“The only zen you find on tops of mountains is the zen you bring there.” ~Robert M. Pirsig
India. Birthplace of Buddha. The live yoga capital of the world. After many years of daydreaming and longing, I booked myself a pilgrimage to north India. It was the summer of 2008. The goal: study authentic yoga. I entertained notions of romanticized spiritualism pervading the very air of the country. Yet I knew meditation was not magical. It’s practice.
I arrived in Delhi; my huge red backpack did not.
I filled out the stupid paperwork and was assured that my bag would be delivered to me in Rishikesh in 24 hours (YEAH. Right!) …and amazingly it did get there, though it took a few days. I went through customs and was thrust out into the maddening crowd. There in the distance, a travel agent stood holding a card that said my name. This was the one thing I had arranged in advance for this trip. He drove me to the YWCA Guest House, my first of many experiences with the insane Indian traffic system. They drive on the left like in the UK. There are rickshaws, bikes, buses, cars, pedestrians, dogs, cows and monkeys to contend with. Cars veer into other lanes to pass slow-movers, and three vehicles have no problem squeezing into one lane. I am generally a calm and easygoing person, but it’s hard to relax when there’s a double decker bus aiming at you head on.
I went to an ashram that had been recommended by a friend of a friend for its quality food, plus it was purely donation-based. It was a lovely place, but I did not belong there. I wasn’t Hindu enough. (Or at all.)
Still, I liked to stand at the edge of the ashram overlooking the rapidly flowing Ganges.
I stood there watching the river flow. I was living “the dream”! I was in India, where I’d always wanted to be. But I was wallowing in negativity, lamenting my loneliness and isolation. I had come seeking “authentic yoga,” hadn’t I? Perhaps this was too “authentic” for me? Who was I fooling?
As I was strolling back to my room, I crossed paths with three Indian men. One of them engaged me in conversation. He was a self-proclaimed part-time astrologer and a full-time meditator named Jeehvan. When he inquired about the style of meditation I practice, I said Vipassana. He then invited me to come along with them to a 10-day silent course.
The next day, annoyed by the incessant honking of horns in Rishikesh, I realized I wanted to find a quieter, smaller village. I was walking along, hot and sweaty, when I came to a bend in the road. I spotted a macaque monkey. A perfect photo op: a mama with a cute little baby attached to its front. I pulled out my camera and snapped a couple shots. I couldn’t get the ideal photograph, apparently. More and more of the herd appeared.
Suddenly, they were surrounding me in a semi-circle of monkey intimidation.
I backed away slowly. Then, the biggest one started chasing me, at which point I ran down the road screaming. He kept following me, making a terrible noise. I was afraid he’d bite me and I’d get rabies. I almost threw my big plastic water bottle at him. He finally stopped. One of the ubiquitous blue rickshaw cabs pulled over and picked me up. In it were two teenage boys and the driver. We all laughed at me. I was panting and giggling in utter relief and minor humiliation. The monkey had literally chased me out of Rishikesh.
I decided to journey with my new friends to the silent meditation course, despite Jeehvan’s greasy and periodically shady nature (at one point, when we went to a temple and sat and meditated on the cool marble floor, he declared that my second chakra was blocked. The remedy? Sex, preferably with him. I declined).
The meditation course was absolutely no easier the second time around. I had taken my first Vipassana course in north Texas the summer prior. I had cheated during my first course, breaking the rules by reading (a book on Buddhism, so shoot me!) and writing (a daily journal entry). I even snuck to my car in the dark of night after about seven days and furtively texted my friends and boyfriend. But in India, I followed the rules. No reading. No writing. Until day five when I snuck away to my room and scrawled this on the back of a receipt from my wallet:
“No escape… spiders everywhere.
A HUGE red one kept me up half the night. I was sure it was plotting to kill me in my sleep. It rains every day. Lemon water for dinner… I hope I’m losing weight. I am supposed to be meditating in my pagoda cell right now. Am rebelling. I keep looking forward. What’s next? Lunch? Shower? Fill up my water bottle? Must be present. I can only take so much f-ing meditation! Hence, I am here writing on the back of an ATM receipt. I miss home.”
Day 9, I slipped and cut my knee on the sidewalk. It didn’t hurt but I started sobbing silently as the gruff Indian lady helper scuttled away to the kitchen. She brought back a handful of turmeric powder and threw it on my scraped skin. It was a poetic moment, the blood seeping through the saffron colored powder. I survived the cut, and the course… patiently and persistently, with perfect equanimity.
I met many wonderful people on the tenth day when we got to start talking again and hearing everyone’s stories. I decided to travel to a city called Leh in a remote Himalayan region called Ladakh with three women from the meditation retreat. We took an overnight bus ride to Manali, a small city from which we would depart on the reprehensible journey to Leh.
We left at one a.m. We were told the trip would take 16 hours.
The jeep was crammed with ten people. Four in the very back — young Indian guys smoking pot incessantly. Four in the middle seat where there should have been three. The driver, an unwieldy stick shift, and two more in the front seat. The roads? Hideous is an understatement. Unpaved, rocky, sandy, wet, bumpy, awful. Our driver went sooo slow, partly because the jeep was old and just wouldn’t accelerate that much, partly because he was being cautious. By 6 p.m., our estimated time of arrival, we were only halfway there!
Eighteen hours into the trip, I threw up out the window of the jeep, overcome by the combination of altitude, rocky road and possibly some bad roadside food. We had to stop for the night. Our “hotel” was a large, white plastic tent with dozens of futon beds. I fell asleep covered in warm blankets by the Tibetan ladies who worked there. In the morning, I drank plain tea and ate cookies and immediately threw up. I was so dehydrated but couldn’t hold anything down. It was torturous. The rest of the jeep trip was rough but the roads got better.
The sights were breathtaking.
And yet I was so miserably sick that I couldn’t enjoy them properly. Our jeep driver played Bollywood music on cassette which was sometimes annoying, sometimes strangely soothing. I began to feel better. I started looking at roadside signs as entertainment. Some of my favorites:
“After drinking whiskey, driving is risky.” It rhymes. Cute.
“Enjoy the scenery, protect the greenery.” So much more polite than my home state’s all-CAPS slogan, DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS. India has much better manners than Texas.
“Safety on the road means ‘safe tea’ at home.” Punny.
“If you love her, divorce speed” is strangely hilarious.
And last but not least, “Darling, I like you, but not so fast.” Subtle.