"You either love it or hate it”
The sentence of how fellow visitors describe India when you ask about their experience. So with these few words and little knowledge of the culture, the country and its people I left Australia behind. Reflecting back on the past 10 months, I now like to share with you the warmth and beauty in which India stole my heart.
A kind invitation
As a teenager, one of my aspirations was to travel to India, Nepal & Tibet. I saved, ended up spending the money on a road trip that didn’t travel the road, followed love across the planet and lived in a world that wasn’t mine. Six and a half years later, I lived as an Australian in Newcastle, thinking about buying a house but feeling unsettled at the same time. I read books, thought about further studies and ran up and down the beach trying not to think about the next move. Each weekend, I drove gypsy like sleeping in my van up and down the coast to escape from unwanted temptations, trying to free my mind. With this inner restlessness, I decided to attend a meditation course to bring back my peace and while there my memory brought me back to that childhood dream ... India.
Photo above: Picture of Golden Temple, Amritsar found in book.
On the journey back home, my mind wondered to my new destination and that same day, hidden in between the sheets of my newly purchased book, I found four colourful prints on old yellow stained paper. Sanskrit writing that didn’t make sense to me, “The Golden Temple” of Amritsar accompanied with 3 of its Guru’s, of which I never heard before, appeared…in front of me. It was India, calling me to come to chase that childhood-dream and so I did …
17 July 2013 - 30 August 2013
The first touch. Before touching the soil of my new country I am about to walk upon, I inhale. I inhale the first touch of air deeply into my nostrils and fill up my longs. I close my eyes, pause and exhale deeply while taking note. I observe the thickness of the air I breathe, how it smells and how it feels like.
It’s a thick warm mass with an intense fusion of different aroma’s. The hairs on my body raise as I deeply inhale. I cannot determine if the goosebumps on my skin where caused by excitement, a passing breeze or something much higher. I open my eyes and look around into the horizon. Where am I?
Comforting vibrations of warmth flow inside me, like someone holding me very closely in their arms sharing with me their love. That kind of hug you wish was endless. I felt connected and with this soothing feeling, I set foot on sacred India.
Thr3 6ixty Fi5e (365) was one of my projects I started in 2012, a promise to myself to be creative for each day of the year 2012. I failed in making 365 drawings but instead it became a live time plan. So when I traveled to India I set myself some goals for my journey but never expected what the results would bring. In fact, I didn’t not have to set goals because everything happened so natural.
On day one, Akshardham temple in Delhi astonished me so impressively with the finest sculptured architecture I had ever seen. A story of the detailed crafted statues built so beautifully together, begged me to capture this image and share with you the magnificence I saw.
And from that day instead of breadcrumbs, little sketches marked the road I walked upon. I made strangers happy with my drawings, I painted walls, attended an International Art Festival were I became known for the lady with the truck … and here I am today, designing postcards under my artist name Mata. (https://www.ayushiyoga.com/art-gallery).
Photo: “Elephant detail” - Akshardham Temple, New Delhi
Photo credits: www.100wondersoftheworld.com
The bright side of the road.
I still remember my first night bus very clearly. The night was long, at times unpleasant but exciting at the same time. All night I listened to the musical jingles of passing goods carriers, loud Bollywood music in orchestra with bass sounds of blowing horns.
It wasn’t only the noises of the passing traffic that prevented me from sleeping, but also uneven surfaces and sharp turns the driver took to avoid sleeping herds of cows that had nested themself in the middle of the road. So as soon as my head had found rest against the window frame, it didn’t take long for it to bounce back up. On the bright side of the road, there is never a dark lonely night in India. In fact, I didn’t mind to be awake, because what excited me the most during my first night ride were the sight of the beautiful painted trucks lid up by hundreds of lights in different colours and shapes.
Decorated cockpits filled with bangles, pictures and a temple shrine, are keeping the driver and his companion save. They cross the country from one end to another, carrying their goods on an endless journey.
Illustration above: “Think and reflect on what will accompany you” - Truck Art
A popular romantic quote of the Urdu philosophy written on the back of many trucks. Artwork by Mata (Brigitte Gouwy)
The Golden Temple
My curiosity to find out more about those mysterious images I had found in my mailbox had drawn me to the Golden Temple. I wondered if those Guru’s had left another message for me but they didn’t, they only carried daggers, beards and turbans.
