India: spiritual journeys and natural disasters

Going the distance

When preparing to go to India, my teacher gave me this piece of advice: “Wherever you go in India, plan on surrender – leave all expectations at the door.” Nothing could have been truer.

In June this year, as my life in Hong Kong was coming to its end, I was looking to be taken out of my comfort zone. Work was all but finished and with my boyfriend busy, I was bored out of my brains, surviving – almost literally – on a diet of two or three yoga classes a day.

Having found therapy and friends through yoga, I wanted to share this with others. But running all over the city, trying to fit in endless rounds of classes was, I knew, keeping me from finding lasting peace. I hoped that a month in an ashram in the Himalayas would bring back the balance I was craving and…

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India: spiritual journeys and natural disasters

When preparing to go to India, my teacher gave me this piece of advice: “Wherever you go in India, plan on surrender – leave all expectations at the door.” Nothing could have been truer.

In June this year, as my life in Hong Kong was coming to its end, I was looking to be taken out of my comfort zone. Work was all but finished and with my boyfriend busy, I was bored out of my brains, surviving – almost literally – on a diet of two or three yoga classes a day.

Having found therapy and friends through yoga, I wanted to share this with others. But running all over the city, trying to fit in endless rounds of classes was, I knew, keeping me from finding lasting peace. I hoped that a month in an ashram in the Himalayas would bring back the balance I was craving and usher in a new phase in my life.

“But what if you get sick, mugged, or worse?” my boyfriend asked. I’m going to one of the holiest places on earth where every year tens of thousands of pilgrims go to meet with God. What can possibly happen? Glorious, transcendent spiritual transformation, I hope. I have my yoga mat, my Bhagavad Gita and my yoga teacher’s advice: leave all expectations at the door.

However, I let my boyfriend come, along with his burden of worries and stash of medication. ‘Just in case.’ And perhaps it is just as well. What with Wacky Racing rickshaws, taxis and tuk tuks, children playing barefoot in the road and the bodies lying asleep at intersections, shanty towns, stray dogs and towering billboards advertising luxury residences, and the unwanted attention my whiter than white skin is attracting, I am finding it hard to stay cool, calm and trusting in India. If anything, I am feeling more fearful and suspicious than fateful and serene – hardly the effect I was going for.

Yet, arriving in Haridwar allays my fears. If the stares of every man in Delhi had been intimating, here in this holy city on the banks of the Ganges old men in orange turbans and loincloths merely gaze with mild interest before taking their daily dip. So, that evening, sitting on our terrace, sipping chai tea and watching the sun go down, I make an offering to Mother Ganga: my heart, that it may always be open, loving and true.

beautiful bustling Haridwar

beautiful bustling Haridwar

The next day, the power of prayer is put to the test as we do the usual tourist thing of hiking up the hill to Mansa Devi Temple, are herded through a bewildering array of rituals by real devotees, and drop several hundred rupees for the privilege. I am more than a little relieved to get out of there, but when we get back down the path to where we have left our shoes, the man we have paid to guard them is just leaving. At least our shoes are still there.

“Your shoes!?” my open heart cries, “Is that all you care about?”

“Urm, I mean, it’s good timing,” my faithless self mutters.

It is not the last time my faith is put to the test, nor the last that India comes out on top.

Later that day, we arrive in Rishikesh – our last stop before I leave for the ashram. Hot and covered from head to foot in dust, I lead the way down a very nondescript, deadendish type of path until, just as my faith is wavering, it opens out at just the place we are hoping for, only better: a river valley with a bridge and a bright orange temple ringing out like a Swiss clock. With the sun is sinking low in the sky and peace pervading the very air, we join the Sivananda yoga party, but the word is there’s been a landslide on the road and do I want to leave earlier in the morning to avoid getting stuck?

