It’s been more than three months since Jenn and I returned from India. Its time to say goodbye. Its time to move onto other topics, but not before exploring a few additional ideas.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t return to the topic of traffic, or more aptly, transportation. And I can’t leave unexplored the electric current of spirit that prevails in India.

On my first day in India I landed at the airport in Goa at 6am, after sleeping on the floor of the Mumbai airport for a few hours. Jenn and Lisa met me with little paper cups of Chai and we then hurtled through the awakening streets of the city for the train station in a hired car. Within an hour we were rolling east towards the hills, up through forests and Ghats and onwards to Hospet. The trains in India are fabled, and I was spellbound. We rode second class, no AC, so the windows opened to let in a tantalising breeze. Every so often someone would stroll up and down the aisles selling all manner of food and drink. Many little paper cups of Chai later I was buzzing but happy.

The Train from Hospet to Panjim, India

The Train from Hospet to Panjim, India

I strolled the aisles, learning to smile at people and being rewarded with broad grins back. My camera became a tool for easy introduction. Make a simple gesture, easily understood as “May I take your picture?” Snap away. Then, on the LCD display, show the curious what you captured. Instant conversation starter / barrier-breaker down.

Tut Tut

Tut Tut

When we arrived at Hospet, Lisa had arranged an auto-rickshaw, so we could run the gauntlet of drivers offering rides. The 20 minute drive to Hampi was the wildest I had in India, and I jumped to the early conclusion that all rickshaw trips would be so momentous. Nobody died. We didn’t run anything over, at least nothing all that big. Hospet is as poor as dirt, and the children playing barefoot and mostly naked among the smoldering ashes of garbage fires left an impression.

The train ride back from Hospet to the coast four days later was a highlight for my travels in India with Jenn. We had two bench seats almost entirely too ourselves; it wasn’t too hot: it was a magical, suspended moment in time.

We traveled by plane, train, bus, cab, hired car, boat and auto-rickshaw throughout India, as well as logging a fair number of miles on foot. Transportation in India is the physical form of the chaos theory. Everything seems to work, but just exactly how is a complete and utter unknown.

Later, traveling up into the Western Ghats to reach Kumily, we had planned on taking the bus. Sitting in our seats, the weather sweltering, two young India women asked if we’d like to share a car? The cost was reasonable, so we drove together. The three hour long journey up and over high passes and into spice country was astonishingly beautiful, and nearly fatal more times than I can count. Passing on blind corners, driving up hill in under powered vehicles on roads with no shoulders and sheer drops on one side and vertical cliffs on the other is something of a national pastime in India, and our driver excelled at this simple distraction. Jenn and our two traveling companions fell asleep (I think they may have passed out so as not to have to see the face of death so damned often) leaving me there alone to psychically keep us from utter ruin through sheer force of will.

On the trip from Kumily to Munnar, set amidst the hilly tea plantations, Jenn looked at me at one point and said she now understood why everybody was always praying in India.

Sometime towards the end of my travels we were traveling by car to the airport in Cochi, on the coast, to hop a flight to Mumbai. We were on the causeway crossing from Cochi onto the mainland and signs suggested that passing was forbidden. We asked our driver about the rules of the road and he laughed and said that of course there were rules and it was all perfectly safe. “See,” he said, “here it is forbidden to overtake another car,” he pointed. “So nobody does…” and of course, just as he said it, a car pulled out behind us to pass, forcing us and the cars occupying the oncoming lanes to swerve to avoid fiery death. Jenn asked about this and he said, “Oh, they will have to pay a fine….”

Because there are always Highway Patrolmen just waiting to pull you over and issue demerit points.

Add to this contest for space on the roads camels, elephants, herds of cattle, wild packs of dogs, chickens, various pilgrims, holy men, people pulling and pushing and riding on every conceivable form of cart or carriage or coach and you get a mild approximation of what it’s like trying to get around India.

Safety First

Safety First

Somehow the whole thing works. The trains carry thirteen million people each day in India. But as crowded as they are, people smile and make room for you as you shoulder your way aboard. The streets are crammed with four or five lanes of traffic in a space that we would find tight for two or three, and yet everybody just inches forward. Jenn and I were once in a traffic jam involving half a dozen rickshaws, a lorry loaded with grain being pillaged by pigeons, several hand-pulled carts, a taxi and at least one goat, and the whole thing was sorted out with men pushing and pulling the vehicles this way and that until the congestion was overcome and we all went on our merry way.

The other matter pertaining to transportation that amazed me was that almost nobody wore helmets while riding motorcycles and scooters, which there must be 100 million or more in country.

And there must have been some law against riding them alone, because most often two, three, four or five people were stacked atop these things like poultry in the back of a flatbed truck.

Whole families would pile on. Dad driving — helmet optional — with mom behind, loosely holding onto a baby, her sari inches from being tangled in a wheel or the drive train; brother(s) and/or sister(s) behind her, their legs dangling for oncoming traffic to more easily maim. And not just on the slow moving back streets of some hill country village, but on the highways and in downtown Mumbai.

