The India Diaries: New Beginnings

…trips do not begin or end, they merely change form” 

~ Robyn Davidson

Last week in India. Every situation I encountered became a microcosm of India in my mind, little snippets of time and absurdity that perfectly encapsulated my experience of the country…

*

A Varanasi alleyway at night. A cow thrusts her matted black head out of a weathered door, and fills the darkness with a thunderous bellow. A group of men huddled together around a fire are startled out of their conversation. They look over at the cow and point in the direction that the cow’s mate went, a ponderous white bull who was usually at her side. The black cow lumbers off in that direction and the men resume their conversation as if there were nothing odd about that interaction.

*

Ordering breakfast at a hotel restaurant. As usual, we write our order down on a scrap of paper that has someone’s passport photocopied on one side. Set breakfast with tea. The waiter brings out a tray some time later and says, “You wanted tea?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I made you coffee.”

*

Crossing a busy street. I’m about to slip into sliver of space in the traffic. At the precise moment the gap presents itself, a rickshaw driver pulls into it, spits paan juice at my feet and asks, “tuk-tuk?”.

*

The local bar around the corner from the hostel. There are never any women in here, aside from us Western girls. It’s dark and smoky; Indian music videos flash brightly on a big screen television. There isn’t a separate bathroom for women, so we all have to share the men’s. At the end of the night, a few of us go into the bathroom together and meet a trio of young Indian guys preening in the mirror. They spend the next fifteen minutes directing us in a series of bathroom mirror selfies.

*

Sarnath, an important Buddhist site just outside Varanasi. After breakfast one morning, I change my mind about my plans and decide to go back to Varanasi in the afternoon. I had the name of the hostel I wanted to go to, but no address or directions or much of a clue where it was, and I couldn’t find any wifi anywhere. But no matter. There are no time constraints and I’m confident I’ll get there eventually. I vaguely remember that the street name of the hostel starts with a B, so I pick out a B named street on the map and instruct the rickshaw driver to take me there. Rickshaw drivers never seem to use maps or precise directions — they just go to the general area and ask around until they find the place. So I figure that’s what we’ll do.

After a few failed attempts at asking for directions (it’s the wrong B street), the driver sends me into an alley on a wild goose chase and bails. I hit a dead end at the end of the alley, backtrack and return to the main road. It’s a clear day, bright and sunny, and people seem friendlier than usual. I walk down the street slowly, taking in the effervescence of Indian commerce, and enjoying the sun on my face. There is a man standing in front of a souvenir shop who looks like he wants to sell me something. I pre-empt his sales pitch by asking for directions. He brings out a stool for me to sit on, two cups of chai, and lets me use his phone to google the hostel. We chat aimlessly. I finish my chai, he waves over a bicycle rickshaw and sends me on my way. Easy as that.

“Stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course”

~ Tao Te Ching

 

Travelling through India is like being tempered by fire. I have so much to be grateful to this country for and yet, most days it drove me completely nuts. I’m hardier now, with a better handle on stress, quicker to laugh when things go awry. I appreciate the art of doing nothing, even if I don’t always have the patience for it. I don’t look at my own vulnerability as a weakness any more.

Since I’ve spent so much of my six month journey alone or in a crowd but apart and hanging out in my own head, whenever I get the opportunity to retreat into myself, it feels like coming home — the place I’ve travelling all this time to find.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”

~ T.S. Eliot

The India Diaries: The Art of Dying

Varanasi is the holiest of seven holy Hindu cities in India. It is where Shiva and Parvati stood when time began ticking. When I asked the family with whom I was sharing a sleeper bunk on the train from Amritsar to help me get off at the right stop, the man said, “Banaras? Next stop!” (Varanasi is also called Banaras or Kashi, the city of light). I heard  “bananas“, which proved to be a pretty accurate description.

My first impression of Varanasi was through the window of a rickshaw at night, and my driver was doing his very best not to take me where I wanted to go (seriously, rickshaw drivers of India, you have ONE job!). “Oh no madam, that place is not safe. I know a better place.” Despite my protesting — which was admittedly weak after a long and cramped twenty-five hour train journey — he took me to a different guest house and we got into an argument in a dark and dank alleyway. I quickly gave up trying to impress upon him my abiding desire to get to the guest house I had originally booked into, handed him 100 rupees, and told him to get lost. It took me the better part of two hours to get to my guest house. When I finally did, I was led to my room on the uppermost floor by a man who looked like an Indian Igor. The whole floor was enclosed with black wire fencing and looked like an asylum. I woke to monkeys screaming and rattling the bars of the cage.

Ah, India.

