The moment I breathed in muggy air, felt my skin prickle from the heat as I exited Mumbai’s International terminal, was an awakening.  I knew this was going to be an unforgettable experience.

Friends or newly formed acquaintances ask me, how was India?

My voice dies.  Lips unable to speak.  A simple set of words eludes me.

She can’t be summed up in one sentence.  Ever.

Cities heave under the weight of human survival, prosperity and ingenuity.  The buildings, some gleaming, newly poured, while others are crumbling and abandoned.  Or the pockmarked pavement where motorbikes, scooters and Tata cars jockey for position.  The onset of car culture and the American mentality that is seeping in seems to be winning.  But the power of a 5,500-year-old culture doesn’t buckle so easily.

The cities may be considered the heart, epicenter of India, but it’s the villages that are the arteries, the veins pumping life’s blood into her, carving paths to multiple doorways of religion and culture.

Imagine this: thatch huts with a sow tied to a wooded fence stand in plain sight alongside a steel waste management bin that’s dutifully emptied by screeching, rumbling trucks that are fueled by gas, not magic dust.  It’s this marriage of tradition and modern that leads a wanderer to cover her eyes in wake of a collision, yet it never comes.  What you receive is ordered chaos – coexistence between the ancient and progress.

The village injects her desires into the pocket of every metropolis.

There’s no distinction between hick land and the cosmopolitan.  It all meshes together.  Within that what endures is family. Every distant relative is cousin, brother or sister.  A profound, staggering stronghold of community.  Then, the holy.  The spiritual tangling of India spreads to every waking moment, people are bound with each other, so that a collective release is encouraged, a given.  Celebration always surrounded me.

I will miss:

  • The driving mania of Mumbai.  Cars careening towards me.  I thought I would die a hundred times.
  • Ducking cow manure.
  • Walking beside a family of cows in the blazing sun, as cars honk and narrowly navigate past.
  • Hearing multi-languages as I cross state borders.
  • The head bobble.
  • An indulgent vegetable thali.
  • Stopping a chai wallah on a 22-hour train journey.  Watching as he separates the plastic cups and releases sweet goodness from his portable thermos.
  • Dosas.
  • A rainbow of saris in front of me, punctuated by the lovely women wearing them.
  • The sweet, lonely dogs seeking a place to nap in the noonday heat.
  • Observing a restaurant worker light incense before his homemade altar, pray, and return to work.
  • The locals who offered me part of their lunch, asked who I was, how I enjoyed their country.
  • Incessant honking.
  • The Taj Mahal.

Why should you visit India?  She will cause your pulse to quicken, stomach churn, and skin to break out in sweat or cold.  Every single nerve of your being will spark.  You will feel unmistakably alive.  She doesn’t pull punches, and that’s what we signed up for.

India taught me patience, made me laugh, sob, sick, and forced me stand outside myself.

It’s raw, real.  A blemished, imperfect, nonsensical part of the world.

I will be back.

My 50 best photos from India.