[note: This post began it’s journey 2 months ago and is just now going online due to very limited and very slow internet]
India is a bit of a beast. A multi-headed, multifaceted beast that you always feel you’re on the verge of being chewed up and spit out by. Despite this, the beast and I have (surprisingly) had a warm (and at times tentative) relationship, even when while navigating the potentially disastrous, sticky bowels of Delhi. But back to the multifaceted aspect – I’ve never traveled anywhere that offers such depth of variety in experience. India gives something to everyone. It’s offered so many things to me already that I have a hard time imagining there’s more, but it’s India so of course there is always more. I’ve spent 1.5 months exploring just 4 of it’s 28 states!
In my minds eye, India molds itself into physical form as the Hindu gods Durga and/or Kali, who are both gracefully adorned with multiple arms, and at times in Kali’s case, multiple heads. They needs these extra appendages to balance themselves and the spiritually significant items they hold…just like India. I’m going to borrow this analogy as a badly needed crutch – I have no idea how to summarize my experiences with India over the past 2 months otherwise! They feel too disjointed and too different, but they are all a part of the same whole.
Arm 1: Leh – Climbing mountains and river raving
Every summer hundreds of Euros make the jump from the Swiss Alps to Ladak’s Himalaya mountains to pass through the Maka Valley, or for the more adventurous to scale the 6,100m alpine peak of Stok Kangra. We joined them for a 4 day trek and were a poorly outfitted sight in comparison – Where was our matching gear inclusive of gators, hiking boots, poles and camel packs? They looked like professionals! We looked like schmucks. Though these two schmucks rocked the 5,000 meter pass on the second day – spend three weeks above 3,000 meters and suddenly you feel like superman passing purple-faced Germans at full speed. The day after our trek we were invited to a ‘full moon’ party that just so happened to be in the middle of the day (But substitute a river for the moon, keep the dance trance mix on and it’s all pretty much the same). Two Egyptian girls rolled a lollipop of a dubie (think fist sized) and soon the sun sleepers were doing an impressionable mix of gyrating and fist pumping – this is what happens when Israeli girls meet Aussie boys on the dance floor. This India is the Israeli shadow…just like the ‘bakeries’, Royal En field motorbikes and dread lock saloons that set up shop in their footprints. In this India you hear comments like “Hash is meant to be shared man, that’s why it’s called a joint!” and “Hey! I invented a drinking game. It involves a liter of Jager Meister”. This India and I had our moment but we left it at that, instead I went shopping at the Spiritual Supermarket.
(Scenes from the Maka Valley hike)
Arm 3: Silence and thought watching.
“You are all spiritual babies!” was one of the first things Bhikkhu Sanghasena, (Founder and Spiritual Director of Mahabodhi International Meditation Centre http://www.mahabodhi-ladakh.org/index.aspx) said to our group of ‘baby’ meditators. Indignation seemed to bristle and rise until the air was sharp with it. Sensing this Sanghasena pulls his gums from his teeth in a grin that gave me a good view of his back molars and re-instated “You are! Or else you wouldn’t be here. But don’t worry, this is a good thing” [insert another full teeth grin that’s velocity seemed to pull his head up by the ears]. I instantly loved this man. In the West, which is where all 20-something of us were from, we would not be considered ‘spiritual babies’ based on the fact alone that we’re seeking Buddhist meditation teachings. But here, based on the fact alone that we were seeking teachings, we’re babies. I felt the air soften slowly as I’m sure people (perhaps myself included…) justified this comment with a mental “well, at least I’ve been born. I know some people who spiritually speaking, aren’t in utero yet”. Later that day I learned from Sanghasena how to quiet my mind from these types mental judgements. This was the start to a 3 day silent meditation retreat. Somehow I actually missed the fact that this was a ‘silent’ retreat – I was comfortable with the idea of meditation but no talking, no computers, no books and no writing left me with apprehension; who want’s to spend that much time ‘looking inward’? For three days my hand was itching for a pen to record, analyze and quantify the experiences I was having; the junk and profound thoughts that extended their fingers into my mind were impressive if nothing else. Instead I was encouraged to ‘thought-watch’ – like watching clouds pass, morph and change that is how impassively I was to observe but not interact with my thoughts. So of course I started categorizing them (was that thought based in the future? past? present? Did it represent suppressed anger? jealousy? attachment? or greed?). Passivity I realized, is difficult. But by the end of the three days there were moments of calm. Quietness seemed to be settling over my mind’s frantic chatting like a muted fog. And then it was done. Stiff legged from 24 cumulative hours of sitting, this spiritual babys were released back into the real world.
Arm 4: Drowning in Delhi.
