Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Friday, April 29, 2011

Touching Down

I am back in the good old USA, in the Newark airport.  I'm watching the royal wedding and reveling in the deliciousness that is my vanilla soy latte.

When I bought the drink I didn't have to wonder how much it would cost and when I gave the cashier a large bill for a small purchase, she didn't insist that I magically come up with smaller bills that I don't have, as was the custom in India.  When she handed me my change without any hassle, I positively giggled at the ease with which the whole transaction had taken place.

Stay tuned in the next few days for a few more entries and a whole lot of pictures.

Till then: thank you, each of you, all of you.  This trip has been so amazing, full, rich, terrifying, wonderful, awful, exceptional, brilliant...... and part of what has made the unpredictability bearable and manageable was your company, your kind words, your travel stories.  I feel like I am coming home to more friends than I had when I left, because you have all been such steady companions on this journey.

I look forward to sharing the adventures ahead with all of you...mine and yours!

Thursday, April 28, 2011


I can't believe that it is my last day in India.  I didn't sleep terribly much because of the excitement of going home and because my nerves for traveling are really ramping up.  While I was getting dressed this morning I stopped, suddenly, and stood in the middle of the room saying out loud to no one but myself, "I am in India.  I've been in India for three and a half months.  My trip is coming to an end.  I'll be home tomorrow.  I'm in India."  It was like I had to fix this reality, solidify it, own it one last time because tomorrow the reality will be totally different.

Last night I stayed in the home of Aditya and Mridula who I'd met back in Santiniketan.  They are two of the country's leading historians.  They have a great home filled with eclectic furniture and books and wonderful artifacts and mementos of their studies and travels throughout the world.  Picture tribal masks from various African countries, Mexico, Korea and Japan mixed with Buddhist and Hindu statues, alongside, plastic thermometers from New York City.  If you had asked me what the home of two of the leading historians and academics in the country would look like, this is what I had pictured.  Cluttered, warm, full of the joys of finding treasure in odd and exotic places.  Aditya showed me his newest find, a piece of gnarled wood discovered in the forest next to his house while he and his daughter were out on a walk.  It is something I would have lugged home, had I found it.

Yesterday afternoon we went to a lecture at their university given by the man who had taught Aditya and Mridula history.  He's kind of a historian rock star.  The house was packed.  This historian is close to 90 and almost blind, probably almost deaf, and was completely oblivious to the fact that 99% of the house couldn't hear more than 20% of his words.  Nor did he acknowledge the piercing feedback that would terrorize the room whenever the technicians tried to find a way to mic him enough to be heard.  People would be fiddling with mics in front of him, piercing noise would threaten to deafen his audience and he just kept reading his notes.  It was uncomfortable to watch.

But it was also beautiful.  Hundreds of people from the ages of 17 to 80 sat and gave this man their total attention, when someone did need to navigate through the crowd, who were literally sitting in the aisles, to help with the sound issues, they said excuse me and were very polite; you could feel the room oozing with respect for this man, and each other.  At the end of the talk everyone applauded and speeches were give about how it was an "exhilarating talk" despite the fact that no one heard it, students took pictures of the little man at his table as if he were Paul Newman.

Can you imagine an historian commanding that much respect and attention and kindness in America?  Sadly, I cannot.

I spent my first two nights in Delhi with Chandana and her father, Ajit, and her daughter Nandini.  I was, of course, taken such good care of.  Chandana was in full mother hen mode, but also allowed me full sway to excuse myself and nap and take it easy.  When I finally admitted that I might need another prescription to get this stomach bug under control, Chandana phoned Dr. Ganguly and then ran out at 8:30 in the evening to get the medicine.  Ajit, played chauffeur while I just stayed home and played the dutiful patient.

Ajit, it turns out, was once the leading economist for India, "held the top post".  He is still, at 86-ish, whip-smart and funny.   Nandini has only just graduated from university and is socially and intellectually buzzing with brains and beauty.   Yesterday was her 21st birthday and the house was being readied for a large party, friends were calling and there was an air of festivity and the hope that comes from stepping into your adulthood held and cared for so meticulously by her family.

So, Delhi has been, for me, an immersion into the intelligentsia of India.  It's a completely different side to the country than any I've seen before.  I've seen glimpses of it in Santiniketan, but to be in these two wonderful and warm homes, surrounded by art and humor and conversations that go leagues above my head has been a wonderful way to end my first visit to the country.  Not only is it a new and fresh view, it's a place to wonder, one last time, how I got so lucky to be on this adventure in the first place.

Today I had a long visit with Aditya and then went to the tiniest beauty parlor I've ever seen to get my feet scrubbed and my face cleansed so that I can leave just a little of the dirt of India that's been absorbed into my being, behind.  I still have plenty of India in my lungs and digestive track and, of course, my heart and mind and spirit.

Just now, I've awoken discombobulated from a nap I've taken in Aditya and Mridula's living room.  They are off at a big lecture.  I could have joined, but I knew I wasn't up for being social and that eventually I'd have to rest.  Summer came early and suddenly to these parts a few days ago and the temperatures linger around 105 degrees outside and the air-conditioning isn't in for the season yet in this part of the house.  So when I was waking up, I was aware that I was sweating and achy and slightly nauseous.  I worried, for a moment, that I might be sliding backwards, health-wise, but then knew it was just the extremity of the heat.

Back home it seems to be raining and cold.  Several facebook status updates from friends in Seattle indicate that there is even snow in some parts.  As I look outside at the lush tropical forest which sits on the oldest mountain range in the world, I was told, I feel both here and there, up and down, in and out.  A peacock is somewhere, calling, which is both a reminder of the exotic nature of where I'm sitting (there are wild peacocks right outside!), and as familiar and comfortable sound as I know.  When I was growing up I could hear the zoo peacock everyday; his voice would float across the river to my house along with the occasional baboon yell.  Right now, I am 41 in India and 6 years old in Virginia.  Both.

But not really.

"I am in India.  I've been in India for three and a half months.  My trip is coming to an end.  I'll be home tomorrow.  I'm in India."

When I was going to sleep last night, I discovered that the house I'm in is in the flight path of the Delhi airport.  I started my journey in Mumbai, staying in a home in the flight path of that city's airport.  With all the other noise in India, I haven't heard an airplane, outside an airport, between then and now.  I could feel the circle closing.  In 24 hours I will be in the Newark airport.  In 35, I will walking through my front door in Seattle.  In 35.1 hours, I will be taking a shower and trying not to go instantly to bed.

While I write, I am aware of a deep well of sadness, grief even, to be leaving this place.  I feel frustrated on some primal level that here and there, have to be so far apart, that a choice has to be made.  With all that India has taught me about being able to hold multiple realities at once, I cannot really be both in India and in Seattle at the same time.  I can love India and hate India, I can wilt in this extreme heat and yearn for it immediately when I arrive in the cold and wet Pacific Northwest, I can want to throttle the shop-keepers here within an inch of their lives and, yet, revel occasionally in the absurd ritual of bargaining for every little thing.  But I cannot be on two continents at once.

Not really.

So, I must leave.  In order to go home....and I use the word "home" deliberately, specifically, strongly, then I have to peel away the fingers of my heart that are wound so tightly and resolutely around this place.  I must drag those angsting parts of myself kicking and screaming into the airport and onto the plane.

I am rather surprised to discover that there are parts of myself yearning to stay.  It's been such a tough few weeks.  For a while there I wanted to go back to Seattle early and was sure that I'd never look back if I did.  But then the gifts from India kept coming, bombarding me till I could open my heart once more to this strange, unfathomable place and now I can feel the bittersweet, tender bits that love this land and it's people with every fiber of their being.

