First Trip to India

Photo: Wolf Price
Photo: Wolf Price

I had no desire to visit India until my son asked me to go.

He was living in Nepal and ready for a fresh adventure after volunteering in Kathmandu.

I had missed out on Morocco when he asked me to go with him and a friend when we met in Spain (I had to go to Italy for the first time) so no way was I going to say no to India and a chance to let my son lead me to a brand new country.

So I jumped in with no prior knowledge of India except for seeing the movie Gandhi.

That first trip to India and Nepal changed my life, turned me upside down, and electrified my bone marrow. I was never the same again.

The photo of me above was shot right after rafting down the Ganges River in the winter; drenched with icy waves over our heads as we paddled to stay afloat.

Of course we had to volunteer for the front paddling positions in the boat which means you get the worst of the waves over your head and the rest of the passengers just get sprayed.

But I never felt so alive in my life.

My son pushed me to go.

I just wanted to read a book that day.

India blasted open my spirit, forcing me to leap way out of my comfort zone.

Photo: Bartnikowski, Dalai_Lama in India
Photo: Bartnikowski, Dalai Lama in India

I was cold in the Himalayas, I got deathly sick, but I also ate tasty delectable food, was immersed in a multitude of religions, saw the Dalai Lama teach at his home in Dharamsala, had my eye balls seared with women’s colorful clothing, met gurus, saints, and friendly elephants!

There is nothing India doesn’t have but order.

Amritsar, photo student from Miri Piri Academy, during the class I was teaching
Amritsar, India photo credit: student from Miri Piri Academy, during the class I was teaching

There aren’t any rules in India: you can have bonfires in the street with cows who want to get warm in the high ethers of the Himalayas.

People drive recklessly. Watch out crossing the street. You don’t want to get mowed down by a motorbike or attacked by a monkey.

Some monkeys are mean in India, one stole my new dress off the clothes line and I didn’t find it until 2 hours later in the dark with my flashlight.

I’ve since been to India 4 times solo. And as soon as I left that first time, I wanted to go back. I found myself in Bali which seemed awfully tame compared to jolt your eyes open India.

What made me buck up and get strong?

The fact that yes I’m deliciously free and can make all my own decisions.

This is a huge opportunity for possible risk but it was also a leap into the unknown, an adventure beckoning, a bewildering array of options, food I couldn’t identify and stumbling happily through a language I didn’t understand.

I tried to learn Hindi and the Nepali language.

“Sundar” means pretty in Nepal. And meeto-cha means this food is yummy. That’s all I learned and actually I didn’t need to know anymore on that first trip.

After traveling with my son for a month, we went solo on our own paths. And boy did my India adventure change.

Being solo is misunderstood in India.

Local people from India wonder why you’re not traveling with your in-laws, 7 children and two sets of grandparents. Really.

Many people want to help you in India, some are scammers, and some are saints. Both will approach you especially when you are solo.

Here is what I do now. I surround myself with a shield of white light and send out the message with my mind, you will not approach me unless I invite you.

It works.

Do you remember the Beatles White Album? Much of it was written in Rishikesh, where I shot the photo below.

The Beatles stayed at a now defunct ashram with Maharishi on the Ganges River while they learned meditation and wrote songs.

Rishikesh, India, Ganges River_Photo: Bartnikowski
Rishikesh, India, Ganges River_Photo: Bartnikowski

What I did was I was lay on the marble floor of this gorgeous “ghat.” (a river side temple, dock, or bathing spot)

The nightly puja was happening.

My tripod was only 6 inches high, one of those tiny jobs that don’t extend, but even though a policeman’s foot was inches from my head, I got this shot from a unique angle.

My body commanded me to capture it.

That’s the real secret of how I get the money shots. My body tells me to shoot and I listen.

So this was our happy hour of prayers, offerings, songs, and chanting.

Puja persuaded me to stop drinking wine when I hadn’t decided to give it up.

But Rishikesh is a holy town in the foothills of the Himalayas; you can’t get booze there.

I was not going to get on the boat, cross the Ganges, and go into town to purchase low grade wine or spirits.

I had spirits at the puja so instead of a cocktail I joined the young Hindu priests, the head swami, and countless tourists from India and worldwide.


I was in heaven.

Afterwards we would meet with Swami for a blessing (darshan) then I’d walk back to my room at the ashram, or go hook up with Skype, being careful not to step in the cow flops along the path.

Yes India has the internet. And this was in 2006.

But India is the mothership. All roads lead to her.

You don’t have to go to the Himalayas to turn your world upside down pineapple cake but it was just what I needed after living in Palo Alto, California, the epicenter of Silicon Valley for 29 years, not knowing that outside this comfortable bubble of technology, splendor, and genius, there was a world named India that whispered to me, Just Do It.

