India? Why India!? – Part One
South Goa, India March 2013; we were strolling arm in arm down a jungle lane in Varca, Mrs. R and I (she was girlfriend R at the time). The lush foliage and palm trees were swaying in sea salt breeze, parakeets were chirping and monkeys were chattering as we walked off our late lunch of lobster, jeera rice and naan. Warm afternoon sun dripped through the jungle canopy like liquid gold, bathing the massive Portuguese style villas of pink and yellow and blue that dotted each side of the road. God, it was heaven…. a small piece of hibiscus scented heaven…“I want to retire here”, I joked…half joked…no joke involved? It was literally occurring to me as I spoke. “In India?” Girlfriend R asked, “In Goa” I corrected, “Me too”, she replied pulling me closer….the seed, the very concept, was planted.
India? How many times have I been asked? Why India? They have their eyebrows knitted and drawn together in bewilderment. Puzzlement twisting their faces into a multitude of Saturday morning cartoon characters. Looking for enlightenment, they lean forward expectantly, like Ottis Redding sang, waiting, just anticipating, the thiiiing that they will never, never, never possess oh no no (sing it Ottis…). Their piercing eyes mentally willing me to issue some kind of press release to them, utter some kind of statement that sums it all up in 250 words or less, a mandate that they can understand. A mandate that makes leaving my son, my mother, my whole family, that makes leaving a booming career in a very dynamic company, makes trashing a stellar minor league coaching legacy and leaving everything I had worked so very hard for …to move to India….make sense.
Why India? How the fu*k do I answer that? Or more accurately, how do I answer to that, as it generally seems more like an accusation than a question. WHY INDIA!? Hurled at me with concern or in shock…or (and) most contemptuously with bemusement. Why India!? Why indeed? One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Friedrich Nietzsche: And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. I guess, simply put…I heard the music. I’ve tried saying that to the knitted eyebrows, but alas, the knit turns to a furrow. They have no idea what I am talking about……
The word alone, India, conjures up vastly different images for each of us who hears it. From the poet to the bigot, the entrepreneur to the hippy, the spiritualist to the rationalist, there are thousands of perceptions and realities of this country. Each one is correct in some way, as am I each of those people in some way. I can’t answer “Why India?” with a heartbeat, or a sigh, or a dream; so maybe if I write it down, the concept, the process, it will explain to my peers how I ended up in a three bedroom flat in the sixth largest city in the world…how I ended up in Asia, in India, in New Delhi….how I ended up…HERE. Maybe then it will make sense. Although I doubt it, because if I am being honest, I don’t fully understand it myself; yet it’s worth a shot I think. So if you’re curious, come along; but be warned, random thoughts, fragmented memories and a tangled chain of events are to follow……..
John Lennon once said, “As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.” That truth also be told in this tale. I won’t gut my personal relationship with my wife like a fish and spill in on a brightly lit operating table for inspection. It just ain’t that kinda story. Suffice to say we met, against some unimaginable odds I might add, and fell terminally in love. Well, it was terminal for me at any rate; she seemed to be expecting it. This as you may expect this caused some long distance relationship issues. But at first, we were content. After a time however, we tired of jetting around the globe to meet up for ten days just once a year. So we decided that R (girlfriend R) would come to Canada on our next “get together” to celebrate a real Christmas. I was curious to see if she could in fact handle the climate, I had my doubts; this was the same woman who was cold on a beach in Jamaica. There was no real intention of relocation or immigration at this point. Although, looking back, it is obviously what she was doing, casing the joint…
Now, to be clear, she had applied for a VISA before and been denied. It had always been our assumption that R didn’t have enough international travel experience to prove she was not a flight risk. Surely now with our jet setting around the globe, she would have acquired enough “See, I will go home points” and Canada would gladly grant a visitor VISA now….right? Wrong. “Just a two week VISA to see Canada at Christmas?” No. “I would just like to determine if Canada may be a place I would consider emigrating to in the future.” Sorry. “I am a government official, who must return to India. In fact, being that I am an officer, I had to be sanctioned by my own Government just to leave the country” Not Interested. “With sworn affidavits from two Canadian Nationals and a metric ton of paper work you made me fill out, for the fifth time, everything in order, not a comma out of place, all the possible assurance you could possibly need?”Nope, not today. “Look you arrogant bastards, I have quite enough going on in the country of my BIRTH. Thank you very much, I don’t even know if I will LIKE Canada. I would just like to see my boyfriend at Christmas and meet his family” Too bad. So sad. No.
