I had wanted to go to India ever since I was a young girl. Something holy and mystical awaited there, I was sure.
But I was afraid to go…
…afraid of being overwhelmed by sheer numbers, the depth of poverty, the number of beggars and the possibility of becoming very sick. I didn’t hold these fears about Bali, Fiji, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, but I did become quite sick in three of those places and was hospitalised in Phnom Penh!
When I saw a small group Cultural Tour of South India mentioned on Facebook I knew this was the time. Tour leader Judy Arpana is an expert on India and has led so many tours there that I knew I’d be in safe hands.
South India was the perfect choice for an Indian novice like me, avoiding the shock of major cities like Delhi and Mumbai. The pick up at Chennai airport was smooth and efficient and I gawked out of the window of the mini bus, eager for my first glimpses of India. Yes, the traffic was mad, there were people everywhere despite the late hour, and a lot of people were bedding down for the night beside the busy roadway.
To ensure a soft landing Judy had booked the group into a coastal resort, where we woke to the sound of birds and waves and shared a splendid breakfast. There were fishing boats on the beach, hammocks under palm trees and a good-sized pool to swim in: a great way to unwind after the long flight.
Next morning we were off, heading south to Mahabalipurum. Our skilful driver allowed for fast travelling, as he carefully avoided any obstacles on the road, like slow moving ox carts. The scenery was mainly agricultural. Over the next few days we saw temples carved from stone, ruins of an ancient Portuguese fort and were served fresh coconut juice straight from the tree at a small plantation.
The highlight of those days for me was visiting a small pottery-making village, thanks to our tour guide Velou, where cooking pots and stoves are still made by hand and the children were delighted to meet us.
On day six we visited the Thiruvannamali Temple, with its soaring towers facing the four directions and the Ramana Maharshi Ashram in the evening, with its white peacocks and melodic chanting.
Another highlight of the tour was winding our way high into the Kolli Hills, where lush vegetation and spectacular scenery greeted us. Our stay in the hills was special, as each day our meals were prepared and eaten at the local ashram.
We visited and swam in waterfalls, drank herbal soup in a tribal village and were treated to a full moon puja by the resident guru at the ashram, complete with fresh flowers, colourful lights, oil and incense burning, brass bells and chanting.
Then it was back to earth for two days and nights in the pretty seaside town of Pondicherry, with its French influenced architecture and food, and a long beachside boulevard for strolling in the evening.
I wasn’t ready to leave India but the dream had come true and now I know I will go back.