Everyday Samadhi: Tips and Discoveries on Travelling to India

Another haunting and beautiful photograph from my friend Dana, my yogi roomate in Pune.

From the early explorers to the Beatles to today's backpackers, the idea that cultures in the East "know something we don't know" still permeates. Leaving your home country to find solace, escape pain or to be inspired to change is the traveller's quest. Before I left on my trip to India, people would tell me that it would change my life.  "Well, we'll see...", I thought to myself.   Even if, like me, you leave thinking you have done plenty of introspective work over the years and are "fine",  I can tell you, in all honesty, India will change your life.

First, it will strip you down. It is very clear to me now why the principals of non-harming, non-attachment, freedom from fear of death and the practices of meditation, yoga asana and deep, calming breath work originate in India. I don't actually think you can live there, survive there, without these things. When walking across the street takes your life into your hands and devastating scenes are at every turn, you need coping mechanisms or you suffer deeply.  As Geeta said to us in class, you have to get depressed in a pose, fail, realize your failure and learn from it to become renewed in your practice.  In a place like India you will find that all your pre-conceptions, expectations, attachments and ego mean nothing. I failed and got depressed, a lot. The logic and courtesy and basic human right that we are privileged to here do not apply there.  But despite the failures and depressions, or perhaps because of them, travel (and yoga) shows us how to become free of suffering. 

A beautiful portrait to honour the grace and unconditional love of this sweet, abused being.
 May he be reincarnated as a dog in a middle class North America home.

 Like all the books and gurus and Buddhist quotes say, the self we are looking for has been there all along--hidden behind a bunch of falsities and lies we tell ourselves about how we should be and what we need to have for happiness.  You need not be a yogi or a hippy or denounce your Western life to  learn from the everyday Indian. The peace I seek is available, any time, no matter what situation I am in, because I learned how to tap into it on a Mumbai street corner or in a headstand. So now the challenge is to practice ahimsa and non-attachment in this daily life here and if I can, I know I can find freedom from suffering and even get a glimpse of samadhi, everyday.  Of course, it isn't easy and we fail and get depressed at home too (as do the Indian people! We are all human, after all) but, for me, the yoga practice helps me recover a little faster. On the mat, we can bypass all the junk that gets in the way of our true selves and feel safe to go inward. As Iyengar said to us at Guru Purnima celebrations on Sunday "the body is the prop to the Self."

I have been all over this world and let me tell you, there is no place like home. But isn't it wonderful to know that "home" is within and can go with you, whenever and wherever you travel?
Guruji gave personal blessings to each of the 1000+ people attending Guru Purnima celebrations. 

By request from a few friends, here is my Top Ten List for Travel to India:

1. Don't Think Too Much You don't really want to know what is in that puddle or whether you just accidentally stepped in animal (or human?!) waste. It may sound insensitive, but for me the heartache would have been unrecoverable if I allowed my mind to wander too far into the future of the baby sleeping in the gutter or the stray dogs on the curb. The food is delicious, no matter the sugar or the ghee content. You'll be able to scrub everything off and do laundry and diet later. For now, just embrace the unknown--it is either that or turn around and get back on the plane.

One of the best things we did was visit and donate to a local grassroots organization , making huge impact with their orphanage, HIV/AIDS education, women's micro-finance initiative, youth empowerment programs and this, a free nursery school so single mothers can work and know their babies are sleeping safely. It really helped knowing things are being done locally and that our donation would have a lasting impact.

2. Tea Tree Oil, Vaccinations, DEET, Probiotics, Air Filter Masks, Water Purifier, Neti
See #1, except when it comes to preventable things. Just fork over the money for the travel clinic and be grateful we have access to such incredible health care. I was surprised to learn that polio is on the rise in India and I needed an adult booster. Trust me, you don't want polio. 
DEET. It is horrible, but it works and malaria and dengue fever are still very real. I avoided Delhi belly with a program from my naturopath that included garlic pills and probiotics. A STERIpen like this would have been awesome and bonus points for bringing a refillable water bottle so that one less plastic bottle ends up in the Ganges. Also great to know the water in your neti pot is clean!  I am sure my lungs are damaged from the traffic and I wish I had brought this mask. In India, ladies cover their faces with scarves in traffic, so if you care about what you look like in the back of a rickshaw, cover the mask with a scarf and you'll not only be safe, but in the latest Indian fashion! Lori used natural oils in her scarf to inhale something pleasant rather than the unique Indian atmosphere of urine, diesel fuel, rotting garbage and curry.

