The last hours in India, after a stay of nearly three months, call for contemplation.
Delhi is the last pit stop in India before continuing on my Asian escapade; an exit point chosen quite randomly about six months ago.
This is the end of my India trip, and my subcontintental friends have shared their mixed feelings about the capital and warned me to be careful when moving around as an uncompanied foreign woman.
With a pinch of aprehension, the relevant chapters of the Lonely Planet guide on a memory stick, a ticket to ride, and almost no plans at all, I arrive on a Saturday morning.
Soon I realise that I needn’t have worried. The last lines of my Indian story unfold magically into the perfect ending.
Saturday, Day – 4: On rails
I catch the 6:45 train from Chandigarh to New Delhi and as I make myself comfortable in the in the 2nd class A/C compartment I regret not having traveled with the Indian railways earlier.
Soon after the train has glided out of the platform a hard-working attendant brings out the tea: hot water in retro-looking thermoses, teakits and butter biscuits.
My co-passengers get busy with the whiteners and sugar to produce their morning milky candy-brew.
A bit later we are served breakfast, and before arriving in the hushy bushy N.Delhi central station we are offered another cup of tea. Around 10 am we’are already there. I hold on tight to my belongings and step into the unknown.
Sunday, Day – 3: New Delhi on four wheels
On Sunday I hire a tourist guide and a car as I do not want to give my hosts a sightseeing headache. I soon realise that the guide is actually a tourist driver. His name is Soni and his primary concern is that clients are happy:
‘Are you happy? Feeling good?. I want customer feel good‘.
Soni produces a guide-book from the glove-compartment that I can use to check facts about the monuments on our list. I had hoped for somebody who would do the homework for me, but I soon realise that that person is not Soni.
I am in a slightly irritated mood, but when Soni asks me if I am happy, I hide my grumpy customer face and nod.
Soni insists that I should visit the Kama Sutra temples in Madhya Pradesh next time I am in India. “These people used yoga so many years ago to have sex without feeling tired‘. I reassure him that next time I am in India I will directly catapult myself to the temples of love.
Soni takes me around the India Gate and the Parliament, Humayun’s tomb, the Bahai temple and the Indira Gandhi Museum. He also manages to fit in a couple of tourist-traps.
After money has changed hands, Soni gives me a bunch of visit cards and says that if I ever come back to India, and have some more time to expend, I should let him know.
Before I get out of the car, he asks me if I am happy. At the end of the day, why wouldn’t I be?
Monday, Day – 2: Old Delhi on two wheels
On my third day in Delhi I am offered a treat by a Delhite friend’s friend: a discovery tour on motorbike, starting in South Delhi and heading North, to the old city.
We make a first unplanned stop at Safdarjung’s tomb and take a walk around the peaceful gardens.
Next thing, we drive through the enclave of Hauz Khaz, an upcoming bustling urban village.
If New Delhi is full of green, wide boulevards, Old Delhi is a maze of narrow streets and bazaars overlooked by the Red Fort and the minarets of the old mosques. At the market stalls, flies feast on the abundant display of dry fruit. When a new batch of chilly powder arrives, bypassers burst into a collective coughing fit.
The tour ends with a Rajasthani thali at Dilly Haat, an open air market of crafts and foods from every corner of India.
Cruising around new and old Delhi on two wheels feels like being in Nani Moretti’s Caro diario; the green of the trees and the different shades of terracota of the buildings have a Roman feel to them.
Tuesday, Day – 1: Delhi on three wheels
Last day in Delhi and suitcases are packed. I get moving late and take the metro to the National Museum. When attempting to cross the street, a bearded turban-wearing rickshaw driver points to the direction of the Museum. ‘Museum closes in half an hour. Ticket is expensive, 350 rupees’, he informs me. ‘350 rupees, for half an hour, that’s too much. But, I can take you to the Gandhi museum, it’s for free‘ he adds.
‘You are my first customer. First customer, lucky customer‘.
I get on the rickshaw and the haggling starts. When we are approaching the museum, the driver, Mr Singh, turns around and shows me a picture album with Delhi sights proposing a grandiose rickshaw tour. I explain that I have already seen most of what he suggests. Mr Singh therefore reformulates his offer: ‘I can take you to the Gandhi museum, then to my big Sikh temple – very beautiful-, and back to Lodhi garden.’
‘Also I take you to a shop, because owner gives me gifts for my children. My final price, 450 rupees.’
After some verbal back and forths we settle on 150 rupees and shake hands.
‘Today is my birthday‘, smiles Mr Singh.
After the Gandhi Museum and some rather fruitless shopping attempts, Mr Singh turns to me quite disappointed and asks ‘you want I take you to smaller temple, nearby?’
