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India unplugged – a moving experience

Barbara Floria OrcuttSpecial to the Post Independent

I thought I prepared myself. For a year or so I slogged through numerous Lonely Planet guidebooks, Gandhi’s autobiography, Arundhati Roy’s “God of Small Things,” Mark Twain’s “Following the Equator,” even V.S. Naipaul’s “India: A Million Mutinies Now.”I watched Ben Kingsley channel Gandhi, bought the “Born into Brothels” DVD and danced my way through the Bollywood hit parade.But in the end, friends who had been to India were right when they said the subcontinent would blow me away no matter what I did or did not do ahead of time.And so it goes. It’s been three weeks since I flew home (over Kabul, over Moscow, over Greenland) and on any given day I am caught up short and find myself close to tears or actually sobbing.Today is Sunday – carpenters are working on the deck – I am organizing my office and tears are running down my face.What’s going on? The remembrance of ancient beggar women and ragged children asking for “10 rupees please, 10 rupees,” in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk? The absolute beauty of the Taj Mahal and Rajasthani women working in the fields in jewel-toned saris? The filthy Ganges water the Hindu pilgrims drank in Varenasi? The punch in the gut knowledge that so many people are in need and I can do so little?To say that India rips your heart out is a given. But the experience was and is more complicated. Here are some things I learned:n Indians are a people on the move. They travel via bicycle rickshaws, tuk-tuks – three-wheeled taxis powered by lawn mower motors, taxicabs from the 1950s with lace curtains on the windows, decorated busses with extra passengers sitting on the roof and hanging out the windows, hand-painted trucks, the occasional Land Rover, motorcycles as family vehicles with Papa in front, an older child hanging on his waist then Mama sitting side-saddle clutching the baby, but most often on their own two shoeless feet.In the pecking order on the street the cycle rickshaws I traveled in were below trucks, taxis, motorbikes and water buffalos but above pedestrians, goats, pariah dogs and feral pigs. They pedaled into the breech of oncoming traffic, dodging and weaving on the brink of flipping over as their passengers braced themselves against the back of the hard seat and a steel bar that holds the vehicle together.People and animals walk in the street and truck drivers park on the sidewalk. Sometimes a herd of 30 goats ambles down the interstate and shuts it down. Other times all it took was one sacred cow. n Unspeakable beauty exists. The day I went to the Taj Mahal there were perhaps two thousand Indians and one hundred foreigners within the palace walls. And although I was never alone, it was the only place in India where people were mostly silent and those that did speak spoke in whispers.Everything I’d heard about it was true – the perfect balance and symmetry of the white marble dome reflects the colors of the sky and is most beautiful at sunset, it’s unrivalled as a symbol of perfect love and purity – and for me at least, more than any other creation of nature or man I’ve seen, the Taj made me feel I was in the presence of the Divine.n India is a time machine. More than half the country still lives in the middle ages – wooden wheeled carts are commonplace and many villages have only one well at which everyone bathes and women draw water for cooking and cleaning. But my hotel in New Delhi had a flat-screen TV and yellow-robed monks carry digital cameras. n You need a soundtrack to understand the place. Since coming home I miss the lilting melody of spoken Hindi, the drums and bells of ardent worshippers, the impossibly fast pace of Indian pop music and the greetings of two dozen strangers a day saying, “Hello, welcome to my country, where are you from and what are you doing in India?”n Wealth is relative. The man with shoes is better off than the man with no shoes. A woman with two saris has twice as much as a girl with one. I am a rich American with enough disposable income that I can fly to India for a two week vacation that costs as much as most Indian men who make $1 a day earn in 10 years.In the end my take-away message is this:In the West we have bought the lie that things or money will bring us happiness or make us complete. In comparison, many of the Indian people I met had very little in the way of possessions, but didn’t put their contentment on any kind of hold. They lived with their extended families in the same neighborhood if not in the same house, they enjoyed a rich spiritual life devoid of Western cynicism or doubt, they treasured education and were devoted to their work be it washing clothes or selling water by the roadside. I believe they lived with an intensity that comes from being in the moment.I fear India’s love affair with all things American – blue jeans, iPods and private automobiles – will change the country forever in the not to distant future.In the meantime, at least until I return, I am left to contemplate the unthinkable differences between the lives I witnessed and the life I live and wonder who is more alive?Barbara Floria Orcutt is a travel writer and photographer from Glenwood Springs.


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