Pilgrimage to the Wellspring of your Soul

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Riding Solo

The goats are trying to force their way through the temple gates. Perhaps they too have witnessed what I have just seen: one of their kin strung by its legs to a tree, roadside, it’s skin pulled half way down its body in a seeming state of undress. I too may need to seek refuge. Our routine is half an hour of laps at the communal pool at 6.30am and refuge comes with a much anticipated poori at the stall where we stop for breakfast; a meal for me so irresistible that I order two, despite being in earshot of the cleaver now hacking the goat into sellable pieces. My head quickly adjusts to the sideways nod as I accept the puffed up deep-fried breads, served up on a stainless steel plate with coconut chutney. I retreat into the dark, dingy room where the only fan is working and I sit on a plastic stool at a rustic table where buckets of samba and vegetable chutney await. I ladle a generous portion of each on top of my poori and tear the light crisp rice pastry into pieces, adeptly mixing up the perfect combination with my fingers and scooping it into my mouth. The tastes of India awaken my senses and connect my body to this earth and it doesn’t feel like I only arrived here a few days ago.

“Driving in India, complicated,” says my driver as he nonchalantly swerves to avoid a drifting rickshaw only to have to brake hard to avoid a cow on the Chennai city street. This is déjà moo. The cows munch their garbage as I munch cashews on the backseat of this taxi that has rescued me from the cattle herding shuttling of the past 24 hours in airports and airplanes – an inappropriate way to transition to a new place. This is the kind of complicated that I love though. I doze in the stillpoints of this vortex as the surrounding craziness calms me – India is my crazy oasis in the vast desert of conformity. How lucky am I to have come home; how tragic it is without my child.

“Before I go, do you have any concerns you want to share with me, Noodle?” I ask him, and he hangs his head with disappointment and longing for the India he is going to miss out on this time – his sadness runs deep but his father has neither the EQ nor the compassion to surrender his ego in the face of this pain … forgiveness, we both know, will not come easy.

“You know … the same thing as always,” he says with an embarrassed chuckle. He glances at me and I urge him to go on. “You dying or me dying,” he continues. Hmm, this is a tough one for him in this lifetime.

“I know this is a fear and not a dream,” I say, “but when you dream about death, it has more to do with surrender than actually dying. Can you understand this?” Trying not to diminish his fear, I express that we are all dying each day of our lives and the inevitability of it makes it more important to make each day worth it. I am compelled to go; his energetic contract of control he has with his father is not mine to break as much as its cruelty breaks both our hearts.

“And if I die in India, you know what to do, right?” I call to his retreating back.

“Yes, Mum,” he turns with an exaggerated sigh, “I must come and take you to Varanasi and burn your body on the ghats of the Ganges.”

“That’s the spirit,” I add with a grin. “Don’t forget you have to ask Nina to bring you, ok?”

He smiles and runs off to school; a little lighter for the conversation. 

The taxi turns at a signpost to Surrender and takes me past a place called Creativity. When I arrive at Arati I am grateful to log onto my computer and find Facebook is still there; my anchor to the other dimension where time goes slower than here. Surrender: the main topic of my journal entries on the plane. Surrender and bottlenecks. Potentiality, balanced tension, and death as the emergence of creativity. I don’t have to die to surrender but I do need to close the metaphorical graves of my past so I don’t keep falling into them. We live multi-layered lives full of parallel universes and India is the gateway to this Me that remains while I am not here so that when I arrive, it is as though I never left. I believe these parallel dwellers are often the cause of our frustrations in certain dimensions and this is my opportunity to relive an aspect of myself and stitch together a few of those layers. It perhaps isn’t coincidence then that this journey is mostly about tailoring.

Without Nic, my most precious cargo is in my suitcase and I berate myself for not putting my designs and patterns in my hand luggage, as my fellow passengers from Abu Dhabi drift off and the luggage from Colombo makes an appearance. Already two hours late for my waiting driver, “Just trust that everything is exactly as it should be, Penny,” becomes a mantra in my whirring, over-tired head. And, as I surrender, my hard shell case comes bumping along the metal conveyor belt.

And then the work begins. As the layered mounds of my beautiful fabrics get pulled out of closets I go into slight overwhelm at the work ahead and, when I start out too quickly and black out on day two, I get sent home to try again tomorrow. Being back in my body is like a newborn calf trying to take its first steps so I don’t take anything for granted. Having said that, I feel incarnated here, surrounded by like-minded people where I don’t feel like I am always struggling to get my point across because people here just get it already – some even pioneered the point I am trying to make. I feel valued here … accepted … not such a misfit. When I wake there is no longer a jolt … no self-judgment, no anxiety on waking to figure out another day. It happens in flow; in deep knowing and guidance from another world. I plant my feet on the floor and ask for protection from the earth; the earth here always obliges.

I wake each morning, naked and clammy, the fan ineffectively whirring above my head; 

it’s 38 degrees out there, despite the early hour. The shower is most welcome as it trickles over my head cold and runs steaming down my legs but I know the cooling is only temporary and I can’t stay here all day. Today I continue work on a foundational document for the cultural center in Sanjeevinagar; a launchpad for accredited training and pioneering a countrywide cultural program. This is not only a social need but will assist in sustaining the centre in the long term. In between this work, I manage the tailoring, add more products to my list of imports and research a social enterprise to take back to South Africa.

Lunch is taken each day on rickety bamboo stools made by past students, around a simple concrete table, surrounded by banana trees, coconut palms and the bamboo plants that have been saved from the passing cows. It is shared with local friends and colleagues at the Bamboo Center. Work flows; I meet new people; I use my skills; I am abundantly happy and connected … But by late afternoon, when the heat has turned my brain to jelly, I fire up my Moped and head for Kuilapalayam for an afternoon wallow in the pool at La Piscine, where my Dutch and Swedish friends hang out. I also meet a South African family, a couple of Italian men and a French woman and I find it so profound, as always, how everyone here is doing work that a) they love and b) that matters. I feel like an interviewer; hours go by and still my curiosity in insatiable … I only leave the pool once my digits have turned to wrinkles. Tomorrow is another day and a lot can still be learned in 6 weeks … I am reminded of an adage once taught to me but never quite understood: So much to do, so little time; we must go slowly.

Driving down the only section of tar I know, I glance casually at the 25km/hr speed limit and open the throttle – it’s baking out here and speed is like mobile aircon. As an old customer I have been upgraded to a new Moped and I intend driving it like I nicked it … life is too short. With no helmet and only slops on my feet; dodging cows, goats, packs of dogs and the occasional tourist who brakes too hard for the speed bumps, I am grateful for the hooter and brakes that work … yes, things you would imagine are standard, but alas. The sight of green coconuts is like Vodka to a recovering addict and I put the brakes to good use. Again the sideways nod as I hand over a few grubby Rupee notes; Rs30 in total. Ah, the nectar runs through my veins like heroine. The swim becomes redundant when caught in another summer downpour and I laugh out loud as each drop of rain hits my face like buckshot. 

I was meant to go to dinner tonight at the home of a billionaire artist and his bipolar Italian sidekick but I go to the poori guy and get myself parotta and spicy coconut samba instead … the parotta is wrapped in newspaper and the samba is in a small plastic bag sealed with tightly wound string. The sweet spicy smell, as I write, is drifting into my psyche making me lose my focus.

As tomorrow feeds yesterday and yesterday feeds today, the earth will revolve once more to meet the sun and I will be here greeting another day with a sun salutation. The potentiality is enormous.

Until next time … Namaste

Coconut Express

A young guy arrives at the door of my bamboo hut where I am now staying.“Coconut?” he asks.
I wonder if I am still sleeping. I follow him down the stairs where he skilfully hacks off the top and hands it to me.
“Straw?” I query, and then feel silly for asking.
I bend forward and use my lips to seal the hole he has made with the tip of the blade; I tilt the shell. The sweet liquid electrolytes coat my palate and cool my blood, leaking down my throat and chest … it feels sexy. As I wipe the juice from my mouth and chin, he brings the blade down hard, chipping the concrete table in the process of splitting the shell in two to reveal the succulent flesh, which I scrape out with a piece of shell and suck into my mouth. 

Every day should start like this. 

I go for a dawn run and manage an easy 10km in 34 degree heat; more from getting lost than real intent. I slip through a tiny gap between a remarkably wide cow walking roadside in my direction and an even wider yellow school bus coming towards me; it’s a gateway … this is indeed a parallel life and I have arrived. The days push 44 degrees and the breeze is like a blow heater bringing neither relief nor sleep; the dogs find both by digging holes in the soft cool clay earth to lie in … although tempting, I adjust to the heat in other ways. My usual lunchtime ritual is to have a cold shower, get dressed, stand under the shower again, fully clothed, and then lie under the fan in my room till dry; at bedtime I use a frozen water bottle under my neck instead of a pillow. 

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Darwin

Staring face to face one night with my roommate rat I considered setting a trap for, I can’t help but wonder if it ever crawls over me in the night … or if it will turn into my Indian prince if I kiss it. If Ganesha is my god and his vehicle is the rat, it makes perfectly good sense in the dimension I am currently in. In the light of the flashlight it looks quite cute really – I’m not tempted to kiss it but I will exercise my vegan compassion and at least not kill it. I silently caution it to stay out of my bed … that spot is reserved.

My Cape Town community and Skype connect me to my child and I tell him my tales. He cries for me and the India he loves, and even telling him how humid and heavy the air is and how no one is even playing cricket is not enough; he feels jealous and left out, sad and disappointed, confused that his dad would intentionally hurt him in order to hurt me. Eighteen months later, people still stop me on the street here to ask where my child is – they know me only because of him. The one consolation of not having him with me, I thought, was not having to deal with his father finding reason to harass me … but, alas, my gratitude for small mercies came too soon. I received an attacking essay; a barrage of bullying demands on me to justify my existence, my parenting and my life. 

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Einstein

I seem to always arrive in India the Raggedy Anne doll with her head half ripped off and a button eye dangling by a thread; call me dramatic but it feels like I have PTSD from my midyear exams. Between coming to India 18 months ago after packing up the marital home and coming to India this time so much life has happened and so much soul work done that I am here to integrate, not to repair. I usually come here to create myself through rediscovery and this time I come to create in general; it is the culmination of following all of my dreams; “dreaming, after all, is a form of planning”, said Gloria Steinem. I leave the button eye to dangle; it’s become part of my charm and shows who I am.

“At your absolute best, you still won’t be good enough for the wrong person. At your worst, you’ll still be worth it to the right person.”

Doing business here is casual, calm and considered. The tailoring is almost a wrap so I move on to Auroshine’s floor where hours go by sitting cross-legged, pulling crystals and gemstones from drawers until I look like I am sitting in a grownup Scratch Patch … selecting, trying on, adding to my spreadsheet, calculating the viability and, as always, asking, “best price for more than 20 pieces?” It strikes me that I have become the person I was always meant to be, doing exactly what I have always wanted to do … and in this moment I see that the harassment from across the ocean is not because he has control over me but because of his now most obvious loss thereof; threatened by the power and strength my India breathes into me, he admittedly pits our child against me simply because a nine-year-old is easier to dominate. I am sorry for his lack but I must step back now and let them figure it out between them.

Meditation comes while getting covered in bamboo dust, helping the women in the workshop, listening to the chatter as I rhythmically sand pieces of bamboo for items to go in their shop. Or more formally at the magnificent Matrimandir, the golden dome beside the banyan tree that forms the centre of Auroville. To lean against the massive trunk of this tree is to feel the god within. It talks to me of freedom and roots and how one needs to put down occasional props to nourish and support and sustain if one is to grow wide and high and strong. It shows me how my perceived fear of failing my commitments if I put down roots has hindered my stability. Perhaps it lacks focus or 100% commitment but now, as I stretch my branches wide, I sink my roots into two separate continents and know that this is exactly how it was always meant to be. 

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Churchill

I was never meant to conform nor am I willing to adapt to a profoundly sick society. So I continue to find new pathways: the real, the metaphorical and the neurological kind. Getting lost has always helped me find my way. And Nic will too. It is not up to me to show him the way but rather to give him the best tools of navigation; a kind, soulful, intelligent, empathetic, rational, open-minded free thinker, he has already proved to be a skilful pathfinder in so many ways. In Seneca’s words, “it is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness”,  and I have no doubt that his test to get through this minefield his parents have laid for him will indeed lead him to greatness. Every day we have a choice to make this day matter.

And I am his Peter Pan mother. But instead of returning here to stitch my shadow back to my feet, I come to stitch my feet back to the ground. Returning to the boutique to check on the tailoring work, I feel I am like those garments being stitched and snipped into the most perfect offering they are capable of being. So I stitch my shadow back – one toe at a time – getting ready to bridge the gap between my worlds, and I will know my shadow more intimately now that my light shines so much brighter.

“Let come what comes. Let go what goes. See what remains.” Ramana Maharshi

The coconut guy has returned. He speaks to me in Tamil but for all the time I have spent here I still can’t make sense of a single word. I usually just listen. Tamil is like a musical instrument – one of those African shakers – and I sometimes get so immersed in the sound that it feels as though I am following the conversation. But when I chip in to contribute, what comes out of my mouth sounds like fluent gibberish … I sound kinda crazy and people look at me as though I might have sunstroke. Coconut guy enjoys bringing me coconuts now, staying to watch me drink the nectar before showing off his proficiency with the blade. He’s most certainly not the Indian prince my friends are waiting for me to meet but his simple offerings make me feel like a princess and for now that is perfectly good enough. 

“There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called Yesterday and the other is called Tomorrow. Today is the right day to Love, Believe, Do and mostly Live.” Dalai Lama

Can’ts into Cans; Dreams into Plans

The Cali moon hangs absent in the night sky as I dance with my shadow cast out by a bamboo bonfire | Maya hangs its curtain | My blistered feet weave in trance through ancient drumbeats and acacia trees as India and Africa converge in ritual celebration | This is not a dream | Dravidian and  San Bushman chants draw us home | New moon; new beginnings | I am not in Kansas anymore.

Rolling womb-like in the water, I am getting ready to re-birth.

“My name is Penelope,” I say.

“You must be very patient”, a dishy guy at the pool declares. His Greek accent gives context to his understanding of the Ulysses connection and I can’t help but wonder, ‘how does a name change a destiny?’ So many who come here tend to change theirs … perhaps as a resistance to past identity or a recognition of their transition through the matrix of time. What would mine now be? I plunge again beneath the water; so soothing and stimulating, like hundreds of hands gently caressing me and coaxing me towards my goal. And as my body is touched and reawakened, I re-member aspects of my self. It’s like stepping on the wobbly stepping stones, knowing I’ll somehow get to a stable one and get to the other side.

“We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us.” Jean-Paul Sartre

The pencil touches the paper and draws seemingly on its own | The teenage girl stitches clothes on the dining room table; mother complaining about the corrupt lyrics belting from the LP record player | Rodriguez subliminally coercing me into becoming an addict | The re-emerging design aspects of my psyche grip me like heroine.

But the only tripping I do is to Tiruvannamalai where I eat chopped fruit in the shade of a Neem while air drying after swimming fully clothed in a mud hole. I burn my bare feet on the ancient stone of the temple campus like a guru on hot coals, and indulge in soporific food that takes me drifting on an unknown road near Gingee to an ancient who has moved down from his cave to channel clarity to his devotees. I stretch out my palm.

