By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Author of Oleander Girl
I’ve been in love with travel ever since I came to America as a 19-year-old student, elated and terrified. That trip changed my life and made me into a writer. Since then I’ve traveled to many countries, including trips back to India—bittersweet ones, because you can never really go home again. Each of them, if I’ve done it right, has been a transformative experience. Maybe that’s why my characters are also constantly traveling from west to east and east to west, starting with my first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage, to my latest novel, Oleander Girl—some with more success than others.
Having recently taken a trip to India—perhaps my best trip ever—I’ve been thinking about what one can do to make travel a more satisfying experience. I’m not talking about the physical preparations, though those are indeed important. I found three mental attitudes that helped me stay calm, positive, and enthusiastic through my recent visit. I’m sharing them with you because I believe they’re useful, no matter which country you choose for your sojourn.
Don’t compare. Things are going to be different from America. That’s one of the reasons we choose to travel: to experience something new. If we’re caught up in comparing—and often, along with comparisons come value judgements—then our vision gets clouded and we miss the newness and uniqueness of what is in front of us. During this visit to India, we traveled on a number of country roads. They were often filled with bone-rattling potholes. Whenever I found myself comparing them with the smooth freeways of Houston, where I live, I found myself getting grumpy. But when I was able to push that thought away and really look, I saw wonders and beauties—bullock carts carrying rolls of dried grass as tall as a two-story building; a little house painted lime green with a mango tree, heavy with fruit, in its backyard; a woman in a purple sari creating a rangoli design with rice powder in front of a shop selling stacks of shiny bangles.
Try not to have too many preconceptions. Whenever I’ve been to a place with my head filled with what I think I’m going to experience, I’ve set myself up with a rigid grid. If my real experience doesn’t match the grid, I’ve been disappointed. For instance, we went to a pilgrimage to Tirupati, a very holy—and crowded—temple. A cousin had kindly made special arrangements for us, reserving what were termed “VIP tickets” and connecting us with temple officials so that we would receive special care. Thus, I expected that we would be whisked in through a special entrance and allowed easy entry to the shrine. We were, indeed, brought in through this entrance—but so were a thousand other “VIPs.” I realized that we would be stuck in the slow-moving line for hours; all our other plans for the day would have to be shelved. At first this stressed me hugely—I’m an obsessive planner, and I’d arranged our day’s itinerary carefully. But finally (mostly because I had no choice) I let go of my visions of what the day should have been and focused on the moment. I began to listen to the devotional chantings around me. I took time to appreciate the temple carvings, the smell of incense and flowers. By the time we reached the shrine, I was in a peaceful frame of mind and truly able to enjoy the holy experience.
Treat your trip as an adventure. You might experience some amazing things you’d never planned on! During this visit to India, I’d set my heart on seeing an elephant sanctuary, where ill or orphaned elephants are taken care of. I’d heard that if you get there at the right time, you can see the elephants being bathed—and I really wanted to do that.
A friend kindly drove us to the sanctuary, which is in a forested region and hard to reach. But when we arrived, we found the gates locked and a big sign announcing that the sanctuary was closed for the day. I was, as you can imagine, crushed. Our friend Mathew suggested that we take a chance and go along a little back road and see what we could find. This narrow mud road was filled with ruts. I was sure our car would get stuck and we’d have to spend the night (or worse) there and implored him to return. But Mathew just smiled and drove on. After a while, the road took us down to the river… and guess what? The elephants were being bathed there and we had them all to ourselves, since no other visitors were present. I got to experience the amazing closeness between the keepers and the elephants. The keeper would say a word, and the elephant would spray his own back with water, or turn around, or lie down in the water so the keeper could scrub him. I had the opportunity to help bathe a most beautiful baby elephant, Ganga, and walk with her all the way back to the sanctuary gates. As the photo above shows, Ganga became quite fond of me. And none of this would have happened if I hadn’t relaxed, trusted, and allowed myself to have an adventure!
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the award-winning author of many books, including The Mistress of Spices (also a motion picture), Sister of My Heart, and One Amazing Thing. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times. Born in India, she currently lives in Texas and teaches in the nationally ranked Creative Writing program at the University of Houston.
Read an excerpt from Oleander Girl, grab a Reading Group Guide, or watch a video of Chitra discussing her novel. Chitra will be holding a Facebook chat about Oleander Girl on April 5. For more details, please visit her page or follow her on Twitter.
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