This beats the hell out of the government bus!

One last India update…

Small monastery on a hill in Leh, Ladakh.

From the Kashmir Valley, I headed east to Ladakh. Chalky white chortens and stupas dot the landscape like giant chess pieces and fraying prayer flags fly overhead announce you’re in Buddhist territory. The high Himalayan environment gives the region a mysterious moonscape of bare beauty that leads the eye over the edges of mountains, uncovering unimaginable layers of color and texture: smooth sand dunes ripple, velvet brown hills overlap deep purple slate covered ridges, and craggy peaks rise in hive formation, carving out caves and crannies along the vast terrain. Ladakh is a place of stark and staggering natural beauty. Traveling there by land requires crossing the highest drivable roads in the world.

Breath stopping bus rides are part of the adventure here! The Himalayan highways that wind around mountainsides are mostly unpaved and narrow, prone to rockslides, and populated with colorfully painted Tata trucks, shaky government buses, and military convoys. Safety slogans along the roadside such as, “Driving risky after whisky” make for amusing reading, and I was honestly amazed I didn’t see one accident. Maybe I was just lucky. Traffic moves predictably slow. The 430 kilometer (approx. 270 miles) trip from Srinigar makes for a two-day journey by bus with an overnight stopover in the roach infested, middle of nowhere town Kargil. Delays en route are also common, I was once held up for six hours waiting for fallen rocks to be cleared from the road.

The difficult journey is counterbalanced with gorgeous landscape: roads that run parallel with the mighty Indus River, snaking their way around mountains, revealing fertile river valleys that supply life to picturesque villages of terraced gardens and hilltop monasteries that seem like a natural extension of the land. I had crossed another invisible border and was struck by how different everything was once again: the people, the language, the landscape and culture. Due to its close proximity, Ladakh is strongly influenced by Tibet. Ladakhis look and dress like Tibetans, their food and languages are similar, and the majority of Ladakhis are Tibetan Buddhist. Most Ladakhis continue to live in traditional ways, subsisting from farming and living in whitewashed mud and stone houses. This gives the place a unique atmosphere from the rest of India. Bordering Pakistan on one side and China/Tibet on the other, there is a predictably strong military presence in this region.

The barren moonscape of Lamayuru.

Popular sightseeing involves touring some of the historic monasteries, which date back hundreds or even one thousand years. All the monasteries I visited are still active and the structures are remarkably well preserved, beautiful wall paintings and rare artifacts are treasured. One day I got up early to watch the monks perform puja (prayer), a magic jam session where the monks’ continuous chanting creates a monotone buzz, punctuated by the high squawking notes of long, thin brass trumpets, and a metallic explosion of bells and drums. Herbal smoke swirls in the air and traditional butter tea is offered from a ceremonious silver pot. I tried to meditate, but all the stimulation was too much for my wild mind and the atmosphere was not exactly reverential. I watched the young monks in front of me poking and punching each other, while the elder monks droned on tiredly, looking slightly bored, but resigned to the whole ritual.

A large monastery just south of Leh.

Tired of the government bus, I wanted to try hitch hiking, a popular way of getting around for locals and foreigners alike. A couple of girls from my guesthouse were heading to a small nunnery west of Leh (Ladakh’s main city) the next day. So in the morning we walked to a corner and waved at cars for an hour before a bus headed in our direction stopped. I begrudgingly paid my 40 rupees and once again I was on the government bus. The bus dropped us at the turnoff for Likkir, a small village with a monastery and we stood for a long time waiting for anything to pass in our direction. We waved at a sedan driving by, but understood when they didn’t stop because there was a donkey in the backseat. Truckers headed in the wrong direction stopped and offered to take us Srinagar and even gave us a couple sweet small mangoes, but we declined and waited under the white-hot cloudless blue sky. Eventually, a group of monks headed for the monastery stopped in a pickup truck, so we loaded in the back and sat among the propane tanks rolling there.

The best journey was riding into the town of Khaltse on the roof of a petrol truck. The heady mix of sunshine, diesel fumes, and danger thrilled me as I waved at pedestrians. The worst one was when our driver gulped down a glass of rum and screamed, “No tension,” when we asked him to get down. I laughed internally, thinking, “Sure, no tension for you, buddy” and tried my best to assure the driver we weren’t upset, we simply wanted to get down from the truck. He relented and dropped us off on the side of the road. It felt like the middle of nowhere, an alien landscape with no water or plant life and strangely shaped crags gave it a surreal other earthly feeling. As I walked among the strange formations to find the “toilet,” I contemplated my existence and concluded it was no surprise that Buddhism flourished in a place so full with emptiness. When I returned to my friends, they had found a jeep with three French women and a child monk to take us the short distance to the other side of the mountains where a thousand year old monastery and village nestled.

