For 10 years, Heather Graham has dreamed of traveling to India on a journey for enlightenment. But a funny thing happened to her on the way to nirvana...
Heather Graham is sitting wearily on a camel, about to embark on a safari into a remote desert of western India. Her eyelids are heavy. She's slightly slumped in her saddle. And she can comfort herself with only one thought: At this point, the trip can only get better.
So far, Heather has taken nine flights, traveling about 20,000 miles across 11 time zones. She has survived a harrowing eight-hour bus trip that brought her within 50 miles of India's tense Pakistani border. Her vaccination shots have made her sick; a series of 4am wake-up calls have made her sicker. And yesterday, the U.S. State Department warned that terrorists might be planning attacks on U.S. citizens in this region of India.
Somewhere in America, there's a travel agent who deserves to be fired.
Then just as it seems things can't get any worse the camels in our safari begin to, well, pass gas. Heather's camel is the last in the line. This is not exactly the place to be when the camels commence farting. Heather crinkles her nose, rolls her eyes and asks herself, "Why did I want to go to India again?"
Why did she want to go to India?
To answer that, you might start in Milwaukee, where Heather Graham was born in 1970 to an FBI-agent father and a children's-book-author mother, both strict Catholics who reportedly encouraged their daughter to enter the convent. That didn't happen. In fact, quite the opposite: Over the protests of her parents, she became an actress, landing a string of sexy roles, like that of the porn actress Rollergirl in Boogie Nights, which did little to mend the family schism. Eight years ago, she severed her relationship with her parents, and she hasn't spoken to them since. Heather, in other words, probably won't be making many spiritual journeys to the Vatican.
"Growing up Catholic, I thought of religion as rules. And if I followed the rules well enough, I could get some sort of love. But it felt empty," she says. "These days, I don't have to be in a church to feel spiritual. When I feel spirituality in my life, it's more individual."
"Individual" is her term for it. But others, as Heather admits, might use "kooky" or "deeply New Age-y." She's a devout student of transcendental meditation who meditates twice a day. ("It's like entering this blissful feeling of nothingness.") She practices yoga five times a week. ("It feels like getting a massage from the inside out.") She's addicted to therapy. ("It keeps me aware of what I'm doing, helps me love myself more.") She has even studied several books on tantric sex. ("It's about how sex is more than sex, it's a connection of energy.")
All of which is enough self-awareness to make the mystical siren song of India sound like music to Heather's ears. "For the past 10 years, I've wanted to come here," Heather says. "The culture here is really fascinating. It just has that magical sense of spirituality."
And so Marie Claire arranged for the trip, including, among other things, a camel excursion to the Great Indian Desert in Rajasthan -- a pilgrimage for many Indians. Of course, that's assuming Heather gets there in one piece.
The Pied Piper of Polaroids
Heather arrives in Delhi late on a Monday night, after an all-day flight from Australia fresh (or not so fresh, as the case may be) from an exhausting publicity tour for her new film The Guru. She and her publicist meet up with her friend Nan, who has flown in from Los Angeles, and first thing Tuesday morning, our Indian tour guide whisks the jet-lagged group off on a whirlwind tour of Delhi.
It doesn't take long to size up Delhi, an overwhelming, fetid cacophony of humanity (and that's on a good day). Tent-cities for transient laborers share the sidewalks with roving bands of beggars and street-corner dentists. The roads are clogged with teetering bikes, ox-pulled carts and rickety rickshaws. And, of course, there are cows everywhere lying in the streets, fertilizing the pavement. It's the kind of Third World mayhem that would cause many Western tourists to arrive heavily armed. And indeed, Heather has come armed: with dozens of rolls of Polaroid film and a bulging bag of Tootsie Pops.
"Friends of mine have visited India, and they passed out candy and Polaroid pictures to the kids," Heather explains, proudly displaying the bag of suckers she has lugged from L.A. "It might be like a little gift, like Christmas."
Granted, Hindus probably aren't that big on Christmas, but her heart is in the right place. Within hours of arriving in Delhi, Heather becomes the Pied Piper of Polaroids, mesmerizing packs of children with the magic of the one-minute photo. With each picture she gives away, it's less clear who's smiling more: the children or her.
At the end of the day, we hop in a rickshaw to escape the maze of Old Delhi's streets. But Heather can't escape the city's attention. Pedestrians and vendors openly point and stare, apparently fascinated by the uncommon sight of a shapely blonde (either that, or License to Drive was huge in Southwest Asia). To anyone else, this would feel like a fishbowl. To Heather, it's anonymity.
