Monday, January 24, 2011


After parting company with my Auntie Swamiji, I had few opportunities to socialize with wealthy Indians or Indians of the higher classes. Of course, young people and teenagers from all social echelons will go to parks, beaches, coffee houses, etc, but for the most part, wealthier and higher-class Indians do not go outside in the heat, or sit around in public places. Unless I was attending a special function or eating at an upscale restaurant, the majority of my encounters were with working class or poor Indian people.

I did have a most enjoyable encounter with a lovely lady from Andhra Pradesh. I was eating at the Saravana Bhavan in Munnar, when this lovely lady, who was traveling with her family, began sharing her delicious homemade pickles with the other diners at the restaurant. (Tomato, ginger, and gooseberry pickles - the ginger was especially delightful.)

Another time at another restaurant, a heavy-set woman in an ornate saree approached me and said,
"Where are you coming?"

Confused, I didn't answer, only caught myself staring at the cinnamon colored rolls of her belly peeking out from the side of her saree. She repeated herself more loudly as if I were deaf,
"The United States," I responded.
Satisfied, she said, "Obama," and turned away.

Friday, January 21, 2011

incredible !ndia

Sometimes in the mornings, before the cacophony of traffic horns begin, it is possible to hear the squawking of birds, the bleating of goats, and even the voices of the fishermen barely a block away. If I sit very quietly, I can even make out the sounds of dry bristles crossing stone, as women all over town sweep streets and door-steps. The acrid smell of sea air mixes with fish, burning garbage, urine, dust, and damp towels - surprisingly not unpleasant, it is thick and lingers over the pavement like a hat. Soon the heat will burn most of these smells away, and only the most intense of them will linger and grow as the day continues.

I am back in Fort Cochin, taking a few days to relax by myself before I head back home to school, family, cold weather, responsibility - the real world.

I've easily settled into the momentum of this lazy tourist town, and have managed not to let the Western tourists bother me too much. During the days I've ventured away from the center of things, explored, shopped, and at night I've come back to drink fresh lime/ginger sodas and play on the internet at cafes like this one, crowded with young Europeans, skyping, giggling, and facebooking in skimpy clothing, inappropriate for anyplace else in India but here.

I've happened upon a few really good places to eat;
I ventured across the bay by ferry to Ernakulam a few times and had some really good, authentic Kerala thali, served on a banana leaf with the most delicious homemade curd (yogurt) I've ever had. I've visited and revisited two nearby veg hotels; one with consistently good dosa, chai, and a friendly waiter, the other with tasty sambar, loaded with green chilis, and spicy mango pickle. The latter is run by a gnarled old man who smiles at me through crooked teeth, and seems to spend most of his time angrily chasing goats away from the front of his shop with an empty plastic water bottle. I've even got some friendly banter going with a few of the local Kashmiri gift shop guys.

This afternoon, I went to the Jain temple in Mattancherry, and sat quietly in the peaceful, pigeon-filled garden of the temple courtyard. Jainism is an ancient, Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Its philosophy and practice emphasize the necessity of self-effort to move the soul towards divine consciousness and liberation. Apparently, it was the Jains that educated Ghandi in the concept of Ahimsa, the practice of non-violence. Something we might all benefit from studying further.

I have a very short time left here, and I'm drinking in as much as I can. I'm sure that just a few days in the bitterly cold streets of New York will make this sweltering backdrop of watercolored plaster and spices a feathery memory.

Seemingly everything about this country is a paradox: The country is as filled with natural beauty as it is with garbage. Cows and other animal life is sacred, but cats, goats, and dogs go hungry, cowering and scurrying between careening rickshaws and motorcycles. People are courteous and friendly, yet there is no sense of personal space, orderly conduct, waiting one's turn, or traffic rules. You will never hear someone say, "excuse me" if they have bumped into you or pushed you aside. But that very same person will say in the most archaic, and overly polite book English, "I hope that you are having blessings through the day, and that God brings you to your family with much safety and happiness."

One afternoon, while I was walking in Pondicherry, wearing a short sleeved T-shirt (something I've rarely done since then), a man walked up to me and, nodding toward my tattooed arm said: "Excuse me, Sir. Is it possible that I might capture your arm inside my camera?"

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

the hills are alive

I am in Munnar, in the hill stations high in the Western Ghats, among the tea estates and cardamom plantations. The landscape is unspeakably beautiful, but characteristic of India, its beauty stands in sharp contrast with the trash along the sides of the twisting roads, and the painfully fractured infrastructure of the region.

