The Challenging Lessons of Mama India*

22/10/2016

We had just wanted to buy a pair of shoes and renew a sim card. That was all.

But as with many things in India, simple requirements often require the most circuitous, painstaking, mind-bogglingly frustrating routes – and this proved to be exactly that.

Being in Hyderabad at the time – the city town planning forgot – to get to this particular footwear stockist required an hour long trip in an uber to traverse the 15 kilometres across town. My man’s hiking and everyday shoes had conveniently begun falling apart shortly after our arrival in India, and he’d been searching for a new pair since.

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After a non-eventful but lengthy ride in the late afternoon sun, we arrived at the sporting and hiking apparel warehouse – stocked to the brim with every kind of hiking shoe and sporting good you can think of. We spent the good portion of an hour or so considering many many shoes. But in the end the shoes he needed and the size he needed them in, weren’t available.

We left the warehouse in the early evening (after I secured myself some heavily discounted strappy walking sandals) without what we’d been looking for (and indeed are still looking for) around 6pm, and I could feel minor hunger pangs setting in. We still needed to go to a telephone service provider to re-validate Matt’s sim card (which was due to expire the next day) before dinner. We picked the nearest Airtel we could find and entered the location into our uber app. It was going to take us over 45 minutes to get there. This meant a good couple of hours stood between us and dinner at a British-style pub we’d been eyeing off in the last couple of days (namely for the alcohol, which is surprisingly hard to find at restaurants here). I was craving a crisp white wine like it was going out of style.

Ten minutes later and we were in our uber, taking close to an hour to move a few kilometres. We passed the time playing “I Spy With My Little Eye”, trying to lighten the mood of the slowest moving traffic we’ve ever been in. Toying with the idea that we could walk faster than this traffic, we soon saw on google maps there was only 900 metres between us and our destination, we decided to get out and walk rather than sit grid-locked for another half hour.

Choosing to walk 900 metres beside a main road in Australia is a cake-walk. You can practically do it blind-folded. In Hyderabad, traffic heaves its way down the road in every direction imaginable. Footpaths are largely non-existent or they’re piled high with rubble. And often strewn with a random assortment of obstacles, including but not limited to electricity cables (which are hopefully not live).  Not only did we have to navigate this less than savoury ‘side-walk’ while being assaulted by the incessant screeching and horning of every vehicle within a radius of a kilometre, but motorbikes by the dozen wanted to share this tiny space with us – careening up to and beside us in order to duck and weave their way around the snaking traffic.

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I could feel the anger, frustration and fear bubbling and churning within me, as I stomped amongst the cacophony of noise and mayhem. It took so much effort to not completely lose it there and then. To distract myself, I began reciting a poem angrily in my head that may have had a whole heap of words that rhymed with HyderaBAD in it (sad to be here, mad I was so close to being run over, glad to not be staying here for that long). Yeah I know, call the Nobel Prize for Literature judges and take that award off Bob Dylan, won’t you? There’s a far more deserving winner over here.

We traversed through the gates of infrastructure hell for what seemed like an eternity until finally we stumbled into the relative sanctuary of the blazing red and white lights of an Airtel store.

Waiting in these shops (and many like it) you begin to observe a general buzz of ‘busy-ness’ without a whole lot being done. Four people will be serving but it will take three of those to assist one to sort out an issue, so the wait becomes interminably long. Oh and also, do not entertain yourself with the idea that there’s such thing as an orderly ‘queue’ and that people will wait for their turn. This is a luxury that should not be counted upon and you would do well to just NOT expect it.

After chatting with a customer service agent who seemed even more hangry (a portmanteau for hungry-angry, a special type of anger that afflicts many) than I was, he emphatically exclaimed to Matt that it simply, “is not possible to re-validate the sim until it has expired and the service has stopped for three days.” Matt responds with, “Um, so what do I do about a working phone number for those three days?”

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“Sir, that is how it works.” Yes, that is how it works.

Arrghhh. After the to-ing and fro-ing became increasingly heated (this was a serious WTAF? moment), we were forced to buy another sim (so far, we have in our possession FIVE sim cards, from different carriers, for many reasons, but one includes that just moving between states here causes similar issues to crossing international borders – some carriers just don’t work). So, we leave, new sim card in hand, and jump in an uber to head a couple of kilometres down the road. Cue another 20 minutes in traffic (I was NOT walking again), and we were finally dropped at the English-style pub, glorious food and that crisp white wine was nearly ours!

