Years ago, I spent a couple of months in India. As my friend and I traveled through the country, crisscrossing our way through the continent, the best adjective that we could find to describe our daily experience was ‘crazy’. When we first arrived in the cloak of darkness, the intensity of the landscape was invisible to us. Upon awakening the next morning, it assaulted our senses with vibrant colors, juxtaposing smells, and the sheer insanity of so many people and animals intermixed in a confined space.
Although we gradually learned to navigate our way through a country in which rules were unwritten and often in conflict with the way we perceived logic to operate, I never adjusted to the range of physical and emotional experiences that we underwent in a day. And, smack dab in the middle of this trip, I had an experience that changed my viewpoint forever.
My friend and I called this the day we went to Africa. The day started out much like any other, with us deciding on our next destination and buying train tickets to get us there. But that’s where the similarities ended. Upon embarking on the train, we realized that we hadn’t thought things out so well. It was Easter long weekend and the train was packed to the rafters, with people sitting on each other and in the aisles, legs dangling from upper shelves that were meant to house luggage. Knowing that there was nothing that we could do, we picked a spot, sat down on our bags, and got ready to camp out for a grueling twelve hour ride.
About five hours into the trip, realizing that we were sitting between overflowing latrines and engaging in sweat races while microscopically shifting to the left or right to try and dodge cockroaches, we decided that enough was enough. After consulting our travel guide, we realized that if we got off in about an hour we could catch a bus that would take us, if not directly, in a more ‘civilized’ manner to our destination.
And so, at 4:30 in the morning, we disembarked and breathed in the cool fresh air, grateful for the simple pleasure. As we got on our bus, relaxing into the comparatively clean and spacious seats, I exhaled a sigh of relief, unaware that the next hours would be more grueling than those that I had previously experienced.
As the bus snaked its way along its route, we passed through a changing background. Urban areas contained throngs of people, hovels on top of hovels, with women from the untouchable caste scooping human refuse from the gutters with their bare hands to clean the streets for those deemed more worthy, children begging for a single rupee to feed their purposefully maimed brother or sister on display at their side, and parents exhibiting regular acts of kindness towards their children, in spite of their limited resources.
As we moved into the countryside, the air cleared and the scenery changed. A series of switchbacks revealed a new landscape: monkeys emerged in the sparsely populated bush accompanied by all kinds of exotic animals that we didn’t even have names for. At the top of the mountain, we found ourselves in an open panoramic view. With nothing in sight, save red earth lined with centuries old Banyan trees, it felt as if it was reasonable to expect giraffes and other wild African animals to appear on the horizon.
As the bus inched its way through the Banyan pathway, we passed ancient palaces built in honor of dead wives and old loves, flanked by women walking in ragged saris and bare feet holding the equivalent of a few small trees on their head or a hundred pounds of water, as they toiled for mile after mile to fulfill their assigned lot in life and help their families to survive.
Hour after hour, as I watched the myriad of human experiences unfold, I realized how lucky I was. Lucky to have freedom, lucky to have material possessions, lucky to be able to choose my destiny, and lucky to have family and friends. By the time I got off that bus, my perspective had shifted from one in which I was outraged by my physical discomfort to one in which I was grateful for all the small and large blessings that I had in my life.
Since that day, I have constantly tried to focus on the positive and be grateful for everything that I have in my life. Although it’s sometimes a struggle and I often get caught up in the desire for more or ‘better’ things, I try to bring myself back to the present, reminding myself to slow down and appreciate all of the large and little things that are so easy to overlook.
As a parent, my hope is to inculcate this appreciation in my son, helping him to retain his own innate love of and delight in the little things that often cost little or nothing but are such a deep source of pleasure. And so, when he climbs into my bed in the mornings, occasionally pointing to one side of the bed and declaring it as the right side of the bed to wake up on since everything looks brighter from its vantage point, I agree, making a mental note to myself to remind him of this same thing in the years to come so that this perspective becomes an intrinsic part of his being, enabling him to be happy in the easiest and most desperate of circumstances.