I know India not like the back of my hand | She is not a sight but a sensation | I know her like the soles of my feet | She is a walking meditation.

I think about my Ulysses on a run and manifest KT Tunstall’s ‘Throw Me a Rope’ from a selection on my iPod as I narrowly miss stepping on yet another snake on a forest run. Misapprehending a snake for a rope is the thread that guides me through the Vedic texts; my indignation as much an illusion as my love. The rope of the pendulum vacillates dramatically between rampant creativity and stoic logic and  balance is a point of reference on the compass that I occasionally recognise as I pass through. 

The guru reads my palm through glassy eyes and dreadlocked fringe. My business will do well, he says, with a slow rare forward nod of his head and a serene smile as he measures out the red string and cuts it; he knows exactly how long it should be … he knows me. He chants a blessing as he ties five knots in the rope and wraps it three times around my wrist. Sometimes I have to tie myself up in knots in order to get free.

Family constellation work energetically disentangles me from the India my great grandfather knew | Controlled no more, she is powerful enough to stand on her own; I need her more and she is me| I form my own relationship with this, my ancestral home and I give him back his duty; his cross to bear | Working energetically we meet in a perfect triangle, observing yet unattached | This trilogy holds a strong position and it is not surprising that India faces southwest towards my birth home.

“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” Mahatma Gandhi

India is not the point; she is the pendulum. With the roots of a baobab, the reach of a banyan and the strength of bamboo, I have found my thread and I no longer unravel my tapestry in wait. I close my eyes on the Bullet; riding pillion this time I can shut out the dust and the over-stimulating sights and revel in these moments of complete non-attachment to all around. Shutting down thought and emotion, I achieve pure freedom from time.

“You have bike back home?”
“I don’t, no.”
“You don’t know.”
“No, I don’t, no.”
“What do you mean you don’t know if you have bike back home?”

In a foreign country, in an international community, it seems I am the only one speaking funny. Words become redundant as I toss them out like word salad; Guru Yoda.

Snipping the threads and tying the knots, I say my goodbyes | The emotion falls from a sky pried open by fire and drum rolls as I navigate the dark forest with trust | My objective reality holds me close; there is no paradox | The east and the west exist only because of each other and I come and go like the sun.

“Goodbyes are only for those who love with your eyes because for those who love with heart and soul, there is no such thing as separation.” Rumi

How lucky I am that I know so many people that make it hard to go | They watch my sunset in trust that I will return.

Auroville 2013

There’s a Turkey on my Table

The chanting starts at dawn. A rooster crows to a distant neighbour … the distant neighbour replies. The fan whirs above me and a truck’s incessant horn reminds me of the proximity of the ECR despite the deafening sound of bugs and other wildlife. It feels like I’ve only just fallen asleep to the Bollywood beats pulsating from the local village of Kottakarai. Nic stirs … and the day has begun.

“It’s 6.23am, Mum.” His new watch has made him assume the role of timekeeper and he has barely opened his eyes when he checks in each morning. We share a simple bamboo bed beneath a large protective mosquito net. IKEA, the label reads … an out of place brand from another world. 

“I love sharing a bed with you,” he adds. The intermittent monsoon rains have turned the mornings chilly and his warm body is welcome as he moves in for a snuggle. I am still half asleep as I express to him that he may well be competing quite soon for that space next to me … ever hopeful … so he’d better be prepared.

“Well, at the rate you’re going,” he quips, “I’ll be 18 before that happens.”

“Funny fatlip!” I laugh. But he has a point – love seems to not have worked for me again.

As my ex-husband comes up with innovative ways to try and sabotage my time away … again! and an ex-lover lifts me up and then shuts me down … again!, I immerse myself in my love affair with India – again – and she shows me that, despite all this de’ja vu, love really isn’t that hard … and that absolutely nothing is the same.

I throw together a stack of ragi dosa for breakfast – I’m a natural at it – and load them with jaggery and ghee … calories seem irrelevant when carbs in the form of rice and fried breads are staple. And I wouldn’t dream of skipping a meal here. The only skipping I do is the rather uncoordinated kind – with a rope – at 7am, once I’ve dragged my humid body across the courtyard to ablute and fetch the milk for tea. Exercise also comes from pushing my mechanically-challenged moped and from the occasional run through mud and puddles, beneath the cooling trees; chasing chipmunks and peacocks while dodging bicycles and motorbikes I can’t hear over the Parletones in my ears; my South African tether.

A goat follows me home

India is no longer under my skin or even in my blood. It IS me. Everything melts and melds … I am both here and not here at all. It always feels so foreign on arrival but half a day later; I am showered, unpacked, tearing around on my moped, working with bamboo products in the workshop, and milking a cow. Three days feels like a month and a month feels like a week. It’s an acid trip but I don’t get thrown about anymore – I am solid and grounded. South Africa feels like a distant memory rather than a place I have to return to in a week to build a house. The cold showers I dreaded, I now crave for the feeling of the water turned warm by my body, running off my fingertips. It’s sublime. I wonder what will happen when given the choice.

I’ve begun to speak English like a local: “Ragi dosa breakfast making. You like try? Me good getting.” My head has adopted the Indian head wiggle as it bobs its request from side to side. But first I have to get the turkey off the table. It’s been squabbling with the guinea fowl while the rooster looks on disapprovingly. The hens keep a low profile, pecking dim-wittedly at the ground. They know that, for them, life can be short.

I lay the shiny dosa-piled stainless steel pooja plates on the table, not bothering to wipe away the sand left there by the sleeping dogs the night before. I curse the mosquitoes as I swat my leg. Someone else’s blood stains my hand and I question my wisdom in discontinuing my malaria meds.

“Can you die from malaria?” Nic asks, as a man hollers and the milking cow dashes past the table. She’s been pilfering the juicy bamboo shoots again. Nic always questions death when we’re in India. I suspect it may be the Larium but he could well be tapping into a more spiritual education. The distant drumming has continued for four days now, announcing the death of someone in the village. I explain to Nic that death is the entry to new life and, besides, it happens to everyone so fearing it is pointless. I add that I want to be burnt and sprinkled on the Ganges in Varanasi anyway so, in terms of convenience, I’m kinda in the right place for death. He chuckles, looks at me with the ‘oh muuuum’ eyes, and tells me that he gets it. I believe him.

This year has indeed taken me through wanting to die. I bend to pick up a heart-shaped stone and blink in disbelief at a puddle of the same shape. I roll my eyes and sigh as Nic picks up on the heart theme and starts his usual repertoire that includes Gavin and me sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g … He stops at the baby part, knowing that Death doesn’t like to be teased too much.

“One doesn’t need to change anything: what needs to be changed changes by itself quite naturally.” The Mother

This year has also turned me grey and brought me down to earth so I have arrived in India’s arms already changed. I have been living so long in a house of mirrors, trying to find the right reflection and India, this time, has shown me that there is no right reflection … they are all me. She has been saving all of my favourite parts and has presented them back to me in a more manageable format because she trusts that I am now ready.

I have come home.

It’s like visiting family … only better  … and staying at the Auroville Bamboo Centre means everything flows the way it should … only better. The work is varied, the days are full, we are close to the villages we love to visit and Nic, being the remarkable soul that he is, just slots right in. I write articles and proposals, I mentor and I consult. I go to meetings on cane mats on the floor and manage my workload between meals, chai, friends, excursions, meditation … and milking that cow … while Nic makes a bamboo flute, assists in the workshop, helps build a volleyball court, plays in cricket matches, and makes friends with dogs, cats, cows and goats. Everyone loves him here. He’s tried out the local school with a Dutch friend and he tells everyone he wants to stay. I have already extended the trip by almost a week and he begs me to extend it again. He gets pocket money for his contributions and bought himself a ‘sweet cap’, an ‘awesome t-shirt’ and some ‘bling’ to wear around his neck … my eight-year-old just turned twelve. But the trendy gear I try on in Pondy feels too foreign to me here.

“Well, that’s a relief,” says Nic, “I was astonished that you thought to try that on in the first place!” Unlike mine, his vocabulary is still intact. And by having to work out all the bills and pay for them; demanding the correct change; his maths is only improving and he is known all over town as the finance manager. He has been given a work name, Mr Kumar, and is welcomed here by the whole team.

Pedestrian yield signs depict people with handbags over their arms … running. They’ve seen me coming. Nic, sitting pillion, shouts, “Faster over this bump, Mum, so we can get some air.” A cow lies dead by the roadside. I look for a crumpled vehicle and wonder if the driver was lynched. People in Pondy went on strike when seatbelts and helmets were made compulsory. I consider my slipslops and naked head and say a prayer to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. Pondy is also well known for its number of bars and liquor stores … they seek a different kind of spirituality here.

I gather the pieces of my shattered soul by visiting places like Tiruvannamalai, Pichavaram, Tranquebar and Chidambaram. Pilgrims go past by the busload – they look like they have all been through the same wash cycle, dressed in the classic red and orange for Shiva devotees. The knotted bands of colour around my wrist connect me to their quest. Symbols, statues, temples and gods elude me, and keep my curiosity peaked, but my childhood quest of finding Ping, the Chinese duck, is achieved in an unlikely place. Water buffaloes wade through the rice paddies to highlight a similarity, as

I watch wide-eyed and awestruck as a farmer herds his ducks out of the water with a stick, and taps the last duck on its backside to indicate his day is now done. 

Coconut palms grow in rows out of a field of water … a semi-submerged house indicates that this is not intentional. We stop to buy the green coconuts from dhoti-clad men on bicycles who adeptly lob off their tops and insert a cocktail straw. The water cools the blood. We add our shells to the top of the pile; an almost ritualistic offering, similar to placing a stone on a Tibetan stupa for safe passage. The coconut is a sacred fruit. I am addicted and seek them out daily … I could start a new religion.

My days are never the same and each brings with it a new opening, a new release and a new strength in growth and resilience. I am still learning and, while I learn, I teach. There is no end to the possibilities and opportunities here for both.

The auspicious and life-changing November full moon waxes and wanes. The new moon hangs in the sky. I know how it feels. You can see the full circle, faint, but always there. I look at my screensaver before bed – a pond of lotus flowers – and I am reminded of the blooming that arises from a cesspool. There is hope after all. My lotus flower is so close to the surface now.

A firefly flickers behind the curtain. I close my eyes. The sound of life is tangible. I drift in and out of sleep as the music and drumming start up again. The cows settle down for the night, their deep voices resonating with the huge raindrops that thump on my bamboo roof.

And I smile in anticipation of the dawn that will awaken me with chanting and remind me that a new day is always just that. 

Auroville 2012

Winnie the Pooh is just one random Piece of the Puzzle

I speak a lot about facets, mirrors, shards of glass and reflections … those parts of us that resonate with, and disclose, parts of other people and different aspects of life. In fact life is the proverbial puzzle and, in a sense, what We are is multi-sided puzzle pieces that connect in a multitude of ways to the corresponding shapes of other people, places and experiences.

But, often, things don’t fit. Often We don’t fit. Often through a lack of self-awareness we misinterpret the real world and shape our connectors with life experiences that we would rather not repeat but ones that we embrace anyhow. It’s like the Heffalump trap … trying to capture something that isn’t real in the first place and then falling in oneself.

For years I pieced myself together in a series of ill-fitting jobs whilst in a relationship with someone who tried to reshape my sides to fit his own. I fell deeper into the Heffalump pit. And, as I withdrew from life-as-I-knew-it, I noticed my puzzle-shaped facets had become so distorted that they didn’t fit the life I was meant to live.

“When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.” – Winnie the Pooh

I am lacing up now and I am heading to India. A fantastical journey can be dramatic and challenging but it is only in following your breadcrumb trail of dot-to-dots back to your beginning that you will reach your destination. It can make you believe. This odyssey for the story that completes my picture does not, this time around, constitute a separate part of my journey but is an extension of who I am now. It is the shape of one of my sides. So, while Pooh rescues Piglet from the pit and I scrape the dirt from under my nails, I am going to connect the dots in my own unique way.

The picture on the box redraws itself as my puzzle pieces create new connections. A tail … leathery wings … talons … fire. Cling and claw to the shape of the life you know, or Just Let Go! And Fall … Into the Magic.

There’s a Peacock at my Window

I remember he handed me a quarter guava and I took it despite the fact I didn’t know who he was. I remember it was dipped in spices and the contrasting flavour was irresistible. I remember clearly what he looked like. And I remember the biggest tree I had ever seen, propped up by it’s own aerial roots and displaying large heart-shaped leaves.

As my plans for India took shape, I went into silent Vipassana meditation and these are the memories I had from the first time I visited Auroville eleven years ago. It was my sign; one of many. I had been picking apples for several months and my basket was now full enough to make apple pie … the sweetest most succulent pie made with only the ripest apples. And here I sit; back in a place I never imagined I’d return to, in a completely different capacity and mindset, getting closer and closer to a dream.

Getting here took forever though.
“That’s ridiculous, Mum! Forever is like twenty-five thousand years,” was Nic’s response. I laughed. I suppose he’s almost right, although twenty-eight hours of travelling can feel a bit like twenty-five thousand years. But all the apprehension of the preceding weeks and the uptight bling of Dubai airport was obliterated on arrival to this crazy busy, noisy, haphazard place where the streets are lined with the slow-motion garbage-eating cows that we hurtled past in a getaway taxi along a late night highway. Arriving in the middle of the night is never as bewildering as I imagine it will be, especially since Ganesha greeted us at the entrance as a symbol of my obstacles removed.

“I just can’t get this damn thing to start!” Twelve hours in and we had orientated ourselves, slipped into the zone and hired a moped. The sweat trickled down around my ears and crept down my chest as I pumped the pedal with my left foot trying to kick-start it. Clearly they’ll rent out these things to anyone!
“If you try hard enough with anything, it is bound to work eventually,” was Nic’s advice … not entirely helpful but I suppose those words haven’t always been helpful when used in reverse. “You see!” He rolls his eyes as I finally get it started; trying to balance, turn and adjust the throttle gently enough to avoid the fence, the ditch and the cows. Apparently Richard Hammond can’t drive one of these things so, despite the fact that I keep telling him it’s going to take a little practice before I can go over 10km/hour, he keeps telling me how proud he is of me for managing in the first place. He jumps up and down in front of me, shouting, “faster, faster” as I putter along, being overtaken by everything, including livestock. He’s my indicators and my GPS and now, fitted with an emergency whistle, he is my hooter too. Today he went on strike though. “You’ll just have to figure out your way back on your own now – I’m done helping you.” I did a u-turn every time he chuckled.

He’s clearly not afraid of dying anymore … a topic of conversation that took up almost all of the twenty five thousand years it took to get here. Being told over and over again to ‘be safe and to come home’ hadn’t filled him with confidence, and of course there was no point denying that there is danger in a journey like this one. But there is also no denying there is danger in almost anything one does, so I had to level with him. “Nic,” I said, “you’re going to die just like everyone else on this earth; death is inevitable. No one can be sure when that is going to happen but happen it will. So,” I said flippantly, “if it’s in India then so be it.”

But the only death that is likely to happen here is the death of how things were … the death of the old and the birth of the new. There are moments when we stand still and butterflies encircle our heads. I speak to my child of the symbolism and know he too will be transformed by this experience. After only two days I sense he now just understands.

