An Indian Summer

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“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear; never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed. No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path. The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly”

(Gautama Buddha)

India is like a Bollywood movie. It has to be experienced, but can never be understood. How can it be? The contradictions are extensive. It has wonderfully friendly, helpful people, some of whom are arguably the most spiritual on the planet and yet, it is a country with severe human rights abuses. A population in love with being in love, but when it comes to marriage it is arranged.  A country that has produced some of the most resplendently beautiful architecture ever designed, and yet, can justify having electro-hot pink and red plastic rotating chandeliers hanging from restaurant ceilings.

Just like a Bollywood movie, India has it all. It is Aladdin meets Indiana Jones meets biblical heroism, combine that with a love story and complete it with jokes, music, dancing, singing, exotic animals, a British Bulldog and a very handsome Indian actor with three thumbs and you might come close to conjuring the Bollywood blockbusters we experienced. Romance, comedy, adventure, crime, action, drama, it ignores the genre and covers all bases.  Just like the nation itself.

It is life in full view, humanity on a platter, a microcosm of society as we cannot even imagine it, with all its glory, drudgery, dreams, heartache and exhilaration. A trip to India is a rollercoaster ride of the senses and emotions, and if you are prepared to use the multitude of transport options available-  motorbike, cyclo, boat, train, tuk-tuk, yak, camel, elephant- it can quite literally be one hell of a ride.

I had always wanted to travel to India. So, when my dear friend Karen, a fellow lover of life, purveyor of adventures and like-minded citizen of the world, told me she was planning a bucket-list trip, without hesitation, I told her to count me in. I didn’t even know the itinerary. All I had to do was book the flights and show up.

But as the time drew near, I was becoming nervous. I had conducted an increasingly discouraging canvas of friends, family and acquaintances who had visited India and it was proving a controversial destination.  Of those who had visited, the vast majority were happy to have been but would never go back. Only the smallest percentage loved it and would return. The results were perplexing and pointed in one direction- India has to be experienced, but it might not be enjoyed. I was warned about the scams, the Delhi Belly, the heart-wrenching poverty, the institutionalised inequality, the lack of cleanliness, and as one colleague who used to live there forebodingly prophesised: “you will at times come to hate humanity”. As an idealist and lover of humanity generally, the thought of spending 6 weeks in the most populous nation on earth hating people, concerned me somewhat. I began to take bets on how long I would last before jumping on a flight and high-tailing it back to the comforts of a glorious summer in Switzerland.

Karen had opted to spend her first 10 days in India learning the benefits of silent meditation in a Buddhist monastery in Dharamshala. As much as I admire the Dalai Lama, I possess neither the ability nor inclination to last a day without speaking, let alone 10, and consequently chose to spend that time practicing yoga. What better place to do so than at an ashram? A Hindu place of learning. So it came to pass one evening when I found myself researching ashrams in India. An eclectic assortment of images of swamis, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) and the Beatles filled my mind, but it was clear to many of my friends, that I may finally have been losing mine.

The doctor who I saw just weeks before my departure must have had similar suspicions. It was the most complacent I had been about a holiday in my life, and the inherently cautious Swiss medical practitioner was unamused. I had ordered the Lonely Planet guidebooks but hadn’t opened them. Had booked my flights, but didn’t know exactly where I was going, and sat in her surgery nonchalantly two weeks from departure asking her if I needed any additional vaccinations, despite it being a little too late for that. I tried to regain some credibility as an experienced traveller by assuring her I did know something about my impending holiday, “It is a 6-week trip” I informed her confidently as I gave her the dates of my travel.  With raised eyebrows, she produced her calendar from behind her desk, “you mean 7 weeks?” counting out the weeks in front of me. 7 weeks I thought with rising panic, that’s a long time to be in a place where I could come to hate humanity.

A summer in India: #nevertoolatetofindyourself #earlyonsetmidlifecrisis

So it came to be after much trepidation, little organisation and a fair amount of second-guessing my decision to spend almost the entire summer in India, I dragged myself away from a beautiful Swiss day by the lake, donned the backpack I haven’t used since my 20’s, and headed off to catch my flight, feeling like I was embarking on the trip I should have taken as a 21-year-old. Sure, I know Julia Roberts pulled it off in Eat Pray Love, but let’s not forget she made prostitution look glamorous in Pretty Woman. Wasn’t I too old for this? It didn’t boost my confidence running into an ex-student at the train station, who in an ironic role reversal was in Lausanne to complete an internship while I planned to traipse around the sub-continent pretending I was his age. His eyes almost bulged out of his head when I told him I was off to India for 7 weeks. Even he thought I was ridiculous, and I hadn’t even mentioned the ashram.

