Pearls of Wisdom learned in India and an experiment with Magic Mushrooms

Reflection from a two years long travel, 1982–1983

Traveling vagabond style after completing the compulsory 3-year military service is a phenomenon that has become part of the Israeli culture. It’s characterized by being low in money but rich in time. My trip lasted close to two years and it was a response to an internal call to go out, to experience freedom and to explore the world and myself.

Editing the photos from those years, its easy to notice how digital technology has freed our approach to photography as a rich and inexpensive way to document our lives, which was not affordable with the 35mm film of the past. Looking at these photos also brings up thoughts about the relationship between a photograph and a memory. The famous photographer Ansel Adams said: “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” I think that in my 1982–1983 photographs I did not have such high aspirations, instead I was just freezing in my memory bank a brief slice of wondrous experience. I am grateful to have these photos in such good condition, it’s because they were snapped as slides and not as print film. I find that reflecting on memories from those years conjures up general impressions rather than detailed travel itineraries.

I arrived in Hammerfest, Norway by hitchhiking all the way from Amsterdam after a month of working in a hostel, visiting the Van Gogh museum every day, and painting. Hammerfest is the world’s northern-most arctic town. I heard that in the summertime Norwegians take long vacations in southern Europe and there is a demand for labor at fish factories. Working in Norway was an opportunity to earn unbelievably good amounts of money, but finding a job was not a simple task.

The shape of Norway is narrow and long, fish factories can be found in small villages along the coastline which otherwise consists of breathtaking fjords, mountains, forests, and sporadically a human habitat. Eventually I found work in a rural location, a small fishing village, called Sorvaer on the western tip of the Island of Soroya, accessible by ferry from Hammerfest only. The work required a lot of physical effort, diligence and high self-discipline. I enjoyed it and the Norwegians liked to have me in their fish processing teams, as I was as fast in slicing and cleaning fishes as they were. Most importantly, I met the woman I shared my life with for the next 28 years. Dalit arrived at the Island with a group of friends from her kibbutz in Israel who worked there before. I thought, if you travel all the way to the north arctic sea and fall in love — your destiny must have been written in the stars. Together we kept traveling to India and Nepal, we built a home first in Israel and later in Los Angeles, and we created one unique masterpiece — our son Tomer.

Sorvaer Village on Soroya Island, Norway, 1982
Sorvaer Village on Soroya Island, Norway, 1982
Sorvaer Village on Soroya Island, Norway, 1982

We flew to New Delhi, India with the Russian airline Aeroflot. Back then, there were no formal relations between Russia and Israel, nor between India and Israel, a certain uneasiness was a sure thing. The overnight stop in Tashkent was surreal, a guard was stationed at our hotel floor. At the New Delhi airport, I felt like an angel was holding our hands and gently escorting us through the terminal, customs check, and out to the street. I was pale and dazed. The shock of the first encounter with India is guaranteed. Three wheeled taxi drivers and the mob that wants a piece of you. Welcome to India!

Although I was not conscious of it at the time, in the years since that trip, after immersing myself in study, reading and personal observation, I now realize that the seeds of a few pearls of wisdom were first planted during that six months we spent roaming India:

● There are about a billion residents in this country, and sometimes it seems that everyone goes with you everywhere. There is no choice but to maintain the boundaries of private territory. Such decisive defiance is a necessary condition for a reasonable quality of life in India and elsewhere.

● India is a place where people are not afraid to make straight eye contact with you, they even enjoy it. Wherever you look, you can pick up a pair of eyes that will look back at you with full confidence. It seems that everywhere there are curious Indians who want to help you. Even when they do not know anything, they still want to lend you a helping hand. Thus, in her beautiful way, India taught me about kindness and compassion. India had always asked me to be present with all my strength, not to be afraid to give my trust in the kindness of others.

● India forces you deal with the masses, chaos, delays, unsanitary conditions, cultural shock, large insects, small insects, diseases and unwanted attention. Among other things, I learned that everything is going to be all right in the end. Unplanned deviations from the original course were also successful. In fact, there are no reasons to worry, just let things happen, rather than trying to control them all the time. This is the magic formula of India, even if it seems that things do not work as they should, sometimes it’s just our perception that limits us.

What I am writing about is the process of acceptance. In the book “A Fine Balance” By Rohinton Mistry, the four characters’ lives interweave during the political turmoil of India’s “Emergency” period (1975–1977). It’s a story of four strangers from different walks of life, their opportunities constrained by caste, gender, government corruption, and greed. It’s a story that reminds me of the saying: “Acceptance is the answer.” The characters who found a way to accept and be generous and helpful to each other — lived, those who could not, were doomed to tragedy.

