Came across this charming little travel tale (via Amardeep) in the New Yorker. Polish travel writer Ryszard Kapuscinski reminisces about the first time he stepped out of his homeland and landed in ... India (via a short stop in Rome). The India he describes is of another era - from the 1950s. Much has changed since then but a lot remains the same. What some of us can identify with in the essay is the author's keen wander lust, tempered by caution. He just wanted to cross the border from Poland ... and return home the same day! Not for him the distant and the unknown, not even Paris or London.
"I rattled along from village to village, from town to town, in a hay cart or on a rickety bus—private cars were a rarity, and even a bicycle wasn’t easy to come by. My route sometimes took me to a village along the border. But it happened infrequently, for the closer one got to the border the emptier the land became, and the fewer people one encountered. The emptiness only increased the mystery of those regions, a mystery that attracted and fascinated me. I wondered what one might experience upon crossing the border. What would one feel? What would one think? Would it be a moment of great emotion, agitation, tension? What was it like, on the other side? It would, of course, be . . . different. But what did “different” mean? What did the other side look like? Did it resemble anything I knew? Was it inconceivable, unimaginable? My greatest desire, which gave me no peace, which tormented and tantalized me, was actually quite modest: I wanted only one thing—to cross the border. To cross it and then to come right back—that would be entirely sufficient, would satisfy my inexplicable yet acute hunger.
But how to do this? None of my friends from school or university had ever been abroad. Anyone with a contact in another country generally preferred not to advertise it. I was sometimes angry with myself for my bizarre longing; still, it didn’t abate for a moment.
One day, I encountered Irena Tarlowska, my editor-in-chief, in the hallway. She was a strapping, handsome woman with thick blond hair parted on one side. She said something about my recent stories, and then asked about my plans for the near future. I named the various villages I’d be visiting and the issues that awaited me there, and then mustered the courage to add, “One day, I would very much like to go abroad.”
“Abroad?” she said, surprised and slightly frightened. “Where? What for?”
“I was thinking about Czechoslovakia,” I answered. I wouldn’t have dared to say Paris or London, and, frankly, those cities didn’t interest me; I couldn’t even imagine them. This was only about crossing the border—it made no difference which one, because what was important was not the destination but the mystical and transcendent act."
So naturally, it was a bit of a shock to his body and mind when Kapuscinski landed in India for his very first trip abroad. He was entranced and disoriented by the wholly alien sights, sounds and smells of India. Out of his desperation to find an anchor in reality in the unreal (for him) land, he focused on the language - not Hindi but English, as spoken in India. The author had only a rudimentary grasp of English. His aids in this arduous undertaking was an English to Polish dictionary and Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.
"Cast into deep water, I didn’t want to drown. I realized that only language could save me. I began cramming words, night and day. I placed a cold towel on my temples, feeling as if my head were bursting. I was never without the Hemingway, but now I skipped the descriptive passages, which I couldn’t understand, and read the dialogue:
I walked around the city, copying down signs, the names of goods in stores, words overheard at bus stops. In movie theatres, I scribbled blindly, in darkness, the words on the screen; I noted the slogans on banners carried by demonstrators in the streets. I approached India not through images, sounds, and smells but through words; and not the words of the indigenous Hindi but those of a foreign, imposed tongue, which by then had so fully taken root there that it was for me an indispensable key to the country."
Kapuscinski's encounter with India, where he traveled quite extensively, was so nerve racking that he considered the journey a failure. Yet, in all his bewilderment, he must have experienced moments of exhilaration and made connections to India at some deep level. Upon returning to his familiar milieu in Poland, India would come back to him in flashes of "otherness" in which he would find unexpected comfort.
"India was my first encounter with otherness, the discovery of a new world. It was at the same time a great lesson in humility. I returned from that journey embarrassed by my own ignorance. I realized then what seems obvious now: another culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of my hand. One has to prepare oneself thoroughly for such an encounter.
My initial reaction to this lesson was to run home, to return to places I knew, to my own language, to the world of already familiar signs and symbols. I tried to forget India, which signified to me my failure: its enormousness and diversity, its poverty and riches, its incomprehensibility had crushed, stunned, and finally defeated me. Once again, I was glad to travel around Poland, to write about its people, to talk to them, to listen to what they had to say. We understood each other instantly, were united by common experience.
But of course I remembered India. The more bitter the cold of the Polish winter, the more readily I thought of hot Kerala; the quicker darkness fell, the more vividly images of Kashmir’s dazzling sunrises resurfaced. The world was no longer uniformly cold and snowy but had multiplied, become variegated: it was simultaneously cold and hot, snowy white but also green and blooming."