I’ve been struggling to write this article for two weeks now. I tried many ways saying my story and every time I started describing the events, all these wonderful, little, daily incidents that I cherish now that I am back, I felt limiting myself. I just wanted to write how much and on what level India inspired me, what I learned about myself and the real reasons making this trip. So, let’s say this is my personal journal and an open confession, words that seem a bit terrifying to me because I’ve always been scared expressing myself openly. That’s why I feel this is the only way to write about India. Because if I could sum up in few words what India taught me, is to become and stay open.
The common question that always brings a smile on my face is this: Why India. Why this country. The people of Greece, friends and relatives, were curious why I chose this country as my destination of travel. The same curiosity was also spiked from people in India.
Traveling to India, got stuck in my mind three years ago when I watched the “Eat, Pray, Love” movie and read the author’s, Elizabeth Gilbert, personal journey. The thought of living in an Ashram, a spiritual hermitage where you get to practice meditation and yoga, seemed so charming and appealing to me. I developed the idea that India is the place to experience the spiritual side of life, a country so unique and different and vibrant and blindingly colorful that allows you to sense your full potential and connect with your inner guidance. I was in love!
So, when I felt the time has come to finally take the step, back in October of 2015, little did I know from where to start. I had been reading articles and blogs online throughout these years but organizing a three months trip from scratch was a challenging undertaking. I decided to wait. Then, when in January I saw a really good flight deal from Athens to Delhi, I decided to grab it without second thoughts. At least I had my starting point. I chose though to keep things going spontaneously and not organize the whole trip at once but only the first 2 weeks. I would spend the first five days in Delhi where I would celebrate Holi festival (the festival of colors) and then head south and visit my friend Ravi, who would host me in Bangalore with his family until I familiarize myself with the culture.
“I remember my first days in Delhi very vividly since I was thrilled to finally be there. Everything was so new! The stares on the road, the crazy drivers, the honking of the cars, the dust, the cows, the pollution, the slums, the beautiful women on their colorful saris and the Holi! Holi was unique and full of crazy moments. The original Holi occurs in neighborhoods where children and youth spray colored powder solutions at each other celebrating the beginning of spring”.
And then the scenery changes. Coconut trees, endless banana fields, tropical fruits, monkeys jumping from one tree to another and unbearable heat. And it was only the beginning of the spring.
As I mentioned, I was hosted by my friend Ravi and his family in Bangalore. I felt quite comfortable and welcomed in their home from the very first moment while at the same time I could get an insight of an upper middle class, South Indian family. Super chilled, nice conversations would occur every night at the terrace where I was surprised to see how many similarities Greek and Indian culture share. I really enjoyed the moment, experiencing those days in a completely different environment from the one I had been raised. No worries at all, except from the fact that I should soon open my own wings and go with the flow.
“I felt so beautiful wearing the sari! I envy the women that can dress so beautifully and colorfully in their everyday life using also all these eye-catching pieces of jewelry. Many times, I caught myself staring at Ravi’s mother, Seethamma. The way she moved, her gestures, her confidence… Women in India seem so powerful and the real “bosses” of the house.
She used to make compliments about how beautiful I was but she had no idea how extraordinary in my eyes she seemed.”
My next destinations Mysore and Gokarna, were a random choice since it was the beginning of my not-planned trip. It was a huge bet on myself while in Mysore to move only with local buses and not take any taxi or tuk-tuk, in order to diminish the pinching fear of mine that I will get lost in a big, chaotic city. I gained lot of confidence after I hit the road and find my destinations only by asking locals who were more than happy to help. Looking back now, I really cherish this feeling of fearlessness and achievement, the ability to start enjoying the unknown, getting lost on the right direction and rely on your intuition. I left Mysore after 3 days of being around wonderful and chilled young people with whom I connected through couchsurfing. I felt my time there was not enough but I had to move on to my next volunteer project in Gokarna.
“While I was wondering in the streets of Mysore, I run into a tuk-tuk driver that committed to drive me, on a very low cost, in the city’s market. I knew I shouldn’t trust him, but it was a very hot day and I gave in. Eventually, he took me in this small workshop where ladies were making essence sticks from Mysore’s “royal tree”, sandalwood. Although I didn’t buy any products, it was something interesting to see”.
