Afternoon sunlight in Udaipur

Afternoon sunlight in Udaipur

One month. In a space the size of Australia, with a population of 1.2 billion people. I barely scratched the surface, barely made a mark on the endless dirt roads. Just another footprint – another journey. We all have our motivations for travel, so what were mine? What did I capture and contain, select and edit, on the streets of cities, in the eyes of salesmen, in the open hands of begging children? How will I appropriate the culture, colors and contradictions of India for the purposes of storytelling? And most fundamentally, how will this story become a part of my personal narrative?

Truth be told, a part of me hoped for a glimmer of spiritual enlightenment – tiny, rippling existential crises as I hiked, wandered, meditated, practiced yoga. Simultaneously, war stories of Delhi Belly made me wary of illness and conscious of cleanliness (‘don’t eat anything off the street’, ‘make sure you get all of your shots’, ‘my friend got a parasite from eating in a restaurant’). India, eternally scolded by its colonizers for its inability to squeeze billions of people into a neat, Western framework.

Jodphur village children

Jodphur village children

For many Westerners, the journey to India warrants that much desired, proverbial antipodean pat on the back: “Well done!”, “How brave!”, “Was it filthy?”, “Did you get ill?”. As though the act of simply going to India is akin to donating to charity – noble and self-sacrificial all at once. Spiritual enlightenment, traveller kudos and cushy resorts all in one destination – the Holy Grail of Western Travelling, it appears.

We ask so much of India, and yet it asks nothing of us. We ask for enlightenment without contemplation; for rewards without challenges; for ‘genuine’ Indian culture without respect for individuals; for intimacy with the divine, without understanding and practice. We ask for a lot. And for the most part, India provides. It accommodates tourists and tourism, gently carrying us on our journeys with little interruption to daily life.  There are resort towns in the south where one can buy enlightenment – can buy good health. Spaces dedicated to detoxes and cleanses – the yearly ritual of many busy, city-dwelling Europeans – are tucked away from all that is Indian, so that the beach of Kovalam feels familiar and devoid all at once.

Welcome petals in Rajasthan

Beyond the immediate tourist experience though, India is a nation still bound by a caste system, ravaged by gender discrimination and child slavery. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are around 20 million sex workers and around 50 million child workers in India. Political corruption is rife, and construction cannot keep pace with the booming population growth. Men still largely dominate religious participation and leadership, with female equality seemingly differing depending on caste, region and religion. (For further elaboration, read Women Awakened: Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India by Swati Chopra). The problems facing India seem mammoth, insurmountable even. And yet daily, for many people, life goes on peacefully.

The highlights? Christmas morning brunch at Dosa Dreamland in New Delhi with friends – dozens of dosas and good cheer for less than three dollars. Rickety speedboat rides to the only surf beach in India, at the only surf ashram potentially in the world – our lives in the hands of fifteen year- old Indian boys with Californian accents (“that wave was gnarly man!”). Having my Indian astrological chart read through a translator in Kovalam. ‘Glamping’ (camping glamorously) lakeside in the Rajasthan wilderness. Pushing through the markets in Pushkar (what am I going to do with all of these cow decorations?). Practicing the Ashtanga Primary Series with Padma in Kovalam, the only Keralian woman teaching Yoga in Kerala.

Boys riding through the town in Rajasthan

Boys riding through the town in Rajasthan

But, like all traveling, joy is found in the smallest details. Recollections convert into clichés, but my memories are familiar because they are not only true representations, but also common ones. And so, stills of cross-cultural conversations on trains, fingers dipping into shared food, small babies held and hugged, village children squeezing our hands, laughter over miscommunication with rickshaw drivers and restaurant owners, and patience at times of stress become a slideshow of advertisements, a reel of Kodak moments as they are retold and recollected once more.

If I went to India seeking knowledge or spiritual understanding, lessons were not learnt on yoga mats or zafus, in temples or in ashrams. However, in the everyday moments, this trip encouraged me to slow down. To tread more gently. To expand my perception of time. Most importantly perhaps, this trip taught me that inner peace cannot be bought, taught or learnt when space, finances or isolation from everyday life allow. That peace is not achieved through fluency in new age dialogues, or awareness of spiritual practices.  Rather, peace is a free agent – available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. And India, simultaneously luxurious and derelict, sumptuous and starved, provides a formidable site for such exploration. Being in India, although not a ticket to enlightenment, is certainly a privilege.

Beachside markets in Mumbai

Beachside markets in Mumbai

EATING:

Veganism in India is impossible, as ghee forms the basis of most dishes. Vegetarian food is a staple though, and street food advertised as ‘PURE VEG’ means that it is lacto-vegetarian, so no eggs.

Indian Vegan was the closest resource I could find, so I went lacto-vegetarian for the month. In the more touristy areas of the south, vegan options abound, particularly in Anjuna and Kerala.

Yoga Magic Eco Retreat Superfood Salad

Raw cucumber almond gazpacho & cardamom ice tea, Om Made Cafe, Anjuna India

Raw cucumber almond gazpacho & cardamom ice tea, Om Made Cafe, Anjuna India

Vegetarian street food in Mumbai

Vegetarian street food in Mumbai

Tofu rice balls at Whole Bean Cafe, Anjuna India

Tofu rice balls at Whole Bean Cafe, Anjuna India

Dahl, pickles & dosas - street food staple in Old Delhi

Dahl, pickles & dosas – street food staple in Old Delhi