Four years ago, I went on my first and, so far, only trip to India. Despite the inexplicable low-grade anxiety I felt -- knowing I was about to embark on a long and unfamiliar journey, traveling to an exotic destination -- I reassured myself that it wouldn't be much different than, say, any other developing country I had been to... or lived in, for that matter. I was confident that I would fare relatively well in India, considering that I'd grown up in the Dominican Republic, which was a hotbed of poverty back then, and that I'd lived in China during the first half of the '90s, back when it wasn't the sparkly and prosperous China we hear about today. Aside from the possibility of getting violently ill -- which had the upside of potentially attaining my ideal target weight -- I reasoned that little more than an inconsequential anecdote or quip to share at parties would come of this trip.
Photo Credit: Mike Ruiz
My India journey was not meant to be an Eat, Pray, Love experience. However, if there were parallels to be drawn, with apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert, I would at the time have described my life as one big crap-fest, wherein I was the toilet of my existence. It was an existence I was all too happy to get out of. In retrospect, part of me recognized back then that there was something different, something changing and growing, something nascent within me. But it was something that was still at arm's length. It was something I couldn't quite grasp, just yet.
The trip would turn out to be an exhilarating one. It would be both mentally and physically exhausting -- at times testing the limits of my patience -- but exhilarating nonetheless. I want to focus on one particular and, at first blush, seemingly insignificant incident that involved a dog at Juhu Beach, on the outskirts of Mumbai. This was an incident that would bring the blurred and distorted view I had of my life into focus; that would remind me that my "sucky" life had value and purpose; and that it was one for which I should be grateful.
Halfway through my visit to Mumbai, I woke up early one morning feeling melancholic. Looking back, I suspect that some of it had to do with jetlag; some with a stomach bug I'd contracted (yay, target weight in sight!); and some with letting those microcosmic problems that straddle our daily dealings get the better of me. Whatever the cause, I remember being annoyed with myself for having this feeling, given the relatively remarkable (albeit occasionally sucky) life and opportunities I'd had. But this particular melancholy... I couldn't shake it.
The evening before, just as the sun had been setting -- turning an electric pink and blue sky into mists of grey -- I'd dined at a seaside restaurant on the beach of the Arabian Sea, steps away from my hotel. As I ate, I'd watched how a group of local people in the distance waded through its waters fully clothed. I have a vivid recollection of being fascinated by these people, just milling about thigh high in the warm Indian seawater... and of wanting to be among them. I wasn't sure exactly what it is that they were doing. Somebody, at some point on the trip, had told me that the people of India believe in fate, karma, and reincarnation. They believe that, no matter what their station -- their class and their caste -- they serve a deliberate and specific purpose in this current existence. Because of this, I was told, they live in a state of acceptance of who they are, and that this tends to give them a sense of belonging, irrespective of their class. Within that understanding, they seek peace, and follow a ritual of bathing in the waters of the sea as a way of cleansing the spirit of anything and everything that might distract them from this understanding. So I guessed that this was perhaps what they were doing: cleansing themselves in a sea of tranquility and contentment.
Photo Credit: Mike Ruiz
As I've thought back on it, I've come to realize that the melancholy I was feeling that morning was due to not having a complete sense of my own belonging, nor of contentment or tranquility. I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere in particular, nor did I feel that I had a clear sense of purpose. I think that in wanting to be among these humble folks, the forgotten of a lowly, discarded caste, dressed in their colorful sarongs; that I too yearned to be accepting of others and to understand and accept myself. I wanted to feel that I was part of something. I wanted to bridge the cultural and class divide that I perceived existed between these self-aware people and myself.
Photo Credit: Mike Ruiz
So that one early morning, when the chilly dew had not yet scurried off into the tropical heat, I'd headed for a metal door that closed out the locals from the walled hotel complex, and which had kept me closed in, away from their world -- and I opened it. As I walked down the empty beach that surrounded my hotel, I realized I was being watched. Once or twice, I turned my head to look back, and noticed the puzzled looks of a few apprehensive hotel employees who didn't quite know what to make of my trek "beyond the walls," and, as had happened so many times before in Asia, I felt the curious eyes of men, women, and children following my every move.
I found a spot and sat on the sand, staring at the waves breaking onto the shore. And then something came over me. An incontrovertible quietness and sense of void filled every crevice of my consciousness. And I burst into tears. But rather than feeling sad, or despairing, the relief that I felt as the tears stung my eyes was almost inebriating. And that's when it happened. There on that empty beach, alone and devoid of thought, I saw one lone skeletal dog wandering down a stretch of sand along the water. I looked at the dog, not feeling anything in particular at that point other than that sense of relief. The animal walked in my direction. We cautiously observed one another, he intermittently sitting, still keeping a bit of a distance and staring at me. As I sat there, I wondered: Would today be the day that I'd have a "Steinbeckian" moment with my very own "Charley" or would this be the day that I got mauled by a mangy-looking, starved Edward Munch-like beast?
The dog gave me no signals as to which it would be. At this point, I was so numb and emotionally depleted, I felt as if I couldn't care less. All I felt was that I was terribly alone and simply wanted to be in this fellow being's company. And that was just what I got.
After either reading my mind or picking up on some other esoteric frequency, the dog finally came up to me and stared at me long and hard. He turned to face the ocean, as if to see what I was looking at -- or maybe, rather, acknowledging the enormity of this sea before us, perhaps sizing it up, I mused, so as to compare it to the vast void he seemed to sense I was feeling. "Silly fool," he probably would have concluded.
Photo Credit: Mike Ruiz
This went on for what seemed like a very long time, the two of us, sitting there, staring at the immensity of that sparkling sea, as I slowly and quietly regained some of my spirits. Then, chuckling, I said, "Hey there, Ghandi, thanks for hanging with me." The dog didn't chuckle back, of course. Instinctively, I started to pet him, scratching under his chin. He didn't seem to mind. Shortly after that, I told my new friend I had to go, and with that -- before I had even moved a muscle -- the skinny little guy got up and walked away, never looking back. I smiled.
I've come to realize that my trip to India was a gateway of sorts for me to come closer in touch with who I am and with my reason for being; I was in India and I had a transcendental experience -- go figure. I'm aware these days -- most of the time, anyway -- that I have a purpose in life. With that, I've gained a sense of peace, of tranquility. At times I do get lost in myself, but those moments are increasingly fewer and further between. As a consequence of this, I've become unabashedly affectionate toward anyone I sense is open to my sentiments. My friends know, and I oftentimes tell people -- even some whom I've never met before -- that I don't usually shake hands; I give hugs and kisses. Some find it endearing, others recoil -- but only rarely. I've come to realize that I'm happy being that guy, the one with the big heart.
I'm grateful that dog was there with me that day. I don't know if he was the catalyst or spark that led me to my higher self-awareness, or if he just happened to be there at the "right" time. All I know is that that that early morning at Juhu Beach was a momentous occasion for me, one where I went beyond myself and looked through a new scope: one that diminished much of the negative preconceived notions that I'd held on to so tightly and that enhanced my awareness of my limited appreciation of self. As more time goes by, I realize just how much I have to be grateful for. To spin the old adage, I believe gratitude is in the spirit of the beholder.