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Kolkata

When I was leaving Sadhana Forest, one of the other volunteers reacted when I told him I was heading to Kolkata next. “Why would you want to go there?” I heard it many times and was always surprised at the question. While the palm trees and warm breezes were wonderful, I couldn’t wait to get back to the North in all its rawness. That IS India to me and I couldn’t wait to see more of it. I got it in Kolkata..

My writing on my travels over the last 8 months has been full of superlatives. I have, after all, seen a lot of incredible things. So I’m left feeling like the boy who cried wolf on this one. But I can honestly say that Kolkata is far and away the most awesome place I’ve seen yet. ‘Awesome’ in the true sense of the word.
vendor closeup
Kolkata is like a caricature of all the filthy, gritty, raw, colorful, exciting and rotten things about India that I’d ever imagined. It was mind-bending. As I walked, I felt compelled regularly to just stop and watch. Compelled to observe and plainly stare dumbfounded at how people in this city live, what passes as normal, how callous they’ve all become in their struggle to survive.

It is an ugly place. A place in an advanced, sometimes staggering state of decay. But as I wandered for five days, stunned at times, through the city, I realized that it was decay with incredible character. And I loved it. It was like a wet dream for travelers like me. Everywhere I looked, there was something incredible happening. Not to them (just another Wednesday) but amazing for me, an outsider looking in on what life had become here for those living so close to the street, literally and figuratively.
shoeshine brothers
As I walked down Mirza Ghalib street from my hotel on my first morning in town, I experienced the most surreal 45 minutes of my life. It felt like I was walking through a Discovery Channel special or some old gothic film. Yet it was all very real, right in front of me. There was the guy who slept on the sidewalk outside my window every night,
sidewalk sleeping - outside my hotel room
the six additional guys who slept on sheets on the sidewalk around the corner after spending the entire day excavating the road with only hand tools, the rickshaw puller (like a chariot but powered by his feet instead of a bicycle or engine) that parked his rig on the sidewalk, pulling the seat cushion off and using it as a pillow as he slept on the bare ground each night,
foot rickshaws
the mange-covered and constantly mating dogs laying in the road oblivious to passing cars and stomping feet (or under a taxi if you’re smart),
a safe nap spot
the men soaping and scrubbing themselves daily at any available open pump or drain pipe on the sidewalk with people walking all around them,
morning bath on the sidewalk, mirza ghalib st.
the man sprinkling bleaching powder along the effluent-draining ditches on the side of the road to kill the stink, the men sitting on the ground tearing huge lead batteries apart with hacksaws and bare hands for scrap plastic, bodies covered in chemicals, the fishmongers sitting on their haunches cutting and scaling fish on ancient looking rusty knives wedged between their feet, flies swarming over piles of dirty fillets lying on scraps of newspaper on the sidewalk, ‘ragpicker’ families rooting through massive piles of garbage with bare hands, searching for anything they can sell,
sorting the garbage heap
children bare-bottomed sitting in filth, crying with runny noses, an old man rolling three massive truck tires down the middle of the street with one hand, a man walking monkeys down the street behind two advertising stilt walkers?,
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rail thin rickshaw pullers clanging silver bells on their rigs hoping to get your attention and your business (I often wondered if they could make enough to buy enough food to compensate for the thousands of calories they burned each day hauling people around town), food vendors washing dishes with dirty hands without soap in filthy buckets behind their stalls, men in lungis and sashes wrapped around their heads like turbans gathered around chai stands sipping $0.10 cups of tea and puffing hand-rolled leaf cigarettes tied with tiny pieces of red thread, men sitting on street barber chairs (sometimes piles of bricks on the sidewalk) getting lathered up and shaved with straight razors in the sun, some with cars whizzing by leaving just inches between razor-wielding barber elbow and car door,
competition across the street
countless beggars with horrible disfigurements (managed, I’d learn, by begging ‘pimps’ who dole out territory and take a percentage – and sometimes inflict the disfigurements), putrid open outdoor latrines where years of urine cake the once white walls in yellow and orange crystals, women carrying infants and thrusting empty baby bottles in my face as they beg for money, old 60’s era yellow Ambassador cabs careening through street traffic with horns blaring, being reminded of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as I stepped over rivulets of feces and blood in ancient gothic looking meat markets where blood smeared men nap on the same gore-covered tables where they butcher,
man sitting on cutting table w/pile of meat
goats wandering around that market oblivious to their coming fate, dogs waiting for scraps, flower markets where the fragrance from thousands of pounds of marigold garlands sold for religious offerings mellows with the stink of urine and garbage into a strange sour,
the sweet of flowers plus the stink of garbage = a strange sour
children living in the bowels of train stations living off of the cast-off scraps of others..

I wrote for hours each day about everything I saw. I wrote feverishly but couldn’t capture all of it. I was astounded by everything, by the way in which it all just.. happens. People have become used to living like this, used to the crush of 15 million people in each other’s faces resulting in a lack of privacy in any form, a lack of shame, a lack of anything in some cases. Many seeming to struggle daily to find food while a sprinkling of the new middle class of Western-influenced young people with clean skin, sunglasses and new shoes step over them while gossiping on cell phones. If it weren’t for the occasional reminder of the massive influence of the West on this culture, I might have thought I’d traveled back in time. It’s as if parts of this city stopped evolving 40 years ago and started decaying, everything becoming more worn, soot-covered and crumbing but more rich in incredible detail and frenzied in pace in the process.

