“Cheer up, you old bugger. Worse things happen at sea. I mean what you got to lose? You come from nothing, you’re going back to nothing, what have you lost? Nothing! Nothing will come from nothing. Know what I mean? Cheer up. Give us a grin. It’s the end of the picture. They’ll never make their money back. I said to ’em, ‘Bernie,’ I said, ‘They’ll never make their money back.'”
from the film Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, c. 1979.
When I was traveling in India I bought myself two bus tickets, one for me and one for my backpack. With my western wallet the bus tickets were dirt cheap and I wanted to sit alone. Then the bus filled up beyond any idea I previously held of what a full bus might look like. It was just a rundown school bus to begin with, no air conditioning and all the windows open. I was very stubborn about keeping my backpack in the seat next to me because otherwise I had no idea what would happen to it. The aisles were full up with standing people, there were passengers crouched on the dashboard and crowded in the stairwell against the front door. An elderly man behind me who spoke English started to scold me for keeping my backpack on the seat when there was a pregnant woman standing in the aisle.
I hadn’t planned to travel alone in India by bus. But my friend and I had argued the day before and she had furtively changed her plane ticket to spite me. By the time she announced that she was not coming with me to Madras/Chennai, I could no longer change my ticket. She had decided I was an awful travel companion because I didn’t like to spend time choosing a restaurant. Because I didn’t think it was worth it to peruse menus and deliberate between lousy choices. Okay, so we were incompatible, and I cried in my hotel room that morning, then I checked out and flew to Madras by myself.
A businessman on the plane gave me a number for a car service to take me to the ashram in Tiruvannamalai. Yes, I was going to an ashram, but only for three days. I wasn’t dropping out of my personal rat race (more of a mini-golf course) or changing my name. The trip to the ashram was two hours by car, and five by bus, but when I got into the car the driver announced that he was going to charge me twice what we had agreed to on the phone. We started shouting at each other, and I ended up on the bus.
So there I was sitting with my backpack, and the white-haired man behind me kept telling me how selfish and American I was (how did he guess?) so finally I said, Okay, fine, let the pregnant woman sit here. Actually there were seven or eight pregnant women, but the closest pregnant woman sat where my backpack had been. Then everyone passed my bag above their heads to the front of the bus where I couldn’t see it. So there went my backpack. I was able to check on it a few hours later, when the bus stopped for a bathroom break. I won’t describe the rest area except to say it was traumatic for me. If you don’t like mountains of human feces, then you wouldn’t have liked it.
At the ashram I was terrorized by giant monkeys who had the run of the place. I witnessed some beautiful rituals, and took some inspiring hikes at dawn with a woman named Carol. There were a few western casualties hiding out there, people who had fled to India from Copenhagen or Seattle at some point for a spiritual cure and just never made it back. These people were invariably skeletal, all skull and sari. The Indian lifestyle didn’t seem to agree with their health, yet they stayed, meditating in the caves, which were not as removed from civilization as you might think. You always hear about renunciants who live in caves, but these caves weren’t remote at all. Dwellers could easily pop downtown to buy candy and check email.
It was a convenient place to get enlightened, except I didn’t. However, in the cab on the way back to the airport I did have a realization that I was nothing and that I was doing nothing and would pretty much be doing nothing for the rest of my life. This thought probably occurs to most international travellers at some point. It’s easy to forget yourself when you are in a foreign land, out of your routine, and especially in an “overpopulated” country like India where individuality isn’t even considered a valid claim.
But it was more than just a thought. I actually got to a moment of nothingness by letting my awareness travel out of my body and up into the far right corner of the cab, up into the hollow where the rear window connected to the roof of the car. My awareness was still inside the car, traveling along the bumpy road with me, but it had detached itself from the thinking part of my brain. So it was temporarily located outside of me and up to the right, like Jiminy Cricket or Tinkerbell, but since this is an India story, let’s give it the shape of Hanuman. (Think Wizard of Oz monkey, but fine of feature, like Brad Pitt.) I was able to move a part of myself outside of myself, and this felt great. It was a huge release. Relief. Unfortunately, the experience only lasted for a few seconds, and I couldn’t do it again, at least not at the time. So the freedom didn’t last, in a real way, but it seems to have lasted in some kind of unreal way, because I am thinking about it right now, thirteen years later. As it turns out, that’s enough.
photo of plastic items by Martin Cameron, c. 1990 ♣from HOW IN THE WORLD? (Reader's Digest, 1990.)