On the flight to India I had read a magazine article about the Beatles famed visit to the ashram in Rishkesh. Ringo packed a suitcase full of baked beans and lasted a week. Paul stayed a month, and John and George lasted 6 weeks but left having had a falling out with the swami. A few nights later, having arrived at the ashram in the midst of a power shortage, I began to think I might be on the more Ringo of ashram experiences. Having missed dinner, I was led to the dining room where a plate of daal and naan was rustled up from somewhere, and as I sat on the floor of the giant hall, alone in the darkness, watching fireflies and eating from a metal tray with my fingers, in silence using a mobile phone as a torch, I started to laugh out loud at the ridiculous scenarios I voluntarily opt to be a part of. At least I entertain myself, somebody has to. Besides, Ringo was wrong about one thing, the food was delicious. There would be no need for baked beans in India.

Kerala: The ashram experience- The Beatles were right, Love is all you need

India is a country obsessed with love and romance. Ironic considering the prevalence of arranged marriage. Even the check-in clerk at Delhi airport had offered to set me up with the fellow Aussie I had been talking politics with on the queue “would you two like to sit together?”, she asked as he approached the counter next to mine. “I appreciate your matchmaking service” he answered, “but that would be rather difficult, as she is off to Kerala and I am going to Varanasi.”

I was not going to the ashram to find love, nor enlightenment for that matter. In fact, I didn’t even want to find myself. That had happened years ago and if I was perfectly honest, I really could do with losing myself for a while. It may have been an early onset midlife crisis, but if that were the case my lack of materialistic urges was rather disappointing. For the real thing in 10 years’ time, I hope I will at least go down the route of finding a toy boy and buying myself a sports car. No, I was at the ashram for a single purpose, and that was to practice yoga.

I was not disappointed.  The verdant jungle setting some 2 hours from the nearest airport and the simple routine of meditation, yoga, tea, lunch, lectures, karma yoga, more yoga, more meditation, dinner, chanting and bed proved an exceptional way to slow down from a bustling lifestyle. In fact, after a busy term it felt like I had come to a screeching halt. An ascetic mix of 5.20 am wake ups, no caffeine, 2 vegetarian meals a day (eaten in silence from a metal tray with my fingers), hand washing clothes and cold showers, the experience did feel somewhat akin to being in prison or a convent, but it is testament to the quality of the yoga, that I could tolerate the monastic conditions without complaint. It did help that I was amongst perhaps the most eclectic mix of lovely, happy, healthy people ever congregated in a religious compound. An Australian miner from Kalgoorlie, a doctor and her daughter from Perth on a yearly ashram visit, a photojournalist living in the Middle East, a divinity student from Edinburgh University, an art buyer from America, Indians from all over the country and backpackers making their way all over the world. Many were there to find meaning in life and would stay a lot longer than I hoped to. I was inspired by the stories of the swamis who dedicate their lives to attaining enlightenment, but I had figured out the meaning of life a long time ago and didn’t feel the need to look for purpose in a Hindu monastery. I had however, been disappointed that our ashram was without its own swami. My yoga teacher in Switzerland had recommended the ashram and had given me a letter to pass on to the swami who had made an impression on her when she was completing her yoga teacher training many years before. For the duration of the week, the ashram’s director led the sessions and helped us to understand a little more about Hinduism and yoga. When I asked at the end of the week how I could possibly contact the swami so I could pass on the letter, the young receptionist smiled and told me I should simply give it to the director. It transpired that the director had in fact been the swami (and a very good one from all accounts) but after years of seeking and finally achieving enlightenment, had promptly and unexpectedly fallen in love with a woman who had been staying at the ashram and made the decision to defrock (a great word, and rather appropriate given the circumstances). The fact that 7 days exploring my own sense of self, ego, and quest for freedom culminated in my fascination with the most trivial of ashram gossip, perhaps more than all else indicates exactly how far I am from ever achieving enlightenment. However, more importantly to my simple and romantically inclined mind, it meant one very important revelation. The Beatles were right – All you need is love!

As was Ringo it turns out- a week was enough. The end of the week had arrived, I had mastered an unassisted headstand, felt the most toned I had felt in a long time and left the ashram with my trousers falling down around my hips, to set off and explore the beautiful state of Kerala, aptly named God’s Own Country.

Incidentally, even in god’s country (or more accurately the country of gods- there are 1000’s of them after all) nothing goes according to plan. We hadn’t even made it out of Trivundrum when the driver took me to no less than 4 mechanics workshops telling me there was a small problem he needed to have fixed before embarking on the 5-hour drive to Aleppey. He finally stopped down a narrow maze of streets and assuring me that it would be safer to wait inside the shop with 15 men than to sit in the car, all the while apologising profusely, he dashed off on foot to try to locate the missing part, leaving the mechanics and I looking at each other rather awkwardly. Some 8 hours later, in teaming tropical rain, we finally rolled into Aleppey, with strange noises emerging from under the bonnet. I was no longer at the ashram but my purpose was simple. Find a houseboat, arrange an Ayurverdic massage, reintroduce caffeine into my system and eat as many mangoes and coconuts as humanly possible before leaving the coast and joining Karen and her friend Sally in the mighty Himalayas.

