The journey home from Mysore to Santa Barbara takes 50 hours. I first take a rickshaw, then a bus, then a taxi, followed by three separate flights, and a car ride up Pacific Coast Highway. The journey is uneventful. I effortlessly move with the crowds of Indians and their vast amounts of luggage despite having a minor altercation in the crush of people considered to be the “queue” at Mumbai airport. I make all my connections and the in-flight service on Turkish Airways is remarkably good.
Once out of the airplane and onto the tarmac, I breathe in the sweet fresh clean air of California. Yes, LAX appears fresh and clean to me. The whole way up the PCH I want to stick my head out the window and yell. It is so beautiful here it blows me away, but at the same time it seems empty.
My last few days in India were a flurry of hedonism – yogic hedonism of course. I ate literally buckets of palak paneer and mountains of naan, and I shopped until I had to buy another bag to fit all my gifts into. I went to temples, climbed holy mountains, and let my teacher push me deeper and deeper in my practice. Now back in California, where the weather is cool and grey, and I walk through the dripping forest behind Rocky Nook Park, I feel so alone.
Life is less colorful. Where are the cows and the piles of trash? The crowds of people with their ambiguous head-wobble asking me, “What country, madam? Why so tall, madam? Why so pale, madam?” Where are the vendors waking me up each morning as they walk up and down the street hawking their wares? The streets are quiet by comparison; rush hour looks the middle of the night in India. No one honks, and there clearly are no auto rickshaws belching black smoke and bumping Bollywood tunes.
At home I fill my glass up at the tap and drink it, marveling at how lucky we are to have reliable water. I take a steaming hot bath. I wear short shorts out in public and feel perfectly comfortable. But I am restless. There is an edge I have grown accustomed to that is lacking in America, a certain understanding of our own connectedness, both to each other and to the divine. Perhaps it is the lack of temple chanting keeping me up late into the night. There is no muezzin calling the Muslims to prayer drifting through the still air five times a day. There are no Bhakti shrines full of flowers and candles adorning statues and sacred trees along side the roads. People say thank you here in America, instead of honoring the highest in each other with hands in prayer, a slight bow, and the word “Namaskar.”
It has been said that America is spiritually dry and I finally understand this. Everything here at home is so clean and orderly. Here you are not confronted by the paradox of life and death, of spiritual purity and environmental filthiness; and you are not forced to acknowledge the existence of something beyond the self. Death is discreetly tucked away behind walls and closed doors. The poor are relegated to shelters and given programs to assist them. Crossing the street is rarely a life-or-death activity; you can be almost certain that the cars will stop for you! Families do not go to temple together to worship and receive puja each weekend. Instead they go shopping or to the movies. It seems that religion is not popular here.
Perhaps the paradoxical nature of India is part of what keeps people coming back time and time again, part of what really gets under your skin. It does not occur while you are there, slogging through trash-filled streets, or being accosted by beautiful brown-eyed beggar children, but afterwards – after the novelty of clean streets, gender equality, and neutered dogs wears off and you realize how bored and lonely you, and so many of the people around you, are.
Already I feel this and I am wondering how to fill up my time here without the constant spiritual thrill India offers, without the crush of humanity, without the close proximity of life and death. I know I am not ready to go back yet, not this year, but I am thinking about it, planning already.