By Sharona Fein
After 36 hours in transition, I came home from India to find that the people who had rented my apartment while I was gone had completely disorganized all of my carefully arranged closets and shelves. Sitting among the chaos of unpacked and unwashed things, and the disorderly nature of my thoughts I know that soon all will be restored. But do I want really it to be? It would be a shame to put everything back the way it was. I don’t travel in order to come back the same as when I left. And India, in her wild bedlam and cacophonous colors had rearranged me down to my soul.
India captures all of your senses and holds them hostage while you visit. If you resist the smells, the insistent crowds, the disordered order that she is, you will miss India.
Amit, whose name means friend he tells me as he is cooking us lunch in his postage stamp kitchen that doubles as a cooking school, admonishes that too many visitors come to India and immediately overlay their preferences on this ancient culture. This comes up in the context of how spicy to cook the food. “If you want to know India, he says, first try it the way we eat it. Then you can choose, but at least you’ve tried.” He catches me on this again later, as he is making chai masala. “Not too much sugar”, I exhort. “Madame”, he says, carefully adding tablespoons of sugar to the third boil so it doesn’t caramelize, “if you don’t add enough sugar, the spiciness will take over, and you will not enjoy it.” That is India. You have to have lots of sugar to balance the spiciness.
I feared India before I went. I feared encountering filth, abject poverty, misogyny and aggression; the spiciness of India. Still, she called to me. As a long time practicing yogi I had come to appreciate the art and mythology as well as the energetic presence of the multiplicity of deities that make up the vast Hindu pantheon. And deeper than that, I have drowned my senses in the seas of Vedic wisdom. That is the sugar.
My experiences in and around Rishikesh were indeed far sweeter than I expected. It was cleaner, safer and kinder than my imagination had allowed.
Rishikesh means “the hair of the saints” for the millennia of holy men who descended from the nearby Himalaya having there had visceral contact with the Divine (and ostensibly no place to cut their hair). The city straddles the Ganges River. “Ma Ganga”, she is called. The Holy Mother Ganga, the source of all life to the prayerful Hindus. Not unlike much of the rest of India, this vibrant town pulses with spirituality embedded into its very stones. Perhaps it is this rich vibration that draws so many westerners to Rishikesh, or perhaps it is the legacy of the historical flowering of eastern spirituality in the West brought about by the Beatles 1968 visit here, and promulgated through their music, the subsequent spread of Transcendental Meditation and yoga. Either way, we arrive in our t-shirts and jeans, and within just a few days, it seems, these are cast off for far more colorful, flowy and modest garb; kurtas, baggy pants and ubiquitous scarves. It’s as if we have shed our rigid skins for this more fluid palette, hopefully to make room for something new within us that is to be found on the banks of Ma Ganga.
Here it’s easy to search among the plethora of teachers, acharya, and masters that either call Rishikesh home, or who come regularly to sit with seekers and point to the ineffable in gatherings called satsang; a community of truth. This is sugar.
I had wonderful and illuminating entanglements with the Indian people I met. From the loquacious cab driver, Sumit, whose English is a cobbled together effort of laughing sincerity, Raqi, the young married woman who was sometimes our translator, and who came to me with life concerns born of having her feet in both eastern and western culture, to the café owner who, upon not being able to make change for my breakfast bill told me “to come pay me tomorrow.”
Special mention goes to my dear friend Alok, a shopkeeper trading in previously aforementioned baggy styles and other textiles. Being in his shop is a microcosm of being in India. It’s crammed to the ceiling with purses, dresses, wall coverings, clothing of all sorts, footwear and mysterious things that only he and his staff know how to find.
It’s wildly colorful and chaotic. When a customer is looking over some thing with any interest, a wall full of said item comes down in different colors and patterns, and is spread across an already crowded floor, which is Alok’s office where most transactions take place. I can’t tell you how many times I relaxed on a cushion in this beautiful bedlam and had a cup of “coffee, tea, juice?” a staple offering to every guest. Alok, a worldly 29 year old from Jaipur shared with me about his Jain heritage, his experiences as a jewelry dealer in Thailand that ended when he was kidnapped, his parents acceptance that finding him a bride was going to be a challenge, and how to steer in the raucous and potentially challenging holiday of Holi that was just a few days away. Alok generously helped me to navigate logistical uncertainties on more than one occasion. Alok is total sugar.
It would be disingenuous of me to not tip my hat to the spicy side of the India equation here too. Truthfully, though, that category is slim in my recollection. Even the white knuckle driving was amusing when I entered the mindset of the driver and was suddenly able to discern the full range of vocalization via car horns. Then there is the obvious spicy hazard of the by-product of the ubiquitous cows randomly roaming the streets (to which I fell victim) yet that too was balanced by my humor at the one who gently yet very insistently nudged me to pick up the pace when foot traffic backed up on one of Rishikesh’s narrow foot bridges.
This was my first trip, and I’m just beginning my love affair with India. I intend to take the sweet with the spicy and any other flavor she would like to dish up in order to taste her delights, her heights and her depths.
Sharona Fein is an avowed traveler who has journeyed from the heights of the Himalaya to the depths of her own soul. An adventurer, she casts off from her home in Boulder, Colorado where she builds community and works diligently in the realms of love and growing consciousness. She is currently involved in developing an eco-tourism company with Waterbearers.org, where she hopes to soon be leading trips to deliver filters for clean drinking water worldwide.
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This article appears in:
2016 Catalyst, Issue 9: Yoga Day and Enneagram