Rishikesh….the lungs of India

Rishikesh has been challenging on a number of levels. I initially found it more isolating than I did Varanasi. It is a place of contemplation. Having broken (?) my little toe on the first night and once again managing to contract yet another cold has slowed me down which is great on one hand however being occupied and busy walking definitely limits the sense of loneliness. For the first few days I spent a lot of time sitting on the steps of the Ganges, reading, with my feet in the water. It was interesting watching people going into the water and sometimes talking to them. They were mainly Indian people from other parts of india, mostly Delhi, coming to spend time near the Ganges. This river is so important to Indian people. They travel hundreds of kilometres to put their feet or whole bodies into the freezing water.

I started at the tantric yoga course a few days after my arrival which took up a lot of my time for three days as it went for around 8 hours a day. The course had lots of young people from all over the world. The teacher is probably one of the sexiest women I have ever seen. She is from Romania and is very in touch with her sexuality. At first, the sense of loneliness was amplified for me being in a room of people and not feeling a connection to them or the practice. I realised that I really do struggle to put myself out there when it comes to meeting people. I also realised that although I have done a lot of work on myself in the last couple of years I have very definite strong blockages in my body and my chakras which stop me from experiencing what others were experiencing. I think it’s partly because I’m Australian and, although spiritualism is accepted on some levels, we are a pragmatic bunch that don’t generally see outside of our lives which involve work, owning a home and fitting in with others. I also think that my history has a huge influence over my inability to open up to new things. I look at these young people who are so open to travelling and experiencing whatever they can. They don’t focus on working or owning anything other than the experiences they are having. When I was their age I had a family and massive responsibility (which I did not do so well) and my experiences were limited by the constraints of that situation and my total lack of confidence to do something different. Having children almost gave me an excuse not to live. So now I am trying to catch up on experiencing a different life which is a wonderful thing however has some complications due to my age and lack of experience and confidence. I have felt, at times, like going home and curling up in my bed in my little house and staying there for a very long time, however I recognise that I need to keep going on this journey. I think in some ways it is the most important and influential journey of my life and I am not going to achieve anything if I crawl back into the safety of my life at home.

The three day tantric yoga course was interesting. For the first two days I found it frustrating as I couldn’t experience what others were experiencing and felt like a failure. I also felt no connection with the people I was practicing with. On the third day I felt a strong connection with a few of the participants. There are two in particular. One young woman who lives not far from me in Australia and has a very similar study/work experience to me. Her ability to critically think and empathise amazed me and I’m looking forward to catching up with her when I return. Also a young man with a beautiful soul who is so different to me in so many ways however we connected for some reason. On the third day during the last meditation I also found my warrior women again. Throughout my life I have had to manage a lot of pain and have been completely depleted at times however I always managed to get back up again, to rise out of the flames of despair and to be the strong woman that I was meant to be. The last few years have been incredibly challenging and I realised that I completely lost sight of my warrior woman self and I have been frightened of so many things. I have found her again and she is beautiful and strong and determined. She is a part of me that I need to hold onto as her strength will give me the power I need to live my life fully. I will be attending the next stage of the course however if this is all I get out of it I have received much more than I expected.

Last days of Varanasi

Tuesday was a nothing day. It was the day after the Maha Shivratri festival and I felt like the river appeared to be feeling – quiet and tired. A bit of an anticlimax. I was waiting to leave one guest house and then waiting to be able to go into the next.  Basically a day of sitting and reading.  The room was finally ready and it was pretty basic putting it mildly but I had moved from a $35 a night room to a $14-$16 a night (which somehow went up to $18 a night as I had a window!) so I suppose it isn’t surprising and at the end of the day I had a bed and a roof over my head which is a lot more than many people around here have.  I struggle with the concept of resting while travelling. I see every hour doing nothing as a lost opportunity to see or experience something. This attitude may present as a problem as time goes on as 5 weeks without rest might be reasonable however 12 months is impossible!  I think Rishikesh will have a strong element of rest and self care. 

