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Oh my blog!
on 16 July 2012
Most people who go to India have one of two reactions; they either love it and can't wait to return, or they hate it and would eat their own eyeballs rather than set foot on Indian soil a second time. I'm firmly in the `Love' camp and I'm always interested to read accounts of how other people respond to a country that means so much to me. I don't particularly mind whether they love it or hate it so long as they write well.
Every traveller who loves the country has their own reasons and they're often different from mine. Reese is the classic `spiritual' traveller - the `dippy hippy' who immerses herself in spirituality, takes classes in meditation and spends time in ashrams contemplating her navel. Such an approach is often referred to as `looking for yourself'. Personally it's never appealed to me as I've never knowingly `lost' myself but I am interested in understanding how other people react to one of the world's most fascinating and complex cultures.
The book tells the story of two extended trips which Reese took to India, separated by a period of four years. I can't help but admire the energy it takes to travel solo in India on a budget and for periods of several months and especially to make your first trip to this overwhelming country on your own. However, whilst I can admire her stamina, I can't entirely relate to her motivations as I find a lot of her spiritual stuff hard to handle.
Reese's India is very different from the country I love. Her routes are very much ON the beaten track and largely illogical. It's a good thing that no map is provided or readers would soon realise that she's basically bouncing about all over the place. Her beaten track is the hippy trail of ashrams interspersed with long periods of beach life and a very occasional bit of slightly more conventional tourism. Hers is the India of two-dollar a night accommodation, of not washing very often and of relying rather too much on the recommendations of the Lonely Planet, online forums or suggestions on notice boards in cheap hostels. It's a journey based on schlepping from one hippy hotspot to the next, lying in hammocks, doing yoga and getting massage. It doesn't quite hit the depths of getting stoned and living off banana pancakes but it's heading in that direction. In effect it's spiritual backpacking. At one point she finds a "new community of groovy folks living on a beach straight out of a movie set" and joins a big celebration called the `Rainbow Gathering' on the Konkan Coast. She finds the place from a few instructions left on a notice board, clearly picturing herself as an extra in Alex Garland's book, `The Beach'.
When she writes about interactions with the local people, I enjoy what she has to say but there aren't enough of them. Most of her interactions are with fellow travellers and whilst she writes some fun profiles of these people, they're not what I was looking for.
I particularly struggle with all the ashram stuff. If, like me, you were disappointed by the India section of Elizabeth Gilbert's book `Eat, Pray, Love' then you're going to go crazy reading about gurus and meditation and deep inner `stuff'. Even Bindi Girl can't deal with too much of it - after visiting the infamous `Osho' ashram complete with mandatory HIV testing (I'd definitely want my own clean needles for that) and obligatory special purple robes, she reveals "That was the most bizarre f***ing thing I have ever experienced" and runs away as quickly as her feet can carry her.
There are moments when I really enjoyed this, when I recognised that she `got' India but they weren't in the spiritual passages. In Varanasi she asks a boatman why Indians play music so loud at 5.30 am and is told that "It's so everyone can ENJOY, no matter where they are in the city". Now THAT is a true Indian insight - something everyone who visits will ask themselves but few will work out.
Returning to America, Erin is a changed woman. When a woman in the supermarket reveals how excited she is about `grillable cheese' - described by Erin as `modified flavoured plastic that won't burn on the BBQ', we know it won't be long until she's heading back to India.