Existential Migration

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe.The host for this month is Sharon Couzens. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article to this blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at dean@reachtoteachrecruiting.com, and he’ll let you know how you can start participating!

Read the rest of the entries over on Sharon’s blog: TEFL Tips

 

“The feeling of home arises from specific interactions with our surroundings that could potentially occur anywhere, at any time.” 

– Greg Madison

 

Travel is a sort of adolescence, an exploration of self and your relationship to the world. You test boundaries, explore preferences, and differentiate yourself from the place you come from. You build an individual understanding of the world, away from the constrictions and patterns of regular life.

Travel for long enough, and you begin to find the familiar in the foreign. You become accustomed to the rise and fall of languages you can’t understand, like listening to a new song over and over, such that when you return to a country where your native language is spoken, it is strange and somewhat intrusive to understand the conversations of strangers.

Greg Madison, a psychologist from Canada who lives in the UK, studies people who live abroad and coined the term Existential Migration. He defines this way of living as “a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about existence by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner”. Among this population, he says, there is a marked preference for the strange and foreign over familiar or conventional routines. It follows that a new definition of home is required for these existential migrants, one that lies in experiences and interactions rather than a specific geographical place. As Pico Iyer would say, a piece of soul rather than a piece of soil.

 

My Evolution of Home

The first time I returned home from travelling, it felt like putting on an old pair of jeans that had been crumpled and forgotten in the back of my closet. Familiar but ill-fitting. I brimmed with stories and experiences and the new love glow that comes with discovering a passion. But, at the same time, I felt oddly bereft and unmoored. There was a fissure now, between me and home.

The second time I came home, I knew that it would be temporary, and that allowed me to enjoy the time I had just for what it was. After two years abroad, my identity had become inexorably intertwined with being the foreigner. Even at home, I felt like a foreigner now. I embraced it, and wrapped myself in the feeling of being alien in my own country. And yet, I felt like I was between countries, like being between jobs or houses. I didn’t have much of a home anywhere, just a collection of memories, a weird Australian-Canadian pigeon English, and dreams that were sometimes in Spanish. In my heart, I knew that the change was irrevocable; I’d never be the same.

Reconnecting with childhood friends no longer left me unmoored, rather we delighted in the different paths that each of our lives were on. They listened to my travel stories, and I played with their kids and celebrated their career milestones. Our separateness was not an apartness, but a growing alongside, like the branches of a tree reaching into different parts of the sky.

In India, I explored the art of doing nothing, of sitting in silence and plumbing the space between breaths. And I discovered a new sense of home, stronger than any other, that was curled up within me and accessible any time, anywhere. I started to feel at home in sections of time and shades of emotion. I thought about all the places I’d been and discovered that I’ve been collecting homes all over the world: The caravan I lived in for five months in the outback, the friends I had for only two days in Turkey, the chai I shared with a rickshaw driver outside Varanasi, the sisterhood I found in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and the convent in India, my vagabond family at yoga school in Rishikesh, the weekend I spent with my mother in my birth country, Singapore. Far from homelessness, I live in abundance.

I’ve moved to the UK now. I’m sort of hanging up my travelling shoes: getting a job and a place to live and shelves upon which to put my three holey tee shirts; all that regular life stuff. While the transition has been challenging — arriving in Oxford from India was like returning to Earth from Mars — I’m thrilled to be putting down some roots, albeit shallow ones. It’s comforting to know that all I need to go home is a quiet space and the sound of my own breath.

The only constant in life is change. No matter which path you are on, your concept of home will change and evolve as you do. The older we get, the more experiences we have, the more we realize that home isn’t a concrete concept, it is something that we create in ourselves and in our interactions with the world.

The India Diaries: New Beginnings

…trips do not begin or end, they merely change form” 

~ Robyn Davidson

Last week in India. Every situation I encountered became a microcosm of India in my mind, little snippets of time and absurdity that perfectly encapsulated my experience of the country…

*

A Varanasi alleyway at night. A cow thrusts her matted black head out of a weathered door, and fills the darkness with a thunderous bellow. A group of men huddled together around a fire are startled out of their conversation. They look over at the cow and point in the direction that the cow’s mate went, a ponderous white bull who was usually at her side. The black cow lumbers off in that direction and the men resume their conversation as if there were nothing odd about that interaction.

