Travel Therapy

Last year I traveled to India on a two week tour through the north, with a brief jaunt south to Bangalore. My goal was to experience life in a developing country and to freshen my perspective... A mental health overhaul. This is a sliver of what I encountered.

His name was Manu--a wiry, mustachioed boat rower, who smiled broadly as I stepped warily into his rickety, wooden skiff. Dressed in a western button down shirt and harem pants with bare feet, he helped us into our seats and rowed down the Ganges, the holiest and dirtiest river in India. In a nearly incoherent Hindi twist of English, he rattled on proudly of his own life--and explained the Hindu rituals of cremating the dead at the Temple next door, hordes of colorful shawls huddled near the thick and smoky woodpiles, preparing the body for its final, ashen deposit into the river. We could look from afar, but no mementos or photos, except for the tiny candlelit flower boats dotting the river with memories.

It was my first visit to India, and I was awash in culture shock--the land of opposites--the yin and the yang--dirt poor hovels next to 4 star hotels; smiling, generous, shantytown peasants crowding out the slick businessmen in hurried bumper to bumper, beeping rickshaws navigating aggressively, yet respectfully, as if one undulating organism, around lumbering cows and elephants; pure white sheets pounded clean on rocks lining the Ganges--polluted with the rawest of sewage and thick with trash; mourners of loved ones bathing in, even sipping, that very same water, now called holy, while awaiting the cremation of their beloved.

It was a haunting, early morning scenario with the sun rising to the east in a light orange fog, muting the sight of a long stream of skiffs overloaded by patrons watching and praying and simply being in the presence of some ancient, holy energy that is Varanasi.
Ethnocentrism is a challenging word for me, hinting of guilt and judgment; the self righteous fear of superiority alongside curiosity; or disgust. Again, for me, context is the backdrop to everything meaningful. And paradox often defines developmental struggles--the dialectics of opposing attachments, yearnings, needs--be they internal, social or political. For example-- unclean or dirty compared to what over sanitized, antibiotic-resistant standard in my country? Is it being ripped off and scammed by local peddlers, or is it poor people rightfully seeking something extra from tourists perceived as wealthy? And then there are the pro-peace pacifists demonstrating alongside militant revolutionary activists. For every breathtaking or appalling sight, I found a multitude of breathtaking and appalling interpretations and comparisons.

The food was sensational, while risking intestinal revolt. And the music--a lesson on the sitar and tabla left me sore and inspired; a Reiki attunement and healing session that eased and relieved... The forts--magnificent architecture bespeaking harrowing tales of conqueror and conquered. Temples all together in peace--Hindu, Muslim, Jain and Buddhist-- the monks and their solemnity, the camels and elephants, monkeys and donkeys --in the busiest of traffic. People, so many people. Smiling, curious---begging for a picture of me, while I, embarrassed, meekly asked for a picture of them. Kind and generous while always rooting for a rupee.

On the day we left Varanasi it thunderstormed--an early morning attack that left a 2 inch river of muck, slithering down the cobblestoned alleyways toward our homestay near the Ganges. Cow dung, and monkey excrement pooled together with yesterday’s trash to create a nearly impassable montage of disgustingness, sticking to our flip flops, spraying onto our backpacks. We ran, screaming for people to get out of our way, slipping and sliding while local Indians casually meandered along, smiling. And barefoot.

Coming from a country that creates lawsuits over microscopic bits of e.coli. I laughed hysterically as I slogged through the animal crap, freaking out over my feet.. finally hailing a rickshaw. On the way to our hotel a motorcycle crashed into us, bloodying the driver’s hand, yielding to the law of the jungle--with street justice prevailing as the two drivers and their supporters slugged it out in the middle of the street. Unhurt we quietly slipped away into another nearby rickshaw.

Like everything else on my trip, even that day was sensual, sometimes scary and most of all--spiritual--connecting me to a world of experiences and people once called foreign.

And I never got sick. Not once.

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