By the way, if you’re wondering where the color went.. I’ve taken pictures almost exclusively in color since I started traveling but almost immediately upon arriving in Kolkata, realized black and white is the only thing that would truly capture the feeling I had walking around its streets. A bit depressing but, again, with such amazing character.

Kolkata is obviously a rough place. You Indie movie buffs might remember the film ‘Born Into Brothels’, about the struggles of children born to prostitute mothers in its slums, which was filmed here. It’s also where Mother Teresa came to spend her life helping those living and dying on the streets in the city. Fascinated by her story and eager to understand just how bad it can get, I spent two afternoons volunteering in Nirmal Hriday, the home she created for the ‘Sick and Dying Destitutes’ in one of the rougher neighborhoods in the city.
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They say it was her favorite place to be. The walls are covered in her inspirational quotes and pictures of her, some with the pope during one of his visits in the 80’s. I was full of anxiety before I went, sad, amazed and inspired when I left. Ninety-eight people were living there, sex-segregated, all plucked from near death situations in the streets around the city, all still in bad shape and living on cots on the ground in a drab cement building. During waking hours, a dedicated team of nuns (in the traditional blue and white frock made famous in pictures of Mother Teresa) and volunteers care for them constantly, washing soiled clothes and linens by hand, doling out medications and meals, massaging sore limbs, telling jokes and chatting in broken Hindi, generally doing anything they can to give these people a little love while their bodies fight to get better. Some do get better but many never walk out.

I met volunteers from several countries, some of whom were in Kolkata for their 4th or 5th time to help, like Giuseppe from Italy and Allen from Denmark, spending up to a year at a time keeping Mother Teresa’s work moving forward. After meeting people like that, it’s hard not to feel guilty at how little I do to help those people in my own country, but inspired to change that.

Just as I started to wrap my head around it all, the horrid sanitation and air quality in the city finally took its toll on me in the form of yet another cold and stomach bug. It was time to go. Part of me didn’t want to leave – the part fascinated in the most visceral way with all I’d seen, so far from any life I’d ever know, so raw, true and surreal. But the other, larger part, knew I could never survive in a place like this, like these hearty people living on the razor’s edge.

I’m just a soft white boy.

After relaxing in the magical hippie goodness of Auroville and Sadhana Forest for two weeks, I was anxious to get moving again. I’d spent the last two months (almost all of my time in India) in the warm, colorful and relatively sane southern half of the country, nearly 3 weeks of that with Western tourists between the ashram and the Forest. While it had all been very very good, my little time in the north (Varanasi) made me realize how truly different the two parts of the country are. I was itching to get back up to the grit of the top half (that which I’d always imagined India to be) – and to spend more of my time interacting with locals again.

I took one more dive in the mud pool down the road, said goodbye to the rest of the volunteer crew, and jumped on a bus heading north. My plan was to head to Kolkata (formerly known by its colonial spelling, ‘Calcutta’) in the northeast next, then start heading west across the widest part of the country as the temperatures started to rise again.

I stopped in Chennai (formerly ‘Madras’) again on the way. While I wasn’t interested in exploring the city, I did have two good reasons to stop for a few days. I’d dropped off my camera for repairs a few weeks earlier and, to my surprise, they’d fixed it. $55 later (3-4 days worth of living expenses in this country..), I was the complete tourist package, again equipped to take stupid pictures of random road signs like this 28-letter long job in Chennai.
you know, that one street..
While I had actually enjoyed being gadget-free (no iPod or camera to distract me from what was happening directly in front of me at all times – ‘oh, I have to get that shot.. and from this angle.. and maybe a close-up’..), I realized how many places I’d been that I’d never have photos from.

I’d also gotten another recommendation from my buddy Bryan about a place to check out in the city. He was right about Auroville so I jumped on it. The Vasanta Vihar in Chennai is a study center dedicated to the teachings of a deceased Indian philosopher named J Krishnamurti. People interested in learning about his work are invited to come, stay and study. I’d heard bits about him but didn’t really know what I was getting into when I made a reservation to stay there. I’m glad I went. I spent two days relaxing in the several acre oasis of manicured gardens (photo at top) including a clean and comfortable room – shockingly novel on the Indian budget travel trail, watching some of his recorded speeches, and talking and eating communal meals in the dining room with others who’d come to learn more, all Indian, some of whom have been following his work for over 40 years.

While two days wasn’t enough to wrap my head around it, what I learned I liked. The guy subscribed to no particular religion, spoke about the need to look within to understand life’s issues and discouraged people from looking to him as a guru (a refreshing thing in India), instead encouraging them to take the teachings as a starting point for self-learning rather than a polished ‘answer’ to life’s questions. I picked up one of his books and look forward to getting all the answers..

Back to earth. I found a cheap flight from Chennai to Kolkata and, after comparing the benefits (30 hours on a hot train for $20, 1 hour in the air for $60..), headed to the airport. I was giddy walking into the place. I realized how much I LOVE flying, no matter the reason or destination – a massive guilty pleasure for a so-called environmentally-minded type.. There’s something about the whole experience I can’t articulate. It had been four months and countless hours on some very difficult bus and train rides since I was last on a plane and I was psyched to take advantage of modern technology again. Someone, please design pollution-free air travel STAT.

