After a fifteen hour flight, climbing into the back of a tiny motorized rickshaw felt like luxury. The tuk tuk driver smiled as he turned around and asked,
"Do you know what you need to drive in India?"
I shook my head no.
"Good brakes, a good horn, and good luck!"
We sped off into the night, weaving in and out of impossibly tight spaces. Women rode side saddle on the backs of mopeds, their saris blowing in the wind. Trucks bounded past, piled high with crates of chickens, their white feathers floating like falling snowflakes in the humid air. We swerved to avoid some cattle slumbering in the street. A heifer blinked up at me with sleepy eyes, untouched by the commotion.
When we reached our destination, a man with a turban and a waxed mustache greeted me with his palms in prayer and bowed.
I was not in Jersey anymore.
India was greener, louder, hotter. Where I was used to seeing squirrels and sparrows there were monkeys and peacocks. Everything around me seemed to follow its own set of rules, a definitive order that only felt like disorder to me because it was so unfamiliar.
It gave me a feeling of being kept on my toes, a perpetual expectation of surprise. Maybe that's only natural when you simply don't know what to expect.
In Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake," her character Ashima feels the same way after leaving her home in Calcutta to move to Boston.
"Nothing feels normal to Ashima," she writes. "For the past eighteen months, ever since she's arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all." For Ashima, Cambridge was as disorienting as Delhi was to me, a reminder of how our native homes create not only a sense of belonging but identity.
Later in the story, Ashima's Boston-born son Gogol struggles to assimilate his Indian heritage into his American upbringing. On a trip to Calcutta in his teens, Gogol takes in the views from his taxi in much the same way I did. "He stares at the commuters who cling precariously to trams and buses, threatening at any moment to spill onto the street, and at the families who boil rice and shampoo their hair on the sidewalk."
Maybe that's what I love best about travel, the sensation of the unexpected. It's something that can be difficult to experience when we're in our natural habitat. It's the same reason why books are so appealing. They offer insight into worlds and lives we might otherwise not see. As Lahiri wrote in "The Namesake,"
"That's what books are for...to travel without moving an inch."