Sometimes, I will not have walked 10 yards before the next invitation into someone’s house. It has happened so often that the motions have sort of become joyfully repetitive.
I remove my shoes and step through the colorful, low-hanging doorway, sit on the raised bed that takes up about a third of the small living space, drink the home-brewed cup of hot, sweet chai tea that’s offered to me. You know, it all tastes more or less the same, but it never gets old.
If no one in the household speaks English, then someone in the neighborhood who can is called for. I’m asked about my nationality, my name, my age, my family, my work, my reason for being here. I sit and sip my chai and answer, and smile. They smile.
I’ve been constantly trying to refine myself into the perfect guest here as I travel throughout the great land of…India.
(Yes, I’ve switched countries on you once again, my dear readers. How tricky I am.)
I’m also getting a first-rate course on what hospitality really, truly is.
I’d like to believe that people in America are hospitable, too, but to the same degree? Would you or I automatically welcome a stranger, an obvious foreigner or traveler, off the street and into our homes for tea and a short chat? Perhaps some of us, but probably not as often. (The same could be said for Vietnam, too, as warm-hearted as its people are.)
However, in India, hospitality is built into the culture. Sure, there are scammers and cons out here, but the genuine souls are pure gold. Anyone who crosses their threshold is treated as if they were a god.
This extends to actually staying with others and becoming a part of their daily lives. When traveling, I tend use a hospitality website called Couchsurfing, which connects hosts who wish to share their home and community with travelers who (ideally) seek such cultural insights; or else it facilitates meetups between those who would simply like to hang out.
Through using this site on this trip, I have been graciously guided around cities; invited as an honored guest to a color-splashed wedding; become something of a celebrity at a few rural villages; have intimately watched a middle class Hindu mother perform her daily ritual to honor the gods above; observed (nah; dare I say it – actually tried) praying beside my Muslim host on the bustling streets outside a crowded mosque; and have been introduced to friends and neighbors who, well, invited me into their homes for yet more cups of chai and chatter. And, of course, my hosts doted on me to assure my comfort while I stayed in their houses.
All of which made me slightly uncomfortable at times. I’m not used to strangers extending their kindness to me in return for nothing. (And everyone is adamant that I not lift a finger to do anything, they of course will do it for me.) It also makes me reflect on my lack of experience with taking anyone under my wing, or even trying to.
With one exception. Once, when I lived and worked in North Dakota, I saw a couple of train hoppers walking through town as I rode my bike, and I turned back to offer them my apartment for the night. They accepted, and I and my apartment building neighbors/friends enjoyed a nice evening of listening to stories of their cross-country adventures. I still remember their names: Malcom and Dahlia.
I like to think that all the homes I’ve been welcomed into since then are a sort of karmic repayment for my kindness, but I must have broke even a long time ago. It’s time for me to pay it forward again.
In such a country where religion plays a big part in almost everyone’s life, I cannot help but draw some parallels. It takes a certain unwavering devotion to be the perfect host to one’s guest, who, like me, can sometimes be a total stranger. Some burning faith that, regardless of race, religion or background, this is what humanity is all about: selflessly serving each other.
I often wonder if I waste my money on traveling, if it could be better spent in another fashion. But with moments like these, where hearts and minds meet and kindle a peculiar warmth over a cup of tea, if only briefly…well, such moments calmly yet firmly suspend that train of thought, and I remember why I travel in the first place.
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