Learning to Breathe
It’s been a busy few weeks for us – we crossed the border from India into Nepal on March 31 and have now folded up the bikes for a while after a week cycling here. Dmitry is trekking the Annapurna Circuit and I am at a month-long yoga course in Pokhara. We have a ton of pictures and stories from the past few weeks, and I will be getting those up on the blog as soon as the schedule allows.
Which may be a while, because this yoga program is intense. My day starts at 5 am and doesn’t end until 8 at night. Ninety minutes each day is devoted to learning about Pranayama, which means something like flow of energy, or – more practically – learning how to breathe.
One of the breathing exercises, called Kapalbahti, requires a series of quick and forceful exhalations, which can result in dizziness. The teacher told us that the dizziness can’t be avoided (if you are doing the exercise right), so there are only two choices: merge with the dizziness or ignore it. That phrase really resonated with me (aligned my chakras?). As soon as he said it, I scribbled it down in my notebook with a big star. Merge with the difficulties that can’t be avoided, or ignore them. The first is what I had hoped to do in India, but the latter is closer to where I ended up.
I chose travel in India knowing that it would be difficult, and even seeking that difficulty. I had hoped that the sheer overwhelmingness of India – the number of people, and our mode of travel – would force me (or rather, would result in me forcing myself) to surrender to the craziness, the difficulties, the daily trials and tribulations. I thought that if I exposed myself fully, I would merge with them, accept them, and grow from that.
But by the end of our travels though the country, I just didn’t want to be there anymore. When I wasn’t actively miserable, I spent a lot of time hiding. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I didn’t want to stop anywhere, I just wanted to get away from everything – either by cycling as fast as possible or by hiding in hotel rooms. If your best case scenario is almost entirely ignoring your surroundings, that’s not really travel at all.* I was so negative that one of my friends suggested I write a counter travel memoir to Eat Pray Love – I could call it “Starve Curse Hate.”**
Fortunately, as soon as we crossed the border to Nepal, everything changed. In huge part, my attitude improved. I was ready to be delighted by Nepal in a way that I wasn’t as open about in India. And objectively, Nepal is just a more pleasant place to cycle. The people are smiley and empathetic, the trafic is quieter and friendlier, and I feel much more welcome as a woman in public spaces. For the first time in weeks, hearing people shout hello didn’t make me ride faster (or shout at them to leave us alone), it made me stop, take pictures, ask names, hear stories. In Nepal, I am not just merging with the dizziness, I am enjoying it.
So, to asnwer the question I have been getting from a lot of my friends and family (and from commenter Javier), my feelings haven’t really changed since my temper tantrum in Sri Lanka. Traveling can be, and frequently is, a struggle for me. But, like lots of struggles, it is one that I think is worthwhile and that I am not willing to give up yet. Much of the time, I really love this itinerant lifestyle, and I am extremely privileged to be able to have these experiences. And that’s what makes me so frustrated when I fail to “merge”, fail to surrender, fail to fully enjoy the opportunities that I have.
I doubt I will ever be able to take a trip like the one we are on now without wanting to hide in my hotel room, at least some of the time. I am shy around strangers and uncomfortable in new situations. I can (and do) try to improve and to be more open. But it’s like learning to breathe – I can try out new techniques, but it feels impossible to change something that I have been doing my whole life, and that is so fundamental to who I am.
*My sister fairly suggests that if I wanted a Best Exotic Marigold Hotel experience I should have booked my trip through a qualified travel agent. But I didn’t want that – I wanted to be in the weeds and to like being in the weeds. Turns out that I don’t like being in the weeds.
**Dmitry alternately suggests “The Misanthropic Globetrotter.”