Where to begin? India.
I’ll start by saying this- nearly everything up until I arrived in Delhi has been pretty close to perfect on this excellent adventure of mine. And I mean everything- 8 months of awesome. So, perhaps I was due for a little adversity. This is how I’ll remember my first time in India (I stress first as I know I’ll go back and with the experience I now have will no doubt make better choices)…
Quick step back- At the Ashram in Kathmandu, I learned much about Yoga, especially the first level of the practice. How preparing your body was super important before moving ahead to the next level, which focused on the mind. Well, that’s exactly what I was going to do when I got to India. Initially my Indian adventure was meant to be centered around a 10-day Vipassana (Silence) retreat in Gaya. I was super nervous about this to begin with as I knew it’d be an ever harder challenge than Everest, but one I knew I’d get so much out of… However, after my time at the Ashram I realized that I simply wasn’t ready for this. I wanted to spend more time developing my foundation before advancing ahead to the Ashtanga (mind) level, which is where the Vipassana practice lives. It was a tougher pill to swallow as heading into the Ashram I really felt like after Base Camp I could do anything! But, as patience has been one of the overarching themes/lessons on this journey, I decided to postpone that challenge until I had confidence I was ready… Now what?
This left me with a lot of unplanned time and no real idea of what to do with it. The only thing I knew for sure was that the last 3 nights of India would be spent in Mumbai visiting my friend Rohan, outside of that I could do whatever I wanted! This was exciting!
I put a note on Facebook asking for recommendations and got some pretty good ideas- time to plan my stay in India. First things first, as I’d be in Delhi, I may as well knock the Taj Mahal out of the way. I sorted out a trip while I was still in Nepal that would pick me up at 230am and drive me to Agra in time for sunrise at the Taj (thanks for the idea Callum!). What a beautiful monument… I was glad to have gotten there early as A. The colors were amazing, B. There were fewer tourists, and C. It was only going to be like 100 degrees rather than the 115 it was scheduled to be later in the day!
I had a great and informative tour, learning a lot about the history of the Taj Mahal, Agra, and India in general. I also asked my guide what his favorite cities in India and immediately he mentioned a town called Jaipur- add that to the list of places to perhaps check out! He also gave a thumbs down when I mentioned I was considering a yoga course in Rishikesh- simply saying it was a little to hectic/busy for him and he preferred towns that were a little slower. Ok, I’m at least getting some baseline info for planning purposes.
Back to Delhi. Wow, I remember once thinking New York was loud, noisy, full of honking horns and pushy people. NYC is like a village in the Swiss mountains compared to the mayhem that is Delhi! Holy shit I was overwhelmed. My Nepalese Zen was exiting fast! Breathe, find balance… I can do this. Here’s what I’ll say now and come back to a few times throughout this post. I didn’t love India. Sorry. But I also don’t blame India. It is what it is, NOT what I want it to be. This is probably a similar experience to someone from small town Kansas finding themselves in the middle of Times Sq and being totally overwhelmed. A situation I don’t necessarily love either, but one I’m used to and have been dealing with for years so at least know what I’m in for if I happened to venture in to that chaos.
Quickest way to my heart (other than wine of course)? FOOD. The food in India was unreal. So amazing. I just had to accept that I’d be putting some of the weight I’d lost back on, no way around it. I wasn’t going to be denying myself the opportunity to enjoy Indian food IN India (rather than down on 6th and 1st in NYC). I treated myself to a huge meal at the United Coffee House in Connaught Place, an older restaurant with a menu like a time machine, featuring regional cuisine that had changed over time as India itself had gone from independent, to British colony, to once again independent (yet now co-inspired) AND all the influences that surround this massive country- Euro, Asian, African etc). Hands down the best Butter Chicken (spicy of course) I’ll ever have. Ok India, we can be friends, we just need to get to know each other better.
I’d been introduced to a few guys who ran a travel planning service, so I figured what the hell. Let me at least alleviate some of the headache of planning/transportation and just have a few things sorted out for me. By now I’d already booked a week in Rishikesh (the pics looked great and I wanted to keep practicing my yoga), and had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the rest of my time. It was worth a little premium to not have to figure the actual details out by myself. So the guys at Abyss travel helped me get everything else squared away (and even showed me around a bit and joined me for dinner!). Ok. Back on track… I think.