Naturally, there are quite a few things distinctly Indian about the experience here. Checking in at the SpiceJet airlines counter (their version of JetBlue, Southwest etc), the safety regulations caught my eye. In addition to the usuals (fireworks, guns etc), the list of prohibited items on board included the following: sabers, swords, meat cleavers, blasting caps, brass knuckles, knitting needles, hatchets, darts, pickles and spices, and chilly powder. Oh, and paste. Paste is forbidden on flights. Leave it at home.
plane from chennai to kolkata
Chilly powder tucked safely into my underpants, I made it through the flight. And got off the plane on another planet, Kolkata. Extraterrestrial descriptions in the next post..

Lust

That’s the title of this photo. I didn’t take it, nor did I label it. But I do support the idea. After chips and salsa, this is what I miss most about home, specifically San Francisco. But ‘miss’ is a lame word. Lust is much better. The morning bun at Tartine bakery on Guerrero St. is a thing of beauty, dream-worthy for those of us living in cities where the closest we’ll get to a proper pastry is a bowl of cornflakes. I’d really like one. And so, without a camera or photo to provide visual aid to yet another blog post, I decided to build it around something that I like looking at. And found this photo. With a simple title – Lust. Warning: the rest of this post has nothing to do with pastries.

Back to Pondicherry, India. While I wasn’t psyched by all I saw at the Sri Aurobindo ashram (see previous post for info), I was interested in learning a whole lot more about the community that ‘the Mother’, as she is affectionately known to her devotees, started before she died.

My friend Bryan from Clif Bar told me about Auroville years ago and I’d been wanting to check it out ever since. Started 40 years ago by a group of people from all over the world, the goal was to take a big plot of land in India and create a community owned by no one; a community of people who believed there was a better way of existing, interested in living in social, spiritual, artistic and environmental harmony with each other and nature. Where commerce and money would not reign. Where people could pursue what made them happy, supported by others in the community and teaching outsiders about their simple (but revolutionary to some) lifestyle. I’m not capturing all of it, but hopefully you get the gist. A bunch of progressive hippies. Or something. Check out their website for info. Forty years later, they are experiencing growing pains but there’s still a ton of amazing stuff happening.

Part of my original travel plan was to stop here and there and get my hands dirty with volunteer work. Five months into the trip, my hands were still very clean. I’d somehow gotten caught up in the excitement of packing in as much as I possibly could (quite the opposite of how many do long term travel – sanity, a novel concept) and hadn’t found a place or project to sink my teeth into. After learning how much amazing work was being done at Auroville, and that I’d never be able to truly experience all of it in a few days or even a month, I decided to stop for a bit and learn by getting involved. I was interested in anything sustainability-related and did a bit of research on everything from organic farming to renewable energy research happening on site.

But the most interesting and welcoming was a project I found in the outskirts of town called Sadhana Forest. For the last four years, a couple from Israel, Aviram and Yorit, has been inviting volunteers from all over the world to help them reforest a 70 acre plot of land southwest of the main community of Auroville. Their goal: replant the 100+ species of indigenous Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest that has been all but wiped out in the area by generations of clear cutting. They sunk all of their savings into the project and were scoffed at by many who figured they’d get 5-10 volunteers a year. They expect 500 this year.

When I arrived, there were about 60 others, mostly mid-twenties, from all over the world – Sweden, France, Germany, Russia, Canada, America, Australia, England, India, Israel and a few others – roaming around the communal living area in the heart of the forest. While the reforestation work is what the project is known for, the living conditions for the volunteers is an equally impressive model for sustainable living. All volunteers are given free accommodation – a bed in one of a few huts handmade from all natural local materials and covered with thatch roofs (think Gilligan’s Island but super comfy and durable). Two massive solar panels provide what little electricity is needed on site, and a battery-charging stationary bicycle set-up allows volunteers to give the compound its juice during cloudy conditions (a rarity).

Volunteers all cook for one another 3x a day, creating amazingly tasty vegan dishes from produce grown in the area. All of it cooked on handmade ‘rocket stoves’, designed to be incredibly efficient, burning something like 10% of the wood that normal stoves used in the surrounding villages need. While I was there, a professional gardener took up residence and was helping to build an organic garden which should provide all of the food they need in the next few years. I spent my mornings in my last week watering an amazing array of tropical goodness – mangoes, papayas, pineapples, aloe, guavas, bananas, tapioca, lemons and a few I was more familiar with – beans, squash and tomatoes.

They’ve designed dry composting toilets that actually turn the poop and pee from that amazing vegan diet into fertilizer for the forests. I’ve never seen anything like it. (Skip ahead of you don’t like talking about feces.) I knew you’d stick around, Jim. In order to avoid the problems normally plague composting toilets (who knew there were multiple kinds?), they designed a system that separates poo and pee (okay, so it’s just two different holes), eliminating the need for any chemicals or the nasty stink that normally surrounds any kind of outdoor toilet. Throw in a little sawdust in the poo hole when you’re done, stir daily (seriously), cover it after two weeks of constant use and voila’ – you have nutrient-rich compost for your fields that you can scoop up with your hands. And it looks and smells like dirt. No flies, no stink. No disease. Amazing.

They’ve even figured out how to eliminate the need for chemical clothing detergents on site. They use ‘soap nuts’, seeds from a local tree that produces a soap-like surfactant when you soak it in water for 12 hours. Squeeze ’em on your clothes and scrub. It works, I shite you negatory. Instead of installing waste-prone water taps, they’ve placed big water urns around the area with ladles attached. Scoop some water up and into a little bowl tied to a tree and just enough leaks out a hole in the bottom to wash your hands. No waste. No need for pipes.