Needless to say I was outraged. Embarrassed. The government of my country, the place I love and respect, my home, were being ignorant a**holes. It was Christmas. I had booked the extra week off from work, my family and friends were prepared, plans were laid to finally meet this mystery woman who had stolen my heart and had caused me to run all over the globe. Dashed, splintered and broken, our plans lay shattered.
During a tearful phone call, we considered our options. We had to switch gears, “Can you come to India?” R asked… Wow….I had never even thought about that! I had no desire to visit India. It had never even entered my sphere of thought. I was a father, a business man and a football coach; what business did I have going to India? Wasn’t it dangerous? Dirty? What do I know about Hindu gods? She was talking fast, I was promised a trip to the Taj Mahal, The Lotus Temple, a tour of New Delhi. What an experience!! I started to see a mental image of me bathing in the Ganges with a bar of Irish Spring. That’s how my mind works. What a photo op! R was campaigning hard now, enticing me with elephant rides and spiritual enlightenment! Then the final straw. She hit way below the belt, anyone who knows me, knows this is a weak spot I am defenseless against. “The Beatles”, she whispered. A trip to Rishikesh, where they spent three months in deep meditation and a haze of weed smoke while they wrote most of The White Album. I couldn’t say no to that. The Beatles loom very large in my legend…to this day I perform my rosary to John Lennon. The problem now was that it was only a few days until Christmas and I had to apply for a VISA….a VISA? What’s that? I’m Canadian, I don’t need a VISA to go anywhere…. Oh, the bliss of ignorance….It was December 23.
The next several days were a blur and furious riot of activity, paper work, embassy branches and VISA offices, on line form frustrations, relentless courier tracking and desperate, pleading phone calls “So I will hear from you tomorrow?”…. “No sir, tomorrow is Christmas” …“Right right, the next day then?”…..“Boxing day, sir”……..“CRAP”…to recount it all would take literally pages of dialogue. Yet, four days after that tearful phone call, here I was in another queue waiting to find out if my VISA application had even been accepted, with no idea where my passport was, surrounded by people speaking Hindi, reeling and bone weary from the absolute deluge of information and activity over the last 72 hours, unsure that Christmas had even happened…did I see my family? Was there a turkey? …It was December 27, 2013 at 8:30 am, and less than 10 hours later….
… my name was being repeatedly called over the loud speaker in Pearson International Airport Departures…I charged like an Olympic sprinter to gate 67A. Pushing old ladies and leaping over small children…again the speaker announced it was the last call for Mr. Wandering Hippy to board the Jet Airways flight 609 from Toronto to New Delhi. Literally stumbling up to the counter, they issued my boarding pass right at the gate. I charged down the boarding ramp and presented myself to the rather impatient looking stewardess at the cabin door. They swung the door shut and started to back out as I was settling into my seat. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that first step onto the plane, panting and sweaty, was my first step away from Canada as my home. The cabin light dimmed and I drifted into a dreamless sleep…I had just barely made it onto the flight that was about to change my entire life.
India! Why India?! – Part Two
“The golden rule is to test everything in the light of reason and experience, no matter where it comes from.” – Mahatma Gandhi- Why India
Om. Let it come from deep in your chest as you say it. Om – The cosmic sound that resonated throughout shared consciousness as the universe exploded into life. This, the sacred mantra in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, was my first real experience in India, possibly of my life…It hit me as I stepped through the exit doors at Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, I felt it. I had no idea at the time what it was. I may sound foolish or seem insane to those who can’t hear the music, but it was at that very moment I connected to something much larger than me.
Alright, let me come out of the mystic fog and speak in layman’s terms for a minute. I was warned that India, Delhi in particular, may freak me out at first and I was advised how to deal with it. But there is nothing that can adequately prepare you for that first moment, walking from the calm, well lit, air condoned serenity of the airport into full on, in your face… India. It’s like getting kicked in the chest by a mule; sensory overload is a laughable understatement.
I have gifted the same advice given me to my sister and son when they came to visit : if it all gets too much, just close your eyes and it will go away. So I did. I stopped and closed my eyes, but after the stress of the last 72 hours (roughly the last 24 engaged in plane travel), nothing went away. I felt dizzy and very overwhelmed.
Let me take a moment here to dispel a few misconceptions. India does not stink. The popular slurs about tears running from your eyes and immediate reflex gagging as soon as the plane door opens are just that… slurs, stupid and offensive. You will not trip over a cow every ten feet, nor will you be accosted by thousands of poverty stricken children the moment you step foot in the country. There are reasons for these “western ideas” about life here, there are open drains, the cows are sacred and wander freely and sadly, poverty and begging is a very serious issue. But the way we have been presented these conditions in the west is quite simply wrong, inaccurate and condescending. I won’t say anymore about it because frankly, it infuriates me.
