We arrived in India for our honeymoon on the 28th of February, 2013. We wanted to go somewhere my husband had never been, a challenging task. So, we swore we would be in Timbuktu or Kathmandu for our wedding anniversary. The Tuareg rebelled in 2012, and the crisis in Mali peaked the year we traveled. Luckily for us, we had chosen India and Nepal. As excited as I was, I reserved the right to tuck tail and run to Europe for a more traditional and romantic excursion at a moment’s notice, even though the cost would cut our planned seven months short.
I had been entranced by India for years since studying Indian art and religious artifacts as a college sculpture major. The colors, fabrics, and designs that elevated the mundane by interweaving function with religion and art fascinated me and quenched a thirst and hunger within my soul. I wanted that depth and richness of experience in my life. I wanted a spiritual life that didn’t rely on a rocky relationship with a messiah that, according to others, should be perfect. And aside from that, I wanted to meet the people and learn their secrets. Every picture I had ever seen was of beautiful people in brightly colored clothing shining their flawless white teeth in a ginormous grin and smiling from the inside out. How could so many people living in squalor still be so joyful? As a sufferer of depression and anxiety, I needed to know because I wanted to smile like that too. This wasn’t only an adventurous honeymoon but also a pilgrimage.
I had been told by other pilgrims to be as present as possible and savor the first few moments in India: you arrive for the first time only once. We began our journey in the south, in Cochin, Kerala, a gem on the Malabar Coast and a part of the country many travelers call “India (Light).” We landed at the airport, set amidst the tropical rainforest, and headed to the shuttles. As we exited, a large group of small men with the darkest, not entirely black nor brown skin I had ever seen stared me down as if they wanted to kill me. I will never forget the look on their faces; now, I don’t blame them. The last British stronghold in India fell in 1947. And as the lady said on the beach in Goa, “You’re very white. You must be British.” Overwhelmed and confused as to which mode of transportation to take, a euro gave us a knowing smile and nodded towards the bus he had just disembarked. I cannot tell you how grateful we were at that moment. It’s the small gestures.
The bus looked run down on the outside but was gilded inside. Every inch was painted gold, and plastic garlands hung from the top rails. Portraits of the driver’s deities were framed and stuck to the dashboard, and Bollywood music blasted from the speakers. We were provided with an ultra-sensory soundtrack to our honeymoon, whose colors, smells, and beats would never leave our bodies, much less our hearts. And we hadn’t even left the terminal.
Within minutes of making our way to civilization, we saw an elephant parade, fireworks, trash piles burning, destitution beside opulence, and open-air food markets with rows of colorful spices. Mopeds drenched in families of five were flying down the sidewalks. And the babies! I’ll never forget the mothers holding their newborn babies on the scooters with their heads collapsed and faces pointing out to the street where debris could fly up at a moment’s notice. But the clincher was a busload of men traveling beside us with the windows rolled down, waving, pointing, laughing, and yelling at us, but mainly at me. The impression of our surroundings landed, full-frontal impact, in my senses as heart palpitations rocked my body. I turned to Asa and said, “I’m good. I’m done. I saw what I came here to see. We can go now.” Asa smiled, told me to breathe, and reminded me that we were okay. It probably wouldn’t be much longer until we were at the homestay.
Asa arrived in one piece, and me? Well, that was debatable. We were greeted by a kind gentleman who showed us to our room and said dinner was being prepared on the roof. Come on up whenever we are ready. We were unpacking when we heard drums and singing moving up the street. We rushed out to the balcony, did a little jig as they passed, and excitedly went upstairs to inquire about our first Indian procession. To our amazement and amusement, our host succinctly said, “I don’t know what they’re doing. They’re crazy people.”
Neither of us knew there was a large Christian and Catholic population in southern India, but it seemed Jesus received similar treatment as the Hindu gods. I had run there partly to escape His haunting, only to see His holographic image in 3D, shimmering and shining as bright as the Son, tacked onto the city walls, and looking at me from every direction anywhere we went. Many Hindus adopt Him as a deity. This was a fresh take on Jesus for me, and I was down for it. Jesus, the avatar, the yogi saint, yes…yes… this is trippy, but feels…right?
Seeing that we were in India for all of ten minutes when I was ready to leave, I was downright homesick four weeks later. We were in Goa, where I practiced ashtanga yoga with an esteemed teacher. The homestay owner near the shala was Catholic and told us his church’s Easter service was the following Sunday. I had not stepped foot in a church in years, and there was nowhere I wanted to be more on Easter morning.