Something inside of you will shift when you visit India. To spend time in India, is to experience a country where there is acceptance of a spiritual path and the meeting of the body, mind and soul. This is embodied in yoga and touches the divine, which was the main reason for the journey.
Despite being the second most populous country in the world, I never felt excess or greed. Our journey of 2 weeks was filled with colourful people, history and exploration. It was also a journey of contrasts and contradictions which ebbed and flowed like the Ganges River from its glacial source in the Himalaya.
The beauty of being in a country where the languages are different, the customs are foreign and your point of reference is stripped away, is that you become open to experience and are receptive. India will take you out of your comfort zone in a single encounter with a taxi driver, a military official, listening to a hicupping Indian air hostess, trying to cross a road or seated in an Air India plane where none of the locals listen to any announcements and happily chat away on cellphones while taking off. Life as one knows it, is put in a blender and blended into a life that will guide you, test you and teach you.
I was truly blessed to be guided and taught by attending an Iyengar yoga intensive convention for 8 days in Pune, which is 163 km from Mumbai or a 3 (or 4) hour drive by car. An introduction to India by road is a baptism of fire. Four lane straight roads become 6 lane roads that meander along corkscrew impromptu lines. Red traffic lights do not mean stop; they provide decoration. Hooters or horns are used even when a scooter, car, decorated truck or an auto rickshaw (i.e. a tuk-tuk) starts-up irrespective of whether or not someone is in the way. People drive with one hand on the horn (despite the road campaign posters saying “stop being horny”) and the other on the steering wheel unless the driver has fallen asleep which we saw happen. One honk of a horn and the driver wakes-up, and he is off again, smoke bellowing out the exhaust. We did also see a truck driver with one eye. Fascinating how it all just functions, one eye, two eyes, awake, asleep, pollution inflicted poor visibility and animals in the road. As for potholes, they are part of the fabric of a road. It would be a strange day indeed to drive on a road with no gaping holes of tar or cement.
It is however a very telling experience: India works. The traffic moves. Up to end November 2015, Pune (which is a large city) had a population of 3.2 million and only 194 road fatalities (most due to scooter fatalities and because helmets are not worn) and this figure was seen as very high. Crime is generally low and people just get on with everyday life. The one major sign that perhaps all is not well, is the presence of security guards and military at key sights, and being searched when entering most buildings. This is due to the threat from neighbouring Pakistan. I read the Times of India everyday and without fail, there were front page articles on this apparent threat.
A delight was trying to communicate with the local people. English is not widely spoken in Pune. We had to rely on facial expressions and body language. When asking a question, Indian people do not nod their heads up and down to indicate “yes” or sideways to indicate “no”. Instead, there is a wobble of the head which I am told is different for a “yes” and for a “no” but I still cannot tell which is which.
Also, when asking for directions, we would not get a straight answer. Things were either “left left” or “after the market”. Once you have been to India, you will realise that the market could mean a shop, many shops, a place of sorts, a food cart or any other place including a hole in the wall. When asking for an indication of how long something will take, the stock reply was “one moment please”. This could mean one minute or something much, much longer. Time has a different quality in India. It was apparent from the moment we landed in Mumbai when the air hostess (not the hicupping one) announced the time which was one hour out.
Apart from the usual travel necessities, when going to India you need to take a shoe box full of medication as a preventative measure. We never touched the contents of the box in all our time there. Perhaps it is because we adhered to the rule of never drinking tap water (even when brushing teeth) and only a few times ate food cooked out in the open from a dodgy source. More important than pills, you need to have two qualities with you at all times: patience and humour. Without these, a trip to India will be too harsh and too raw.
Yes, we saw many animals roaming the streets. In Pune, the animals were generally in good condition despite some being covered in insects or inflicted with mange. We mainly saw dogs, a few puppies, 2 cats, goats and the holiest of all, cows. In Varanasi (which will be covered in a separate blog), it was much poorer and as the human condition worsened, so did that of the animals. We must have seen over 100 puppies, easily a 1 000 dogs, chickens and goats for slaughter (there are 3 100 illegal slaughterhouses in India) and again, the holy cow. The animals had gaping wounds, mange and were thin, desperately trying to find leftovers from mounds of litter that appear everywhere. Yet somehow, it is all accepted as part of the cycle of life and there is a quiet air of acceptance.
