As I reflect on my trip to India, I try to wrap my brain around what I saw and experienced. I try to find words that accurately describe that world–colorful, chaotic, crowded, hot, amazing come to mind.
But I think that the most accurate and illustrative summary of India that I can come up with is actually the word contrast. As in, India is a place of dramatic disparity and striking contrasts.
The contrast between the rich and the poor. A holy man asking for money to bless me. A cow holding up two lanes of traffic. An ox-cart/cow-cart/camel-cart on a highway alongside buses, cars, and trucks. Women in beautiful saris sitting side-saddle on the backs of motorcycles. Delhi—India’s third-largest city—with a population of 16 million people (double the size of New York!) not having basic infrastructure like trash removal. Wild monkeys everywhere…including major cities that are twice the size of New York. Families of five on one motorcycle. Families of five on one motorcycle and only the father (who’s driving) wears a helmet. Monks buying ice cream. Flies covering fresh food. Rishikesh’s city government hiring people to empty dumpsters (into the sacred Ganges River) and simultaneously hiring a “Green the Ganges” team to…fish trash out of the sacred Ganges River. People purifying themselves in a river polluted by trash and toxic waste. Women purifying themselves in the Ganges only ever fully clothed in their saris. Men purifying themselves in the Ganges wearing only ever small, skin-tight bathing suits (shorts). Most men wearing western clothes. Absolutely no women wearing western clothes. 110-degree weather and yet everyone very covered (men in long-sleeves, long pants; women in saris or salwar kameezs). Food being sold/consumed in the filth of the streets. McDonald’s being a really nice restaurant. Electricity being unreliable (at best!) and yet only the really nice hotels having back-up generators. (Think of the ramifications of that—all the food that spoils and then is sold anyway.)
My own internal contrast of being so fascinated and drawn to this crazy, amazing, and difficult place.
|Can I get that with a side of flies, please?|
|Mama and Baby Monkey|
India was everything I’d imagined and more. It was dirty, loud, crowded, chaotic, hot, and sometimes you had to bring your own toilet paper. It was, in fact, dirtier, louder, more crowded, more chaotic, hotter, and more toilet-paper-less than I’d ever imagined. It was fantastic. It was hard. And, in a twist that I (perhaps shockingly) hadn’t anticipated, I got very, very sick.
Forewarned by everyone who’s ever been there or heard about it, I tried to be careful. I only drank bottled water; compulsively checked the sanctity of the seals. I held my breath and clamped my lips shut in the shower. Despite the fact that it was 110°F and all I wanted was salads and fruit, I resisted these temptations and instead ate only thoroughly cooked foods, served at a bacteria-killing steaming hot.
Note: Steaming hot is not what you want in 110° weather. But steaming hot is what I ate.
I avoided hand-shakes and touching public surfaces. I washed my hands frequently and then amped up an extra level of protection by compulsively spritzing with lavender-scented hand sanitizer. Yet in spite of all these precautions (and many more which I’ll refrain from sharing lest I appear
obsessive, compulsive, germ-phobic), I still got violently sick on my third day in Delhi.
Because I was too sick to move—heck, I was too sick to leave the bathroom let alone the hotel room—we had to postpone traveling from Delhi to Rishikesh. So while I convalesced for three unanticipated days in a darkened hotel room in the middle of India’s third-largest city (Delhi has a population of roughly 16 million), I tried not to think of how this wasn’t what I’d imagined, or planned, or wanted. Most of all, I tried not to think about how I wasn’t doing yoga in the small holy city of Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world.
When I was able to keep crackers and bottled water down, we hired a taxi (in India, it is somehow normal to hire a taxi for four days) and I vomited my way along the seven-hour drive north. Definitely not what I’d pictured.
Even after I stopped getting sick, I was too weak to stand the heat all day, let alone the physical exertion of yoga in said heat. So we’d basically wander out in the morning, exploring the town and taking pictures of the sacred Ganges River, the Himalayas in the background, and the locals, head back to our hotel for an airconditioned siesta, and then back out for dinner.
