I always wanted to go to India but I never expected the irresistible life changing impact it was going to have on me the minute I arrived. I first became aware and interested about India when The Beatles visited. It looked so dreamy from the reports I saw on TV and listening to the radio about it. I grew up with the Beatles, and like millions of others, I idolized them and loved their music and their whole persona. And I really liked the added sitar and tabla drum to some of their later songs which put a soundtrack to this mysterious country. I was instantly captivated with Indian music and Indian culture. When I finally took my first steps on Indian soil, all of my western perceptions of everything I knew changed right before my eyes. Coming from the west cannot prepare you for how different life is in India, no matter how much you have read and seen on line or even traveled elsewhere. After the first step, everything changed.
It all started with a brief transit stop in Sri Lanka from Rome, Italy. Brief enough that I stayed on the tarmac long enough to change planes. I pointed out to a ground crew man to make sure they take my backpack and place it on the plane to Trivandrum, India. It didn’t. I spent an hour and a half after arriving in the Trivandrum airport, working with the airlines to arrange for my bag show up another day. So, I left the airport empty handed with just the clothes on my back, and entered into another world. My eyes went from being sleepy slits from the long flight to a wide eyes kid in an Asian cultural candy store. Instantly, I saw things I’d never seen before: people carried high piles of anything on their heads, palm tree lined dirt road, and women dressed in colorful saris and they looked so beautiful. There were kids everywhere playing a wheel and stick game, cows and monkeys and chickens all wandering around, people just going about their business. Immediately I forgot about my backpack and felt this overwhelming and most welcoming sense that overcame me. I felt the stress of western life quickly flowing out of my body while I instantaneously adapted spiritually to my new surroundings with excitement and fervor. I was finally in India, and I liked it, I loved it! I couldn’t wait to see what was beyond the airport grounds.
From there, I spent three relaxing days at Kovalam Beach in the South in Kerala State. I took a tuk-tuk, a three wheeled auto rickshaw, to my hotel I had read about in my trusty Lonely Planet travel guide. The tuk-tuk driver stopped somewhere along the way to his home as his wife had prepared him lunch so he took a few minutes to eat while I waited outside. I chuckled to myself after I realized this is how it is here. I didn’t mind and happily stood outside watching life walk by.
I had read about the hotel and was described as “a casual place run by two brothers”. When the tuk-tuk finally pulled into the grounds of my hotel, one of the two brothers came to greet me. I said, “Ah, you must be one of the brothers” and he said, “Yes, I am one brother and he is one brother and we are two brothers”. I was so warmed by the manner of which he spoke, and was instantly charmed and felt like I had come home.
I left the beach as it was a relaxing and good way to start my India trip, and I got my backpack back! Now on to the gigantic city of New Delhi. I loved all the sights and sounds, and chaos of New Delhi, especially Chandi Chowk, the main street in Old Delhi. A man followed me during my walk and kept shouting at me about something, and I became a bit concerned at his persistence while he walked behind me. I turned around and asked him what he wanted and he pointed down at my crotch and told me “my chain” was down, meaning the zipper on my shorts was open…how embarrassing! What a nice man, and a symbolic moment how cool people are in India.
From Delhi I flew to Kashmir. I knew of Kashmir from the Led Zeppelin song and it was supposed to be pretty. My goodness, “pretty” was an understatement: it is heaven on earth. Now this was 1985 and peaceful. These days, probably not the wisest place for a tourist to go walking about and it is such a pity the political issues that do exist there. I spent a week on a houseboat on Dal Lake near Srinagar, and another week up in Leh in Ladakh, 12000 feet high in the Himalayas. Every minute of every day was magical, incredible and more and more I was becoming of the spirit that is India, wherever I went. After my week in Leh, I came back to the same houseboat as Aziz, the houseboat owner, was so surprised to see me again. After all, I am loyal to my people. He allowed for me to integrate me into his family and have meals on his houseboat next door. I wanted to stay forever, and marry one of his beautiful daughters. But I had to move on.
Back to Delhi, I started on the “tourist trail” to Agra and of course to see the most incredible monument, the Taj Mahal. I was so spellbound by this breathtaking testimonial of the love story behind the creation of the Taj. I felt compelled to outline it on a scratch piece of paper. Mind you, I am no artist. But fifty people crowded around behind me to watch me draw the crudest drawing on a half torn piece of paper from my writing journal. On to Rajasthan.
I must note at this juncture of the article, that I had been traveling alone for four months at this point. The back story of my India story and how I came to be in India, is that I was working like anybody else and was “let go” from my job back in the US. They let me go because of politics as it was either the nephew of the boss or me to go. Fine! I called a travel agent and was gone within a month and booked a round-the-world airline ticket for a year long journey. I went alone, just me and that backpack I almost lost. I liked traveling alone as it leaves you wide open to meet anybody that crosses your path, and I was happy how this was all working out.
Well, everything changed when I went to Jaipur. While waiting to take the City Palace tour, I had started speaking with a couple of French girls. We chatted for a moment or two, and realized we would both be heading to Pushkar the next day, and I said great, see you there. Well, I did see her there and we agreed to travel on together to Jaisalmer and take a camel safari ride in the desert. It was warm and a full moon out while camping out under the stars and it was so romantic. The next day, I knew my life was going to be different. It was. We traveled back to Jaisalmer, and an overnight train ride to Jodhpur. Early the next morning, the train stopped in the desert to allow for tea and stretch of the legs. We exited the train, drank some tea and heard noises coming from on top of the train. It was the people on 4th class, or last class, who rode on top of the train. They were playing music and were waving to us as we waved to them. And it was that sublime moment where I lost all sense of western materialism. Here were the poorest of poor people looking as happy as anybody I’ve ever seen. And it struck me how happy they were, despite the poverty. And I envied them and wanted to be them. I look back on that moment as life changing.
