Monday, February 7, 2011

Yet this felt like family.

A few weeks back, I decided to "follow" this blog, "kind over matter," that discusses community, local businesses, mindfulness, inspiration, creativity, and other yummy, feel-good issues. This blog pumps out posts faster than I can eat Werther's candies, and about a week ago it published, "Discovering Kindness in the Backstreets of India with Raam Dev," an article in which Dev explores the relationship between traveler and local resident through an experience he had as a journeyman in India.

He writes about a feeling I can remember quite precisely, that of feeling like you're seen merely as a customer, and not as a traveler who might have goals besides shopping for colorful crafts at the market. As travelers, we mostly want to be treated with respect and curiosity, and initially he felt these needs were unsatisfied. Then he finds out that love between travelers and townspeople still runs as fiercely water in my shower now that we have a new water heater?!...when one never resigns him/herself to a certain negative outlook:

All the main streets were overflowing with vendors hawking their wares and catering to tourists. Every single one seemed to assume that anyone who looked out of place was interested in spending money and filling their bags with souvenirs.

Out of frustration, I stepped off the main street into a very narrow alley. I had no idea where it led, but I was getting desperate for an authentic connection and I was ready to look anywhere.

Before I could finish that thought, I heard someone yell out to me. My well-developed street hawker guard went up and I ignored the voice, keeping my eyes looking forward and pretending that I didn't hear anything.

He called out again. This time I looked in his direction. Something felt different. I didn't feel intimidated or pressured. When he waved me over, his gesture felt sincere.

The store behind him was filled with fabrics of varying colors. A sewing machine sat just inside the door. A young tailor in his mid-20s, he spoke in broken English with a soft, leisurely voice. His smile came and went as he spoke, not permanently glued to his face like a stranger trying to sell me something.

We started chatting and within a few minutes I found myself sitting on the stairs to his shop exchanging stories of my travels and listening to him tell stories from his childhood. Between topics we would both stop and quietly look around, sharing silence, watching people walk by, and soaking in the moment.

An hour passed and a few of his friends arrived. They all invited me inside to join them for an afternoon cup of tea. Sitting on small wooden crates, we chatted, exchanged smiles, and laughed. I knew none of these people and none of them knew me, yet this felt like family.

I walked by that shop an absolute stranger, suspicious and on edge, feeling overwhelmed and alone in a foreign country and in an unfamiliar city. But all of that changed in the span of a few hours through the kindness of one individual.

That one person reached out to me not as a tourist, not as an American, and not even a male. He reached out to me as a human being, satisfied to simply share the company of another soul, exchanging smiles, stories, and a piece of the short time we both have on this planet Earth.

That day his kindness changed everything. I began viewing travel from a different perspective, more aware of my own stubbornness and wrongly-placed assumptions about the world and the people around me.

When we stop being self-centered and stubborn, kindness flows naturally. When we open our hearts and give of ourselves freely from a place of compassion, curiosity, and with an awareness that we are all connected, kindness will envelope the moment and flow into our lives. 
[phrases in bold are my emphases, not those of Dev.]

 When my little ole sally of a self was in India, I frequently wanted to get away from the main streets, the mundane, in order to stumble upon something unique, something my own. Like when I was in Jalandhar over Fall Break with my friends, and felt the need to diverge from the central market we were supposed to hang around for a couple of hours, to get away from commerce, and to see the "secret lives" of those who inhabited the homes whose artifices created the sinuous alleyways outside of the shuk.

I meandered like a more youthful Carmen Sandiego, and caught upon some folks working in a makeshift workshop in a residence; I stopped, and they noticed me, and soon I was inside their place drinking tea, meeting babies, and watching men pound insoles to be sold to a company for distribution. Like Dev, I found a way to connect because my heart and mind were "open."

 One of the old-school alleyways I made my way through to see something beyond the tourist spots

Look who I met! Notice the aqua color inside the house; I saw this color on houses in Punjab

For all of you all travelers out there (and I might even extend this to everyone out there), just make sure to take stock of your perceptions of people and places you visit. And when ship frustrates you, maybe you even feel ignored, remember to let the real reason you left to explore new places shine through you; people will sense your enthusiasm and love, and those can make bridges out of the most stubborn of materials.

1 comment:

Raam Dev said...

I'm so happy you enjoyed the story, Lauren! I think what you said towards the end of your post is so important: When we're letting our curiosity and our desire to connect shine through, people can actually feel that coming from us and they're more likely to respond.

I read a few of your previous posts and they bring back so many memories from when I was there last year! In the future, you should try getting your train tickets from!

Also, if you haven't seen Earl's site, he's a big traveler and loves India with a passion (he's been traveling non-stop for more than a decade now!):

I can totally relate to the compassion and kindness many Indians hold towards strangers. I'm thinking of going back to India next month and staying for four or five months. I really miss it!