We front up to the doorman and are promptly refused entry. “We must uphold the dress code of this establishment,” the doorman points disdainfully to Matt’s flip-flops. This establishment is a PUB.

Incensed, starving hungry, and positively hankering for a wine, we ask to see the manager. While awaiting his arrival, I see an older Indian woman shuffle inside wearing exactly the same flip-flop shoe style as Matt. I point to them and ask the doorman, “Why can she go in and he can’t?” “Oh she has a booking, madam.”

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My man and I are both eternal optimists. We really do like to look on the bright side of almost everything. That is, until our blood sugar levels drop. And then everything’s just SH*T. Do not mess with us when we’re hangry. And at this stage we were both getting VERY hangry.

The manager comes out, looks at us dully and affirms that we would not be going inside. “Not even to spend lots of money on booze?” “Nope.”

You have to understand that by this stage, we couldn’t go anywhere else by road as it was jam-packed with traffic. We had decided on this location and hadn’t factored in that we could potentially be refused service.

After having a collective mini-meltdown, Matt sensibly searched google for anything resembling a bar close by. And he found one! Hallelujah! Not far from where we were there was a bar (with ALCOHOL) and we were going to get our wine!

We found our way inside this highly insalubrious establishment; dim and loud, cigarette smoke-filled, wood-panelled with a faux sense of grandeur, TV screens lighting up the darkness. We fell into a heap onto two plush leather seats, and are promptly told that “women are not allowed” to sit here. Hahaha. Hahahahahaha. I so desperately wanted to say ‘screw this!’ in Hindi, but a muttered expletive in English under my breath would have to suffice. Matt calmly held my hand and led me to the other side of the room.

It was 8:30pm and I just wanted a white wine, and food lining my stomach, stat. The food ordering was a complete schmozzle – misunderstandings galore and while we could have murdered three courses each, there were only bar snacks available. The waiters looked at us like we were crazy expecting anything resembling a meal.

Oh and the white wine I so desperately craved? This bar had none.

Processed with Snapseed.Yep, we laughed, in the end hysterically. Deliriously hungry, there was not a lot more we could do, really. We gulped down our bar snacks, drank our respective drinks (beer and a cheap gin cocktail), and headed home.

Arriving back, all I wanted was a hot shower to wash the day away and get the cigarette smoke, blech, out of my hair. I stripped off the layers and readied myself for the comforting sear of steaming hot water beating down on my head and shoulders.

And the hot water wasn’t working.


That, my friends, is just one fair afternoon of ours in Mama India. And it doesn’t even include the time we had to wade through knee-high sewerage-filled floodwaters during a monsoonal downpour to get home. Our days have been full of equally mind-boggling, crazy shenanigans since we arrived here over a month ago for Matt’s PhD field research.

So do not, I repeat, DO NOT, under any circumstances, come to India seeking external peace or ease, because it is very hard to come by!

I thought I was leaving Australia with zilcho expectations of my time here. People asked if I had any plans, or wanted to do anything specific while I was here, “No, I just want India to show herself to me, that’s all (Hahahahaha muses future Carly, you asked for it). I’m happy to play it by ear and go with the ‘flow’.”

Frankly, after a whirlwind of a couple of months: finishing up my full time career of over a decade in International Aid and Development, launching my own mentoring / coaching practice full time, creating the content for and launching my online program and membership site The Fulfilled Feminine Formula, lovingly coaching said clients and program members, packing up my home of two years to rent out, finding long-term tenants, organising LIFE so I could be away for eight months without too many hiccups – I thought that I truly hadn’t had the ‘time’ or mental space to conjure up much beyond getting on the plane and soaring into the clouds towards the sub-continent.

Turns out, I did have the time, and a few expectations to boot.

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Blame it on the movies I’d watched, the books I’d read, the light brushes of ‘Indian’ culture I’d had growing up in Singapore and working in countries with significant Indian diasporas (Kenya and Fiji) – I thought I knew what was coming. What I didn’t know was that the ‘homeopathic’ dose I’d previously been administered was NOTHING compared to the full blown version. Nothing.

