INDIA: THE GREAT SURRENDER
One week before we left for India, I got back from my doctor armed with various antibiotics and some vague advice.
‘You might need to just surrender to it when it happens. Get to a local doctor. They’ll know what to do,’ he had told me.
‘Surrender? What kind of fucking advice is that?’ I said to Jack that night over dinner, gulping back my wine.
‘What are you so worried about? India will be fine,’ he said, patting me on the head with a smirk, a cocky reassurance that repeated itself right up until we pulled into Mumbai airport.
We shielded ourselves from the dusty glare and the sea of eyes and the shouts of ‘Taxi, Taxi!’ Our stomachs gurgled from the samosa and coffee we just bought from the airport. We’d already had a mishap with the ATM and lost some money. We tucked our heads down against the crowd of taxi drivers and pulled our backpacks on tight and hoped we didn’t look like foreigners. But we were. And so we ended up getting badly ripped off.
Now Jack was in a bad mood with India.
Surrender, I said to him, or maybe to myself. Surrender.
The hostel owner smiled and practically bowed when we finally arrived. ‘Welcome Sir! Madam! Welcome to our paradise!’ We looked around at the run-down building. Everything about India was a shock to the senses, flipped around in a frypan of orange dust. But the food in the restaurant was good. It was very good. Bubbling magical concoctions tossed with spices and drizzled with cashews and paneer… and goddamit, we ate and ate and ate till we sat back, admiring our bellies: exploding, exhausted, laughing.
We soon found postcard-worthy paradise in Palolem Beach, Goa. It was everything we wanted for a dreamy (read: privileged asshole) holiday – wide beaches, cool bars, cold beers and fresh fish. We feasted on a seafood platter for New Years Eve and danced in all the beach bars until we climbed back into our hostel bed laughing with sand still on our feet. We were madly in love, and we bloody loved India. We just had to give it a chance, we said. Surrender, we laughed, as we fell asleep to the sounds of fireworks and a frenzy of barking dogs.
Cheers to the start of a brand new year.
And then our tummies rumbled. Mine first, and then Jack’s.
On the fourth day, I looked like I might not make it out of India. Jack got us in a rickshaw to find a doctor. The taxi driver, sporting a set of black teeth, was confident that he knew the ‘best doctor in India’.
‘Surrender,’ I whispered to a skinny, hollow-eyed Jack, who was trying not to vomit out the window. So much for putting on holiday weight, I thought, as I looked down at my own bony, flimsy thighs. The driver pulled into an unmarked street, next to a huddled sleeping figure on the sidewalk. I couldn’t see any sign to a doctor’s surgery. Just a closed down bakery sign and an ATM. The driver pointed up.
The surgery was upstairs. The steps were grey and filthy but the doorway had a welcoming red mat with flowers and incense next to it. Three sets of shoes sat next to the door. I shook my head. I’ve never had to take shoes off to go to the doctor. I placed one foot inside the door like a petulant teenager but a lady with long black hair pointed to my shoes. I took them off, but I told Jack I would be pissed if someone stole them. Jack kicked his K-Mart thongs off. ‘They can take these if they want.’
The floor was immaculately clean inside. We sat on two plastic chairs and my feet felt nice and free, grazing on the cool shiny tiles. The lady smiled at me.
The doctor asked two questions, and poked me in the belly twice. He wrote out a script while his next patient stood in the doorway, and charged six dollars.
And whatever he prescribed, worked.
Once we were both better, Jack wanted to hire a motorbike. It was his dream to get an ‘Enfield’ and see the Indian countryside, wind in our hair, ‘just like the guy did in Shantaram’. Jack found the perfect bike after asking one guy in the markets who led us to another guy who then led us down an alleyway, fingers beckoning, and into the garage of another guy with a big round belly and gold teeth. His name was Wilson. He pointed to a silver bike. It was shiny and fairly new. Jack beamed. ‘This is the one,’ he breathed, like he was a teenager purchasing his first car. It was so big I wondered if I could get my leg over it. I asked Wilson how safe it was.
Of course, everyone in India tells you everything is good, good, safe, safe, especially when money is involved. Fear curled around my heart as I eased onto the backseat and grabbed Jack’s waist.
He loosened my claw–like fingers (calm down, babe, I know how to drive this thing), took the handlebars and accelerated, breathing in the fresh air, his woman behind him, long hair gliding luxuriously in the tropical wind. The reality was that the air was not fresh. ‘AIR QUALITY HAZARDOUS’, the weather report said each day, and proof was in the smog that lingered, like fluffy grey cats wrapping their tails around city skylines – even rubbing obnoxiously along the horizon of the most remote country town. The sheer number of people in India – Mumbai itself holding more in one city than the entire population of Australia – tells you that there is no simple solution to cleaning up this place.
As we rode up the winding mountains, I forgot about the air quality, now clutching Jack’s flesh harder with each sharp turn. Indian families in rickshaws stared at us. Drivers cut past us with loud honks. I didn’t want to die this way.
