We're Not in Central Pennsylvania Anymore, Toto

By: Lori Kackenmeister

There’s no two ways about it, India has been a challenge for me.

A family of pigs made their home in a garbage pile along a sewage runoff off the banks of the ganges river.

Growing up middle class in central Pennsylvania, vacation meant loading the family up in our mini-van and driving seven hours to coastal North Carolina, where miles of white sandy beaches and friendly southern drawls awaited. It was a treat to spend the week relaxing in the sun and the sand while drinking all the Cheerwine my young heart could handle.

While I still have a soft spot for the beach, the travel bug hit me early and it wasn’t long before I began daydreaming about travelling to far off places - the ability to experience the sights, sounds, and tastes that I had only read about as a child.  Travel was something I knew was achievable, but it was so far removed from my reality that it seemed more fantasy than reality.

A sense of responsibility and career motivation (not to mention bank account balances that even Oliver Twist would find laughable) squashed any dreams of travel in my early adult life. Aside from a few jaunts to the Caribbean and Mexico, vacations were next to nonexistent. It hasn’t been until recently that I (with no lack of encouragement from Chris) have made travel a priority in my life.  We’ve spent the past two years fitting in as many long weekend trips and weeks away as corporate life would allow. Which brings us to our big decision to make a go of it, putting travel first for the next two years, taking in all of the experiences that we can in that amount of time, and seeing what happens.

Now, back to India being tough. I’ve encountered more poverty in the past week than in the entirety of my thirty years before - people with little more than the clothes on their backs, and animals (dogs, cats, cows, and goats) wandering the streets eating from garbage piles for survival.

I’ve slept in a Cocoon (now the most valued item on the trip for this borderline germaphobe) on all but two of our nights in India so far to add a layer of protection between my travel-weary body and questionable sleeping accommodations. On most occasions it puts my mind at ease for just long enough to get a decent night’s sleep.

Cumulatively, Chris and I are sporting at least 75 mosquito bites, which we quickly realized are unavoidable here unless you plan to spend all of your time sanctioned off and indoors. Sidewalks don’t exist and, to the foreign eye, neither do traffic rules (except for one: when in doubt, honk at everything).

And, despite reading all the reviews possible, during at least one meal a day we seriously question whether or not we’ll be sick from the very food we just ate (so far our immune systems have prevailed, however short-lived that may end up being).

a dog who bedded down in a garbage can near our guest house in varanasi.  her litter of pups played nearby.

It’s not that I’m not enjoying the experience. I am. I relish this opportunity that we have and really appreciate the ability to experience other cultures first hand. But in doing so, I am completely removed from all the creature comforts (potable tap water, warm showers...showers in general, salads, etc.). I’ve become so accustomed to over the past thirty years - thrown head-first into a culture that is vastly different than my own. Experiencing first hand all those potential challenges we’d talked about and planned for months in advance is a heavy dose of reality for which no amount of planning can prepare you.

The days, weeks, and months ahead will almost definitely be full of more challenges and cringe-worthy experiences:  destitute people and animals that I want to help but can’t, cultural differences that make me the awkward woman out, living in levels of grime that would otherwise be unacceptable in the daily life of your average westerner, and the list goes on. My willpower and my stomach will definitely be put to the test, but eventually my adoption curve will get smaller. What will remain is the amazing experience of living our travel dreams; I couldn’t be more excited for what adventures are to come.