But the leader in this exodus, who is gently prying the other parts away and pointing her finger to the future, is ready to leave and is packing nothing but gratitude for this amazing and dynamic land.  I feel like my inner child has grown up, gone on the great adventure she'd always dreamed of and learned, at the end of it, how to love being a grown up in her own right, how to place boundaries that really mean something, how to say "no" without feeling guilty or worrying that people won't like her, how to find peace and to enjoy silence in the midst of chaos instead of trying to insist that the world around her quiet down, and, most importantly, how to let people into her heart even when they scare her, or annoy her, or mystify her.  I think I'll always be an observer, but instead of observing from the place of a young and wounded child who is afraid to fully participate in relationships, in career, in life, for fear of getting hurt, I think that child went through a series of intense growth spurts and returns to the United States, on the verge of real womanhood.

But that's tomorrow.  Today, for 4 and a half more hours, I am in India.  I've been in India for three and a half months.  My trip is coming to an end.  I'll be home tomorrow.  I'm in India.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Next Time"

I’m hanging out in my hotel room in Agra, hometown of the Taj Mahal.  I arrived yesterday afternoon after a 5-hour drive from Jaipur.

My mood was not good.  My body was not much better.   I went up to my room, closed the door, turned on the TV and tried to forget that I was still in India.  Eventually, the fact that I hadn’t eaten became a mental health issue, so I ventured out into the town.  I had to walk about half a mile to get some chips and water, which was about all I thought my system could handle, if that.

Agra is like every medium sized town in India I’ve been in, full of dust, dirt, trash and people trying to get something.  Two little begging girls started to follow me, one even turned on the water works, “Meeeessssss (Miss), sob sob sob, Meeeeeessssss, sob sob sob.”

I discovered that I had no feelings whatsoever for those two little urchins.  I snapped, “Chelle Jow, Chelle Jow” which is a really rude way of saying, “Get lost.”  They hung on.  As I kept saying, “Celle Jow,” and the one girl upped the histrionics of her routine, “MMMMMeeeeeeesssssssss, Mmmmmmmeeeeeeeessssss,” the younger quiet girl started laughing.

Eventually, a man on a motorcycle came and put himself between the girls and me and told me to go on ahead.  I was grateful for the help.  I tried to let his kindness reignite my love for India and the majority of kind, warm, helpful souls that I have met, because they have held the majority.  Unfortunately, when a country has billions of people, the minority can take up a lot of space and sap a person’s energy.

Eventually I found a store, bought some supplies and started the walk home.  When I was looking for the store, I had told a bicycle rickshaw man that I might get a ride on my way back.  By the time I reached him on my return journey, I was being followed by 5 auto-rickshaws that I’d already told to go away, and several bicycle rickshaws.  I went up to the guy I thought was my guy and said, “Are you the guy I spoke to?”


I pulled out the card with the map to the hotel to make sure he understood that I had only a short way to go, and where we were going.  Ten other drivers crowded around me and started trying to say they knew better how to get back to the hotel.

I waved my finger at all the interlopers and said, “I’m talking to this man!”

How much has changed since those first days in Mumbai and Fort Cochin, huh?  Remember when I let rickshaw drivers boss me around?

I got home and hid in my cave of a room, determined not to go out unless absolutely necessary.  I even thought of not going to the Taj Mahal this morning, staying in my cave till I had to get on the train tomorrow to go to Delhi.

By dinner last night, I was in my darkest mood yet since I arrived in India.  I sat at the table in the small hotel with the two couples that had freshly arrived in country, all four people full of wonder and awe at the color and spectacle that awaits them.  They talked about the difficulty of dealing with drivers and salespeople almost as if it was cute, not nearly as annoying as people say it is.

I am really proud of myself.  It took all of my effort not to rain on their parade.  I held my tongue and squelched all the bile that has been building up from the dealing with the harassment of never being able to walk down the street without being yelled at to buy something, to look at something, to take a picture with so and so and then being asked to pay for the picture I was asked to take.

That morning I had not been as reticent to speak out.  My Jaipur guide, RV, who lived next to the hotel I was staying, had asked me to dinner with his family on my last night in town.  I had repeatedly told him that I was sorry, but my stomach was not up for food.  I was very nervous about having a 5-hour drive the next day and being caught in the middle of rural India with the desperate need to find a bathroom.  After the seventh or eight time I had said I couldn’t come over because I couldn’t eat, RV said, “Just come over and meet my family.  No food.  I’ll introduce you to my niece.”

Of course, I had to say, “Yes.”  Mostly because I didn’t seem to have a way out.  When I got there, I met his lovely sisters, his mom and dad and his three year old niece.  I aped it up for the little girl who found me, at first, very disconcerting, but who warmed to me eventually.  Soon she was dancing and flirting and we were all having a great time.

Then, RV said to me, “Now you eat.”

“No, RV, I’m sorry, but I can’t eat.”

His whole family was staring at me, expectant.  I was informed that the desert I would have was made especially for me.  It was good for an upset stomach.  It was made out of milk and cheese.

I said, “RV.  I’m sorry.  I’m allergic to milk and cheese.”

He said, “No.  Come one just a little it won’t hurt.  If you eat this every morning you will never get sick.”

I said, ”RV.  Milk and cheese has been known to paralyze me.  I can’t eat it.”

He literally rolled his eyes.

Everyone else stared.  He told them to get the food.  It was brought to me.  I had a bite or two, thinking," I will eat this, go home and take an aleve and hopefully not be any worse off".

Then, when I was done with that, they brought out more food, rice and veggies in spicy sauce.  I said, once again, twice again, three times again that I couldn’t eat.  No one would take no for an answer.  I was going to look like the rudest American ever if I didn’t have a few bites.  Oddly they didn’t think it was rude to make a sick person eat food while they all sat around not eating and just staring at her.

I went home and was up all night running to the bathroom.  So, in the morning I very strongly told RV, “Here’s a piece of advice.  If a tourist in your care says that they are sick in their stomach and that they cannot eat food, you must listen to them.  I was up all night and now I have 5 hours ahead of me where I may be in distress, all because you made it impossible for me to not eat without being very very rude.”

I was almost enjoying my righteous anger.  I was becoming more and more sure that this is what India has been trying to teach me all along: how to have a backbone, how to say “NO”, or something like that.  I actually wasn't sure if I was more mad at RV or myself, for caving in and doing something that I knew would be bad for me just to make other people happy.

I carried all this anger and frustration with me to the Taj Mahal this morning.   I got there at 6:15, having not eaten or had water for a long time only to discover that the provisions I’d packed were not allowed in.  So, low blood sugar and dehydration also accompanied me into one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The Taj Mahal is breathtaking.  Even in my state, my breath was taken when I stepped through the arches of the gate that faces that most famous white mausoleum.  It is perfect.  Because it is a world heritage sight, the grounds it sits on are also very beautiful, green, mostly trash free.  Because I was part of the early crowd, there weren’t that many people, only a thousand or so, would be my guess.

Sadly, the splendor couldn’t distract me for long.  I obviously had more important brooding to do.  I’m sure the cloud around me was as black and ugly as the Taj is white and pure.

I wanted to shake my mood.  I wanted to break through the darkness so that I could enjoy the moment of being at the Taj Mahal.  I dutifully walked around and took it in, along with all the people looking almost as miserable as I was feeling. All their sour, hot faces would have made me laugh if I wasn't feeling so contrary to even myself.

I kept wondering, "Why can't I let all this anger and animosity go?  I know I'm making the choice to be miserable, why can't I shake it off."

I found a bench to sit on, in the shade, out of view of the monument, but surrounded by some truly great trees.  I was watching all the families go by, all the couples, all the friends.  Miraculously, no one came and sat next to me or tried to sell me anything.  I could just sit and watch.