Sorry if I’ve bored you, but I thought it was all amazing. And as Aviram put it, it’s all born from the idea that ‘radical simplicity’ is often the best solution – especially when you’re in the middle of the woods and on a tight budget as they are. An American university professor visited while I was there and decided to send his students here each semester to have them live, work and learn about how it’s all done. News of what they’re doing is spreading through environmental circles.

When I wasn’t peeing in one hole and pooping in another (3 uses of the word ‘poop’ so far if you’re counting at home), I and the rest of the volunteers were working around the property. We each worked about four hours a day and had the rest free to explore all that was happening in nearby Auroville. We’d usually get up at 5:45 (one person’s weekly ‘duty’ was to walk around singing, playing guitar or something else soothing to wake everyone up – sounds silly but was amazing) and head out to the forest to work. During this part of the season (pre-monsoon), the focus turns from planting to water conservation. We’d spend about two hours a day building ‘bunds’, big dike-looking things that capture the torrential monsoon downpours, encouraging the water to soak into the soil instead of washing it away. And another two hours working around the living area, cleaning up, cooking meals, building compost bins, digging irrigation ditches etc.

All of the efforts of the last four years have been hugely successful. They have planted over 17,000 indigenous trees resulting in the return of much of the previously incredibly rich biodiversity (birds are back and singing their lungs out constantly). And they recently learned that the water table in the area has been raised by almost 20′ because of their water conservation efforts. That’s a lot and has made believers out of the local villagers who are all now benefiting from the work of the formerly crazy-white-hippies-playing-in-the-dirt-down-the-road.

One great big green gob of greasy goodness. But that was only the half of it. The people weren’t bad either.. The whole ‘vegan eating, living in a hut, using composting toilets, two week commitment, getting dirty’ filter in place on the project seemed to attract only the most interested and committed. The fact that ‘Sadhana’ means ‘spiritual practice’ didn’t hurt either. It was like a magnet for right-brained personalities – and a place for the rest of us left-brained people to embrace our other half. I don’t remember ever being around such a creative, open, honest, generous, approachable, big-hearted and awe-inspiring group of people in my life. Each day was like an exercise in holistic living and every day brought new amazing adventures with this crew.

There were quite a few musicians in the group, almost always serenading the the others with a mix of guitars, harmonica, hand drums, sitar, digeridoo, ‘mouth harp’? and other instruments. There were juggling lessons, family constellation/therapy and ‘rebirthing’ workshops (incredibly powerful and cathartic by all accounts), charades around bonfires, tribal belly dancing lessons!, group chanting in the morning, yoga sessions, group meditations and all sorts of other good stuff to help rid ourselves of our normal social starchiness (at least mine) and allow us to truly connect with one another. I know what some of you must be thinking.. All I can say is it was one of those experiences you must have to understand I guess. It was amazing. A unique mix of people, nature and openness that is sorely lacking nowadays. If you ever make it to India, YOU MUST GO to to Sadhana Forest.

Even if you don’t go, you can do something that will make you feel good right now – helping the whole thing move forward. The project is in need of financial support and any amount, large or small, can help. They’re trying to thatch the roofs of the new volunteer huts they’ve just built to house the growing number of people eager to help. Monsoons are coming soon and they are without the funds ($9,000) necessary to thatch them (done by the few remaining village elders nearby that still know the craft) before July when the rains start. If you’ve got a few bucks you can spare (even $1,000 isn’t too small..), please take a second to send them something. They’re hoping to start the work in the next few weeks. You can send a tax-deductible contribution in seconds via this Auroville website which includes an explanation on the tax exempt status of the community and the project (you’ll also get a letter for tax purposes). Just be sure to include ‘Sadhana Forest’ in the Project Allocation field on the donation page of the site if you do.

And with that, I will conclude this ramble. Next up: back to Chennai and wild and wonderful Calcutta, India.

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This post has absolutely nothing to do with chips. Or salsa. But I’ve been missing them a lot lately. And without a camera to document any of the visual goodness of the things I’ve experienced lately, my mind turned to the one thing I love more than Indian diesel fumes: corn tortilla chips and fresh salsa. One Google Images search later and – voila’ – the perfect picture to anchor the following blog post..

Where was I.. Ah, yes, the Congo. Wait, no, the train station in Varkala Beach in India. Okay, here we go.

After finally averting my eyes from Kate’s train as it rolled down the track, around a bend and out of site, I looked around and realized, “Holy shit. I’m on my own again. In India. Let the solo adventures resume..” It’s amazing how my field of vision changes when I’m on my own out here. Antennae most definitely UP.

I jumped on an overnight train of my own bound for another of the four main cities in India. This time it was Chennai in the southeast on the Bay of Bengal. I wasn’t terribly impressed with what I saw (all of the now mundane aspects of urban India without anything interesting) so I dropped of my camera at a repair shop, said a prayer and headed South. Oh, as I alluded to at the beginning, I’ve had some mechanical problems lately. Within one week both my iPod and my camera died. Either shit luck or someone’s trying to tell me something – be done with the electronics. Look around, son!

Next stop was another little beach town a few hours south called Mamallapuram. I spent two days soaking in the sun, sidestepping more poop on the beach and wandering through the network of temples and ancient stone carvings that dot the area. The stone trade still dominates here and at any point in the day you can hear the ‘tink-tink’ noise of hammer and chisel on stone coming from countless shops around town. I stopped and watched at a few amazed at the patience it would require to spend your life creating, hunched over a big blob of rock and covered in and breathing stone dust. Infinitesimal gains over weeks, months and sometimes years to create these incredible pieces – most of them exquisitely detailed depictions of Hindu gods like Ganesh, the elephant god, and Nandi, the bull that protects the god Shiva and so on.

I jumped on another bus south yet again, nearly losing my hearing from the constant blasts of the airhorn that are the regular musical accompaniment on any big vehicle in India. I’ve never ever ever heard a horn as loud as that of just about any of the buses here. Who needs sound insulation? It’s seems like they’re having a contest – who can blow out the most eardrums by constantly laying on the horn as they careen in and out of traffic, absolving themselves of traffic sins with each burst. Get the hell out of my way!!

Pondicherry, two hours south, was another fascinating place. The French effectively ruled the area up until about 50 years ago. I went because, after seeing the influence the Portuguese had in Goa on the west coast, I felt I had to see what legacy the French lad left here. Curry and baguettes?? While it had quite a bit of French flair – beautiful pastel colored cement buildings with elaborate metal balconies, countless picture-perfect quiet side alleys with old bicycles parked under drooping bougainvillea, a few French ex-pats running guest houses, and an overpriced cafe or two – it was unmistakably India. There were just enough chai shops, garbage rolling across the promenade and homeless people sleeping on sidewalks to remind me of exactly where I was.

I spent a few days exploring, re-uniting with my Spanish pals from Nepal (yo, Hector and Julia!), and checking out the main spiritual attraction in town, the Sri Aurobindo ashram. I hadn’t worked the ashram thing out of my system and was very curious to see how others operated. This one was quite a bit different. It was based on the teachings of an Indian guru named Sri Aurobindo and lead disciple, affectionately termed “the Mother” by devotees. Yes, I thought it was odd too. Neither is alive today, but their non-denominational teachings about the potential for the evolution of the human spiritual state are still inspiring people all over the world. They have an interesting take on things, bringing yoga and science together. They spoke about the idea that humans, despite what we might think, are probably not the end of the evolutionary line (a novel concept..). And that our conscious state is the final frontier – those that develop their consciousness about the true nature of life (something they refer to as the supramental state) are truly evolving. And that the animalistic tendencies that many of us exhibit (leading to war, greed, divisiveness etc) are clearly holding us back. I dug the underlying philosophy (even spent a few very early mornings meditating with crowds of respectful devotees around the ‘samadhi’, the tomb of the founders elaborately decorated with thousands of beautiful flowers every single day) but couldn’t get past the ‘the Mother’ part. Come back to me when we’re all equal and no one’s prostrating before anyone else and we’ll talk.

Part Deux (get it?) next. Stay tuned.

Serenity Now!

With just a few days left on Kate’s Indian itinerary, we were determined to wash away some of the slightly sour taste from the ashram experience and end our time together in style. With few options closeby, we decided to head back to the beach at Varkala and ended up having an amazing time.

After landing in the middle of the tourist mess of central Varkala, we turned on our heels and started walking up the beach and away from it all. We lugged our packs 30 minutes along the rocky coast, past rice paddies and fishing boats as the signs of Western influence slowly disappeared. We found a string of little ramshackle wooden huts perched atop the cliff overlooking the ocean with absolutely nothing around but swaying palms, hammocks and a few smiling locals. For 400 rupees (about $10 a night), we got one of the top floor huts with a little balcony and two chairs, where we dropped, let out a massive sigh and watched as the sun started to set over the Indian Ocean a stone’s throw away. We both just sat and smiled. Damn close to pure bliss.
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Even better, at the base of that cliff overlooking the ocean sat two abandoned gazebos perched on the edge of the waterline.
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I spent the next few mornings meditating with the sunrise and practicing yoga (here pretending I know what the hell I’m doing)
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in the afternoon with Kate and a few other Sivananda ‘ex-cons’, watching the sunset, laughing and singing the chants we’d been so frustrated about just days earlier. Our own little version of group therapy..

Determined to hold onto those feelings of peace and contentment I found at the ashram and realizing I’d found some piece of the key to that usually elusive reserve of tranquility, I realized then that some mix of meditation and yoga I’d learned would be essential in my lifestyle from here on out.

For a long time I’ve felt like I’ve been at war with my own brain, worrying too much about unimportant things, focusing on minutiae, letting simple problems become big ones, being indecisive and generally thinking too damn much. But the combination of daily meditation and yoga I started at the ashram had accomplished something I didn’t think possible. The ever-present bird’s nest of chatter that usually sat in the middle of my mind was starting to fall apart, replaced with a calm and even keel I’ve been missing for a while, allowing me to gain a bit more perspective on my life, what I’m learning out here every day and how I want to live my life back home. It was wonderful and I didn’t want it to go away. If getting up a bit earlier every day to gain that center and wipe the slate clean was possible through something as seemingly simple as meditation, then I was in. It felt I’d just discovered something incredible, something simple that I’d been missing for a long time. Bring on the new age hippie bullshit!

Just as we were settling into this amazingly chill lifestyle in our little hut on the hill, it was time for Kate to head back home. We were both sad that it was all over, but amazed that our time together had gone so well. Looking back on it it seemed kinda funny that we’d decided to travel together at all. We hadn’t really known each other very well when we kicked this whole thing off in Mumbai for New Year’s. She had some vacation time and wanted to see India. And I was psyched to have a traveling partner after so much time on my own. And that was enough. It was like a grand experiment – throw two people who barely know each other together for six weeks of 24/7 living in a strange land and see what happens..