On Wednesday morning I woke up feeling flat. So decided to walk. I feel like there is an element of me being on a walking pilgrimage. The tuk tuk drivers are not happy that I am not contributing to their economy!  But for me, walking gives me the opportunity to see things and to have experiences.  It also gets me out of my head.  I decided to walk away from the touristy area and follow the river the other way. I happened upon a western woman who I asked if if I was able to walk across this rather long bridge. We ended up in conversation and she told me that she had been in India for 16 years and was involved in educating children from the surrounding area where education is not accessible due to poverty. They run purely on fund raising and contributions. She took me to the area where the younger children were learning and explained that many of the children from the poor camps probably have undiagnosed foetal alcohol syndrome.  I almost cried when she told me that some of the kids who have gone through their ‘school’ are now in university.  I didn’t take photos as there is some legal issues around what they are doing so it’s a bit underground.  However I do have her contact details so can catch up with her to see how things are going.  I also might do some fund raising when I get back.  It is amazing how people come across your path.  My mood was lifted by meeting someone so amazing who is doing something so wonderful.  She said she was feeling a bit flat too and had ‘escaped’ to get a break when I ran into her and felt so much better after meeting me and telling me about what they are doing. The universe is an amazing thing.  Also, as would be predictable, it has made me think about my future and what it is I want to do.  I have 11 months to make a decision about whether I will return to my job or not and it’s highly likely that I won’t. 

So where do I need to be?  Is this encounter the universe giving me a sign?   It is something I will think about as I travel around. I still feel that I need to continue on my current path however this has made me consider future options.  India is a place you can love and hate at the same time. I love the reality and friendliness of the people however hate the poverty and persistent touting (be it boats, tuk tuks or even begging). Walking the streets gives me a sense of safety and inclusion into a culture which I do not yet understand. I wouldn’t even bother pretending that I blend in as I am like a white beacon but the responses to me being in their space have been sweet. Young boys on bicycles, motorbikes and cars wave to me with no (I’m assuming) expectations and are thrilled when I smile and wave back. The amount of times I have been asked to be in photos is fascinating.  It isn’t the locals who ask but Indian tourists from other areas.  Varanasi has been kind to me. I have put myself in some situations that I should have walked away from however I am leaving with no harm done and some more lessons under my belt.  I have felt lonely on some levels however regularly have had someone to talk to.  I’m enjoying the ride of a lone traveller and feel like I’ve been doing it for weeks however it has only been 5 days!   And this is only the beginning…  I feel ready to move onto Rishikesh. 

Varanasi…. the first few days

Day 1

Varanasi is incredibly overwhelming. I happened upon the beginning of a festival which only occurs every six years so there were a lot of crowds of Indian people. The holy guys, the Naga Babas, are painted in white and naked. Others are wearing orange clothing… I just happened to be wearing my long bright orange, pink and white skirt so felt I fitted in well (with the exception of being over 6’ tall and white!). There were a few tourists but not as many as I would have expected. The 6’ white blonde/grey attracted a lot of attention to the point that Indian people wanted to have photos taken with me! I imagine there are a lot of tourists who come here however I appear to be a stand out one! Surprising I know as it never happens in Australia…well sometimes. I still haven’t worked out how to manage interactions. I want to say hi and smile when the locals say hello, and generally they are just saying hello however obviously not always. I have learnt not to even make eye contact with beggars but it is difficult. A very young woman with a baby on her hip asked for milk… not money but milk. I went with her to buy milk powder which was fine. Word got around and I had numerous young women with babies on there hips asking for milk. It does make it so hard however I cannot save the world. I have heard since that when you buy the milk which costed 175 rupees, they take it back and get 100 rupees. I supposed it’s a pretty ingenious way to get money.

A guy started talking to me about the cremations. He wasn’t a guide but was touting for a silk factory which I did end up going with him to but very disappointingly for him only bought a scarf for 300 rupees ($6). He did tell me some interesting stuff about cremations. When someone dies they bring the body down to the Ganges to be washed and there are a number of rituals. I did see a number of bodies being taken down. The fire comes from a fire which has allegedly been burning for 2000 years. They burn the bodies for 3 hours. The only bodies not burnt are the holy men, pregnant women, small babies and people with leprosy. They are wrapped up and weighted and thrown into the Ganges as they don’t need to be burnt for purification. I saw a number of the cremations and there were tourists taking photos. A guy asked me not to take photos and said ‘respect ‘. It hit me how disrespectful we are when we travel. Someone’s loved one has died and we treat it like a tourist attraction. I thought about how I would feel if a stranger came to my loved ones funeral and took photos to paste all over Facebook. ‘Respect’ is such an important element in travelling. Respect for others’ country, culture, religion and lifestyle. We are visitors in their country and need to be grateful for the privilege we have to be able to travel and that we are welcome to experience other people’s worlds, and the humility to understand that being rich (and we are if we can afford go travel) and white doesn’t make us superior. We need to ensure respect in everything we do. I encountered another older man who I engaged with as he kept saying ‘just a minute ‘ and ended up taking my hand and massaging it. I was so uncomfortable with that especially as he wouldn’t give me back my hand! So knowing how to interact in a way which makes me comfortable without totally ignoring everyone has become a challenge!