*

Ordering breakfast at a hotel restaurant. As usual, we write our order down on a scrap of paper that has someone’s passport photocopied on one side. Set breakfast with tea. The waiter brings out a tray some time later and says, “You wanted tea?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I made you coffee.”

*

Crossing a busy street. I’m about to slip into sliver of space in the traffic. At the precise moment the gap presents itself, a rickshaw driver pulls into it, spits paan juice at my feet and asks, “tuk-tuk?”.

*

The local bar around the corner from the hostel. There are never any women in here, aside from us Western girls. It’s dark and smoky; Indian music videos flash brightly on a big screen television. There isn’t a separate bathroom for women, so we all have to share the men’s. At the end of the night, a few of us go into the bathroom together and meet a trio of young Indian guys preening in the mirror. They spend the next fifteen minutes directing us in a series of bathroom mirror selfies.

*

Sarnath, an important Buddhist site just outside Varanasi. After breakfast one morning, I change my mind about my plans and decide to go back to Varanasi in the afternoon. I had the name of the hostel I wanted to go to, but no address or directions or much of a clue where it was, and I couldn’t find any wifi anywhere. But no matter. There are no time constraints and I’m confident I’ll get there eventually. I vaguely remember that the street name of the hostel starts with a B, so I pick out a B named street on the map and instruct the rickshaw driver to take me there. Rickshaw drivers never seem to use maps or precise directions — they just go to the general area and ask around until they find the place. So I figure that’s what we’ll do.

After a few failed attempts at asking for directions (it’s the wrong B street), the driver sends me into an alley on a wild goose chase and bails. I hit a dead end at the end of the alley, backtrack and return to the main road. It’s a clear day, bright and sunny, and people seem friendlier than usual. I walk down the street slowly, taking in the effervescence of Indian commerce, and enjoying the sun on my face. There is a man standing in front of a souvenir shop who looks like he wants to sell me something. I pre-empt his sales pitch by asking for directions. He brings out a stool for me to sit on, two cups of chai, and lets me use his phone to google the hostel. We chat aimlessly. I finish my chai, he waves over a bicycle rickshaw and sends me on my way. Easy as that.

“Stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course”

~ Tao Te Ching

 

Travelling through India is like being tempered by fire. I have so much to be grateful to this country for and yet, most days it drove me completely nuts. I’m hardier now, with a better handle on stress, quicker to laugh when things go awry. I appreciate the art of doing nothing, even if I don’t always have the patience for it. I don’t look at my own vulnerability as a weakness any more.

Since I’ve spent so much of my six month journey alone or in a crowd but apart and hanging out in my own head, whenever I get the opportunity to retreat into myself, it feels like coming home — the place I’ve travelling all this time to find.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”

~ T.S. Eliot

The India Diaries: The Art of Dying

Varanasi is the holiest of seven holy Hindu cities in India. It is where Shiva and Parvati stood when time began ticking. When I asked the family with whom I was sharing a sleeper bunk on the train from Amritsar to help me get off at the right stop, the man said, “Banaras? Next stop!” (Varanasi is also called Banaras or Kashi, the city of light). I heard  “bananas“, which proved to be a pretty accurate description.

My first impression of Varanasi was through the window of a rickshaw at night, and my driver was doing his very best not to take me where I wanted to go (seriously, rickshaw drivers of India, you have ONE job!). “Oh no madam, that place is not safe. I know a better place.” Despite my protesting — which was admittedly weak after a long and cramped twenty-five hour train journey — he took me to a different guest house and we got into an argument in a dark and dank alleyway. I quickly gave up trying to impress upon him my abiding desire to get to the guest house I had originally booked into, handed him 100 rupees, and told him to get lost. It took me the better part of two hours to get to my guest house. When I finally did, I was led to my room on the uppermost floor by a man who looked like an Indian Igor. The whole floor was enclosed with black wire fencing and looked like an asylum. I woke to monkeys screaming and rattling the bars of the cage.

Ah, India.

*

The central focus of the city is the ghats, a series of stairs that lead from the serpentine alleys to the unspeakably polluted Ganges river. This city is where devout Hindus go to die. The purification process — the body is washed and cremated on the steps before being returned to Mother Ganga — is meant to guide the soul into moksha, freedom from the circle of life. It is said that the soul reaches nirvana and is not reborn.

