Our Trip to India: Travel Days 1, 2 & 3

by Siegfried Othmer | October 18th, 2014

by Siegfried Othmer, PhD

Sue and I have just returned from a sojourn to India, where we taught our training course at the Tibetan Medical Institute, Men-Tsee-Khang.Travel Days 1 & 2

September 16 – 17 (Tuesday-Wednesday)

Thanks to frequent flyer miles that had piled up over the years, we were able to take this opportunity to fly in comfort to India via Virgin Atlantic Airways. The thought of sleeping in coach for all those hours on two successive overnight flights was unattractive. How standards change…. Years ago there had been all those fourteen- and fifteen-hour flights to Australia to get neurofeedback started there, and we thought nothing of it. The first leg of the trip was to London, with a flight that landed us there mid-day. We had slumbered in the nose of a 747, oblivious to the near-600mph speed and near 40,000 feet altitude. It occurred to me that the airframe might well have been built by the company that I had worked for back in the seventies, Northrop, during those years I was working there at the Corporate Research Center. As we were just in transit through London we were not even officially seen as visitors to England, in the same way that Edward Snowden was not officially in Russia as long as he hung out in the transit lounge at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow.

A luxurious shower in the Virgin Airways lounge restored our civilized status. And then we just spent the day in the guilded cage that separated us from the shopping bazaar that is Terminal 3 in Heathrow, awaiting our night flight to New Delhi. The lounge is thoroughly designed from end to end for the leisure class. There are delectables to be sampled everywhere, and a large bar dominates the scene. But the new leisure class is an engaged lot, and the computer terminals were in heavy use while the large-screen TV was being watched by no one. The assemblage reflected the colorful mix that is modern London. Leisure now serves the purpose of rallying one’s energies for the next undertaking. Leisure is no longer its own reward.

The flight to Delhi was conveniently overnight as well. The stewardess thoughtfully asked for our names. Siegfried, I said, just as in the Wagner opera. That was not helpful, it turns out. How do you spell that? Ok. So a crisp British accent did not always indicate a brush with education into Western culture—or at least not the German part. The Anna Russell version of “The Ring” was before her time. On this the second night of travel, we had the foresight to eat before boarding in order to enjoy a few more hours of sleep. The night passed in blissful oblivion. The sleep on a flat bed was expensive, but it was an investment in our functionality once we arrived.

Travel Day 3

September 18 (Thursday): Arrival in New Delhi

In the early morning hours the tracking monitor disclosed that our trajectory had taken us over Russia. We had been flying just north of the path of the ill-fated flight MH-17. It was a dogleg trajectory that was dictated either by weather or by political and strategic realities. And on that score, the newspaper reports of native dances being performed for US troops visiting in Kiev at this very moment. They were there as part of NATO exercises. Did this even make it into the papers back home? Just what are NATO troops doing in Kiev?

The subsequent journey took us over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and then into New Delhi. New Delhi airport is thoroughly modern, and met us with imposing art of religious symbolism in the arrivals reception hall. Passport control was surprisingly passive. No questions asked. We had come on tourist visas, but were planning to present our class in Neurofeedback. Was that considered consistent with tourist status? We didn’t really know. And then there was all the stuff we had brought for the class. All those duplicate items in our luggage were hardly consistent with just being ordinary tourists bringing in the necessities of existence. But customs was perfunctory as well.

Promptly we got our chance to sample the hot-house atmosphere that was New Delhi after the monsoon season. The lush greenery around the airport signaled more than diligent watering. The pre-arranged car was equipped with massive air conditioning that had me wishing for less. We asked the driver to make an excursion to a nearby airport hotel to pick up Virginia Rojas, who had flown in the night before from Colombia. The expansive roadways at the airport soon dumped us into a sea of traffic in the urban street matrix. This was no ordinary traffic jam, it turns out. The President of China, Xi Jinping, had just arrived for a three-day State visit, and that had tied things up hopelessly. Security was everywhere; roads had been shut to allow for the motorcade. And the city was left to deal with it. Inconveniently, Chinese troops had just made an incursion into territory that is in dispute between the countries, but is currently controlled by India. A clear challenge had been delivered. The meetings have been awkward. The emerging big power is probing the margins of its empire.

