Out of Control: Pilgrimage to India 1

I stacked energy bars and Imodium on the dining room table a month before we left. Then there were vaccinations and clothes for winter in New York and summer in South India. Toilet paper, malaria pills, water purification tablets, hiking boots, dried fruit, and sandals. Check each off the list.

Since I’m an anxious traveler, we were well-equipped pilgrims. We might die and never return to our children or who knows? Lofty Indian philosophy we’d studied for decades didn’t match stories about cow urine, poverty, and clamoring blessing seekers told by friends who had visited the Sankara Mutt in South India. The sage Sankara, head of South Indian Hinduism, was 96 years old, so if we wanted his blessing, we couldn’t delay.

Michael & Harriet

I’d felt a similar fear when visiting other spiritual teachers like the Dalai Lama who might initiate ego-threatening experiences. But isn’t that what I wanted? Theoretically, but I packed to save us from illness or inconvenience. We planned to travel with close friends Michael and Harriet who, along with Vic, had a sense of humor about chaos.

On a foggy night in March 1990, we boarded a commuter plane in Ithaca heading for New York.  The plane landed in Binghamton, sixty miles from home. JFK was fogged in. No planes in or out. Our luggage disappeared into GUASD (the Great United Airlines Suitcase Devourer), but we had toothbrushes in carry-ons and money. We sat on hard plastic seats in the Binghamton airport after they deboarded the plane. Now what? I just knew we’d miss our connection to London and then Madras.

Vic was calm at first and then frustrated by my continuing anxiety as he offered platitudes like, “There is nothing we can do, so why worry?” He refused to share my agitation. I refused to let it go. Michael and Harriet explored the food machines, smiling at our situation. Vic spread his coat on the dirty carpet, removed his boots, rolled his fleece into a pillow, and opened a book. He crossed one leg over the other as he turned the pages. His cool made me hotter.

“We’ll miss our flight,” I said with a bitter edge.

“Read or do something, E. You only make things worse,” he batted back.

I was embarrassed by my anxiety and wanted to hide it, but couldn’t fool anyone. Vic read. Michael grinned. Harriet laughed at the irony after all our preparation. I couldn’t find humor or detachment.

New York City fog (Wikimedia)

Close to midnight, Vic or Michael had a bright idea. “Let’s take a cab to JFK. Maybe we can still catch our plane.”

They scrambled to find a cabbie willing to drive to New York City in the fog. We needed to leave immediately. I prayed for the plane to London to be delayed, as though my prayers had power. The cab fare was outrageous. We gratefully paid. I dozed fitfully as we drove through the hazy dawn.


This is the first in a series about trips to India to experience the peace and blessings of the Hindu sage Sri Sankaracharya. Do you have a trip that began like the trip from hell but ended up being heavenly? Tell me a little about it since I’m still a nervous traveler.

For other stories about returning to my small local airport in fog and snow, this time by myself, see I Thought I Could.   For another kind of travel, including hiking at the Continental Divide when I was 6 months pregnant, see Captured by the Mother Archetype.

  1. Dear Elaine,

    What an exciting opening post in your India travelling series! I’m already looking forward to the next instalment. I did laugh as Vic sat on the floor to read at the airport because that’s exactly what I would do in the same situation! Ha-Ha! My wife is a wonderful list maker and checker too, yet worries so much, while I’m laid back to the point of ridiculousness! Although in fairness, she does catch me up a few days later. Thankfully since we’ve learnt about Jung’s archetypes, in that we can see our own shadow in each other, there’s usually lots of laughter, understanding and acceptance these days of how very differently, yet always together, we travel.

    Our honeymoon comes to mind as we foolishly chose to drive over 450 miles the next morning to the beautiful Lake District. Still exhausted and excited from the wedding and dancing all night, on route we stopped at some motorway services (around the half-way point) where we seriously eyed up the motel but instead opted for strong black coffee and ploughed on until we eventually arrived at our destination. After pulling all the luggage out of the car (in record speed!) we headed straight way the bedroom, not to celebrate our newly married lives, but to sleep for the next 14 hours! Ha-Ha! It was such a brilliant and unforgettable start to marriage!

    Love and light, Deborah

    • Deborah, my friend from across the sea, there were times before and after when I was the calm one, but that wasn’t usually the case. As you’ll know as the story unfolds, India put me through many changes and some were the most important of my life. Sankara had an inner presence that helped me feel deep inner peace even in the midst of chaotic surroundings or my own crazy anxiety. I meant to keep a journal, but after sitting with him for hours for a few days, I had no words for the remaining 10 days. I got quiet! I understand Marion Woodman’s powerful experience of being undone and reconstructed in India and finding the Mother there. Vic and I ended up going to India three times in four years and each experience was a spiritual adventure. My home is still decorated with photos taken by Vic in India. I love them all.

      Weddings! Vic’s mother got obnoxiously drunk at our small wedding and my brother took something and wanted to have a fist fight with Vic. My brother never fought with anyone or played rough sports, but it was the drug talking. Vic avoided the conflict and cooled my brother down. After escaping from the family, Vic and I fell into an exhausted sleep in our apartment and the next day flew to Mexico for an incredible 2 weeks on the not-yet-touristy beach north of Acalpulco. Trips rattle my cage–India, Mexico, Taiwan, or Europe–but with Vic at my side, traveling was thrilling. He loved the excitement of the unknown and it felt good traveling with a confident adventurer. Sending love and hope for rain and a strong ankle.

      • Wonderful! Thank you Elaine for sharing even more snippets from your travels, above and below, including those hilarious yet sacred moments from your wedding day too. What a blast this life is! I love it all, the peace, the beauty, the drama and everything in-between. Thankfully my ankle is responding well to the specialist physio sessions. It’s early days, but I’m ever hopeful to avoid surgery. We’ll see.

