When I went to India for the first time in 2004, I had almost no idea what it would be like. My only real expectation was that there would be elephants (there were in case you are wondering). However, what I experienced was so much more amazing than just elephants. Here are four of the most shocking surprises from my first trip abroad to India.
So Many People
According to the CIA’s The World Factbook, India ranks second in population in the world with 1,236,344,631 people, while it only ranks seventh in land area with just slightly more than one-third the area of the United States. That’s a whole lot of people crammed into one small country! The sheer difference in the number of people in such a small area was shocking for me as an American from a small city because I was not used to such a large crowd of people, cars, rickshaws, buses, and animals at all times, day and night.
The abject poverty of some of the people I saw was not only shocking, but also heart wrenching. There were people who had homes that were little more than blankets on the street. I saw children digging through piles of garbage to find things to sell or eat. At night in Delhi, I noticed several people sleeping on the sidewalks. A young mother from the city of Kapurthala still haunts me because she approached the window of my car to beg for change with a very starved and malnourished child balanced on her hip, and flies buzzing around their eyes in the sweltering heat.
All You Have to Do is Smile
Although one of the official languages of India is English, I found that it was common to find people who could not speak to me because they only spoke Hindi or Punjabi. The World Factbook notes “Hindi is the most widely spoken language and primary tongue of 41% of the people.” However, I was surprised to find most of the children and college students could talk to me in English and were happy to try to teach me their language, but when all else failed, a smile in India meant the same as a smile in America.
One of the most shocking realizations of my trip was just how beautiful the country was, and I do not just mean well known sites like the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple in Amritsar either. For example, in Jalandhar, there was the bright bold color of bolts of cloth while I was shopping for Punjabi suits. There was the vivid green of sprawling fields of rice and corn in rural Punjab. Then, there was the myriad of animals: elephants, water buffalo, dogs, peacocks, parrots, lizards, snakes, and camels just to name a few. Finally, it was the beauty of the people just going about their everyday lives that offered the greatest contrast to my life here in America, and which made me want to return again and again.