Day 2

I saw a couple more perspectives of the area today. In the morning I went for a boat trip down the river. It’s amazing how different things can be when looking at them from a different perspective. There were statues I had not seen from land. The sunrise was beautiful too. It was 6am and the place was full of people and lots of colours and noise. I don’t know when these people sleep! The ceremonies can start as early as 4am (outside my window!) but I find them comforting in a way. The crowds and noise goes on until late in the night however I have no problem getting to sleep. It may just be due to the festival however I have the feeling it is generally a typical day for around here, however, I have been told that the Indian crowds are not the norm. The river is obviously the life of Varanasi and is used for everything amidst religious connotations. Bathing is religious in particular. Dunking three times, appears to be the central theme in bathing. Later, I decided to walk the streets rather than beside the river. The roads are full of cars, tuk tuks, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians and cows! I feel incredibly safe walking on the road as there is an acceptance that everyone has a right to be on the road, including the cows. There is lots of honking of horns which after a while one gets used to as generally being a warning that you are being overtaken rather than being told to get out of the way. The only thing on the road which I was weary of was the cows! I noticed the locals are weary too and not too eager to approach them or move them on even when they are causing traffic jams.

Moving back to interactions. I made a bit of a decision to just to go with the flow and trust the process but to also walk away if I felt uncomfortable or it didn’t suit me. Both these processes have been difficult for me historically. Going with the flow has always been anxiety provoking as I don’t trust easily and feel the need to control my environment and tend to avoid interaction. Walking away has also been difficult and I have stayed in situations I didn’t want to be in and/or have done things that I didn’t really want to do. So when I was walking the streets, I met a very strange young little Indian man who decided to attach himself to me. He wanted to know if I smoked marijuana which I said no to (I’m not that stupid in a strange country with people I don’t know I can trust). I think he was as high as a kite! He said he worked in a coffee shop and then proceeded to tell me that he was higher (spirituality) than the Babas and basically that he was Shiva himself. He took me to the top of a Ghat which gave me yet another perspective of the river. So that was pretty cool. He was a really strange individual and definitely educated but really weird, however it was daylight and I am bigger than him so was fine with the experience. He then told me his coffee shop was basically a drug den. He could offer me LSD and opium and any other drug I wanted. How does an 58 year old Australian woman look like a druggie? Anyway, regardless to say, I rejected the offer. He did make me laugh though because he was totally off his face and/or delusional. The interaction finished when he asked me for a gift for Shiva (him?). At that point I moved on but it was fun for a while. He spent a long time with little gain in the end. Maybe he has lessons to learn too.

Later I went down to the river and ran into a young guy, who I call B2, who was touting for boats. I had spoken to a couple of times before. He took me to a rooftop restaurant owned by a family he knows where they have beer! First beer in 3 days! We ended up hanging out later drinking whiskey. He was an interesting young man and it was very cool to hang out with him and hear about his life and his enterprises as he definitely has an entrepreneurial nature. B2 started out in life working for this family when he was very young and very poor. The love they have for him, especially the two sons was palpable. It was beautiful to see his relationship with them and that they are still close. I walked away (very late at night) with an appreciation that I met him but very intoxicated!

Day 3

I woke up with one hell of a hangover and decided that while in India I am no longer going to drink. I didn’t come all this way to get pissed or stoned or whatever. I can do that at home. I came on this journey to learn and to understand, not only the cultural environment which I am being exposed to, but also about myself and to explore untapped strengths that I know I have however have not really been able to access. However, I also recognise that the people I meet along the road are part of that process so I am open to being open…cautiously.

I wandered out after a very slow morning to find coffee and ran into one of the guys from the restaurant B2 took me to the night before. We hung out for a while and he talked about his life. He is from a small village and he works in the restaurant which is run by the wife (she also runs the guest house), a silk shop, which the husband owns, and as a tour guide. He hopes to have the same opportunities that B2 has now after working with this family. He told me that he met an English girl last week who he liked very much which is so sweet. I was showing him photos and he recognised the drug dealer and was very seriously telling me that I need to be careful and that he is a junkie. He told me that the drug dealers do not come to the river as people like him would call the police and he was very worried about my safety and that I could be arrested with him. On reflection, there were a lot of strange looks when I was with the drug dealer from other men so I dare say he is well known for his trade. So I have experienced the dark side of Varanasi and the light side however I’ll give the drug dealers a miss in future. I need to leave the current guest house in the morning so I booked into the family’s guest house for the last 2 nights for the huge amount of 700-800 rupees a night (which is $14-$16) as compared to the 1750 rupees ($35) I am paying now.

