Written on 6 November 1998

Experience in India

    It was my second trip to India.  The first time had been two and a half years ago.  We(my family and dad's brother's family) had stayed at 5-star hotels and traveled first class on the best trains.  Basically, I had been pampered, like most Western foreign tourists to India.  This time it was just my dad and I.  He told me that I was going to experience real India this time.  He was not going to try to keep me from knowing what India was like and he wanted me to get the true feel of India.  He believed that to get the true flavor of a foreign country, one had to live like its people, not better than the people of the country.  I didn't understand the concept, because I always had enjoyed luxurious vacations; but I would find out much later what enjoyment really is.

    Because I had been so excited about leaving for India right after school got out, exams had taken forever.  I love spending time doing anything with my dad.  He treats me like a friend, an equal.  There had never been anything resembling an age barrier between us.  We were also going to travel around India with my dad's uncle, who was only ten years older than him.  My dad calls him Nana because that's what Gujarati's call their youngest paternal uncle.  Nana's character, personality, interests, and overall nature resemble my dad almost like a mirror.  My dad, Nana, and I enjoy similar interests.  We like to read in our free time, mostly spiritual, and are very interested in spirituality.  This trip was meant to be a spiritual one.  A perfect trio had been formed and this was enough to get me excited for the last month of school.

    The eighteen hour flight had seemed like an hour.  The intimate talks with my dad, the reading, the meals, the movies, and the short two hour nap I took made time fly by.  We were preparing to land and my dad was outlining the trip.  We would spend three or four days in Nana's town before leaving for Rishikesh, the most famous religious city in northern India, located at the foothills of the Himalayas.  I had been there last time, but it was mostly touring, that was as far north as we had gone.  We would spend two days in Rishikesh and then take a private taxi package for a ten day tour of the char dam(four holy places).  The char dam are the four holy places which are for Hindus and are located in the Himalayas.  The Hindu mentality in India is that the goal of one's life is to visit the char dam before one dies, and then one can die without regrets.  We would spend five more days in Rishikesh before going to the abode of a spiritual master, a yogi, swami, saint or anything along those lines.  An ashram is a place where one stays for free and gets free meals.  It is devoted to a religious aspect, a spiritual aspect, a phony saint, or a real saint.  It survives solely on donation.  We would spend five days there.  As my dad said that, we landed.  In Mumbai(Bombay), when the plane lands, a strong disgusting odor invades.  It is a smell of pollution, cow dung, and overall insanitariness.  My dad jokes about how as soon as the plane lands in India, the five senses are assaulted and one transcends the five senses.  I never took this seriously, but that was because at the time I didn't understand the experience he was referring to.  Nana and his wife, Nani, picked us up and we left for their apartment six hours away.  The drive there was incredibly horrible.  The roads in India are the unsmoothest surface one can imagine.  Air conditioning is almost unknown and considered a luxury which maybe one or two houses in India have.  The diesel engines' use of kerosene instead if the expensive gasoline and the smokestacks located everywhere, especially along the roads, made the journey almost unbearable.  I wished the whole time for it to be over, because the village where Nana lives is rural and the pollution is much less.  My allergies and asthma only multiplied the effect of the pollution.  At times I felt as if vomiting.

    After three days of visiting relatively few relatives, we took a train to Delhi.  I was beginning to feel disconnected from the world, since I knew of no news anywhere in the world and had no idea how the NBA Finals were coming.

    As we started our ten day trip through the Himalayas, I sat up front with the driver with my dad and Nana in the back, having conversations which I could listen to and add in to occasionally.  I would sit and just watch the scenery as we went through the narrow dirt roads twisting around the mountains.  Each day we would travel eight to fourteen hours.  I would become restless at times and fidget in my seat or somehow try to occupy myself.  I remember going through mountainside villages often.  The villages were composed of ten or twelve one-story buildings, best characterized as shacks.  They lined both sides of the road.  In the beginning of this trip, I paid little attention to the people or the villages, I would just watch aimlessly, trying to pass the time.

