Sunday, April 18, 2010
(written April 20, 2010) A little over a week ago, I left the polluted air of Kathmandu and took a tourist bus to the smaller town of Pokhara which is a gateway to the Himalayas. The bus was a few hours delayed because of a break down and a small roadblock protest due to electricity outages (almost an every day occurrence here). I had heard that there was a women's empowerment program there that employed women to guide and support the treks into the Himalayas. I had a limited time to do my trek, and I didn't want to do it on my own, so I went to the Three Sisters Adventure Trekking and hired a guide. I thought it was a great idea to support a woman, especially because I've heard that sex trafficking and prostitution is still common in Nepal when women can't make a good living in other fields.
When a short Nepali girl named Muna greeted me with a warm smile, I had a feeling I was in for a treat. She had a soft, sweet voice, and though her English was broken, I could tell she had a good heart. So we packed up and headed up into the mountains for a week-long trek. As much as I wanted to get up past the tree line, and close to those beautiful peaks, I decided to take it easy as I didn't have enough time to get there with a moderate pace, plus, I heard about villages, hot springs, waterfalls, beautiful views and rhododendron forests. There was no need for a tent, a stove, or even a sleeping bag because we would be staying at friendly lodges and tea houses along the way. It was quite warm the first couple days, so I wasn't shy about jumping into the river to cool off once in a while. The area was full of rice fields, waterfalls, cornfields, orchids, butterflies, and beautiful Nepalese people who greeted me with "Namaste!" and usually a smile. It wasn't until the middle of the second day that we got a glimpse of the legendary peaks.
When I wasn't completely out of breath from climbing up the steep stone stairs and trails, I got to talk with Muna about her life. She grew up in a small mountain town, a few hours from the trek around the Annapurna Circuit. Her father died when she was only seven, and she is the oldest of three kids. Women are not allowed to re-marry in Nepal, so Muna's mother continued her farming work and raised her children with love and faith. Muna only went to school through the eight grade, when she came home and started working to support her family. She wanted to make more money for her family, so when she was 20, she was accepted into a scholarship program at Three Sisters, where they taught her English, ecology, trekking, and climbing. She had to start as a porter, carrying sometimes up to 50kg of tourist's gear on her back. She had some amazing stories, of getting stuck in hail storms, getting lost, and having to sleep in the dining halls of crowded lodges. But she is learning more English and hopes to become a full fledged guide, leading groups on treks into the mountains.
The trail followed a beautiful river valley, up into the hills and through beautiful woods and little villages. The morning we were in Ghorepani, we woke up at 4am for a heart-pounding hike up to Poon hill (10,561 feet, 3,219 meters) in the cold, in order to watch the sun rise over the Annapurna and Dauliguri mountains. It was a spectacular sight, watching the light hit those gorgeous snow-capped mountains, and the camera shutters were going off like crazy! Every night, we would stay at a simple lodge where we would have a hot shower and a warm dinner (very luxurious for trekking!) And we would be up early the next morning to get some miles in before it got really hot. I loved being up in these villages, which were far away from roads and cars. Anything that the villagers or trekkers needed that couldn't be grown on the terraced fields was carried to the villages by mules and people carrying heavy loads with a strap on their head. My neck ached every time one of them walked by me (usually carrying twice more than I was, and walking twice as fast as me!) Muna was wonderful company, and we grew quite close through the week. One day, we decided to take it easy and enjoy a day resting and going to a hot spring. I was able to give her a massage and was thrilled when she was snoring away. I could feel the tension from carrying all the weight all those years, as well as the weight of the responsibility of taking care of her family, and was glad I could do a little something in return for all the support she was giving me. In Chomrong, I had a massage from a local Tibetan man who was offering massages to the trekkers because I was having some pain in my foot and ankle. My “flat-lander” legs were pretty tender from covering all those mountain miles, and it was a good learning experience of what NOT to do when someone is so tender. But I still appreciated being able to receive a massage while out on a trek! And later that night, the locals were celebrating their New Year with dancing and singing and drumming! It was so beautiful... and fun to watch the porters dance their hearts out despite the heavy loads they had carried that day.
