Surviving India: An Ox, a Monkey and a Diagnosis of Dysentery

By Nicole Einbinder

It’s difficult to look back on our trip to India without laughing. I know, I know. That may sound strange. But, some of my experiences were, well… laughable. At the time, they certainly weren’t funny. Honestly, at the time, they tested me to my limit and had me questioning why I chose to fly halfway across the world in the first place.

 

I could be in California with my family, laying by my pool,” crossed through my mind on more than one occasion.

 

But, with every moment of struggle I endured during our whirlwind trip across Northern India, I also knew I would never, in a million years, take away the many moments of joy that we experienced on the ground. My classmates often joked that if I could “survive” India, I could survive anything. I did survive. It made me stronger. It opened my eyes to new cultures and perspectives and ways of life. And, despite the setbacks, it solidified my love for journalism and continual desire to seek out beauty in the world.

 

Let’s start at the beginning, though. See, prior to our trip, I was determined to stay healthy. I packed zip locked baggies full of nuts and crackers and energy bars. My suitcase brimmed with various medications and antibiotics and Emergen-C packets. I had already pledged to myself I would remain strictly vegetarian throughout the trip. And, at our five star hotels, I only brushed my teeth with bottled water. I was ready, I was prepared and nothing was going to stand in my way of having an incredible experience.

 

But, life is full of unexpected twists. It doesn’t always go as planned. The thing is, I did get sick. Very sick — the sickest I’ve ever been. Laying in my bed at the hotel in Ahmedabad while my classmates were out exploring the city, I felt defeated. I am stubborn, and I refused to let anything — especially my body — prevent me from having the once-in-a-lifetime experiences we were partaking on throughout the trip. But, everybody does have their limits. For me, it occurred on the bus ride from our cushy Ahmedabad hotel to the Sun Temple, an ancient structure deemed a UNESCO world heritage site. Walking among those ancient ruins sounded incredible; an experience I knew I probably would never have again. My stomach killed me, I was too weak to eat food and I felt awful as I slowly stepped onto the bus.

 

Nicole, you can do this! You can do this!” kept racing across my mind as I sat in my seat, looking out the window to a world of rickshaws and smog and bustling streets. As we left the city, the scenery slowly shifted to wide swaths of land, people walking on the sides of the highway and the occasional gas station. An hour into the bus ride, however, I knew I couldn’t do it. And, as much as it pained me, my professor called an Uber and I made the heartbreaking trek back into the city and away from my classmates.

 

The following day, as I lay ill in bed after meeting with a doctor, I was diagnosed with dysentery. Yup, you heard that right – the illness most often associated with pirates and soldiers in the trenches of WWI. Simply put, I was devastated. And, after around three days of laying bed-ridden and surviving on a diet of rice and bananas, which I could barely even keep down, I was scared. But, illness comes with travel. It isn’t fun, but it’s life. With my bag of antibiotics in hand, provided by the doctor in Ahmedabad and delivered by gracious hotel staff, I knew I would eventually overcome the disease. It meant I couldn’t report on a story I had spent weeks preparing for, or fully experience Ahmedabad. But, that’s life. My classmates and professors were exceptionally kind, always checking in on me, and the hotel was beautiful. The experience was daunting but, looking back, it made me stronger. Back in the U.S, I found out I contracted E-Coli while in India.

 

Weeks later, as I write this, I can thankfully say that I am finally healthy.

 

Other funny anecdotes from the trip — a monkey jumped on my arm and stole my glasses in Vrindavan, I was hit by an ox while walking the streets of Ahmedabad after our group’s final dinner and I woke up one morning, in the very beginning of the trip, with pink eye. But, conversely, there was beauty in all those moments. Immediately after the monkey took my glasses, the locals jumped to action to help the foreigner begging with the monkey to return her prized possession. After failed attempts by the villagers to throw fruit at the animal, a clever youth with a stick followed it to the roof of a temple and retrieved my stolen item. Those people didn’t have to help me; they didn’t even know me. Their kindness was overwhelming and I am forever thankful that they took the time out of their own lives to help.

 

While in Ahmedabad, after being hit by the ox, I was immediately shocked. Luckily, I wasn’t injured. But, that was only one small piece of the puzzle — we were exploring the chaotic night market. It was a place swarming with people and vendors selling snacks and animals roaming the streets. I wouldn’t take back the opportunity to immerse myself in that world for anything; it was fascinating how even in a chaotic abyss like the market, the people could find a sense of ease. Families enjoyed fried goods at crowded tables, children ran around, smiling from ear to ear, and a few people in our group even purchased spices and other goods. It was chaotic, but it was India. I’m grateful to have been enveloped in that craziness, ox and all.

