In case you haven’t heard, I’m back in the United States. I arrived in mid-February at the end of my long journey. Now I’m living in my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.
I moved into an apartment on March 21, exactly 4 years to the day I left San Francisco. Figure that one out.
I was going to write sooner but, well, STUFF, including moving during the onset of a crisis. But we can talk about all that later.
In the meantime, let’s catch up with what’s been happening for me. Along the way I’ll explain how I got here.
First, though, I’d like to apologize. The Lost Pilgrim has never been a high-turnover blog, but since October 2018 I’ve published just four posts. Three of these were short, mere tweets compared to my usual word count. The longer one, HMI Part 1, is one of my favorite posts, but I left it on a cliffhanger!
I think that detail speaks for the whole: I left you hanging, and I’m sorry.
Many of you have followed my travels from the start and others have joined up along the way. I’ve been deeply grateful to each of you for your interest and enthusiasm. In that I’ve owed you more than radio silence and guesses about the conclusion of the story.
Lately two friends even asked, “What happened to your blog?” I’d like to thank them especially for pointing me back here.
There are two reasons why I stopped writing, and they’re related to the two “closing chapters” of my journey that I moved through during an eighteen-month period lasting from the end of 2018 to today.
The first chapter took place from October 2018 to June 2019. The second was from June 2019 until I arrived in the States. Writing was difficult during both periods but for different reasons.
So, first things first: from October ’18 through June ’19, I was traveling through a pair of the most magnificent and formidable countries on the planet:
In Part 1 (this entry) I’ll share the story of my time in India. An overview of it, at least.
In Part 2 I’ll chronicle Nepal.
Finally, in Part 3 I’ll share how I got back to the U.S., where I stopped along the way, and why.
The entries are already written, so you won’t have to wait a lifetime for each new installment. I’m breaking them up because otherwise this post will be quite long.
So, let’s begin.
INDIA: THE CLIMAX OF AN ADVENTURE
I arrived to India in November 2018, which coincides with the drop-off in my posts.
India has a reputation for being the most challenging country in the world to travel in. Travelers both online and off- are vocal about their struggles with the country’s:
- unavoidable displays of poverty
- extreme pollution
- frightening lack of sanitation
- maddening contrast of bureaucracy and chaos
- “aggressive” approach to Western travelers
More than once I heard the joke that “I.N.D.I.A.” stands for “I’ll Never Do It Again.”
Nonetheless, I was thrilled to be going. The heart wants what the heart wants, and my heart wanted to visit India.
I wasn’t going on a “spiritual pilgrimage,” at least not of the kind that became popular in the West in the 1960s. I had zero desire to visit an ashram, find a guru, and “drop out” of reality. Instead, I wanted to be shown reality in all of its stark fullness.
I’m not a so-called “dark tourist,” either, seeking out novel thrills from historical horrors. My intention was to be an impartial researcher on the human condition, gathering data about life on Earth from my own experience, and no one else’s.
I hope that distinction is clear, because it’s one of the core purposes of my four-year journey. Though this blog has primarily been about my self-discovery, in the background I’ve been conducting a research project about the planet, God, world cultures and more.
I knew that no research project of that kind could be complete without visiting India. I also knew that heading straight for India at the start was likely to end in failure or disillusionment, as it does for many people.
So I waited, accumulating expertise on the road and hardening myself to be able to experience India on its terms, not mine.
I’m proud to say that I succeeded. During my time there I saw almost the entire country, a monumental achievement in six months. But it took every bit of strength I had, and then some.
To offer a brief overview, I explored the country from…
The smoggy sprawl of Delhi:
… to the tranquil tea farms of Darjeeling:
From the Tahr Desert of Jaisalmer:
… to the mighty Ganges River in Rishikesh:
From the modern metropolis of Mumbai:
… to the enchanting backwaters of Kerala:
From the “Golden Triangle” of Jaipur:
… and Agra:
To the dense cities of Calcutta…
I visited Gandhi’s home in Ahmadabad, near where was he born:
… the office in Mumbai where he worked:
… and the site in Delhi where he died:
I’d like to say more about Gandhi in a future post. We get an inadequate picture of him in America.
I celebrated Diwali, the Festival of Lights…
Holi, the Festival of Colors…
and Shivratri, the all-night celebration of the Hindu god Shiva:
Then I added a side-quest to Sri Lanka to renew my visa:
While reading Paramahansa Yogananda’s moving and inspiring spiritual classic, “The Autobiography of a Yogi” (Steve Jobs’ favorite book)…
I felt a call to the Kumbh Mela festival in Prayagraj, where I bathed in the Ganges river at the largest gathering of humans on Earth:
120 million people people attended over two months.
That’s million with an M.
