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Travel Diary - Episode 32

A Western Vaishnava
Tuesday, 01 April 2008

People are interesting. They are complex, varied creatures. India may indeed be an inexhaustible source of fascination with regard to its people, their history and culture, but during my time in Pahar Ganj – the tourist hub of Delhi in the guise of the Main Bazaar, just near New Delhi Railway Station – I am amused to note that the visitors to India are just as fascinating, if not bewildering!

I observe that Mario, from Italy, is behaving badly. Dominic, a small-framed French man of about twenty, with bright blue eyes projecting the innocence of a child, is his victim. Dominic has only been in India for two weeks, but has not been outside Delhi yet. Dominic claims to be drawn to India for the nature and wild-life, but he seems to be stuck in the city. Many new-comers to India either escape Delhi within 48 hours, or retreat to the comfort of their guest-house until they pluck up the courage to move on to the next place.

Mario, on the other hand, is a sixty-something-year-old Italian man with long, greasy hair and wearing baggy, draw-string tie-dye pants. This is his twenty-odd visit to India. “The first time was in the early sixties. India was very different then. Only real hippies travelled to India in my time. Today’s travellers are mere tourists – pampered like kids on a school trip! Not even a telephone then. Now all this ‘cyber-crap’; ATMs, Western food and tourist buses. Too easy!”

The Condescending Veteran Traveller turns to the Naïve Newcomer, “You like nature huh? Been to the Andaman Islands? No? Hahahaha! Maybe you prefer the nature in Delhi? Perhaps I can teach you a thing or two.” Dominic looks at Mario, his expression confused. I can tell that he does not even know where the Andaman Islands are. They are hardly a first-timer’s first port of call. Mario, feeling satisfied that he has claimed his throne, lights up another joint, indifferent to any rules and regulations stipulated by the guest-house, and puffs away with satisfaction.

Wednesday, 02 April 2008

For breakfast, at the roof-top restaurant of our guest-house, I share a table with Guy from New Zealand, Xavier from Portugal and Maria from Peru. They could perhaps be classified as the Happy Hippies – the most common breed of visitor to India. They have time, they have money and they have no agenda. They are curious, easy-going, and will try anything once.

Guy tells us his experience of teaching English to the Tibetan monks in Dharamsala, the mountainous home-in-exile of The Dalai Lama in Himachel Pradesh. Afterwards, Xavier and Maria, who have been travelling together for a few weeks, explain how to make an Australian Didgeridoo and an African Djembe – instruments they have made with their own hands – which they were taught whilst in Rishikesh, and are now in the process of learning to play.

Shai and Ben soon appear. In the typical, unselfconscious, Israeli manner, they pull up two chairs to our table and simply grin a greeting. The conversation soon turns to the successful turnout of the Psychedelic Trance parties they organised while in Goa, and how they are on their way to Manali to organise a few events there. I see that these Trance Trippers, fresh out of army-duty in their own country, are simply out to enjoy, be wild and irresponsible!

Thursday, 03 April 2008

I am beginning to spend much more time than usual in my guest-house, perhaps myself retreating from the chaos of the Delhi streets beyond the stairs leading outside. Under normal circumstances, I would not choose to stay in the mad capital for more than a few days, but some business matters trap me. Meanwhile, I like to visit my fellow guest-house occupants’ worlds over cups of chai – they provide a perfect, and rather interesting, escape!

Today seems to be the day of the Spiritual Seekers. Dominic has been kidnapped by Mario and they left Delhi together. The Psychedelic Go-Getters also left this morning, so the vacant rooms are quickly filled by new occupants.

“Hey, how’ya goin’?” smiles a blond, tanned and athletic-looking fellow, who introduces himself as James in a strong Australian accent. “Namaste!” says his look-alike companion, Kylie, with an equally charming smile and palms pressed together at her heart, in traditional Indian greeting. The two settle down easily beside me, and the rest of the group – Rama Charan and Raga Mayi from Venezuela, and ‘Om’ from ‘the Universe’ – who arrived at the guest-house earlier in the day.

We all sit comfortably together this late afternoon, listening to Xavier and Maria’s rhythmic playing, while some familial bonding develops. This kind of situation is commonplace in almost any guest-house that budget travellers find themselves in throughout a trip.

James and Kylie have just arrived from Down Under, on a mission to pursue intensive yoga and meditation training. They will attend a course in Mysore in the South, another in Pune nearer Mumbai, and will finish off in Rishikesh in the Himalayas. As they share their plans for this trip with us, they sit in lotus posture, with backs straight, hands locked in front of them and a permanent, relaxed smile on their faces. They are seemingly unperturbed by their forty hours of travelling.

Rama Charan and Raga Mayi explain that their names have been given to them by their Guru. Distinctively, compared to the rest of the party, they are wearing a dhoti and a sari (traditional Indian clothes) and tilak clay marks on their foreheads – indicating their spiritual allegiance to Gaudya Vaishnavism, which they have been practising for over five years. They are in India on pilgrimage and are on their way to Nabadwip, in West Bengal, after spending six weeks in Mathura-Vrindavan, in Uttar Pradesh.

