Rishikesh is a magical place. About 250 km north of Delhi (or a 4 to 10 hour drive, depending on traffic and the road conditions), in the state of Uttarakhand, a cluster of small towns line the Ganges river at the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s a holy city, the cradle of yoga — yoga studios, ashrams, and meditation centres abound. It’s where the Beatles came in 1968, to explore their spirituality at the Maharishi Mahesh ashram. It smells of incense and cow shit. Children fly kites from the rooftops, men with carts full of vegetables push their wares through the streets, yelling at the top of their lungs. People dunk themselves in the icy river, giving Mother Ganga their troubles. The streets here are more like rivers: you never step in quite the same place twice…
I’ve been here for five weeks now, doing a six-week yoga teacher training course. This post is dedicated to my fellow students: a truly inspiring, talented and incredible group of people. And especially to Amber, who co-wrote this poem with me.
Someone once told me that India will teach you what you need to know. Maybe not what you want to learn (no one wants to learn what happens when you eat dodgy curry, but it’s definitely in the syllabus), but what you need to. It’s almost as though when you fill out the visa application, the country peers right into your brain and decides which experiences will aid your personal growth the most.
I, apparently, needed to learn a lot. I’ve got a full course load of India-lessons: How to say no, the art of waiting, how to play scam or not a scam, that anything is possible but it won’t happen the way you think it will, to always bring my own toilet paper, etc.
One of the bigger, unexpected, and joyful lessons I’m learning here is all about sisterhood.
Shakti (from the Sanskrit, Shak, “to be able”): Meaning “power” or empowerment”, is the primordial cosmic energy and represents the dynamic forces that are thought to move the entire universe. Shakti is the personification of the divine feminine creative power. Sometimes referred to as The Great Divine Mother. Shakti manifests through female embodiment, creativity, and fertility. Shakti is responsible for creation, and it is also the agent of all change. Shakti is existence as well as liberation.
When I was planning my trip, I’d arranged, through Roots & Wings, to stay in a convent with Catholic nuns and do some volunteer work there. And to that end, I’ve been making a lot of spinster jokes. Thirty years old and single? As Hamlet said to Ophelia: Get thee to a nunnery!
On my third day at the convent, Sister Alice, the nun who runs the kitchen, pinched my arm as I was doing some washing up after dinner and said, “Still single, na? You are just like us!” She went on, with mischief in her eyes, “you should tell everyone back in Canada that you’re becoming a nun. It’ll be funny.”
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered doing exactly that. It would be funny. (Right, mum?)
The more I travel, the more I understand that we are all the same. In North America, we have a culture that values individualism, and everyone likes to be unique (well, after high school they do). But India has taught me that while everyone has their own unique way of expression, at the core, we are all the same. And I find a lot of beauty in that. I feel more connected to people; empathy comes as easy as breathing. It’s a wonderful thing to always find something in common — like a particular sense of humour — with anyone, even if, superficially, they could not be more different than me.
Age, background, nationality, religion, culture — none of it really matters. Real sisterhood transcends all that. Real sisterhood happens over a cup of tea, sharing laughter, sharing tears, sharing pieces of ourselves. From my childhood girlfriends, my mother, sisters, grandmother, aunts, cousins back home, to the forty-plus incredible women I shared my yoga teacher training with, to all the inspiring women I’ve met in my travels, to living in a convent with nuns who embody everything that religion should be, I have a great abundance of sisterhood in my life right now.
Sacred Heart Convent sit just apart from Chogawan, a village that is about twenty five kilometres from Amritsar, towards the Pakistan border. No one in Amritsar had heard of it. After a lot of googling and asking around, an auto rickshaw driver said he knew the way and I paid him too much to get me there. Upon arrival, I discovered that there is a local bus that comes from Amritsar and drives by the front gate of the convent every fifteen minutes.
My arrival is inauspicious. There were two deaths in the community that day. On route to the burial service of one woman, the woman’s sister had a heart attack and died. By the end of the week, there are four more deaths — shootings in another village. The nuns are very matter of fact about death.
Ten women from the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary live at Sacred Heart. Some work as teachers in the adjacent high school, and the rest work in the convent or in the Social Work and Training Centre. Their motto is Deus Caritas est — God is Love.
The villages in the area of the Punjab state between Amritsar and the Pakistan border are rife with poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and the constant threat of war and violence. Some villages don’t even have proper sewage systems as the government allotted money gets ‘lost in the mail’.
