One week after returning home from my trip to India, I find myself sitting on my couch watching Slumdog Millionaire. Paying more attention to the background details and scenery than to the dialogue and storyline, I easily get lost in my thoughts and reminiscence of my recent adventure. Now, prior to visiting the country, I will admit that my knowledge of India was pretty limited. A few brief stories and descriptions from my friend Krista (who currently lives in Delhi) and from my fellow gap employee Gurpreet (who currently lives at gap intelligence), Lonely Planet’s India travel guide (which I didn’t open until I arrived in Delhi), and that Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire was (mostly) all I knew about the country. I guess you can say I was pretty unaware of, but excited for, the sensory overload I experienced each day that I was in the second most populous country in the world.
A few facts about India (courtesy of Wikipedia):
20 00 N, 77 00 E.
1/3 size of the US.
Seventh largest country geographically.
28 states. 7 union territories.
Flag colors: saffron, white, and green.
I arrived at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field on the morning of August 31. Two flights, three beers, one ambien, and 20 hours later, I had flown halfway around the world. Before long, I passed through customs checks, walked through Delhi’s new airport, found my friend Krista waiting for me, and was in a taxi bound for Sunder Nagar, New Delhi, Delhi, India. We paid extra for an AC cab since even though it was 9pm at night when I arrived, it was still a cool 80 degrees outside, and with the humidity factor in the words of weather.com, ‘it felt like 90 degrees’. I was in India for a total of ten days, not including flights there and back, and let’s just say that I didn’t stop sweating (sorry if tmi). It was hot, humid, and sticky, a big change from San Diego’s dry and chilly weather of late. For all those who are not currently living in San Diego, we had no summer this year. I know you are retorting with an “it’s summer year-round in San Diego,” but I beg to differ and this year we had no summer. Our seasons went straight from April flowers and May showers to June gloom, July gloom, August gloom (minus one week of beautiful sun), and September gloo…wait a minute it’s now Fall. Point proven. I digress…
So here I am, one week later bundled up on my couch drinking hot cocoa watching Slumdog Millionaire. (**alert! as I post this, San Diego is experiencing a hot streak! Goooooo Fall weather! Yeah!) I’ve seen this movie before, a few times actually and very much enjoyed it. But now I find myself sitting, watching, and comparing my experiences with those portrayed in the movie. When the movie came out, it was criticized as much as it was critically acclaimed mostly due to the fact that it ‘didn’t fully capture India and its beauty’. Instead the movie highlighted the poverty, chaos, and other cliché negatives associated with the country. When I think about the first time I saw the movie, I was so suckered into the plot and love story, how could I be critical of anything other than Jamal and Latika living happily ever after? But now I sit watching with my own India experience fresh on my mind and I move on from the love story. Scenes on the TV trigger mental images and I am taken back to India.
It was a great trip. Krista and I travelled mostly around the south, minus a few days of staying at her place in Delhi. Delhi–>fly to Mumbai–>fly to Fort Kochi–>18hr train to Pondicherry–>drive to Chennai–>fly back to Delhi–>train to Agra–>train back to Delhi. Interspersed in all of that were plenty of rickshaw taxi rides, walking tours, and boat adventures. Hundreds of photographs taken, lots of sightseeing, and even Bollywood moviestar spotting. Some monkey dodging, elephant encountering, and village visiting. Always quite hot and sweaty.
There was poverty, there was trash, there were people everywhere. I sometimes had to pay to use a restroom. There was chaos, there was rain (I was there during monsoon season), there were blue tarped slums. Dirt and heat. The Taj Mahal, the volume, the children begging for money, the trains. All these things that Slumdog Millionaire is showing on screen existed and do exist in real life. But, all of this was coupled with beauty, organization, compassion, and order. Some say that the complexity of India lies in the fact that these two things can coexist. That “sensitivity coexists with despair, commitment with indifference, activism with inaction, and humanism with the inhumane.” – Vrinda Naba. This is what India is. And this is what I discovered while I was there. And although it may not be perfectly portrayed in Slumdog Millionaire, it may never accurately be captured in any film.
All in all, India was an incredible cultural experience that opened my eyes to the world around me. And one that can never fully be explained or understood unless you’ve visited India yourself. I definitely plan on one day going back and again experiencing more than just Slumdog Millionaire’s fictional tale…in the meantime, who wants to be a millionaire?!