For a city of death, there is an awful lot of new life. In almost every crevice of the tangle of cobbled and shit-streaked alleyways, there are puddles of wriggling puppies. With eyes that have just barely opened, they are already dodging motorbikes and the hooves of cattle. Their mums create beds out of garbage. An otherworldly fog creeps over the river and slithers through the city most nights. Every time I leave the hostel, it feels like the beginning of a horror movie. People huddle around small fires on the edges of the streets. The level of filth is biblical. My clothes and hair smell of camp fire. Every day there are power cuts and the already grim streets are shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from the fires and the ethereal fog.

The funerals are an entirely male affair. Historically, widows were supposed to jump onto the burning pyre after their husbands, but that practice is now outlawed. Also, there is not to be any crying, and, as everyone knows, women are just sentient geysers of tears, and so are entirely excluded from the process.

After the last rites are performed and the body is cleansed, it is wrapped in colourful fabric, placed on a litter and carried through the twisted streets on the shoulders of male family members. Like the ubiquitous honking of horns, the warning that a body is coming through is marked by the rumbling, rhythmic chanting of the pallbearers. The pyre is lit from a central fire that has been burning since Shiva first founded the city.

A group of us from the hostel stood apart and watched, while a man with cloudy, unfocused eyes explained the rites and rituals and then tried to wheedle us out of some rupees. The running scam is to tell tourists that the wood for the pyres costs a lot, and also they need money for the nearby hospice, where people are waiting to die. I’d heard about this one before — apparently the scam artists are heroin addicts — and it’s all bullshit. I looked up some of the information he told us and it was wrong, too.

The pyres are smaller than I expected. Two or three bodies smoulder simultaneously, goats wearing jumpers huddle around the fire for warmth. A baba (holy man) wearing an orange loincloth, with ash in his dreadlocks and on his skin, tinkers with two cobras. He laughs at the foreigners’ fear and charges for photos. An all male crowd loiters; some are bathing in the river, others are on their phones. Not a tear is being shed, and aside from the general backdrop of Indian noise, it’s relatively quiet. But, then again, why should it be sad? Everyone dies, and these are the lucky ones. They’re going home.

The India Diaries: Dharamsala

I left Rishikesh in a state of bitter-sweet happiness. While it was sad to say goodbye to the place and people that had been my home-on-the-road for six weeks and where I’d learned so much about myself, yoga and life, I was overflowing with gratitude for the experience. And I was excited to get on the road again. Riding in a rickshaw to the bus station with my backpack at my feet felt like reconnecting with an old friend.

The ‘bus station’ turned out to be an abandoned travel agency. Amber and I loitered around outside for a while, drinking chai and waiting — the hallmark of travel in India. Eventually, a man came to tell us that we were in the right place, and then disappeared back to wherever he came from. This bus journey was what people were warning me about when they told me not to take the bus in India: it was an absolutely filthy vehicle, probably one of the first buses to ever have been built, with no shock absorbing system to speak of. We spent fourteen abysmal hours enduring the biting cold that seeped in through windows that wouldn’t close, and being tossed out of the seat each time the driver took a hairpin corner at top speed. We arrived in McLeod Ganj (town close to Dharamsala) in the early, still dark morning, groggy and stiff with cold. Hotel touts and taxi drivers swarmed us like a cloud of gnats.

The temperature of our hotel room was the same as outside; there is no central heating anywhere here. It was so cold, I could see my breath. We went to sleep wearing most of our clothes, under a heaping pile of blankets. A few hours later, the sun poured in through grimy windows, and I woke to stunning scenery — McLeod Ganj is perched high on the ridge of a mountain, and looks down on a nebulous valley carpeted in coniferous trees. Multi-coloured buildings sit in amongst the trees, as though they grow there naturally. Hawks circled in the frigid alpine air, roosters crowed, and a stream tinkled nearby.

McLeod Ganj is the seat of the exiled Tibetan government and the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama. Walking around the narrow lanes that wind steeply up the mountain, it’s almost as if we’ve left India completely and stumbled into Tibet. Everywhere I look, there are monks wearing red robes and red woollen sweaters, Tibetan children in school uniforms, prayer flags, free Tibet merchandise, Tibetan food, services for refugees and more dentists than I’ve seen in one place in India thus far. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are tacked up in a place of honour in every shop and restaurant. The air is brisk even though the sun shines brightly in the wide azure sky. There is an overwhelming sense of peace in these mountains. I could stay here forever.

