I fell in love with Indian literature when I first read Jhumpa Lahiri‘s collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. It was then that I got obsessed with Indian–and South Asian–literature in general. Soon, I found myself immersed in the works of other Indian writers like Thrity Umrigar, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Chetan Bhagat, and Raj Kamal Jha, as well as Pakistani writers, including Roopa Farooki, Bina Shah, John Siddique, and Daniyal Mueenuddin. When I landed in India mid-February this year, hitting Mumbai and the golden triangle of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, I got swept away by this nostalgic feeling of being at home. Everything seemed distant and foreign, yet comforting and familiar. In one and other way, India reminded me a lot of Pakistan. The two countries captivated me in an instant to the extent that I would gladly think of them as my second home. And these are the 9 things I miss the most about India, not in any particular order:
1. The beautiful buildings and architectures. Especially in Mumbai. I love the feeling of going back in time every time I look at those beautiful structures: palaces, flats, train stations, government offices, forts, temples.
2. The food. In Indonesia, I am not a big fan of Indian food. I never really liked the taste somehow–there’s always something that isn’t right. But I found myself falling in love with Indian food in India. Wherever I went, from the street-stalls to a fancy restaurant to someone’s kitchen, the taste of the food was always perfect. I loved it so much that I had no cravings for junk food at all–despite the fact that I spent 13 days in the country and passed by McDonald’s or KFC numerous times.
3. The birds. I don’t know why there are so many birds in India. Birds are flying freely above the temples, the street, someone’s backyard, and nesting right outside your window. I miss their constant cooing. I miss going to sleep at night with the sound of their flapping wings against the windowsill.
4. The squirrels. And I don’t know why there are so many squirrels in India! Just like the birds, they are everywhere: temples, buildings, streets, backyards, random trees, you name it. They are the cutest thing ever. I love them!
5. The bookshops. For someone who spent most of her money on books, India is definitely a paradise for book lovers. Compared to Indonesia, the price of books in India is very cheap. You can get a classic English book for IDR 30,000 only (USD 3)–and bookshops can be found everywhere: from the posh Khan Market area to the bustling street-side of Colaba’s night market. I bought so many books in Delhi and ended up sending them back home from Jaipur to avoid excess baggage–because they weighed 10 kilograms.
6. The Qutb complex in Delhi. Qutb Minar is the tallest minaret in India, but the complex housed several other ancient structures from that era; including Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque–the first mosque to be built in India. It was so serene–the morning when I was there–I could breathe in the glory and the divinity of what it once had been. And the huge garden inside the complex was just breathtaking. I could see myself spending my mornings in this complex, walking around mindlessly or sitting on a bench under a tree, painting, reading a poetry book, or writing on a piece of paper.
7. The city’s outdoors. I love it when you’re in the middle of the city and you can just walk by to the nearest park or a riverbank or the seaside to sit and chill. And India has loads of spots like that. From Mumbai’s Marine Drive to Delhi’s public parks, I found it charming to see people from all ages having picnics at the outdoors: couples, friends, families, some blokes… *giggles*
8. The color-burst. Those colorful saris, bangles, buildings, trucks, rickshaws, desserts… India’s color palette is extremely rich. No matter where I looked, I was exposed to those amazing colors, like a constant feast for the eyes. Immediately, it brought me back to my childhood days–to the nostalgic feeling of wonder and amusement as I opened up my first box of 32 Crayola crayons.
9. Gee. It was amazing how we got to know each other through this blog. And that we decided to meet up in Delhi. Gee, or Geetanjali Kaul, is definitely the highlight of my India trip. She is also a living proof that arranged marriage can actually work; romantically speaking. Amazing to see how–after 15 years of marriage, she is still madly in love with his husband, Ashish. Maybe wonderful souls did find each other. Gee and I spent an amazing three days together, and she took care of me like we had known each other for years. I miss her. And her best friend, Neeraj. And her mother-in-law (Didi), and her mother-in-law’s mother (Nani), and her wonderful kids Anika and Vivan. And her dogs.
I miss India.
