During the past year, I traveled extensively as part of my music and yoga studies. Without fail, I always felt the protective, guiding energy of Waheguru in crucial moments. G.O.D., the Generating, Organizing, Delivering/Destroying force of the totality of creation. That unseen, unfathomable energy of intelligence and organization that has final say. As real and invisible as gravity and mysterious as the distant cosmos… Frequently it manifested as getting me to my connecting gate just as the plane was in final boarding or once, by getting me and my rental car to a destination 45 minutes away, in a strange city and state, by intuitive feeling and prayer instead of GPS! My journey to India was no exception.
I feared greatly how I would manage alone with my luggage. Two large and one small suitcase, a backpack and a small bag of food. I attempted to pack as lightly as possible, but ultimately had to remind myself I was preparing for much more than a weekend get-away. I can honestly say, there isn’t one thing I regret bringing. The items I chose to start my life in India with included:
- Pillow, blanket and sheet (per Sada Sat Simran S. Khalsa’s recommendation)
- Meditation sheepskin
- Clothing and turbans
- Toiletries and first aid supplies
- Vitamins and supplements that would be difficult to obtain in India
- Small folk harp (to keep up with my harp studies while abroad)
- 2 good knives
- Vise grips (don’t leave home without them!)
- 2 small towels and washcloths
- Watercolor paints, paper, brushes, palette and drawing pencils
- Two journals, one blank – which has become my Shabad Composition book
- Sewing kit
- A framed oil painting I had made as a gift for my teacher
- Books – Learning Punjabi, 2 Hazrat Inayat Khan books, Mind book by Gurucharan Singh Khalsa PhD. and Yogi Bhajan, Paramahansa Yogananda’s Cosmic Chants and a few small books of musical notation for harp, writing and painting
- Extra pair of shoes
- Rain jacket
- Portable speaker – So glad I brought this with me!
I also had a backpack which contained my laptop, Nitnem, small envelope of devotional pictures, a wool shawl and two water bottles (one was this Grayl bottle with a filtering system, which saved me many times in my first few months!) my phone, iPod and a mini flashlight. Oh, and I brought a travel buddy.
The suitcases were overweight and I was concerned about how I would manage my unruly herd. At my first stop in New York, I would have to claim the luggage, wrangle it onto a shuttle train to the International Terminal and sit with it for 10+ hours before the Qatar Airlines desk opened, allowing me to re-check them to my final destination.
Somehow it all went like clockwork. A handy cart was my savior – luckily allowed on the train! I was even able to find a quiet corner across from the Qatar desks to park my cart, lay out my sheepskin, do my meditation Sadhana and take a nap. It was in that moment I realized my home is truly wherever I am.
I arrived in India on Wednesday, December 12, 2018. The journey was long, but uneventful. It was around 3 am, Amrit Vela, when I arrived at the Sri Guru Ram Das Ji International Airport. I boarded a cab at the airport to get to my interim lodging; a hotel across from the Akal Takht side of the Golden Temple.
The cab sped along dark, silent streets, glistening from recent rain. I gazed out at the foreign trees and vegetation feeling I had come to a new and unknown land.
The street narrowed and curved as it neared the hotel, desolate but for stray dogs and an occasional pilgrim heading to the temple. The cab driver pulled over in front of a dark, deserted looking building and said we had arrived. I said it didn’t look like anyone was there and that I wasn’t leaving the cab until I knew I could get inside the hotel. I watched anxiously as he left the car, went up to the forlorn building and began banging on the door. Some moments later, I could see the shadow of a sleep deprived employee shuffling through the dark room to unlock the door.
After settling into my room, I realized I felt quite awake and well. I decided to bathe, dress and head over for my first Amrit Vela visit to Darbar Sahib.
I walked quickly through the night shadows and entered the shoe check-in. Further down the path, I washed my feet in the warm, flowing water of the marble foot bathing trough. Then, descending the marble stairs, I gazed upon the Temple for the first time. I began the customary clock-wise journey around the Parkarma and reflected on feeling a sensation of “coming home”.
The following three days at my hotel followed a similar routine; early visits to the temple, listening to Kirtan for hours in the Darbar. Afternoons were spent catching up on much needed sleep. I could easily hear Kirtan from the temple in my room, while laying in the warm sun streaming in through the window.
This was also when I formed my first impressions of India. My hotel was located on the back side of the Temple, amongst a curious juxtaposition of normal businesses or residences which abut half tumbled down brick and concrete structures. Stray dogs in profusion, beggars, people trying to do business or just standing and staring… The semi-destruction and mayhem of everyday life combined brought to mind scenes from post apocalyptic films such as 28 Days Later or I Am Legend. First impression = India felt a lot like the end of the world! Another odd element was the periodic appearance of creepy Halloween-like Santa costumes hanging outside market shops. Sometimes you find elements of western culture interpreted here in very strange ways!
