India is only going to let me accept it on its own terms

The view from the train between Mumbai and Pune

Back in September 2008, I arrived in Cambodia - one of my first ventures into a country with a distinctly different culture compared to what I’d grown up accustomed to in Melbourne. I was most definitely out of my depth - but I had my good friend Melina, who had moved over to Cambodia earlier in the year, on hand to ease me into this corner of the world.

Melina made sure the experience was an honest one - no coddling, no hiding in fancy hotels, no expensive taxis. The journey from the airport was by tuk-tuk to a modest hotel, taking in the sights and sounds and smells along the way, in a more authentic approach than I probably would have opted for myself.

Her guidance continued for a little while, helping me with finding my way around Battambang, learning a smattering of Khmer, and introducing me to both ex-pats and locals. After a little while (with some prodding), my existence in Cambodia became far more independent, and I was able to make my way around town confidently and haggle for intercity taxis in a mixture of English and Khmer. My stay - initially planned as two weeks - became four months.

Now, I find myself visiting India for the first time. Again, I’m out of my depth, but Melina’s back in Melbourne and for the first few days I didn’t cross paths with anyone I knew. That changed once I start socialising with other Ruby developers around the conference kicking off, but the fact that I’ve had to fend for myself a bit more has me re-realising how lucky I was to have Melina’s wisdom and experience guiding me in Cambodia all those years ago.

Don’t get me wrong: India is a very different country to Cambodia - it’s the fact that they’re both different to my established comfort zone in particular that has me drawing parallels. I’m trying to remove any expectations and stereotypes as I’ve ventured through Mumbai and onto Pune - certainly, India is only going to let me accept it on its own terms.

I’m a little wary of embracing an authentic experience - how can I, as a visitor, judge what’s authentic? There are so many different cultures mixed into India, so much wealth and poverty - applying a broad brush for a generalisation is foolish. And as a white man who only speaks English, my experiences are always going to be tainted.

Still, I’m making some effort in stepping out from the shiny hotels I’ve found myself staying in. From my conversations with my Ruby peers, the fact that I’ve taken the train (rather than a private taxi or flying) to Pune is surprising and a touch more normal - an accidental win, really. Wandering the streets of the neighbourhoods that I’m staying in also seems to be the path less travelled - taxis are again the default, and I can count the number of other obvious foreigners I’ve seen on the streets on one hand.

Almost everyone I’ve interacted with has been friendly and helpful - the last hour of the train ride was spent conversing with Indian passengers comparing software development opportunities, weather, and the costs of living in different countries. Restaurant staff have been keen to recommend local Maharashtrian dishes (and are surprised that I know and love naan and lassis). The local Rubyists have been wonderfully welcoming and supportive.

Alongside the people, the rain has dominated my experience - after a drought, the wet season has returned in force. The grey clouds blurred into the distant, verdant green hills as I travelled across the countryside, the roads are often half-drowned here in Pune, and I’ve had to navigate puddles and mud (mostly with success) while wandering. At times, the weather has perhaps curtailed my explorations, but at other times, it has added to the sense of adventure.

Bit by bit, I’m gaining a better understanding of at least one corner of this country, and in turn India is pushing my comfort zone’s boundaries a little further. Exhausting, intriguing, but certainly also fun.

(Cross-posted at hi.co as well)