Delhi airport does not let anyone inside the terminal without a ticket in departures and at arrivals, only those with a chauffeur’s pass or who have been given permission are allowed in. Consequently, everyone else is just outside those doors…. I was breathing deeply; I opened my eyes and steadied myself, determined to be a well travelled, open to adventure jet-setter. It literally washed over me; thousands of people all within arm’s reach it seemed. Porters grabbing for my bag, taxi drivers pulling at my elbow urging me to follow them, armed military patrolling back and forth, passengers being greeted by friends and family. It was a riot of colour; sarees and salwars, kurtas and duppattas.
Sounds; a din of excited chatter in a bizarre language, cars honking, dogs barking, men shouting, women laughing, children crying…the night air was thick with it. Humid, hot and hard to breathe. I was here, smack dab in the middle of an ancient city of twenty five million people. Mrs. R appeared in the crowd with a bouquet of flowers. Lilies, I remember…… lilies; and rescued me. She whisked me away into a waiting car; air conditioner blasting, the Beatles playing; she had seen to every detail and we melted into the New Delhi night.
I was so far out of my element, it was actually unnerving. Not the usual excitement of travel and discovery of a new place. Being this far displaced was a whole new experience. Like being in a day dream, everything was recognizable, but just a little different. The whole world seemed tilted to the left like the villains’ hideout in the old Batman cartoons.
The next morning, I stood on the balcony of her flat and took it all in. The street scene was like nothing I could have imagined. I sipped my (horrible) Indian instant coffee and watched the endless stream of lorries and busses, and vans and cars and motorcycles and bikes and Tuk Tuks and Rickshaws and ox drawn carts and three wheel buggies and…….it went on and on and on. Most official signs are in English and Hindi, but Hindi is still the predominant language. It’s not like seeing Italian or German or Russian; there are NO recognizable letters. It’s a foreign, foreign language! Later that morning, as we drove past a 200 foot high Shiva statue, I gaped in awe and I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
We started my indoctrination with a drive around India Gate. Unfortunately it was barricaded closed and surrounded by riot police. There was trouble brewing as they were expecting some public outcry regarding a tragic (and very high profile) rape case that had just happened a week before and horrifically, the young woman had passed away the day before I arrived. It was a very tense situation. The case actually got international attention and the poor girl became known as India’s Daughter. As a side note, I have never returned to India Gate; I drive past it often, but that sad association has left me with no desire to return.
From there we continued on to Connaught Place, the commercial hub of Delhi. Built by the British in 1929, it is a series of three rings of buildings with a park in the middle. Simply put, it’s madness. All the shopping and restaurants one could ever want, with what felt like a million people purchasing a million items all at once. We had lunch there, biryani I think; and another western myth about India went pop.
Not everything is soaked in curry; in fact, there are plenty of curry-less dishes and those with it, it’s more like gravy. There are many different types also, not just the yellow curry I came to know and love at Manchu Wok. Just a little past CP are the state shops, each state of India with its own retail outlet featuring traditional goods and clothing from their region. It was here I purchased my first (what I called then) holy man robe thing but what I now know to be full length kurta with pajama pants.
We spent that evening eating butter chicken, playing guitar and burning incense. I was becoming more and more drawn to the culture and feelings the country was evoking in me. Without even leaving the city India was planting seeds in my soul. There is no way to fully explain it, but something felt different. I felt a peace, a connection to a cosmic centre. I don’t know. Do I sound like a raving lunatic? But there was something.
A year later, on a facebook photo post, I struggled to describe my relationship with Mrs. R… “You know what, baby girl?…I looked at this picture and suddenly it hit me…Love isn’t the way I feel about you, it’s not the things we say, or even the way we treat each other… all those things are results of love…..byproducts…..Love is defined, quite simply, as the way the whole bloody world changes the moment you’re beside me….” ; and while that may be the ramblings of a man falling hopelessly in love, there is a breath of truth there. Looking back, that is what was tugging at me inside. It was the way the whole bloody world changed when I was in India. I don’t mean the road signs and what is on the menu obviously; I mean the way I felt, the way I looked at everything….everything.
The next day, with me still in a serious travel fog, we were off to put a face or rather, a place to all these cosmic and mystic perceptions I was having. Huddled in the back of a black Honda City hurling down the Yamuna expressway at 160 km/h, there we were, eating homemade parathas wrapped in newspaper and drinking milky sweet Assam Chai. Again I was lost to a completely alien world and it was absolutely exquisite.
