Mark Twain once described India as the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, and a place everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.
The two guitarists from the local Americana band the Ghosts of Johnson City, Amos Libby and Douglas Porter, would agree. They recently returned to Portland after a trip to the exotic subcontinent and shared highlights from their spiritual (and musical) adventure with The Phoenix, as well as some important life lessons they learned there.
Porter, who’s traveled across Europe and the U.S. but had never been to India before, jumped at the opportunity. He described it as a country packed with challenges, juxtapositions, contradictions, awe-inspiring sights, and unrelenting moments of both chaos and clarity.
A note of caution displayed on a roadside boulder.
“I love travel and feel like the values it instills and perspectives it provides are indispensable,” said Porter. “And the things that one feels in a place like India are almost indescribable.”
Sadly, this article, written inside an office in downtown Portland, could never truly encapsulate the awesome and cacophonic experience of travelling to India. Words don’t do justice to the pungent smells and intense flavors present in the spice markets of New Delhi, or the profound spiritual stirrings one feels watching burning ghats (an ancient cremation practice) in Varanasi alongside the Holy River Ganges, or the surreal and breathtaking beauty of the temples in Bangalore.
Just summarizing Libby and Porter’s trip is formidable. They managed to accomplish a lot during their one month trip. Highlights include: flying from New Delhi to Varanasi, the spiritual center of India and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world; taking a train through the countryside around a village called Hampi, where the landscape is dotted with rice paddies, coconut palms, and million-year-old boulders; feasting on intensely sensory dishes like the Masala Dosa, and performing classic American folk tunes to a smiling crowd in one of Bangalore’s largest music stores.
Amos Libby (left) and Douglas Porter (right) representing their band The Ghosts of Johnson City on the banks of the Ganges, the most sacred river to Hindus.
“I’ve gotten so much musically from India, and it was special to give some of that back,” said Libby. “I’ve never done anything like it before.”
Over a billion people live in the world’s largest democracy, and when Porter arrived in Paharganj, a neighborhood of Delhi with over 15 million people, the sheer maelstrom of humanity there shocked him and assaulted his senses. It’s a place teeming with life. Overwhelming, he said, was an understatement.
Douglas Porter soaking in the sights and sounds in Paharganj.
“In Paharganj, there are hundreds of shopkeepers barking like auctioneers, selling every imaginable ware, people everywhere preparing unbelievably delicious food in open air restaurants and street food carts, an overwhelming numbers of vehicles: busses, cars, rickshaws, scooters, bikes all whizzing by each other and narrowly avoiding collision all while laying on their horns in an almost obsessive manner, religious people of all sorts, Swamis, Sanyasi, Sadus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, all mixed in with massive swaths of tourists, businessmen, hippies, freaks and thrillseekers, police and homeless, people of all imaginable realms all pursuing with abandon their agendas and adding their flavors in this exceedingly unique human being cocktail,” described Porter.
Porter says he likely wouldn’t have traveled to India if it weren’t for Libby, his friend and fellow musician.
Amos Libby in Dehli posing in front of the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India.
The two met through music. Three years ago, Porter’s musical energy was channeled as a guitarist in the anti-genre indie rock band SeepeopleS. He also bounced between a number of other local bands, while on the side he fostered a fascination for the sitar, an instrument similar to the guitar, yet “hyper-refined and exotic.” From this burgeoning interest, he would inevitably meet Libby. The first time Porter saw Libby was when he was on stage as a guest musician with the Portland-based rock band Twitch Boy playing tabla (a South Asian drum). Afterward, Libby would see him occasionally playing oud (an Arabic lute) with the Okbari Middle Eastern Ensemble, shredding along and singing in perfect Arabic.
“He became a bit of an enigmatic legend in my mind,” said Porter. “Since then we have formed not only an incredible friendship but an almost cosmic musical bond.”
They’ve been performing together since in the Americana outfit The Ghosts of Johnson City, (see our review of their latest album, The Devil’s Gold, here). But going to India together, Porter said, basically made them blood brothers.
“Together, we stepped into a world that’s a little more real,” said Libby. “Doug did so well there. I’ve brought a lot of people to India for the first time, but he was among the easiest to assimilate into the Indian experience.”
A Carnatic street performance, the classical music of Southern India.
It helped to have a guide like Libby, who, to me, embodies the definition of a traveler instead of a tourist. A traveler cares about historical and political context, does his/her best to assimilate and show reverence for the host culture, and doesn’t assume everyone there knows English. But a tourist tends to hop from shiny attraction to money trap in a sheltered bubble of careful planning and creature comforts. Travelers expect the unexpected, while tourists consult the guide book.