A Himalayan High: The Spiti Valley

There are few places in India where you can feel as remote and removed from the rest of the world as the spectacularly scenic Spiti Valley.  It was my first encounter with the majestic Himalayas, and they did not disappoint, even for a girl spoiled by views of the Alps 24-7. Shocking roads and altitude induced headaches notwithstanding, the 12-hour long car ride into the valley made for a grand adventure in its own right, with two punctured tires, and a rather comical hour spent watching our vehicle being dislodged from a flooded river crossing by no less than 28 clueless men. Even the roads less travelled of the world are rapidly becoming highways it seems, and it didn’t take long for a convoy of tourist vehicles to meet us at our impasse, including a truck full of stoned Israeli’s who rather unhelpfully but hospitably offered us hashish and water, in that order. With a spliff in one hand and his friends in the vehicle smoke-boxing their hapless driver, one young guy waded into the river and offered to assist the other travellers who had descended upon our vehicle, motivated less by chivalry and more a sense of wanting to continue with their own journey. Karen and Sally tried unsuccessfully to offer advice to the men, whose uncoordinated efforts succeeded only in digging the back tires deeper into the river bed. In what ensued as an entertaining struggle between ego,  brawn and brains, the pushing, rocking and wheel-spinning subsided and brawn and ego won out 45 minutes later at a final count of 28 men and one useless stoned Israeli.

At each stop I was fascinated by the type of tourists the country was attracting. Only they weren’t tourists they were travellers, in the truest sense of the word. India I had thought had had its day as a hippy trail locale for the lost and those who wanted to be. The drifters, the druggies, the skint backpackers getting by on $5 bucks a day and little more than a hope and a prayer (from whichever faith they were ascribing to that week). The disenchanted, disheartened, disillusioned and disenfranchised, they are all still there. Some of them perhaps never left. I couldn’t decide if these travellers were courageous and brave or more simply stupid and naïve, to be admired or pitied, but they reminded me, no matter how adventurous I might feel at times, on the relative spectrum, my travels are only ever conservative. The couple who rode into town riding on the roof of the front cab of a road truck, as we enjoyed our morning tea of paratha and chai from plastic chairs at the desolate roadside hut, made us look like we were on a package tour. To think I had thought 7 weeks was a long time, we invariably met travellers who had been on the road for months on end. We had a car and a driver. They were on motorbikes, pushbikes, or hitchhiking. Singles, couples, loners and one mad-capped French family who we passed cycling the horrendous roads at heights of 4200 m with a 12-year old and a toddler in a baby trailer. There was the young American kid in his early 20’s, hairy and filthy who finished his Maggi noodles and waved the roadside owners at the rest stop farewell as he walked out on foot into the nothingness to hitch a ride or walk across the expansive and inhospitable terrain. We passed a Sadhu (a holy man who has given up all material possessions) walking along a stretch of road hours away from the nearest village by car, with bare feet, long matted hair and dressed in vibrant orange, with not a single item on him, neither the landscape nor his solitary and unusual figure would have been out of place in a scene from Star Wars. At one guesthouse, we encountered a group of 20 leather-clad German bikers in their late 60’s (if I was in the midst of a premature midlife crisis, these boys were certainly having a delayed one). In another guesthouse, we had breakfast with a lovely British guy who was about the same age as me, a modern day adventurer who was 18 months into a grand tour cycling every continent. Despite never having taken a flight in the last 9 years, he was imminently planning to board a plane to Australia and cycle the Nullabor. He was an inspiring bloke, who reminded me that with a dream and the determination, anything really is possible. The idea appealed immensely. The freedom, the independence, the stories to relive aged 90 with a smile. That was until he recounted how he had spent a lonely night in a cement pipe by the side of a desolate road, somewhere in the Kazak desert throwing his guts up, and I decided he could keep his dream. Besides, we were being adventurous enough. Only that morning we had been riding go-pro wearing yaks.

At the spectacularly situated Kee monastery, we watched the young monks play cricket at 4000m. Having succeeded in disappointing nearly every Indian I had met with my inexcusably ignorant lack of cricket knowledge (all I could offer was that I thought Shane Warne was an idiot and Imran Khan used to play well- at which point they usually looked at me perplexed, and the conversation faltered), I knew better than to join in, although it looked fun.

Kibber Village at 4300 m, is so isolated that the quickest route to the nearest village is via a small basket connected to a cable which villagers use to pull themselves across to the opposing mountain. Suspended high above the valley floor, it is not a ride for the faint of heart, and yet it is the mode of travel for the local school children who commute daily. Preferring solid ground, we took a walk around the tiny town, and as we passed an elderly woman spinning yarn from yak wool in a doorway, I wondered at the simplicity of a life that must exist for people who have only ever known these 2 streets, tiny alleyways and 5 surrounding mountain peaks their entire lives. At sunset, we stood on the roof of our guesthouse, which offered superb views and marveled as 100’s of cows, dozens of yaks, numerous donkeys and a multitude of goats returned from the mountain pastures. Pushing through the streets, they slowly filtered toward us and made their way, almost unassisted to their tiny pens beside the villagers’ homes. At one point, a brazen donkey took his chances and made a dash up a side lane in a bid for some prolonged freedom. Sympathetic to his cause, I silently cheered him on, but his quest was short lived. After 10 minutes running amok his annoyed young owner in hot pursuit, he took a corner too sharply, downhill at full gallop and ended up in a ball of dust and fur, unhurt, but no longer liberated.