Being open to experience has made my stay here so much more interesting than keeping to myself and and avoiding interaction with local people. Obviously the interaction with the drug dealer could have gone bad, however, it didn’t and I do believe that every encounter we have opens us up to learning. Maybe I have learnt to avoid drug dealers in India in this case! However, in the main, my interactions have been positive and the people I have met have been lovely and helpful. I think everyone has an agenda of some sort in interacting with each other, and especially with tourists, however, they are all people with a story to tell and experiences to share. The important thing is to make sure that you understand that concept and to ensure that you only indulge their agenda if it is what you want. I have an agenda too. Meeting people and hearing their stories broadens my understanding of the culture and adds to my learnings which is brilliant.

The beginning…

So here I am in Varkala post Kochi.

I’m on a Bollywood tour which was arranged by a local South Golden Beach Bollywood teacher. There are 11 of us including a 13 year old girl. I’m a bit of a ring in and it is an interesting space to be in, however, there it is a mixed class group so not everyone knows each other. I think I am an observer of people so it’s interesting watching and seeing these women starting to get to know each other and their personalities starting to emerge. I continue to feel a bit like an outsider. I’m not sure if that is about me not fitting in or me not really making an effort to fit in. There are no major clashes although I know I annoy a couple of the women (hardly surprising), however, generally they are friendly and inclusive. I still have my protective layer on so I keep myself at a distance. As we come to the end of the tour, I feel myself moving further away from the group. This may be because I’m not as involved in the dancing anymore after being unwell or it may be because I know that at the end of the week I will be on my own and I am getting ready. Anyway, it is something which I will ponder on at a later stage.

The one thing that I’m going to work on while I’m here is my totally illogical fear of being ‘ripped off’. I struggled to get a tuk tuk and preferred to walk than be ripped off and spend the rest of the day stewing over it. Now I’m not talking $10. I’m not even talking $5. I’m talking anything from $1 to 20 cents! 50 rupees is around $1. For example we paid 40 rupees more than we should have which pissed me off no end, however, it is 80 cents! How the hell does that make any difference to my life and how much difference does it make to the tuk tuk drivers life? I have had the 2 sides of the argument presented to me… don’t let them rip you off as it supports a culture with no integrity to why would you stress over it? My first lesson is to stop sweating the small stuff like this. It doesn’t matter in the scheme of things and I do not have enough influence to impact on a culture generated by poverty and the opportunity that tourism brings. They see white people as being rich which relatively is so true. I experienced that in Africa where the obvious differences in our lifestyles is so overwhelming. I have, in the past, been a ‘poor’ Australian, but we have no contemplation of what the term ‘poor’ actually means in a global sense. I’m not underestimating the impact of being poor in Australia as there are those who have had it even worse than me, however, the poverty which exists in third world countries is not even comparable. There haven’t been a lot of beggars in Kochi or Varkala, so, either these areas don’t have as much poverty as we hear about or tourists are sheltered from the level of poverty which exists. When I do encounter one, I struggle to know whether to give them some money or ignore them like everyone else does. I did encounter a crippled man who was selling hats and cards. I offered him a small amount as I didn’t really want either, however, he refused to take it so I ended up buying a card. I’m not sure if he was too proud to take the money or if it was a good business tactic as I ended up giving him ten times what I planned to (a whopping $2!). But I was impressed that he choose industry over begging…however I’m also very aware that he needed capital to even start that process. Money makes money. Poverty, without opportunity, remains poverty. It’s a sad reality.

I’m thinking a lot about what it is I want to achieve from this journey I’m taking. Is it just experience of different countries and cultures? It definitely is a large component of it however I think this is an opportunity to be more, to learn more about myself and how I fit in this world, and to develop my spiritual side. I’m already finding it a bit of a challenge. As I finish the first part of my journey I am reflective of what I have experienced and what I have learnt. I have enjoyed being in both Kochi and Varkala. They are both very safe areas in India where walking the streets at night feels completely safe. I think there is a misconception out there that India is a dangerous place. Maybe it is in some areas however these two areas are not. Varkala in particular is a very touristy area, in fact, it appears to be its only purpose from the accommodation to the shops, and even to the ayurvedic establishments. Not really my thing, as in reality, we could be on the coast of any country and it doesn’t feel like what the ‘real’ India should feel like (whatever that means as I’ve never been to India before!). But it has been a great soft entry into travelling. Being part of a group which generally has my back and in areas which are so safe, I have become accustomed to being in a different country without being smacked in the face with the reality of travelling on my own in a country I have never been before and is potentially so different to my own. I feel more ready to move onto being on my own in a more ‘Indian’ environment. The next two parts of my journey are to Hindu significant holy cities. Varanasi and Rishikesh. I think that this is where the real journey will begin.

