The reaction of friends and family that we’d live in India for a year ranged from genuine happiness and excitement to thinly cloaked looks of horror. Most in the first category had traveled here themselves, were full of wonderful stories, memories and tips on places to visit, thoughts on the friendly people and amazement at India’s ancient and complex culture. Only a few people were in the latter category, each with their own fussy, and significantly less nostalgic, story to tell.
India brings to mind an exotic land, a third world country. It’s a developing nation with a growing middle class that, not so long ago, did not exist to the extent it does now. India is the second most densely populated country on the planet, second only to China. Some friends seemed most excited about the fact that we’d have servants. A maid, perhaps even a cook or a gardener.
Yes, labor is incredibly cheap here. And, yes, the caste system is alive and well. Change and growth have been rapid, though. With this incredible change comes a mixed bag of good and bad, pluses and minuses. There are no simple statements when it comes to India.
Beautiful ancient temples exist in every city and town. In Agra, the Taj Mahal, a must-see. The Golden Temple in Amritsar along the northern border, a place we’ll not visit, sadly, because of ongoing instability. We plan to take some trips via the Indian Railway, where first class is quite affordable for people as lucky as us. We want to go to Darjeeling, and sample some of its famous tea. I’d love to travel to Varanasi—the most holy of all cities in India for Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists—and witness people bathing in the sacred Ganges River. The journey to Varanasi, in Utter Pradesh, from Pune, in the state of Maharashtra, is difficult and very long. We’ll see.
We want to visit the nearby state of Goa, and stay at a fabulous beach resort. The Kerala backwaters are supposed to be so peaceful and beautiful; it’s on the list.
In my naiveté, I had hoped to take yoga classes at the world-renowned B.K.S. Iyengar yoga studio right here in Pune. It appears there’s quite a process just to get through the door, so I’ll have to content myself with yoga at a less prestigious center.
Our three children—Rory, Robin and Rachel—will soon start school at Symbiosis International School, where they’ll have to wear uniforms for the first times in their lives. My husband Brian is teaching journalism at Symbiosis University’s Institute for Media and Communications. He hopes to travel a bit to interview media outlets for a planned book.
All these thoughts about India, and our coming year here, lingered in the back of my mind while I dealt with the most pressing of issues our first few days here–that damnable red, fine India dust.
We’re living in what, by anyone’s standards anywhere, is a very nice four bedroom, four bathroom home. The gated community off Baner Road in Pune (pronounced PUNE-nay, and BON-are) is called Paradise Society. It is indeed Paradise, once you pass the guarded gate and enter into an oasis of clean, manicured roads and houses, a little park and playground, a swimming pool, flowers and birds singing in trees.
And yet, even here, before the monsoon rains really hit not very long ago, there was this awful dust. This super fine, red India dust that settled on everything the minute one swept the floor, mopped the stairs or wiped down a table.
Our home hadn’t been occupied for a year or more, and the dust had taken over. The manager at Paradise Society, Mr. Lowalekar, arranged to have it swabbed out, and was a considerable, immediate improvement. But the more I cleaned and scoured, the more dust was revealed. It was coated on the metal bars on the windows, the shower curtain rods, the slatted windows of the showers, and every little nook and cranny of molding and trim.
The delay in the annual monsoon had local officials worried about water supplies and droughts. Dust flew into my eyes as I navigated down busy cobbled sidewalks (where one must take care—deep holes, dog poo, pan spit). The dust was a magnet to my eyes as I buzzed around in one of the ubiquitous auto rickshaws, three-wheeled motorcycles with open sides. The red dust landed on the laundry I had just hung out to dry on the second floor patio—seeping into every fiber of the cheap sheets we bought at a shop down the road, just past the gate with the polite guards who stand watch, 24/7, in front of the entrance to Paradise Society.
In those first few days, the dust was not so much a small nuisance as was a constant reminder that I’m in a very, very different place. Of course there are so many other “reminders,” such as the wafts of different smells that assault my nose while walking down public streets—everything from beautiful jasmine flowers blooming in trees and exotic incense to a flavorful sambhar followed by a nasty odor that’s a combination of garbage and sewage.
Half of India’s 1.2 billion people have no access to indoor plumbing—topping the list worldwide. There are pockets of poverty and slums everywhere in India, even in this nice university town, the so-called “Oxford of the East.” The people have no choice but to use a bush, a gutter, a gully—whatever they can find—as a makeshift toilet. Many men simply turn their backs and go up against a wall—this is a very common sight.
Through all these reminders, though, the dust was omni-present our first few days, with the monsoon delayed and officials and farmers worried.
I’m in India for a year, and in only those first few days just one month ago, the striking difference between my life at home in Alaska and my life here until May 2013 hit me as hard as a a F150’s collision with a moose. I’ll share these stories, my own humble perspectives, with you in the weeks and months ahead.
The monsoon has begun, washing away the dust.