Saturday, October 26, 2013

A look back.... India Trip 2007

In 24 hours I depart on my second trip to India. This time, however, I find myself as a different being then I was then, those many years ago. I have evolved, as we all do over time. Back then, I was fresh out of Collage with a degree in Philosophy and Religion. I thought I was wise, and perhaps, in some ways I was, for being only 23 years old. My theory: simple, I would go spend three months in India, I would find myself, I would discover the person I was to become. Most of all, however, I would continue my education in religious and cultural studies in one of the most diverse continents in the world.

I sit here tonight, on the eve of my new journey, pondering this motivation. Did I "find myself" in India that year? No, of course not, I know now that the journey to yourself is one of a lifetime, or, perhaps, many lifetimes. But what I did find on that particular journey was, in fact, nothing less then spectacular. 

For one, I found my love for photography. I had always loved photography, but that trip solidified it, I knew that from then on, the camera would be my tool. It would carry me. It would allow me to see the world in a new way, a way of beauty and curiosity which somehow combined into understanding of a world which seemed completely and utterly impossible to grasp. 

During that trip I also spent my time searching for my religion.... spiritual it what you want, but I was looking for it. I did a week long home stay with an Islamic family in Kashmir, I lived in an ashram in Rishikesh, I did a 14 day Tibetan Mahayana meditation retreat, I did a 12 day Vipassana meditation retreat, I stayed at a Zen Buddhist temple, I visited Amma the "Hugging saint" at her Ashram, I studded yoga and seeked out gurus, I danced with the sufis, I rode camels, I played a sitar, I wrote, I wondered and I was free.

I return to India tomorrow, not to find myself, but to remember myself. My motivation, a five week Mahayana Meditation retreat in Nepal. This journey is nothing like my first to India. I will have 10 days in Varanasi, then on to Kathmandu for retreat, then one last week on a beach, somewhere in Goa. I find myself, today, a completely different person then I was in September of 2007. Yet, somehow, in some ways, completely the same. I hope to share with you over these next months, the ways in which I observe myself as being both the same and different as I was then. 

It will be interesting to see the evolution of my photographic skills, and I am excited to challenge myself in my craft. 

It will also be curious to see how I react to the Monastic environment of a five week meditation retreat. Will it serve me as greatly as it did when I was so young and open minded? Or will I perhaps be stubborn and less malleable and absorbent of the teachings? Or, on the other hand, will it penetrate even more deeply into my being, changing me forever? 

It is also curious to notice the changes happening here withing me as I depart. I am not packing my life into a storage unit and taking off to wonder the world, not caring when I return or what I return to. In contrast, I am leaving my home, and my studio, two rents, my career (temporarily of course), endless bills and most of all my beloved puppy dog, who is, in every sense of the word, my family. I am not free any longer to wonder aimlessly and I am most interested in observing how this contrast effects my experience of travel.

In the coming months I plan to write about these experiences, and reflect on them. Please stick around and see what I come up with.... 

In the mean time, here are a few journal entries from my previous trip to get you started.

India Journal 2007

September 23, 2007Srinagar, Kashmir

Other Ways of Living

I have been in Kashmir almost three days and, although I knew about Kashmir’s struggles from reading, I have only just come to understand the complicity and depth of the struggles that exist here today. This state is a Muslim one (some 95%), and so Pakistan wants it and feels it should be theirs. Yet it's history is in India and so India will not give it up. The Indian government has made themselves more than present in Srinagar and throughout the entire state of Kashmir. Half of the town is covered in military bunkers and there are Indian soldiers on every street and in every doorway and shop. The Hindu temples are completely guarded by Indian military as to protect them from being destroyed by the Muslims. The few Hindus here get stoned on a regular basis. It is for this reason that I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and discomfort. The Muslim people seem foreign to me and I cannot kick an understandable sense of unwantedness. I obviously do not fit in here. I admit, I cannot even begin to relate to their lifestyle, religion and situation. Islamic religion demands an enormous amount of ‘blind faith’ as well as a very strict way of living, the two things that us westerners do not easily submit to.

As a woman I have absolutely no presence here. It seems that my words go unheard and my comments mocked. For this reason I have been completely scammed into paying way too much money for a trek I never went on – long story, better saved for later - and other things too. Even if I persist I cannot seem to get my way. (This, as some of you could imagine, is at times very difficult for me, as I have learned that what I am very used to getting, is my way.) It is difficult to begin to tell you how worthless women seem to be treated here. Baby girls are not even counted as children. If you ask someone how many children they have and, lets say they have two boys and a girl, they will tell you they have two children. At first I pitied them and felt an, admittedly now, ignorant serge of rebellion. I wore jeans and a normal long sleeved shirt on the first day and asked our guide a series of grueling questions about the women’s attire. He answered me nicely and somewhat informingly. Nonetheless, I continued to struggle with the ideas. Being such an outsider, and having immensely different ideas about the world, I struggled with the ability to open my mind and heart to other ways of living.