That this news, hardly intended to inspire confidence when visiting a remote mountain area, should have us piling into a taxi at 8am in pouring rain now seems ridiculous. But, never having seen a landslide before or the area in question, and keen for our yoga course to commence, ignorance was bliss.

colonial cars and roadside mountain tuckstops

colonial cars and roadside mountain tuckstops

It should take seven hours on a long and winding road to reach the ashram, but with a two-hour stop by a marijuana patch to wait for the road to be cleared and the volume of tourist traffic and increasingly pouring rain. we do not arrive until 7pm. Needless to say, I have half a mind to get back in the taxi and return to Rishikesh, but this is only Saturday – the day the monsoons comes early – and things are yet to get a lot worse. So we say our prayers and retreat to bed and a troubled sleep while the Ganga roars and rages only feet away.

In the morning, over a gloomy breakfast, it’s announced that half of the students have failed to arrive, getting stuck in Uttarkashi on the other side of a landslide or god knows what else. Which means… If they can’t get in, we can’t get out. As the rain lashes down and I go shivering back to bed, I can’t help wishing I’d never come, that I was somewhere warm, safe and dry with Jonny. Are our resolves so easily undermined? Are we so easily broken? I sleep fitfully and by dinnertime can no longer pretend that I don’t have a fever.

But now we have bigger worries. With the river rising, we may be flooded in the night and must move to higher ground. I try to get up, come around to find myself on the floor, and barely make it to the toilet in time. Thus begins a night of diarrhoea and fainting the likes of which I have never known, nor ever wish to again.

With no electricity, hot water or doctor, my fellow yogis are panic-stricken to find me collapsed in the bathroom in the middle of the night. The ground is shaking with the surging tide of water hurtling down the Ganga, unbeknownst to us taking out houses and the road – our only exit – further down stream. When morning comes, I am stuffed with as much Immodium as I can swallow and we evacuate the ashram for the nearby village of Netala.

a village in the clouds

a village in the clouds

Here, with over a hundred other stranded pilgrims, we face the fact: there is no way out. The road to Uttarkashi is gone. We can leave the ashram and abandon the teacher training if we like, but there is nowhere to go. I am too ill to be by myself, so the next day return to the ashram with the others, eat with gratitude a banana for breakfast and attempt to get on with the course.

Sivananda Yoga is quite different from what I have been practicing in Hong Kong, though I recognise a lot of it: the chanting at the beginning, the leg raises and kapalabhati breathing exercise. We rest in Savasana at the beginning of each class and between poses, which I would find tedious and cold, if I had the energy, but I do not. I lie on my yoga mat too weak and dizzy for sun salutations and hot with fever, massaging the raging pulse in my abdomen and wishing I could flag down one of the rescue helicopters now flying overhead and get the hell out. But with thousands of pilgrims lost in these mountains, they have other priorities. So on Thursday, I do what I have been putting off doing: I send Jonny a SOS to get me out of here. I actually use those words I am so desperate.

With signal weak and no electricity to recharge our phones, it is some time before I receive Jonny’s half-dozen frantic and delayed messages: am I all right? Should he come and get me, or wait for me in Delhi? He is sending the number of the British Consulate in India. But by now the office is closed and I must sit tight and wait for tomorrow.

a nice quiet ashram on the Ganga

a nice quiet ashram on the Ganga?

Friday is our day off and with the sun shining, half the group are attempting to hike over the mountain to Uttarkashi to see what the situation there is. Too weak, I stay behind, eager to hear whether the roads open, whether there is any possible way out. If there is I must take it; I know I cannot last much longer on the ashram’s diet of dhal and rice. The smell of it cooking makes me nauseous, but trying to eat it is becoming impossible. The food goes round and round in my mouth until I have to force myself to swallow it, and it is not many mouthfuls before close to tears I give up. I do not know it, but I am too dehydrated to eat. Fearing not only that I am becoming a burden but also for my life, I determine to leave if I can.

Speaking to the woman from the British Consulate stiffens my resolve. She is kind and I listen as she tells me how worried Jonny is, how many times he has been calling and how my mum and sisters all long to know that I am okay, and a lump rises in my throat. I have to get back to them, but she knows no more than I do and can offer no help. That’s when it hits me: if I don’t get myself out of here now, no one can. No one will.

