You cannot take a bad photograph in India. It is so colourful and full of life that you can exhaust yourself trying to capture it all. Here is a microscopic sliver of the South Indian nation as portrayed on Instagram.
A few months ago, I found an inter-office envelope with a clipping of my first ever travel story, written way back in 1988 for Concordia University’s alumni magazine. There was no note with it, so I have no idea who sent it to me, but reading it was a nice trip into the past.
I wrote the story for free, mostly because I felt guilty after pranking the editor a few months earlier. I had sent a postcard for the alumni notices stating that I had started herding yaks in Nepal and was selling yak butter and wool. The editor took it seriously and was badgering my family back home on how to get in touch with me so that he could write a story about my new career.
When I finally returned, I had to confess that it was a joke. He took it well, but asked if I could write something about my travels. Here is what I wrote. It still holds up after 27 years.
Pilgrimage to India By Mark Stachiew Concordia University Magazine, January 1988
Every year after graduation, flocks of students spread their wings and fly off to distant lands. Some are just looking for a last fling before facing the job market. For others, the experience turns into a pilgrimage of self-discovery that teaches lessons more valuable than any university education.
My friend and I went on such a voyage, picking India and Nepal as our destination. I can’t speak for my friend , but I wanted to get as far away as home in Dollard des Ormeaux and work in Senneville. I needed a change of scenery to refresh myself. I had to escape.
I had graduated with a biochemistry degree two years earlier in 1985, and had been unable to find satisfying work. I spent a year and a half as a technician with a clinical research company that tested drugs on paid human volunteers. These volunteers didn’t care anything about advancing scientific knowledge, of course. All they wanted was their pay when It was over. After a few months, I was beginning to pick up the same attitude.
I tried to find better work that I could feel was constructive and beneficial to society, even in a small way. But after receiving a mountain of rejection letters, I began to have feelings of self-doubt. It was time to examine what I was -doing with my life, and I felt 1 could do that better by getting far away from things.
We arrived in Bombay after an exhausting 24 hours of travel. Although it was only four in the morning, the air was hot and humid. I remember waiting in line to pass through customs with my shirt plastered to my back with sweat. When I went to get my baggage, I discovered that it bad been sent to West Germany. Welcome to India, I thought.
Few lands present such contrasts as India, with images of poverty in the shadow of splendour. The images of India are seared in my memory. When I first saw the Taj Mahal in the distance, it was like a beacon on the horizon. As long as it’s in sight, you can’t take your eyes from it. It is the most beautiful object I have ever seen.
Standing in the shadow of the Himalayas in Nepal is equally awe-inspiring. Their jagged peaks are like an endless row of rocky cathedrals reaching into the sky, all the more majestic because you know that they are forever safe from human domination. Only a few mountain climbers will leave fleeting footsteps in their eternal snowfields.
But the images of beauty can be quickly dispelled. Smelly shanty towns sprawl endlessly on the outskirts of Bombay, where millions live in flimsy shacks or on the sidewalks. Pitiful beggars descend upon you regularly in the cities. I remember one woman holding her baby in one frail arm and tugging on my shirt with the other. She pleaded with her starving eyes for a coin. The beauty and horror of India will not leave you unscathed.
India moves at its own controlled pace. You have to learn to slow down in order to cope with the crush of the crowds. It’s like standing in a crowded shopping mall on the last Saturday before Christmas. Dealing with endless line-ups and Indian bureaucracy taught me a degree of patience I never thought possible.
The dizzying din of the crowds and the delicious smells of the bazaars awaken your senses while you travel. Your awareness operates at a heightened level in India, and you don’t want to miss anything. For the three months that my friend and I travelled by rickshaw, taxi, bus and train, we savoured the experience. We didn’t just visit India. We smelled it, touched it and tasted it.
Travelling on the hot and dusty trains is when you see the real India. It’s also when you do most of your thinking. The cars are packed to bursting with people sitting on shelves and hanging out the doors. As the train plods along, images of the country and its people take over your mind.
Your meditations are punctuated by shouting vendors who get on the train at station stops and go from car to car hawking their wares. Blind boys sing for money, while other children want to sweep the dust from under your feet. Men go by selling from crates of oranges or giant pots of tea.
It’s when night comes on the train that you start thinking about what the whole experience means. The vendors are gone and the passengers are quiet. There is nothing to be seen outside the window except the occasional glow of a gas lamp in some farmer’s hut. I started searching for the real reasons I was there. What was I looking for?
People in India struggle to survive. A visitor gets the impression of them pushing and shoving in cutthroat competition to get by and maybe improve their lot. But the best that many of them can hope for is the worst that we dread. For that reason, many of them seem fatalistic about the future.
In Canada, many of us start out with advantages that Indians will never have, but we’re told from an early age that it’s not enough. Our society Is success-oriented to a degree that seems obscene after you see the poverty and suffering children in India. India brings the world’s reality to your eyes , and you can’t return to your normal life unchanged. You come back ready to be satisfied with fewer of our society’s success symbols. You discover there’s more to life than hoping for a BMW and a big job in the corner office .
I returned to the snows of Canada less possessed by ambitions I bad once thought important, and grateful for the good fortune I had had. The experience taught me as much as I had learned in all the years that preceded it. I hope the lessons will last a lifetime. But if I do ever find myself hankering for a BMW of my own, I know where to fly to for a refresher course in humility.
A PDF of my first travel story, Pilgrimage to India.
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