I woke up at 5.30a.m. My right hand was suspended above my head, vigorously clanging a bell; my left hand was in the act of scooping water from the Ganga to dab on my throat. It took my slumbering mind a few seconds to register the clangour of a temple aarti seeping into my room – conches blowing, priests chanting, bells ringing. For all practical purposes, I had been transported out of bed and in the arms of God on my first night in the holy city of Varanasi.
It wasn’t the first time I was held captive by the spirit of place. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; the air is thick with stories and yet so alive that you can feel your own story being fed into it. Almost by default, everyone is a philosopher, aware that they are living in such an ancient, storied city, which is why they say you should never fully believe any of its tales. But it isn’t just the great cities of the world or the most extraordinary locations that can nudge your mental landscape. In that, all travel, no matter how fleeting, acts as a portal for your mind.
A few months ago, I entered the Gulf of Thailand on my first snorkelling expedition. The waters were a molten blue rippling with swathes of green: clear, cool, serene, matched by an azure expanse of sky. It was such a revelation that it took me a couple of days after I returned to Mumbai to be able to gaze at our cloudy grey seas again.
Our snorkelling spots were not Thailand’s best, but located around the lesser-frequented but gorgeous islands of Koh Samet and Koh Chang. On my first dip, overcome by thankfulness at the feeling of being a speck in such an immense cascade of beauty, I closed my eyes for a second. A fin flicked silkily over my arm and my eyes opened to see a million wide-eyed, open-mouthed fish crowded curiously around my face. I gasped, they swam away. I felt like Ariel. For all my fears, I was more at home in water than on land. For hours, we swam with schools of inquisitive rabbit fish, gently dancing with excitement as we floated above an endless, earthy artwork of coral amid rocks striated by golden sunlight.
On my first morning back in Mumbai, I woke up to the sound of my breathing, as measured and deep as when I was snorkelling. But here, in my room, usually the centre of such frenetic activity, I suddenly experienced what it felt like to have an empty head; time parcelled out by each breath. It struck me that the sensation that I had while floating silently above, and yet part of, the sea was peace. We had been absorbed by the easy embrace of the sea, where it was enough to just be and be part of an incredible flow of beauty. For all my years of sporadic meditation – and perhaps because of it – I finally encountered stillness with my eyes wide open, a fleck in the daily surge of life; the quiet had crept in so subtly that I only sensed the difference days later.
Thailand and Varanasi (still locally called Banaras) have taken root as portals in my imagination. I would never have guessed the lure or personal impact of these “tourist traps” given how many travellers had described them as “done to death”. Gazing on the deep blue gulf where even the dappled husks of dead crabs catching the sunlight reflect a tranquil beauty. Walking through that chaotic, enlightening, maddeningly paradoxical and intoxicating Indian city where even meandering through its narrow, winding lanes is considered a bridge to Heaven – as P.B. Rana describes Kasi dhunde(searching the labyrinthine lanes) in his essay, “Banaras: Encountering the Experiences and Expositions of the Spirit of Place”.
Places can hook into your consciousness. A visit to Jerusalem can trigger a delusion in psychologically susceptible tourists that they are Jesus or Biblical figures; it may take them the plane back home to recognise themselves again. The Stendhal syndrome occurs when visitors hallucinate, suffer a loss of identity or have a fainting bout, overwhelmed by the art of Florence. Perhaps the disorientation and emotional upheaval stems from the proximity to the crossroads of history and the lash of time; maybe it’s the wizardry of architecture that induces a dizzying state of mind in the vulnerable. Whatever the trigger, destinations – and journeys – can transform us, unlocking doorways and pressing recesses in our mind that swirl our internal landscape around, blowing the gates of our perception off its hinges.
I was definitely not the first to have caught the Varanasi bug. One of my favourite people in Varanasi was our guide Jeremy “Jai” Oltmann. Like so many other travellers, he had found his way to Varanasi and never left, slowly sculpted by the city until his beliefs and mannerisms were more Indian than the young American who came in on a plane from Minnesota 14 years ago.
I slept soundly the rest of my nights in Varanasi, but the seed had already been sown. I was smitten, in love with a city whose spiritual importance – for its catalytic role in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism – finds a reflection in Jerusalem. I am a prodigal daughter, waiting to go back – and not just to Banaras.
Travel will make you aware that life is more than the reality you have constructed in your head. It will lengthen your mind with every mile, whether you intend to change yourself or not. For every impenetrable barrier that you erect between yourself and the world, shutting out experience for safety, travel will shake the cage of your beliefs. It will force you to recognise the humanity of all whom you consider alien. It will lead you to find closure in places that never held meaning for you before. You will pack lighter each time you head out, pay more attention to the telling differences that lend each place its character, and get off the map more to make discoveries that will only come to you.
And each time you return: a little less recognisable than the self who walked out your front door, a little more aware of who you are minus the social paraphernalia, a little wider to accommodate all that you have seen, heard and breathed—you will be a little more in love with life.