When I travel to India with my family about every two years or so, I usually settle for seeing the same sights, tasting the same food, and going shopping for more of what I already have. My family and I would always travel to Kerala, a South Indian state along the Malabar Coast, where we would switch between staying at my mother’s house in Karumadi and my father’s house in Pala. I had actually never seen the Taj Mahal, one of the world’s great wonders, and the only slums I’d ever seen were from Slum Dog Millionaire. All of that changed this June.
When my parents, brother, and I arrived in India in the early hours of the morning, none of us having slept in at least two days straight from excitement, we went straight to my mother’s house to stay for a few days, as usual. This time, however, we only stayed a few short days before flying out to New Delhi for the first time to see some historical sites and experience the city life of India. All of us, accustomed to the lush greenery of South India, familiar with seeing all kinds of animals on the side of the road, and so used to the simplicity of the south, were all very shocked to see this different side of India.
North India was definitely more westernized than South India; New Delhi was like a slightly dirtier version of New York City, with its tall buildings and billboard advertisements on the corner of every street. Where in Kerala all of the food one ate was a home cooked meal, in Delhi one could pop into a McDonald’s for fast food. Where in Kerala one could drive for miles on the sinuously curving roads without seeing another building while in Delhi the skyscrapers could be seen everywhere while being driven by a chauffer on straight streets. Where in Kerala most women would wear saris and men would wear mundus, an Indian version of a Scottish kilt, almost everyone in New Delhi could be seen in slacks or jeans. This difference in style surprised me. Why would you wear long pants in this incredible heat when you could wear a long, flowing skirt or a mundu? Even in the Taj Mahal, India’s ultimate tourist attraction, native Indians wear long clothing despite the extreme heat of the marble.
How could I not have seen all of this? I had to ask myself this over and over, and again when I saw the slums for the first time. I saw houses made of tin and cardboard and litter right next to the street. I saw more beggars in one day than I could ever see in days or even months in the south, wandering through the streets wearing eye patches or waving a stump where an arm used to be. Sure, there were plenty of men and women begging in Kerala, but I’d never seen so many in one place, roaming the streets and pleading for any spare change. My brother and I sat stiffly in the car, avoiding the stares of various beggars, trying as hard as we could not to reach into our pockets and thrust money into every open hand that waved in front of our car window as we waited idly in traffic.
It’s incredible what one can miss even when traveling to the same destination over and over. I’ve been to India several times and have never seen anything like what I saw in North India. I wonder what other experiences I’ve missed in India.
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