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Voices / Travels

Dreaming of India

The crazier it sounded and the scarier it became, the more we had to take on this adventure

SHANTA L. E. CROWLEY’s photo exhibit, “Surrender,” about her journey to India, is now on display at the Twilight Tea Lounge, 41 Main St. Her “Dreaming of India” blog includes the music she heard there; she also blogs regularly at www.reformer802.com/realtalk. Contact her at Shantavns@gmail.com.

Brattleboro

I wanted to pinch myself several times as I stood above the lower level of the airport. My gaze overlooked the overflowing immigration line and became glued to the large hand mudras within the Delhi airport.

Why here and why now?

Was it the letters that I exchanged for a short time with a high-school friend, Veenu, who traveled between India and the United States?

Was it the poster-sized picture of the Taj Mahal that I purchased 10 years ago and placed upon the walls of my first office?

Was it Indu Sundaresan’s book with magnetic images of 17th-century India? Or the epic I stayed up all night watching which included swirling saris, belly dance lessons in caves, and a dramatic love story all set in India?

Was it my increasing fondness for the many stories of the Hindu gods and goddesses Krishna, Radha, Hanuman, or the epic Bhagavad Gita?

These tales entranced me and perhaps joined with many other events in my life in a lovely conspiratorial mix that led me to the place that was India.

* * *

There was also a more logical reason for the trip — or at least it was logical to my husband and me.

We were both unemployed, and life appeared to be more glaringly uncertain. As someone who has been working since I was 13 years old, this was the first time in 19 years that I was without a job, a title, or any answers to the question, “What do you do?”

On my way home after my last day of work, my 2004 Nissan refused the response of my foot upon the accelerator as it slowed down on the highway during rush-hour traffic. It did not matter at this point, as I had to return my car to the bank and plot my next move.

At some point during this wave of confusion, we hatched something of a plan: use this time to go to India, see another part of the world, take a break from the economy.

We did not have any firm contacts, friends, or family in India, and this would be our first time immersing ourselves into another culture for five months.

The idea of taking the little money we had to try to make it abroad instead of hunkering down to find work and pay rent, utilities, and day-to-day living seemed crazy.

Our friends and family either supported us, quietly doubted whether we could do such a thing, or asked in a reserved voice, “Why India?”

The crazier it sounded and the scarier it became as we packed up our apartment, the more we just knew that we had to take on this adventure.

After only a month — and only a couple of weeks of being married — we arrived in India.

* * *

According to a guy named Vishnu, who was corresponding with my husband over the past couple of months via Facebook, a taxi driver would greet us at the airport holding a sign with our names.

Upon spotting us in this crowded Delhi airport, our driver picked us up to take us to the ashram in Rishikesh to meet Vishnu so we could begin our adventure up to the Himalayan Mountains for our yoga-meditation retreat.

Vishnu was a new contact, but we’d never Skyped or talked on the phone; we just somehow trusted that all of these arrangements would work just as they sounded in the emails.

This was certainly a far cry from the streets of Brattleboro, or the dark apartment where I would fantasize about a life that was better than the so-called reality of Hartford, Conn.

Because it was so early in the morning, it took a while for the morning sun to pull back the curtains of where we were. Smoke filled the air, and I sat in the back seat, nearly passing out because of close calls from the lack of turn signals and the chaos from the beeping that seemed to signify “I’m coming through — move out of the way!” I tried to use the music to calm myself.

The streets did not smell like one big incense cloud, as some of our friends said it would. Instead, there seemed to be an obsession with burning many things; those odors commingled with other smells and made my stomach flip-flop.

The cab driver stopped at a street stand along the way for us to grab some chai. I remember reading that we weren’t supposed to be doing this, yet I did not want to miss out on my favorite addiction — Indian chai.

As I sipped the chai slowly, the moment became intense, as we were the only foreigners amid many of the locals. We all seemed to be in some weird stare-off because we were unique to the environment.

* * *

During the five months, we would experience many intense moments of stares, individuals running to take my picture, or random conversations that always seemed to involve personal questions, like “Why isn’t your husband black like you?”

To say our experience was a culture shock might be a bit of an understatement. It would be more apt to say that India molested my senses on every level.

At any moment walking in the streets or interacting with various people, I had to intensely use all five senses, in addition to trying to process what was taking place.

There were moments where I cried for the familiarity of home and the comfort of my bed, where I wished for the absence of coconut beetles or for a hot shower that did not involve hitting a switch.

Many times, I asked myself if I was in over my head, especially when it took 44 hours (25 hours by train and mostly delay due to the fog) to travel from Varanasi to Rishikesh. There were numerous train rides with bunks that would give a claustrophobic a lifetime of nightmares.

There was also the head-on rickshaw accident that took place in Alleppey; it left me with minor bruises but forever PTSD’d-out over what I call the drunk-game-of-chicken driving that best describes the road rules.

Yet I managed.

Tears I shed over being homesick also competed with tears over the poverty in India, or over varying forms of what my Western mind would call “cruelty.”

On many levels, I felt powerless as I saw many people of all ages in the streets who were disfigured (some on purpose as a way to generate money) and, in some cases, barely clothed.

Yet, true to my feeling that I was involved in a dysfunctional relationship with India, I fell in love with it.

The Taj Mahal was one place where I felt as if my life dream unzipped right before me as the thick fog slowly undressed its splendor right before my eyes. I just stood there staring in awe, speechless.

Places like Munnar and Alleppey seemed out of a storybook as each became a familiar neighborhood, complete with our favorite restaurants and corner-store vendors.

* * *

There were many beautiful moments and challenges I faced every day as I adjusted to the culture and to being gone for such a long time.

I had expectations upon going to India thinking that I would find answers, that I would somehow finally get on the guru bus (besides the one I’d been riding that says I am my own teacher) that so many people in the U.S. seemed to dig so much, perhaps even plunge deeper into Tantric practice.

I even stopped drinking from the cup of judgment as I made initial plans to get my yoga certification while in India, challenging my long-held belief that it was just a bunch of posturing and big business in the U.S.

I came to a place just before leaving India that I was okay with what did and did not happen for me on the trip. Letting go was the constant theme. Suspending assumption and withholding judgment and expectation of a previous norm — all that became daily practice.

* * *

I am forever thankful to India for an opportunity to challenge who and what I thought I was, and who and what I would want to be.

Though it has been about five months since my return, I continue to ask myself if I truly have any of these qualities that I had relinquished or suspended during our experience.

Before coming back to the U.S., I encountered many teachers who came in many forms.

Some teachers were self-proclaimed. Other teachers were students, business owners, children, animals, fellow travelers, the naked yogi I encountered in the Himalayas with a surveillance camera in his cave — and the overall day-to-day experience itself.

Our many experiences handed me back to myself in a certain graceful, gentle judo that at times left me disoriented but then quickly grasping the point: to be present and embrace what is in my way.

* * *

The moment I stepped upon the plane to India was the moment I crumpled up whatever life I thought I knew. The familiar became unfamiliar and the unfamiliar started to feel like home, especially when I returned to Brattleboro.

Post-travel depression set in, as I felt like an alien who landed from another planet, yet one who was happy to re-engage with friends and family. At times, it even felt like I was still asleep in India and only dreamed so lucidly about being home.

I am no longer the same me as a result of this journey; my home is not the same home. And so the list goes on and on.

This beautiful transformation still continues. I am left with not only my memories, but also the 12,000 pictures that I took on this wonderful adventure.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #163 (Wednesday, August 1, 2012).

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