It is easily thirty degrees colder here than down by the coast where it was blisteringly hot during the day and humid and uncomfortable at night. I walked about six-hundred meters down the twisting road to a "veg hotel," where I had a fresh lime soda and a lovely South Indian thali served to me by an angel-faced boy of about sixteen. I mashed the rice and vegetables around with my fingers, trying to form firm balls of food that wouldn't fall apart as I brought them up to my mouth. I mixed the last of my rice and sambar mixture with some spicy lemon pickle and curd, and was finished. My round metal plate was cleared by another angel-faced boy of about eleven (probably the older one's brother), who shyly giggled and avoided eye contact with me as he expertly balanced the ten or twelve stainless steel cups atop the round plate, along with the soda glass.

I left the older waiter a tip of ten rupees, the equivalent of about twenty-three cents, and he beamed at me, and slightly bowed with his right hand over his heart. It is embarrassing to me how such a small amount of money can mean so much to some of the people here. I've never been more aware of how entitled I am, or of how much I take for granted.

Even colder after dinner, I wrapped myself in my shawl and walked back to the inn along the side of the twisting road. Looking up, the stars appeared as diamonds on a black velvet sky. A crescent moon hung dangerously close to a nearby mountaintop. Like a jolt, I thought of Frankie. How she would have been entranced with this country and this trip. I thought about where I was a year ago. Holding her hand and talking to her as she slowly and delicately slipped away - further and further each day until there was nothing left. The stars twinkled. It was as if she knew, as if she was winking at me.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

travels with my aunt

Saradananda and I parted company yesterday. She is off to an ayurvedic clinic for two weeks and I am now traveling on my own. I feel I've been given the best possible introduction to Indian foods, behavior, etiquette, tradition, etc... and am now able to manage most Indian customs on my own.

I arrived in Fort Cochin yesterday afternoon by ferry. Fort Cochin is the old town, on a small peninsula, in the port town of Ernakulam. A hub of the Malabar coast spice trade since the time of the Egyptians. It was colonized in the 1500s by the Portuguese. Fort Cochin's Portuguese colonialism is to India's southern west coast what Pondicherry's French colonialism is to India's southern east coast. Proud, aging, Portuguese colonial architecture and churches stand in beautiful decay from countless years of sea-air and humidity.

Unfortunately, when I stepped off the ferry, it was painfully clear that this is no longer an authentic Indian town. The streets are literally teeming with rickshaw drivers saying, "Sir, need a room," "Good cheap room," "Air condition room." And the little side streets are chock-a-block with Kashmiri gift shops and restaurants where I wouldn't trust the food.

Surprisingly, I've seen few Hindus here in Fort Cochin. The majority of the people here seem to be either Christian or Muslim. I woke up early this morning and took an exploratory walk in the opposite direction from the tourist trade, but even there on the Indian side of town, the orientation seemed to be predominantly Christian and Muslim. Of course, this being India, I saw a shrine, in front of a Catholic
Orthodox Syrian Church (huh?), where a man was offering flowers to a statue of the Blessed Mother. Everyone in this country is in some state of worship - it's really rather wonderful.

This afternoon, I will walk across to the other side of the peninsula and check out "Jew Town," the site of the oldest Synagogue in the British Commonwealth (Jews on the Malabar coast have roots dating back to the time of King Solomon). Tomorrow, I will head up to the mountains with a new friend and be glad to say goodbye to tourist-ville.

I have a deep sense of gratitude to my Aunt Swamiji, who has prepared me well for traveling in this remarkable country.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

temple town

The other night, Swami Saradananda and I went to the temple on the other side of the mountain. Arunachaleswarar temple in Tiruvannamalai is one of the oldest temples in all of India. It is located at the base of Mount Arunachala, on the opposite side of the mountain from the Ramana ashram. Mount Arunachala, as I've written in earlier posts, is the sacred hill thought to be the earthly manifestation of the Lord Shiva. Swami Saradananda arranged for a priest to show us around the temple (she really does have connections). There were very few other Westerners there. Of the HUNDREDS of people there, I think I saw 3 or 4 Westerners, but many, many people on pilgrimage. Families sitting inside the temple grounds eating, children playing, and, oh yes, monkeys climbing atop the tall towers above the temple squares.

