Some trips can leave you reeling. They challenge you, frustrate you, and ultimately leave you either totally loving or hating whatever just happened. This was one of those trips.
It’s taken me a long time to finally sit down to write about it for a few reasons. Mostly because India left me with so much to process, on every level imaginable. India can do that to you. After being home for over a month, I realize that I’ve actually remained somewhat emotionally numb since returning, which is strange because during the trip I was consciously aware that our time there was more profound than most of my past travels. But once I got home and friends began to ask me how it was, all I could seem to muster up were vague, positive responses along the lines of “It was great!” or “Really nice!” Every time I speak those words, a little voice in the back of my head screams, “Oh really? That’s it? After all that, ‘nice’ is all you got?”
The truth is, this trip was huge and terribly meaningful. I’ll try to explain it without the typical travel clichés that I am working so hard to avoid. On the inside, I have been swirling; a jumble of technicolor memories and fireworks and electricity. A pot of water waiting to boil over. On the outside? Pretty much the same old me, seemingly unchanged. I’ve kept to myself about it a lot, and have remained pretty stoic and quiet about the things I experienced, in general. My words have not been doing it justice at all. I’ve struggled with even beginning to describe the enormity of it to people because frankly, it’s impossible. So I’m gonna quit right now.
Juuuuuust kidding! Psych! I’m not a quitter. Keep reading!
Anyway, something interesting happened a few days ago as I was packing for a weekend trip. A small, blue scrunchie fell out of my travel toiletries bag and landed on the tile floor in my bathroom. When my mind locked in on it and remembered what it was and who it belonged to, it hit me like a ton of bricks: It belonged to a girl I befriended at the orphanage in Rajahmundry. On the last day in India, she had taken it from her hair and used it to secure the braid she was putting into mine. Oh man. I wasn’t crying, my eyes were just sweating, I swear.
Whatever emotional blanket I had been using to extinguish the fire that this journey lit in me was instantly pulled away, leaving the flames to burst forth in full force, all at once. It all came rushing back in this crazy flash of energy and memory. I missed her and the other kids, and I missed India. And then… gratitude washed over me. I laughed out loud as I recalled the fun we had. Then the tears came. It was then that I realized that my time in India (not just at the orphanage, but everything) was such a big deal to me that clearly I had shut down a little upon my return in order to avoid processing it all. Downplaying it had been a sort of survival mechanism.
Yes, my friends. I actually had a visceral reaction to a scrunchie. So, there’s that.
I’m excited to tell you more about the orphanage soon in another post, but before you read any further, I’m just gonna say a couple of things: 1.) Any Western traveler who makes the trek to India for the first time is in for a serious adventure-treat, as I felt I was. (Mmmm… adventure. Delicious!) And 2.) This isn’t going to be a short blog post, so get comfy. While I’m not going to attempt to teach you anything that you can’t learn about India from book learnin’, I will instead attempt to describe to you the massive amount of beauty I experienced on this trip, and how I even ended up going in the first place. So cuddle up to your favorite cup of chai and let’s get this show on the road.
When the opportunity to go to India with a group of fellow photographers arose, and after a few weeks of nervously questioning whether or not I was cut out for this kind of thing, I went for it. 17 of us did, actually. And the group that assembled from around the world was *so* *freaking* *awesome.* It was, amazingly, a group of strangers who got along without any drama and actually bonded really well. That’s rare with group travel. I am also super grateful for our group leaders: Whitney of The Photo Field Trip for his beautiful vision of learning through play and collaboration, and Caroline + Jayden from Woodnote Photography for their insight, patience, and guidance. They introduced us to a place that they have massive love for, which is such an amazing way to explore someplace new: through the eyes of someone who loves it and knows it well.
Up until October of this year, India was a mystery to me. Kind of a big question mark over the opposite side of the earth with a lot of exciting potential. Southeast Asia was a totally new can of worms. Never had I ever been so far from home.
So why India, right? It’s not really a cushy vacation destination for the most part. My life as it is, is very comfortable. I definitely didn’t need to go to India to have it be revealed to me how good I have it as an American. I already knew that. But I guess it was a way of consciously making the choice to seek experiences outside of my comfort zone. It’s good to stir things up a little every once in awhile, right? The idea of India was a little intimidating and completely alluring. You know that thing that happens in life when you see something or someone and immediately know it’s yours, or at least that it’s important to you, or will become important to you? That was India for me, a siren song. As soon as I knew this trip was being organized through the Photo Field Trip, that was it. Sign, seal, and deliver me via layover in Beijing and too many hours on Air China flights to India, please!