*

The central focus of the city is the ghats, a series of stairs that lead from the serpentine alleys to the unspeakably polluted Ganges river. This city is where devout Hindus go to die. The purification process — the body is washed and cremated on the steps before being returned to Mother Ganga — is meant to guide the soul into moksha, freedom from the circle of life. It is said that the soul reaches nirvana and is not reborn.

For a city of death, there is an awful lot of new life. In almost every crevice of the tangle of cobbled and shit-streaked alleyways, there are puddles of wriggling puppies. With eyes that have just barely opened, they are already dodging motorbikes and the hooves of cattle. Their mums create beds out of garbage. An otherworldly fog creeps over the river and slithers through the city most nights. Every time I leave the hostel, it feels like the beginning of a horror movie. People huddle around small fires on the edges of the streets. The level of filth is biblical. My clothes and hair smell of camp fire. Every day there are power cuts and the already grim streets are shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from the fires and the ethereal fog.

The funerals are an entirely male affair. Historically, widows were supposed to jump onto the burning pyre after their husbands, but that practice is now outlawed. Also, there is not to be any crying, and, as everyone knows, women are just sentient geysers of tears, and so are entirely excluded from the process.

After the last rites are performed and the body is cleansed, it is wrapped in colourful fabric, placed on a litter and carried through the twisted streets on the shoulders of male family members. Like the ubiquitous honking of horns, the warning that a body is coming through is marked by the rumbling, rhythmic chanting of the pallbearers. The pyre is lit from a central fire that has been burning since Shiva first founded the city.

A group of us from the hostel stood apart and watched, while a man with cloudy, unfocused eyes explained the rites and rituals and then tried to wheedle us out of some rupees. The running scam is to tell tourists that the wood for the pyres costs a lot, and also they need money for the nearby hospice, where people are waiting to die. I’d heard about this one before — apparently the scam artists are heroin addicts — and it’s all bullshit. I looked up some of the information he told us and it was wrong, too.

The pyres are smaller than I expected. Two or three bodies smoulder simultaneously, goats wearing jumpers huddle around the fire for warmth. A baba (holy man) wearing an orange loincloth, with ash in his dreadlocks and on his skin, tinkers with two cobras. He laughs at the foreigners’ fear and charges for photos. An all male crowd loiters; some are bathing in the river, others are on their phones. Not a tear is being shed, and aside from the general backdrop of Indian noise, it’s relatively quiet. But, then again, why should it be sad? Everyone dies, and these are the lucky ones. They’re going home.

The India Diaries: Dharamsala

I left Rishikesh in a state of bitter-sweet happiness. While it was sad to say goodbye to the place and people that had been my home-on-the-road for six weeks and where I’d learned so much about myself, yoga and life, I was overflowing with gratitude for the experience. And I was excited to get on the road again. Riding in a rickshaw to the bus station with my backpack at my feet felt like reconnecting with an old friend.

The ‘bus station’ turned out to be an abandoned travel agency. Amber and I loitered around outside for a while, drinking chai and waiting — the hallmark of travel in India. Eventually, a man came to tell us that we were in the right place, and then disappeared back to wherever he came from. This bus journey was what people were warning me about when they told me not to take the bus in India: it was an absolutely filthy vehicle, probably one of the first buses to ever have been built, with no shock absorbing system to speak of. We spent fourteen abysmal hours enduring the biting cold that seeped in through windows that wouldn’t close, and being tossed out of the seat each time the driver took a hairpin corner at top speed. We arrived in McLeod Ganj (town close to Dharamsala) in the early, still dark morning, groggy and stiff with cold. Hotel touts and taxi drivers swarmed us like a cloud of gnats.

The temperature of our hotel room was the same as outside; there is no central heating anywhere here. It was so cold, I could see my breath. We went to sleep wearing most of our clothes, under a heaping pile of blankets. A few hours later, the sun poured in through grimy windows, and I woke to stunning scenery — McLeod Ganj is perched high on the ridge of a mountain, and looks down on a nebulous valley carpeted in coniferous trees. Multi-coloured buildings sit in amongst the trees, as though they grow there naturally. Hawks circled in the frigid alpine air, roosters crowed, and a stream tinkled nearby.

McLeod Ganj is the seat of the exiled Tibetan government and the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama. Walking around the narrow lanes that wind steeply up the mountain, it’s almost as if we’ve left India completely and stumbled into Tibet. Everywhere I look, there are monks wearing red robes and red woollen sweaters, Tibetan children in school uniforms, prayer flags, free Tibet merchandise, Tibetan food, services for refugees and more dentists than I’ve seen in one place in India thus far. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are tacked up in a place of honour in every shop and restaurant. The air is brisk even though the sun shines brightly in the wide azure sky. There is an overwhelming sense of peace in these mountains. I could stay here forever.