Riding on top of the petrol truck

On the way back to Leh, I realized hitchhiking is fun, but exhausting. Most often trucks pick you up and their pace is painfully slow, at least as slow to the government bus. I decided my next journey would have to be by motorbike, the most thrilling way to travel the Himalayan highways. All I had to do was find a rider. It seemed kismet when we walked into the travel agency at the same time requesting inner line permits to travel to a high altitude lake. I spotted his helmet and asked if he had an extra seat on the bike. Carlos from Madrid smiled with bright eyes and said, “Maybeeeeee.” In that moment I saw something I trusted in those eyes, so the very next day I was bouncing on the back of an Enfield, whooshing past amazing scenery towards an enchanted lake where a two day masked dance festival was happening.

The Enfield at Tso Moriri

Unfortunately, the word about the festival had gotten out to the tourists. Actually, Ladakhi festival used to happen in the winter to give the locals something to look forward to during the long cold months. However, to capitalize on tourism, many villages now hold their traditional festivals in the summer, when roads are passable and tourists abound.  Tourists from all over the world came to this poor tiny town clinging to the edge of Tso Moriri Lake to witness the masked chaam dance. When we arrived every guesthouse was full and we almost had to resort to sleeping in a generous woman’s kitchen the first night. The town had an ugly disorderliness to it, probably because it sprung up haphazardly to fill the demand created by tourists, but the lake itself was impressive. Tso Moriri sparkles like sapphire and stretches 20 kilometers (12 miles), surrounded by sand dunes and snowy peaks on all sides. At 4,700 meters (over 15,000 feet!), the air is thin and even bending down to tie your shoes takes your breath away. I spent some of my last days in India here, at this surreal lake within eye’s glance of China/Tibet, on top of the world.

Ain’t nothing like Kashmiri hospitality

There are 28 states in the large country of India; states differ in culture, religion, and language (of hundreds of “mother tongues” there are 18 official languages in India). For this reason, it is often said that each state is like its own country. Nowhere did this seem more true than Jammu & Kashmir, the northernmost state in India, bordering Pakistan. The stunning geography of the region with its high mountain peaks, rushing rivers, jewel toned alpine lakes, and flowery meadows make it a natural paradise. But a history of war and terrorism took the state off the tourist map for awhile. The situation is now generally considered safe, and Indian holidaymakers have descended on the area full force, while western tourists are trickling in in smaller numbers. There is a strong military presence all over the state, with large cantonment areas cordoned off with razor-wire, and frequent military checkpoints. I felt a bit adventurous to head to this region, where Islam is the dominant faith, as a solo female traveler.

I arrived in Srinagar after two days journey by government bus, with an overnight stay in Jammu, “city of temples,” making it popular with Hindu pilgrims. I was the only foreign tourist on the crowded government bus and managed to get a window seat. As we bounced across the breathtaking landscape, my eyes drank in the mountain vistas, alpine green meadows, and river snaking through the valley below, until the last of the light seeped from the sky. When we reached the outskirts of Srinagar at nightfall, the whole city was veiled in black due to one of the city’s frequent blackouts. The bus lurched into the bus station and a young Kashmiri man appeared on the bus, singling me out with his eyes. I quickly recognized him for a tout as he approached and slid a houseboat owners association card from his wallet. He tried to sell me a room aboard a houseboat, which I explained was out of my budget, and then he offered a room in a family home for 200 rupees a night. I said I would just find a room myself, but he informed me that we were 8 kms out of the city and they would provide me free transport to the family home. I felt wary of his persistence, but I was weary from the long journey, and I agreed to go, wondering if I had made the right choice.

As we approached the car I saw there was another man waiting for us. He looked about the same age as the first guy, but much more handsome. He leaned against a car with hands in his pockets, looking a bit aloof. I asked why I should go with them, saying I could find my own way. “You’re in J and K now. Don’t trust anyone,” the cute one said. I felt a spark of defiance, “Why should I trust you then?” I retorted. “You have to come with us. We need to get you registered. I’m a police officer” the cute one lied. Too exhausted to put up a fight, I silently slid into the back seat. The first guy left us and Rauf (pronounced “roof”) started the car and lit up a cigarette. We rode in silence through the dark labyrinth streets. I was grateful he didn’t try to talk. I still hadn’t made up my mind about whether I should trust him or not, but I liked him better than his friend. We passed a large cantonment area and entered a neighborhood enclosed by high cement walls and intricate metal gates.

