No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow. ~Lin Yutang

Lest anyone think that I don't understand that going to India is gonna be a challenge....let me reassure you...I GET IT.

When I tell people that I'm going for three and a half months, they inevitably ask me what I'm going to India FOR, what am I doing to DO there.  My response is always, "I'm going to see India.  Or at least a small part of it."  Sometimes I'll explain that it's a "calling".  But usually I just stop with, "I'm going to see India."

That is the simplest, truest answer.  But just as folks asked me if I was going to Europe "for work or pleasure" a few years ago, people, in their search to understand my quest, tend to try to categorize the reason I might be going to India.  Usually they offer such boxes as "Yoga?", "Meditate?", "Live in an Ashram?", before they get to "Work?", or "Fun?"(for some reason people rarely associate "Pleasure" with India).   When I wrote about fielding that question before going to Europe, I talked then, as I have here in the past week, about being "called" to travel.  But if you read between the lines of that post, you might recognize that I suspect the trip to Europe will turn out to be a great deal of "Pleasure."  And, it was.

My impending journey, on the other hand.....I suspect this trip is very much about "Work."

Starting on a clearly superficial level, let's examine the energy it is bound to take just to be in India for 102 days without a time-out.  I'm a person that is used to my alone time.  I need it.  When I was in high school I used to ask my mom to go to the movies sometimes just so I could have the house to myself.  All I would do is watch tv, or read a book, but somehow just having one other person in a seven room house felt like too much of an invasion of my personal space.  I get sensorially overwhelmed in Fred Meyer if I haven't had the perfect amount of beauty rest.  I sleep with ear-plugs, a noise machine, a fan for more white noise, and a pillow over my ears and that while I live on an incredibly quiet street with house-mates that tend to be asleep before me insuring there will be little banging around to wake me up.  And now I am getting ready to go to one of the most over-populated countries in the world.  It's chock-a-block full of people.  Filled to the gills.  And all those people make sound, fill the streets and, soon, the edges of my personal space.  And I don't think Fred Meyer has anything on the sights, sounds, smells that are going to flood my senses in a constant stream once my plane touches down in Mumbai.

For the last month or so, I've been thinking of that quote above...."No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow"...especially when I wake up, my head cradled by 7 insanely well worn down pillows, on a pillow-top bed, feeling like a princess.  Every picture of every hotel bed in India that I can afford looks only slightly more luxurious than a straw mat.  Ok, I'm exaggerating.  But they tend to be very thin mattresses with one very anemic looking pillow.

I miss my bed already.

But whenever I start to grieve for the soon to be separation from my bed, my thinking expands to a slightly less superficial realm.  I begin imagining all those souls I will encounter who have no pillows, no beds, no walls to shut the world out when they sleep, eat, go to the bathroom.  My mind wonders how in the world I will process (sensory overload aside) the devastating poverty, sickness, filth, and desperation that I've been told to expect.

My friend Jane related a quote from a teacher of hers who said something like, "India will either make you insane or crack your heart wide-open."  I believe it.  And I believe that any place that has that power will take a great deal of energetic work to navigate it without going crazy.  And it will take a great deal of courage to let India into my psyche, to let my heart crack wide-open.

I guess what I'm going to be "doing" in India is learning how let go of what I think I need in order to be comfortable, challenging myself to see India as it is (thanks Zach) without going crazy, making peace with the mosquitoes and the constant stimulation and the massively challenging socio economic disparity, not just between how I live and so many people live in India, but between how so many Indians live in relative opulence while millions of their countrymen live, sanctioned by the caste system, hand to mouth in filth I cannot imagine.  I will be working to understand a culture that is so vastly different than my own without trying to impose my needs and beliefs and worries and sensitivities onto a people that are pretty ensconced in their own needs, beliefs, worries and sensitivities.

In the midst of all of this I will get to see some pretty cool things, hopefully I'll ride an elephant, take some pretty pictures, and do all those things that tourists do for "fun".  But I need to make it clear that this trip feels like a job to me.  A job assigned to me by my soul.  A job that will be hard, challenging, exhausting and, hopefully, very very rewarding.

There Are Three Types of People

When I tell people that I'm going to India I invariably encounter three different responses:

1.  Oh, My, God, I LOVE India.  YOU are gonna LOVE it.
2.  I have ALWAYS wanted to go to India, that is so cool.
3.  Huh.  I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in going to India.  None, zilch, nada.

I haven't met anyone yet who is luke warm on the idea of going to India.

Since I have always wanted to go, I figure I've got a pretty good handle on why people in category one or two say what they say...though I suspect there are almost as many reasons, really, for going to India as there are people who go....but lets not get too existential about it.

I can even wrap my brain around many of the reason people might be hesitant to go to India: the poverty, the over population, the dysentery....even, as one person said, "the smells".

But I have really been baffled by what some people have said about why they don't want to go to India.  Before I tell you what that is, let me say first that these people in question are compassionate, warm, smart, caring, socially involved and evolved human beings...which is why their viewpoint startles me so.  They say, "Why would you want to go somewhere so different, so foreign.  I have no interest in being somewhere like that.  I would feel too uncomfortable, it would just be too weird."

