I first register the fact that I am in India because my five senses are overloaded with information. I am in a taxi, bumping and careening past cars, trucks, mopeds and tuk-tuks; it’s like being on some version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Disneyland. I’ve asked the driver several times for access to my seatbelt. Finally, he gestures me quiet with a wave of his hand. I have heard about this kind of surrender that India can call for, and now I’m experiencing it firsthand. I laugh my way out of my skin because I can’t think of anything else to do other than fear for my life.
I can’t decide if I like the smells wafting through the open windows or if they disgust me; incense, exhaust fumes, trash, street food, cow dung, jungle – the layers are intoxicating, and I can taste the burning trash lit up in piles alongside the road where monkeys pick the decomposing mounds for scraps of food. I see images flash by that illuminate poverty and my own privilege. Women and uniformed children walk to school, and men, smoking cigarettes, open their storefronts for the day. Cows wander aimlessly down the streets and stop dead in front of traffic causing even more honks and swerves. The energy of the bustling streets could be named as a sixth sense in itself. Within a half hour, my taxi is loping over potholes down an alley with about twelve inches of room on each side. I feel fear in the pit of my belly. Where is this guy taking me? My intuition says we shouldn’t be attempting an alley this narrow. I wriggle in my seat, my armpits sweating and my jet-lagged brain foggy. After a negotiation between my driver (a lot of waving arms) and an oncoming vehicle, my taxi dumps me out on the doorstep of the Divine Ganga Cottage.
Before I can adjust to having my feet on the ground, I’m receiving puja – a mala, marigolds and blessings – from young Indian women who welcome me into their country, their home, with nothing short of wide smiles and open arms. My luggage is whisked away, and I’m led up a maze of staircases to a patio that overlooks the Ganges River. Its blue-green hue in the light of morning takes my breath away. I have the urge to find my room and settle in, ground into this new reality, this very new place. But that is not the plan India has in store for me, for my room isn’t available and it’s time for yoga. Still in my clothes from 30-plus hours of travel, I climb more stairs to a treehouse-like room and unroll my mat next to a new friend’s. A young Indian man guides us through an hour of asana and pranayama. I can’t decide whether I am awake or asleep as I enter savasana and listen to the wind whipping against the windows that surround us.
After yoga, I experience my first steaming cup of masala chai, and I dump in a heaping spoonful of sugar crystals. The tea is so comforting, and I finish the small cup, acutely aware of how fast I consume food and drink. I vow to savor it next time. I order a second cup, and it takes twenty minutes to arrive at the table. The food I eat is strangely called a pancake but has tomatoes in it. I cut around the tomatoes because fear still drives me; everyone said to avoid fruit here. Tomatoes count in this fresh moment.
After breakfast, when my room still isn’t ready, I exchange my American dollars for rupees (that in a few days will be worthless due to the rupee note cancellation) and embark into town with three of my dearest friends. These women have already been in India for almost a week’s time, and I’m instantly in awe of how they know the map of the twisting streets, the best stores for malas, muertes, the German bakery, the Shiva statue, the way to Ram Jhula, and the reasons why not to stop on the bridge to take a photograph. They are in the flow of India, and I am a newcomer. I am wide-eyed and delirious, dodging piles of cow shit and speedy mopeds. I am not in the flow of this place, of its many contradictions, and I am in awe of my friends. I wonder if I will ever fully arrive…