Landing in Bengaluru (Formerly Bangalore), something inside me was reawakened. A feeling that I had not experienced since 1997, when I flew into Perth, Australia and found myself alone, in a new country with no one to meet me, no plans and nobody that I knew. This was a new experience, in a new place. I was looking at the world through a fresh set of eyes. It could have been fear or excitement. I did not know, the past few years had been pretty difficult, and I became good at not feeling anything. The hurt of my divorce made me put up a huge wall around myself and I was determined not to let anyone in. Life, on the other hand, had its own ideas, and through a tiny little crack that went unnoticed by me, my fiancé had found my heart. Other than that, I had control over my feelings by simply squashing them and ignoring them by keeping myself busy.
The instructions that I received from my sister in law were simple. Once you get through customs, make your way outside the airport terminal and look for Ravi, he will be your driver and he will make sure that you get to our place.
I had a profile picture of Ravi on my phone, that was good enough and I did not think any more of it. I walked out of the airport and was met by a sea of faces, all standing behind a barrier, waving signs and calling out names or offering lifts. In an instant, I could feel the anxiety starting to kick in. I am not sure what I was expecting, but it was not this mob of people. As I scanned the crowd I paused on a set of smiling eyes, a huge grin and a head nod/wobble. I had found Ravi straight away, I knew it was him and he knew instantly who I was. Ravi too had a photo of me, a photograph taken when I was still working, in which I had short hair and was cleanly shaven. How he recognized me with long hair and a full unkept beard was miraculous. Especially considering some of my previous clients who had almost 19 years of dealings with me did not recognize me if I walked past them on the street back home.
The way we met in that large crowd was a good omen for me. The anxiety vanished, I knew at that moment that everything was All Right. Ravi was so excited to meet me and introduce me to his wonderful country, we shook hands, he grabbed my bags and the conversation started, it was as if I had just been picked up by an old friend that I had not seen for years. The journey to the house took well over 2 hours, yet it went by in a flash. Ravi was born in Bangalore and he had lived in the city his entire life. He was so proud of the history and heritage of his people, and for him, this bustling chaotic city was home. He sped along congested roads, weaving in and out of traffic constantly blowing the car horn and waving his hand out the window, while at the same time looking directly at me as he rattled away facts and stories about places of interest that we were going past. I have driven in minibus taxi’s in South Africa, and the taxi’s at home don’t seem to give one the same adrenalin rush as big city traffic in India.
After a night’s rest, we were off on our first trip to a fancy resort on Lake Kabini. Ravi, our trusted driver, my sister in law and her friends along with their young daughter, Triffy, embarked on a 6-hour journey across the Karnataka province. I think Triffy was about 11 or 12 years old if I remember correctly. I was about to learn the first lesson of my India trip. Triffy is a ball of pure energy, always on the move, and super inquisitive. Full of random facts, and a sense of wonder for the world around her. Where I saw a flower, young Triffy saw an explosion of color, food for the insects, a source of the aromatic scent, and beauty beyond comprehension. Triffy would swim until her skinny body was frozen to the bone and then want to swim some more. I remember sitting alone at the edge of one of the swimming pools at the resort we were staying at and watching the sunset, feeling sorry for myself about having lost touch with the sense of wonder that lives so large in young children. Why did everything have to have a meaning or purpose for me? Why did I have to analyze everything and then judge it according to whether it was “good’ or “bad”, “pretty” or “ugly”, “hot” or “cold”? Kids just go head first into the experience and seldom have any judgment. How do I let go of the judgment I wondered?
As a young kid, I remember listening to the music of nature. We used to call it veld music. The sound of the wind blowing through a hole in the fence post leaves rustling on the trees, birds chirping, insects buzzing, farm animals going about their day. A cacophony of sounds that somehow came together and made wonderful melodies bringing along with them stories from far off places. My imagination used to be wild. Imaginary friends, distant voices carried on the wind, trees that shared their wisdom, ghosts that visited at night, these would keep me entertained for hours. Childish thoughts that I soon learned to ignore in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. I guess when I discovered how to read, I gave up my “imaginary” physical world and dived into the world hidden in books. Here stories would come to life through printed words on a page. I would get completely absorbed into the book and that world between the covers would be as real as the physical world that I found myself in when I was not reading. When you stop spending time with people, they move on and find someone else who will play with them and slowly you forget about them. I guess my imaginary world was a little like that. It became a distant memory, which would eventually be completely forgotten.
