India: Devotion, celebration and hope

Walk of Hope

Getting up 5 a.m. in the dark to walk with 200 people dressed in white, along the side of a two-lane highway where cars and buses pass within a yard, I focus on the uneven pavement so I don’t trip. With the rising sun comes a riot of color and smiling people waving as we pass by. About 8 a.m., we stop for breakfast at a Hindu temple where spoonfuls of unfamiliar soft foods are dished out onto a green banana leaf and a cup of chai (tea) placed in front of me. It’s my first lesson in scooping up food with a chapatti, because no utensils or napkins are available. I’m definitely out of my comfort zone, but that’s why I’m here. Traveling in India means opening up to new experiences and becoming a student of one of the most exotic cultures on the planet.

When my friend, Monnet, visited Kauai in November 2014, she enthusiastically described her upcoming India trip, walking 10 miles/day from the south to the far north of the country. Her 65-year-old Guru (teacher), Sri M, would lead this pilgrimage called the “Walk of Hope,” promoting religious harmony, empowerment of women and sustainability, among other lofty goals. That was compelling enough for me to send for an Indian Visa and board a flight to Delhi on February 9.

Heading south to Kerala State

From Delhi, I fly to the southern state of Kerala and spend three days in a lovely guesthouse, Red’s Residency, in the costal town of Fort Cochi. A laidback and mellow town, I walk around talking to people and watch men lower giant Chinese nets into the bay, then hoist out the catch of the day. Even though large Christian and Muslim populations exist in predominately Hindu, Kerala, most women are gracefully draped in vivid Hindu Saris and only a few Muslim women wear black burkas. No matter if they’re working in a stall, sweeping, or promenading along the waterfront, women are beautifully dressed.

After three days, including a vigorous Ayurvedic (traditional) massage, I feel re-energized from jet lag and ready to join the pilgrimage, which passed through this town six days earlier. Three bus rides later, where I’m the object of benign curiosity, I arrive at a city called Irinjalakkuta, get filled in on details of the walk by Monnet, and meet several participants, most living in Kerala, but many from other Indian states.

The only foreigners are five Americans, including me, plus a handful of Indian Americans who have family here. I soon learn how welcoming and helpful participants are as we walk side by side along a smoggy, noisy road in the late morning sun where temperatures soar above 90 degrees. It’s a challenge for most, but I don’t hear any complaints. Some will walk a few days or weeks, others will spend 1 1/2 years journeying to the mountainous state of Kashmir. I feel honored to be here for nine days of this pilgrimage and learn of participants’ (Christian, Muslim and Hindu) dedication. Sri M makes it clear in his nightly sat-sung (inspirational talks) that the highest purpose is to open ones heart, serve humanity and make peace within oneself as well as in the world.

Bangalore: India’s Silicon Valley

I board a night train in a sleeping compartment, which arrives in Bangalore at 7:30 a.m. When you call for a car rental in the USA and hear an Indian accent, it’s likely that you’re speaking to an agent in one of Bangalore’s myriad call centers. It’s also the headquarters for for IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Google, Cisco and many other American internet technology (IT) companies who have outsourced here. As a result, the city thrives and young people are educated, hired and lifted out of poverty. I’m going to Bangalore to visit Nita, a woman who works for an IT company that creates computer games. We have been emailing ever since we met three years ago on a plane that lost an engine over the Pacific Ocean and bonded when we made an emergency landing in Guam.

I spend a day at a nearby Bannerghatta National Park where expansive acreage is divided into sections that allow compatible animals to run free, but injured or babies are cared for when needed. As we drive around on a mini-safari, I’m thrilled to see beautiful bengal and white tigers, both hovering on the threshold of extinction. While observing exotic birds in an adjacent zoo, I meet two young men, recent university graduates who are celebrating their new IT jobs with AT&T. I congratulate and wish them happiness at this pivotal point in their lives.

Goa: hit the beach

When traveling the world, I miss my morning swim at Kealia Beach. After hearing that the best nearby beaches are in the state of Goa, I book a flight and a guest house online. It’s a long sandy beach where the water is clear and warm, the surf chaotic, and where more calories are burned by diving under waves than swimming. No complaints though. Young people staffing the restaurant are delightful and seafood dinners delicious.

Veronica’s Guest House in Calungute village is owned by a 78-year-old descendent of the Portuguese who invaded India in the 16th century. Sr. Salvador Portugal is frail, but animated and proud of his heritage as well as thrilled that we can pepper our English conversation with some Portuguese phrases. He sends me to Sunday mass with his wife, Veronica, in a soaring Catholic church built by Portuguese 500 years ago. Women are dressed up, but not in the colorful Hindu sari, rather, they wear lovely knee length dresses. The town is predominately Catholic with names like Santos, Carvalho, Baptist, Rapozo, Duarte and Soares. An elderly beggar woman outside the church is happy to let me take a photo, but proudly shows off her cherished necklace for the picture,

Pune

My next destination is Pune, where Ashwin, my friend’s parents live. His mother gave an Indian cooking class to our friends in my kitchen when the Pandits came to visited him on Kauai. Besides being lovely gracious people, this time I enjoy savory, but not too spicy, vegetarian dishes from her kitchen. During my visit, Holi, a joyful Hindu celebration of spring, begins after dark the eve before with a huge bonfire symbolizing “burning that which doesn’t serve one.”

The next day, young people play Holi by throwing handfuls of brilliant powered dyes at each other. Yes, I too get a light dose of purple and orange on my face, accompanied by lots of laughter and good will! The friendliness and warmth of Indian people during the first four weeks of my travels has been gratifying.

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Gabriela Taylor is a resident of Keapana Valley and author of “Geckos & Other Guests: Tales of a Kauai B &B.”

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