We were in the bus by 5:30 a.m. Everyone would go their own way from Delhi, we had now started the last leg of our journey. Unlike the chatter that usually filled the bus, the group was mostly silent on this last bus trip. Either people were dozing off, or they were in a contemplative mood. I settled uncomfortably into my seat.
As we left Haridwar before daybreak, I had a fleeting glance of the lights over the Ganga. My buddies - the panchakanyā - the five maidens, had gone the previous evening to the Ganga, and dipped in the river 108 times, no less. It was only last year, after dipping in Manas Sarovar, that I had thought back on all the opportunities I had missed to take a dip in the Ganga. And when I had seen Haridwar on the itinerary for this trip, I had thought this was a signal from above. Apparently, I had misread the signal. No dip, no regret. Another trip, another time, Shiva's will...
Ashverya dozed off almost immediately. We had been among the last ones to board the bus, and the luggage space above was filled with the gigantic lunch boxes that the hotel had packed for us. I had to keep my bags at my feet, and my legs had no place to stretch. With hurting knees, aching legs and swollen feet, and the persistent cough from Varanasi, one could say my body was in a bad state. Initially, I took comfort in not having a fever, but three hours into the journey, I had reached my threshold of pain and physical discomfort. I found space at the back of the bus where there were a couple of seats with foot space. Glad nobody made expert comments on where I should sit in the bus, because I was barely holding my pain in, and I was very likely to verbalize my feedback to well-intentioned busybodies. The bouncing at each road bump was preferable to painful crouching next to a sleeping child, who could now stretch out and lie on the seat.
Except for a stop for restrooms, the bus kept going on. Finally, when we were two hours from Delhi, we stopped for much-needed chai.
Swami Sarveshanandaji started a massage session with some people who allowed him to massage their aching feet, and then stretched their legs, and gave a neck massage, and finally asked people to put their hands behind them, and lifted them in a way that stretched their shoulders. Apparently, this was doing people a lot of good. He asked me, perhaps for the last time on the trip, if I would take the benefit of his expertise and get my swollen feet massaged. I stuck to my guns - there is just no way that would happen in this lifetime.
The Swamijis maintained their consistent great mood that had set the mood of the trip.
The children were sweet and sporting as always, a touch of divinity that lit up our mundane lives.
The Swamijis decided that it was better for those going to the NOIDA ashram to leave the bus at Ghaziabad, an hour before Delhi. Ashverya and I followed them, our final destination is ahead - NOIDA ashram, to visit Swami Chidrupanandaji with whose blessings we had started this trip.
Once we got off the bus at Ghaziabad, the car to take us to NOIDA was nowhere to be seen. It was stuck in the Dehi traffic at peak traffic hour. We sat by the side of the road, and took in the scene - people going on their way to work, cycle rickshaws plying groceries, people stuffed into chhakdas - mass rickshaws, people rushing to work in taxis and rickshaws, and an interesting scene - a truck driver doing his laundry on the road by the side of his parked truck.
Fifteen minutes in the Delhi heat was enough to knock me senseless. One of the things that Amma had told me earlier in the year was that she trusted her sons, and did not re-think what they would have thought out already. Now, I was with people whose recommendations I could trust implicitly. I settled into mental silence while the Swamijis figured out how to reach the NOIDA ashram.
Finally, the car arrived, and we reached the NOIDA ashram, and Amma started preparing upma for all the hungry people. There was no power, and therefore no air-conditioning at the ashram - I needed to not think as I cut vegetables to help Amma with her cooking. We had the hot and spicy upma, that made my body radiate even more than earlier, but now I had something in my stomach, and the energy to start planning for the journey ahead, back to the US of A. Despite bad health, Swami Sarveshananda-ji packed my suitcases, and took pictures of us with Swami Chidrupananda-ji.
After phone calls to friends and family in Delhi to plan the remaining hours in India, we left the ashram. The Swamijis had organized and managed a logistically challenging trip, all the time maintaining a smile on the face while being physically exhausted and even ill at times.
For this opportunity to visit the dwādaśajyotirlinga - the twelve temples of Shiva and some of the śaktipītha - sites of power with ancient temples to the mother goddess, for visiting the spots where the avatāra Rama walked the earth during exile - Panchavati, where the avatāra Krishna established the new capital of his grandfather's kingdom - Dwarka, for the opportunity to visit the spot where Buddha first preached on earth - Sarnath, for the chance to visit the modern Swaminarayana Akshardham complex in Delhi, for visiting the NOIDA āśram and Swami Chidrupananda-ji thrice during the trip, for the company of my little god whom I had emotionally blackmailed on Mothers' Day to make this trip with me, I am supremely grateful for Shiva's grace, grateful for the leadership and the personal warmth of the Swamijis, grateful for friends I made on this trip, and grateful for the learning from the experiences on this trip.
Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!