For long, India has had the fame of being a place that changes your life and moves you deeply. Famous personalities like Steve Jobs and The Beatles had such strong experiences in India, that not only it changed them as people, as it set a new course for their careers altogether.
Before I traveled to India for the first time, I talked to several people who had lived there. Some loved it, some hated it, some loved and hated at the same time, but ALL of them said that India is indeed a life-changing experience. Maybe it will make you realize you’re more conservative than you thought, maybe it will be quite the opposite. Maybe you’ll realize you love the diversity in the world, maybe you’ll realize you rather be in more comfortable places.
And when I asked how it changed them, they found it hard to explain. Now that I’ve been there, I have to absolutely agree. India changes you up to the core, and I haven’t felt the same way anywhere else so far. It changes you little by little, and also all at once. Quoting Kate, from Travel For Difference,
“It’s a true mixture of seeing difficult and confronting sights, being immersed in the intense, unapologetic atmosphere, and learning about spirituality and the many diverse ways of living.”
And indeed, the intense and confronting sights and experiences will often make you reflect about your own self, about the world, about life – and it will often touch your heart. I’ll try to explain how India changed me as a person by sharing 3 of the strongest moments that happened to me there.
A Himalayan tale
Peeyush and I just love mountains, so the Indian Himalayas quite quickly became a favorite spot for us. We love to just rent a scooter and explore the area, crossing beautiful temples, waterfalls, endless mountains and apple orchards. It feels like a dream. But one evening, on the way back from one of those scooter rides that we love so much near Manali, we saw a middle-aged man walking by the side of the road with 7 packs of cotton candies. Because both of us have a sweet tooth, we decided to stop and buy a few (6, to be precise. In our defense, the packs were small!) It was the beginning of the summer, and the weather at that time of the year was around 20 degrees during the day, and 7 degrees at night, considerably cold. The man got emotional with our purchase, started thanking us repeatedly, and decided to give us the last pack for free, saying he was really thankful because that had been his ONLY sale the whole day. Now let that sink in. The ONLY sale the entire day, which was worth around 1 US dollar. Without that sale, he would have gone home empty-handed.
We then stopped at a restaurant to get warm, and I couldn’t stop thinking about that man. All I could do was cry. Well, actually, until today I cry when I think about that. I kept thinking “If he can barely make one dollar a day, how is the house where he lives, and how can he keep warm during the winter?” It was overwhelming. Our somewhat expensive hotel room already wasn’t warm enough, and we had to pay for extra heating, so how could a person who earns so less afford any heating in the winter? That moment burst my dream holiday cloud and threw me flat back on the floor.
See, I just love cold weather and mountain places, but until then, I had been to mountain areas and ski stations in developed countries or areas. In fact, it never crossed my mind that certain developing countries, like India, had very cold temperatures, and that totally changed my perception about the cold. The thing is – it’s quite beautiful and easy to wear fancy winter clothes, stay at a hotel room with central heating systems, warm bathrooms, great infrastructure to support cold winters, in a way that you only actually perceive the cold if you step outside.
But that place and that man made me realized that poverty also had to coexist with beautiful landscapes and snow-capped mountains. To realize that people spent their winters in freezing cold temperatures, in humble houses with bad infrastructure and poor heating is a particularly heartbreaking thing. That changed me. And it made me understand my own privilege in a painful way.
A ride in the desert
I went to Jaisalmer, at the Indo-Pakistani border, at the Thar Desert. After a memorable desert safari and sleeping under the stars, my sister, a friend and I took the bus back to Jaipur. It was an overnight bus, a 12-hour journey on a Friday night. I had been in India for 8 months by then. There was nobody sitting by my side, and the bus was relatively empty.
A couple of hours after the journey started, the bus stopped in the middle of the highway and lots of people started coming inside. There were visibly more people than seats available, so I wondered where they would all sit. Among them, there was a group of 3 men and 9 boys, who were between 6 and 12 years old. To my surprise, they started finding places to sit on the aisle of the bus, which was visibly too small for all of them. Two of them tried to sit next to me and were quickly kicked out by the driver because the hadn’t paid for seats, so they went back to the crammed aisle floor.
As the journey continued, more people would walk in, almost stepping on the boys and pushing them aside because there was just no space to walk. It so happens that one of those boys looked a lot like my nephew. He was around 8 years old, with dark brown hair and big round brown expressive eyes – just like my nephew’s. I kept watching him trying to sleep sitting on the floor of the bus, while other people pushed him aside every half hour. The bus was packed then, so there was nothing I could do to help. And as I watched, I thought about my nephew and how his only concern on a Friday night was to sleep at a warm bed at a very comfortable house, and how he would never go through a situation like this. That moment didn’t break – it completely shattered my heart, and I couldn’t stop crying. Thinking about it still makes me cry. It made me wonder how is it possible for such an arbitrary thing – when and where you are born – dictate so much of what will happen in your future?
That moment really changed into a more empathetic person, and I realized I wanted to do something to help those who needed it. Peeyush has the biggest heart, so together we decided to create a fashion brand that empowers poor people in India. Nowadays we work to empower Indian artisans from rural communities, but in the beginning, we used to support an NGO for HIV+ children, and that leads me to the last moment shared today:
The purest and brightest smiles
This is not a specific story, but a series of moments. The NGO we used to help supports around 60 children who were born with HIV in poor rural villages in Rajasthan. As you probably know, the immune system of an HIV+ person is very debilitated, so for a child in this condition to grow up at a home with poor hygiene and lack of sanitation is a recipe for disaster. When they first arrived there, some kids used to have an open wound on their skins or other health conditions. But every single time, as soon as we entered their place, they would give the biggest and most sincere smiles ever, and their eyes shine bright, full of joy and hope. They are so pure and happy apart from the struggles they face in their daily lives, that it’s impossible not to be touched by them. You’re there to help them, but it turns out that they are the ones who end up helping you – by teaching you to be happy no matter what condition life gives you – there is always a reason to smile and see the bright side. Likewise, I’d not be surprised if that boy in the bus turned out to be happier than me and you who are reading this article. Indian children have the best smiles.
So next time someone says that “India changes you” or “India is a life-changing experience”, these are a few examples of moments – some simple, some harsh – that cause a long-term impact on you, your personality, the way you see and interact with the world. Do you have any moments like these to share? Tell us in the comments below <3
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