It has been 5 days since I returned from India. Now, comfortably settled in the familiarity of home, work and routine in Kathmandu, the “high” of travel, and more precisely, the “high” of travel in India, is beginning to wear off.
For those of you who have been to India, you most likely are nodding your head (or bobbing it side to side, Indian-style) understanding without further explanation what this high, what India, what travel in India, are all about. Is it love or hate? Is it trauma or euphoria? Or a blend of both?
When I made my way onto the short flight from Kathmandu to Calcutta I was still talking myself into believing this trip was a good idea. Only a few hours earlier had my plans been finalized. Up until then tickets had yet to be confirmed and, more importantly, my stay at Rikhia Peeth ashram had yet to be cleared. Life in last minute-ness. This is a way that I am well used to, living in Asia, and being a last-minute-gal by nature. This time around, however, it was something that didn’t settle well with me. And so I left for India, and for the ashram, half heartedly.
Any, and every, time I head to India, something happens. By “something” I mean an experience that catches me by surprise. It is normally an event that was not planned, and that had no way– by any stretch of the imagination or logic– to happen. But it does, in India. The unthinkable, the unforeseeable, the unexpected happens. And it happens no matter how diligently I plan.
Whenever I head to India, knowing that I am going to the encounter of the Great Unknown, I do a little ritual. Wherever I am (in a plane, train, jeep, rickshaw, horse-drawn cart) I close my eyes, quiet my half-panicked/ half-exhilarated mind, place my hands over my heart and pray. I give my word to surrender to the flow of life, to follow the stream of the experience no matter what happens. In the same breath I ask for protection and clear guidance. I jump into Life and, like a child to her mother, trust that in doing so I will be held in Her Grace.
It’s funny how perceived experiences of potential danger and the prospect of the unknown can bring us lickety-split into a state of presence and surrender. It’s ironic that we (I) forget to do this more often. Because, in fact, we are on the precipice of the unknown at every moment of our lives. With each breath, with each step, we walk the edge between life and death. In each moment we die and are reborn again.
So, there I was, on the flight to Kolkata, uncertain, praying, and hopeful. As ready for the unexpected as I could be. A smooth and comfortable flight landed us in the West Bengal capital. The air is heavy with heat and humidity. As I step off the plane onto the tarmac my clothes cling to my skin as though I just took a shower, fully clothed. Hot stuff. The discomfort is quickly relieved by the air conditioning in the impressive new airport. I don’t recognize a thing. The airport has been completely renovated since I was last here a few years ago. Dazzled by the modernity I am also taken off guard. Surprised at how quickly and drastically things can change.
In this new labyrinth of hallways and terminals I resort to following signs, and the flow of fellow passengers. Immigration and luggage pick up are smooth sailing. Lifted by the ease of the experience I head through customs into the arrivals lounge to make my way to the Pre Paid taxi counter, confident and relaxed. I need to get to my guest house, about a half hour ride away. I had decided to spend a night in the city and take a day train the following day, rather than rush from the airport onto a night train to my next destination. Whether it was good thinking, travellers luck or divine grace, it was a good decision. The PrePaid taxi counter is deserted. There’s a taxi strike. Until when, no one knows.
With the rest of the stranded travellers I line up in front of the private taxi counter. After what feels like forever I get to the front of the line only to be told there are no more taxis left. “You’ll have to wait an hour Ma’am.” And it is going to cost me four times the price I had budgeted for. Here’s the thing: an hour in India could be anything. It could be the actual 60 minutes it is said to be; it could also be 15 minutes or 2 hours, or 24. So, we’ve got the time factor. And we’ve got a money factor to deal with. I am low on Indian Currency. With the holiday season and money forgery business thriving, it was impossible to get any Indian Currency in Nepal before leaving. And Nepali currency is non convertible. But I am prepared! I have an ATM card and some dollars cash, on me.
Prepared. The ATM machine is empty and the money exchange counter, all sparkling new, is closed. No kidding. India, I love you. Wake me up, shake me up, you do.
Breathe. I can either fight this and take it as an affront to my plans. Or I can go with the flow and trust that all of this is actually in my best interest. Before heading out of the airport doors into the Kolkata night to find some means of transportation, I find my way to the departure level, talk the army guard into letting me through to use an ATM machine (it is working!) and collect some much needed cash. Note to self: Think outside the box. Ask for help when necessary.
Crossing the threshold of the fancy sliding doors, I finally emerge into the Kolkata night air. It is still humid and heavy. It’s intoxicating. Across the way is a taxi stand. Making my way through the sparse traffic, I step onto the pavement and come face to face with a gentle looking older man with heavy grey dreadlocks that fall below his waist. “Taxi, ma’am?”. Yes please. The blue-suit clad baba directs me to the counter where I enter negotiations (well, where the taxi-walla humors my attempts at negotiations) and leave with a signed receipt and a promise for a ride. Proud to be paying only double–not quadruple– what I normally would, I am directed towards an old white Ambassador. I opted for the classic, non-AC, ride.
It turns out the dreadlocked baba is my driver. He ushers me into the car. The big, springy back seat meets the weight of my bag and body with a whoosh of welcome. My eyes accustom to the dark and make out a makeshift shrine to Kali Maa on the dashboard. I exhale deeply. Finally safe. The baba makes his way to the driver’s seat, turns the key in the ignition and mumbles when nothing happens. With practiced movements he grabs a metal tool and goes to take a look at the engine. Apparently the trick to fixing the problem is five taps on something in the engine guts. Hit five times. Try the ignition. This chorus repeats itself a several times. I realize that as he is carrying through this ritual he is getting directions from another driver for the address I have given him. Watching all of this, I start to laugh. The car is not starting and I am not sure the driver knows where we are going. But I am not worried at all. I know I will get where I am going. And in good hands.
The motor finally roars to life, dreadlock baba hops into his seat and we are off into the city night. We chat in broken english and hindi about Navaratri, the festival of the goddess which starts in two days. I ask him about his Kali shrine and his face and voice light up. “My home, Kali temple”. Yep, I thought so.
I journey through the dark night, with Kali lighting the way, and a gentle baba driving me safely to my living quarters. Bumping along through the darkness, in great company, with joy and trust in my heart. The rest of my time in India is an extension of these first few encounters. Unexpected, blessed and inspired. Thrust out of the known of daily ritual, I wake up to the colors, the happenings, to the grace all around and within me. Stay vigilant, Yogatara, a voice tells me. Stay awake. Trust yourself, ask for help and go with the flow that is offering itself to you at every moment.
Oh, India. Pranam.