 

A Tibetan ‘Folk’ Show

We accepted a flyer advertising a Tibetan folk show from a guy with psychedelic sunglasses and a man-bun. Little did we know, the sunglasses were a mild harbinger of what was to come. The show was later that evening at the school, and so we thought that it would be put on by school kids, thereby breaking the first rule of India: Assume nothing.

We entered into a modest room with candles and incense burning, and the guy with the man-bun stood at centre stage, carefully tying himself into a black robe. It was a one-man show. The first part was really good. He told us his story: a Tibetan refugee who escaped the Chinese at fifteen years old, how they trekked across the Himalayas only at night, with no torches, so as not to draw any attention, his debt of gratitude to India for taking in refugees and giving him a second chance at life. He sang, sweetly, played the dramyin (Tibetan guitar) and danced. It was all quite lovely.

And then the second act began.

He let his long, curly hair out its knot and whirled around like a dervish for a good ten minutes. Then he progressed to what I can only describe as performance art with forced audience participation. Two at a time, he took audience members bodily from their seats and tossed them around on stage, holding them in awkward positions and dragging them around until shoving them back onto the cushions, as a film crew captured it on tape. It was all very awkward. For some unfathomable reason, we stayed until it our turn, and he hauled me up onto his shoulders, while dragging Amber around by her ankles. When he dumped us back at our seats, we gathered up our stuff and watched the rest of the show from outside.

The show got only got weirder from there. It culminated in him covering his body in toilet paper and lighting it on fire, and then putting a lit candle down the front of his pants. This is, apparently, the ‘Tibetan Freedom Dance’. Credit where credit is due, though: his flyers were accurate. “Unforgettable” is one word for it.

The India Diaries: The Dalai Lama talks to Mongolians

“We are all the same. We don’t want suffering; we all want happiness.” — HH the Dalai Lama

There seems to me a natural progression in backpacking. In the beginning, we want to see everything, go everywhere, have every (positive) experience. This is both great fun and completely exhausting. I’ve reached the stage where I want to go deeper, I want to stay put for a while and really get a feel for the place. It’s why I’ve been working and volunteering and taking courses abroad. I like cultivating a routine, testing out all the coffee shops until I find the best coffee in town, and seeing familiar faces in the shops and cafes.

Amber and I have been in McLeod Ganj for the better part of two weeks. More than enough time to do a proper survey of the coffee shops, bond with the street dogs and develop a repartee with shop owners on our street. We’ve been waking up early, climbing to Dharamkot to attend a guided meditation at Tushita, a Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Center, and then in the afternoon we do yoga on a rooftop patio overlooking the valley. Life is good.

Our beautifully simple two weeks here culminated in attending the Dalai Lama’s teaching at his temple just down the street from our hotel. He’s giving a four day talk to a group of Buddhist Mongolians. He teaches in Tibetan and then it’s translated into Mongolian. An English translation is then broadcast on FM radio.

The teaching begins at 8 am, so shortly after 7, we join the long line of monks in red robes and lay people heading towards the temple, like a procession of ants. The sun is just risen, the mountains are bathed in soft pinks and purples. As we get closer to the temple, we can hear chanting and Mongolian throat singing warbling from the loudspeakers. The temple is a modest, almost nondescript building in faded yellows and greens.

After passing through a very thorough security checkpoint (no cameras allowed!), we climb the stairs to the main pavilion. There are people everywhere, bundled up in warm winter clothes and carrying mats and cushions to sit on the cement floor. It’s very calm and quiet. The seating area spans two floors, under a large white awning. A handful televisions broadcast His Holiness from his seat within the temple proper.

At exactly eight o’clock, the Dalai Lama emerges from his rooms and walks through the crowd, up the stairs and into the temple. He’s surrounded by his people, and he’s using one of other monks as a walking stick. The crowd is serene as he passes. He seems a little frail (he is getting up there), but he radiates happiness. He takes his time. He holds his free hand in half-prayer in front of his heart and blesses the crowd as he passes. He looks in my direction and tears spring to my eyes. This man *is* love.

