Lately I’ve found myself missing India increasingly often.
When I returned to Europe in 2009 from a trip that lasted more than three years and included lots of travel around India, studying yoga in Mysore and long trips to nearby countries including Thailand, Singapore and Nepal, I was more than ready to leave Asia. Europe was, in my mind, a paradise where everything is clean and efficient and functions perfectly. Europe was the dreamland with no cheating rickshaw drivers and no bureaucracy that has been created to extract bribes from foreigners by driving us so mad that we’d be happy to pay anything just so we would not have to fill in another inexplicable piece of paper. Europe was a place that had decent bread (and that means bread that is baked in an oven and is not flat), non-spicy food, cheese that actually tastes like cheese. My Dream Europe had cold crispy winter mornings and people who would get things done in three working days without asking for a “present”.
The disappointment was so great that I am still not sure if I am going through a reverse culture shock that has lasted over two years, or if my mind had simply created an illusion of Europe that never existed in reality.
I know I’m lumping the whole Europe here in the same category. The main disappointment was Switzerland, the land of chocolate and cheese and efficiency and quality, of which I found the first two in abundance but noticed the last two lacking somewhat. But it’s not just Switzerland: the Europe I missed while I was in India is falling apart.
I still love the food: the bread, the chocolate, the cheese. I still love the peace and quiet and privacy that I missed so much in the constant noise that is India. But in I also feel increasingly lost, disillusioned and out of place.
The European efficiency and quality are simply not there anymore. While the cost of living has gone up, the quality of pretty much everything has gone down. We pay more and more for services and products that give us less and less value and take longer and longer to be delivered. People have to work more and more for less money and for no job security, hard-working honest people who thought they were pretty secure are suddenly struggling to make ends meet (while others can afford to pay £136 million for a penthouse flat in London yet refuse to pay council tax), the job market keeps reminding us that absolutely nothing in life is certain – not even that job you have been doing for the last 30 years and thought you’d be doing until you retire. While all that affects how I feel, I am also feeling out of touch and out of place with smaller things. The conversations I hear people having about the American Idol (I mean who gives a feck?) and other crap like that are so foreign, so alien and so irrelevant to me that I’m wondering if it would have been better to stay in India.
I miss many things from India: green coconuts, palm trees, sunsets over the ocean, old ladies selling garlands of fresh flowers on the street, cows walking around as if they ruled the world. But what I really miss is about travelling in India is that feeling of living in the moment, not knowing what will happen the next day or the day after, having a tentative travel plan but knowing that you might end up doing something completely unplanned anyway.
I actually like to have a routine and I even develop routines quickly when I travel, but sometimes it is also good to shake your routines up a little and travel is an obvious way to do that. And it is not just chilling out in a hammock that I miss. When I travel I like to have a purpose and I like to work (hence the poorly paid but time-consuming career in travel writing). Most of the time on my three years of travels I was pretty busy with stuff. Interesting stuff.
But of course now India is making it harder and harder for us to go there. Not that long ago it was possible for a Finnish passport holder to get a 5-year tourist visa for India from the Indian embassy in Helsinki in three working days. Now the visa process has been outsourced (yeah, you know what’s going to happen when you hear that word) and the maximum you can get is a year (but you’ll still have to get out after 6 months and not go back in for 2 months), it costs a lot more than before, and people on discussion forums are talking about 4-week processing times. Oh, and you have to provide proof of a valid travel insurance or you can’t even apply!
So I keep thinking about India and I find myself increasingly thinking about all that was good about travel in India. How do you bring all that back to your life in the West? How do you survive the shock of returning “home” when home is not what it used to be? And what is it about India that keeps calling us back? What is it about India that gets so under our skin?
Merry Christmas, happy holidays and let’s hope that 2012 will be a better year for me, for you and for the world than 2011!