The Bucket and the Cup

Travel Stories: Sophia Dembling knew India would be a land of mysteries. She just didn't find the ones she expected.

08.31.09 | 10:37 AM ET

Photo by lemoncat1 via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

The bucket was our first clue.

It was in the bathtub of our first hotel, in Bangalore. A plastic bucket and a measuring cup. My friend and I scratched our heads, then set it aside to take our showers. Maybe housekeeping had accidentally left the bucket and cup behind.

Then we checked into a four-star resort outside Hyderabad, and there were the bucket and cup again.

India is a land of mysteries, and not the ones I expected.

Ours was not a spiritual quest or even an intrepid journey. I accompanied a friend to southern India for the wedding of one of her college friends. When we arrived at the resort for the wedding, we were loaded onto a golf cart and driven to our room. Men hustled alongside us, pointing in different directions, providing a cacophony of running commentary, waving us out of the cart and then back in, then out again, hauling a random selection of suitcases into our room and then nearly hauling the right ones out again before we intervened.

The price of bottled water at the resort was 30 rupees from this waiter, 50 from that. In restaurants, sometimes dishes we ordered didn’t arrive and sometimes dishes we didn’t order did. At museums, sometimes we paid at the same window as everyone else, sometimes at a special window for foreigners.

At the insistence of Indian friends, we coddled ourselves by hiring drivers rather than trying to negotiate the terrifying chaos of urban Indian traffic. At first, we presented the drivers with our sightseeing plans, but after many friendly head bobs, the drivers inevitably ignored us and decided our days themselves. We quickly gave up any pretense of control, trotting off obediently wherever they dropped us for sightseeing. When we were done, we’d step out and there they would be, detaching themselves from the surrounding bustle, smiling, waving, opening car doors, ready to take us to our next stop.

By the end of the trip, when confusing circumstances conspired to trap us at a resort, I gave up all will to maintain control. Travel confusion can be thrilling and enlightening, but constant confusion is exhausting. My brain was whirring like an overworked hard drive.

Rather than try to make India hew to my will, I lay in a hammock with “Eat, Pray, Love.” Elizabeth Gilbert had it easy. She’d just hung around an ashram having personal revelations and talking to erudite good ol’ boys. She wasn’t out there trying to find a bank that would change dollars to rupees.

India had seriously challenged my travel machisma. I was wracked with self doubt. If this un-intrepid trip had me flat on my back in a hammock, could I call myself a traveler at all? I felt I had failed. I wanted a do-over.

But lying in that hammock, wrestling with the shame, I concluded, in a brilliant flash of self justification, that the confusion itself was the lesson of India.

It all came back to the bucket and the cup.

After a couple of days of setting the bucket and cup aside to shower, my companion and I learned from a friend that because water pressure often is too weak for a satisfying wash, instead of standing under the shower, you fill the bucket with hot water and, using the cup, pour it over yourself.

Once I learned the ways of the bucket shower, I loved it. I found pouring water over my own head to be pleasant and oddly liberating—a sort of giving-over to the experience of water. It requires—or inspires—a sort of abandon.

Like India.

Any time I stopped fighting and started letting India wash over me, the trip got easier. Sure, I was knocked down a notch in my own mind, but isn’t that a good thing? Control freaks never win. They just get frustrated. Sometimes travel means letting go. Sometimes a place just happens to you and all you can do is let it.

That’s what India taught me.

So maybe it was a spiritual journey after all. It wasn’t my choice, but nothing in that trip was.

Sophia Dembling

Dallas-based writer Sophia Dembling is co-author of the Flyover America blog and author of "The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas." She would love to hear your tales of America, so drop her an email.

23 Comments for The Bucket and the Cup

Pradeep Kampani 08.31.09 | 11:23 AM ET

although you have mentioned lot of good and not so good things about India but you forgot to mention how warm Indians are towards their guests in general and their courtesies goes beyond any written rule in the management books.

Sophia Dembling 08.31.09 | 11:35 AM ET

Oh, absolutely, Pradeep. That’s a whole other essay. And “different” is not the same as “not good.”

Sophia Dembling 08.31.09 | 11:36 AM ET

I mean to say, I was talking about how India was different to me and therefore confusing and difficult. But I don’t say that those were bad things. Just complicated.

TR 08.31.09 | 12:00 PM ET

This is brilliant.  I’ve never been to India but I have had this same scenario play out at a few different places in the world.  It is a kind of spiritual journey in that at some point you just have to let go and flow and marvel at the things you might have missed while you were enslaved to your own agenda.

Rachel Dickinson 08.31.09 | 12:12 PM ET

Loved this piece, Sophia.

