India had never even made it to her bucket list, but life does not follow road-maps, academic calendars, or traditional milestones.
Now thick monsoon clouds shielded Claudette Davis from the moon and the prying eyes of the Vrindavan locals, whom she had spent all day desperately trying to avoid.
Despite being the only black person in a thousand-mile radius, she had managed to avoid detection and slipped into the gates Holy Basil Forest for an overnight stay.
She had come to the famed cited only to see Krishna, and she knew that the authorities evacuated the temple grounds after the evening prayer, as the sun began to set.
Her present moment, hiding in the forest of a foreign god, linked back to her father's passing last year.
In a leather-bound journal, she learned about his brief stint with a Hare Krishna sect in San Francisco in 1999.
His chicken scratch unveiled smattering lectures and meditations, hopes and dreams, followed by disillusionment with the faction and with society.
That's when he became an atheist, Claudette realized.
But his fascination with the god also took root in her. Soon after she applied for her sabbatical, deviating from her studies in the Mediterranean and North African archeology to ancient India.
Claudette wanted to see this Krishna, this black god, so widely worshiped and revered by those who so preferred fairness that they soaked his skin in blue pigment.
And she wanted to know if the trees of the forest really did come alive, to see the forest that could thrive without watering.
The early morning air rolled over her neck. The silence of the bells ended hours ago, and now not even the moon was present to guard the twisted trunks.
In her ears, she could hear the quiet of her Atlanta home, flooded with heavy regrets, like stones compressing a leaf.
All Claudette saw were shadows and the bliss of solitude.
Nor could she see window light, as most of the surrounding high rises had their windows covered with bricks, afraid of the madness they may see below.
She did not believe in the legends, not because of the lack of ghostly anklets, but because of the hard metal cages surrounding encasing some larger plants, preventing movement.
Would a forest nymph just dance through them? Or stay locked like a dancer at a club, hips swaying with the wind?
All evening the air was scented with sweet basil. And when the morning came, she tiredly collected her things to leave the enchanted forest, underwhelmed by the silence.
She evaded the priests, who sauntered around the grounds at dawn, and tiptoed out of the exit. A chai stall, which was not there yesterday, the man there dark and handsome, in a white dhoti.
He poured a cup of tea, without looking at her as the others did, with a look of both curiosity and judgment.
When she dug a wrinkled twenty rupee from her pocket and offered it, he shook his head, curling it back into her palm.
"No, no, please," Claudette said, embarrassed. She knew the exchange rate. Twenty rupees wasn't much, but it was the standard.
The man waved his hand, the creases in his palm thick and big, like rivers.
"Many come to this place, asking for things. You came for a different reason, na?"
"I came to pay my respects. And out of curiosity," she said softly.
"Yes, and you have. So why pay?" The man shrugged. "When you go to worship, you normally take something back with you. A prasad. Here it may be a banana or a coconut.
In your church, it is bread. Is it not so?"
Claudette nodded, raising her eyebrow.
"And from the forest. What did you take?"
Claudette said nothing. The man offered a toothy grin, dimples in his cheeks.
"I didn't think it was right to take anything."
"Maybe not. Now, take chai," the man said, pouring another paper cup. "You are tired."
Claudette took the cup in her hands. "They said Krishna and his gopis comes at night, and that I would go mad if I stayed and saw them."
The man laughed.
"Yes. But what is this," he pointed to the thick walls around the complex. "Do you think if such a thing would happen, a wall could contain it?"
Claudette smiled, agreeing. She sipped the tea.
"My father believed in it for a short time."
"Many do. For a short time," the man sighed and sat on a wooden stool, gazing out into the blossoming crowd of pilgrims.
Claudette finished the tea and left with the warmth still in her chest.