"It's really nice to know that nobody is paying attention to me for being Heather Graham it's just because I'm the only blonde coming down the street," she says as a gang of boys runs toward the rickshaw, waving and shouting.
If this is Heather's idea of obscurity, it's clear she truly does need a spiritual retreat.
The Road Less Traveled
Two days later, we're 300 miles west of Delhi, in a small bus careening along the "two-lane highway" that bumps its way from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. The sun is rising over the desert, and we're an hour into the ride. Only seven more to go.
An armed guard is in the front seat, riding shotgun literally. He's been hired for protection, since our destination is a mere hour from India's border with Pakistan (the one with all the nuclear warheads and hundreds of thousands of troops in a stare-down contest). Meanwhile, our slightly twitchy bus driver has begun playing chicken with the oncoming vehicles hurtling toward them at breakneck speed, trying to claim what little paved road there is, before swerving at the last second to avoid head-on collisions. Heather is in the backseat, sporting a stylishly torn T-shirt with safety pins along the sides. It's emblazoned with two words: "Buddhist Punk."
The past two days have been a blur of 4am wake-up calls and harrowing flights, but through it all, Heather has been doing her best to maintain a bit of Zen. She has, as advertised, meditated twice a day. A yoga session with an instructor in Jodhpur helped to focus her ragged body. And now, on the bus, she's trying to remain calm.
"This has all been intense and tiring in a way I didn't expect," she says, as the bus veers wildly to avoid a bus-size pothole. "And being on a bumpy bus for eight hours while you're sick? Not fun. But that's one of the great things about meditation. It's almost like you're lifted out of the pain of the moment."
Which sounds, as she says it, like a really good idea so good that I ask her to teach me. She and Nan patiently impart the basics of meditation: Focus on your breathing, cleanse your mind of thoughts. (There is evidently no need to actually mutter "ohm.") Heather crosses her legs and closes her eyes, and we all follow suit: Nan, the publicist, the photographer, me everyone but the armed guard and, presumably, the driver close our eyes and start meditating. And as our little bus jostles its way toward the desert, past thatched-roof shacks and grazing camels, we sit in the quiet, dreaming of a destination that lies at the end of the road.
There's No Place Like Home
Ten hours later, we have survived the ride only to find ourselves atop the dreaded flatulent camels. The washboard road to Jaisalmer has taken a physical toll, and an hour into our desert trek, Heather is wondering if this has all been worth it.
"At that point, it almost felt like self-torture," she will say later. "I was like, Why didn't I just want to go to the Bahamas and go snorkeling?"
Slowly, though, as we journey deeper into the dunes, the desert begins to reveal its charms. Deserts, on calm days such as this, can be the quietest places on earth. And as the sun creeps toward the horizon, the enveloping silence begins to soothe our tattered nerves.
Then, India lays it on thick: On the distant ridges of faraway dunes, the silhouettes of other camel safaris slowly begin to appear. A dozen camels ascend a ridge, followed by another dozen and another, until hundreds of Indian trekkers are dotting the edge of the earth. Slowly, the faint whisper of festive tribal music begins to echo from afar, as if God has pressed "play" on the desert sound track. A small group of gypsy women races across the desert toward our dune and proceeds to sing and dance so joyously that Heather never afraid of a stage impulsively joins the desert rave.
"Suddenly, the whole moment felt so magical honestly, one of the most magical moments of my life and I thought, Yes, it was all worth it," Heather says. "But that's how life is sometimes. Something happens that's really amazing, and you think, Now I know why I had to go through all that hardship and pain."
Sadly, all great parties must come to an end, and this one finishes with a flourish, the sun setting behind the dunes in an explosion of color. Heather reluctantly bids farewell to the gypsies and hops aboard her camel as we begin the long trek back to the bus. As we merge with the camels of other safaris, she reaches into her bag and procures a fistful of Tootsie Pops and her Polaroid camera. Leaning down from her camel, she plays Santa Claus for one last group of children.
Back on the bus, as she begins the two-day journey to the airplanes that will carry her back to her everyday life, Heather is asked: "Have you figured out why it is that you wanted to go to India?"
She peers out the window at the sky full of stars.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but I think what I've figured out is that maybe I didn't really need to be here after all." Heather chuckles, shrugging her shoulders and unwrapping her sole remaining lollipop. It's a gift for herself. "You know, all my life, I've always thought I needed to go to India to find some moment of spiritual enlightenment. But out there in the desert, I realized that I don't have to go on an eight-hour bus ride to be enlightened. Maybe the point is that I've already had my moment. Maybe it was inside me all along."