I came to India for the first time with my friend Niko for one month in August 2005. I had decided to go on an exotic trip – ‘exotic’ meaning ‘far from the West’. I was very attracted by Buddhism at the time and I had first been dreaming of going to Tibet, but it was a country difficult to access. I had also been practising yoga for four years and I was very curious about India, which was a safer destination! I had been working as a support worker with elderly people as well as physically and mentally challenged children and adults, and my biggest aspiration at the time was to help others (and the planet) while never ceasing to learn. In short I wanted to ‘surrender to Dharma‘… So ‘I wanted to go and see poverty with my own eyes’, as I wrote then… This article is a summary of my first time in India.
First time in India: a difficult first week
The first week was difficult. When I suddenly found myself in the middle of screaming rickshaws in the crazy Delhi traffic, I actually thought “It is not possible. It doesn’t exist. I am dreaming and I am going to wake up!” (Yes, all that, literally.) It took me a while to adapt to the overwhelming differences I was facing. The deafening horns of all kinds, the smells, the dilapidated buildings, the dirt, the overpopulated streets, the curious people following us, the shopkeepers pestering us to take a look at their shops… And I was very paranoid with the food, and the slightest drop of water on a washed glass for fear of getting sick. But within a week both my friend and I got used to it all somehow, and then we became more relaxed, more confident, and we started to enjoy it.
First time in India: Holy River Ganges
We saw the river Ganges from four places. First in Varanasi, the Hindus’ Holy City in Uttar Pradesh, also called Banaras and Kashi (the city of light). There we took a boat trip at 5:30 in the morning. We were knackered but enchanted by the calmness of the impressive river, the beauty of the rising sun, the colourful temples and the Hindus who purified themselves in the sacred waters… Then, we saw Triveni Sangam, another holy place where the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers meet, in Allahabad. And we saw the fast-running river in, two other pilgrimage towns full of temples, ashrams and meditation and yoga centres in the state of Uttaranchal (Uttarakhand).
First time in India: special encounters
We had two very special encounters: the first happened in Khajuraho (the city of the Kama Sutra temples), where we made friends with three young Indians – and I had no idea one of them would become my husband when I first wrote this! They took us cycling round a small village where nobody spoke English, where all the kids posed on our photos, and where a farmer’s family fed us a delicious thali (a tray containing various dishes and chapati/flat bread). They also took us to a nearby mountain, where I saw the most breathtaking landscape I had ever seen… Finally, after two days in their company, they invited us to stay with their family where they treated us like kings, and where one of the (many) little sisters tattooed my arm with henna. It is also where I was the sickest, but I would never forget the beautiful experience.
The second encounter took place in the beautiful small town of Orchha, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. There we met a sadhu – a yogi who had abandoned all his possessions and his family to live an ascetic life and devote himself to the quest for awakening. We spent about six delicious hours with this man, whose beard was a one-meter long dreadlock. In my memory it feels like we had amazing conversations even though we couldn’t understand each other’s languages. Local people came to ask him questions and worshipped him by laying their forehead down to his feet. In the evening we sang mantras sitting cross-legged around him – a rather mysterious experience…
First time in India: in the Himalayas
The city that most touched me was probably Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj actually), not only because it is the home of the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan refugees, but also because after three weeks under the scorching sun, the cool mountain weather was an incredible relief. I loved the atmosphere of this place, which was much quieter – no more the aggressive shopkeepers – with beautiful Tibetans everywhere, and Buddhist monks a part of the landscape. I was excited to turn prayer wheels while repeating Om Mani Pad Me Um in my head, we wanted to rob the spiritual book shops, and we got to eat delicious pastries and exchange spicy Indian food for Tibetan specialities.
First time in India: why I liked it so much
The beauty of my first time in India was that I lived in the “here and now” completely. In India I forgot everything and I lived every moment fully. Every moment was simply perfect, as it should be. I had a perpetual smile on my face. The people were beautiful, especially the children who ran after us shouting “Hello, what is your name?” We shook hands, smiled, communicated with our expressive faces and practised the five Hindi expressions we had learnt. On our very first day in Delhi we even signed autographs! Our stomachs did not always agree – I was sick three times – and when we didn’t feel good it was tiring to respond to everyone – we could have sent some pestering rickshaw drivers and aggressive shopkeepers packing a few times.
Some people had told me that poverty would break my heart, but I was prepared and I wanted to face reality. Of course, we saw some very poor people, people with disabilities walking on one leg and one arm, stumps, an unrepaired hare lip, people who slept on the ground in railway stations or streets. But the people there were beautiful. What I felt the first time in India was a great sense of returning to Nature and simplicity, and this was wonderful. We felt that all these people did not have much to envy us and, basically, although we Westerners were materially richer we were spiritually poorer. In India, people didn’t have much but they felt spiritually richer and more human.
On the plane back to Europe I already knew I would go back to India for a long time some day. And I wanted to learn Hindi.
NB: This is the edition of a text I wrote in September 2005! Although I have edited a lot of it because it is 13-years old, I have not changed the content, which faithfully reflects my first impressions of India and how I felt at the time! If I had written a text about my first time in India from scratch today it would have been very different, because memories change over time. Besides, I often forget how it is to come to India for the first time now that this incredible country has been my home for so long! And what so deeply moved me when I encountered it for the first time has become pretty normal…
Read more: One year in India: 2007-2008