I just spent the morning reading Andy's most recent write up on their adventures in Chile and the destruction of the Siete Tazas. I followed up by reading my friend Laura's email on her and Anita's wandering travels. In my younger years I traveled a lot around the country on a Harley. I stopped to raise a fantastic son and now am working a "job" for insurance and security. Traveling is in my Gypsy blood and has been calling to me like a crack habit ignored. I am inspired by these people and feel a change is coming in my life much like you can feel the changing of the season's. I just wish I could see the path I'm to take more clearly. The one thing I'm certain of it will be by river. Enjoy Laura's email and check out Andy and John's blogs for more inspiring stories.
Hey!! Hard to believe it's only been 2 months and not 2 years on the 'road'.. train, rickshaw, cycle rickshaw, poleboat. I miss each one of you! I'm poppin' up for air in the shadow of our first snow-capped Himalayan peaks, to attempt a few vignettes of life in Incredible India...
We started out in a forest of palm trees at the southern tip of the country at Amma - the hugging saint's - ashram. We had planned to stay-put for a month (remember, my visions of yoga on the Arabian sea, reading, writing, transitioning?). Well, it didn't quite fit once we tried it on. The highs for me at Amma's were the masala chai tea every morning while watching dolphins jump in and out of the sea and spying motorized pirate ships in the distance.. joining a day trip with the ashram nuns out to the rice paddy fields where we worked together, ate together, got tired and scratched up together, laughed together. There was the ole swapping stories of favorite Hindu deities, learning to identify tapioca and cashew nut trees, figuring out new ways to wear a buff while carrying rice on my head and new knots to tie in preparation for Outward Bound. A downside of Amma's was the difficulty letting go of childhood Temple of Doom associations with the central feature of the temple being the huge black-faced, red-tongue-wildly-sticking-out Kali-ma Hindu goddess. Flashing fluorescent lights on the altar. (Mostly kidding). The hard-to-identify stink in this holy place: human poop, garbage rotting, exhaust. Disrepair everywhere, paint chipping, piles of random construction materials in every corner, trash along every walkway. Perhaps most strongly it was the unblinking devotion of her devotees who would un-mindfully shove each other out of the way to get closer to Amma. We pretty quickly moved on to a yoga ashram tucked up into the hills within earshot of the lions which would yawn roars as we sleepily began meditation each morning before sunrise.
A 60-hour train-ride shuttled us past huge expanses of this beautiful country (I LOVE train rides- good thing, we've probably spent 25% of our time on them!), and back up to Delhi where the traffic is an amusement park ride, especially the cycle rickshaws which don't even have flimsy sides to feign protection from the oncoming, speedier autos. We affirmed Lonely Planet's caution about the scamming touts all over town. Wanting to get to the Old Delhi spice markets and well-known Karim's Restaurant, supposed birthplace of the butter masala sauce, we hired a cycle rickshaw driver who told us in a very kind way that everything was closed on Sunday and Monday. "No spice market. No Red Fort. Why would you want to go? Maybe you should go on Tuesday?" Partially swayed by his convincing and friendly tone, but partially listening to some inner wisdom that questioned why Old Delhi would shut down for 2 days each week in the middle of tourist season, we told him we'd still like to go. He promptly took us to his friend's spice shop in the opposite direction and then faked a headache so he couldn't take us to Old Delhi. Both laughing and irritated, we walked away and asked an auto-rickshaw driver how much to Old Delhi from this new neighborhood. He responded "Old Delhi is SO crowded right now. Why would you want to go?!"
