SUPREME STRENGTH, GEN­TLE GRACE

A full-spec­trum hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence in In­dia and Nepal

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - STORY BY AN­DREA PERRY PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY CHRISTINA DIKAS

A full-spec­trum hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence in In­dia and Nepal

The pack of ve­hi­cles brakes from 70 to zero, but my driver, Ali, spies an open­ing and ac­cel­er­ates. The side-view mir­rors of our auto rick­shaw are bent in­ward so we can slip past the back cor­ner of a trans­port truck with half an inch to spare.

Ali honks to an­nounce him­self as we emerge blindly around the side of the truck – my arm jammed on the back of his seat to brace as we come full stop in an in­stant for a big-horned bull that has waltzed into the road. Ali eases on the gas and ma­noeu­vres around the beast’s back­side – the whip of the an­i­mal’s tail so close I put my hand out in­stinc­tively to let it brush my fin­gers, but I miss as we ac­cel­er­ate into an­other blind pass and full stop head to head with a mo­tor­cy­cle com­ing from the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

Our front wheel rests against the front wheel of the mo­tor­cy­cle for a mo­ment, and I send a quick smile to the tod­dler wear­ing shades who sits side-sad­dle on a woman’s

lap on the back of the bike be­fore we pull our sep­a­rate ways and speed off once more.

The hot ex­haust I smell and feel on my face when we slow down morphs into a cool wind that whips my hair and slings dust in my eyes as we ac­cel­er­ate. I feel acutely alive. It’s not the adren­a­line, I know, but the deep aware­ness that at any sec­ond – with slight move­ment from any player on the road, per­son or beast – I could be dead.

It’s my first day in Delhi, and I’m trav­el­ling solo across the city to the Baha’i Lo­tus Tem­ple. It’s Mon­day, so the tem­ple – one of seven ma­jor Baha’i places of wor­ship world­wide – is closed, but Ali gives me a boost onto the perime­ter wall so I can look over.

Across a field of dry grass sits an enor­mous lo­tus-shaped struc­ture. It’s white and ap­pears to ra­di­ate rather than re­flect the sun­light. My ears buzz with honk­ing from the street be­hind, but I can still hear a vast si­lence flood­ing from the tem­ple. There is a per­va­sive sense of peace. It’s al­most as if the struc­ture is breath­ing – each in­take clear­ing the air and mak­ing it anew on the out­breath, just as a gi­ant flower in the cen­tre of one of the world’s most pop­u­lated and pol­luted cities would do.

I squat on the warm brick perime­ter and take it all in. This jux­ta­po­si­tion of chaos and calm – a feel­ing of the full spec­trum of hu­man­ity, both panic and peace, death and life – is my first im­pres­sion of In­dia, and it will en­dure for the re­main­der of the trip and on­ward into Nepal.

It had been a while since I trav­elled so far from home but, af­ter the elec­tion in the United States and the slew of ris­ing in­ter­nal ten­sion, North Amer­ica had been par­tic­u­larly self-fo­cused and I wanted out. I wanted to move my en­ergy else­where and pop a steam vent in the pres­sure cooker brew­ing back home.

I also wanted to re­mind my­self of what I al­ready knew: the Western World is not the cen­tre of the uni­verse, as much as it may seem to be when we are in­tensely look­ing in­ward. So, I chose In­dia as a travel des­ti­na­tion for the same rea­son many de­cide to avoid it: the sheer num­ber of peo­ple ex­ist­ing in one place. With an es­ti­mated pop­u­la­tion of 1.3 bil­lion, In­dia holds one-sev­enth of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. By the num­ber of beat­ing hearts alone, it is an un­par­al­leled cen­tre of re­al­ity for what it means to be a hu­man on planet Earth.

Back at the ho­tel, I give Ali a hug along with 400 ru­pees for the af­ter­noon’s driv­ing. I con­sider how un­tra­di­tional it might be for a sin­gle western woman to em­brace an un­mar­ried Mus­lim man, but how else do you con­clude an ex­pe­ri­ence with some­one who – lit­er­ally – had your life in his hands? Be­sides, when­ever I can get away with it, hugs are my thing.

I pass two veiled women out­side the ho­tel and re­turn their “Na­maste” with my hands in front of my heart. In the lobby, I use the in­ter­mit­tent Wi-Fi to check Google and learn that, on av­er­age, 400 peo­ple are killed ev­ery day in road ac­ci­dents in In­dia. On Delhi roads alone, five peo­ple will pass from life each day. It sounds about right.