It was arranged that the next day, Thursday, I would meet my teacher, Ustad Ji for the first time. The neighborhood in Chheharta, Sandhu Colony is not easy for GPS to find. As my Ola Cab driver neared the destination he resorted to rolling down his window to ask random persons for “Dr. Narinder Singh, music professor”. The car drove farther off the main road into the colony and I found my attention grabbed by a certain street and home I could see from the road, I felt that intuitive whisper say that that was the home of my Teacher. The cab sped past and went down an opposite street. Stopping at a group of middle aged women in Punjabi suits and dupattas, he leaned out to ask his question again. The women replied, “Is Dr. Narinder Singh a doctor for having babies?” I laughingly replied, No – not that I was aware of! Finally a direction was given and the cab began to backtrack. Yes, the correct house was the house I had seen.
It was a memorable moment, that first site of my Teacher as he came to open the gate. He looked dignified in his white turban, his beard flowing over his kurta. He was thoughtful, quiet and polite. The gaze of his dark sparkling eyes was familiar to me from the photographs I had seen. And although we had never met before, there was a great feeling of familiarity in relation to him which struck me deeply. I did not feel like we were meeting for the first time. We had a short but pleasant visit. I gave him the painting I had made. He gave me some chamomile tea and crunchy, sugar coated chana. We arranged that I would return Sunday to take my apartment and lessons would commence Monday morning.
Sunday afternoon arrived and I traveled to my new home in Chheharta. Ustad Ji walked me the two blocks to my apartment where I met some of the Indian family next door who are my landlords.
The apartment was completely empty but for one bed with plain mattress, a coffee table and two plastic chairs. Homes in India are made of brick, cement and plaster with marble or tile floors. The homes are not heated or insulated. During winter, it is cold. I could see my breath inside at times!
My apartment echoed like a vast, icy cave. Empty, alone… just me, my luggage and some parcels of groceries and supplies I had picked up the day before.
I was extremely glad I had followed Sada Sat Simran’s advice to bring bedding – I would at least have a comfortable sleep! As I prepared for bed, the roaring sound of a train blasted the night air and rattled the floor. Oh God! I thought, how often is that going to happen! Now I know, blessings of Waheguru!, that the train does not run all night.
I lay in the dark and began to hear strange sounds of wild animals, packs of dogs and the curious sound of a lone person walking around and periodically blowing a hand whistle- all night long. Again came to mind thoughts of the “end of the world” movies I had seen – but this time, the scary nighttime parts of those movies!
Monday morning arrived along with the start of a head cold. I arose in the Amrit Vela, bathed, dressed and began chanting Japji Sahib. Not long after starting, I broke into heavy sobs.
What had I done? Desolation flooded over me. Here I was, alone in this cavernous apartment, in a neighborhood in a foreign country where I couldn’t yet speak the language. A fear gripped me that I would be spending the next two years trapped alone in my apartment, with the exception of three music lessons a week. I let the waves of emotion crash over me and then returned to calmness. But my morning continued with a heavy heart.
As I sat on the floor in my bedroom eating a breakfast of dried fruit and nuts, I was startled by the drone of an air-raid siren. I paused wondering what to do. Was a war going to break out? Some other calamity? The end of the world!? A few moments later the siren stopped. I couldn’t hear any bustle from the family next door, so resumed my breakfast. Come to find out later, a cloth factory uses the siren continually to notify employees of shift changes. Why the whole neighborhood aslo has to hear is still a puzzle to me…
Later that morning, my first lesson with Ustad Ji gave me a feeling of affirmation on why I had come as part of my destiny, to study here in India.
Ustad Ji asked if I was okay; if I was happy. I replied that I was fine, but worried I would become isolated in my apartment. He listened thoughtfully.
The family I rent my apartment from next door, are six in number; Mata Ji, Pitta Ji, Jasmeen and her husband, their toddler daughter, Mehtab, and uncle (Chacha). I had met Jasmeen on Sunday when she came with Mehtab in her arms to instruct me on safety using the Geyser I had asked them to install so that I could have hot water in my kitchen. The baby Mehtab and I locked eyes strongly for some moments upon first meeting. For me it was one of those powerful moments of recognition, “Oh, we have known each other before”. The prolonged, direct gaze of her deep chocolate eyes made me feel she was perhaps experiencing a similar sensation.
Jasmeen and I quickly became friends over the following week. One winter afternoon not long after arriving, she invited me to her home for lunch. After eating, she asked if I was tired. Would I like to take some rest? All the changes in my life had left me with a need for extra sleep, so I said yes. She had my lay on her bed in the darkened room next to Mehtab who was already in deep sleep. I could feel Jasmeen tuck me in from the cold. I closed my eyes in gratitude at my recognition of this truth that Waheguru had taken care of me beyond my wildest imagination. I had come to a new, unknown land to learn to do God’s work by chanting the Holy Shabad. I had an apartment which meant privacy for meditation, practicing and retreat from the overwhelming noise and bustle of Amritsar. And, I had just been blessed with a family.