With no further lead, I was left with just the unbearable monsoon heat and hundreds of passing pilgrims. Not only the humidity but the city chocked me, it was frantic, overpopulated, and claustrophobic but amongst all the chaos I did found peace within the temple walls.
In fact, it was quiet amusing sitting by the lake watching volunteers doing the dishes of thousands of people, the worshipping’s and the reflection of the golden box in the surrounding pond.
Art in all its glory I don’t have to explain myself to those who really know me, they know my passion for art and design, my affection for nature, my love for music and my desire to dance. So where else in India would I feel more home than in Rajasthan?
Photo: Picture of Guru Gobind Singh
Literally translated Rajasthan means “the land of the kings” but it really should have been called the “Land of colour and creative freedom because this is the state where all is found, loved and recognised. So no wonder, I have such a strong love affair with this vibrant state that keeps calling me back. I passed through Rajasthan not once but three times and somehow deep down I feel I will return for longer … much longer. Not to live life as a queen in a palace but to follow the trail of the Kalbeila Gypsies*, to absorb the desert culture, to paint, to learn more about the traditional crafts, its music and to dance.
Photo left: Offerings on Diwali Festival, Shiva Temple - Udaipur, Rajasthan Photo right: Pushkar, Rajasthan - is a small town and one of the five sacred pilgrimage sites for Hindus.
Indians are very strong believers, the beauty of their culture is that no matter your faith or religious background, it has something to offer for all. You wake up with the prayer echoes of the mosque, while the Buddhists sit in silence and the Hindu’s ring their bells. The scent of incense offered to Shiva, Ganesh or one of the many other Hindu gods fills your daily breath with blessings and while dinner is being prepared in a Muslim’s house, the Christians in the South sing in mass.
I remember my first temple visit clearly it was a small Shiva temple on the foot of Bhagsunag falls. It wasn’t the usual beautiful decorated, bombastic temple with impressive gate and I probably wouldn’t have noticed if it wasn’t for the sounds of the prayer bells which drew my curiosity inside. Still uncertain about the rules and rituals, I quietly followed and observed the big group of Indians that had just walked in.
The inside was as simple as the outside. Painted in white with hardly any ornaments the room was filled with a bright light which had a nice feeling to it. The group formed a line to enter a tiny shrine like room. Each one of them made an offering and walked out blessed by the priest. I too lined up walked through the opening, kneeled down and closed my eyes. I felt uncomfortable, a little strange inside just because I hadn’t made a pray in a very long time.
I thought about all the people who crossed my path, those who guided me and helped me make me who I am today, my loved ones, my enemies, my family, my grandmother and the journey lying ahead of me. I thanked each one of them to be a part in my live and sent them my love. I asked the gods to be with me on my journey and to keep protecting me. And at that moment a shiver climbed up my spine followed by a cold breeze that whispered in my ear. It felt like a confirmation, a pad on the shoulder to say I am on the right path just keep following your dreams.
But it wasn’t until I walked out of the premises I got overwhelmed by emotions. My inside glowed and tears unexpectedly rolled down my cheeks. They were tears of comfort, contentment, peace and joy. As a child, I was baptised as a Christian and did my communion when I was twelve because I had no choice. I never felt Christianity in my soul or the care for any other religion and its rituals but I was always a strong believer of an external source that guides us, purely from experience. And there, in that small temple in Bhagsunag I felt it very strongly. So whether you like it or not, India is a sacred place and when you open yourselves to it you will feel it.
Photo above: Dhampus Village trekking towards Australian Camp, Pokhara, Nepal
1 Sept 2013 - 30 Nov 2013
Never ending peace and love?
The people and the mountains of Nepal had always drawn my interest, but after 2 months travelling in India it seemed unimaginable to leave India already behind. Nonetheless my journey in Nepal had beautiful missions.
In September, I drew 30 drawings, I painted a big Shiva that now has become a holy shrine to some local villagers. I nurtured, educated and supported the children and succeeded to live Nepal as a Nepali. I may not have climbed the highest mountains but I glanced at them from a distance and lived surrounded by them.
Sadly, I also faced the reality of Nepal, the poverty & corruption. I learned that despite their love and caring nature, Nepali’s are deceitful and love living in the underworld. Even in the smallest villages drugs & tourism creates hunger for money and hate, so be aware, behind those beautiful peace eyes their might be a hidden plan.