3. Leggings, Scarves and Salwar Kameez
On the note of fashion, bring a lot of leggings. I never wear them in public at home, but in India, they are the best, however you must wear a long enough top to cover your ass. Except for hip downtown Mumbai, bare legs, sleeveless and waist length tops are still a no-no. You can buy versions of leggings in India, but they are so tight at the ankles that they don't fit Western calves and they have harem-pant style crotches. Just bring your own. But do buy a salwar kameez, like I am wearing below, and several scarves for bad hair days (there will be many), to cover your shoulders and also your face in traffic (see #2). You'll fit right in. Sandals are next to nothing so if yours get soaked, break or you step in something unpleasant, buy a new pair off a street vendor for less than $1. 

*side note: Indian girls from less traditional families wear jeans and t-shirt just like every other teenager, but jeans are hot and sticky, take up a lot of space and never dry. I advise you not to bother. Refer to #1 when it comes to your style in India.

Here we are at the Aga Khan Palace/ Ghandi Memorial looking like locals...sort-of
4. Channel Your Inner IBB and Then, Your Inner Ghandi  Cynthia, this her 6th trip to India, introduced me to her term "IBB" (Inner Braham Bitch) Trust me, your IBB is going to come out at one point or another! You will just reach your breaking point where if one more scooter honks at you to get out of the way while it rips down the sidewalk or if you hear "no" from another waiter (mango ice cream is not allowed with chocolate sauce, even though vanilla is.... You can film and photograph at the Aga Khan palace, but sketching is forbidden) or if another lady elbows you out of the cue with not even a apologetic Indian head bobble, you will just have to get a little IBB. Remember to smile after you assert yourself, choose your words and tone carefully (these things are universal!) and when you you get what you need, tip well, and bring your hands together in a gracious namaste. The rest of the time, remember Ghandi and practice patience and compassion.  With no expectations you will leave yourself open to experience wonderful joy.

5. Women vs Men The media is really drawing attention to India's appalling human rights violations these days, especially when it comes to violence against women. The truth is, media coverage is a good sign that women are becoming less afraid to report things that have been happening all along and the Indian government is being shamed into responding. Pick up any newspaper and the articles you will read about this stuff will have you pinching yourself because they are so surreal and illogical. I was expecting total harassment and so I went with the clear intention to keep my eyes open for good men. And you know what? India is full of them! Unexpectedly, I had a male security guard come up to me at a busy Ganesh temple, ask if I was OK and show me what the signage for the police station looked like, "just in case".  It is perfectly safe for women to walk alone and take rickshaws and taxis alone, by day. Some practical considerations are to adhere to the respectful dress code of #3, never walk alone after 9pm, wear the classic silver coiled toe rings of Indian married women (fake wedding rings will have no effect as women don't wear them!), align yourself with an older Indian woman if you feel unsafe and young adult women usually speak English and are happy to help. We even got invited to go sari shopping, attend a wedding  and to stay at a woman's house! 

The women in India hold the key to its future. I met so many young women with degrees and dreams, straddling tradition and modernity.

6.  Take Time  And you thought applying for your Indian Tourist Visa was bad! Asian time is different than Western time. Leave the schedule and the organizational structure and your punctuality behind because one task will take all day. Travelling 26 km in Mumbai by car can take 3 hours. Every doorway to every public place has airport style security complete with a pat down, registration and a conveyor belt to scan your handbag. Most purchases require you have a cup of chai with the shop owner and look at 1000 pieces of silver jewellery that are "new, just today, madam". A table of six will only get two menus, as a matter of course, and you'll be done your dessert before your friend gets her main. Blackouts are common. Wi-fi is spotty.  Breathe. Om Shanti Shanti...