 

A Tibetan ‘Folk’ Show

We accepted a flyer advertising a Tibetan folk show from a guy with psychedelic sunglasses and a man-bun. Little did we know, the sunglasses were a mild harbinger of what was to come. The show was later that evening at the school, and so we thought that it would be put on by school kids, thereby breaking the first rule of India: Assume nothing.

We entered into a modest room with candles and incense burning, and the guy with the man-bun stood at centre stage, carefully tying himself into a black robe. It was a one-man show. The first part was really good. He told us his story: a Tibetan refugee who escaped the Chinese at fifteen years old, how they trekked across the Himalayas only at night, with no torches, so as not to draw any attention, his debt of gratitude to India for taking in refugees and giving him a second chance at life. He sang, sweetly, played the dramyin (Tibetan guitar) and danced. It was all quite lovely.

And then the second act began.

He let his long, curly hair out its knot and whirled around like a dervish for a good ten minutes. Then he progressed to what I can only describe as performance art with forced audience participation. Two at a time, he took audience members bodily from their seats and tossed them around on stage, holding them in awkward positions and dragging them around until shoving them back onto the cushions, as a film crew captured it on tape. It was all very awkward. For some unfathomable reason, we stayed until it our turn, and he hauled me up onto his shoulders, while dragging Amber around by her ankles. When he dumped us back at our seats, we gathered up our stuff and watched the rest of the show from outside.

The show got only got weirder from there. It culminated in him covering his body in toilet paper and lighting it on fire, and then putting a lit candle down the front of his pants. This is, apparently, the ‘Tibetan Freedom Dance’. Credit where credit is due, though: his flyers were accurate. “Unforgettable” is one word for it.

The India Diaries: A Camel Safari in Pushkar

Pushkar

I extended my Golden Triangle trip to include two days in the holy desert city of Pushkar. It was a short drive from Jaipur, only about four or five hours; the last hour or so of which was on a narrow one lane road that twisted through farmlands and low mountains. Pushkar was not the type of desert I was imagining. Instead of sand dunes and endless beige, it was a regular landscape that happened to also have a lot of sand.

Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India and an important pilgrimage site for Hindus — for the Brahma temple and the sacred lake. Groups of holy men with huge coils of dreadlocks and orange robes stretch out in the shade of the buildings and pass the time smoking, reading the newspaper, sleeping and watching passersby.

Pushkar means “the place where the flower fell from Brahma’s hand”. According to legend, Brahma saw a demon killing his children and generally being a nuisance, so he killed the demon with his lotus-flower. The falling lotus petals created the lake, and Brahma held a fire sacrifice there. Like the Ganga river, a dip in the water is said to wash away sins.

Walking along the main street, every now and then, there is a sudden hole in the line of shops that leads onto a ghat, or stairway down to the lake. Descending the stairs is like walking into a temple. The orchestra of color and sound in the market is subsumed by a reverent quiet. Shoes are to be left on the upper stairs (the taking off of shoes is symbolic of leaving behind the outside world). Incense burns in a small shrine underneath a tree. People are silent, but smile at you with their eyes.

Aside from the religious sites, the other main tourist activity in Pushkar is going on a camel safari. They hold an annual camel fair where hordes of people flock to watch camel races, ride camels and other dromedary related activities.

Watch out, we spit!
Watch out, we spit!

 

Why I’ll Never Ride a Camel Ever Again

I arranged a four-hour camel safari with a stop for dinner in the desert. I went with two other foreigners, a pair of French medical students who spent the whole time complaining about India. We had two guides and three camels between us. My guide, thankfully, rode on the camel with me. His name was Arjun, and he was in his early twenties, had been working with camels since the age of eight and had bright red teeth from chewing paan. He spent the whole time on the camel spitting over my shoulder. His marriage had been arranged when he was eleven years old, and while they lived in separate towns, he spoke to his wife-to-be every night on the phone. One of the first things he said to me was, “Do you want to eat chicken? I can get you chicken.” He said it like a drug dealer in an after-school special.

My camel was named Johnny, and Johnny’s customer service skills left a lot to be desired. He was in a foul mood the entire time. And the smell. Egads. This camel was every bad smell imaginable all rolled up into one terrible bouquet. The saddle was a pile of manky blankets so crusted in sweat and grime, they’d hardened into what was probably the least ergonomic seat that’s ever existed.