Maybe it was being in nature, or being left alone in a beautiful spot, or the hunger finally getting so great that I went into another dimension, but something started to release in me.  I started to shed all my defensive anger and began to feel open space around my heart.  What I discovered past the gates of darkness was that though I am not lonely, I am no longer enjoying my solitary adventure, but not because of India and all the hastle and the stomach bug, etc....but because the Taj Mahal should be shared.

Adventures should be shared.

It was a new feeling, a new sense of understanding.  There was no self-pity, no “poor me”, no sadness, grief, regret for my loner life up to now.  Just an acute understanding that sometimes an experience really is only half experienced when you can't share it with someone, family, friend, lover.  I realized, too, that there were other adventures back in the good old USA that I'm so much more excited about now......I knew that after the exotic wilds of India that the only place I have any desire to see right now is back home.

I got up and walked around a bit and found another bench with a better view of the Taj.  I got to thinking about what the place is about.  Built by a king for his dead wife, it is about love, of course. But it's also a requiem to death.  So, as exquisite as it is, there is something very dead about the Taj Mahal.  It is an empty place devoted to what must have been quite a passionate affair.

As I sat there I felt something on my leg.  I thought it was a fly, but I discovered, instead, that it was a beautiful green caterpillar.  I picked it up and it began crawling on my hand.  I watched it crawl up and down my arm for about 20 minutes.  I found it infinitely more beautiful than the Taj.  It was so small and perfect and alive, so in the present.  The eagles flying around the gardens and the perfect white dome of the Taj also enchanted me.  The things of the earth, tiny and large were so much more beautiful to me than the absolutely amazing creation of man that is the Taj Mahal.

While I sat there a transformation was taking place.  My black cloud was breaking up and floating away. By the time I got up and started ambling again, I felt completely free, free of all the angst, the anger, the frustration.  I only felt full of love.  I could really see the people around me again.  They weren't all sour and miserable.  Some of us exchanged smiles, I felt like the darkness that has been around me for the past week was lifting and I was visible again.

Simple things.  I'm interested in simple things now.  A touch, a look, a nod, a moment, a kiss.  Dinner.  Holding hands.  Laughter.  Good conversations.  Work.  Telling stories.  Digging in.

Yesterday, I talked to a Nicole.  She was in exactly the same place I was…tired, fed up with India, contrary, angry at this crazy place.  But she said that she knows she will be back within 6 months, that this insanity has made her want to travel even more.

She thought it would be different.  That after three months in India she would want to settle down for a while before her next travel adventure.  I'm the opposite.  I thought this would be the whetting of a great appetite to travel as much as possible, as far as possible, as soon as possible.  And now, I just want the simple things for a while.  A long while.  I'm not saying I don't want to travel.  I'd love it if somebody wanted to pay me to travel for short periods of time and to write about it. But as for the shape of my life in the near to not so near future, I'd like to settle in, settle down, connect with home.

I'm so tired, but I feel good.  I feel broken newly open.  I have felt that so often on this trip...broken open, newly.  But I keep discovering layer after layer.  I keep thinking I've hit the core and that there's no deeper place to find.... and then something like today happens and I feel gutted to a point I'd never known existed.

Yesterday my driver from Jaipur had smashed a bug on the inside of the windshield while he was driving.  It left a big splat on the glass.  He looked in the rearview mirror and said to me, “This is India.”

I began to laugh quietly, cynically.  Then a little more.  Then even more.  Soon the driver was also laughing.

As we went along the road, whenever something very Indian would happen, a cow would block traffic, a car would be driving the wrong way down the highway, two camels would get loose and bolt in front of the car, one or other of us would say, “This is India,” and laugh.  It was slightly comforting that his laugh was as cynical as my laugh, and just as tinged with a deep and bittersweet kind of love.

About 40 miles away from Agra I had to decide if I was going to take a detour to see the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, a gorgeous red complex of buildings high on a plateau.  As you can already anticipate, I decided not to.  My driver helped me choose.

He said, “It’s hot.  You are tired.”

“You’re right.  I’ll save it for next time.”

“Next time.  With family.”

“With family,” I echoed.

"Next time," he said again.

"Next time," I echoed.

It feels blissful to be free of the anger that has possessed me for the last week, to feel, instead, full of love, excitement for whatever adventure lies ahead closer to home, the adventure hidden in the familiar, in what I had previously known, but which I will now discover anew.

And it was lovely to drive around town this evening, looking at the daily life of India with all it's color, it's squalor, it's friendly faces, it's children waving "hi" to me from the side of the road, and to feel, once again, how lucky I am to be here, to know something of this transformative and transforming place.  I was excited to find myself imaging returning, next time.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Carrying a Bottomless Bucket

They've got camels in Jaipur.  Working-stiff camels.

I finally got out to see a little of the city after two days spent trying to get my equilibrium back cooped up in the hotel.

I don't think my balance has been restored.  Two hours was all I could handle.  Not even.  I was in no mood for being hustled, hastled, pointed in a different direction.  My stomach hurt, it was too hot and I was generally what you might call miserable.

When the fourth camel passed me on the street and I realized that I could almost care less I thought, "I'm done."

I came back to the hotel and promptly started looking up tickets to get me back to Delhi and then onto the states as soon as possible.  Never mind that I am scheduled to leave India in a week.  Six and a half short days away. I want to go home now.

It's no secret to anyone who travels to India that it can turn a person bitter.  You meet fellow travelers all the time who have come to hate everything about this maddening country.  Some of them have been here for 3 day, others for 3 months, some have made it 3 years.  It's always been easy to see how the transformation from India-lover to India-hater could happen, but I didn't think it would happen to me.

And, it hasn't.  Yet.

I still have a tiny bit of reserve left that allows me to step back and to get perspective.  In fact, if I could look at myself the way I sometimes follow my alter ego in a dream, I would be amused by the way my bad mood is affecting my interactions with India and it's people.

This morning, when I went out, I got an auto-rickshaw.  The guy wanted to charge me a 100 rupees when I knew the fare should be 50.  I under bid the going rate and said I'd pay 30. We settled on the fare it should have been in the first place, 50.  Plus, I said very firmly to the driver, "I'm just going to the City Palace.  You will not stop anywhere else.  Understood?"

We went straight to the pink palace; when I arrived, there were still a few minutes left before the place opened, so I  ventured a gander in a shop.  The owner started pulling out this, that, and the other thing, "See Miss, look at this, Miss, look here....".

I very clearly and sternly laid down the law, "I can look on my own." No one spoke to me again.

Ever since I left Santiniketan I've had little patience for drivers and salespeople.  When I arrived in Siliguri two weeks ago on the night train, I exited the station to people pestering to take me up to Darjeeling.  I was tired and I asked the first kid who got close, "How much?"

"100 rupees."

"100 rupees.  To Darjeeling?"

"Yes.  Yes.  100 rupees."

As we got to the Range Rover, the kid tried to sell me the two seats next to the driver for 300 rupees.  I'd have more room with two seats.

I said, "NO, we agreed on 100 rupees."

"Ok. Ok. 100 rupees."

I sat alone in the middle bench of the range rover for half an hour while the kid tried to rustle up more customers.  Eventually a family of 8 arrived and a boss type man tried to get me to move to the back of the car, the bad seats, to give the family the good seats.  I said, "No, I've been here for quiet a while.  I will not move."

Boss man told me that the car had already been booked and I'd have to get out.  I said, "No, you had no customers when I arrived and I've been here for half an hour.  I will not move."

The family piled in, despite the rude American, which I'm sure they'd all decided I was, and we all sat sweating like sardines in a very hot tin can.  Another half hour went by.  Yet another customer was found so that every square inch of seat was now filled with sweating, hostile customers less than eager to make the 5 hour journey up to Darjeeling smushed together.  Then the little guy who'd hustled me into the car in the first place came around to collect his money.  When he got to me he said, "150 rupees," which, to be fair is what he'd asked from everyone else.

