Pilgrimage to India
Last year on this very day I was in the air on my way to Southern India on pilgrimage with my spiritual teacher, Devaji. It has taken me this long to integrate the experience, but I am finally moved to write something about it.
As with all such adventures, this one began as soon as I made the commitment to go, sometime in July of 2015. At first, all I felt was elation at the prospect of visiting the holy mountain of Arunachala, where the great Indian saint Ramana Maharshi had lived for the bulk of his life.. As the time for departure got closer, however, fear and trepidation began to arise, as it so often does with any significant undertaking.
I had never been to India before so I wondered, would this be too much for me? The trip alone was daunting: a 15-hour non-stop flight from San Francisco to Dubai, then a 4-hour flight to Chennai, India, and finally a 4-hour van ride to the Suddhananda Ashram in Tiruvannamalai where we would be staying for nearly a month. The culture – so different from our own – the poverty, pollution, congestion.. How would I respond? Then, of course, there is the very real possibility of disease – whether food- or insect-borne.. I began to have second thoughts and called my teacher and others in the sangha (Sanskrit for like-minded community) for reassurance, which they readily offered.. I calmed down and got down to the business of preparing for the trip, which required passport renewal, getting an Indian Visa, shopping for all the accoutrements that would be useful in an austere environment and obtaining necessary shots and preventive medications.. The story of obtaining an Indian Visa could by itself fill up this space, so I’ll skip that. Suffice it to say, that it was a good introduction to the chaos I would soon be experiencing.
We were departing at 3:30 in the afternoon from SFO, flying Emirates Air. I took the shuttle mid-morning from downtown Monterey and was sitting alone with nobody in the adjacent seat until a stop in Marina where a woman sat down beside me.. We smiled at each other but did not speak, both immersed in our own thoughts.. The shuttle arrived at the international terminal of the airport without incident, and I headed off on my adventure, feeling a bit overwhelmed..
I located the Emirates counter and was about to get in line when I noticed a familiar face – someone from Devaji’s sangha in Lake Shasta in Northern California, where he is based.. I breathed a sigh of relief. Diana and I embraced, and she introduced me to a man named Jay, also from Shasta.. Diana was already checked in, so Jay and I, who were both flying economy, got in the Emirates check-in line together and exchanged pleasantries while we shuffled along.. I was taken with the beauty of the Emirates flight attendants with their crisp red suits and red fezzes decorated with a swath of white chiffon-like fabric draping down to their shoulders..
I made it through the check-in without a hitch, but there was a complication with Jay’s ticketing that eventually led to his not being able to board, with no certainty the problem could be easily resolved. It was an unsettling beginning -- for him in particular -- but also for me -- to discover right away that some obstacles could not be overcome. -- my worst fear in venturing out into such foreign terrain.
As I headed toward the departure gate, Deva and his traveling companions, who were flying business class, were likewise finishing checking in. I was warmly greeted and felt a layer of concern melt away.. I made a light comment about “following him wherever he was going,” only to be told that Deva and the others were going to the business-class lounge, where, of course, I wasn’t allowed.. Feeling embarrassed and deflated, I mumbled something inane, and we parted company.. Deva was experiencing serious back issues and was traveling business class for the first time in his many pilgrimages to India to ensure some degree of comfort. From my perspective, however, any compassion for him was overtaken by feelings of abandonment and feeling small and unworthy, a theme that was to recur during the course of this trip..
Two others from the sangha in Shasta appeared, Richard and Jill. Jill, who had made this trip before, took me under her wing and kept me company as we went through security, found our gate and settled in to wait to board our aircraft. I noticed that the woman who had sat next to me on the shuttle was also on the same flight.
To my delight, I would soon discover that Emirates, which is subsidized by the wealthy United Arab Emirates government, is a first-class airline with delicious food, attentive service and touches of elegance not seen in most American airplanes, such as polished wood-trim on handles in the bathrooms and on stair-railings..
My first meal, however, did not end well. After dinner was over, the passenger sitting next to me asked for a glass of water. When the flight attendant tried to hand it to him, something went awry and the entire glass of icy water was spilled all down the front of me. I jumped at the shock of it and exclaimed, “Oh my, that’s refreshing!” trying to be a good sport about something that could not be changed. The attendant got me a towel, and I dried myself off to the best of my ability, but I was wet to the skin and there was nothing to be done about it. My first test.
The flight was long but, other than the soaking, uneventful. We had just enough time at the terminal in Dubai to get to our gate.. The terminal in this oil-rich city is stunning in its glitziness, the wealth of the country readily apparent. There was a mélange of people milling about, waiting to board the flight to Chennai and by now few of them were English-speaking. About 10 of us had been traveling together from San Francisco, and we were joined by a few others who had come in from other U.S. cities..
The four-hour flight to Chennai was equally uneventful. As those of us who were all going to Suddhananda Ashram gathered to claim our baggage, I noticed my fellow passenger from the Monterey shuttle.. Low and behold, she too was part of our group. We were formally introduced and had a good laugh at the coincidence.. Going through customs in Chennai was a stark contrast to the glamour of the terminal in Dubai – the facilities were plain, run-down and almost seedy..
By the time we got through customs and found our vans it was around 3 in the morning, and I had already been traveling for well over 24 hours.. I was both exhausted and exhilarated.. It was hot, humid and surreal, with bright lights everywhere and people thronging, even at that hour. I was introduced to a young man named Daniel from the Palouse country in Eastern Washington State, which is where I went to college my freshman and sophomore years, and he helped load my luggage atop a 12-passenger van, one of two that would transport us to the ashram.
I am in India!
Next post: Getting situated at the ashram.