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Sunday, 15 February 2015

5 Months in India - the Might and the Madness

Staring out of my window, the thin silence of the upper reaches of the vast atmosphere was broken only by the white noise of the plane's turbines. The clouds below resembled the landscape of the ocean itself, but a frozen one, with its rolling waves of ice undulating between the orange glow of the rising sun and purple-blue accents of shadow.

Nearly 5 months after arriving in the hot exotic land of India, I left a different person. I had a multitude of different experiences here and have no regrets. 
Humans derive its natural humility from the mountains - Kanchenjunga, 3rd highest in the world
I went trekking up in Himachal Pradesh and Nepal, stunned into silence by the dominating Himalayas; visited dazzling Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries that put on display the power of religion; embarked on a sort of family pilgrimage to my father’s hometown, seeing where he grew up, staying with kind and hospitable family friends; I volunteered a few days teaching English, then for one month planting trees as part of an inspiring and vibrant community, a temporary family to call my own; and where I started in the humbling mountains, I finished on a relaxing hippie beach and a quiet, inspiring desert town.

Wandering India was a trial of my body and mind, as well as a pilgrimage of my soul. And I found out I wasn't alone on my journey. The majority of foreigners I met were also in it for the long haul, living out their 6 month visas (or longer), extending their lives in one of the cheapest countries in the world, rupee by rupee, while seeing exotic cultures and places.
Untalent show at the amazing volunteering community Sadhana Forest
Many of the foreigners I met were, like myself, on a meaningful journey beyond the bucket list. They were spiritual, or anarchist, or rebels from society. Whatever they were, something was missing in their lives back home, and they were trying to find it in India.

Whatever I was looking for, I was trying to find it in the wild heart of India, lived in the streets. Walking down a street in India was like experiencing a dream world, expanding one's perceptions of reality. Animals like cows, dogs and monkeys roam the streets with autonomy, like they were humans. Humans urinate, spit and push like they were animals. And here the past refuses to let go of the people, and cars and mopeds can be seen racing past old fashioned foot, pedal and animal powered carts and trolleys bulging with goods.
"Namaste, can I get a chai, please. With milk? Absolutely" 
Humanity of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds, dressed in dazzling colours or in stark modernity, can be seen carving out their own space on the busy sidewalks. They can be seen eating, shaving, playing cricket in any available space, working the fields, bathing in rivers, praying in temples, or, quite simply, sitting in one spot doing nothing. The quirks and quarks of Indian life can inspire laughter and smiles, while the heart rending but incredible will to survive can be witnessed everywhere in the poverty and neglect of the poor.

Somehow, despite the density of all this activity without order, life keeps ticking and traffic keeps on flowing like blood through healthy, if slightly clogged, arteries of Indian society.

Whatever I was looking for in India, I was trying to find it through humble living, imitating the locals where possible. This meant bathing with cold bucket water, squatting down on dirty toilets, packing into crowded buses and sleeping on hard mattresses in stinky and damp guesthouses.

I must admit I enjoyed taking the sleeper trains (though I never sat in the body-crushing general class). There is something about being in moving vehicles that soothes me like a baby. And the trains in India are like living organisms themselves, moving cities, consuming and wasting as it moves along its restricted track. A constant flow of touts walk the aisles throughout the day, selling everything that can possibly be sold on a train from food and drinks, to clothes, electronics, staplers, adjustable screwdrivers and children’s toys.
The main aisle of the sleeper train where the flow of people never stops
The daily challenges of India, according to the fellow travelers whom I met, are part of the price paid in earning one’s stripes as tough and hardened backpackers. The only aspect in which I spoiled myself in India was with food. I gorged on virtually everything I laid my eyes on, encouraged by my infinite metabolism, yet still spending less than $5/day. I will definitely miss the curries, samosas and momos, as well as sweets such as jelobi, gulab jamun and halwa.

Whatever I was looking for, 5 months was enough to endure the journey. India really beat me up - the big cities wore me down with their unceasing sensory attack - the noise, pollution and lack of silence. And the people wore me down with their curious staring, guessing games of where I am from (Japan or Korea), asking for pictures with me, and attempts to swindle me.

India also really jaded me. I think I came in with the popular vision of India as a land of zen and enlightenment. However, over my time here I learned that, despite the existence of hundreds of languages and ethnicities, there is just as much ignorance and discrimination here as anywhere else in the world. Learning this made me more proud of my home country, which is culturally diverse and tolerant.
The Prime Minister's rules of behaviour for Indians - in a language only the foreigners understand
The experiences and obstacles encountered in India were stepping stones to achieving a greater self. In this I have completed a major chapter in my life, yet another big learning and growing experience.

While my search continues for who I am, traveling India has helped to slightly narrow down my choices. I can say with certainty that my time volunteering at Sadhana Forest was the highlight of my trip and one of the best months of my life. It inspired me in many ways, including thinking about the global impact of my dietary choices. My experience here has instilled a further desire for finding communities around the world that are living in harmony with its ecology through permaculture as a way of life.

I also discovered about myself that I cannot travel endlessly. Travelling is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The life of a traveler is pretty much the complete opposite of having a job and living in one place. It's all spontaneity and no comfort, especially in India. And while it's nice for awhile, over time it wears on you, physically and mentally. It also becomes unfulfilling, except to those whose ambitions lie solely in travelling. On more than one occasion I felt restless and wanted to do something productive and positive for society, which is why volunteering was so nourishing for my soul.

Teaching English for a few days in a village in rural India
I deeply cherished my time in India. Its natural beauty and otherworldly charm are unrivalled. The chaos, pollution, poverty, and lack of hygiene show that, more than anything, India is human, not perfect. And what it lacks in perfection it makes up for in the astonishing and genuin way in which its people live, and the real things in life that money can’t buy, such as love and hospitality.

I will no doubt come back to this magical land someday. In 5 months I have barely scratched the surface of India.
Learn. Grow. Inspire.

Photos of my final 2 weeks in India! Flickr link

Travel Statistics

Travel period: 145 days (30 in Nepal)
Days of paid accommodation: 46 days
Days of rain: approximately 10
Maximum elevation: 4210 m (Annapurna Base Camp)

Favourite experience: Sadhana Forest
Favourite city: Varanasi
Least favourite city: Delhi
Favourite meal: Shiva special thali, Pushkar; 150 rupees ($3 CAD)
Illnesses: one fever (due to lack of rest, not food)
Bottled waters purchased: one (on the 52-hr train)

Major expenditures (flights, travel insurance, Visas, etc.): $1,500
Day-to-day expenditures: $1,800 ($380/month, $12.50/day)
Total expenditures: $3,300
Cheapest guesthouse/hostel: 100 rupees ($2 CAD)
Train distance: 5,300 km
Train time and average speed: 110 hrs, 48 km/h
Longest train ride: 52 hours (Delhi > Bangalore)
Cost (sleeper class): ~800 rupees ($16 CAD)
Bus distance: 4200 km
Bus time and average speed: 150 hrs, 28 km/h

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