But, it was not what we had agreed upon.

"No.  You said 100 rupees."

"No ma'am.  150 rupees.  Government price."

"We discussed it three times.  100 rupees."

"No ma'am.  150 rupees."

"I'd be happy to pay 150 rupees, if that is what you had said in the beginning, but that is not what we agreed on."

"150 rupees. Pay now."

I didn't care that I had a car full of sweating, equally tired Indian people crammed into the car along with me.  I was not letting the kid get away with it.

"Like I said, I'd be happy to pay 150 rupees, but as we talked about three times, you said the fare was 100 rupees."

He opened the door, telling me I had to get out.

"You find me another ride and I'll get out.  But it is your job.  You pulled me over here."

The kid pointed to another car across the way that was only partially full.  The extra room was tempting enough to get me out of the claustrophobic tin can.  Though I didn't know if the half empty car would take me.

"Ok. You will have to get my bag down."  My suitcase had already been secured on the top of the vehicle.

I got out of the car and a very official looking man came over and asked what the problem was.  I explained that I'd been promised a fare of 100 rupees and now was being charged 150.  The official looking man glanced over at the kid who'd pulled me in, and then kicked me out of, his car.  The kid looked nervous.  He started talking in Bengali.

As soon as my bag hit the pavement another driver of a jeep down the queue came over and asked me if I needed a ride to Darjeeling.  I said, "How much?"

"150 rupees."

"Great," I said, loud and clear right in front of both the kid and the official looking man.  I wanted to make sure that everyone understood, this was not about 50 rupees (1 buck), this was about principles.  As I walked away, the official looking man gave me what I can only describe as an extremely admiring look.

It's one of the contradictions of India.  Many many people here want to hustle you, but the same people also admire the hell out of you when you don't allow yourself to be hustled.

Like my bicycle rickshaw man who brought me back home today from the City Palace.  We'd bargained on a fare before I even got into the rig.  He'd said, "100".

I'd said, "50".

He said, "100".

I walked away.

 He said, "Ok, 50."

When we arrived at the hotel he tried to make it 100.  I said, absolutely no smile or leeway in my voice, "No.  50 rupee." I even made him give me change from a 100 rupee note.  As he gave me the change, I could swear he smiled, as if to say, "I gotta admire the tough broad."

India is a shifter, a shaper, a sculptor of souls.  It opens hearts, it expands minds, and it toughens skins.  The trick is to know when the work is done.  Leave too soon and your surface is only scratched.  Leave too late and you become hard.

I have one week left.  One week.  I know that I can stick it out.  And, as my dear goddess of a friend, Tina, says,  "You just know some magic is going to sneak in at the last minute, no?"

I do know India is capable of delivering magic, even in the darkest of times.  I'm not so sure that I have the ability or even the desire anymore to take in the magic.

But perhaps this is the final lesson India has to teach me during this three month crash course in...... what? Metaphysical soul searching? Finding center in a sea of crazy?  Focusing on the moment because if you focus on the big picture, you will go insane?

Yes.  Maybe this is India's final exam.  Instead of fleeing when it feels unbearable, am I supposed to find the stillness once again?  The quiet in myself?  I've been in a state of discomfort and dis-ease before on this trip.  Only I've never ever wanted to give up and go home.  This is a new level of disquiet, a much higher peak to climb to find peace.

I think there is strength in going home early, too.  There is the self-validation that comes with saying, "I've had enough and I'm a big girl who gets to say it's time to get back to the familiar."

What, pray tell, is India asking me to do?

I'm realizing that for all my talk of eschewing gurus, I've taken one.  I have, for the last three months, been India's faithful disciple.

In this book I'm reading of Sufi stories, there's one about a guy who went to a guru.  The guy begged the guru to take him as his disciple.  The guru said he would on one condition: the guy could not ask a single question.  The guy said, "Oh, that's easy.  Done.  Not a single question."

"Great," said the guru.  "Let's go to the well and get some water."

"Great," said the guy.

The guru then proceeded to pick up a pail that had no bottom.  All the way down to the well the guy was just itching to ask the guru why he had a pail with no bottom and how in the world they were going to gather water with a pail with no bottom.  But he resisted.

When they got to the well the guru attached the well to the rope and lowered the pail into the well and pulled it up.  Of course, water went into the pail and then immediately right back out.  The guru just kept lowering the bucket, making chit chat with the guy, and raising the bucket which was always empty.  Eventually the guru told the guy to take a turn drawing water from the well.

This was the final straw.  The guy couldn't take it anymore and said, "What are you saying?  There's no bottom to the bucket?  How can we gather water with a bucket with no bottom?"

As you might imagine, the deal was off.  The guru was no longer interested in taking the guy on as a disciple.  The guru told the guy that he had one job and one job only, to never ask a question and he clearly couldn't do his job.

Seems if a guru wants you to do something ridiculous, even seemingly idiotic, that's his prerogative.  He's doing it to teach some great life lesson to his disciple and the disciple is meant to humble himself by accepting his tasks and succumbing to the higher wisdom of his master.

So.  I've decided to go to the well and draw water with my bottomless bucket.  I'm not asking any questions.  I will stay the course.

I'll be in Jaipur one more day.  I may leave the hotel.  I may treat it like a holiday in the tropics and hang out by the pool all day.  On Saturday I will go to Agra so that I can wake up Sunday and see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.  I'll hire a car.  Oh, yes I will.  I will hire a car and that car will take me in it's pod of air-conditioned bliss from the door of my homestay to the Taj and back again.

Hey, I said I wouldn't ask questions, I didn't say I'd continuously keep banging my head against the wall, which in this case is fighting for the right taxi fare, letting myself be swamped with relentless requests to look at this and to buy that, and getting dizzy in the sweltering heat. I will allow myself to be what I am, really, a spoiled, by Indian standards~rich, American tourist.

Then I will go to Delhi on Monday to stay with Chandana who is visiting family and I will reconnect with other friends that I've made over the last three months.

Then I will go home.

To Seattle.

Because it will be time.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


The universe has a funny sense of humor.  I finally understand, in my bones, that the only way to be happy is to trust in yourself and to make peace with the moment, the place that you are in, your view on the world and then I come down with dysentery.

I challenge the Dalai Lama to make peace with dysentery.

I've heard some gruesome stories from fellow travelers about their bouts with dysentery and, all in all, I'm pretty sure I got off lucky.  I think that's also because I gave in quickly to the antibiotics my doctor made me carry JUST IN CASE.

Who knows, maybe I did benefit from my epiphany of last week.  I managed not to get submerged in self-pity which, let me tell you, when even the tiny joints in your toes ache and you can't stand fully upright and you are India which is on the other side of the planet from almost every human being you know, self-pity seems, well, justifiable.

But, I like Jaipur.  I'm staying in a heritage hotel just outside of the old city which is delineated by a wall made out of pink stone.  I could be wrong, but I think much of the old city is built out of pink stone.  I shall find out as soon as I feel up to exploring.  There are 7 gates into the city, one of them is called chandpole, or moongate.   On the way from the airport to my hotel I saw the full moon rising over the chandpole.  I wanted to stop and take a photo but we were in the middle of major traffic plus, I realized later, I was pretty sick and totally not up for it.  Just after I saw the moon, my guide, RV, pointed out the elephant walking by.  Some guy was riding his elephant home from work.  They were going along in traffic just like any other vehicle.  I was amazed to see how fast an elephant can go and how confidently he maneuvered with all the cars zooming by.

