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Most people who go to India have one of two reactions; they either love it and can't wait to return, or they hate it and would eat their own eyeballs rather than set foot on Indian soil a second time. I'm firmly in the 'Love' camp and I'm always interested to read accounts of how other people respond to a country that means so much to me. I don't particularly mind whether they love it or hate it so long as they write well. I bought 'Adventures of Bindi Girl - Diving Deep into the Heart of India' by Erin Reese to read on my Kindle. I periodically do a random search on kindle books about India which often leads me to buy pretty weird stuff and this was the fruit of one such search. I paid absolutely nothing for it - it must have been a special offer - but if you're tempted, it will currently set you back a rather less awesome price of £6.48. For 'free' it's great value - for £6.48, I would feel a bit miffed.
Every traveller who loves the country has their own reasons and they're often different from mine. Reese is the classic 'spiritual' traveller - the 'dippy hippy' who immerses herself in spirituality, takes classes in meditation and spends time in ashrams contemplating her navel. Such an approach is often referred to as 'looking for yourself'. Personally it's never appealed to me as I've never knowingly 'lost' myself but I am interested in understanding how other people react to one of the world's most fascinating and complex cultures.
~"Hitting the age of thirty, I found myself ensconced in a grabby-greedy-gotta-have-it-all cosmopolitan lifestyle in San Francisco"~
The book tells the story of two extended trips which Reese took to India, separated by a period of four years. Reese had a very successful career as a California recruitment consultant with a fabulous flat, loads of money and a dream lifestyle but was looking for a new way of life. She sold up, rehomed her cat and flew to India. I can't help but admire the energy it takes to travel solo in India on a budget and for periods of several months and especially to make your first trip to this overwhelming country on your own. However, whilst I can admire her stamina, I can't entirely relate to her motivations as I find a lot of her spiritual (pardon my language) 'clap trap' hard to handle.
Reese's India is very different from the country I love - even when her visits include many places where I've also spent time her experience rarely matches up with mine. Her routes are very much ON the beaten track and largely illogical. It's a good thing that no map is provided or readers would soon realise that she's basically bouncing about all over the place, zipping back and forth and up and down the country without much of a plan. Love it or hate it I'm a planner, my routes have to make some kind of sense. Her beaten track is the hippy trail of ashrams interspersed with long periods of beach life and a very occasional bit of slightly more conventional tourism. Hers is the India of two-dollar a night accommodation, of not washing very often and of relying rather too much on the recommendations of the Lonely Planet, online forums or suggestions on notice boards in cheap hostels. It's a journey based on schlepping from one hippy hotspot to the next, lying in hammocks, doing yoga and getting massage. It doesn't quite hit the depths of getting stoned and living off banana pancakes but it's heading in that direction. In effect it's spiritual backpacking. At one point she finds a "new community of groovy folks living on a beach straight out of a movie set" and joins a big celebration called the 'Rainbow Gathering' on the Konkan Coast. She finds the place from a few instructions left on a notice board, clearly picturing herself as an extra in Alex Garland's book, 'The Beach'.
When she writes about interactions with the local people, I enjoy what she has to say but there aren't enough of them. Most of her interactions are with fellow travellers and whilst she writes some fun profiles of these people, they're not what I was looking for.
I particularly struggle with all the ashram stuff. If, like me, you were disappointed by the India section of Elizabeth Gilbert's book 'Eat, Pray, Love' then you're going to go crazy reading about gurus and meditation and deep inner 'stuff'. Even Bindi Girl can't deal with too much of it - after visiting the infamous 'Osho' ashram complete with mandatory HIV testing (I'd definitely want my own clean needles for that) and obligatory special purple robes, she reveals "That was the most bizarre f***ing thing I have ever experienced" and runs away as quickly as her feet can carry her, opining that instead of feeling more calm and at peace, every day there made her more crazy. She also tells us that she didn't see anyone having sex on the lawn - just in case we wondered.
There are moments when I really enjoyed this, when I recognised that she 'got' India but they weren't in the spiritual passages. In Varanasi she asks a boatman why Indians play music so loud at 5.30 am and is told that "It's so everyone can ENJOY, no matter where they are in the city". Now THAT is a true Indian insight - something everyone who visits will ask themselves but few will work out. It's the opposite of the idiot on the Underground forcing his music on the fellow passengers through tiny earphones - in India they 'pump up the music' because they want everyone else to share in their enjoyment.
Returning to America, Erin is a changed woman. When a woman in the supermarket reveals how excited she is about 'grillable cheese' - described by Erin as 'modified flavoured plastic that won't burn on the BBQ', we know it won't be long until she's heading back to India.
Her second trip annoyed me slightly less than the first. There was more interaction with local people, slightly less of the mumbo jumbo. At one point she "lost my sense of humor, overcome by the heat, lack of proper nutrition and incessant harassment by pesky vendors" - she's getting wise to the scams and schemes played out to part an unwary backpacker from her money. All she needs to fix the negativity is a guitar - well it would be, wouldn't it - and a tall, blond, blue eyed Czech with a bicycle that he's just ridden all the way from Prague. Jan lures her off to the Andaman Islands on a boat that sounds like a floating cess pit. "Imagine hundreds of Indian women pissing and shitting at, near or on your feet while you're standing in the sewage collection stinkpot that is the third-class ladies' toilet". The injection of a little bit of romance and a handsome hero rescues the second part of the book from getting too introspective.
~Oh my Blog~
The advent of blogging has no doubt led a lot of people to think that all it takes to make a book is to take bits of your blog and stick them all together. Personally I find reading blogs difficult at the best of times and I suspect they encourage people to record rather too many fine details and e-book publishing sadly doesn't seem to encourage enough active editing. If you have a spiritual side to you, love your yoga, dream of spending a few months in a lotus position and 'finding' yourself, then I would say that this is a book you will find useful and it may help you to decide if doing India the way Erin did is for you. If you aren't into yoga and meditation, don't want to travel on a couple of dollars a day and stay in hovels and you want to know more about India, I'd recommend maybe giving this a miss. If you'd like a bit of humour, skip this and try Yoga School Dropout by Lucy Edge, Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald or skip the yoga stuff altogether and try 'Not Very Bollywood at All by Richard Beeching. I don't regret reading Bindi Girl but I find this book to be very disposable, easy to forget and not something I'd read more than once.