Gokarna is a beautiful small coastal town on the southwest part of India. It has a tropical climate and lots of humidity that leaves in your skin a permanent stickiness. The plan was to stay in an Ashram for more than a month, to go deeply into yoga and meditation and volunteer on a kid’s summer camp. I was super excited! Finally the reason I travelled to India! “I will do this and that; I will be at peace…” My mind continued making scenarios. That’s why when I finally left the Ashram five days after my arrival due to some problems that were going on there, I was left completely agitated and worried. Plans hadn’t worked accordingly and I had to move to the next destination earlier than I would imagine. I stayed four more days in Gokarna in a bungalow hotel by the seaside, meeting people for all over the world, swimming in the Indian Ocean, drinking coconut shakes and photographing magical sunsets. If all these sound charming, I have to admit I wasn’t happy with where I was. I couldn’t fully enjoy all these magical moments because I was so consumed with my “spiritual task”. Sometimes even thoughts of not worthiness would appear reminding me that I was not there to just enjoy, but to work on myself. Looking back now, I see that everything served a reason. Even those thoughts.
Nextstops, Hampi and Goa. I took a local 10 hours bus with a co-traveler from Gokarna to Hampi in order to visit this special place that everyone praised. After all, I still wanted to travel, to see as much as possible, to explore. I had some funny adventures there, met some nice people, almost had a heatstroke. With more than 43 °C it wasn’t the place anyone could easily be. While I was there, I run into online a cheap one-way flight from Goa to Delhi. I booked it. Maybe North had more answers.
“Hampi is a temple town with great history, located in central-south India and it is recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site. My co-traveler Aoife and I, stood very lucky when this specific day that we visited the ruins, was the national heritage day, and we had the opportunity to visit many temples for free. Hampi was truly breathtaking and majestic.”
“While in Goa, I experienced the most beautiful sceneries. There is a peaceful energy that this city holds, quite ironic if you think that it attracts tons of tourists every year and it’s famous for the ongoing parties. I stayed and couchsurfed there for only two days. It was definitely not enough and it’s already my top destination whenever I visit India again.”
North (a completely different experience)
Back to Delhi for few days where things where moving fast. I participated in the Bollywood movie “House full 3” completely by chance, wondered around Delhi’s city center and visited the grand Taj Mahal. I was physically tired. I had been traveling relentlessly, changing places every 2 or 3 days, having a back pain from my backpack. The constant unconscious worry about where this trip is leading me and when exactly I will have the spiritual experience I was striving for, was still there. But to be honest, I knew that everything would end up ok, I knew that India takes you and guides you towards what you really need, I knew I should stop overthinking, have fun and surrender to the chaos around me.
Next stop Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the world’s continually inhabited cities and is regarded as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. Here, pilgrims travel from all over India to cremate their loved ones along the Ghats that lining the river Ganges, since it’s believed that dying here offers liberation from the circle of birth and death. Varanasi’s heavy energy can be overwhelming for any traveler as it was for me.
“I experienced the first cultural shock after walking the old city’s main road. Tuk-tuk drivers calling me continuously, cows and stray dogs everywhere, unimaginable pollution, dust that made breathing a hard work….
…and then few miles away, along the Ghats, you get to experience the serenity and the sanctity of this place. How sacred and beautiful and different life can be in another part of this world. Feelings of loneliness came to the surface for the first time. I felt like escaping this place when after four days I boarded the train to Rishikesh where it turned to be the turning point of my trip.”
I was mostly sick while I was in Rishikesh due to a severe food poisoning I got from train food. I was in world’s capital of yoga and I spent most of my days there physically weak to practice. On the top of that, many emotions came again to the surface that made my recovery last longer. Anger, frustration, despair; sense of escaping again, moving; there were still so many places to see. But then one afternoon, I went simply in an isolated place by the Ganga and released all these emotions. I meditated and made peace with myself for the first time.