It was however, the Pin Valley, in a town with the rather uninspiring name of Mud where we all agreed we had found our Himalayan highlight. With stupendous views of impossibly beautiful mountain peaks, valleys and rice fields, we sat in glorious sunshine and enjoyed a performance put on by the local villagers. It was a religious ceremony with a difference. Performed in a manner of a drama production, complete with jokes, audience interaction, elaborate costumes and stomach-churning scenes in which the protagonist, in a trance-like state, pierced his body with needles and demonstrated to his reluctant audience, his ability to balance the weight of his body on the pointed end of a sharpened sword without harm. At that point I averted my eyes to the majestic backdrop and wondered whether I could recall a more beautiful setting for a production. Sydney Harbour must come close, but it was hard to surpass. Karen had arranged the performance on the advice of our tour agency, who specialising in responsible tourism, offer this option as a means of keeping the traditions alive in the communities they visit. As the men enacted their scenes, the women played their instruments and spun their prayer wheels, I looked at the young children sitting on the sidelines, chewing bubble gum and completely obsessed by a mobile phone someone had given them, despite our location, it seems nothing can compete with the alluring appeals of the so-called modern world.

Shimla:  “In India, to drive, you need 3 things- good brakes, good horn and good luck” (Jeep driver, Jodhpur)

From the Spiti Valley, we arrived in the hill town of Shimla after another hair-raising bumpy ride careering along cliff face escarpments. As we descended, the valleys became green and coniferous. Misty fogs rose up from the river far below, and it seemed we were entering the Shangri-La. I could see why the cooler temperatures of this hill station town so appealed to the colonial British. Although, I doubt their journeys were subject to moments of head-on collision dread or the fear of rock slides catapulting vehicles into the gorge 100’s of metres below. Only when we were close enough to the town and away from the precipitous, vertiginous cliff ledges could I bring myself to ask our driver Nidoo what I had wanted to know some 12 days before, “how many fatalities per year happen on these roads?”, “Not many” was his reply, before he started to reel off the last few he could remember for that season.

The heritage-listed, scenic train from Shimla to Kalka is an engineering marvel. The 96km route descends from 2076 metres to 657metres through 107 tunnels and across 864 bridges and takes a leisurely 5 hours 35 minutes. With the carriage windows and doors wide open, and jumping off at tiny stations to buy masala tea, popcorn and an assortment of deep fried snacks, it was certainly one way to enjoy India.

Feeling like you are going to be killed in a sardine-sized minivan, by a maniacal driver who believes in reincarnation, is certainly another. Only in India where drivers need no encouragement to drive appallingly, would it be possible to make a train connection in 60 minutes from a station which was 80 minutes away with 2 minutes to spare. After our leisurely train ride to Kalka, our fear of missing the only train to Amritsar that evening and being stranded in Chandigarh, compelled us to tell the driver that we were in a “very big hurry”. Like a lunatic swerving to miss cars which in turn were swerving to miss other cars, he ran every red light we came across and refused to stop for anything, including the two rather astonished police officers who ran out into the middle of the road in an attempt to flag us down. They were left standing as he hurtled abuse at them through the open window, and flew past without so much as lifting his foot off the accelerator. We made the train, but the real miracle was that we had made it to the station at all. Recovering from the experience, the 5-hour train ride to Amritsar passed quickly, touts selling all manner of foods and drinks walked up and down the aisle yelling their daily specials. Buying samosas and chai, I smiled broadly at the mayhem and obvious display of energy, endeavour and entertainment. I LOVE INDIA I thought to myself. This is life…real life.

Amritsar: Bucket List Item Number 1- The Golden Temple

The train station at Amritsar stunk of shit and piss. Rats and human bodies were scattered and touts began their onslaught from the minute we descended from the train to the platform into the mob of rickshaw drivers and porters. I hate India. I thought to myself. Sometimes, real life is all too real.

