Community - the Indian Difference


Our happy family at Mysore Palace.

Two months in India? What did you do? This is the reaction most people have when we speak about our most recent adventure.

Indeed what did we do? We be’d is the short answer.

We took the precious chance to disconnect in order to reconnect. In the summer of 2019 when I went to India, I went alone, basically for the same reason. This year we were two, a couple, and for me this trip was a matter of great importance for our coupleship. A unique opportunity to have two months together, invaluable time totally outside of the norms, pressures, convictions, and habits of every-day life in a privileged European culture. We were spontaneous, open for adventure, awed to celebrate 10 years of marriage, and ready to have fun.

What we experienced was pure magic.

In a word, we lived the Indian difference, (being present in) community.

While India is not alone in this powerful way of being, Southern Italy, parts of Spain, Turkey, and surely other countries I am not familiar with have this in common, and it is to me the foundation of the magic people speak about when they discuss India. In our experience this same feeling extends itself south to Sri Lanka too. The electricity of community, of being seen, of being present. And for me, carrying this sense of community home with me in my heart is a powerful motivator to live the same magic wherever I am.

As I write the world is experiencing a global pandemic, one component of healing in his situation for me, is the conscious creation of a sense of community, virtually. Another component is the possibility to see this situation also as a chance to disconnect to reconnect. I dedicate this post to this idea, may all who read it feel themselves a part of something magical and loving. Share this post with someone you love to give them a lift in their day, call a friend who you have not spoken to in a while, turn to the person next to you and give them a hug. Connect to what is important for you.

A sense of community and magic may take many forms. If you wish to go right to the photo highlights of the trip, click here for a video journey. This link is as well at the bottom if you wish to read on and view the video later. The post itself contains few photos instead we share our video journey

Just outside of Hubli we encountered a local festival where saree clad women were beating drums in parade like fashion and the beat went right to my core. We were the only non-Indian people there and while most ignored us and continued on with their celebrations, the age of the smart phone was hyper-present. Ten year old children and 80 year old grandparents alike snapped selfies with us. Later that evening we went to enter a temple and found ourselves invited to a wedding. We were force fed and instructed to pose for photos – and it was fun. On both occasions the people were jolly, casual, and aligned. We were like a party favor and it suited all parties.

Our next stop was Hampi, the reason we were in Hubli in the first place as its airport is one of the stops on the way to Hampi. Four hours by road from Hubli, both are in the state of Karnataka. Frequently asked why we chose Hampi, each time we answered we were reconnected with our version of India’s magic. In 2007-8 when we went together for the first time to India, we planned the first bit and then for two months we flitted about according to advice and experience from locals and fellow travelers. We went as far north as Rajasthan and south all the way to the southern tip of India. Along the way over and over we heard from people how we had to go to Hampi. We did not make it to Hampi on our first trip. Naturally we started this special trip in Hampi, and the rest we followed the wind just like the first time. As it turned out we were the entire time in India, apart from Delhi, in the state of Karnataka.

In Hampi after a narrow escape from a bad hotel pick, we found ourselves immersed in an interesting mix of community. At Shanti house Krishna and Tirtha effortlessly created an atmosphere of home like ease. When the authorities shut down the entire village for the new year, they arranged for us (all of their guests) to have a bonfire in the endless rice fields adjacent to the property complete with music and cake. The evening we left, Tirtha waited outside with us for more than an hour until our transport came, sending us off with my favorite cake in my pocket, free of charge, for our journey.

Krishna far right and Tirtha second from left bidding us farewell as we set off from Shanti house in Hampi.

Pradeep and Aru sealed the deal in making Hampi, already an incredible natural and cultural phenomena, feel like a full on community. Pradeep had us with tears of laughter streaming down our faces almost every time we met, and Aru was always ready for action, once zooming Claudio to the local ‘wine shop’ on his motorbike. ZING ZING Amazing, full power they live life. We met them in what was then Pradeep and his family’s restaurant Thali House – since our visit the government has torn it and every other café, restaurant, and guest house on “Hippie Island” (really a street not an island) down. Undaunted these young men are recreating their lives as you read. While the unique landscape of Hampi was dazzling, what is unforgettable about this place for us is the people we met there.

Top left Pradeep always smiling, middle Aru totally cool, bottom us with Pradeep. Featured Pradeep and Aru chilling out with us in a friend of theirs place on our last evening in Hampi.

