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. Summers are blisteringly hot and suffocatingly humid. So much so that many tour companies only travel to Southern India in winter.
It was so hot when we visited in April of 2019 that a waterfall of sweat constantly rolled down my back. Between hotel buffet food and the heat, I was popping Imodium AD like Tic Tacs. Yet still, I loved touring through India.
Yes there is heat and the aforementioned food issues, but there is also curious, open, kind people. People shocked to see someone so tall with pale skin and blue eyes were the very same people who came over to talk. What got me thinking was that everyone asked the same three questions in the exact same order, no exceptions.
Traveling to Southern India, What to Expect
It happened over and over again. Men would point at me, parents urged their kids to shake my hand. Groups of teenaged boys asked me for selfies. Young kids expertly gathered their family around me for photos. After taking a photo, questions would start.
The first question was always “What is your name?” kicking off a game of who-can-say-it-right.
“My name is Brandy.”
Confused expressions flashed as if waiting for the rest of my name.
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.
Slowly I’d try.
“Ad-rash-a-knee.” My head tilted, eyebrow lifted I’d listen carefully. Laughter, smile, repeat.
A smile and a “yes” even when I was nowhere close. Then the follow up.
“Where are you from?” was always the second question asked.
“I’m American and my Husband” I’d say motioning to Paolo “is Italian.”
Again a smile and I’d relax, relieved to be given a free pass in the “Make America Great Again” era.
“Do you like India?” Always the third and final question.
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 “I love India.”
Why Some Tourists Stand Out In Southern India
The average height of women in India is 5 feet tall. Eyes, skin and hair are almost all rich shades of brown and black.
At just over 5’8″ with long red hair, pale freckled skin and blue eyes I stuck out despite the crowds. A worn in Stetson and white linen pants didn’t exactly help. 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? You can tell from the smile on my face in the next photo that yes, 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?
A New Yorker for a decade I never once asked any of the 65 Million annual tourists to take a selfie with me. Until after traveling through Southern India, I never thought about it. With so many international tourists, New Yorkers pay them no mind simply weaving 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?