Confession: India this vacation was a very, very different experience than the India of my family vacations growing up. As a child, I roasted from morning until night without air-conditioning. There was no air-conditioning in my grandmother’s house, no air-conditioning in the airports we landed in, no air-conditioning in the auto rickshaws, no air-conditioning in stores we shopped in.
We wore Indian clothes every day and if we didn’t we stuck out like sore thumbs. With the exception of the occasional toast with butter, we ate Indian food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There were no other options.
This is how I bathed everyday: I’d fill a large bucket with boiling hot water from a hot water heater in the bathroom. I’d then mix in my own cold water until the temperature was ideal for bathing, then I’d use a smaller bucket to throw water over my body while squatting, all the while my naked skin serving as an ample lunch for the local mosquitoes (since the bathroom wasn’t completely sealed off from the outside). This bathing routine became even more complicated when as a teenager, I began shaving my legs.
I used Indian toilets, and during my trips, I was almost always some degree of sick, so I was getting sick over these Indian toilets.
I slept on bed rolls and mattresses that were as comfortable as burlap bags of rice.
I woke up to sounds so different than in America. Temple bells chiming as early as 4 AM, sellers in the streets offering chai or fruit, constant honking horns, mooing cows.
Despite the cultural differences, I did fine. Sure, I was really, really happy to sleep in my own bed when I got back home, throw on a pair of jeans, eat spaghetti. After all, I was a spoiled American child. But visiting India then was a completely different world to me. It meant coping, adjusting, rising to the challenges of a different lifestyle, and appreciating all the things I had back home.
This time around, we did India as spoiled Americans who were even more spoiled by Modern India. We stayed in great hotels–I mean, really, really great hotels. We ate most of our meals from the hotels, where to my kids’ delight (and my chagrin), they could indulge in pizza, pasta, pancakes. We brought an entire suitcase of medicines and food in case we got sick– it never happened even once. I felt silly after about a week of making everyone brush their teeth with bottled water– the water in the hotels was extra purified. We still drank only bottle water, but there was otherwise no need to be so paranoid.
I kept a sweater on me for the too-cool air-conditioned taxis and stores. My kids primarily wore American clothes (though made in India) and locals barely noticed them.
We woke in silent hotel rooms. The walls were so thick we couldn’t even hear the phone ringing in the room next door, let alone a street seller pushing a mango cart.
India for my kids was not the India I experienced as a child.
So I was actually relieved when one day while shopping in a handicraft store in Dehli my kids desperately had to go to the bathroom, and the only available bathroom at the back of the store had an Indian toilet. Perhaps this sounds crazy, but I was overjoyed that my children were inconvenienced! That they had to experience something authentically Indian! I had to show them how to pull their pant-leg bottoms up so they wouldn’t get their clothes wet on the floor. I showed them how to manuever over the intimidating hole in the ground. I held their hands so they could get their balance while they squatted. I helped them rinse the toilet. (Caveat– I didn’t clean them the Indian way– we brought our own wet wipes with us.) But finally, a way for my kids to understand India the way I once did! Whenever I visited India as a child, there was always a sense of adventure, a feeling of victory whenever I experienced something truly Indian.
This was how I wanted my kids to feel. Wouldn’t any parent?