At the end of a narrow alley, we arrived to the family home. I was escorted through the gate and into the house, which was completely dark. I could hear the sound of children playing, and I took some comfort in that. I started to feel silly for making such a fuss. Rauf showed me to my room and lit a candle. Then he offered me a cup of tea. I accepted and apologized for being “a bit prickly.” He nodded and seemed to understand. Exhausted, I fell asleep.

Houseboats and shikaras on Dal Lake.

The next day I went exploring Dal Lake, the main tourist attraction of Srinagar. The lake stretches 20 kms, with a postcard mountain backdrop, however its waters are filled with houseboats and shikaras (deluxe water taxis) and the surrounding area has turned into a tourist ghetto. The sidewalk along the jetty is crowded with shikara drivers, “Shikara, madame?”, souvenir hawkers, and hordes of Indian tourists. SUVs packed to the brim with Indian tourists, blare their horns and choke the air with exhaust. Across the street are a line of yellow and black rickshaws, emporium shops specializing in Kashmiri crafts, and dhabas serving up greasy Indian fast food to hungry tourists. Quickly overwhelmed by this scene, I walked briskly past the trail of voices echoing, “Madaaaame?” I continued through the congestion into a quieter area of the lake. On my map I had spotted a dirt road running between the lake, bordered by floating gardens. I thought I’d give myself a walking tour of the lake, rather than pay the exorbitant fees of the shikara drivers.

Madame, shikara ride?

As I made my way, I encountered my first foreign tourist since arriving in Srinagar. Chris was from Switzerland and headed the same way as me. We walked together down the narrow dirt lane, which opened out into a wider track of land, and suddenly I was transported from the artificial tourist atmosphere of Dal Gate to the beautiful simplicity of village life along the lake. We saw men fishing and young boys swimming on the edge of a bright patch of yellow water lilies. Men in wooden boats paddled out to tend small gardens floating like islands of green in the lake. We walked across a small bridge and realized we had entered a village. Two girls in neon colored headscarves spotted us and giggled, covering their mouths with the bright cloth. I waved to them and shortly we were surrounded by a group of curious village children. We stopped for a while to take some photos.

Before long, a middle aged man came and invited us into his home for tea. I was about to have my first taste of Kashmiri hospitality. We crossed the bridge to his house feeling like strangers, but we left feeling like friends. The neighbors and family joined us for tea in a large carpeted room, where we lounged on cushions. A glass cabinet set in the wall displayed neat pyramids of delicate tea cups. Four generations lived under this roof. When the grandfather sat down to smoke his hookah, he saw me watching and offered me a taste. I accepted and he looked on approvingly as I drew a deep drag, making the water bubble. The backyard opened up to an idyllic garden area on the lake, where ducks and chickens waddled along the water. The little girl rowed the boat out to the garden patch and plucked two cucumbers from the vine, offering them to me.

After many enjoyable hours spent drinking tea and talking with the family, we went on our way, escorted by three young men from the village. We walked at a leisurely pace, smiling at the villagers, savoring the late afternoon sun that shimmered the air with golden light. Tall trees threw their shadows on the ground and floating garden plots were tended to by men rowing shallow boats with heart-shaped paddles. My first dose of Kashmiri hospitality left me completely intoxicated.

Once we arrived to the old city, our guides bid us farewell. The roads in this area were closed to traffic due to a 4-day strike that had something to do with the burning of a 200-year old Muslim shrine. Little did we know, but we had stumbled into the very neighborhood where the burning had taken place. The streets were eerily quiet, all shops were shut down, and faces peered from behind wooden shuttered windows onto the deserted streets below. Military police guarded spirals of razor-wire splayed out on the asphalt. Some of were decked out in riot gear, others held rifles, and some carried only sticks. At each point in the road, they stopped us. At first I felt a bit nervous being questioned by the uniformed men, but quickly realized they were probably bored and lonely standing at the roadblocks as they asked me the same questions as everyone in India, which country I am from, how long I stay, etc.

We continued on foot through the abandoned streets back towards the tourist bubble of Dal Gate. Along the way we passed a spot in the road littered with stones and chunks of brick, where separatists had been throwing stones in protest just a day before.

Into the silence: My Vipassana experience

Arrival

Om Mani Padme Hum.

