I know people who told me they would never go to India. Others told me they would have cancelled their plans in light of the Mumbai attacks one month prior to my visit. My sister said me her biggest fear was that she or her family might get sick. Most people I talked to about their travels in India did get sick at some point. Others told hair-raising stories about bus drivers seemingly bent on taking all their passengers with them in a kind of involuntary suicide pact. But my greatest fear wasn’t that I’d be attacked by terrorists, poisoned by contaminated food or crushed in a high-speed collision. My fear was that I would be adrift in a strange land without any idea of what to do with myself. I never saw a terrorist. I never got sick and I never had a traffic accident. But I did face my greatest fear.
Grey skies seemed about to drizzle the day I wished my sister and her family good-bye, left the cozy enclave of the Indian Institute of Science and began the solo part of my trip. A jolly auto-rickshaw driver dropped my off at the train station. Ticket in hand I went to look for the train to Mysore. Maybe it’s difficult to understand my fear. After all the world was my oyster, right? I could go anywhere and do anything I pleased. India is really not a very dangerous place for foreigners at all, despite what many Americans seem to think. The problem was I didn’t really know where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I had come to India counting on inspiration to lead me once I was there. As I stood on the platform wondering if I were in the right spot it seemed like inspiration was running a little late.
India’s not a good place to lack clarity of purpose. I’m the kind of person who gets over-stimulated at the mall. I avoid them whenever possible and I only go when I have a specific mission so I can get in, take care of business and get out without having to wander around looking for things. American malls are clean and orderly filled with relatively friendly people who speak English. Even on the busiest day of the year they aren’t crowded by Indian standards. And I didn’t have any mission beyond a vague idea of “experiencing India.”
So imagine my relief when an Indian man I asked for directions at the train station turned out speak impeccable English and happily helped me find my train. It was his train, too. Perhaps sensing my vulnerability, he took on helping me with my travel arrangements as his own personal project. He phoned ahead to a hotel he knew in Mysore and made a reservation for me. Once we arrived, he personally took me to the hotel and gave me his two cell phone numbers in case I needed anything. The next morning he accompanied me to the bus station and made sure I got on the right bus. Things seemed to be going well.
I’d spent most of my time so far in Indian cities and I was determined to find some peace and quiet. Mysore is a smaller city than Banglaore but not small enough. I headed for the hills. But to what end? I read through my guidebook. An Indian woman on Kauai had told me about dozens of beautiful temples I could visit. Other travelers had told me about great food and “spiritual entertainment” in the nearby state of Goa. But none of the tourist spots really appealed to me. So what was I doing there? My lack of purpose was confounded by my lack of traveling skills. Up to that point I had relied on my brother-in-law who has traveled in India many times to make arrangements for me. Now I was on my own.
I had made it to Madikeri, a mountainous town in a coffee growing region. With a population of around 30,000 it was a quieter than other places I’d stayed, but very few people spoke English and I had difficulty figuring things out. I was floundering just as I had feared. It was a low point of my trip. I wanted to change my ticket and go home early. But go home to what? I had been laid off from my job and had moved out of my apartment and put my things in storage. I was homeless and unemployed. Rushing home to Kauai seemed like a ridiculous idea. I decided to give it a little more time. I would have to persevere even though I did not know what exactly I was holding out for.
Hiking is a natural choice for me but trails were neither mapped nor marked so trekking without a guide was out of the question. The guide I spoke to would only take me if he found additional tourists to share the trip. There didn’t seem to be any forthcoming but at the last minute a lovely English couple rolled into town signed up to go hiking into the hills with me. Now at least I was in my element, but southern India is not known for its adventure tourism and while it was pleasant tromping about I couldn’t help but wonder what was the point of coming to India to hike terrain I could have found in Hawaii or California?
As the three-day trip wound down, I was anticipating the question of what to do next. The English woman told me about a school of Indian art in Kerala that friends of hers had recommended. I figured it was better to have a plan than not and that sounded like a good enough plan for me. As soon as we got back to town I contacted the school. They asked if I would like to study Karnatic vocal music and woodcarving. I told them to sign me up.
How often does inspiration come as a flash of light anyway? The clarity of purpose I had hoped for finally arrived as a process that unfolded on step at a time. I still couldn’t figure out how to get the bus I wanted so I ended up going to another city fairly far out of my way that seem to have more buses. Maybe I wasn’t going exactly the right direction but at least I was moving.