Don’t get me wrong while their intentions are good, once they conquered your heart the majority will ask you for your help. Even the wealthy citizens, living in fancy villa’s on the outskirts of Kathmandu will ask for financial support. Pretty much any outsider, entering the country has a dollar sign printed on their forehead.
Photo: Shiva painting, Gurung Guesthouse, Dhampus, Pokhara, Nepal
So to those travelling to Nepal, I can only advice you not to tell any Nepali you came to volunteer or they think you can rescue their entire nation. And, if they are not asking for your money, the boys will ask you upfront for a paper marriage. So single ladies, watch out you will receive a lot of attention with multiple wedding invitations from guys who are desperate to get out of the country.
Of course, I don’t judge all the same way, but I am sad to say that yes I have lost my love and faith in Nepal. But at least I can say I contributed, I shared my love and knowledge with the children, who loved me back and in exchange Nepal gave me the inside street-knowledge I needed to continue my journey.
Yes, Nepal may be poor but hey (to all Nepali’s), you guys you live on top on the world, you have everything you need, you live self-sufficient, independent and are surrounded by one of the most beautiful sceneries on earth. Do you really want to live in an artificial world and work your butt of for stuff you really don’t need? The only thing Nepal needs is education and to be freed of its corruption, jealousy and greed.
17 July 2013- 30 August 2013
Out of all my India travels, Goa, known for its pill popping psychedelic paradise, was the only location I had no interest in to explore and here I was spending more than half of my Indian time in the Ibiza of the East or Rainbow Disneyland. As live is full of twists so is the road we travel on and so it happened I went to Goa not once but twice.
Despite the problems of local alcoholism (brought in by the tourists) my fisher’s village showed me, it is true what they say “Goa isn’t India”. In the south it still has a touch of authenticity, the North on the other hand is different, very different. And yes, I must admit I actually enjoyed living in the South. After all, beach, sun and coconuts are not the worst conditions to rehabilitate from injury.
Photo below: Artwork on a bus at the Indian Surf Festival 2014, Puri Odisha
Driving up north, the change starts with the big billabong boards advertising twenty first century things for wealthy people living in modern houses. “Villages”filled with giant Portuguese villas of which none o fmy friends could ever afford appear along the road. Arambol called Hamal is described as a “traditional fisherman village” on Wikipedia but it’s nothing like that. When I arrived I didn’t feel welcome at all. Firstly everything was in Russian, almost 70% of the population spoke Russian even the locals. I couldn’t read the menu’s or was simply misunderstood because the Russian waiter didn’t speak or understood a word of English.
I thought Dharamshala was bad after observing the many Israelis who were arrogant towards the Indians. Oh no, this was far worse. Maybe, because I never dealt with so many Russians before or just misread their expressions but to me I found the majority vulgar, offensive and very disrespectful towards the Indian culture.
In fact, I later discovered that the Russian mafia runs an underground business in Goa to please rich Indian man with beautiful white skinned blue eyed blondeness’ which sadly gives the locals pre-judgements. I certainly don’t blame the confusion but still even fully covering myself I was often approached as “as an easy to get target”.
Even my friends' landlord had suspicions, of them running a brothel in his house and so I lost my balcony sofa I was happily surfing on. Arambol which was once psychedelic heaven to hippies has sadly become a commercial product of tropical Moscow and to me a Russian’s look is as they would shoot ice cones through your brain. But I made peace and happily entertained myself with the remaining population that host Arambol:
the occasional underweight, wrinkled, grey dread-locked hippie that never found there way back home;
the Tantric yogis on the hunt for unconditional love and eternal orgasms trying to full fill their sexual desires to mask their broken souls
the meditation freaks during sunset trying to catch the last vibrations of daylight; and
a circus crew that should reconsider their act.
So where do the Indians fit in ... well they don’t. They silently observe and wisely cash in on our filthy habits.
But as negative as the above sounds Goa isn’t all that bad, it’s actually quite amusing and entertaining.
Just place yourself in one of the tiny cafes, try figuring out what to order or go for a sunset stroll on the beach. I guarantee you, you get to see the best television soap you have ever seen. And as for me, yes I too slipped, caught a Goan fever and got sucked into my old party routine but it was fun. In fact, I became part of the Goan family, made friends, bumped into some old friends and even made some Russian friends, fun crazy loving caring Russian friends. So, Goa did bring me something, knowledge, a little shake down, and good friends.