The Sacred Heart Sisters, and the parish priest, Father James, work tirelessly in the communities to build the people up, to educate and train them, to fight poverty and addiction, and are there to soothe tears, celebrate births and marriages, to share happiness and sadness. The Sisters specifically work to empower the village women — when the women are empowered, the village follows. The Sisters are truly instruments of Shakti and love.
Amritsar, the capital city of the Punjab state, is famous for three things: The Golden Temple, the ceremony at the Pakistan border and food.
The food absolutely lives up to its reputation. Everything has butter and/or ghee (clarified butter) in it — even the lassi (yoghurt drink, like a milkshake but with yoghurt). Probably not the healthiest food around, but damn if it isn’t good.
The Golden Temple
The Border Ceremony
Every day at 4:30 pm, the security forces at each side of the Pakistan- India border engage in a fun, extremely loud lowering of the flag ceremony. Each side plays music as loud as they possibly can as the crowd gathers into the stands to watch the antics. An MC riles the crowd up, a group of women dances on the tarmac. It reminds me a lot of the pep rallies you see in American movies about high school and football. The guards take turns yelling into the microphone — each side tries to outdo the other in volume and duration. And then the guards from both sides do an exaggerated march towards the gate and gesticulate at each other. The guards on the India side were kicking their legs up so high during the march that they kicked themselves in the head. It’s like watching a Marx Brothers sketch.
It baffles me that just three days ago, further north along the border, in Kashmir, there was a fatal attack on the Indian side by Pakistani militants.
In Delhi I learned that I am very glad that I am not famous. My local friend said it was like walking around with Minnie Mouse. Everyone stares, and people stopped me all the time to ask if they could take a picture with me. If I wasn’t assertive enough, I would’ve been held up for hours posing for photos with strangers. One young kid said that I was the first foreigner he’d ever talked to, and then he made me watch an Eminem video with him. It is a strange thing to be so conspicuous. I felt like an alien.
Delhi is exactly as I pictured it. It was like stepping into my own imagination. The British imprint left behind in New Delhi is so deep that you could almost forget that you’re in India — until an elephant saunters past. Crossing the threshold from New to Old Delhi is time travel. It’s a riot of people, street food, goats, scooters, rickshaws, dogs, cows, all jockeying for space on narrow, winding roads. Delhi has been sacked and rebuilt eight times; it is the very definition of resilience. Old Delhi feels timeless, the eye of centuries of political storms. At night, all the hotel signs are lit up in neon. It’s the Las Vegas of India.
Religion is everywhere. All sorts of religions have a presence here, the temples and mosques and churches coexist together like a buffet of routes to heaven. We visited the biggest Mosque in India, the Sikh temple, the Stone Mason’s temple, the Jain temple and the Bahai’i Lotus temple. The Lotus temple looks a little like the opera house in Sydney from the outside. The inside is unremarkable except that is probably the only truly quiet place in India. The only thing I could hear was the tinkling of bangles.
The city was gearing up for Diwali, the Hindu celebration of lights and the triumph of good over evil, and Eid, the Muslim festival of sacrifice. Two of the most important festivals at the same time meant that traffic was nuttier than usual — to put it extremely lightly. Crossing the street was a festival all in itself. There were fairs and carnivals, performances of the Ramayana (the Hindu story of the god Rama and his wife Sita, who is kidnapped by the evil Ravanna, and Rama goes on a quest to save her); lights and music everywhere. It’s so easy to get caught up in the whirl of people and colours; Old Delhi was pulsing. Eid marks the end of Ramadan and people congregate in Delhi to celebrate with gifts and feasting. Villagers brought herds of brown and black goats to market for sale; on the highway I saw a goatherd nonchalantly urging his cluster of goats across four lanes of heavy traffic.
My dreams will never be the same now…. I’ll see the beggar woman with no face; the men sleeping on their wheelbarrows on the street while children race around and the police clear the street for a parade of Hindu gods at midnight; goats with tinsel around their necks walking between bicycle rickshaws and rows of grilled kebabs; the cows serenely eating garbage.
Agra: The City of Love
Agra used to be the capital city during Mughal rule (16-19th centuries), but now the only thing of interest is the Taj Mahal. I read somewhere the whole, decidedly less romantic story behind the Taj: Shah Jahan killed his beloved’s current husband so he that could marry her, and then when she died, he married her sister. Ah, romance.
The Taj Mahal lives up to all of the hype. It’s absolutely amazing. I went at sunset and it was stunning. The hordes of people don’t detract from it at all; on the contrary, everyone’s excited energies make it all the more magical.
Inside the mausoleum, it was dark, and everyone was talking and jostling for space, and the noise reverberated off the marble chamber. It was like being inside a bell after it’s been rung.
