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In praise of small moments: A love affair with India in pictures.

Posted on Mar 26, 2013 | 50 Comments

“[My latest collection] was a kind of commitment to the worth and value of a small moment, one otherwise lost if not attended to.”

– Lia Purpura

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Lower Dharamsala and I’m waiting at a bus stop, the sun beating down with an impossible strength at this altitude.

I’ve just spent the last two hours sprinting downhill in the march for Tibetan Uprising Day, and the breakfast of chai and bread omelets we had before the morning’s ceremonies now feels like a distant memory. I turn to a small shop just next to the bus stop and buy a Sprite and chips.

The total is 45 rupees and I hand the shop owner a hundred-rupee note.

“No change?” he asks, just like every other shop owner and restaurant manager and bus conductor and train food seller always asks in India.

“No change,” I say, and as a result I’m handed a fifty-rupee note and five little mint candies that are each worth one rupee.

It isn’t the first time this has happened – sometimes it’s five candies, sometimes it’s a five-rupee bag of moong dal or another snack – but just like every time before, all I can do is smile.

Small moments in India

* * *

Anyone who has been to India will understand what a big problem small change can be.

Small denominations are to be guarded like golden tickets – denominations of ten, twenty, and especially the ever-elusive five-rupee note. Whenever I get one, I hang onto it as long as possible, and when I finally use it, I do so with a tremendous sense of satisfaction. (Yes, I’m aware of how sad this is…)

On the other hand, I try to get rid of the big ones as quickly as possible. One hundred-rupee notes don’t normally cause too much fuss, but I cringe whenever I have to pay with a five-hundred rupee note, knowing what a problem I’m causing. Hand over a thousand-rupee note (equivalent to about $18) and the shop owner will look at it with an expression almost like disdain, as though money were actually more of an inconvenience than it’s worth.

It’s a system I’ve gotten used to, and a system I’ve come to love.

And so I tuck those five little mint candies into my bag as the bus back to Upper Dharamsala arrives. I find a seat and wait for the conductor to find me and collect my fare.

“Two rupees,” he says, which seems like quite the bargain.

Even still – as you’ll recall – I have no change, and can only offer him the fifty-rupee note.

A man sitting behind me offers to cover both his fare and mine. I thank him, and he jokingly says, “Bus very expensive.”

A few seconds later I remember the mint candies and pull them out, offering one to both the man and his friend as repayment. But it turns out there are five of them traveling together, and they all lean forward, asking if I have any more.

Which – because of a certain small change problem – I just so happen to have.

I turn back around in my seat and silently watch the hills of Dharamsala roll by outside my window, but inside, I am unexplainably happy. This entire little chain of events – the lack of change from the shop owner, the one-rupee candies, the man who paid my fare, the five candies for the five friends – it all added up, but I didn’t quite yet know what it meant.

It was a small moment to be sure, but one that, if I’m perfectly honest, I will remember for the rest of my life.

* * *

Why? I asked myself on the bus to Dharamsala – why did that moment mean so much? I didn’t understand it right away, but over the next few days, I realized that little chain of events actually encompassed everything I love most about India.

The small scale on which so much of life operates here, the fact that a bus ride can cost two rupees (or just four cents) and a tiny candy only one.

The imperfections of the system, the fact that rules can be bent and that candy can sometimes be given – and accepted – as change.

And the openness, the willingness of a stranger to help you out, and accept help in return, the way it feels we’re all in this together.

There have been other such moments – extraordinarily small moments that I can’t necessarily do a lot with. When someone asks why I love India or what they should do here, I can’t very well say, “Well there was this time I didn’t have enough change…you should try it, too.”

But it is, and they should – for it is the small moments that have come to define my love for India. I was just telling my friend Kim this the other day, that as far as I have found, a love for India isn’t wrapped up in any one city or any one experience.

Instead, it’s a thousand little things that have slowly folded into each other, into one overwhelming love for this fascinating and sometimes frustrating country.

And yet even as I typed that to Kim, I realized that what I was saying can really be said of our love for any place. We don’t love India for the Taj Mahal anymore than we love France for the Eiffel Tower or Cambodia for Angkor Wat – we love India and France and Cambodia for all the small moments in between the big highlights, because it’s the small moments that are expressly ours, moments that could never happen to anyone else anywhere else in exactly the same way.