My ex-husband believes I left him for another man. I didn’t – obviously – but I did leave him for a lover. India is that lover. Our relationship was already over but it was when I left him for India in 2010 that I left him for good. That was when my puzzle connectors readjusted and I knew I fit better with India than I ever would with him. India has always defined me as who I am – it is my challenger and my leveler. I was told to never go for the better man but for the man who makes me the better woman. India does that for me like no man ever will. But like any lover you are away from for an extended period of time, there is a period of apprehension and self-reflection; a time when you question if things will still feel the same. They never do; they only ever get better … more connected somehow. We have missed each other and we now need to get slowly reacquainted.

It took less than half a day to settle into our abode. The bags are unpacked and the groceries bought and stored. We lost the cornflakes out the shopping bag around a corner. “That’s ok,” says Nic, “you don’t like buying them anyway.” He’s right, they don’t fit our new space that seems to hold us like we have been here a while already. I have already detached and let go of ties back home and I am beginning to believe in the ‘Mother’s’ grand philosophy of everyone needing to know the feeling of relinquishing their worldly possessions.

I dip into my Thich Nhat Hanh journal and breathe. “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Mindful breathing is my anchor.”

A peacock crash-lands on our balcony as a thunderstorm brews in the distance. A chipmunk scurries over the mosquito screen. A crack as lightning makes contact somewhere in the distance. And the rooster crows. The rains will now come to cool the earth. It’s ready. We’re ready.

With myself as my anchor, I have let go and I have indeed fallen into the magic.

Anicca, anicca, anicca

“I want to get a nose ring,” Nic declared over dinner one night. And I question the education I am giving him. After meeting with the school and striking a deal where they would admit him if I facilitate a writing project with the older children, the school board emailed yesterday to tell me they won’t allow attendance for such a short period. But that’s just another dot in the picture we’re creating. We’re in our hippie zone now and the idea of a 7-hour school day is just so not our vibe anymore.

On day three the idea of our apartment no longer appealed and we went on a hunt for something more bohemian, setting up our escape to a place closer to the centre and the main village. But that night my neighbour knocked on my door. “You must be Penelope,” he said. I was stunned … and, I admit, a little nervous. “You’re going to the Bamboo Research Centre tomorrow at 10am, right?” Deepak Chopra’s Synchrodestiny sprang to mind again as he explained how he works there too and he’ll be guiding me through one of the aspects of my work. My work profile has changed, he explained, but it seemed irrelevant considering the dot-to-dot was already taking shape and I knew that everything would be as it should. Not only that, but my work is 5 minutes away from our conventional digs and walking distance to the best South Indian restaurant in the area. We decided to stay put.

“Inside is made of outside. When we touch our own skin, we touch the water, heat, air, and earth that are within us.
 At the same time, we know that these elements also exist outside our bodies.
 Touching deeply, we realize that the sun is also our heart.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

I come to India to be more me … and then I have to wonder what that is. I have a desire to run wild and free and, in a sense, that is what I do by coming here. But once I am here, I drop the crazy, I drop the wild and I calm. I just am. I become who I am at my very core and I learn to know what I want. India and I have changed; our relationship has grown-up somehow and I am learning new steps to the dance we once danced together.

In the ten days we have been here, though, there have been moments that I have hankered to dance the dance of years past – yearning to explore the back alleys and hidden temples; craving the street chai and meals served en masse besides the garbage-munching cows; longing for trains across vast tracts of land, not knowing what will greet me at my destination … or if I will make it there. Ganesha gives me a sideways glance from above the sofa. He holds a lizard in two of his hands and I remember the sparks as the Varanasi geckos got fried in the air-conditioning unit. I miss the rats and roaches and dirty backpackers joints; the mice in my hair … the things that made me throw my head back and laugh and the things that inspired me to keep moving.

Yet somehow with all the missing, this new dance feels right. I am finding my feet, planting them firmly on the ground and – dare I say it? – puting down roots. India will always be that textured, unpredictable place but here in Auroville I have found the place where I can hold the tension within and feel my changing needs.

There’s a joke here: You can’t pay for a meal in Auroville and ask for change, because change; it comes from within.

Each day takes us further afield and each day I am learning. The experience this time is not so much the outward journey of sensory overload but an inward one of something similar. Everything I once sought on the outside while travelling in India is now within me and I am finding a kind of equilibrium in how I operate here … a new way of dealing with who I am and a new approach to what I do.

I threw myself into my studies when I got here and the change in my work here now ties in perfectly. Together with two other volunteers, I am setting up a social business involving the handicraft people in two of the local villages, to create a sustainable community school at Mohanam Cultural Centre; the school I was originally meant to be working at. And because I am based at the Bamboo Research Centre, Nic has been put to work with the women in the workshop who will help him create his own bamboo products. Sure he thinks dreads and nose rings are cool and I wonder if the world needs another hippie … but it’s new and it’s exciting and together we are finding ways to take bites out of India in a completely different way. I have stopped running, both physically and metaphorically and I am getting creative with it. I miss it – yes, in both senses – but Nic and I have started Kuttuvarisai, an ancient Tamil martial arts technique and we have found an enormous pool to train in … or rather just float in, beneath the palms and hazy pre-monsoon sky.

The days are hot here; the nights are … well, the nights are no different. The fans run 24/7 and there is no use for the hot water they boast about on the website, or for the travel hairdryer I – in a strangely girly moment – squeezed into my backpack. We venture out daily and return as part of the scenery, rust-red camouflage from our biking on dirt roads. I wear a scarf to hold down my hair; Nic wears one like a cowboy to protect his mouth and nose. Om, the scarves declare. And Om is how we feel. The speedometer doesn’t work and there’s nothing I can fit Nic with to fix that so we just go as fast as it takes to cool down. The games we play while driving in Cape Town have changed too … we no longer compete for how many Minis and Beetles we can spot but how many cows. We’ve both lost count.

“This actually makes me want to swear a lot,” says Nic as two buses meet at a place in the road where they get stuck trying to pass and, within minutes, the road is filled with hooting motorbikes for a kilometer in both directions. I laugh. Absolutely nothing happens in a hurry here … unless you’re driving. But a traffic jam on a moped is an easy way to make new friends and, although there never seems to be enough time in a day, we are making plenty and even beginning to set up playdates. 

We’ve found our favourite places to eat and the fruit and vegetables we buy at the fruit stalls on our way home is grown so close that it fills the room with perfume when I open the fridge. Nic is still the least adventurous hippie when it comes to eating though, sticking to only what he can accurately identify.
“Food isn’t the most important thing anyway,” he says.
 “What is?” I’m curious to know his, often interesting, take on things.
“Being well-balanced is,” he replies. He can’t elaborate but already his exposure to this hybrid Indian world of Auroville is shaping his mind.

The thunder still teases in the distance and lightning expands the sky … the air is a couple of degrees cooler. I lie on my back in the pool beneath the palms and hear the muffled sounds of Bollywood over the sound system, bringing the old dance with India closer. I’m beginning to fear the thing that prevents me from ever putting down roots: the need, in another six weeks, to say goodbye. There is happiness here; everyone here of their own free will, doing what they love and all making a difference.

I have changed and I am changing still … it is impossible to stay the same in a place like this. It is just impossible to stay the same. And, as the butterflies continue to decorate the sky, I know that all will change again tomorrow but that it’s okay because I am right where I need to be. I have stopped running and I will soon be flying again.

Season(ed)

A chameleon scuttles across my path on my morning run and I wonder about the symbolism. As I look at the processes my life is following, I see that nothing is certain, and I feel both a sense of security and freedom in that uncertainty. I slow down. I don’t have to go so fast or make everything so hard for myself.

The butterflies have emerged from their cocoons and mated, their fragile wings now broken and scattered on the red monsoon mud. But they have left their ‘seed’ and will rise again next year, their bodies now nourishing the earth for the trees to feed their caterpillar youth. They are spent; their time has passed. And so I look for other creatures to symbolise my journey: the ants that work relentlessly for no personal credit; the goats that have no mountains to climb; the cows that munch persistently through mountains of garbage but never make a dent … and that chameleon.

I commented yesterday on Nic’s fickleness with his favourite football teams. “Everything changes, Mum. Isn’t that what you always say?” It wasn’t a question.

So as I run beneath the tress that have shed their autumn leaves, and as I hop over the fallen branches splintered and ripped from the trees by the recent cyclone, I see there are many ways and methods of change – both voluntary and inflicted – and I stop to watch the chameleon settle and blend to its new surroundings. I feel comforted by its colour. It has turned a brilliant orange but I know it could be brown in a few moments again … and that that too will change.

Eating with sticks

Om Namah Shivaya plays from megaphones along the route as I place one naked foot in front of the other, trying to zone out of the muck and the pain whilst simultaneously staying focused on my child through the darkening sky. He’s armed with a whistle … just in case. I glance up intermittently in anticipation of the full moon rising – the reason for this pilgrimage to Tiruvannamalai – and then down at my feet, momentarily distracted by the jingling bells around my ankles, adding to the chanting. I have chosen to walk the fourteen kilometres barefoot to absorb the energy of Shiva’s sacred Mount Arunchala. I bow to Shiva, symbol of my true inner self and, with each increasingly painful foot strike, I transition from thinking to feeling.

“One doesn’t need to change anything: what needs to be changed changes by itself quite naturally.” The Mother

Yes, sometimes it does. I am not being overtaken by livestock anymore, although that may have more to do with my not having functioning brakes. Teemed with no helmet and driving in slipslops, that takes a fair amount of bravery … or stupidity; depending on which continent you’re on.
“Just concentrate,” says Nic … but I’m not quite sure what he’s referring to. Like everyone in India, he can be both helpful and annoying at the same time. We narrowly miss a cow and drive through a puddle that swallows the bottom half of the moped and eats my shoe. Riding a moped is like riding a horse – it senses your fear. But I seem to have none of that anymore. “Be mindful,” is another quip I get from the boy riding pillion, as my reaction to any obstacle in my path results in my pulling on the throttle. It seems riding a moped is a little like life for me.

“Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the total presence of fear with the courage to face it”, says Osho in the highly appropriate book I just bought.

With Osho in my left hand, tearing poori with my right, I glance up to see if Nic is done shuffling the UNO cards and gasp. Outside the door of the grungy roadside café, a cow pauses on the edge of the East Coast Road; cars, bikes, buses and trucks taking up four lanes in a way that wouldn’t give a foreigner any indication of the correct side of the road to drive on. She briefly considers the honking horns and buzz of traffic, fearlessly puts one hoof in front of the other … and then, swaying her rump and holding her head high, she keeps going at an unhurried pace as the traffic just continues to flow around her. Sitting beneath a banana leaf roof, I return to my book as a shirtless man in a lungi cools Nic’s tea by pouring it with astonishing accuracy from a meter above his cup. I smile and realise that I too am not so brave; just more often than not, willing to put my fear aside to get to the other side.

I remember that scene as I put one foot in front of the other, not knowing if I have walked three kilometres or ten, as my soles go raw from gravel, glass and general debris not even the cows have managed to consume.
“How do we know we’re going around the mountain,” asks Nic, “when I don’t see any corners?” I point to the brightening moon and it’s relative position in the sky.
“That’s our corners,” I say, as I flick another bead on my mala. A Bollywood track momentarily interrupts the chanting as throngs of pilgrims queue for sustenance being pulled out of an enormous pail. We don’t stop.

“Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet, for dissolving the hard and the flexible, nothing can surpass it.” Lao Tzu

India is my water.  There is no separation here between life and me as I harvest the seeds it has encouraged to grow. A barefoot circumambulation of Mount Arunachala eradicates sins and grants all wishes … even when, like the Little Mermaid, what you wish for is like walking on knives. Nic continues to define what he is made of. For four hours he walks, dances and chants, falling behind only when he stops to check the moon’s position.

A tired cobra resists the charms of its flute-playing master; it’s early yet and the pilgrims will be walking all through the night. It’s all relative. I avoid a sadhu with a hook through his back pulling a cart and almost walk into another one standing in the road with a sword through his tongue. A holy cow with an extra leg growing out of its back and a memory of an Indian baby that was worshipped for having four arms and four legs … Beggars, musicians and deformities interspersed with food stalls and lingams. And people just keep on walking. Om Namah Shivaya pulls us all along. We are a river; unstoppable.

Until stop, we do.

But only until 4am when we rise for the sequel: a walk up the sacred mountain to view the town and its vast temple through a hazy dawn. And as my feet ache and start to blister, the sun gradually brightens the sky, transforming the town buildings from grey to their full palette of pastel hues. I know the feeling. Like the chameleon, I know that everything changes. And, as hard as it is to put my full weight on the ground, I feel so connected to earth; so grounded.

“There are hundreds of thousands of umbilical cords linking us to everything in the cosmos and making it possible for us to be.” Thich Nhat Hahn

I don’t believe in finding oneself but I have found a way of being; a new route. I no longer take directions and I find maps too restrictive … for me just getting lost is all I have needed to find the road I’m meant to be traversing. And I continue to get lost … a lot. But I am turning it into a necessary process in learning to know the way I’m meant to be going. A little like that dance I am doing with India, and with life in general … sometimes you just need to disconnect from the regular in order to connect to the mystery.

“Everyone should experience India at least once in their lifetime,” is what I always say. “You either love it or you hate it … or you love it AND hate it. The point is it never leaves you unmoved.” Like the scent of a lover, India seeps beneath your skin and touches your soul.

“Temple going coming eleven o’clock, okay?” he asks. Ganesha, remover of obstacles, sits stoically on the dashboard while the plastic grapes swing above his head and the red dot on the rear-view mirror reflects a permanent bindi on the taxi driver’s forehead. I give a sideways shake of my head, Indian-style, to indicate I understand, and we disappear through the piles of rubbish people can’t bring themselves to deposit in the nearby skip lest they deprive the cows of a meal.

The longer I am here the more difficult it is to express to people the life I am leading. Besides the fact that my evening showers involve a bucket of laundry (or just a walk outdoors); movie nights are in a forest; I am generally unkempt, and the only Brazilian I’ve seen is a guy who did a presentation on the Rio +20; I have discovered my way … a sense of how I want to live and a new approach to people and the way I operate. I keep saying I don’t want to go back home – that isn’t because I don’t want what’s there; it’s because of who I am here.

From Facebook you will have seen the way I work, cross-legged on the floor, mostly with no electricity and very little English. Patience is required and our international team means we are often totally lost in translation … even more so when we have a translator because it generally takes an entire conversation to translate just one line. People ask me why I love it here and the answer is impossible to define. I no longer translate so well to life back home but I have found my rhythm. I can’t describe the way life is here but I can say that the dance feels right.

Nic holds up a mirror to me and I recognise a child, free from rules, falling into the unpredictable mystery of India. We think we have to create boundaries for our children to create security for them. But by dropping the boundaries, Nic is living with such freedom here that he has found abundant confidence and security. He comes to work with my German, Portuguese, Belgian and Tamil colleagues and he hangs out with the children of my Dutch and Swedish friends. Our neighbour’s son teaches him Chinese words while she teaches me how to cook Chinese food and I chuckle behind my momo as she hands me a set of chopsticks. But Nic doesn’t see the humour. For him it is not so far-fetched; just magical. He invites himself to play in local cricket matches on a piece of waste ground where goats graze; Pooja bells ring from the adjacent temple and a passing cow nonchalantly takes a dump on the wicket. He is exposed to so many different nationalities, cultures and languages through the socialising and the events we attend that I often find him sitting on the floor with his globe of the world between his legs, plotting his next journey. He has started planting his seeds, from which a beanstalk will grow.

