It was 1994, I was 14-years old and my family decided to spend the winter break in India for my cousin’s wedding. It was actually the first time I remember going to India as the previous time I was two years old.
For starters, I remember enjoying the never-experienced before luxuries of Lufthansa. The moist, lemon-scented towels upon sitting in my seat. The endless stream of dinner rolls that started off white, but then looked yellow by the time we reached our layover in Germany (too much microwaving??). I also remember feeling weird–but delighted–that anyone asked me if I wanted coffee. I was only 14, but hey why not? It tasted interesting and I had no idea what the effects of caffeine would yet do to me. I remember the layover in Munich being really long, my parents were napping on their luggage while we waited for the second leg of our flight. And my sister and I hopped up on coffee and were completely delirious from the time change, the introduction of caffeine to our system, and all of the endless waiting to just get there. My brother was in college and stayed behind in the U.S.
We arrived in India and I immediately went into shock. I don’t recall my parents preparing me for the sensory experience I was about to have. It was around 2 AM, it was dusty, there were large packs of men everywhere, and it was the mid-90s. We collected our bags, one full of wedding clothes for my cousin’s wedding and the other one full of things like Hershey’s candy, Lucky Charms, toilet paper, and American clothes from JCPenny to give to our relatives.
We saw our family, all 16 of them waiting for us. We hopped into the backseat of a car and my cousin had to stop for gas. My mom, dad and cousin all stepped out while I was alone in the backseat. An older, fragile-looking woman with no teeth approached the car with a sleeping baby in her arms, reached her available arm into the slightly ajar window, saying “Paisa, paisa, paisa.”
I was so surprised. I had never seen poverty like this in the cornfields of the U.S.A. (where I grew up) and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I remember looking at her compassionately, but also being the germaphobe that I was, scared that she was going to touch me as her arm reached towards me. That was the first of many of the interactions I had with those who were experiencing poverty. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I had ever seen. I wanted to give them what I had, but my cousin cautioned me against it as he said one request could suddenly turned into 30 requests.
And then there were the cows. I mean the cows were just cruising by my cousin’s house looking all cute. They showed me how if you say “guy, guy, guy, guy” they will look up at you and wander towards you. This made me squeal with delight. I fed a roti a day to my new cow friends that looked so hungry compared to the imprisoned cows I saw at the 4-H fair in the Midwest.
Everything about this country was so opposite of where I grew up. My small town was quiet, orderly, and 99 point something percent white. I was now in the middle of so much color, so much dust, heat, mosquitos, unfamiliar noises, and a place where toilet paper wasn’t a thing. And in some of the houses we visited, toilets weren’t a thing yet, either. I also remember asking my cousin what to do with my bottlecap from my soda and she laughed, took it from my hand and chucked it out the window. There was no garbage or garbage collection and everything was just tossed outside.
The trip also consisted of doing touristy things like visiting the Taj Mahal, experiencing my first wedding in India, and enjoying cold coffee Indian style at the local fancy hotel. This was the first of many more trips to India and over time I eventually grew to appreciate the country for what it offered.
Somehow standing in the middle of this unfamiliar place, I felt an inexplicable sense of familiarity. Maybe it was through my parent’s stories or through the blue Aerogramme’s that would come in the mail filled with family updates.
Or perhaps it was simply because this was the ground from which I grew.