My first trip to India

I met J in an aerobic step class.  I was in class early, stretching out when she kicked the front door open.  Her hands were full of books and notebooks.  Her heavy-heeled boots made a deep thud on the door, which brought Diane, the owner into the studio! “Well Jules, may I help you.”

“I have it,” she said in an accent I didn’t recognize.  J. deposited her books in the corner and went back out the door to change clothes, I reckoned.

The class was in full swing when J.  re-entered dressed for the class.  Although she seemed to work hard to keep up, I could easily see from her reflection in the mirror that she was not ready for this fast paced step class.  She wanted to be there, but bless her heart, had two left feet.

We walked out together after class and I asked her if I could help her with her all her binders and books and such.  J smiled brightly and thanked me profusely.  “Where are you from,” she asked me?

“Where am I from,” I asked, “you are the one with the accent!”

She laughed and said, I am Israel, but you are not from here either!”    By the time we had gotten to her car, which she had parked next to mine, we knew we had a lot in common.   She was about my age, a graduate of Berkley University, a professor of comparative religion at the local college and was longing to go to India.  That was in November.

April 1st, the following year,  J called me one evening. “Sorry it is so late, but do you want to go to India?  We have to decide tonight and let Marjorie know by tomorrow or she’ll withdraw the invitation.”  I had no idea what she was talking about, but apparently Marjorie was her travel agent and their agency had the opportunity for an almost free introductory tour of India and no one wanted from the agency wanted to go, so she thought of J.   J thought of me.   We could go for about two weeks, first class,  all expenses paid for less than $400.   The only catch was, we had to pretend we were travel agents and let them know by noon tomorrow, as the group would depart for India, April 29th.

It took me about two hours to talk it over with the boys, convince Mikael,  get substitute teachers for my Yoga classes and firm up plans.   By ten o’clock the following morning  J and I were taking photos, applying for a visa, and calling about what immunizations we would need to travel in India.

Trouble began the moment we meet up with the ‘other’ travel agents at LaGuardia in NYC.  A tall blond woman walked right up to me and said, you don’t look like a travel agent, which is your agency?  I reached for a reply, “Ah, the agency is in Orlando Florida,” as if that explained everything.  J quickly chirped in and took over the conversation, which quickly turned to their complicated new booking system.  How did she do it?

After saving our cover she turned to me to say,  “I know you have trouble lying, let me handle agency conversations.”

“Okay, fine with me,  I joked, I will just pretend I am deaf and mute and only work with our hearing and speaking impaired travelers.”   Jules frowned.  From then on I basically just ignored all questions about the travel industry and would tell people, “I really don’t know, ask J.”   Suspicions arouse, but generally everyone was friendly.

It took about three  days for me to spill  the beans.  That  occurred after I convinced our tour bus driver to take us to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial and spend an hour there!  When I returned to the bus after a nice meditation, every turned on me.  I was verbally bashed by most everyone for wasting their time. I explained that I was a yogi and by the way, J was a professor of religion and my time at the memorial had been very important.   No one understood or cared, not even J.    The blonde woman told the bus driver that he was never to listen to my timing suggestions again.

For the most part everyone seemed relieved that J and I were not travel agents, although they all took the time to tell us that no non-PTA (Professional Travel Agent) had previously been allowed to stowaway on these boondoggles.   I expressed my undying gratitude, J simply  ignored their remarks.

The next day we visited  Old Delhi to see the Red Fort and the largest Mosque in the world, the Jama Masjid.   Both are magnificent in their mughul architectural and were built in the 1600s by the Emperor Shahjahan, who built the Taj Mahal.   J. was videotaping everything, regardless of whether we were eating,  shopping, or visiting a temple or mosque.   She had a brand new Sony movie camera and wanted to make a documentary of sorts for her students.  Some people smiled when she shot them, others were annoyed as she directed them into or out of her viewfinder, some were distinctly angry at her reckless disregard of sacred areas, where photography was strictly prohibited.  I was afraid she might be mobbed at the mosque, even though she kept her camera under her shawl.  Perhaps being a woman she stayed more or less unnoticed.  The only incident occurred later that day, at the tranquil Lodhi Gardens.

The Lodhi gardens was a shady respite from the May heat.  There are paved paths and ponds and even memorial shrines.  J. and I were enjoying the unusual freshness of the air in and amongst all the greenery, when we spotted a lovely old woman sashaying up the path with an immense water jar poised on the top of her head.  The woman held one arm up barely touching the jar, the other hand on her hip.  She was a photographer’s dream.   But, I stopped J. from filming and said, “You should ask her first if you can photograph her.”

To which, J. demanded, “why?”

“Because,” I  strongly retorted, “people often don’t like that you film them, haven’t you noticed.”   J.  pushed ahead to film the wonderful sensual walk of this woman.

