I am the sort of person who has a smile on my face standing in the TSA line at LAX. I never underestimate that which always makes me feel this happy. Most recently, it was on the way to Singapore, as part of a 5 week solo journey which included the Overseas Adventure Travel Soul of India trip.
After I had a three day layover in Singapore, I arrived in Chennai several days ahead of the OAT tour. I had pre-booked a day trip to Ponducherry which was outstanding. I received the Blessing of the Garlands in one temple, and felt the warmth and spirituality in the local ashram, with garlands and Hindu meditation everywhere, all by the beautiful Bay of Bengal. The whole day was a treat. If you have seen Life of Pi recently enough, the yellow building they show is really the French embassy. On the return to Chennai, I passed the International Krishna Consciousness Center and some apparent devotees on the highway. They filled the road with their musical instruments and joyous dancing, all part of a religions celebration. I was in the colorful south indeed.
But on the same road, as throughout much of my OAT trip, I passed rural villages, seeing huts made of palm leaves, watching local residents go on about their business in these rural areas with colorful temples everywhere, and just enjoyed the color of it all. Of course OAT added even more than what I saw on my own, which is why I enjoy combining the two experiences.
I enjoyed the south more then I enjoyed the north which I toured with OAT in 2014, and noticed this practically upon arrival. The food is mega hot and spicy there, while in the north I kept me asking where the spicy food was. The best biryani I have ever had in my life was the chicken biryani at the local hotel before joining the OAT group. My mouth was on fire with it, and I was in heaven. But that hotel also catered to Indians almost strictly, and this one American.
The morning before I switched hotels to join the group, I saw two very local towns and their temples on a brief trip with a driver. The towns were authentic, no tourists (just me). I received another blessing in one of the temples, and ran into the “left hand issue”. They placed garlands in my right hand along with the material so I could put a red dot on my forehead, then kept trying to tell me to use my completely filled right hand for the dot. I only figured out later that they didn’t want me to use my left hand and laughed, but I also handed them 20 rupees out of respect for the temple. But I loved the authenticity of the towns.
Upon joining the tour and meeting my travel companions for the next two weeks, our bus received the Blessings of the Garlands as did we. Coconuts and limes, fire and garlands. And we were given the opportunity to break the coconuts into a concrete area to throw all our troubles away, to shed any bad feelings going on in our lives, and put them behind us. With that simple thought in mind, my coconut broke right in half, any troubles behind me, which felt like a true blessing.
In the Mylapore section of Chennai at the start of the 3 day Pongal festival, we saw the procession go thru town, with blessings, garlands, music, the whole town participating. Because of this festival, throughout much of the trip, we saw more blessings performed as part of the festival period, flower arrangements everywhere, and so much vibrant color. Indian music is comfortable for me to listen to, and I felt drawn to the culture. Hindu temples, of which there are literally thousands, always give me a sense of peace when I visit them. On this trip, my heart and soul were literally full.
For anyone who wants to travel during a festival time, look at a Hindu calendar and see when they are. Then plan the trip accordingly. Experiencing any Hindu festival as part of the trip enhances the experience.
We also had a trip to the maternity hospital in the center of Chennai. This was a real unexpected treat, since families come out w their newborns to show people, and I was unexpectedly given one of the newborns to hold. The walk through Georgetown after, filled with locals selling flowers and literally counting buckets of money, was something to just savor, experience, and enjoy. I had left my camera behind, and was glad that I had. I got to appreciate the locals and the whole experience more.
Everyone on this trip was pretty India savvy, having all been to India before. It was a good, experienced group of travelers, and everyone watched out for each other in the towns so nobody got lost. I tend to walk ahead, but there was always someone tapping me on the shoulder in the group if I strayed too far or in the wrong direction.
