Moments in India March 13 2012, 3 Comments
I’d often heard that India is a harsh place to visit for westerners, the contrast, culture, food, pollution... You sink or swim, so to speak. Priding myself on being a seasoned traveller, I thought I’d have no problem adapting to anything India threw at me, my confidence was such, that I refused to have the jabs and didn’t even pack tummy tablets incase of dreaded Delhi Belly... the only thing I took was some Eucalyptus for a blocked nose. I was even less prepared for the emotional and spiritual shock that India had in for me, the whirlwind of emotional extremes I went through daily.
Writing this in the comfort of my London flat, it now seems rather ‘over the top’ but at the time, these feelings were totally justified. India caught me off guard, shook me up and made me laugh and cry everyday. So this is a short account of my little spiritual journey...
WELCOME TO INDIA
I was struck by the smell of an unexplored country, India's atmosphere seemed to be scented with fragrant spices - this accompanied with the intense sunlight and heavenly warmth (coming from freezing London) made me feel that nervous sense of excited anticipation for newness!
We jumped in a taxi from airport to hotel, which gave the view of Bangalore waking up... I literally couldn’t take my eyes of the people, they were beautiful - Men drinking their morning Chai, Women in stunning Sari’s, everyone sporting such vibrant colours, even the run-down buildings were colourful. It made me look down at my winter-london outfit and pledge to stop wearing such dreary clothes.
In Delhi we joined our tour group, to travel cross-country by bus from city to city. Our tour guide, a handsome Indian guy from Mumbai, full of laughter and enthusiasm, clearly loved his job and his country. His ‘welcome speech’ went something like this... “Welcome to India. This is a very vast country with many diverse cultures - things are a little different here. The people will not have your idea’s of personal space. The food can be very spicy - you might get ill. The religion changes from person to person, so does the language. The trains might be cancelled. The weather is turbulent, if it rains - it rains. Don’t get upset if it’s not what you expect... Actually, the less you expect the better. Welcome to India.”
I found this speech very amusing, sitting in a colonial "Palace" (similar to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) appreciating the images painted on the walls and the antique colonial furniture. Although I was yet to view my bedroom - and the less said about that the better!
I defy anyone new to Indian traffic, not to be nervous. Seated right at the front of the bus, I had the best view of all the near-death experiences. There are no rules, so driving on the wrong side of the road, over-taking within an inch of your life, cows grazing in the middle of the motorway - it's all totally acceptable. Anyone driving like this at home would be worthy of a criminal conviction. Our bus driver however was clearly at ease and in-tune to the madness of the traffic, gently winding in and out of obvious danger. In time though, I started to secretly enjoy it, you become accustomed to - nearly being squashed by a lorry or swerving the Ox.
Upon reaching Jaipur I saw a poster saying “Leave the ordinary Behind” - how appropriate I thought, as we entered the crowded streets of Pink City. I was aghast at the sight - traffic moving in all directions, countless cars, motorbikes, yellow rickshaws, camel-carts, Ox carts all traveling through the dusty roads. On the streets, chickens were being slaughtered, children running bare-foot, men peeing up a wall, women with babies begging for money, a staggering array of colours and contrast crammed into slim streets. My western-civilisation trained mind was thinking "this is Chaos" but as I became accustomed to the city, I wondered if it's actually all working quite perfectly... just because it’s different in my eyes doesn’t mean the system doesn’t work, or needs to be changed.
I developed a love for rickshaw riding through Varanasi (the Ganges) and rickshaw racing was especially fun! One afternoon our driver must have sensed we open for excitement, as he zoomed past the other rickshaws, who took this as a green-light for a race... by the time we reached our destination, we were exhilarated and delirious, like a rollar coaster with no handle bars.
I would love to tell you about the Trains, but sadly our Train journeys were cancelled... We were warned.
Without a doubt my highlight of the trip was visiting the villages in the countryside. The children of the villages are the most delightful I have encountered anywhere in the world, their little faces beam at you, they are genuinely pleased to see a foreigner in their homeland. As one group of teenage kids where asking me polite questions, I could feel myself close to tears, not because of their thin bodies, mud-hut homes and grubby clothes, it was their heart-felt welcome and bright shining eyes that caught me by surprise. I suppose I wasn't expecting to be greeted with such humility, warmth and grace. Once back on the bus it took me a while to digest my emotions and come to some sort of understanding as to what I was feeling.
In the cities, you see lots of poverty, whole families living in tin-shacks, deformed beggars, people selling anything they can to uninterested tourists. coming from UK this inevitably brings up thoughts like... how can a government allow this? Are these people happy regardless of their situation? Despite their living conditions, I found these individuals incredibly open and friendly, they where so quick to smile and greet you. Of course they’re hoping you'll give some money, but even on the times I didn’t hand over cash, the welcoming, wide-eyed smile was always there, which I found very touching.
After the Taj Mahal experience in Agra, a small group of us decided to visit the Oberoi Hotel, which is known for it's beautiful terrace overlooking the Taj. We spent the afternoon eating and drinking in a cocooned heaven regaining our thoughts and energy. When leaving the Oberoi, I passed some children dressed in rags, just off the main road. A little girl holding a 7 month old baby, came running towards me, smiling and waving. She took me over to her home which consisted of 4 sticks holding up a tin roof, inside was another baby and a lady who greeted me in Hindi. They'd made their home on top of a rubbish heap. At that moment, I was feeling somewhat glutenous and self-indulgent remembering my delicious lunch just 30 minutes ago, it was an utter contrast. I stayed for a while and played with the children, who looked like little angels.
Feeling quite overwhelmed, I went to the nearest shop and bought packets of biscuits to give to the little girl who first greeted me. When I handed them to her, she took them from me like a person in the desert would take water. I walked away feeling a mixed bag of emotions - love, compassion and intense gratitude for everything I have... I think she gave me much more than I gave her.
When starting this blog, I intended to write about the temples, ayurvedic massage, markets, safari etc, but these weren't the things that sunk into my soul and imprinted on my heart.
I was reminded that the world around me doesn’t have to be perfect for me to feel good, yes luxuries are very nice, but we shouldn’t need them in order to enjoy life. I was reminded that we all have a choice to be happy or grumpy, open or closed minded, view our surroundings as harmonious or chaotic. I suppose it really is all a state of mind. Don't get me wrong - I wont be stopping my 5* hotel visits, I enjoy abundance, but if I'm only happy when those things are present, then my existence will be very limited.
The village children reminded me about smiling from the heart. Their pure, adorable smiles awakened something that had been rather buried - the childlike innocence of being joyful for no reason, just happy to be alive, not linked to anything I'd bought, achieved or accumulated.
On the final night, I watched the sunset sink into the glistening Arabian sea, exotic birds sounding from the coconut tree’s, lounge music playing in a nearby cafe, people laughing. Palolem beach in Goa felt like the most relaxing place on earth. I felt so eternally grateful to have experienced India and to the people who made the journey so magical, I’ll leave the other stuff to the Lonely Planet.