We rode awkwardly and uncomfortably through the sandy foothills of the mountains into a beautiful sunset. We stopped for dinner at a low, nondescript building that looking like an abandoned barracks. Arjun walked to the next town to get beer for us, while other guide made dal, veg curry and chapati. The French boys and I watched the stars come out; it was like someone was poking holes in velvet.

It turned out that the boys were going to stay overnight and I was to return with my guide and my rotten camel after dinner, in the dark. Every time I plan something in India, it always turns into a surprise. No one ever explains what’s going to happen ahead of time. And every time, I tell myself I’ll ask more questions next time, and every time I miss something and am surprised. India really keeps you on your toes.

I wondered whether or not it was a good idea to return alone that night. I didn’t want to stay the night in the desert, but I also didn’t want to wind up in a bad situation. I spent dinner watching Arjun and focusing on my gut to feel what my intuition was telling me to do. It’s always right, and I do my best to listen to it, but sometimes it’s tricky to sift through the internal layers to get to the kernel of pure intuition.

I had time to make a decision, so I ate and watched and listened. Arjun sensed my hesitation, and asked if I’d prefer to stay the night. I decided that I could trust him and told him I wanted to go back. As we remounted the cantankerous camel, he assured me that camels have excellent night vision, and that the camel knew the way so well that we could fall asleep and it’d make no difference. Apparently, on the longer safaris, he slept on the camel all the time. I’ve no idea how he did that and kept his spine intact.

Still trying to make me feel secure, Arjun started calling me his sister and said he wouldn’t let me fall. I told him I hadn’t been worried about falling until he started bringing it up. He laughed and put his heels into the camel. The camel started to run — a gawky, uneven run that I found impossible to find a rhythm in. I could barely see anything beyond the bobbing head of the camel. Arjun yelped and pushed me forward whenever a branch hung too low in the path. Branches whipped at my face, and brambles tore at my pants. I thought I was going to pee myself. My knuckles felt like they were going to burst and my legs cramped from squeezing so hard. Arjun casually took out his phone, called his wife and chatted to her for the next hour.

I’ve never been more grateful to see city lights. I nearly leapt off the wretched beast when we arrived at my hotel. Arjun told me to come and find him if I wanted to eat chicken while I was in Pushkar, and walked into the dark desert night with the camel slouching behind him.

I wobbled into the hotel, dirty and limping, and the receptionist laughed at me: “You are crazy for going on camel for four hours!”

And how.

Things You Learn at Yoga Teacher Training in India

When you just sit in silence
the wind blows through you
the sun shines in you
and you realize you are not your body,
you are everything.
~ Anita Krizzan

Waking up at 5:30 am every morning for tea and neti pot does not get any easier (for those of us who are not morning people). And the guy next door who wakes up at 4 am every day to do his cleansing ritual — retching and horking, and sounding like he seriously needs a doctor — will freak you out every time.

Take it slowly with your body. People are always worried that they are not flexible enough for yoga, but it doesn’t matter. What’s important is to show up on your mat every day and do a little. Go to your limit, wherever that may be for the day, and stay there. Over time, that little bit each day will grow, slowly slowly, into something more than you ever thought you could do.

Yoga is about how each pose feels, not how it looks.

After six weeks of intense study and practice, you’ll realize that you’re just at the beginning and that there is so much more to learn.

When you study yoga in India, you’ll learn the asanas, sequences and cuing, but mostly you will learn about yourself. You’ll cry in Warrior ll, and open yourself up to people who were strangers two weeks ago; you’ll experience and share the deepest parts of yourself.

The Hindu god Ganesha has the head of an elephant and a little pot belly from eating so many sweets. He travels on the back of a mouse. This is to symbolize the importance of balance. Yoga is all about balance; what you do to the left, you must also do to the right.

There is no one ‘right’ way to do yoga. There is no such thing as a perfect asana. Just as we all have our own, unique personalities, we will all have our own, unique way to get into Triangle. And this is perfection.

There will always be someone who knows more than you, and someone who knows less. It is your job to learn from the ones who know more, and extend your hand to the ones who know less.

Never give up; Always let go. It seems like a contradiction — many things in India seem like contradictions. It is a country that thrives on juxtaposition. But it’s not. Not really. Any contradiction or dichotomy is just two or more facets of the same jewel. Never stop growing and working hard, but let go of your expectations. You can only control your actions, you can’t control what happens afterwards. Maybe your goals will take you down a different path than you thought, and it will be better than you could have ever expected. Or maybe it will be worse, and you’ll learn a really important lesson. Either way, it’s a win.

When it’s time to leave and say goodbye, don’t be too sad. Every ending is a new beginning.

