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Backpack, Partner and Insight from India- Forty years Later

I think I have learned by now never to use the word “never”. And here I go, I just did it…

I remember saying some 40 years ago that I would never marry someone who had not traveled extensively and who had not spent time in Asia, specifically in India. Of course, I knew what I meant in those days: it was difficult for me to fathom having a partner who did not experience and could not understand and appreciate the significance for me of just backpacking for a year on my own in Asia and then spending another 3 ½ living in Japan and Taiwan. It felt so much a part of who I was, how otherwise would someone ever get what it was all about- moving between overcrowded trains, superb treks, guesthouses, writing journals, questioning life and experiencing new and different people and cultures day after day? It felt so deeply embedded in me.

Well, I learned pretty quickly about that “never proclamation”; four years after making it I got married to my partner of over 31 years (Merav) and she had never been to India, nor did she have this type of “traveling thing” in her “resume”. Over the years since we have had quite a number of trips to various and sundry places in the developing world (many with our kids), and I am both amazed and grateful that she could put up with me, even enjoying (at times) some of the more crazy ideas and initiatives. What seemed so important back then to earn a “never proclamation” in my mind, seemed with time to be rather silly and insignificant. We have done quite on the road…but…still she had never been to India! What was it about India that raised the big question in my mind, as well as hers?

It was not only about Merav I was wondering, but about myself as well. I had been to India five times in the past, both on business trips as well as “transformation/volunteer” initiatives but…the question in my mind was: what will it feel like if Merav and I go to India together, forty years later? Forty years after my “big trip” of 1983, one in which I felt that I left all my “previous identities” behind (American, Israeli, this kind of Judaism or that kind of Judaism…this kind of liberal or another), and assumed the hat of the self-appointed “global seeker”. Somewhere inside of me I wondered how the “older me of nearly 64” would feel about the path of the “younger me”, and how will all this mesh with me, my partner and our second half of life?

Who says you can “never return to the place you came from”?

In fact, I think it is an inspiring thing to do! Of course, we need to take into account that we are now 63 and not 23 and there have been some changes in the meantime. I have changed, it has changed. But here is where I think it gets really interesting. What I have observed for myself at least, is that while there have been a thousand changes in the world and in my life, the essential values and nature of who I am – have NOT. That is, the DNA and early life of a person by my name, who has gone through 40 years of life experience in the interim, with all that is connected to that, actually lives on. How it is expressed, however, is very different. I am wondering in our world if most of us have kind of mixed this up. We are so fixated on “linear progression and success”, addicted to the need for change and comparison, dependent on “hyper instant communication and worship the new while degrading the old.

In returning to India with my back-pack and with Merav helped me understand so much about myself, about how I was 40 years ago as well as who I am today. Suddenly I could see not only how Merav was reacting, but how I was reacting to Merav and to myself as well.

For example, we spent three days in a lovely Rishikesh Ashram, which much to my surprise, Merav appreciated and connected to- the yoga, the meditation, the quiet, the food. To me it felt the most natural thing in the world to devote the hours of my day to practice, discussion, meditation and thinking in more spiritual terms- I had done it for some years nearly 4 decades ago. In Dharmsala, we hit on terrible weather part of the time, hailstorms, freezing temperature with no heating at night. And yet, every morning we walked to the Tushita Meditation center for a 9:00 AM meditation, both Merav and I, cold, rainy but meaningful.

We also had an extensive amount of interaction with the Tibetan refugee community, engaging in an “English conversation class” as volunteers, hearing about their lives, struggles and aspirations. I remembered fondly with nostalgia and pride how I had taken back then small photos of the Dalai Lama to “smuggle” in with me to a Tibetan community in China, on the border of Tibet. China had just opened up to independent travelers and I had this on my “purpose list”. The Tibetan story moved me back then- and it does now.

Even the traffic, crowds, noise and filth of some places in the Delhi markets and streets were all part of the experience, not something I would want on a daily basis but still had its unique appeal on the mindset and feel of being in India. This I recall very well.

Cultivating Meaning with Age

I don’t want to paint a “rosy picture” and say that the thought did not come through my mind: the great majority of these travelers could be our kids, and age-wise, could also be our grandchildren(which we don’t have). Isn’t this something that you should kind of grow out of? Aren’t you supposed to “get used to” a higher standard of travel as you age, different destinations, or at least the same destination at a much higher, more expensive and comfortable level? I suppose for some people that makes sense, probably for Merav and even for me to a certain extent.

But…and this is a BIG BUT…what I found is for myself the joy and meaning I had in connecting at the “grassroots” with India in so many ways, proved far more important. I crave, feel most comfortable and derive the greatest meaning when I am in direct and authentic contact with the “simple people” around the world. It is often those things- the higher level of comfort and “tourist” adaptations- that do much the opposite. Sure, they can be connected, but if I have to choose one of the other, I know exactly where to go.

I will end with a short story, our last night in India, in Rishikesh. We were strolling the small streets, dodging to avoid noisy motor scooters, water canals on narrow roads, the not so infrequent presence of cow dung in the way, looking how to get to a sign which indicated that there was someplace a performance of “mantra singing”. We did not know very much what this was and who was doing it only that it seemed appropriate. We eventually found the place and had to walk up 4 flights of stairs. After taking off our shoes, we looked around: there were about 30 young people, probably no older than 35, all Russian speaking, sitting on the floor with a peaceful smile on their faces. Here we were the two 60 somethings clumsily walking in the door and trying to find our place on the mat. I suddenly thought: “I wonder what they are thinking about us?” We really did seem to be out of sync…

But then they started to sing and chant. We joined. They were smiling, we were smiling, they were moved, we were moved. It was beautiful. That’s it! No need for all the rest of the interpretations, the “inner ageist” in my mind was trying to come out and judge, but it was just drowned by the serenity of the music, singing and candlelight in the room.

We often let our “heads” take us into all kinds of constraining paradigms and limiting beliefs: we are too old, it is too “dangerous”, we need different food, we should not interact too much on local transportation, among others. For me, to travel, explore and interact with local populations, cultures and languages around the world is THE WAY to feel, appreciate and cherish what it means to be alive. It has nothing to do with age, it has everything to do with meaning.

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Janet Helfand
Janet Helfand
Apr 30, 2023

Inspiring and thoughtful story. Asking myself: what helps me feel connected to others; what takes me away from judging and enjoying the moment, instead? I find that Wisdom comes from becoming aware and questioning oneself. Sometimes, knowledge, in and of itself, is not the real prize.


Thank you Ronnie. I really enjoyed reading your story.


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