The India of celluloid and books is enchanting, spiritually mesmerising, and gloriously enlightening. A quixotic melange of colour, movement, excitement, hustle and bustle. But you can hold that India at arm’s length, admiring its nuances and vagaries from afar, romanticising them. The confusion and chaos looks funny. The vendors and auto drivers’ shouts and calls look cheeky and charming. The honking in the streets a mere passing sensory annoyance.

In non-celluloid reality, the real India gets into your pores and under your skin, and in your head, whether its invited or not. You can literally feel Mama India thrumming through you, every time you step outside your door. I told a friend of mine that I felt like I was being ‘cleaned out’ by India, in an uncomfortable ‘through the wringer’ kind of way. India is an assault on your senses and can be alternately infuriating, aggravating, contrary, LOUD, excessively busy, LOUD, chaotic, fast, confronting, and did I mention LOUD?

It is nary impossible to escape noise here. Granted I have of course only been to a few cities and rural towns during my trip so far: Hyderabad, Mumbai, Madanapalle (outside Bangalore), Hampi and Moharli (outside Chandrapur) and do not speak for this epically huge country completely (of course), but so far in most every place, save for Hampi, it has been impossible to escape noise and it’s been rough, raw and overwhelming. Especially for an introverted chica who feels things uber keenly (hello, fellow empaths).

So what, praytell are the lessons I have learned, thus far? I thought you’d never ask. Mama India has held a mirror to my face and jauntily chirped at me: “HOW much are you really willing to walk your talk, lady?”

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1) Self-Compassion is so important

First and foremost, always. It’s been a big, beautiful, transformational year for me – as I’m sure it’s been for you too. Having a foundation of complete and utter self-compassion, love, and kindness has been incredibly important during this time. Creating and consistently cultivating a friendly and loving spot to land within myself (and more broadly, ourselves) is a life skill worth its weight in gold – and such a comfort when we move through great change and reach for our highest potential.

2) Surrender to the unknown (even more, babycakes)

When you’re careening through streets and laneways in an auto that has barely any protection, save for a scrap of metal around your tush – screeching around and towards massive buses, taxis, cars and motorbikes, ducking and swerving at the very last second to avoid collision, there needs to be a point at which you surrender and trust that you’re going to be okay. If I spent the entire time we’re on the roads coiled up in a knot of stress, tension and fear, I would be well on my way to forming a very large stomach ulcer. Surrender and trust that what seems like anarchy is actually just chaos that works itself out (it does, just look away).

Similarly, walking across the road. You will not get from one side to the other here if you wait for ‘a gap’. There aren’t any. You have to literally throw yourself into oncoming traffic here, without looking, and surrender to the forces that guide every motorbike, auto, car, bus and taxi that’s barrelling at you. And trust that they will dodge you. They do.

As a foreigner here, with nary even a wisp of a grip on the local languages spoken (we’re trying, really we are, but there are a lot! So far we’ve come across Hindi, Telegu, Marathi and Urdu) every situation you find yourself in feels like a puzzle you have very few pieces of. It could be at the telecommunications store in my aforementioned tale, in line at the train station, or chatting to community members about their cooking practices. You *think* you have some kind of grasp of what’s going on, based on the information gleaned with your limited allocation of puzzle pieces. You may be gifted a piece by chance, or have to wrest it from someone’s grip with all your might, in the hope of some clarity. You can dedicate your whole day to seeking some semblance of sense or rationality, but it will very rarely be yours. You will always be short of puzzle pieces. Surrender to that truth.

I’m being shown that I need to surrender to it all, even more than I ever have.

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3) Stop seeking to manipulate the external for your peace (and go even deeper within)

During my time here, I have uttered all of the following – many times over, either in my head or out loud:

“Could they please turn the music down or even, off?” (No. It’s festival time here, there is ALWAYS music and it must be blaringly speaker-busting loud.)

“Could they please stop beeping every time they come ‘round the corner or come within cooee of another vehicle?” (No. It’s a warning beacon to prevent head on collisions. It works, but it’s hard to come to terms with when you come from a country where a horn beep is considered more of a chastisement than a ‘hello!’)

“Please just be quiet!” (Why speak at normal volume when you can shout at one another in conversation?)

“Could everyone just obey the f*cking road rules?” (No.)

“Could you stop getting so close to me that I can feel your breath?” (No, what is this personal space you speak of?)

“Can you stop pestering me?” (No. See above.)

