I’ll admit that when Jenn and I first started discussing the notion of a trip to India, I was reluctant. My trepidation came from two principal concerns: first, we would be away from Rio and Silas for a long time; and second, India has a reputation for being a dirty, noisy, chaotic, illness-inducing country where it’s hard to find a clean toilet. I didn’t think I would handle either of these anxieties well, but when the opportunity presented itself to piggy back on the tail end of our friend Lisa Matthaus’ year long sojourn on the sub-continent, we jumped. I shelved my fretfulness: I would look at the three-week absence from the boys as an opportunity to step into my fear of being separated from them.
You see, so much has changed in our lives over the last year. When Jenn and I spent two weeks in Baja last January I worried that Rio and Silas would forget me. It was the longest I’d been away from them, and it was painful. I worried that the guys would turn to their step-father Andy – who is a great guy — as their primary father-figure. I know to some this must sound ridiculous, but it was my fear never-the-less. Over the last year we have all grown so much as a mashed up family that when I bid the boys good-bye the day before my departure, I harbored no concern that they would forget me, or replacing me.
On the matter of toilets: I stocked up on sanitary wipes and resolved not to worry about things I can’t control.
India was everything I feared it would be and so much more and I loved every minute of it.
It was dirty beyond our wildest expectations. I was not prepared for the garbage. It’s everywhere. Even in beautiful, natural places like the beach cliffs of Varkala, in southern Karala, great cascades of garbage spill down the precipice. For the vast majority of the country there seems to be little in the way of garbage collection: you just jam your trash into a bin, box, under your house, in the open sewers, into the woods or over the nearest embankment and hope that the cows, which wander pretty much everywhere, eat it.
It was tremendously noisy. There is a din that rises from every street, ally and lane way nearly constantly. The blaring of car horns is Omni-present. The rattle of every conceivable form of transportation vying for limited space fills every populated space in the country with a cacophonous din. The noise can be maddening, but there is also music there. India certainly has a sound track.
The country is greased with systematic chaotic. India doesn’t have rules. Ok, there must be rules, but they are so unlike anything that we follow in the west, and in particular in Canada, and most particularly in sleepy little Victoria, that there may as well not be rules. The chaos originates principally from the roadways, where traffic seems to operate in a free-for-all that if practiced in North America would, simply put, land every single driver on the road in jail. Forever. But that isn’t the extent of it. There is a perfect disorder that at once makes one wonder how anything ever gets done, and leaves you scratching your head when it all does.
It was illness-inducing, but not nearly as bad as we had prepared for. Jenn and I brought a small pharmacy with us in our first-aid kit, prepared for just about any malady that would befuddle us. I had an upset stomach – a persistent gurgling in the gut — most of the time I was in the country, but it wasn’t really that bad. You could never, ever drink the water that comes out of any tap in that country, and salads or any vegetable that wasn’t peeled was off my menu in all but the nicest hotels, but all in all we fared well in this regard.
And I never had a hard time finding a clean toilet. I mean, the john’s on the trains were a little dirty, but no more so than nearly every toilet I’ve visited in a bar on a Friday night, or every single outhouse in a campground in North America. In fact, in the airport in Mumbai on the way home, a man practically knocked me over and burst into the stall I was about to visit in order to personally clean the toilet seat for me. It was already polished to a high gloss. I felt like I had cheated him when I only took a leak. He was waiting for me to hand me a paper towel after I washed my hands. I felt like asking him to come home with us.
So India met all my stereotypical, prefabricated expectations and then just kept right on going.
What I was utterly unprepared for was how extraordinary the Indian people are. They are beautiful. Recall that this is a country with 1.2 billion people in it. At 3.2 million square kilometres, it is one-third the size of Canada. In Canada there are three people per square kilometre. In India, there are three hundred and seventy five. You are never alone in India. The people are everywhere, and you would imagine that with so many folks stacked atop one another, they might be a little testy. Not so. You might also imagine given that India suffers from terrible, bone crushing poverty that they might regard comparatively rich, white tourists with scorn.
Often when walking down a street away from the tourist centres or through crowded markets blissfully void of white travelers, Jenn and I would be regarded with blank faces. It would be easy to misinterpret this curiosity as hostility. And my guess is that some travelers do, because so many eye balls staring can be intimidating. But it is not unfriendliness; it’s the gaze reserved for a rare sighting. And how did we choose to greet these onlookers? Smiles, waves, handshakes and the exchange of names and stories.
Early on we vowed to greet all these curious eyes with warmth and friendliness. Lisa told us that her secret to survival was to smile and laugh, to which I added ‘wave’, and greet people with the familiar Namaste.
It’s the Sanskrit word that I wrote a little about in Carry Tiger to Mountain. It means “the spirit in me greets the spirit in you.” In Carry Tiger I joked that through this word I was learning patience and compassion while waiting in long lines in banks and post offices. These days I mostly say it in my head when I greet people; it’s been a lot of help reminding me that everybody that I meet is part of the tangled matrix of life across this humble planet.
In India I greeted damn near everybody with sincerity and Namaste, though I only added the hands pressed together as if in prayer occasionally. This all started with the immigration official at the airport in Mumbai when I arrived, and ended with the poorly organized and scattered security officials who gave me grief as I
was leaving. And everybody in between.
The fact that a whole country traditionally greets each other that way – by honouring the spirit in one another – is an extraordinary thing. When we waved to people and smiled, they almost always smiled and waved back. Many wanted to know where we were from, and what our “good names” were. Many wanted to shake hands. Often I found myself in a small crowd of India men, telling stories and laughing with them, while they laughed with, and likely at, me. I enjoyed countless wonderful conversations, often in very broken English, with countless wonderful people.
Near the end of our journey Jenn and I were in the port city of Ernakulam. We hand fled the touristy areas around Port Kochi and taken a ferry across to the mainland and spent the day following our feet through crowded markets and bustling city streets and finally found ourselves in an upscale fabric store. From behind our towering pile of table cloths, bed spreads, pillow cases and shirts I greeted a fellow shopper – an Indian woman – with my usual Namaste and she said, “oh, you’ve learned our language.” I laughed and said, “No, just the one word.”
But it seems that it’s the right word. Two spirits greeting each other. Not a simple hi; the acknowledgement of spirit, and connection.
One word, the right word, long lasting smiles, laughter, and a wave, was what my too-short journey to India was all about.
The right word, here, there, anywhere, now: Namaste. Spirits greeting one another.
I miss India.