A plane, a train, three busses and a rickshaw delivered me from the tropical beaches of Goa to the foothills of the Himalayas. Dizzy from the altitude and lack of sleep, I stepped off the bus and took a breath of cool mountain air, felt the summer sun on my face. The sky was cloudless blue and the air hot and dusty. In the distance snowcapped peaks glimmered like a jewel set in a crown of rugged mountains. Leaving my home at Shri Kali and traveling up to Dharamsala had been such a whirlwind, I barely had time to contemplate that I would be spending the next ten days in complete silence. I was about to start vipassana, a technique of sitting meditation said to have brought Buddha to enlightenment 2500 years ago in India.

The rules of the course are strict and many. I will not bother to list them all, but here are a few examples. Communication with fellow students is forbidden, this includes gesturing and eye contact. No books or writing materials are allowed, these along with cameras, ipods, and cell phones are surrendered at the door. A strict timetable is observed, each day is a meditation marathon of eleven hour of sitting, from four in the morning until after nine o’clock at night. Food is simple and vegetarian, only two meals a day are served, breakfast and lunch and tea at five pm. The living quarters are small and cell like, furnished with two single beds, thin mattresses and a small bedside table. There are a few pine needle carpeted paths for walking, but leaving the grounds is forbidden. Sounds like prison, huh? I had to remind myself that I had chosen to be there and give this meditation a chance.

The regimented atmosphere of the vipassana center stood in stark contrast to Shri Kali’s laidback, relaxed vibe. I was worlds away from the ashram, where the lax timetable left plenty of room for free time, where socializing was encouraged, and the hedonistic pleasures of Palolem were just a short drive’s distance away. At vipassana I was stripped of all pleasurable distractions, and left to face myself.

It was a challenge and I felt ready for it. At Shri Kali I had released a lot of old demons in a supportive space. I felt a new sense of being at home with myself in the world. Looking into my mind no longer frightened me. Bring it, I thought. Show me what other demons are still lurking there. Still, a part of me was afraid to lose my newfound sense of peace and wellbeing. I had heard horror stories of vipassana students breaking with reality, slipping into depression, paranoia, delusion. I felt my mind was stable, but how sure could I be?  I had never done anything like this before. Not to mention that Shri Kali’s guru, Shan did not endorse vipassana. When I arrived I felt a mixture of skepticism and openness, anxiety and curiosity along with a healthy dose of determination.

Days 1 through 3

It turned out I would need that determination. The first morning I awoke to an insistent ringing in my ears. I opened my eyes to see an older Indian woman with fiery red henna hair hunched over me with a stern, disapproving look. I could tell by the color of the sky that I had slept well past the four am wake up and “Jingle Bells,” as I later came to know her, did not seem happy. I hurried to the hall and settled onto my cushion. After a few minutes, a cassette player clicked on and it began…the sound. The sound I would later learn to love perhaps because I associated it with the end of a meditation session or perhaps because I grew to appreciate the teachings of the man who made the sound, but for now it was a gravelly, tortured sound of drawn out syllables, punctuated by coughs and throat clearings. At that moment that sound was pure suffering and I wondered how I would survive the next nine days.

The first three days of mediation instruct you to focus only on your breath. If you have ever attempted this, even for a minute, you understand how easily the mind slips away, like a fish, flopping unpredictably from one thought to the next. In the beginning I hardly noticed I was thinking. It was so habitual I was intertwined with it, but as I sat through those long days and hours, I watched my mind wildly spinning a tapestry of past memories, future hopes, plans, questions and anxieties. Often I began with the best intentions, and after two breaths my mind would wander off for fifteen, twenty minutes before I was even aware. When this happens we are instructed to start again without getting discouraged, which in itself is a challenge. I couldn’t decide what was worse, the physical discomfort of sitting for eleven hours a day or the futility of drawing my mind again and again back to the breath. At least I knew I wasn’t the only one struggling. The restlessness in the meditation hall was palpable. Students sighed and fabric rustled as bodies shifted on cushions. Necks craned towards the red glow of the digital clock on the back wall. Some sat hugging knees into chests, heads hung down in a gesture of defeat. Only a handful sat straight backed and still, like statues of Buddha and I silently hated them for it.

