Ah, my beloved friends and family. I suppose it’s time to share a little of my travels with you all. Stepping off the plane in Delhi just 4 months ago, with high hopes and few expectations, never did I imagine that the journey would unfold in quite the way it has. I had intended to write stories from my days, of places I visited, of people I met, of the funny, awkward, tiring, exhilarating and baffling moments, but each piece drafted felt but a shadow of what it was to actually be here. Instead I will share with you my experience of the most mystical, humbling and challenging land I have ever found myself in, and the impact it may have on my life going forward. I do write this with some trepidation because that seems to me to be quite the undertaking, but write it I must. So, my friends, read on with a gentle heart – with high hopes and few expectations.
For those who prefer picture books to rambling essays, you can ponder over some of my photos instead 🙂
Incredible India. This is not a mere tag line for tourism, it is a statement of fact. The number of horror stories I was told before coming here… Oh, were it not for the few souls who had fallen in love with India telling me otherwise, perhaps I would never have come.
How does one explain India? Well, in truth I don’t think it’s really possible. India is a sensual place and words will never do it justice. You have to be there, you have to see it, smell it, taste it, hear it. You have to feel it. But I’ll do my best.
India awakens your every sense. The aromas seemingly change with every step, one moment fresh cow dung – cow dung that you just watched splatter onto the road from the cow that is refusing to move aside as a truck blasts it’s horn in frustration – the next moment, the smell of gasoline from said truck and the hornet’s nest of tuk tuks and motorcycles that rapidly buzz past said cow; the smell of human faeces – that is, if you happen to brave the streets before 8am in the smaller towns where rows of people find their place to squat and begin their day; and as the sun scorches the asphalt, roasts your skin and dries out your lungs, you find yourself wishing that a gentle breeze would bring some relief from the stagnating air – but when the breeze finally comes, you remember that the huge pile of rotting garbage from the next block over has now dispersed into the air and will soon nestle in your nasal passages and parched lungs for an unfortunate length of time. Oh, but then, my friends, then you pass a temple, where an old lady sits polishing deities and vessels for puja, and Nag Champa burns, filling the air with sweetness and spice; perfumes and incense smoke swell through the bustling market place; a delicate fragrance floats from the mountains of freshly cut flowers, dew still hanging from their petals, being lovingly and rapidly woven into intricate forms that will adorn women and gods alike; the heady aroma of spices that wafts from tiny roadside restaurants; the mala beads draped around my neck, warmed by my body and the sun, the soft scents of sandalwood drift into my heart; the irresistible smells of masala chai and freshly cracked coconuts. This is India. I could write equally about the diversity within the other senses, the sights, sounds, tastes and feelings, but I will spare you the essay that that would produce, as we would, after all, find ourselves in the same place, with the same understanding. India is raw. It is a place of great discomfort, and a place of great joy and beauty, a place of intensity and extremes.
India is a vindaloo curry. It’s red and fiery. It’s flavours smack you right in your third eye. There are no subtle suggestions. It demands that you respond, whether that be with tears, crying for mercy, “Please sir, just a little curd to cut the spice” (though this will only serve you momentarily – that vindaloo can and will return at any moment, hopefully not with a burning deep in your guts), or perhaps, biting your bottom lip and cocking your eyebrow, you’ll find yourself asking for a second helping with extra green chillies on the side. And it is here, my friends, in the moment that you embrace the chillies, and the profuse sweating, and the grins of the onlooking waiters, and the protest of your mouth and stomach, and the twinkling, knowing eyes of the friends you find yourself dining with, that India slowly begins to reveal herself.
Each day becomes a walking meditation – an exercise in immersion and finding peace amongst the chaos. As one yoga teacher I practiced with, Rameshji, would say during practice, “Deep inhalation, deep exhalation, enjoy your breath”. This became my mantra whenever I became stressed. It was by no means easy, even at the end of my time here, I found the daily gong show – the yelling, the whistles, the horns, the bustling, the pushing – of walking down the street challenging. But if in those moments you can find peace, it is a peace like none other I have ever experienced. It is peace within the centre of chaos – it’s that moment when you find a gap in the crowd and you set your sights ahead, weaving your way around the people and the motorbikes and the carts, thinking gleefully in your head, “I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna be away from all this, go, go go!”… only to have a giant bull suddenly appear in front of you. You stop dead, you feel a little startled. The people who were taking advantage of the excellent opportunity to follow your path through the crowd now walk into the back of you, and you’re momentarily annoyed because your senses are overwhelmed to almost breaking point and the bull has blocked your only chance for swift exit from the madness. And now you’re thinking, “Dumb bull with his dumb face, stupid people pushing when there’s no where to go, moronic motorbikers honking relentlessly, why the hell doesn’t that guy get his scooter serviced so he’s not spewing fumes into all of our lungs, and why are those people stopping to take photos and slowing us all down even more, and why…?” And then across the crowd, you lock eyes with an old lady standing on the side of the road. She smiles at you with every muscle in her face – deep crow’s feet dance at the edge of her eyes suggesting a lifetime of happy moments. She smiles because she witnessed the scene, she saw the emotions play out on your face – the elevation at finding a path, the determination, the shock, the frustration – and she is amused. And you are amused that she is amused. And you both just smile at each other, do a little head wobble, shrug your shoulders. You join the locals in yelling and clapping at the bull, willing it to move on. Your legs start moving you out of that shared moment. The crowd moves slowly amongst the chaos, as do you, just as before – except now a little smile plays at the corner of your mouth, and for the rest of your walk to wherever it was you were going, the hustling and the bustling, the yelling and the selling, the honking and the unexpected cow appearances, don’t seem to bother you quite so much. And I wonder at that, I really do. How marvellous it is that a connection with a person (or a practice, or a ritual for that matter), can draw you out of the chaos – the interminable mind wanderings, the emotional roller coasters, the sensory overload – and simply reveal it to be the absurd sideshow that it is. And somehow, realising that it is all just so absurd, makes it bearable, makes it amusing.
