'Are you in the right line, madam? This is Air India," the baggage handler at the airport in Muscat asked me as I waited to check in for my flight to New Delhi.
I glanced around at the people in the lines around me. I was the only Caucasian in the line, so he must have thought I was mistaken.
"Yes! I'm going to India!" I assured him with a smile.
India had long been on my list of places to visit, so I was ecstatic when I was offered the opportunity to report on the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation meetings in Gurgaon, India. As a Canadian, I had barely heard of the association, and I'd never heard of Gurgaon, but that didn't matter; I was going to India!
Nothing could have prepared me for my first visit to India. The movies, TV programmes, newspapers and magazines may have showcased the colours, the poverty, the festivals and the landscapes, and my Indian friends and colleagues may have often spoken of their homeland, but what I found was completely different than what I had expected.
I found a country with some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I've come across. I don't think I've ever been smiled at so often in a week. At the stunning Trident Hotel, which is an oasis of tranquillity in the bustling capital region, every single time I passed a staff member they would put their hands together and greet me with a warm smile and a 'namaste'. While riding the bus with the other journalists as we were taken to different press conferences, meetings and tours, I would often catch the eye of someone outside — someone waiting for a bus, a beggar, a shopkeeper, a passenger in another vehicle — and without fail, they, too, would grin at me.
I found a country with some of the most chaotic roads in the world, and coming from Oman, that's saying something. I'd heard about the crazy driving in India, but this was unbelievable. Almost every vehicle I saw had scrapes and dents up and down the sides and on the bumpers. Somehow a three-lane road became four or five lines, and there was no semblance of rules. The beeping horns were incessant, and the number of times I slammed my foot down on imaginary brakes or closed my eyes in anticipation of a crash was innumerable. Yet somehow I survived, and try as I may, I can't recall seeing a single accident scene, as I often do in Muscat.
I found a place with some of the most luxurious, modern developments and the most pitiful slums side by side. Hotels with Gucci stores, and sparkling new condominiums for the growing middle class were being built next to neighbourhoods made of cardboard, tin, tarps and whatever else could be found. I was in awe of the five-star hotel where the journalists stayed, a place I could never have dreamed of staying because it's so expensive, and I was moved to tears at the sight of people sleeping at the side of the road, their meagre belongings gathered beside them.
I found a land with both the most vibrant colours and the worst filth and pollution I've seen. The crimson, fuchsia, turquoise, lemon, tangerine, and emerald saris and salwar kameez that the women wore seemed to be a constant celebration of life. The marigolds and bougainvillea, bananas and mangoes, carpets and shawls caught my eye at every turn. But the colours were in stark contrast to the endless garbage on the streets, dusts that even collected on green leaves, and the thick smog that hung over the cities and countryside, smothering the sun that tried to shine, choking each living thing.
I found a place with so many unexpected sights and experience. I saw makeshift barbershops on the side of the road, with mirrors hanging off fences. I saw donkey covered in paint. I saw people hanging onto the outsides of vehicles speeding down freeways, and entire families loaded onto motorbikes. I saw traffic jams caused by cows, and little children doing acrobatics for money. I rode in a rickshaw with 12 other people crammed in, and was welcomed with a flower ga