See my full India Trip Slideshow here.
It has taken me a while to wake up from this dream, a dream where the people are pure and devoted, and the land is peaceful and sacred. This is a dream of India that’s now so deeply engraved within my heart, and will be cherished forever in my memory.
1. New Delhi
At local time 8:30pm, we landed at the Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport. It is a newly built airport that was simple, clean, and modern. I was very impressed and felt quite the good start to my journey. The washrooms are decorated with different men and women dressed in local attire, and the customs hall had different hand mudras overhead.
I walked confidently outside of the arrival gate to find a row of people with signs in their hands. I looked carefully for my name, but there was nothing. My heart beated faster, and my palms got sweaty in the heat. I suddenly remembered Gopi telling us that the driver might be waiting outside the building, so I gripped onto my luggage tightly, and walked into the cool night of New Delhi. There I was greeted by even more people waiting, but still I didn’t see my name. I started to panic and thought to myself, I should never have ventured outside! As I rolled my luggage back into the arrival hall, I was stopped by an armed guard, telling me no entry after exiting! I calmed myself down and explained to him that I’m just trying to find my driver, so he double checked my passport and boarding pass and let me back in. I was later told that the reason is because you have to pay 80 rupees (a little over 1 dollar) to enter the building, and they do this to avoid people going in for free and living inside the airports. In India, if you don’t charge anything, it will cease to be what you intend it to be. I paced nervously around the arrival hall, wondering if I should exchange some money and get a local sim card to call Gopi. It was then when I took a deep breath in, and told myself, Sophie, you can do this! With that I braced myself and walked out of the building again. I carefully examined each and every sign people held, and still, none with my name on it. I am now in total panic mode, and just as I was about to kick myself in the foot, a man dressed in a nice suit came back from behind with my name in his hands! I’ve never been so happy to see someone in my life! He told me that he’s been there since 9pm, so I must have missed him when he went for a break.
After finding my driver I had my first experience of India driving, where the foot is always on the accelerator and one hand is always on the horn. There is no such thing as shoulder check, and the only way to let other drivers know that you are passing is by honking at them. There are no defined driving lanes, and as many as four cars can squeeze in one line. I decided to put on my eye mask and lie down in the back seat to sleep.
The air was humid and smoggy, reminding me much of China, but with the upbeat Hindi music playing on the radio, I was reminded that I was no longer home, and my adventure in this magical country has just begun.
Incredible !ndia, here I am!
It took us about 4 hours to get to Vrindavan, with almost half of it stuck in terrible traffic. I arrived at the MVT Bhaktivedanta Ashram at 2am, checked into my room and had my first culture shock. The room was clean yet not to the standards that I’m used to. The bed was small and stiff, the washroom smelled of musky water deposits, and the beddings felt soggy due to the humidity. To my horror there was no toilet paper or towels available, and I couldn’t go bother anyone at this late hour, so I made do with napkins and skipped my much wanted shower and went to bed.
I woke up at 5am, and wasn’t sure what to do or where to go. Everyone in my group had already arrived and was staying in the rooms beside me, so I ventured outside and knocked on the first door I saw a light on. Kish opened the door with an apologetic face and asked if he was chanting too loud. I smiled and introduced myself, and he told me yoga was at 7am, and would walk to the school with me. I thanked him and went back to my room to freshen up.
Closer to 7 there was a knock on my door and Gopi the lead guide came to welcome me to the group. We all met downstairs in the garden and took a rickshaw to the Vrindavan Food for Life School for yoga and meet the children there.
The school works in the poorest villages in the Vrindavan area to provide food, basic medical assistance, training courses for women, and drilling for drinking water and constructing water tanks for the people, and also provides primary and high school education for the disadvantaged girls in the region. We joined them for their assembly and then played as we all held hands and sprung around in circles. All of the children were so eager to hold our hands, and fought for our attention. They loved getting their photos taken, and was just so full of joy and happiness even though what they have is so little compared to us. Their school bus was a simple carridge that says “bull powered schoolbus”, and I was treated to our first breakfast in India, using leaves made plates and bowls.
The next day we took a boat ride on the sacred Yamuna Rivers, sang Kirtan, and joined an evening puja along the river. A very beautiful experience as if it was out of a painting.
The last day before catching the overnight sleeper bus to Allahabad (Prayag) we went on a short bus trip to Barsana and visited the eye camp there.
Barsana is surrounded by a cluster of 120 villages. The villagers here are extremely poor and can barely afford one square meal a day. There are no medical facilities in this cluster. Due to their extreme poverty and lack of medical facilities they prefer to lead a life of blindness due to cataract. So to help them see, Bhaktivedanta Hospital takes a lot of efforts, and conducts the annual Barsana Eye Camp. Now, monthly eye camps on first four days of each month are also held, to facilitate the need there. All the required equipments, medicines, lenses, surgical items, Operating microscopes, etc., are transported from Mumbai to Barsana. The team of volunteers from Bhaktivedanta Hospital and Share Your Care put their efforts together to build a fully equipped, modern and sterile operation theatre in the primary health center at Barsana.