India is the Wizard that gives the lion courage. It’s the magician that conjures up something that was there all along. It is a master of illusion and disguise. I may never fully figure it out. A snake slithers into the magician’s hat to shed another skin … and the rabbit disappears. Magic is magic and it’s not to be understood. It’s a feeling.

You just have to sit back and be enthralled.

Climbing the Tree of Life

Speed thrills, but kills greets us as we join the ECR. The thrill always wins but, today, the sign is superfluous. Speed is impossible. It’s gridlock on the roads, and the lack of speed … or movement of any kind … allows for entertaining reading. Strapped to a roadside tree is a sign promising Franch Tuition. I doubt it. Eatoholics Family Restaurant with its giant cutlery isn’t quite as tempting as Rich and Creamy advertising Delicious cakes, ice cream and fried chicken. Obviously. Sound Horn! declares the intricate paintwork on the back of every bus and truck. And they do! Gridlock or no gridlock, drivers here think everything will change with the sound of the horn. And it invariably does. The two Ganeshas on the taxi’s dashboard are given due credit as the traffic jerks forward.

I am hot beside the metrorail roadworks, where the Hilton Hotel looms up to the left. It’s not immune to the chaos but my closed-eyed imaginings of marble and cool air-conditioning work to sate my desire. Nic’s imagination is obviously on other things. His upper lip beads in sweat and I imagine his body pickling inside his oversized Indian cricket kit. He looks flammable. He has been sitting in an airless basement all day, observing a fundraising workshop I had to attend as part of my social entrepreneurship course. And this pre-Diwali gridlocked trip is both part reward for his amazing attitude and participation in my work, as well as for my part in a highly successful 1st phase of a social business initiative. But spoiling is relative.

“Holy Cow!” I blurt. It just slips out. I laugh inappropriately as a cow gets hit by a taxi travelling in the opposite direction and then walks away. The taxi limps along its way on the ECR, Chennai-bound, and Nic asks if the driver will be sent to jail. We’re on one of the most dangerous roads in the world … jail is quite possibly the least of his worries. We’re on our way to Mamallapuram.

My nose piercing has healed and I have inserted a beautiful silver flower. I feel it needs to be bold.
“Why do you people do this to yourselves?” an exasperated colleague asks when I explain how I almost passed out, not from the pain but from the brutality of the process.
“I’m not sure why other women do it,” I reply, “but, for me, it’s kind of like an early warning signal for when I go back to Cape Town … some kind of sign that I may look the same, but I’m not the same … something that will show on the surface what has happened deep down.”
“But they will see that just by looking at your eyes!” he remarks.
“Ok, then,” I sigh, “perhaps it’s so that I can remember that I’m not the same.” He throws his head back and laughs. He gets it. And to reinforce the sentiment he and others I meet have been intuitively diagnosing internal conditions of mine based on outward manifestations … strong intellect, weak liver, strong will, soft heart. Yes, the heart; it is still soft but, here, it is like the bamboo I am working with: soft enough to bend but strong enough to no longer break. India has wrapped it in elixir-drenched bandages allowing me to once again walk with my arms stretched wide; perhaps not immune to the solar plexus punches but a lot more able to roll with them. Here I can be that romantic, who finds hearts in everyday items and smiles at the sky. And where the elixir fails, I have Kuttuvarisai. I practice my blocks over and over again until my wrists are swollen with bruises and I know my soft core is safe down any emotional dark alleys. And when my nose piercing closed up from leaving the pin out too long … I took a needle and re-pierced it. Sometimes I just need protection from myself.

“It’s strange that you’re being so impatient, Mum, when you’re usually such a patient person.” I give Nic the slit-eyed look to check for sarcasm and can’t find any. Perhaps my perception of a 7-year-old’s behaviour clouds my observation. He compliments me on my choice of hotel and again he gets the slit-eyed look. But he sees beyond all defects and couldn’t be happier. There’s toast for breakfast and geese that aren’t; he hasn’t seen a TV for a while, and the surrounding ancient stone-carved temples are the type he can climb on.
“Look here,” he exclaims, sitting on a well-weathered Nandi, “ancient bird poop.” But, fifteen phone calls to the taxi driver, as well as a couple by two Tamil friends in an attempt to translate our travel requirements, and I still can’t get it right. I eventually arrange a pick-up. It’s the wrong time and the wrong day, there are two other people in the car and the price has almost doubled … but it’s a miracle (or just the Ganeshas) that we get fetched from Mamallapuram at all. India once again forces me to learn the lessons I often resist learning.

Back in Auroville, the monsoon has been swept away by the cyclone and the puddles are no longer deep enough to cool our feet as I aquaplane. Instead my moped slides around on the dusty paths and I long to saddle up a proper motorbike.
“This won’t happen on my Ducati,” is Nic’s standard response as I once again pull on the throttle, skid, and leave a shoe behind, narrowly missing the snakes that have crossed my path leaving a whiff of symbolism. The bags of groceries dangle precariously from the handlebars – I haven’t got used to the transport capacity of a moped. Nic commends me on my skill and I realise a 7-year-old can indeed grasp the concept of sarcasm quite well.

The sounds of firecrackers start to blend with distant thunder … Diwali madness has tempted the gods to speak back, but the rains will come too late to save the warehouses burnt to the ground. And the devastation doesn’t dampen the festivities where the children are gathered together, given matches and firecrackers and then set lose to be wild and free. Tweetie Bird grimaces at me from the box of matches, Keep away from children written down the side. Nic holds his breath with the excitement of it all. It’s sensory overload. I watch as he dances to the traditional music along pathways of marigolds and tea lights. He bends to scoop up a handful of marigolds, which he munches on enthusiastically; a memory returned from his previous trip.
“I’m coming here to live forever,” he shouts at the smoky sky.

Nic worked out quickly that the best way to find who you’re looking for is to first locate their shoes. And I have learnt it is the only way to now find him, as I search the doorways of shops and houses to locate who he’s visiting or where he’s shopping. He’s been bargaining for everything that he wants to buy and yesterday I found him with three bedspreads laid out on the shop floor, awaiting his decision. He selects, negotiates and pays for the Tree of Life.

“This is going to provide a lot of veg for the animals,” says Nic as we, moments later, watch a tamarind tree felled across the road from where we sip tea and indulge in crepes with fast-melting roasted rose petal ice-cream while listening to the music of long-dead European musicians. I am transported to a different reality. The begging dog moves away from the table to escape its own incontinence and goat herders push and pull their stubborn beasts towards the fallen fruit. Several cows sway in slow motion to see what they can salvage. And the hooting and shouting continues. No, we’re still in India. Nic helps prepare the restaurant with vases on the tables and chats to the customers. His reality has definitely changed.

But the hourglass is now almost empty and I feel what a process it will be to extract both of us from this place. I embrace a prop root of the holy banyan tree and plant my own beside hers. And I know that no matter how far I grow, the support will always be here.

“I wish we didn’t have to leave this place,” are Nic’s waking words almost every morning as the peacocks screech like wild cats and the roosters crow out of synch; some just on India time.

“If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can blossom like a flower and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

I wear flowers in my hair now and wonder why it hasn’t always been so. I take time to watch a butterfly float to the earth … I look again and see it is only a wing.  A little girl wraps her arms around a calf lying by the roadside. She closes her eyes and sighs.

Life is all about perspective.

Walking the Hills

I wake in the night and my body goes stiff. The fan spins slowly overhead as I stretch my eyes open to take in the darkness. I stop breathing for a moment as my heart palpitates in mild panic. My body feels the softness of the mattress; my head sinks into the pillow … there is nothing in the room that is familiar. My ears strain for the sound of peacocks. Nic is not beside me. I listen for the hum of the generator. Anything. Nothing. And my rapidly beating soft heart slows … and then sinks. I am not in India anymore and I feel as though I have been transported back to South Africa against my will. And, in a sense, I have been. In the morning I tell Nic about my experience and how I don’t really want to be here. He rests a hand on my shoulder and lays his head on my ear. “I know the feeling, Mum,” he says, “because we are both missing India.”

“Stop the car,” I shout at Natarajaran as I clutch the headrest in front of me. “Take us back to Auroville, we’re staying!” I am sitting on the backseat of a taxi driven by a man with an unpronounceable name, directing a range of scenarios in my head and playing out the movie of my life that changes with a snap decision. But I am silent; grief has robbed me of my words. I can’t help but notice how I have never felt so rooted in any one place that it has been this difficult to leave.

It’s just gone 10pm and Nic’s head is damp on my thigh – I’m still too cheap to hire A/C. He’s given in and I’m relieved that his sadness is resting a while. He’s wearing the bamboo necklace he swears he won’t take off until we return to India. It’s from Balu. His bottom lip dropped when we had to say goodbye. His cheeks sagged and his shoulders looked so heavy they might have forced his feet into the earth below. He climbed onto Balu’s lap and clung to him and it is the first time I have seen him cry saying goodbye. I can’t help but cry too; unclear whether it is for his pain or for my own.

“I just want to look out the window at the scenery of this place that has provided everything we have needed for the last seven weeks,” says Nic, quietly, moments before slipping into dreamland; a land much improved, I am sure, by this latest adventure. And, as he sleeps now, I silently weep as I always do on leaving India. I remember the fear of the arriving and the not knowing; the apprehension of the work and of Nic settling and of the apartment and the mode of transport. The driver suddenly brakes. I wonder if I have said out loud what was in my head. But there in front of us, a gormless cow chews her cud as she sashays to the other side of the ECR. I am reminded of the first cow that made me gasp at my own reflection, and my tears dry. And I remember the fear giving way to adventure and magic as I too crossed to the other side.

It is late as we drive past the well-lit hangouts of our surroundings – the generators humming the tune we now know well – and I observe the people of our community laughing and eating and carrying on with their lives. Life will go on. I count the sleepless minutes and feel no closer. We stop for chai and I yawn. A cow waits in line … and I wonder if I am in fact asleep after all.

Nic wanted an Om to hang around his neck with his tiger’s eye and Ganesha pendants. We couldn’t find one and he didn’t want to search anymore, choosing to leave it for now so that we could get one when we are next in India. He began to say this about most things in the last week; transitioning from wanting to take India with him to wanting to leave some behind to ensure there’s a next time. And there will be. I have left our project in capable hands but that doesn’t mean I can leave it completely. I will work by remote as I complete my course and I will plot and plan and make sure I am back to finish what I started. For someone who gets bored in five minutes, it’s something. But having to leave right now has made me restless and we fly around town visiting everyone one last time just to make sure we remember.
“It’s not the last time,” says Nic. He holds my arms so he’s able to look me in the eye. “It’s the last time this time.” I get a hard stare. This applies to Kuttuvarisai, the local chai shop, pancakes, his friends he bargained with for his many souvenirs and the surrounding villages and craft people. But one place that qualified as a definite Last Time was Manoj’s hair and beauty salon.

Braving a Rs50 haircut by a man who not only never (ever) cuts women’s hair, but doesn’t speak a word of English is perhaps an unnecessary display of courage.
“I’ve had enough of this!” Nic marches over to the next-door shop and chats to the shoe salesman, escaping the tirade going on in the barbershop. I only closed my eyes for a few seconds so he could trim my fringe but, by the time I opened them, my hair had already been butchered.

“There’s history in one’s hair,” I explain to the Chinese Indonesian hairdresser-to-the-stars I meet on the bus to Pondicherry with his friend, my Chinese neighbour, “and often the only way to get rid of baggage is to quite literally cut it out,” I say, more to convince myself than him. And as he compassionately cuts, rather than shaves, my hair, a chameleon climbs up a grey stone post outside my window, looks in and changes. I am affronted by its colour choice. But change is only dictated by its immediate surroundings … it’s not optional if it wants to contribute to the future gene pool.
“Evolution is a scary process,” quips my biologist colleague.
“Yes, but only if you don’t want to change,” I laugh.
India for me is always the catalyst, whether I like it or not. There is never any choice. Change is, indeed, inevitable and in fact the only sure thing in life. And the balance I once perceived as the swing of a pendulum is in fact not so much the back and forth motion but more a multi-dimensional flow from inner to outer and back again. I have found equilibrium between what’s on the inside and who I am in the world and I am flowing in balance between the two as though my skin no longer provides a barrier.

“If we join our brothers and sisters and go as a river, we are sure to arrive at the ocean.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

When the river meets the sea it widens and slows and gradually the fresh water blends with the salty ocean as the sediment settles. They become one. I feel the sting of the salt on my skin as I infuse the ocean and connect with the countless destinations before me. I have connected with my passion and I now face the challenge of translating that to the expanse before me.

People ask me how I managed to set up a social business in India, working so completely out of my comfort zone. It’s the easier option, I say. Intense clarity comes when you can work without the challenges, preconceived ideas and perceptions you have of your own country.

We’re back in Durban now. The red dust still clings to everything we own in the same way that India clings to my soul. I am peaceful now and strangers approach me to tell me how calm and content I look. Perhaps I translate just fine to life back here since the flow still connects me to the earth and I don’t jar so much anymore. The shattered inner pieces have become inner peace. I meditate and run to help it last … and I’ve learnt it’s ok to walk the hills. I will take it slow now because I have learnt that life really can be that easy.

Nic closes his eyes. “Mum,” he whispers, soft arms loosely wrapped around my neck, “I need to go back to India as soon as possible.” And I feel that perhaps he needs that nose ring he aspired to at the beginning of the trip so that people also see how changed he is and so that I remember that the chameleons may well have been there for him too.

“Slowly, slowly, you start feeling a new quality to yourself, a new aliveness, a new beauty, a new intelligence – which is not borrowed from anybody, which is growing within you. It has roots in your existence. And if you are not a coward, it will come to fruition, to flowering.” – Osho

And when the rains come again, as surely they will, the seeds we have planted will spring into life; our branches will grow tall and wide and drop sweet-smelling flowers. And I will be back one day to scoop one up and pin it in my hair.

India Adventure with a 4-year-old

The first day of the rest of my life

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them. 
~ Isak Dinesen  

I sit on the cusp of my story. My story is not, like Isak Dinesen’s, of Africa but it does contain heartbreak and sorrow and promises of new beginnings. There are no happy endings like we were all promised in childhood. Nothing ends happily ever after. There are only ever happy beginnings. And sometimes we have to jump between the two in an attempt to minimise the cataclysmic fallout the ending may have. 

My cusp sits somewhere between what my child terms as mum and dad splitting apart and an awfully big adventure. My child and I are going backpacking around India. 

Now, everyone has an opinion about this. It’s too dangerous, he’ll get lost or stolen; he’ll get dehydrated or get malaria; he’s too young etc., etc., etc. But say I’m going to leave him behind and the opinions change to I am abandoning him. 

As his mother – not the one who yells and says f*ck a lot but the one who loves her child so much it hurts right down to her toes – I decided to take him along for the journey. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened. I was chatting to him at bedtime about all the stuff going on in the house at the time and the options that were open to us … and the India adventure thing just popped out. I regretted it instantly and immediately told him what a bad idea it was because of the disease and the poverty and the filth and the sewerage. It was already too late though … I had him on ‘adventure’ and he wasn’t letting me back out. 

The planning process ensued and having so much time to organise meant OCD overload with purchasing and decanting and labelling and packing and printing and unpacking and folding and rolling and changing the itinerary so often, I think it has included almost every part of India at various stages of its lifecycle. 