And it just happened. From short-distance trip to crossing half of the globe, I found myself enjoying traveling alone–savoring the privilege of doing whatever I like in whatever pace I want while turning strangers into friends along the way. It has been an enriching experience that helps me to become more confident, thoughtful, and considerate. Some female readers ask me what are the things they need to consider if they would like to travel solo themselves; so I think I’ll just share some tips from my experience below:
- Don’t be a bitch. No matter how pissed off you are, how angry you are, control yourself, control your emotion. You are alone in a strange country–if you’re being a bitch and making hurtful comments to someone, you’re attracting unnecessary hatred towards yourself. Just be kind, but prompt. I know sometimes guys approach you when you’re walking or invite you for some drinks; other times a beggar follows you around asking for money. You can smile and say ‘no’ politely, and then say ‘no’ again promptly when they’re still trying, or say ‘no’ again and walk away briskly. But don’t make a drama out of it. If you don’t like the taste of a local food or find the streets so gross and dirty or think that a local custom doesn’t make sense, don’t make nasty comments or ugly faces or throwing evil judgments. Accept the fact that each country is different, and respect that. Think of how you would feel if a traveler made nasty comments about your country. Don’t make people hate you. Be kind. Be considerate.
- Be prepared and do your homework. Do extensive research about the country/city you are about to visit. Ask around, especially to friends/families who had been there before. With sites like Couchsurfing, you can always get valuable insights from the locals about the best location to stay, local transport, customs and traditions, and so on. Learn a little bit of local language always helps–at least in the countries I have ever visited. I realized that the locals–including immigration officials, became much friendlier when I said a few words in their local language. I think they appreciate the fact that you care enough to try. Find out the proper outfit to wear. In some countries, women adhere to a certain way of dressing. In other countries, you need to wear long skirts or sarongs to visit temples and religious sites. To me, following the dress code is more about showing respect to the culture in a certain country rather than an attempt to avoid unnecessary attention (though it also helps you gain respect when you’re trying to dress like a local). I would suggest you to have your accommodation booked at least for your arrival day. This would calm you down, knowing that you already have somewhere to go and someone to contact as you exited the airport.
- Make connections. You can stay with a Couchsurfer. It’s a great way to experience a country from a perspective of a local. You can select a female host to stay with if it makes you feel safer. I would suggest you to stay with someone whose location has been checked, the identity has been verified, has been vouched for, and has hosted several travelers before. Do read people’s recommendations/testimonials about the host. If you’re not comfortable with the idea of staying with a stranger, go for hostels. You can do your research at HostelWorld. Most hostels have reception areas and common rooms where other travelers hang out. Make friends with them, chat about your itineraries and plans, sometimes you can arrange some trips together or tag along with someone. Make conversations with taxi drivers, waiters, shopkeepers. Ask them about the ‘local places’ to eat or shop.
- Don’t look lost. Sometimes we got worried, scared, confused, got lost. But, no matter what, appear calm and confident. Act as if you know what you need to do. When you’re waiting for someone, appear busy. Bring a book with you, so you can read instead of looking lost. Of course, you can also pretend to take photographs or listening to music from your iPod or fake-texting on your phone–but in some places you don’t want to flash your gadgets out. Book is rather safe. If you need to ask for directions, enter a nice hotel/inn/store/cafe and ask the concierge or the bellboy or the storekeeper or the waiter. If you’re out in the streets, ask in front of a group of people who doesn’t know each other, like in a shop, small restaurants, or bus stop–thus if someone is trying to mislead you, other people will catch that and butt in. Trust your gut. When something (or someone) doesn’t feel right, walk away from it.
- Make sure you can contact someone and can be contacted. Even if you don’t have local numbers, make sure that you can make an emergency phone call or send text messages. Have someone to contact in the city you’re in; either someone from your hostel, your embassy, a fellow traveler, or a local friend. Let someone at home–either families and friends know your plans and your whereabouts: your flights, hotels, and so on; at least they have a grip on where to find you. It will make you feel safer.
- Just remember that we are all human after all. We like to laugh and smile and be happy. We like to make friends and enjoy nice conversation. Some things are universal, like kindness. Be positive and see your next destination as an adventure, as a journey to find that kind-hearted person inside of you. Go out and see the world with this frame of mind, and you’ll be able to see beauty everywhere you go–even when it’s hidden in the most unlikely places.