I was hoping to go to a meditation course while I was traveling, but my time was running out, and I wanted to see more of the country and experience the culture. So, I brought along a book about walking meditation by Tich Nhat Hanh and practiced the techniques as I was hiking along. It was a good challenge to watch my breath, especially as the stone steps got steeper, and the sun got more intense. I could observe the thoughts in my mind that were saying “this is ridiculous… I am so hot and tired… I can’t wait for the next shady spot!” and I would return my awareness to my breathing and do my best to enjoy the present moment. I also noticed when my mind was saying “I love this view… I am going to miss this when I am back in the big city” and realize that I wasn’t fully in the present. I would bring my awareness to each step I was taking, and visualize a lotus flower blossoming under each step I took, planting seeds of joy and happiness. I also liked Tich Nhat Hahn’s idea of focusing on gratitude, and would say to myself “yes, yes, yes” (with my inhale) and “thanks, thanks, thanks” with my exhale. Or, if I was hiking up a steep part and my breath was as short as my step, I would say “yes, thanks, yes, thanks.” And once in a while, I would get a flash of one of the disfigured people I saw in India and a wave of gratitude would wash over me.
After trekking my week of trekking, I returned to the town of Pokhara, where I connected with a 26 year old Tibetan woman named Tsering who a friend in Chicago had connected me with. In 1959, her grandparents fled their homeland in Togpa, Tibet and walked for two weeks with their two young children in order to flee their home in Tibet with hopes of a better life in Nepal. They live in a refugee camp just outside of town, where Tibetan people live in a community, trying to carry on their traditional ways of living, far from their homeland. The Nepalese government still doesn’t issue residence cards for them, or even their children who were born in Nepal. So, they can’t get official jobs, and they are continually denied the opportunity to leave the country. Tsering is a single mother, and her parents both have serious health problems, and the only way their family makes money is by selling souvenirs to tourists. So she spoke to me of her dream to come to America, where she can hopefully make more money and take care of her parents and give her son a better life. She thinks of this dream many times everyday, and it stresses her out that she is not able to go. In fact, she is not able to leave her country except to go to India for a spiritual pilgrimage. This made me feel extremely grateful for the freedom that I have to travel, and work almost anywhere. I tried to tell her that it is not always so easy to make good money in America, even for American citizens, and pointed out to her how beautiful her life is in Nepal, with her parents close by, and the beautiful temples and natural wonders that she can visit easily, and the amount of time she can spend with her son. I gave her her first massage, and she loved it, and had many questions. She is interested in learning massage therapy, and I am considering returning to Nepal to teach a group of Tibetans massage so that they have another way to make money. Of course I envy her life a bit, because she gets to live near the most beautiful mountains in the world, and has a beautiful son, and a supportive community. But, the grass is always greener, and I am doing my best to be grateful for every moment, wherever my feet are landing.
The majestic snow-capped Himalayan Mountains have been calling me for a long time. The photos and movies that I have seen of the nature as well as the people that live in the mountains seemed very exotic to this city girl from the great plains. So, I had to pinch myself when I landed in the airport in Kathmandu, Nepal. I spent a couple days in the city getting my trek organized and doing a bit of sight-seeing, and of course, getting a massage. The massage I had was not great, though I thought the woman had good intentions, so I asked the other therapist to come in and lay on the table so that I could show her a couple tricks. She was so happy about this that she called me her sister and gave me a hug, and asked me if I liked Nepali food. I told her it was my first day in Nepal, and she promptly invited me to her home for dinner! Luckilly her husband spoke better English than she did, and her son was very pleased with the chocolate that I brought him. Their home was a very simple one-room apartment with a seperate kitchen and bathroom, and they were happy to have me over. They cooked me a dinner of "dal bhat" - lentils, rice, potatoes and some steamed cabbage. This is the standard Nepali meal, which is quite filling, and very healthy. They offered to let me stay in their home, but I politely declined and headed back to my hotel room.
