Giving and receiving

I’m still in India, somewhat hiding from the travel scene for a bit. I’m staying with friends who have hosted me each time I’ve been in India, at their home here in Kolkata. Amid the traffic, pollution, people and general craziness, their home is a loving refuge, and they’re a large part of how I came to hold so much love for this country.

Nine years ago I was doing research on coming here. I started talking to someone on a photography website about the area, and after much correspondence, he invited me to stay with his family when I arrived. He met me at the airport and brought me to their house, his wife fed me to the gills with delicious food, and his family welcomed me in, truly making the trip. They showed me around Kolkata and gave me a gradual immersion into the culture here. I now call them my Bengali family.


For the last five months I’ve been traipsing around India, mostly on my own. And while I will certainly remember the beautiful places and rich experiences here, it’s been the kindness of so many people like these that have kept me going. People who have temporarily “adopted” me; feeding me, looking out for me, giving me advice and generally taking me under their wing. Sometimes it was just simple honesty from a rare rickshaw driver who asked for a fair price instead of charging the tourist three times the going rate, or a local stepping in when the drivers weren’t so honest. Very often it was simple curiosity and being friendly towards a lone stranger in their midst.

All these things will not be forgotten, and I am very grateful.

Here in India there aren’t the usual Christmas cues that one gets in the west. It may be snowing up in the Himalayas, but certainly not here. Temperatures are low for Kolkata, but still practically balmy. I haven’t heard any Christmas music on the taxi radios, and have seen very few Christmas decorations. 

But what I have received throughout the trip is more consistent with the meaning of the holiday season, which is good will, love and generosity of heart.

In that spirit, I have also been able to see the results of generosity given to others.

I first visited a school set up by my friend and others for disadvantaged children near Kolkata. The students, who might not have a chance otherwise, are being trained in regular school subjects as well as trades, and are given room and board also. My friend and his colleagues volunteer their time to teach these energetic young students, and it makes a great difference in the lives of the children.


I also was able to meet a child I’ve been sponsoring through Children International for the last few years. For about $1 a day, CI helps to provide tutoring and school fees for the children in their program, along with medical check-ups and some helpful gifts throughout the year. I’ve been slowly getting to know this girl through letters, but it was wonderful to see her shy smile in person, and to meet some of her family members. The day started with seeing the CI center, then visiting her house and meeting her family. We all went from there on a shopping trip at a local store, where her family was able to receive some household items and a toy for her. I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt so see them be able to get these things that we take for granted. 


So for this holiday season (and always) may you be both the recipient and donor of an abundance of love, generosity, and good will, no matter where you are.

Peace

Bodhgaya: Beyond the temple walls

I hesitated to make this post, but I finally felt the need to share the other side of this area that doesn’t make it to the “Incredible India” tourist posters.

Bihar is considered one of the poorest states in India. And if one ventures further than the markets and the temples in Bodhgaya, one will see that this village is one of the poorest areas in the state.

This is my third time staying in Bodhgaya, and yet this is the first time I’ve become aware of the magnitude of poverty here in this area. By chance or karma, I landed in a guesthouse that’s right in the middle of village life, so to speak. The guesthouse itself is better than some others I’ve stayed in, and is spotless. I feel safe enough here as well, and would even use the guesthouse again if I return.


But staying here and walking around the back streets has really opened my eyes. I’ve seen slums and other poor areas in India before. Yet here on a daily basis I’m now walking along streets with open drainage, trash, houses without solid doors or roofs, and probably without plumbing. I’m cold enough to be bundled in a fleece over-shirt and scarf, yet there are kids running around without shoes, and sometimes without pants.

All the tourist money coming into the area is obviously not reaching the people that live here, and my heart goes out to them. They seem so resilient, and still friendly, returning the smiles of the strange gori walking through their midst. I realize how very, very fortunate I am.

 

I’ve read some reasons why the poverty continues here despite the town garnering impressive incomes. I’m not from here, and given the state of politics in my home country, don’t feel qualified to propose any reasons or solutions. There are some charities that seem to be doing great work here, but help for most seems to be slow in coming.

My aim in this post is just to share some of the other side, and let you see what’s behind the tourist curtain.

Bodhgaya: The Beautiful

Over 2500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama came to Bodhgaya after several years of study under various teachers, and self practice with austerity. Realizing that the extreme austerity hadn’t brought him to the end of suffering, he recalled a time of peaceful meditation he had experienced as a child. He decided to return to that practice, and after meditating for some time under a local ficus tree, he experienced enlightenment. At that moment, he became the Buddha, meaning the awakened one.