Up in my room, un­der a sheen of dirt and sweat, sit­ting on the cor­ner of my white bed sheets at the end of the first day, I feel some jet lag, but no cul­ture shock. This is just an open­ing – as much as is pos­si­ble for a priv­i­leged tourist – to the depth and width of re­al­ity that is present here.

On my sec­ond day, I be­gin a 15-day tour with G Ad­ven­tures travel com­pany that goes from Delhi, In­dia, to Kathmandu, Nepal. As a woman on her own, join­ing a guided tour group is an ef­fec­tive way to travel with some struc­ture and se­cu­rity.

By com­bi­na­tion of taxi­cab, auto rick­shaw, bus and overnight train, our tour hits all the ma­jor sites. Among other places, we visit the his­toric city of Jaipur, the Taj Ma­hal world won­der in Agra, the holy city of Varanasi on the bank of the Ganges River, Chit­wan Na­tional Park in Nepal, and the

trekkers’ haven of the lower Hi­malayas in Pokhara.

As much as I ap­pre­ci­ate sight­see­ing, it is the peo­ple that I came here for, and the bub­ble of per­ceived se­cu­rity around our tour group al­lows me to be more open and en­gage the lo­cal peo­ple in a way that I may not feel com­fort­able do­ing if I was alone. I can have con­ver­sa­tions and laugh and make mean­ing­ful eye con­tact as a form of con­nec­tion and care and not worry about invit­ing more than I in­tend.

I can say yes when a swarm of teenagers asks for a group selfie in the mar­ket at dusk in Jaipur. I can say no when a bar­ber on a stretch of white sand on the far side of the Ganges asks me if I have a hus­band back home, and I can say no again, “Not my thing,” when he asks, “Boyfriend?” I can close my eyes and let my aware­ness drift to noth­ing other than the com­bined pres­ence of a thou­sand peo­ple sur­round­ing me in song and prayer at an evening ser­vice at the sa­cred Ram Raja Tem­ple in Orchha. In short, with the com­pany of a trusted guide and 13 other trav­ellers, I can let go and be my­self.

As I open to the va­ri­ety of peo­ple and en­ergy in each place we visit, the feed­back of emo­tion and ex­pe­ri­ence is im­mense. It feels like a world of op­po­sites and ex­tremes, all co­ex­ist­ing in some form of har­mony. Out­side the Taj Ma­hal, a truly as­tound­ing hu­man cre­ation that rat­tles your per­cep­tion with its size and pas­sion­ate mar­bled beauty, a child liv­ing in poverty asks for the rest of my bot­tle of mango juice.

I spend time paraglid­ing in Pokhara, soar­ing along­side ea­gles that dance in the same warm air sys­tem we are in; but I spend more time on my knees over a toi­let in Jaipur, sick with a trav­eller’s bug or other

Visit­ing In­dia and Nepal a re­minder the Western World is not the cen­tre of the uni­verse

type of virus.

Also in Pokhara, a tourist-ori­ented town that boasts yoga stu­dios, med­i­ta­tion cen­tres, and other modal­i­ties of en­light­en­ment, we visit Sasane, a lo­cal non-gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports women who have been vic­tims of hu­man traf­fick­ing.

In each city, among the masses of ven­dors that sell every­thing from brass Gane­sha stat­ues, to neck­laces, to model 747 jumbo jets, I feel a se­vere sense of ur­gency from those hop­ing to make any kind of sale. Yet, be­low the sur­face level of sur­vival, there is an ob­vi­ous net­work of calm co-op­er­a­tion. In one mar­ket, shop­keep­ers buy a tray of corn at the end of the day to feed the pi­geons. In an­other, our group leader al­lows a young street ma­gi­cian onto our bus to en­cour­age his craft as an al­ter­na­tive to beg­ging.

In both coun­tries, there is also great com­plex­ity in the treat­ment of the fem­i­nine. The Goddess is ever-present in a mul­ti­tude of forms (Kali fig­ures on the dash of a taxi) and there is sin­cere rev­er­ence for both fem­i­nine and mas­cu­line sources of power (Par­vati and Shiva are shown equal and very much in love in stat­ues along road­way medi­ums). Yet, we in­ter­act al­most ex­clu­sively with men in the ho­tels, restau­rants, shops and mu­se­ums; and it is clear that, in prac­ti­cal terms, the mas­cu­line is supremely dom­i­nant.