I leave India on Friday, when I’ll then be embarking on a sketching trip around Southeast Asia and Japan, but before I go, I want to share a few other small moments with you, mainly in pictures. I’ve been storing these photos up for the last seven months now, waiting for the right chance to share them with you – and well, I’m starting to get a little concerned that chance will never come.

I know that as soon as I step foot on Singaporean soil on Friday, I will be caught up in the sights and sounds of a new place, and so before I leave, before I wish you all a final Namaste, I want to honor my time here in India, I want to honor the thousand little gifts she has so graciously given me and the people she gave them to me through. With that being said, here goes:

I will never forget the three months I had a base in Delhi, and for the chance to go below the surface of an oft-disliked city – to witness a newborn puja ceremony on a Friday afternoon, women keeping a kalash pot full of mango leaves balanced on the new mother’s head as they moved down the street.

Small moments in India-2

I will never forget the man who cut my keys in Delhi by hand, and the shoe walla who fixed my sandals for ten rupees, cutting a piece of leather right there on the spot, and the iron wallas whose tables line the streets, smoke from the hot coals that fill their ancient irons rising in the air. 

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in IndiaI will never forget a man named Chotelal, the flower seller of Kishangarh – the neighborhood I lived in in Delhi. I will never forget how I stumbled across his street-side shop, its beautiful wares so incongruous among the evening traffic, and the care with which he wrapped my bouquet, which cost me exactly one dollar.

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

I will never forget the nearly 350 hours I have clocked on Indian trains over the last eight months – if I’ll be leaving my heart in India, which undoubtedly will be the case, I’ve left a large part of it in the sleeper class, where families share their meals and welcome me into the fold, where it’s enough to spend an afternoon staring out the window.

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

I will never forget the simple meals, the five-rupee cups of chai, the lunches of pav bhaji sandwiches and 7-Up at a Mumbai tea shop, the fresh lime sodas so wonderfully thirst-quenching, and the chai wallas on wheels, arriving at the Rickshaw Run finish line in Cochin with hot tea and coffee strapped to their bikes.

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

I will never forget my three trips to Jaisalmer, how at home I felt in the desert, how fun it was to wish the camels outside my guesthouse good morning every day, and how welcomed I felt by the women who lived around me, how I wish I could’ve stayed longer and accepted their invitation for a cup of chai.

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

I will never forget the women I met in Orissa, one of India’s poorest and most backward states how resilient they are, forming themselves into self-help groups; how moving it was to see one woman’s hand resting on another’s knee; and how the children’s eyes danced with a light I won’t soon forget.

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

I will never forget when my friend Erin visited me in Delhi in November, and the pilgrimage we made to Agra  the children we met, passing time before going to the Taj, the families we walked with, and those we met once we were inside. Agra was a lesson in the power of connection.

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

I will never forget the tiny shops of Udaipur, nothing but a little triangle of space cut out of a wall, the way the shop owners open their doors every morning and how they keep their shoes balanced on the tiniest shelf beneath their equally minute shop.

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

Small moments in India

I will never forget how it feels to see these three words, how something inside me almost leaps every time – and how much I can’t wait to see them again one day…even if I don’t quite know when that will be.

Small moments in IndiaWhat are the small moments that you remember most from a place?

  • Kim

    HOLY SHIT, this is such a wonderful, wonderful, WONDERFUL post that so perfectly captures the beauty of India. Candace, I just love it. I’m crying a little over here. You are so amazingly talented my friend. The words, the photos, all of it. I just can’t wait to see what life has in store for you. So proud to call you a friend.

    • KIM! Now you’re making me cry 🙂 In all seriousness though, I can’t thank you enough for your support – it means the world. It has been so wonderful to have our journeys dovetail briefly here in India, and I can’t wait to see where they join up again!

  • Gorgeous photos you have a great eye. beautifully written post. My wife and I are so looking forward to experiencing India in November, this inspired me even more! Thank you!

    • Hey Ross! Thanks so much for saying hello here, I really appreciate it 🙂 That is awesome to hear you and your wife are headed this way in November…do you know yet where you plan to go? If I can help at all in terms of suggestions or recommendations, please let me know (my email is [email protected]). As you can maybe tell from this post, India has won my heart, so I love helping others experience her magic as well!

  • There are few things more beautiful and intoxicating than having the honour of watching a person – especially a person you know and care about – truly step into themselves. As you know, I have been following your blog for a couple of years now, but I honestly feel that a change has occurred of late. Something has shifted, some final, necessary happenstance has, well, happened, and you have blossomed like the rose you were named for. Breathtaking.