 

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Nicole gets her glasses back from the monkey

And, ah, pink eye. That wasn’t too fun. But, the day itself was a ride — it was our first glimpse into Holi. I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan at first of the Holi festivities in Vrindavan. Frankly, it was overwhelming. Colors were thrown at us from all directions, in addition to icy water and paint. People were touching our faces and necks and arms. And, as much as I tried to stay clean and away from the madness, we quickly discovered that was impossible. Our ashram became our refuge; our protection from the world of colors manifesting themselves beyond the gates. On my second day in the city, however, I was ready. I bought my own colored powder — a bright red hue — and immersed myself in the festivities. I realized that aside from a few perverts who grabbed at breasts and buttocks, most of the revelers weren’t malicious or trying to harm us; they were overjoyed with love and celebration. They were also curious; we were a group of foreigners in a tiny village. My white skin stood out and I always felt keenly aware of my status as foreigner, particularly as groups of people approached us and asked if they could snap a photo. Because of my pink eye, I wore glasses throughout Holi. It ended up being a blessing in disguise; the lenses protected my eyes from the powder. And luckily, it wasn’t until after the holiday was over that the monkey attempted to steal them.

 

India was a tough trip. It tested my limits and I constantly wondered why I was such a target for disaster. But, I also knew that I could either dwell and complain or take those experiences in stride — not too many people can say a monkey stole their glasses! I came to Columbia because I love to travel and experience the world. I have an inexhaustible curiosity that only talking to diverse people and exploring new places can quench. Yes, I got sick. And yes, it was horrible. But, I also roamed the ancient streets of New Delhi, experienced a musical ceremony at one of India’s holiest Sufi shrines and participated in yoga on the banks of the Ganges. I interviewed incredibly interesting people of all walks of life. And, I experienced the richness of Indian culture.

 

I survived India. It was the trip of a lifetime.

 


Daily Dispatch 7: An Unexpected Road from Rishikesh to Ahmedabad

AHMEDABAD – One of the lessons we’ve learned on this trip is that travel is not about the destination, but the experience. And what an experience we had today! Day Seven started in Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges and ended 700 miles away in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat.

We knew we were going, but could not have anticipated how we would get there. The plan was to leave Rishikesh at noon and arrive in New Delhi in time for our 8:10 p.m. Air India flight to Ahmedabad. But in India, traffic is painstakingly slow, the roads badly maintained, the honking horns loud and people often late. Our bus driver tried his best to speed through the traffic. Yogi-ji made countless phone calls to Air India staff at Indira Gandhi International Airport. But, as our bus finally approached the gate, and with our flight scheduled to take off around 15 minutes later, we knew our odds were thin.

If only we knew this in advance, we would have left Rishikesh earlier in the day. But Rishikesh is a hard place to leave. The city offers an interesting contradiction in Indian culture. A beautiful town on the foot of the Himalayas, it is surrounded by natural beauty. The turquoise hues of the River Ganges flow below colorful bridges and alongside scattered buildings and shops. This morning, a few of us leisurely explored that world for a couple of hours. We wandered, we shopped and we questioned this enigma of a place — a place of countless yoga practices, ashrams, Ayurvedic cafes selling vegan foods and scones to people who have come here from across the world, clad in baggy pants and with yoga mats under their arms, to embrace their spirituality in India.

After our free hours in the morning, we hopped on the bus to begin the journey to the airport. On board, I immediately questioned Yogi Ji about this place which, at least from my point of view, seemed like an almost inauthentic version of India; a place designed solely for international folks to find themselves, while also shielded from the country’s innate poverty and established as a Western construct of Indian spirituality. But, his response surprised me: “How is this not the real India?”

Yes, Rishikesh is international. It acts as a spiritual haven for the thousands who travel across the world in search of meaning, of purpose from the stresses of life and all its’ complexities. Yes, it lacks Delhi’s smog or slums. The stray dogs are plump and trash on the ground is almost non-existent. But, those are also blatant stereotypes of India propagated by the media. Rishikesh is India — it’s a clear example of eastern spirituality and Hinduism. India is a place of so many stories. Rishikesh is simply one narrative of many.

Looking out the windows on the bus from Rishikesh to Delhi, I am enveloped by a safety net. We pass small huts made of sheet metal, cows grazing on the side of the road, a woman washing her clothes in a stream as her naked toddler runs around behind her. I notice Coca-Cola signs attached to small huts — globalization at its finest — and a small child in a bright red dress skipping through the dirt and grinning from ear to ear. Our air-conditioned bus of foreigners whisks by fruit stands — oranges and bananas and papayas — and motor bikes honking horns and tea stalls and so much trash. We are in India, enmeshed in the country’s culture and rich history and ways of life. But, we will also always be at a distance, looking out the window as the country passes us by.

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Around lunchtime, we stop off at a Domino’s Pizza in a town called Roorke. At first glance, it looks like any Domino’s Pizza found in the states. But, it is also distinctly Indian, from serving a “pizza burger,” which Andrea described as two buns of pizza dough and spices with cheese and sauce in the middle, to the various vegetarian offerings. According to Natasha, it was “the best pizza I’ve ever had on the road from Rishikesh to Delhi.”