This du­al­ity of ex­pe­ri­ence is ev­ery­where. Varanasi, the old­est con­tin­u­ally in­hab­ited city on the planet, is home to the world’s largest ceme­tery: the Manikarnika “burn­ing ghats,” an open cre­ma­tion site on the Ganges River. Within the long­est un­bro­ken stream of hu­man life, a steady pa­rade of fam­i­lies moves to­ward the river car­ry­ing the saf­fron-shrouded bod­ies of loved ones who have passed. We brush ash from our hair and shoul­ders as we nav­i­gate the busy al­ley­ways wind­ing be­hind the smoul­der­ing wooden pyres on the river­bank.

The Ganges River it­self – the most sa­cred river in the world – is also the most shock­ingly pol­luted. But I can’t pass up the op­por­tu­nity to par­take in one of Hin­duism’s most im­por­tant acts of pil­grim­age: cleans­ing in Mother Ganges. So, I check my­self for any open cuts and am sure to keep my head above wa­ter while I swim; and, de­spite my brain track­ing the po­ten­tial threat, as I kick against the cur­rent along­side our small row boat I feel a type of hap­pi­ness and an ex­pan­sion in my chest un­like any­thing I have known be­fore.

This wide spec­trum of re­al­ity doesn’t un­set­tle me. Rather, it feels whole. On one of our train rides, I read a pas­sage from Pema Cho­dron’s “The Places that Scare You,” and Cho­dron re­minds the reader of Bud­dha’s in­struc­tion to “sit with it all.”

“The Places that Scare You” is the sec­ond book I chose to bring on the trip sim­ply be­cause it was slim enough to slip in my back­pack with­out tak­ing up too much space, and it turns out to be the per­fect se­lec­tion. Cho­dron writes how Bud­dha teaches that Earth has both great suf­fer­ing and great joy. To be fully hu­man is to be re­cep­tive to the whole con­tin­uum.

As part of the tour, we visit Bud­dha’s birth­place in Lumbini, Nepal, as well as the site where he de­liv­ered his first ser­mon: Sar­nath, In­dia, a few kilo­me­tres north­east of Varanasi. In both places, the air is thick with Bud­dha’s pres­ence – both the pres­ence of his per­son and the legacy of his teach­ings. It is a thick­ness in­fused with ease. Supreme strength and a gen­tle grace, in­sep­a­ra­ble from one an­other.

Fol­low­ing the 15-day tour, I stay in Nepal for an­other week to trek in the An­na­purna moun­tain range. I’m with a guide and one other trav­eller from Aus­tralia.

We walk by day and sleep overnight in ru­ral vil­lages nes­tled serenely into the moun­tain­sides. Prayer flags bil­low in the evening wind, roost­ers call at dawn, and chil­dren play on the stone steps be­tween their small mud homes. We make steep, hours-long as­cents un­der the blaz­ing sun­light, and de­scend rapidly into shaded river val­leys. It is ex­haust­ing and beau­ti­ful. My ears ad­just to the quiet. As I sweat and breathe the open air, my body ex­punges any pol­lu­tion and emo­tional den­sity that I’d gath­ered through­out the trip.

The re­ju­ve­nat­ing trek would have been the per­fect way to end such a full ad­ven­ture. But when I re­turn to Kathmandu for my flight home, there is one more stop I have to make.

On the way to the air­port, I ask the taxi driver to wait for an hour at Pashu­pati­nath. Lo­cated on the Bag­mati River and con­sid­ered one of the holi­est places in Nepal, Pashu­pati­nath is both a tem­ple ded­i­cated to Lord Shiva as well as the sec­ond largest open cre­ma­tion site in the world be­hind Manikarnika in Varanasi.

I walk slowly through the grounds. A monkey chirps from a low wall. A group of cows laze by a mound of garbage on the river’s edge. Some­one has spray-painted “hu­man par­a­site” on the back of a stone bench. I pass groups of lo­cals and smile when­ever some­one looks me fully in the eyes.

In the many pass­ing faces, I see a uni­verse of re­al­i­ties. I see sad­ness as well as hap­pi­ness; I see sta­sis, and I see won­der. I see strength and ac­cep­tance. I see hu­mans, and I see life.

I stand on a short bridge and look out over the river. As Shiva beams from the tem­ple at my back, smoke rises from the pyres on the river­bank to blend with the af­ter­noon sun.

Cleans­ing in the Ganges River is one of Hin­duism’s most im­por­tant acts of pil­grim­age.

RIGHT: Our 15-day guided tour wrapped up in Kathmandu, Nepal. ABOVE: Trav­el­ling by auto rick­shaw in Delhi, In­dia, led to some close calls. (Photo by An­drea Perry)

A tree is cov­ered in prayer flags at Bud­dha’s birth­place in Lumbini, Nepal.

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