    On the second day of our tour, I began to notice I was eating less and less.  I attributed the decrease in appetite to the spicy Indian food.  I cannot eat the slightest bit of spicy foods, which is uncommon among Indians.  I felt I needed more and more sleep.  By the third day, I was eating barely a meal a day.  My dad tried to get me to eat more by offering some Indian chips and other snacks.  The problem was that I wasn't hungry, so how could I eat.  By the fifth day, I was nibbling on a cracker or two each day, my appetite had dwindled down to almost nothing.  I told my dad that if I ate, I would be forcing it down, but he insisted I eat.  I would throw up whenever I ate, so we dropped the idea of forcing it down.  I was becoming weaker from lack of food intake.  We went to a doctor, he diagnosed me as having "seasonal illness" from the sharp change in temperature from day to day.  The temperature would change roughly from forty-five degrees Fahrenheit to ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit.  The change in temperature was due to our in altitude from day to day.  We went to several doctors who prescribed some medicine which I took, but it did not help.  The days became miserable for me, as I would sit in the car on the long journeys.  I used the scenery as an escape from the pain.  My stomach would cramp and make noises and I began to experience diarrhea.  I began to watch the people gathering berries, fruits, herding goats, cows, and the kids playing.  Some people would be walking from place to place as a pilgrimage, supposedly to cleanse the body.  I would notice that kids, grown-ups, kids my age, and others would be smiling, laughing with one another and enjoying themselves.  Everyone I saw, without exception, had a look of contentment on their face, something which I had not been able to perceive before.  I would wonder about how these people could be content at all.  They didn't have anything.  They didn't have electricity, plumbing, running water, shoes(they had an Indian sandal called a chappal), TV, an education, or anything that we associate with comfort an necessity.  Most were dirty and skinny.  During this time I had picked up a book which Nana had recommended(and which I recommend to anyone of any faith), Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.  It was about the first Eastern spiritual master to teach in the West and his life.  He explained, often scientifically, laws of physics as they applied to miracles which have occurred in all religions.  He explained how non-attachment and non-identification to material things, including the body, were keys to happiness.  The book helped me form a conclusion about the content Indians.  The book also helped me to with my illness, which was later diagnosed as a gastro-intestinal problem which had completely shut down my digestive tract.  I ended up losing twenty-five pounds due to the illness.  I have gained ten pounds back as of now.  Even through my illness, I began to enjoy the trip, no focusing on the lack of Western comforts.  I began to understand how much happier I can be when I am not attached to things and results.  I finally understood what my dad had been talking about.  I had been forced to transcend the five senses and experienced a joy beyond the senses which I have only experienced in India.  I was not aware of this joy, until a few days before it was time to come back to America.  The thought of returning and the life I would return to, made me feel as I had been before my experience.  It felt like I had almost become sad, and I realized how happy I had been for the five weeks since I had become sick.  I only learned one thing as a result of this trip that I can clearly convey to another person.  When watching the content people(all over India, not just in the Himalayas), I would think of my friends in America.  I would think about how little things could upset them and they would feel like their lives stink.  Sometimes these feelings could be brought about if a machine accidentally gave them the wrong soda.  This is something beyond their control, yet they manage to make a fuss.  It's as if one curses the clouds for raining and becomes upset.  That's just plain absurdity, but yet we do it everyday.  I would think, "How trivial those things are which we allow ourselves to become upset over.  We should, instead, be revelling in the joys of the things we have.  Some of the kids in India will never take a bath, will never taste soda, will never have anything.  We need to rejoice in the things we have, enjoy the things we do, but not allow ourselves to become attached to those things.  How much happier and better life could be lived if this were the case."  I don't exclude myself from the previous passage, because I feel I am as much lacking of those things I mention as anybody else I know.