Our only source of entertainment was watching the tribe of monkeys that live at the vipassana center. There had to be 100 of them, and from their aggressive antics, it was clear they ran the place. The rest of us shuffled like over-medicated mental patients and the monkeys clearly took advantage of our docility. One day, myself and two other girls were sitting in a sunny patch of grass when I saw a large male monkey creep up behind one of the girls and grab her, completely unprovoked! I haven’t trusted monkeys since one tried to attack me at the Jagganath temple in Puri. I seriously don’t mess with those guys. Though their presence provided the occasional comic relief and made it somewhat thrilling to walk the grounds.

Days 4 to 10

By the fourth day, I felt I would explode. I had so much energy, I wanted to express or act out in some way. I had secretly been keeping a journal, which is against the rules. My meditation wasn’t going well; I would have maybe twenty good minutes out of eleven long hours. I spent most of my time moving around on my cushion, trying (in vain) to find a comfortable way to sit or craning my neck to look at the clock and count the minutes until I would hear Goenka’s mournful crooning. But on the third night it was revealed that we hadn’t even earned the technique of vipassana, we were merely preparing our mind for what Goenka refers to as the ‘deep surgical operation’ of vipassana. I decided I had to at least stay and learn the actual technique.

Halfway through the fourth day, we were instructed in vipassana, which involves scanning the body for sensations and observing them with equanimity. This simple practice is meant to help one realize the law of impermanence. The meditator witnesses sensations arising and passing, allowing the meditator to experience impermanence at the subjective level. Observing one’s sensations without clinging to them or pushing them away, but rather with equanimity, breaks the habitual pattern of the mind. This is seen as a process of purification. By developing equanimity, we release deeply rooted samkaras, which are like the tree that gives fruit to our suffering. Whenever we react with anger for example, we are planting the seed of anger, which bears countless angry fruits. Stopping the reaction stops the creation of new samkaras and uproots old ones. The eventual goal is liberation, freedom from the suffering both craving, aversion, and ignorance create.

The wisdom of this tradition is not merely intellectual or sensual, rather it is experiential. Students are encouraged to try the technique and see if it works for themselves. Surrendering one’s self for ten days allows for total immersion in the meditation. Free from worldly distractions, one lives as a monk or nun for ten days. The experience is potent if you surrender and give fair trial to the technique. I saw the ten days as an opportunity. What I got was an amazing gift. I glimpsed a deep peace in myself, a capacity to witness myself without reacting. As an emotionally reactive person, the ability to observe my emotions rather than expressing or suppressing is an invaluable tool.

The understanding that all is changing allows me to see the mistakes or so-called negative experiences with a different perspective. Who knows if that wrong turn could lead you to a delightful surprise? It is unlearning our resistance to the nature of things, the universal law of dhamma, that allows us to live in greater peace and harmony. The crowning jewel of the technique is the practice of metta (compassion, love). In metta practice, one offers the merits of one’s practice to the world. A wish that all beings be free and happy, in peace and harmony. Metta makes the whole technique more meaningful as it expands the practice beyond the individual to include the wider world. When I connect with the deeper peace in myself, it feels natural to offer it to others and meditation no longer feels selfish like a selfish pursuit in self -improvement.

Epilogue

Arriving back into the world of sound and speech and worldly pleasures was quite a shock. I had so many things to share and express, but speaking easily exhausted me. Chaotic traffic and street hawkers, food smells and being pushed along in a crowd overwhelmed me. It took me three whole days before I returned to “normal.” I have kept up the daily meditation, usually for an one hour. But it is no longer as potent. More thoughts drift into my head and I can’t quite access that deep place. I try not to get discouraged and remind myself that this is a test of my equanimity. And since I don’t plan on living as a nun, these distractions are a part of my practice. This also comes with the understanding that ultimately, the technique is not the goal in itself, but rather what it points to: freedom.

Ashram living: Floppy and relaxed at Shri Kali

Six months on the road and it’s time for an update!

I’ve spent the last two months at Shri Kali Ashram. I knew if I found a nice place to study yoga I’d stay awhile…and I truly have. The ashram is in south Goa, on a small protected beach called Galgibaga or Turtle beach. The area is pretty quiet, only a small number of tourists venture this far down the coast of Goa. Since the beach is a turtle sanctuary, there are only a handful of small all-purpose shacks serving up fresh seafood curry. Except for Sundays and holidays when locals come to stroll along the beach, we mostly have it to ourselves. The waves can get pretty big here, but I don’t mind being tossed around in the waves. I swim almost every day here. I also respect the water and its unpredictability. Everyday is different, as if the ocean has her own personality. It is quite potent to be so close to the sea.

