Saturday, January 30, 2010

Cammindando | Memoirs of India, from 1995

Going to India is a potentially life-changing experience. All the travelers I know came back different from when they left the Western world, swearing to never go back or dreaming of their next trip. I am talking about travelers, not tourists --remember the distintion from "The Sheltering Sky"? Reading that book could be a good introduction, although it was about Morocco. My experience in Morocco was quite intense too, but nothing compared to India. The book is about westerners trying to immerse in a different culture, and Paul Bowles was not for sure a conventional guy...

India is an overwhelming captivating experience: repulsive and fascinating: a misterious country, so rich of history, culture and beauty --not that much about nature, at least from our romantic notion of beauty in the landscape. Spirituality becomes absorved in everyday life. And the humanity you encounter leaves you breathless, shocked, naused, but inspired. A sensory overload of images, sounds and smells. I suggest to read the novel-diary "Odore d'India" by Pier Paolo Paosolini, or the Octavio Paz's book or the Mircea Eliade's novel. "Siddharta" and similar are more about our western desire/interpretation of India. Most of all, read "Odore d'India".

I went to India before the Internet, cell phones and digital cameras became mainstream, but I don't believe all this is making such a difference in the travel experience. I was there in January, far from the monsoon season and unfortunately not in the festival seasons. My travel was limited to the regions of the country North of Bombay-Mumbai, where I started my journey. Then Dehli, Katmandu --refreshing experience, very different from India, with the beautiful stupas ---the Buddhist temple oriented to the cardinal points, my subconscious absorbed that in what resulted the masterplan of Sun Farm, a decade later. After Katmandu, Varanasi, , Khajuraho, Agra, Jaipur; in Jaipur I had a major panick attack in the train station which made me refrain from my plan to go to see tigers in a nearby park. I traveled by plane, train, car, rickshaw, even in a filfthy, smokey overcrowded so defined "luxury" bus. Transportation means over there already revealed the main philosophy of life, where life and death are part of almost continuous process, and death is seen as an organic transformation of life. You rent a car with a driver, and if you do, will understand why. My flight from Khajuraho to Agra was canceled at the last momentand we traveled by car: a terrifying experience lasting several hundred miles, the driver was not using lights at night and often Indians drive in the opposite direction. Getting off Indian Airlines internal flights, gives also sense of relief and thankfulness, given the condition of the planes. Trains (if you manage to understand how to make a reservation, without spending days at the train station) are probably the safest means, not that clean but overall ok. My artist friend Daniele says that during his train trip to reach Varanasi, he saw people bringing corpes in the luggage. Varanasi, the city on the sacred Gange, is the main destination of every Hindu, who often go there for cremations of their relatives.

Varanasi: it started with the hotel. We decide to stay at Sanctuary on the Ganges, a nice crowd of non conventional Westerns and Indians. But it was so sordid, with no sheets on the bed full of stains, sticky paper filled with flies and probably rats ---given its location on the Gange--- that we decided to move. II was about to start the yoga class offered in the lobby, but could not resist any longer, and we took a rickshaw to the old Clark, the classy colonial British Hotel. The rickshaw ride (the porter of the Clark was quite surprised to see guests arriving with such a vehicles) was splashed with mud --as in NYC sidewalks are streets are not part of public capital improvement, but at least here we do not get torrential rains. The day after we did the typical row boat ride in the Holy river. Varanasi is usually seen by travelers by the water of the Gange, at dawn. It was so surreal, the closest experience to a dream I ever had. The architecture was this backdrop of ghats and buildings, looked almost a stage. Hindu bathe in the Gange, walking from the ghats (steps). In nearby ghats they have cremations. Fire, water and death! The main archetypes of the Universe and existence all bundled in one vision, at the steps of the holy river. I always feel terrified about death and never thought I could witness a cremation. But from the distance of the row boat I felt so drawn in a way I could not describe, I even took photos. In the afternoon I wanted to be inside the Varanasi I saw as outsider from the boat. I get into a rickshaw, to the center of town, near the market. It was so crowded (only Indians) that the rickshaw guy had to drop me off. I started walking on my own, the incredible feeling of a major transition, I felt I was much part of the crowd who was speaking a language I could not understand. I did not feel vulnerable (the money in my pockets and my camera was worth so much for almost anybody in the crowd) and no fear at all. I even bought some bindi (bindu) the red dot Hindu women wear in the forehead reminiscent of one of the chakras. I got lost in the labyrinth of small streets. Nobody could understand me when I was asking for direction to reconnect with the rickshaw. Finally almost by miracle, I returned to the place where the rickshaw was waiting.

Yoga in India: unfortunately I cannot say very much. Deliberately I wanted yoga to be a practice in my Western reality, perhaps afraid that going to the real source I would experience something different from my daily practice.

Architecture: there is too much to say...and this is from somebody who grew up few blocks from the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter's, the most grand piazza in the world, hanging out by the Colosseum or by Santa Maria della Pace, one of most exquisite example of Baroque architecture. I was not that impressed by the Taj Mahal or the Khajuraho temples. Instead Fathepur Sikri, the Red Fort, and Jaipur palaces.... Architecture and urban spaces blend together in a succession of harmoniously composed spaces, either a garden, a pool of water, a colonnade, or an interior room. In a few words: moghul architecture is all about a flow of inside out and framing of the views. And the Jantar Mantar of Jaipur (Delhi has one too). It was a main inspiration for Sun Farm, astronomical instruments built at architectural scale, what a vision! I was doing research about a philosophical project I am working on, and read again the small book I bought at the Jantar Mantar. There was a brief description of time related to breath, unfortunately I could not find any other reference, but for some esoteric texts, such the Surya Siddhanta, or the Vishnu Purana and the Kalachakra...A perfect unified approach to knowledge, as yoga is a daily experience of a theory.

And so much more to say, but I have to go --if you read up to this point, well, bon voyage!