It was December of 2010, when you were volunteering at the Jus Cogens Raw Foods Holistic Healing Center in l’Aude–a lovely location deep in the mountains, tucked into a valley, one side of which was white with snow, the other a thawed brown. You had been enlisted for building projects: plastering, laying floors, tongue and groove ceiling panels, building fences, and felling trees by the river for future yurt construction. It was fine work, and there was all you can eat raw food: endless apples, bananas, dates, melons, cacao, honey, coconut oil, greens.
Your host, Christian, was an extremely learned man–a dual citizen of France and the United States who, like yourself, had lived in Boston and Seattle. He was also a busy man, engaged in a 9-year-long lawsuit against tobacco company Philip Morris for the wrongful death of his father. Christian was doing all of the legal work himself, and between bouts in his office, he explained the intricacies of the legal system, or rather, the silly and expensive paperwork tactics attorneys used to stall a case, much like a basketball coach calls several time-outs in the last 60 seconds of a game. “Not only do I have to submit these documents, but I must submit a copy to each of Philip Morris’ other attorneys. There are eight of them and only one of me. This costs me money every time.”
But Christian was diligent, committed, and very smart, if not foolishly idealistic. His raw food nutrition and surplus energy harnessed through his daily practice of Transcendental Meditation left in you awe. Such a man, thin as you pinky finger, but tough and wiry all the same, always oozed with enthusiasm to explain the raw food vegan lifestyle, the science, the health benefits, the spiritual benefits. It was he who opened your eyes to the corruption in the United States’ allopathic healthcare system, who showed how nearly everything is accomplished through biased law, written by and for industry (a story which seems obvious on the surface, and yet is one we take for granted every single day). Needless to say, you learned a lot from Christian. He had a zen-like ability to commit himself to huge undertakings. He was sharp and focused on his goals.
Christmas was approaching, and it was a tricky time of year to travel. Most people were home with their families. You were having a tough time negotiating your presence in a new home; no new French family within a reasonable hitchhiking distance would accept you. The cold winter air seriously deterred you from reaching too far. At the expense of novelty, you decided to stay longer with Christian, not at all unhappy with your situation and work relationship.
There was the occasional Cabin Fever. Your fellow volunteers had already departed for home, and even Christian had taken a trip away for a few days, leaving you solely to your own devices in a many-hundred-year-old, drafty, stone home. You passed your working hours listening to audiobooks, and your non-working hours taking long walks over logging roads in light rain. In the late afternoon, after the winter sun set over the valley, you huddled in your bed under numerous blankets, leaving the space heater to blast at your feet.
Blessed be wifi! You watched lecture after lecture on Youtube–Google Talks, Ted Talks, free college classes. You translated Harry Potter and other books from French. You played Sara Bareilles’ Love Song music video on repeat and marveled at how she resembled your ex-wife. You watched L-Word make-out montages and streamed plenty of porn. And you sent your best friend a love letter.
Time alone is very constructive–until it isn’t. Too much time alone is not much different from solitary confinement. Time speeds up; you learn to pass the hours more fluidly. But the gears in your head are always grinding.
You slip into outrageous fantasies; dream of going home and reuniting with loved ones. You play a scene in your head over and over again. You imagine hugs and smiles and tears with artistic perfectionism. Nostalgia paints with your feelings. You pine for a taste of it–a familiar slice of your former life–as a wide-eyed child hovers near a Christmas pie, knowing fully well it will be as good as last year’s. Some things, like tradition, never change.
But you know this is seldom the case in life. It moves too fast. People don’t press the PAUSE button on your behalf and patiently await your return so that they can shower you with colorful, shiny, ribbon-wrapped parcels of the past. Life is not like going home for Christmas.
So after a few manic airline ticket searches to see how cheaply you could fly from France to the United States and back again, you gave up on the reunion fantasy. The pendulum swung to the other side of possibility: India.
Yes, you would go to India! You would take your meager belongings and heavy soul to a country where you would never be alone. So busy and distracted you would be! You could do yoga in an ashram, smile graciously as you accepted plates of curry, and listen to the soundtrack of street noise, horns, and peddlers. How exciting! And then, when you got back, you would be all worldly and wise, patient, and at peace.
You set about applying for a visa via the post.
Get your peace on!
You attempted to meditate. You know, to get yourself in the right head space. Crossed your legs on your bed, wrists on your knees–no! too uncomfortable, go for the lap. But then you were slouching. Sit up. That’s better. Now meditate!
On nothing. Don’t think about anything. Calm your mind.
Okay. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think about not thinking. Wait? Should one think about breathing?
Shit, sorry. Okay. Breathe in, breathe out. And as soon as you’re done here, you have to Google a packing list for India.
It was hopeless. You mediated, perhaps, for 90 seconds. The longest 90 seconds of your life. You tried again, later in the evening. Made it for 6 full minutes, but ended your session by bursting into tears!
