DELHI -- "Indians are not afraid to die."
Those were the not-so-comforting words I heard from our driver as we were playing chicken with oncoming traffic during a six-hour drive north from Delhi. I took that moment to remind him that Americans have not quite mastered the "live each moment like it's your last" mentality.
Normally, I would sleep during a long car ride, but that is virtually impossible on our way to Rishikesh for a weekend out of the city.
For one, if you close your eyes or look away for the slightest amount of time, you are bound to miss something.
Secondly, driving in India is almost always a near-death experience. I'm an admitted control freak, so I feel like if I'm going to die, I'm going to at least see my final moments.
Back to point No. 1.
Like most of India, exquisite beauty seems to rise from the permanent haze of pollution. In this particular case it was one of the most stunning temples I've seen thus far. It reminded me of Aladdin's castle in the middle of the Arabian desert. It was sand colored with three, large domes dominating the center. From the middle, long wings extend like a landing strip for royalty. I almost expected a magic carpet to appear.
And in one small village, I heard a full band playing what sounded like New Orleans jazz music. Dancing and shouting to the music were a large group of Indian women wearing beautiful, brightly colored saris. A rainbow of color on an otherwise dusty road.
Unfortunately, much more of what I saw further proved the point of India's economic disparity.
As we drove out of Delhi and the city, landscape was replaced by a more bucolic setting; the living conditions stayed the same.
There are thousands upon thousands of people crammed into every town. Homes are few and far between. Instead the country is dotted with shanty towns and tent cities.
It is difficult to see such inhumane living conditions. Watching men urinate and defecate in public because there is no where else to go. Fifteen to 20 young boys crammed into a small truck, presumably returning from a day of labor.
I'm not going to lie, it makes me angry to see such disparity between the "haves" and "have nots." A point perfectly illustrated by a billboard advertising a high-end liquor above a market in an obviously poor area. It is almost as if India's version of Madison Avenue is taunting their lowly neighbors about an almost certainly unattainable goal: The possibility of wealth and mobility.
But I try to not let my anger consume me or take away from this trip, because those living in India do not. The poverty does not go unnoticed, but there is a level of life acceptance here that I have to believe stems from the population's religious beliefs.
Everywhere you go in India, homage is paid to the Hindu gods and their spiritual teachings. On so many occasions I have seen words on a wall hanging reminding believers (and tourists) to live each day in the present; appreciate each moment no matter the circumstances. God is present everywhere.
This is not to say that the people of India do not want more for themselves, or to change the economic landscape. They just have a different acceptance and understanding than we do in the West. In fact, part of the HIndu teaching is to not worry. By worrying you are angering God because you do not trust in Him. (Can you tell we just had a lesson on Hindi today!?!)
Nowhere is this philosophy more present than in Rishikesh. The small town in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, is nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas and on the banks of the Ganges river. Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world.
This holy city has ashrams with the type of frequency we have Starbucks in the U.S. There is one at nearly every turn.
Unlike many of the other cities I've seen thus far, Rishikesh is far less crowded and polluted. It's beauty is natural instead of man made, with a sea foam green river winding it's way down from the mountains that stand at attention in the background.
Armed with fresh air and breathing room, my four flatmates and I made the most of our short weekend. We took yoga classes, walked, walked and walked some more. We found time to shop. And three of us experienced an Ayurvedic massage.
I take yoga a lot in the States, but the yoga here is different. It is slower, more deliberate, and with greater emphasis on the breath and meditation. Yoga here is also taught by sadhus, so there is also a spiritual element to the practice.
I was in heaven. At one point almost having to pinch myself; I was in India practicing yoga at an ashram. (I was also giggling a little, because on more than one occasion our teacher would tell us we'd feel a certain pose in our "gender parts.")
While the sites were breathtaking and the yoga centering, the cultural experience of the weekend belonged to the Ayurvedic massage.
India is known for its conservative nature when it comes to sex, movies, music and romantic relationships. Which is why I expected my massage to involve the same modest nature.
I was wrong. Really wrong.
I was lead back to a small, dark, not-so-clean straw hut on the property of our hotel for my rub down. There is a constant language barrier here, so many of my conversations involve pantomime. So, when I tugged at my long sleeved top and said "just this off?" and the old woman nodded yes, I began to think I'd get an over the T-shirt massage. Until she looked at me and said "everything off!"
So, I stripped down to my knickers in front of a woman the age of my grandmother. I wasn't so much embarrassed, but rather in a state of genuine culture shock. In the U.S. every precaution is taken to protect the privacy and modesty of the client. Not so in India.
By the way, I hope by this point you are laughing and not horrified. The vision (and my own memory) of an old Indian woman ordering me to strip in a straw hut is the stuff comedies are made.
And the cultural differences do not stop at undressing.
The massage was glorious. After a week of sleeping in a small, uncomfortable bed, hours in the car, and nearly 12 hours of walking and four hours of yoga, my muscles were ready for some TLC.
What I wasn't prepared for: the discovery that Grandma India was going to rub everything. Well almost everything. Only the bottom gender parts were left unscathed, everything else was fair game. Yep, even those.
I figured I had one of two choices here. I could either be appalled by the ancient Indian practice of Auyervedic massage, or I could laugh at our ridiculous American fear of our bodies and and enjoy the damn massage. I chose the latter.
Lets be honest, this woman wasn't trying to get to second base with me. Grandma India was just doing what she knows in a culture so different from my own.
And for the first time ever during a "spa treatment" I wasn't self conscious. I didn't care that my legs weren't perfectly shaved or that I had too many carbs the night before. I just enjoyed the moment. And a relaxing, pleasurable, stress relieving moment it was.
Along with the ridiculous number of pictures and items I've bought, I hope this relaxed sense of self is another gift I bring home.
Trenni Kusnierek is a sports reporter and radio host who has worked for networks such as ABC, Big Ten, MLB, and NFL. She is currently on 540 ESPN in Milwaukee on both the D-List and Broad Side. Kusnierek is also freelance writing and reporting until January, when she will leave on a service trip to India.
A graduate of Marquette University, she holds a degree in Broadcast and Electronic Journalism. An avid marathon runner, Kusnierek qualified for the 2010 Boston Marathon by running a 3:37:02 at the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee.