The overwhelming aspects of India are balanced by understanding the bliss of simply being
All the things you hear are true. The stench, the mountains of garbage, the land mines of human feces, true. The intense ear pollution, the choking diesel fumes, the persistent touts yup. The beggars, the disfigured lepers, the clever scams, check. The homeless children, the struggle of humanity, the high likelihood of getting really, really sick absolutely.
All the darkest, dirtiest, sensory-assaulting things you hear about India, they are all true. A population of 1.1 billion and counting churns inside a landmass about a third the size of Canada. To say that it is overwhelming to even a seasoned traveler would be an understatement. Ready or not, Mother India presents you with a rawness enough to break your heart or as the case would be, a rawness enough to open it.
In the midst of all the chaos that is India lay many lessons for the wayward traveler. Always wash your hands; watch where you step; the customary sideways head wobble that means "yes," "no," "maybe," "I dont understand" and "I want to overcharge you dramatically" are some that stand out.
It quickly becomes clear how fortunate many of us are to have grown up in a place where we are afforded so many blessings. Like others, I was often reminded of the fact that there were children in India (Africa/China/any other ravaged, overpopulated part of the world) who would love to eat my liver or lima beans. As usual mom was right and as an adult I can now appreciate all of the things I was afforded as a Westerner that my Indian counterpart was denied.
However, there are some things I now see that my T-ball teammates and I were in fact denied something that comes from living in a place where culture and religion are one and the same, where God shows up more than once a week in a few hymns and some stained glass. That something is faith.
A crazy thing has happened in the West, the tables have turned and traditional faith is "uncool." No prayer in schools, banning of religious symbols, debate surrounding turbans in the RCMP . The cultural melting pot creates realistic challenges and it becomes harder and harder to remember that faith has been at the center of our civilization since it all began. Where has it gone? I cannot answer that but I know where it has never left: India.
As with any other good Indian travel story, it all began with getting sick. I mean really sick. I mean if-you-have-been-to-India-you-know-how-sick-I-mean sick. And then my girlfriend, Krista, got even sicker. In-a-hospital-on-an-IV sicker. During it all I remember lying in bed and actually asking for Gods help, saying out loud, "I am soooo sorry I have doubted you sir, madam, great one please. whoever you are, make it stop!" And then, thanks to God and/or high-powered antibiotics, it did.
The setting for all of this is Rishikesh, a relatively small town by Indian standards (80,000 people), in the North Indian state of Uttarachnal. It sits at the foot of the Himalayas and marks the beginning of the mighty river Ganges holy crawl across the plains. Rishikesh is a very important Hindu pilgrimage site, a stop-off on the circuit of the Char Dham. Yogis and Sages are believed to have lived and practised penance here since well before the skiers chapel popped up at Creekside. Sadhus (Hindu holy men) and pilgrims from all over the world flock here in search of salvation and enlightenment. It worked for the Beatles; it was in Rishikesh during the 60s that Paul, John, George and Ringo met their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Ganges is lined with temples and Ashrams, and every evening the river is lit up with floating diyas (oil lamps), for the aarti worship, an offering to God.
Initially attracted to Rishikesh by its reputation for Yoga (it is often called the Yoga capital of the world), we quickly learned that we had far more than upward and downward dogs in our future.
When the student is ready the teacher will appear. And low and behold at our darkest and most vulnerable point, coming to terms with potentially never eating again, Swami Krishna Chandran Pranam to the rescue. Like an eclectic mix of Gandhi, Santa Claus, Richard Simmons and Rabbit, our paths crossed with a man that would change our lives forever. Patiently waiting at the bottom of a narrow set of dark, damp stairs in the vacant basement of a beat-down guesthouse we found him. Walking the walk (or shuffle as the case was), talking the talk, living his faith. Each and everyday, smiling at our arrival, walking us through yoga for our minds, bodies and souls. Some mornings instead of the expected postures we got teachings on life, living fully, loving fully and how to reconnect with faith. And chanting, oh the chanting. More than once I recall looking at Krista in mid "Hari-Krishna!" and thinking "This is so cool! I hope none of our friends find out "
In the evenings he would lead us through meditation, helping us to slow our minds and experience the bliss of simply "being," sending us out into the night with the deepest and most spiritual message anyone has ever given me: "Be Happy." Be happy of course!
Now it is not like we were totally unprepared for this, I mean we have been doing hot yoga for a while now, and, like I knew about Lulu Lemon long before every woman in Whistler had a pair of their magic "wonder bra for your butt" pants. The plan was to do a couple months of Yoga, get buff and head to the beach maybe throw in a couple of chants for good measure. From the time we woke to the time we slept our senses were filled by a culture based on the practise of faith. The smell of Nag Champa; the buildings with makeshift shrines in every room; the foods (no meats, no eggs, strictly Hindu); the Sadhus sleeping in the streets, the woods and under bridges; the religious paraphernalia shops on every corner; the overcrowded buses going Mach 10 with music blaring the praise of Krishna; the "holy" cows. The faith that is woven throughout the Indian culture is reflected in everything you hear, see, and feel.
For Krista and I the experiences that India provided proved life changing. So many lessons, a greater awareness of all that is around us, all that is created and creates. You do not have to be "religious" to have faith but you do need to practise and live your faith. This is the hallmark of spending time in India and it taught us the value of opening the heart and mind to that which is greater, wiser and more beautiful than can be measured.
So whether you worship Krishna or Jesus, Allah or Ullr, get yourself to India and immerse yourself in the craziness that awaits just leave your fancy Lulu Lemon yoga clothes at home, they will probably just get stolen.