You wiped frantically at your eyes, running the backs of your hands over your cheekbones like a diva with freshly painted nails. “Oh my god, you’re so crazy!” Then you toppled over sideways, face-planted into the blankets, and sobbed and wailed. Nobody was in the house. Nobody could hear you. There was nobody anywhere in those mountains to judge you.
India… hah…. yeah right.
After the New Year, you returned to Ireland to your old friends in Wicklow and declared your plans for India. Your visa would be ready any day at the embassy, and all you would have to do is show up and get your passport stamped.
You never did.
You flaked. The familiarity of Ireland and your friends swiftly restored your comfort zone, something you’d forgotten. You made up excuses (fairly legitimate ones) about not having enough money to ensure a safe journey to India, as well as a return. You emphasized that India was not a place you wanted to go to alone, that you hate having your personal space infringed upon, that you are terrified of mosquitoes, that you abhor vomiting and food poisoning, and that the inevitable sexual harassment was also daunting.
So with that, you planned a different journey in Europe–from London, to Greece, to Crete and Santorini, to Istanbul, to Bulgaria, to Romania and Transylvania, to Hungary, to Croatia. The trip you would later dub The Seven Week Trip of Sexual Harassment.
You were pinched, groped, molested, strangled, insulted, antagonized, followed, complimented, propositioned, proposed to, and even stalked while sleeping.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. Most of it came from Turkish men, the rest from a couple Greeks, and the strangulation from a Serbian a day after he needlessly exposed himself to you. Needless to say, you’ve experienced it all, in countries where there is little language in common and a lot to leave to the imagination.
Of course you were fine! But in your head, you were the focal point of a truck stop gang bang. When your driver escorted you to the toilet, you were the star of horror movie featuring a white-tiled room slick with condensation and splatters of your blood.
To name just a few:
- Sexual harassment: CHECK
- Nerve-wracking situations: CHECK
- Being outside your comfort zone: CHECK
The experience train didn’t reach its terminus there.
A lot happens to a person–especially you–in three years. You visited a hell of a lot of new countries, cities, homes, cultures. You met a lot of men. Had many good times, and bad. You traveled solo, and with a friend. You returned to the United States, moved to a new city, lost friends, made new ones, and planned for a trip to South America. Then unexpectedly went to Europe instead. And did so much of it over again!
Only what was once extreme no longer feels that way. This past year, while largely repeating your same old travel story, you got to see your own transformation play itself out in Katie, for whom it was all very novel and challenging. You saw that she was as emotionally prepared for India as you were three years ago (which is why she’s heading home).
You, on the other hand… you’re fucking ready. Your Everest, awaits.
Now that your visa to India is official, your tickets booked, and your departure set for September 11th, 2013, you sit and wait with the patience of a travel elder, and your mind is very calm. (While you never learned to meditate while sitting still, you found meditative flow in other things.)
This might sound cocky. And perhaps it is. But you really can’t help but think that travel in India will be much easier than your low-budget travel in Europe.
- 15 hours of transit from Dublin to Mumbai seems like nothing, considering how many 24-hour-ultrahitchhikes you’ve endured.
- Staying in cheap filthy hostels sounds like far less mental energy than hammering out couch requests, mapping, drawing, and chasing down people for the use of the mobile phones.
- Waiting for unpredictable buses and trains to arrive is no different than being stranded for hours at trucks stops, waiting for the next lift, the driver of which may or may not make you feel at ease. And, at least you can take advantage of women only seating.
- Walking around in heat with a 7kg bag is nothing compared to 800km under 23kg in cooler conditions.
- Being bombarded by hagglers and peddlers and people? Doesn’t sound like a new experience, considering Morocco.
- Being sexually harassed? This doesn’t matter much to you anymore, especially when you expect that behavior.
- Being stared at? Story of your life.
- Always being on guard against being robbed? How is that any different than you usually are?
Yes… in many respects, India will be easier. But you aren’t bold enough to predict your knock-out blow to the country upon arrival. Not at all. You will probably get sick, you will probably struggle emotionally over sights of poverty, disfigurement, disease, suffering, and perhaps even death. You will probably gag over smells of human excrement.
If there is one thing you have learned from your travels, it is to listen to all of the advice you get, aggregate it, consider the source, and manage your expectations. The key to happiness, really, is excellent and patient management of expectations. You don’t have any fantasies of ashrams, yoga centers, dancing on the beach, or sleeping in the jungle. You predict only one thing: a very busy, very noisy taxi stand at the airport.
“Where do you plan to go in India?” someone asks.
“The plan is simply to get there,” you respond. “I will go where India takes me.” Like blood flow in her arteries.
It took you three years. Three years for your life to properly unfold in ways you never expected. Now your life will flow into India, as naturally as it did everywhere else.