Walking in the early morning is a special treat – here, before the bustling begins, you get a glimpse of the rituals, the spirituality, a sense of the invisible thread that somehow seems to hold everything together. Women come into the streets to wash down the asphalt and draw fresh blessings in chalk outside doorways of their homes and businesses; temples are tended to by devotees who remove the previous days puja and bring fresh fruit, ghee lamps and flowers, ringing bells, touching idols and stones with mindful movement, softly chanting their mantras; and as the sun slowly rises over Varanasi, hundreds of people descend upon the ghats to wash, bathe, swim and honour Mother Gangaji. It is in these moments that you see the other side of the chaos. Perhaps it is only in these deep rooted spiritual and ritualistic actions that India finds its balance – without it, I cannot imagine it would survive.
For me, India became a playground for spirit – my Dad would probably describe it more as a journey into woo. I’m prepared to meet him half way on that one. I have been offered blessings from Brahmans and charlatans; I took Ayurvedic medicine with some success for bronchiolitis in March, and then in May started a detox program following a visit to an Ayurvedic doctor in Rishikesh who felt my pulse for 5 minutes and prescribed 5 pills and a horrible crushed tablet mix twice a day for 5 weeks (was it worth it? Short answer, no.); I have been near naked receiving a reflexology/shiatsu massage from a man who told me a thing or two about the quality of my orgasms as he pressed on my belly button; I visited an astrologist in Varanasi who told me intimate things about my life and nature, an experience I will never forget; I swam in the Ganges, and the following day, accidentally drank her spirit during a blessing – had the priest given me but the tiniest moment to ponder where the water he was offering me came from, I might not have done so!; I meditate, I read scriptures, I practice yoga; I became a vegetarian (sorry Mum!); and I inwardly chanted Om as often as I remembered to. The sceptic within me let go and for that I have many incredibly lovely memories and experiences to carry in my heart – I will take time to reflect and take what I need from each experience. And still, there is more to try, all in good time.
In Bundi, I met a man named Bikram. Bikram is a local man, in his late 20’s, bit of a smooth talker but friendly. The kind of guy who keeps you in conversation by not leaving any space between sentences to say “I gotta go” – which is exactly what I wanted to say. It was the golden hour in this beautiful town where all the buildings are painted a soft blue – from high above, Bundi would appear an oasis surrounded by arid lands. The lighting was perfection for photography and I wanted to wander the streets before it got dark. Georgie was back at the guesthouse feeling sick, so I wanted to get back to her too. And here was Bikram, chatting away about life, his family, his work, his faith. And all I wanted to do was get away. And he knew it. I was sitting there, jiggling my leg, biting my nails, looking distractedly at passing tuk tuks and cows. So he called me on it, “Am I keeping you from something?”. “Oh, no no, I just really want to take some pictures in this light and I need to get back to my friend, she’s not well”, I said, “but it’s okay, I can stay a little longer.” Both excuses were true, so I didn’t feel particularly bad expressing my need to get going shortly. So we kept talking, now about his guru, about family life in the western world, about relationships. Jiggle jiggle went my foot, nibbling at my nails. “I can see you want to be somewhere else, you are not present. You Westerners are all the same, always somewhere else to be, always somewhere else to go,” he chided. To which of course I was outraged, I’m not like that! But it was true. My body language spoke volumes and my defensiveness grew out of shame. Here I was in a moment, speaking about the stuff of life, of culture, of religion, with someone who called this land home and could express himself perfectly in English – these were the moments I should be most present in, and here I was feeling absolutely desperate to get away. So I stopped. I put my bag down, I sat down, crossed my legs and had a conversation. And I went back the next day for a chai with him. Little did I know at the time that this was the moment, 2 months into my trip, that I would learn how to move through India and engage with the full spectrum of people I was to meet going forwards.
So what have I learnt from my time in India? I have learnt that immersion is the only way to survive it, to enjoy it, to find yourself laughing when you probably should be crying or shouting. I have learnt to be conscious and present, to listen, to smile, to walk slowly, so very slowly, to stop, to sit, to take time to listen, to take time to explain, not to assume you will misunderstand or be misunderstood, to be curious and open to the curiosity of others, even when it seems they’re being brash. To be with others even when you are unsure of their intentions, to trust when you can trust, to be on guard only when you must. I have learnt to accept what you cannot control, because rarely does it matter. My heart and mind have been opened to a whole new way of being – and one day maybe I’ll embody it.