On my fifth full-immersion dip something happened, something that felt like a blessing from the holy river, Ganga-ma. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it was a feeling I’ll never forget.
Oh, and the airline lost my backpack on my way to the Kumbh. I had two hours to buy my best guess at what I might need, before catching my train the rest of the way.
For a week, all my belongings, including a sleeping bag, fit into a school-size backpack:
And I went as a humble pilgrim, appropriate for a guy sleeping on the ground like everyone else:
(The airline did finally return my bag, by the way.)
After arriving at the Kumbh in time for a frigid but astrologically-auspicious pre-dawn dip, I met my soul brother Jensen, a devotee of Yogananda’s. See if you can spot him.
We spent the next five days walking and talking about matters of life and spirit, resuming our lifetimes-long conversation without missing a beat. He’s an inspiring dude, and a model of devotion. Check out his IG for more: @jayananda_jensen
He pointed me to a woman that had profoundly affected his life, the saint and guru Amma, from whom I received one of her famous hugs…
I watched her embrace a line people from 8pm until 5am without stopping for a break. Even as the sun came up and it became obvious she was tired, the joyful light never faded from her eyes.
If you have the chance to see her, it’s worth it. For more about her life and works, visit amma.org.
I also stayed at her Amritapuri Ashram in Kerala, volunteering as a dishwasher and moving heavy blocks of concrete under the Indian sun. And I understood why many never leave.
I explored other holy sites as well, including those sacred to Sikhism, like the Golden Temple in Amritsar:
… Sufi Islam, and the Nizamuddin Dargah in Old Delhi:
… Hinduism, visiting the Calcutta ashram of Swami Vivekananda, the man who first brought Hinduism to the West at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, in 1893:
… the Tiruvannamalai ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi, the Hindu sage and saint whose words resonate with spiritual power:
… and Arunachala, the mountain that’s said to be a physical manifestation of Lord Shiva, where I celebrated his festival of Shivratri late into the night.
Finally, I visited two of the four pilgrimage sites of Buddhism, including Bodh Gaya, location of the 2000-year old Bodhi Tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, sat and attained enlightenment:
… and Sarnath, where he went following that extraordinary event to deliver his first sermon, about the Four Noble Truths:
I also bathed…
and breathed by the beaches of Goa:
And celebrated a surprise birthday, complete with the gift of a concert from a traveling musician:
I marveled at the spectacular Ajanta and Ellora Caves, carved from solid rock over centuries of Buddhist and Hindu devotional passion:
I poured out my soul and had my cup filled in the utopian community of Auroville, near Pondicherry:
I sang out loud night after night at the stirring Aarti ceremony by the Ganges in Varanasi:
and watched bodies being cremated next to the river, each one lit ablaze by a fire that’s been burning for 5,000 years:
After I had finished everything above, I meditated for 10 days in silence, learning Vipassana in the mountains of Kashmir:
How you doing? Tired yet? I was. This is an overwhelming amount to experience in just 6 months, and I’m leaving out many things, like:
- making dozens of new friends from India and around the world
- getting food poisoning three or four times
- and a lung infection
- surviving the advances of an army of tuk-tuk drivers
- being a guest-star in countless selfies (“Just one pic?”)
- crashing an Indian wedding with my friend Ian, when we traveled together for two weeks
- my laptop dying and visiting three shops in as many cities to get it fixed
- an endless series of delicious Indian meals
- a thousand cups of chai
- a billion momos
- sushi from an Iron Chef
- something about a mountain climbing school?
- a Bollywood movie, in Hindi (without subtitles)
- planes, trains, automobiles, and overnight buses
- plus two camels
- and an elephant
I think it goes without saying, there is much more to India than travelers’ complaints.
Everything described above is a story in itself. I hope to tell some of them properly someday, but it’s a lot, even to remember. It all feels unreal, like a movie I saw.
Why did I do so much in such a short time? Not from any conscious plan. I only followed my intuition, going with the wind as I always had, and tried to keep up.
I hope it’s also obvious how during this chapter I had little time to write, at least not in the way I like to. I try and give something in my writing, to help people more than just look at but see the world, to make sense of it all. That’s a standard I hold my travel writing to and it requires more than a few quick words and photos.
But I was moving so fast, taking so much in, and pushing myself so hard that it became extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fight against the current, stop, and reflect. I only had to survive it, and I did.
I didn’t go to India looking for a spiritual experience.
One found me anyway.
Continue to “Homecoming, Part 2: Nepal.”
Hi, and thanks for reading this far. This post took an immense amount of work to compile, including 40+ hours of writing, editing photos, and time in WordPress.
If you enjoyed it, I’d be grateful if you’d leave a comment, subscribe for future updates, and/or even share this with someone you know. They may not know me, but they might like to see India in a way few people get to. Thanks so much. ❤️