India was the first port in months we had some time to prepare for. After a series of ports two days apart, where ship time consisted of a whirlwind of “what did you do”s and laundry and plans for the next port, we were relieved to have some time to think. Five whole days: time for a study day and multiple lectures and a number of explorer seminars.
On the official side, SAS made the interesting choice to use this time to terrify students. For five days they shouted a message that went something like this “THEFT! RAPE! POVERTY! TOUTS!”
They didn’t really, of course. In reality they attempted something that looked like a cultural introduction. But everything was colored by this fundamental idea: “You think that India will be the most overwhelming experience of your life and boy are you right.” A resident director spoke about the difficulty of being stared at all the time. The doctor talked, again, about traveller’s diarrhea.* They warned endlessly about getting on to busses and into cars you weren’t absolutely sure of. There are reasons for this – SAS has endured wave after wave of lawsuits after students have been injured – some fatally – when, on land, they have signed up for trips with unlicensed providers. But it didn’t exactly lead to a lack of racism.
There was another side, though. The unofficial side. The inter-port lecturer got up to give a lecture about how exciting India is. Two inter-port students sang for us, sat at tables at lunch, and set up a table in the center of the ship for information. (I went to them once and asked a young woman, “what’s the most common language in Kerala?” “Malayalam” “Great! How do you say thank you, sorry and please in Malayalam?” I asked. “You say, ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘sorry.’” she told me.) And then we have our own Indian students – four of them. They are from all over a huge, diverse, country, and I feel terrible for the questions they must have fielded.
The students were thrown. Who were they to believe? And what on earth was India going to actually be like? Somehow, I had let slip that I spent six weeks in India once. They swarmed me: what could they expect? I felt a grave responsibility here to be honest, unbiased and fair. The official SAS line seemed to be to prepare every student for the sole experience of standing outside a tuk-tuk rank with their passports hanging limply from their hands and cash coming out their back pockets in the middle of Agra, and I didn’t want to support it. I thought hard, nodded gravely and told them this, “it’s really big.” I perfected a smile that seemed to say “there! I’ve answered all your questions, haven’t I!” At least, I concluded, they walked away from me annoyed, rather than scared, which I considered a step up.
I didn’t know how to prepare them. India was an incredible experience for me. My six weeks with Kate in India, from the first night in Vijay’s apartment, eating mango and drinking beer in a house in Mumbai, through bouts of heat wave in Rajasthan, tea in palaces in Udaipur, monkeys stealing my water bottles on climbs to temples, through Rishikesh and Haridwar and all the way through the rather humbling experience of breaking down completely in the back of a truck an hour outside McCleod Ganj, had become a myth I told myself. They were stories: fragments of color and sound and smell and memory that I had wrestled down into neat narratives. I couldn’t remember how it felt so much as how I had talked about how it felt. And above all this I knew that I had only seen a tiny bit. I’d be like someone who’s only seen New England telling another what Santa Fe looks like.
On the night before we pulled into Kerala, our Indian students decided to teach us to dance to Bollywood music. “Just do anything,” Anish said, “but then do it bigger.” We blasted Bollywood music across the back deck, and students gathered in the humid night to dance very badly. In the middle of the circle, Shweda, a student who grew up in the red light districts of Mumbia, was teaching the Executive Dean’s wife “screw the lightbulb, pat the dog,” the hand movements famous from the Slumdog Millionaire dance scene. We cheered. A chant went up, and with a sudden, enormous wave of clapping, Vijay, the head waiter, burst into the middle of the circle. The three of them danced and we watched, standing on tables and railings, clapping and screaming along. The last of the sunset faded just as Kerala came into view.
The next morning, we woke up in India. We were sailing past giant Chinese fishing nets (I have been told that my ability to describe the various fishing strategies of the world is limited, at best. Perhaps my mother has a picture of the Chinese fishing nets. If not, I’ll just tell you this: they’re big, and super cool) and on either side of the Explorer, ferries full of trucks and vans and motorcycles and bicycles idled impatiently as we blocked their paths. After an endless immigration process I stepped out into a place I remembered loving, a place I hadn’t seen for six years, and, I quickly learned, a place I’d never been before.
Because Kerala isn’t Agra. And Kerala isn’t Mumbai. Not to mention that Mumbai is not Agra.
We talked endlessly before port about how diverse India is. One of the inter-port students said that “India is so diverse that being diverse has come to be what it means to be Indian.” Which is a nice thought, but one I didn’t really get. Because, honestly, I thought it would be like New York and Santa Fe – one’s quieter, hotter, less populated. But they’re both American, right?
And Kerala is still India, of course. But it’s an India that’s 20% Christian, an India with ancient Synagogues and the first resting place of Vasco di Gama in a sleepy church. It’s an India where streets move slowly, and where the town of Kochi itself is fairly sleepy and laid back. It is a place where when someone tried to sell me postcards and I said no, he said “so no chance?” and I said, “no chance,” and he said “oh.” And then he just walked away.
In five days, Mom and Dad and I travelled from tranquil backwaters, where we spent my 30th birthday on a houseboat with rattan furniture, puttering through little towns, past villages and fancy summer homes to high, green mountains growing cardamom and pepper and tea and tigers (we took an hour cruise in a tiger reserve, and I was pretty set on seeing one. I later found out that in a several thousand square mile forest there are 43 tigers. We did, however, see some deer.), and back down to the agricultural heart of India and into a bustling metropolis, over three thousand years old.
The more we travelled, the more I saw, the less I felt like I’d failed to answer those students. What could they expect from India? Well, after the second of what I hope will be many trips, I can only offer this: it’s big.