    • Hannah, I had to save your comment to reply to for last, because I don’t even have the words to thank you. This means so much to me, and left me in tears when I first read it. I couldn’t agree more with you – I also feel a change has occurred, and to be perfectly honest, you had much to do with that! I will never forget our conversations in Goa, specifically when you encouraged me to start digging deeper and tell more of my story. I had really gotten away from that here, and I am so grateful to you for giving me the courage to get back to the heart of what my writing and this blog are about. So thank you so much, my dear friend, and I am so excited to see what is next for both of us!

  • Loved your post. Reminded me of all the things I love about India. And in such a giant place with so many people, it is all about the small moments. You nailed it!

    • Hello Sarah! Thanks so much for your comment and kind words. You nailed it as well – that was something I was just thinking about last week…about how in one of the biggest countries in the world, it really comes down to the smallest of moments. Pretty cool when you think about it! When were you here? And where did you visit? I’d love to hear about some of your experiences 🙂

      • Woops…I didn’t mean to post two comments… at first I tried to post from my phone and I didn’t think that it sent. Sorry about that! Actually I meant to say all the things I love about Korea, because I think this post can apply to any place where one spends a great deal of time. I would love to travel through india at some point though…it’s on the list. 🙂

        • No worries at all, Sarah! The more comments, the merrier 🙂 I would love to hear all the things you love about Korea, though – any chance you’ll do a similar post before leaving? PS – I hope you’re safe and sound right now with the North Korea situation!

  • I love this post, Candace. With your vivid portrayals of life in India through photos and words, you capture the reasons why we all want to live abroad.

    • Thanks so much, Sarah! That means a lot. Hope all is well with you 🙂

  • Flora

    Absolutely beautiful, Candace – you’ve hit the nail on the head in such a gorgeous way. Your descriptions of the tiniest details noticed in one of the most chaotic and bustling countries are simply delicious! Not to mention your photography skills are incredible. This post would put me on a flight back to India tomorrow if it were possible 🙂 can’t wait to see you paint the next part of your adventures just as beautifully!

    • Flora, I can’t thank you enough for what you said here. For some reason, I always find myself drawn to the smallest moments and details, so it means a lot to know you enjoyed them! And when were you in India yourself? I hope you can make it back here soon 🙂

  • Hi there! I just came upon your blog recently thanks to Kim, a friend when she was back here in Portland, and I love it! We spent just a couple of months in India a couple of years ago and can’t wait to go back. You did an absolutely beautiful job of explaining the magic of not just India, but other places we travel as well, for the snapshot moments that create memories of a lifetime. Thanks so much for sharing. Can’t wait to follow along on your journey into SE Asia and more artwork (I suspect you have something to do w/ Kim’s new website look:) )
    Rhonda (and Jim)

    • Hi Rhonda (and Jim!) 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by and saying hello, it’s wonderful to meet a friend of Kim’s here – she’s become a very good friend these last few months! I’ll actually be passing through Portland this summer, so perhaps it would work out to meet up. That’s great to hear you loved your time in India so much, and I hope you can make it back here soon! PS – And yes, I may have had something to do with the new header 🙂 I can’t wait to see her new site up and running today!

      • Oh wonderful!! We would LOVE to meet up and talk India and travel. Let us know when you’re thinking of coming around since we are out and about camping a lot in the summer and we don’t want to miss meeting you.
        p.s….. just saw Kim’s new site and I love it..it’s so her. Beautiful work.

        • That is excellent to hear, Rhonda! I will keep you posted once my summer plans firm up a bit. And thanks so much for what you said about Kim’s new site – I really loved working on her header and am thrilled to see it live on her site now!

  • Beautiful post, Candace. Your words and photos capture the magic of India, and how the small things (like 5 rupee notes) really are what make this such a wonderful place to be.

    • Brian! Thanks so much for this, it’s great to hear from you. I’m so glad we were all able to share the magic of Goa together for a little while, and it’s good to know you also share my appreciation for 5-rupee notes 🙂 I’m excited for your and Kim’s next adventures!

  • Stunning post, per usual Candace.

    You are incredibly talented and I am so looking forward to the time when I can say “I knew her when…” 🙂

    And to think it all started with a random raffle in Manchester???

