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In 'Eat Pray Love,' Julia Roberts misses the true soul of India

In honor of Julia Robert's new film "Eat Pray Love," based on Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir, we look at the locations her character visits: Italy, India and Bali.
By Molly Moore
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 13, 2010; 10:45 AM

Julia Roberts's first view of India as seen from the back seat of a taxi is a "Mad Max" road game of chicken played at breakneck speed with overloaded trucks, bellowing cows and ambivalent pedestrians. The taxi slows, and it gets no better. She is besieged by aggressive flocks of beggar children and skeletal men on crutches.

Finally arriving at her destination, Roberts, as "Eat Pray Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert, bolts - with obvious relief - from the chaos of India into the tranquillity of an ashram, where she spends a big chunk of the movie made from Gilbert's wildly popular book escaping reality, trying alternately to find herself and God, and wearing a new goofy-looking outfit in every scene.

And here begins the ultimate India travel cliche. The only thing missing is a snake charmer on the doorstep.

After living in India for three years as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, I came to abhor the hippie-mysticism/find-yourself/find-God stereotypical image of an Indian vacation.

In the book, Gilbert spends four months in India never venturing beyond the tiny village outside her ashram doors. In fact, in the book, Gilbert claims to have slept through the entire drive from the Mumbai airport to the ashram. And here's her description of India: "Outside the walls of the Ashram, it is all dust and poverty."

Follow the footsteps and attitude of Gilbert, and you squander the opportunity to discover yourself, God (if you wish) and one of the most magical and maddening countries on the planet.

To be sure, there is a great deal of dust and poverty. But there is also so much more.

Looking for inner tranquillity? Settle into a shikara, a flat-bottomed wooden boat, and drift through the enchanted floating island forests of Dal Lake in India's northern state of Kashmir, serenaded by the melodic calls of cuckoo birds in the treetops and entertained by miniature neon-blue kingfishers that hover above the water waiting for minnows.

Want to find yourself? Sit on a terrace at the restored five-century-old Neemrana Fort-Palace hotel overlooking the Rajasthan desert at sunset, listening to the evening calls of peacocks and the muffled sounds of village life at the foot of the hill.

Seeking a spiritual experience? Stroll New Delhi's verdant Lodi Gardens, where you can explore 550-year-old Mogul tombs populated by squawking green parrots and feisty monkeys and join the scores of local residents meditating or practicing yoga in the shade of mammoth trees.

Fortunately, the producers of the movie version of "Eat Pray Love" allowed actress Roberts to escape occasionally from the cloistered caves of her ashram and its like-minded foreign tourists.

One of the most touching scenes in the movie is Roberts-Gilbert's participation in the wedding of 17-year-old Tulsi, whom she meets scrubbing floors at the ashram. Tulsi wants to go to college and become a psychologist. Instead, she is forced to marry a geeky-looking guy from a rich Delhi family chosen by her parents in an arranged marriage - still the standard form of marriage in India.

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