“You need to be willing to take risks and be inconvenienced,” said Libby. “It’s a leap of faith really. There’s no real handbook for travel. You find out things as you go.”
Libby knows from experience; on top of visiting the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and North Africa, he’s been to India over 20 times and is fluent in two of the countries 23 official languages — Hindi and Kannada. India is a therapeutic place for Libby, who travels there frequently to meet and study with a Carnatic music teacher, and to visit ancient holy shrines, and tap into the “spiritual energy pouring out of those sites.” (Libby has a spiritual background in Hinduism and Sufi Islam, both of which have a strong presence in India.)
Varanasi, the spiritual epicenter of India, and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
He said that learning about the Indian experience — whether it be the languages, the history, the spirituality, or the music — is like trying to “drink the ocean with a spoon.” Which suggests that writing about the experience within a couple pages, is like trying to accomplish the same task, but with a butter knife.
“Travelling to India is always an educational vacation,” said Libby. “I focus on the moment there. I plug back into the reality that sustains me throughout the year.”
It’s safe to say that Porter picked a traveling partner with the intellectual tools necessary to navigate around, what’s typically a challenging country for American visitors.
One reason India can be a challenging place for some Western visitors is the display of extreme poverty that’s ever-present in most of its cities. Mumbai (Bombay) is home to one of the largest slums in the world, Dharavi, where, according to the World Population Review, close to a million people live in cramped squalor in .81 square miles, with limited access to clean food and water, amidst raw sewage and garbage heaps. Libby's not a proponent of slum tourism, but said that witnessing destitution in India forces you to recognize a harsh reality: the level of comfort and way of life here in America is an exception to the rule. When it comes to the population outside the “developed world,” most people live in conditions we’d consider hellish.
“It’s difficult to witness, but important to witness,” said Libby. “Hopefully it will inform your views on social justice and economic equality. It's something real and hopefully it will be part of your consciousness in your life everyday.”
And therein lies the point of this package of stories on travel: witnessing both the beauty and misery of the human condition can empower an individual. According to Libby, it can truly change your life. It’s changed his.
Dedicating a feature on the importance of travel runs the risk of publishing platitudes; we’ve all heard about how popping off to foreign lands can “broaden your horizons,” or how the best time to travel is right now, and if you haven’t booked a plane ticket already, you probably never will.
But urging others to travel and practice intercultural communication, and explore which human qualities are universal might be extremely necessary right now. We live in a time (and when haven’t we, really...) where millions of Westerners fear foreigners, and elections are won in part by riding that collective version of fear-based ignorance. Unrest will likely continue until xenophobes embrace and learn from the cultural differences they have with their immigrant neighbors. Libby has always been an outspoken advocate for this kind of learning.
The megacities of India don't just pulsate with human activity, but also teem with monkey, elephant, cat, dog, goat, and bovine life.
What's reinforced by Libby's tales from the road, is that travel, with all its anxieties and thrills, can “force you to open your eyes.” Travelers that land in strange cities and thrust themselves into uncomfortable situations, navigating through language barriers, shocking realities, and an entirely alien set of cultural and spiritual values, emerge from their journeys as better neighbors, armed with knowledge of the shared experiences that make us all human. They learn how to communicate, how to smile, and how to respect others. In short, travel smashes prejudices, and fosters empathy.
India can be ground zero for this life lesson. It’s a country plagued with extreme problems: a huge wealth disparity, an overburdened system, an aging infrastructure, and 300 million living without electricity and basic sanitation (according to a report in the Washington Post). Add to that a population that speaks over 23 languages, and come from a multitude of religious backgrounds (Hindi, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, to name a few), and you’d think there would be chaos. But life goes on in India, and apart from some flares of unrest, in relative peace. Libby said that America could learn a lot from India, especially when it comes to community and coexistence.
“It’s a hard place to live in, but people still find a lot of kindness to show each other,” said Libby. “Indian culture is very hospitable. When you see somebody else’s reality, hopefully you’re more prepared to apply those perspectives here at home.”
Porter agrees, and said that it seemed like the whole trip took place in some “strange dream world, a place where the barrage of psychedelic stories came so quickly and became folded so deeply into the dark corners of his memory that it hardly seemed like it was real.” But he won’t forget the experience, the striking differences between America and India or the valuable lessons the trip reinforced surrounding what it means to be an empathetic human.
“India has taught me so much already,” said Porter. “But I've barely dipped my toe in this ocean.”