I have been in India for two weeks now for a yoga teacher-training course and found it difficult to write anything. It is not for a lack of experiencing – I am completely out of my element, thrown into a world foreign to me in every way. Normally my mind would be active with analysis, but thoughts and words have generally eluded me – I have found myself in a sort of mindless witnessing.
It could be the constant cacophony of noise that makes it impossible to form a coherent thought. At 5 o’clock the morning, the Muslim prayers begin, all day the streets are a constant symphony of honking horns. There is rarely a quiet moment or comfortable place to sit and absorb.
I arrived in Mysore after a four-hour flight from Delhi to Bangalore and a six-hour taxi ride through barely moving traffic. It was dark and the monsoon rains were falling. When I was shown the accommodations that were to be my home for the following month I was too exhausted to cry. To say that our apartment would make a hostel in Sparta look like the Ritz doesn’t seem an overstatement. There were iron bars on the curtain-less windows, a bucket for showering and our only other furniture, save for a set of twin beds, were plastic lawn chairs and a wooden table.
In the first few days we had neither hot water nor a refrigerator. If I wanted to shower after the 5AM yoga practice, I had to boil a pot of water on a hot plate then add it to the cold tap water. At night my body was a buffet for mosquitos – I would awake in the night to a buzzing sound in my ear and pull the cover over my head in misery, sweating and itchy.
I contemplated leaving every hour during those first days. I hadn’t paid the balance due on my tuition and thought about checking into a beach hut in Sri Lanka to relax for the month. Why was I torturing myself with 5AM yoga practice and a day full of classes? This was supposed to be something of a vacation, after all. I thought about my feathertopped mattress at home, air conditioning, HBO, my dog, my coffee maker, my blender, my clean bathroom. All of that was 9,000 miles away, another reality completely.
I had three days to make a decision on whether I would stay or leave. I had no pride about being strong – I would rather be comfortable than strong. But in three days I had become attached to the fellow students in the program. There was my Greek friend with an infectious laugh, my Italian roommate who looked like a young, thin Fabio and spoke English like Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Indian friend who was quick to route out the best marijuana in Mysore.
Things started to improve slowly. Our hot water heaters were fixed so that our bucket showers no longer required running from the bathroom to the kitchen naked. I bought mosquito repellent and curtains for our windows so that we were no longer the entertainment for the construction workers below us. Even the 5AM practices became bearable when I realized I could skip the next block of classes to sleep afterwards.
Surrendering to the experience, I could appreciate the uniqueness of this place. I started to enjoy certain routines – walking back from an afternoon practice to pass the same cow herder with his slowly moving bovine troupe, the smile from the ladoo seller standing at his corner cart, the transfixed stares of the Indians when I wear a dhoti and mala beads to walk around.
India is materially poor, dirty, and polluted. In the auto rickshaw rides across town I suffocate on bus and truck exhaust. Walking on the street is a minefield of cow dung and potentially treacherous potholes. Food wrappers and other litter cover the ground like a post-apocalyptic garden. And this is the second cleanest city in all of India.
Still India has something that has eluded the West for all its material abundance and cleanliness. It has a deep commune with the soul. Instead of building upwards, for thousands of years India has built roads inwards. Even in this mess of a place there is so much beauty. It is a simplistic beauty – not a beauty of opulence but of the gentleness and kindness in people’s faces. India is the sway of colorful sari in the wind, it is the giant smile of a child climbing a tree in an innocent bliss, it is the street dog that follows you lovingly after you show it affection.
This experience is challenging but in a way I have never felt so lucky to shower with a bucket.