So when I hear the glorious words “road open” and the promise that a local in the village can guide me over the mountains, it’s enough encouragement for me to try. “Can’t you wait a few days?” Jonny writes, “until you’re feeling better?” But more rain is expected in three days; I have to go now. Begging him to trust me, he has no choice but to agree.

I avoid dinner that night, knowing that the food is making me worse, not better, and when some time towards midnight I feel the first pangs of hunger and start to dream of all the food I want to eat, I know I will be alright. I have not eaten properly in over five days, I am running to the toilet with diarrhoea and popping pills till I choke, but I am hungry – hungry to survive, hungry to live and I know that this, as well as the thought of my family wishing for my safe return, will sustain me. I will be in Rishikesh the following night, then everything will be well.

I rise early and set off for the village. Just the ten-minute walk is tiring. How ever am I going to hike over a mountain? But I have my sights set on a salty packet of crisps and a ride out of there, and I tell myself to stay strong, to think of it as you would yoga – the toughest pose you will ever do.

Clutching onto the back of my guide, we drive down the road until after about 3km we come to an abrupt stop. The road is no more. Nothing is left but a cliff of cracked and broken tarmac and a frightening view of a raging Ganga. With the surging floodwaters, the river has completely altered its course, taking out the road that only a week before we came in on. Whatever happened to all the houses, shops and hotels that lined that route, I do not know. Washed away, I imagine, just as I was later to see in news photos and footage.

With my guide taking my rucksack, we begin to climb the sheer mountain face that rises from the side of the road. I can feel my thighs, spindle thin and weak, straining, my breathing increasing and within minutes I am parched with thirst. I cannot let myself look up to see how far we have to go, and looking back down too makes me dizzy. I have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other and keep going, grateful that at least I have someone to show me the way. I know I wouldn’t stand a chance alone.

Thankfully, after what can’t be more than 40 minutes, we are out on the road and my guide is ushering me into a jeep crammed with evacuees. I take a seat in the front and two more nestle in beside me and with the driver seated, we all set off.

The giant on my left is from Assam and tells me he’s hiked over 180km in the past few days to rescue his stranded in-laws, which puts my gentle stroll into perspective. His name rhymes with mine and I decide that it’s a sign; he’s clearly been sent as a good angel. So at Uttarkashi, with the army requisitioning tourist buses and crowds of weary pilgrims waiting helplessly on the roadside, I follow him into a jeep, grateful just to be heading out.

If the journey coming in was daunting, going out is no better. Washed by so much rain, the mountains crumble onto the roads, the roads into the mountains, dropping away to a single track every few kilometres. We stop and wait for the road to be cleared of fallen rubble, grateful for JCBs and the sight of “Emergency Disaster Relief” trucks bringing food and medical supplies – a reminder, just in case I needed one of how close an escape I’ve had.

Just twelve hours after I left the ashram, I am back at our hotel in Rishikesh – less than a week since I left – looking every inch a disaster zone victim. “What happened to your face?” a woman asks. Dirty, gaunt and dizzy, I barely recognise myself, but thankfully Jonny has called ahead and they are expecting me. They know where I went and have been worrying. They are my second – third, fourth? I am losing count – good angels that day. I have the first hot shower I’ve had all week and sit on the terrace sipping lemon-ginger tea. To say I am relieved would be an understatement. I am incredulous, exhausted, almost delirious with hunger but flooded with gratitude. They bring me soup and pasta, the best I have ever tasted, and I go to sleep thanking everyone who helped bring me to this point.

The following few days I remain in a precarious state of health. The Immodium has worn off, the diarrhoea is back with a vengeance and food, so desperately desired, is being rejected as a foreign body by my fragile system. I seek help from an Ayurvedic healer – a gentleman in a simply furnished room reading a newspaper as if waiting for me. I only have to say the word “Uttarkashi” to be instantly understood. All of India understands. In the rest of the world, the word means nothing – certainly not floods, landslides, deaths and disaster. But the healer simply nods; he has a friend who was there and says he can help me – body and mind – but I must not think of things that bring only pain. “Mother Ganga was very angry,” he says, “but you have survived. It is a blessing, a rebirth. Think only of the future,” and I leave with a lighter heart and a promise to do just that.