It’s called by some the ‘Birthplace of Yoga’. Situated along the Ganges river, it’s a beautiful (albeit a little busy) little town featuring tons of Yoga studios, temples, monasteries, etc. I had a bit of a challenge selecting a place to practice yoga as there were so many, all with great reviews and photos! I ultimately settled on one that wrote me back saying they had a week-long beginner course starting/ending the exact days I had planned to be there- done! The schedule had a good mix of asana (posture) classes as well as anatomy, philosophy etc PLUS super healthy food, my own room/shower etc- sounded perfect!
Here’s where my frustrations started kicking in. It wasn’t exactly as advertised When I arrived I was basically dropped into the middle of a 300-hour yoga teacher training course. There was no ‘beginner class’ starting and certainly no specific curriculum designed. I was told I could skip the anatomy/philosophy study and homework as I wouldn’t be there the whole time- but these were primary reasons why I selected this place. I was now just some dude that showed up into the middle of these people’s class who’d be there a few days, and then leave. I wasn’t happy. I felt like I’d been duped. This frustration bled into my attitude and I was a bit more reserved. Everyone else had already made friends with each other 5 days before and would be together for 25 more. I ate by myself. Walked around town by myself. Then just hung in my room alone at night. So, although the Asana classes were actually really good, and the food was solid, after 3 days I decided to bail. I wasn’t having fun. So I called the guys at Abyss Travel and asked if they could hook up a few days in Jaipur (the city that was earlier recommended to me but wasn’t on my current schedule). They obliged and I’d be headed there the following day. Once I made this decision I did feel momentarily better. I skipped the morning classes and instead took myself on a hike up to the Neer Gaar Waterfall that was supposed to be pretty cool. I found a group of college students up there in the midst of a summer road trip, they invited me to hang and share in their hookah. Why not? They were super nice, and funny. A weird thing (cultural?) in India is that everyone wanted to have a selfie with me. Some of the other westerners I met said the same thing. Guess not a lot of white folk show up there? So we had a fun little photoshoot at the waterfall and then they gave me a ride back to my place. Just a funny little memory that will stand out as one of the more blissful moments of my trip to India. After exploring a but more of Rishikesh and taking some photos, I was headed back to Delhi for my transfer to Jaipur.
One of the things I guess there’s also no getting around in India is that you end up spending (wasting) a lot of time commuting. Everything seemed to be a 5-6 hour drive, and as none of the drivers really wanted to leave before 10am, you spend many a day in a hot back seat watching India roll by through of a window. These car rides were far from peaceful btw as Indians seemed to (sorry for the generalization, but anyone that’s been there can validate) drive in whatever lane is most available (oncoming included) and are on their horns about 95% of the time. So this decision to leave Rishikesh essentially cost me 2 days of my trip. One to get back to Delhi and another to get to Jaipur. I got a lot of reading/napping done…
Jaipur was recommended for its architecture and history and it didn’t disappoint in either respect. There were some really cool sights to see and although it was still super hot out (don’t go to India in May/June if you can help it), I was generally enjoying myself. My guide here was ok, nothing to write home about. One thing to be aware of if you ever find yourself in more of a ‘guided tour’ situation in India, is that everyone would love for you to learn about some of their local culture/goods (spices, textiles, precious gems, carpets etc) which is just a guise for a time-sucking sales pitch. Ugh, I can feel my frustration coming back just typing this… I’ll say again, everyone was very nice, and I think it’s probably just a cultural thing that has developed over time- people are hustlers. Gotta work hard/sell things in order to feed yourself/family and if you’re not pushing, someone else will so why not? No matter how clear I made it that I didn’t have any interest in the marble trade or rug making, I still somehow found myself learning about the history/process of these trades- and then being nudged into buying something. This again just took up time and was adding to my frustrations… Everyone seemed to have a hand out- especially if you were white. Beggers sought you out, everyone wanted to sell you something, wanted a tip for something, it was overwhelming. Nothing against the hustle, it just wasn’t what I needed right now at all. I was beginning to doubt myself on this trip, maybe I should’ve stuck with Rishikesh, maybe I shouldn’t have cancelled the Vipassana. It seemed like I had made one wrong choice after another and everything was just spiraling down. My attitude was poor, my peace was interrupted, which of course bled into my interactions with everyone else I came in contact with. I missed my mountains… Thankfully things would be picking up momentarily.