The next day I inquired on a real religious and political discussion with him. Still he seemed impartial. “Some Kashmiri people (Kashmiri people never call themselves Indian) want to be part of Pakistan and some what to be part of India ,while others want an impartial independence.” I myself think most want independence and some perhaps want to be part of Pakistan, a country that will embrace their religious customs more than India has. I cannot see, though, how any of them would want to be part of India with the way the Indian government treats them here. India, though, is very proud of their Islamic population. Half of their tourist sites are Mosques – not to mention the Taj Mahal. My private guide told me today that when he goes to the market each day he is not sure if he will return. I said to him with shock, “you are sure you will return?”, quite sure I had mis heard him. After all I had asked the question, “it is generally safe now though, right?” he assured me it was not. I am beginning to understand why these people never smile.

I have never really been stared at like the men stare at me here. Apparently the Muslim men cannot control themselves. This too has been interesting for me. Here, it is the women’s job to cover their bodies up, for showing anything allows temptation and so all mocking and stares are, of course, the woman’s responsibility and not to do much with the men at all. Which, okay - sorry ladies, makes a little sense. You don't wear a mini skirt because its comfortable, so don't complain when men can't stop looking.  After tweaking my Western mind just a little bit and coming to grasp with this shift in thinking, I shyly asked my guide if he could take me somewhere to buy a shawl to drape loosely around my shoulders and chest, like the rest of the women. Admittedly, I am beginning to feel really out of place. My live-next-to-guide, who lives with his wife on the boat next to the one I am staying in, will not let us leave the boat without him. We are not even allowed to go to the bakery alone. (By the way I have asked to meet his wife many times and he will not let me. He says things like, “wife good for food only.” And when I ask him to thank her over and over for the meals he says, “yes, yes - will” in an annoyed tone and walks away.) Oh the things we take for granted.

Srinagar too is strange because even in all the confusion it is subtlety and delicately the most beautiful place I have ever been. The lake, where I have taken up residency, is constantly shadowed by the ever-present Himalayas rising up from the base of nowhere. The magically serene lake is covered in water flowers and floating gardens. Woven between the gardens are century old houses, floating houseboats and gondola-like boats used for anything from transporting children to school to selling flowers. The reflection of white Mosques in the icy water mimic the strength and omnipotence of the religion that dominates the area. Five times a day the whole city echoes seemingly infinitely with Islamic prayer. I awake at four every morning to the gradual murmur and then complete outburst of chant. These people amaze me and I am learning more about religion living here on this lake than I ever have. 

The lake sparkles with dew covered lilies and lotus. When there is no prayer there is the soft sound of singing from either the boat paddlers or the women beating clothes clean on the ghats. I am overtaken with wonder and awe. The houseboat I am staying in is completely hand carved pine, from the porch to the throne-like chairs. Every curtain, bedspread and footrest has matching delicately embroidered fabric. There are endless cabinets full of delicate china and other foreign riches. Chandeliers hang from the dining room and living room ceilings. This place was once a true floating palace and I can see that the distinct lack in tourism in the area, due to war, is the only reason I can afford such a luxury. I have learned that famous westerners even owned their own houseboats here and would come to write or to simply get away. The history in this mysterious land is endless and amazing, and the people are their own time capsules of their past. This life is as different from my life as could be imagined. If I came to India to further my understanding of religion, I have come to the right place.

I am thoroughly overwhelmed and guilt stricken by my own good fortune.

October 6th, 2007 Rishikesh, Uttaranchal

A Lesson in Gratitude

Like we live in our Sebastopol, or California bubble I have managed to find a little India bubble and I have made myself quite comfortable here. I am In Rishikesh, one of the holiest cities in India. It is set in the exact place where the Mother Ganga, (mother river) appears out of the great Himalaya. This town is a pilgrimage site for all Hindus. In fact, it is so holly that it is actually prohibited to buy or sell alcohol or cigarettes, and it is illegal to eat meat. Illegal. Amazing. I have taken up temporary residence in a little guesthouse on a hill overlooking the river. In Rishikesh I am living the life I feel I came to India to live. I do yoga twice a day. I have taken an Indian cooking course. I have attended talks with Gurus and gone to philosophy and pranayama classes. I have been hiking and rafting. It seems that everyday is its own world of discovery and time is both stretched and shrunken.

India makes it easy to feel grateful. Virtually everything here is a reminder. I read the other day something that an Indian man said, and it has really stuck with me. "The difference between us [Indians] and westerners is westerners look up at what they do not have and set their interests on that. Indians", he claimed, " look down at the world around them and are happy for what they do have." As difficult as this culture is for me to understand, this principal holds true trough and through. In the steps of a true Indian, I found myself walking in the market the other day. As I passed cripples, with every kind of bodily mutation and small children with nowhere to live, I began to say all the things I was grateful for in this life. Within the span of maybe two minutes I had said I was grateful over fifty times maybe. I passed a man with no arm. I said to myself, I am grateful for my arms. A woman whose body had been burned all over. I am grateful for my skin. Two school children playing, I am grateful for my friends. A blind man, I am grateful for my sight. A man with a horribly swollen and disgustingly infected foot, I am grateful for my feet. A man mumbling, I am grateful for my mind. Two orphaned children, I am grateful for my parents. And on like this I could have gone forever. This is why India makes it easy to feel grateful. The cruelness and unfairness of life is not hidden here like we hide it in America. In fact it is just the opposite, it is out there for everyone to see, for everyone to live with. See it: love it, hate it, whatever, but see it and feel it. In India, the world’s pain becomes your own, there is just no way around it.

