Since I was nine years old, I have been traveling to India to visit family. I vividly remember the moment I first stepped off the 14-hour plane ride to Bangalore and was welcomed with a blast of humidity unlike anything I had felt before. My impression of India as a nine-year-old took a turn for the worst before I even left the airport when I had to use the bathroom.
I was traveling with my dad and my younger brother so I headed to the airport bathroom alone. Once I entered the women’s room there was no toilet in sight. I sought help from a petite woman wearing a sari, whom I gathered was the bathroom attendant, but she just muttered something in Hindi and pointed to a small hole in the ground. I put two and two together and realized the hole was the bathroom, and to make it even worse there was no toilet paper! I ran out of the bathroom, crying frantically while explaining to my dad what had just happened. My dad gathered me in his arms and with a look of amusement on his face, simply said, “That’s India for you, Sweetie.”
The rest of my first trip to India got much better as it was mostly filled with endless cheek pinching from relatives and copious amounts of ice cream. But as I grew older, I had the chance to explore more of India than just Bangalore. My appreciation for India grows with each trip, as I have yet to find another country so rich in culture.
My most recent trip allowed me to see much more of India than I had before. I traveled to Agra and saw the breath-taking Taj Mahal, did laughter yoga at the Gateway of India, and rode an elephant up to the Amber Fort in Rajasthan. In Bombay, I sat in on a non-air-conditioned taping of Kaun Banega Crorepati, India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and shook hands with one of India’s biggest movie stars, Amitabh Bachchan.
All of my experiences in India thus far have been incredible, but one tops them all: my visit to Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum.
It felt wrong to tour Dharavi. My stomached churned with unease, after all this is where over one million people call home. As the tour guide scolded, “Absolutely no pictures,” I reluctantly entered the slum with the rest of the tour, crouching beneath concrete slabs and low hanging electrical wires trying my best to make it through the narrow walkways uninjured. On either side of me people were working, men and women making pottery and textiles in dark, overly crowded rooms and children sorting through dirty plastic for recycling. The tour guide stopped outside of a room that smelled strongly of raw meat. He explained that this was where they dry animal skins to send to leather factories and we should walk through and check it out. Being a vegetarian, I wasn’t too keen on viewing the animal hides but I felt rude not going in. One young boy must have sensed my reluctance as he smiled and said, “You don’t have to go in. I hate the smell too.” I was grateful for his assurance and understanding.
We continued through the hazardous walkways past multiple homes, most consisting of nothing but a tiny room with a cloth on the floor for sleeping. We passed by one room full of children sitting cross-legged on a dirt floor, which turned out to be a preschool. The teacher invited us in so we gathered on the ground with the children, all of whom spoke no English. They just smiled and gazed at us with curious eyes. The teacher handed out a piece of chocolate to the children, each the size of one Hershey bar square. Unexpectedly, a couple barefoot children stood up and held out their tiny piece of chocolate to us. We wanted the children to have the chocolate but the teacher explained that it would make them happy for us to take it. We broke the pieces in half, sharing the chocolate with the children and forming one of my fondest memories of India without speaking a single word.
This moment in the preschool will stick with me forever. I realized that India is home to some of the most impoverished people in the world as well as some of the most generous and hopeful people. Each visit to India is full of new adventures and discoveries and traveling to this marvelous country will never grow old.