All of which is a very long-winded way of trying to explain away the fact that while I was in India, the yoga mothership, the grand poohbah of my professional career, and, even more mortifying, in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of India and…oh yeah…the entire universe, I did yoga a grand total of…once.
I cringe to admit this. If I wasn’t busy typing, I’d assume a mortified child’s pose.
I had imagined doing yoga twice a day, every day. I had pictured connecting with some yoga grandmaster and practically levitating under his tutelage, achieving new heights and depths of poses, attaining some inner spiritual luminescence, and maybe getting a tan whilst doing it. The reality looked instead rather puke-y and pallid and exhausted.
It was, perhaps, the greatest demise of my expectations that during the one time that I did undertake a physical practice, I got kind of injured. The practice stretched to nearly two and half hours (including a 20-minute Q&A afterward, which was actually my favorite part). There were a lot of hands-on adjustments. At some point, the teacher cranked me a supine twist and my lower back hurt pretty intensely for a few days.
Obviously, I’m glad there wasn’t any major damage, but getting hurt (even a little) was one more strike against my good ol’ expectations.
Somewhere between puking and the teacher tweaking my back, I got to thinking about expectations. And that whole yoga thing about not having any, being present, letting everything just be as it is, blah, blah, blah. Shouldn’t that also apply to doing yoga in India? Shouldn’t I practice what I preach even if I can’t practice yoga?
Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was hunger, maybe it was all the OM symbols, but it occurred to me that even though I couldn’t practice physically (in the way that I wanted/envisioned), I could still practice in some way. I could do pranayama (breathwork)—in fact I could pranayama geared toward the anxiety that came from my expectations not being met. I could, as the sign said, meditate OM. I could practice being present and letting my time in India be exactly was it was. Even if that meant that some of my time in India was spent puking my guts out and not being able to yoga.
Getting yogic about puking? Wow. Never thought I’d say that.
fter many years of thinking about going to India, I’m finally going. In 11 days. I currently dwell somewhere between excitement and anxiety.
India: the yoga mothership. The big kahuna of Hindu philosophy. And the home, of course, of the Taj Mahal. These are some of the reasons I’ve always wanted to go. Others include wanting to see an elephant. And also a tiger. Oh, and wearing a sari. The potential reasons are plentiful–some noble and others not. There are also many reasons not to go: dysentery, parasites, filth, poverty, the inability to drink the water, not to mention the 14-hour flight.
Ultimately, the good outweighed the bad. I’ve stocked up on Pepto Bismol, antibiotics, and several cases of lavender-scented hand sanitizer. Which just about makes me ready.
Except for the practical considerations to navigate like visas and vaccinations.
First stop: The travel clinic at my doctor’s office. They determined I’d need immunizations for typhoid, polio, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B. Apparently, anyone who born after 1980 had to have Hep B (which protects against this blood and bodily fluid-borne illness) to get into college. But sadly, I was born before the cut-off date (“sadly” because I am too old to have been naturally included, and also because I now have to get another immunization). Hep A is something you wouldn’t have unless you were traveling to a developing nation, as it’s a water-borne illness. Typhoid and polio shots are also something we don’t have to worry about in the US (or other developed world countries). So that was four shots right off the bat, and two require follow-up shots in 1-6 months. Great.
Next stop: Procuring a visa. It turns out that several years ago, the Indian Consulate outsourced this business to a private company. The double layer of irony that India–the outsourcing capital of the world–has outsourced the job of bringing people to India is not lost on me.
But anyway, the private company provides two options on their website: in-person same-day service or through the mail, which takes a minimum of nine days. Since they have to affix the visa to your passport, and since it seemed like…how should I say…a less-than-stellar idea to send my passport through the mail, I chose to go in-person. The office is located in Manhattan. I made a 10:20 appointment, arrived at 10:00, bringing with the required materials: my passport, my application (which you complete online on their website), two passport-sized pictures, and $76. Except…oh wait, I forgot to bring the cash.