The train arrived in Jodhpur, and said goodbye to the French girl, and was alone again with only her address in France and the most amazing memories of the five days we spent together. She went north to Kashmir, I went south to Udaipur. And I was mad that I found myself feeling miserable and lonely. I was having such a great time by myself meeting lots of different people, and why would she have to show up and “ruin” it for me…? I was love struck and felt a bit helpless wondering what, if anything would happen next, about her.
I had to continue on with my tour of India. I spent five days in a hotel room in Udaipur, and shut myself off from the world, trying to process what had just happened. I spent much of the time watching fierce monsoon rainstorms from my hotel room, smoking cigarettes, pacing in my room and writing. I wrote about those five days with this French girl and how she turned my whole trip around. I wasn’t happy being in an odd and bizarre limbo state. But the people of the hotel were great and of course I had to regale them of my story, and found myself in a group of hotel workers as my support system and new family. They convinced me I had to carry on with my journey and prepared for me the best Tandoori chicken I ever had…yum!
From Udaipur, I went to on Varanasi…thank God for Varanasi! And not because of the importance and holiness for Hindu’s and all peoples. But because it is such an overpowering and spiritual place, that it temporarily allowed me to take a breather from feeling so love struck and ridiculous. I focused on the essence of this incredible city. I took a sunrise row boat to capture life on the Ganges. I forgot about everything.
I moved on to the town Khajuraho, and toured the Kama Sutra statues. They were so sensual and sexy and then I started thinking about this French girl again….arggggh! My next and final stop in the subcontinent region was Nepal. Oh, how I was looking forward to being in Nepal. I fell in love with Nepal, as much as I did with India. I loved being Kathmandu wandering around the old temples of Durbar Square, and felt at home with the friendliness of the people. And yet, there I was carrying around this foreboding feeling of being love struck and love stuck on what to do. I had room in my budget for extra travel, just in case, and here it was. While walking around in a daze, I wandered by a travel agent and it hit me: buy a ticket to France and go see her. Voila! It was three weeks away, this unknown and sudden and unexpected trip to France.
I had to walk quite a ways in a pouring rain in Kathmandu the morning of my flight. In fact it was a late monsoon rain storm that delayed my flight by ten hours. The itinerary for this trip on Aeroflot, the Russian airlines was Kathmandu, Calcutta, Bombay (then), and a transit stop to Moscow, Paris, and a train ride to Grenoble in the south of France.
Now, I wasn’t exactly sure how receptive this French girl was going to be with my visit. I did send her a postcard from Kathmandu announcing my arrival time, but planned it right not to allow for any rebuttal about my appearance. Anyways, I didn’t have an address she could send me any letter, and do keep in mind dear reader that there was a life before cell phones and texting, although I don’t know how we all managed back then without it! At this moment in time, maybe it was better to be in the dark about communications.
It was a thirty six hour endurance test of leaving my Kathmandu hotel walking in that pouring rain to showing up at her doorstep. When I arrived full of heart pumping nervous adrenaline, and travel weary exhaustion, I found a note taped to her door. It simply read: “You are a crazy American for coming here. Please go back on your journey, and leave me alone”
I collapsed to the floor, just simply in shock and feeling so stunned and numb. I read the note over and over couldn’t believe it. Certainly I took my own responsibility and accountability for this reaction and yet I couldn’t help but feeling pretty much heartbroken. And extremely disappointed. And yet I was already preparing to dive deeper into my budget for a flight to Bangkok, Thailand, the next destination on my round the world journey and get the heck outta France! What to do? It was Friday evening in a suburb of Grenoble, and found a bus back to the city to book the cheapest and dingiest hotel I could find. After living on $5 a day in Nepal, coming back to France was a financial culture shock! I spent the weekend wandering in a daze on the streets of Grenoble, France. It was October and getting cold. I was really missing India and Nepal, and cursing at the Western world for being so pretentious and snobby and expensive…and cold!
It was lunch time Monday when I went back to her apartment to leave her a note letting her know where I was staying and to at least see her one time before moving on. After all, I came all this way. She must have heard me fussing at the door with the note as it opened, and there she was. She wasn’t really sure if I had moved on yet, and was a little surprised to still see me here, and yet relieved that I was still here. I think she felt a bit guilty leaving such a note, especially knowing how far I had come out of my way just to see her.
Well guess what? The magic of India lived on in her own backyard, and I had to prove that it was so. We spent a wonderful week together touring her area. We even had Indian food one night. But I had to leave to get back on my own tourist trail of Bangkok, Hong, Kong, Tokyo, and back home to Los Angeles to complete my round-the-world voyage. And so I did. But the story isn’t done here.
For almost two years, I lived this vagabond travelers tale, and was the most incredible two years of my life. Many great memories and events emerged from these two years: one is our beautiful daughter and two, my novel, a romance adventure called Overland. I took quite a few memories of this journey and weaved them into Overland and referenced some of them in this article and you will recognize them when you read the book…based on a real true life adventure love story! Thank you India, thank you Nepal, I love you. Namaste. ~!~
Mark Steven Levy has written Overland- A Novel, Published by Zorba Publishers, India. Book available at A1Books.co.in