The four months I’d spent mostly by myself before we met up was an incredible, bizarre and very contemplative time. At about month two of my trip, hiking by myself somewhere in the rock and snow of the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal, the stress of my old life suddenly started to slough off. Finally. It was then that I started to feel like my mind was actually slowing down enough to appreciate what it was that I was doing – and reflect on what I had been doing, how I’d been living my life. My mental state was transitioning from my old life of work, stress and schedules to a completely new and free one without structure or expectation. It just took a bit of time for my subconscious to realize it. And that’s when the deep thinking and amazing realizations started coming (cue dramatic music). That’s when I started sending out all of those gushy emails about missing you all, appreciating my family more than ever, missing what I had at home etc. I was finally gaining some much needed perspective on my old life and analyzing the sources of a lot of the stress I’ve had over the years. Looking back now, I like to think of it as Phase I of this crazy mental journey I’ve been on lately.

By the time Kate showed up, I’d had 4 months worth of these thoughts built up. I’d done a whoooole lot of thinking but hadn’t quite processed it yet. When we started talking, a lot of it just started coming out – fast and furious. As if all of those thoughts were racquetballs bouncing around my head, ready to pop out. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around them on my own, but as we got deeper and deeper into conversations about our lives (mostly me blabbing a stream of consciousness), and in answering her questions was forced to actually articulate how I felt, that I realized.. how I felt. I haven’t experienced catharsis like that in a long time. It was amazing. It didn’t hurt that Kate and I are very similar people with a lot of the same views and hang-ups about life and that we’d had so much time to get comfortable with one another (no room for shyness on the budget travel road in India..) and talk for hours on end. I joked with her a few times that I should probably be paying her for therapy. I’ve never had an experience like that with anyone before – from 0 to 24/7 for that much time in such a foreign place and with such an awesome result. She is an amazingly compassionate, insightful, generous and understanding person and I’m damn lucky to have spent that time with her. And consider her one of my best friends now. Thank you, Kate.
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So.. it was with a ton o’ sadness that we parted ways at the train station in Varkala. As I described to her in an email later, as I sat there watching her train pull away, I had this vision of how we all affect one another in life. As if the lines of our lives can be traced as we navigate our way through it all. As if her yellow line from San Francisco and my blue from Varanasi came together in Mumbai and became one green line for a while twisting and turning through the craziness of South India. And as she left, our lines separated again, mine with a tinge of yellow and hers with a tinge of blue. Back to our own lives but slightly changed by the other. I can’t wait ’til they come together again at the end of this mad journey.

Sanskrit Salvation

After a 6 week march from the Nepal border down to the poop-stained beaches of India’s southernmost point, I did an about face and started phase two of the Indian adventure: a two and a half month journey back to the north in search of some things a bit more significant than chai and masala dosa. Although their’s most def nuthin’ wrong with either..

Like many of the other millions of visitors that come each year, I was originally drawn to the intangible energy of India. Many say it’s the most spiritual place on earth and for good reason. The seat of Hinduism, birthplace of the Buddha and home to millions of Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Christians, Jains, Ba’hais and other devotees, India is on fire with religious devotion. On every street corner, in every home and on some foreheads, it’s on proud display every day, usually coexisting peacefully. For them, it’s not a ‘Sundays only’ thing, an occasional reminder of how to live. Here and many other areas outside the West, religion/spirituality is life.

Many of the Eastern philosophies that influence and hopefully soothe our often troubled Western minds were born here, including yoga (sadly known mostly for its physical benefits in the West) and many forms of meditation. The Beatles visits to gurus here in the 70s helped kickstart the West’s fascination with the country as well.

I studied a bit of religion in college and have always been interested in it as a subject – more by the cultural traditions and rituals associated than by the actual devotion to any god. As a biology major/science guy, the god part was always something I had a hard time with. Textbooks and Darwin were the closest things to holy books, gurus or priests that I’d ever really taken seriously. Yet, as I’ve gotten older, become a little less idealistic and a lot more realistic about the way the world works, stresses, suffering, wonders and incredible joys included, I’ve softened and let the door open just a bit to the idea that ‘something else’ is happening. While the ‘god with a capital G’ thing has always rubbed me the wrong way (thanks as well to what traditional religions have become – exclusive, dividing, downright scary at times), as I pick my head up more and gain perspective on life and how the world works, how we’re all connected and the energies we all share (a scientific phenomenon as well – anyone see “What the @#$% Do We Know?”?), I’ve become a bit interested in learning more – specifically about the underlying philosophies common to those religions and learnings of those who’ve have gained their own insights into what exactly is happening here.. Spirituality rather than religion, I guess. With all that in mind, I wanted to experience a bit of what was happening ‘here’ in India.

I’d heard a lot about the ashrams (‘place of learning’) in India and wanted to see for myself what they were all about. Seemed like a good place to start. Kate had the same idea when she thought about coming to India. We were having such a blast traveling together that she decided to extend her trip so we could both visit one together. We signed up for a 2 week “Yoga Vacation” at one of the Sivananda centers in India, known for being ‘Western mind friendly’ and made our way north from Kanyakumari to the town of Trivandrum, up the coast in Kerala.

Knowing we’d be leading a slighly.. less indulgent lifestyle inside the ashram, we decided to see a movie before we checked in, getting a bit of mental comfort food first. What better way to kick off two weeks of self-discovery and tranquility than by watching the latest Rambo flick: Rambo IV. It was the only Western movie playing in town and easily the most gorey I’ve seen in years. What the hell happened to Stallone?? Still pissed off about the horrible face lift(s)? The Indians surrounding us absolutely loved it all, screaming, jumping up and down in their seats and clapping every time someone’s head exploded in a flash of red. God Bless America.