Like many megacities in the emerging countries, Delhi is in a state of ungovernable chaos when it comes to traffic. Much of it operates near saturation level in which some vehicles, attempting to move cross-traffic, tie up everyone else. It could stand as a paradigm for unregulated capitalism. Everyone is maximizing his own position within the mix, and once near-saturation conditions prevail, this is a formula for gridlock. And so there we were, with leisure to contemplate the societal arrangements that were so obviously dysfunctional, as we inched forward toward our goal. It took us most of an hour to reach the hotel that had taken Virginia ten minutes to reach the prior evening.

We had brought so much luggage that Virginia’s suitcase had to go on the roof rack. The driver assured us that all would be well even if it wasn’t tied down. Nevertheless, along the way he did check on the status of the bag, which meant that he really wasn’t entirely sure… As we made our way to our own hotel, we got the first glimpses of what the local traffic system is like when it is actually working. When traffic moves, it moves in a kind of fluid flow as a dynamic unit at a common speed that can be unnerving to the unseasoned. Just as water finds its most efficient way to get through a pipe, traffic here organizes chaotically to move the maximum number of cars down the street in unit time. This means that if a three-lane road can be made into four, then that is what happens. Cars just crowd together depending on what circumstances allow. And if the roadway allows just three-and-a-half lanes, then matters are simply subject to continuous adjustments as drivers take advantage of any niches that open up to allow them to move forward.

Cars drive in scary proximity to each other both laterally and fore-and-aft. There has to be an enormous trust that cars will not make sudden moves. The rule seems to be that the car with its nose out front has the right of way—like in Boston in the old days. In order to make this dense packing possible, many cars have shed their outside mirrors. Or is it just that drivers failed to replace them after they had been knocked off in an urban encounter? Apparently not. Some had deliberately folded in their outside mirrors to protect them.

Motorcycles weave in and out as opportunities arise, but it is an illustration of just how densely packed the cars can be that the motorcycles often find themselves just as stuck as the cars. To an observer who is not used to this kind of chaos, it can be unsettling. The remedy in these cases is to behold the driver, who remains a paragon of equanimity throughout it all. The driver is also best regarded from the vantage point of a backseat.

On the way to our hotel there was a moment of being stationary long enough that one of millions of the nation’s poor could make her way to the passenger side, babe in arms, and ask for a handout. I found myself unprepared for the moment of such close encounter with the pleading visage of a person in obvious need. And this searing moment persisted. We were stuck there, after all. What was I going to do? Barbara Dalton-Taylor, who accompanied us on this trip, had raised the issue previously. What are we going to do in the event of our inevitable encounter with the poor? But matters had been abstract at the time. We were obviously not in a position to impact significantly on the problem of the poor in India regardless of how we acted. And we knew that as soon as you helped one person a throng would soon follow. The only answer was simply not to get started down that road, we told ourselves.

But nothing prepares you for the actual experience of being eye-ball to eye-ball with a poor person, with nothing but a pane of window glass between you. And we were stuck in traffic. It would be rude to just look away, and yet at the end that is what I had to do. I still carry her face with me, as well as the sense of a clear moral failing on my part. I had nothing but large bills in my wallet, and so I sat on them. The problem of poverty in India remains largely an abstraction, but an encounter like this is very real. As Stalin once said, the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of millions is a mere statistic. He never lost sleep, apparently, over the millions of deaths he caused. Statistics do not stir the conscience as effectively as a human encounter.