If it has a peel, enjoy! Otherwise, fruit/veg soap and filtered water allows you access to all of India's culinary delights--like guava!

7. Be Unafraid  If you want things to be easy and safe, you should probably stay home. Really consider the intention behind your desire to travel here.  Nothing irks me more than travellers that wander around verbalizing their dissatisfaction. They speak English in India, you know! Because we are guests in another country being respectful should be top of mind.  A street side samosa is so deep-fried it isn't going to kill you to take a bite when generously offered and you might just learn how to make them from the vendor! Eating with your right hand is a great brain challenge and it is fun feeling food in your hands and getting a little messy now and again. When are you ever going to see that tropical fruit at home or have a chance to be wrapped in a sari or get to drive on a sidewalk. Jump in! My best memories have been when I dared to inquire about something or took the time to be truly interested in someone. The best book I've read on Asian travel is the classic, Asia Through the Back Door by Rick Steves. It will prepare you in all manner of Asian customs so that you can be both bold and respectful.

We should all have such joy and pride in our work!

8. Support Local and Carry Small Change Shop till you drop! I bought so much I had to spend 100Rp ($2CDN) on a huge woven market bag for all my new purchases. Woven khadi cloth, linens and blankets, natural oils, incense and perfume, batik, embroidery, silk, silver, hand blocked prints, yoga props, books and Indian fashion magazines, custom made clothing (bring your favourite clothes to be reproduced in a matter of days!), statues ...the choices are gorgeous and so inexspensive. Shop at the Central Cottage Industries Emporiums, urban government shops that encourage fair trade and bring in local handicraft traditions from rural communities and the many locally owned, small businesses in India, like the batik shop we came upon, below. Part of supporting local also means rickshaw drivers, fruit and vegetable stalls, the lady that fills the tiffins, public washroom attendants and security guards. Carry a tonne of small change (notes in 100Rp or less) for everyone you meet along the way who works hard. 

My advice however, is that you when you leave, surrender the clothes and toiletries you brought for the maids and locals who could always use them. Also, keep prices in perspective. Although you may get over-charged because you are a foreigner, the difference between $0.50 and $1.50 is nominal to us and huge for them. In what I spend on a latte a day, an Indian family can eat for a week. Lastly, I always try to be mindful that what looks great in India doesn't necessarily "go" in our climate and decor. Do you really think you'll wear that sari at the office? 

Hand painted and dyed cloth for batik

9.  Factor in Some Mental Space  Whether it be a spa treatment, brunch at a 5 star hotel or a side trip to the beach, make sure you get away and give yourself the mental space to re-charge. Our day at the Hyatt gave us the energy and patience we needed to continue with another two weeks submerged in the chaos. For $150 we had a spa treatment, wine by the pool, a steam, sauna and dinner at one of India's best restaurants. It was a total treat and the only reason we could afford it was because in India we are rich. Never forget that for most of the people you meet, affording a passport, never mind an airplane ticket is completely unfathomable. For one day, treat yourself like a Bollywood star and hold on to the gratitude afforded to you for when you return to the streets of India and your real life back home. 

10. Pack an Open Mind and Heart  Arriving in India with no expectations on what the experience will be and a moratorium on your judgements and pre-conceived notions will open your heart to experiencing the beauty and joy that is India and its people. 

Let me know if you are interested in a first-timer's perspective on yoga at the Iyengar Institute in Pune. Otherwise, I would love to hear your thoughts and tips for India, please leave a comment!


Anonymous said...

You have done a fantastic Job describing India; it hasn't changed a bit. J

Tintorera said...

So this salwar kameez, you bought it there? And leggings are ok as long as your bum is covered? I have been hearing that nothing form fitted at all is best. I'm also surprised to see sandals! I thought closed toe would be a necessity.
I just did some more research and the average temperature when I'm there is high teens and low 20s. Not exactly hot!

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