How I Experienced the Five Senses of India

Coming to India for the Cultural Vistas Fellowship was my first major international trip, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little nervous about living on the other side of the world.

But a while ago, I learned a handy tactic for calming my nerves when I start to feel overwhelmed. You take a few breaths, then run down the five senses – sight, smell, taste, sound, and feel – and mentally list everything you’re experiencing in that moment. The exercise forces me to shift focus and, if only for a few minutes, center myself in the present.

Raigon on a rocky beach in Pondicherry, India

From the day I landed in India, everything was different. Different living arrangements, different friends, a different job, different languages, a different Uber app. Even the back of my hand looked different from the marks of different bugs who decided to get a taste of my different flesh. And with all the excitement these differences brought came the stress of having to make all types of adjustments, consciously and subconsciously, to my new and different lifestyle.

Raigon’s morning coffee in the courtyard of her hotel in Pondicherry

So there were many instances where I took the time to inhale, exhale, and think, “I see this…I smell this…” Not only did I find some reprieve from feeling anxious, going through this ritual, sometimes two or three times a day, really grounded me in this new country. It allowed me to notice parts of India that I probably wouldn’t have valued otherwise. As I approached the final weeks of my fellowship, I found myself trying to hold onto the sensations that marked my time in India.

I saw…

Endless green spaces, foreign flowers, dogs napping in the street, women carrying rocks on their head, vehicles too close to my own, people languishing on the street, electrical wires hanging from trees, scenic beaches, inordinate amounts of street waste, blissful children, indescribable mountain views, spikey produce, sunlight glittering on the water.

 I smelled…

A street in Kochi, Kerala India

Car exhaust, fried bananas, body must, roasting corn, jasmine, warm sea air, urine, crisp mountain air, raw herbs and spices, cigarette smoke, burning trash, incense, rose water, charred coconuts, fish rotting in the hot market, feces – human and animal, freshly brewed chai, my supervisor’s perfume, lemongrass oil.

I tasted…

Boiled rice, plantain chips, salty ocean mist, local Indian beer, the coating of my malaria pills, tulsi tea, warm paratha, juicy mangos, exotic masala, whole green chile, rosemary chocolate, infused liquors, candied fennel seeds, fleshy baby coconut, betel leaf paan, syrupy gulab jamun, spicy hot lentils, shortbread cookies, mineraly mountain water.

 I heard…

One of the many waterfalls in Kerala, India

Prayer bells, indistinct chatter in Hindi or Tamil or Kannada, my neighbors arguing, cats fighting in the night, religious chanting, calm nothing in the mountains, birds singing, canoes paddling through the river, women beating laundry, cars honking, chaat crunching in my mouth, rushing waterfalls, banging from construction.

I felt…

Warm monsoon rains, the hand of an overly-familiar coworker, my scarf around my neck, cold showers, unyielding humidity, drops in the sidewalk, misty mountain air, hot marble on temple floors, my work bag weighing on my shoulders, warm massage oil, every spring and lump in my hotel bed, condensation forming on a cold cup of juice.

A medallion on the floor of a temple near Pondicherry, India

And I am thankful that, in a few months, when my mind begins to wander, I can take a breath and remember the impression India left on me.

Raigon Wilson spent her summer interning in Bangalore, India as part of the fully-funded Cultural Vistas Fellowship. The program was designed to give more Americans the chance to gain work experience abroad. Follow her and the 11 other fellows’ summer journeys in Argentina, Germany, and India at #CVFellows17