The problem for anyone who has fallen in love with travelling is that like a drug addict, the hit not only wears off but you become immune to its effects. As a result, it does take a lot to faze and shock me. I can at times become almost numb to it all. Sadly, I don’t see places with fresh eyes anymore. Of course, this proves helpful during times of difficult travel, when it takes a lot to stress, worry or concern me, but it also takes the fascination out of the experience. There are however, some experiences which you can never quite prepare yourself for and India provided more than her fair share of these. Our daily catch cry became “well, this wasn’t what I expected”. At the Pakistan-India Border we didn’t know what to expect, but got much more than we could ever have imagined from the rather well-known border closing ceremony which takes place each evening. A long drive to the border, followed by a 2 km walk amongst throngs of people, not a single one intending to actually cross the border that evening, we sat waiting patiently for hours in the purpose built stadium as chauvinistic men left their seats to take selfies at the gate, blatantly disregarding the female military officials who had asked them to remain in their seats and complying only once their male counterparts emerged on to the scene. The comparatively well behaved and quieter Pakistani crowd sat watching from the opposing stadium, separated from the hostile Indian crowds taunting them with inappropriate hand gestures and jeering, we felt safe but entirely uncomfortable. Even if this was in jest, we were unamused. Then finally, what everyone had been waiting for, the impeccably dressed military personnel with their comically high goose stepping ability and potential gymnast caliber leg flexibility made their very brief appearance, before closing the gates of the border with ceremonial pomp and preposterous showmanship. As the crowds descended, the music cranked and the thin strip of road previously used for the fast paced marching military men was transformed into a giant dancefloor. We sat in stunned silence, trying to comprehend what exactly was taking place. It had all the hooliganism of a football match, all the bravado of a buck’s party and all the moves of a Bollywood dance party, but we were mere spectators in a psyche and culture that we could never tap into let alone understand.

Nonplussed is a great word. It means to render utterly perplexed or to puzzle completely. A more apt and succinct description of the effect India had on me at times, I cannot conjure. Of all the unexpected, inexplicable and novel experiences we encountered, the seemingly unassuming fertility temple of Amritsar was difficult to surpass. Of course, we didn’t know it was a fertility temple at first. The multi-levelled maze of staircases, tunnels and caves, which led us, passed fluoro-coloured deities, mirrored glass alters and gaudy glitter encrusted giant animals, kept us guessing as to whether we were in fact in a house of worship or a garishly tacky anthropologically themed carnival fun ride with a 1960’s disco vibe. It wasn’t until we found ourselves staring quizzically in front of columns of glass-encased gigantic phallic stones-which upon an unwanted closer inspection revealed themselves in fact to be giant penises emerging from a rather lovely assortment of enormous vaginas- that we suspected the reasons young women were laying flower garland offerings at their alters. Confused, bewildered and against all better judgement concerned that I might somehow end up with a miraculous pregnancy (oh the damage caused by a catholic upbringing), I had the sudden urge to get the hell out. Unfortunately, that meant exiting through a pool of water in a tunnel which was designed to resemble a giant birth canal. Annoying the devout and offending the converted, I took a hasty left turn out an emergency escape door. If avoiding walking through an enormous cervix wasn’t classified as an emergency, then I don’t know what is. Shocked and speechless we emerged into the sunshine of the bustling street, where it occurred to me that no matter how hard one tries you will never understand India- the anachronisms, the contradictions. It is perhaps the only country in the world where you can spend 7 weeks and leave with more unanswered questions than you arrived with.

On the contrary, our visit to the Golden Temple completely surpassed my expectations and offered an entirely serene and sublime experience. I know little about the Sikh faith, but I do know I have rarely been made to feel so welcome in a religious place of worship. Feeding 100,000 people per day, for free, I was humbled by the hospitality on display. The rich, the poor, the lonely, the destitute, the families, the prosperous, the locals, the foreigners, the faithful, the faithless, everyone was catered for and treated with respect. “You are most welcome here” we were told over and over again as we meandered along the open-air promenade surrounded by the white marble opulence and a glittering golden-pagoda seemingly floating on the spiritual lake which the compound is constructed around. I couldn’t decide whether it was more beautiful at dawn as the first rays of light brought to life the ambient silence or in the evening as candles twinkled along the water’s edge, and the golden pagoda glistened in the sacred waters. It was a peaceful and spiritual experience, and one I was in dire need of. India had up until that point, had an unexpected and curious impact on me, in that in the most spiritual nation on earth, I had never felt so lacking in faith. The hypocrisy I had observed as religion and human rights abuses settled so comfortably beside one another. The boy of 10 who was employed in our guesthouse to scrub floors and undertake household chores from 6 am-12 am, in what can only be regarded as a form of modern day slavery, all the while the religious shrine in the living room serving as a reminder of the devout. Or the tour guide who stopped our jeep so that he could buy his daily dose of good karma, by paying an emaciated 8-year old child to feed the fat cow, grazing beside him. The Golden Temple hadn’t managed to restore my faith in religion; it had however come close to restoring my faith in humanity.

