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.