On the morning of our second to last day in India, Natalie and I found ourselves on a silent meditation walk. Let me explain–after our internship, we spent about nine days traveling through Kerala and had chosen to spend the final three nights at an ashram near Trivandrum. Neither of us really knew what to expect. The nightly rate was cheap and included accommodation, meals, and yoga classes. It was near enough to the airport from which we had a flight scheduled. And they didn’t require advance booking so we could always back out last minute if we changed our minds.
Part of what precipitated our interest in the ashram (and what I might even say was the biggest culture shock after the end of our internship) was traveling and encountering other Western travelers in India. When we arrived in Fort Cochin the day after our internship ended, we could not stop staring at all of the white people. We wondered why they were here–were they just traveling? Why India? Some were old and others were young. Some were wearing Indian or Indian-esque clothes and others were wearing tight leggings and a tank top. After spending 10 weeks without any other Westerners, and without even weekend trips to typical tourist sites, we were not used to seeing people who looked like us. We were curious as to their reasons for being here, intrigued by the typically Western restaurants and cafes in Fort Cochin–generally struck by the foreignness of people simply backpacking through India.
It took us some time to move from pure awe (Whoa, who are these people?) to a combination of self-mocking and judgment (These people don’t know anything about non-tourist India; we just spend 10 week in a rural village.) to more open and accepting curiosity of those we saw at restaurants or met in hostels. Through conversations, we gathered that for some the appeal of India may be the beaches in Kerala and Goa, for others the incredibly cheap cost of living and travel, while for many India is a place of spiritual-seeking. Though that impetus isn’t what brought us to India this time around, we thought why not try it out. As in, why not end our trip by staying in an ashram for 3 nights, waking up at 5:30am, eating two meals a day in silence, and practicing yoga for four hours each day.
Long story short, these encounters serve as the context for the silent meditation walk our last Sunday in India. We were woken up before sunrise by loud chiming bells, and were out at the door for a silent walk to a nearby lake created by a dam for some meditation and chanting with the other ashramites.
It was amusing to look around as the sun was rising over the glimmering body of water, looking around at the others surrounding me, also taking in the scene. I saw many women–yes, the ashram was overwhelmingly filled with younger women–sitting cross-legged, back straight, eyes closed or out onto the water, looking every bit the part of a brochure for a yoga vacation in India. I looked around at those people coming from all over the world, from Venezuela, from England, from Germany and the US, and considered how their experience of this country may be different than mine.
After gazing out at the water for a bit, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I caught sight of an older Indian man at the lower left corner of this panoramic, picturesque scene bathing himself. Though he was dressed in clothes more typical of Southern India than the area in which I had become familiar, he reminded me of the wrinkled, sunned farmers I had seen and interacted with in the villages in Madhya Pradesh. At first I saw him as part of the picture, the landscape and then I thought about him. His life, whether his wife was a member of a self-help group, how he earned his income, etc. I thought about the beautiful lake on whose shores we were sitting and the fact that it had been created by a man-made dam. And though I knew absolutely nothing about this particular dam, I thought about the book I read this summer about the controversies and battles over the proposed and completed dam projects on the Narmada River in central India. About the human and environmental cost of development. I simultaneously saw the yogi leading chants as the sun rose, looking calm and enlightened, the face of India as a spiritual beacon and asked myself, I wonder how many people were displaced by the construction of this dam, whether they lost their livelihood, or whether they were compensated by the government. The multiplicity of thought of scnes with different meaning overlaying themselves on top of one another made me think of a poem about another country that I have spent much time in and know very well–Israel
This beautiful poem is by an Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai; it is called “Tourists” and is about his native Jerusalem. The poem takes place in the Old City of Jerusalem, a city considered holy by all three major monotheistic faiths and a place of interest to tourists across the globe. I will leave you with a few lines.
“Once I sat on the steps by agate at David’s Tower,/
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists/
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see/
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch/
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”/
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,/
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,/
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”