In July my husband and I will be embarking on an around-the-world trip for the next couple of years. I was born and raised in a small, homogeneous town (particularly so when compared to the Bay Area), and never expected, or even desired, to go on a trip of this magnitude, or destination (Asia), until a few years ago. I credit this to a general lack of knowledge about countries in Asia as well as lack of contact with anyone who had traveled there, that is, until I went to college. It’s not that all people who live in small towns have limited perspectives, but for me, my knowledge and understanding of the world and cultural nuances definitely opened up when I moved away.
During my senior year of college, Matt, my boyfriend at the time (now husband), went to India for a 6-month study abroad program. Before he left, I had no desire to visit him there—why would I want to go to India? I thought of it as dirty, hot, and, honestly, nothing else. Besides the Taj Mahal, I didn’t really know what there was to see in India. However, once I started hearing his stories and reading his entries on his travel blog, the country and its history sounded so intriguing that I decided to visit him in India before school started in the Fall.
I quit my summer job early, bought a backpack, and flew halfway around the world to meet up with Matt and experience my first non-western country. I arrived in the early morning; it was still dark out. As our taxi navigated the quiet streets, I remember seeing a monkey sitting in a doorway along an empty sidewalk. Later I realized that monkeys in the city were pretty normal, especially after seeing packs of them swinging around the capital building. However, at the time the oddness of a medium-sized primate just hanging out on the street is why I remember my first monkey-sighting so vividly, while the other monkeys I saw have been blurred into passing memories. It’s the first time away from the familiar that is most notable.
India was thrilling on multiple levels: historic sites, culture, terrain, and non-stop sensory stimuli. Color, sounds, smells, and the HEAT came at me from all directions, and all were constantly changing. India was dirty and hot, but it was also wonderful. No matter where I looked, all was new to me. Completing simple tasks like finding ice or getting to the train station became unexpected adventures.
After a long day of being lost in the mountains on a motorbike, Matt and I decided to have dinner at a lakeside restaurant. It wasn’t until the next morning that I discovered a couple hundred red spots on my feet and ankle areas. Apparently there were many little bugs that had dinner the same time as I. To make matters worse, one of my ankles was already swollen from a motorbike mishap when our moving moped hit a parked one, jamming my foot in the middle. I had had it. My feet were swollen and itchy, and I just wanted to go home and have everything be better.
Matt and I went down to a local pharmacy (think snack shack at the little league field only stocked with medicine instead of red ropes and popcorn) to purchase some calamine lotion, which made the itching worse. We decided to look for ice instead. How hard could it be to find some ice? Ice was nowhere to be found. I was uncomfortable, mad, and needless to say, very irritable. It was time to head to the train station for our trip back to Delhi, and I came to terms with abandoning the search for ice. We found an auto-rickshaw that was decked out in Lacoste stickers, and the driver quoted us a reasonable price to take us to the train station.
In a last ditch attempt to find some solace for my swollen feet, I asked the driver if he happened to know of a store where I could buy some ice. “I will take you to the ice shop!” he said. Great! One of those shave-ice drink stands or a place where I could buy a bag of ice cubes came to mind, but before I got deep into visions of a corner store like the ones at home, the auto-rickshaw turned into a back alley and pulled up to, literally, an ice store. Sitting before me were blocks of ice the size of the auto-rickshaw I was sitting in. “How much do you want?” he asked. Matt and I looked at each other as we held in our laughter; obviously we did not want a whole block of ice. I motioned for a piece about the size of brick, and the iceman sliced off a small hunk of ice with a chainsaw, wrapped it in a plastic bag, and handed it over.
Our enthusiastic driver quickly whisked us off to the train station. Occasionally Matt and I would talk to the drivers, but it was always just trivial inquiries: “How’s business?” “Are you from this town?” “Where is a good place to eat?” This guy needed no prompting from us, he couldn’t stop talking. The driver told us how he had a regular gig taking school kids to and from class each day, about his family, etc. He was a very personable driver, taking the time to look back at us while he was talking…and driving. The driver reminded me of a kid who happened to get the fast golf cart, driving more recklessly than the marshal would prefer. I had visions of flipping over as he hurriedly maneuvered through the crooked, narrow streets of Udaipur. My knuckles were turning white as I held tightly to the side of the vehicle, and I threw Matt a worried look as the vehicle grazed the side of a cow. Luckily we arrived at the train station unscathed and I in a better mood, less focused on the events from the day before as I marveled at the morning’s unplanned adventures.
Looking back on those days of discomfort, I notice two things: 1.) a bad situation (e.g. swollen feet) can lead to good experiences. Throughout the trip there were so many great things that I was able to experience, despite being uncomfortable, and sometimes because of my lack of comfort. Of course, most of the time these things don’t seem so “great” when they are happening, and only in hindsight do they glow in a more favorable light. 2.) I wonder what new things I failed to notice because I was so engrossed in my own wants and needs. What little details, like the monkey in the doorway, slipped by unnoticed? Luckily, India provided me with plenty of opportunities to experience new things, and looking back I realize that my physical discomfort was a notable aspect was of the trip. Forced outside of my comfort zone, I realized that out of the zone is not necessarily a bad place to be, whether at home or on the road.
As I prepare for my upcoming trip, I am not going into it with the expectation of being comfortable. I will miss my own bed and pillows, I won’t like having to bargain for goods and services, and doing laundry every other day in the sink will get old quick, probably after the first week. But this time, in addition to my backpack and Cipro, I am taking with me the hope that in times of discomfort I would not be so focused on thoughts of home that I miss the good things around me. It would be a shame to only experience the good parts of “bad” experiences in hindsight.