internal whining: sitting in a rickshaw in 45 degrees in a traffic jam is not fun, but I no longer want to scream at the other autos and try to imagine I’m just relaxing in a Finnish sauna. And the constant horns blaring in your ear: I might have to find an Ambient Horn Soundtrack just to sleep when I get back to the US.
Also, I value my life a little less. When one has to cross a busy road, commute in gladiatorial traffic, or inhale the toxic pea soup that is Delhi’s air, you realize you are making a deal with your own mortality. You are not so special, but one of the 20 million people in a megacity scrambling to get through another day, which is an excellent lesson in humility.
My eating habits have also changed. Americans like their own food and don’t typically want to share, although this is changing. Now I don’t mind having cookies grabbed out of my hand, or half-eaten mango ice cream bars shoved in my face. Using your fingers as culinary utensils is a completely viable option.
Large crowds used to be cause for avoidance, but now I’m used to the crush of humanity, and would not find a small family squatting in my armpit any cause for surprise or concern. I am also the object of constant staring. It took me months to be comfortable feeling like a recently escaped animal from the Delhi Zoo.
The largest impact of this year has been the people we’ve met. There are many Indian, and expat, friends who have opened their hearts, and houses, to us and will be very difficult to leave. India is a large and complicated country with many challenges, and often faces much criticism from the West for not behaving as logically, or efficiently, as it might. But if you can relax and keep an open mind, you realize the charm is in its heart, and the things that will open up to you if you give this chaotic place a chance.