I had never traveled outside the United States until I visited Mumbai, (Formerly Bombay) India. Ironically, I was always attracted to “Hindu” religion and philosophy since the 1970’s when I got into yoga and meditation so I found it “karmic” as they say, to be going there. The first visit was an all-expense paid, 3 week excursion working for a “Bollywood” movie producer in October 2002. Of course, because I knew nothing but 5-star hotels, I was pretty much sheltered from the day to day bustle which lurked on the busy, noisy streets below me.
India is a kaleidoscope of color, a festival for the eyes. And since I never go anywhere as a tourist per se, there is an excitement as well as danger that permeates the air. Or perhaps it’s the times we live in with the war in Iraq as well as the fact that both Pakistan and India are now nuclear powers and Hindu-Muslim riots have been known to break out. There isn’t a place you can go where there aren’t armed guards. But I love India for it’s sense of terror that something could happen at any moment and the exhilaration of being far away from America. A stranger in a strange land. The ancient with the modern or what I term, “cell phones amidst human squalor.” Yes, for all it’s vast wealth, India is a country with great poverty and 1 million people live in the streets of Mumbai.
For the newcomer, India can be a harrowing experience. It gets very hot, tropical hot. The heat permeates the soles of your shoes and the sun burns into your soul as well. In India, there is a smell in the air of human and animal feces mixed with the sweet smell of incense and garbage being burned in the streets. Like most urban cities in the world, Mumbai’s air is heavily polluted with the fumes of thousands of motor rickshaws, taxis, buses and cars. On any given day one sees cows, water buffalo, an occasional elephant with rider and there is nothing more surreal than waking up early in the morning to the sight of a camel lumbering down the street.
India is primarily a country of gods and goddesses. Not just commerce, technology and industry. Krishna, Shiva, Brahma, and Ganesha, the destroyer of obstacles with the head of an elephant. There are virtually thousands of temples in which pilgrims and worshipers flock daily to worship their god.
It wasn’t until my second trip to India in January 2004 that I finally went to visit Vrndavana, a village the Hindus or “Vaisnavas,” (Devotees of Krishna,) consider to be the holiest place on earth, indeed, in the universe. It is in Mathura district roughly 90 miles southeast of New Delhi. Why is it so holy? Because Lord Krishna took birth there 5,000 years ago and one can feel and perceive it, just by spending only a few days there. It is very hard to describe how an area of 84 square miles with 5,000 temples can be so surcharged with the kind of spiritual energy I had never experienced before. It still retained the charm of a small village although in India with a population of one billion people, “small” can mean a population of million or under.
Watch out for the monkeys that run wild in Vrndavana. They’re very clever and move swiftly to steal the glasses off your face or a bag of potato chips from your hand. They can be quite vicious. I was surprised at their size as well. Like mini-baboons.
The foreign exchange rate in India is 44-46 Rs. (Rupees) for $1 USD. So as far as living arrangements are concerned there are many hotels and “ashrams” that by American standards are cheap, say, 200-600 Rs. per day or an apartment for 1,000-3,000 Rs. per month.
My train trip from Mumbai took 20 hours but I saw the beautiful, lush scenery and small villages and farms that peppered the country enroute. I will return to India end of summer. Perhaps I lived there in a previous birth. It’s like my ancient home.