I now have such an awesome first aid arsenal it is more like a pharmacy and it takes up half my backpack with just enough space left for two changes of clothing each. I have been frenetic but I’m not sure the output has quite matched the input as I seem to still not have everything done and I leave today! I believe I would be at the same stage had I given myself a week to get ready for this journey. 

During this process I have waited daily for a break in the cold war but it has never come. My seventeen-year cycle has run its course and I look to India now for the beginning of my next new cycle. I feel excitement, fear, happiness, gratefulness, anger, privilege, frustration, pain, joy, sorrow and betrayal … as well as emotions that haven’t yet been named. 

There was a grim temptation when packing the pharmacy to calculate if there was enough clout there to obliterate the pain of a broken heart. But I didn’t think I could handle a failed suicide on top of a failed marriage. 

Darkness makes way for incense, marigolds and kindred souls. I will eat bravery; I will drink inner peace and I will find strength again to travel towards a new me. 

So, farewell until we meet again. I’ll be a totally new person, but you’ll recognise me by the smile on my face.  

India – the first few days

I was standing on one foot as there wasn’t anywhere to put the other one. There was a wave of people crushing me from behind like a brick wall coming down on my back and Nic was clinging to my leg starting to look quite desperate as the surge began to gather us up. I felt a trickle of sweat gather speed down my back and my money belt felt like it was going to stangle me. There was shouting and jostling and people pushing Rupee notes towards the ticket window where a remarkably unhurried gentleman was sitting in front of an ancient machine that was choking out the tickets. It felt like we were fleeing a war zone and there were a limited number of tickets to get out of the country. What we were really doing was buying tickets to get on the toy train that does a 5-minute curcuit of Cubbon Park, past rubbish heaps and mucky canals. 

This is India and I love it. It melts and flows and you have no choice but to get caught up in the pace of it. The hooters go 24/7, the cars narrowly miss each other and drivers swear and shout at each other. Yet, it seems so unhurried. 

Nic is taking India in his stride. His initiation involved being chased around the airport on arrival by a woman intent on taking his photograph. She lost and in the madness of being mobbed by strangers wanting to meet, greet and shake hands, I fell into the same trap I always do. I was totally aware, I knew where I was going and the cab I needed to get and I was even standing in the right place to get it … but I got conned by a cab driver anyway. Being driven in the dark along unknown roads, I cursed myself for being so naive – I should know better … there was also a moment when I convinced myself there was something more sinister at play and that we were going to be sold to the highest bidder. It was fine though … of course. I know the drill. Hadcore traveller that Nic is, he fell asleep in the swerving hooting madness and an hour later woke up in the centre of the city where we were lost and couldn’t find the guest house. We were dropped on the road, directed to where the driver thought we should be going and I had to summon up all my courage to find Ashley Inn. 

Once there, we settled in with take-out rice, dhal and naan in front of the cricket and fell asleep content and peaceful.  

A guy at the cricket last night proposed to Katrina with a black marker pen and an A3 sheet of paper. I wonder if he got the TV coverage and I wonder if she said yes. I doubt she knew how many people’s view he blocked trying to get his message to her. The game was delayed by an hour and there was a risk of a riot with news spreading fast that it might be cancelled – perhaps some of you heard, there were some homemade bombs that exploded outside. I mention it only because it was a minor detail compared to the crush of people and guards with sticks we had to fight off to get in. I gathered up my precious cargo and pushed and yelled and squeezed trough a mass of sweaty, smelly bodies crushing one onto the next like a wave. But we got in and the crowds and the cheering and the atmosphere that comes only with 60000 cricket-crazed fans gave me goosebumps and made me want to cry a little. The stand was full by the time we got there but the guy we met in the queue to redeem our e-tickets the day before was there (what are the chances?) and he gave us his seat right near the front. Our team lost but my little cricket fan, dressed in a knee-length Challengers shirt and a Proteas cap, was dancing on the chair, hooting his horn, cheering and clapping and was fully drawn into the hype, lapping up the attention of adoring locals. He was so worked up, he ran the 2kms ‘home’ after the game shouting, ‘Follow me, mum, I know the way!’ Amazingly he did – those are not genes he gets from his mother! Clearly we looked part of the Bangalore vibe because I got asked directions by an Indian couple walking home. 

We slept till after 8. Breakfasts have been masala dosa or Idily with coconut chutney – WAY better than continental. 

Nic keeps giving me the latest count of how many times his cheeks have been pinched – I think he’s way off as no on lets him by without trying to touch him or take his picture. It’s puzzling at times where to place those boundaries but we are learning together. 

Nic keeps asking where all the cows are. 

Off to the ashram today. I’m intrigued. All Nic is concerned about is whether they have a TV so he can watch the rest of the IPL games. 

My little travel companion may be small but he is huge in wisdom and he is looking out for me as much as I for him. All this talk of him getting lost has made him believe that if we are lost together, it is time to call in the cavalry. 

It feels like we have been here forever. Moving on will be hard as he is convinced we are staying with friends of my parents and he was puzzled when I had to pay to stay there – he has been playing cricket and chatting incessantly to the women who run the guest house. 

He’s playing ball with a local while I type. His laughter is filling this tiny internet cafe and I am smitten. It’s his turn on the computer now – he wants to check out the IPL website to see who’s likely to make it to the semis. 

Not sure when the next update will be. Just know that we are doing great and the world here is spinning way slower than it is back home.  

Permanently drenched in sweat … and loving it

I was meant to go stealth at least until Goa … but Nic had to come and check the IPL scores since there is no TV on the ashram – I got a disapproving shake of the head when I asked. Facebook is also ‘unavailable’. No TV but plenty of cricket. Nic just walks around with his cricket bat and everyone wants to play from small children to grown men. This morning waiting for breakfast we started a game and before long had an audience, a wicket keeper and a couple of fielders – perhaps Nic’s first moments in the spotlight as a cricket champion. 

The ashram is not as I expected – not a green oasis of lawns and people meditating under bohdi trees – but it is perfect all the same. Nothing to do apart from while away the time between meals which are served en mass in the dining hall and taken seated in rows on floor mats. Washing up is in the Montessori way, each person washing their own plate in long wash basins. Nic loves eating with his hands but is still on rice and rotis, supplemented by dried mango, almonds, ice-cream and fennel seeds. He did have his first spicy rice this morning which was impressive – perhaps he was just too hungry to complain. He is constantly busy and there was no need to stress about not having many toys for him as he makes do with what’s available – right now he is thrilled to have a broom and a squeegy and has swept two floors of our residence (he calls it our villa), cleaned our bathroom and our little balcony. At the moment he is playing a cricket tornament in the computer room, playing both teams and whispering the conversations between the players. People think that because he won’t wear a shirt that he just doesn’t own one 🙂 

No chance of a meditation or yoga session but I’m fine with that. It’s just a privilege being here. And I have the perfect travel companion – can’t believe I even considered leaving him behind at one stage! 

Time for lunch. 

Jai Gurudev.  

Shell-shocked at the beach

Ganesha stares at me from the dashboard. I keep focusing on “Meru, Rely on us”, the taxi company’s logo, lest my eyes search for the time. The airconditioning has just been turned on but it makes no difference. My feet begin to sweat as we hit another traffic jam. I battle to breathe. As the god of removing obstacles it is no wonder Ganesha adorns almost every dashboard in India … but with one main road closed due to construction and the other half blocked with a broken-down cement truck, he was totally incapacitated. Each time I asked the taxi driver, “How long???”, his eyes would drift to the clock, do a quick calculation and give me the exact number of minutes till 11am; the time we had to be at the airport for our flight to Goa. He had done it earlier when I called him from the ashram – he was half an hour late to collect me. He was on his way and would be half an hour he said. I said I had to be at the airport by 11am so he said, ok maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Indians have a habit of telling you what they think you want to hear even if not exactly the truth – kind if not altogether unhelpful. I am learning lessons in patience I would sometimes rather not learn under certain circumstances. “Meru, Rely on us!” But only just! 

It was sad saying farewell to our community of new friends at the ashram. Our time there became like Nic’s Indian cricket tour with everyone wanting a turn to play with him.He became like a minor celebrity and people called out his name wherever we went. His shyness has melted away and he looks so proud when he goes back for seconds of roti and rice at mealtimes with his huge stainless steel plate like a little Oliver. 

I look over at my child with all his energy and enthusiasm and I wonder sometimes if I am dreaming. He takes everything in his stride and is the perfect travel companion. People seem amazed I am taking him on this journey with me but it just feels so natural. Sure, it would have been peaceful without him but it’s thrilling with him and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be laughing so much. He is both teaching and learning daily. 

We had a good send-off from the ashram. The temple elephant sauntered past our makeshift cricket pitch next to the dining hall where we were passing time waiting for breakfast. It is the moment the fruit stall owner longs for and I tossed him a five Rupee coin and grabbed a banana just ahead of the stampede of people buying up every last piece of fruit to feed to the elephant … who didn’t even stop between shovelling bunches of bananas to give any blessings. Nic was so startled that he grabbed his cricket bat and leapt onto the the top shelf of the shoe locker where he watched in quiet appreciation. 

He refused the elephant ride at Bannerghatta National Park where the safari was a rushed route around some tired and depressed looking animals in a bus full of local tourists who leapt away from the windows at the site of anything with claws despite the heavy mesh cage that encased the vehicle … that and the fact that all the animals were followed closely by their keepers, apart from the mangy lions and the tigers who were taking turns outside their cages. 

Goa reminds me of Thailand. Furniture markets line the roads – cheap plastic or ornate carved with nothing in between – there are rows of ’emporiums’ where unsuspecting tourists are dragged by commission-seeking rickshaw drivers, liquor stores and restaurants compete for space with the ever-expanding guest villas, the beaches are lined with palmfrond bars and restaurants serving ‘continental’ and everywhere you look there are foreigners zooting around on scooters. I feel like I’m under attack after the ashram. 

“Speed thrill’s, but kill’s” shouts out from several lampposts and made me want to shout at the driver to pull over so I could Tippex out the inappropriate apostrophes. “Driving rash causes crash” was marginally better but, along with the numerous other please to heed the rules of the road, it makes absolutely no difference to the Indian driving style. The hooting and swerving again sent Nic into a deep slumber en route to Casa Geraldina, tucked down a little alley, 5 minutes from the beach and our home for the next week. There is a pool in a guesthouse nearby where we are likely to spend a lot of our time to escape the hawkers on the beach. We’ll get into it, we just need to explore a little. For now, we have ordered takeouts from the restaurant up the road and we need to get home before dark where we can get ready to share the second IPL semi-final with the caretaker’s son.  

Slowly does it …

The air is so sticky here, it clings to you like honey and pulling clothes off feels like peeling a banana. We have spent hours under the cool trickle of well water in the shower which falls cold on my head and drips steaming from my fingertips. I have never before wished so hard for airconditioning in a place with fans and only intermittent electrical supply. I wish the rains were closer. 

Nightimes bring curried sweat, whining fans, barking dogs, roosters crowing the dawn until they give up when it eventually arrives, and someone trying to extract phlegm on every out breath. But the mornings bring cool air and a silence that is broken only by the hooting of the baker’s horn at 6:30am, when I wrap the sheet around me and run across the clay garden to climb onto the stone bench near the wall. There I wait. Eventually the little bicycle with the large plastic-covered tub on the back squeaks past and the baker stops to take my Rs10. “Rs5, 2 pieces”. The first morning Nic was still asleep when I ran out so I wrapped the rolls in a dishcloth and climbed back into bed with him. He opened his eyes, smiled at me and reached over to touch my arm. I told him about the baker and his rolls. He chuckled. “For real?” he asked. For real! Each morning Nic and I slather butter and Marmite on our large fresh Portuguese rolls and wash them down with Sprite and Soda. Life is simple and slow. You can’t hurry anything here. You can only be still and enjoy the life that drifts past. 

We’re staying at a home owned by friends of my parents, Casa Geraldina, tucked away down an alley in Calangute about 5 minutes from the beach. We have only been to the beach once and since Nic was gathered up by the man wanting a photograph with him, he has not wanted to return. Secretly, I am quite pleased. We have spent a day with the villa manager’s family and swimming and playing with other children has helped sustained Nic a while longer. He also got a massive thrill riding on the front of a scooter – I had to remain calm despite my eyes finding every sign about speed and accident-prone zones. 

Hot and touristy, there is no great appeal here but staying in a home means space to play, build tents out of bedsheets and laze around reading, drawing, writing and Nic’s favourite: listening to stories read by Mike on his iPod, which induces fits of giggles and occasional singing. Nic has adapted well and is even handling the heat way better than I am. 

Besides Citibank deciding to cancel accounts held by non-UK residents and my first knowledge of this being when I tried to draw money to bolster my final Rs10 supply, things are easy, relaxed, fun and stress-free. I’m feeling local. I feel less conspicuous here than I do in Cape Town and I feel comfortable and calm (call to bank excluded!) Nic keeps asking me if I want to live here. Do I? Maybe. We have a long journey ahead of us still and so many more things to do and see. 

I’ll keep you posted – Varanasi on Friday and I wish it were sooner. Freedom can get lost in the planning process and the journey can become a little suffocated. I have an urge to immediately leave anywhere I arrive so perhaps this is also just another lesson in patience. 

Just know we are healthy and full of joy … loving the experience and sucking the juice out of it. 

Nic is chatting to a group of girls – best I go and rescue them from his charms 😉  

Goa has grown on me …

“My husband’s on his way,” I say. “He’s big.” I demonstrate by flexing one of my own puny biceps, unsure it has the right effect. I posture a little and throw in that we do rock climbing and karate together. I choose not to demonstrate, I might give the game away. They move on, slightly resentful. 

I hate the fact that my personal safety is dependent on the presence of a man – fantasy or real – but Goa, like everywhere else in the world, comes with its share of creeps. It’s a man’s world. 

Goa comes with so much more though and I’m glad I chose to stay and give it a fair chance. You really do need to stay in a place long enough to allow it to seep beneath your skin … and Goa has done just that. I’ll still be ready to leave on Friday but I am beginning to understand why some people never do. 

Here the over-population of Indian deities compete with the Holy Trinity. You can have cream teas and bratwurst. and not only are all the languages of the world spoken here but all the languages and dialects of India converge here. It’s a cultural melting pot. 

Look beyond the rows of handicraft emporiums and forex bureaus and the same poverty of the rest of India still lurks: the AIDS orphans and polio stricken, the people living under plastic sheeting and palm leaves. Look behind the fringe of palms at dawn and you still see the traditional fisher folk who still own the kilometers of the best beaches some people have ever seen … but only until the tourists arrive. Before the hawkers and the beggars arrive. While the night-shift staff still float, sleeping in their hammocks strung up in beach shack restaurants … restaurants that are gradually being dismantled ahead of the monsoon. The plants are dusty, the earth is parched. It’s hot! The rains must now come. 

My body clock has adjusted to the bread wallah’s hooter and we have settled into a routine. For now. It begins with collecting the previous night’s spider webs in my hair en route to the little concrete bench where I wait for breakfast, followed by the beach where we play in the waves while the fishermen count their day’s wealth and a tan dog watches Nic’s every move as though he is a personal guard. At 9am we return to rehydrate and rest. Life’s tough. Then shopping for provisions, pretend shopping for airconditioning and internet cafe for more airconditioning. Home to the villa for play time, lunch time and rest time (I said life was tough). Then we head to a neighbouring resort (considered posh by locals) to swim until 7pm … when it is time to return for dinner or just eat out. I said it was a man’s world and, apart from the usual evidence here, it is only highlighted by the the fact that even in the resort pool men (and even little boys) are allowed no more than a speedo (Nic’s chafe vest had to be discarded) but women and girls get in fully clothed. Even I go in with baggies on (and a t-shirt too in the sea) and most of you know that modesty is not always my strongest trait. 

