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Two women stroll among the walls of Halebid, built in the 9th century

Sharing experiences from travels is a bit like sharing dreams: The iconography and narrative are personal and not well suited for public discourse. So other than sharing the rudimentaries, my report on my time in India will be succinct.

A phrase or two from Mira Schor‘s juicy and very personal book, A Decade of Negative Thinking, captures much of what I am feeling now that I am back home: “I’ve wished that I could give my students and myself the gift of time, time to work or not work in the studio, and, more importantly, to forget about ART; time to just take a walk…”

That is what this trip to southern India was for me: time away from the studio, a hiatus in thinking about art making and the world we have created around that rarefied activity. Yes I took 2600 photographs which serve as a kind of quick capture sketchbook/scrapbook. But making art was not on my mind at all. In a culture that old and that confoundingly complex, stepping away from my life was a much better way to offer up an open, fertile, receptive spirit. The resonance is outside of language and still echoing.

Hindu shrine at the top of the Fort hill in Hyderabad

Hampi’s Vittala temple, known as the musical temple because striking the columnns produces musical tones

Inscription at Hampi

The exquisite Chitrangini Mahal (or Lotus Mahal) in the Zenana Enclosure, Hampi

Figures from the 12th century goparum at Belur which effortlessly incorporate images from the Kama Sutra

The lacey Chola temples at Thanjavur

Entrance to the Ekambaranathar temple in Kanchipuram

Enchanting and sacred Madurai, pilgrim site

Rajasthani pilgrims at Chidambaram

Meal time at the Children’s Aid Society in Hyderabad

Lord Gommateshwara, the world’s largest monolithic stone statue, at the Jain temple in Shravanabelagola

Students at Tiruchchirappalli (Trichy)

Hampi, from a distance

Sign to the pilgrimage site, Chamundi Hill in Mysore

Altar for Saraswati

“solvitur ambulando”: Walking alongside the Hemis monastery in Ladakh

I’ve written many times here about my extreme reliance on travel to enrich and deepen the inner experience of life. As a painter with an expected sensitivity to changes in landscape and terrain, experiencing those radical shifts in venue is part of my ongoing creative process.

Of course fascination with what happens when the body and the self are relocated is available to everyone. In his review of a new book by Tony Hiss, In Motion: The Experience of Travel, William Dalrymple contextualizes that power of travel from a broad base:

The conviction that traveling in general, and walking in particular, can bring inspiration and even enlightenment is a very ancient one, and it exists in many cultures across the globe. As the old adage, taken up by the wandering scholars of medieval Europe, had it, “Solvitur ambulando” (“It is solved by walking”). In the sixth century B.C., the Indian saint Mahavira is said to have received enlightenment while walking, and the idea is still current. I recently met an itinerant Jain nun who told me: “This wandering life, with no material possessions, unlocks our souls. There is a wonderful sense of lightness, living each day as it comes.” For her, journey and destination became one, thought and action became one…For Hiss, travel and especially walking can bring a sense of heightened awareness of the world, a kind of sensory exhilaration he calls Deep Travel. As he makes clear, such travel need not involve an epic journey; a simple visit to the bagel store at the end of the street can bring it on. What it awakens is a latent, childlike sense of wonder at the world around us.

Nevertheless it is long journeys that bring out the possibilities of Deep Travel most strongly, removing us from our familiar comforts and security, taking us into new situations, alone and vulnerable, our minds open to the world and its sensations, bringing about an enhanced sense of perception. Such travel can also allow us to rediscover parts of our own selves that are normally obscured by the humdrum routines of daily life. Hiss quotes Pico Iyer’s observation that travel allows us “to tap parts” of the self that are “generally obscured by chatter and routine,” and also to realize how subjective our certainties can be. “The first lesson we learn on the road,” Iyer has written, “is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal.”

Dalrymple is not terribly enamored with the way Hiss has constructed his exposé, and I am interested in his assessment since I have found his own writings quite fascinating, like Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. But here he gives a shout out to a writer whose work I have heard praised but have not yet read. Another add to the stack…

The exhilaration of the open road and the feeling of connectedness to the natural world that it can produce, is, after all, a common human experience. Simply expressed, it has produced some of mankind’s greatest writing. The Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier explores this territory in his youthful masterpiece, “The Way of the World,” where he conveys as well as anyone the raw intoxication of being on the road. “Deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper,” Bouvier writes, makes you “more open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight.” Thus traveling “outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you — or unmaking you.”

Spotted Lake, Canada (Chris Boyle)

Zlatni Rat, Croatia (Szabolcs Emich)

Great Blue Hole, Belize (USGS)

Travel adventure porn: Just dangle a few images of out of the way destinations and the fantasies begin. If you are a person who has similar proclivities, you might enjoy the Los Angeles Times’ slideshow, Bizarre and unusual destinations around the world. Some of my favorites spots are included, like the Spiral Jetty in Utah, Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan and The Wave in Arizona.

This earth. It is way too good for us.

How is it that one day life is orderly and you are content, a little cynical perhaps but on the whole just so, and then without warning you find the solid floor is a trapdoor and you are now in another place whose geography is uncertain and whose customs are strange?

Travelers at least have a choice. Those who set sail know that things will not be the same as at home. Explorers are prepared. But for us, who travel to cities of the interior by chance, there is no preparation. We who are fluent find life is a foreign language. Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back worse.

–Jeanette Winterson, from The Passion

A masterful stylist, Winterson published The Passion in 1987. Haunting and memorable, her body of work is prodigious and includes Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Written on the Body, Art and Lies, and Sexing the Cherry. Thank you Whiskey River for bringing this great quote up to the surface.