After yet another full day’s commute by car back to Delhi (which at least meant another amazing meal at United Coffee!) I’d finally be getting back to my new found love of trekking. I initially wanted to go to the town of Menali, which is where several people I’d met in Nepal had just come from. The pics they showed me looked beautiful! But, when I’d booked all my travel, the guys convinced me to instead go up to the Kashmir region, where the mountains would be higher, the culture/food completely different, and therefore would be a much more unique experience. All I knew about Kashmir was that it was a pretty contentious area between Pakistan and India and there seemed to be military conflict there all the time! But, I’m letting life lead the way and maybe this was the reason I ended up planning my travel with these guys, so that I’d end up in Kashmir rather than Menali.
Looking out the window on the flight to Kashmir I was treated some incredible scenery! This was more like it! Amazing snow capped mountain peaks reminded me of my time with Everest and I could feel my spirit lifting a little. Landing in Srinigar however, all my initial impressions were confirmed. There were army dudes with machine guns running around everywhere, armored trucks parked along side the road, it was pretty crazy. We passed a little league soccer game on one side of the road, with a military unit which looked ready for an invasion on the other side… surreal.
After meeting my local guides and checking into my hotel, we were off to explore. This WAS a completely different cultural experience. The population up here was 99% Muslim and was very much at odds with the Indian govt. I learned that the Kashmir area has been occupied by India for almost 80 years (think Iraq/Kuwait)! The landscape and the people were very lovely- Kashmir is called ‘Paradise on Earth’ by the locals and I could see why. Aside from the military, there was such an underlying air of peace here. Mountains, Trees, and Lakes were visible almost everywhere you looked. The air was crisp and clean, far from the pollution of Delhi. And although I could still see/feel the ‘hustle’, it wasn’t as overwhelming.
I’d spend a day and a half exploring the city and then would head up into the mountains for a 5 day trek. This was more like it. My guide took me to some cool look outs, to a national park where we hiked down to a beautiful stream and just chilled out in the sun, and even to meet a friend of his, a local ‘baba’ (wise man) who had a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he served us tea and told us some local stories. This was more like it. This is what my trip was meant to be. Though I was out of my comfort zone, I was once again comfortable in the uncomfortableness.
After the city I headed up into the mountains where I met my trekking guide and cook. It’d be just the 3 of us for the next five days. And there it was. I was home. Back in nature. Once we got hiking, I felt all of my positivity come rushing back… I literally couldn’t believe I was in India- this same India where I’d spent the first 2 weeks… This was more like Colorado. The mountains were much more green than they’d been in Nepal with pine trees everywhere. It was so quiet, so peaceful. The only noises came from our ponies (who were carrying our tents/supplies etc) and the roaming herds of sheep that were being tended to by the gypsy folk.
Every day was perfect. We’d have a little breakfast then hike to a new cool little clearing further up the mountains. The guys would then set up camp while I’d generally go on a little side hike alone. Dude, there were marijuana plants growing EVERYWHERE. They explained that there was no negative stigma surrounding weed here. It was as part of their culture as masala was. It was used in religious ceremony, harvested by peasants/farmers/gypsies and turned into hash a means of supporting families, and generally just always kinda around. So after a nice dinner every night, we’d enjoy a few puffs around the evening campfire- just seemed like the right thing to do. We’d just hang, listen to music, look up at the stars (no lights for miles and miles led to AMAZING night skies), and chat life. It was great to learn from these guys about their culture, their families, their town etc, and I then got to share my experiences with them as well. Bliss. I’d found it again.
These guys were both married, had kids, lived in a super small village, and were just loving life. Didn’t care about being ‘cool’. Didn’t sweat the small things. Were incredibly present. It gave me a shot of perspective and got me back on track. Here I was, with 2 new friends, in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been… life is indeed good and I should focus my attention here, rather than the things that had been frustrating me. No matter what ‘wrong choices’ I’d made up until now, here I was and this was right where I was supposed to be.
