Some people go to India to find themselves, apparently. They go to do Yoga, Reiki, get Ayurvedic massage, or do a ‘retreat’. People have all sorts of expectations of the place. Some people come because they heard it was a ‘challenging’ place to be, it was cheap, or it’s on the traveller’s trail, and they know they can wear crochet and discuss the meaning of life with people of many nationalities while smoking joints the size of battleship cannons. Some people seem to be into poverty tourism, only feeling really happy if they’ve secured a piece of floor for twenty rupees a night sleeping on a lumpy straw mattress above an open sewer in the middle of a leper colony – all in the name of an ‘authentic’ Indian experience. Some people just disappear up the side of a mountain and hide in a hut for six months. Some of the more ‘out there’ reasons seem to bring people to mountainous places like McLeod Ganj, Rishikesh and Manali – there’s something about steep gradients that seems more inspirational to people.
All of the above are fair enough reasons to want to come, not all of them are mine. For all the cool people I’ve met since I’ve been here, I’ve met just as many fruitcakes. You hear things in conversation like “yeah, it’s a totally different energy there”, “this exercise is designed to release energy from your spleen chakra”, “I’m not totally comfortable with being out in public this morning, I haven’t said my commitments yet”, and liberal use of the word ‘Shanti’ (Hindi for ‘Peace’) to describe guest houses, restaurants, dogs, cars, trucks, seats, clothing, people and pretty much anything else.
An Indian chap I was just talking with described the word ‘Shanti’ as summing up the Indian attitude to life – that where, in the West, life is frenetic and people want everything yesterday, in India your train could be five minutes late or five days late, but it doesn’t matter if everyone has all the time in the world. ‘Shanti’ is a great word in this respect, but in the hands of some people it comes across as ‘This is the only Hindi this weekend hippy knows so I’m going to use it every other word’.
The people who come here expecting all the answers to Life, the Universe and Everything are possibly no more likely to find them here than anywhere else, but there’s certainly an industry here to help them try. As soon as a wide-eyed girl in a sarong and a headscarf walks into town with a backpack and a fat travel wallet, there must be a few people around rubbing their hands with glee. I’ve met some genuinely nice people offering courses in yoga and massage, some sweet and kind ‘babas’ (Indian term for respected older men), and all sorts of other people who may be holy or just offering people something different – but for all of those people there are as many, if not more, that have the fake smiles of salesmen, TV evangelists, who ask for money to help support their ashram before pulling out a packet of Marlboro and lighting up while answering their mobile.
Money is only one thing people stand to lose – their sanity is another. Placing yourself in the hands of some of these people seems foolhardy, when they are offering healing and other ‘services’ that are mentally, and possibly physically, very intimate. And yet people do it, and take it very seriously.
Each to their own, I suppose.