With India As My Teacher…
India. The vibrant, rainbow jewel of the east.
When the word India alights my tongue I can hear the language. I can see the sun. I can feel the adrenaline. Together, in my eyes, it is beauty. A thrill of exhilaration, eclipsed by a crescendo of flower petals, falling to my feet. With India as my teacher… I have conquered my fears.
It is a country that had always held a calling for our family. Quiet but constant. A whisper that was never silenced. I remember that moment, the mouse – a click away from purchasing those plane tickets, that moment your head eclipses your heart.
You stop, your feet poised on the edge of oblivion, knowing the reality that you are soon to be thrust out into a world you have never known, to a country you have never traversed, with languages you have never spoken and a culture you haven’t truly experienced, no matter how many Indian friends you have or meals you have tried.
When I looked at our bags that were packed, when I felt the smooth plane tickets in my hand, when I walked across the skybridge… India still didn’t seem real to me. A faint promise in the distance, the same muffled whisper it had always been. In my mind, I kept blocking out the idea of India, the over imaginative preconceptions, the thoughts of those ideas creeping closer. Looming ahead of us, the India of my mind was almost like the imposing Himalayan Mountain Range, at its epitome, stood the Mt Everest of my imagination, racing and raging into the heights of the unknown.
There are many different perceptions that cross the mind when India is mentioned. However, most often they are laced with fear. Many, many fears. Fear of food poisoning, fear of kidnapping, fear of being hassled or harassed. Fearing that India is too unhygienic or dangerous. Fear of the unknown. I must confess that the swathe of these collective fears and their energies even had me a little nervous, right up until we were at Moscow airport, just a mere six hours from Delhi’s tarmac. There was a part of me that didn’t believe it, that almost couldn’t fathom the fact that we would soon descend from the clouds onto a country with over 1.3 billion people.
But this is what I learnt. It is understandable to be apprehensive, I can understand being unsure but before we indulge in these worries, we have to appreciate that all these fears could just as easily be applied to our own home country.
The facts are … that eating local food and exposing yourself to bacteria enhances your immune system. We have encountered on all our travels that if you keep an aware consciousness, be respectful but firm and be mindful of your surroundings, no-one will even think about harming you.
… that when you think about it, those vendors who are haggling you on the street-side are people who have families to go home to and provide for. That this is their job, just as much as yours may be advertising, consulting or marketing. That a little dirt isn’t going to kill you and as with most things in life – it’s not a big deal unless you make it a big deal.
… that India is not more or less dangerous than where you are coming from and danger is just a simple perception of your own mind.
One of the important things I have learnt while travelling is that the point of travel isn’t to relentlessly compare every little detail to what people do at home; neither is it to make judgements based upon your culturally skewed belief system. All that does is reaffirm in a closed mind just how justified you are to make judgements and that takes away the opportunity for you to learn and connect on a human level. Cultural differences do not and should never denote superiority. This attitude has been and continues to be one of the greatest causes of conflict and the most flawed and major reason for justifying attack. I believe the point of travel is to experience and learn new things, to explore different ways of living. To connect on a human level by immersing yourself in local life, a new language, all of which abundantly reward you as you make new friends and share in the richness of their life.
The point of travel is to step outside of your comfort zone, because life truly begins there, when you stand on the edge of the world and plunge into the unknown.
So in November of 2015, our family finally took that plunge.
And so it began.
12 overnight train rides.
Undoubtedly an adventure of a lifetime.
And… The truth is, nothing can truly prepare you for the moment when you step outside the sliding doors of the airport, when the morning breeze grazes your skin, when your lungs inhale the thick smoky air of New Delhi, when the burning sun beats down upon your back and a hundred set of eyes turn to scrutinise you.
Because then it’s no longer a far off dream, wrapped in a gauze of breathtaking pictures, awe-inspiring blog posts and expert packing lists.
There is nothing to do but take that first deep, albeit smoky breath, open your tightly clenched eyes and soar.
Because I assure you, from the bottom of my heart, it is worth it.
It may not be apparent at the very beginning, but when you ride your first Tuk-Tuk, your hair flying in the wind…
When you see your first Indian sunset, brilliant, burning, all powerful against a withering sky.
When your camel gallops across the desert dunes, the grains of sand stinging against your skin.
When you fly above the blue city on a flying fox, the majesty of Mehrangarh Fort emblazoned against the dark clouds.
When you walk upon the thousands of velvety, flower petals at the markets, the colours so vibrant, they are unlike anything you have ever seen.
When you eat your first Dosa and your ears steam from your first Pyazz Kachori.
When you see the melted glint of gold moulded to transform into a traditional Jaipur bangle.
When you see the light reflecting against the emerald green of the sacred Ganga River.
When you are ordained by the holy whisper of Pushkar Lake.
When you see the spires of the Taj Mahal rising into the sky like an ivory angel.
When you can feel the spirits and secrets of the ancients underneath your feet at Humayun’s Tomb.