It was quite evident that the woman was none to pleased that she had been photographed, and much less that she was being filmed as she walked toward us.   She stopped suddenly and began to shout out in Hindi.  It was obvious what she was saying.   She walked up to J. with her hand out.  I went straight to her and handed her a 50 rupee note to compensate her for her modeling.  The tone of her voice took an even more serious note, as she said something else to Jules.    Then,  she looked me right in the eye, touched my 3rd eye and smiled.   She nodded sideways, as they do, and smiled again, then continued straight for J. with her hand out.   J, huffed and said, “she paid you, now go on!”

The woman brought her hand to her hip, looked straight at J.’s camera,  raised her hand and created a  unusual mudra.  She walked off without another word.  I held my breath. 

 A few minutes later, J. raised her camera to film some wildlife at play but the camera was not filming.   I guess the battery is dead, she said.    I just laughed.  Ah, India.

The next day our group was given some bad news. The travel itinerary had originally included a side trip to Khajuraho to see the erotic and sensual temple carvings, but we learned that Khajuraho was canceled and instead we would travel to the sacred yogic centers and point of access for all Himalayan pilgrimages, Haridwar and Rishikesh.   I was ecstatic, if however, the only one.

The next day, our white fringed tour bus took us jostling along to our next stop on the Golden Triangle – Jaipur.   The road to Jaipur was long and hot.  The air conditioner was only recirculating warm air and I couldn’t seem to get enough water to not be thirsty.  We were traveling at a snail’s pace and had passed more than a couple of traffic fatalities, a bus, a truck and two cars along the way – the  bodies of a couple of the victims, left there, rotting in the 120 F temperature.  That was India even in the early 1990s.  No one from our group seemed impressed with anything about India until we arrived in Jaipur.

Jaipur is a marvelously entrancing town – all various shades of desert pinks!  It is a town of rajputs, moghuls and royalty.  And we were stayed at the Jai Mahal Palace Hotel –  a real palace built in the 1700s.  Oddly, J.s camera battery still wasn’t working, even though she had charged it for 12 hours.  She was pissed. ( BTW-It never did work again. Back hom, not even Sony could find the problem. They had to replace it).

We checked into our rooms and toured the magnificent hotel grounds.  I found a perfect spot to meditate and I felt quite at home in the gardens.  It was an amazing place.  The musicians were playing on homemade ancient musical instruments, some stringed instruments and wind instruments and drums.  The music transported me to another time and place.

That night we enjoyed the finest meal I have ever had in India. I might venture to say it was the most delightful array of new tastes I have had anywhere in the world.  The garden setting was enchanting and the exotic music filled us all with delight. Everyone was in a good mood. It was the first time that I actually had the opportunity or inclination to speak with others in our group.  Two of the travel agents were especially sympathetic to me and were happy that I was along on the trip. They asked a lot of questions about Yoga.

The next morning we returned to the bus for a bit of sight-seeing and shopping.  Our final stop was at a well-known jewelry shop where antique jewelry was sold and also where artisans were available to design unique and distinctive jewelry for customers.  The shop was expensive and although there were pieces I would love to own, I lost all interest when J. began a heated negotiation with the owner over the price of some exquisite jade earrings.  I went outside to the area where stones were being cut.  As I walked outside a man came rushing around from the other side of the building.  He came up to me and said that he had been waiting for me.   He had a stone for me to buy!  I assured him I didn’t require anything, but he assured me that I did. He handed me a white stone about the size of a peach pit. I asked what is was and he said it was white agate. I told him it I really didn’t want it. I picked up some small lapis and said I like this better.  He said I didn’t need the lapis.  He was not asking for much money, I don’t recall how much he wanted, yet I refused. I didn’t want a white stone I kept telling him. You need it, he replied. I asked what I should do with it. He said to make it into a ring to wear. I told him I did not like it for a ring.  He said it did not matter.  He was beginning to irritate me, as only vendors in India can, so I walked back into the shop to see if  J. had made any progress.  She had purchased the earrings and the owner did not look as if he had enjoyed the exchange.  I was impressed.

The stately blonde woman who had taken upon herself to lead the group after the fiasco at the Gandhi Memorial began shepherding all of us out the door and onto the bus. My personal stone man was still waiting for me, prodding me gently, “now! buy the white stone, I will throw the lapis in too. You must buy it and make it into a ring.” Smiling I said, ‘no thanks,” but I wondering, why not? It was such a deal.

As I settled into the bus seat, I looked back at him and watched him with the others behind me.  He did not try to sell anything to anyone else in the group.  And for the first time I looked him straight in the eyes. There was something there, along with resignation. I signaled to him and tried to open the window, just as the bus took off down the road.  About a mile down the road, I noticed a small sign, saying Kriya Yoga Ashram.

We were to have another buffet at the Palace that evening, so I went to my room for Yoga and meditation.  J. was doing some shopping in the Hotel shops.   The room was quite large and I was seated at one end meditating and I could hear J. coming in and out of the room.  I must have dropped quite deep because when I came out of meditation it was dark outside. I was a bit spacey and washed my hands and face and noticed it was almost 8pm.  Dinner was scheduled at 7pm.  I went to straight to the door to make it in time for some dinner.  The door was locked from the outside.

To be continued.

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