The hardest thing when making the big decision to go off, leave your friends and family, travel and not know when you will return …. is booking the ticket. All I knew was I had to leave London. I had enough of the city, the politics, people and the weather!
When I booked my flight ticket on January 15th 2017, a sigh of relief hit me, a part of me was finally set free of routine, practicality and ‘the normal lifestyle’. My one way ticket was to India. I didn't really know much about the place, and it just seemed coincidence that my friend was organising a festival there, so I decided to book a flight, a bit naive about what was waiting ahead.
Before leaving, I had a million people share their opinions of the country, making me a bit scared and fearful, most statements contradicted each other and many of those people hadn't even visited India.
“Oh, you’ll love the food!”
“Be careful of the food - especially the street food! - dodgy belly alert”
“People are so friendly”
“Don’t talk to people; they will scam you, fraud you, take everything from you!”
“You’re travelling on your own? To India? Your crazy, don’t go..I’ve heard so many rape stories..”
What initially started as a yoga retreat to heal me inside and out, would end up going far deeper than I expected. Who knew that by looking so deep within yourself, I had the ability to adjust and understand a whole other culture.
In the eastern part of the world, everything is different in comparison to the west. In order to blend in, you have to re-programme your tastebuds, manners, toilet duties, interactions and negotiation strategies. Everything I grew up thinking was the norm was then switched and reversed when I came to India. Which is why, understandably, it took me a little while to fully acclimatise, and perhaps why I ended up staying the full term of my one year visa.
So having survived my year, experiencing a range of different situations; from western tourist destinations like Goa and Dharamshala, to living with Indian families in Kanpur and Ladakh to working alongside charities in Varanasi and Rajasthan. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover a lot of ground in India (not everywhere as the country is huge, its catchphrase is “to keep you returning to this promised land”.). But the main thing I saw and learnt from the people, is India is the land of the heart. By heart, I mean love. By love, I mean a pure, selfless, giving, forgiving, unconditional, expansive, soulful and liberating love. The country is built on the energy of people’s hearts.
Don't get me wrong, that doesn’t mean when you enter the country, you will be treated like an angel. These are still normal people and being a foreigner, someone who stands out amongst the crowd, you will get ripped off, scammed or maybe even shouted at. Depending on your luck, you will be seen as a target to poke fun at and rip off, essentially.
But this is where the magic steps in. Mother India will cast her wand over you to guide, show and teach you (if you let her). When you get to the roots of this country, really understand how people think, feel and breathe, if you have a big, kind heart, it doesn’t matter what land, religion or language you speak, you will be king in these lands. Bollywood films idolise characters who are considerate, caring and devoted individuals. Individuals who want to end poverty, defeat the enemy, care for their community, marry a beautiful girl, and all with a song and dance. But the point is, Indian culture - people, films, religion, art - admire individuals who really love one another, using this love for goodwill and good intentions. Once you understand this; everything becomes easier.
My last day in India is a prime example. I had an overnight bus from Jodphur, Rajasthan to Delhi, to then catch a flight from Delhi to Kathmandu, Nepal. All on the same day. Once arriving in Delhi, I was a bit tired from my 20 hour bus ride and grabbed the first man with a rickshaw I could see. I wasn't really sure where I was and told him where I needed to go; I had learnt from my experiences to never accept the first price, and of course to be bold and confident in my answer. Yet I could tell he was still taking me for a ride, not accepting my price, but not letting me go on my way either, “Mam it’s too far, you must take rickshaw..”
By this time a little crowd had formed around us, interested in what the fuss was about between foreigner and local. Eventually I settled, gave in, and accepted; we fixed a price. I quickly discovered that the place I needed to go was a mere two minutes from where we had been. Angry and annoyed I started yelling at him, saying I won’t pay him, he’s tricked me. As I’m getting out my bags, all infuriated, he suddenly starts laughing, finding my humiliation a good practical joke in his eyes. He then says, “I like you..you have good humour..India will miss you dearly..please come again, my friend, and call me when you need rickshaw.” A big cheesy smile appears across his face as he hands me his card. It was then both, me and him, burst into laughter; how could you not? From enemy to best friend, that was and that is India; ‘no hard feelings, my friend.’
I would recommend India to anyone; its been a country of healing, discovery and adventure. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to say it all ran smoothly. There’s been challenges along the way; oppression being a female, painful poverty, controlling families, annoying and harassing men - not understanding the concept of ‘no’ as an answer. India isn’t an easy country for all; for some it will drive them mad and push them away. For others it will be similar to my own experiences, of finding an attachment and a place forever in your heart.
It’s a bit like Marmite; you either love it or hate it.