Not to mention the yoga! Well, I’ve been here eight weeks and things have developed. At first the asanas bored me a bit. I was used to the fast-paced vinyasa style yoga that favored in the US. Vinyasa yoga actually developed from Pattabi Jois’ ashtanga yoga series, and is based on Indian wrestling exercises. The yoga taught here is also a series of asanas or poses that build oneach other. The similarities with ashtanga end here. The asana sequence taught here is much more restful. We move slowly and spend longer in the poses, rest in svasana (corpse pose) between poses, and take deep, chest expanding breaths.

I was not used to this “slow yoga” and at first I was skeptical. This yoga was so different from what I was used to in the states. But isn’t that why I had come to India, to experience something different from what I was getting in the states? I wanted to come to the India to look for the roots of yoga. Despite my skepticism, I decided to stay for a month and give it a try, at least I would have a 200 hour teaching certificate at the end. To be honest, my practice had been getting a little stale since I first fell in love with yoga five years ago. In class back in the US, I felt like I was constantly striving for something, never fully relaxing, struggling and moving too fast to experience real meditation. The frequent emphasis on alignment in vinyasa classes fueled my search for perfection as I saw attaining more and more difficult asanas as a measure of my so-called success in yoga. This emphasis on the physical so pervasive in western yoga actually comes from our culture of materiality. Materiality in the sense that we only believe what we can measure. Things must be validated with science, which only care for things that can be measured. Yoga is an ancient science based on prana, which cannot be measured.

View from the shala,

It took me awhile to see things from that perspective as I was still closely identified with the vinyasa yoga I practiced at home. I had a hard time with the slowness, and thought if I wasn’t collapsing in a sweaty heap at the end I wasn’t doing yoga. Since I’m quite a frenetic person to begin with, I had trouble relaxing. With the fast movements of vinyasa, it was easy to check out, but this yoga forced me to really be with myself. In the first weeks, my mind circled and wandered, but simply “going through the motions” allowed the yoga to integrate into my subconscious mind. After about a month of daily classes, my mind started going into a relaxed meditative state quite easily and at the end of class I drift into a yogic trance/sleep and awake refreshed.

The days pass pretty easily here and aren’t structured around a rigorous schedule like many ashrams. No 5am wake ups here! The day starts around 8:30-9:00 am with pranayama or “beach exercises,” where we practice cartwheels and inversions among other things and recently Bhagawan, the guru, has been teaching us kung-fu. The big emphasis here is on relaxation. I think I found the chillest ashram in India.  Learning is experiential and there is a lot of time for socializing (we are a small group of about 15 or so), swimming, or studying.

Dudley, ashram dog.

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the Divine Initiation, a book loved and loathed by the many students who pass through Shri Kali. The book is written by Bhagawan (aka Shan) and is his interpretation of the Veda. The book is very academic in tone and lays out a spiritual science based on the idea of Monism, or Oneness. The Veda describes many different divinities, but they are all aspects of the One Divine Absolute….and we ourselves are that consciousness (because the divine is conscious) expressing. In other words, you are divine, you are sacred, you are beyondlittlest all self of finite perspective. And maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Yeah, I know that already!” And you probably do know it consciously. However, this book and the practices here are meant to integrate this idea into the unconscious as well, so you know it intuitively. You can see the value in this when considering that we use only 10% of our brains and the remaining 90% is unconscious. Isn’t it more efficient to try and culture the bigger part, which seems to be in charge most of the time anyway?

I’m a lot happier than when I arrived and everyone here has noticed too. I’ve found that I only have to be myself, to follow my truth or dharma, and to express freely. The more I integrate this, the more joyful life is. And it doesn’t hurt that I am living in paradise–well paradise with a shared bathroom and a lazy ceiling fan, but paradise nonetheless! I discovered if I can’t be happy here, I won’t be happy anywhere. I feel I really found what I needed and I’m really excited to share it.

I now have a 500 hour teacher certification and plan to teach the asana series. The method of teaching is very hands off, with few physical adjustments or verbal cues other than the frequent reminder to let go of the conscious mind and to be “floppy and relaxed.” This helps induce a meditative state of dropping the conscious mind and cultivating intuitive awareness. Since the yoga sequence is always basically the same, there is no pressure or ego involvement in creating a new, exciting sequence. This yoga is neither new or exciting, it is ancient and relaxing. There is no ego involved, so while I’m teaching, my ego will be laying in svasana on the floor, floppy and relaxed. I am simply a conduit for the teaching, which allows my students to have their own experience and become become their own masters. That is truly empowering!