The next day, while touring the beautiful area of Kathmandu called Patan, I met a woman at the Hindu temple who just about wanted to adopt me and bring me to her village. Too bad I already had plans to go to the mountains the next morning, I would have loved to meet her husband who is a musician. But I did enjoy touring the area with her, and she brought us over to her sister-in-law's tiny storefront where she was selling eggs by the dozen. I was getting a bit hungry, so her sister went out of her way to go back to her kitchen and cook up a couple eggs for me! And of course she wouldn't let me pay for the eggs.
So, Nepali people get the prize for being the most generous so far!
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Varanasi is a city full of contrasts... life and death are right at your fingertips. It is the most auspicious place to be cremated for a Hindu, so people bring dead bodies there from all over India. And it is also full of life, with all of the colorful pilgrims who come there to have a dip in the sacred Ganges river, or visit one of the many Brahman priests for a colorful puja, healing ceremony. The dark ashes at the cremation grounds contrast with the bright fire from the evening arati ceremony on the river. And the filthy ascetics contrast with the radiant shine of the golden temple. The people in Varanasi can be super gentle and sweet, and some are incredibly pushy and rough.
I loved allowing myself to get lost, strolling through the tiny alley-ways that wound through this ancient city. These walkways are too small for cars, and traffic jams happen when a sacred cow and a motorcycle are trying to get through the same small space. Once, I heard chanting and looked up expecting a joyful parade like I saw in Rishikesh, only to see a family carrying a dead body on a bamboo plank, covered in bright gold cloth and flowers. The sunrise boat ride was perfect for sightseeing, with the morning light shined on the colorful saris of the women dipping in the river, the men praying and meditating, the children playing cricket, and the puppies playing in the sand.
I thought I would study some massage in Varanasi, but I found the massages that I had there to be simple and not very satisfying (next time I come to India, I will go to Kerela to study massage). Instead of massage, I decided to study Indian vocals! I love listening to, and singing along with Indian chanting music, and I sometimes sing back-up with the local kirtan group in Chicago, Devi2000). So, I thought it would be nice to learn more about traditional Indian vocals. My instructor promptly told me I needed to learn Harmonium at the same time I learned how to sing, so I learned the Indian scale (similar to Do Re Me...) and we were singing away! I took three lessons with him, and I can't say I learned much about vocalizing, but I had fun, and enjoyed the Harmonium! He was impressed with my pronounciation, as well as how fast I pickedup harmonium (thanks to 10 years of piano lessons!) And it was a nice way to pass the time on a hot afternoon.
Many people say a trip to India is not complete without a trip to the Taj Mahal, so I headed there for one day, and it was amazing. I loved walking through the entrance, with the feeling of awe that I was actually seeing the legendary building itself... live and in person. What a testimony to love! I met another solo woman traveler watching the last of the sunset light brush against the Taj, and she invited me to her rickshaw driver's friend's wedding! I quickly went out and purchased a Punjabi dress, pants and scarf, and we hopped into the rickshaw to see the wedding. It was nothing like what I have seen in the movies, except that the bride was covered in decorations, and the red sari was covering her face. She didn't appear to be a very happy bride, and I wondered if she was upset with the arranged marriage. My friend and I became the highlight of the party. There was no music being played, and no drinking, as it was a Muslim wedding. The sparkling, henna tatooed wedding party posed for pictures with us, and the kids all wanted to play with us. Some of the girls were giggling and laughing and pointing at me (I'm sure I made some kind of faux-pas, but I will never know what because they would not tell me). They made sure we were well fed, and we ate just like everyone else, with our fingers, standing up! Soon after we were done eating, it was time to go home! So that was it, no dancing, and we never saw the bride and groom together. It was still a great experience!
I spent one day in Delhi, soaking in the sights, and taking advantage of the opportunity to buy beautiful Indian textiles, and having fun with the barganing adventure, sending a box of gifts and goodies home. And I am now writing you from Kathmandu, Nepal where I will soon be on a heading for the Himalayan Mountains for some trekking. (And this time I will be hiking above the smog, and I will hopefully get a good view!) Just three more weeks on this amazing adventure and I will be back in the states!
