In 2014-15 I travelled in Asia for 9 months. The most memorable part of this trip was spending 5 months in India, where I took my first Yoga teacher training course up in the north, Dharamsala. In Jan-Feb 2017 I returned to India, this time going south…
I am back in time. Lying in a room that smells of a toilet bowl, where the bathroom floor is forever wet and mosquitoes the size of my big-toe nail squeal distorted lullabies in my ear before bed. I hold my stomach and nervously order my first meal in 5 days. Having just recovered from the first parasite invasion of the trip, it is now abundantly clear that it is a right-of-passage for travellers in India to get sick. Very sick. Like projectile-vomit-out-of-their-backside kind of sick. At least this time I know how to deal with it.
I take a spoonful of porridge. My belly grumbles, a sign that the nasty bacteria is still backpacking around my bowels. But, never one to challenge the necessity to eat and tirelessly stubborn since birth, I finish the plate. The belly noises spark up a discussion with others at the table; ugly tales of uncontrollable bowels, overnight buses and squatting toilets. Everyone has a story. And breakfast, it would seem, is best time to share it.
I don’t have to tell you what happened next.
What is it about India? This obsession to keep going back. When I left this land 3 years ago, a piece of my heart remained tied. It made me forget about the agony of numerous stomach infections, my body’s shock reaction to being put on a drip and to getting ludicrously ill from altitude sickness under the grill of the sun. Some of the personal physical challenges I faced on my last trip, that when put into greater perspective, are nothing significant.
India is a place that puts things into perspective rather swiftly. While one side of the road hosts a mall the size of Westfields, the other is destitute. Along the bazaars, rich silk comes hand-in-hand with rotting litter and homelessness- a brutal contrast some part of you is always aware of. Those living on the street put fingers to their mouths gesturing their hunger. Children as young as 4 years old ask “Please, sister.” Skyscrapers do not mask poverty, they spit on it, while the colourful lights of the bazaars below do their best to keep people smiling.
Perhaps you have to be in a place of extreme poverty and wealth to question your own values. Is this why so many people come here and accidentally completely change their lives upon going back home? Both times I have come to India to deepen my understanding of Yoga and to develop as a teacher. I get more than what I bargained for.
During this short trip of 6 weeks I am exploring the south, far away from my Himalayan friends and their cool northern breeze. I prepare myself for India to not be the same India I visited 3 years ago. Goa is an increasingly popular tourist destination, so naturally I have images of overcrowded beaches, high-rise hotels and relentless club music shaking the shorelines. For the most-part, this is resisted. I realise how much I love the shanty guesthouses with their absurd colours and sloping, beat wooden walls. And although I am not as charmed as I was by the north, the essence of India is still there (just turn a blind-eye to the one beer-bellied tourist peeing on himself while drinking down the main bazaar).
I experience and observe the influence eastern medicine and philosophies have on western settlers and the curiosity or resistance it arouses. On the surface there appears to be a community growing organically, upholding a vision of freedom and offering self-discovery. Some are utterly defined by their development into becoming a traveller oasis. Arambol in North Goa is a prime example of this: summit of ecstatic dance; a sober rave where limbs entwine under the halo of a banyan tree. In the evenings, a circle of drums gathers on the beach and sand shakes where fingers slap the tight animal skins of the bongos. Bodies laced in ripped elfin clothes swirl in response. Wild and vibrant, it’s a place that invites us to let go of ourselves, (often without the consumption of chemical substances), or at least get lost trying.
One shaky overnight bus from Goa brings me to Karnataka and a landscape I’m much more familiar with: Hampi’s depths of ancient ruins. Each morning, I meditate among these silent stony harbours, where the sun cracks across the horizon and mist unveils the broken fragments of an old civilisation scattered across a leafy jungle. Former capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, this used to be the second largest city in the world (after Beijing). The huge habitat of crumbling rock is best navigated from a rickshaw or scooter. Old habits die hard so naturally I go for the latter. Shooting off with a bright pink helmet, that makes me feel like an inadequate power ranger, I get lost in this expansive jungle of rock. In the late afternoon large and heavy boulders up high on the hills invite climbers to grasp their still-hot surfaces. With only a crash mat below, I brave a few crevices. When the heat gets too much, a nearby jewellers steals me away and I leave with a handmade dream-catcher.
Now, having glimpsed at the south, I am beginning to appreciate just how wonderfully vast and dense India is. Each state can be considered a country of its own. New languages, colours and habitats split across its borders with striking diversity. But there are some things that just don’t change. These are culturally binding and whether we love or hate them (or both), we expect these traditions and experiences to mark our journey here. To name just a few:
- The Bollywood buses that rock the roads following the ever-so-subtle trail of skull signs. What is more terrifying: the music, the Ta Ta bus decorations or the speed around hairpin bends? All seem to bring you to a near-death experience.
- Transcending the barrier of its 22 officially recognised languages is the national head wiggle, meaning ‘Yes’, ‘OK’ and ‘No’ (commonly appears when bartering the price for rickshaws).
- A lifetime of squatting toilets meaning that no matter how much Yoga I do, the locals always have the upper-hand in lotus pose.
- A scooter carrying a family of four, 20kg of rice and their goat.
At times parts of India can smell like burning cockroaches being sprayed with cow piss and yet can you forgive this, because it is simply one of the most spectacular countries on earth. One minute you are cursing because no matter how deep into the jungle you go, Lays crisp packets will glint over suffocating leaves; the next, you’re standing 5000ft high watching sand merge with ice, air gusting into your lungs, ferociously reminding you nature is there, wild and strong, and always winning.
More tales from India and the island of Borneo coming soon.