To briefly paint the broad sweeps of where we've been Delhi to present... From Delhi, we traveled on to the wild frontier of Rajasthan, home to fierce and proud historical warriors and desert people on the border of Pakistan. We trekked into the Great Thar desert atop camels sleeping under the stars, watching sunrises and sunsets over the sand dunes, cooking chapatis over open fire. We sat on the rooftops of the sandcastle city of Jaisalmer sharing traditional thalis with a traveling Indian pilgrim. From Rajasthan we took a night bus through Gujarat (where I wondered why sleeper bus companies don't recommend women wear sports bras like the camel trekking companies do.. the back of a sleeper bus is infinitely bumpier), and onto Madhya Pradesh to meet Caitlin, a friend of a friend who works for the Real Medicine Foundation in one of the 10 poorest districts of India. We volunteered teaching English at their residential school (ages 5-15) for the poorest tribal kids that are falling through the cracks with no access to an education, and taught games and initiatives (thank you Anita's Outward Bound training) to a weekend workshop kicking off the hiring and training of 55 poor, rural, tribal women beginning to work as nutrition educators in their own and nearby communities. From there, another long series of trains and buses brought us up north to Himachal Pradesh, 'Land of Gods', here in the gateway to the Himalayas and to my own spiritual practice.
The Buddhists say our human existence is the sanskrit 'duhkha', which is like an axel in the wheel that is kind of stuck, not turning well, not moving smoothly. I like this description- not so dire and seemingly inaccurate as all existence is painful suffering. For the first month of traveling, my axel looked like days full of stops and go's, emotional energy stopping and energy flowing, something not feeling quite right but I couldn't always articulate it or figure out the cause of the halting and hiccups - whether with Anita, my own being whipped around responding to ever-changing, chaotic India, the roller-coaster of shifting identity with no job or home to define 'me' anymore. The front-end of the trip was full of moments like these (mixed in with a whole lot of fun and crazy sights of course), and it's just been the past few weeks in the mountain air that my heart is steadying and the wheels are more and more consistently greased and rolling.
Reflecting back on that period of constant travel, uprooting and traveling some more, there was the perpetual sickness: diarrhea, constipation, sinus infections and coughs, cramps, a stress fracture in my knuckle from rolling over yoga headstands..unrelenting. There was a pretty consistent thread of unease for me around Indian men. There's a tendency here to stare, unsmiling. So most trains there will be at least one guy who just stops in front of our seats, stands there and stares at us. One particularly creepy guy on a train along the Keralan coast sat in the doorway to the train staring and wouldn't get up to let us off the train, wanting us to step over him, until some of the locals hollered him out of the way. He followed us all the way to our rickshaw sneering and staring creepily. There are the requests to have photos taken with us (so they can go home to their villages and tell stories about their American girlfriend, our Indian cooking teacher Nisha tells us). And there was the challenge of figuring out complicated cultural norms surrounding our camel driver's touchiness, resulting in both Anita and my speaking up trying to explain why this might be uncomfortable.
The first month was a sensory overload: poop smears (animal and human) in the streets of course, but on tiled floors of the train stations and post office steps, too. The squat toilets in all conditions. The cows, donkeys, sheep, goats, chickens, monkeys - it's a menagerie, wandering and rooting through garbage. We've watched cows licking public drinking fountains, cows stuck in traffic lined up just like any other honking auto or rickshaw. Noisy radios blaring while trying to sleep on trains. Dozens of languages auditory and visual from Malayalam's loopy oval rounded script to the straight upper line and right angles of the Hindi script. Tamil. Sanskrit. The infamous head wobble - which is neither a yes or a no in the west, but means both yes and no here. "Is the train to Delhi platform 4?" (headwobble). "So, yes, platform 4?" (headwobble). I'm learning not to ask yes and no questions. Journalists of the world - India is excellent training. The scale of the public works projects is astounding - sidewalks and roads being created, repaired, repaved. Tiles and bricks, pavers, cement and dirt everywhere. New plumbing and gas pipes being laid. (Good grief - talk about an employment program!!) The ups and downs of relationship with food. Milk stalls, food stalls, fruit stands, juice stands. Masala-flavored everything - Lays masala magic chips. "Chai chai chai chai chai" call out the chai-wallahs up and down the train aisles and street stands offering India's national "milk, sugar, cinnamon and a bit of tea" drink. Spicy means 'full of spices and flavors', not 'hot spicy' - allowing us to eat all the more. :)
You can never know what to expect here in India, an important life-lesson for occasional control-freaks like me. In India, you can't control anything. You go to the same restaurant for breakfast twice and order the exact same thing - comes out entirely differently. Offices closed for the eclipse on one of our first days in southern India. The post office seems to be open arbitrarily, not remotely related to the hours listed on the door. Same with the internet cafes in some places. But the blessing of impermanence and change of course is that when you're not attached to expectations, you can receive amazing things if open to them. For every guy like the touchy-feely Rajasthani guide, there's the unexpected guy at the Ahmenabad ticket counter concerned for our safety recommending we spend the night in the private train station retiring room we didn't know existed. For every workman carelessly dropping bricks almost on our heads from the worksite above, there's an army man who takes 10 minutes explaining the local bus system to us and how to avoid being cheated.