It is probably a good idea to read the fine print in your guide book before you chose the type of train ticket you book in India. There is a wide range of seats available. All I cared about was being able to lay down flat, since it was 20 hour journey from Sikkim to Varanasi, so I booked "sleeper class". When my friends heard this, they told me to lock my bags up, and be very cautious about thieves, as the train was going through the province of Bihar, one of the poorest areas of the country. I was hoping to have a buddy to take this trip with, but I didn't have any luck with that on this leg of my journey. But I had faith that I would connect with an angel or two along my journey. What I usually do is get myself in a really good mood, and smile a lot, and I bring out the best in people (I also keep my valuables in my handy hip pouch). I sat down in across from a sweet couple who couldn't help but stare, and a young Indian man sat next to me who was thrilled with the opportunity to practice his English. I was the only foreigner on the train. It was a pretty dark car, and could definitely use a good scrub, but I opened the windows, and was happy to see the beautiful country side rolling by clearly. I later found out that the A/C and first class cars have plexiglass windows, which are often scratched up and difficult to see out of, so I took advantage of this ride by gazing out at the people and landscapes that we passed (and attempted to capture the beauty with my camera, of course!) The young guy ended up keeping me company and translating for the couple (who thought I was very brave, traveling solo... she rarely leaves her house without her husband). I soon found out that she was on her way to Varanasi because they have a good hospital, and she had a lump in her breast. Her vitality seemed low, and I wondered if she might have cancer, and imagined how different her journey would be from the people I have worked with in my massage practice in the states.
Every stop the train made, local people would come aboard, selling mangoes, cucumbers, samosas, tshirts, toys, water, and of course chai tea! Along with the vendors came the beggars. And as soon as they saw my blond hair, they saw gold, and came right to me. The kids would reach through the metal bars on the window with their little hands, tapping my shoulder, then opening up to receive, saying "madame, madame" and motioning to their mouths. It was difficult for me to see children in this state, as you almost never see children this poor where I am from. I had heard that begging was a bit of a business, and that there were bosses who collected the money from these children and managed things (as seen in Slumdog Millionaire) and I didn't want to support this business. I did however want to make sure that they had food, so I would buy a bunch of bananas and pass them out. Some of the kids smiled and skipped off.. and some of them gave me a funny look and held their hand out again saying "rupee!" It was difficult for me to ignore. One girl kept motioning to her mouth, showing that she was hungry, so I bought her some vegetable curry, with flat bread... and she didn't want to take it at first... but she did after she realized she wasn't going to get any rupees for me, and her friends were happy to share with her.
One particular beggar stuck out in my memory: He was an older man who had both of his lower arms amputated, and used the stump of one arm to open up his bag to receive the rupees that I gave him. Can you imagine what your life would be like if you didn't have hands? And then I remembered the video of Nick Vijicic, the inspirational speaker who has no arms, and no legs, and yet is totally happy... and I remembered how everything is a choice... and I chose to have a safe, peaceful journey. It is still difficult to apply that concept to these people who appeared to be suffering so much... did they create their situations? Was it karma that forced them into these circumstances? Whatever the reason, they do have many ways of coping with their circumstances... and one thing I did not see in these people was shame. They are not afraid to ask for what they need. So later that night when I was sleeping, I wasn't afraid to strongly say "Leave me alone!" to the strange man who was sleeping in the bed above me, and kept hanging his head down to stare at me, guessing out loud which country I was from. Even though this was extremely annoying, I could understand his behaviour... if I had never met anyone from another country, I would be a little excited as well. All of this has made me so grateful for the diversity of my life growing up in Chicago. My best friends in my neighborhood were a Puerto Rican family across the alley, and the Yugoslavian couple next door to me felt like my third set of grandparents. India has a lot of diversity, but not much exposure to foreigners, even if you live in one of the big cities. But thank goodness, he listened to me, and I got a decent night sleep. When I woke up, I discovered someone had gone through my backpack (note: locking zippers are a good idea in India) and taken a couple tank tops and short skirts (which is funny because Indian women don't even wear these items!) But I was happy to arrive in Varanasi safe and sound... and then I got bombarded by taxi and rickshaw drivers! I just laughed at the absurdity... and probably paid too many rupees for the ride, but was ready to be in a real bed... and grateful that I chose to have that experience, even if it was on accident.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