    • Hey Kathryn!! It is so great to hear from you here – how are you?! More importantly, where are you? I believe you guys are living in the US now, right? Whereabouts? I’ll be moving around the West Coast quite a bit this summer, so it’d be wonderful if our paths crossed at some point. PS – And yes! It is still crazy to think about that one night in Manchester that changed everything…and it’s actually what I’ll be blogging about on Friday – stay tuned 😉

  • I was only in India for about a month and felt I spent most of that time on the trains…but didn’t take many pictures, or at least, not the ones I wanted to because I was embarrassed. Thank you for capturing some moments that look so familiar to me!

    • I so know what you mean, Alana…while I’m happy to have caught these moments, there is an equal number of moments I didn’t catch because it didn’t feel right to at the time. But I must confess – I’ve gotten quite good at being pretty sly with my camera! All the photos of people looking out the window on trains were taken very quickly, usually when I was pretending to photograph the landscape and I’d quickly turn the camera to my seat mate 🙂 I’m glad to hear they captured a sense of what you felt on the trains as well!

  • Seriously these photos are divine, some of the best I’ve EVER seen of India!

    • Thank you, Andi!!! That is a huge compliment, and it means a lot! Hope you’re doing well 🙂

  • Lovely photos! India and Indians are so photogenic it’s almost impossible not to walk around with your camera glued to your eye! Thanks for sharing. I recently posted a photo essay from my time in Haridwar…I think you might enjoy. http://jessicajhill.com/2013/03/13/india-in-images-life-in-the-holy-city-of-haridwar/

    Love your blog!

    • That’s a great way to put it, Jessica 🙂 I am definitely guilty of keeping my camera glued to my face in India. Thanks as well for the link to your photo essay – off to check it out now!

  • What a beautiful post!
    India is firmly in my vision of the future and these stunning images make me all the more excited for it! I especially love the photo of the women staring out of the train window.
    The small things do seem to hold the biggest significance while travelling- When I set up my own blog a few months ago now, I knew one of the first things I wanted to write about was sitting roadside for an entire day waiting for transport in a backwater town in Southern Ethiopia… It was somehow a perfect day even though we really didn’t do much at all apart from experience the everydayness of the town, chatting with the locals and sharing lollipops with kids.
    Really enjoying your writing 🙂

    • Hello again, Jade! Thank you so much for this comment, and for sharing about your own small moments in Ethiopia – I can really picture that day you spent just sitting by the roadside, and I know how much it must have meant. I’m really glad to have met you here and look forward to checking out your own blog!

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  • This made my eyes welled with tears! Can’t wait to go India this December. Anyway, if you’re in Singapore, we can meet! I’ll bring you around!

    • Thanks so much for this, Lela! And I’m thrilled to hear you’re headed to India in just a few months – where will you be going? Please let me know if I can help with any tips or recommendations 🙂 And thank you for offering to show me around Singapore! I’m sad we missed each other this time, but whenever I’m back, I’ll be sure to let you know.

  • Rahul

    you reminded me of India, especially the candies, mochi and the iron … NOSTALGIC 🙁

  • Lovely, lovely post! Its a learning on how to travel and how to describe your travels! i tried something similar with Istanbul on my blog, http://rachitst.blogspot.in/2012/06/turkish-summer.html

    Will be adding Mauritius and Jakarta soon 🙂 Cheers!

    • Thanks so much, Rachit! And yes, I definitely agree that it takes time to develop your travel style and figure out how you enjoy engaging with the world. It’s exciting to hear where you’re headed next – have an amazing time 🙂

  • THIS writeup has moved me. It has…
    The little quirks in India that you come across everyday — that you get used to.
    That make you nt want to leave it all behind for good.. no matter how much you travel around the world.

    India has contrasts that will surprise you, shock you, bring a smile to your face, leave you wondering in astonishment and sometimes bring tears too..

    An example out of my life to make a point —
    I had to go for an interview with a company that was based in a huge IT park in a neighboring area in Pune.
    Took an auto, reached the IT park, only to find I had no cash – had to take out from the ATM!.. I asked the guards.. started asking around… if they knew of an ATM nearby.. since had to give the autowallah 80 bucks. (by meter mind you:))
    The guards said the ATM was way inside the IT park.. and the property was huge.. I was also getting late for my interview… when a man who was listening to all this.. suddenly offered me a 100 -rupee note to hand over to the autowallah. Only later he asked if I worked there.. I said no.. this was prolly a one-time visit. . and told him I will go inside and be back.
    He said no worries, gave me his card with a said “gimme the money anytime.. no problem”..and went away…

    I stood dr wondering.. were these kind of people for real? still? .. and felt bad for thinking of the man in a negative manner..(just as we girls are nowadays conditioned to do so)…

    I went back to the entrance.. where the guard had stopped a company cab for me– so that I can hitch a ride.. to the far away tower where I had to reach for interview.. I just smiled.. and carried on….