As we rolled up to the ashram the next day, we were both a bit nervous, unsure of what exactly we’d encounter on the other side of the high gates of this place. The description included practicing yoga (yes!), meditation (yes!), chanting (??) and some other benign sounding stuff. With what little I knew, I had a vision of a serene refuge where I’d be able to relax, pick up some good habits and learn how to calm my often cluttered mind.

We got a bit of what we were looking for, but a whole lot more. The daily schedule went something like this:

5:00 AM – Spiritual songs from nearby temple town start blaring at eardrum-splitting levels from massive speakers from the village below, waking us all up
5:20 – Ashram bells begin ringing, announcing the call to actually get out of bed
6:00 – 7:30 Everyone gathers in the main hall for a 30 minute group meditation session followed by ‘Satsang’. Satsang consisted of about 45 minutes of group chanting – Hindu devotional songs in Sanskrit followed by a lecture from one of the ‘swamis’ (monk/gurus – one from Italy and another from South Africa) about any of the original teachings of the Indian swamis that founded the ashrams and their yoga-based movement.

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7:30 – Tea served outside in the communal area – time to chat. Caffeinated – a total surprise and our only real indulgence.
8:00 – 10:00 Hatha yoga class #1. Hatha is one of the 3 main types of physical yoga (asanas), known for being more relaxing and less ‘physical’ – more for inducing relaxation and the mind/body connection than breaking a sweat
10:00 – 11:00 Communal vegetarian lunch. All ~300 people at the ashram sit on the floor Indian style in rows, eating rice and curries from plates on the ground with their fingers as volunteers ladle out the grub from huge buckets
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11:00 – Karma yoga. Basically volunteer work – anything from emptying garbage cans to rolling up mats after the Satsang.
12:00 – 1:30 Optional yoga coaching classes or free time
1:30 Tea time #2. More caffeine.
2:00 – 3:30 Lecture on various topics – from meditation to chanting and so on
3:30 – 5:30 Yoga class #2
6:00 – 7:00 Communal dinner (yes, only two meals a day – enough for a near heart attack when I started. Thank Shiva for seconds..)
8:00 – 9:30 Group meditation and Satsang #2
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10:30 Lights out. A full day.

While the yoga, meditation, vegetarian diet and relaxation in the serene setting (in the middle of a nature preserve) were absolutely amazing, the rest got to be a bit much. There were over 300 people (many of them students training to become teachers – bursting with nervous energy) crammed into a relatively small space – way too many people to maintain the kind of tranquility we were all looking for. It felt like more of summer camp than anything else at times. People stayed up late talking, leaving lights on and cellphones ringing (even though they were technically forbidden inside the ashram – even saw one of the swamis walking around talking on one..) enough to frustrate the rest of us looking for the ever-elusive peace and quiet. I found myself with the urge to smack people talking during a meditation session – funny at the moment but not exactly the kind of result I was looking for from the whole experience.

But the main source of frustration for a lot of us (the ‘ashramites’ were almost exclusively Western) came during the Satsangs. With no explanation or introduction into the meaning or purpose, everyone was encouraged/expected to join in during the chants in a language we didn’t understand about gods we didn’t understand (Lord Rama what? Hail Krishna who?) and then prostrate before those same gods. You want me to do what? To whom?? For many of us, all of this raised our Western subconscious hesitation to do anything that feels illogical. While many of us had come to learn and were okay with surrendering some of our overly logical Western habits, this was supposed to be designed for Westerners and was still just too much to swallow. We understood the underlying benefit in the chanting (feels amazing to sing together with 300 people full of energy – if you didn’t think about what you were actually saying) but not in the words themselves which frustrated us all. Most of us were there to understand the philosophies underlying yoga’s Hindu roots – all of which makes sense. But anthropomorphizing those philosophies is what turned a lot of us away from traditional religion in the first place. Throw in a few crazy lectures from one of the slightly out-of-touch swamis (“All of life can be boiled down to two things: sex and shopping” what the?) and after about a week, Kate and I realized it was time to go.

The decision to leave was incredibly difficult. Despite the description above, I had some amazing experiences there. And I can honestly say I can’t remember ever feeling so much serenity in my life. Ever. There were many moments when I found myself just smiling for and full of joy for no reason. Hard to explain but absolutely stunning. But those feelings were punctuated with pockets of frustration and confusion that made the equation impossible to work out. What most of us were truly looking for was an actual yoga/meditation retreat – with a bit of philosophical lectures thrown in to help us understand the benefits of the yogic lifestyle. To learn more about the parts of Hinduism we ‘get’ without all of the traditional religious baggage we don’t want. Instead, we were expected to jump in without an owner’s manual and that just didn’t feel right. What the hell did I expect in the middle of India? I dunno..IMG_0978
But the experience was not at all bad. We were both truly glad we’d done it, learning as much about we agreed with as what we didn’t. And helping to build a foundation for some peace-inducing habits I’ve sorely needed. More on that next.

OM………………………………

P.S. Kate just sent me a link to a National Geographic article that just came out on our friends at Sivananda.

Howdy y’all. Where was I.. Ah, swaying palms, coconuts and rice paddies in Alleppey, India.

