Photos by Morten Vilhelm Keller
The journey felt endless and the plane we travelled in huge. I had never been in a jumbo jet before and I was amazed how much space there was. There were two aisles making compartments of two rows on each side and one large one in the middle. It was like entering into another world. The stewardesses were friendly and helped everyone to find their place. When we found ours it felt like arriving in a safe harbour and we sat down with relief. The seat was soft, elegant and comforting. Its colour of deep blue gave me a sensation of safety, welcome and reassurance that we will be looked after very well.
After many hours of traveling including a stopover in Abu Dhabi, where it was unimaginably hot, we arrived in Bombay. The journey in the airplane was just a prelude to what was awaiting us. I had never seen so many people in an airport. We had to be very patient until finally it was our turn to show our passports and we were allowed to enter this vast country which held so many secrets. The question arose several times during those hours of arrival, 'Why am I here…? For heaven's sake, why would I want to go to India?' In that moment it felt like a crazy idea. I was still a student at the dance academy of Amsterdam at the time and I had decided to take six months off in order to travel and do some research on Indian and Tibetan Buddhist dances in order to get inspiration for my final project to be presented at the end of my studies.
So here I was, at the airport in Bombay. Finally we had our baggage. It had been a challenge bringing as little as possible to travel with, and still have what I needed. We planned to be on the road for about four and a half months. What an adventure; I was thrilled. As we walked out of the airport, one of the first things I saw was an elephant; I could not believe my eyes. He was walking in the middle of the street, cars everywhere, waiting in queues, drivers blowing their horns and shouting at each other. Pure chaos, and it was not going to stop. India was the ultimate experience of chaos. And the sense of space was so different from what I was used to, it was a challenge.
I will never forget the train ride to Varanasi. A 22-hour journey which seemed endless. After a few days in Bombay, we had decided to continue our travels. A riksha driver brought us to the central station. The moment we stepped out of the car several porters came running towards us, offering their services. It was overwhelming, like everything else had been, but finally one of them helped us and was leading us towards the entrance.
Entering the main hall was an experience in itself. People were sitting or laying on their colourful blankets which transformed the rather impersonal floor of the train station into a piece of art, a magic carpet allowing me for a split second to look into the lives of these people who were foreign to me, revealing a secret moment of connection, recognition, and respect for a different world.
We were lucky to have our porter on our side which brought us to the right platform where the train was already waiting. Not having any former experiences of traveling in India, we bought a ticket for the second class carriage. This turned out to be our next challenge. Entering the train compartment, suddenly I was confronted with dozens of eyes staring at me from above and below. It felt like being thrown in front of the lions. I never have experienced anything like this. So many men touching me with their gaze full of desire invading my privacy, shaking my trust, self-confidence and dignity of being a woman. There was no place left to sit down as well as no space to breathe; I wished to become invisible in that very instant. Being petrified, in horror, it took a few minutes until I turned around and escaped onto the platform again. I was shocked. How am I going to survive this journey?
To my surprise, our porter – who seemed to me in that moment to be an angel – appeared at my side. He understood the situation right away and led us to the first class wagons. Entering into the quiet atmosphere of the compartment seemed unreal and at the same time it was a big relief. I was deeply grateful to have this possibility, to have an open door into a world so many can’t afford or are not even allowed to enter, especially in India.
Our journey took us to many magical and amazing places: to sacred sites where Buddha got enlightened and gave his teachings to his disciples; to places where people came at the end of their life’s journey to die on the shores of the holy River Ganges; to pilgrim sites on the sacred lake of Rewalsar or up north to Dharamshala in order to meet the Dalai Lama. I will never forget the holy temples of India and Nepal where I could find silence and piece, or travelling to Jailessmer, the ancient city of the Moors in the desert of Rajistan, telling tales like in 1001 Nights.
This unforgettable journey is a big treasure in my heart and memory. It has opened my ways of thinking, has strengthened my trust in life and myself, and has encouraged me to stay curious and interested in different ways of living and staying open for new perspectives and experiences. In other words India has changed me for ever. The world looked different afterwards, and I am grateful for this transformation out of chaos into a new way of being who I am.