There's so much about this country and my journey through it that is disorienting. Between the ceaseless traffic, noise and crush of humanity, the languages, foods and smells that are foreign to me and not being at all sure of where I'm going every time I trust myself to the next driver or guide, suffice it to say getting my bearings in India isn't easy. These first couple of weeks I've been on the move all the time, exploring and then changing cities every few days, so just when I got comfortable in the smaller of the towns, it was on to the next. Now that will change.
I've committed to a month-long stay volunteering with a traditional medicine man at his Ayurvedic clinic. During that time I'll live with a family and make my home in Kerala. The significance of that commitment has just hit me as I'm on a rickety old bus that's supposed to take me to my second overnight bus in three days, though I'm not really clear on how all that is going to work. The intervening 24 hours between overnight buses included lengthy car rides, 5 hours sleep and a flight from Delhi to Bangalore. I'm physically exhausted. My body held out incredibly well through the rigorous travel schedule and amazing adventures and experiences of these first couple of weeks. That's saying a lot given the fact that I'm breathing air so polluted in many places I can literally feel it clogging my lungs as I inhale, I'm eating very differently than I would at home, my yoga practice has been minimal, I've been in freezing cold weather and sleep has been in short supply on more than a few days. Not that I'm complaining. . . it's what I signed up for, for better or for worse.
The fatigue has brought on a vulnerability and perspective different from anything I've felt so far. Life here is hard and raw. And I'm getting more exposed to it as I travel on. Squat toilets are now normal, preferable to people peeing wherever they please in public. . . How I take for granted the convenience and modesty of our toilets. I've learned how to bathe with a bucket and a cup, shivering as I squatted to make myself small in the tiny bathroom that contains bath, sink and toilet all in one little space, no heat aside from the water to provide relief from the cold. . . To think of the luxury that my readily available hot shower and jacuzzi jet tub provide. I then scrubbed laundry in that same bucket using a bar of detergent. . . Shame on me who has never thought to give thanks every time I toss a load of laundry in the wash with my organic detergent. I've sat around the kitchen fire with my hosts, watching the ladies prepare meals in the simplest, most humble spaces, using simple, humble ingredients. . . As if swinging by Whole Foods and dropping a small fortune is nothing.
I asked to be challenged and taken outside of my comfort zone, and I'm quite sure this trip will deliver. It already has, and we're just getting started. Right now, feeling worn down and fatigued, a piece of me wants to eat my words. Do I have what it takes to see this through? But a much bigger piece is ready for this. A much bigger piece of me wants it and knows I can handle whatever comes at me. In such a short time I've been gifted more than money and material comfort can ever buy just by bearing witness to this way of life and dipping a proverbial toe into the pool. Now it's time to dive in.
Inspiration and encouragement abounds, of course. Yesterday I wrapped up my backpacking tour with a very special visit to a very special man. Shyam Das, who many in the kirtan community at home will know, has been living in India for 40 years. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of years back on a retreat, and the best way to describe it, for me, was a kind of love at first bhajan. It's love for a man with a beautiful spirit, an immense depth and breadth of knowledge about subjects very dear to my heart, and a fascination for this jew from the northeast who decided to make his home in this strange, magical land. I consider him a teacher and guide, so the chance to see him in India was one that I was determined to make happen, even if it had to be brief.
My driver, frustrated but accommodating, wound us through unfamiliar streets south of Vrindavan to Gokul, sacred land for Krishna lovers and one of the places Shyam makes his home here. We pulled into a little square and the most serene, lovely face attached to a terribly thin body appeared alongside the car to retrieve me. Gopal, a helper and student of Shyam's. He led me through winding passages, up flights and flights of stairs until finally we emerged on a rooftop where Shyam, his assistant Ally and another friend where sitting. I was so hugely happy to see them, familiar faces in a foreign land.
We sat and talked, then we went and walked, monkeys fed along the way, greetings exchanged. We ended up taking a little sunset sail on the sacred Yamuna River, now sadly poisoned from so much pollution, but beautiful still. To have that satsang, that blessed company, reaffirmed me. It was the reminder of why I chose to come here in the first place. This is not about selfless service, though I am thrilled to be volunteering here and doing some karma yoga. It isn't really selfless at all because I'm here for me. I'm here to further explore my spirituality in the birthplace of the traditions I've come to adopt as my own. I'm here to practice devotion, bhakti, outside of the cushy retreats and kirtan festivals I enjoy at home, and instead find that bhav in the simultaneously gritty and gorgeous way of life here. I'm here to learn about being alone in a land of a billion people, and find comfort in the uncomfortable.
And maybe if I'm luck, I'll get a little sleep tonight! ;-) Happy trails, fellow travelers.