Meeting the Mahatma in New York City

Gandhi statue in New York City

Gandhi statue in New York City

India, TBEX and New York City

This weekend I was in New York for TBEX 10, the travel bloggers conference. As I was walking to dinner with several colleagues, we unexpectedly came across a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in a small garden in Union Square. I did a double-take. I have seen the same statue countless times in India, in the centre of Delhi, in small towns, on mountain ridges, at the seaside — basically, Gandhi is everywhere. His presence in India is palpable, though of course he has been gone for 62 years. For a moment, I felt transported to India or, at least, my idea of India. To me India represents both sights, sounds, tastes and smells — the kaleidoscopic circus of the senses — and a way of being in the world that is based on the belief that we are all part of the same universal life force — the Hindu ideal that underlies Gandhi’s worldview.

The next day I returned by myself, and touched his feet. I would never had made such a gesture before traveling in India.

A taste of India

But that was not the only time in New York I felt transported to India. One night I went to “Curry Hill,” to a restaurant called Bhojan. While it definitely looked New York, there was something very Indian and very authentic about the place. I ordered a Gujarati thali and chaas or chaaj – a north Indian buttermilk drink – and when I started eating, I suddenly really missed India. It’s funny how smells and tastes can be so evocative.

Gujurati Thali at Bhojan

The word thali is Hindi for plate, and when you order a thali you get a quantity of small bowls, each filled with a different dish on a large round stainless steel platter: spicy vegetables, creamy dal, cool raiti and dessert, accompanied by rice, bread, chutney and papad. Non-vegetarian thalis would also include meat or chicken dishes. According to the menu, the word Bhojan in Hindi translates to a “simple, delicious and homestyle meal that is hearty and satisfying.” That’s how I found the food, and also really well-spiced: they didn’t hold back for North American tastes. Bhojan is a “pure veg” (aka vegetarian) restaurant in a warm bistro-like room with a spiritual bent: you are greeted with a serene prayer engraved into the wall; there is a biography of Swami Sivananda Saraswati in the menu; and garlic- and onion-free Jain food is available by request. I loved the décor, the warmth of the employees, the food and my neighbours. Two men sat beside me and we starting chatting , appropriately, about food. They were in town for a big food show. Rakesh imports spices from his native Rajasthan and Vaibhav deals in rice.

From Vaibhav I learned that India grows 1800 varieties of rice. There are 200 varieties of basmati alone. His family has been in the rice business for generations and his Father can recognize 800 types of rice at a glance; but he is only up to about 150. He’s young, a student in Vancouver, and he smiled during the entire meal. Rakesh is from Jodhpur and imports about 60 different spices grown near Jodhpur alone. I was surprised as I always think of Kerala as the spice garden of Indian.

Selfless power

Evelyn “Journeywoman” Hannon

Being at Bhojan gave me a feeling of connection — to myself, to India and to some values that both Indian culture and I hold dear. During the TBEX 10 conference itself, I also had a similar feeling of connection to important values while listening to Evelyn “Journeywoman” Hannon speak about her niche, women travelers. Evelyn started the Journeywoman newsletter for women travelers back in 1994, and eventually moved it online. She created a website, e-newsletter and Twitter account under the name Journeywoman, and she has a huge worldwide following. She also created Hermail to connect women travelers to women in their destination countries.

Evelyn is an inspiration and a mentor to me, and she supported BreatheDreamGo right from the beginning. So it really was no surprise to see her make such a big splash at TBEX for her clarity, authenticity and selflessness. Evelyn is a woman comfortable in her own skin, and the mandate for her work no doubt contributes to her calm, natural and caring demeanour. She stated, simply, that she wants to help women travel safely.

Watching Evelyn on stage, and listening to her wise words, I again felt inspired by her, and by the idea of selfless service — which of course was something Gandhi wrote about, talked about and modeled. The more you give, the stronger you are.

Like many passionate and selflessly motivated people,  Evelyn came up with the idea for Journeywoman from her own personal experience. In 1982 she divorced and found herself alone in the world. She was afraid to stay home and afraid to go out. So, she decided to travel. “I’m going to give myself 35 days to go out into the world by myself and if I don’t die, this will be the story of my life,” she said during her conference presentation.

And, thus, Journeywoman was born, “My passion is to inspire women to travel safely and well. And for those who know how to travel, to hold the hands of those just starting out. It’s not about getting people to come to my site in droves; it’s about getting people to hold hands and help each other.”

Evelyn probably got the biggest — and warmest laugh — at TBEX when she explained the rationale for her website design: “If you haven’t been to my website yet, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s the same website I’ve had since 1997. [pause] Do you enjoy going to your Grandmother’s house? At your Grandmother’s house you know where everything is. Come and visit. It’s lovely.”

Yes, it is, Evelyn. Thank you so much for your support and inspiration, and for being you!

It was a wonderful weekend in New York City. I would also like to thank the organizing committee of TBEX , who did a great job: Kim Mance and Maren Hogan of Galavanting, Jim Benning and Michael Yessis of World Hum, Mike Richard, Vagabondish, Pete Meyers, Euro Cheapo, Kelley Ferro, TripFilms, Andrew Hickey, Brooklyn Nomad, Annemarie Dooling, Frill Seeker Diary, Shanna Quinn, Galavanting and Angela Berardino, Turner PR.

Mariellen Ward
Mariellen Ward is a freelance travel writer whose personal style is informed by a background in journalism, a dedication to yoga and a passion for sharing the beauty of India's culture and wisdom with the world. She has traveled for about a year altogether in India and publishes an India travel blog, Mariellen also writes for magazines and newspapers.
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