My hotel is a heritage home owned and operated by members of some kind of minor royal family, the Bissaus.  The main house where the dinning rooms and such like are is painted on every square inch with gold and pink and red.  There are lotus friezes and dancing girl paintings.  It's a bit like being on a movie set.  I had a choice of rooms the first night and one of them, the one I didn't take for some reason (dysentery brain) was absolutely gorgeous.  A maharajah's room.  But it is supposed to be hotter and that's an important consideration in these parts.  I have a good room.  Plain.  I am making peace with that.

Today I think I will stay close to home to make sure that my body is really mended enough to be out and about.  There is a pool here and my room needs to be cleaned.  Whenever I've needed anything I've just thrown anything that was in the way out of the way and therefore my room looks like a cyclone hit it.

I also have some making up to do with the staff here at Bissau.  I've been so out of it that I haven't tipped anyone and just now I tried to and realized that one of the things I threw somewhere was my coin purse. This is the kind of place where tips are expected and I am quickly rising on the Rude American Customers list.  I can see it in the face of my waiter.

Somewhere, outside the gates of my hotel are elephants and fortresses and tiny streets with treasure shops.  For now, they will have to wait and I must get strong, but it's hard.  It's hard to make peace with my view when I haven't seen the view outside, when I don't know what adventure I'm missing out on.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Metaphysically Speaking, Part Three ~ Closer I Am To Fine

Deep, my guide on the first two days in Varanasi, took me to see his Guru.  I thought, why not, I'm in Varanasi, I should do something mystical.  Deep's Guru, whose name I never caught, is an astrologer.  After meeting Deep's Guru, Guru Guy, I decided that I would make an appointment to get an astrological reading, see if he could enlighten me about what might be coming up next in my life, without me having to do the agonizing work of being patient and finding it out for myself. 

I'm no stranger to astrological readings.  Or tarot readings.  Or Skrying.  So, it wasn't like it was the first time I'd ever sought answers from the celestial spheres.  I actually do a bit of tarot, or intuitive, reading myself.  I've always believed that there are people who can clue into the cosmic data-base that all of us human energy balls are constantly downloading information into and from that data base these intuitives can check out different books that can give us some info about ourselves, in particular, and life, in general.

Of course, there are also a lot of people who can read star charts and memorize books on tarot reading or palm reading or what have you, that actually have no intuitive capability at all.  They probably don't even really believe in all that "crap" but they know that other people do, people who are willing to spend money so that they don't have to learn how to trust their own intuition.  The untalented non-believers, posing as intuitives have no qualms about relieving hopeful suckers like myself of their money.

I had no idea upon meeting Deep's guru whether or not he was an actual intuitive or if he just wanted my money.  But I was willing to spend a few dollars for the experience of finding out what going to an astrologer in India was like.  It seemed like a "When in Rome" kind of a thing to do.

And, sure, hope springs eternal....maybe Guru Guy would tell me something that would unlock all the doors I've been struggling to unlock over the last three months.  Maybe he could tell me what really matters so that I could change my life accordingly and decide what I should do next.

There is a lot of detail I could throw in next about how I got lost trying  to get to the appointment and then Guru Guy was late because he was "doing a ceremony for some American man"....

But that part isn't, for the purpose of this post, important.

When Guru Guy finally did start reading my chart and telling me about myself, I could tell he was pretty good.  He wasn't really telling me anything I didn't know already, either based on other readings about what my chart says or from my own self-knowledge, but he wasn't throwing out gross generalizations that could apply to anybody and he wasn't saying anything that was wildly off the mark about me in particular.

It started to get interesting when Guru Guy began to zero in on how I am a very spiritually oriented person ("You have an American body and an Indian soul") and how that focus would only get stronger over the next ten years, which backs up what other astrologers have told me.  But then he said that that spiritual energy would make me more and more confused and unsettled because I was also very physically oriented, my sexual energy was very strong, so that would be apt to get in the way of my finding peace and cause, instead, a feeling of constant "unsettledness".

Internally I went, "Whoa."  I felt like he was touching a new nerve.  Though, "unsettledness" is not the word I would use for what he'd hit on.  Confusion, yes.  Confusion in the sense that I'm no longer interested in having sex just to scratch an itch, to satisfy a craving.  There's got to be a spiritual/energetic connection.

Guru Guy continued to explain that my desire for connection would become more and more problematic as my orientation towards spirituality intensified, because he could see in my chart that my future relationships would continue to be unstable.  I would be seeking out deeper meaning, deeper connection, but relationships wouldn't happen, and then I would have these physical urges and not know what to do.

Ok. I could see how that might have been true in the past...I thought to myself.  In fact, I could see how that had been painfully evident throughout my life and how I'd gotten involved with the wrong people because of those physical needs.

Hmmm... this guy is really good, I started thinking.

Then, he said, "Your energy is so strong.  Like mine. People want some of it.  I understand this.  People come to me and they want some of my energy.  Women come from other countries and I can see they want some of my energy.  This one woman came and I could see she wanted a hug.  I asked her if she did, and I let her give me a hug.  But I told her her hug was not real, not strong enough, if she was going to hug me she should hug me with all her strength because, after that hug, that would be it, nothing more could come from me after." this guy was veering a little off course.....

Then Guru Guy shifted in his seat so his mundu (skirt) was split just enough for me to see his package.  But not enough for me to know if he knew that I could see is package.  And let me solve the age old question right now:  Indian men do not wear anything under their mundus.

I just kept looking Guru Guy straight in the eyes, wondering where he was gonna try and go from there.

But Guru Guy did not push his agenda too hard.  He never came out and made it plain that he was suggesting anything specific, you know, about his energy and my energy meeting up. Though I became more and more sure that he was trying to say that if I wanted his "energy", all I had to do was ask.

But soon the session was over and it was time to leave though not before he tried to sell me a very expensive talisman, or the even more expensive "Ceremony", to stop the "unsettled" trend in my life.

While we were walking to the door, I reached out to shake Guru Guy's hand, to thank him for the interesting reading.  All in all, I'd rather enjoyed myself in a "I'm not sure what just happened here, but this guy is fascinating and I can't wait to tell the story about him" kind of a way.  So I reach out and offer my hand and he takes it in his hand and, gosh darn it, if when I took his hand, it wasn't electric.  I mean E-LEC-TRIC!  It didn't excite me sexually, but it did shock the heck out of me.

Guru Guy saw me register his "energy" and said, "You see, you want some of my energy."

I said, "No.  But there is energy."

"I think you do.  I think you want some energy."

I laughed and walked out....quickly...sort of waving my hands by my ears in a "Oh, my God this just turned too weird and too funny all at the same time" kind of a way.

Guru Guy followed me to the outer door of his building and called after me down the narrow little alley, "You come back.  When you have no hesitation, you come back."

I walked quickly, trying to shake off Guru Guy's "energy".  As his electrons fell away, I found myself slowly, but steadily, filling with elation.  I was thrilled.  I had no idea why.  I mean, I should have been pissed.  I'd just spent 50 bucks for some guy to stage an elaborate and bizarre seduction.

But as I let it sink in, I realized that I was happy because I was free.  Suddenly, everything became so clear....Guru Guy could tell me nothing that mattered about myself.  Even if he'd been the most pious and talented mystic ever.  The truth is in me.  My truth.  Just like the truth is in you, each of you, each of us, if we get quiet enough to listen.  That communal energetic database that intuitives tap into is a free library, folks, we all got a card when we signed up for this ride.  And there are certain volumes that only apply to us and we are the only ones who can read the crazy font they are printed in.

A wealth of psychic weight dropped off of my soul and out of my heart.  I realized that I could not only check my own books out of the cosmic library, I could write new ones, I could make my own reality.  I could decide what mattered to me and build the rest of my years around that.

