India Travelogue, Ep. 4:

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Before I left for India, I confided my anxieties about the trip to my friend and meditation teacher. She has been to India many times (to serve the poor rather than vacation like me) and she told me the trip would be “the edge of (my meditation) practice.”

I knew she was right but I didn’t know how right until we traveled by train. Two trips on the train (one 12 hours and one 18 hours) will remain my least favorite travel experiences.

I feel silly talking about it but I will say this: I’m so white and so American I had envisioned a very “Sex in the City” kind of adventure. (Remember the episode when Carrie and Samantha took the train to LA?) I thought we’d have cocktails. Instead, if you’ve ever seen the movie “Reds,” and you remember the scene where Diane Keaton meets Warren Beaty at the crowded and chaotic train station in pre-revolution Russia, it was like that, only depressingly un-cinematic.

Rather than recall the specific conditions (which were crowded and dirty beyond anything I’d ever experienced), I’ve reflected on why I was so outside my comfort zone, why I felt so unmoored, why I was convinced I might just perish right then and there.

Truth is, other than length, the second train ride was easier and more enjoyable than the first. Probably because I knew what to expect. We played cards, we laughed, we ate snacks, we had quite a scare when our friend left the train at a stop to buy food and we thought she’d been left behind. (Turned out, the train didn’t leave the station; it merely switched tracks and our friend made it back on just fine.) I even slept a little on the second trip, unlike the first.

Looking back in my photos, there’s nothing that’s shocking so I’m still not sure why I felt the way I did. But maybe it has to do with that old saying “The train has left the station.” For a girl who’s spent a lifetime planning contingencies and exit strategies (and polishing her bubble), once you’re on the train, you’re on it. And you are most definitely not in control.

And maybe the universe knew a train ride was the perfect antidote for my shiny bubble and accelerator for my meditation practice.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 3:

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I am not a well traveled individual. Although I have seen all but seven of the US states, prior to going to India, I could name the foreign countries I’ve visited on three fingers (Mexico, Brazil and Canada).

Since I had never left the American continent, I was sensitive about being perceived as a stereotypical US resident (ignorant, rude, entitled) by the locals. I tried so hard to be warm and friendly and polite and respectful in every situation.

Well, you can take the girl out of her bubble but . . .

Case in point: one day we were driving through a number of smaller towns. Many of my friends were dozing but I became fascinated with the array of merchants flanking the main roads through these towns. Most were in makeshift stalls, many no bigger than maybe 8’X8′. I saw a couple of what could be termed “variety” stores (to use a nostalgic American term from my youth), but many were single-item affairs (brooms in one, chairs in another, snacks in another). I began calling them out. “Oh look, there’s an auto mechanic’s shop! There’s a broom store! There’s a store selling pots and pans!” I even saw a man ironing in one stall. (An ironing store? I chuckled at my inability to name it quickly.)

When we drove past the one pictured above, I said “Oh look! It’s a second-hand clothing store.” My two Indian friends burst out laughing. Between their guffaws, one said “Oh Joan, it’s first-hand. It’s just dirty.” I was so embarrassed and realized immediately how privileged my world view had become. 

So yeah. I got that going for me.

Epilogue: I think the Indians got it going on. In many ways, these small merchants made me nostalgic for my “Mayberry” upbringing, where my neighbors’ businesses thrived before the big-box, Wal-Mart, soul-sucking economy choked them out.

India Travelogue, Ep. 2:

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One of the most difficult aspects of traveling in India is the emotional toll on tourists of those who seek money. (I’ve always hated the term beggars.) I’m not trying to make a political or moral argument about society, I’m just saying the experience was hard.

Mostly those who sought money were children, but there were also many women and the occasional disabled man. Their numbers were far too many to ignore and their persistence is remarkable. I had carried a large number of $1 bills for this purpose. I most often gave singles but I sometimes gave as many as five as at a time.

One time, I was approached by a group of boys as I waited for my friends to return to our tour bus. After I gave them each a bill, our tour bus driver chided me. I smiled at his admonition. I have no answer except I dare you to look into the face of need and not respond. I told him there are individuals in America who do the same. Mostly, in my area, they are older men who stand by the interstate exits. And I told him I give them money too, far more than I was sharing with these children.

He asked me to follow him a short distance, where he pointed over a low wall and I saw a group of boys, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, sitting cross-legged on the ground and playing cards. “That’s what they do with your money!” he exclaimed. I smiled again. “They look hungry,” I said.

Of all the experiences I had in India, these momentary interactions where we met eyes and I acknowledged our shared humanity and offered what I liked to think of as a traveler’s gratuity will stay with me most poignantly.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 1:

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Everywhere I went in India, several times a day, I was asked to take photos with locals. At first I didn’t understand and thought the individuals and/or groups were asking me to photograph them. I finally realized they wanted to pose with me.
I was clearly a giant among them and I assumed my stature was such an oddity it merited photographing. But my friend Rama said “They don’t see many white faces and I think it is the combination of your very light skin, red hair and light eyes.”
This particular group of schoolgirls were touring a palace (somewhere in Karala — I’m still struggling with all the unfamiliar names because we visited sooooo many locations) when I heard them giggling behind me and the girl in blue shyly asked for my photo. Their English was broken so we struggled a bit to communicate, but after I thanked them and offered the traditional well wish of “namaste,” the girl in blue exclaimed “You so cute!”
I realized on this trip I’m not really a trouper when it comes to sightseeing. I kind of had the attitude “You’ve seen one palace, you’ve seen them all.” But the magical — no other word explains it — connections with the people, even in halting, imperfect language, is what made the trip for me. I will never forget these beautiful, warm, curious girls. And it tickles me to death to think that all over India, I’m on somebody’s social media feed just as they are on mine.