I woke up on the airplane feeling a bit fuzzy and as my eyes started to wake up, I noticed some strange clouds off in the distance. And then my heart started pounding as I realized that I was looking at the Himalayan Mountains! I have been dreaming of seeing these mountains for many years, drooling over friends photos from treks and adventures they had in these ancient mountains, and I could hardly believe I was seeing them! I was on my way to Sikkim, a tiny north-eastern province that is bordered by Bhutan, Tibet(now China) and Nepal. The four hour bumpy ride up to the capital city of Gangtok included views prayer flags, and surprisingly large villages that have settled along the river. It was a hot ride, and I was pretty exhausted from an overnight bus ride the previous night on a dilapidated bus that went from Rishikesh to Delhi and passed through some amazingly stinky areas that woke me up from sleep! As you can imagine, I fully appreciated the delicious home-cooked food and the hot bucket of water that awaited me when I arrived at the ashram where four of my Chicago friends have taken up residence. The next week was a beautiful, healing experience, and difficult for me to describe in words, but I will do my best:
I arrived on the eve of the spring equinox, and there was much excitement and preparation going on for a spring celebration that included making offerings and blessings to the goddess. Each morning I would jump out of bed and peak out the window to see if the white fluffy fog had lifted so that I could get a glimpse of the peaks, only to find a sky that was 90-100% white, and I only a few layers of peaks. But even that small amount of topography brings me peace. There is something about seeing the three dimensionality of the earth that gives me a sense of space and reminds me that there is something much much larger and expansive than my small experience of life. Towards the end of my stay in Sikkim, I started to feel a bit sad, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the thunderstorms and rainstorms (even after getting almost totally soaked after visiting an orchid show). And when I reflected on this sadness, I felt like it could be a metaphor for my inner atmosphere. Sometimes when I check in with my clients when they come to me for bodywork, I ask them how their inner atmosphere is, or maybe I am asking for an emotional weather report. And I was feeling a bit cloudy, especially surrounded by these people who were so dedicated to their spiritual practices. But throughout the week, as the ceremonies progressed, I started to feel more in touch with my inner divine nature, and realized that the sun is always shining brightly in my deep inner self, and all of my peaks and valleys can be viewed with clarity. The "clouds" that come in my life can be observed in my meditation practice, and if I can manage to stay neutral and not react to them, I can experience more peace and an expansive view of life where everything is accepted. I was grateful for the vision of the peaks that I had on the airplane, and kept them in my heart as I explored the area outside of Gangtok, enjoying the more subtle things like the waterfalls and the beautiful green foliage, as well as the smoothness of the skin of the children, and the wrinkles on the elders faces. Sikkim is a beautiful melting pot of people from the surrounding countries and cultures, and it was inspiring to see Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims living in the same area in peace.
As far as touch goes, this area did not have many opportunities to receive touch, so I ended up sharing touch with the people in the sangha (spiritual community) and I was glad that I had something to offer in return for all the amazing nourishment I was receiving, both nutritionally and spiritually (plus, it was a great atmosphere to practice my new Thai massage skills!). It seems like sitting in the meditation posture for a really long time can cause some significant physical challenges. And, as some of them shared with me, when they are cleansing and purifying their energy body, physical discomfort can surface. I was inspired by their strength to continue their personal practices, and by their faith that the practices their guru was giving them was the best thing for their growth. It was very interesting for me to observe the relationship between a guru and disciple. This relationship is not very well understood by those of us in the west. Guru can be defined as "one who is regarded as having great knowledge, wisdom and authority in a certain area, and who uses it to guide others (teacher). In Sanskrit, gu means darkness & ru means light. As a principle for the development of consciousness it leads from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge." This person can be living presently, or long ago left his or her physical form (Jesus can be seen as a guru for many people!) I heard someone say that if you ever meet god and your guru after dying, you will bow to your guru before god, because you would not have such a close relationship to god without your guru's guidance. But it takes an immense amount of faith, trust and surrender to create this relationship, and I witnessed so much love and dedication going in both directions in this relationship at this ashram. I was relieved to see this because I have felt quite sensitive about gurus after one of my friends died in a horrible accident involving a sweat lodge that was lead by a man who acted like a guru (James Arthur Ray). I personally feel that a guru should help his or her followers become more in touch with their own inner truth and wisdom, and that the guru should continuously keep their own ego and intentions in check, so that they don't harm the people who have put their faith in their hands. And as I rode down the bumpy road back down from the mountains one week later, I felt assured that my friends are in good hands, inspired by their dedication, and more in touch with my personal "inner guru".
