A few years back I traveled to India during a long backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. I actually flew in and out of Mumbai on the front and back ends of my trip that took me to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Since my flight was out of Mumbai, my traveling partners and I decided to spend almost a week in India at the beginning of the two-month long adventure.
India was my first real introduction to Asia. I remember flying into Mumbai and seeing slum villages for miles, that almost continued directly onto the runway. I remember getting off the plane and immediately feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people in the airport. Upon exiting the airport, I remember the disorder and chaos of the streets that featured no stoplights or lanes, but chock full of tuk tuks and cars. This was the first time in my life where I realized– I am not in Kansas anymore. Nothing was familiar to me. This continued as I explored Mumbai for a few days. I took the incredibly crowded public train into the city center everyday and literally had to start making my way off the train 4 or 5 stops before we reached the destination. The smells and everyday sights I saw walking through the streets were all firsts for me.
From Mumbai, I ventured to New Delhi, where more of the same was happening around, just in hotter and smoggier weather. My partners and I decided that these cities were beginning to take a toll on us. All the beeping of the tuk tuk horns, the hawking from street stalls, and the constant people traffic was exhausting in 110 degree heat. It was now time to make our way to the main reason we decided to stay in India for a week: The Taj Mahal. To get to the Taj, we took a 3-hour train ride from New Delhi to Agra, India.
Now throughout my experience so far, there was something that kept happening that I neglected to mention. People kept taking pictures of me and friends, virtually everywhere we went. On the street, at the metro station, on the ferry, at the market– people stopped to introduce themselves and take pictures with us. It was wild! I have never been such an anomaly to someone before. Once people started asking us to hold their baby and take a picture with us holding it, I started to think to myself: have these people never seen a white person before? It was flattering yet humbling. Each interaction created a bond between me and the locals. We smiled at each other, laughed with each other. It was wacky, but fun.
When we arrived at the diamond in the rough, the Taj Mahal, I was so excited to explore this magical world wonder. This was one of those experiences that most people only read about in books and watch in movies. I was there. And many Indians were there too. A lot of them traveling many many miles from distant parts of India to see the Taj as well. And while I was so focused on exploring this architectural masterpiece, the Indian people who had traveled a great distance to see the Taj were focused on my partners and I! Every 3 minutes somebody asked to take a picture with us. There was one moment when we were taking a break, sitting on the grass, and we noticed a group of people sitting directly across from us, admiring us like some art exposition. And soon, another group of people sat in front of them to do the exact same thing. Then the first group yelled at them for obstructing their view of the strange white people!
It was all so wild for my friends and I. And it wasn’t until I left India that I started to appreciate the fanatic picture taking experiences. I started to realize that India is such a large country, and that many people I interacted with truly hadn’t met an english speaking white person before. It was exciting for them to meet someone who looked different and spoke a different language, just as it was exciting for me to be in a totally new country.
These experiences in India set the tone for the rest of that trip, and every trip I have taken since then. Now when I travel, I say hello to as many people as I can. I become invested in who they are. I might not ask to take a picture with them, but I will find a way to forge an understanding with them. Whether it’s a head wiggle in India, or a smile in Thailand. I embrace the experience, and every person that is part of it.