It’s a land of ideas, of insatiable hopes, of progress, and motion, and change.
A place where the sky does not hold limitations and where the impossible is ever so strange.
Its steps are hurried and its strides are many as it’s continually setting the pace.
But just beside it walking confidently is its other self, the true essence of this complex place.
It continues to survive amidst the landscape of change and was there long before modern day.
It is deeply rooted in history and faith and despite progress that’s where it has stayed.
It lives in the sand and in the concrete of the city, it rises with the Arabian sun.
It is found in the unguarded moments of prayer and in each whispered voice one by one.
If you listen you’ll hear it and looking you’ll see what else of this place so enthralls…
It’s the mindful silence, the quiet in between, the reverence that permeates all.
Ahhh India. The beautiful nation that gave birth to things like Curry, Yoga, Gandhi, the Taj Mahal and a host of other scientific and cultural accomplishments that we relish today and that have helped to shape mankind over the centuries. (They invented the number system for Pete’s sake. And ever grateful I am as it will aid me greatly throughout this piece.)
It is an immensely alluring place and the millions upon millions of visitors that cross its borders every year can attest to that.
Long before you alight, she sits in your imagination and eventually seduces you to her dusty shores and remains in your memories long after you leave like the scent of a burnt out candle that lingers in the air and quietly reminds you of its enduring presence.
But. There is a middle bit. Stuck somewhere in the space between longing for it and living it. A space that is occupied by three mental and physiological states of being that plague many a stranger. I like to call them the “Three Stages to Enlightenment.”
In India, the world passes by with such fervour, such colour, such noise, that the foreign nervous system can’t help but to feel overwhelmed.
Days pass though, and the body and mind soon acclimatise to this violent assault on your senses, and you’re no longer having an embarrassing mental breakdown in the middle of a crowded street being giggled at by those who can smell your fear from a mile off. That’s what I like to call Stage One.
Next is Stage Two. Which is characterised by a period of unadulterated observational intensity. Otherwise known as “the dumbs.” You will stare fearlessly, unabashedly, at all that you see around you. You’ll not yet be ready to articulate quite what you’re looking at, and you won’t necessarily be enjoying it either (that’s Stage Three), because at this point your neural pathways have ceased functioning and are in a state of temporary suspension, and really, you’re pretty much just staring out with your mouth open like an idiot.
Stage Three is when all of the fun begins, usually around days 3-4. You’ve taken it all in and it’s destroyed you from the inside out, but now you’ve been rebuilt as a better version of yourself (the less dumb version) and are ready to face all that India has to throw at you! The sea of bodies! The smells! The livestock!
It’s riveting, all of it, and you’re privileged to be experiencing it. The beautiful contrast that’s woven into Indian culture makes you want to cry. You’ve never seen such extremes, such intoxicating customs, tastes, scents and movements. It’s a tapestry of wonder and at this point you’re giddier than a pig in sh*t. You’ve been blinded, but now you can see the light.
After your first full day in Stage Three, you let a cold bottle of beer wash away the awkwardness that was the past few days. As you finish the bottle you congratulate yourself for surviving, no thriving, amidst the masses. Over the past few agonising days you’ve earned your freedom…
…and the reward is INDIA herself.
If you’re currently standing somewhere in Hanoi, then you’re only an overnight train, a couple of hours bus ride and a day’s worth of inclinous hiking away from the world’s most delicious and highest altitude bowl of Pho.
Somewhere tucked between the peaks of northern Vietnam in Sapa, bordering China, lives the world’s best noodle soup chef.
I don’t know her name, or her village, and the only thing for me differentiating her modest address from the next was the fact that I was seated there.
The events leading up to this gastronomical juncture were many, and perhaps worth a mention….
When disembarking the bus from Lao Cai to Sapa one finds oneself in the centre of a small town which lies in a valley. Sapa is a main market town in the area so there are numerous stalls selling handicrafts and produce. The local people are mostly ethnic minority groups such as the Hmong and Dao people, and their traditional dress and artisan skills are on display for all to see (and purchase).
Surrounding the valley are mountains and rice fields and beyond the peaks are tribal villages accessible only by foot. The morning of my arrival I met Vien, my local guide, who would be hiking with me over the peaks and into the villages beyond. The day started out foggy and the tops of the mountains were concealed as we gradually made our way up grassy hills and through terraced fields. We spotted a low lying river up ahead and a distressed farmer trying to lure his ox from the middle of it. As you do in those parts, we too began to call for the ox, and as it inched its way closer to the bank we all stepped in and pushed from behind, the mud from his haunches covering our shoes, our hands and well, everything else. Feeling quite heroic and neighbourly, (and might I add filthy) we continued on across the rope bridge and ever more northward we trudged.
Hmong women in their thick mountain dress with their woven baskets strapped to their backs began to hike alongside of us. Between attempts at selling us their woven bracelets, there were mutual smiles and warm exchanges. Once the bracelets were purchased however, the exchanges became less forced and their company began to feel friendly, comforting even. What started out as three turned into a robust group of ten. Flanked on either side they began to feel like Sherpas, hiking beside and in front of me as I amateurishly scrambled my way up their well-trodden paths. Eventually, the women grew bored of my company (one can only suspect) and departed, leaving our original group as we inched closer to the summit.
Down below we saw a village set in the valley. That was our next target. We took a small breather after the gruelling sprint for the summit and as we wiped the dusty sweat from our brow we noticed a small wooden hut just 10 yards ahead. We decided to take a seat and regain our energies before the downward journey. Vietnamese pleasantries were exchanged between Vien and the resident of the hut and before we knew it a piping hot bowl was set before us. The air had just enough bite in it to warrant a hot meal, but our stomachs were too empty to care about such frivolities as temperature.
I let the steam drift up to my face before picking up the chopsticks and devouring the fried egg delicately floating on top. The broth passed my lips and before long every noodle, herb and garnish had been slurped. The owner returned to collect our bowls and asked what I can only imagine was “How was it?” I didn’t have the words to express my deep satisfaction, but a wide and contented smile crossed my face as she grinned and slinked back into the darkness of her kitchen.