India. I have dreamed of India for a long time. Actually, since I was a little girl watching movies of princesses and tigers. I would wrap tinkling anklets around my feet, paint a bindi on my forehead and put on silky harem pants to replay the scenes. My favorite piece from my dress up box was a red see-through scarf with dangling gold leaves, perfect for hiding my face just enough to pretend I was such a princess myself.
In my teenage year novels about the alleged romance of colonialism followed, making me long less for the romance but for the foreignness of this land. India.
Then, of course, there was Shantaram and Slumdog Millionaire, pictures of the Indian wedding of my friend’s brother and my beloved Bikram classes.
While some inspiration may have been a bit naive, even downright wrong, India has been calling me for a long time.
Now I am here, finally. After a total of 2 hours of sleep, 15 hours of traveling, and 5 hours time difference I almost miss the touchdown in Delhi.
My tiredness has one good side effect, I don’t get nervous as I usually do when approaching immigration and the task of finding my luggage and a taxi in a foreign place.
I get off the plane and I am a bit confused – is this really India? Where is the chaos, the people, the wonderful madness?
Even at immigration, there is no one in line and the officer whose hair is a bit too red to be real doesn’t even mind that I haven’t filled in my visitor’s card. No chaos at the luggage belt either unless you consider mixing regular bags and those with priority tags chaotic.
In fact, everything is light and airy and the floors are so sparkling that I feel especially grubby in comparison.
Outside is an orderly line of drivers and their signs, nobody yells or touts which confuses me even more. Isn’t that what drivers are supposed to do?!
I find my driver and he takes me to the car. Even outside there is no chaos and I am starting to wonder if I have made it to the right place.
The taxi is clean and comfortable as is the highway and it is just a regular highway. Not really old not really new, no cows or elephants on the road, and I spend the next 10 minutes texting my family back home in lieu of exciting chaos to watch.
I am tired enough not to care too much but secretly I am disappointed. Where is the Indian chaos? Where is the world Shantaram described? And even more importantly – where is my culture shock?
While these thoughts pop into my head I am immediately embarrassed. Have I become one of those people? Those who can’t differentiate, who don’t see that the derelict charm which we like to show in our artistic pictures implies actual poverty? That the grimy culture shock we sometimes crave after getting too complacent is not a facade put up for tourists, but the reality for people who live here?
No, I don’t want to be that person, but I can’t help to be a little bit disappointed by how orderly it all seems. There is not even a stray kitten in sight and even Holi which I have just missed, seems to have passed without a drop. Except for a blue dog the streets are grey again.
But then it all changes. We come closer to Delhi’s center and I simultaneously discover a little Ganesh statue hidden amongst some marigolds on my driver’s dashboard and a lady in a bright pink sari on a motorbike in front of us. Both make me happy.
Over the next few days, I become enchanted. Quietly so. As if I don’t quite trust the feeling yet. Could it be that simple? Could India really be everything that I always dreamed it would be after all? Is that not to good to be true?
From the beautiful chaos of old Delhi to the humid harbor of Kochi, smiles, and kindness. Such kindness. Curious stares, wild honking, finally a few cows on the road as if to tell me Yes, you are really here!. And again more smiles.
I hear church bells and the call to prayer, my eyes feast on colorful Hindu temples and humidity wraps itself around me wherever I go. I don’t mind the sweatiness it brings, India is saying hello.
After all, that dreaming of India, the longing, the butterflies, the questions, I am here, I have arrived. And what’s even more important – I feel arrived.
Find some great advice for India first timers here.