Fears and Far Off Lands
You simply cannot fully experience the Yamuna River flowing lazily past the Taj Mahal at sunset without standing upon its white marble yourself. The moment is almost surreal, as a boatman steers his craft towards home, and women dressed in richly dyed saris fold the many-colored cloths that had been laid out upon the rocks to dry. A deep-orange sun sheds its final light of the day through an aromatic haze rising from cooking fires from the village across the river. The stillness of the scene is briefly interrupted by flocks of migratory birds taking flight in a cacophony of cries and fluttering wings. Circling about for a short time, the birds settle once again along the banks of the river.
I was once intimidated by the very idea of foreign travel. A lack of self-confidence in my ability to overcome the seemingly impenetrable language barrier, strange customs, and even stranger cuisine kept me anchored to my home country. This insecurity was reinforced by the “what ifs?” and the sensationalized horror stories from around the globe that news outlets bombard us with every day, preying on and feeding our fears. I bought in completely to the notion that there were monsters in the closet and that the only safe place was being tucked into my bed.
Some might find much of this surprising, coming from a guy who, as a young man, hitchhiked his way up and down the East Coast and then out to California on a quest to climb Mount Shasta—someone who spent two years as a wilderness counselor taking troubled boys on river adventures, sometimes lasting a month. That was an amazing experience. To this day, I hope that I was able to provide those boys half as much as they gave me. We paddled the Savannah and Great Pee Dee Rivers to the coast along with an extended trip on the Wateree River, down the length of Lake Marion, and on to Charleston via the Santee River. Perhaps it was these experiences that provided me with the insight needed to overcome my inner travel obstacles.
Though filled with insecurities, I was captivated by the wonder of it all. The stories I read of travelers and their adventures, the people, the places and all the incredible sites, both natural and man-made, pulled me to them like a spirit to the light. I wanted to experience these things for myself. However, a career, raising a family, and the day-to-day of life became the new bonds that held me captive. Then, as if in an instant, everything changed and I found myself free to roam.
I was in my early thirties when I took my first trip to another land. There were no warm-up trips to “learn how to do it.” With butterflies in my stomach, I nervously got on a plane and headed east for a month-long journey through India with my friend and teacher Venerable Geshe Tsulga. The experience opened my eyes and heart to so many new and amazing things, people, and places. Yes, it was difficult at times yet worth every moment.
When I first arrived in New Delhi, every sense was assaulted. I could taste the heavy air, filled with the smoke of hundreds of small fires and the dust of the Red Desert. Men with weather worn faces smoking harsh smelling bidi’s while warming their hands over the fires stared blankly as I passed. Voices in an indiscernible language came at me from every direction, and even the glow of the streetlights appeared to be somehow different. Being worn out from 16 hours of air travel, I questioned my resolve during that first ride through Delhi.
With a good night’s rest and the dawn of a new day, my questions of resolve from the previous night quickly dissolved. The people I met were so very helpful, warm, and inviting. They always wanted to show India at its best. Their kindness and hospitality were overwhelming. As it turned out, my language fears did not matter. In the bigger cities most people “had” some English, as they said. In the more rural areas, gestures and smiles worked quite well.
While in India, I took a trip to Dharmsala, located in the foothills of the Himalaya and home to the Dali Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. To get to this small hill station from Delhi, I took an overnight train to the border town of Pathankot in the state of Punjab. Then, it was then another six hours up into the mountains by taxi. A young man who worked in the house in Delhi where I was staying generously offered to book my rail passage. I had expected my own nicely private sleeper berth on the train, but instead he had booked me into a regular sleeper with what felt like all the masses of India squeezed into this one car. I was a bit unnerved at first, but as there was no changing it and a reassuring smile from Geshe-La, I decided to make the best of the situation.
You’ve seen photos and videos of these trains, with people perched atop the rail cars, as the train snakes its way through tunnels and mountain passes. Inside, the cars are always crowded with people and livestock, all rocking back and forth to the rhythm of the rail. The truth is that the reality was not much different. However, what the videos and photos fail to relate is the warmth and joy of these people living their lives and perhaps embarking on a holiday. Just for the record, I did not encounter any livestock on this particular train.