At dawn and at dusk everyday Hindus come together on the steps of the Great River to pray together and send offerings of flowers and incense to another world. There is singing and prayer for hours. The great sounds penetrating my every belief and expose my great weakness of inferiority. 

I had a wonderful experience at the Ganga Aarti (river ceremony) a few days ago. I had sat through the entire ceremony as an observer, and admittedly, somewhat of an outsider. As I left, a very young child came up to me and tried to sell me a prayer bundle. I could not turn her down and for only 5 rupee (8 cents) I had a whole lifetime of prayers to make. I walked a little way out of the crowd so that I could get down to the river and do my thing without getting harassed or feeling silly, because I knew I wasn't going to be doing it right. Like there is a right or wrong way to pray for world peace. Anyway, I found myself a nice little inlet and I started to light my ball of wax soaked in oil, a makeshift candle. I must have struck thirty matches and nothing was working. They kept blowing out or being duds. Horrible thoughts started flooding through my head. What kind of karma do I have if I can't even pray? This was horrible. But I couldn't give up now, right? Or could I? I can't even get the candle lit, let alone make a prayer and send the darn thing down the river. I was doubting myself. What does this mean? Right as I was about to completely give it up and send the bundle down the river unlit, a very old, hunched over, toothless woman comes out from under some nearby steps, which I am sure were her home. Without speaking she came over to me, bent down and gracefully lit my candle as though she had done it every day, twice a day, for a lifetime. Then she lit hers. Squatting by the holiest river in the world we sat there next to each other praying. I had tears in my eyes, the moment had really touched me. As she moved her offering in small circular motions over the water, I followed. She sent hers off and then made sure mine went down too, cupping the water with her hands pushing my offering into the current. Right then I felt sprinkles of water on my face, it had started to rain. I felt like the whole world was crying together. Not for anyone in particular, not for happiness or grief, but with a surge of pure emotion. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders and then I felt the cleansing power that only rain has wash over me. Those two candles stayed lit longer than any other candles I saw that night, regardless of the rain.
I have had over a week in my Indian bubble that is Rishikesh. It has been the perfect place to recover from the insanity that is India. I will leave Hindu Rishikesh and travel up north to Dharamsala, the home of the exiled Dali Lama, and so greet the world of Buddhism.

October 23rd, 2007 - McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh (near Dharamsala in the Himalaya)

From Gratitude to Compassion

Well, there is only one thing I have learned and found to be, one hundred percent, absolute, without fail, true about India. Every time I think I have the place figured out, I am proved, with absolute certainty, that it is the exact opposite that is true.
I am in the hills just outside of Tibet. Here, in a tiny village called McLeod Ganj, located on a fairy tale ridge where the Himalayas open into the vast planes of India, is where thousands of Tibetans and His Holiness the 14 Dali Lama have established their government in exile.

I am fresh out of a ten day, silent, Mahayana Buddhist meditation retreat. What an amazing gift to be given; ten days to not have to talk to anyone, to not have to deal with anything but your own thoughts. We walk around everyday with these bodies and minds and we rarely, if ever, stop to look inside and see who and what we are. Although I have to say, right now, I understand why. It is hard work looking at who we are, confronting the reality that we do not wish to see and don't know what to do with.

After ten days of not talking I am at a complete loss of words. All of what unfolds here will be babble trying to explain - something. The truth is, I just don't know, not just what to say, but what to think, feel and do. I am tired and overwhelmed when I fell as though I should be rested and confident. This path to self-discovery is leading me only deeper and deeper into the unknown and unknowable. I can't believe that the world is still baffling me with its size, diversity and complicity. (Shows how ignorant I am, eh?) The search for truth is not only hopeless but also positively impossible when there are so many truths in this world. New doors are opening in front of me and the ones I have just come through are shut and locked behind me. Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is vast.

Buddhists give compassion a whole new meaning. Imagine loving without needing love, with no expectations and without even the slightest need of outward encouragement. I have never seen, nor could I have imagined, such true and purely giving beings existed on this earth. It is both inspiring and simultaneously crippling to observe. Every idea I had about myself has been tested and proved wrong. The amount of caring and giving that these people do for the earth and all of its inhabitants make my intentions and efforts look pathetic. I can't see accomplishing this kind of compassion easy or understandable from my narrow Western perspective and now there will be no shutting my eyes to it. How am I to compare?

Like everything in India this religion is backwards but simultaneously honest and straightforward. It is beautiful beyond words and ugly too because it brings to mind the things that we so comfortably push behind curtains. Buddhists look inwards and use their minds to generate compassion, understanding and love - but I feel confused, overwhelmed and just plain bad. All my negativities seem to have come to the surface in meditation. Thinking about all the suffering in the world and how we so frailly fill our needs with impermanent and unsatisfying answers makes me feel weak and uneasy. I can't take a shower without feeling full of guilt and my so-grateful attitude has flipped around on me. Gratitude isn't enough for the Buddhists, not even close. The task at hand is cultivating compassion and turning that compassion into motivation. Motivation to change, not just one's self, but the entire world.