As it turns out, however, it is not so easy. I see the headlines in the newspapers – the story of the man who survived a night of torrential flooding by standing on the bodies of the dead; the helicopter crash that killed all 8 passengers, including the pilot. I can’t help it. I feel a commitment to knowing that the rescue is on going, that other people too are making it out alive. I have the luxury of taxis to get me out of here and hotels with wifi and room service to get well in, to be going home to a city where sleeping on the street is the preserve of the few not the many. I am one of the lucky ones and, as I leave, can only weep for these people who already have so little that when something like this happens, they have nothing to turn to and nowhere to go. How ever will I square that with these people whose world I have momentarily crashed into, whose natural disaster I have intruded upon?

Feelings of guilt for having survived, anxiety to make one’s life count and despair at your seeming inability to move forward and be happy – all common symptoms of post-traumatic stress – follow me back to Hong Kong. Before I left for India, everyone had told me that I would come back more appreciative of everything I have, which at the time sounded more like clichéd condescension than genuine gratitude. But now all I have to do is think of the boy I met begging on the road and the smile that lit up on his face when we gave him all he wanted, an empty water bottle, to be reminded that it behoves us all to feel grateful, rather than guilty or complacent, for the daily blessings in our lives. To surrender is not only to face and submit to those forces beyond our control, but to know and accept with grace the gifts we’ve been given and share them whenever and however possible.

So I ended up leaving India with my philosophy affirmed: if anyone is desperate enough to want to take from me, they are welcome to; their need is clearly greater than mine. It may take me the rest of the summer to get back to my previous strength and weight, but the most precious things to me – my body and my mind – I still possess and both have proved stronger than even I could have guessed. With the love of my friends and family my will to live is strong, and that is something no one can take away from me.

Travel bug

my holiday home: Lamma Island

my holiday home: Lamma Island

Oh, the joys of travel! Whether it’s two weeks touring around French youth hostels or a Christmas weekend yoga retreat in Thailand, I always get a buzz just being on the move. The train station, the airport, a beach with a boat or roadside chai station waiting for a bus… It doesn’t matter, so long as I am going somewhere I am usually nervously, excitedly happy.

That is not to say there are not frontiers still be explored or places that I wouldn’t draw the line, but India was not one of these. It was top of my list of Places to Visit Before I Get Tied Down With Kids and I ticked it off this summer. That I also ticked off an item on my Top Experiences Not To Be Repeated list was, I consider, a bonus.

If I was excited to be going to Northern India for a whole month to learn to teach yoga, my boyfriend was terrified. Of course I tried to allay his fears with stories of spiritual triumph over adversity, but he must’ve stopped listening after the words “drink spiked” and “Ganesh running down the walls”, getting stuck at adversity and making it to “made it out alive.” Sigh. What are we to do with such First Chakra People apart from tease them mercilessly with our new age mumbo jumbo?

Anyway, (typical Leo!) he came along regardless, boldly facing his own fears and ready to guard me against mine. And bless him, he nearly drove me crazy in those weeks leading up to our departure, taking me to the doctors and insisting on expensive shots and vaccines and pills… As I reminded him, the NHS nurse in the UK had been equally paranoid when I first came to Hong Kong, asking me whether I had any plan of sleeping with the “natives”! How was I to know I would be sleeping with such a paranoid city native who would treat India in just the same way? But I gave in and let him organize the pharmaceuticals side of things; after all infectious diseases is his specialty, and naively trusting to fate, mine.

