Finding Gratitude Amidst a Pandemic While Stuck in a Foreign Country

While the entire world quickly went into lockdown our writer Jacklyn Janeksela was travelling through India in the search of spiritual renewal, things however did not go as planned when going home became impossible. The following article is her account of being lockdown in another country far away from home and how she managed to stay positive and even found a silver lining to the entire situation.

It’s 5am, Igatpuri, India. I leave a room full of meditators behind me at the Dhamma Giri Vipassana Center and walk to the train station, alone in the dark. The dirt road spotted with sleeping street dogs and neon lit temples. The only signs of life are a few almost dry oil lamps and the faint smell of incense. The full moon presses into a pitch sky. Stars glint and speak of ancient secrets beneath my feet, pushing through soil. They speak of voices levitating on pre-dawn winds.

Upon research, I discover the stars delivered truth. Not far from Dhamma Giri, in the pre-construction days of the center, cremation grounds existed in the sleepy town of Igatpuri. Apparently, upon seeing such a sight, Dhamma Giri founder S.N. Goenka smiled and said, “Good! This will continually implant the awareness of anicca (impermanence) in the minds of meditators.”

India loves the juxtaposition of life and death —it pervades landscape, language, and long-standing ritual. India speaks my language. Or I hers. Either way, we understand each other, like sisters. And like sisters, sometimes, we fight —about train timetables and social order, but in the end she prevails, beaming with the wisdom of a million saints and sadhus. India is my sister. And sometimes she is also my mother, reminding me to appreciate the little things and to be grateful for the gift of life itself. There is no teacher softer or more stern than Mother India. 

After a brief stop in Gokarna, I travel north to volunteer with Ganga Prem Hospice and the Mooji satsang (gathering of like-minded people). This is the first time I will hear the words Coronavirus. At first, I don’t pay too much attention. But when I notice the presenters mention the virus daily, my awareness heightens. The satsangs have a few hundred people in attendance. People coughing or sneezing don’t get single looks, but double. We are all on alert. Asked to stay home if sick, some people are not taking the warning seriously. When I get what seems like a common cold, I follow orders to protect others —just in case. In three days, I recover. 

Slow-living in Rishikesh resumes —Ganga River baths, daily prayers and mantra chanting in a hilltop temple. I give fruit to street cows and beggar women as a daily ceremony, offerings to the sacred feminine. When in India, I serve; for I know no other way to exist here. Giving to others reminds me how much I already have. 

Slow living continues —a single day in India can easily feel like a week. I have already been here since early February. When Prime Minister Modi announces a 3 week lockdown, I decide to call India home. 

Tensions mount in the foreigner population throughout India as people scramble to get home or accept their fate within India. Talk of repatriation flights fill social media pages and breakfast plates. Over chai masalas, poha, and peepeta, the conversations among foreigners turn from paths of enlightenment to escape routes. We’re doing our best. The world in crisis, we weigh options and soothsay simultaneously. The biggest question, to stay or to go. 

Here’s the truth. My decision was based on my instinct alone. I trust my instinct. I choose to stay because it feels right. I feel it in my gut. Another lesson given by Mother India –intuition. But as I watch one of my closest friends leave on an evacuation flight back to Prague, Czech Republic, I wonder if I have made the right decision and realize I will be in India for a much longer duration than I could have ever imagined. And going home will have new meaning once the lockdown finishes.  

With the US Embassy predictions on return flights unpromising, the question Will I be able to travel on a later flight? is met with, “Due to the global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide demand for repatriation assistance, we cannot guarantee any additional U.S. State Department-chartered flights will be available for U.S. citizens wishing to depart India.”

India tests my trust in self. 

So here I am, on this side of borders and oceans which, on some days, feels a little like another universe. I am peeking out at the world from behind the trees of Ramana’s Garden, a children’s home founded by Prabhavati Dwabha in the 90s. 

Before the 21 day lockdown, when my 56 day trip rolled along like cumulus clouds against a blue, blue sky, I met with Riley, a representative of Ramana’s Garden. Although I could not give the month commitment to volunteer on-site at the time, I promised to return next year. Who knew a turn of events would give me the opportunity to stay in India another month (or more) and be with the children? 

Now, when I read, “All commercial flights have been suspended until mid-April at the earliest.  We are unable to predict if the suspension will continue past April 15.” I do not react. Even when the lockdown extends into May, I remember the yoga practices that have served me so well. In the face of a possible humanitarian crisis in India, I breathe. Instead of panic, I trust that where I am now is where I am supposed to be. And I am already redefining what home means.