  • Pankaj Pareek

    Hi Candace,
    Very beautifully written. I have read few of your posts and you are amazing. The way you describe events and your experiences is simply wonderful. A lot of events happen in a day and we tend to ignore/forget but after reading this I learned to appreciate small wonderful events. Thank you for it.
    Looking forward for more from you.
    All the best for new exciting trips. Happy travelling 🙂
    Pankaj Pareek

    • Hello, Pankaj! Thanks so much for your kind words about my posts – I’m especially thrilled to hear they’ve inspired you to look for and appreciate the smaller joys in life as well. As I wrote in this post, that’s one of the greatest things India taught me 🙂 Thanks again for reading, and I look forward to seeing you here again!

  • gaurav

    Oh my god. I am from India and right now my age is 25. In 25 years I didn’t see India so closely as you have seen India. I liked your website and the article you have written in favor of India. Love you candace..I really liked your all posts… and from heart I am proposing you to be my friend. .I will feel so glad to be your friend. .my Facebook is mrpurnea. Thanks for showing me my India so closely from your heart touching article…..

    • Thanks so much for saying hello, Gaurav, it’s great to hear from you. I’m definitely grateful for the experiences I had in India – I loved exploring the country so widely and deeply, and can’t wait to return one day 🙂 Where in India are you from?

  • I see that you had a wonderful time in India 🙂

    But, I miss Kerala in your blog 🙁 .
    If you ever plan a long vacation in Kerala, “Kerala” by Stark world is in my opinion the best book on Kerala( a girl in traditional white sari on the front cover). I don`t know whether its available in the market right now. Its one book thats worth every single rupee. 🙂

    • I absolutely did, Aswin! I’d love to write more about Kerala here, and look forward to visiting it again in the future. Thank you as well for the reading recommendation – I’ll be sure to pick it up before returning to India.

  • Stunning!!! I´ve got a bit lost in your blog this afternoon. This post is beautiful, the pictures are stunning. They are the sort of images I´d like to create while I´m there.

    May I ask you though? As a photographer I have a large canon D1 camera. I have a smaller D40, but it´s just not as good! I am concerned about having a large very expensive camera and “flaunting” my wealth. I know I can also take a small snapshot camera, which I will for other times. But to get back and look at poor quality pictures from a crap camera will be a bit rubbish! I am going for 3 months, and only plan to visit a relative small part of the country and stay in places longer, rather than rush around which will help. But your shots on the trains for example are beautiful, I´m guessing they´re not taken with a small camera?

    Thanks for your time, and thank you for your blog!!

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Michelle! I’m thrilled to hear you’re enjoying my site and the photos I’ve shared here 🙂 I definitely understand your concerns about your camera – as a photographer myself, it was also really important to me to have a quality DSLR with me. I always travel with my Canon T3i, as well as with a couple of lenses – a Sigma wide-angle lens and a Canon 50mm prime lens – and thankfully, I never had a problem carrying them with me through India for nine months. I totally get what you’re saying about not wanting to “flaunt” your wealth, but I think that many of the people you meet won’t be offended or surprised by the equipment you’ll have. In addition to my camera gear, I even had a MacBook Air and an iPod Touch, and the only thing I found was that occasionally someone would ask me how much they cost. Does that help at all? If I can help with anything else as you plan for India, please let me know!

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  • Katie Patel

    Hi Candace,

    Firstly your post is fantastic and reassuring. My friend and I (also female) are travelling in India between June and August. Being two young travellers (19 and 20 years old) we have been really worried about safety and how to tell whether a guest house/hostel is safe to stay in or not etc. As you can imagine we are doing this 2 month trip on a budget, so staying in nice hotels isn’t what we want (or can afford). We travelled to Myanmar and Southeast Asia last year and had an amazing time. So we are hoping India will offer a similar experience. Thanks again for such a great post! And happy travelling!


    • Hi Katie! Thanks so much for taking the time to say hello and get in touch. I just wanted to let you know here that I got your email and will be replying to it later tonight – I look forward to chatting with you more soon about your India plans 🙂

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