This is an excerpt from my recently completed manuscript, a memoir about travels along the Silk Road during the past forty-five years.
Rajasthan. January 2011
For as long as I can remember I’ve travelled India, although vicariously, through books. Marco Polo might be my muse. When my own story about the Silk Road began almost half a century ago now, Ross and I had to change our plans to work and travel in India because of a war. When we finally got there for the first time, in 1994, I was involved with UNICEF and went on a tour to learn about children’s health and education.
This time I’m going to India to rest and to try and fuse the information I’ve gathered over the years so I can find a way to close my story.
By the time Marco began his return voyage to Venice more than two decades after he set out, he was a different person. He’d had twenty-four years’ experience visiting places in the Far East and when he journeyed around the coast of India aboard a merchant ship on his way home he was more open to diversity, able to relax and admire what he saw. His stories paint a rich picture, drawing his readers’ attention to India’s geography and natural phenomena. “Everything is so different,” he writes over and over. He describes peculiar animals, birds, flora, food and drink. He’s fascinated by the variety of people, their languages and customs, local arts and crafts. He tells the reader of an India so vast and complicated, it would take him another year to recount all the stories.
I’m in awe of Marco. Like him, I’ve changed over the years. Travel is finding news ways of seeing everything. A yoga practice might be a good starting point; after all, yoga originated in India long before Marco came. Millions of people who live here now practice it and it fits with my travel focus of fusing information. In this case the body, the mind and the spirit.
My private yoga practice will be in the old former hunting lodge, somewhat off-putting for me – it’s different from the sparking new yoga studio I go to at home, with forty other participants crammed in together. My thoughts are mixed; I begin to wonder why I want to do this. But here I am. In Rajasthan. In my expedition-weight long underwear (damn, why did I leave my yoga gear in Calgary?) waiting for the yoga lesson and my introduction to India.
Kumar, impeccably dressed in pressed white cotton yoga pyjamas is expressionless. “Come,” he says, leading the way across a park alongside the environmental reserve to the lodge. And the yoga mats. I stumble along behind, uttering a few Canadian pleasantries to try and take the edge off and perhaps eke a smile out of his poker face, but he is steadfast. This tall man with a perfect, straight spine, neatly cropped black hair and tidy moustache is dedicated and wants me to take his instruction seriously.
Somehow my long underwear gives me a comfy-homey feeling that overpowers the discomfort I feel when I’m totally out of place. The peacocks and peahens on the path scuttle away screaming their sympathy “Help. Help.” Are they crying that they’re here in this quiet natural setting to help me feel safe?
At the entrance to the lodge, Mr. Singh, the 80-year-old turbaned Rajput caretaker I met yesterday, claps his hands to his heart in prayer before smiling through his magnificent white handlebar moustache. “Namaste,” he says, welcoming me before he leads me up a zigzagging narrow staircase, designed two hundred years ago to confuse intruders on their way up to the second floor, and mixing me up even more.
In the Maharajas’ days of glory this lodge would have been surrounded by a hundred trumpeting elephants waiting to take hunters out to the adjacent forest to shoot tigers, Mr. Singh remembers. I like Mr. Singh’s presence. He told me he belongs to the Rajputs, a historically fierce warrior caste; now he’s here to protect me.
At the top of the stairs is a small terrace overlooking the environmental reserve. My yoga mat has been neatly placed on the shiny, cool, stone floor facing the forest.
I take a deep breath. Fresh, warm breezes, punctuated with the scent of bougainvillea and hibiscus, soothe me. A deep blue sky frames tight green clusters of the Aravalli Mountain Range surrounding Lake Pichola and Udaipur’s famous white marble palace. It is late in the afternoon and the day cools as the hot sun begins to sink into the hills.
“Take your place. Your mat is your own private space.”
Thank you. I take my place. I stand on the mat. So far so good.
Kumar kneels, and nods, affirming that I should do the same.
I kneel. My crackly knees break the quiet. I stifle a nervous self-conscious giggle.
“Relaxxxxxx. Close your eyes Mrs. Hayes. Ommmmm. Say ommmmm with me,” he says almost too quietly for me to hear but with a definite no nonsense tone. I do my best. I try to keep my eyes shut but I have an urgent need to know what’s happening. Where am I? What’s going on? What do I do now?
“Enjooooyyy the practice.” Kumar chants. I make an effort to calm myself.
I’m told the position of stillness is yoga’s most difficult. And for me it is impossible.
I open my eyes.
The air, the sweet smell of the park, the sun beginning to settle down behind the hills is background for a strange slow movement of some sort at the edge of the park, behind Kumar. Kumar’s eyes are still closed but mine are wide open now.
Something deep within me says, “Be still Nancy. Do not speak. This moment is special for you.” A peculiar beast about the size of a large pig emerges from the bushes and shuffles along the edge of the park. The creature is covered with huge smooth scales, the colour of Rajasthan’s dry earth, shining in the light, from the tip of its long narrow head to the bottom of its elongated fat tail. Then it slowly, surely, disappears into the forest.
I am calmed, in awe. What have I seen?
I return to my muse, Marco, the model traveller of seven hundred years ago. “Remember this gift and take it with you,” the voice inside me says. Would I have missed the giant pangolin, the giant scaly anteater, a rare sight even in India, had I not been in pursuit of stillness, relaxing and enjoying a quiet yoga practice while I’m here?
Coming next: The Maharaja and Jazz