In less than a week I leave this place. I will be sad to go as I’ve really come to love ashram living and all the wonderful people here, who I really consider like members of my family at this point. But rainy season is almost upon us and I’m moving north to higher elevations to enjoy my last two months in India.

Happy Holi from Varkala!

It’s hard to believe I’ve been a month in India!

Statue of Ganesh on the beach in Varkala.

But here I am in Varkala, Kerala after working my way down the eastern coast from Calcutta. Varkala is the kind of backpacker haven a person can get stuck for awhile. It’s a beautiful place situated high on clay colored cliffs above the beach. The edge of cliff is lined with restaurants and touristic shops selling the usual blend of scarves, ali baba pants, and jewelry. You can easily forget you are actually in India because this place has so adapted itself to suit the taste of western travelers. But still it is cool. I’m staying at Shiva Garden, in a roof top dorm. For about 3 dollars a night, it’s a simple mattress on the floor with a light and a mosquito net under a palapa. Cool people seem to magnetize here. Every night is a jam session with djembe and guitars. Yesterday was Holi, a holiday typically celebrated in the north, involving throwing powdered paint and water at people. We had some paint and made our own little Holi celebration. Our version was a little tame but I’m glad I got into the spirit of Holi. I can only imagine the absolute madness in a place like Dehli, when everyone is full on paint war in the street. Both very playful and aggressive at the same time. Typical Indian contradictions.

Holi fun!

Aside

On the eve of her flight to India

Well hello again……it’s been awhile. But it feels so tiring starting every blog entry this way and I want to keep it fresh.

Sunset Lumpini Park, Bangkok

The past three months have been a whirlwind: Thailand, Laos and Cambodia…in just under three months. At the moment, I’m back in Bangkok making the final preparations for my flight to India. Tomorrow at 11:25am local time, I arrive in Calcutta. I feel pretty calm about it right now. The last five days have been the first time I’ve really been alone practically since I began traveling. It’s given me time to center and feel what it means to be a solo traveler.  Of course I miss my friends who’ve gone their separate directions, but new things are happening so fast all the time, it’s hard to hold onto what was. Likewise, I’m leaving Southeast Asia, a place I’ve become comfortable, and familiar, for a whole new country and culture, India. The travelers I meet always have something to say about India, people seem to love it or hate it, and many who proclaim their love of India admit to hating it first. It’s most often described as intense and just the mention of going to India brings a lively discussion. I feel eager to go and experience it myself with an open mind. Afterall, if the last three months have taught me anything, it’s that “expectation’s a bitch.”

Living it Lao style

Happy New Year and Saibaidee (hello) from Laos!

A whole month has gone by since I last wrote of my travels! Laos is lovely and I am meeting great people here. Here’s my the story on where I’ve been in the last month or so. I arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos after 48 hours of travel by slow boat along the Mekong, which all began as a big party. There were a group of 20 or so young travelers in our boat. With the 8 hour minibus ride and border crossing behind us, we were ready to enjoy the next leg of our journey by boat. I had memories of my Class Afloat days as we stocked up on the Lao side of the the Mekong with beer lao and ice in styrofoam coolers and baguette sandwiches (a specialty in Lao influenced by French colonialism) and other snacks. We passed the whole day in the sun, drinking beer, while two guys with guitars played and we sang along. Just as the day was disappearing to twilight we arrived at a very random town to lodge for the night. We partied at the local disco and returned at the 11pm curfew and partied at the guesthouse. Everywhere in Laos has curfew, in villages usually 10pm! I was actually berated in Lao for breaking curfew. The second day on the slow boat was not as nice. It was cold and windy and gray. Nearly everyone was hungover, exhausted and the sky was cold and overcast. For the whole ride I sat on the floor crammed up against bodies and large parcels of rice, but at least I wasn’t in the back of the boat where the engine roared at a deafening volume.

The second day of the journey to Luang Prabang.

At then end of the second day, we arrived to Luang Prabang at last, a world heritage listed city. Luang Prabang is charming with its light strung avenue along the river and large central market, however the environment feels a little canned. Many buildings are in the French colonial style and have a lacquered newness to them that sucks away their charm entirely. And they are all guesthouses. No one really lives in the town center. There are some nice monasteries and  you can watch the monks in their orange robes gathering food near the market if you rise at dawn.The market is filled with stalls selling silks, jewelry, textiles, carvings, paintings, and all other kinds of handicrafts. Down an alley from the market is an entire lane of buffets heaped with of noodles, rice, vegetables and tofu. And the sizzling rows of skewered whole fish, pork, chicken, over a charcoal grill. The grilled river fish became a favorite of mine, stuffed with lemongrass and salted liberally before grilling it til the skin is crispy and the inside is rich and flavorful. Best eaten with sticy rice and bare hands. Part of the dining alley experience also includes sitting back to back and elbow to elbow at sticky tables and getting yelled at if you stay too long! I ate at this alley almost every night and every time I ate in a restaurant I was disappointed (overpriced and not so tasty). The buffet only costs 10,000 kip (equal to about a dollar). The fish is about 20,000 kip.