I also learned a lot about Indian culture, staying in this ashram. One thing I find interesting is that they see no need to say thank you or please. One person explained to me that because we are all connected, one person's happiness effects the other. So a smile is all that is needed. I found this so difficult to not say thank you, with the generous servings of rice bryani, dal, sag paneer, and sweets that were being heaped onto my plate! I also was amazed at the generosity that Baba had in spending time with me, despite all of his other disciples needs.
Have you ever tried eating sloppy food with your fingers? It is difficult to do at first, but when I looked around the table and realized I was the only one using a fork, I gave it a try and got to really enjoy it! Even when I was eating rice and soupy dal, I got to feel the texture with my finger, and stir it up to the consistency that I liked, and eat it right off my fingers. There is something really intimate about this. I found that I ate slower, enjoyed my food more, and digested my food very well!
Another aspect of Indian culture that I have a deeper understanding of is the way that women are treated and perceived. My friends have adapted the Indian dressing style which is very modest, baggy over the hips, and usually with a scarf draped over the chest area, and never exposing shoulders or cleavage. My understanding of the intention is to keep unwanted attention coming in from men. So I am attempting to dress more modestly, and though I do get stared at, I don't have many problems with Indian men. And if I do, I school them the way their mother would, with a fierce look and a strong "No!" Mostly, they are just curious... one guy I met had only talked to one other foreigner before. Difficult for a Chicago girl to imagine... I grew up in the melting pot of Logan Square, Chicago with Puerto Rican, Mexican, Polish, and Yugoslavian neighbors!
Hope the sun is shining in your inner atmosphere today!
Sunday, March 14, 2010
What an incredible two weeks it has been on the holy Ganges river in India, otherwise known as Mother Ganga...
The International Yoga Festival was an incredible week filled with amazing workshops on yoga asana, meditation, yoga philosophy, chanting, and more! Many of the people who were speaking to us were saints, and swamis, and there was always a warm welcome for them at the ashram, including people lining up, blowing a special horn, and standing up when they came onto the stage. They spoke to us about the importance of understanding yoga as being so much more than the poses that are done in a typical yoga class. There was much talk about the importance of evolving so that your spiritual practice flows into every part of your life. Concentrate on the inner world, on consciousness, which is beyond death, which is God/Spirit.
"the ocean needs the drop just as much as the drop needs the ocean... and every drop is potential divine." - Swami Divyanand Teerthji
So we are to try to evolve beyond our fear of death, which is present from birth. I got to experience a bit of this fear when I survived my first close encounter with some kind of parasite. I believe it was from drinking the filtered water at the ashram... which is not quite filtered enough for my western belly! Though I didn't feel like I was dying, two days of the runs and a high fever and body aches, and not enough energy to attend even the lectures forced me to ask my lovely Indian roommates to go pick up some medicine for me. This was the first pharmaceutical I have taken in over 11 years! But I am grateful that is seemed to have taken care of it. The doctor who I saw has a charitable hospital that runs completely on donations! I was so amazed to find the billing department which consisted of a statue of Ganesh (the elephant god), and a donation box! The doctor refered me to an ayurvedic clinic where I received massage for three days. My therapists were lovely, though one of them had rough hands, probably because her life has not always been so easy, and she has had to do farming or maybe even construction to make a living before this. One day, I had both therapists massage me in unison - an Ayurvedic massage technique called abhyanga. This vigourous, oily massage left me feeling relaxed and invigorated. There were a few differences I noticed between this massage and Swedish massage:
1 - Lots of oil - even on the scalp and hair.
