“I’m lying in the bottom bunk of my all-female dorm in GoStops hostel, bang on the doorstep of Delhi Gate Metro Station. My right pinky finger is completely numb from all the blood drained from it as I’m holding my phone awkwardly to type this. I cannot be arsed to roll out of my (bugless, I hope!) bed. My body just woke up from a 2-hour sleep which was supposed to last until the morning. But no! This jetlag has decided to be a b**ch! I guess I’ve got no option but to try and wrap my brain around my first day in Delhi. The haze that my body is experiencing at this very moment makes me feel like it was all just a dream, but the smog in my lungs confirms a sort of nightmarish reality in this chaotic madness called Delhi. But if it’s slowly poisoning me and stressing me out senseless, why don’t I hate it?”
That was the first entry I managed to squeeze out of my exhausted self on the night of my arrival to India. That’s when I was still determined to write about my experiences every day. Don’t get me wrong, the determination hasn’t left me, but opportunities to sit down quietly and type have. It’s been two months since I first stepped off the Ukranian Airlines flight and onto smog-infused Indian soil. It’s taken me all this time and a 30-hour bus ride to Kathmandu, Nepal to escape all the exciting distractions of India (and good wifi in one of the Starbucks-looking cafes) to finally put my experiences into words. There’s so much to say! Usually, I’d find it hard to describe my experiences in just one word, but this time is different.
Is all I have to say about my first 60 days in India. Just like everyone told me it would be.
Amazement, disbelief and extreme gratitude are spinning around in my head in a beautifully balanced dance as I listen to Krishna Das’ kirtans. Most of my time in India has been spent listening to bhajans and kirtans – involuntarily at first, by being pumped into my ears on a constant basis, but day by day they grew on me to the point where I realized I can’t live without their soothing effect anymore.
I’ve been feeling my mind and soul becoming one with the Indian culture.
The signs are obvious:
I don’t take shafting up the arse anymore when it comes to Rickshaw drivers.
“I have Indian friends and I know how it goes, Ji! You’re tricking me! I give you 20 rupees, no more! Milega?”
– with the cheekiest smile on my face – super Indian 😛
I’ve had my very first food poisoning which nearly blew up most toilets in Rishikesh and been given ‘magic’ ayurvedic peppermint capsules (as recommended by locals). They really are pure magic!!
I cannot picture my life without attending the Ganga Aarti ceremony every evening at sunset with all the locals and ashram devotees. It’s the purest form of joy and acceptance I’ve ever experienced. When ashram boys open the ceremony by pouring ghee into the fire, I, like many others, close my eyes, sing along and open up to the Universe like a lotus flower. And there I am, a devotee to the river, Earth, all the deities, Life itself, everyone around me and to all that my rational side cannot comprehend just yet.
I annoy my Indian friends by texting them in broken Hindi. I’ve also started to organically shake my head in a ‘Yes/No’ manner (could be yes, could be no!) and use ‘Sub kuch milega’ (Anything is possible) and/or ‘Shanti Shanti’ (peace, peace) in almost every sentence. Which, in turn, has mellowed me out completely.
Late for a yoga class?
Shanti, shanti, bhai ji!
My toilet bag consists of toothpaste, a bar of soap and hundreds of self-adhesive bindis, which I wear over my third eye every day. My backpack is bursting on stitches from all the newly bought kurtas and a few kilos of sari fabric, and my body is adorned in toe rings, bangles, earrings, necklaces,… This is definitely the most feminine I’ve ever felt!
My skin smells like cumin. When I sweat, I sweat liquid cumin. Because cumin is everywhere. I even found it in my bed. That and a head of cauliflower. But that’s a story for another day.
Diving headfirst into Delhi
Let’s follow the memory lane back to GoStops hostel in Delhi, where two of the first people I met in a bunker-like common room were Camilla from Brasil and Ajay from India. I was exhausted from my flight, but still had a few hours before I was able to check in, so I did what most people seemed to do – pretend to read something important on my phone using serious facial expression and all.
Despite my fake reading efforts, I realised that this trip is going to be anything but anti-social!
The three of us started chatting and before I knew it my name became Rei – coming from the symbol for flying Elan Rei, which I chose to be my companion in India. Things progressed quickly and an hour later I was in the middle of one of Delhi’s busiest roads with Ajay’s hand gripping mine tightly in a so-called demonstration of crossing main roads in India. To me, it looked more like a sport without rules – dry slalom for adrenaline junkies. I could feel my heart pumping in my head and noticed a presence of extreme emotions ranging from child-like excitement (of managing to not get killed) to uncomfortable vulnerability caused by all the stares and ongoing invasion of my personal space. It didn’t take long before I abandoned the idea of having a personal space entirely thanks to local sellers and hoards of cows.
I was growing more and more self-conscious as Ajay lead me through the smog-filled streets to get my very first proper Indian meal. I couldn’t see any other foreigners so the attention was mainly on me, and boy did I not like that! On our left, we passed a Sikh temple and stopped for a second to take a picture of an old man, whose eyes were extremely expressive. I tried my best to hide my Canon while snapping a picture of him, but, being as sharp as he was, the man noticed. His smile widened as he demanded I pay him for taking his picture. My face went seriously confused for a second there, but something in me clicked right there and then. His cheekiness transferred into me and I started laughing out loud as if he just told a joke. My uncomfortableness and awkwardness were gone! I chose to surrender to chaos, beggars, shit on the floor, random displays of various religious beliefs, being shoved around the pavement by busy Indian men on a mission and all the invincible scooters (scooties as they call them) that really didn’t care who stands in their way.
After regaining my strength (by having my mouth set on fire with spices) in one of the local vegetarian kitchens, Ajay continued to take me (and my burning mouth) for a stroll around Delhi, which ended up lasting (too) many hours. I refused to give in to jetlag by getting hyped up by all the excitement and newness on the streets of Old Delhi. But, as all good things come to an end, so did my energy. Out of nowhere, a rush of pure exhaustion hit my body and all I wanted to do at that point is curl up in a ball and play dead. Noticing my deteriorating condition, Ajay popped me on a rickshaw, ensured a fair price and off I went, half asleep, trusting my driver completely… until we hit the most insane traffic jam.
I looked at the time fearing the worst – we were in the middle of Delhi’s rush hour. Having lived in London before, I knew just how painful the next few hours will be. We were moving at a sluggish pace for a couple of hours before the driver decided to head back and tackle a shortcut through what seemed to be the narrowest and seediest street in Delhi. We were whizzing past the butcher having a go at a slab of what looked like chicken (don’t take my word for it) all while trying to avoid the welding sparks that were hitting us from the other side of the street. My senses were overflown completely as I was passing out from exhaustion and trying to cough out all the smog from my lungs. I could feel the dirt sticking to my skin and my body slowly shutting down from all the external abuse. This is not what I had in mind for my first few hours in India!
Completely stressed out I stumbled out of the rickshaw and headed straight for the shower, where I stood motionlessly for quite some time letting the hot water pour over me (total movie scene right there), wondering what the F just happened. All I wanted to do at that point is to sit on the terrace of my Slovenian home with my family, sipping coffee, eating home-made banana biscuits and soaking up the tranquillity of the countryside. I snapped out of my daydream with hesitation and made my way into bed, where I buried my face in the pillow.
“What have I done?”
I never even wanted to come to India, I felt no need whatsoever to do that! Yoga teacher training was the only reason I sat on that plane. But I could’ve done the training in Croatia too! What was I doing in India?!
I needed to get out of Delhi. My body and mind felt poisoned.
A feeling of utter despair flooded my mind, but left a tiny little corner untouched, where, to my surprise, I found pure joy of being truly alive. In that corner, my love for India was planted as a little seed and deep inside I already knew that it’s going to grow bigger and bigger, changing my life forever. I picked up my phone and started typing about my first experiences. Finally, I was exactly where Life wanted me to be but wasn’t sure why.
It was time for me to connect to something bigger than me.
“What do you want me to do?”
Go to Taj Mahal.
I booked the train to Agra as soon as possible but had an extra day in Delhi, which I decided to spend with my friend Rachna, with whom I worked with a couple of years ago in Bristol. She was born and raised in Delhi and was able to show me around the city to experience it like a local. What a privilege! I was taken to a Parikrama, a revolving restaurant with the most stunning views, and got introduced to wonderful culinary delights, such as green chutney, various pickles, baigan bharta, mutter mushroom curry and crazy colourful looking drinks jaljeera and khus sharbat (thank you Rachna for patiently writing out these names for me).
I felt completely spoiled by my immaculately dressed Indian friend, so, naturally, I wanted to buy something beautifully Indian for myself. Rachna took me to the Janpath market, quite unknown to tourists, and as the palest (and tallest, to my surprise!) looking person I attracted quite a lot of attention – again. When bartering prices for her own shopping, Rachna asked me to stand aside – as soon as sellers saw that we’re together the prices of items doubled, even for her. So I spent the next hour pointing at clothes I liked from afar while she dived in with determination to get me the best deal possible. And that, she did. Rachna’s powerful, cheeky and assertive demeanour got me a beautiful yellow/gold kurta (long sleeved dress with side slits) for as cheap as 300 rupees (just a little over £3).