Delhi took a total of ten minutes to make it’s impression on me. Stepping out of the airport I registered the temperature; moderate heat, extreme humidity. This air was super saturated with the monsoons that should have come but haven’t yet. Moving felt like swimming and breathing like sucking in water…thinking was, well it just wasn’t happening at all. On route to our taxi two ten-year old shoe cleaners took to my shadow, insisting they clean my ‘flip flops’. Naively (who suspects ten year old children?) I showed them my shoes and explained the obvious – they don’t need shining. Alternately they, having pinned me in beside my taxi, grabbed my ass. I spun on flip-flopped heel and shot my best teacher trained “excuse me? you had better keep your hands to yourself”. I opened the car door as a barrier but not before one of them sneaked a hand around for a coochie pinch. WTF Delhi? This was followed by 3 anonymous boob and booty grabs on public transportation. India is so crowded that there is no way to spot the perpetrator! It leaves you feeling rather vulnerable and understanding why there are ‘ladies only’ cars on the metro. Having just returned from my 3-day meditation course I would like to meet such moments with love and forgiveness and to console myself with thoughts of “that man just generated so much bad karma that he’ll probably be reborn as a goat or a cockroach.” As an alternative, if I respond with a ball grab and some well-worded profanity (as I would like…) I too will join him in the land of re-birth as a lower creature. The West in me almost physically needs to do something, because if I don’t aren’t I sanctioning it? The East responds with “how does anger create solutions? whatever anger you form returns to you, probably in the shape and form of another ass grab”. Having recently visited the Gahndi museum and stood in his final footprints, I opted to send all my physical assultors (with great difficulty) forgiveness. In Delhi we also indulged in some cinema watching of “Rise of the Dark Knight” or as Neil put it “Rise of the Angry people!”. Towards the end of the movie, just when you were starting to forget that you’re in India, the sound starting erupting in sharp blasts of static…it was loud enough that I plugged my ears and seriously thought about hearing damage. After a couple minutes of this people started yelling, shouting and eventually ‘taking action’. The men with the biggest arms and chests stalked in front of the screen, readjusting their manhood on route (to remind themselves that it’s there after all), and with egos expanding exponentially, started yelling in Hinglish and shoving (in what is universally known as unnecessary aggression) the theater attendant. This ended with the movie being abruptly cut off one minute from the end and the swelling of a large mob demanding their money back. We scuttled down and out of there as fast as possible but not before hearing the crash of furniture and triumphant cries of ‘men’. They had obviously used their excessive testosterone to solve the problem.
Arm 5: Life and Death in Varanasi.
In Varansi I acutely felt my own mortality. Everyone was praying, crying, dying or burning – united in a brotherhood of death and shit in this ancient, crumbling beauty of a city. It was overwhelming and exhausting. This is not a place where one feels ‘sophisticated’ or ‘civilized’, despite it being one of the oldest and holiest cities in the world. Instead you realize that humans are straight up 2-legged animals, not so far removed from the homeless cows that eat plastic bags and dogs that shudder and suck their last breath on the ghats (steps that meet the river). Varanasi is best experienced in bare feet. The twisted streets are minefields of excrement and the smell of urine, old and acrid, offends the olfactory system; yet most pilgrims here walk solely on the souls of their feet. It’s like watching unprotected sex. I so badly wanted to yell “don’t you know what you could catch!” But they want the intimacy and closeness that only bare feet can afford. People pilgrimage to Varanasi to wash away lifetimes of accumulated bad karma. It is the most auspicious place that one can pray and be cremated. When someone does pass the body is bathed in milk and honey and wrapped in a white sari and bright cellophane before being walked (by foot!) to the Ganges by 4 male family members, leaving a wake of chanting in their footsteps. At the ghat they lower the body into the water and then set it to dry before being placed on a wooden pyre. The fire they use to start the cremation is a sacred one that is tended to 24/7 and never goes out. Three hours after the flames begin to lick the deceased’s body, only one part is left; the pelvis of women and chest cavity of men. Then in a rather unceremoniously manner the ashes are dumped into the river, where men pan the bottom for gold pieces that the flames may have left behind – whatever they find is theirs to sell. Other men in mourning shave their heads and tie a white lungi around their lower body before descending into the ashy water to bath with their grief. There is something beautiful and only slightly unnerving, in watching people pass from this life to another in the open, especially when the holy location guarantees a smooth transition. Not everyone’s dead body is welcome here though – children and pregnant women, both of whom have not accumulated bad karma (the pregnant woman is subsequently purified by her unborn fetus) are simply bound to a brick and allowed to settle to the bottom of the rivers center. This is the same protocol followed for lepers and those who died from a cobra bite, although not because they’ve been purified but because their ashes could make others sick. This all goes into the water that people drink, pray in and wash themselves with. I put a toe in and figured that was cleansing enough for me.
Arm 6 – Kerala, hugs and head waggles
After Varanasi, the ‘shitty city’, we flew to ‘God’s own country’ on India’s most Southern tip. The Kerala province is well known for being lush and tropical with a culinary emphasis on coconuts/seafood and healing emphasis on Ayurveda treatments. It is an Indian version of paradise. Never mind that we visited on the tail end of monsoon season; our nerves were fried from Varanasi and in need of beach bumming and copious oil massages. The rains had cleared out the tourists and it felt like Kerala was ‘ours’ in a way. The people here especially won my heart (a standing ovation to the men who were able to keep their hands to themselves!). This was also where I caught the infectious head waggle (and unfortunately some sort of fleas or bed bugs…). The head waggle is an art form perfected by it’s necessity of being the answer to all questions, and the body language to cover all emotions.
“Do you have the calamari?”, head waggle.
“Which direction is Sigigiri Ashram?”, head waggle.
“Does your head waggle mean yes or no?”, head waggle.
“Thank you!” head waggle.
It means everything and nothing all at the same time. A perfected form of communication.
Our traveling seemed to slow down in this part of the country…we slept and ate at Varkala beach, watched the annual snake boat races in Alleppey, visited Amma, the hugging mothers, ashram and soaked up the monsoon at a beautiful B&B in Fort Kochi. Amma and her ashram could have an entire lengthy post to itself, but my fingers are tired and I officially start work with the kiddies tomorrow so for now I’ll say this; there is something wonderful about an all body, face in soft bosom, hug by this sainted ‘hugging mother’. Amma passes much of her teachings on through ‘darshan’ a potentially all night ceremony where hug after hug is exchanged between followers and guru. I didn’t experience the overwhelming emotional tidal wave that many do while in Amma’s embrace but I appreciated her teachings of love and peace in the extension of a hug.
If you made it this far thank you – what should have been 6 easily digestible and individual blog posts morphed into one giant and for this I apologize and thank you for taking the time to read it at all. India exists in opposites and contradictions; for as much as it’s ugly it’s beautiful. And as much as I hate it I love it too.