India is intense travel. A first trip is just that. A trip, not a vacation. India is crowded and noisy. Mopeds, people and horns are constantly buzzing at all hours. The summer is blisteringly hot and suffocatingly humid. So much so that many tour companies only travel to Southern India in winter.
It was already so hot early April 2019 that a waterfall of sweat constantly rolled down my back. Between hotel buffet food our first night in Chennai and the heat, I was popping Imodium AD like Tic Tacs. Still, every time someone asks “Do you like India?” my reply of “Yes. I love India.” is genuine.
Yes, there is heat. The aforementioned food issues and trash piled up in shocking amounts, but there is also curious, open, kind people. People shocked to see someone like me a tall, pale skinned, blue eyed woman were the very same people to come over and talk to me. What got me thinking was the three questions everyone asked me, in the exact same order, no exceptions.
Traveling to Southern India, What to Expect
It happened over and over again. Men would point me out to their wives or children. Parents urged their kids to shake my hand. Groups of teenaged boys would ask to pose next to me. Young kids phone in hand expertly gathered their family around me. Next thing you know we’d all be smiling for a photo. After which the questions would start.
“What’s your name?”
Hands down in Southern India every time someone stopped me to talk or take a photo, this is how the conversation began. Most often that first question was followed by a hilarious try-to-say-it-right game.
“My name is Brandy.”
As if waiting for the rest of my name, confused expressions flashed. Courage summoned, the game would begin.
I’d laugh, smile, repeat. “Brandy”
“Close, Brandy. What’s your name?”
A smile would be followed by a lengthy name and a mental note to get my hearing checked.
Now it was my turn. Slowly I’d try.
My head tilted, eyebrow lifted I’d listen carefully. Laughter, smile, repeat.
My turn for one more try.
Always a patient smile and a “yes” even when I was nowhere close. Then the follow up. Always the second asked.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m American and my Husband” I’d say motioning to Paolo “is Italian.”
Again I’d see big smiles and relax. Relieved to be given a free pass in the “Make America Great Again” era. Then, the third question.
“Do you like India?”
These three questions were what every single person who approached me in Southern India asked. To which I could honestly say “yes” with my own big smile.
Why Some Tourists Stand Out In Southern India
The average height of women in India is 5 feet tall. Eyes, skin and hair is almost exclusively rich shades of brown and black.
At just over 5’8″ my long red hair, pale freckled skin and blue eyes made me stick out despite the crowds. A worn in Stetson and white linen pants didn’t exactly help either. It’s rare to see women wearing anything other than a Saree and neither men nor women wear hats in Southern India despite scorching heat.
Indian Saree, Cultural Dress of Southern Indian
The women of Southern India are enchanting. Their smiles are genuine, their energy polite and their Sarees enviable. A riot of colors and patterns, not one alike. Each somehow folded, wrapped, twisted and tucked securely in place. A Saree the cultural dress of Southern Indian is stylish, colorful and despite every woman wearing one decidedly expressive.
Visually there was no doubt I stood out in Southern India. Yet I was never once made to feel uncomfortable for it. Each request for a photo came with curiosity, enthusiasm, respect and those same three questions. What’s your name? Where are you from? Do you like India? I hope you can tell from the smile on my face in the next photo, that yes, indeed, I do like India.
During our trip, I was passed warm lentils and rice to eat by hand before an evening Puja at The Big Temple (Brihadishvara Temple) in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India.
Not one person batted an eye, when I watched blessings from just a few feet away.
Southern India opens its doors without fear, reserve or caution to share everyday life. The only thing asked in return is “Do you like India?”
Do You Like India?
I lived as a New Yorker for a decade. In my time there I never once asked any of the 65 Million annual tourists to take a selfie with me. I also didn’t ask myself why until after traveling through Southern India. New York City has so many international tourists, New Yorkers pay them no mind. We simply weave around them in a rush to work. While parts of Southern India felt like the exact opposite.
To them it mattered. It mattered that someone who looked so different, liked India. It mattered that I liked the food, temples, people and culture. I like that Southern India doesn’t seem to take its place in the world for granted.
Travel is as much about being curious and open for the people we meet, as it is about taking an experience away for ourselves. Cultures around the world can be jarringly different, which is what makes travel addictive. I hope one day soon to meet curiosity with curiosity again. To find a way to connect to those I don’t understand. Post COVID-19 and the current wave of nationalism; both of which will no doubt change the shape of the world, I hope America opens its doors and lets the world see us for all we are. That instead of assuming, we ask.
Do you like America?
Aren’t we the ones at a loss if we don’t?