When you see a cow at 3am in the morning on the train platform, ambling along without a care in the world.
When you hear the story of a man and his family as he mends your brother’s shoes and feel the tears in his eyes reflect in your own at an unexpected generosity.
When your heart-strings are pulled by the innocent, gurgling smiles of an orphaned child.
When you see the Himalayan mountains from your window reaching for the heavens.
When the sun hits the glass teapot of your Darjeeling tea and the amber liquid sets itself on fire.
When Tibetan, Buddhist Monks bless your oncoming journeys.
When you watch a group of children play street soccer with a rag ball and their laughs have enough joy for every soul to smile.
And when you meet the eyes of someone in a bustling crowd filled with hundreds and everything is silenced and one stare can last a lifetime.
Then, and only then, will you know.
Because it was only after all of this that I realised myself, in my own heart, that there is nothing to fear. That there was never anything to fear. That travelling through India was one of the most enriching experiences of my life so far and that being thrown into the thick of it without a life-vest is what made it worthwhile.
With India as my teacher…
After taking off, away from the humid kiss of Cochin, I realise just how much India has taught me. How the places we had the honour of visiting impacted me in a different way and left its imprint on my eyes.
In Delhi, I learnt to be patient, something that has not come easily to me. I learnt to be thankful for the quiet moments that we usually take for granted and at the same time, take the noise as it comes, embracing its symphonic harmony and learn to flow with it. It was here that we explored the lively streets of Delhi with Kuldeep, the majesty of Humayun’s Tomb with Saatvik and the cultural concourse that is Dilli Haat with Nandini. It was also here that Lalika and I officially crowned the best Daal Makani we had ever eaten at Restaurant Chor Bizarre. 😉
In Rishikesh, I learnt how something as simple as the flowing waters of a sacred river can leave a constellation of tears on your lashes. It was also here in this yoga infatuated city that we reconnected with a cousin of my Dad’s, one my parents had not seen in over 18 years, and one I had never met. Elizabeth showed us her Rishikesh, one filled with secret waterfalls, Dosa pancakes, hidden alleyways teeming with unique art, and the best peppermint honey tea I’ve had to date.
Here, from personal experiences and the stories Elizabeth shared of her personal struggles and how she overcame them, I learnt to appreciate the beauty of a single moment and also how to make friends with the monkeys. 😉
In Pushkar, I learnt that there is always something more to what meets the eye. Pushkar is renowned for being a holy city of India, a place of piety and divinity, a congregation of religion and yet… there is an underlying seediness that blows through Pushkar’s streets, which I cannot help but feel is directly related to the habits of the western economic refugees, who seem to come to get lost, while trying to find themselves. When sitting in a well-reputed rooftop restaurant (the popular norm in Pushkar) the waiter approached us asking if we would like to purchase some “Bang Cookies”. A few seconds past before he actually came to his senses and realised he was trying to sell drugs to a family. Ignoring the graffiti on the walls that were advertising the exact same ‘ecstasy’, we continued our lunch. Afterwards, as we were collecting our things and paying the bill, the owner of the restaurant covertly told us that he had much better quality “Bang Cookies” and if we wanted some he would be most happy to sell them. Needless to say, we left without another word.
Once back on the streets, it was as if my eyes had opened to the circumstances that were going on around us: Foreigners sitting on the floor and injecting themselves with heroin. Tourists sitting at an open air cafe smoking Marijuana and not to mention the countless stoned figures that staggered past us while in a death-like stupor. It was a sad realisation, but only one of many of the contradicting contrasts I have experienced and come to expect from the places that we visit. In fact, I embrace them as learning opportunities. The fact that these contrasts exist, and everything in between, teach me that life is never as simple as the boiled down dichotomy of black and white that our media and governments often wish us to see it as. The spectrum of the human experience is so vast, that there may not even be enough colours in existence to depict it accurately.
Despite all of this, while in Pushkar we did manage to make our way down to the white stone shores to receive the paid blessings of the holy men of the lake, their whispered prayers floating over our heads out onto the water. Irrespective of the exchange of money, it was an ethereal experience, one that seemed to spirit away all of what we had seen. I believe that this is the true essence of Pushkar, one of the simplicity of your own thanksgiving, being grateful for what you have… and this is what I will choose to take away from our afternoon in this holy city.
In Agra, we saw the power a single act of kindness can have when at the Taj Mahal, on the cusp of a wonder of the ancient world, our camera decided to have a meltdown. There we were, surrounded by thousands of buzzing, bustling tourists, the ivory turrets of the Taj Mahal rising before us, the camera poised… and lifeless. Around us, I began to notice a group of men, each with their own shiny black camera, the flashes reflecting on the faces of other tourists paying them to take professional shots. It was out of the corner of my eye that one of them approached us. “What seems to be the problem here?” he asked with a wary smile.
“Our camera seems to have malfunctioned,” Dad replied, gesturing helplessly at the camera and then at the obvious shadow the Taj Mahal was casting.
