photo courtesy of Michael Dehni
Sensation overload is to be expected upon arriving in an Indian airport. For some reason I thought I would step out of the plane and be assaulted by smells and sights foreign to my current catalog of sense memories. This did not happen. Perhaps because deplaning is pretty much the same everywhere, we prod along single file, some sort of hand bag or luggage over our shoulder and sometimes pulling a wheeled bag, I found myself following the familiar sounds of other wheeley bags hypnotically guiding us through customs, then the luggage carousels and out through the no-return exit doors. So far, same as any other foreign country arrival. Hearing Raghu’s voice call my name snapped me into reality. I am in Mumbai, Jai Ma! Raghunath Cappo, an incredible human being who happens to be a yoga teacher, organized this pilgrimage (yatra). About 30 of us signed up for a journey of a lifetime. Apparently my flight had arrived early. Raghu told me this as he gave me a big welcome bear hug. A crew of about 20 had already gathered from other flights that had come in and they were waiting for a few more. It always seems like magic greeting someone at the airport as they walk through the guarded exit doors, forbidden to re-enter, there they are, a newly birthed person from the flight of a lifetime. Any flight, every time. It seemed Raghu had greeted me just as that, a miracle to have made it, as every life is a miracle, and here in the Motherland of India, I was blessed to have arrived. My luggage was in tact and with me. I was in tact and with me, too.
After most of us arrived, we took cabs in groups of four to Hotel Shalimar. I don’t remember the other passengers squished in next to me other than Raghu who sat in the front, bubbling with stories and enthusiasm. Most of the flights arrived between 11:00 PM and 2:00 AM. By the time I was paired with a roommate, and settled in, I found myself horizontal at 2:00 AM. We had a 5:30 AM call time for yoga if we wanted to attend. Let the 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night for two weeks begin!
Raghu set us up in a nice hotel by anyone’s standards let alone a New Yorker who is used to certain comforts of home like, let’s say, toilet paper. We take having rolls of TP in the cabinet for granted and spend a fortune on it to boot. One double roll of Charmin pack of four would cost 225 Rupees. This is expensive and luxurious. Just so we can get on the same page with the Rupee vs. the US dollar, a 15 minute cab ride in Mumbai, a major city, is 50 to 70 Rupees which in NYC would be about 800 Rupee. I need to reevaluate my toilet paper consumption. The Mumbai hotel was the only place we stayed where toilet paper was supplied upon arrival. I had been warned to bring TP and Kleenex packets so I was prepared for the less cushy hotel situation. Bidets seemed to replace TP in most bathrooms, public or private.
Our first full day,and boy was it a full day, after yoga and breakfast, we headed to Radhanath Swami’s ashram which I still can’t tell you the name of but I could show you how to walk there from the hotel. We were greeted warmly and joined the hundreds of people already seated, plucking flower petals for the ceremony that evening. We sat for satsang with Radhanath Swami and sang kirtan while we separated soft petals from the hard buds (they hurt when they are thrown at you which turns out to be part of the celebration – it’s all fun and games ’til someone loses an eye or in Lauren’s case develops an allergic reaction to all the flowers. She handled it quite well.) Flower plucking to lunch, and then Fabindia for some fab celebratory clothes. I’m not going to lie here, I was very excited to shop on the first day of this 2 week spiritual journey. Once again, Raghu is a smart man. He knows his audience. Sensory overload had finally arrived. Millions of flowers over head, under foot, and on the walls, incense everywhere, cars honking (I’ll put money on it’s India’s national past time – it’s written on the back of most trucks and cars “Blow Horn”). Good God, we fine you here for that kind on nonsense. I have totally new respect for Indian cab drivers in NYC. I now know where they’re coming from – a game of chicken with everything else that’s on the road; cows, carts, pigs, dogs, monkeys, elephants (yes, I saw 2 cruising along), people big and small, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, cabs, cars, trucks, minivans … did I forget anything?
We kind of went bananas at Fabindia. What’s a kurta? 3/4 sleeve or full? And the Ali-baba pants vs. the salwar vs. churidars (weird looking leggings that go to your waist and can accommodate a full bladder and labonza.) And all the different scarf names and sizes! Dupattas, shawls, and stoles, oh my! Come to find out, Fabindia is holding out on chudders. A whole new drapey-wrap-wear I’ll discover later on down the road. After testing the patience of our incredible guides and teachers, Kaustubha Das and Gitapriya Das for over an hour with our fashion questions, we went back to the hotel, barely had time to shower, change and head back over to the ashram. All Fabindiasized, we were ready to celebrate.
I had never been showered by millions of flower petals let alone 2 tons of them until January 28, 2012. This particular celebration was started about 15 years ago by Radhanath Swami to celebrate Krishna. There are lots of Krishna celebrations. Raghu said it’s called pusya abhisek mahotsava, but for me, I’ll call it The Flower Shower Festival. No doubt, in less than 24 hours after stepping foot in India, I had experienced new sights, sounds, scents and all the things that I dreamed would happen in the country recently marketed as “Incredible India”. Totally get it! Incredible indeed and this was just the first day.
*After posting this a reader sent me the link to a video of the event. A full hour of flower shower power! Raghu on the mic and Gaura Vani!!! We were in the protected area which was still insane. First night in India peeps. First night!