Of course, I had my credit card, but it clearly states on their website that a credit card charge will slow-down your application. And since I wanted to expedite my application, I wanted to pay cash. No problem, I was so early. Right?
The less-than-pleasant guy corralling people in the line on the sidewalk told me there were not ATMs anywhere nearby (which I have a hard time believing in NYC but didn’t want to waste time arguing or looking) and instead advised me to get cash-back at the Walgreens on the corner.
Fine. I’ve never done cash-back, but I was happy to give it a try. Looking around the Walgreen’s, I realized I didn’t “need” anything. So I decided to buy a banana–at least I could have a healthy snack later. It was $0.49. The girl behind the counter asked if I wanted cash back, and I said, “Yes, please. $80.”
She stared at me as though I was an idiot. Or a lunatic. (I’m probably both.) “You can only do $20.” She informed me.
I took the $20 and said, “OK. In that case, I’d like to buy another banana.”
Rinse and repeat three times and I finally had my $80. Booked it back to the visa place…
…where I stood in line for the next hour and a half. Needless to state, they were not running on time, and my 10:20 appointment was for naught.
Around noon, they called the 10:20 people. I stepped forward to have the inspector confirm that my cell phone was off and I wasn’t bringing any food or drinks in. Which was fine…except for the fact that I now had four bananas in my bag and there were no trash cans in sight (again – what?! There are trash cans every ten feet in Manhattan! Was I in a parallel universe?). So I gave one to the girl in front of me and then scarfed down the other three. Really classy. But at least I had my monthly dose of potassium. (They let me take the peels in to dispose of inside. Apparently, this was OK, but bananas were not.)
Suitably, food-free, we were finally herded inside the building…where we then waited in the second line for another long time. Eventually, interminably, FINALLY, it was my turn. Proudly, I handed over all my materials to the grumpy guy behind the desk. He checked to make sure I have everything (and, as an aside, it was shocking to me to see exactly how many people DIDN’T), and then I was herded toward a third line…
…where, you guessed it, I got to wait in line some more.
About two and a half hours from the beginning of this little adventure, I reached a visa person. She took all my materials and innocently asked, “How would you like to pay?”
I was shocked. As per their website, I thought it was cash-only in order to not delay the application. “Oh, that’s only for the mail-in option,” she informed me.
I thought ruefully of the unnecessary bananas I bought and scarfed down, and handed over my credit card. “So, when should I come back to pick-up my visa?” I asked.
She didn’t look up from typing. “Oh, we don’t do the same-day option anymore. Haven’t for three years.”
“But…but your website said…”
She cut me off. “Oh yeah. I’ve been telling them to update that for three years. But they don’t listen. You’ll have to come back tomorrow. Actually, you’d ordinarily have to come back tomorrow. But the Consulate is closed for Good Friday. So come back on Monday.”
I told her I drove from Boston. I couldn’t stay in New York all weekend. She suggested I pay to mail it home, which I objected to for the aforementioned reason of risking my passport being lost in the mail, AND it was another charge, AND if I was going to have to do it through the mail in the end, then why the heck did I drive four hours down here to bring it to you in-person?!
I choked all this back and asked if there’s ANYTHING that could be done. Finally, a manager said that while the Consulate itself would be closed for Good Friday (though why a predominantly Hindu and secondarily Muslim country was closing for Good Friday is a separate question), there was maybe a chance that my visa might be in the second batch that the delivery guy who drop-off after hours later that night.
Well, geez. That was a lot of “mights” and “maybes” but I seized it.
I stumbled out of there and blinked in the bright daylight. (It was still daylight? I thought I’d been in there for days!) Starving, dazed, and distinctly worried, I wandered into Ariyoshi, a tiny Japanese place just down the block and revived my flagging spirits with some of the best miso soup and California rolls I’ve ever had. (Note: I substituted shrimp for the fish stick and it was awesome!)
The next morning I got an email and a text telling me my visa was ready. (Note: Sign up for these options!!!) I picked it up without a wait and was on my way.
Frustrating? Yes. Annoying? Yes. Illogical? Yes. But I bet this is good practice for being in India :