I insist on sticking to the original plan and although he is not elated, Mr Singh complies, but I can tell that he is looking forward to the whiskey he will have with his friend in the evening to celebrate his fortieth birthday anniversary: ‘Indian whiskey, 500 rupees one bottle, good quality.‘
It is quite windy, the sky is cloudy and it feels like rain is on its way.
By the time I am dropped off at the Lhodi gardens, a soft rain has started to fall. The park is just beautiful, even more so with dry leaves swirling in the air, in this off-seasonal weather tantrum.
I walk to the Khan market to take the metro back and sit for a tea at the cafe where I am going to be picked up by the friend who is so kindly hosting me.
When I get out on the street, I wrap my purple shawl around my head and cross over to the car waiting for me. The Beatles play as Delhi slowly disappears from the rear-mirror. Skies are dark, my mood is blue, my friend’s hair is flaming red, inside of me I carry a bundle of emotions and the beauty of the moment is complete.
After seven sticky hours on a bus I arrive in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world and the place where Lord Rama came for penance after killing Ravana in Lanka, if you remember the Ramayana.
I had been traveling next to a smartly dressed Nepalese young man, who had recently found Jesus. After completing the formalities of asking me which country I come from, he immediately jumped to the next crucial question “which God do you worship?”.
You got to know where you stand, or at least want to find out if you intend to visit a place vibrating with spiritual energy and visited by streams of pilgrims and seekers from all over the world.
I take out my block of notes and decide to interview the two of them. I want to know what they feel about Rishikesh. After all, I am only there for two days.
I start with T who is sipping his chai:
How does your day start in Rishikesh?
I start with yoga and then I have my breakfast: oat porridge with banana and ginger chai.
What is your favourite way of starting your day?
Doing yoga, because of the way I feel afterwards. I could be happy with tea, or coffee and breakfast, but the good feeling would not last.
How long have you been practicing and how were you introduced to yoga?
I started one year and a half ago. I have a double herniated disk and for three years I could not move properly.
I was staying at a friends place who saw my suffering and suggested that I start with yoga. I refused. The second day he kept on insisting and I kept on refusing. The third day he would still try to make me change my mind. I got so irritated that I decided to try just to make him stop. I felt it was good for me right away; of course, everything hurt. Doctors could only suggest operation.
What made you come to India?
I always wanted to see India, but was worried about the hygiene and the crowds everywhere, but because of yoga I decided to come and I am very glad.
Yoga is not the main reason to come to India though, there are so many other things. Now I am open to try, everything makes sense. I can see the many years of tradition behind. Yoga has opened my mind to many things.
How long would you like to stay in India?
I could stay here for long. If you disregard of the trash and the pollution India is a beautiful country and people seem so peaceful and relaxed. India is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been to. It is shanti-shanti, no?
Athina is tasting her first banana lassi of this trip and spreading peanut butter on a slice of bread. I start with the same question…
How does your day start in Rishikesh?
I salute Ganga and then go to yoga.
What is your favourite way of starting your day in your everyday life?
Saluting the sun and practicing yoga 🙂
How many times have you been to Rishikesh?
This is the fifth time
What makes you come back?
The beauty of the Ganga, the knowledge that circulates here, the yoga and the groovy atmosphere.
How did you get into yoga?
I have always been interested in Eastern philosophy. I started meditating and practicing yoga with some friends and it all felt familiar.
Then I joined a group of dancers around 13 years ago. Yoga was part of the practice.
The very first time I got started with yoga I just went with the flow, it was an unconscious choice. The second time it was more conscious as I was sick at the time.
Did you ever feel like you needed a break?
Not really. Some times I have felt I needed a break from certain teachers. I started teaching myself in 2004. I needed an identity. Teaching showed me the way and made me more responsible in my practice.
Yoga is about unity, the channel between the earth and the sky. Everyone of us has a particular vibe that is connected to that of others, but that stays unique.
What kind of yoga do you practice?
I combine elements of BKS Iyengar, Anusara and flow.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
I am looking for a confirmation that I am doing the right thing. The image of a yogi is that of a person who appreciates what they have, who reaches sadhana. We should be aware that what we do is only part of the whole, of something bigger.
I would also like to teach and learn in different places of the world. Yoga is about searching. It is an ongoing process. I would like to feel the divine in every cell and help myself and others in the healing process.
It sounds like the most important reason to come to Rishikesh is yoga, and this is not the message I want to convey.
OK, so tell me why Rishikesh is a groovy place?
I love this place anyhow. I bow to the teachers that have been here throughout the years. It is just such a loving place.
Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
(‘Tomorrow never knows’, the Beatles)
Dolma and I met already 15 years ago when I was an Erasmus student in France.
Dolma was the first Indian person I had ever befriended.
When my Erasmus semester was coming to an end, we exchanged contact-details hoping that sometime, someday we might meet again. Back then, visiting India was a very remote thought, but I would sometimes imagine myself in the far away continent, drinking chai in Chandigarh while the monsoon was pouring down…
When traveling far away became possible and interesting for me, India was not yet on my top-list of places to visit.
