A Taste of India

In 2009, I went to India. I had no plans on going there, it wasn’t on my bucket list and I already knew I didn’t deal well with intense countries. But it was on her bucket list. She was my friend and she told me she was sick. I wanted to make her dream come true.

I was in Australia at the time, driving my van all around and working whatever jobs I could. I was just done with delivering pizzas with Dominos in Darwin and the cleaning gigs for companies in the area. I worked like a crazy person, finished late, went dancing (and drank ;p)… For so many days, they are kind of all blurred together. All I have left are puzzle pieces.

I met Tegan after a break up that, for some reason, I had trouble getting over. In Australia, because we were all so far away from home, each relationship had a depth that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. There a month-relationship was the equivalent of a year… Or something like that.
Tegan made me feel like all I was was interesting and worth loving again. I felt so good spending time with her that she quickly became a true friend. One day, while dancing, she told me she was sick. She had only two more years. I couldn’t believe it. She was so full of life and so full of love! And so, after a little while, I decided that I wanted her to realize her dream to visit India. I would make her go by force if I had to!

And so, in December 2009, we went. But India sucked the life out of me. Right when I arrived, I couldn’t breathe. I felt sick and weakened. I’d never felt like that in any other country before. I tried hard to be ok. I enjoyed some things but I hated being lied to and everything was so hard. Hard to witness, hard to breathe, hard to travel.

We were two women travelling alone with little money and some places wouldn’t even deal with women. Everything was a fight and that was just the beginning.

We travelled to Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jaipur (?), Agra, Varanasi… and then Rishikesh.

My favorite place was the desert. We stayed a couple of nights and visited small villages, travelling on camels… It wasn’t all sand, there were trees and bushes. The nights had more stars than I had seen in a very long time. I was unwell and in pain a lot… but I also felt something I hadn’t felt in the city. Freedom. Happiness, too. The space and the sky, the air and the people made me feel better. I took photos. A lot. The light in the desert houses was unbelievable. Tegan and I were communicating by our actions and gestures when the locals didn’t speak english (or french ;p). I particularly remember the women in the village we stayed at. Their skin was wrinkled and thin as silk, but the contrast with the colorful bracelets and clothes they wore was stunning. The light was peaking through the cracks of the blinds and drawing lines in the dust and smoke. We were in the kitchen where a fire was heating our food. Lots of spices and tastes that I’d never tasted before. The sun was setting in the foggy sky and the camels rested while we sat in the top of a sand dune. Tegan always said she loved India. I replied “why?” each time, but in that moment, I understood.

I got really sick in the train from Agra to Varanasi. I think it was a 13-hour ride (it was supposed to be way shorter, of course). I slept most of it, but when I woke up everything went downhill. I was totally dehydrated but I couldn’t keep water down. I collapsed in the restrooms on the train, holding on to the sink to stand back on. I had no energy and when I saw my reflection in the mirror, I had this thought “this is it, all that I’ve done to end up here… This is it”. It felt like the end. I couldn’t control my body anymore. It took everything for me to get out of there, back to Tegan. I told her something was very wrong with me. I fell again and threw up on the floor. Bile (I didn’t know it at the time and was freaked out by the vivid yellow color coming out of me).  Of course, it was at the same time we were finally arriving in Varanasi and I had to get my backpack and walk out of the train. It was like climbing on the top of a mountain, when you’re almost there but you can’t move anymore. I was a zombie, concentrating all of my little remaining energy to move one foot in front of the next. I was being robbed at some point but Tegan saved my passport by catching the kids. I was so out of it, I didn’t even realize what was going on. I collapsed again in the train station and I remember that guy stopping to check my eyes. He said here was a nurse and that I was completely dehydrated. I replied that I couldn’t keep water down. You need electrolytes, he said, like coca cola or something with sugar. How come I never heard of it? I don’t know. Probably been living under a rock or something. And so I dragged myself to a kind of tuktuk with a driver who insisted he knew the hostel we were going to.

He did not.

I was trying to stay awake at that point. Feeling like if I fell asleep I wouldn’t wake up again. I remember being mad when Tegan and I realized the guy lied. We had to switch transportation to a another tuktuk like bike. I was reaching the end of my… everything. I couldn’t even tell you if it lasted 10 minutes or 2 hours. Time didn’t mean anything then. The guy finally stopped and I threw myself off to the ground. I had nothing more to give. We were near buildings and kids were playing around. Tegan gave money to a kid and asked him to come back with a coke. I wasn’t sure he would, but he did. I was sitting next to my bag, telling Tegan I couldn’t do anymore. The coke gave me a tad of energy and after a while I was able to move enough to try to walk to our next bed. Of course, we had to walk, it was lost in the small pathways of Varanasi. Tight alleys and something else. Something special. The next 4 days are pretty much forgotten. I know I slept a lot (about 20h that first night), ate a little and finally got my hands on electrolytes. On the 5th day, I thought if I didn’t get better, I’d go to some international doctor… But I did get better. Still weak but able to walk around more. I started taking pictures and found that light was extraordinary there. I met Baba J near the Ganga. Aline was there. I can’t remember where we met her (New Delhi?) but she was teaching at a school nearby: Wichi Art School and we went to visit her. It felt wonderful. There was a rooftop we stayed on for a while and, for the first time since the desert, I felt like I could breathe again. I could feel nature and the breeze. The kids were adorable. Tegan fell in love with a teacher there and decided to stay. We weren’t getting along anymore. She never gave me back the money that I lent her. I felt used and kinda betrayed. As for her, she probably felt like I wasn’t ever happy anymore, which was true. I felt so down and so negative! We gave each other our Christmas presents. She said my gift to her wasn’t the one she wanted.