Because they are friends of mine, I feel comfortable asking, "Let me get this straight, you have no interest in seeing a land that old, getting an opportunity to learn something about a culture that has survived for so very long?  You have no curiosity about life in a place that is, exactly as you said, so different from our own?"

And always, ALWAYS, they reply with complete confidence, "Nope, no interest what so ever."

I have to say, "that takes guts to me".  I admire the chutzpah it takes to admit to such a glaring lack of curiosity about one of the oldest and most fascinating countries on the planet.  I know, I know how judgmental I sound....and I suppose it would be untrue to say I'm not feeling at all judgmental....but, it is mostly awe and a strange kind of respect and mostly bewilderment.

Look, there's a lot of people I don't have much desire to know better or have much curiosity about...most of them fall to the far far right of the American political spectrum.  So, I get it.  We all have our boundaries, the places we feel uncomfortable or uninterested in exploring.

But for me it is exactly the foreignness of India that makes it imperative that I go.  And since our world is getting smaller in so many ways, we can travel more easily, we can be on the other side of the globe in a matter of hours, we can video chat with loved ones on the flip side of the planet to let us know how we are doing.  We have an unparalleled opportunity here in the 21st century to meet people who think and feel and live and pray differently than us and to understand them.

I'm as guilty as anyone else, even more guilty than some, of relying on facebook and technology to keep me connected to my friends and world events.  There are times when I feel rather isolated, or I should say, I cherish my alone time and online networking keeps my world a little more open.  But I also feel like so much of our world view is shrinking to the size of our computer screens.  And just at the moment in history when we have the opportunity to see so much of the world with relative ease and speed, we have been seduced into being afraid (or is it apathetic?) of it.

Hey, I know not everyone has the time or money to go to India.  There are so many people who would love to go, but have families to raise and to get through college.  So, it's not the lack of leaving for India that baffles me, it is lack of curiosity about seeing such a place.

We must just be wired differently.  I need to see the poverty, to know the colors and smells, the dirt, the dust, the mosquitoes, the toilets without seats, to see how billions of people experience the world around them when it is so different than my own.  I have been incredibly privileged  in my upbringing, as have many Indians.  In having a roof over my head for all the days of my life.  Food, clothes, clean water. Who knows...maybe it's guilt that makes me yearn to see a country that may very well shatter my perceptions of my very comfortable life.  Maybe there is something in me that needs to awaken from the complacency of living, even in these dark economic times, in this very affluent first world country where, in theory anyway, we all have the chance to live with clean water, food on the table, roofs over our heads.  I don't know....but I do know that I just cannot conceive of not wanting to see India at all.

I mean, putting the economic disparity of and in India aside, there's all of this to experience:

But if you fall into category three and I still can't arouse your assured, you don't have to go....I, however, seem to have no other choice.

As a those people whose response to my leaving for India has been something like this, "Who do you think you are: Elizabeth Gilbert?"  I say, as much as I admire Elizabeth Gilbert and loved her book Eat, Pray, Love, there were independent women who traveled solo to far off places long before she came on the scene.  My desire to go to India lived in me long before she was even married, divorced and traveling to Italy, India and Bali.  But, to be fair, I think she gave many of us the little extra push we needed to step out of our comfort zones and to say, "What the hell.  Life's too short.  I'm gonna buy that ticket and see what happens next."

India....the world within

I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within. ~Lillian Smith.

I'm going to India in a few weeks.  Of course, if you know me at all, this is old news....because it's all I've been talking about for weeks. Months.  Well, years.  In fact, this trip will be the realization of a very long-standing dream. 

It seems wrong to start off talking about my love affair with India by mentioning my love affair with England, or at least English history, but that is probably the way it began.  Like most young girls I went through my princess phase.  I loved books about castles and pomp and circumstance and gilded life.  King Arthur and Camelot took up a lot of room in my imagination to be sure, but also the more concrete and recent true life tales of the Elizabethan court, Queen Victoria and her Empire, the Wallis Simpson scandal, Elizabeth the Second, her kids and, of course, Diana.  But I also just loved the simpler England of small country homes and cottages with ordered little gardens, cobble-stoned streets that twisted and turned and, in my mind, were filled with Jane Austen characters and Pip from Great Expectations.

This love for everything English rippled from my reading life into my movie watching life, and this, I think, is where India started to come into the picture.  All the way back in my young girl-hood I was utterly captivated by The Little Princess and The Secret Garden, two stories about lonely English girls who don't fit into the upper class English world.  In the tough times that plagued them, both girls drew upon their earliest memories, happy memories, rich and colorful memories which happened to be in India, an India ruled and ordered by the English colonialists who governed it. When I was younger I thought the civility of the English was somehow romantic, the white cotton dresses perfectly pressed, their unflagging order in the chaos of a "heathen" nation; it was probably the sort of order that I yearned for in my own chaotic childhood. 