Photo above left: Colomb Beach, Canacona, South Goa
Photo above right: Evening parade at Arambol Beach, North Goa
Illustration below: Artwork by Mata ~"Hey mister rickshaw driver"
Most tourists get annoyed with the hustling rickshaw drivers trying their best to suck the most out of your wallet but let me show you a different light of the yellow rickshaw ride. Once you chosen your driver (music is a must) and you step inside you feel the chaos you were surrounded by disappearing. It’s almost like a shelter that keeps you save, a glass box where you can see the outside but the outside can’t see you. I could sit an entire day driving around, looking over the driver’s shoulder enjoying live on the streets passing by.
The bargaining costumers and busy shop keepers arguing over a couple of rupees; the fruit-walla’s sprinkling water on their fresh produce to keep them free street dust; the careless cows strolling through the streets; the lost dogs lying in the gutter waiting for their share; playing children; woman in their beautiful coloured sari’s and the man chattering over a glass of chai. The pleasure of inhaling the aromas of boiling chai, the fragrances of traditional sweets and thousands of different smells coming from the local Dabba’s (restaurants).
The feelings that arise inside me when everything comes together with the background sounds of Bollywood music or Indian love songs is nothing else but joy, laughter and warmth that even poverty cannot escape from. So next time, when you’re in the back of the rickshaw, think about me sit back relax and enjoy each sensation.
Photo left: “Endless train journeys” ~ Open door in the corridor of the train from Odissa to Goa.
On the endless train journeys. Maybe it’s that little drip of gypsy blood inside me that brings peace within every time I move from one to another, but I can’t help myself to enjoy every single moment I spend on the train in India. Trains are for sure the most enjoyable and reliable transportation you can find in India, the most irritating part is getting your hands on a train ticket.
You are never certain if you’ll manage a seat for the planned journey, if you’ll end up between carriages on top of luggage or if the ticket man catches you for taking a seat that isn’t yours. In some scenarios a family will happily adopt you and in the worst cases you will have to move carriages every other town .No matter how, the start of the journey always begins on the platform. In India, this is the place where I, as a white female traveller get the most attention.
Hundreds of curious innocent eyes make me feel a little uncomfortable just because in India you never travel solo as a woman. You are either accompanied by your husband, your children, another family member, friends or colleagues but never alone. In fact, here on the platform is where my admiration for Indian women began. It amazes me every time again how they manage their children while caring for their husband and elders that joined the journey.
Stacked on top or in between suitcases you see little wobbly heads with shiny black pearl eyes, it doesn’t matter where, on trains, buses, rickshaws the children are a part of the luggage and are quietly cruising along. The cool thing about the platform is that there is always a play happening. The shoemaker and the businessman man; kitchen staff doing the dishes using the cooling taps. Little food and tea stalls, bookshops, people crossing tracks and entering the train from all sorts of directions and then there are passengers, each with their own story and own journey.
Passengers who travel with their family and goods from north to south, businessman who aren’t really businessman but just simple people trying to fit in our modern society or the other way around. A wealthy man, taking a seat in a class he can easily afford but simply wants some compassion. Villagers selling fried toasts, masala chickpea’s, roasted peanuts, fruits and bottles of water.
And if this isn’t entertaining enough, how about the rebellious transvestites making drama, sometimes so badly police enforcement is required to keep the scene at peace. The strangest thing that ever happened to me was an elderly man who came to offer me sweets like I was some sort of goddess. I was left bamboozled with the entire platform staring at me. Now what do you do when a twenty seven hour or perhaps 3 day train ride lies ahead of you? So far, I have been lucky and never had to experience a night ride alone without an unassigned seat but if it can happen and if it does your ride could be quite unpleasant.
Being adopted by strangers is always amusing. You get to interact, share stories and learn more about the culture. I can guarantee that by the time you reach your stop, you have been invited to their home if not to a wedding. In most occasions you will share chai, sometimes sweets and if you’re lucky you get to enjoy a home cooked family meal. In any occasion, the time will pass faster than you think and if you don’t feel like engaging with your new train family or friends how about a book, trying to pick up some Hindi or listening to some tunes while observing your companions. As for me, I just love watching the passing countryside from the door opening. Especially on a hot sunny day, I love to sit in the corridor with the warm air blowing through my hair.
To me, Indians seem much more sensitive and passionate about life than any other kind I have met. Their philosophical way of thinking, the warm gentle tone in their voice, their facial expressions, their dramatic reactions to an unexpected events and dance like body language tell it all. To me Indians know how to love life and I know I love living in India.
