Exploring the boundary between pilgrimage and travel

In a world full of sanitized and homogenized international airports, the ones in India feel different. I step out the plane’s door, and within a minute, a wave of heat and a bouquet of fragrances overwhelms me. I step into the airport, and there is an explosion of color. These first few moments remind me of reconnecting with a separated lover.

Just outside the old city in Jodhpur
Saris in Delhi

I’m losing track of how many times I’ve visited India. Do I count the two times that I was refused entry? (Once was my fault; once was not. Indian visas are complicated.) My years of visiting India are beginning to blend together, the way shared years in a relationship can blur. I remember Pico Iyer comparing travel and relationships:

For if every true love affair can feel like a journey to a foreign country, where you can’t quite speak the language, and you don’t know where you’re going, and you’re pulled ever deeper into the inviting darkness, every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you’re left puzzling over who you are and whom you’ve fallen in love with.

My first visit to India involved missing a flight because the taxi driver got lost on our way from Hampi to the regional airport. I remember two men on the side of the road pointing in opposite directions, both claiming they knew the best way to reach the airport. I laughed and thought about the day before, when I sat under a gigantic mango tree along the Tungabhadra River, eating the most delicious Malai Kofta.

Along the Tungabhadra River in Hamp
Along the Tungabhadra River in Hampi

Each visit to India is full of extreme frustration. Something inevitably goes wrong, but it never seems to matter. Every other day of the journey involves magical moments. For every two-hour wait on a train platform, there has been wandering around ancient temples, sipping chai in the Himalayas, eating idli in a crowded canteen, or watching the sunset over the Arabian Sea. I could go on describing the charms of my Indian lover, but my words will never do India the justice it deserves.

On the beach in Goa
On the beach in Goa

We live in a world where too many people keep swiping left until they find the perfect partner. With each visit, I come to love India more. I learn something new about India and myself. India has taught me to appreciate that complexity is far more appealing than surface beauty. When we let ourselves get absorbed in our wanderings, we enter the world of pilgrimage and find true joy and love.

At the Ajanta Caves
Bram at the Ajanta Caves

I leave you with my favorite quote about India. It complements the earlier Pico Iyer quote. Braja Sorensen captured India’s essence and my feelings about it.

India might appear to be a third world country: a chaotic, loud, thumping, fast-moving hologram of modern hell that 99% of the world can't figure out. But its real personality is something else - something that is only revealed to those who love it, and whom it loves in return; to those who serve it, and whom it serves in return; to those who want it, and whom it wants in return. Like any relationship. Like any person.
Two Buddhist monks admiring one of the many beutiful Himalayan valleys in Ladakh
Two Buddhist monks admiring one of the many beautiful Himalayan valleys in Ladakh
You’ve successfully subscribed to Shared Pilgrimage
Welcome back! You’ve successfully signed in.
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Success! Your email is updated.
Your link has expired
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.