Something From India
Principles is a series on the art of travel, and the golden nuggets of wisdom one can pick up in different places. The art of travel is rooted in the possibility of encountering "a new shade of blue" and bringing that colour home with you. Something From India focuses on recalibrating one's perception of chaos, and within it, finding blindingly beautiful order.
Everyone promised — fingers crossed and eyes wide — that India would be chaotic. Everyone vouched for a cloud of smog and a sooty skyline. Everyone looked left and right, checked for eavesdroppers, and said: "watch out for thieves and dirty water." They filled my head with Delhi Belly and bottled water and mosquitos the size of hummingbirds. Funnily enough, beyond the urban myths (and, most importantly, beyond myself) I found something else on the subcontinent.
"The ocean stirred and moved like a loving mother slipping out of her sleeping daughter's nursery."
We reached Goa at the end of peak season. The beaches were quiet. The café's were quiet. The markets were quiet too. The ocean stirred and moved like a loving mother slipping out of her sleeping daughter's nursery. Cows snoozed on the beach like lazy cats. Everything in Agonda wanted to hush and lull me into a thoughtful and grateful silence. Unfortunately, my head was half-way across the planet, caught up in the cacophony of rush hour; the rattling of hungry rats in sewers; the clatter of restaurant kitchens on a Saturday night. There was no such peace to be found.
In The Art of Travel, Alain De Botton, upon arriving in the Caribbean, quips: "A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island." Sitting half-buried in the sand, I realised I was guilty of the same thing: I had brought the wrong Timea through airport security. (You know, that Timea, the one that likes trouble, self-depreciating jokes, and overthinking Kim K's pop culture reign.) Clearly, the Timea that likes normal-people things — unwinding on the beach, writing hippy-dippy blog posts, listening to whale sounds — had been left behind to drown in a bathtub at home.
"Where else can I stab this fork?"
My companions — a London-born World Bank banker and a Belgrade-born full-time pleasure-seeker — woke up early, ran four miles down the beach, and, by lunctime, had their heads in a book. I had no such joy. Every day I'd wake up, open up my laptop, and work on my stupid research. "Who cares about institutional design in Communist Yugoslavia?!" I'd rant, stabbing a fork into my watermelon. My friends gave each other a look, the kind that says: "Can you do a citizens' arrest in India?" I had picked a dream job that, despite the notorious weeks upon weeks of annual holiday, didn't let you have an actual holiday. The revelation was unwelcome, and my day was filled with a recurring thought: Where else can I stab this fork?
But, fruit-stabbing aside, I did find Goa unbearably beautiful. Despite the tight knot in my head, my eyes still worked. I took photos of lapping waves, grilled seafood, and gold-streaked beaches. It was stunning. Sometimes in the face of something so awesome, you eventually shrink down to atom-size and force yourself to look inward. And, as luck would have it, I stumbled across something lovely and intuitive that transformed my attitude towards the big bad noise in my head. It all started with a meditation talk that revealed a pleasant truth. (It seems that heaven is a place on earth.) What was this world-peace-inducing mystical tip? Focus on the silence between sounds.
That advice came full circle on a Thursday morning while scrubbing melted soap off the bathroom counter. Interrupted by a rude noise, I stopped to look up through the canopy and noticed a hawk-like thing perched on a tree. The squawk was gruesome. QWAAAAAARRRRRK! QWAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRK! Suddenly I'd found something more annoying than my melted Godiva. "I can't believe I've traveled half-way across the planet to be this stressed out." But, then I noticed something profound. In between the hawky-squawks was a padded silence, a hushed, quiet sound that broke up the bird's determination to ruin my day. All I had to do was concentrate on the parts I liked: silence. The video above captures the art of that.
In 24 Hour Mindfulness, Rohan Gunatillake explains that the best way to engage in the technique of mindful listening is to let "the sound come up and then watch it go.'" Noises around you needn't be disruptive. Instead, with a little brain training and some focus on the "present moment," you can recalibrate your attention to the good stuff. Within a few days I started to see order amidst the noise and chaos. White buses were perfectly aligned at airport runways. Terminals were filled with beautiful patterns. Footprints in the sand formed neat criss-crosses. As soon as I had become muted and calm, so did the India around me.
"The most important thing to do is listen for the silence in between the noise."
Pierced and perforated, there was so much harmony to be found in that hot and huge chunk of land. If you think about a beehive — one of those frustratingly busy, buzzing places, filled with bees working overtime — you'll find that a closer look at its superstructure reveals awesome symmetry and geometric patterns.
And, at first glance, your life might feel the same way: a clusterfuck of clutter and noise that seems impossible to order. But, if you probe deeper, you may find rhyme and reason to the way you navigate the universe. To cut through the mess, the first step, and an important one, is listen for the silence in between the noise. As the Club Silencio host explains in Mullholland Drive: "No hay banda! There is no band!" I never thought a David Lynch film could make sense.
I conclude with a chinking, champagne-clinking toast to Goa: India is a dancing star.