Since our first day in Mysore, Mariel and I have wanted to visit the ever-elusive “Market”. We had read about it online and heard of its beauty by word of mouth, but our search on our first day in Mysore city was fruitless. People pointed us in a few different directions, suggesting we visit the “clothing bazaar” and the “fruit and vegetables market”, but we had no idea what we were looking for. It was confusing and frustrating and all I wanted was to smell some incense and see some pretty things and just walk around while vendors yelled at me. Too much to ask?
Yesterday we took a rickshaw into town to visit the bookstore (“Mysore’s Largest Book Mall!”) and search once again for the market. We discovered that, yes, the fruit and vegetable market is the one that we were looking for, and yes, it’s lovely. As we walked through a small archway, accessed from the busy road, we entered a little maze of produce stands, the aisles covered with tarps, sunlight peeking sporadically through. Like stepping through a wardrobe to Narnia. The first words out of my mouth? “It smells like VEGETABLES!”
In order to avoid serious cases of Delhi Belly, travelers in India are advised to stay away from raw fruits and vegetables (unless they are peeled, like bananas or oranges). As somebody who loves salads, farmers’ markets, fresh produce, and generally anything that comes out of the ground, I have found this difficult. (Seriously. If anyone out there can figure out a way to FeDex me a fresh salad, that would be great.) So it was a bit bittersweet, walking through rows and rows of peppers, beans, carrots, greens, and tomatoes, not being able to give them all a good home. But I loved it anyway — the bushels and bushels full of veggies, the green beans laid out in little piles, the smell of cilantro, the piles of gourds like stone walls and that one strange vegetable that no translation or vendor could identify as familiar (it’s greyish-brown, hard, and I think they call it “Chinese”).
Confession: I’m a very self-conscious traveler. I hate the feeling of being an obvious tourist, and find myself uncomfortable when I’m so clearly an outsider, intruding into people’s everyday lives and treating them as a spectacle. I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of the beauty around me at the market, but I felt insecure, wanting to hide my camera not just to protect it from potential thieves but also to hide the telltale sign of a visitor, a spectator. Oh–there was also the slightly noticeable fact that I was the only white person there. And wearing a fanny pack.
But as we walked deeper into the maze of stalls and tarps, and found ourselves not just among fruits and vegetables but also colorful powders, fragrant oils, and even a bit of cookware, my shoulders began to un-shrug. When men yelled “miss! miss!” from their stalls, the urge to turn away, to ignore, left me and I began to listen, to smile, even to talk. Where am I from? America. What is my name? Marian. Very nice to meet you. Have a nice day.
I think that many westerners – especially young women – are warned so incessantly that travel in other countries can be unsafe, that people will try to swindle and cheat and accost us at every turn, that our instincts are to turn away rather than to embrace. As I walked through this market, my smile softened and my heart opened to all the friendly people I passed, simply going about their day and trying to sell a tomato or a banana or a trinket. I realized that these barriers we build between ourselves and others — not just the barriers of ethnicity, creed, or language, but the assumption that we are fundamentally different, or at best unable to relate to each other — well, they’re bullshit.
Yes, we must keep our wits about us. No, you shouldn’t get into a strange man’s car when it’s dark and you’re in a foreign place. But we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that we’re all human, all basically the same, all God’s children and capable of the same emotions and successes and failures. Maybe, yesterday, I just learned how to walk through a market in a foreign country; maybe I was previously extremely naive, or overly fearful of strangers, or insecure. I’m slowly learning that it’s okay to be a tourist. It’s okay to be from a far away place. To come experience a new culture and a new population and to talk to them, learn from them, exist together, realize we can still relate despite any preconceptions. Acknowledging what outwardly differentiates us can help us move towards embracing our fundamental similarities.
At the end of our visit, a young boy came up to us, asking if we’d like to come watch him make incense. If we would just come visit his stall for a minute. Letting go of my (silly) hesitations, I followed him through the market, sitting down on a small plastic step stool that he brushed off for me. I, transfixed behind the small counter packed full of essential oils and crystal bottles, as he explained the incense-making process to us in perfect English: Mix powder, glue, and water. Make a paste. Roll over a stick of bamboo. Dry in the sun. Did you know there are no incense machines in India, since it is so simple to do by hand? Of course, I had to try my hand at it. Rolling the gum over the bamboo felt so clumsy in my hands, compared to my teacher’s quick and easy movements.
Our new friend was so sweet, so savvy, such a bright little kid, we couldn’t help but be charmed by him. Mariel was in love. And though he tried to sell us some of his beautifully scented oils, he conceded when we promised, no, we don’t need any perfume, but thank you. He was all smiles and waves and yells as we walked away from his little stall. All he wanted was to talk to us, to make friends, and for us to take a picture of him.
Leave it to a little Indian boy to show me the beauty of strangers.