So I did and I thank my son for inspiring me to do it.

I took 3 months off from life in Palo Alto, turned down work, closed my apartment door, paid the rent which was significant, and set out for India, Nepal, and lastly, Bali.

If you ever hear the call to go to India, do it. Your life will never be the same.

Wolf, my son, and me.
Wolf, my son, and me.

Mary Bartnikowski is an author of 4 books, award-winning photographer in Palo Alto, Hawaii, and worldwide for 29 years.

She has led programs at Apple, Stanford, Intel, and globally.

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Life in the Himalayas
Rishikesh, India,

My First Trip to Rishikesh, India, 2006

I’m in India where cows roam the streets and I feed them from a doggie bag after dinner.

I’m looking at a cow right now. It’s standing outside the door of the Internet on the other side of the glass.

I think this one knows me.

My cow friends find me after I eat. They come charging down the dirt road with glee in their eyes ready to grab my leftovers. So I can’t very well eat them now can I?

We’re staying in an ashram on the Ganges River and not moving.

This morning wild monkeys who looked like burglars woke us up by peering into our barred windows.

But it’s way calmer than yesterday when I flagged down a big rig in Southern Nepal after the bus we were waiting for failed to arrive.

The truck driver gave us a lift for a few hundred Nepalese rupees. About $3 US. Two hours later the driver had to perform mechanical magic on his engine and we stopped for an hour to wait.

Time is fluid here.

One must be creative in the transportation department in the Himalayas. Busses are packed to the brim. So my son showed me how to climb up on the bus roof for a seat. The view was spectacular but I had to tell a man sitting next to me to stop spitting in the wind as his spittle was sliding dangerously close to my cashmere sweater.

He looked at me like I was from Pluto but he did stop after I gestured for him to spit on the ground twelve feet below us.

I’m so glad I had my son – he’s been my bodyguard here in India. When I’m alone I get hassled but with him, I’m protected.

So now that I’ve left Nepal I have some insights on it:

Little Known Facts about Nepal, the Rooftop of the World

If you see a sink in a bathroom don’t assume turning on the faucet will produce water. I now consider plumbing a luxury.

Don’t believe anything you read in the US press about the political situation in Nepal. It is highly exaggerated. I’m now used to seeing mostly handsome men walking around wearing fatigues with rifles slung over their shoulders cruising the streets. As soon as they see our white USA faces we are waved through every security checkpoint. They need our rupees here and we don’t look like Maoist insurgents.

The Maoists kill policemen not tourists.” My son said to comfort me.

Tourism is down to zilch due to the exaggerated claims of violence. But last week the police did find a house full of Maoist artillery in Pokhara, the tiny mountain town we vacationed in a few days ago.

There are lots of security checkpoints if you are riding in a car. If you’re walking, no problem. They immediately wave you through with the barrels of their rifles.

The Nepalese people are gorgeous and feed you constantly. I just learned the word for “enough.” Its pujo. I think.

Toilet paper is an extravagance. Public bathrooms have none. Men don’t need it so it’s not provided. It’s helpful to have strong thighs for the Eastern toilets. Squatting is a more relaxed pose for elimination and I’m now trained for this procedure.

Now, we’re in Rishikesh, India, a holy village on the Ganges River, which does feel sacred when you stick your feet in it. Rishikesh is the birthplace of yoga but all I did today was get a massage from Gita.

The young whippersnapper did yoga but after hearing how difficult it was I decided to just get a massage. Thank heavens I had him. He’s a fine courageous young man and far more calm than I am.

And because of him I have been washed of all sin.

Let me explain.

Wolf asked me to go river rafting with a few other youngsters on the Ganges River. I mentioned it was Winter now, but after being drenched with river waves over our heads I was spiritually cleansed and felt much younger.

The worry lines faded from my forehead. I barely recognized myself.

And I was just going to read a book that day.

It is a known fact that bathing in the Ganges purifies you. Look Ma, no sin.

I feel lighter. And definitely sin-free.

There is no meat, eggs, or alcohol in town. I just asked for an omelet and even though I was so hungry I was gnawing on my foot they denied me. Then the waiter didn’t know what a grilled cheese sandwich was and brought me cold cheese with raw vegetables between frigid slices of white bread.

My stomach was shell shocked from lentil beans on tap but my son said, “Just eat it, Ma.” He’s more cultural savvy and accepting than I am.

I did eat it after sending it back and getting another culinary surprise. This time it was toasted bread with frozen cheese and a well-iced tomato.

I’ll just go back to eating dal baht. What did I expect on the rooftop of the world? Unfrozen cheddar and Skippy peanut butter?

This is a true tale from my book, Kitten Heels in Kathmandu, Adventures of a Female Vagabond. Read the reviews on it and check out my 3 other books here.

My Best Photography from the Himalayas here.

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