Great Buddha Statue

While the original tree was destroyed, a cutting from it was planted in Sri Lanka. The large Bodhi Tree that stands today has grown from a cutting of that Sri Lankan tree, and spreads over peaceful grounds where visitors all over the world come to visit. There is a temple near the tree that was constructed in the 6th century, at the site of a previous temple that had been demolished. Various stupas surround the grounds, and offerings are placed around the complex. Monastics in various colors of robes sit and meditate, chant, circumambulate, and perform prostrations around the temple. While I was there, there were Buddhist monks from all over the world participating in chanting the original Buddhist teachings. It made for a lovely space to meditate in.


Chanting under the tree
Stupa near the temple

 
Outside the temple complex are international temples built in the style of the countries which built them. I visited a few, although the main draw for me was the main temple with the Bodhi tree. Some of the monasteries here are really amazing to see, and are quite ornate, complete with all the finery.

The Thai Temple:


Tibetan Temples:



Japanese Temple:

Thousands of people flock here to Bodhgaya, and especially at the main temple, the spirit of devotion is palpable. Bodhgaya is still probably my favorite of the Buddhist holy sites, and I’m quite content to just sit under the tree as well.

However, there is another side to Bodhgaya beyond the temple walls and the paved main streets. And that will be the subject of my next post.

Whirling and stopping

Since my last post, I feel like I’ve spent just as much time in transit as I have in the destinations. It’s all about the journey, but I’m happy to be slowing down a bit now. Here’s a brief synopsis of the last week or so….

Haridwar: spent the evening with a friend visiting the Har ki Pauri ghat (sadly, we missed the Ganga Aarti ceremony), dodging beggars and eating some great and affordable food. Har ki Pauri sits on the bank of the Ganges River and is a major center of Haridwar. It was lovely in the evening, and seems like it would be a very peaceful place during the day. We found a great restaurant and had a very flavorful dinner of sweet lassis, dal makhani, and aloo gobhi that left us too full for dessert. 

I left Haridwar on an overnight train to Lucknow, and managed to get a general ticket to Gonda Junction, landing after dark with no hotel reservations. The three hotels that seem to exist in Gonda think quite highly of themselves. The first I went to was full, the second wanted a ludicrous amount for a room that was downright scary, and the third slightly less scary and expensive. Deal. The next morning I set off in a taxi for…

Sravasthi: the Buddha spent many years here, and half of his teachings seem to have been given from here. Yet it has mostly escaped the hordes of tourists that come to the other holy places, making it a quiet escape. The main draw is Jetavana, a park that was purchased for the Buddha by an ardent lay supporter. There are monastery remains there, and a quiet pleasant feel to the grounds.

Site of the Buddha’s dwelling at Jetavana

My taxi driver may have had less peaceful intentions. First he drove to a temple that was closed. I explained in my limited Hindi that I wanted to go to Jetavana. He played dumb, and started getting a little friendly, putting his hand on my arm a few times. I went outside to do walking meditation. After a while he came out to talk to me and noticed the sprinkling of white in my hair. Once he found out my age (he was in his early 20s), that put the fire out on his amorous intentions, and he behaved like a gentleman for the rest of the trip, even bringing me to meet his family at the end. Age does have its privileges!

My amorous young driver (on right) and his family.

 Next I was off to Varanasi, but couldn’t get a direct train. I managed to go to Gorakhpur, but then spent the night in the women’s waiting area while waiting for a 5:30am train for the final leg. I discovered the next morning that I had been locked in the room, but no one bothered me during the night! After being let out, I took the train to Varanasi, then quickly escaped to the nearby town of…

Sarnath: the city of the Buddha’s first sermon, the turning of the wheel of Dhamma. Also named Deer Park in history, and there are still deer (although enclosed in pens). It’s now a beautiful park in which to contemplate the Buddha’s first teachings. The first sermon is chanted daily here, near the statues of the Buddha teaching the group of five that were previous followers.


Varanasi: My capacity for tolerating crowded cities is limited, and I had been here before. But there’s so much history here that it’s hard to stay away. So the next day I returned from Sarnath, roamed the ancient labyrinthine streets and ghats, and watched the mesmerizing Ganga Aarti – a ceremony with incense, bells, fire, and chanting that draws hundreds if not thousands of people each night.


The next day I went to the station to catch a 10:20 train to Gaya. The fog outside was like pea soup, and I soon discovered that the fog was keeping all of the trains from being on time. My 10:20 departure became 1. Then 5. At eight o’clock we finally left. But in the meantime I found a great nearby chai shop, got to chat with some locals, elbow my place in an enquirey “line”, sing lullabies to a baby, read a book, and just be, watching humanity in front of me. It was all good.