“Please stop staring at me and asking to take a selfie.” (This appears to happen to every foreigner and I’m treating it as penance for every time I’ve done the same with communities I’ve worked in.)

“I can’t do India today.” (Really.)

All of this seeking to control the external because I’ve been drawn outside of myself and away from my centre. Controlling, manipulating, seeking – India has stripped me bare of any and all options for ‘finding’ external peace. The only option left for me is to fall even further within, and plumb wells deeper than I ever have before.

When we so desperately seek external peace is when we absolutely must anchor within and drop deeply into our own bodies – out of our heads and into the sanctuary we have within (and yes, you do have it – it appears when you connect to your heart and allow the feeling of expansiveness to fill you).

When I feel my energy rising up my body towards my head and away from my centre, I rein it in and call it back to me. When I feel the urge to dis-embody and ‘check-out’, I come back to presence and the many embodiment practices I call on to remain connected to my heart and soul. I maintain constant awareness of my multidimensionality, through my body – feeling into every part of me at once, each energy centre, chakra, limb and organ. This keeps me grounded, connected within, and tapped into the wellspring of peace that dwells in me, always waiting patiently for me to realise it’s already there. The external conditions do not need to be perfect for me to access it.

You don’t come to India to find peace. But if you surrender the need to find it and go within, you may find a deeper peace than you knew was possible.

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4) This too, shall pass.

At the time of writing we’re over a month into our overseas journey, with less than a month to go here in India, before we head to Nepal for a few months. Anytime I find myself excessively grouching about the conditions I’m in, “Ergh, no wifi!” or lamenting the incessant noise and hustle and bustle, I remember – our time here is fleeting. It really is (in both a macro and micro sense). So rather than mope that I’m not doing yoga every day or chatting to gurus, or that I’m hardly able to hear myself think when I walk down the road, I tune into the beauty and fun and adventure that surrounds me, daily. This place is also enchanting, beguiling, glorious, stunning and crazy fun: curries to write home about, textiles to drool over, people that warm your heart, amazing sunrises and sunsets, and natural wonders that make your jaw drop.

And that kinda, just quietly, makes all of the other stuff worth it.

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*In writing this I was reluctant to share what I felt to be seriously trite and western perspectives of India, hence why it’s taken me this long to write and publish my thoughts and feelings. I’ve only experienced a tiny, infinitesimal slice of this hugely complex country, and can only speak to what my journey has been like thus far! I hope you find my travails a wee bit insightful and a lot amusing, and take it upon yourself to experience India for yourself first hand, if you can. It really is totally worth it.

Have you been to India? I’d love to hear about your experiences, below! And please share this with anyone you think may enjoy / relate…

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7 comments :

  • Michelle

    Carly, thank you so much for being so open and honest. I really felt like I was there with you, and I’m not sure I would’ve handled all that as well as you did. Especially if I were hangry!
    I love reading about the real experiences people have overseas, so thank you for showing us your behind-the-scenes! It’s amazing how many lessons you have taken from your month so far 🙂 x

  • Holly

    Hahaha haha oh god I hear you Carly! It’s fucking exhausting in the cities. But you’re right on to it with finding peace beyond your external circumstances. Amidst the chaos there’s something magnificent that never changes…a place of rest and refuge. Hope Nepal is a bit quieter for you and the mountains offer some serenity. Loved reading about your adventures xx

  • Amy

    I read every single word Carly…completely enthralled, chuckling, eyes widening and smiling along the way!
    I’ve not been to India but this piece of writing made me feel as if I was there.
    That message throughout about not being able to control our sense of ‘peace’ through our external environment is so important. It’s SO much more challenging to cultivate this when the externals are bashing us from every sense and perspective.
    It was a beautiful reminder for myself as my upcoming birth approaches…I’ve chosen to birth in a hospital and this was a powerful reminder of the importance of diving deep within to find that peace and that power.
    Thank you for sharing so honestly!
    Amy xx

    • Carly

      Thank you so much for your beautiful comment, Amy! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I think we can convince ourselves that our inner well of peace and tranquility requires SO many conditions to be ‘just right’ – when this really isn’t true. You are going to learn a whole new level of accessing a deep well of peace, strength, determination and spirit with your upcoming birth! Birthing your child and birthing yourself as a mother will be so so epic. Sending you loads of love and light, beauty! xo

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