by Lauri Fraser
I am told that people get a calling to go to certain places like India. Me, I had no calling to go to India. As far as I was concerned, if there was a calling, then it was the wrong number. My hairdressing work was steady. The dog and I were getting along. I was not in a relationship. Had I been, and had my love looked over at me and said “I love you and I’m taking you to India “I would have said, “Go fish.” I love you Tahiti? Yes. I love you Italy? Yes. But India. Like my client Karen would say, “Ha ha ha I don’t THINK so.” My meditation teacher of fifteen years, was taking a group of his students, on a month long trip. I didn’t take up meditation to go to India. I just needed balance in my life. I’m I’m into health, I love to party. Hence, Mediation, Martini. Meditation, Martini. Detox to retox is what I always say. They say if you can attain enlightenment, you can come back in your next life as a.... Goddess. I don’t care so much about enlightenment, I just don’t want to come back a roach. I had a lot of fear about going to a place where people, especially children, are suffering. Nope, looking into the eyes of hunger and poverty was not big on my list for a vacation. What if I got lost? What about the bugs? I was told that if I got sick, to get on the nearest plane and get to Singapore, or Taipei. Paris, anywhere but India. What if I got Malaria! I was fearful of so many things, like……. the bathroom. Going in a hole in the ground was not this city girl’s idea of relief. Toilet paper? Not in my hotel. B.Y.O.T-P. F.Y.I. Indians never shake hand with the right. “Oh no.” (stare into audience) Shake with your left hand and all will be good”.
Politically it was not the time to travel. It was late February 2003. Word had it that the people of the world were changing it’s opinion of Americans. We were warned not to have any sort of flags or emblems on our luggage. Samsonite and the flag on my Eagle Pack backpack were easily removed. When I landed in Deli, there were Indian Military everywhere…and cows, everywhere else. We were greeted with smiles and helped onto buses for the next leg of our journey. Varanasi.
Varanasi is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Three million people in a city the size of Santa Monica. Excuse me, could you inhale so that I can exhale?
Understand the country is poor. It takes $3,500.00 to feed, house and clothe a family for a year.
Watching the traffic move is like an orchestrated dance, conducted by a pecking order of horns and bells. Buses, cars, motorcycles; bikes, rickshaws, tuk-tuks; people, and cows. Hardly any accidents. Oh, and when there IS one, it looks like this. “Oh my goodness. Look at my car!” “Your car? Look at MY car!” “Oh no. Oh no.” “Oh my. This is terrible. Just terrible.” “What am I going to do?” “Are you ok?” “Yes. Are you ok?” “Yes.” “Ok then. Bye-bye.” “Bye bye.” I love that about the Indians. They live in the now. They feel it, they say it, then they get on with the business of living. Everyone knows their place and they seem to be ok with it. Although, if you’re a pedestrian and you’re not careful; crossing the road can propel you right into your next life. Oh and did I mention the Monkeys? (They have been known to slap you on the head and steal your backpack.
The Indians Love to negotiate. It’s part of their culture. I just wanted to pay the price. I was sick of haggling. But they won’t let you. You say “How much,” and you get your wallet out ready to pay whatever they ask. They know this. But it’s the sport of the thing. They know you’re weary. They say “One thousand dollars”. “For an incense burner? “Yes.” I wouldn’t pay over 20 dollars!”. “Oh goody.” and the game begins. Nineteen ninety-nine. Very special. You’ll never see another one like it. “ “Really?” “Oh?” “Absolutely positively, perfectly. ” They love to use three adverbs in a row. Absolutely, positively, perfectly.
India is magnificent. It’s also in your face. Everything happens at the same time. It’s as though there aren’t any walls separating life. A person is suffering, at the same time a person is praying, at the same time a person is shitting in the street, getting married, getting cremated. It’s all right there. I cried everyday, over the poverty and the suffering children. One minute I wanted to go home, to my safe little life imagining that this didn’t exist. The next minute, I wanted to play activist and try and DO something about it. Everyday, as I walked down the steps to meditate I would pass the same woman. She had Leprosy, and almost no nose. She would tilt her head to one side with a look on her face that would make Hitler reach into his pocket, as she held an old tin cup out to me. I would put something in the cup and then go back to my room and cry. One of the women on the trip asked me how I was doing, and I said awful, and told her about the old woman. “What could I do for her? I feel like such a greedy American. I have so much and “. She interrupted me and said, “You can look at her in her eyes, and with every bit of good energy that you can muster up, you can give her your smile.”Oh, sure. Easy for you to say, with your Bloomingdales underwear and your I Pod.