Coming out of my retreat McCloud Ganj looks different. When I arrived almost two weeks ago, I remember feeling overwhelming relief and joy towards a community of such happy refugees and survivors. It was so nice to be out of the India I had grown used to. The Tibetans were smiling, the streets looked cleaner and there was cake! I felt like I had found such a shining gem among rock. After ten days in the silent, calm, beautiful hills where my life consisted of meditation, introspection and mindfulness, this town feels nothing like it did then, those 12 short days ago. After diving head first into the vast emptiness I so confidently call myself and my life, I feel unimaginably ignorant and useless. I see a world that won’t support one of the most beautiful and truly caring societies this planet may ever know. I see Indians who have made this town and this tragedy a money bank for themselves. I see rabid dogs and trash. I see lies and selfishness. I see and feel peoples misery caused from starvation, disease and every other imaginable and unimaginable form of suffering. I see only a world full of problems that I cannot fix, and do not know how to help. I surprisingly find myself full of negativity after experiencing such a beautiful and amazingly positive piece of the world. The retreat was amazing, but it seems that I am seeing the world through more realistic eyes and some of the protective layers that I have so happily worn are falling away. The deeper I go the more there is and the path ahead of me continues to look longer, wider and less pronounced.

Sometimes I feel like I am too emotional, too open and too sensitive. I can't believe that the world is just like this and I am just who I am and we are all here, but somehow absent. It seems that I am fooling myself with ideas of the world and of myself being something that it and I am simply not. Every day I learn so much that it makes who I was the day before look uninformed, inconsiderate and blindly ignorant. I feel turned around and twisted upside down and inside out. I appreciate the Buddhist emphasis on taking control of one's mind and life, but it is an overwhelmingly huge job to open oneself up to the pain and suffering of the world for a 24 year-old blond girl from California. 

I feel striped and bare, for all that I thought was true and real about the world seems to be an illusion.

November 5th, 2007 Jodhpur, Rajastan

India Experience #21,837

I unmistakably find that the longer I am in India the more I can ultimately take in. Perhaps this is why I still find myself mesmerized in utter disbelief by the impenetrable realism that is so boldly India. As a general rule, I think it is safe to say that our eyes open with our hearts. I am finding that I see and feel India today differently than I saw it my first weeks here and it is increasingly obvious to me that I couldn’t have picked a better place to spend these months.
Lets see…

My back hurts from sleeping on stiff, lumpy, S shaped beds. My feet hurt from walking on unstable ground. My head hurts from the constant cycling of ideas about the world and who I am and what it all means. My stomach hurts for reasons I wont even get into. My body is swollen from heat, samosas and chipati. My heart hurts because it has a huge, gaping crack in it where my ignorance used to live. My eyes burn from the desert dust, simmering plastic and diesel fumes. My lungs are struggling to bring in each breath, as the air here tops the world’s pollution charts. It is amazing how much pain can live inside a body that also houses so much happiness.

The flight to Jodhpur, Rajasthan was a trip unto itself. Two hours late, like most other flights I have taken in India thus far, tiny, unstable and unpredictable. Survived the flight I may have, but as I took my first few steps on new earth I wondered to myself if I felt like starting India Experience #21,837. Not that anyone is counting. Each state, each city, each meal and each train, plane or bus is its own mini-adventure encapsulated in this escapade of India, further crammed into this mega-adventure of life. 

Rajasthan is a whole new state. This newness sparks a mini-chain combustion of more and more newness in my life. It means a whole new language, new food, new dress, new people, new turbans, new mustaches, new colors, new climate, new animals, new smells, new rules, new body language, new art and new customs. You name it, all around me there is new everything, again.
I have been in India six weeks. Six weeks is such a short amount of time that I cannot even think of anything that you can do (I mean truly accomplish from start to finish) in six weeks. I feel like I have lived a life, here in India in these last six weeks longer than I could have imagined any life, even if I had all the time in the world to invent it. Within these weeks each day, each minute, each breath, each second is an experience completely unto itself. Communicating one word can mean a half hour jumbled debate spanning many languages. Getting lunch can be an all day endeavor, and any random thought can take my mind wheeling one hundred miles an hour in some world where time is completely irrelevant and I don’t know how long I have been off thinking when a truck two meters away honks, I jump, and all of the sudden I am pulled back to this reality. This reality of India.
All of this to say, the last few weeks have been utterly and simply indescribably incredible, exhausting and thrillingly inspiring. Every leg of this journey has revealed to me new layers of myself and of the world. The last few weeks and Varanasi in particular was so unique in its offerings that I have skipped writing about it all together. For me, the craziness and complicity of life can fall into writing, and so can be made orderly and somehow understandable. But some things cannot be written and so cannot be explained, at least not in their entirety. As writing seems to give me the ability to make sense of the insensible, and Varanasi was not exactly comprehensible, not at all, there is no need to try to write about it. What it all means is not certain yet, and I find gratitude in the amazement that I can write anything without writing everything, seeing as I have skipped over a major chapter. Varanasi is unspeakable. But now, it is all history, it is in the past and I am in Rajasthan, in India, on planet earth, with my mother (who has graciously chosen to meet me for this leg of my journey), my dreams and camels – lots and lots of camels.