In one small village, everyone got into a small fishing boat and cast a net for fish in the Bay of Bengal. While they did that, I strolled thru the two streets of the small village, met the locals and their families, all dressed in festival dress, and was even invited into their houses. It was quite an experience. We had been to the local school that the Foundation supports and they had heard of Grand Circle. The town was filled with garlands; colored walkways celebrated the sun (and later the cows). Local villagers made the bright colorful fishing nets everywhere, some wanting to get into the photos, some asking not to. It was a festive few hours, and just how I wanted to spend it. I could not resist visiting the locals on my own. It was too rich an experience.
When we arrived in Tanjore and visited the Big Temple we saw the bull in the center was all dressed up with fruits and vegetables for the harvest festival, and priests giving blessings. The temple complex was huge, beautiful and perfect in the glow of the afternoon light. But the real experience for me came when the live music started. A well regarded troupe performed typical Indian music with drums and a stringed instrument called a veena. I closed my eyes and felt the magic of the temple complex as I have in other Hindu sites, but the music literally transported me. I could have stayed for hours. Who knew that India, a place I said I would never return, would impact me this deeply?
On the last day of the Pongal Festival, the traveler’s celebration, we became the star attraction in one small town! They invited all tourists there, and we were interviewed on the news, greeted with marigolds, had our photo taken, given food, and made the newspapers!
I noticed interesting locutions when talking with the locals on my own. I had a conversation at my first hotel with the chef. He said the paneer was “like cheese, but not cheese.” At our home hosted meal, the host said the after dinner serving was, “like garlic, but not garlic.” I had a similar conversation with my trip leader, and even a private guide later in Bangalore. Things are, “like x, but not really x.” It’s an interesting way to have a conversation, and in India, it seems until you establish this, the conversation does not quite continue!
The last portion of the OAT trip was breathtaking. Two nights spent on the Karela backwaters, one hour of which we spent in a dugout canoe, then a half a day on a larger vessel was, to use Indian parlance, “like the Amazon, but not the Amazon.” It was spectacular, and like no place I have ever seen. Parts of the backwaters look like land due to the overgrowth of hyacinth in the water. So in many cases, boats cannot even go through. But the “busses” we saw taking women to work in the fields in huge water taxis as we cruised to shore, and other signs of everyday life along the water, were just remarkable. I woke up to music from a temple across the water, and that, along with the sunrises and sunsets on the backwater, were spectacular.
Someone on the trip said India stood for I’ll Never Do India Again. Well, I felt that way once. But this trip changed me. I love the crazy tuk-tuk rides, the trucks that drive down narrow streets one inch apart, and all the rest of the organized chaos that is India. There is a certain romance I think to these “edgy” countries. In India, you have to look past the dirt, the cows and the noise. Instead, the oxen pulling a heavy load will put a smile on your face; knowing how much to pay the tuk-tuk drivers to get where you want on a guaranteed wild ride will do the same. But the food is so fantastic, and the people so warm and wonderful, the colors of the saris are so striking and vibrant. And in the south there is art, music and culture everywhere. How much more exotic does it get to be in a land once inhabited by maharajas? Or to quite by accident know the words to Hare Krishna even though you don’t chant it the full 108 times along with others in the huge Krishna Consciousness temple in Bangalore? This was not an OAT experience, but one I had on my own after Soul of India had ended. But there were so many wonderful highlights on this trip with OAT; the two combined really places it at the top of my list of life time experiences.
I love solo travel, and adding to OAT itineraries to create a unique trip. I could never have duplicated myself what OAT provided me, and certainly not for the value I received. But travel alone? I never felt alone once, even after the tour had concluded and I was still on the road.
Travel, like life, is not a race to the finish line. It was a joy to sit for hours in a botanical garden or by the Chinese fishing nets, or observing life along the backwaters from my solo room on the houseboat, and appreciate this world’s beauty at my own pace. It’s too important to understand different cultures and people, and to realize we are more alike than we are different. OAT gives travelers many opportunities to gain this cultural understanding, and this trip in particular does a superior job of it.