On the streets, youngsters lean against each other, arm to shoulder, you see elders drink chai while playing chess. Men holding hands like lovers, mothers hugging their children, nurturing their babies, the glitter in one’s eye when receiving a simple smile … but when it comes to true love in India, things are much more complicated.
Unfortunately, there are so many sad stories of broken hearts and in India lost love seems never forgotten. Many Indian men that have been affected by foreign love affairs, suffer now from deep wounds, are left with confusion or carry extra luggage some where overseas.
The young teenage boys that lost their virginity by a woman with the same age as their mother, now struggle with their own identity. And the immature man that operates as a “provisional lover for outsiders” in search for a better life. Nonetheless whether you are Indian or not, the majority of love relationships are secret, complicated and or cannot be revealed because your love is bound towed the family’s chosen future husband or wife.
Photo above: “Arranged Marriage in Bharatpur, Rajasthan”
And if it isn’t the arrange marriage that is tearing you apart your love may be unacceptable simply because of cultural differences and ancient family traditions. I have been trying to understand the “arrange marriage chapter” and often wondered what I would do if I had to marry a complete stranger, to be intimate with someone without a connection, not mentally or physically.
To devote my live to someone I never met and might not even be attracted to. But somehow I see the beauty in an arrange marriage. The innocence and purity of two teenagers, two strangers uninformed about the subject “love” and the practical pleasures that come with. Two people being united, devoted to share their lives with each other and to learn to love one another.
Along the journey they discover live together, they get to know each other and learn to love. If not as lovers as friends or as two beings sharing their life’s. And ultimately isn’t that what we all want? To share our love and life with someone? And how wonderful it would be if that person was there beside you all along. Just look back at your first love and imagine how beautiful it was. The restlessness when you waited for him/her, the words you tumbled upon when he/she looked deeply into your eyes, that gentle touch that made your body tremble … those butterflies … even after years when the relationship started fading there was still that friendship, your were connected and maybe you still are.
So what is it in the twentieths century that makes us give up and throw it all away? The temptations of lust and pleasure? Curiosity? The fear of love or perhaps to be bound? Freedom? Because we are unhappy, frustrated and all searching for something better? Something we can only create within “The joy of loving to live.”
There are many different types of tourists that travel to India, the fanatic followers of the Dalai Lama and the Hare Krishna’s, the Ayurveda health and yogi freaks who practice meditation from dusk till dawn, the creative ones, those who came for love, freedom and spiritual connection and amongst all of them you have “the sheep’s” those lost souls in search to find themselves. I can say yes India has that gift, that gift to find yourself, to set you free from all your burdens, to detach you from lost loved ones … it teaches you to live free and to be free.
During these 10 months, I too went through a purification process that reset my sensors, I freed my mind and destroyed soul from our western inducements. But I didn’t went to India to find myself, nor for love or to join any of the above groups. I travelled to India simply because I wanted to go there, not for any particular reason just because I believe it was my destiny. I felt it underneath my umbilicus and now I understand, all those missed signs over the course of my life and the life I desire to live.
A simple free live, close to nature, to love and to beloved, and at last to be able to creatively express myself and all of this led me to India, the land of magic. I wanted to live Nepal as a Nepali and India as an Indian in which I can proudly say I succeeded. Along the road I filled my backpack with India’s rich culture, life knowledge and wisdom it holds.
I read an English book with and extremely intelligent 8 year old girl with a feisty character and made her a drawing, became a teacher and an artist. During long bus journey’s, I held children on my lap for hours, walked with them in the mountains and bathed with the woman in the hot springs of Vashisth while listening to the temples prayers. I carried baskets Nepali style with head and dealt with the bee stings that come along with cutting grass to feed the animals.
I chased monkeys off the field and bathed with the buffalo's in a tiny spring. I discovered the usefulness of a simple shawl and the multiple functions of poo. That you can make paper from elephant dung, make floors & clean the kitchen with buffalo dung; and that poo cakes are the best fuel to lit a fire. I learned to live without technology and became inventive using ear buds, grass and toothpicks as a paint brush. I became proficient in eating rice with my hand, learned how to make buttermilk, and can now make roti to perfection.
I slept on a charpai (outdoor bed) under the full moon, got dressed up in a sari and attended two Indian weddings. I can proudly say I have been in Agra twice (stopped to exchange busses) and still haven’t seen the Taj Mahal