It was a very special time in India. It was Shivaratri. Thousands of people come from all over the world to be at the foot of the Ganges River for Shivaratri. It is said that this is when the Lord Shiva dove from the seventh plane of existence into the ocean and his head came up (along with the rest of him), from the Ganges for all to see, this place called Varanasi (Benares) India has been sacred ever since. Temples were everywhere, and I was taken on a Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of tour. Under walkways, through rock tunnels. I was getting a little anxious being underground so much. I noticed a little outside alcove so I took advantage. I must have been there longer than I thought because suddenly I was alone. Where had everyone gone? This was where I had to make haste and get back to the Hotel in the middle town. This was Shivaratri and the city was even crazier than usual and I was by myself, which normally wouldn’t bother me, but I had no sense of direction. I didn’t recognize any of the landmarks.
I hoped on a rickshaw. I tried to tell him the Clark Hotel, but all that came out was “Hotel”. Some of these folks in Varanasi seem to know what you’re thinking, long before you know what you’re thinking. He just smiled and started pedaling. It was as if he’d been looking for me. As we made our way down narrow, rocky streets towards the hotel, the pollution and the soot is very thick. I have on a white shirt with flowers in my hair, a blessing from the priest of the last temple we visited. Every time I went into a temple I was blessed. Blessed so many times I’m sure I was ordained by association. As the rickshaw took up speed I noticed another rickshaw approaching. Riding in the seat was a beautiful Indian woman in a brilliantly orange colored sari with her son who had perfect white teeth. Indian mouths seem to be filled with either old rotted pointed teeth, or perfect white teeth. The woman had a sheer orange shawl that matched and it was draped lightly over her nose and mouth. On the side of the road, walking was a Muslim woman in her Burke, also with her son, both in black and she was completely covered by her matching black shawl covering everything but her eyes. Then there was me. I had on my wreath of flowers and my shawl that I had only just removed from my shoulders to wrap over my nose and mouth because it was so dusty. My choice to cover my face or not. As I sat in the rickshaw, both the woman and I had a dance going on with our eyes. Each just looking, observing, for a moment, everything went into slow motion and there was just the three of us. She’s looking at me; I’m looking at her, the two of them looking at each other then back to me. Not Indian, Muslim, American. Just three women, all living different lives at the same time, but women just the same.
I had to catch my breath. I felt almost claustrophobic. What was so different about me? I was a free woman. I had my freedom. Sweet freedom. We were to return for the last meditation on the Ganges. I packed up all my things except for what I needed to wear back on the plane. and took everything , including the suitcase to Mother Theresa’s shelter. What did I need. We have Target at home. That morning as I descended down the steep stairs, I could see her sitting there. The woman with no nose. I realized that up to this point, I hadn’t looked at her. I had put money in the cup each day but never looked into her eyes. I was afraid. Who did I think I was? Who did SHE think I was? I felt overdone with my nail polish and my new Yoga pants, and my prayer beads hung just so, and my scarf around my head, but how did I know. I’m a hairdresser. We accessorize. Holding my purple meditation pillow that had been with me for the last 17 years of meditation retreats.
No one would have thought badly of me to spend my vacation sitting on some beach sipping umbrella drinks all day and dancing and carrying on all night. But no…something inside me takes me to these places where life explodes in my face busting through any hope of a fairytale existence, with nothing to take the edge off. I took a breath. I thought of nothing but the purest intention of beauty and goodness meant just for her, this woman, who is just like me, a woman who is the sum of her experiences, trying to make it through her day, a survivor, and I smiled my best most possible smile. My heart was beating so fast. I kept smiling. through the discomfort, through the self-indulgent thoughts of who she thought I might be. I kept smiling through it all. Then, when I was just about to break, she broke open this most beautiful smile right back at me and her eyes sparkled, eyes that I lost myself in as I could see right through to her beautiful soul, and I went right back up to my room and I cried. But it was a different sort of cry this time.