Everyone has an opinion about India. When I bought a one-way ticket to New Delhi this summer, people’s reactions ranged from tempered envy to head shaking disbelief: “You’re going to get so sick,” an Indian friend told me without a trace of irony. But I was ready to be challenged.
Over the past year I had been meditating more and caring less—about people’s opinions of me, about my own conditioned expectations—and felt like I’d found a new way of communicating with others and taking care of myself. The formula was simple: be honest, act from the heart and do away with fear, no matter how weird or awkward that might seem.
At home, I was in an expansive groove. Old patterns shifted and new relationships began on clearer terms; decisions were much more navigable than they’d ever been. What would happen, I thought, if I took this outlook somewhere foreign? How would this more open and balanced me hold up under pressure?
So, despite the detractors, I decided to go to India—loud, dirty, in-your-face, aggressive, gorgeous, maddening, contradictory, the ultimate backpacker’s destination and traveler’s test. And I decided to go without a plan. I had a six month tourist visa, a destination wish list and a place to stay for the first few nights. After that, I was putting my faith in the flow.
In the beginning, it worked beautifully. I was traveling with a friend who had five weeks to spend in the country, so I happily ceded much of the planning to her. After all, I had time. We ended up flying south from chilly Delhi and stayed at an ashram in Kerala for two weeks, eating raw sprout salads and drinking coconut-date smoothies. This was India? Sure, it was hot, the rules were strange and the guru’s devotees could be obnoxious, but it was blissful. Dirty, uncomfortable and difficult it was not.
From there we headed to Goa. Beautiful. The back of our guesthouse spilled out onto a wide white beach, empty save for a few cows, curvy boats and pale sunbathers. The water was clear and I waded into it in my bikini every morning. But part of me was starting to chafe: where were my crowded buses, my mountains of trash, my abject squat toilets? Where was my challenge?
In truth, I had been challenged from the start. At the ashram, my friend made connections easily; I felt like her less desirable wing woman and old doubts—about acceptance and self-worth—came rushing back. All the work I’d done over the past year seemed to have been brushed aside. I felt like a moody, mean teenager, concerned with others’ opinions of me. And my lack of a plan was beginning to feel aimless. I was wasting my time. I came to India unprepared and would leave with nothing to show for it.
But, with a little effort, those feelings passed. My friend and I opened up to each other—turned out she’d been uncomfortable too—and after a few days of feeling snobby about tranquil Goa, I gave myself permission to enjoy it and permission to give myself space to determine how the rest of my time in India would unfold.
Growth can happen anywhere: in the prettiest of places, with the dearest of friends. I didn’t need to court challenge—it found me, simultaneously familiar and unexpected. Now I’ve shifted my intention for the rest of my time in India: Enjoy it. Simple enough, but so much sweeter for the process of getting here.
--Alison Baenen. Alison Baenen is a freelance writer, yogi, exotic superfood enthusiast, and passport-stamp collector. She has written for Style.com, Harper’s Bazaar and Aerin Lauder’s company AERIN. She lives in Amagansett between the ocean and the bay.