Rajasthan, amid its vast and dull desert background, is alive with color. Amongst buildings painted sky blue, brilliant lavender and grandmother pink, heads of scarlet red, sunburst yellow, ocean blue, deep fire orange, flamingo pink and emerald green saris, turbans and headscarves bob effortlessly through a sea of crowded streets, bazaars and shops. It is festival season here in India, and in three days time it will be Diwali, the festival of lights and unarguably the largest and brightest festival of the year. It is a bustle of preparation and celebration. Shops are piled four-feet deep with brightly colored fabric covering every inch of floor, shopkeepers taking prime position perched atop. Fabrics are piled so high and so thick that they literally overflow out the front of the shops and onto the filthy streets of Jodhpur. Women sit perfectly positioned atop the heaps, rigorously searching through sprawls of fine fabric embellished with gold, silver and stone. A baby on hip, their beautiful faces veiled in vain revealing only colorful glimpses of their mysterious splendor, they amaze me with their reverence and poise. It is a scene like nothing I have experienced and I have to admit that I have found myself, once or twice, overwhelmed by the heat, noise, trash and sheer thickness of bodies, motorbikes, grimy air and complete, undisturbed, chaos.

Nothing in India comes easily for me. Here, nothing is natural, nothing is simple and nothing is boring. Everything in India, for that matter, everything in life, is multiple levels deep and contains many, many lessons, rewards, pleasures and difficulties. For India makes anything else look simple. If I have survived this, I can survive it all. This, of course, is far too great of an overstatement, seeing as I have not endured much suffering in my life and, in all honesty, know nothing about what real pain is or how it must feel to suffer in great length. Not to mention the small fact that one-sixth of the world’s population live here in India and seem to do just fine. I am an anomaly. But, nevertheless, the mentality comes in useful when thinking of life back home and when thinking about aspects of my reality that seem so big and intimidating. Any and every small endeavor I may ever come across in my measly little easy life cannot be that big of a deal. India is and will hopefully be forever, my reminder that I cannot take my life and all my meager issues too seriously. I will have this place to look upon when I meet an obstacle. Remembering that life is truly a gift and knowing that mine is particularly easy, in all relativity. Perhaps, even, it is this ease of life that has sent me whirling around India looking for some challenges, stumbling upon obstacles and literally tripping over my own two feet and falling head first into this world of realities, where so much of humanity lives, suffers and flourishes.

November 11th, 2007 – Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

Camel Safari 101…

If you are ever so inclined and your wildest dreams lead you to decide it would be a good idea to go on a seven day camel safari, in the Thar Desert of India only sixty kilometers from the Pakistani boarder, with your mother and a young Indian guide, here are some things to keep in mind: 1) Never, ever, even for a moment forget to laugh at yourself (or the camels, or someone else). 2) Don’t expect instructions, this is India after all. You are on your own baby! 3) Be grateful that your mother is actually that incredible, that she, at the healthy age of 56, will think nothing of riding a camel around the Indian desert in 90 degree heat for seven days. 4) Pack your own TP, and if you find a rock, or a bush to hide behind for that matter, be sure to mark your territory while you have the chance! 5) Realize that saddle soars are real before you go, that way you wont be a complete mess when you can’t walk for two days after. 6) Don’t forget sunscreen. 7.) Try to be alright with sleeping in the camel blankets, because it is them or nothing at all.

What can I say, it was a blast! I think it is quite possible that a seven-day trail ride is my idea of just about the most fun I could possibly ever have in my life. As a former horseback rider, I can honestly say there is nothing in the world I would rather do than this. Now, let me modify this statement, just a slight bit. Riding a camel is, in actuality, quite different from riding a horse, but still I think, comparable. On a horse, you don’t have the breathtaking nine-foot high view, however on a horse, you also don’t have the never-ending stream of camel farts. (Yes it in NOT a myth, camels fart, burp and ‘gargle’ constantly.) The difference of Sonoma’s grape vine covered hills is quite the contrast to the Thar’s dunes and cactus shrubs. The camel safari was no first class trail ride through the comforts of California, but in all honesty, the desert was, strangely, monotonously beautiful and peaceful. After spending almost two months in the cities of India it was amazingly refreshing to hear silence and experience the slow sway of the strangely clumsy camel.

Top 10 best things about our Indian camel safari:
    1.Being with my mother, in the desert, in India.

  1. Doing it! Saying I did it! Getting it done!
  2. Starry, starry, starry nights. The starriest!
  3. Lots and lots of baby goats, sheep and camels. Lots!
  4. Watching an ass fall, smack, all four legs strait out on it's belly carrying too much water.
  5. Sunsets over the golden dunes.
  6. Grasping the importance of water.
  7. Feeling the gratitude of the shade of one tree.
  8. Warm, fresh squeezed goat milk (in our instant coffee) on the morning of the second to last day.
  9. The constant background humm of songs as sung by our guide.
  10. The shower when it was all over and done with!