Rama and Raga both have a gentle, sweet manner, and only when prompted does Rama expose his extensive knowledge of the Gaudya Vaishnava philosophy, supported by Sanskrit verses from the holy scriptures. James and Kylie are increasingly interested, especially when they learn that Gaudya Vaishnavism is also known as Bhakti Yoga. They probe for more, but Om remains quiet throughout. He almost appears to be sulking!

At first glance, Om appears to be an interesting character. He is wearing only an orange, ankle-length lunghi apart from a 108-bead mala round his neck and waist-long dread-locks which could be the envy of any Indian babaji. He has a woven grass-string anklet on his right foot but wears no shoes. He will not claim allegiance to any country, and his name, Om, is the original sound of creation according to Vedic texts.

Rama, humble and respectful as he demonstrates to be, is reluctant to be at the centre of attention for long and, observing Om’s mood, attempts to include him in the conversation. But Om continues to be aloof.

Eventually, when his silence has instigated everybody’s curious attention, Om throws himself into an auto-biographical account of how he has lived in India for the last twelve years, often retreating to mountain caves and forests for weeks on end, or living on the burning ghats of Varanasi, in a quest to live the renunciate’s life. I can see everybody’s surprise at his sudden outburst and cannot help wondering why, then, this so-called renounced man cannot seem to keep his hands off his chillum (hash-pipe) and holds so jealously to his ego!

Om’s drama is interrupted by the entrance of Helen, an Irish girl who, with white skin, black hair and green eyes, reminds me of Snow-White. So many people in one room intent on healing their spirit, whether successfully or otherwise, but Helen is simply concerned with healing the body via the wisdom of Ayurveda, the ancient Vedic science of herbal properties.

With broad smile, twinkling eyes and bubbly attitude, unknowingly the Ayurveda Angel breaks the weird atmosphere created by the Self-Proclaimed Sadhu (holy man) as she answers the Australians’ and Venezuelans’ questions about this fascinating “alternative medicine” method she has been studying in Kerala. What a technicolour of characters!

Friday, 04 April 2008

While many people seek out India as the means to adjust or develop themselves in some way or another, Sheryl and Brad from Canada are an example of those who come to India to give something – the Humanitarian Helpers.

I share a table with the couple at one of the busy tourist cafes lining the Main Bazaar. They have just flown in from Kolkata, where they have spent the last four months doing charity work. “Non-profit organisations, like The Little Sisters of the Poor established by Mother Theresa, depend on people like us!” Surely there is some truth in that, but I come away with an impression that sometimes the selfless work has an unsubconscious selfish motive of feeling needed, possibly resulting in a holier-than-thou attitude far worse than that of an “enlightened” Spiritual Seeker!

Saturday, 05 April 2008

The silly Package Poms failed to apply sun-block and, instead, smeared themselves in sun-oil before frying themselves for a week on a sun-bed on the beaches of Goa. The result? Lobster-red Lucy and Debbie from UK are certainly attracting much attention with their world-map “tan” combined with their ash-blond hair and eyebrows. The sun-stroke meant that they missed their return charter flight from Goa and are now in Delhi in a desperate quest to return to Britain!

Sunday, 06 April 2008

Out on a short sight-seeing trip to see the marvellous Lotus Temple in South Delhi, I meet John and Beryl from America – a couple of well-fed Golden-Triangle Tourists doing the Delhi-Jaipur-Agra package deal. Package tourism is not all about beaches you know? There are the History Hoarders and Culture Vultures too! These are a breed of rich tourists who will pay American prices for Indian goods and services (and the ultimate receivers of endless curses from the independent budget travellers who suffer the consequence of being regarded as walking ATM machines!)

Monday, 07 April 2008

At my local travel agent, where I attempt to make my last travel arrangements out of the country, I am reminded, yet again, how India really offers something for everyone. Six-foot tall Marcus and Hans from Germany and Sylvia and Mistral from Spain are another species of high-budget traveller. So is the Corporate Incentive group, whose leader is donning tennis shorts and other sports-wear which somehow fail to make him look casual, nonetheless.

All four independent travellers have plenty of money, little time and high expectations as Adrenaline Adventurers. Here was my travel agent in Delhi organising a two-week trek for the Germans in Sikkim in the Eastern Himalayas, and giving advice about rock-climbing in Karnataka’s Hampi to the Spaniards. The Corporate Incentive group is about to go white-water rafting and beach camping on the Ganges in Rishikesh in Uttarkhand.

It is perfect that Indians are so versatile and that their motto is “Sabkuch milega”... “Everything is possible!”

Tuesday, 08 April 2008

Many people come to India on a personal journey of self-discovery... to learn about the world and understand their place in it. Others come with a more specific target like learning to play an instrument, a skill, a philosophy or an art. Saib, from Iraq, is in India as a student of International Law. Why not? Contrary to what many may think, India’s standard of education is high... for those who have the opportunity to pursue it!

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Throughout my travels I have met an extreme variety of interesting individuals with unique personalities... some of whom have left a definitive mark in my memory. Here in India, they have an appropriate expression elucidating the diversity of mankind: “All fingers in hand are not same.”

In my final days with her, India reminds me how she has a special relationship with each individual, that nobody perceives her in quite the same way. I realise that my diary is the story of just one of six billion people on the planet who have the opportunity to discover what she has to offer. And plenty she has to offer, to anybody who is willing to open up to Incredible India’s treasure of infinite surprises!

Publication: The Malta Independent
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