India by Kathryn Gundersen
(adapted from Kathryn’s blog)
As we approached a towering gopuram, alive with color and covered in exquisite sculptures of Hindu deities, my friend Samyuktha turned to me and carefully narrated what was about to happen. “South Indian temples are designed to awaken every one of your senses,” she explained. Inside, we would hear spirited music, taste tulsi leaf on our tongues, feel the cool temple floor beneath our bare feet, smell burning incense, and see radiant images and icons adorning the walls. Just a few minutes spent circling the sacred site would bring our bodies and minds to life.
I soon realized this same idea applies to every part of my experience in India. Within days of arriving in Mumbai, the city I chose to visit for my final year in the Harvard College in Asia Program, I concluded that India is a sensory overload in the very best way possible.
Mumbai has a sound, a musical blend of shouting market vendors and shrill car horns that whine morning and night, demanding attention. Each day, it had a new taste: bursts of sweetness when biting into kheer kadam, the sharp spice of a Bademiya kebab, a circus of flavors as I devoured my Thali lunch, though I’d sworn my carnivore self would never enjoy a meal that was entirely vegetarian. I still smell the salty sea-scent that surrounded us on our ferry to Elephanta Island, still feel the scrape of sand against my knee while diving to save a soccer goal at Chowpatty Beach. The sights, of course, are clearer than anything else, resurfaced in countless Facebook albums and group snaps. I won’t soon forget the jagged peaks of skyscrapers lining Marine Drive, or the Gateway of India, standing powerful and proud as swarms of pigeons take flight above it.
India challenged me more than anywhere else I’ve ever been, and this was especially true of the days we spent in Delhi and Agra, an additional excursion tacked on after our HCAP conference week. Without the St. Xavier’s College delegates who hosted us in Mumbai, nine of us Harvard students were left to navigate on our own, negotiating taxi fares, locating landmarks, and keeping our faces forward under the relentless gazes of men—rarely hostile, but always invasive, a constant burn that I never really got used to. My mind grew comfortable on overdrive, powered by buzzing alertness as I tried to reason my way through whatever situation was thrown at us. Whether we were hurtling through Delhi’s early morning mist in the back of a rickshaw or lounging in the lush gardens surrounding Humayun’s Tomb, I was never able to fully relax.
If I’ve taken one thing away from my two weeks there, though, it’s that these places are worth the effort it takes to get to know them. For those who, like me, travel to seek discomfort and newness, India is a dream, brimming with far-reaching history and culture so beautiful and complex that even after hours of endless sights and sounds, tastes and smells, I still thirsted for more. There’s so much to learn, both in the classroom, like our lectures at St. Xavier’s, and out in the world, on tours around the immaculate Taj Mahal that’s every bit as marvelous as the stories make it seem.
But most of all, there’s so much to enjoy. We celebrated Holi on the actual holiday, and that afternoon filled with music, colors, and friends was one of the highlights of all my travels. We bartered for trinkets at Colaba Causeway, tied saris and tried on kurtas, toasted Old Monk rum beneath the full moon on a terrace overlooking the city. This trip left me with so many memories, and so many reasons to care—about India’s politics, its people, and the friends I left behind.
HCAP Mumbai was the last of my many Harvard travel experiences, and as I prepare to graduate in 25 days, I can confidently say there’s no place I would’ve rather visited to finish up my time here. Thanks for an incredible spring break, India. ‘Til next time—there’s still so much more to see.