There really isn’t a whole lot I can say that encompasses the entire experience, except that it was all around fun and just hilarious. Camels, and if you have ever been on one you know this, are quite interesting characters. They look funny, they do funny things, riding them they make you look funny, and they are just all around strange creatures. The desert and the people and the scenery in general were just exquisite. It was a very needed and helpful break to get away from all the mess and fuss of the world and see the simple lifestyles and everyday wonders that the village people experience. I found the quiet relaxing and revitalizing. Moving so slowly there is much to see and take in.

Although there were many great aspects of the trip I have to confess that the best part for me was escaping this ever-serious space of mind I have found myself so comfortably living in here in India. Forget the camels, it seems that I have been constantly struggling against my own reigns. I have begun to take life and everything so seriously here in India, opening myself to it all so profoundly and most of the time finding laughter to be a distant and forgotten memory. I have been caught in a net of seriousness and I have forgotten the humor and craziness of my own existence. The desert and the camels, the guide, the company of my mom, or maybe just being on such a touristy exploration, I don’t know what it was exactly, but somewhere along the way I forgot it all and I let go. I relaxed and I didn’t worry about the world or the people who inhabit it, or myself or anything.  I wasn't concerned about how I was supposed to help anymore or about fixing things. I was riding a camel, for crying out loud, how could I have? It was like breathing in a huge breath of clean air after being in Delhi for too long.

It was very much needed, but still, although after I feel better, I was left with a sort of guilt about it all that I had to examine. How could I have just let go that easily? Haven’t I been affected? Don’t I have a new outlook on things? Haven’t I learned anything? Haven’t I grown up at all? I don’t know how this sounds to all of you, and I know it may sound ridiculous, but in all honesty it is a weird balance to have to sort out in oneself. I realize that it is very important to see and understand all aspects of the world and I intend to do so, however difficult that may be. It is, of course, important to be aware while being light, to be helpful but not obsessed, to be caring as well as being carefree, to be heartfelt but not a mess. Balance, I suppose, is the key and now I must tern my focus to that. It felt great to laugh and forget my prodding dissatisfaction with my own efforts, but I cannot abandon my drive to help or make light the issues of the world that have become such a concern for me.

So how do I enjoy the humor of a camel’s company or the joy of a beautiful sunset and also feel the immense importance of the pressing issues of the world? I do just that I suppose, both. I enjoy, but I also hold the sadness in my heart along with the joy. I don’t forget, not even for a moment, the beauty and the sorrow of the world. I see the whole picture, everything at once, and take it all in as it really is. Because, I think what it is, is just that – what it is. You know? There isn’t much more than what there is right now, and right now, it seems to me, there is everything. So, I must try to live this way, I think.

Camels are funny and poverty is not. The young girls in the villages are wonderful, but the sad fact that there are so few of them is not so great (many baby girls are killed here due to dowries). The village men are nice to us, but perhaps some of them are not so nice to their wives. The world is continually beautiful and ugly, funny and sad, enlightening and restricting. Everything is happening all at once. So, I must remember that things are both this way, and they are that way too.
Mother India is perhaps the best place in the world to see this duality, as things can look very different from person to person and place to place. It all depends what you know and how you choose to look at it. It becomes more and more apparent to me as I wonder through India as an outsider that this world is so far from explainable that it is ridiculous for me to have ever thought I would at some point come to a conclusion about it. One individual mind, differs from every other so intensely that that one person’s idea of the world not only could be, but is without a doubt, so drastically different from anyone else’s that there is little need to try and understand even that one reality. How are we to come to terms with one reality when there are so obviously numberless realities? 

I have no answers, but many questions...

December 1st, 2011Varkela, Karela

As Different as North and South

On the train that brought me to the southern most tip of India I passed flooded fields full of daisy flower and water buffalo. Tea plantations. Rice fields. Cinnamon and cardamom plantations. Silk sari wearing women with fresh jasmine blossoms in their hair. Local Keralean kids playing cricket and more coconut palms than I have ever seen in my entire life. The air is hot and wet and I love it. Occasionally a whiff of day old fish crosses the path of the train. Bluish green canals of almost still water make up a huge intricate waterway of the Kerala backwaters and the train seems to make its way over many of these huge open lake-rivers. I pass a field of young mango trees. There is a fishing boat equipped with old-fashioned Chinese fishing nets. The overwhelming greenness of the passing countryside and the bright blue of the equatorial sky is something, on this trip at least, altogether new to me. I have been in India for two and a half months but I haven't seen anything like this.

The new found picturesque landscape leaves me with a question: what is it that I have loved so much about Northern India? Through all of the dirty cities, rude men, bad roads, smelly water, stomach aches, aggravating moments and all together impossible frustrations there has still been something so wonderful about this trip. What is it? After all I have loved it. There seems to have been some hidden beauty in the chaos that has filled my last few months. India has offered me something very special, namely perspective.