After a few days in Luang Prabang Anni, my Israeli friend and I made plans to go up north to some villages there. The overcrowded local minivan followed a dusty road through villages, stopping regularly to pick up or drop off another passenger. Above us the mountains were green and monstrous, like lumpy giants. I was getting to see Lao for the first time since I rode in a songthaew to the waterfalls. We were dropped off in Nong Kiaw at a tiny bus station, along a red dirt road. Across the river we found a lovely little bungalow and a few restaurants and guesthouses. It had a more rural vibe with ducks and chickens running around and little traffic. We met some other travelers by a fire. Everyone had a different nationality and the coversation and laughter was flowing along with the lao lao (homemade rice whiskey). From Nong Kiaw we took a boat further downriver to an even more rural village, Muang Ngoi with no roads or cars and not even a motorbike in sight! There is a row of simple bungalows by the river. To get from one village to the next you walk, and it takes about an hour. Part time there is a generator for electricity, but no hot showers and it was cold. I didn’t shower as often as I was wearing the same dirty clothes everyday anyway. The locals bathe and wash their clothes in the river here. In the day the sun shines bright hot, but when it passes behind the mountains beyond the river, the air becomes cold. In total I spent a week in Nong Kiaw and Muang Ngoi and could have stayed more, but 30 days visas are short and I wanted to head south.View from the bridge at Nong Kiaw

Anni and I joined forces with some of the people we met at the campfire that first night in Nong Kiaw. It was very fun to travel with our group of six, everyone from a different country and quirky in their own way. We decided to spend holidays together in Vang Vieng, more for geography than that it’s an drunken tourist town where farang tube down the river while getting smashed. Possibly our group is more lame for not taking part in this. One day we went to check out the action on the river and took advantage of the free shots in the bars and I jumped off a really high swing. We spent Christmas there together, a Canadian, a Finn, a Mexican, an Ozzie, an Israeli, and me the American. It was wonderful and didn’t really feel lie Christmas at all. Though I can’t tell you how many drunk santas I saw. Vang Vieng is weird, for example all the restaurants have tvs with Friends playing on it all the time. And the farang (foreigners) here wear bathing suits only, a big cultural no no in Laos in general. But Vang Vieng is for the tourists, at least it has become this way. Outside the town is very beautiful, one day we biked through rice fields and forests and bumpy dirt roads in search of the Blue Lagoon and on the way were invited into a local party where danced, drank, and ate. We found the lagoon shortly before having to turn around to avoid riding the rough terrain back in the dark.

We planned to spend new years on 4000 islands in Dondet, a 7 km island in the Mekong surrounded by countless tiny islands. I believe only two or three are actually inhabited. I got here on the 30th, and haven’t had much of a chance to explore the nearest island accessible by bridge as I’ve been a little under the weather after a lot of traveling and bus and tuk tuk stories that I can spare you here. Ask me about the VIP sleeper bus. Of course it is perfectly ok to do nothing in Dondet because there really isn’t much to do in this little village but relax and enjoy the chill place of life. Families rent basic bungalows in front of their homes. It’s not the place to come for those who prefer hotels, outdoor bathroom with a river water shower. You might as well do as the locals do and bathe in the river. It’s nicer in the sun than a concrete box.  Everywhere there are ducks and chickens and pigs and dogs and cats and children. Children everywhere playing, riding bicycles far to big for them, splashing in the river, using a sling shot to knock (a bat?) out of a tree. It seems lie 4000 islands is an idyllic place to have a childhood. I can watch the sunset from my porch and the stars are The early morning is filled with sounds of the village waking up: the animals calling, the shout of children, the river gurgling and bubbling and boats coming alive with engines now and then. I don’t even mind that it wakes me up.  It’s such a peaceful song. It’s amazing to be here on the Mekong for a few more days before I head to Cambodia….and then India! I finally booked my ticket!

Getting down on Christmas eve in Vang Vieng

Aside

Previous Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.