Some travelers like to research a new destination inside and out before they visit. Their deep understanding of the history, culture, and traditions truly allows them to enjoy their experience even more.
I used to wish I were like those people. For example, I admired the couple I met in Alaska who brought along their well-worn guide to the state’s familiar plants, animals, and natural attractions so that they could check off each item in the book. I adored the young lady I overheard at Yellowstone telling her parents how often Old Faithful would spew, how hot the water was, and how many gallons of water were expelled during each eruption.
So, when I made plans to visit India, I decided that this time it would be different. I had eight months to prepare, and I resolved that during that period I would become an expert on the country’s history, architecture, cuisine, religion, climate…you name it. I started with the most important thing, the weather. After determining that it would feel exactly like Georgia in the summertime, I moved on to the food. But before I could even find a few minutes to Google a decent curry recipe, the eight months had somehow passed, and it was time to pack. “Man!” I thought. “I’ve done it again.”
Armed with my itinerary, multiple scarves, and the contact information for my travel companions, I set out on my India adventure.
The moment I stepped out of the car in Delhi, my senses kicked into overdrive. My eyes took in the bright saris and intricate architecture while my ears adjusted to horns honking all around me. The scent of delicious food cooking mixed with that of animals meandering through the streets put my nose on high alert as I wandered through the markets, sampling flavorful spices and running my hands along a variety of textiles…from linen to silk to everything in between. It was almost too much to bear all at once, but I was ready to jump right in and experience it all.
For the next week, I learned about India not from history books, Wikipedia, or a Lonely Planet guidebook, but from the people who live there. The couple who invited us into their home for a cooking demonstration spent time discussing their own arranged marriage and the traditions of dowries in their country.
The family who welcomed us behind the wall of their family farm showed us the cooking tools they use in their kitchen as well as the bamboo-and-rope beds that they stack in a corner during the day and pull out at night, so they can sleep wherever they want…sometimes outside.
Our Rajasthan-raised guide candidly discussed India’s caste system and the country’s efforts to move beyond it, such as the government providing bicycles to girls so they can easily get to school and making it illegal to treat anyone with disrespect. He explained how Hindus coexist peacefully with Muslims, Jains, Jews, and Christians. It wasn’t all talk, for we witnessed it firsthand…no matter what faith they followed, Indians greeted one another with true love and respect that comes from deep within the soul. Couldn’t we all learn from this practice?
Our Delhi-born guide, who discussed the serious political climate, also joked about all of India’s paradoxes…. how it’s dangerous to talk to strangers but okay to marry them…that they worship the mother Ganges River but “pollute her to the hilt”…that they practice nonviolence but also employ the death penalty.
Our Mumbai guide, who took us to the local spice markets, introduced us to how the locals concoct their own personal masala and curry recipes.
However, I learned the most from the people that I randomly encountered, whether a hotel employee or a vendor on the street, who taught me about the true Indian culture of “Namaste” simply by being their authentic selves.
“Namaste” is a word that here in the U.S. we associate with yoga; but the true meaning goes well beyond. At our office at Global Escapes, we often discuss the difference between customer service and hospitality. Through the years, we have concluded that customer service simply means responding to clients’ requests, while hospitality is a proactive approach…it is anticipating clients’ needs and taking care of them before we are even asked. It’s offering a cup of coffee or a bottle of water before the client realizes they need it. It’s an extra special touch that makes someone feel comfortable and at home in our space.
In India, the word “Namaste” takes hospitality one step further. Its true meaning is “Guest is God.” It is more than a greeting…it is an act of recognizing the divine each other. “I am a soul recognizing you as a soul, and we are the same,” explained our tour leader. Bowing your head as you fold your palms at the chest is the gracious form of extending friendship with love and humility.
Everything about India that I experienced with my five senses was over-the-top incredible. However, the intangible things are what made a lasting impact. Never in my life have I experienced true selfless love in the form of welcome than I did while I was in India. This type of service, free of an agenda, changes you as a person, opens you up, and makes you want to become a better human. When you travel extensively, you can easily tell the difference between a fake smile meant to please a tourist and one that originates in the soul. In India, it’s ingrained in the culture. It’s genuine, humble, and straight from the heart.
As I waited to board my flight back to the United States, I was thankful for the fact that I didn’t research India to death ahead of my travels. Sometimes, too much information can be dangerous, making you form preconceived ideas about a place and its culture, ultimately tainting your ability to be open to new ideas. It’s like seeing the movie before you read the book. India is more than its temples, food, and breathtaking scenery. It’s the people, their warmth, and their desire to connect. You can’t learn about that feeling through research–you have to go and experience it first-hand.
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