So many tales told about England that have captured my imagination are rooted in India where behind all the orchestrated pageantry of the English living abroad lurked the beauty and unfathomable kaleidoscope of India which seemed to be part of the life blood of any British character in any story of that ilk.....Jewel in the Crown, A Passage to India, and my favorite, Heat and Dust.  If you haven't seen it, Heat and Dust came out in 1983 when I was 14.  The movie follows two women, a young English officer's wife who arrives in India in the waning days of English rule and her niece who comes to India 50 or so years later to find out more about her aunt who was led astray by an Indian prince.  It seems the longer a character stays in India, the more in danger they are of eventually abandoning their ordered English lives forever because they fall completely in love with the visceral, sensual heartbeat of India itself.  

Over the years I have morphed into a woman who has come to realize that she, also, does not seem destined to live an ordered life and I often feel as if I don't fit in with the expectations of my society.  Looking back at my younger self, I wonder if I loved those tales not because of how very British the British were, but because I secretly yearned to abandon my fears of not fitting in, of not ever really being capable of living an ordered life.  And now it has become a calling, this need to go to India.  There is, somewhere deep inside me, a voice that says, "I must go to India", the way people are called to be artists or doctors or politicians.  Crazy, perhaps, but like with artists, politicians, doctors it feels connected to my work in this world, whatever that may be in the years to come.  And as vague and unsupported as that may sound to you, it is only slightly less vague and unsupported to me...and only because I hear this voice so clearly.  

But just because the voice is clear, doesn't mean I'm not put off by the utter mysteriousness of the quest.  In fact, I decided that I would go to India three years ago and set the goal of going when I was 40 and told everyone who would listen that I was spending part of that year in India....but didn't.  On September 6th, 2010 I turned 41, and I knew it was time to stop saying I WOULD go to India and actually go.

But buying the ticket was hard.  Very hard.  Scary even.  It's not just that the ticket is a hefty chunk of change, but the idea of committing to India itself is terrifying.  Over the last several months I've been wrestling both with terror and apathy.  Of course the apathy is just a cover up for the terror, a way to divorce myself from unadulterated fear so it doesn't take hold of me completely.

Ok.  I'm exaggerating.

But only a little.

You see, India is a big country.  I feel daunted by the sheer size of it.  Even though I am going for 3 1/2 months (yes, you read that right, MONTHS) I know I can only scratch the surface.  I want so much to soak all of it in, to understand exactly why I'm called to go there.  While I was reading my giant guide-book for ALL of INDIA it was like trying to pin-point which stars in the Milky way were the absolute best.  India is far away, in more ways than one and reading about it only made it feel more alien, more foreign, more immense and unknowable.  I began to feel like I could only miss out on most things instead of really soaking in a few things.  I guess, I began to get scared that my grand adventure would be marred by the nagging feeling that I wasn't seeing what I was supposed to see.  That there was no way to fulfill my mysterious quest because the territory I have to cover is just too vast.

Then there are the rules plastered all over the books: cover my shoulders and my knees, don't drink in public, don't touch any person for fear of being disrespectful or misunderstood, any animal for fear of rabies, any food that hasn't been disinfected with lysol for fear of life-long digestive problems.  Don't look any man in the eyes, don't ever be alone with a man, including taxi drivers, don't go out after dark unless you take a taxi which are driven by men...hey, wait a minute....

Add to that the poverty, the smells, the thievery, the....well, the list could go on and on depending on what I read and who I talk to....

So I had to do something.  Something that would help me find my India mojo.  The first thing I did was narrow down my itinerary to two states: Kerala and Rajasthan.  Kerala because that's where the ouija board in my heart tells me I have to go.  And Rajasthan because where Kerala is South and green and wet and lush, Rajasthan is north and dry and deserty, and I like the idea of immersing myself in two obviously contrasting parts of a giant and probably unfathomable country.  Added to those two states are side trips to Varanasi, Darjeeling, and, of course, Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

Once I'd narrowed down those specifics I found a hotel room in Mumbai for the first week after my arrival, booked two weeks in a little town in Kerala called Fort Cochin and then I put down the guide-book.  The rest of the trip...well, the rest of the trip is just going to have to unfold as it goes.

I realized that for me to go to India I have to let India reveal itself to me as I go.  I have to see it and smell it and discover how I move in it, how I own and govern myself in such a foreign landscape.  I have to meet India first before I decide how we are going to understand each other best.

I feel certain I will stumble a few times, that India and I will have a few quarrels along the way, quarrels that might be avoided or softened if I go in with more information, armed a little more with a sense of what I want from India off the bat...but that seems a little too English for me at this stage in my life.  And as my departure date gets closer and closer I find myself less scared and more excited by the impending adventure that promises to be anything but clean and neatly pressed, and, more likely, will be full of messy, sensual, incomprehensible challenges and delights.  Perhaps this is why I need to go to India now, to fall in love with the visceral, sensual heartbeat of myself.