It Was Only Meant As A Vacation
How India sends tourists on a journey of self discovery
|I had heard it all before:
“One visit to India will transform the way you view yourself and the world.”
“The energy is unlike anything you will experience, and you will return with an altered perception of reality.”
“It will take you a long time to adjust to American life when you come home.”
Oh, and, “Always drink a shot of Pepto Bismol before eating.”
India changes people. This was a common sentiment with my peers, Hinduism teachers, the Chopra Center, and especially my mother. Whether through digestion or spirituality, visiting India promoted an altered state of being. So when my best friend and I boarded an Air India flight at JFK bound for a nine day tour of the Golden Triangle, you can imagine my expectations. In ten days, I would return enlightened, hrefreshed, and perhaps a little ill from samosas.
I was open to the possibilities. Growing up, I was exposed to various aspects of Indian culture – more than any other non-Indian I knew. When I was nine, my parents took me out of church and enrolled me in a transcendental meditation course. Our beach house was named Namaste. In high school, I would write papers about meditation, levitation, reincarnation, and polytheism. (Living in the Bible Belt, my community soon labeled me a hippy or Satan’s child.) I attended seminars at the Chopra Center and read countless books on India’s historical turmoil. We had a Ganesha statue in our living room. My mother, a meditation instructor, would often discuss the benefits of Ayurvedic medicine. Furthermore, as a Religious Studies major with an emphasis in Indian religion, I spent four years researching the country’s spiritual lifeline. With this exposure, as well as years of international travel, I felt prepared for anything.
I was wrong. I was not prepared to land at Indira Gandhi airport with swollen ankles and lost luggage, no available room at our Delhi hotel, and nothing to eat at the “closed for renovations” cafe. Maybe it was the 21 hours of traveling, or the jetlag, or the hunger, but my flexible, open-to-anything attitude was churning into frustration and cynicism. However, I did appreciate the giant wooden Ganesha greeting me in the international arrivals hall wearing a garland of marigolds.
I was especially not prepared to vomit nine times in two hours in Agra, prompting my friend to call a doctor and my tour guide to almost admit me to the hospital. The diagnosis: food poisoning. It was completely surreal to be doubled-over in a hotel room with a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal, an IV stuck in my left arm and a nurse holding my hair above the bucket. However, this moment of infirmity was also one of clarity. In addition to last night’s dinner, I felt as if something else was being released from my system: my past.
To this day, my mother concludes it was not tandoori chicken that caused my illness, but a release of emotional toxicity. Before India, I was in a difficult relationship, ready to leave but holding on to the possibility of change. To fill the void, I had become physically unhealthy and desperate for material possessions. Oddly enough, I never realized how damaging my life had become until I touched Indian soil. After Agra, my perceptions of reality changed. I found joy in those things that were not actually things. I ended my relationship and began a journey of unexpected self-discovery. I became one of those people who always comment on the magic of India and its ability to shake you to the core. Really, I should have been prepared for this after seeing the wooden Ganesha. After all, he is the remover of obstacles.
My friend also experienced a dramatic shift. Upon returning to the U.S., she ended an 8-year relationship, started volunteering, and changed jobs. She takes advantage of her opportunities without jumping into materialism. Before India, she viewed America mostly as egoistic leadership and capitalist manipulation. Now she is grateful for the resources this country offers. After returning to work, a colleague told her she looked taller. She replied, “No, but my life has been elevated.”
So what ultimately causes this change?
Coincidence? Divine Intervention? Karma? Wisdom? Destiny? I like to think it is an entity that encapsulates every possibility: Mother India. She penetrates the spirit with simplicity and realism. Then again, perhaps I should hrefrain from labeling the phenomenon and just cherish its mystery. Defining its essence may damage the true nature of its existence.
Since that initial trip, I have been fortunate to return to India three times, traveling to Goa, Haridwar, Mussoorie, and Rishikesh. Additionally, I discovered love in the unlikeliest of places – 7,600 miles from home, in the Delhi airport, I found a man whose love is piercing and unconditional. So the next time you are in India, be open to the possibilities of self-discovery, even if the trip is only meant as a vacation.