The teaching opens with a prayer, during which the monks pass out bread and Tibetan butter tea to everyone. The Dalai Lama blesses the bread and tea and begins to talk. He giggles a lot, and laughs at his own jokes. He talks about the limitations of materialism (“a diamond ring won’t comfort you when you’re sad”), how anxiety and stress make us sick, and the importance of affection. Right when he’s talking about how animals need affection from their mothers too, I’m distracted by a pair of baby monkeys playing on the rooftop behind me; the older monkeys are sitting in the sun and grooming each other. “Fear,” he says, “distances us from each other”. We should instead practice love and compassion for every sentient being, because we are all the same. All the religions are the same at their core; atheists are the same too. We all want happiness.

The Dalai Lama talks for four hours, with a fifteen minute tea break. In the second half, he reads scripture and discusses the dhamma, and takes audience questions. He gently chides the Mongolians for drinking too much vodka. Vodka is no good, but their fermented horse’s milk is okay. Someone stands up and asks how many camels he has. Turns out, the Dalai Lama has twenty camels. He likes riding on Mongolian camels; they’re comfortable, he says.

  The Four Immeasurable Thoughts     

May all sentient beings have happiness
and the causes of happiness;
May all sentient beings be free from suffering
and the causes of suffering;
May all sentient beings never be separated from
the happiness that knows no suffering;
May all sentient beings live in equanimity,
free from attachment and aversion.

The India Diaries: A Camel Safari in Pushkar

Pushkar

I extended my Golden Triangle trip to include two days in the holy desert city of Pushkar. It was a short drive from Jaipur, only about four or five hours; the last hour or so of which was on a narrow one lane road that twisted through farmlands and low mountains. Pushkar was not the type of desert I was imagining. Instead of sand dunes and endless beige, it was a regular landscape that happened to also have a lot of sand.

Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India and an important pilgrimage site for Hindus — for the Brahma temple and the sacred lake. Groups of holy men with huge coils of dreadlocks and orange robes stretch out in the shade of the buildings and pass the time smoking, reading the newspaper, sleeping and watching passersby.

Pushkar means “the place where the flower fell from Brahma’s hand”. According to legend, Brahma saw a demon killing his children and generally being a nuisance, so he killed the demon with his lotus-flower. The falling lotus petals created the lake, and Brahma held a fire sacrifice there. Like the Ganga river, a dip in the water is said to wash away sins.

Walking along the main street, every now and then, there is a sudden hole in the line of shops that leads onto a ghat, or stairway down to the lake. Descending the stairs is like walking into a temple. The orchestra of color and sound in the market is subsumed by a reverent quiet. Shoes are to be left on the upper stairs (the taking off of shoes is symbolic of leaving behind the outside world). Incense burns in a small shrine underneath a tree. People are silent, but smile at you with their eyes.

Aside from the religious sites, the other main tourist activity in Pushkar is going on a camel safari. They hold an annual camel fair where hordes of people flock to watch camel races, ride camels and other dromedary related activities.

Watch out, we spit!
Watch out, we spit!

 

Why I’ll Never Ride a Camel Ever Again

I arranged a four-hour camel safari with a stop for dinner in the desert. I went with two other foreigners, a pair of French medical students who spent the whole time complaining about India. We had two guides and three camels between us. My guide, thankfully, rode on the camel with me. His name was Arjun, and he was in his early twenties, had been working with camels since the age of eight and had bright red teeth from chewing paan. He spent the whole time on the camel spitting over my shoulder. His marriage had been arranged when he was eleven years old, and while they lived in separate towns, he spoke to his wife-to-be every night on the phone. One of the first things he said to me was, “Do you want to eat chicken? I can get you chicken.” He said it like a drug dealer in an after-school special.

My camel was named Johnny, and Johnny’s customer service skills left a lot to be desired. He was in a foul mood the entire time. And the smell. Egads. This camel was every bad smell imaginable all rolled up into one terrible bouquet. The saddle was a pile of manky blankets so crusted in sweat and grime, they’d hardened into what was probably the least ergonomic seat that’s ever existed.

We rode awkwardly and uncomfortably through the sandy foothills of the mountains into a beautiful sunset. We stopped for dinner at a low, nondescript building that looking like an abandoned barracks. Arjun walked to the next town to get beer for us, while other guide made dal, veg curry and chapati. The French boys and I watched the stars come out; it was like someone was poking holes in velvet.