At the hotel one enters India’s other world. We had chosen the Imperial Hotel because of its ties to history. It is a museum unto itself. But first one needs to pass inspection at the gate. One is met by guards who greet you with the prayerful gesture that is named Anjali Mudra or Pranamasana. In Hinduism it represents a gesture of respect for the divine element in the person being greeted. The guard then proceeds to check the undercarriage of the vehicle for bombs, and also lifts the hood and trunk lids. Trust, but verify… It is a perfunctory gesture at best. After all, the car is filled to capacity with luggage that remains uninspected.

It struck me that there was an analogy between the boundary that was being maintained here between the hoi polloi and the elite and the various biological boundaries that exist within us: the cell wall; the blood-brain barrier; and the intestinal wall. The intestinal wall comes closest to what is going on here. It was the first to come to mind, in any event. In all of these cases the nourishment and resources have to come from the outside, but access to the interior is highly selective. The ecosystem inside is very different from what prevails outside, and yet a mutual dependency exists. In essence, then, the guards were the defense against a kind of societal leaky-gut syndrome.

We were now twelve time zones out from Los Angeles (12.5 to be exact), which is as bad as it can get. In our state of diminished mental capacity we were shown the massive hotel. We then explored the grounds, after some lunch, and found our way to the extensive spa facilities. They were deep underground, where the temperature stays uniformly comfortable without mechanical aid. The atmosphere was not at all hedonistic. On the contrary, it seemed almost cloistered—a place where the temple of the body was cared for. My back was showing the strains of all the luggage we had been maneuvering into overhead compartments, so a massage seemed in order. I was worked over energetically for 30 minutes, in the course of which the massage oils got into my eyes, and I was suddenly stuck with blurry vision.

This was terribly inconvenient, as we were invited to dinner that evening by a business associate of Barbara Dalton-Taylor’s husband, and I was looking at blurry faces the whole evening. Exhaustion had something to do with that as well. Making matters worse, as we were finding our way in the dusk toward our driver’s car, Sue was tripped up by an unmarked step right at the front entrance of the Imperial Hotel. This caused a small tumult among those present, so Sue quickly gathered herself and we made our exit. The pain would come later. Perhaps fatigue was a factor here as well.

The host family had long-term connections with the United States, having made many trips back and forth. The family had a bi-national existence. The host in fact had his primary home in San Francisco. I felt heroic just doing the journey once. Of course neurofeedback entered the conversation at some point. I related that in preparation for our trip I had reviewed the critical role played by Indian yogis in kindling interest within the West in self-regulation generally, and in biofeedback training in particular, during much of the twentieth century. Now it was time for us to come over to return the favor. Sort of like California vines that had originated in France going back years later after French vines were devastated by a fungus. Biofeedback had never taken root in India, even after having kindled it in the West. I mentioned the critical role played by Swami Rama, who had visited the Menninger Clinic for the purpose of demonstrating his ability to control physiological variables at will.

It turned out that the host’s sister, who was dining with us that evening, had worked with Swami Rama personally for an extended period of time while he was in the United States, and she was thoroughly familiar with his abilities. Our human population is yet another instance of a small world model, with an average of six degrees of separation on the way to becoming five as we increasingly connect internationally. So now we are only two degrees removed from Swami Rama. What a thought.

The return to our hotel was in the late evening, and the roads were largely empty. Many of these roads were in fact boulevards that had been generously laid out by the architects who designed New Delhi, Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker. On the largely empty streets we now got to see our first urban monkeys. What it must look like to Indian drivers to have Western guests so fascinated with monkeys that in their eyes are little more than a nuisance. If you’ve seen one monkey you have seen them all…

Our Trip to India Continues

Sight-seeing Day 4

Sight-seeing Day 5

Dharamsala Day 6

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

One Response to “Our Trip to India: Travel Days 1, 2 & 3”

  1. Elizabeth Seward says:

    Stumbled upon this, and so glad I did. Really enjoyed the writing and wish you a wonderful trip. I look forward to the next installment!

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