2 - Little to no draping, and massage covered even my chest area.
3 - The oil had special herbs in it.
4 - The doctor came in to supervise and make sure they were doing a good job.
Today is one of the holiest days of the festival of the Kumbha Mela, the largest religious gathering in the world. It happens only once every twelve years, when Sun is in the zodiac sign of Aries, and Jupiter enters Aquarius. During this time, it is believed that the holy river attains properties of nectar from the gods during these times. Millions of people come to bathe in the river during this time, with the hopes that a dip in the frigid waters during this time will spare the bather from the cycle of life and death. Though most of the action is happening in Haridwar, the holy city 20 km south of where I am staying, there are still thousands of colorful pilgrims walking through the streets, bathing in the river, and visiting temples along the way.
Haridwar is so full of people now, that there are rows and rows of tents everywhere you look! The camps are centered around various famous spiritual teachers from all over India, and many of them have huge banners advertising them. I visited one teacher named "Pilot Baba" and he had quite the settlement, including fountains and statues and tents for eating, for pujas, and meditation. I think this is India's equivilant of the burning man festival, only it has more of a spiritual focus. My favorite part about being in Haridwar was seeing the rows and rows of holy men )(sadhus) dressed in orange, or simply wearing a loin cloth. Upon my arrival to Haridwar, my friend Elaine and I were greeted a dancing, chanting saddhu who had greens and flowers balanced on his head, and a collection of flower garlands around his neck. He promptly danced up to us and blessed us with a small ceramic statue, and then placed a garland over both of our heads. He brought me the gift of laughter, and I felt joyful and clear!
I ventured out of Haridwar with my new friend Elaine to go find the International Rainbow Gathering that was starting to gather near an ashram outside of Haridwar. The bus driver wasn't exactly sure where the ashram was, and was stopping to ask directions, and dropped us off a bit farther away than we would have hoped. But it ended up being a beautiful walk trough wheat fields and simple adobe - like homes. People came out of their homes to see the strange pale-faced women walking through their village with backpacks on their backs. They seemed like happy people, though they didn't smile for the camera when I pulled it out. I really got a feel for the simple life that they were living, and longed to be invited into their home for a cup of tea. But it was getting late and we wanted to set up camp before night, so we kept on hiking. The gathering was a small group of people from all over the world, and we were welcomed with a cup of hot chai that included fresh cows milk from the villagers. We set up camp and headed down to the main circle area which was right on the bank of the ganges, for a delicious vegetarian meal that included a prayer song, and passing around the magic hat for donations that go towards feeding everyone who comes to the gathering. It was good to be reminded of the miracle of Rainbow, that there is always enough food when everyone is sharing energy. I decided not to stay long at the gathering because I wanted to experience more of India... though it was wonderful to camp out under the stars and wake up to the beauty of the fog lifting off of the river Ganga.
My new friend Michael and I had a wonderful visit in Haridwar with my friend Marcie who I know from the Breema Center in California. She has made India her home now, and enjoys the freedom of being able to live a simple life, and have more time to do her spiritual practice, and not have to work as much as she did in the states. She showed us her favorite little streets, and some beautiful architectural sights, as well as some special temples where we were the only foreigners present. In the evening, we attended the arati, on the banks of the river, where I was grateful I had the experience of growing up in a big city because the crowds were huge! There were people bathing, sending flowers down the river, and praying and singing... and the police were there to keep the crowd moving, and it was amazing how it all flowed, in an organized, chaotic way! I was glad I had a friend's hand to hold as it would have been easy to get separated in that crowd. And on the walk back to the taxi, we had many people coming up to us, wishing to shake our hands and practice their English, asking us where we were from, and requesting that we stop for a cup of tea. We politely declined, and took a taxi back to the quieter town of Rishikesh.