The fresh ocean breeze and the lingering smell of green cinnamon fogs my mind, but it occurs to me that I haven't exactly been in paradise. Not even close. Here, however, we must pause and ask ourselves, what is paradise? I suppose we all define paradise differently now don't we. For me there is, at least, a small glimpse of paradise in learning and experiencing something entirely new and different. For me, paradise comes in some form of knowledge and the hope of understanding more about a world that is so huge and wild, and perhaps even, at the same time, getting a rare and deep glimpse into my own soul.

As the train slows to a sleepy stop at Varkala station I find myself standing on a dirt mound under some coconut trees that you could barely even call a platform, let alone a train station. There are no Westerners around and I am a little curious why I have made this two-day journey by train. I am now so far from Delhi. To my great astonishment, however, I have not been lead astray. I follow the ever familiar smells of salt water and hot sand down a sleepy little road and it miraculously opens up into an incredible coconut-palm lined beach. Adorned with small bamboo huts, fruit stands and ayervadic spas, forget about paradise, who needs it, I have just found heaven. I can't believe it. I check into a small hut of my own and head strait for the ocean. I literally get chills up my spine as I set foot on the warm sand. I am so grateful to be here. Complete organic happiness comes over me. I feel like everything that has happened these last few months has suddenly become part of me and I experience a rush of pure joy and complete serenity. The beach is absolutely gorgeous. I do everything in my power to jump into the blue water as fast as I possibly can. I have not swam in the Arabian Sea before and it is warm and salty and it feels like medicine as it rushes over me.

As the sun goes down I walk the cliffs that hang over the beautiful beach. There is an array of restaurants, each showcasing its fresh catch of the day. There are snappers and kingfish, flatfish, round fish, red fish and blue fish. There are small lobsters and prawns bigger than any I have seen, ever. I walk by not one, not two, but six blue finned marlin, all are easily bigger than me, and a few already have baseball size chunks cut out of them for the customers who have begun eating on the beach. I am a world away from Delhi's dirty streets and the bread and oil loving world of North India. I couldn't be happier.

In fact, my childlike happiness is sort of strange. Usually, I would expect such beautiful and all together perfect circumstances from a tropical paradise such as Southern India. But today I was completely floored. These days, I am not used to such gorgeous lifestyles and relaxing days, they have been quite absent from my life for what feels like some time now. But I am here now and I am sure I will have no trouble at all letting the sun and ocean cure me of whatever worries I may still have about the world.

I realize that India has again astonished me with her duality. What I was so sure was India, in all of her glory and pollution, has proved to me that there is also another side, a more relaxed side with fresh food and soft warm air. I was wrong to generalize and I am again reminded of perhaps the most important lesson I have learned here: Things are not always as they seem. It is our responsibility to do the complete research about a subject, making sure not to look at it from a biased point of view and absolutely checking from all possible angles. We must look with open eyes and an open heart as well. Being quite sure we are seeing things as they really are without our own projections and concerns falsely covering the reality that lies within. This is our responsibility and our duty to one another as living beings. We have both the opportunity to use our minds as positive tools as well as the disregard to use them as negative and hurtful ones. It is only us, though, who can choose which we will use them for, may it be good or may it be bad. So now I am here, on the beach, doing my research. 

When I was planning this trip, what little planning I did, I saved the beach covered southern tip for the end on purpose. I knew that if I came here first I would get caught up in the laid back atmosphere and the rest of my journey would be forgotten. Now, I am here and I realize not only that I was right in making my decision but also that saving this part for last allows me to give myself a great farewell India gift, as well as time to recover and recuperate. Although I am feeling those whiffs of homesickness I also realize that India could be, and has in fact been, explored for millennial and she is still a mystery. I will very much enjoy these last weeks on the Arabian coast with my feet in the sand and the sun on my back.

December 17th, 2011


Every time I even think to open my computer and write I am completely overwhelmed and clueless as to what I could possibly say to conclude such a wonderful and moving journey as the one I have just finished. As I think about it, I think only of how happy I am, of how peaceful I feel, of how optimistic and encouraged I feel. In the end, it seems that I have actually arrived at that place where I had hoped this trip would take me. I am not overwhelmed and I am not scared. I do see much work ahead of me, but I feel confident and excited about a word, which feels so blessed that from time to time I have to look out in front of me to make sure that there is not a red carpet laid out at my feet. This life is truly a blessed one.
Looking back towards my trip and at my intentions in the beginning I feel very far from where I started. In the end, I suppose, we never know what we are going to get. In the end we can never tell how we will feel or what will be different. Hard as we may try, no matter how far our minds drift we can never predict where we will be in the end. In the end it is always different than what we anticipated. In the end, there is always something new, something that was not there before. I am full of joy and excitement and goodwill and life. In the end, I am a better person. In the end, I have been truly transformed. In the end, I am a person who knows just that much more about the world in which she lives. I am a person who knows something more about who I am and who I am meant to be. In the end, I feel alive and passionate and my mind feels clear. In the end, I see a new beginning. I feel a continuum of progression. I see a million ends and also numberless beginnings. I see, and even more importantly, I feel how endless our lives truly are. For each ending is a new beginning in itself, and each beginning is a new opportunity for change, for growth, for a new grasp of what is important and true and wonderful. Each moment contains that seed, a seed of change that we can nourish and feed and shelter until it becomes stable and can live on its own. Each seed will intern nourish the plant that will come after it and so forth as far as our minds can reach.

