Dubai airport is sleek and busy with duty free shoppers. I get my visa from an Emirati immigration officer dressed in a traditional white gown and head cover. As it will turn out, he will be one the only Emirati citizen I will come into contact with. Everyone else is foreign: waiters, salespeople, guides, taxi drivers, hotel staff. Only about 10-15% of the population of United Arab Emirates are Emirati citizens, the rest being European and American expats as well as service and construction workers from the Middle East and South Asia.
After spending a few weeks in a foreign country one is sometimes tempted to believe that one has got to know it. The sense of familiarity creeps in slowly until you get the comforting feeling of knowing what to expect.
I spent four weeks in India this summer, working in Delhi, visiting the neighbouring states and doing yoga in the Himalayas. I’ve seen city life and rural life, I’ve travelled by public transport, by rickshaw, taxi and private car, by road and by rail. I’ve lived and worked with Indians, I’ve eaten in five-star establishments and basic street food outlets. The feeling of ‘been there, done that’ started to kick in.
Two months after my first trip I landed in Cochin, Kerala, and I saw a completely different India to what I had experienced before.
The first thing I see when I arrive in India is a Costa Coffee outlet. My heart sinks – so here is the ugly face of globalisation, the McWorld that wipes away all cultural differences and makes us all clones of one another. But not so fast. As days go by, I discover that in fact there is not one India, but several, separated not only by space but more so by time. India is a country that lives simultaneously in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
The holy river Ganges takes its source in the high Himalayas. At its origin among the snowy peaks it is but a meandering stream, to gain pace among the greenery of the lower mountain range. When it reaches the foot of the Himalayas, it is already a proper river, angry and roaring during the monsoon season, peaceful and majestic after the rains have stopped.
‘Mother Ganga’, as Indians call it, attracts pilgrims from all over the country and from abroad who for centuries have flocked to the region between Haridwar and Rishikesh to bathe in the holy waters and be purified, to meditate by the shores or to practice yoga. The region abounds in ashrams, Hindu and Buddhist temples and yoga schools ranging from simple refuges to luxurious spa hotels. As it is a holy place, all meat and alcohol are prohibited.
With a mixture of curiosity and skepticism I head to Rishikesh for a week-long spiritual retreat at Parmarth Niketan, one of the biggest and best known ashrams in the area.
India is an enormous country with a population exceeding 1 billion and growing. Much as it is hard for human imagination to grasp the vastness and the diversity of what is better described as a continent rather than a country, everyday experience offers a good idea of the scale – of both the surface and the population size.
In New Delhi, one is at all times confronted with a moving sea of humanity: running or walking in all directions, pressing against one another, elbowing and pushing. One stroll in the streets of Delhi, one car journey or ride on the public transport and one is inclined to believe that all 1 billion Indians are on the move at the same time.