So when, after getting delayed in Hong Kong, missing out on our day trip to Agra and spending a blissful 24 hours in Haridwar, we left each other in Rishikesh, it is more than a little ironic that we failed to share up any of these precious, life-saving drugs. It was raining and the news that there had been a landslide on the road to Uttarkashi had me leaving even earlier than planned, and I guess we just forgot. But I was going to one of the holiest places on earth where thousands of pilgrims were also heading to make their annual offerings, what could possibly happen? What, you mean apart from the monsoons coming a whole month early four times worse than ever recorded before? Landslides, flooding, death and disease?

I guess these were not on my boyfriend’s list of Things That Could Go Wrong, which – if you ask me – smacks of a lack of imagination. But, to give him his due, when, after a week of being trapped with no electricity, no hot water, a dwindling food supply and suffering from fainting and diarrhea, I sent him an SOS to get me the hell out of there, that is exactly what he tried to do, even offering to come and get me.

The fact that the road had completely gone, washed away in the floodwater to be replaced by raging river, would not, I think, have stopped him. But I did. He’d already come far enough with/for me and been away from his family for long enough. There was nothing more he could do except keep in touch with me and keep my family up to date, which he did with admirable frequency while I hiked over a mountain, took several taxis hundreds of kilometres and recuperated for days in various hotels along the route back to Delhi.

In fact, it was on the long train ride to Delhi, that an old Indian asked me a rather pertinent question. No, not the one about the soul, the one about marriage: “why are you not married if you’re 28?” And I give you the same answer I gave him, that if the Boy doesn’t want to marry me after this, I quite understand; but I am afraid he has no choice. Recovering in Rishikesh, still (admittedly) a bit delirious and deliriously grateful to the Universe, God, Whoever – I made a vow to marry this guy who, not only held my hand through the relative peace and safety bustling bazaars and Wacky Racing rickshaws, but through natural and bodily disaster. I haven’t told him this yet; he’s been through enough this month. But I think he can be persuaded… I just need to find a way of getting us on the same side of the world for long enough, but with my love of travel and my OCD penchant for planning that shouldn’t be too difficult.

Because the best laid plans never go awry…


Let the countdown begin

“What I want does exist if I dare to find it.” – Jeanette Winterson

blimey shiny city

blimey shiny city

In less than 6 weeks, at the end of what is proving to be a very long, wet and tedious summer in Hong Kong, my cat and I will be flying home to England – she for the first time and I for the umpteenth but, with any luck, the last.

That I have made this trip so often is courtesy of my status these past three and a half years as a ‘gweilo’ (direct Cantonese translation ‘white ghost’) or expatriate, teaching English, like so many others, to smart, wealthy Hong Kong kids. It has been a privileged time, by all accounts, or would have been had I not missed my family so much. But that is the pay off, it seems, in a recession – one which I think we would all agree has gone on long enough.

Still, rather than waiting for it to come to its natural end, as was the plan, I have decided to take matters into my own hands and embrace the life of debt and poverty by (finally) becoming a PhD student at York. Thus I will get to be within shouting distance of my family and fulfill my geeky yearnings to be learning rather than teaching. For a while anyway.

Which brings me to the title of this blog and why it is in all likelihood too much to hope that this coming trip home will be the last time I have to endure the 13 hour flight over interminable Russia to London Heathrow: I am leaving my boyfriend behind. Of course. For what could spoil one’s joyful reunion with mother, sisters, father, niece, if not a loving and devoted boyfriend 6,000 miles away?

C’est la vie, n’est pa?

And as we seem to be inadvertently missing each other already – I taking my holiday in the UK while he’s stuck in HK, he flying to England just as I return to start work here – I guess we will be pretty good at it by the time September, October, November, December… roll around. Or perhaps by then I will have persuaded him to ditch his job here and join me there? Somehow I doubt it. Having tried that once before, he is understandably cautious about doing it again so soon.

Did I say soon? While it’s true we have only been together 18 months, almost to the day, I think we would both agree that in that time we have had more than our fair share of challenges – not least of which on our recent trip to India, but that deserves a whole post in itself… So, here we are, tentatively, confidently, hopefully going long distance: the cat, the boyfriend and I. If only Hallmark would make a card for that, it would surely help our friends when we announce it.