I made it to Bodhgaya, where I’ll stay put for a while. It deserves its own post, so stay tuned.

Phir Milenge Ganga ji

On Monday, around a hundred of us gathered in the yoga hall to receive our certificates in Yoga teacher training. Some were in more extended courses, but all of us felt like the time of training had gone by in an instant.

How to record a months worth of memories? There were days that pushed this body (and mind) to the limit and beyond. But like metal in the forge, both became stronger in the fire of training. I’m now able to hold poses which I was unable to do at the beginning of the month.  And through reflection I’ve learned more about the nature of mind. I’m feeling a bit lighter these days as well, physically and also mentally from letting some things go.

Yet I did not do this alone. From the excellent staff who provided instruction, to those that prepared the food, kept everything clean, and handled a myriad of unseen administrative tasks, we’ve all been well supported this month. Further support has come from my new friends and fellow students. Through the last month we’ve commiserated, laughed, cried, screamed, moaned, sweated, sang, danced and smiled together, and pulled each other across the finish line.

 Now the time has come to say goodbye. Most of my classmates have already left, and I depart tomorrow for further travels. I find myself wishing I was back at day one, with all the experience still yet to unfold. But in Yoga as well as Buddhism, expecting the impermanent to be permanent is ignorance. Time moves on and all conditioned things change.

The last week was quite busy studying Sanskrit chants, asanas, breathing techniques, and yoga philosophy for the final exams. Add teaching practicums and doing 108 Sun Salutations, and there wasn’t much time to spare. So in my last days here, I’ve returned to the pastime in which I engaged when I first got here back in August: darshan with Mother Ganga-ji. 

She reminds me of the passage of time and the never ending flow of all things. 

My well-used yoga mat
Our class with our Hatha Yoga instructor, Ravi-ji
Traditional Indian Music
Graduation dancing
Ganga Aarti Ceremony
Local color

Yoga Teacher Training Week Three: The final stretch

The week has gone by fast, and I’m sure it will continue exponentially until we’re done at the end of next week. As of today we’ve learned all of the asanas required, and have started teaching in some of the classes. Yikes. It’s getting real, folks. And really busy. There’s a ton to study for and do for our final exams, making exit travel plans, and money adventures due to the decision by the Prime Minister here to suddenly make the 500 and 1000 rupee notes extinct. But that’s for a future post when school’s done.

For now, we’re just enjoying this opportunity, and taking the time to make connections that will spread around the globe. 

And studying our asanas off.

So just a few pics this week. Just wanted to let you all know I’m still alive.

Even monkeys want to hear Sushant ji teach yoga philosophy
Having a well-earned chai after doing over 25 sun salutations!
On the other side of the chai group table
“Are you serious? He really stole your banana?”

And for a look at our daily experience (although we walk across at night instead), here’s a trip across the Laxshman bridge in Rishikesh.

Yoga Teacher Training Week Two, or, Monkey Mayhem

At the start of training I was a little self-conscious about being a beginner. That’s now gone. I’ve thrown the self consciousness into the Ganga-ji and embraced my beginner status. As a result, I’m learning more, and feel more motivated. And I’m also more likely to stay within the limits of this body and protect it from injuries. I’m still pushing myself, but am now more likely to say no when the body needs some slack.

We get a few hours of self study time in the middle of the day, and along with studying, we’ve been entertained by the resident monkeys. We’ve been warned not to feed them, but I think they’re quite used to humans and have lost their fear. This past week we were studying on our courtyard when the troupe arrived and started raiding the garbage can. It was all fun and games until they started coming towards us. My friend ran and a baby grabbed at her before she got away. Another came for me and I fended it off with a chair until they ran off. They’re not quite as cute as they used to be. 


The other highlight of the week was a trip to Vashistha cave. According to Hindu philosophy, Vashistha was the son of Brahman and one of the great Seven Sages. The cave is where he meditated, and is a short 25km away. So nearly 60 of us piled into jeeps and rode out to the cave. In smaller groups, we took turns meditating in the cave, and then we all went for an extended dip in the ice cold but clean Ganga. It was great to do here where the water is tuquoise and lovely, but I fear I don’t have the dedication to repeat today’s adventure farther downstream in Varanasi. Here it made for a lovely day, and a great outing with fellow classmates.

Yoga Teacher Training Week One, or, getting my asana kicked in Rishikesh

If I’ve got one, it’s sore.

