After spending a week in Patiala, it was time for me to head on to the first phase of my research: studying Hindi. Hindi has always been an important cornerstone of this project. The ability to chat with the locals and gain local perspective adds an extra dimension to the ideas surrounding spiritual tourism. To do this I headed off to the mountains of Uttarakhand to the small town of Mussoorie. In Mussoorie is the well renowned school of Hindi, called the Landour Language School, basically a 100 year old catholic church refitted into a collection of little class rooms. However, I soon learned that the teachers were excellent, as I began to settle into my routine. So excellent, in fact, that the school tended to draw an interestingly diverse crowd; everyone from long term NGO workers to language learning addicts.
One night I met a particularly interesting trio that got me thinking about again about my project. They were three Americans who had the robust ability to fill any room with their presence. ‘Gemini’. I thought, (a term I had recently coined to describe such larger than life characters). They were all recent Yale graduates, a fact that didn’t remain secret for long, and had come to India on a business venture: eco friendly fly fishing. They were planning to put together the sort of high budget vacation packages that only fortune five hundred businessmen could afford. Certainly an interesting idea, I thought, but I had my doubts about just how ‘green’ a business can be that flies someone halfway around the world for a weekend trip.
One of the three, in particular, was a real character. He, himself, was something of a spiritual tourist. He had, in fact, even attended the Kumbh Mela, a fringe mega spiritual retreat that convenes every 12 years in one the wildest, most hugely populated festivals of Indian tradition. It’s rumored that during the festival, you can see the congregation even from space. He had also, most recently, visited the Golden Temple, the ultra holy (and quite literally golden) temple of the Sikh faith.
In both locals, he had, in a spiritual interest, consumed the water. Just to preface, the water in both instances is possibly some of the most unclean substances on the planet. The Kumbh Mela, for example, is essentially bathing water for millions of people in one day. The Golden Temple is not much better, the water coming from a sort of stagnant bathing mote that surrounds the compound. An Indian local sitting in on our conversation interjected at this point exclaiming that even devote Indians did not drink that water.
It goes without saying that in both cases he became sick as a dog. But he says that it was worth it. That in fact, he accepted the water knowing full well that he would be sick. “What can I say? I’m not a Purell kind of guy. It’s a life decision really”.
What to make of this possibly fool hardy perspective? Despite the fact that most Indians would decline drinking the water, he felt that to drink the water was an act of inclusion. And who knows? There is certainly an opposite of this extreme. An image of the paranoid westerner cowering in their bathroom, brushing their teeth with expensive bottled water comes to mind.
In the end, I chalked it up as harmless, but certainly a scratch into the surface of the dynamics of spiritual tourism.