Quite unexpectedly in the summer of 2011 Dolma visited me in Brussels while she was in France for a summer-course. After more than 13 years later, I saw her standing on the Thalys platform, a bit leaner but otherwise quite unchanged. We went for long walks and updated each-other on our respective lives. I talked to her about my plan of taking a sabbatical and visiting India.
Not so many months later, I am in Chandigarh with Dolma, drinking diluted South Indian coffee in ‘The Indian Coffee House’ of sector 17. The romantic effect of the monsoon is not there, neither is the chai, but the cafe is beautifully retro and outside skies are heavy with clouds and it is raining, despite the hot season.
Chandigarh, the sandbox of Le Corbusier, is a city neatly divided in sectors. It is full of parks and greenery. Roads are wide and traffic almost looks organised. This Union Territory city is surprisingly predictable, linear and square. So much unlike life…
Quoting the Lonely Planet:
With its seafront promenade, wide boulevards, enduring pockets of French culture and architecture, and a popular ashram, charming Puducherry – whose name officially changed from Pondicherry in October 2006 – is unlike anywhere else in South India. (…)
Days here in Pondicherry are a bit like scenes taken from the French film classic “Les vacances de M Hulot”.
Plainly put, I am keeping myself busy doing nothing in a quite holidesque environment.
However, thanks to some mysterious universal law, many times nothing makes something.
I get up in the morning and do my daily exercise. I take my breakfast in the guest house veranda.
I make sure I drink enough water. I run errands such as going to the post office, or stocking up with fruit from the nearby grocer.
Then I sweat. I sweat profusely. I have never been a person to sweat easily, but now the liquids of my body are squeezed out by the humid heat. My clothes smell like the sportshoes of a teenage boy. That said, three showers a day and handwashing my cottons nearly daily becomes an ACTIVITY.
Every evening at 19.30, before dinner, I go to the ashram for meditation. I walk at least 6 km daily, mostly up and down the beautiful seafront.
I have come to realise though, that the best thing about doing nothing is probably having the time for an afternoon tea (or coffee) break.
I do not have much of a sweet tooth, but I have always liked admiring the beautifully arranged sweets in the displays of bakeries and sweets shops.
Just diagonally opposite the guest house, I have a ‘Sri Krishna Sweets’ shop. Sri Krishna must be a big name, and a chain, in this part of the country. Sri Krishna sells “pure ghee sweets”.
So yesterday afternoon, I thought that the moment had arrived for a Sri Krishna bite and some reading on the veranda.
I chose one of the milk sweets with gram flour and reverently placed it in the fridge. It would go very well with tea I thought, but unfortunately there were not tea-making facilities at hand.
Before indulging in the yellow fudge, I went downstairs to fix a pending payment with the guest house owner and oh, what a miracle, a chai-wallah comes in and the owner asks me if I want a cup. Something out of nothing…
So some minutes later, up I went with my cup of tea to fetch my sweetie that had, in the meanwhile, been chilling out in the fridge.
To make this moment even grander, I had a good book in my hands. William Dalrymple’s “City of Djinns, a year in Delhi”.
City of Djinns appeared very timely in the book swapping shelves of the guest house: I needed a book, and soon I am off to New Delhi.
On top of that, I really like Dalrymple. In City of Djinns, the history of Delhi is mixed with the personal experiences of the author who has spent several years of his life in the North Indian capital.
Om is a sacred sound for Hindus.
At the guest-house where I am staying in Pondicherry, a recorded OM sound goes off as soon as the manager walks in in the morning, and only stops late in the evening when the watchman takes over: OOOOOOMMMM, OOOOOOMMMM, and again OOOOOOMMMM.
Pondicherry is a quite spiritual place after all. The picturesque colonial style centre is dominated by the various Sri Aurobindo Ashram buildings and interspersed with churches, temples and mosques.
Everywhere you go you will see pictures of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa, the spiritual Father and Mother of the city.
At 19.30 every evening, people gather for a collective meditation session at the Ashram court-yard. Lines of incense sticks fill the air with their fragrant smell. Their dark-orange tips glow in the dark.
With eyes closed you are enveloped by the reigning tranquility and the soft evening breeze. You can feel how people walk past you to find themselves a spot. Some steps are young and brisk, some are old and heavy.
Some kilometers away from the Pondicherry centre, in Auroville, the Matrimandir lotus bud stands as an impressive symbol of the Divine Consciousness.
As the young guide pointed out during a walking tour of the city, thanks to the Mother and the Father Pondicherry is a very peaceful city – even cats and dogs play together in harmony.
It is true that the sea-front promenade, the quite wide and clean streets and the brightly coloured colonial buildings do add up to a picturesque result.
I am curious to see how much harmony sticky and warm Pondicherry is capable of instilling in me…