We finally found our way to long open country roads – less traffic, more scenic views. We flew past wide grassy fields and rolled beneath the limbs of jungle-esque trees. A monkey sat on a fence and stared at us as we waved. We pulled into a limestone driveway with a huge sign saying SPICE FARM, and swaggered off the bike, our butts relieved as a girl handed us a lemongrass tea and ushered us for a tour around the farm. We snapped happy pics and sniffed all the spices of India in their freshest form. At the end of the tour they served us a delicious organic meal with fresh chapati bread, dal, salads and watermelon. This whole experience cost us no more than ten dollars.
Afterwards, we found waterfalls nearby and took a hike and a swim. We giggled in the lukewarm pools. It was nice, surrendering to all this.
Back on the bike and hugging Jack close, I realised this was actually one of the few times in my life that I had completely surrendered to anyone or anything with so much trust. I started to love the idea of surrender. I loved the freedom that came with it. But as the sun started going down, our butts hurting and our eyes savagely windburned, we were relieved to park our Enfield bike back in Wilson’s old garage.
I touched the silver steel one last time, and thanked gold-toothed Wilson. ‘Come back anytime,’ he said, beaming.
That night, we sat at a bright restaurant down the road with painted mandalas exploding across walls. Delicious vegetarian food filled our senses and bellies with magic. I smiled. Not only was I still alive, but I was more alive. We talked about all the things we had seen that day, ending with a magical sunset that lit up against a rice paddy field.
We better explore this whole country while we have the chance, we said. On a whim, we booked a flight the next day to the north. Everything was now moving faster, sharper, brighter. I sat back into the leather plane seat, clipped my belt, and smiled to myself. I had a brief memory of my first childhood experience of flying – my ears throbbing, the thundering engines that stole us into the clouds. And here I was again, after doing it hundreds of times, no fear.
I held Jack’s hand, my co-pilot in life, and smiled at him as we flew into the smoggy skies.
We were flying to Rishikesh, the spiritual town of the Ganges River, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. We threw off our backpacks at the hostel and got a free shuttle to town. We accepted the first chai tea that was offered to us. It bubbled on a tiny stove and the vendor poured the creamy brown liquid into a clay cup. It smelled rich with ginger and spice. We’d forgotten about stomach bugs and slurped loudly, hungry for new tastes.
It cost 20 cents.
The music of traditional pan flutes floated nearby. It was the sunset fire ceremony on the River Ganges. Someone handed us a candle and a flower and pointed for us to take off our shoes and head to the steps of the river. The sun was setting behind the mountains, casting orange lights on the river. A string of Hindu priests held beacons of fire high along the river bed, throwing flowers and chanting. Jack smiled at me, no longer suspicious of everything religious. He was the first to throw his flower in the river. Suddenly we were signing up for everything Rishikesh had to offer – temples, ashtanga yoga, white water rafting, bungee jumping.
Yes, bungee jumping.
I stayed upbeat about our decision to jump over the Ganges River until I was at the very edge. I looked down and saw that the river bed under us was completely dry. We were jumping head-first onto a salty trail of rocks.
The shorter guy with a long black ponytail pointed out that I was strapped in two places, the ankles and the chest. If one broke, the other would catch me. And nobody had ever died here.
The wind bored through my ears at the top step of the bungee tower.
‘This is totally safe, right?’ I asked as the men led me by harness to the edge of the platform. Nobody answered. Or maybe they did. One guy shouted in an Indian accent, ‘Three, two, one!’
I didn’t hesitate; there was no point. I jumped. I screamed a death-cry that echoed through the valleys of the River Ganges.
The thrill in bungee is not in the jump. It’s the feeling that you might not be strapped in. You look back at your life and you realise that you never want to die. You love your life. You love who you are.
You are falling to your death.
And then you come back to life, better than ever.
You bounce, and each time you scream, but now with a giggle. Now you can see where you are; etched rockfaces, blue streams, clouds laughing at you from above. ‘Wow!’ You are being lowered toward two guys and you’re so delirious you could be dribbling on them upside-down. Your eyes are watering and your head feels like it’s exploded. Not really. You were probably just screaming too much.
And you talk like a drug addict to these two guys who unharness you – ‘Oh that’s why the bungee is not set up on water!’ – you babble. They smile as they unstrap you and hand you a bottle of water. Something to drink, something to hold. They point ‘over there’ and you drunk-stumble across a trickling stream towards a group of people, those who had just completed the jump before you. They have hands on hips, squinting at the bungee tower. It takes you forever to navigate across the rocks. You make it. ‘You did a really nice dive,’ they say. You feel proud that you had a good technique for the end of your life. The adrenaline is real.
I turned my face to the sky and saw Jack up there: his turn next. And I knew for sure that he was going to be OK. I got over my fear of dying and I felt love, for everything, in a way I’d never loved before.
Jack handled the fear of death way better than me. After his first shouts of joy, he seemed almost bored. ‘It was over too fast,’ he said. Jack loves the feeling of adrenaline, and finds ways to live his life on the edge each day.
But he finds it very hard to be still.
We sat in our first Indian yoga class on a freezing marble floor. It was close to evening and the chill bore through my worn-out yoga mat. I shivered. We were high up in the Himalayan mountains, and this was no white girl yoga resort. This was real yoga.