For the past week I’ve been in a 200 hour yoga teacher training course. It’s a very rounded mix of training in not only Hatha and Ashtanga asanas, or poses, but also the philosophy behind yoga, as well as breathing and meditation.

I knew coming into this that as a relative yoga newbie and as someone a bit older than most other students, that I’d have some work cut out for me. But the environment has been really supportive, and the only pressure I’ve had to get the poses perfectly (vs what this body is able to do) has come from my own delusions. 

Still, there’s a lot to keep up with: lots of reading about Indian philosophy, Sanskrit pose names and chanting to memorize, and of course, the physical aspects of the yoga as well. We’re up at 5 each morning, and finish the day around 9pm. Apart from some midday study time, there’s not much time to do anything else. We get one day off a week (Sunday), which will be mostly filled with study and practice.

Yet I’m really enjoying it. It’s challenging and at times painful, but feels worthwhile. The instructors are great, and my fellow students are a joy to be around. It turns out I’m not the only newbie, nor the only non-twenty something in the class. And we’re all feeling the crunch of both memorization and challenging our bodies.

So if I live through the next week, I’ll tell you all about it.

Return to Rishikesh 

I’m back in Rishikesh for a month of yoga teacher training, and have arrived a few days early to see (and hear!) Rishikesh in the midst of Diwali.

Diwali is celebrated over five days, with the third day being the main festival. Many homes have rangoli (colored sand decorations) on their doorsteps, and have colored lights strung up on their houses. On the third night, there are also candles put out both in homes and on the water.

I was able to watch some rangoli being made, and henna being applied during some celebrations at a local hostel. And there’s been no shortage of fireworks since I got here, going off all day long, but mostly at night. I rather feel sorry for the animals – it must be terrifying for them.

I’m studying at Shiva Yoga Peeth, which is nearly next door to the ashram I stayed in during my visit in August. Imagine my surprise then, when I checked in with some other women and they showed us our rooms – in that same ashram next door! Sadly, I don’t have a balcony like last time, but the actual rooms are nicer this time around. They’ve definitely spruced up the place!

If you’re interested in what the class entails, click here. I’m including some pictures of the ashram, and the general area, and will include more in later updates.

In the meantime, shanti, shanti, shanti.

Inside the Sant Seva ashram courtyard

My room. Pretty spacious for a room in an ashram.
The main yoga hall

Winding Roads and Dizzying Heights: Gangtok

From Darjeeling I took another very shared jeep to Gangtok with ten other passengers. Actually 11. In the row in front of me there was a cute, perhaps five year old girl who I think had recently learned the word “uncomfortable”. She said it a few times during the trip, with great relish, pronouncing every syllable. I must say it was well-applied. At least unlike her, I didn’t have to sit on anyone’s lap.

We climbed into Sikkhim on winding roads, stopping, starting, speeding up, slowing down, and breathing in diesel exhaust fumes all the while. One poor guy in the back row with me had to lean out the window to be sick. Note to readers: if you’re prone to getting carsick, this is NOT a ride you want to take without lots of Dramamine. I have to admit I was even starting to get a little claustrophobic, and was never so grateful as when I had to get out of the jeep to register as a foreigner at the border.

That being said, the ride was beautiful. A good portion of it was along a river and various bridges crossing over it. Sorry – I couldn’t get pictures. But the scenery was enjoyable.

Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim, and is a small city in the hills. The main thoroughfare is MG Marg, short for Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a pedestrian-only strip lined with shops, restaurants and sweet stalls, and is quite the busy but charming place. 


In Sikkhim, foreigners need at least two members to a group and a tour guide to travel to the outer areas, which gets expensive quickly. The solo traveler’s best bet is to allow lots of time and keep checking in with various travel agencies to find groups to join. Well, the time factor played against me, but I did manage to join a couple going to Tsomgo lake.

Tsomgo (pronounced Changmu) lake is 36km northeast of Gangtok and at an elevation of 3780 meters. The lake isn’t very large, but the surrounding mountains, views, and quiet make it worth seeing. Plus if Gangtok isn’t cool enough, it’s much cooler at the lake. It was 7 degrees C when we were there (that’s 45F for the U.S. Readers). 


As an added bonus there were yaks. One can even ride a yak, but I was content to see them and to touch their wooly locks as they passed by.


Back in town I wandered up to a park aptly named “The ridge”, in which one has great views of the mountains from either side. Further along, while looking for one monastery, I ended up at another one, but no less beautiful. High on a hill, with colorful murals and prayer flags, Serajhe Dopheling Gonpa sat in serenity. I sat in the meditation hall and watched my breath to the sound of deep toned Tibetan chanting. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.