By Teva Sienicki, Livingston Fellow Class of 2015
Traveling in India, I remembered daily ‒hourly sometimes ‒ the mantra a mentor taught me as a beginning English as a Second Language teacher, “Plan like crazy and go with the flow.” This mindset, I’ve discovered, provides a valuable orientation for life; not just for teaching. And India, which serves up life in its most intense forms, provides an excellent lab for attitude practice.
About 18 years ago, I traveled to India for two months as part of a year-long study travel program. The first time I was there felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride: a buckle your seatbelt adventure tour of temples, monasteries, spice markets, mystics, intellectuals, street food and masala chai. I found India an exhausting yet exhilarating place: filthy and beautiful, magical and horrifying. So when I decided to return as part of my Livingston Fellowship, I craved that crazy energy and spiritual adventure again.
On the day we were traveling from Udaipur to Jodhpur, we’d been advised to hire a car and get off the state highway to take in some amazing sights en route to our destination. We’d been told the drive would take 5 to 6 hours, and ought to include stops at a village with red soil, a fort and a Jain temple. After consulting Google Maps, which indicated that the 260 kilometer journey should take 4 hours 22 minutes, this seemed entirely reasonable. With stops and inevitable delays due to livestock on the road, I estimated we’d still complete the journey in a full day and arrive in time for a quick phone call to my boys.
The morning started off well enough until we were fired by our driver and sworn out of India during final negotiations. We then solicited the help of some new friends we’d made during our time in town, and in about an hour’s time secured a new ride and set out in an immaculately maintained car showcasing a crocheted tissue box holder and cloth head rests. Our driver reminded me of my late grandfather or Mike Ditka: he acted like a man in charge and displayed an endearing combination of firm, confident, generous and gregarious personality traits. He seemed delighted at the novelty of foreign customers, stopping at all the best places to eat along the way and showing off the western women in his charge.
One cannot underestimate the fierce flexibility required for travel in India where even little things like physically driving out of town can involve myriad obstacles, detours and delays.
First, we hit and injured a little black goat. I tried to communicate my distress to the driver and my desire to stop and do something- to give the owner some money or something, but the language barrier kept us from a meaningful exchange on the matter, and we carried on along the beautiful and treacherous windy road, the desert hills rolling out into the distance.
Soon after the goat gimped off the road, the driver got a mysterious call and turned off the A/C. We pieced together that our price did not include A/C. Given the honking, dust, wind, and, of course the heat, it felt worth an extra eight bucks, so we requested that he please turn it back on. Multiple cell phone calls back and forth to headquarters and a stop at a gas station to converse with an anonymous man with impeccable English and unknown ties to the driver resolved the matter and we were on our way once again.
Then, the amazing parts unfolded, India-style. We pulled over for a thali lunch under a thatch roof near our first destination. A thali is a glorious selection of dishes meant to showcase and balance all six flavors: sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy on a single plate. The restaurant proprietor took obvious pride in his food, and this humble thatched roof version served up an incredibly delicious version accompanied by a perfect spicy, creamy chai.
A horrific traffic jam extended for well over a kilometer from the entrance/parking lot of Kumbhalgarh Fort all the way to the restaurant, and (though we told him we could walk there unassisted), our driver decided it best to escort us to the gate on foot, chiding and scolding other drivers for holding us up the whole way.
You hear fort, and you expect a rustic military outpost. This remote 15th century fortress featured an intact fortification wall that extended for over 36 kilometers and grounds that encompassed over 200 square kilometers as well as over 360 temples and ruins- many well over 2,000 years old. As the only apparent westerners on site, we became popular subjects in many family pictures; I smiled and held strangers’ babies like the best of politicians. Monkeys patrolled the premises seeking snacks and sparkly things to steal. Worshipers visited many of the still active temples, and at the forceful coaxing of one old woman, I stopped to make an offering to Kali. The site itself proved one of the most impressive archeological sites I’ve ever seen, and I found it as breathtaking as the Great Wall of China and more awe-inspiring in scale, scope, preservation and beauty than most of the temples, forts, castles and other sites I’ve seen.
But things took another turn for the worse after that. Darkness fell around us on the sketchy mountain roads, triggering a deep seated fear of narrow, remote roads that I’ve had since I flipped a car on a similar road in Namibia when I was 21. What had started as an easy day trip had stretched into another epic adventure day and we began to discuss the possibility of staying somewhere overnight. When I realized just how many more hours remained in our drive, I knew that another day was sailing away before I could call my boys. They would be long into their school days by the time I could get a Wi-Fi or a phone signal. The weight of missing them settled into my chest.
Despite the schedule delay, and our likely late arrival to Jodhpur, we persevered on our voyage to a 2,000-year-old Jain temple in a deeply wooded canyon, closed by the time of our arrival. Our driver used his signature exasperated and scolding confidence to talk us by the gate guards though we were not allowed to join Jain practitioners inside the temple after dark. Regardless, the temple- carved from stone to incredible scale- did not disappoint and we gaped at the lit up exterior.
Well behind schedule and now long after dark, our driver pulled off at an additional rest stop and splurged to treat us to sweet masala chai, a gesture that from a man of clearly modest means, demonstrated his sincere care for our wellbeing and hospitality. Then, as the hours dragged by and the night wrapped us in ever blacker skies, we encountered a religious protest blocking traffic in both directions near a remote temple. It felt like the kind of situation that could escalate out of control, and we were entirely helpless. But to our driver, this was just another bump in the road: he stopped, sighed, got out, and Ditka-style, walked right into the throngs of angry young men and with a forcibly polite negotiation, got them to let us through.
This is the magic of India: my worst day was also one of my best. These are the spiritual and life lessons India offers up when you go with it: the chance to be afraid and brave, lonely and held, exasperated and amused, strong and vulnerable in a single moment. India doles out the juxtaposition of life’s extremes and its bittersweet moments in abundance, and it is in these tensions one can stretch most, if only you stay open to them.