Before spending three weeks in India this summer, I had never left the continent. It was never on my parents’ radar to wander the streets of Paris on a quest for the perfect baguette or stroll down the Great Wall of China. Those stories existed in films, books and fantasies that, with three children and our financial constraints, my family could not realize. The one time I did leave the country was for a concert in Vancouver, to see a bluegrass rock band from North Carolina.
Occidental gave me a chance to go abroad on my own terms. The economics department granted me a Schwartz Fund scholarship to study the teacher labor market in Delhi, assessing various factors prompting secondary school teachers to exit their profession. Not only could I undertake a project of my own design, but I was able to fully immerse myself into a country of rich history and cultural complexity. Traveling on my own, I could walk with greater independence than if I had undertaken the school’s traditional study abroad programs.
I found the solitude of my travel to be the strength of my experience. I could have taken classes at the historic University of Cape Town or bar-hopped around Amsterdam, but I chose to engage with the country of my choice by taking advantage of one of Occidental’s independent research scholarships. I knew that once I overcame the culture shock, I would have the space to receive an experiential education.
Yet as I would learn during my time in an unfamiliar country, the fear of not having an authentic cultural experience was the largest culture shock of all. Especially as a first-time traveler, wandering alone and choosing to take the metro rail and walk at least 10 kilometers per day to save on transportation, I felt I constantly battled between shock and appreciation, comfort and unease.
In the months leading up to my project, I could not help but be wary of the travel risks. The merits of venturing to India did not outweigh the negative Western perceptions of concerned friends and family.
“Be careful around train tracks because my friend’s friend went to India and saw someone pushed onto them,” one friend said.
“Don’t get sick and die,” another said.
“Don’t drink the water. Keep your stuff close. Watch out for scams,” others would say.
I carried these fears with me. I couldn’t help but carry them. Once I finally arrived, I realized I wandered in with a prejudice as omnipresent as the New Delhi humidity. Alone, except for the company of my Airbnb host, I was overwhelmed with a strange medley of trepidation and appreciation. I had to cherish the city for its traffic jams, sidewalk sales and street food as much as I had to consider its risks. Each night, I found myself retreating to watch episodes of “30 Rock” and read my favorite novels because they provided me with a sense of comfort.
Try as I might to let them go, these anxieties followed me. I could travel nowhere without being reminded that I was white, which—to the naked eye—demonstrated that I had money. It was that appreciation for my position, and for the relative situation of myself versus the crowds that shoved their way onto the city center metro, that helped me grow to love the privilege of isolated travel. My solo voyage allowed me to experience these moments free from the confines of group-think.
One encounter with a gentleman in Jaipur stood out as a prime example of this single-traveler privilege. A man named Nerandra, who wore a button-up shirt with khakis and brandished a thick mustache and long locks, pulled up next to me in a rickshaw—a smaller three-wheeled taxi—as I walked along the main city’s walls. We talked about Hilary Clinton, Obama, India’s newest president, Nerandra’s family, my family and, most applicably, the tourist’s capacity to trust.
“People up there,” Nerandra said, pointing at the top floor of an adjacent hotel, “pay 6,000 rupees [100 USD] to sit in an air-conditioned room and another 2,000 rupees [40 USD] to be driven around in an air-conditioned car. They don’t experience the real India. They don’t experience people like me.”
This is when I realized the true beauty in traveling alone. Without any planning to speak of, I hopped into a rickshaw for a day to visit what my friend called “his Jaipur.” He took me swimming in one of the many city baolis, or wells, showed me a village where I could pet the prickly, thankless trunks of elephants and brought me to a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant for kabobs. The next morning, he invited me to a meal with his family of four, where I showed his four-year-old son how to use a digital camera and listened to him play the drums for us.
The beauty of that moment was derived from reflecting personally, without another Westerner by my side. Totally alone, totally without a plan, I could act and reflect without any neighboring views.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” Mark Twain once wrote. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
After returning home, I see how traveling into that isolated wilderness of uncertainty can open the mind to much more than the potential risks. Perhaps the little corner of the earth that Twain mentions is not a corner itself, but a mind frame that requires discomfort in exchange for true cultural acceptance.
Henry Dickmeyer is a senior economics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @WklyHDickmeyer.