I recently returned from two weeks in Mumbai, Pune, and the Western Ghats as part of an Earth Expedition about Spiritual Ecology. Among other things, this trip really made me think about trust, and how or when to let go of control. Here are some examples:
I only had one day in Mumbai, which I decided to maximize by hiring a taxi to show me around. These “guide for the day” situations are always a bit sketchy. Since he spoke little English and I spoke little Marathi, we made a general outline of where to go and an approximate timeline in which to do it by looking at photos of each place. Would he stay where we were supposed to meet? Why did he trust me to come back? The traffic was horrendous in both directions, and I was sure there would be some change in the agreed-upon price upon arrival. This anticipation is always in the back of my mind in situations like these, but an extra “parking charge” was all he stuck me with. I felt ok with the price I paid him at the end of the day (about $25), but who knows what that meant in reality.
I then took a short-hop flight to Pune, where my Masters coursework would begin. The six-hour drive to the Western Ghats involved one-lane dirt roads which had recently seen a few accidents…. We witnessed a few lucky survivors climbing their way out of the ravine into which their car had fallen. It was monsoon season, and we were in a coach bus, so I just tried not to think about it.
Equally worrisome was that I would be spending every hour of every day in close confines with 20 other people. Introverts, beware! While pulling into the road leading to our first hotel, our driver attempted to turn the bus around and got stuck in the mud. We hiked the rest of the way to the rooms through the rain, then settled in with five other soaking strangers- one of whom would share my bed. Trust came pretty quick, basically since you had no other choice.
Our working hours began at 7am and ended at 11pm. Lunch usually involved meetings or journaling. Sometimes I slept, depending on whether the Langurs were banging on the tin roof or the roommates were snoring. Add hiking through monsoon rains and floods, long drives, and continuous social demands, I was exhausted.
This level of energetic output was only sustained by equal acts of generosity along the way. We visited a series of Hindu temples throughout the Ghats, participated in the evening aarti of a small Shiva temple, and were proudly shown the scars of a produce vendor that had been hung ceremoniously by hooks through his skin for a ritual called Bagad (warning: do not watch this if you are squeamish). These are not touristy places, and most had never seen foreigners before. Despite this, the priests were always excited to speak with us, and one even chanted with us. They welcomed us to their religion and their lives though they knew nothing of our motives.
We also ate lunch at a local family’s house. Twenty five of us sat on the floor in the dark eating off banana leaves, while babies played in the center of the circle and the 15 proud family members laughed as we messily attempted to eat with our hands. We all thanked the family as we said our goodbyes, but they said it was they who were grateful for the opportunity to welcome a group of caring, interested individuals into their home.
Fast forward to the end of the course, when I stayed an additional five days in Pune…. by myself. Free from the pressures of work but now completely alone in India, I felt at once liberated and terrified. I had been shielded for the majority of the trip by translators and peers, with food, transportation, and how to spend my time largely accounted for. Now, I was in charge of every single decision. I also would now have time for my brain to wander home, where my husband was taking care of my two-year old son. The relentless schedule of the course had left little time to dwell on how much I missed them, and now I had nothing but time to think. I felt guilty for leaving them both, but appreciative of the time to really value them more upon return. All of this made me really want to make the most of this time.
I loved the Ayurvedic treatments I had during my last trip, so I knew that was something I wanted to repeat. While I am familiar with the many differences between Western practices and those of a less modest society, I have previously either a) been fondled by women or b) had my husband within shouting distance. This time, I found myself naked and oily in a random apartment block, being rubbed up and down by a small Indian man. Somewhere in that same apartment, they conducted medicinal blood-letting…. meaning leeches were not far away. The hot oil he dripped on my head for one of my previously favorite treatments, Shiro Dhara, became unbearably hot at one point. Visions of a newly branded forehead and my naked videos flooding the internet interrupted any potential pleasure. I escaped without physical scars, but I will always wonder about my secret online fame.
Rickshaws, also called “autos” are cheap and easy, assuming you do not take “no” for an answer while keeping some “no’s” up your own sleeve. The meters should always be used unless the driver decided that his is broken upon seeing a foreigner approaching. I succumbed to whatever random price they gave for the first few days as long it was within my realm of realty, mostly because I was by myself and safety took priority. The traffic was bonkers and rickshaws less regular at night, so I would even double the price was acceptable inflation. I soon realized that I was setting a bad precedent and adopted the approach that if I believed I would get the meter, I usually could. The next step was to never assume that the driver understood what you were saying or had any idea of where to take you.
One of my more nerve-wracking rides involved a man shouting incessant Marathi back to me, interspersed with queries about my marital status in English. Obsessively watching google maps spin around, I realized we were going nowhere fast and made him stop. Though my hotel was located right next to the main train station and therefore should have been fairly easy to find, he asked me to verify every turn for the duration of the ride as my phone’s battery quickly died. I made it to my room with 3% remaining, having never been so thankful for modern technology.
OSHO international Meditation Resort makes it very clear that you are not at a typical Ashram. The active meditations are meant to shake away sedentary thought and bring true joy into the inner you. Through laughing, crying, and even speaking in tongues, you put aside what you believe to be normal to access to what you really feel. Sound hippy dippy, right? Try it.
One of the more intense workshops was the session titled “Who is In?”. Participants are seated across from a stranger who asks you this question. Maintaining eye contact, you attempt to answer it while they silently witness what you say without comment or reaction. Though 95% of the visitors were from India, English was encouraged where possible. This was repeated three times as partners rotated, and with each rotation, I went first and was unsure if my partner would even understand what I was saying. They did. Though the question remained the same, the answer seemed to change. Everyone cried.
A similiar experience occurred later that day, this time at a bar when a group of Indian 20 somethings invited me to join them. They asked about American politics, race and gender issues, and basic standard of living in the states. Two of them identified as gay, atheist, and skeptical of marriage- arranged or otherwise. They believed that they represented an increasingly vocal minority, and were activists for environmental and social justice. Over the course of those few hours, they generously showed me a whole new side of their country, and I hope that I returned the favor. As I returned to my hotel for an early flight the next morning, they hailed me a rickshaw (at their assurance that it would be cheaper), we hugged, and said goodbye forever.
So to trust or not to trust? After two weeks in India, I feel even further from having an answer.