The goat responsible for the traffic jam

The goat responsible for the traffic jam

Add to this contest for space on the roads camels, elephants, herds of cattle, wild packs of dogs, chickens, various pilgrims, holy men, people pulling and pushing and riding on every conceivable form of cart or carriage or coach and you get a mild approximation of what it’s like trying to get around India.

Yes the horns blare endlessly, but not out of anger. They are employed as early warning, saying “I’m here, I’m here, now I’m here,” over and over. Only once while in country did Jenn and I witness anything akin to road rage. A bus full of kids took a corner onto a highway at breakneck speed, forcing our car to drive into on coming traffic, which itself had to take what meagre shoulder existed. Our driver slowed down and peered at the driver of the bus a moment and made a bland, neutral gesture of inquisition with his hands. That’s it. In many North American cities the cops would have been called out at the very least; the air would have been blue wish profanity; gun play would have resulted most metropolitan American cities.

Somehow it all works.

Part of me thinks that it’s a matter of the people’s strong faith; part of me thinks that there is no choice but for it to work. A country of 1.1 billion people. The fourth largest economy in the world. Three wars in the last fifty years with its neighbour Pakistan. The first country outside the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to develop nuclear weapons (in 1974, with the first test explosion called, ironically, the Smiling Buddha).

The country simply has to work.

But that’s the mechanical undertakings of the country.

As interesting are the spiritual endeavors of this vast, complex, contradictory land. Hindus account for about 82% of India, Islam roughly twelve. About two and a half percent of Indians are Christians. Sikhs account for another two percent, while less than one percent of the population are Buddhists. The remaining point is made up of Jains, Parsis (followers of Zoroastrianism) and Jews (who at .0005% of the population still constitute over half a million, more than the 350,000 Jews in all of Canada).

Spirituality isn’t something that happens on Sunday’s in India. It isn’t confined to the church or the synagogue. It is a daily, if not hourly occurrence throughout the country. It is everyday life. Nearly every little town has a temple and temple tank, most have a mosque, its loud speakers announcing prayers five times a day.

Hindu procession in Cochi, India

Hindu procession in Cochi, India

But more than the formal religions and spiritual practices, which have as often divided Indians along bloody and violent fault lines, we observed a powerful current of spirit that seemed to charge everything in the tiny corner of India we visited, and could imagine permeating the rest of the enormous country.

For me that electric current of spirit burst to the surface one evening in Varkala. Jenn and I were sitting atop the cliffs on the Southern part of the town, looking out at the Arabian Sea as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. It was still hot, and we had been out in the town all day, and then swimming in the ocean, and were sipping cold Kingfisher beer and enjoying the peace at the close of the day. The sun, as is its custom, disappeared before actually meeting the horizon (pollution makes for such lovely sunsets) and as night overtook day, stars began to appear. We watched for an hour as darkness drew up all around us, the stars punctuating the deep blue above. And then something amazing happened: the stars began to conglomerate along the pan flat horizon of the sea.

We watched as more and more stars appeared on the horizon, and as the darkness grew it became impossible to discern where the sky ended and the sea began.

They were, of course, the lights from fishing boats. Thousands of them. And they drew across the Arabian Sea for as far as our eyes could roam.

It dawned on me that for each light we could see on the horizon, there were at least one or two men, and maybe many more, settling in for their supper, and then to sleep on the floors of their open boats; a simple awning or tarp all that would separate them from the vastness of heaven.

I’ve long gazed at the heavens and marvelled at our collective arrogance to believe that we are the only intelligent life in the universe. Maybe at this time we are, and maybe we’re the only supposedly intelligent life that struts about yammering on cell phones while fouling our own nests to the point where they are toxically uninhabitable. But to think that of all the ancient and long extinct stars that we can see in the heavens we are the only “life” is pure hubris.

I squinted my eyes a moment as I sometimes do when trying to perceive the world as it really is: a maze of energy and information swirling in clouds like dust. No hard edges; no beginnings and no end. Things became clearer. The single, ocean like soul that spreads across this tiny orb called earth reaches far beyond into the vastness of space. We are all points of light in that soul; all unique and varied waves on that singular ocean. I pressed my eyes shut to better see: nothing separates us one from the other except the dimness of our senses and the prejudice of our training. It’s not a matter of education that is needed to see the world as it really is – one – its simply a matter of experiencing it.

The current of spirit that electrifies India charges us all. It’s just that in India it is inescapable.

I took Jenn’s hand in mine and watched the stars dance across the sea and the sky; the sun set on another enchanted day, the dawn just a matter of a few short hours away.

Jenn's photo of a Shiva Temple, Mumbia: The Electric Current of Spirit

Jenn's photo of a Shiva Temple, Mumbia: The Electric Current of Spirit