100 days

(written 100 days before leaving for my third trip in December 2008)

One hundred more days and I lose myself in Ma India for the third time.  These pictures are only three out of the 500+ pictures I took during my first two trips.

the vibrant colors of flowers from a flower seller’s cart in Pondicherry…

the joy of a man dropping flowers onto another man in a flower warehouse in Chennai…

and finally the children — children who have nothing compared to many American children, yet they seem to have what is most important…

These are some of the images that are burned into my mind ever since I returned from my first trip in 2005.  There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about Ma India, the good and the bad and the ugly.  Some days I wake up thinking about her, and some nights I go to sleep thinking about her.  I can’t explain it, it’s just the way it is.  For those of you who have been to India, and love it as I do, you know exactly what I’m talking about, there is no need for explanation.  To paraphrase Louis Armstrong when he talked about jazz, “if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.”

I long for that very early morning in Chennai at the end of December when I step outside the airport and hesitate, stopping to drink everything in with all my senses, the sights, the sounds, and yes, even the smell — a damp, cloying smell mixed with green and smoke and diesel fuel that attaches to my skin like wet cloth — and then step into my freedom.

Yes, freedom, because I feel light and free in India.   I’ve just read the book Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff by Rosemary Mahoney and she describes for me how I feel when I go to India, a solo woman traveler of a certain age…

I was alone, finally, with no one to protect me. I wanted to sing for happiness — a rare, raw, immediate sort of happiness that was directly related to my physical situation, to my surroundings, to independence, and to solitude. The happiness I felt that morning had nothing to do with the future or the past, with abstractions or with my relationships to other people. It was the happiness of entering into something new, of taking the moments simply for what they were, of motion, of freedom, and of free will. I loved not knowing what would happen next, loved that no one here knew me. I felt coordinated and strong, and the world seemed huge and vibrant. It was a relief to be alone…My happiness was a feeling of physical lightness, of weightlessness, like drifting on air…

To prepare for her trip up the Nile, Mahoney read the Egypt travel journals of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale.  She writes that she recognized in Flaubert’s notes (written about 1850) the same kind of happiness she felt.   She quotes Flaubert as he witnesses the Nile:

I felt a surge of solemn happiness that reached out towards what I was seeing and I thanked God in my heart for having made me capable of such joy; I felt fortunate at the thought, and yet it seemed to me that I was thinking about nothing: it was a sensuous pleasure that pervaded my entire being.

Mahoney quotes Florence Nightingale’s reaction to a Nile sunrise:

It looks. . .so transparent and pure, that one really believes one’s self looking into a heaven beyond, and feels a little shy of penetrating into the mysteries of God’s throne…


rameswaram sunset #2a

This is the sunset taken from the top of a temple in Rameswaram and just beyond the horizon is Sri Lanka.  As I  stared into the limitless expanse of ocean I began to cry as I imagined the monkey god Hanuman leaping from rock to rock to rescue Sita.  Like Flaubert, I also thanked God. . .and Buddha and Shiva and Kali that I was “capable of such joy.”  Such profound joy and pleasure that it indeed pervaded my entire being.

Finally Mahoney describes Flaubert and Nightingale as neither having “any desire to fit the tediously cliched expectations that society had slated for them”; that they both “prized solitude”; and both traveled Egypt during periods of “considerable personal uncertainty and self-doubt”, agonizing “over how they would use their talents and answer their natural impulses.”

I am a woman of a certain age who travels alone, relishing my solitude.  It is possible for me to feel solitude in the chaos of an Indian city.  I also do not suffer tediously cliched expectations gladly.

Ma India, I’m coming home.

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