The exception to our routine was when we hired a taxi for a day out sightseeing. And it was my best day out in India. Ever. 

It wasn’t what I expected and I pulled away at first before being pushed up along the large folds of soft, lose, suede-like skin covered in pubescent-male-like stubble which got thicker and coarser towards the top of its head. I sat bareback astride its neck, Nic in front. Its ears gently fanned my legs. The dormant animal rights activist was screaming from somewhere deep inside but I shushed her. I had never before been so intimate with an elephant and I was having too much fun. She wasn’t getting out today. Stern shouting came from the keeper and I felt Nic’s body stiffen. The elephant raised its trunk above and over its head and breathed out, spraying us in cool river water. And then the laughter came. Again and again we were showered. But there comes a point when you can take no more of something, even when that something happens to be the most thrilling something ever. It’s often the case. I slid down to the ground, pickled in adrenalin, and looked up at a caramel-coloured eye. It gazed back. Sad. The enjoyment was clearly all mine. I had sacrificed my animal compassion for the sake of a thrill. “Speed kills but thrills.” I remembered the sign. Yes, thrills do sometimes just trump all else. 

Because the next stop is Varanasi, I will end by reminding you about the Varanasi mouse that tried to nest in my hair one night last time I was there. Most of you know the story. Well, last night when I felt something scratching in my hair I sat up and looked for a little furry mouse. What I found was nightmarishly worse: a roach the size of a mouse! I moved rooms. 

Goa isn’t the India of my dreams but it’s wonderful none-the-less. Like everything it just takes a little getting used to when your expectations are so way off. 

Until next time … 

P.S. For those of you who asked about the ashram, it is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ashram south of Bangalore. Some ashrams have a philosophy of freedom – they encourage you to walk around half naked and have lots of sex. Guruji’s is nothing like this. I was pleased … but more for Nic’s sake 🙂  

In the arms of Mother Ganga

Nic was totally dumbstruck. He scuttled along beside me … more because he was tethered to me rather than any real need to keep up. “Good security,” the tout kept saying. I smirked. “Where you from?” another tout asked for the third time, to which I snapped back that I had already told him. Keep your distance, keep your cool, you’re almost there … my mantra kept playing in my head. Nic’s eyes doubled in size as I steered him between bikes, rickshaws, people, moving food stalls … and the dreaded touts. I stopped to get him an ice-cream … to buy time – I didn’t even argue over the inflated price. Nic’s bag was sagging on his back and heavy enough to cause him to walk with a forward tilt. His black bear was tucked into the strap across his chest. Sweat snaked a trail from his temples to his chin and beads of sweat began to form on his nose. His cheeks were rose pink. But he didn’t complain. He was learning to trust me. 

A dead puppy lay bleeding a foot away from a food stall, a couple of cows scavenged on scraps nearby, crows filled the air with neck-prickling squawks. And then I saw her. Mother Ganga. Welcoming us with watery arms wearing jewels of midday light. We had successfully run the Varanasi gauntlet and the touts had fallen aside one by one. I had remembered, after 9 years, the way to the river … even through the madness … and just had to turn right and walk a few hundred meters to Sita Guest House. 

Stepping onto the ghats is like finding a black hole in space and being transported a million miles away. She opens out in front of you and everything else melts away. You don’t look back, you just slow right down and keep on walking. 

The river is low at the moment, waiting for the monsoon rains to replenish her and cleanse her. The locals say you can put anything in her and she will be clean. She is the holy river. I’m not convinced. Once settled into Sita Guest House where the massive ghekos still reside and evidence of the mouse lay around in the form of droppings, Nic ran in from the balcony and asked me if he could go swimming in the Ganges now with all those other children. “No,” I said with a little more force than I intended. When he begged, I did what all mothers do in this situation. “Ask your father,” I said. But when I heard the “Yay” on his end of the phone, I had no more ammo. I had to give in … trying desperately to push aside thoughts of sewerage, dead bodies and general muck. Millions of people swim here, I kept telling myself. It can’t be that bad. I could hardly watch as he waded in through the litter and ooze of the long dry season, clutching his blow-up beach ball and looking so enthusiastic. He was oblivious … or maybe he just didn’t care – he had after all found it hilarious watching the fishermen in Goa washing their bums after their morning constitution on the shoreline, dangerously close to where we were swimming. “Don’t put your face in the water,” I shouted after him. Swimming in the Ganges this far from its source has to come with at least one condition. I don’t care how holy it is. 

He lived to watch the cricket tournament on the steps – a daily event. And he lived to watch the string of candles strung along the river like fairy lights floating gently with the current, each one overflowing with hope. We have been on a sunset boat trip and a sunrise boat trip, neither seeing the sun set, nor rise, but trusting that it did anyway. We have seen the washing wallahs beat the crap out of the hotel bed linen on the river’s concrete banks. We have seen bodies burn on the burning ghats and the remaining pieces set afloat on the water, narrowly escaping the scavenging dogs. We have sent our own wishes piggybacking off a candle and a few marigolds down the river. We have seen more prayer rituals than most people see in a lifetime. Yoga happens on mass along the banks. And everyone swims. 

It’s magical. 

You can’t help but be happy in a place where so many millions of people invest so much in hope. 

Travelling with a small child here means you can’t be complacent though. Even the locals tell me to watch him every moment. It doesn’t help to just hope he will be safe. I have him tied to me permanently – dips in the river excluded – and imagine beating certain people to a pulp when they show more than appropriate interest in my child. Yes, holiness does escape me at times. Maternal instincts are on red alert. He got dragged down the alleyways yesterday and out of town to the holy Buddhist temples in Sarnath. 

He is tired and overwhelmed and is watching cricket now while I type. We have a room with a TV and airconditioning here and the computers are right outside our room. Sita Guest House is exactly the same as it was 9 years ago and the owner even recognised me and gave me a good price on a room with a balcony. Granted the balcony’s view is obstructed by a lamp post strung with several illegally connected electrical cables … but did I mention the TV and aircon? The TV’s reception is kinda fuzzy. I am beginning to see the real reason for the discount. But the wonderful thing about travelling with a child is that he doesn’t see the flaws. He fell in love with the room instantly – a room where the only thing that brightens the shades of brown and peeling paint is the magnificent polycotton bed linen adorned with bright pink cherry blossom, swans, snow-capped mountains and a periwinkle-blue sky. He also thinks it’s just grand that you can pee, shower, and wash your hands in the basin under a trickle of water that you can’t shut off … all at the same time. He helps to settle me. Just what I need when my instinct is always to run immediately on reaching a place. 

“Power cuts” the owner says with a shrug and a shake of his head – not a regular head shake but the sideways one that tends to mean anything and nothing at the same time. But the way the airconditioning unit shudders and jolts before it dies makes me suspect it has more to do with one of the enormous gheckos meeting its fate. I send a virtual candle down the river hoping for its safe passage to better karma in its next life. A brown-headed kingfisher sits on my balcony, an unusual site but one I saw at the ashram too. I can’t help but wonder if it is the same one. I always feel like I am being followed by creatures when I come to India, like I am being visited by old friends … some who have clearly done something bad in a previous life. 

Varanasi assaults you on arrival but embraces you immediately afterwards. It is disgusting and holy and beautiful and scary. It steals you away in little pieces and staying here too long would risk total surrender. If my heart belongs to my children in Capricorn then Varanasi has my soul. 

We leave tomorrow evening and that is a good thing … any longer and I might never go. I have always believed I am rooted in the air and perhaps I am. I move easily without fuss or any real sense of upheaval. But I hate to stay too long in one place. I have discovered it is because I am terrified of getting attached and sentimental. I don’t want the sad farewells. I don’t want to risk exposure to my soft core. 

It is 9am here and time to tether Nic to me and drag him around the old town. I want chai and poori. I want to dodge cows and their shit. I want to be harassed by shop owners. I want to feel the sweat run in rivers between my breasts and settle around my naval where it will drench the Dollar bills tucked discreetly in my money belt. I want to see bright-coloured silks, smell carcasses strung up across hole-in-the-wall butcheries and hear the shouts of wallahs selling their wares as the bells on the ghats ring out for prayers. This isn’t life as I know it. This is sensory overload. And I love it. Hout Bay couldn’t be further away.  

Looking down on the world from Darjeeling

“I know this bridge, but I don’t know where from,” Nic said, suddenly perky in the 45 degree midday heat. We were heading east over the mother river by autorickshaw on our way to the train station, the curtain drawn across the opening next to Nic in an unsuccessful attempt to block out some of the heat and dust. The driver had clearly misunderstood me. I told him we were in no hurry at all. I had allowed four hours to get to the station and find the right platform and have a relaxed meal. Ganesha deserved a bit of time off. But the driver was negotiating the traffic like we were in a getaway car and it’s the first time I felt really afraid in such a small, and usually slow, vehicle … one of the things about travelling with a child, though, is that you have to be strong and brave even when you’re a bundle of nerves and would rather curl up in a ball and wail. Nic was intrigued by the bridge so I pulled back the curtain to reveal the heat-shrouded banks of the ghats, far away now in a haze of pale pinks, yellows and blues … ever-changing as the sun shifted unhurriedly over the concrete. I could just make out a few tiny paper fighting kites fluttering above the buildings. It was like looking at a dream after waking up. Just out of reach. I closed my eyes to make it last. It felt like my chest might cave in on my heart. 

I didn’t say goodbye when I left; we turned west out of Sita Guest House, away from the river, back through the black hole and into the labyrinth of smells, noise and dirt. The holy river of hope just faded away and it felt like it never existed. 

By the time we got to Mugal Sarai station, 21km outside of the city, I was an overheated nerve ending. The station is huge and crowded and the waiting area was filled with eyes. And the smell of urine. We retreated. People stared at me with my heavy backpack, carrying both mine and Nic’s daypacks, a bottle of water and a pack of biscuits. I felt like a multi-limbed Indian god. We waited in a restaurant, consuming very little in the hopes that we wouldn’t have to use the public toilets – Nic is still terrified to admit he needs the toilet unless we are really close to our hotel – but three hours is a long time to wait in the heat without drinking and there came a time when I had to hover over a toilet afloat with a day’s worth of turds. Nic at least could keep his distance – it didn’t really matter if his aim was off in the circumstances. 

I am proud to claim I have travelled rough in India before, taking unreserved and 2nd-class sleeper trains. But that doesn’t mean I would choose to do it again … the sweaty vinyl bunks, the stares, the mealtimes and social visits when several people make themselves comfy on the bunk you just wanted to fall asleep on, and the notification of a station stop being the wafting stench of urine and faeces as the air changed direction on slowing down. No, not this time. I booked 2AC – two-tier airconditioned. It’s still an open carriage but there are only four bunks, instead of six, there is a curtain you can draw to close off the passageway, you get freshly starched sheets and a pillow and there’s a draft of cool air piped into the carriage. There’s even a western toilet – granted, the seat had footprints on it but there is always a jug of water handy and this time I was carrying lots of disinfecting lotions and wipes. 

As we slipped through the darkness, we crossed half the country and again passed into a whole new world. On arrival in Siliguri, I changed my mind about the train to Kurseong and asked the rickshaw driver to drop us at the jeep stand … we were heading up to Darjeeling straight away. Yes, I also thought the Jeep option was the posh route into the mountains … until we were squeezed into the back of a Mahindra between two paan-chewing blokes who had no sense of personal space and who spoke to us intermittently between clenched teeth and spitting. I was tired, I was hot and I didn’t understand a word so I ignored them. Nic had climbed onto my lap and fallen asleep anyway so I just closed my eyes, hung on tight and zoned out to the sweat and the blending of DNA. 

We climbed the narrow, pot-holed mountain pass road to just over two thousands meters above sea level where the cool air gradually replaced the fug clinging to the bodies inside the vehicle. I had the usual anxiety about leaving the old and moving onto a new place but I knew it would settle in a day or two. And a few days in a quiet hill station seemed like the perfect antidote. 

Arrival in Darjeeling was an assault! Buses, jeeps, crowds, smog, concrete high-rise hotels and market stalls … a reminder that despite the changes in climate, culture, the appearance of people and the language, we were still in India. The roads are narrow … the jeeps, trucks and buses are not. So, in a constant attempt to change the proportions, drivers just honk their horns … and they keep honking their horns until someone either gives in or runs out of time and reverses. I paced up a down the road a few times, trying to take it all in and block it all out all at once … and trying to find my bearings and some element of strength to find a place to stay … or stay at all. I considered climbing back in the jeep and fleeing. But instead, laden down with kilograms of luggage, we found a steep pathway and climbed. Nic just clutched his bear and followed – leaning into his stride with his heavy daypack on his back. He had had his sleep and was, once again, loving the adventure. 

As we ascended, away from the bus/jeep stand, Darjeeling changed. The noise faded slightly, the sky became more visible and the feeling of being on top of the world became more apparent … I could hardly breathe from the combination of altitude and fifteen kilograms. We found a green hotel and, being Nic’s favourite colour, took it as a sign and checked in … well, there was also the small issue of being drenched from the afternoon thunder shower. With its wood-panelled interior and diamond-pane windows in the cosy lounge areas, the Dekeling Hotel is the type of place I can imagine elderly colonials sipping black tea, and I felt an instant desire to settle in for a month or two. It’s not exactly budget but our windowless room is the cheapest we could go without compromising on warm bedding and a warm shower … it’s a trickle but it works and you can’t have a shower while taking a dump here. The staff tolerate Nic’s need to wrestle in the mornings and towels, toilet paper and breakfast are included in the price. 

We have been to the zoo, the tea plantation and passed the rock where Tenzig Norgay trained for Everest. And speaking of Everest, there are so many steps in this precipitous village that a morning out feels like a mountain trek. It has been impossible to get Nic off the Himalayan ponies and we have used them to get to all the sites around the village. “Faster, faster!” he demands. He bounces up and down in the saddle, giggling so much he could cry. He has conquored so many fears and leapt his hurdles with ease. We have been to the gompa on Observatory Hill, descended through the clouds to the magnificent and sacred Bhutia Busty Gompa, been blessed by monks demanding Rupees, hung prayer flags at the stupa and been harassed my monkeys. And I have found myself some treasures. Nic has made friends with a hundred people. The man at the shawl shop buys him chips and chocolate each time we pass – I probably paid too much for that pashmina – and he continues to get photographed and have his cheeks pinched by thousands of adoring locals. He is like a little god here. He is loving the hero worship and has developed an attitude bigger than West Bengal’s highest mountain peak, Kanchenjunga. I doubt he will ever be contained again … and who can blame him. We have walked beyond the noise and the crowds and found a place where we can watch the clouds writhe and twist around the hills below while watching local tourists, used to 40-degree heat, wander by wrapped up in shawls, blankets and woollen headgear. It’s not that cold. We sit at Chowrasta and sip Darjeeling chai brought by tea wallahs, looking beyond the hills in the hopes that Kanchenjunga will reveal herself.  But she has been shy, only peeping out for moments before wrapping herself tightly in her white blanket once more. It doesn’t matter. It’s gorgeous, cool, relaxed. It’s a charmed life here. We’re staying an extra day, skipping Kurseong and Mirik completely and moving on to Kalimpong in a couple of days. 