Ten Things I Love About Rishikesh

Rishikesh is a magical place. About 250 km north of Delhi (or a 4 to 10 hour drive, depending on traffic and the road conditions), in the state of Uttarakhand, a cluster of small towns line the Ganges river at the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s a holy city, the cradle of yoga — yoga studios, ashrams, and meditation centres abound. It’s where the Beatles came in 1968, to explore their spirituality at the Maharishi Mahesh ashram. It smells of incense and cow shit. Children fly kites from the rooftops, men with carts full of vegetables push their wares through the streets, yelling at the top of their lungs. People dunk themselves in the icy river, giving Mother Ganga their troubles. The streets here are more like rivers: you never step in quite the same place twice…

the road to laxman jhula
the road to laxman jhula

 

Mother Ganga
Mother Ganga
yogis at the beatles' ashram
yogis at the beatles’ ashram

 

I’ve been here for five weeks now, doing a six-week yoga teacher training course. This post is dedicated to my fellow students: a truly inspiring, talented and incredible group of people. And especially to Amber, who co-wrote this poem with me.

I love starting each day with a Surya Namaskar/Salutation to the Sun (or forty).

I love that I’ve perfected the exact amount of time it takes to eat breakfast at school, go get a sneaky chai at the nearby cafe, and still be on time for morning lectures.

I love looking out of the window of the yoga studio while I’m in Warrior Two at the beautiful Himalaya mountains.

I love that the only traffic snarl I encounter on my morning commute to class is when the cows decide to plant themselves firmly in the way.

traffic jam
traffic jam

 

I love walking down the street and letting my senses be overwhelmed by all the colours and sounds and smells, especially the women in their gorgeous saris.

I love seeing the shopkeepers at their sewing machines each night. They remind me of spiders, taking apart their webs and building new ones.

spider spinning a new web
spider spinning a new web

 

I love vegetarian meatball night at school.

I love that when one of the girls had a mouse in her room, the staff went and got a feral cat.

I love that no asana class is complete without monkeys racing across the rooftop and peeking into the windows.

I love that fifty people came from all over the world, from all different backgrounds and histories, to walk the path of yoga together, and that we’ve all become like family.

I honour the light within you, because it is also within me

¬ Namaste

all you need is love
all you need is love

The India Diaries: Amritsar

Amritsar

Amritsar, the capital city of the Punjab state, is famous for three things: The Golden Temple, the ceremony at the Pakistan border and food.

The food absolutely lives up to its reputation. Everything has butter and/or ghee (clarified butter) in it — even the lassi (yoghurt drink, like a milkshake but with yoghurt). Probably not the healthiest food around, but damn if it isn’t good.

The Golden Temple

P1030668
Golden temple from the outside

 

Inside the courtyard: the pool of nectar (what amritsar is named for) and the temple made of gold

 

Learning how to make chapati at the Golden Temple
Learning how to make chapati at the Golden Temple
Giant vat of chai
Giant vats of chai
The Golden Temple feeds around 80,000 people a day, for free.
The Golden Temple feeds around 80,000 people a day, for free.
Each dish, from all 80,000 diners each day, is washed 6 times. All the workers are volunteers -- building up their karma
Each dish, from all 80,000 diners each day, is washed 6 times. All the workers are volunteers — building up their karma
Dining Hall -- everyone eats together, sitting on the floor to symbolize equality.
Dining Hall — everyone eats together, sitting on the floor to symbolize equality.
Ceremony to put the Sikh holy book to bed. A palanquin is loaded up with pillows and garlands of flowers and perfume, into which the book is places and carried into its bedroom, while everyone sings, beats drums and plays the trumpet.
Ceremony to put the Sikh holy book to bed. A palanquin is loaded up with pillows and garlands of flowers and perfume, into which the book is placed and carried into its bedroom, while everyone sings, beats drums and plays the trumpet.

The Border Ceremony

Every day at 4:30 pm, the security forces at each side of the Pakistan- India border engage in a fun, extremely loud lowering of the flag ceremony. Each side plays music as loud as they possibly can as the crowd gathers into the stands to watch the antics. An MC riles the crowd up, a group of women dances on the tarmac. It reminds me a lot of the pep rallies you see in American movies about high school and football. The guards take turns yelling into the microphone — each side tries to outdo the other in volume and duration. And then the guards from both sides do an exaggerated march towards the gate and gesticulate at each other. The guards on the India side were kicking their legs up so high during the march that they kicked themselves in the head. It’s like watching a Marx Brothers sketch.

It baffles me that just three days ago, further north along the border, in Kashmir, there was a fatal attack on the Indian side by Pakistani militants.

But that’s India for you.

First line of the defence: a killer drum solo
First line of the defence: a killer drum solo

P1030672

P1030675