The Ganges: Bucket List Item Number 2 – Bathe in the Holy Ganges (and live to tell the tale)

“In India anything is possible; the only thing that isn’t possible is nothing” (tuk-tuk driver, and philosopher of life, Jaipur)

Of all of Karen’s planned bucket-list moments, few managed to attract as much bewilderment, concern and disbelief, as her much-anticipated bathe in the River Ganges. Mother India, as it is fondly referred to, is shall we say, not as clean as one might expect for a body of water commonly associated with the word HOLY. In the lead up to her trip, Karen met very few people who could share her excitement at the prospects of such a pursuit. That was of course until our arrival in the town of Haridwar which happened to coincide with the Shiva God festival which had attracted approximately 2.5 million men with exactly the same idea as Karen. At the airport we were told that it would be impossible to get to the town on account of the onslaught, but having heard numerous times since our arrival in the country, that “in India, anything is possible”, we persevered with our request and convinced a taxi to drive us as close as possible. The 30km ride felt like we were part of the Armageddon. There were motorbikes piled with people, tractors pulling trailers full of men and generators powering speakers booming with music. It was a festive party scene across 6 lanes of oncoming traffic, only 2 of them official, at 70km per hour. 5km outside of the town, our driver informed us he would go no further, only motorbikes and pedestrians were allowed within a 5km radius of the town.  We then spent the best part of an hour negotiating all manner of transport options by the side of a bustling road, with a range of random blokes who happened to be nearby and at our disposal. Fortunately, our driver out of sheer decency decided it was best not to desert 4 women amid such chaos and did his best to arrange the logistics. After numerous conversations with motorbike and tuk-tuk drivers all to no avail, he finally called the owner of the hotel who appeared through the throng some time later on a motorbike and offered to use it to carry all 4 of us and our heavy luggage to his hotel. We had no idea how he planned to accomplish this feat, but we were open to any suggestion, on one condition, he provide us with helmets. At this point, the small crowd of men whose attention we had attracted began to laugh. Anything may be possible in India, except that is, finding a motorbike driver who wears a helmet. The final compromise, was to squeeze all 4 of us and our luggage into a single tuk-tuk, with body parts and luggage contorted in a kind of twister for moving vehicles, and make our way to the hotel, but not before bribing the military officials at the check point who were under strict orders not to allow vehicles to enter. There is a common scam in India, I had heard, whereby, drivers claim to be taking you to your hotel and instead take you to another one entirely. Thinking we may have fallen prey to such a scheme, as elaborate as it seemed, I pulled out the Lonely Planet guide in the foyer of the hotel and in a tiny dilapidated room which doubled as the lobby and the noise of what appeared to be the party of the century taking place just outside the door, read the description aloud, “the most peaceful hotel in town, set around a grassy garden, with river frontage on the banks of the Ganges”. At which point, we all looked at one another and erupted in fits of laughter. With the clamour of a 1000 motorbike horns and the throng of humanity just metres away, peaceful it was not, but thankfully it was on the river, which gave us prime viewing access to the festivities. It was fascinating watching people bath, swim and wash their motorbikes in the fast flowing brown liquid that may or may not have been comprised of water. I was happy to have seen the famous river but was not inclined to dip any more than just my toes in. Karen did however, wash away her sins and lived to tell the tale.

Delhi:

I didn’t expect to like Delhi as much as I did and I may not have if it wasn’t thanks to Aslam, a terrific young kid with so much enthusiasm for life that it was impossible not to like him. He took us in his cyclo on a whirlwind tour of Old Delhi backstreets. Illiterate and with no formal schooling, he had learned to speak 5 languages, by following tour guides and learning from tourists. In a different world with different opportunities he would be unstoppable. Streets laden with wiring, falling down in a mass of noodles, a snake charmer, a 1000-year old Jain temple down a pretty alley of tiny houses with colourfully ornate beautiful doors and boys playing cricket, a woman ironing clothes with a charcoal iron, her children playing at her feet. A spice shop listed by Conde Naste as one of the top 50 secret shopping locations in the world (well, that was until it was published). My favourite moment was passing through the narrow streets and hearing Sally scream as we passed a butcher sitting on a slab of wood surrounded by goat carcasses and a tethered goat waiting patiently on death row. On our other side, a chicken slaughterhouse, with a guy sharpening 2 bloody machetes just an arm’s length away. Beside him was a store selling steaming hot pancakes which smelled delicious and which Aslam jumped out to purchase for us to try. As a sensory rollercoaster India does not disappoint.  Wearing tuber rose garlands, our forehead painted with bindis, and our shopping bags full of exotic spices, we finally stumbled back into the hotel some 6 hours later, feeling as if we had done Delhi….or had Delhi done us?

Rajasthan:

Jodhpur- – and why not buy a pair?

A monsoonal deluge met our train as we pulled in to the station. Women in beautiful clothing were instantly drenched, men wearing white became transparent to their underclothes, babies sheltered under saturated saris. I love rain in the tropics, and much prefer it to the heat, but it creates carnage if you want to go anywhere. Our drivers fought their way through tiny alleys with a torrent of water streaming toward us. The streets were like rivers, the water came up to the floor of the tuk-tuk and yet kids played, shopkeepers kept serving samosas and sweet treats from their flooded doorsteps- while passing motorbikes struggled or stalled.  We weaved our way through the mess, and arrived at our lovely haveli, saturated but loving India.

Jodhpur’s old town, otherwise known as the Blue City, is a myriad of alleyways and blue buildings. It is picturesque and beautiful. With the Grand Fort watching guard over the town, we spent idyllic evenings sitting on rooftops watching the sky come to life with soaring kites; the young boys who made this a serious pastime scattered along rooftops across the entire city.