We sat in front of our tiny teacher who stared at us with large white eyes. I wondered if they paid him enough to eat. He said nothing. Nobody else entered. He looked up at the clock. We looked up at the clock.
I figured I would pretend to meditate. I sat cross-legged and closed my eyes. I opened them slightly and peered to the left to check what Jack was doing. He was doing the same, but with a frown.
Finally, at the last excruciating second, a man entered with a yoga mat tucked under his arm, breathless: sorry, sorry.
And so class began with a tiny teacher instructing us to take huge breaths in terrible English.
But he moved with grace and intuition, and we followed. ‘Breathe innnnnnn. Breathe outttttttt.’ As he gained confidence with his English instructions, he moved around the room and adjusted us. We couldn’t help but surrender to his bony, all-knowing hands. Finally, we came to inversions.
Despite Jack’s reckless nature, he refused. ‘I don’t do headstands.’ The teacher whispered in Jack’s ear. Jack nodded. Little Indian hands guided Jack’s shoulders and hips and PEW! His legs were up in the air. There wasn’t even a grunt: just some shallow breaths, and the teacher singing ‘Yes, yes, and now you are in the King position of yoga.’ I ran for my bag and grabbed the camera. The teacher stood next to Jack and turned to face the camera, holding up one of Jack’s legs. His forehead only came up to Jack’s knees.
I showed Jack the photo later. It looked like an ancient, grainy photo, like one of Iyengar’s early days of teaching. Even though the teacher wasn’t smiling, he looked proud.
After his headstand, Jack laughed. He was lightheaded, delirious, a little like me coming off the bungee. ‘I didn’t think I could do that, honestly.’ The tiny teacher smiled.
‘The body is strong but the mind is weak.’ He reached up and pressed Jack’s strong arm muscles, at least three times the size of his own.
‘If the mind has no fear, the body can do anything.’
From Rishikesh, we took the bus to the majestic Taj Mahal: even more breathtaking in real life than the picture-perfect photos suggest. We then got the train to Pushkar – the temple lake town of Lord Brahma, and Jaipur – the pink city. It was the time of the Kite Festival, and all the kids were outside waving their colourful kites around, shouting out ‘Hello!’ to the Australians. After many days, chais and new friends, we waved goodbye and took a bumpy night-bus to the Jaisalmer desert to ride camels and see the Golden Fort. We rode a motorcycle one last time here. I asked to. This time I loved every second, hair trailing through the desert.
Perhaps it is only the mind that is our weakness. I realised I’m not afraid of death — I’m afraid of discomfort. We have everything we could possibly want at home in Australia, and somehow I’m always fragile, sick, tired, making excuses. Unable to step outside my comfort zone. But here, discomfort is like a mantra, a way of life that makes people more peaceful. The ancient Sanskrit word Santosha means embracing all aspects of life – to feel a deep sense of inner contentment. And my favourite word I learned, Ananda: a deep, unshakeable sense of bliss.
A woman with a limp hobbled along with her groceries. She smiled at us, saying, ‘Namaste.’ This doesn’t just mean hello. It translates to something like ‘I see and honour the light in you, as you see and honour the light in me.’
Once I lost the fear, I saw everything more clearly. Bright entrances greeted us with flowers and incense and the best hospitality in the world. We’d kick off our dirty shoes and make ourselves comfortable, dressed in colourful scarves and bindis and flower garlands. Jack and I tried delicious vegetarian dishes filled with Ayurvedic nutrition and good karma. Sitting at a rooftop restaurant under the stars with a $3 feast, and with no phone reception, we’d delight in the funny and inspiring stories of the people that we met that day. Jack and I spent the most quality time together than we ever had; we’d never talked or laughed so much.
There are so many other stories — the camaraderie of sacred cows swaggering slowly along streets, innocently nuzzling against cars and destroying shop stalls; shop owners shouting and slapping them with wooden boards to get them off their property (sacred Hinduism abandoned in the protection of business); riding camels in the rolling dunes of the desert at sunset (and getting spat on); Jack breaking a tooth biting into food that had bitumen in it (and an emergency dental appointment that turned into a 5 star celebrity experience); hordes of Indian men trailing us to stare at Jack, not me (they all had quite the man-crush on him)… the list goes on. All hilarious stories we talk about all the time, despite it being years since this special place of surrender graced our lives.
The day after we got back home to overly-perfect Australia, with its clean horizon and crossword-like streets, I had my thongs stolen at the beach: those same flip flops I wore all through India and left at every doorway. I laughed. I didn’t need them. We’d got used to bare feet. We’d got used to feeling dirty, and the sounds of laughing little Indian men and chanting music at 4.30am and motorbikes and monkeys that stole fruit. We got used to all of it, and somehow it made us better people.
Barefoot, I walked down the street wearing my new colourful Indian dress and necklaces, my hair wild. I smiled at everyone. They stared. But after a few moments I’m pretty sure they couldn’t help but surrender to my smile. Namaste. I see and honour the light in you, as you see and honour the light in me.