Later that night, I took a little evening stroll and met a real mystic, a kid of about 17 years, named Kundar....he doesn't know he's a mystic....but boy did he put me in my place.....I tried to shoo him away and he just persisted and then said, "Oh, you think you know everything, you think of me as a dog...not good enough to talk to..."  I tried to interrupt him and to have a rational conversation about how I was just trying to be quiet and that my shooing him away was not personal.  But he kept saying, "I'm a dog to you, a lowly dog.  You know everything...."

So finally I said, sharply, "Do you want to be quiet long enough to listen?"

He said, "Yes, of course.  Where are you from?"


"How long you in Varanasi?"

"Since Wednesday."

"You like it?"


Kundar sat down beside me, calm, gentle, inquisitive.

We had a great conversation.  He taught me how to say "mother fucker" in hindi: mutta chowd, so that the next time I needed to shoo somebody away I could let them know I really meant business.  

Out of the blue, Kundar wanted to know if I thought God was inside of each of us.  He'd heard that this might be true and he wondered what I thought.

"Funny you should ask," I thought.  Hadn't I just had that epiphany this morning.  The truth, aka God, is in each of us.  Sure, I'd heard that before.  But now I knew it, in my bones.  

I said, "Yes.  Yes.  I believe that is true.  God is in each of us."

In turn, I asked Kundar, "Why do the Hindus say "God"-singular when they believe there are over a million different gods.

Answer: God has many faces, so many that we don't even know how many faces he has.

I asked, "If the Ganges is so sacred why do the Indian people treat her so poorly?"

Answer: Because the hand has five fingers and each finger doesn't know what the other one is doing.

See, a natural mystic.

Kundar also fessed up and told me that Varanasi "runs on money.  Because money never stops, money is always working, always going.  Money never takes a break.  People get tired.  Money never gets tired".

After about half an hour, Kundar said, "Your face looks kind of happy, but I think inside you are a little upset with me, a little angry?"

Kundar was right.  I was a little bit upset, but not with him, with myself.  I had said "no" to his intrusion; I had tried to shoo him away because I wanted to sit with my new found spiritual freedom, I wanted to bask in the light of my earlier epiphany.

I was also sure he was hustling something which I was not in the mood to buy.

Yes, ultimately he wanted to take me to his shop where he works in hopes that I would stock up on souvenirs.  But he didn't push it.  When I said no, Kundar accepted it without question.  And the conversation we had in the meantime was perfect.  A gift.

Kundar was right about another thing.  I didn't know everything.  I thought I knew something; maybe I even felt, in some small way, that my earlier epiphany had given me special powers to know that Kundar was someone I wouldn't possibly want to talk to.  Though I certainly didn't think he was a dog.  But I may have initially treated him as one.

The next day, yesterday, I woke up, as is my customary habit in India, to see the sunrise.  But  instead of going out in a boat, or for a walk on the ghats, I decided to just sit on my own little balcony which sits back from the front edge of the guest house, creating a limited view of life on the waterfront.  The sun would be rising to the left of the corner edge of my view, so I wouldn't actually see the sun, itself, rise.

It felt great to just be in my space without yearning for a better vantage point.  So easy. So relaxing.

As the sky began to lighten, I caught site of a tourist on a prominatory pillar snapping a photo of something in an easterly direction and knew the sun had just crested the horizon.  Soon, I could see rays of sunlight segmenting the sky in  perfect pie shapes.  It was like the sun was reaching out into the receding darkness with a giant hand and all I could see were the tips of the fingers.

It dawned on me that light spreading in the mind and soul and heart works like those sun rays; tendrils of insight reach out into the darkness of closed minds and hearts and if we are patient and easy with ourselves our inner sky will eventually be swathed in light.  We don't even have to move or search for anything, not even a better spot to take in the view, light will make it even to all our little corners of the world, even if we choose not to be out in the middle of everything.

I decided, while the rays slowly spread out and disappeared and daytime came to Varanasi, that I was not going to leave the guesthouse all day.  I wasn't going to go to any temple or puja or astrologer; I wasn't going to go to Sarnath, a town nearby where Buddha taught his first lesson.  Instead, I was going to practice being happy right where I was, accepting what I might know and what I don't know and making peace with the distinct possibility that there are a million metaphysical conundrums that no one can really solve, certainly not definitively.

The magic of Varanasi, for me anyway, is that here, more than any place I've ever been, the essence of what it means to be human is on display.  Does it matter why we are here?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  But for sure we are here.  Varanasi makes it clear as sunshine in a matter of minutes that being on this planet, being human is messy, often disgusting, life is hard, death is inevitable, rebirth is a possibility, and yearning is universal.  Everybody is yearning for something: peace, love, money, connection to the divine, to their family, to their friends, a better job, clarity...... the list goes on and on. 

As I sat and wrote and chatted with the staff here at Ganpati Guesthouse, I began to sense that in 12 days when I get on the plane to go back to the states it will be time, not just because that's what my ticket says, but because that will be the next step in my journey and no matter where I go, back to Seattle, Santiniketan, Paris, my view will be as expansive as I allow it to be, my reality will be mutable, my choices only limited by my ability, or inability, to trust in my own deepest intuitions, dreams and visions.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Metaphysically Speaking, Part Two ~ I Went Down To The River To Pray

Varanasi likes to tell a person what matters.  It likes to make a lot of things that many would say are unreal, very real.  Reincarnation, for instance.  It wants to make sure that you understand why we are all here on this planet, why we suffer, and why and how we can be relieved of that suffering, if not in this life, then, surely the next one....or maybe the one after that.

I'm actually a believer in reincarnation.  There, I said it.  Have been for a while.

But like I began to say in that last post, before Varanasi jumped in with all that metaphysical marketing who-ha, I have been batting around the question of what matters and why we are all here and what is real, because you know I might be wrong....maybe we only get one shot at this living thing.  I've also been wondering why we all can't agree on the answers to those questions, even though so many people think they know THE answer.  I've been wracking my brain and querying my heart trying to figure out if all the metaphysical disharmony on this planet rules out the possibility that there is actually one reason, singular, that we are all here, that there is only one, or maybe two, things that really matter (if anything matters at all).

On my first morning in Varanasi I got up at 5:30 a.m. and went to watch the bathers and the mourners and the workers and the pilgrims from the safety of a little boat.  I told you about that.  Watching the young widower lighting the funeral pyre for his dead wife.  I sat in my little boat watching from the outside and beyond the incredible intensity of what was happening onstage.

On the second morning, I decided to go out again at 5:30, but this time I walked along the banks, mingling and taking pictures, almost from the inside of things.  Or at least from a more intimate and involved vantage point, sort of from the wings, if you will.  I even found a place to sit and to just be for a little while, without being hustled by boatmen wanting to take me out on the water.

I watched the sunrise, which I'd missed the day before because I was looking at the shore while the sun made it's entrance behind me.  I watched the sun rise over the Ganges and marvelled that only a week ago I watched that same sun rise over the Himalayas.  I tried not to make too much out of that.

When it started to get too hot, I decided to wander back to my guest house.  Holy men looking like Asian gnomes sitting under their little mushroom umbrellas called to me, "Namaste, Namaste.  Come. Come."  But I walked on, sometimes saying what I would say to any boatman, or souvenir hawker, "Nigh-che eh" or "I don't want any."

And, I didn't.  I didn't want any of what those holy men were selling.

Speaking of holy men.  I've been reading this book by a Sufi named Osho.  Who knows, this guy might be famous.  I might write "Osho" and half of you out there go, "Oh, yeah, of course, Osho."  But I didn't know Osho from anybody, but I bought this book on a whim about a month ago and started reading it on the plane rides to Varanasi.  Ok.  It wasn't a complete whim.  Ever since I read Ellen Burstyn's autobiography where she talks about being a Sufi and why she's a Sufi, I've kind of wondered if, maybe, I'm actually a Sufi, too.

