The sisterhood of travelers
WEEKENDER | Mon, 03/29/2010 4:40 PM |
I’m in Mysore, the cultural capital of India’s southern state of Karnataka and a reputed yoga hub, on a journey to deepen my yoga practice and explore this extraordinary country.
It’s been a very pleasant few weeks on this first leg of my travel. In the morning I practice yoga at the shala (yoga school), a 15-minute walk from where I’m staying, and in the afternoon I attend a philosophy or meditation class, or volunteer at an orphanage. My downtime is spent in my apartment, taking refuge from India’s scorching heat, either napping or writing. On the weekends, I explore the city or go on an excursion to the surrounding sites.
What helps make this first leg of my journey so much more delightful is the company I’ve kept so far – the accidental friends. I’m not a social butterfly. I don’t do things – including traveling – with the intention of making new friends. In fact, I’d rather do my own things sans companion than have to spend time with people I’m not entirely comfortable with.
In Gokulam, the suburb of Mysore where I’m staying and where much of the yoga scene is located, I’m bound to bump into the same people every day. Plus some of the eateries that cater to Western yogis here are set up in a living room or garden where customers sit on cushions at a low table or a picnic table. Having always dreaded cocktail parties because of my small-talk ineptitude, I found it unnerving at first, opting to go to “normal restaurants” where customers can choose their own tables. It always strikes me when traveling by myself that the ability to chat up a stranger naturally is a highly useful skill that I should start to master.
But meeting new people is inevitable when you’re staying in one place for a while. What usually happens is that after the initial period when you kind of look around and judge who’s going to be your friend and who isn’t, things tend to sort themselves out naturally. Everyone finds their own tribe, even me, someone who’s slow to warm up to others.
And it so happens that when traveling solo, I often cross paths with people who show glimpses of their humanity and draw me in. We click, and even if we never see each other again, I always continue to think of them as a friend.
I met a girl named Daphne, an IT executive at a bank in Belgium, at one of these Western yogi breakfast places. She told me about her extensive solo travels in Indonesia, where she met some of the nicest people on Earth, hitchhiked on Flores Island and slept at a local’s home in a remote village, as well as stayed with a family in an East Java town for a few days so the family’s son could practice English with her.
Every Saturday and Sunday, Daphne makes the half-hour bike ride from our place to a center for disabled children to lend a hand and give some affection to the kids. Most of them have been left there by their parents because they’re disabled. Many of them have no limbs. She feeds and bathes them, cleaning them after they use the toilet. We think she’s a saint with a gorgeous face – and all the human flaws of course.
Through her, I got to know her housemate, Dora, a bubbly American flight attendant who also travels solo extensively. The first time I met Dora was in the meditation class, where we were learning the Tibetan Buddhist death meditation. Lying on our backs with our eyes closed, we learned to let go of the body, to grasp the sensation of emptiness, to feel the light. Afterward, Dora said she’d had visions of idli, the deliciously savory South Indian cake, every time she heard the meditation instructor say the word light. I took an instant liking to her.
Both had been to India a few times before, while this was my first time here. The three of us, as well as the lone guy in the group, Paul from the meditation class, began hanging out a lot, having dinner, cooking and even going to a full-moon party thrown by a local socialite. We share a passion for food, a proclivity for cursing and a mild annoyance for Western yogis who go all gaga and militant with their practice (those who “drank the Kool-Aid”, Dora says).
We share our life stories, our fears and dreams. The lack of baggage that long-term friendship accumulates and the realization that we will soon be going our separate ways often makes the camaraderie of fellow travelers more intimate.
Daphne, Dora and I are around the same age, and I notice that many of us here are in our late 30s or early 40s. Most are women who travel across India for a few months. One Finnish woman even had her big badass motorbike shipped here.
The one thing I love about meeting new people is the stories they have. One lovely American woman I met, a jewelry maker, came here for the first time to do yoga seven years ago. Unsatisfied with spending her afternoons hanging out at the pool like the other yogis, she decided to serve as an apprentice to a traditional goldsmith. Since then, she continues to work with him during her annual visits here, making gold jewelry pieces studded with beautiful stones.
Behind the laid-back façade of the yogi town, however, there is an air of restlessness, of searching. Some of the people here are at a juncture in their lives, escaping problems, leaving something behind, looking for something meaningful out of life. It’s something I could identify with two years ago when I quit my journalism job.
I hope the time spent in contemplation (in between yoga, volunteer work and hanging out with new friends) will help them find the answer to their big questions. Or maybe India, with all its contradictions (the beauty and ugliness, the profound and profane), will bring them back to their senses, making them more appreciative of their lives. I know I am. + Devi Asmarani