…trips do not begin or end, they merely change form”
~ Robyn Davidson
Last week in India. Every situation I encountered became a microcosm of India in my mind, little snippets of time and absurdity that perfectly encapsulated my experience of the country…
A Varanasi alleyway at night. A cow thrusts her matted black head out of a weathered door, and fills the darkness with a thunderous bellow. A group of men huddled together around a fire are startled out of their conversation. They look over at the cow and point in the direction that the cow’s mate went, a ponderous white bull who was usually at her side. The black cow lumbers off in that direction and the men resume their conversation as if there were nothing odd about that interaction.
Ordering breakfast at a hotel restaurant. As usual, we write our order down on a scrap of paper that has someone’s passport photocopied on one side. Set breakfast with tea. The waiter brings out a tray some time later and says, “You wanted tea?”
“Well, I made you coffee.”
Crossing a busy street. I’m about to slip into sliver of space in the traffic. At the precise moment the gap presents itself, a rickshaw driver pulls into it, spits paan juice at my feet and asks, “tuk-tuk?”.
The local bar around the corner from the hostel. There are never any women in here, aside from us Western girls. It’s dark and smoky; Indian music videos flash brightly on a big screen television. There isn’t a separate bathroom for women, so we all have to share the men’s. At the end of the night, a few of us go into the bathroom together and meet a trio of young Indian guys preening in the mirror. They spend the next fifteen minutes directing us in a series of bathroom mirror selfies.
Sarnath, an important Buddhist site just outside Varanasi. After breakfast one morning, I change my mind about my plans and decide to go back to Varanasi in the afternoon. I had the name of the hostel I wanted to go to, but no address or directions or much of a clue where it was, and I couldn’t find any wifi anywhere. But no matter. There are no time constraints and I’m confident I’ll get there eventually. I vaguely remember that the street name of the hostel starts with a B, so I pick out a B named street on the map and instruct the rickshaw driver to take me there. Rickshaw drivers never seem to use maps or precise directions — they just go to the general area and ask around until they find the place. So I figure that’s what we’ll do.
After a few failed attempts at asking for directions (it’s the wrong B street), the driver sends me into an alley on a wild goose chase and bails. I hit a dead end at the end of the alley, backtrack and return to the main road. It’s a clear day, bright and sunny, and people seem friendlier than usual. I walk down the street slowly, taking in the effervescence of Indian commerce, and enjoying the sun on my face. There is a man standing in front of a souvenir shop who looks like he wants to sell me something. I pre-empt his sales pitch by asking for directions. He brings out a stool for me to sit on, two cups of chai, and lets me use his phone to google the hostel. We chat aimlessly. I finish my chai, he waves over a bicycle rickshaw and sends me on my way. Easy as that.
“Stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course”
~ Tao Te Ching
Travelling through India is like being tempered by fire. I have so much to be grateful to this country for and yet, most days it drove me completely nuts. I’m hardier now, with a better handle on stress, quicker to laugh when things go awry. I appreciate the art of doing nothing, even if I don’t always have the patience for it. I don’t look at my own vulnerability as a weakness any more.
Since I’ve spent so much of my six month journey alone or in a crowd but apart and hanging out in my own head, whenever I get the opportunity to retreat into myself, it feels like coming home — the place I’ve travelling all this time to find.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”
~ T.S. Eliot