Anywhoo.  This Sufi master, Osho, talks really eloquently about why it's bad form to pray just to pray.  That a soul should only pray when it is moved to pray.  And wherever that prayer happens is ok.  Any place where someone prays sincerely becomes, instantly, a sacred and holy spot, a temple, a shrine. Osho also talks about how trying to be like the Buddha or Jesus or Mohammad or any Guru you could name out there, is also very bad form.  Because to be truly divine, we must all be wholly and completely ourselves.  If we just try to copy Buddha or Jesus we only succeed in becoming, at best, a good imitation of somebody or something we are not.  There was only one Jesus and only one Buddha.

So, as these Varanasi holy men tried to sell me a moment of serious devotional prayer, I told them I wasn't buying.  I had neither the inclination to pray or the the desire to be them.

This resolve wavered a bit as I approached what I call the Big Circus Ghat, where every night they do an extremely elaborate Puja, or prayer service that strikes me as a bit of a cheat put on for the tourists, as well as, the grief stricken Indians who will pay anything to find peace.  The Ghat is wide and deep and can hold a lot of holy men, each on their individual little platforms, under their individual large mushroom shaped umbrellas.  Pretty soon I had said, Nigh-che eh so many times that I was sick of hearing myself say no and when a certain priest called out, something in me was drawn in.

I went over and, in the blink of an eye, found myself sitting barefoot, in the criss-cross apple sauce pose, a red dot on my forehead, flowers sprinkled with holy Ganges water and a coconut wrapped in flowered cloth all sitting in my cupped hands.  And, I was chanting.  In Sanskrit.  The priest would chant, I would copy.  Sometimes I'd squinch up my face to indicate I hadn't caught what he'd said, and he would repeat.  Sometimes I would simply butcher the Sanskrit sounds that I was trying to parrot and then silently wonder to what strange deformed deity I might have just promised my first born.

When Sanskrit Priest was done with me, another guy suddenly appeared beside me.  The English Speaking Guy.  He explained that he would say a prayer for all of my family each and every day for the next month to rid my family of bad karma forever. Then I had to chant some more.  But this time in English.  Cuz English Speaking Guy was leading me.    Then English Speaking Guy made me bend forward and he put his hand on the top of my head and he chanted some stuff I wasn't supposed to copy, having to do with peace and happiness for my family and a good marriage for me.  That good marriage part was his idea, but, hey, who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Then I had to get up and walk down to the water with yet another guy, Water Blessing Guy.  Suddenly I found myself weaving towards the Ganges through a bevy of devout Pilgrims.  Suddenly I was no longer backstage, but on stage.  I was a real Pilgrim.

I stepped on the first step into the river.  There was only enough water on this level to feel like I was dipping the souls of my feet in a shallow puddle left after Shiva finished mopping the floor; I wasn't taking the plunge any further.  Water Blessing Guy leaned over and took a handful of the sacred liquid and sprinkled it on my head, saying something benifacting.

Everything was happening so quickly.  I didn't know what to make of it.  I remember climbing down to the edge of the river and thinking, "How did I get here?"  I also had a very clear moment when I was stepping in the water where I thought, "This water feels great.  Special.  Blessed."  I was glad that I was there, getting sprinkled, relieved, even, that I hadn't missed my chance; all the filth and the potential disease that I had previously imagined might muddy the experience of the divine Ganges, disappeared and all I could sense was joy.  I was filled with the awareness of millions of drops of faith that infused the water with some kind of special power to filter out all the gross particles and to leave only the blessings.

Then Water Blessing Guy walked me back up to the platform and English Speaking Guy did some kind of final little magic.  Then, I had to write down my address in a book along with all the names of my immediate family members.

Then I had to write down how much my donation was going to be to the Temple where generations of bad Rowe/MacCracken karma was going to be wiped clean.  I wrote down 100 rupees and then was told that that was too little.  To prove his point, English Speaking Guy showed me in the book where Indian's, who we all know have no money, had given 2000, 3000 rupees for the spiritual safeguarding of their entire ancestral line.

I added another zero and called it a day.  Not because I don't think my ancestral line is worth the cash, but I'm also thinking my ancestral lines only go back a fraction of the way that most Indian family lines go back, and my people only made a handful of souls compared to all those generations of Indians, so my donation seemed to be appropriate to the task at hand.

I wasn't surprised that the blessing came with a price.  Nor was I particularly disillusioned by the hard sell after a slightly transcendental experience.  I was rather shocked, however, that I'd just been suckered out of my whole day's budget.  But I got over that in a few minutes.

Can you really put a price on the spiritual salvation of your entire ancestral line?  Probably not.

The night before I had been to a puja down at a small Ghat close to my hotel. I'd noticed the small puja while I was watching this Puja, The Big Circus Puja, on my first night in Varanasi:

This daily ritual is very elaborate.  Using several different holy implements, conch shell, bells, incense, fire, more fire, then a little more fire, sandalwood oil, fire, feathers, fire, water, fire, the priests do a series of synchronized rituals honoring all of the elements, but mostly fire, addressing the six directional points (North, South, East, West, the Heavens, and the Earth).

Here, maybe this might help you get a better picture:

But at the little puja, instead of 9 priests lined up on 9 individual rose petal covered stages, there were only 5 priests, situated on one platform, arranged like dots on dice.  I was one of about 20 people watching this intimate affair, because the other two thousand pilgrims were all at the puja big top.

The guy who keeps the show running at this little puja, Munnar, invited me to sit close, presumably because I was the only white person who bothered to stop and because I was alone.

I almost said no to that invitation, too.  I'd been sitting far up on the steps where I felt I could have some space to really connect with the ritual, to feel it, to take it into my being, to invite in my own prayer, if the occasion warranted.  But Munnar came up and told me to sit down next to him and his family near the little machine that clangs the drums that keeps the priests in step with each other...the drum metronome.    Because it was so loud, and there were so few people, and because Munnar and his niece had to jump up frequently to light the next line of candles or to place incense, I had quite a lot of time to sit by myself, with the drums resonating in my chest and the bells and smoke of the ritual surrounding every nook and cranny of my being.

"This is the real thing," I thought to myself.  "Visceral.  Palpable."

At some point a small boy of 4-ish or 5-ish, appeared at my side.  He was talking to me, but I couldn't hear him over the drums and the bells.  So, we adapted and started talking to each other in head bobs and blinks and with points to the moon.  If he pointed to the moon, I pointed to the moon.  If he put his hand out in a sort of high five gesture, I put my hand out in a high five gesture.  If I winked, he smiled, then cocked his head to one side and gave me a lopsided look that showed off his missing front teeth and then I would laugh out loud, joyfully.  I thought the kid was angling for a little hand out.  I wasn't going there.  But he never asked for anything.  And just as suddenly as he'd appeared, he looked at me, got up, said, "bye bye," and left.

As the Puja went on for quite some time and eventually Munnar and Punam ran out of tasks, I let Punam distract me from my intention of calling in a moment of personal prayer by letting her decorate my hand with henna.  This is not something Punam does to make money.  She is not skilled.  I will be walking around for the next month with a strange heart with an arrow through it, glaring from the palm of my right hand.  But I like my tattoo so much more than those professional jobs that so many tourists get that cover their calves and arms and feet and hands.

Munnar and Punam didn't want money for either their hospitality or the unique, one of a kind, tattoo.  I tried to give them something, but they refused.  Though they did extract a promise that I would return the next night, and I knew, eventually, that I would be asked to go to some store to look at something....and indeed I was asked just that, when I went back.

