My lessons from India on the purpose of travel

Female labourers from Udaipur, India, walking their donkeys and bricks to site.
Female labourers from one of the local villages outside Udaipur, India. Photography courtesy of author.

Sat on the floor of Heathrow airport in London, England, I was almost on the verge of tears. My phone was glued to my ear by panic sweat. A simple mistake for a first time international traveller was putting my chances of embarking on this trip in jeopardy. What was the problem? The name on my ticket was the name I commonly go by, not the exact name on my passport.

The complications from this simple mistake didn’t stop there either, they were compounded by various issues. Things that left me thinking I was stuck in London forever. The kind assistance of others, far away and unfamiliar, resolved this problem. This was not the first disaster of a travel experience in my life. It wouldn’t be the last. Not even on this excursion.

Not informing myself fully and not booking directly, never again. But remember, asking for help is the only way of getting it. Lesson one.

There, sitting on the floor of an airport, questions of why I was bothering started to fester in my mind. We did eventually resolve the issue. Taking off late in the evening we flew into the night, making for a good journey if you can sleep on a plane. I couldn’t sleep. There was too much excitement. And noise. As we scooted around a storm over the Caspian Sea I couldn’t resist opening the blind to watch the white electric clamour bringing life into the charcoal dark clouds.

As the call for breakfast began I opened the blind again and looked down at the lower Himalayas of Afghanistan. The rusty brown slopes run through with shock ribbons of green and sapphire. It was beautiful.

Monsoon palace, Udaipur, India.
Looking out at the mountains from the Monsoon Palace, Udaipur. Photography courtesy of author.

We were travelling to volunteer with a Christian charity. My general agnosticism had been embarrassingly diverted for the sake of a relationship that was, on the whole, disastrous. We remain friends but that should have probably been all we were. This trip made that abundantly clear to both of us. Not because of any great disagreement or hurt but because it made clear our individual values & priorities and how different they were.

Be cognisant of who you’re travelling with and expect relationships to change. lesson two.

In Udaipur we weren’t in a hotel but accommodation provided by the charity. We were staying for close to a month and personally I was in a small, three room, family apartment that had nothing in it but two beds.

Don’t be fooled by this initial description though. There was no air conditioning either just a ceiling fan that only worked when the light was on. The shower was electric and the shower head uncomfortably close to bare wiring. I didn’t dare use it. Instead I washed by filling a bucket with tepid water every morning. The same bucket would then be used to wash t-shirts and trousers every day.

I had the luxury of electricity to charge my iPhone but no WiFi, so I spent every night for a month watching the same two episodes of The OC I’d downloaded for the flight. I ate dinner at the far more plush apartment that my partner was stopping at with a female friend, then I walked back to my little nook with no light other than my phone. I got up at 5 AM every day thanks to the roosters, dogs and local male-student’s dorm in the building across from me.

Lake palace, Udaipur, India
One of the Lake Palaces in Udaipur. Photography courtesy of author.

Yet, no matter how catastrophic this may all sound to some, I loved it. I got up every morning with vigour and a smile; I laughed at every joke, every time, with those two episodes of The OC; I was thankful and enjoyed every chilly wash with that bucket of water; I washed my clothes diligently and joyfully.

The window view. Photography courtesy of author.

I also named the two geckos I shared my room with and took a moment to admire the bright orange beauty of a cockroach I came face to face with. I admired the dusty sandstone hills from the rooftop and at every available moment took out my camera, not to snap but to tell stories.

One day off, having lunch by the stunning lakes, I watched the women washing their clothes in the water. Dunking bright red and gold saris and other garments under the lapping waves before beating soap into the pile with a cricket bat. They were a community, a fellowship, sharing an experience that I, with my bucket, now had a new sense of familiarity with.

Simple actions and experiences can greatly extend your empathy. Lesson three.

Meanwhile, back at the charity’s campus, my partner in her fully furnished; air conditioned; working showered apartment was miserable and lost. Constantly questioning what she was even doing there. It seemed the dream, the expectation had simply not come to pass.

I’d love to say that it was my forced minimalism, my greater independence or that I’d gone completely open minded and not expecting anything that allowed me to enjoy my time. But that would be a lie. The difference was largely in what we were expecting.

My partner was expecting a particular experience, one she’d long imagined and fit with something of a narrative about herself that seemed to make sense. She was going to India to do her part as a step in her personal progress.

I had no idea what was going to be there. My expectation was to learn: learn about the place, the people and myself. My expectation was to do what I could in return for being there, to leave a legacy that might outlast my short stay.

One expectation was rigid and self oriented, the other was flexible, malleable and service focused.

Personally I also learned that I loved investigating and telling the stories of others. Photography and video, that had always been an enjoyable hobby, became paramount visual storytelling tools, indistinguishable in their importance to the written word.

I am a storyteller and that means going to where the stories are, being inquisitive and interested. Lesson four.

Visiting the Baha'i Lotus Temple. Photography courtesy of the author.

We both returned to New Delhi for our final week with a sense of adventure, a desire to learn, and be moulded by our experiences. We got back to the hotel we had stayed at on our way out and were put in a room quite different to what we were expecting. A mistake that was quickly rectified. The room was remarkable for what we were paying. A stunning jr suite with a balcony. We both enjoyed ourselves to the extent of not wanting to return home, even with further disaster. That’s another story though.

Learning and growth only really come from being unsure, uncomfortable and willingly self critical. The most important lesson. The real reason for travel.

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A J Merron

A J Merron

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I’m a writer, photographer and documentarian based in Scotland.