We’d heard that one of the best ways to explore the scenic backwaters is to hire a houseboat to float you around for a couple days (complete with driver and cook to round out the fat white tourist experience). After hearing we’d have luck finding an environmentally friendly option down south (we’d heard stories of the damage the diesel-powered versions are causing), we hopped on the motorsickle and headed to a little town called Kollam, situated at the southern end of the backwaters on the southwest coast of India. Naturally, the bobble-headed madman we spoke to at the government run travel agency (I wish I’d recorded him – like watching a cartoon with rolling eyes and overexaggeration of every facial movement – pure entertainment) told us the only place to find what we were looking for (‘punting’ boats – sort of like big Venetian RV boats propelled with long sticks) was in Alleppey. Where we’d just come from. Awesome.

Slightly frustrated at the often contradictory Indian way of things, we gave up on the idea for a bit and decided to head to the beach to do a bit mo’ chillin’ and figure out our plan for Kate’s last chunk of time in India. Like a lot of beaches (and places) on the traveler’s trail in India, though, Varkala turned out to come with quite a bit of the tourist-inspired baggage. Wherever tourists congregate, so does an obnoxious mix of copy-cat restaurants, billboards advertising Kingfisher beer, hippie clothing shops and touts selling everything from jewelry to.. you guessed it, more hash. As well as the ever-present Indian tumbleweed aka garbage strewn here and there. Just enough to prevent you from truly enjoying the incredible natural beauty of India hiding beneath the surface. And another reminder of the mixed impact of tourists like myself. We bring money and with that the temptation to erase traditional lifestyles in pursuit of anything that will bring in money.

But as is always the case, when you venture off the tourist trail, you find amazing things. Wandering around some of the nearby local village roads one day, Kate and I noticed a crowd milling around a big tent on the side of the road. A few locals standing out front started waving at us. Before we knew what was happening, we were whisked inside and seated elbow to elbow with 100s of smiling local villagers at long picnic tables. Banana leaves were layed out before each of us and topped with massive amounts of rice and curries.
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As we dug in with our fingers to the traditional south Indian ‘thali’ meal, we learned that it was all free, part of one of the town’s annual festivals supported by donations from each of the villagers. We were served by the all volunteer staff of young boys and older men, all smiling and checking on us constantly, eager to make sure that the honored guests (at least in our minds) were enjoying ourselves. We were. They invited us back for the evening’s temple festivities. As we filed out of the tent fat, happy and shaking our heads at yet another surprise encounter, we noticed a truck coming down the road with a baby elephant standing in the back. Party on..
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We came back that night and watched as the town gathered for a very loud, very elaborate and completely confusing ritual that took place outside the temple. The baby elephant was there as were two young men performing in drag,
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another chewing on leaves and dancing bare-chested in a trance while others poured oil on his head (??),
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others banging on cymbals and yelling and more dressed in orange carrying strange wooden objects on their shoulders.
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We didn’t understand a lick of it but stayed and watched as the whole thing rose to a boil and then spilled out onto the street under silver mylar streamers and paraded out of view as the sun set. This sort of shit seems to happen daily in India, the land of festivals.

The next day, it did. After stopping in a little village up the coast to walk around, the same exact thing happened. As we strolled down the street (the only white people for miles), we were again ushered inside a massive tent by smiling locals for yet another free lunch. They were celebrating their own version of the festival and just happened to hold the community lunch a day later. Yahtzee.
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Amazed and recharged, we headed back to Alleppey to find that elusive solar and human-powered guilt-free dream of a backwaters-touring houseboat only to find disappointment at the hands of fast-talking agency touts yet again.. “You want punting houseboat? No problem! Follow me!”, “But sir, this has a diesel engine in it..” “Yes! Very good boat!” That same scenario played out over and over again. Eventually, we gave up a second time.. and took refuge in the Indian Coffee House and stacks and stacks of wonderful Bombay Toast. Somebody buy me a few shares of their stock stat.

We then headed back up to Kochi to return the motorcycle. With a few of our nine lives laying on the highways of south India, we kissed the rotten ground and thanked each and every one of the Hindu gods for our safe return. And jumped on the relative safety of a train heading south one last time. Final stop – the end of the railway and the southernmost point in India, Kanyakumari.
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Kanyakumari is a little fishing village that sits on a literal point at the end of the country, with the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea coming together at its base. It’s a pilgrimage site for thousands of Indians coming from all over the country in overcrowded buses to worship at the Devi temple (Hindu goddess). It’s the first place I’d seen in India that actually had more Indian tourists than Western tourists. In addition to the temples, it’s spot at the tip of the country brings people from all over to watch the amazing sunsets and sunrises each day, visible over the ocean from the same spot. On full moon nights, you can apparently see both the sun set and moon rise at the same time over the water.
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Searching for a quiet spot to watch the sunset, Kate and I saw firsthand the beach=human catbox phenomenon I’d heard about earlier. As we walked along a trail from the road to the water one evening, the beach that appeared orange from a distance suddenly looked polka-dotted. At first it looked like dirt but as the stench rose, it became clear that it was actually human poop. Covering the beach from one end to the other. It’s apparently commonplace in coastal areas for some of the poor people to shit on the beach. And they clearly do it a LOT. Stunned and confused, I wondered why they’d do it there, ruining this spectacular setting in their own backyard. Another in a long line of things I will never understand about the environmental situation in India, a beautiful country suffering under the crush of 1.2 billion people struggling to get by. The guy selling ice cream just a few feet away from the piles didn’t seem to mind. “Ice cream here!”
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(This woman was clearly embarrassed by her countrypeople’s toilet habits. Just kidding. Thought it was a beautiful image and wanted to include it. Passed her as I was wandering through the nearby fishing communities. Incidentally, Kanyakumari is one of the areas that was hit by the tsunami in 2004.)