So a month in, the energy started to flow a little more visibly. Knots of tension in me held-over from a crazy and significant departure from the twin cities, compounded by India stimulus, started the process of dissipating like a good massage (with a few hundred more bodywork sessions needed in the wings). Anita and I began feeding off each others kindness, and the open, best parts of ourselves started to emerge. For me, energy flow can often be measured by my putting some kindness and generosity into action, and then watching it come back around in unexpected, wonderful ways. Having no idea how much a kilo was, we accidentally bought a grocery bag full of cookies which we began giving out to our rickshaw drivers and the post office staff (small gifts DO make a difference, John Marty!)- who all returned the kindness in their own ways. A quiet guy on the bus to Dahod turned down the cookies but helped us find a hotel in a small non-English speaking town, and returned 20 minutes later to the hotel restaurant where we were eating with a bag a famous Gujarati snack to gift us. We exchanged some meaningful conversation (and a few Harry Potter readings) with a native Delhian pilgrim in the desert, and upon learning that I was interested in looking for a skirt in town - he passed along a skirt that he had bought in the past month not quite knowing why.. these things just keep happening.
Traveling general class on a 5-hour train ride human bodies piled close, families squeezing trying to fit everyone's limbs. Bars on windows, berths/shelves for people and/or luggage. whatever fits wherever. Legs dangling in front of Anita's face. 6 of us squished into a bench designed for 4. Then comes the awareness that despite my discomfort and reeling, the man next to me is seriously sick, coughing up mucus and spitting it out the window every few seconds. The children and women across from me are dirtier than I have ever seen. Hiding away under their shawls, occasional glimpses of matted chair, clothes fraying, threads coming loose. The 2 year-old boy has a tear in his pants exposing him. I often find myself more comfortable than most in unfamiliar settings, but I can't pretend I have no reaction to and a flood of questions about what I'm seeing. This morphs into a couple moments of exchanging smiles, watching families interact and the fast realization that we're all people. After a few brief moments, what I am seeing is the same human emotions I know, I experience. The curiosity of the kids peering out the window for hours (I do the exact same thing). The shyness. The playfulness. The concern from the parents for the kids safety, wrapping them in a blanket when it gets colder, their smiles watching their kids' smile.
So much here opens my heart. The famous Indian monk Shantideva describes this as the sensation of being enclosed in a cocoon and there's no fresh air. "But what if someone takes a penknife and slits the cocoon and suddenly light comes in through the darkness? What if you poke your head out and see the whole universe? The 'slit' could be an explosion outside, or the sound of a bird, or someone teaching the dharma. Something gets through to your heart, and suddenly it seems like the whole universe is available to you."