I started to have a feeling that first night, though, which I think was still in effect the next morning when I got suckered into paying the 1000 rupees to the priest at the fancy pants ghat.  A feeling born of finding myself at the river Ganges among so many people who yearn for purification and blessing from the river, and others who just want to make a buck, and then, others who just want to reach out and connect with something or someone in the course of their simple, ordinary lives.  It was a feeling born of discovering that sometimes a person could want or need all three at once.  I mean, just because someone wants to make a buck, doesn't mean they don't also want to genuinely connect.

At one point, in the dark night, mesmerized by the candles flying in the priests' hands, the river black and bottomless and vast behind them, I caught sight of a strand of cobweb floating on an air current.  It danced silently by me, past Munnar and his niece, and hung in the air for a few minutes at the knees of two holy men who were chatting on a step nearby.

Trying to figure out what matters, what to pray for, who to pray to, even trying to ascertain what is real, is like trying to catch that little cobweb floating on an air current in the dark.  Sitting there I knew I didn't even want to try to catch the cobweb, it was magic enough to notice it.  I just took a deep breath, and followed the wispy thread till it settled down on the ground between the two holy men.  Even though I was sitting only a few feet away.  I have no ideas if those guys saw the web, maybe yes, maybe no.

But I did, and maybe that's all that matters.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Metaphysically Speaking, Part One~The Varanasi Family Photo Album

I'm having a long distance conversation with a friend back in the states about what matters.  Does anything really matter?  Does everything matter?  Are there only a few essential things that matter, and everything else is inconsequential?  Sometimes we branch out into, What is Reality?  Do we make our own Reality?  Is anything, essentially, solidly, Real?  You know, small questions like that.

Being in Varanasi, even more than being anywhere else in India, makes a soul wonder.  Varanasi brings the metaphysical out of the closet and puts it right in your lap and says, "You want to find out what really matters?  What's real?  Let's look at some family pictures."

"First of all.  You are not alone.  You are part of a large tribe.  The Varanasi Tribe.  Look at all the seekers, your brothers and sisters.  They come in droves.

"Do you like that new airport?  We just had it built, to make all the Westerners feel at home, and to make the Indians feel like wealth is here for the taking if you are willing to make the pilgrimage to Varanasi....

"Because, let's face it.  Money matters.  Indians have finally embraced this idea.  Isn't that funny.  Westerners come to India to find out what matters after money, behind money, other than money.  They dress like Indians.  Indians who've been able to see for millenium what was more important than money have finally decided Westerners are right.  Now the Indians want the money.  Now they are starting to dress like Westerners.

"Oh, we park the planes at the old airport and make everyone walk in the sweltering heat to the new air conditioned airport.  It's a little joke we like to play.  Getting the seekers to question the Journey itself.  Some of them say...'Ah, I see what this is all's about leaving the old behind and getting to the new all on your own steam....right...I get it'.

"Silly humans."

"Prayer.  A lot of people think prayer is what matters.  And God, of course.  Any God.  In Varanasi we like choice.  It's like an American supermarket, only we are selling a million different kinds of God instead of a 100 different kinds of laundry detergent."

"Ooooh.  And Devotion.  Devotion matters.  Reaching for the divine.  If God(s) is so important then it's best to prove it with devotion."

"Giving thanks.  Gratitude.  Puja.  Celebrating life.  That's what this one's all about.  Gratitude.  Of course, ask each priest and spectator what they are thankful for, and you open a can of worms....big can of worms.  There are as many different answers to that one as there are dead bodies in the Ganges.

"Ok.  Wait.  I tried to pull one over on you there.  Sorry for that.  I said this one was all about Gratitude.  Celebrating Life.  That's kind of not true.  There's a puja down the river a bit that is about all those things.  But this one.  Well, this one just might be a little more about money.  Making money.  It's really more like a Puja Circus.

"But you didn't hear that from me."

"Oh, look.  We are back to God.  Prayer.  Though that chick in back seems to have something else on her mind.  She looks pretty happy.  She might even be having fun.....  I wonder what matters to her."

"Caste.  Social Status.  That matters.  At least to these young Brahmins.  Every morning they come down to the water to learn how to pray, cuz they are special, only they can pray the Brahmin way."

"Death.  Really, when you think about it.....all that matters in life is that someday we are all gonna die.  Right?  Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

"Of course, I don't like to brag, but it is most honorable to die here, with me, Varanasi.  Everybody in India says so.  So, I guess, really, I matter."

"Family?  Well, ok.  It could be family that matters.  And sons.  Having a son.  That matters too."

"Food.  Tea.  Coffee.  Don't worry, be happy.  Hmmm.  Maybe nothing really matters."

"Cows.  This is one of my personal favorites.  Those humans let the cows shit everywhere.  Then they walk in it.  Seriously.  But that brings us back, of course, to God.  Shiva.  The sacred divine.

"Boy, willing to walk in shit for God.  God must really matter."

"Told you."

"Of course, to the monkeys, what matters is food.  Come to think of it, there are lots of humans who think that the world begins and ends with a good meal...."

"Good personal hygiene.  Clean clothes.  Very important.  But would it be getting too metaphysical on you to posit the question, How clean can those clothes be if they are washed in fetid water?

You are absolutely wouldn't be too would be, rather, deeply existential...if you think about it.  But no need to bring you down.  Existential pondering can lead to despair, need to go there.  Grief only matters a little."

"You know, a lot of people think a roof over your head is what matters."

"Looking Good.  Could be that is what matters.  Again, where did that man bathe?  In the river.  Best not to think about that."

"Then there is nature, the beauty of the moment.  Soak it in sister.  Lean back.  Look at the sunrise over the Ganges.  Could be that's what matters.  Especially if you don't think about how disgusting everything is around you.  And if you can forget about that little kid you just saw taking a dump on the sidewalk several feet to your left.  Focus on the BEAUTY OF THE SUNRISE!"

"Peace of mind, OF COURSE.  That's what matters.  Emptying your mind of all the worries, the dirt, the death, the "all" of this crazy planet and it's absurd humanity.  Empty your mind...."

"Ooohh we have a metaphysical hodgepodge here.  We got your boatmen sleeping on the ghats.  We got your yogi down there in the lower left.  We've got a good Indian family selling tea for all the tourists and pilgrims, doing their service...that's surely what matters.

"Oh, oh, or it could be, once again, God.  See all those wise men sitting up there looking out at the Ganges.  Surely the wise men know what matters most."

"This poor guy just wants to make a buck.  No clients.  He over slept and now everyone who wants to go out on the water has left him to sit all by himself next to the warf.  Him and the stray dog.  If only he were a better worker and he'd woken up an hour earlier....He obviously doesn't know what matters.  He doesn't know that money doesn't sleep.  He hasn't met Kundar, Kundar knows that Varanasi runs on money.  That's why Kundar isn't in this photo."

"Now this guy knows from work.  This guy got up on time.  He is hard at it.  Work.  Work is what matters.  Right?  He is washing those pillow cases.  Next he will wash the sheets.  Then those pillow cases, and the sheets you can't see, will be returned to the hotel where they came from.  Then these pillow cases and sheets will be put on the beds of travelers who won't touch the Ganges because it is frighteningly dirty, but, and here's the funny part, they are all sleeping on sheets and pillow cases that were washed in that sacred, germ laden water."

"Of course.  It could be peace that matters.  Real peace.  Peace for all of humanity.  That's what this guy thought."

"Now it might just be that what matters is the very same thing that brings all the pilgrims to Varanasi.

"The source.

"Isn't that a great word: SOURCE.  Especially when you are talking about The Ganges.  About the mother of life.

"Life giving Ganges, who also holds death.  Death and Life and Life and Death.

"It all comes back to the Source.  Now we are talking metaphysically, about the beginning of it ALL.  It's right here, folks...right here...Mother Ganges.  Mother Earth.  Life giving and Death receiving.

"It all comes back to the Source."

"It all comes back to the Source."