If Nic has just got over his hurdles, I seem to have just reached mine. It may be the caffeine I am consuming in Darjeeling’s chai or the quantities of sugar I am ladling on my morning porridge … but I just can’t sleep. The days are dreamy but, as the mist seeps in to mask the setting sun and the thunder resonates off the surrounding peaks adding the base to the bells from the monastery, I become distracted and skittish. At first I thought I was just overtired so I got some rest; I thought I was hungry so I ate. Nothing changed, I just felt melancholy. It is the pressure as we passed the halfway point of the journey; the pressure to pack more life into this time away. I keep changing the itinerary … sticking to one in India goes against the grain anyway … in an attempt to make the most of the final couple of weeks. I have moments of anxiety about leaving and going back to normality … I get a shiver down my spine just typing the word. Normality: what is that? The thing I love most about travelling in India is perhaps the joy of just ‘being’, and in that ‘being’, being able to be whoever I feel like being at the time. Nic narrows the boundaries of identity somewhat but there is a sense of total relaxation about self. I don’t have to own any labels. No branding. When you have no branding, you don’t have to fit any molds. Nothing to live up or down to; no expectations and no disappointments. It’s easier. So, to answer the question: why don’t I put down roots? When you put down roots you are identified by the very place the roots are sunk into the ground … rather than by the places the branches are reaching towards. 

It is midday. The clouds have darkened and the sky is grumbling; not yet angry. The air smells sweet and damp.  

If you can’t see them, are they still there?

“We won’t rest until we are fre from West Bengal!” “Ghorkaland” is painted on every doorway, car, shop and available piece of concrete wall. The political unrest is the reason I have always avoided this area. The Ghorka Movement clings to liberation here and the tea bushes cling to the vertical mountain slopes. I cling to Nic as he hangs out the window and waves at the army trucks. Houses are propper precarioulsy on the roadside ridge, the mountain beneath them streaked with garbage and sewerage. “Filling of water tanks strictly prohibited” marks a point where fresh water leaps off the mountain and where a truck is pulling away sloshing water from two over-filled water tanks. “Presbyterian Free Church” – free or free of Presbyterians, I wonder. A lone man single-handedly deconstructs a concrete road barrier with a mallet … it’s hard to tell whether out of employment or frustration. On a 53km stretch of hairpin and s-bends, I can’t help but mourn the loss. “No race, no ralley, enjoy the beauty of the valley” – a great sentiment but hard to comply … our driver answers his phone again as I stare, unblinking, at the oncoming jeep travelling towards us on the wrong side of the road, “Oh my Ganesha” in bold across the windscreen. A brave dog drops one in the middle of the road. We somehow miss both. Oh my Ganesha, indeed. “Rat Killer – to kill rats, not pets” shares a hook with some dried meat at a roadside stall midway between Darjeeling and Kalimpong. We have stoppped where water is being piped off the mountain and where every jeep on this route lines up to use it as a carwash. Nic negotiates the squat toilet. He has no choice … his constitution has finally failed him. 

Our 3-hour journey to Kalimpong dropped us 1000m in altitude but the air is still cool and the mountain views are still masked by mist that wraps itself like smoke around the chimneys and drifts aimlessly between the floors of unfinished buildings. The rains have come early or the Lonely Planet lies. Mountain walks are marred by the risk of leeches. 

But we have found Holumba Haven, tucked in the mist on an orchid farm, away from town. And a haven it is … not just for us but for hens, guinea pigs, rabbits, guinea fowl, squirrels, honey bees, a rooster and several dogs. The Xhosa people believe that your ancestors come to you in the form of dogs and if this is so, we are being visited again in the form of another tan stray that turned up the day we arrived and stays within inches of us at all times. We are also being followed by snorers and plagued by thin walls. 

The town is small, the sites are few, but we are walking the streets and feeling the vibe. Nic is staying on the right side of the law by shaking hands with every army officer he sees and waving at soldiers as they drive by in their big trucks. He has told me in detail how they force people to climb in the back of those trucks and then lock them in cages! “But, Mum,” he says, “I’m just so cute that they would never do that to me. Hey, Mum?” I feel I may have been slack on controlling his TV viewing lately. 

Kalimpong is again a whole new experience like everything in India so far. We spent an hour on the balcony of the large Buddhist Monastery at the top of the hill overlooking the town on one side and a huge army barracks on the other. The irony. We spent a morning being driven to all the sites … all two of them … One was closed, the other wasn’t exactly a site but it had Himalayan ponies for Nic to ride – he’s totally hooked. The clouds are like thick smoke that hangs on the view and obscures the only reason for being here. We leave town tomorrow. Patience has not helped us here. 

But Nic has loved the down time and has spent hours playing cricket at Holumba and more hours watching T20 and Tom and Jerry. He has run out of fingers on which to count the friends he has made in India … and we have had even more sad farewells since we have been in Kalimpong. Perhaps his journeys with me will encourage him to put down the roots I have never been able to sink into any ground anywhere. But out of everywhere I have been, I am most in my zone here in India. I get asked regularly whether I live here – it might just be because people can’t get their heads around a woman travelling through India on her own with a 4-year-old or maybe I do just look comfortable. Like I belong. I’ve already dropped out of normal life back home so this is not too much of a stretch for me. 

But I could do with a washing machine and a big Greek salad about now – Melissa, please note! I am counting the remaining days by the number of buckets of laundry I will still have to do. I’m down to one hand. Since we arrived in the mountains it has felt like I have been washing everything in salt water – nothing will dry. Tomorrow we drop to sea level. Life has slowed even more since I last spoke to you and so I have had time to change plans a hundred times a day … but, for now, it looks like Siliguri tomorrow and on to Mirik – either for a night if we get a booking for Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary (for which we will have to return to Siliguri) or for four nights if we don’t. I like the fact that things are wide open for our final week. 

I may well only speak to you again from Bahrain … it looks like we will make it out of the hills and out of Ghorkaland … 

Ganesha willing. 

It’s a jungle out there …

I could feel eyes boring into me. There was nowhere to hide. I looked down at my lap where I was holding onto Nic’s head, keeping him out of sight, out of harm’s way and trying to ignore the attention. But, as it began to get dark and we were still stuck at the station, the lights inside illuminated me, drawing even more attention from the gathering crowds outside. I felt like I was in Amsterdam on the wrong side of the glass. And as more people gathered, the shouting began. They began banging on the side of the carriage. They were screaming at me to get off the train. But even if I had wanted to comply, my body would not … could not … move. The adrenalin was prickling the back of my neck, working it’s way up behind my ears and turning my heart cold. There was a vacuum where my stomach had been. The crowd had become a mob. 

I searched the carriage with my eyes. I needed someone’s help. A poster was stuck to the carriage opposite. It showed a man behind bars with the caption, “Harassing woman passenger is punishable offense.” Reassuring if not entirely helpful in the circumstances.  My eyes found another pair. Wrapping my terror in an annoyed attitude, I asked, “What the hell was going on out there?” He sliced his finger across his throat. Before I could take it personally he explained … best he could: “One woman dead. Head off.” A woman had slipped getting onto the train at our first stop outside of Siliguri. Decapitated. “Person under the train” rang in my ears from the London Underground. The difference was that on the London Underground, people stay in their seats looking annoyed and bury themselves deeper in the Evening Standard. Not so here. People leapt from the train, cameras and camcorders at the ready. Even a cow ran with the crowd. But it was after they had filled their heads with gore – once filming conditions were marred by darkness – that they began drifting back up the platform … that they began gathering to stare, became restless, decided they needed to focus their anger on something. That something turned out to be me. A riot started. I was told not to move. There was not enough English in the carriage to know what exactly was going on but there were enough people on my side of the window to keep the riot on the outside and to lock the doors. 

“It’s ok my noonoo,” I cooed, “just some angry people, that’s all. Try and get some rest.” I was trying not to rub the hair right off Nic’s head as I stroked it to keep him calm … to keep myself calm. And I tried to breathe. And tried not to look out the window. I was in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Siliguri and Madahirat, en route to Jaldaphara Wildlife Sanctuary for an elephant safari. It was dark and I was scared. I had to be brave when all my body wanted to do was cling to the window bars and hurl. 

The police did eventually arrive – 10 minutes sooner might have been better timing – with their sticks and their mustaches. And the mob just melted away as though it had never been there to begin with. Two policemen shone their big torches into the carriages while others, I presume, removed head and body from the tracks. And we were on our way again, deeper into the jungle, surrounded by people who couldn’t communicate with me but who were clearly intent on my personal safety. 

The day had started climbing into a share jeep in Kalimpong at 9am, remarking to Nic that we might have to change jeeps due to the stench. Turns out my bag was smeared with crap which had made its way onto my hand and half way up my arm. It smelt human. Thankful for my hefty supply of wetwipes, antibacterial soap and liters of water, it was a minor hiccup in the day’s journey. On arrival in Siliguri, caked with dust-dried sweat, we were told all hotels were full, it was impossible to get a train ticket anywhere south and there was a strike due to start the next morning … a 12-hour strike that was likely to get violent. We had to get out of town and the only advice we could heed was to go to Jaldaphara (near the village of Madahirat) where we would be safe until the strike was over. With no bank facilities in Madahirat, I had to draw cash but every bank I got to closed or ran out of money as I got to the front of the queue … seems everyone was stocking up. By the time I eventually found one open, the sweat-sodden dye from my red t-shirt was draining into my white shorts, turning them the same colour as Nic’s cheeks … he looked faint. We now had only 15 minutes to get our train. I threw a bundle of notes at a rickshaw driver and told him to pedal fast. 

It didn’t take long to wish he hadn’t followed my instruction. 

I arrived in Madahirat carrying my backpack on my back, my sleeping child in my arms and two daypacks in my one hand … a multi-limbed Indian god. Still wide-eyed and shaking, we were thankfully met at the station by Mithan Das, proprietor of Hotel Relax, a hole-in-the-wall style hotel with roll-up garage door frontage. Pinched between the main thoroughfare to Assam and the railway line, the bug infestation, lack of windowpanes (hence the bug infestation), a toilet filled with someone else’s crap, the basin that drained onto my feet and the general filth of the place left me stunned and sleepless under the mosquito net that resembled a slice of emmenthaler cheese. 

I began to plan my exit strategy … but not for long. On instructing Mithan the following morning to book our elephant safari asap and asking him what time the trains would be running the following afternoon, I was shocked into further silence. The strike had not only spread into the mountain regions, it had closed all forms of transportation east of Siliguri and no one was sure whether it would be over in three days or five. I was stuck. Stuck in a village where Mithan was clearly the only person who could speak any English and seemingly the only person who had seen a white woman before. Going out was like that Amsterdam window feeling again … we were like a freak show that attracted people to gather in groups and just stare. I could have got angry but instead we bought up all the cheese and crackers and Cornflakes we could find, stocked up on soda water and chips and stayed in our room playing cards and watching Tom and Jerry once the TV was fixed. I used the rest of my wetwipes and surgical spirits to disinfect the bathroom and I got used to the bugs … even the crickets that found their way into my sleeping bag liner. 

“Drivers charging little extra … maybe double … their windows will get smashed maybe,” said Mithan when I queried why it was so much to go on a jaunt to the zoo. I declined, but not because of the cost. It was clear the level of mob violence in the area was increasing and it looked as though we would be stuck. The news that was filtering through in broken English was that the trains were running but they were just late. I was desperate enough to go to the station and just wait it out. But thanks to Rossy, my well-connected friend, the British High Commission was onto it. I was visited by the police commissioner and advised that trains were being stopped by mobs and cars and buses were being stoned. We were going to need to be smuggled out. Mithan knew someone. We just had to wait for his call. A couple more sleepless nights and we were set to leave at dawn the following morning. But then it became too dangerous and we had to wait again. Just as I had resigned myself to missing our train to Kolkata and our plane to Bahrain, Mithan knocked on my door. “You ready in an hour. My friend has car and you leave at 2.” The travel ban had been lifted for three hours to allow people to get out to get food. We had to be quick. It was a 124km drive on bad roads and we couldn’t risk getting stuck anywhere in traffic. I cried. And then I packed really fast. And then I dug in my bag for my emergency supply of Neals Yard frankincense moisturiser … it’s amazing how these little luxuries can rescue one’s soul … 

I put Nic’s cap on his head and covered my own with a scarf. That was so we weren’t immediately conspicuous. I had a plan to say Nic needed medical attention … if we were stopped by a mob, Nic was primed to writhe around holding his stomach. It was a tense 3-hour journey. The driver drove like Schumacher … only his suspension wasn’t quite so good. Out of the highly volatile area, we could stop for a welcome (extra sugar please!) chai … but that only made my mood worse as every person within gawking distance turned up for a cuppa to stare at the foreigners. I should have taken commission. 

The lumbering hour-long elephant safari through the jungle was worth it I suppose. Had we been anywhere else in the area, the trouble might have been worse. And although Hotel Relax seemed like hell to begin with, it turned out we would not have been helped quite the same had we been anywhere else …we would have got on that 6am train and we might never have made it out of the jungle. I am so grateful to everyone who helped us both physically and spiritually. 

We are still in Siliguri after a night in a hovel with the biggest cockroach I have ever seen … which as far as I know is still trapped under the plastic jug next to the squat toilet, unless someone has freed it … since all hotels are still full. Nepal is shut down, the mountain regions are still suffering under the strike and no one knows when the end will come. We have eaten well, making up for the diet of crackers and Cornflakes for the last four days and nights. 

We leave on an overnight train to Kolkata tonight. One night there in a beautiful place Mike has booked to help us recuperate … and then Bahrain for further relaxation. 

I am looking forward to leaving India now. I am ready. I will be back again, I know. But this time, the end is most welcome.  

One Knot in a Hand-tied Carpet

There is a lose thread that still connects me to our first night in Bangalore when, lying restless below the airconditioning unit, my eyes snapped open and I said, “What the f*ck are you doing here?” I was addressing myself of course. But myself didn’t have an answer, only a whimper and a mantra to help her sleep.

I wrote before about sitting on the cusp of my story but now, trapped between the end of one story and the beginning of the next, there is joy in the remembering and heartache in the letting go. I cried a tear in the rickshaw on the way to New Jaipalguri railway station to catch the Darjeeling Mail, an overnight train to Kolkata. India has claimed another small piece of me and, sitting in that rickshaw, I felt it hurt a little. But I have taken a little piece of her too. I somehow doubt she hurts as much but I’m sure she has cried even more than I can imagine. I may be hardcore but she is just that much more hardcore than I am.

“Step aside and wait,” I was told after waiting several minutes with a queue growing audibly restless behind me. After fleeing strikes and mob violence and certain nothing else could go wrong, we were stopped at the check in counter at Kolkata airport and told we were not allowed to board. No explanation … only worried looks and a lot of flicking through the pages of our passports while cross-referencing the computer screen and the scans of our Bahrain visas. With only forty minutes to go to departure, my head spun with scenarios that involved being stranded in Kolkata or having to fly directly back to Cape Town without the head-clearing transitional space that Bahrain was sited to provide. The problem was resolved with no time to relax before boarding the bus to take us all of ten meters to the waiting Emirates airbus. We made it out of India. Just.