Before leaving Jodhpur, I had decided I should buy a pair of jodhpurs. The town giving the name to this wardrobe essential for all things equestrian came to be in the 1800’s when a young polo-playing Maharaja visited London and the trend caught on. Unfortunately, that was the 1800’s and the style in their original carnation, with their large flared thighs and tapered calf, do make anyone wearing them look rather ridiculous.  Alas, when in Jodhpur…..and so I visited a local tailor and consequently look forward to appearing ridiculous.

 

Jaipur- The heat, the traffic, the horns…everywhere the horns.

“Are you enjoying India or are you suffering India?” (Tuk tuk driver, Jaipur)

It was a long hot ride from the train station to the haveli in Jaipur, and none of us were particularly enamoured by the city. Dirty, dusty, hot, crowded, hectic, chaotic, noisy. It had been an early morning train ride from Jodhpur and by the time we arrived at our accommodation, an old Haveli, which was looking more tired than we were, it was the last straw for many of us. Although not quite the Marigold Hotel, as we had found throughout India, the staff tried their utmost best to be hospitable. Sometimes, they tried too hard. Summoning everyone in the hotel, all 4 of the staff, put on their best attempt at a welcoming party. Without warning a tape deck play button was pressed and we were ushered up the stairs in a musical serenade verging on the very awkward. From above our heads, the cook sprinkled flower petals over us. The porter who we later discovered, also doubled as the plumber, waiter and concierge put sandalwood bindis on our foreheads and the receptionist appeared again at the top of the landing to put a flower garland around our necks. We could, they told us with great pride, take our pick from any of the rooms in the rambling building, but without working showers or sheets that covered the whole bed we spent only a single night at that establishment before promptly checking out and moving to a hotel.

Agra: Bucket List Number 3- The Taj Mahal

Agra is a tired old grubby place. It certainly felt poorer than other places we had been, surprising given the most beautiful building in the world is located there. No matter what you expect of the Taj Mahal, I can’t believe you could ever be disappointed. We saw it from every angle and at all hours, sunrise, sunset and by moonlit- and I was enthralled. I couldn’t stop looking at it. Built for the love of a woman- although she was his third wife, and had died while giving birth to their 13th child- which at least from my point of view, did take much of the glean off the story. None the less, what a tribute to ingenuity and beauty, if not to love. By this stage in the trip, we had been joined by Karen’s son Colin and his lovely wife Amy. Colin and Karen took the brunt of the tourist touts- Amy and I relegated to submissive wife and daughter status clearly didn’t attract quite as much attention. The detail, the precision, the symmetry, it truly was impressive. Like a Monet or a sunset over the savannah it just felt good to look at. I was a little cynical about its status as a love icon. Love, I have decided, is not as idealistic. It is gritty, hard, painful and nowhere near as glamorous as the beautiful structure before me perpetuated it to be. It is far more practical and real. Perhaps that’s most peoples’ problem with love, we all want the Taj Mahal, but the reality is pizza on a couch with a good book or a movie. I didn’t want pizza, but I loved the Taj Mahal, for whatever it represented.

Leaving India

I had paid 4200 rupees (A$85) for the ride back to Delhi from Agra. I could have found a cheaper ride but the young boy at the hotel assured me the higher price was paying for a “responsible driver”. I didn’t believe him but admired his marketing strategy. He must have conveyed this to the driver who asked me at least 5 times during the course of our 5-hour drive if he was driving well. The fact that he had to pull the seatbelt out of the boot when I asked to wear one didn’t convince me.

As I left Agra I could see the Taj in the rear window across the river. On my left was a cow inside a shop, and in front horses and carts, honking traffic, decorated trucks, fruit stalls, buffaloes bathing in the river, barber shops almost on the road. A bag of rubbish fell off the truck in front as we swerved to miss it, the shopfronts merging with the traffic which stopped for nothing except the arrogant cows that lay or stood in the most inconvenient places in the centre of the road- the hot sticky hum of humanity existing. I was ready and pleased to be returning to the quiet clean streets of Switzerland but looked back on the past 7 weeks with fondness. I had loved and hated India- I hadn’t come close to understanding it- but I would be back.

EPILOGUE:

India perhaps is not meant to be understood, just experienced. Like a Bollywood film, or life itself. The best and worst of humanity; a reminder of our virtues, and of our vices. For everyone at every age there is something to be learned from India. Perhaps you learn more about life than the country.  Had I visited at 21 I may have been inspired by the spiritual side which infiltrates all aspects of the country. But as a 38-year-old who found herself long ago, I could not take any spiritual enlightenment away. I was not looking for purpose or meaning in life. I am self-assured, well-loved and self-confident- comfortable in my own skin. Had I been at a different stage in my life I may have succeeded in losing myself, since finding myself was not necessary. The drug scene offers this escapism to many a traveller of India. But again, this was not for me.

 

So what did I learn?