Here I was halfway across the world, in a spiritual homeland of guru’s and ancient wisdom, and my first lesson was taught to me by a young girl.
The intention of my trip to India was not to go in search of enlightenment. In fact, as I have previously mentioned, I went because I wanted to just get some distance between me and my current life. I needed some space outside of the “routine” to just get rid of the stress and years of adrenaline. I went because I was tired of hiding inside my house and I needed to get outside again.
Once back in Bengaluru, my journey of experiencing India really began. Ravi would take me out to walk the streets in the evenings. We would go to places where I was the only foreigner, and little to no English was spoken. We ate street food and dodged sewage running down the streets. The smells of waste and human effluent mixed with spices and burning cooking oil. In some places, the crowds were so thick that I was too scared to look around in case I lost sight of Ravi and never saw him again. Something was missing though and I could not place it. Was I missing home? Was it the longing to see my children again? Was it the distance between my fiance and me? It felt as if I had forgotten about something or someone. We stopped to buy some juice. An old man took two pieces of sugarcane and crushed them through an ancient-looking hand roller. Next to him sat an old lady that I assumed was his wife. She was frail and completely grey. In one hand she held a bunch of long grass whilst her other hand gathered bits of plastic that were scattered around her and she fed this plastic onto a little fire on the ground. With the bunch of grass, she waved the smoke about to chase away the mosquitoes. The old man handed me a battered tin cup filled with fresh sugar cane juice and then he produced a straw from under a dirty old sack on the side of his cart. His eyes told a story of his life, a story of poverty and hardship and a struggle to survive from day to day. His cheekbones and eyebrows protruded making his eyes appear to be sunken deep within his face. But there was something else in his eyes. His eyes carried another story behind the hardship, a story of joy. There was a certain happiness that not even the dirt and acrid smoke from the little pile of burning plastic could hide. As I drank my juice a smile spread from one side of his face to the other. The line of his pink gums broken by three yellowing teeth. I had seen this smile before, but it was worn by a different person, yes this was the same smile that Ravi had when I first saw him standing behind the barrier at the airport. This smile, just pure joy, a level of happiness that I seldom experienced back home. It was the smile of the young village boys riding their go-karts deep in the old Ciskei back home. This smile appeared to have been “lost” to those of us living the modern western lifestyle. It dawned on me. I knew what that nagging feeling was, I understood what I was missing, what had been left behind. The “black dog”, my fear, anxiety, stress, depression, all of that was gone. It did not follow me out onto those streets of Bengaluru. Here amongst some of the poorest people in the city I was able to see that joy was stronger than any adversity. Love and Joy did conquer all. I handed back the tin cup to the old man and thanked him. Maybe he understood that what he had just given me was far more than just a sweet drink, as he took the cup from me he started saying something, put the cup down and brought his hands up as if to pray. Muttered some words and smiled. Namaste, he said, and we were on our way. I asked Ravi what that was all about, and he replied that the old man thank us for buying from him and sent us on our way with a blessing. For someone who had so little, it felt like he had given so much. It did not take me long to realize that almost every person who we bought something from would bless us on our journey when we moved on. My experience of this interaction with the sugarcane man taught me my second lesson. The joy lives inside of us regardless of the situation, deep beneath the hurts, wounds, stories we tell ourselves and our life experiences, somewhere inside of us there is a place where the joy lives. As we were walking back to where the car was parked I was once again overcome by a deep sadness, the realization that I did not know how to find that place inside me where my joy resided, that hurt. I would have to start looking within because regardless of how big my house was or how much money I accumulated in the bank, I will never be able to buy that joy or pay someone to find it for me. What a hollow victory my life had become. I felt as if I had cheated myself in the game of life in order to win the prize, and when I did finally stand on that podium with all the “trophies” I had worked so hard for and that I thought was my dream, I realized that the trophies were just empty cups. There was no glory in victory. Those years of sacrifice were in vain and they were lost forever.
The time had come for me to leave the security of Bengaluru and my friend Ravi who was not only my driver and guide but also my interpreter. Time to leave the comfortable hospitality of my brother and sister in law, leave behind the air-conditioned room with en-suite bathroom and every comfort that one could desire. It was time to move and not get into a comfort zone. Next stop Hampi…..
“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”-Bill Bryson
To be continued……….