In India, getting sick is like stepping in cow shit: inevitable. The only uncertainty is when it will strike. For me, it happened just as I was leaving Mumbai. I started to feel something like a cold coming on, but didn’t think much of it. The worst of it struck, as Murphy’s Law would have it, on the train on the way to Goa. I woke after a very pleasant night of being rocked like a baby in the second class car to find that both of my eyes had swollen shut. I could barely see, and looked monstrous with red eyes and a lumpy, misshapen face. Not the most convenient situation to be in whilst trying to figure out the right stop to get off at and how to get to the hostel.
But I’ve gotten off light (so far; knock wood). I met a German guy who, within three days of being in India, fell ill with an infection, went to the hospital and got it treated. The next day he felt better, so he went out for breakfast. He walked to the end of the lane and was promptly bitten by a dog. Talk about terrible luck!
And that’s all it is: luck. You can be as careful as humanly possible, but one dirty cup or a cook who forgets to wash his hands, or petting a passing cow and absent-mindedly touching your face, and bam! you’re delirious and feverish for three days.
As a wise person once said, “Acceptance is the key to happiness”. Nowhere is this more true than in India. When you accept that bad things are going to happen, it’s much easier to cope, and even to have a sense of humour about it. Like I always say, the bad stuff makes for the best stories.
A small state along the Western coast of south India, Goa feels like an island, separate from the rest of the world. I’ve never seen so many palm trees in the same place. Skinny roads wind through the jungle, buildings peek from behind palms; everything man-made feels like it might be subsumed by nature at any moment. When night falls, it’s like pulling a thick comforter over your head.
Goa was colonized by the Portuguese, so the food has a bit of a Portuguese flair — lots of coconut, and fish is considered vegetarian food — and Christian churches abound. In the 60’s and 70’s, the golden days of the hippy movement, Goa was a haven for trance music, all-night beach parties and copious amounts of hallucinogenic substances. Its heyday has passed — the government passed laws to curb the open air beach raves — but Goa is still a party place. Rules are circumvented by baksheesh (bribes); south Goa is controlled by the mafia. Beer is cheap, drugs are everywhere (when I checked into my hostel, one of the first things the receptionist asked me was whether I wanted any weed), and electronic music pulses all night long.
I was there in off season, at the tail end of the monsoons, so most things were closed and the parties hadn’t really begun yet. The season begins October 1st and runs till March. Off season is great; there were still some bars to go have a dance at, but it was quieter. Well, quiet for India: horns honk and dogs bark and kids shriek and firecrackers are set off at all hours of the day and night just like everywhere else. But the monsoon of inebriated tourists hadn’t yet begun.
I spent my birthday in Ajuna, North Goa, with a collection of backpackers looking for the same chilled out atmosphere as me. We rented scooters and explored the beaches in South Goa (postcard perfection, and even more chilled out than the Northern part of the state), ate a lot of curry, and swapped travel horror stories under the stars. Not a bad way to spend my thirtieth birthday. I left Goa with sand in my hair, a bit of a hangover and a smile on my face.
My idea of travel planning is reading fiction from whichever country I’m going to, and for no other place was I as well prepared as I was for India. For years I’ve devoured books about India. The whole reason I wanted to come to India in the first place is a book I read that was set in Delhi. And the real India is almost exactly like the India of my imagination. It’s a little surreal, almost like I’ve found myself in Alice’s wonderland.
The first thing I did in Mumbai was take a stroll from my hostel, and I was struck by how similar India is to South East Asia — narrow roads, little shops on the side walk so you have to walk on the road and jostle for space with rickshaws and scooters and cars. It’s loud and dirty and full of life. The men were all staring at me as if I were an alien, but they’re not as bad as the men in Turkey — they don’t follow you or sit down to eat dinner with you or try to marry you. The stares are disconcerting though; it’s like being stared at by a lot of cats. I had my “oh my god, I’m really in India” moment when I saw a large bull hanging around on the street, nonchalantly eating garbage.
In the hostel, I met an English lad who reminded me of the skinny buzzard with the floppy hair from the Jungle Book. He’d just finished a six week tour of India and was headed home. I could see in his eyes that meeting someone who was just starting out their India adventure made him wish he could turn back time and start all over again. He said that he loved this country and hated it with equal fervour; he was going to be so bored at home after India (I’d hear an iteration of this from nearly everyone I meet here). He also said Mumbai isn’t the ‘real India’ and I thought immediately of when Shantaram’s protagonist first gets to Mumbai, he meets some German backpackers and they say the same thing. It’s a strange thing how travellers decide that a certain place isn’t a “real” part of the country, when what they mean is that it’s not what they’re looking for.