We arrived in Agra a few hours later and I saw it for the first time, the most recognizable symbol of love in the world. I was so taken aback, there is no way for me to describe it here. I stood staring; the Taj Mahal. Quite simply, it was one of the most moving and angelic sights I have ever seen. All of these extraordinary feelings that had been nagging at me, tugging at my sub conscious, prodding my inner psyche, were here, displayed in architecture.
It was at that moment, for the first time in my life I truly believed anything was possible for love. My parents had raised me bathed in love, they had supported and guided me, a completely “normal childhood”, all the while assuring me I could accomplish whatever height I truly desired. I am a well known John Lennon disciple; I have been preaching Give Peace A Chance and All You Need Is Love my entire life. Those two convictions collided in me at that very moment, in that iconic place. At 45 years of age, I finally got it…it was true, my parents were right, John was right! Anything was possible with love.
Here stood the proof, a man screaming to the heavens, a testament to his dead wife: “I adore you, and life without you is nothing!”. He was displaying it unashamed to the world…forever. Who feels that deeply? Who connects to anyone or anything that strongly? I was starting to feel a little suspicious about the way my North American value system had been directing my life choices. Nothing concrete yet, but an inkling…maybe, just maybe I was doing it wrong.
Next on the whirl- wind India express was a trip to Rishikesh. Once again we crammed in the back of the car, this time for an eight hour ride. But this was different. This wasn’t highway or city driving. For the first time I was seeing India in her purest form. Away from the lights and traffic of Delhi, with no particular care or catering to tourists, I began to notice something. India was still very traditional; for all the lipstick and pearls she wore in the big city, India was still a country girl at heart.
I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did. I guess I just assumed that after 200 years as a British Colony, most of that would have been diluted. Another small piece of India that worked its way inside me I suppose. It was a long journey and there wasn’t a whole lot Mrs. R and I didn’t talk about. One by one we solved the world’s problems and began to realize, we were meant to be in it together…somewhere.
Anyone who knows anything about me, or read any of my stories, articles or blogs knows how I feel about Rishikesh. In a recent story, I said Rishikesh and I were destined to become lovers; I knew it before I ever even saw her. Well, this was our introduction. New Delhi kicked me like a mule, The Taj Mahal hit me in the chest like a shotgun blast, but this…this was more of a sweet, slow seduction. As we wandered the narrow footpath down the side of the Ganges, a serenity descended on me; one I feel no place else on earth. That feeling has become the embodiment of Rishikesh for me. I can’t go to many months without a recharge.
We took a small wooden boat to the far bank. The current was so strong, we started off ½ a km from where we wanted to reach and let it carry us to the bathing areas. It was December; NO ONE was bathing. It was bloody cold. Rishikesh is at the top end of the Ganges, right where it runs down out of the Himalayas. But it wasn’t going to stop me. Somehow, this trip to India that started as a contingency plan, an alternate ending to Mrs. R’s VISA rejection, had become a quest for ….for what? I didn’t know.
What I did know was I was going to bathe in the world’s most Holy River. I changed (in public) into the stunning blue Kurta my princess bride had made especially for me, for this occasion and instantly, all my bravado left. Every layer of the “cum f#ck you coolness” armor I generally carry around was stripped away; every last stone of the cynical “you can’t touch me” protective wall crumbled. All of a sudden, taking a picture with a bar of Irish Spring seemed really, REALLY stupid. Instead, we took the picture that is being used as the cover photo for this story.
The things I felt, thought or prayed while I was in the Ganges, I will forever keep for myself. But I will tell you this, later that day, as we sat on the far bank, warming in the early evening sun and eating roasted peanuts, I was a different guy. I won’t linger on this. As I have said, my Rishikesh experiences are very well documented, but Lee Nolan as I knew him, had ceased to exist. This guy now…well…he had some questions.
I left India shortly after the turn of the year, somewhere around 2:30 am on January 1, 2013. Sitting in a darkened airplane cabin, filled with questions, trying in vain to piece together the events of the last four days, to get them straight; sleep deprived and in all likelihood, a little hysterical, I ran things over and over again in my mind. A blur, a jumble and mess. I had left Mrs. R and India a mere forty minutes ago and already a dull ache had begun in the pit of my stomach. Flashes of memory and barrage of emotion were charging though a kaleidoscopic landscape; my head was spinning….the only thing that was clear, crystal clear, was that I had to get back to India, back to Ruth, as soon as humanly possible.
Part Three Coming Soon….