I left.

I really wanted to visit the north and maybe see the Himalayas, so I went on my own. I was angry with the country in general at that time: how hard it was to travel, the rawness of poverty, the pain and suffering, kids hurting animals in Bikaner, my disappointment in Tegan and how our beautiful friendship went to hell, cows eating trash, the air so hard to breathe, the smells and noises of the cities, the trash everywhere, the looks of men upon us, the lies everyone told to sell things you didn’t want instead of the things you actually asked for, being so sick all the while…. Being weak and helpless. Powerless.

The ride from Varanasi to Rishikesh was a long one (19h), with a lot of looks. I bought a blanket because it was freezing and I didn’t have enough warm clothes. I travelled all night, met a girl in the train that was from the area and helped me find my way around… and I made it to Rishikesh, after a few more lies. It was very early when I arrived. Too early for anything to be open so I waited in my blanket. My hostel didn’t have room so I went to another one that offered yoga classes and had an Italian restaurant… Where I binged, too happy to find food I could keep down!

I loved Agra for the Taj Mahal (I grew up with the cardboard boxed rice showing a picture of it :) and I loved the rooftops where you could see the cities/towns from above while feeling the breeze. I loved the beauty of the temples. Varanasi was incredible in its own way : the light, the strength and omnipresence of faith, the Ganga, sacred in three religions, the fog in the morning and the ceremonies… It was kind of magic. I liked parts of it. Not as much as the desert because I love nature and wild spaces. I felt peace there, as well as on the rooftop of the Wichi Art School but Rishikesh is where I truly felt better. I was on my own, reading a book in a restaurant when I laid my eyes on another girl who was alone, Evelyn. We talked and ended up spending the rest of our trip together. We met Manish and Pramod who lived there, although Pramod was from Nepal, and we visited around. We went to the mountains to see the Himalayas (from afar, but still ;p). We spent Christmas together, singing songs and laughing in a restaurant… Rishikesh was the place I finally enjoyed India. I bought a moonstone and a singing bowl, I visited as Astrologer for the first time of my life. I healed.

I still couldn’t wait to go back to Australia, though. Don’t get me wrong, I started appreciating certain things but India took its toll on me and I needed more peace to be myself again. Guess I’m spoiled ;p

I was planning on taking a train or a bus but since Evelyn was travelling by car in the same direction and on the same day, we decided to share the trip. One thing I didn’t realized though… was how long it would take to drive 140 miles in India. Any guess?

9 HOURS.

I was starting to lose my mind in the car, the closer we got to my departure time. There was nothing I could do but, because of all the thing I’d gone through, I couldn’t handle the idea of staying one more night in the country. I WANTED OUT.

I ran like hell… I was the last one in the plane…. But I made it!
And for the first time of my life, I cried of happiness and relief because I was finally leaving. Just like that, the weight on my shoulders/heart flew away and I was able to breathe again.

It took me years to appreciate India. I remember the advertisement for it in Australia, it said “Incredible India!” and it was exactly that.

 

It’s been a long time since I came to visit you India.
I never hated a country as much as I did you.
I never prayed to get out of a country before you.
I never cried of happiness when the plane took off before, leaving the hell you put me through.
It took me years to get over it.
To get over the heartbreak, the fear, the sadness.
It took me a long time to accept that even though I thought it was the end -my end- I didn’t die.
I never felt like I was close to death, before you.
So, India, it took me years but now I can look back and see the beauty. The light. The grace.
I remember the overwhelming negativity and how hard it was to breathe. I remember my reflection in the mirror when I thought “this is it.” In the train from Agra to Varanasi. I remember the bile and I remember the pain. I remember the weakness of my body and how I couldn’t walk. How insurmountable it felt, to move two steps.
I remember collapsing… First in the train. Then in the train station. Then again in the middle of that street.
They saved my life.

But now I also remember the open doors of the trains and the landscapes, the lives flying by.
I remember the sky in the desert at night. I remember the beautiful women and their paper thin skins. I remember how the color mixed with the light to make magic.
I remember the people in the desert, how sweet and welcoming.
I remember the kids at the school while finally breathing on the rooftop, looking over a river.
I remember the intensity of faith in Varanasi.
I remember feeling it so strongly.
I remember the blue city and the architecture.
I remember the blue eyes.
I remember that wedding and the lights, dancing around the horses.
I remember the north, the air, the Himalayas and the moonstones.

I remember how it felt like to come back to myself after losing my body and my mind.
I remember learning about my mother and my future.
I remember what he said about her.
I remember walking the dirty streets, so tight but where the light would squeeze in and shine on the dust.
It was beautiful.
And I’m grateful for that.

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  • Kash Mahajan said:

    Anne-claire, just read your article about India, loved it! you are an amazingly talented and beautiful person. I saw you work so diligently and passionately all day at emily and john's wedding. their engagement pictures are the best! I will always remember the sweet hug you gave me in front of the deserts table. wish you all the best in life but travel more carefully in the future, please! Say hello to hubby for me.
    Love,
    Kash

    • Thank you so much Kash! I loved working at their wedding! Your speech was beautiful and brought me to tears more than once! I will travel more carefully, I was young, now I know a little better ;)

      Thank you so much and all the best to you, too!