  • I learned that culture and faith do not excuse human rights abuses or justify inequality
  • I also learned (to my horror) how easy it is to look away. Empathy could destroy a person in India.
  • I learned (or was reminded) that human beings are essentially good- even when we have every right not to be.
  • I learned that fear is no way to live a life, but it is an exceptional means of controlling a population.
  • I learned that it is easy to be cynical about love when you are a freedom loving romantic idealist travelling in a country footloose and free where marriage is almost a transaction, but the reality does exist and it is gritty and practical and unpretentious- you just have to know what you are looking for.
  • I remembered that being white gives you unwarranted and undeserved entitlements, and being relatively rich gives you a false sense of entitlement, and they are nothing to be proud of
  • I learned that being white, rich and western will also prevent most people from ever having the experiences which are the most enriching and rewarding in life- looking for the similarities that define the human race. Pushing our spheres of experience every day until we are no longer afraid, fearful or a stranger to the real world. When you can live at ease with any experience life throws at you without becoming ungrateful, immune or numb to the gift which is living. To make the most of everyday and live, really live, outside your bubble of comfort. This is my enlightenment, and this is liberating.

I was leaving the “real world” to return to my Swiss life bubble. I would miss the daily adventures; I would not miss the heat, filth, dust, noisy roads. I craved good coffee, meat and salad. I had used my frequent flyer points to upgrade to Business Class (a slim perk from spending a small fortune flying back and forth to Australia twice a year). I sat in the lounge waiting for my flight from Dubai and drank my 2nd alcoholic drink in 7 weeks, a glass of champagne and thought with uneasy feelings of my transition from Agra to the privileged life I lead. The sublime, the surreal and the ridiculous converged in a moment of uncomfortable juxtaposition. Like the 5-star Oberoi Hotel erected opposite a makeshift tented slum. Did it make me a hypocrite? I wasn’t sure, but it did punctuate what I had felt acutely for the past 7 weeks and have learned throughout my life in the places I have lived- the lottery of life is the cruelest most inexplicable game on the planet. I have learned that guilt is a shameful shackle to bear, pity is pointless, but entitlement- is unforgivable. Never should it be believed that one human life is more worthy than another- nor can it be measured by what we have as a consequence of where we were born.

Back in Geneva it was the beauty of Mont Blanc from the plane, the mass of fresh water of Lac Leman that I appreciated first. Off the plane and the fresh air was a delight- I breathed it in in gulps. There was a rather shocked and surprised chauffeur with a placard bearing my name at the arrivals hall. I daresay I was the only backpacker she had collected for a while. She walked me to the black Mercedes and drove me home, a world away from India but a new experience to add to my spectrum. The adventure was over for now.

POSTSCRIPT: The meaning of life:

A few years ago, I had read a great news article about the Dalai Lama and how when a waitress in a ski resort once asked him to tell her the meaning of life, he responded that what she had enquired of him, was in fact the easiest question in the world to answer, and that the meaning to life was quite simply- happiness. If there was a purpose to life he implied, then this was it. The difficult part he confided was in living a well-spent lifetime trying to figure out what that actually means, because for each of us it is different. As Elinor the divinity student I had met at the ashram had explained when I asked her how she would sum up the lessons learned from Hinduism, “just do you” she had replied (she had also likened the ashram experience to The Force from Star Wars, so make of that connection what you will), but her point was as salient as the Dalai Lamas. We take and learn what we can from all of our experiences and then we use them in a way that is right for us. That’s all we can expect. In our pursuit of happiness, we can however, ensure our experiences are rich and diverse and as far-reaching as possible. That requires that we continually push ourselves beyond our comfort zones to explore new places, meet new people, experience new things so that in the end nothing is strange and all becomes familiar. This is the hardest challenge for most of us…on the spectrum of life experiences how far along have we ventured? This is a question I will continue to ask myself.

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Comments
5 Responses to “An Indian Summer”
  1. Karen Armstrong says:

    Oh Natalie, what a roller coaster ride we had! Thank you for being such an amazing travel companion on some of my best adventures. You look at life in the same way as me but manage to explain it far more eloquently.

  2. Yvonne Warren says:

    Wow-ee! A simply fantastic story I couldn’t stop reading! Thanks for another wondrous blog of your adventures. AND… well done Nat and Karen – real travellers and discoverers of life. xx

  3. MARILYN says:

    NAT – a wonderful expression of your experiences. You brought some of my past alive as I read and some curious desire to return to India. As you so often say, it is not be to analyzed but rather “lived.” Thanks for sharing and go forth to new adventures!

  4. Liina says:

    What an interesting and lovely read, Natalie! Gathering a diversity of experiences with the goal of finding what it is that we share is a worthy pursuit, it would seem to me. Thank you for sharing bewildering India with us & all the best for 2017!

  5. Kath Dyson says:

    Kath Dyson
    Nat really enjoyed reading about India. You certainly did see a lot more than we did, but we did only go for 2 weeks! I must say we did find it a bit confronting at certain times but overall we loved it.

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