Super bumpy overnight bus ride later, 5am we arrived in Gokarna. The main town of the region, Gokarna is a sacred place, one of the seven important Hindu pilgrimage centers where Indians come to worship Lord Shiva by the sea.

Sunset on Kudle beach, every evening an event.

Quickly, after we slept a bit on the couches of a local restaurant, we found our base on Kudle beach in the small family run place Gundappa. Complete with adorable laughing all the time grandbaby and Goureesh, the local boy who was our go to man, it was our nest by the sea. Kudle beach is a traveler’s paradise. The sea at your feet has a vast sandy apron to walk upon, good food to enjoy, sights to see, and all sorts of interesting people to meet. On our journey from Hampi we met Helia, an Iranian American woman who was traveling more than a year based in an ashram not far from Kudle beach. Joe, the impish Brit Claudio met at a place above ours who delighted us with his easy way and endless kindness. MiniMaster our yoga teacher, Tomas at the spectacular French Boulangerie Chez Christophe on Gokarna beach, the Italians from Venice who set themselves up as if they were in a coffee shop for hours at a time, Kevin our Bernese Oberland neighbor at Gundappa, Basu the Danish guru who lives between India and Greece, the Indian doctor who sees upwards of 150 patients a day in his tiny clinic because he believes healthcare is for everyone, Dana the Israeli woman who inspired me with her grace and ease in yoga, the Swedes making jewelry and clothes, the countless young Indian people we met mostly on weekends when they came to enjoy the sea. I could go on, and the point is clear, the beaches were amazing, the temples fabulous, the food delicious, and what we brought home are memories of the people. We intended to stay a few days and seventeen days later we dragged ourselves away from this beach paradise knowing if we did not, we would never leave.

Graffiti in Gokarna that said it all about the place.

As happens, the question of where to go decides itself in India. From Gokarna we went, by a more comfortable overnight bus, to Mysore for a short city visit. Mysore was our base camp for the planning of our next move, Sri Lanka. Being who we are, we made the best of Mysore as a base camp staying in an old palace The Green Hotel, which beyond being its own sort of bliss, gives a large part of its proceeds to local charities for education and environment.

This place turned out to be a highlight of our trip for many reasons including the rarity of a bathtub in our quaint colonial room complete with wood floors, a super comfortable four poster bed, lovely breakfast in the garden, wonderful staff, and the total peace of the place itself in the face of the chaos of the city. With only four days in Mysore we made the best of it walking our feet off exploring the city, the Mysore Palace, the markets, food food food and the people. Helia was there at the same time as us and we enjoyed an evening together walking in the Ashtanga capital of Gokulam and then over dinner at the Green Hotel. The next day we took a car the four hours to Bangalore airport and at 1 am we were in Negombo, Sri Lanka ready for our next adventure.

Shortly after our arrival, immediately after bumping into a Brit who had done the same, we rented a scooter, reduced our 3 bags to 2 backpacks and a day pack and zoomed south for a 15 day 2 wheeled adventure. For me, this was THE adventure in the adventure. All I could have hoped for, we were stripped down to the bare necessities and we were intimately together for a large part of each day while Claudio drove in every kind of landscape on every kind of road, with me behind him navigating the way. We were free in a way we rarely allow ourselves and we had a great time.

Top left Claudio super happy on his new ride, middle with a local mechanic making the perfect tweak to our headlight to ensure we are prepared for night driving, right Claudio with Amal at Elephant Safari House before take-off (note the two backpacks, one strapped to the back, the other next to the water bottle). Bottom center us on our ride after visiting Christine near Kalutara.

From our first stop in Kalutara where we visited with dear friend Christine and her entourage at a mountain side Ayurveda clinic, to our last stop in Negombo we were living the magic exponentially.

Imagine that we were in Sri Lanka, unplanned, at the same time as one of our closest friends. Of course we had to visit, which gave us two days in Kalutara, a quirky seaside place where the sea is too rough to swim. At the Whispering Shells we enjoyed a wonderful room with a gorgeous sea view, run by Tomas, who had lived two decades between Canada and the US. Cultured, funny, and generous we enjoyed his place and his company.