So after 5 days/4 nights trekking around with these guys, it was time to say our goodbyes. I thanked them for their time and told them it meant more to me than I’d be able to express. I’d be heading back down to Srinigar for the night, to spend a relaxing evening on a houseboat 🙂 before continuing on.
Thanks to everyone I met in Kashmir, you’re all beautiful people and I wish you the best!
Next Stop- Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama! I was pretty pumped for this as I’d heard/read great things about this little mountain town. There was meant to be good healthy food, lots of yoga/meditation, hiking to waterfalls, and just general positive energy. Upon arrival I found it as advertised. It reminded me of a mini Kathmandu (minus a bit of the pollution). There were monks wandering around everywhere, travelers young and old as well… this city also just seemed like a place that called to people. It was a really cool mix of people from all walks of life, I was happy to be joining them. I kinda kept to myself here at Dharamsala- just had some me time. I found the organic coffee/breakfast places and ate there every morning, did yoga, meditated, journaled, hiked, thought and generally just tried to stay super present. I practiced some of the new techniques I’d picked up in Nepal and found them much easier to connect to here than earlier on my trip. Coming down from the mountains my mind just seemed ‘right’ again. Peace had returned. On my last day I woke up and went on a long hike up to and well past one of the local waterfalls. I just kept going. I was in the zone and just wanted to keep going up. When I reached the peak of this particular hill I sat down (exhausted) and spent a good 30 minutes just looking out over the town and the valley. I smiled. After trekking back down to town, I visited the Dalai Lama monastery (though I didn’t catch a glimpse of his holiness) for my last lunch. It was pretty rad eating with what seemed like thousands of monks- any time you’d catch their eye you’d be greeted with one of the warmest and most genuine smiles you’ve ever seen. ‘Don’t have much, but don’t need much’ indeed.
After one more evening pitstop through Delhi (and yet another trip to United Coffee for awesome food), I’d be off to Mumbai (Bombay) to finish the trip. My good friend Rohan is living there at the moment so I’d be staying with him. I was excited to see him! It had been a little while and I was excited to catch up! But… shit… now I’m back in the craziness. It’s incredibly hot again. Horns are blasting everywhere. People are on top of each other. If not for hanging with Ro, I’d have skipped this shitshow in a second. BUT, it was nice seeing my friend. Rohan is just one of those incredibly generous and genuinely just nice people, there’s no other way to describe him. So getting to chill with him balanced out the craziness that is Mumbai. We went out to a nice dinner with some other friends (including Kunal who I’d met the previous year at Dinesh’s wedding!) and then got after it at a bar. Now… I haven’t drank like this in for-ever, and I paid the price huge the next day. We just laid on the couch, ordered food, and watched movies… not exactly the blissful healthy clear-minded Brian I’d been. It was a fun night for sure, but it was a nice reminder of how much I hate hangovers and how derailing they are to living a good life. I’d be sticking to my one or two glasses of wine max for the rest of the trip. I did a bit of sightseeing, bought some last minute souvenirs, and that was pretty much that. A few days spend in Mumbai catching up with an old friend, and that was it. My time in India had come to an end.
Since I’ve returned people have asked me what I thought of India. The immediate response my brain wants to shoot out is never positive. I’ve had to learn to stop myself from blurting out ‘I hated it’ on more than one occasion (and there have been times where I haven’t been able to stop myself!). The reality is India is India. My trip wasn’t perfect, but I also think it wasn’t supposed to be. India and I weren’t working together much of the time. I was trying to make it what I wanted, rather than realizing where I was at and working together to create an experience that worked for both of ‘us’. I think I’ll go back. And with the information I now possess I think I’ll be more ready for this incredible country. It has a ton to offer, but you really have to be prepared to go with the flow, if you try to change it or fight it, India will fight back. But, if you’re open to it, you might just find yourself completely lost in a beautiful moment amidst all the chaos. A moment that might not exist anywhere else in the world.
So. India. Thank you for not being perfect (or what I thought a perfect India should be). My time spent here was a mini Hero’s journey and all the challenges and frustrations have led me to a greater understanding of the world, its people, and my place among them.
Just a guy on a hero's journey...