Our night in Kolkata was in a gorgeous boutique hotel, the Bodhi Tree, that Mike had organised to help us recuperate. His plan was to get us into a hot bath … I suppose he felt the grime of Madahirat even where he was in Cape Town. And I suppose he also tasted the bile that rose in my throat when I felt my child’s life was in danger. And perhaps he smelt the stench of adrenalin-tainted sweat as we fled the area that caused so much stress. But in India the realities are not always in line with the ideal. The thing is no matter what you spend on a night in an Indian hotel, the plumbing is always the same: the toilet always stinks and the water runs slow and cool. The closest thing to a bath was the bucket which saw our final load of hand washing. But the room was an oasis of eye candy, from the handmade Indian puppets and masks and the original Rajasthani artwork to the silk bedthrows and brocade-covered furniture. Buddha resided over the private dining area and the halls smelt deliciously of ripe fruit and incense. “Is there any chance I can get alu poori and chai for my final breakfast before leaving for the airport?” With breakfast included, I had to ask. With one click of his fingers, his staff stood immediately to attention. I trusted my request would be fulfilled. And it was … moments before our final ride in a Kolkata yellow cab past the South City Mall and the Science City where we had spent the previous day, our final in India.

“Dad was wrong,” Nic said when I asked him how it felt to finally be leaving India, “you didn’t lose me.” He was genuinely amazed and I realised just how much of a burden he had been carrying around all this time.

Arrival in Bahrain was as calm as leaving Kolkata was chaotic. Tobes in slow motion floated across the airport floor and women in burkas made Nic step back in fright. There were so few people in the airport it felt like we were somewhere we weren’t meant to be. It was unnerving. The carousel wasn’t even working anymore when we got through immigration and all the luggage had been taken off by eager porters. Glenn fetched us in a real Jeep and drove us in airconditioned comfort to our home for the next ten days. “Your bag stinks,” he stated on off-loading it. I declined his offer to help, knowing just where it had been in the last five weeks and I flung all 16.5kg over my shoulder, handing him my daypack, which smelt marginally better.

My sister, Melissa, ever perceptive to my need for therapy, welcomed me with a range of Crabtree and Evelyn bodycare products (she felt the grime too), supplements to my depleted wardrobe (I had been discarding things along the way) and several kettles of boiling water to top up my bubble bath which wasn’t quite optimal temperature. Not only that but I was presented with phyllo-wrapped salmon for dinner. And Kamala did my laundry.

I have done nothing but rest for two days, feeling slightly restless and as though I am late for something all the time. I emptied all my bags and washed the stench and grime from them. It felt like the first normal thing I had done in 48 hours; my definition of normal taking an interesting turn … like the twist in my tales.
I finished the Secret Life of Bees in Goa. And, as always, I found the last chapter so difficult to read, skipping backwards over the final pages in an attempt to prolong the inevitable end. But, with every story, the end always comes and I close the book with a forlorn sigh and a feeling that I will never find another quite the same. And I never do. Sometimes I have to wait a while until my head is clear of the one before I can begin the next. And the next is usually just as rewarding no matter how different. Like everything, it just takes some getting used to. But, regardless, one story has to end for another to begin. I began The White Tiger in Varanasi. I have three books next to the soft king-sized bed where I am propped up against the headboard with two extra soft pillows. There are no geckos, no mice, no peeling paint or ammonia smells wafting from the bathroom. And there are absolutely no roaches. I finished the White Tiger but I can’t yet wade into the next story. I am not quite ready to move on.

Yes, India has taken a piece of me but I am not walking away empty handed. She has showered me in her perfumes and filled me with her hope. She has fed me bravery and sprinkled it with kindness. She has dipped me in the cesspool of self-knowledge until I have choked and gagged and she has pulled me out and resuscitated me with reality. She has been generous and cruel, fiery and calm, spiritual and unforgiving. I love her and I hate her. She is like me. I breathed her in and she spat me out. We can’t get too close without taking a break from each other. But we will always see each other again and we will always love and hope and cry together. No two stories are ever the same. But neither are any two readers.

The Bahrain itinerary begins in earnest tomorrow. Not my itinerary this time. I don’t have to plot and plan. I just have to wake up, stretch, shower and dress. The rest is sorted.

A Magic Carpet Ride

I tear open the freshly-baked croissant and shove two triangles of white Toblerone inside. I eat it as it begins to ooze out the sides. This is my breakfast. I’m trying to find the two kilograms I lost in India and Mills is helping with her sublimely creative cooking; restoring me, body and soul. The Toblerone croissants were all ‘me’ though … who else could come up with something like that?

And so began a week of indulgence. That’s what Bahrain is all about it seems … the part we’ve been exposed to anyway. I wasn’t ready to go back home after Kolkata and it became clear why when, on arrival to total comfort and relaxation, I collapsed for two days, as did Nic. And just over a week later we are exhausted again, but for entirely different reasons to the things that exhausted us in India. We are exhausted because we are on a Milly itinerary – less adventure and way more holiday. There’s the food, someone else doing my washing and making my bed and someone driving us everywhere we want to go … it’s just totally indulgent.We got kissed by the Middle Eastern sun at the Ritz-Carlton Beach Club where the sea is warm and the people more so. When the wind blows you don’t feel it because it is the same temperature as the sun that sits suspended in its own heat-induced haze and the sound, combined with the hum of the palms and the fountains, serenaded me to sleep on a chaise longue padded with towels brought by employees of the wealthiest man in Bahrain. The Ritz-Carlton makes it easy to settle in and is the trap that keeps people here. Why would you leave? Nic already looks the part in his Hugo Boss-style swim shorts and his new designer sunglasses from Dubai International. He chews gum. He postures. He thinks he’s cool. And, boy, is he just. He’s content. I’m relaxed. We’re happy. The sea is flat, the sand is white, palm trees frame the scene and the water is just cool enough to make the salty sting worthwhile. As if this indulgence isn’t enough we get confirmation of a luxury yacht trip out to an island – Melissa is writing about it for Gulf Life magazine. After salivating over the pictures online, Nic declared that the “really huge one” would be just fine for him and he began planning his trips and his guest list. In Kalimpong he asked me if he had to be a monk when he grows up. I said no, he can be whatever he chooses. “But, Mum, I want to be a monk when I grow up.” “Ok, fine.” “Actually, Mum, I want to teach the monks.” “???” “Like the Dalai Lama, Mum.” But children can be fickle. A week in Bahrain and his conversations have taken a turn. He asks Melissa, “How much money have you got in your pile in the bank?” Melissa tries best she can to explain her financial position. He continues quizzing her while she navigates his questions without divulging too much information. Eventually she turns it around, “Why are you so interested in how much money I have?” “Because,” he says, “I want to have a thousand, million hundred in my pile of money when I’m older.” Ah, yes, the yacht he covets is the reason he no longer wants to be a monk. The wind stole the dream away but Nic was as unfazed as I was devastated. He said he didn’t mind because he was going to buy one anyway.

Unfortunately I found out after a marathon shopping spree, which ended only when my card was rejected, that our budget doesn’t stretch terribly far here. My exchange rate guesstimate has clearly been way off. The Bahrain Dinar is very strong; petrol really is cheaper than water … and pretty much everything else too. “I’m not that crazy about that one, Mum,” is what I get when I suggest clothing purchases to Nic. He chooses his clothes because he knows exactly what he wants … right down to the man-about-town straw hat. He’s looking island cool … apart from the Tom and Jerry T-shirt he couldn’t live without. But, after being dragged up and down escalators and into every shop with attractive window dressing for two hours in his swimming shorts with the promise of an outing to Wahooo water park on the shopping centre roof, I ran out of excuses not to take him immediately once Visa could no longer deliver the goods. “I don’t want to hear another word about it,” Nic said waving me away as he ran off to the toddler pool. The sight of the water slides and the noise of the water gushing from a giant-sized metal pail filled him with terror. He stayed well away from me in case I took him down one of the giant tubes that spit people out along with gallons of white water … but only at first. He is, after all, a far more confident child now and half an hour later he was running up the flights of stairs to whizz down the supertubes on his own. The Master Blaster nearly took my hair off … so I went again. But my screams drowned out the sounds of everything else and I discovered once again that I’m a totally different kind of thrill-seeker – speed just isn’t my thing. After 3 hours at Wahooo, Nic was amped for anything and the 1.2 meter height limit was all that kept him off the ‘thrill-seeker’ rides by the end of the day. He slept well.

As he did when I left him with Glenn on Tuesday night. It was the first time in five weeks that we were apart and we all survived … even Glenn who was terrified at the prospect. Dinner was at Bushido, a Japanese restaurant surrounded by a shallow moat lined with pale grey pebbles. We sat outside in the warm dry air and, guarded by models of samurai warriors, watched as the dust and the clouds made way for the stars and the moon and the palm trees were lit up in technicolour. The wind which had been howling all day had dropped just enough … not enough to go on the luxury yacht … but enough. It was a perfect finale to a day that was spent at the museum and fort where Nic relived the battles of generations fighting for the trading wealth of this small island – he was bored until Mills filled his head with soldiers and gun fights, and his audio guide completed the picture for him. We saw the excavation sites that once housed the first human skeleton Nic has ever seen and he lapped it all up. The wind rivalled Cape Town’s black southeaster though – my skirt filled with it like a spinnaker sail and we conjured up images of pirates and conquerors. As I clung to it in order to prevent my bare legs from tainting the minds of onlookers, a woman clutched her abaya close to her as though she wasn’t fully clothed beneath. It doesn’t feel like a conservative country when so much time is spent in a bikini but this was a reminder that those indulgences are well sheltered from the local lifestyle which comes with burkinis … not a typo but a lycra burka-style swimsuit – it’s the upmarket alternative to going in fully clothed.
Needing to leave Nic again for a night out, Nic vetoed the option of using Kamala, the housekeeper as a babysitter when Glenn had to work late. I suggested her son, Kamara, who has driven us around a few times, and Nic, like the Tom & Jerry pose on his new T-shirt, gave him the thumbs-up. Like everywhere we have been, he has craved the company of men, a sure sign that he is more than ready to be with his dad now. Mills and I went to La Fontaine with the promise of a deep meditation session. Seated on the floor amongst tea light candles on timber planks that still smelt of the tree, a heavy night breeze pressed in through gothic-style doors. We were given a talk on fear. But then the lights were dimmed and the microphone was handed to another woman who began speaking gently in Arabic. Thinking I was still waiting for the English translation, I got up, went to the loo and collected another bottle of water, which I guzzled while glancing around at the peaceful gathering. The woman stopped talking, the lights were turned up and everyone got up to leave. I had totally missed the meditation. Thankfully the talk on fear which dealt primarily with attachment, and resonated with my dependency issues, plunged me back into the cesspool of self-knowledge that I had waded through so often in India and provided me with more benefit that the deep meditation I was initially after.

“Where is all that singing coming from?” Nic got quite frantic the first time he heard it, running around looking out all the shutters that surrounded the rooftop pool back at La Fontaine. We had just had lunch and Mills booked a massage so that Nic and I could lounge at the pool while we waited for her. We had ridden a camel in the morning and in true Bahrain style, it seemed perfectly normal to now end the day on loungers at a spa pool overlooking the city of Manama where towers of glass are strapped together by bridges and boast their own wind turbines in a paradox of eco-friendly and flashy. Perfectly normal since I imagine the camels might very well be getting the same treatment. Mills laughed when I asked if we could go on a camel safari – Bahrain just isn’t like that – but instead she arranged a trip to a camel farm where a Sheikh has built palatial shelters and brought in 400 camels because he thinks Bahrain needs camels – Bahrain is like that. It isn’t a tourist place and the entrance states very clearly that we shouldn’t enter but Mills had arranged a camel ride so we drove in anyway. It felt slightly unsafe at first, wandering around amongst these extraordinary creatures that bob their heads haughtily above you while looking down at you with hooded eyes. Occasionally one dives at you as though the puppeteer has lost control of the head string … but it is only to nuzzle on a sleeve or a beaded necklace and not remotely aggressive. The ride was short. Comfortable though and it gave me a taste of the trip I will one day do across the dunes of Oman, Bedouin-style. But that is for another day. Sitting poolside at La Fontaine, soaking up the dessert heat, the call to prayers begins. Like opera, it is magical and spiritual and wonderful in my lack of understanding what it means. It begins on one side, then becomes stereo and momentarily hits Dolby 5.1 surround sound before fading out as suddenly as it began. Mint sorbet completes the scene. And the end of the day is again marked by utter exhaustion and satisfaction.

We got our boat ride in the end – not the luxury one but the one to Al Dar Island. It may have been quick but it was exhilarating. Just this simple journey gave Nic such total pleasure that it made up for missing out on the luxurious trip – it made no difference to him; it was still a boat and he just couldn’t believe how fast it was going. It was choppy and it almost made me throw up, proving again how Nic’s thrillometre is set way different to mine. Al Dar is a patch of beach just off the main island of Bahrain, where you can hire a Bedouin-style bed and sip cocktails between dips in the flat salty sea. You can sunbath on a floating jetty and hire pedal boats for a jaunt around the island. You can swim until 11pm and dance till dawn at the full moon parties. It’s just another indulgent way to spend a day out in Bahrain. The wind was up so we couldn’t partake in all it had to offer but just a taster was good enough for me.

Bahrain is a quiet oasis of date palms and muted shades. It is a hub of consumerism but not outwardly bling like Dubai. It has a beautiful old town besides its beaches and islands and fabulous restaurants. It has been good to us. It is a wonderful island-style city and my time with my sister has been relaxed and rejuvenating. We have been indulged in all the best that Bahrain has to offer and I now feel restored and ready to go home to whatever awaits. Nic not so much. Apart from desperately wanting to be with his dad, my intrepid little travel companion has slotted right in here. Travelling looks good on him. My experience has expanded me though and I doubt I will slot easily back into my life. These seven weeks that have been just a blip for everyone else, have felt more like seven years for the growth I have experienced and, for Nic, this journey has been epic. I will have to take Nic somewhere else to accumulate his wealth though. My wealth is depleted and my tolerance for unadulterated indulgence is almost maxed out. I washed everything I bought in the bath – not because I had to but because I wanted to. I’m odd … but then no one who embarks on a journey like this in the first place can be anything but. Bahrain is mystical and magical and full of the finest things money can buy. But although I have found lifestyle here, I have found no soul. Definitely no regrets though – soul or no soul, this was essential down time with my sis.
Since people got over my taking Nic on this journey … although some haven’t quite … questions have turned to whether such a small child could possibly benefit or even remember anything from such a journey. All I can say is, “Absolutely!” His focus is so uncluttered that he remembers so much stuff that I think the more appropriate concern is whether I will in fact remember anything. I know the memories will begin to blur and then fade like I expect my eyesight to do one day … but I have one and a half thousand photos to jog my memory when the synapses fail to fire.

I’ve learnt not to try and predict what awaits so I can’t say if I will ever be back here even though I suspect I won’t … actually, I can’t say anything anymore. I am not at a crossroads; I am at a spaghetti junction that looks something like the slides at Wahooo water park. I could go on the Master Blaster or through the Black Hole but I suspect I may just sit in the toddler pool for a while and play in the gentle fountains. I’ll be ready for the thrill-seeker rides again one day but for now I am ready to go home. I feel like I have been breathing in for so long and that I can now finally breathe out. But, besides anything else, Nic has work to do so he can get us that luxury yacht and I’d rather it was this side of geriatric.

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