The sliding doors of the airport opened, and it felt as if all my senses were activated simultaneously for the first time. I could sense the humidity on my skin, I could hear the noise of the cars and people yelling. Splashes of colors brightened my eyes as a new, rich aroma filled my nose.
The images of India I’d had in mind were so different from the reality that appeared in front of me when I landed in Delhi. It was around four in the morning, and the frenzied traffic looked like rush hour—but what’s rush hour, anyway? I was born in Europe, where rhythms are so codified.
Not in India.
Here there’s a completely different rhythm. Different instruments playing the music of life. And I didn’t know how to dance to this music.
National Geographic photographer John Stanmeyer and I traveled in northern India, retracing the path that Paul had walked in the previous months, following the rivers and experiencing life around them.
Jumping from concrete highways to bumpy dirt roads, we crossed the inner countryside of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, discovering villages behind every tree.
We encountered families who hosted us in their homes without asking for anything, only giving. We crossed paths with farmers guiding their cows through the wild land.
One day, at the end of the road, an immense valley unfolded before our eyes. Huge columns jutted out of the sand like arms reaching to the sky—the incomplete, the unfinished that turns to art, melding with the brown leaves of bushes growing inside them. There was something alien about that landscape, almost post-apocalyptic. But also magical, transformed by the golden sparkles of sunlight glinting off cars, buses, and motorcycles as they kicked up sand on the road.
On the other side of that valley lies the Chambal River. Buses filled with people would stop there, and men and women would run down to the river to take a sip of water, or bathe, before continuing their journey.
A wooden pontoon bridge connects the two shores. Sitting on one of the pontoons, I felt as if the Earth itself vibrated each time a car passed over. On my left, a boy was fishing, swirling the nylon thread in the air and throwing it in the water. He was so young and yet so confident, as if he’d been doing it for decades.
Continuing to the ancient city of Allahabad (renamed Prayagraj in October), we went to the Triveni Sangam, the place where three rivers meet—the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the invisible, mythic Saraswati, which is said to flow underground.
This confluence, the site of the Kumbh Mela festival, is a place of almost palpable spiritual significance. Held every 12 years, the festival will take place again this coming January.
It was early morning. We were walking on the Shastri Bridge, a wall of fog obscuring what was going on below us and around us. I felt like a bird suspended in the sky.
The mist slowly lifted, and a group of people emerged into view. They were workers building the walkways that people will use to cross the river during the Mela. From where we were, the men looked ant-like as they positioned pontoons and huge wooden boards in the water.
When we went down to the riverbank, we were again immersed in the mist. Each step was a leap into the void, and each person encountered, a floating soul. Men were bathing in the cold morning waters or cleaning dishes. It was eerily silent.
Time to move on. But first, chai.
Chai stops were perfect synecdoches for the variety of Indian life. You could hear the folk music playing on the radio and smell the masala aroma emanating from the small clay cups. You could take in the natural sounds: the wind whispering through the leaves, the mooing of cows passing by, punctuated by a discordant orchestra of vehicle horns on the highway.
We met a group of men (yes, it was uncommon to see a woman in the streets, and when we did, she would avert her eyes) who were as curious about us and our stories as we were about theirs. One man invited us onto his boat for a river tour. As we followed him and his friends down to the bank of the Yamuna, children were running all around us, laughing, pushing one another into the shallows in an elegant dance.
I remember looking at the water and then up to the sky: Above my head, a cloud of bees was unleashed by birds disturbing their hives. We froze in place, without making a sound, to avoid an angry bee attack.
Evenings draw in early at this time of year.
Indian nights shine with their own lights—from barber shops, from workers’ blowtorches, from truckers’ motels blazoned with neon fairy lights.
Traveling through northern India has been a learning experience. At the beginning, I was searching for familiar things in an unfamiliar world. But I couldn’t find them. I had to question my perception of knowledge.
That’s how I realized I was walking on the edge of a bubble of discovery, a bubble so delicate it could pop at any moment. And so strong, it contained a universe.