        • I hope that ankle heals without surgery, Deborah. In this India series, I was definitely the uptight one of the four of us. I see Harriet has made a gracious comment. I should have warned her I planned to write about this.

  2. I look forward to further travels Elaine. Always fascinating to observe how others deal with chaos. And learning about different cultures. I remember a long time ago reading about Marion Woodman being dreadfully ill in India. I’m inclined to be quite laid back about travel plans. Though when my visa for Portugal still hadn’t arrived the day before due departure, I was a bit rattled.

    • This was a wild trip and the traveling got wilder–but once we got to the place we were going, I settled down until we made another big move to go to northern Indian to see the Dalai Lama. It’s those shifts that knock me off center. I am not a relaxed traveler unless going by foot or car (staying close to the Earth, I suppose), but Vic loved an adventure, so I liked traveling with him. I always wanted to take each trip, but it was often with trepidation. I can remember a few peak experiences when traveling got messed up, but my usual reaction was and still is anxiety. And then I work through it and calm down. Yes, Marion had a frightening illness and huge initiation experience in India and I connected to her about that.

  3. Your saga reminds me of our trip to Ukraine in 2011, with the roles in our marriage the reverse of yours. We had to send an art easel and chalk by boat ahead of our journey, so that was taken care of. But then we, ourselves, had to fly to Kiev, first going to Atlanta and then flying to Ukraine via Amsterdam. Cliff, usually the calm one, gets upset if we are fogged in, OR if there’s mechanical trouble. I usually tell him, “There isn’t a thing we can do about it (until the fog lifts or the stuck ‘hatch’ is fixed), so we’ll just have to wait.” You say about Vic, “He refused to share my agitation.” I’m not sure I go that far, but even though I wish we could get on with the flight, I accept that some things are simply out of our control.

    If it doesn’t involve planes, Cliff is usually the confident adventurer, driving exuberantly through London with the steering wheel on the right side, through Paris with cars and scooters, and also Rome, where traffic lights to Romans are just a suggestion.

    Now I’ll check out “I Thought I Could” again; it’s such a great story. I admire the way you remember the detail, especially the emotional impressions, still indelible in your memory. Thanks for great storytelling, Elaine!

    • Dear Marian,
      Everyone was trying to stay calm but we were all exhausted and concerned. Vic was kind, but got tired of trying to soothe me since I was in an anxiety loop. I was the only one who could break out of that. I have to ask Michael whether he or Vic thought of renting a cab to drive those 4 hours to New York City–or did they come up with it together? Vic always tackled roadblocks by trying to solve the problem. If he didn’t know the language in a place, he tried what he did know (Spanish and English) and managed well. We only needed my rusty German on one trip to Germany and Western France. (Vic could also drive anywhere. I love your line “where traffic lights to Romans are just a suggestion”). Sounds like India!

      I was definitely the nervous one on this trip, but that’s part of who I am. Like Cliff, I like to keep my boots or tires on the earth. It must be hard for you and Cliff to see what’s happening in Ukraine. It’s heart-breaking and I know it must be more so for you. Thanks for your encouraging words and your great stories.

      • About Ukraine: Actually our friend Kathy has returned to Kiev and is scheduling family festivals. A brief bout with COVID on arrival put a crimp in her plans, but she’s one resolute woman and will press on. Still, I believe Putin will continue to be a real threat.

  4. Unforgettable! thank you Elaine!

    • It was unforgettable, Harriet. Arriving in Madras (Chennai) with a few so-called essential missing and the taxi drive to Kanchipuram come next. All part of the initiation. Oyyy…

  5. What a great story, Elaine. It brings up similar memories from our travels. As an economist whose personality matches his profession, Fred wants to pack as much as he can into every trip without wasting a moment to be sure he’ll get as much of a bang for his buck as he can. As an introverted, intuitive, feeling type, I want to linger, reflect on what I’m seeing and doing, and record my thoughts and images in my journal. We love to travel but our different styles have led to many challenging moments along with the usual stressors of losing our way, losing our luggage, losing our money to a pickpocketer, and losing our tempers! Still, I wouldn’t change a thing. We laugh at these memories now and are grateful for what we learned from them. I’m looking forward to the next installment!

    • Vic and I planned our travel to be slow. We hoped for walking tours after he retired, but he died before we had the chance. Our first trip was our honeymoon to a wild area on the western coast of Mexico and we never stopped traveling. Vic was the instigator and I was the organizer. We were harmonious in terms of pace once we got going. Neither of us wanted to rush, but there were still many adventures instigated by Vic and disentangled by him, too.

  6. Elaine, I wrote you a long reponse a day or so ago. Did you not receive it? I won’t try to recapture it. Just know I loved it and resonated totally with your travel difficulties! Love, Jeanie

    • Jeanie, I got behind. I have over 100 caterpillars needing a daily milkweed fix. About half of the remaining Monarchs are chrysalises, so I do nothing except wait for them to eclose so they can dry their wings and fly. The others still need milkweed every day. I have group crates for the older ones and single cups for the smaller ones. Fresh milkweed every day please. Yes, there’s no doubt. I’m nuts. But each first flight is a peak experience.

  7. Great post
    I’m looking forward to reading the following parts

  8. It’s wonderful! First, I am freshly registered on your website, and second, I am amazed to know that you have travelled to India. I never knew that. It is fascinating. It is also amazing to see how Vic’s status of coolness before your agitations. Anyway, I jump right into the second part.

    • Vic was a cool, even tempered adventurer, and I loved traveling with him. Traveling hasn’t felt the same since his death. Thanks for registering again. I’m behind on everything as usual and haven’t read your second blog. I hope to get to it soon, but I’m focusing on my book which slowly moves forward.

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