Mumbai is a testament to the importance of urban planning: the city spills up the coast line, all higgedly piggedly, like a patchwork quilt stitched together by a meth addict with cataracts. Never again will I complain about traffic at home. The only way to get anywhere in less than three hours is to take the local train. And what an adventure that is!
The train looks like a mobile prison — drab metal, grates on the windows, industrial fans bolted to the ceiling. There are no doors; people bulge from the openings like stuffing from a torn sofa. There’s a separate car for women, which is beyond crowded but apparently nothing compared to the anarchy of the men’s compartments. Squished into the car with all the women in their saris, I was reminded me of picking wildflowers as a child with my grandma. I’d pick so many, I could barely contain them in both hands — picking just one more flower would’ve caused the bouquet to explode. Being on the train was like being inside that bouquet, only the flowers had elbows.
One day, when I hopped the train in the height of rush hour, a fist fight broke out in the women’s compartment and the whole car erupted into screaming and yelling. If the women’s car is the tamer one, then the men’s must really be intense. Everyone was incredibly nice to me though, they always asked what stop I was getting off at and helped me push through the crowd and alight at the right place. People start jumping off before the train even stops, and the people on the platform start pushing their way on. Getting off of my stop was like being shot out of a cannon. I burst onto the platform, feeling like the train should’ve at least bought me dinner first.
Just walking down the street here is an adventure, and the simplest things, like taking a train, are so full on, that even if you did nothing else that day, you feel accomplished.
Judi Dench’s character in the movie, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was right: India is like a wave in the ocean. If you try to resist, you will be knocked down; the only way to enjoy it is to dive right in.
It’s an amazing and strange thing when a long standing plan comes to fruition. Expectations dissolve and the reality is something you never could have imagined; afterwards you are euphoric and a little sad.
It was about nine months ago when Roisin floated the idea of going on a trip together for our 30th birthdays. Originally — and I’m not entirely sure why this idea was scrapped — we were going to spend a week in Costa Rica, drinking rum and mooching around on a beach in celebration of our milestone. Somehow, the plan morphed into going to Kyrgyzstan to trek in the Northern Himalayas for a week and raising money for charity projects there. And I’m so glad it did. It was one heck of an experience.
In total, we raised over $51,000 for the projects in Karakol. We toured some of the projects that the donations will be going toward, and we were all so impressed and inspired. Next post, I’ll tell you all about the projects and the people.
Roisin gathered a group of incredible women for the trek. I only met them in Bishkek (the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic), three days before the trek started, but we all got on like a house on fire. Our group dynamic made all the difference when the going got tough, and I’m so grateful for such awesome trekking buddies.
Roisin’s aunt Florence and her friend Sue — a few years older than the rest of us, but they put us thirty-somethings to shame on the trail.
Kate, who works at Oxford colleges with Rois — a statuesque, Australian blonde with a crackling sense of humour.
Kris, who also works at Oxford — a gorgeous, hilarious New Zealander who kept us all motivated and in great spirits.
In what will shock absolutely no one who has heard stories of my shenanigans travels, our original plans were immediately dashed when we arrived in Karakol. It was snowing in the mountains, and the first two passes we were supposed to cross were closed. So we had to change our route and start at the end, at a guest house and hot springs called Altyn Arashan (which we quickly nicknamed Azkaban).
NB: Florence says I’ve been playing fast and loose with the English language this whole trip, i.e., I keep using words like ‘guest house’, ‘road’ and ‘bathroom’.
Day One: Horror Journey to Altyn Arashan
2,500 metres above sea level.
Grim day. It was overcast and there was a light drizzle of rain when we were dropped off at the start of the ‘road’ that led up to Altyn Arashan. It could have been a lovely stroll along the rollicking Altynarashan river, if not for the steadily increasing rain. It fell and fell, harder and colder, as we hiked further up the mountain. Slowly, surely, all of our ‘water proof’ gear was soaked through. Jackets and trousers stuck to clammy skin; limbs went numb. There was a grimace on every face.
On a particularly steep and muddy section of the trail, Roisin fell and twisted her ankle, aggravating an ankle injury from adolescence. Thankfully, the Russian military jeep that trundled up and down the road, transporting supplies and people, overtook us shortly thereafter and Roisin was able to get a ride the rest of the way up. There was only room for one, however, so the rest of us had to keep trudging on until the jeep returned for us. The air thinned as we climbed higher, and we struggled between wanting to stop to catch our breath, and wanting to keep going to keep the blood flowing.