Anticipation….

Travelling overseas has been a relatively new experience for me.  My first overseas experience was in 2000 at the age of 39, with my very lovely friend Michelle.  We went to Greece with a short stop in Egypt.  I was fascinated by the age of the ruins as Australia just doesn’t have buildings anywhere near that old (although the history is definitely as old, if not older).   I then took my youngest son, who was 14 y/o at the time,  to New Zealand where we travelled in a small van through the North and South Island.  It was exciting and amazing and very, very safe.  In 2005 I wandered around Europe with another amazing friend, Sue, for 5 weeks (our friendship did survive surprisingly!).  Another fairly safe introduction to the concept of overseas travelling.  And then off to Malaysia with Dee and her very young child.  Each of these trips involved me not making decisions and just going with whatever my travelling companions wanted to do.  I liked it that way as it gave me the freedom not to think about it and also not to take responsibility if it wasn’t that great.  Bit of a coward really, but there you have it.  However, they also broadened my experience of travel.

Almost 4 years ago, in 2015 was the first time I flew overseas by myself.  I travelled to Costa Rica to see my forementioned son who was living there at the time.  I dropped into San Diego to see my brother on the way (he has lived in the US of A for over 30 years and this was the first time I visited him!  Very bad sister! 🥴).  I can honestly say that I was totally freaked out by the whole experience of being on the plane by myself, and actually having to be responsible for me instead of expecting someone else to be.  However, I did survive.   I did some little excursions away from the safely of my son who was based in San Jose, and sometimes he met up with me or came with me to some of the places I meandered to.  It was a great introduction though to being a little more brave and having to look after myself some of the time.  And then 6 months later the trip to the USA visiting San Fransisco and New York.  All I can say about travelling to large English speaking countries is take someone with you!  I think it was probably the loneliest I have been in a very long time.  Anonymity can be a godsend especially when you live in a fairly small coastal town, however, the loneliness is profound in amongst the bussle and noise of such a big city like New York.   

Last year I went to Africa with the beautiful Dee.  It was definitely the most amazing trip I have ever been on.   From the wildness of travelling and camping among wild animals in the Serengeti in Tanzania to the colour and noise of the voodoo healing ceremonies in Yoff in Senegal.  It has to be one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had in my life.  The irony is that in Yoff, where Dee and I stayed in an apartment for over 2 weeks, we fell into a routine which was interesting considering the cultural differences we were experiencing.  It was like ‘Do you feel like going to a voodoo healing ceremony today?’… ‘nah, I think I might just go to the beach and be proposed to a few times by the beach boys’.. ‘oh ok.  Have fun’.   Anyone who is on my Facebook would have seen the photos of that utterly amazing time.  Although I didn’t have any intention to run off and wander the world for 12 months at that time, I have no doubt that the impact it had on me was silent but intense.   

So then why did I decide to do this?  Well, embarrassingly enough, it was a bloody chick flick.  I’m not a fan of most chick flicks and definitely not this one, however my girlfriends were going to see Mamamia 2 and I decided to drag myself along (bitching about what a terrible movie it will be of course!  ABBA!  You have to be joking!).  I’m sitting there watching the scenery (the ‘storyline’ was crap) and thought ‘what the fuck am I doing?  My only goal in life is to pay off my house and I might die before doing anything of consequence’ (or words to that affect).  And that was it.  The decision to travel for 12 months and explore this amazing world of ours.  So now here I am, the day before heading off to my first destination, India, with only a ticket in and a ticket out and a backpack anticipating what the next 12 months will bring.  I will have a soft entry to travelling on my own meeting up with a group of lovely Bollywood dancing women which will be a gentle start to my adventure but then I’m (more or less) on my own.  The beauty of the whole thing is that the trip has been unfolding in front of me with very little work from me.

Although the story of how I got here was much longer than I thought it would be, it actually gives me clarity of how I got here.  The other huge factor which has influenced me greatly is my incredible, gorgeous, brave and nagging son who has spent the last few years of his life travelling the world.  He has settled in Denmark (in a tantric yoga ashram of course!), however, up until now I have been travelling on my own vicariously through him while he continuously encouraged me to let go of my insecurities and fears and just do it!  So now I am!  

I’m now sitting here with a slight sense of nervousness however a greater sense of calm in my core.  I will miss my beautiful town and my gorgeous friends, however, as everyone has been reminding me, it will all be here when I get back (with probably minor changes except who’s dating who! 😂).   There is no turning back so bring it on! 😁