Blaring horns, thick smog in the air, an incessant screeching of car tyres, the scent of marigold flowers mingled with the smell of cows, red betel-nut leaf stains – all combine to launch an intensive assault on the senses. India is definitely not for the faint-hearted. It is a melting pot of cultures, and a smorgasbord of experiences. It is a land of contrasts and juxtapositions. It is anything but boring.
A few months ago, my husband and I took a very touristy trip to India’s Golden Triangle. We marvelled at the Taj Mahal in Agra, one of the New 7 Wonders of the world, navigated the pink city of Jaipur, and conquered old forts in Delhi. We also took a detour to Mumbai where we barely missed the monsoon rains. However the familiar assault on my senses took me back to another trip to India, more than 20 years ago, that I did as a child. That trip had been an impulsive decision by my father, who had qualified as a doctor in India. Frustrated at life in South Africa in the 1980’s, he decided to take his family to experience the country which had ignited his imagination.
My mother missed her family. To my brother and I, it was all a big adventure. We moved around from place to place, soaking up the crowds, the exotic culture, the diverse people and the delicious cuisine. Every experience was an adventure which I beheld with the wide, fresh and innocent eyes of a child.
We spent our first few days in an airport inn in Mumbai, which still bears some of my fondest memories. We befriended mischievous staff who taught us to fill water balloons, throw them on unsuspecting passers-by from the terrace and duck before they could see us. Then we found a flat in a suburb where we shared a domestic named Sushila with an aging Bollywood actress. A few months later, we moved to Bandra which a lot more Bollywood stars called home. The house next to our flat was used as a movie studio. Unfortunately, it was shaded by too many trees so our star sightings were minimal.
We lived an idyllic life. We would take walks on the beach every evening and sample the culinary delights of top restaurants and street vendors alike. I don’t recall ever having a Delhi (or Mumbai) belly. We played with the local kids and went to our neighbours’ traditional weddings. We visited scenic hill stations where magicians thrilled us with magic in exchange for rupees. I went for French lessons to a lady whose husband played the piano at 5-star hotel bars. Our local transport was the black and yellow tuk-tuk, known as the auto-rickshaw in India.
When the monsoon arrived, it arrived with a bang. We went shopping one dry and sunny afternoon and when we returned to our flat a few hours later, the streets were flooded with over a foot of water. But it was all part of the experience.
After a few months in Mumbai, we moved on to a village in Gujarat. Here, life was much more peaceful than chaotic Mumbai. We attended a local school and learnt to speak Hindi and Gujarati. We had picnics in the fields with the village kids. We helped them to harvest their crops and to milk the cows. We would drink fresh buffalo milk everyday. Everything tasted so much better because it was fresh…and organic. We travelled by trains but sometimes by ox cart too. Life was so much fun!
Then in 1990, when Madiba (Nelson Mandela) was released from prison, my parents decided that it was time to return to South Africa. My extended adventure in India came to an end. But India still held a special place in my heart and after raving about it to my husband for years, he decided to accompany me on a trip there to see what had ignited my imagination, like my father’s, so many years earlier.
We went…but India was not the same India from my nostalgic childhood. It had changed. But that was alright because I still had the gift it had given me – my love affair with travel. It is the feeling of peace I get when I look down on the world from the skies above, the excitement of discovering magical places, the cultural encounters with delightful strangers, the culinary experiences and the vibrancy and diversity one encounters every step of the way that has me addicted. The more I do it, the more I want to do it. It is an addiction that has to be nurtured consistently. It is about freedom, discovery and adventure. It is knowing that the world is at my feet and is mine for the taking.
Note: A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Travel Weekly on 2 March 2014 under the title “Thank you, India”.