The first half of our trip was spent in Jaipur, the Pink City, where our group assembled. We exchanged ideas about photography and business, but mostly we just laughed a lot. (Note: traveling with a group of other photographers is a dream. This group was a dream. I love you guys.) The other half of the trip took place in rural southeast India, mostly at an orphanage that Caroline and Jayden have ties to through Elephant Landing, their amazing charity that empowers women to earn a living for themselves and care for their families on their own. I plan to tell you more about the orphanage & sewing center we visited in another blog post sometime in January, so watch for that, but for now I’ll leave you with some of the photos from the first part of this trip, and a few mental notes I made while traveling there, things that I don’t want to forget. Things that I hope will help describe this place to you, as complicated and different as it is.
Travel has a way of mirroring back to you whatever you’re currently putting out into the world. This was one of the biggest things I took away from India. If you look for beauty, you will find it in abundance, I promise. In people, in food, in the chaos… If you don’t look past what we as travelers might interpret as poverty, and you focus on the tough stuff, you’ll suffer and hate everything and become a grumpy tourist. Nobody likes a grumpy tourist. So seek out opportunities for authentic experiences. Get away from the touristy places. Try to talk to someone or just wave hello and see what happens. That could mean the difference between a frustrating trip and an amazing trip. I think I speak for my entire group when I say that connecting with the locals in India led to hands-down some of the best experiences we had. I’ve never waved at so many people in my life. I was wavin’ all over Jaipur town. People don’t expect to see goofy tourists waving at them all the time. Like my travel buddy, Wyn said once while we were riding around in the back of a tuktuk, slightly afraid for our lives but also having a total blast interacting with the locals as we drove by, “Why not make somebody’s day?” I couldn’t agree more. When you’re feeling insecure or bashful, give someone a good wave and see what happens. Silliness, when used sparingly and appropriately, can span languages and cultures.
One evening, our group leaders surprised us by taking us to the Monkey Temple, where the Chhath festival was taking place. Chhath is the worship of the Sun God, at least that’s what wikipedia tells me. Energetically and visually, it was one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. A switch flipped, and suddenly Dorothy was no longer in Kansas.
The colors. My god, the colors. Pastels mixed with fluorescents, deep jewel tones. Emerald greens, violets, oranges like you’ve never seen them. The colors in India never got old for me. I noted upon entering that festival, packed with thousands of worshippers and only 17 of us, that anything in my life I had ever labelled as a “visual feast” before this was clearly not one.
One of the highlights, for me, was a day trip to Pushkar, where we arrived at sunrise to photograph the Camel Fair, where cattle are traded every year. We explored the fairgrounds at the beginning and end of the day, and ventured further into Pushkar in the afternoon for exploring and lunch (Note: Garlic naan, I love you.) I highly recommend this town if you’re ever in Rajasthan. It’s a little touristy, but in a good way. Still super charming. I liked the markets here better than the ones in Jaipur.
My friend Dave got a haircut from Baba the Cosmic Barber in Pushkar. You’re proabbly gonna want to click here to watch the video of Baba’s nontraditional haircutting methods.
I can’t talk about visiting India for the first time without mentioning the packed streets and the honking. THE HONKING. HonkingHonkingHonking… More horns than you’ve ever heard in your life, every 5 seconds, everywhere. Soon we realized that honking isn’t always out of rudeness or annoyance as it is here in the States. Instead, it’s simply communication. How else are you going to let that car in front of you know that you’re going to squeeze into the 6″ sliver between it and the next vehicle to make your own lane, a seemingly impossible task in the eyes of the nervous tourist. Oh, and forget lanes. If lanes happen to be painted on the road, they’re quickly disregarded. Chaotic rickshaw rides in the craziest traffic, once surrendered to, were a totally thrilling part of our days and unlike anything I had ever experienced.
In addition to all of the typical things you usual experience in traffic, just add cows, hogs, dogs, and the occasional monkey. My favorite was when the cows would park themselves in the middle of the roads, traffic be damned. As you probably know, many Indian people consider cows to be holy, so cows can do whatever they want. They are auspicious. We shared stairwells at temples with them. People touched them as they passed by for good luck.
We had a short but totally awesome visit to a fabric manufacturer in Jaipur and walked amongst rows and rows of freshly dyed, drying fabrics. My interior design background nerdiness kicked in. How often do people get to see something like this? It’s amazing to go to the source.
The remaining images are mostly from Rajahmundry, where I spent the second part of our trip volunteering at the orphanage I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
This last image basically sums up my entire experience there. I have so much more to say, hundreds more images I’d love to show. But for now, it’s a start.
Photographers: If you’re interested in attending the Photo Field Trip in 2015, click here for more info. I promise you won’t regret it!
And everyone else: Thanks for reading! Check out the awesome video that Caroline + Jayden put together for Elephant Landing to get an idea of something that was an important part of our trip, and to get a little peek of what I’ll talk more about in Part Two. xoxo