Next we scootered to Unawatuna where the sea is certainly swimmable, and swim we did. Claudio went scuba diving one day, just him and the guide. One evening at a place called Toddy’s, we listened to live music so terrific that we were mesmerized, the fabulous cocktails helped too. When the singer took his break, we met him and the owner, two young men from Colombo who had lived abroad and were back to enjoy their lives and make their fortunes. This same night we met Leena and Sara, respectively Sudanese and Egyptian, both living in Dubai. To say they were amazing would be an understatement. We shared the entire next day with them in their garden house by the sea, a beach Claudio literally described as what he wanted in exact detail that morning before we got there. Dancing, singing, sipping tea, etc. we were four travellers on life’s journey and our conversation was soulful and intimate in a way that defines community for me. This was one of the best days of my married life, Claudio was 100% himself, open, tender, fun, expressive, connected.

Top Leena, Sara, and I at their beachside haven. Bottom left Claudio contemplating his good fortune on the beach he dreamed into reality, bottom right local fisherman at their trade.

Next we went to the wild side for a safari. Turned out that Shehan, the owner of Toddy’s, with his family had recently taken on a lodge near the Udawalawe game park and he set us up for two days and nights. Amal and his staff at Elephant Safari House treated us like royalty, amazing food and service. We even had a special guest, a woodpecker that came and pecked for more than an hour each day. Our 5am departure for the Udawalawe game park was worth it, we saw dozens of birds, elephants, baby elephants, gators, water buffalo, and more.

From animals we went to tea, higher and higher we climbed on our scooter until we reached the hill country of Ella. The highlight there was a slow train ride through endless tea plantations. The train was full of local people taking advantage of a weekend holiday, we met two businessmen taking the train back to Colombo to enjoy the tranquility of the ride, and even an Indian couple on their honeymoon. Back to our place in Ella by nightfall we left early the next morning for our next stops, Dambulla and Sigiriya.

These were the highlight of our cultural experience in Sri Lanka. In Dambulla we visited the temple complex dating back to the first century BC, with five temple caves under a monolithic rock overhang. In Sigiriya we climbed Piduguralla rock to get a bird’s eye view of Sigiriya rock, Sri Lanka’s eighth wonder of the world. All of this was amazing and what we enjoyed the most, our super simple, perfectly appointed room and the food served with such care by a young man whose name I cannot recall at the Senomaal Sigiri Resort.

What I do recall, that he allowed me to witness him make our dinner in his makeshift kitchen. Everything from scratch with such care and attention. For breakfast the owner, a businessman from Kandy, made sure we had everything local so that we may experience the richness of the food. The history was amazing, and the impressions left on me by the people and their energies are what remain in my mind. With a hardy breakfast in our bellies, we set off for our last stop, an unknown beach.

Claudio was keen for our last days to be spent by the beach, and we were too far to go back to Unawatuna. All sources indicated that the beaches north of Colombo were terrible, and we decided to give it a go. With a clear picture in his mind of what he wanted, Claudio and I went from place to place in Kalpitiya like Goldilocks, and indeed the third place was a charm. The next three days were continual bliss at the Five Trees beach resort.

The first morning we were there Claudio was up at 07.30 to check out the fisherman on the beach. We walked along together, had a coffee on the beach at the only café beachside, and then took our own swim. Afternoons were windy and we alternated walking on the beach watching the kite surfers and wading in the hotels pool. Breakfast was sumptuous, dinners full of vive and overall this was a fairytale way to enjoy our last days. The owners were a father and son team who gave us their hearts. Ridwan was sent to hotel restaurant management school by his father Saman who then built the hotel for him to run. At 22 Ridwan was wise, kind, and hardworking. Our first evening there, Saman sat with us toward the end of dinner – divine tuna steaks which he had bought that day at the fish market and grilled for us himself – and told us his story. More than thirty years ago he had left Sri Lanka to work abroad, as a dishwasher. All this time later here he was building up his own hotel, with his son, and running a profitable shrimp business on his own. They were an amazing duo rounded out by Chameera, a local fisherman who had become Ridwan’s best friend and thus his right hand man, we wish them all the best in their endeavors especially at this time.

Top left Saman (father/owner), Claudio, Chameera (Ridwan’s right hand man), and Ridwan (son/owner) on cocktail seafood BBQ night at Five Trees, middle me in the sea, far right Claudio and his four legged pals (he collected them wherever we went). Bottom the view from our bathtub (second in 2 months) at Five Trees!

