the halfway point: getting to know my terra incognita.
“A kind of India happens everywhere, that’s the truth too; everywhere is terrible and wonder-filled and overwhelming if you open your sense to the actual pulsating beat.”
“So what do you think of India so far?”
It’s a question I’m starting to get a lot lately–from family, friends, even people I meet here who soon learn I’m more than halfway through my four months in the country.
And usually, I come off sounding like a pom-pom-waving cheerleader–”It’s amazing! I love it!”
Partly because it really is and I really do, but mainly because, well–how exactly do you put it into words? I imagine it might be similar to asking someone in love why exactly they love the other person. Chances are it’s something inexpressible–and it might even include the frustrating bits, the foibles and flaws, because they’re all what makes them them.
I feel much the same about India, but–if I have to choose, I suppose it’s this:
I love getting to know my terra incognita.
You know how some films start out in space? And then earth comes into view and the camera slowly begins to pan down through the clouds, down into the atmosphere to a whole continent, to a country and a city until suddenly, you’re in someone’s backyard and you can see the family inside the house?
That’s how India has been for me. Not so much the epic panning action [sadly], but this big terra incognita, a giant white space that I’m slowly getting to know on a closer and closer level. On the third night of the Rickshaw Run, I sat in our hotel room in Siliguri, West Bengal, and wrote:
“Before the trip, I tried to familiarize myself with the Indian cities on our route. My knowledge grew slowly–I learned where Varanasi is, then Agra, then the relative locations of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. I began to say the names like I knew what I was talking about, but really I knew nothing. It’s like learning curse words in a foreign language. You say them with proud assurance, but inside you feel nothing because there isn’t any context.
“Now, though, I’m starting to put context to knowledge. Now, when I say the name Siliguri, I’ll think of the Indian city tucked in what Citlalli and I call “the sliver,” but is really West Bengal. I’ll think of how it’s a junction point, from which signs point to Darjeeling (82km) and from there, to Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan–or south to Bihar, where we’re headed tomorrow. I’ll think of its streets like Hill Cart Lane, of a clever dog crouching under the barrier in the median, and of the men selling paan on the sidewalk.”
And that same kind of narrowing in, from a city being just a name on a map to a place I’ve been and seen and smelt, is what has kept me going these last two months. I wouldn’t call myself a backpacker, although maybe my Kathmandu backpack would say otherwise. I normally prefer to “set up shop,” if you will, in a new country: finding a flat, getting a job, forming a routine. This way of travel–constantly picking back up, constantly staying somewhere different–is pretty new to me and hasn’t always been easy.
There has been loneliness, there has been frustration, and oh have there been meltdowns. But the thing is–we have that anywhere [at least I do!]. Ultimately, we bring who we are on the road, and all we can hope for is to find places where, for the majority of the time, we feel as alive as possible.
That despite the culture shock and often lack of comfort zones, we are somehow still in our element–whether it’s making friends on a 36-hour sleeper class train journey, learning how to make rava pudding with a women’s self-help group in a Tamil village, or laughing with the leader of a beekeeping project in Orissa.
I think that in our world today, where there are no longer vast swathes of unexplored land, when the spaces previously left white and blank on the maps have given way to neat color patterns and perfectly chartered coastlines, it’s no longer about being the first person to explore new territory, but about exploring the territories that are new to us.
Maybe I’m not sending groundbreaking reports back to the Queen of England as I discover spices like tamarind and cardamom or learn customs like eating with your right hand, but to me, at least, they’re still important discoveries.
And even as I continue on through Tamil Nadu, places like Sri Lanka and then Kerala, Goa and Mumbai are all still words to me–destinations I’ve yet to hit and put some context to.
But then again, that’s what the next six weeks are for…
Do you have a “terra incognita”? What are the new territories you want to explore?