The kids that we volunteered with get to my heart. These kids face overwhelming, unimaginable challenges. Visiting one of their homes - they come from tribal areas receiving no government attention and little aid assistance, overwhelming poverty, isolation and discrimination, loss of tribal culture and identity, from areas where cotton farmers are committing suicide because of the extreme debts green revolution seeds and fertilizers put them in year after year. Real Medicine Foundation medical teams visit these villages and identify children that would not only benefit from being sent to school, but have no other option. It is amazing that there is a building for these kids to go to for school. It is amazing there is some money to hire some teachers. There are endless challenges trying to keep the teachers there for enough hours each day, not to grade papers during class time, to only instruct in English, to encourage and maybe someday train them to teach more interactively with less rote memorization. Anita and I joking referred to the chemistry classroom or the library while we were there, but 'chemistry' and the 'library' were two separate cabinets in the same classroom. The teachers never use the chemistry equipment and perform experiments because they can't afford to replace the chemicals. So the students just look at the pieces and memorize what they're called and what their function is. (I discovered I have no recollection what half of them are). There are only two wardens for all the kids (it's a residential school). While we were there, the politics of the ex-school principal came into play sending the kids home on a 21-day unscheduled break. Staff tried to contact families and get the kids back within 3-4 days. Despite these challenges, 260 kids show up and live there and learn. We were astounded at how obviously these girls value their education. They would self-regulate study time on their own without adult supervision, the older girls keeping the younger girls on task when needed. Not even the presence of two fun, game-filled western women deterred them from studying for exams from 2-4pm, or doing their chores and laundry at 4:30. It was amazing to observe. They wanted to do well and very clearly understood this was a special opportunity.
Listening to our new friend Poorwa's stories of kids standing up to the dowry system gets to my heart. Killing girl babies is still pretty common apparently in rural Madhya Pradesh. It happens mostly because the anticipated dowry and weddings will be too great an expense for poor families. Women are told by husbands and family members to kill their own children. Poorwa told us that young people are starting to stand up to their parents and say this system of dowry marriages is an old (and technically illegal) custom. These kids are standing up within a culture where we don't see women out in the public markets very often. The ratio of women to men was about 1:10 in Jhabua markets. The culture is one of women doing heavy labor, often construction jobs, hauling heavy buckets 1 meter in diameter of dirt, while the men oversee their work, drink chai and chat.
In these heart-opener moments, it does feel like the universe is open to me. I can observe the ebbs and flows of my cart stopping and going. And at some point I have to ask myself where is this cart moving towards? Why do I want the wheels to turn well? Because it feels good day-to-day to not feel stuck, sure. But maybe because I'm also trying to get somewhere. Where am I trying to 'get to' in this life? Luckily, I've gotten all sorts of prompting on this question along the thousands of kilometers of train track, standing in hours and hours of lines (when and where people choose to participate in the concept of line), etc. People ask me: "What is the purpose of your life?" "What is your aim in life?" "What is your life's goal?" (They don't mess around with small chat here). How many of us can answer this question? I want to raise educated, compassionate kids. I want to be a great teacher, challenging people to realize and actualize their potential. I want to build my own house. I want, I want. But even these seemingly important wants are constantly shifting. To help people? To at a minimum, not harm people?? To be happy? To not experience the roller-coaster? To know what matters and what to shrug off? To not perpetually be grasping at praise and pleasure and all things my ego drools over? Sleeping on a train's upper berth across from someone's ashes (a man had reserved a berth solely for his mother's ashes which he was carrying to Haridwar to place in the headwaters of the holy Ganges River), I had to ask myself, what truly matters? Reflecting on the inevitability of death, the preciousness of my short, short life - what really matters? Will I remember on my deathbed how much it sucked to miss banana and tea-time at the ashram? Will I remember that I was pissy about it for at least three hours? Will I remember putting in 16 hours at work five days in a row? or will I remember when I gave a friend a really awesome gift because I knew it would make her smile and feel cared for, no strings attached.
I think this might be a good place to pause, my dears. I will try to write again after I soak up another month or two of Incredible India. Until then, I welcome your emails. I do get online from time to time and it's fun to hear from folks I love back at home.