I was lucky enough to connect with Nina through a mutual friend in California. Her travels span far and wide, however it was her recent trip to India which allured me most. Through our interview Nina shares her insights of the holy land with us through beautiful words and pictures.
India is a place many aspire to travel to and is often thought of as a “right of passage” for those in their ‘Saturn Return’ period. What was it that drew you to book a ticket to India?
My husband Pete’s work. At the time he was a graphic designer and was offered a position as GQ India’s Art Director. The prospect of starting life anew in an exotic land was too much for us to resist, and I knew that writing remotely from Mumbai, where we were based, for the Sydney Morning Herald where I was working at the time as an in-house travel writer would be the ideal way to sharpen my travel writing skills. I’d also been studying Buddhism and yoga for a while so heading to the Motherland was also an ideal opportunity to continue my seeking.
Many have described India, Mumbai in particular, as “an attack on the senses”. How did you feel when you first arrived?
Completely overwhelmed. It was complete and utter chaos at every turn – enormous piles of rubbish and human excrement, streets lined with sleeping families every night, blinding sunshine bouncing off the ocean and marigold garlands draped over everything. There were cows on roads, goats in taxis, fireworks and bands bashing out Hindi tunes in the streets every night and the world’s most chaotic markets. It was everything, all at once – the good and the bad, the highs and the lows. But I saw poetry in everything and fell in love with the city instantly.
When you close your eyes and reflect back on your journey what is it that you see, hear and taste?
I see black and yellow taxis zooming through the thick traffic, women wrapped in vibrantly coloured saris laughing on the streets, little children with their hands held out breaking your heart on into a million pieces on street corners. I hear hundreds of crows cawing through the air, the bipping of horns mixed with garbled Hindi and the occasional moo of the street cows. I smell a heady mix of incense, spices and the occasional waft of human excrement. A friend who lived in India once said to me that since being back in Australia, sometimes she’ll smell a waft of sewerage and when she does, she always stops and smiles. I thought she was nuts when she said it, but now I find myself doing the exact same thing. I miss the stench, I really do.
In which areas did you spend most time, or perhaps had more of a connection to?
I felt a deep connection to Ladakh, “the land of high passes”, in the far north of India between Kashmir and China. Pete and I went there on a whim and were immediately taken by its majesty. You fly in between these huge, craggy mountains and immediately feel like you’ve landed on the moon. Nothing but rocky peaks all around, with the occasional handful of white stupas and a tattered set of prayer flags dotting the landscape. We stayed in a yurt, visited 15th-century Buddhist monasteries, hiked through remote Himalayan mountains and camped by the shores of Pangong Tso Lake – a 134-kilometer expanse of crystalline blue water whose shades vary depending on the time of day and which, at 4350 metres high, is quite literally breathtaking.
For those planning an Indian sojourn can you suggest the best itinerary for their trip? Any areas to avoid or include in the journey?
Even though I left a big chunk of my heart in the south, wafting around between the palm trees of Kerala, I would have to suggest heading north for first-timers. You’ll see men in neon turbans with twisty moustaches, you’ll see Rajasthani palaces, you’ll see ashrams and holy cities. The quintessential Indian experience. My favourite towns include Udaipur, India’s most romantic city that’s built around Lake Pichola and is filled with grand Rajasthani architecture; Varanasi, a must for spiritual seekers, filled with ash-covered holy men, bodies burning on the shores of the Ganges and warrens of narrow lane ways, and Rishikesh, the home of yoga and esoteric teachings of all kinds, and where The Beatles found enlightenment.
Safety is perhaps an element that may make people tentative to travel within India, especially young women. Were there any times you felt unsafe, or are there perhaps recommendations you would suggest for aspiring to take the big trip?
To be honest, I never felt unsafe and I did a lot of travelling on my own. Don’t get me wrong, as a white woman I was stared at every single day and this is something any female traveller has to be prepared for. But in my experience the stares are more interested than lecherous. I always took precautions and didn’t take any unnecessary risks, I always dressed conservatively in loose pants, with tops that covered my arms or a shawl, I didn’t walk around on my own at night outside of Mumbai, and most importantly I always listened to my intuition. If something didn’t feel right I simply wouldn’t do it.
Indian textiles, fabrics and silver are incredible. Did you come home with excess baggage?
If a dozen boxes crammed with treasures counts as excess then yes, yes I did. Some favourites include an antique Rajasthani shell-encrusted camel dressing that I use as a wall hanging, my rupee necklaces that I love layering and clanking around in, and an antique silver peacock whose wings open up to storage within – I store my essential oils in him. Oh, and dozens of mirrored and psychedelically coloured skirts, bags and shawls. There’s a shop near the palace in Udaipur called Ganesh Emporium that’s housed in an old haveli and is an absolute treasure trove.
Is there a distinct memory or experience that stays strong in your heart and mind?
Being blessed by a sacred elephant on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in Hampi. He placed his trunk on my head and as I stroked his leathery, hairy skin he opened his gigantic mouth. I was lost in the abyss and completely overwhelmed by his power. Hampi has possibly the most beautiful natural scenery you’ll see in India. There are groves of acid green palm trees everywhere, interspersed with bright blue rivers and sculpted boulders stacked against the hills. The entire city is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to the fantastic ruins of the 13th century Vijayanagara Empire that call Hampi their home.
Finally, would you return to India and why?
I will return to India, again and again and for the rest of my life. I left a part of my soul there, and a part of my heart. I also left our baby cat Hindi there (we rescued him from the fishing slum we lived next to), so I’m also desperate to get back and visit him with his new adopted family. India spoke to my heart instantly and still speaks to it most days. I can burn as much incense as I like, play my Lata Mangeshkar records on repeat and read the Upanishads all night long, but the Mother still calls.
READ THE ORIGINAL INTERVIEW HERE