It turned out that the boys were going to stay overnight and I was to return with my guide and my rotten camel after dinner, in the dark. Every time I plan something in India, it always turns into a surprise. No one ever explains what’s going to happen ahead of time. And every time, I tell myself I’ll ask more questions next time, and every time I miss something and am surprised. India really keeps you on your toes.

I wondered whether or not it was a good idea to return alone that night. I didn’t want to stay the night in the desert, but I also didn’t want to wind up in a bad situation. I spent dinner watching Arjun and focusing on my gut to feel what my intuition was telling me to do. It’s always right, and I do my best to listen to it, but sometimes it’s tricky to sift through the internal layers to get to the kernel of pure intuition.

I had time to make a decision, so I ate and watched and listened. Arjun sensed my hesitation, and asked if I’d prefer to stay the night. I decided that I could trust him and told him I wanted to go back. As we remounted the cantankerous camel, he assured me that camels have excellent night vision, and that the camel knew the way so well that we could fall asleep and it’d make no difference. Apparently, on the longer safaris, he slept on the camel all the time. I’ve no idea how he did that and kept his spine intact.

Still trying to make me feel secure, Arjun started calling me his sister and said he wouldn’t let me fall. I told him I hadn’t been worried about falling until he started bringing it up. He laughed and put his heels into the camel. The camel started to run — a gawky, uneven run that I found impossible to find a rhythm in. I could barely see anything beyond the bobbing head of the camel. Arjun yelped and pushed me forward whenever a branch hung too low in the path. Branches whipped at my face, and brambles tore at my pants. I thought I was going to pee myself. My knuckles felt like they were going to burst and my legs cramped from squeezing so hard. Arjun casually took out his phone, called his wife and chatted to her for the next hour.

I’ve never been more grateful to see city lights. I nearly leapt off the wretched beast when we arrived at my hotel. Arjun told me to come and find him if I wanted to eat chicken while I was in Pushkar, and walked into the dark desert night with the camel slouching behind him.

I wobbled into the hotel, dirty and limping, and the receptionist laughed at me: “You are crazy for going on camel for four hours!”

And how.

The India Diaries: The Perfect Bad Day

Agra to Jaipur

I hired a private car and driver in Delhi to do the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur). Hiring a car in India means hiring a driver too — the traffic is just too bonkers to drive yourself. While I’m not usually one to travel flashy like that, it was the best option with my time constraint and dearth of planning skills (word to the wise: trains book up really fast in India!). Overall, it worked out great. I got to do everything on my own schedule, it didn’t break the bank, and it was a heck of a lot nicer than taking the bus.

However, I happened to get the only person in India who drives 40 km/hr under the speed limit. Getting from city to city took forever. The A/C only worked when it was already cold so I was either freezing or roasting. And my driver was, let’s say, not the most personable fellow.

I spent three days doing the Golden Triangle and another two days in Pushkar (a holy city in Rajasthan, a few hours from Jaipur). Over the course of that five days, I experienced a whole lifetime of emotions. It was like watching television and channel surfing, but with feelings. All in one day, I felt amazed, cantankerous, awed to tears, frustrated to tears, ready to punch my driver in the throat (or, at the very least, introduce him to 4th gear); I felt like the luckiest human ever, and wanted to get the first plane out of India. This country is like the bratty younger sibling you can’t help but love even when s/he’s annoying the ever-loving crap out of you.

In the West, it seems to me, that we tend to operate in dichotomies. Things are black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. In India, I’m learning that dualities are just different experiences of the same thing. It’s not a conflict to love and hate something, or for something to be great and terrible at the same time.

 

The Perfect Bad Day

I love-hated India so hard that day. I was grateful to see the back of Agra in the morning, but the day quickly descended into a snarl of frustration and raw nerves. It was the kind of day India veterans had warned me about.

The weight of the constant staring pressed down on me, like a wet woollen jacket. You know that tingling feeling you get on the back of your neck when someone is looking at you? It’s like that, all day, all the time, from all angles. There are just so many men. And they stare like they’ve never seen a woman before. I had visions of yelling at them: “if you keep making that face, it’ll freeze like that!” I shot off dirty looks instead, which had exactly zero effect on the situation. The wave of relief I felt when I crossed the threshold into my hotel room, my own space, was delicious.