When we finally arrived at the airport and realized that we missed our flight, the mood was tense. We sipped our coffees and wondered if we would make it to Ahmedabad that night or if we would have to stay overnight in an airport lounge or, if we were lucky, in an airport hotel.

It was at this moment that our time together on the bus and our many conversations paid off. We found comfort in our group, our second family. We made jokes, checked in on each other and rejoiced when Yogi-ji was able to find seats for all 17 of us on an 11 p.m. Jet Air flight. We may have missed our flight, but we solidified friendships. We demonstrated that we could be there for each other; we reaffirmed our conversation on the bus from only a few hours prior – even though it felt like a lifetime – that we are a team.

That night, or possibly morning since it was around 2 a.m., our group feasted on pizza, pasta, soup and sandwiches at the beautiful Hyatt Regency in Ahmedabad. The staff of the hotel kept the dining service open late for us. The day was long, but we made it to our destination. We made it to Ahmedabad.

 

Photo by Ana Singh


Tibetan Buddhist Meditation in the Upper West Side

Men in suits, ears glued to their phones, shuffle by the inconspicuous door at 410 Columbus Ave. on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Teenagers anxiously line up at the Shake Shack on a nearby corner while taxis blare their horns.

The neighborhood is humming with energy. It’s bustling, it’s hectic, it’s New York City.

At 410 Columbus Ave., the mood is different. Hidden in the basement, 18 steps below ground, seven people — six men and one woman — gather for a traditional Dharma practice and Buddhist meditation at the Kagyu Dzamling Kunchab center, which follows the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism.

Kagyu, founded in 11th century Tibet, is known for its system of meditation, mysticism and speedy attainment of Enlightenment. Unlike other schools, celibacy or association with a monastery are not required.

The participants are casual dressed. Among them are a middle-aged man in faded jeans with a thick, black beard and a blue button-down shirt and a woman with short gray hair and a green scarf to protect from the chill outside.

They sit, barefoot, on a red rug with an illustration of a fierce dragon breathing flames. To the left of the room, the image of Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of compassion, sits above a shrine with offerings for the Buddhas and deities: white orchids with a fleck of pink, sticks of incense in bowls of rice, three Oreos placed on a metal plate, seven bowls of water and two candles flickering below the colorful image in a gold-rimmed frame.

The leader of the service is Lama Karma Dechen Wangmo, 38, who is dressed in a red and orange Tibetan robe. She was trained at the Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery in upstate New York under the guidance of Lama Norlha Rinpoche and has been a Lama for almost 10 years.

Before beginning, Wangmo explains the seven-point posture of meditation: straight back, right hand inside the left with the thumbs lightly touching, chin slightly tucked, tongue on the back of the mouth and eyes looking down four finger widths in front of the nose.

“A lot of people, including myself, find that feels too cross-eyed and makes me feel nauseous,” she adds with a laugh. “So just a little way in front of yourself and down. And the eyes are open in a relaxed way.”

She explains the purpose of meditation: to bring the mind to the present. The past is finished and the future hasn’t yet come. Wisdom comes from being aware of the now, without distraction. It’s a major contrast from the chaos just beyond the center’s door.

She rings a golden gong and the meditation practice begins.

The room is quiet. All eyes are on Wangmo, as the devotees slowly absorb her teachings. She discusses the four classes of objects of meditation taught by the Buddha, negative patterns that can arise from emotion and the power of habituation from past lives.

“In Buddhist teaching, our present life originates from a previous life,” she says. “During our present life, we can experience physical pain and mental suffering or we can experience happiness and bliss. So most of us have alternating experiences, both of those. Those experiences are from our actions in the previous life.”

She continues with an example: “Say in our former life we got angry a lot, that was kind of our habitual reaction to situations. Then in this life we already have that habit very engrained.”

Buddhist teaching, she adds, provides a solution. “Through the dharma, we may learn methods that cut through the hold of anger on us or the hold of desire that causes us to act in a mindless way,” she adds.  Likewise, it’s possible to remedy negative emotions caused by great attachments, anger, ignorance, jealousy and pride.

She asks the devotees to take a few minutes to experience this letting go. “This space extending out is full of sentient beings that are suffering and just want to be happy. And for a few moments, let’s just feel that. What does that feel like?”

Wangmo rings the gong as its piercing shriek echoes across the room, followed by complete silence. Within the quiet, everything is louder: the people walking above ground, the air conditioner hissing in the background, a man’s heavy breath as he meditates. The group meditates to earn positive karma, attain enlightenment and try to rid the world of confusion. In this windowless room under fluorescent lights, surrounded by tankas — images of the Buddha, nothing else matters beyond the breath.