Shahin 08.31.09 | 2:18 PM ET

It is easy to run a country’s name down but sometimes we fail to see that worst scenarios happen in the most sophisticated places. I am an avid traveller and can easily say that all that glitters is not gold.
We often look for mistakes. I can walk around in Washington DC and find 101 mistakes in people and places. However, one must travel to enjoy the diverse cultures and feel them, instead of highligting deficiencies.

Thank you at least for summarizing the story on a softer note…

Mary Arulanantham 08.31.09 | 4:49 PM ET

I am preparing to give a talk to a group of teenaged Girl Scouts about travelling and one of my main points will be about letting go of preconceived expectations of what you want to see and do. The other point is to be flexible in your notions of comfort, routine, and so forth. I will be directing them to your article as a good illustration of that journey. The first time I encountered the tropical heat of Sri Lanka, I had to learn how to let go, stop wishing for air conditioning or iced Diet Coke, and just sweat, drink and take a lot of bucket baths. Thanks for your insights.

Sophia Dembling 08.31.09 | 4:57 PM ET

Ha, you remind me how in Greece we had to give up all hope of ice for our drinks.

Jenny 08.31.09 | 7:40 PM ET

Your story made me smile and nod in recognition of places I have been (not India, yet) where I definitely had to give up all semblence of control. Really nice piece.

Esha Samajpati 08.31.09 | 9:07 PM ET

Enjoyed your piece, Sophia.

AndreyM 09.01.09 | 2:49 AM ET

I would never think that The Bucket and the Cup will become so funny mysteries

pelu 09.01.09 | 8:34 AM ET

love this. But the bucket and cup scenario plays out in Africa almost permanently.

Book it now 09.01.09 | 2:58 PM ET

I love India, I have been there twice, but you just need to be very clear with the people. Lets face it.. every taxi driver will fool you if he can. You do not need to go to India for that. If I take a cab in Amsterdam I will get fooled even though I am based in Rotterdam (1hours drive).

And lets face it..

the Bucket, if you were born earlier in time you would have had JUST the bucket.

To close. love the article and enjoy India and the population

grizzly bear mom 09.01.09 | 4:37 PM ET

Nice to hear of someone appreciating another culture; and want ordinary citizeins encounter daily (low water pressure…)

niamh 09.02.09 | 7:52 AM ET

Lovely piece! When I started reading it, I was thinking ’ oh, she just needs to let go’ and then you did! It’s the only way to survive in any cutlure that’s different to your own ... and even sometimes in our own strange worlds.

kerala 09.02.09 | 9:43 AM ET

i’ve no comments on this. Anyway its really a comedy

Brian 09.02.09 | 11:50 AM ET

Perfect, absolutely perfect . . . This sounds like everything an adventure should be.  If anyone was ever on the fence, so to speak, about visiting India, this is the description of India people need, to make them take that plunge.  I, now, MUST see india.

Sophia Dembling 09.02.09 | 11:53 AM ET

Thanks to everyone who understands that I’m not making fun of anyone but myself! The flip side of all this is the people, absolutely, who were so kind, so helpful, so polite ... they made me feel positively coddled. And I wish I could get away with using that distinctive Indian head nod. (Somewhere on World Hum is a story about how to do it.) It’s so eloquent.

Candice 09.03.09 | 9:15 AM ET

I made the mistake of letting travel overwhelm me when I was alone in France, I wish I had read your article before I left!

JackieB 09.03.09 | 3:10 PM ET

Reminds me exactly of when i moved to Vietnam. Bucket and all. I could actually have replaced several words in this story with the Vietnamese counterpart, including every “India” for “Vietnam” and it would make perfect sense! Great job.

Lindsay 09.03.09 | 9:04 PM ET

I’ve been to India twice in the last 2 years and find it intoxicating.  The life, the people, the traffic…....
It was not a destination I sought out and now I can’t stay away.  Abosulte chaos along with wonderfully warm people and COLOR, COLOR, COLOR!!!
The water preassure usually doesn’t come on enough to even flush the toilet before 11:00 AM.  That is if you are fotunate enough to get a flush toilet.
My friends kept hearing us say the word “funny” and finally we looked at them and said “you know that funny to us has several meanings, like interesting!!  They only knew funny as HAHA!!!
So glad we cleared that up.

Karen Murphy 09.09.09 | 9:56 PM ET

And I was so sure that the bucket and cup were going to have more to do with toilets than showers, this causing me to comsider rethinking future plans of travel in India. So relieved! And it’s a beautiful story, Sophia, about truly letting yourself connect with a different part of the world.

Leon Mahoney 09.27.09 | 8:30 PM ET

Welcome to India Sophia.  After 20 years in India there is only one answer that comes to mind about all these baffling things that confront us. “That’s the way it is.” so for peace of mind it is best to leave it at that because a lot of times there is no answer. And as for the wobble of the head, well it comes naturaly after time and you only realise that you are doing it is when someone tells you that you are. Not a problem in India but can cause a bit of confusion outside the country.

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