Shocked - student project

Varanasi. The holy Indian city. I stare at the smog as I step outside of the airport. At this point, I am neither excited nor afraid. Just moving forward.

44 hours. It took me 44 hours to get here. I knew that this whole spiritual quest would be challenging. But I thought that at least I’d have it easy in the beginning. Karma wanted none of that.

After landing, I find my way through the plethora of taxi drivers competing for my money. After using some negotiating tactics I learned living in China, I manage to get a fairly reasonable price to the city. But as the taxi leaves the airport, I realize that I am in a totally different world.

For a moment, I feel quite protected from the imminent culture shock inside the taxi. It’s like these four doors separate two distinct worlds. A world where I am at ease, enjoying a regular life with a hint of spirituality. And a world of utter discomfort, where my senses are shattered by the constant honking of cars, the smells of the gutter, and all the visual information that my mind is incapable of processing.

As the taxi flows towards Varanasi, my mind escapes to my thoughts. I’ve waited for two years to be here. Finally done with graduate life. I went through all the conventional fluff knowing that I’d quit as soon as I’d finish it. Now I can get going with my quest for spirituality.

At the train station, I switch vehicles for an infamous tuk-tuk ride. These little wonders have a unique ability to pick up the maximum amount of humans per square meter. I squeeze myself in the front where I manage to keep some space to breathe. Now we can take discomfort to another level. I feel the breeze of the cars dashing by my side and the honking is now loud enough to drive me insane. The tuk-tuk driver has some mercy for me and pulls back my leg inside the vehicle. I understand that he’s trying to avoid getting my leg reaped by a passing car. The shock starts to settle in as my illusions of inner stability crumble.

Why did I decide to get myself into this already? Oh yeah, searching for a deeper meaning in life. I recall a quote from Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls”. I pray to myself that this is true as I step out of my ride.

Immediately, it strikes me that Varanasi isn’t that holy as I’d imagined. The road is made of lines of dirt, interrupted by puddles of cow dung and toxic waste. The sounds are loud. People yell at me to get out of the way or to jump on their ride. I feel like I can get run over at any moment. I start to panic but my reflex is to find the hotel I booked. I hope I’ll get some refuge there. But the old city is like a maze. Every turn draws me further into confusion. No wonder the people look mad here. I fear to move further into this labyrinth, afraid that it will lead me to my loss. The struggle persists inside me but I continue moving forward.

To be honest, I am not very afraid of challenges. Most of the time I take them very seriously. That’s my puritan side. Acting like a missionary on a holy quest. But this time, I decided to really test myself. I came with no plans, guided only by my intuition and the flow of life.

Finally, after 15 minutes of torturous erring, I make it to the hotel. The receptionist of my guesthouse greets me like another tourist on the line. Disabused by the routine of his job, he cannot hide his feeling of indifference as he hands me the keys to my room.

The hotel looks quite nice, and I don’t regret my choice. Mustache Varanasi has the familiarity proper to textbook hotels. It is a conventional replica of what makes foreigners feel at home: travel novels, board games, corny pictures of famous “must-sees”… Even a rooftop serving banana pancakes. Everything is there to make you forget that you are in India.

The well-deserved blow of fatigue hits me with full power. I have made it to a place I can call home for a night. I hear my stomach grumbling. Although my body yells to sleep, my overstimulating appetite drags me outside in search of Indian food.

On my way, I meet Tom, a 30-ish Chinese guy that my instincts tell me to avoid at all costs. He seems vaguely absent from his present experience. But I am too tired to resist the temptation of company.

As we step into a nearby restaurant, my instincts tell me once again to turn back. It is deserted at lunchtime, not a good sign. The decor strikes me with a sense of paradox. The phosphorescent lights blend awkwardly with efforts to create an authentic Indian feeling. The mix doesn’t fit well with my sense of normality.

The owner greets me without a smile and throws the menu into my hands. My mind is vanquished by the endless list of mysterious choices. So far, every experience in India adds one layer of confusion on the other. A voice tells me once again to go back home. I cry for help at the waiter and he recommends me a few dishes, the most expensive ones of course.

As we wait, Tom starts talking about his life. I try to hide my disinterest in pain and take this as an exercise to work on my compassion. He rambles about politics in China and how the US spreads anti-Chinese propaganda everywhere. In a faithful attempt to avoid political debates and to find a purpose for our conversation, I ask him why he is traveling. Turns out he is “just” traveling, gobbling one sensory experience after the other in search of something more thrilling. Another dead end.

I am completely confused about the absurdity of this situation, lost between this meaningless conversation and the vibe of the restaurant. Where is the depth that I came seeking in India? Where are the signs awaiting my meeting with an enlightened master?

The meal over, I flee to my semi-quiet dorm filled with Vietnamese tourists. It strikes me. I have planned nothing for tomorrow. I am still harboring this fantasy about not controlling anything on this trip.

As I crash onto my bed wondering what the hell I am doing here, I abandon myself to the possibilities of tomorrow.