PETA India and Animal Rahat which it supports, has a huge task on its hands, but not dissimilar to tackling the stray animal population in South Africa. The main difference is that animals are not abused as such in India. This would be against the principle of ahimsa or non-violence but it does not mean they are loved or cared for by the average person. Wandering animals are tolerated but not adored. It appeared that provided no direct harm was visibly being directed at animals, ahimsa was upheld. It is illegal in India to eat beef. To get around this, buffaloes are slaughtered. It did seem to be a contradiction that those who would not eat beef, were comfortable with leather bags and leather shoes all made from cow skin.
What did surprise me, was the patriarchal nature of Indian society. There were times when I was ignored by Indian men when I was asking a question with my husband present. When paying for food, clothing (I went a bit overboard), Ayurvedic products (I went over the top here too) or hotel bills, my husband was always directed to pay. At all 3 hotels we stayed in, I had made the bookings in my name with my husband as the spouse, as well as for all transfers or pick-ups. The rooms and pick-ups were always changed to be in my husband’s name. It got to the point where I gave my husband all my dollars (American not Zimbabwean dollars) and rupees, and made him pay for whatever I purchased. I would then publically thank him profusely for spoiling me and all of India was happy again!
My husband was quite a hit in India. He was assumed to be a WWE wrestler, an actor or someone who quite simply could not be married to me (according to an Indian immigration official) given the body size difference. His tattoos caused a near riot one day when Pune high school children saw him and wanted to touch his tattooed arm, and then we had to have a photo session. This also happened in Varanasi. With my light hair and a few tattoo’s, I too had my share of waves and stares. My PETA “eat no cows” t-shirt did the trick whenever I wore it and I was no longer just a housewife or “homemaker” as they say in India. At one hotel, the manager gasped when he saw on my personal particulars form that I was an attorney.
India remains a caste-based society in practice albeit not recognised by its constitution. People, in particular Hindus, are born into a specific caste or varna of which there are four, being (in order of seniority) Brahmin (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (soldiers and administrators), Vaishya (merchants) and Shudra (labourers). Below this are the so-called Untouchables. It is quite hard to move from one caste to another while alive but if a Hindu fulfills her/his moral duty or dharma while alive, it is possible that in the next life, one could move into a higher varna. As a sign that the caste system is evolving, the Times of India weekend edition publishes adverts for suitable candidates for arranged marriages. Parents place adverts for a child and have to indicate if the applicants have to be of the same caste or if “non caste applies”. Being fair skinned or “wheatish” was regarded as a very fine quality when seeking a suitable partner.
Whilst I would meet the wheatish characteristic, being a vegan would most certainly have me out of the match-making race. It caused confusion and bewilderment to say I was a vegan. India is largely vegetarian due to 80% of its population being Hindu and milk is an essential part of the diet, as it is regarded as being sattvic or pure. I got blank stares when I said I would not buy a genuine pashmina or a silk scarf, or eat paneer (soft cheese) or have a lassi (yoghurt drink). Funny how when I said that the wool in pashminas was an issue for me, the shop owner was quick to point out that actually none of his pashminas had wool and were now all proudly made of a soft cotton. This is how India operates: tell us what you want and we will give you what we think you want even if we stretch the truth a bit. If you ask to try size 38 shoes in tan pleather, we will suddenly up the price and offer you size 41 shoes in bright pink. Whatever happened to the shoes I asked for, one will never know.
I never felt threatened or unsafe in India. It was a bonus to be accompanied by my wrestler husband but that was because I enjoy his company not for safety reasons. We have the same sense of humour and he fully understands that I do not mind getting to the heart of a country but I need a hot shower, white bedding and silence after a day doing yoga, walking in strange smelly streets, fighting-off beggars (surprisingly few) or self-appointed tourist guides who stick to you like velcro, breathing pollution and tolerating hooter noise dominating the outside world.
No trip to a foreign country is complete without a study of its bathrooms. To keep this blog from going into lavatorial matters, all I can say is men have it easy as they relieve themselves wherever they may be whilst women have to beg for a bathroom and then find that there is a hole in the floor, a broken door, wet floor tiles and no toilet paper. This is the reality of travelling: you are a guest in another country and had better get on with things otherwise it is going to be a very lonely journey.
In my next blog, I will share some of the yoga insights from the yoga convention. Until then, namaste!