4. Kumbh Mela
If I could sum up Kumbh Mela in one word it would be “crazy”. On the main bathing day Feb 10th there was approximately 45 million people gathered together in Allahabad waiting to bathe in the Sangam to wash away their sins and ask for blessing. I still can’t believe that I was amongst all of that, and even though it was loud and crowded, I felt very peaceful and quiet inside of me. With all that high energy surrounding us, we sang and clapped our hands around camp fires, offered our heart and soul into the sacred rivers. Two of our group members brought the ashes of their loved ones, and we had a very intimate and emotional ceremony for them to say goodbye as their ashes floated down the Ganges.
On the day that we are to leave for Lucknow, we were up at 3am. To our surprise and dismay, it was so foggy that we couldn’t even see right in front of us. It was impossible for the cars to get in to our camp site, and we waited for 5 long hours before getting out of the Kumbha Mela. While I was on the first car to leave and arrived in time for the plane ride to Mumbai, the rest of the group didn’t. We were all famished and tired, but none of us complained or was angry at anyone. I think we were all just happy that we got out, and too tired to think straight. Obviously with a group of 18 people it is impossible to get on another flight, so it was decided that we are to take the train.
5. Lucknow to Mumbai
After much drama and a bit of tears at the train station, we finally got tickets for everyone aboard the 5:30am train to Mumbai. The train ride was definite a great experience for all of us. The whole ride took 27 hours from Lucknow to Mumbai, but time flew by so quickly with us having fun. We had a “feelings bottle” to pass around and shared how we felt or to get anything off our chest, a massage circle for our necks and shoulders, and was even able to surf the internet when Aaron suddenly received 3G on his iphone! We were well fed by the temples along the way, bringing food to us at the train station when we passed by. It’s like a close knit network of love and friendship, and whenever one’s in need all will come to help. We were also entertained by magic card tricks, jokes, and tricks I can do with my hands.
6. Govardhan Eco Village
After everything we’ve went through, arriving at the Eco Village was like reaching the gates of Heaven. The rooms were gorgeous, the gardens were serene, and there was hot shower! I was pared up with Loretta again, and she swears I showered so many times that I’m washing my skin dry. It was humid and 30 degrees, so when I sweat after yoga or a tour I would jump in the shower and freshen up.
The village is fully self-sustaining and nothing goes to waste. It “aims to demonstrate the principles of self-sufficiency and localized economy to the world. In consultation with organic farming experts, all inputs and outputs are natural, and only indigenous varieties of grain are grown. Instead of chemical fertilizers, we employ cow dung and natural compost. Cow urine and neem oil serve as organic pesticides and bulls are favored over machinery for ploughing.”
I especially enjoyed seeing how they treat sewer using a Soil Biotechnology plant to grow a rooftop full of flowers and papaya trees, and utilized the leftover food waste to produce methane gas that goes back to the kitchen to prepare food. The whole village is based on the principle of “Simple Living & High Thinking”, and combines the wisdom of the old and the technology of the new.
Another special treat was the Ayurvedic massage and facial I received from the wellness centre, it was much needed and very rejuvenating.
7. Home Bound
As the plane glided gently down in Halifax International Airport, the dream finally came to an end. It’s as if nothing changed, yet I felt absentminded, uneasy, and a little lost. It’s so quiet here, no more honking of the horns, littering along the streets, or crowds gathering at every corner. If India was a sensory overload, then here it’s the lack thereof. Yet in both worlds we are living, striving, and very much alive. Who is it to argue what’s a better lifestyle? To live on a farm with cows or in a developed country where everything is readily available? To be a consumer or become self-efficient? I don’t know. But what’s seen and experienced cannot be taken back, and I know that I’ve changed.
There are still lots to digest and absorb. I want to find ways to apply what I have seen and learned to my daily life, and how to be worthy of living and make the best of everything. I’m definitely suffering from group fun withdraw, missing everyone on the trip that experienced this beautiful dream with me. Without their smile, support, and acts of kindness, it wouldn’t have been the same. I’m so grateful for their presence and companionship throughout the good times and the tough situations. Sometimes it’s not where you are but who you are with that defines the whole experience, and although it wasn’t a smooth sailing and turned out to be a huge learning curve for all of us, I wouldn’t have change a thing. It was perfect in the way that it was meant to be, and what we experienced in our hearts and souls is priceless.
The trip to India may have ended, but my personal pilgrimage is still ongoing. I’m honored to be able to share these wonderful journeys with all of you, and I look forward to even more adventures in the future.