“May I see?”
Dad handed over the camera. After turning it to and fro for a few seconds, the man took out our camera’s memory card, slipped it into his own DSLR and then took as many photos of the four of us, together and alone as time would allow. Then he handed our memory card and camera back.
“How much do we owe you?” Our eyes were filled with gratitude.
“Nothing. I can understand.” With a smile the man was on his way.
He had sacrificed precious time from his opportunity to make money, just to help a family take their photos at this ancient wonder of the world. Kindness can be found anywhere, at every corner of the world, even at the most iconic touristic attraction in all of India, the Taj Mahal.
In Darjeeling, we climbed to new heights and I learnt to appreciate the warmth of the sun, something so many of us take for granted. Here the temperature dropped below zero degrees Centigrade and unfortunately our accommodation had thick concrete walls that took forever to heat. However, it was made worthwhile as our lovely Sikkimese hosts also cooked the most exquisite traditional meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner. You could see the steam floating from our mouths while we ate around the dinner table but the food was just too delicious for us to care.
It was here that we visited the resting place of Korosi Csoma Sandor, a fellow Transylvanian Hungarian and world explorer, from a time when this expression had its own unique challenges. Csoma Sandor actually walked all the way from Hungary to Tibet, via Turkey, Greece, modern day Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India over a twenty year period. A renowned and respected explorer and philologist, he was the first man to write the very first Tibetan-English dictionary in the world. More than this, he was able to give deep cultural insight into the Tibetan way of life, one that was steeped in mystery and unknown by the West, before his journey. India was the last place we’d have expected to see the Hungarian and Transylvanian flags, yet here they were, fluttering on the breeze.
We even had the honour of meeting the caretaker of the graveyard who showed us his personal journals and photographs, recounting all the visiting dignitaries who had walked up the cobblestone steps before us. The silence afterwards was not one of commemoration, it was one of connection. The fact that even through the perceived ending of life, we could still feel the connection of another adventurous spirit, through the swirling fog.
Just an hour before we were scheduled to leave Darjeeling we were invited upstairs by our Airbnb hosts to witness and partake in a special ceremony of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk blessing. The monks came once a year to bless the house and the residents within… and now they were also going to bless our ongoing journey. Upstairs, in the attic, hundreds of candles burned, their flames giving off a striking radiance that warmed us for the first time in days. Unlike our experience in Pushkar where our blessings were almost celestial, as if they were given from the water itself, these blessings were of the fire and stayed ablaze in our minds, long after our pickup truck had wound its way down the mountain.
In Kolkata, I learnt to appreciate the essence of family. It was here that we visited the tranquil, resting place of Mother Theresa, a beautiful memoriam of candles, quotes and marigolds. It was also here that we met another family traveling the world, a family just at the beginning of their journey… also a Hungarian family!
Once again, India was the last place I would have expected to speak our native Hungarian tongue outside of our own family, but here we were, standing at Mother Theresa’s monument, speaking Hungarian.
Together we ate a delicious lunch of stir fried noodles in a tiny street-side food vendor’s stall and then made the three block walk up to the gates of the Mother Theresa Orphanage. We spent the rest of the afternoon volunteering with the orphan children, playing with them in the nursery and outdoor playground before exploring their learning and sleeping quarters. Despite the beautiful and clean facilities, it gave me a true moment to be thankful for all that I have in my family and the world education they have gifted me with.
In Cochin, I learnt to appreciate the intricacies of art, when I sat for over two hours to have my hands painted in henna. Here we stayed inside a jungle sanctuary, by the Kerala backwaters, one filled with salamanders, birds of paradise and really intelligent crows. As Cochin was our last stop in India, it was a place in time of reflection, rest and soaking up the sun. Already the chaos and cacophony of noise that dominated most of India was beginning to fade and when we boarded the plane bound for Kuala Lumpur that would eventually land us in Melbourne, all I had was my henna and my memories, frozen in time.
And so our first adventure in India came to an end as swiftly as it had begun. From the North to the South, from the East to the West. From Rishikesh to Rajasthan and all the train rides in between. With India as my teacher I was able to learn lessons that a classroom with four walls would never have been able to teach me.
Instead, this incredible jewel of a country taught me self confidence, heightened my sense of wonder and gave me memories to last a lifetime.
Just remember, fear can be everywhere you turn. It is up to you if you want to allow it to control you, even paralyse you and stop you from taking that first step.
It’s up to you if you want to let the news command you, the endless reports of death and destruction cripple you, the constant, ceaseless fear of the rest of the world amplify through you from your TV screen, your laptop screen, your mobile phone.
It will always be up to you.
My advice is to stop listening. Even if it’s only for a split second.
Next time you are on the edge, a single click away from purchasing those plane tickets, don’t let your head eclipse your heart. Let your heart eclipse your head.
Then listen to that. Heed those words.
For love irritates fear… and love is also everywhere you turn.
Farewell India, until next time.