From Kalpitiya we headed north to return our scooter, collect our bags, and enjoy our last night in Sri Lanka before flying back to India. Having had a rather unpleasant hotel experience on our way in, I booked us into a hotel on the sea with a spectacular garden, a long terrace, a big room, and an exotic bathroom half indoor half outdoor to enjoy out last night. Icebear is a Swiss-Sri Lankan venture, the Swiss gentleman having come to Negombo from Basel more than 30 years ago. The business of repacking complete we enjoyed lovely dinner and breakfast on Icebear’s veranda before we flew off next afternoon.

Delhi, I have saved for last as it both began and ended or trip. This punctuation was tangible, and in a way, set the tone both for our trip and how we might be able to live this sense of community and ease at home. Delhi in December, especially this year, was not an ideal place and thanks to our friend Bilal and his cousin Showkat, we had a most unforgettable time. Home cooked Kashmiri meals, a walking tour of old Delhi, endless markets, and just chilling out with them and their families over a cup of tea in their home were the highlight of our time in Delhi in December and February.

Top Bilal and his adorable son Adnan, middle Showkat and I in old Delhi, bottom Afrooza, Bilal’s wife serving us a feast.

The backdrop of all of this was the World Buddhist Center where I briefly stayed on my last trip thanks to Bartolomeo. This Buddhist temple cum guest house is a slice of heaven in the heaving mass of Delhi. Run by Lama Tashi and Kunalji, this oasis sustained us on many levels. In December we enjoyed the austerity of the place as a way to adjust to being in a different environment with gratitude and a good dose of humor. When the Lama phones your room at 07.50 to tell you breakfast is ready with the giggle of a boy and the humility of a deeply spiritual man, this is a valuable reminder of what is real and important in life.

When we returned at the end of our trip in mid-February, the temperatures had warmed, and the peace of the World Buddhist Center took on whole new dimensions. Meals are served family style with all at table in the Japanese custom on the floor. There is a deep sense of community even with total strangers as Tashiji blesses the meal in his rich baritone. Together we attended meditation with the lamas, the rich sound of the drum activating our hears to new possibilities. Then, there was the Signora. In the room across the hall when we were there in December, she was still there when we returned in February. This amazing woman, originally from Milan resides for most of the year in Dharmsala, a neighbor to the Dali Lama, she stays at the World Buddhist Center for some time when it is too cold in Dharmsala. For us, in particular for Claudio, she was sent straight from heaven literally speaking his language. With infinite patience and good humor she shared with us her own story, weaved into a clear and thoughtful introduction to meditation and its benefits. Together we shared the community of travelers on the planet, with equal parts laughter and sincerity.

From right Kunalji, Tenzin Ojung (the Signora), Claudio, Me, and the kids.

This being my 5th time to India in the span of nearly 20 years people ask what has changed. A lot. On this trip we encountered Indian travelers, young students, young professionals, families, every weekend wherever we were filled with local people (local being defined as any Indian person). We had a chance to speak with the most extraordinary young, educated, traveled, interesting local people wherever we were. In Hampi we spent our time exclusively with local people, including a young professional woman who shared her book list with me during a long evening shared with she and her mother. We also met lots of foreigners, in their 30-40’s, successful young professionals who simply felt the need to disconnect. So, in the end, India is still the same, all about people and community and being connected to the priorities in life, love and magic.

Impossible to mention everyone we met, with whom we shared a journey or time and the point I hope is clear. What made our trip, for me, was the invaluable chance to be joyfully, naturally in community. That community may have been just us two, or hundreds of strangers. The feeling was the same, the sensation that one is sharing the journey, that each of us matters in our way, and moreover that even the smallest kindness can make a difference in the day or life of another soul.

Thank you all for sharing your essence with us!

Together you all helped me to re-discover the power and the value, the need, for community. Living in Switzerland, I have often stated that I live in a sort of self-isolation, where I experience an intense sense of loneliness. In India I had an insight into what external factors contribute to this and a memory that in the end, loneliness is an internal state. Since I have been home, I have made a point each day to put myself in community with people who fill my soul. Skype, telephone, WhatsApp, even the written letter - every day I make a connection that feeds my soul and reminds me why I am a happy person grateful to be alive, open to what it is I have to both give and receive in this lifetime.

I wish us all the same internal light to share with others, especially in these days.

Bunny poses in front of a sign board at Chez Cristophe on Gokarna beach.

Click here or the photo to enjoy our video journey

© 2023 by NICOLE CRABTREE