Just as it is challenging for the Indian people not to stare at the blonde foreigners, my western eyes also are feasting on all of these spectacles that I would never see back home. Hinduism seems very exotic and strange to me, though I can definitely relate to their love of nature. I can't help but wonder what the earth would be like if people loved their rivers as much as the local people here do. They shower her with flowers and incense and send her love with the arati celebration every night, where they use fire to bless her, as well as all the people who are there. One temple I visted had a beautiful banyan tree whose roots were covered with red strings that people tied onto it with their prayers. There were so many strings tied onto it that it resembled dreadlocks! The locals would walk up to the root, and say a prayer and then push the root as you would a child in a swing, ever so gently. Of course I had to take a turn at this, and really enjoyed how it connected me to my virtual roots.
You would think that their worship of nature would make Indians very ecologlically minded, however there is so much litter everywhere, and I hear that they use tons of pesticides on their fruits and vegetables. But there is a strong movement in this state, to start using organic farming practices, and make the whole state organic! One thing this area has going for it is it is almost completely vegetarian! Non-vegetarian foods are banned in both Haridwar and Rishikesh, which is really great for the environment because it takes so much more energy to produce meat compared to vegetables. As I have been vegetarian since the age of fourteen, I feel right at home here! Another thing that is banned from these holy cities is alcohol, which I haven't missed much, as there are so many ways to get high naturally, from the yoga, meditation, and natural beauty that is everywhere!
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Wow... I knew India would be a feast for the eyes, but I had no idea how beautiful it would be. I arrived on the holy day of Holi, a celebration of the beautiful spectrum of colors that come with a life devoted to Divine energy, as well as letting go and having fun. I saw a homeless man sleeping on a curb with a splash of green powder on his face, and another guy on his motorcycle with pink on his neck and face. The woman who I was riding with proudly told me about the celebration. We passed many bonfires with men dancing around them, and I wanted to stop, but the tourist guide who was with us wouldn't let us because it wouldn't have been safe. We arrived in the village of Rishikesh just after the evening celebration of light (arati) was finishing, and walked on a foot bridge over the Ganges River. I was so excited to finally be here, my heart was skipping around in my chest! I fell asleep in my ashram enjoying the sounds of the Hare Krishna devotees chanting away the cool evening.
The next morning, my new Indian "aunt" excitingly told me that the ashram was going to be celebrating Holi together, and was canceling some of the early yoga classes. I happily hopped into a little car with a few other festival participants and we drove to Haridwar for a ceremony where a lepper colony was being blessed. They closed with a couple chants and then the colors came! Colored powders were tossed in the air, and people came up to me and said "Happy Holi!" and smeared colors on my face, neck and clothes. The kids were really into it, and before I knew it, I had a bag too and was playing with everyone. It was SO much fun! I was laughing and loving life. There were also flower petals being tossed into the sky landing on all the colorful saris and foreigners who's drab clothes were now almost all splashed with vibrant colors! I kept pinching myself making sure that I was really there. I have been wanting to come to India for a long time, and it is still amazing to realize that the river I am gazing at is really the river Ganges, and the chants that I am hearing are really being sung everywhere, and the saddhus and saris that I am seeing are not photographs. This really brings me right to the present moment, just in time for me to dodge the cow poop that I almost stepped on!
The International Yoga Festival is a great way to begin my trip here, the Ashram has many beautiful gardens, and feels very safe and the food is wonderful. There are some amazing teachers here, including a saint and a few swamis, and I am learning some new things about the more subtle aspects of yoga including the philosophy and meditation and pranayama practices.
I took a break from the festival today for a hike out into the countryside with a new friend, laughing at the mellow cows that share the streets with the vendors, motorbikes, and cars. Small monkeys are all over the countryside here and make me smile. We were aiming for a temple, and ended up getting a ride with a friendly taxi driver who brought us to meet his "Baba" (spiritual teacher) who lives in a beautiful valley of a river that feeds into the Ganges. The valley is green with rice and wheat fields, and we were welcomed by sweet, happy puppies with wagging tails, and I knew I was in a good place. It turned out there were two "Babas" there, and I was so amazed that they both spoke English! One shared some sweets with us (a pastry stuffed with ground up nuts and sweets), and the other chatted with me about Chicago, and wanted to see his picture when I took it with my camera. Our driver then brought us to a little waterfall and I enjoyed splashing around in the cool clear water.
OK... I promise I will have pictures up in the next couple days! Namaste