The road began to slope sharply upwards and the temperature dropped suddenly; the rain turned to snow. A bleak winter-scape descended. We were all ready to pack it in. The jeep finally returned for us, with only one and half kilometres left to go, and we gratefully clambered in, wet and miserable, like cats after a particularly harrowing bath. Kate took one look at the driver and nearly got right back out of the vehicle to take her chances in the snow — he was a cagey looking character with only one working eye. It was easily one of the scariest drives I’ve ever endured (the Bolivian death road only wins because of length). To his credit, the one-eyed kid was a helluva driver.
Camping was out of the question, so we were bundled into the ‘guest house’, which was owned by an eccentric, craggy faced man who wore army fatigues and constantly talked, in a booming Russian accent, about war and yetis. A fire was gradually coaxed from wet wood, clothes were strewn on every surface to dry and someone broke out the cognac. The hot springs were a godsend that first, awful night. A “hate spasm” would have been a considerable upgrade.
Day Two: Altercation with Donkey
Absolutely beautiful scenery: behemoth mountains dusted in snow, yurts squatting in the valley like mushrooms. Very nice from inside, but did not inspire much enthusiasm for more hiking. We loitered around the shack all morning, waiting to see what the weather would do. After lunch, we went on a day hike up to a small lake. Snow was ankle high. Herds of horses, cows and sheep scudded across the alpine fields. Vast improvement from the first day, but we were not sure how the rest of the week would pan out.
By dinner time, altitude sickness hit me like a bag of wet cement. I spent a long, freezing, horrendous night running outside to the ‘bathrooms’. The worst part was that someone had tied up a donkey outside the toilets and every time I approached, he turned his back and I thought he was fixing to kick me. I spent a great deal of time cursing that heinous donkey.
Day Three: Calling in Sick
I was out of commission for the whole day. Meanwhile, the others were sent on a sort of altitude acclimatization hike with our guide, Lida. They were gone for ten hours, and came back sunburnt and sore and exhausted. Lida, who was worth her weight in gold, took what she saw that day and planned a route for us for the next three days. While everyone was generally fit and prepared, the altitude made us all feel like morbidly lazy chain smokers trying to run a marathon. And since we started at the end of the hike, we were at the highest elevation level; there was no opportunity to acclimatize slowly and that made everything much harder.
Day Four: Up, Up, All the Time Up
3,700 metres above sea level
The sun shone brightly, the mountains changed their white sweaters for stark granite and moss. We packed for a three day, two night excursion up to Ara-Kul lake. I felt better enough to hike again, but unfortunately it was Kate’s turn for altitude sickness and she had to return to Karakol.
I asked Lida what the terrain would be like and she said, “up, up, all the time up”. And how.
We took it slow, and Roisin powered through in spite of her sore ankle. Camped underneath the pass we were to ascend the following day. Did not look like there was a way up; it appeared to be a 90 degree angle. Freezing night in the tent. Went out to relieve myself in the middle of the night while everyone was sleeping, and it looked like the milky way was exploding from one of the mountain peaks. I felt a great, heavy sense of how ancient the mountains are, and how indifferent.
Day Five: Ara-Kul Lake
3,800 metres above sea level
Today I learned that I’m afraid of heights. We climbed the ‘pass’ (another Kyrgyz euphemism), 100 metres straight up a slippery mess of gravel and mud, like a StairMaster from hell. Repeated to myself over and over: don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down. Last fifteen metres was snow and ice, and extremely slippery.
The top made it all worth it. We popped up onto a corridor that connected two peaks, just wide enough to walk on comfortably. And on the other side, cradled between two mountain ranges, was a shimmering, opalescent turquoise lake.
The descent was soul-curdling. Another night under the lee of the mountain; shared chocolate and a starlit campfire.
Day Six: Return to Karakol
Easy descent to Altyn Arashan. Another jarring jeep ride back to Karakol. Along the way, we recapped the horrendous hike up at the beginning of the week: there’s where Kate refused to go any further; there’s where Roisin fell on her ankle; there’s where Jamie was very nearly knocked off the mountainside by a vehicle. Divine evening of hot showers and chilled sparkling wine in Karakol.
All in all, it was quite the experience. At times, I wondered what in the world I was thinking agreeing to this mad idea (for our 31st birthdays, I think we’ll stick to Costa Rica!), but it was more than worth it in the end. The mountains were stunning, I gained four new, wonderful friends, and a new appreciation for this trekking business.
But most of all, it was worth it for all the money we raised for the amazing people of the Kyrgyz Republic. More on that in the next post.