By the time we reached the breathtaking Sikh temple Bangla Sahib Gurudwara Rachna’s Indian ways enchanted me completely – I wanted to dress like her, talk like her, sway my head like her, give out firm ‘No’s like she did,… Rachna explained the ways of India to me in detail. I’m sure my eyes couldn’t get any bigger with all the fascination they contained! My despair from the day before started disappearing rapidly.
I didn’t know it at that time, but that was the point of no return for me.
I fell in love with India.
Chalo! Chalo! I need to get to Taj Mahal!
The following is my criteria for this year’s travels:
Buy a one-way ticket. Any thoughts about the flight back are to be suppressed (or observed and released, as per meditation teachings).
Follow your intuition every day, even if it seems crazy or illogical. Have a moment in the morning to ask your Higher Self/Universe where to go and what to do. If any plans don’t feel right, abandon them.
These rules have been extremely easy to live by, especially the second one. I refuse to live my life any differently than following my inner gut whenever possible, which involves stilling my mind every day to check in with the Source (also referred to as the Universe, Life flow, Higher Self, God,…) and check for guidance. This technique has led me to the most astonishing, soul-revealing synchronicities.
That first day in Delhi was no different. I knew I needed to get to Taj Mahal. I didn’t have any other plans, nor did I want to make any until I got to Taj Mahal. For some reason, I knew that that’s where my next clue lied.
Camilla, the Brazilian I met in GoStops hostel, decided to come to Agra with me. Before we boarded the train she told me about Kumbh Mela, the biggest religious gathering in the world, which was happening at that time in Prayagraj. An ashram called Parmarth Niketan, originally based in Rishikesh, had a camp at Kumbh Mela and was open for visitors to come and stay with them, but it was hard to get a reply due to high demand. I’ve never heard of Kumbh Mela before, or Parmarth Niketan, but something inside me was giving little screams of enthusiasm every time I thought about it. I figured I’ve got nothing to lose by emailing them and asking for a bed. After doing so, I’ve put my Kumbh Mela thoughts on the side and started getting excited to see the architectural wonder that everyone raved on about. We booked into a hostel and walked a long straight road to Taj Mahal.
It was early in the morning, which didn’t stop hoards of tourists pouring in through the gates. As I feared, the admittance price was painful – a few times more expensive for foreigners than locals. The security was extremely pedantic about checking EVERY item in my bag, resulting in employees parading my tampons up in the air with a confused look on their faces. Next items on their ‘Wonder list’ were my juggling balls. They really wanted to know what’s stuffed inside them to the point where I thought they were actually going to rip them open. By the time I reached the actual Taj Mahal I’ve been thoroughly checked by a woman officer, who pointed at my lip piercing with an utmost disgust (I wasn’t in the mood for that so early in the morning!) and then send me back the second time across the road to deposit my juggling balls into safekeeping.
Needless to say, it took a while to get to the point of standing outside of Taj Mahal to take classical tourist pics that we’ve all seen replicated numerous times. That’s when I realised such major attractions are not my cup of tea, so I took a few pictures, walked where I needed to walk, avoided the areas that needed to be avoided and pulled out my phone (out of pure boredom, I admit!).
And there it was – an email from Parmarth Niketan, saying they’ve got a bed available for me in one of their tents at Kumbh Mela. Fast forward to a few hours later and there I was checking out of the hostel in which I hadn’t even slept and was off to board the overnight bus to Prayagraj, clenching a piece of paper in my hand with ‘Parmarth Niketan, Sector 18’ written on it.
People had warned me about insane masses of people at Kumbh Mela, which made me quite anxious. But I had to go, I had to dive straight into the unknown. I decided to jump in the deep water flapping like a Pisces that I am. But then again, that is my natural state… floating along, moving with the flow.
I recently found an entry at the beginning of my diary, describing the aftermath of Kumbh Mela and of my first week in India:
“I feel like I’ve lived more in the past 7 days than in all the previous 27 years put together. The veil has been lifted off my face, and I can see the world in clearer colours, feel every energetic tremble and shake and smell fragrances I never knew existed. It’s as if Life had blown an abundance of fresh, rejuvenating air my way, slapped me senseless into the present moment and woke me up from my numb slumber.”
Needless to say, Kumbh Mela happened for a reason.
Pop back soon to find out more about it in my next post Kumbh Mela – Grasping the Idea of Devotion.
All my Love & Light
Spela Elan Rei