● In India the sense of time is eroded and only defined by the stomach. Because of this I found myself thinking quite a bit, looking for new directions for thought, so I actually met the next great teacher, he was revealed at different moments inside me, gave me his blessing and directed me on my way. There were times when he disguised himself as a tree, a dog and even a butterfly, and made me realize that one could learn from everything.

India, 1982
India, 1982

I did not choose to travel to the Indian sub-continent to see the Taj Mahal, to experiment with food or drugs, to experience the madness of New Delhi, to stay in a palace, to witness Varanasi or to cruise Kerala’s backwaters, nor to seek spiritual answers; all that and more came much later. I wanted to hike the Himalayas. At the time I was very interested in Geology and hiked extensively the Sinai desert; thus, I thought where else should I travel but to the highest mountains in the world?

Annapurna circuit is probably the most popular trek in the Himalayas, but in 1982 it had just recently opened to foreign trekkers, as part of a dispute resolution between two groups — the CIA backed Khampa guerrillas operating from the area into Tibet, and the local populace acting with the Nepalese army. Pokhara was our starting and ending point of the month long, 145mi (230km) hiking journey which took a month to complete.

In Pokhara, for the first and only time to date, I experimented with Magic Mushrooms, a plant containing a psychedelic component that alters ordinary conscious experience. We mixed it with yogurt and because at the first hour we did not feel anything special, we kind of forgot about it and went to arrange our hiking permits at the police station, of all places. Initially it made me talkative and sociable, similar to the effect of smoking marijuana. The Nepalese policemen were wearing red berets and we had a lively conversation, I shared my experience with the red beret, having been a paratrooper in the Israeli Army. Then Dalit and I started laughing uncontrollably; gratefully we were coherent enough to understand the mushrooms had started to hit home, and quickly rushed to our motel room. The hallucinations took over, I vividly remember laying down watching the color on the ceiling change to purple with geometric shapes that kept moving like in a dance, we were on another layer of life. The following morning our neighbor curiously commented that we were very loud and alive.

From the trek I remember the many suspension bridges spanning a river which we had to adventure through overcoming lots of dread. I remember how we arranged for a place to eat and sleep at the end of the day’s walk: we would simply approach a house, greet its inhabitants properly with “namaste” and said two words: Khana and Sutnu which translates to Food and Sleep. The villagers will nod their heads and show us an area on the floor to lay our sleeping bags, they also served us with Dal Bhat, the local meal which consist of rice, lentils and side dishes, usually a variety of fresh vegetables, potatoes and cauliflower. It cost less than $1 per day — what a bargain!

The other vivid memory which fills me up with great sense of gratitude happened at the last night before we crossed Thorong La pass, which at 17,769 ft (5,416 m) is the highest point of the Annapurna Circuit and is covered with deep snow. We stayed at the only place available with 20–30 other tourists and Sherpas. Our sleeping bags where squeezed one next to the other at the small ramshackle structure. It was a famous spot among hikers, known for the two local Nepalese that managed it and served food, the Dal Bhat Brothers. An American woman noticed Dalit’s badly beaten-up sneakers and offered her extra shoes. If it was not for that generous act I am afraid Dalit’s toes would have been frozen. Whenever I think about it I sigh with relief and I scold myself for what I call a youthful lack of thoughtfulness.

Annapurna Circuit Hike, 1982
Annapurna Circuit Hike, 1982
Annapurna Circuit Hike, 1982

What I remember most from Kathmandu other than the many monkeys, considered holy by believers who roam around the temples and are very picturesque, is our daily breakfast which consisted of Yak yogurt. A yak is a large domesticated wild ox with shaggy hair, humped shoulders, and large horns, used in the Himalayas as a pack animal and for its milk, meat, and fur. Yak milk has a higher butterfat content than cow milk, so the yogurt is very creamy, and its flavor is very strong, often it is honey sweetened. It is served in unglazed red clay pots which add something to the joy.

If you’re looking for a cheap place to travel, Nepal was and remained close to the top in the world. Nepal remains a romantic Himalayan destination, but the tragic irony is that parallel to its active geological fault lines the country political divisions are extremely volatile, see this 2017 Washington Post article.

For additional photographs please check my site

David’s writings are self-reflections of an Israeli living in Los Angeles since 1987, through the lens of art, travel & culture.

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