I am seeing more realistically now and although in some ways I feel smaller in the world, I also feel bigger within myself. I feel a new level of acceptance that has come into my life and embraced my being. Not disappointing acceptance or anything like that, but the opposite in fact. I feel acceptance about the smaller scale. About the peculiarity and uniqueness of one person’s existence. For the first time in my life it has settled into my heart that I can live a happy and positive existence and that that can be enough. That by fulfilling my personal duty and making myself happy – just living a happy existence, sharing my love, sharing my light - I will intern be doing it for the world also. The small scale actually is important, and it may well be the most important thing. A smile in a grocery store or a kind word is the heart of all good in the world and just as intensely as we can see genocide in one hateful word, we can see all of the world’s problems end in one loving word or compassion filled moment. It has taken a long time for me to realize this and although many of you have offered it as the answer I was searching for, it was not until now that I could understand. Now though, it fits so perfectly. Thank you for your patience and guidance.

With this new view I feel myself growing up. I feel the young dreamer fade just a little bit and I see someone stronger, more beautiful and forever changed. Although I do mourn this loss of my childhood love and excitement about everything being possible and made-up dreams about my existence being a mega-cosmic one, I find a new acceptance in just being and not being perfect or great or bigger than this world. I also realize that this dreamer and visionary will continue to live on within me, only now it will live in a transformed me. I don’t have to let go of everything, I can embrace it, embrace who I am and use those wonderful qualities to continue to build on that strong foundation. It has been these qualities, after all, that have gotten me here – to this place – where I am now.

I feel sure that I will continue to grow in the directions I hope to. I feel sure that I will continue to make mistakes and cause unwanted pain or suffering, but I also feel confident that I will continue to learn how to avoid these occurrences also and how to learn from them. This trip has showed me this in huge ways. I had intentions to find particular answeres during this journey and those answers were in fact delivered, when I look at what I wrote the first day, and then everything in between, I see how clearly I followed the steps I laid out for myself. I did the research I needed to do and I discovered the things I wanted to, both about myself and about the world also. If I have done such a good job of this, why not have the faith that I will continue to educate myself in these ways as my life persists to unfold? It is true what they say; life is in fact a journey and not a destination. It is this moment that I am alive for - now. I can enjoy it more because of what I have done with all the moments that have come before, but these moments will continue to come and they will continue to pass. I will continue to have more and more memories and the future will never become any clearer. The future will always be unknown, but what I have learned is that I do have the ability to know myself, now. And I pray that that feeling and knowing will last a lifetime.

It feels like time to come home and this change feels as though it will not come as a harsh one. I feel as though I have learned many things about the world and myself. Things that will help me glide, more easily, through the unknown that will be coming and passing my way. I feel like I can sit more comfortably in the world, may it be here or there. I feel more secure and grounded with the person I am and more than ever before I feel proud of that person. I can look back and see where I was and I can look forward and wonder where I will end up. But as I a sit here, looking at myself, I feel as though I am in just the right place. This is what India has taught me.

I have burned one life down and created a new one. Part of me has forever died and it feels although there is now a new person coming into existence. Thank you Shiva, for the fire of new life and constructive destruction and change you so fiercely represent. Something must die to make room for something new and the death of old beliefs and habits is beautiful because in the flames of destruction comes new life. I can feel someone simmering and boiling inside me. It is not only my mind or my thoughts that have been transformed, but I am very happy to say that the transformation has come from the innermost of my being. It is inside of me now, something new is part of me and some old has died. Although the core may be very small, I am surprised the effect it has made already in such a short time. If that spark is moving so quickly through my-self and my life now, what will become of it in the future? It has been a long time in my life that I have been searching for change, for some movement, for a more genuine experience. Now, I no longer have to look or even think about change. It is not forced or thought of, it is just coming now. Clarity, calmness and compassion are in themselves magical. By allowing my heart to be open and my mind to be fearless I have let some all-together new driving force into my life. It has been the genuine experience that has caused such deep transformation. It was only a few sparks that caused this fire but I feel as though it will burn forever.

Perhaps most importantly in this rebirth I have learned that happiness is something very sacred and profound that lives within me. I can take it with me wherever I go if I so choose. I have learned that nothing in the world can lead to direct happiness, but that everything in fact does. I have learned that happiness is all together my choice, all of our choices. We choose. Can you believe that? Further, I have found a home deep within myself that feels as though it will never flee. I feel like for the first time in my life I have found something strong and true and secure that echoes only from the walls of my own being. I have found a home in myself that I never new was there before and that I will never forget about now. I have a new understanding of what it means to be alive and independent and here – now.

In this very instant I see beauty, I see beauty as a feeling, and I feel beauty. I see it and it penetrates into my soul so deeply that I could burst with rays of pure happiness. I want every living being to share this wonder. Everyone, every single person should have the opportunity to feel this kind of peace within themselves, even just once, even if just for one dissolving moment. I feel that I am right where I belong. I feel that this place, wherever it may be, is the most precious place to be. I feel blessed.

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