“At Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram, better known as ‘Beatle’s Ashram’, the walls speak loudly the truth for the ones that are ready to hear”
I started feeling better, internally and externally. I realized what a blessing my sick days was, how many things I got to realize about myself and how much it helped me slow down and focus on something that really mattered: my health. After spending 16 days in Rishikesh, I was finally able to enjoy and appreciate the moment, such as bonding with wonderful people and feel a lightness that I never experienced before. When I took the night sleeper train to Amritsar I still had almost 3 weeks left which I decided to make the best out of it.
“My arrival in Amritsar was accompanied with feelings of acceptance and joy. I was advised from other travelers to stay in the Golden Temple, the holiest place of worship of Sikhism. Sikhism is a religion that originated in India over than 500 years ago and is ranged as the world’s 5th largest religion. In Golden Temple, accommodation and food is provided by donation to all the travelers.”
“There is a strong sense of equality and devotion in God among the Sikh community. The traveler there feels welcomed, special and noticeable. Sharing is one of Sikhism’s fundamental beliefs. Every day, countless people volunteer in the community, by preparing the meals for their fellow men in a system that works perfectly and in absolute sync. It’s definitely something really impressive to see.”
“One very enjoyable afternoon I had while I was in Amritsar, was when I watched the Wagah- Attari closing boarder ceremony between India and Pakistan. However, it was a small disappointment to see Indians screaming nationalistic slogans against Pakistan and a big contrary from the peaceful and sacred Golden Temple’s atmosphere”
I had utterly accepted the fact that I had nothing more to experience than just to enjoy my time and be fully present. I was healthy, still on my feet exploring India’s beauties. And I was thankful for that. With this understanding I boarded a bus to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s residence and home for the Tibetan government in exile. I wouldn’t imagine this would be my last stop. Those mountains captivated me and kept me their prisoner. I participated in meditation sessions in a Buddhist center in the mornings and volunteered in a Tibetan center in the afternoons.
“One of the best and most joyful experiences of this trip was volunteering with the ‘Tibet World’ organization in upper Dharamsala or better known as MacLeod Ganj. I was teaching English to Buddhist monks who were more than eager to learn. Buddhist monks and Tibetans in general, are the most humble, happy, funny, goodhearted, innocent, loving and smiley people I’ve ever come across in my life. Despite the terrors they have faced because of China’s occupation in Tibet, they have a peaceful approach towards life, keeping the hope that one day their land will be free and an open place for everyone. After each class I used to leave quite energized. It was a bliss!”
A week after I moved in a small nearby village called Bhagsu in order to volunteer with another organization whose aim is to clean India from waste. It is a feeling of sufficiency the one you get as a part of a team that tries to bring a change in a country starting by its small community. I learned how much impact in the environment a single plastic bottle has and I committed to produce less garbage in my everyday life.
“Up till the snowline, at Triund trek with ‘Waste Warriors’ organization, cleaning the paths and feeling unbeatable…”
I met wonderful souls up in those mountains that taught me many things about myself. I’ve came through this entire journey and still my last days in Bhagsu would hold many surprises. There was no more a perfect ending to this trip than Dalai Lama’s three days teaching. I was mesmerized by hearing this wise, exceptional human being talk about love and compassion. Two days after, I took off to Greece with a backpack full of souvenirs and a heart full of emotions.
Many people, back in Greece, were surprised by my behavior doing this kind of trip. They saw me as a timid person. This made me reflect upon myself. I realized how closed I’ve always been, not letting myself been seen, not sharing my plans and desires, afraid always of people’s criticism.
Writing this article I’m stepping out of my comfort zone; expressing openly my deepest thoughts and feelings. However I come to realize that vulnerability and facing your fears is the biggest power and the best gift you can give to yourself.
I now see clearly everything I need to change on myself in order to feel lighter and free. India worked as a catalyst in this process. Maybe now it makes all sense while listening to Dalai Lama’s teaching, these specific words of his seeped into my mind and I quickly wrote them down in my notebook: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you get the opportunity, try to share”. And finally my searching came to end. I no longer had to search.
Trip to Trip
by Anna Chasapi