One of the downsides of solo travel is that when things go sideways, it can be harder to find the humour in the moment. The blows are worse because they’re not shared; it’s all concentrated on you. But the upside is that you really learn how to take care of yourself. It’s like going through boot camp: it’s exhausting and by the end, you’d sell a kidney for a cold beer, but afterwards you’re so much stronger.

Goat crossing on the highway
Goat crossing on the highway

Highway Bird Watching

A few hours out of Agra, I asked my driver, Tarun, to stop somewhere so I could use the bathroom. He stopped at a national park on the side of the highway, and told me to rent a bicycle rickshaw and go look at some animals. As you do. I went in and paid my ten rupees to use the ghastly facilities, and I figured cycling through the park would be a nice reprieve from the honking and dust and heat. Just inside the park gates, there was a cluster of bicycle rickshaws, their drivers lounging the shade. A sparse forest spread out as far as the eye could see, bisected by a narrow paved road. The only noise was birdsong; salve for the beleaguered ears.

The rates for both guide and rickshaw were reasonable so I hired both for an hour. The two men seemed nice enough and we started off the ride making the usual chit-chat. A few minutes in, the guide stopped, handed me the binoculars and pointed out a pair of birds on the power lines overhead.

“Are those pigeons?”

“Oh no, madam, very special bird, not pigeon.”

“They look like pigeons.”

“Yes, yes, they look like but they are not.”

“….”

“Don’t worry, we’ll see many more of these special birds.”

After twenty minutes, a handful of not-pigeons, a hawk, and a monitor lizard, the rickshaw driver asked me if I was happy. I have since learned that “are you happy” in India means “will I be getting a tip?”. Ever the people pleaser, I said that I was happy (even though I was hot and sticky and bored of looking at birds and regretted agreeing to this in the first place), and the pair of them launched into an aggressive sales pitch. Apparently, one hour was not enough to truly experience the park. The guide insisted that some people come for ten days at a time, but I could see everything in just three hours. I reiterated that I only wanted an hour, as nicely as I could.

We spent the next forty minutes talking in circles around each other. They came up with every argument, reason, tactic they could think of to get me to go for longer. Obviously, a longer tour means more money for them and that’s all well and good. But if I wanted to subject myself to an endless sales pitch, I’d go to one of those Time-share things. Besides, how many pigeons can a person possibly look at without fainting from boredom? My Canadian veneer of politeness slid off and I demanded to be taken back to my car. They complied, but bitched about it the whole way.

At the car, the haranguing continued: “You must pay for two hours, madam; it was hard work and not enough time.”

I haven’t been that angry in a long time. Also, it was the first time I’ve had a full-on argument with complete strangers. In the end, I paid them for an hour, with a regular-sized tip, and a few choice words about their customer service skills. The rickshaw driver pedalled off in a snit. The guide smiled nervously before slipping away without another word. Tarun only smirked and resumed his meditation on third gear.

 

Jaipur

When we got to the city limits of Jaipur — you can always tell when you’re nearing an Indian city because the traffic becomes like the parking lot at the mall on Christmas Eve. I told Tarun what my budget was for a hotel room (on the low-end: 500 rupees or about nine dollars Canadian), and he said that there would be no chance of getting something like that now with it being holiday season and all. I asked him to please try to find somewhere as cheap as possible.

So he took me to a place where the cheapest room was 3000 rupees (around $55 Canadian; kind of a big discrepancy). I didn’t have enough energy to be angry. I stood at the reception desk of this nice hotel, in my grimy road clothes, hair unkempt, sweaty and flustered, and had a massive “Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman” moment.

As it turns out, bargaining is really easy when you don’t think you’re going to get what you want. I don’t know how, but I got the room for 700 rupees. Yahtzee.

*

And then India worked it’s magic and I fell in love with it again. I went up to the rooftop of the hotel and watched the sunset. The old fortress curls around the city, high up on the hills, like a sleeping dragon. There’s an ethereal, white palace in the middle of the lake. Baby monkeys rough-housed in a nearby empty lot, kites fluttered over building tops. The pink city got pinker and then it was dark.

At dinner, it was as though the waiter knew I’d had a rough day. He leaned in and whispered, “Would you like a beer?” (A lot of restaurants in Jaipur don’t serve alcohol; there was none on the menu at this one). I responded in the affirmative, and he brought me a Kingfisher, put it on the chair next to me and put a finger to his lips. Our little secret.

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Jal Mahal – The Water Palace