The temple is unbelievably huge - 24 acres! It is a Shiva temple (being at the base of the sacred mountain, this only makes sense), but before we went into the center section of the temple, it is a series of concentric squares, we made an offering to Lord Ganesha of flowers and coconuts (Ganesha is present at every temple, he is the remover of obstacles and the son of Shiva). The coconuts are smashed as a symbol of smashing one's ego before God! and the coconut water inside is poured over the shrine. Oil lamps illuminate the shrines and the priests rub burnt sandalwood ashes on your forehead and ground hibiscus on your third eye. And this was only a smaller outer shrine!

The priest then took us inside the main center temple, a extremely rare opportunity for Westerners (Westerners have a history of disrespecting others' traditions; not dressing appropriately, taking pictures of sacred things, etc... I've also been told that there is the recent concern of terrorists entering the temples). He led us past the very long lines of people waiting to "see" the God, opened the gate of the inner sanctum itself and allowed us inside (unheard of!).

The indescribable beauty, the intense energy, and the heat inside the sanctum is unimaginable. There, we offered flowers to Lord Shiva, ate prasad (prasad is food that has been offered to the gods and blessed, their nutrients are not needed by the Gods, so they are given back to the people), had blessed coconut water dribbled over our heads, and had garlands of flowers laid around our necks!
Then, as if that wasn't enough, we were brought to the separate shrine of Shiva's wife Parvati - a smaller, but equally impressive ancient stone shrine inside the same temple, just beyond Shiva's large center shrine. There, we were also brought into the inner sanctum past hoards of pilgrims and worshipers.

The priest was telling us how the old traditions are being lost to the new ways of the west - that young Indians are leaving their traditions to go to Europe and America for opportunity. He said it was a joy to be able to show these traditions to Westerners who were interested in the old, sacred traditions of India.

I am aware of what a rare and special experience I am having here, and I know how truly blessed I am.

Then the priest said, "It is not for you to decide when to go to see God, but rather when God decides it is the right time for you to see."

Saturday, January 1, 2011

uphill journey

How could I remain in Tiruvannamalai and not take advantage of the rich spiritual tradition of this town? Well, I couldn't. So, this afternoon, I had my own small pilgrimage up Arunachala to the cave where Ramana Maharshi spent seventeen years, and attained moksha (an enlightened state of detachment from all material things in life, beyond caste or suffering).

I climbed the long and rocky path up the sacred hill in the afternoon heat, wearing only my cheap, Chinatown flip-flops (a.k.a. chancletas, or chappals in India). Sweat dripped in my eyes and ran down my back as the red dust colored my feet a rich terracotta. Wild dogs spotted the path, some lounging in the shade on the side of the path, scratching themselves or sleeping, some chasing each other across the rocky trail. I also passed numerous other spiritual pilgrims; a few Westerners in T-shirts, like myself, but most in dhotis or full saris.

About forty five minutes into the walk, monkeys began descending from the trees and converging on the path. These were not the small mischievous monkeys I'd seen before, but rather, slower, lumbering, relaxed monkeys the size of ten year old children. Black primate faces with silver-gray, spiky Mohawks atop their heads. I was frightened and slowed down, but then I saw an Indian couple walk by a large one who just ignored them as they passed. Nervously, I sidled past the long tailed, lazy fellow, and he ignored me too.

I stopped to admire the view of Tiruvannamalai and the temple below, drenched and wishing I had brought water with me. As I escalated, the monkey population increased, and the dog population dwindled. Finally, I reached the cave, walked through an archway where, above, mischievous little monkeys were eating banana peels and picking things off each other. I removed my chappels before climbing the few steps to the cave (it's called a cave but it's really more of a stone dwelling built into the rock-face on the side of the hill), and entered a cool and peaceful little stone hut where a number of people were sitting in silent meditation before a flame and a picture of Ramana. Flowers lay before his portrait, offerings as if to a deity or god. I joined the people in the cool dark room and sat silently as my wet T-shirt stuck to the trunk of my body. My perspiration slowed, so did my heartbeat and my thoughts. I felt an unexpected peace wash over me.

When I allow myself to concentrate on the absence of thought, I can feel my breathing slow and deepen, the awareness of my physical condition becomes heightened, and I get closer to achieving an incongruous combination of self-awareness and freedom from self. I can quiet the mind and watch thoughts float by and linger momentarily, like notes of a melody played from a neighboring house, then just as easily they float away.

After a while, maybe a half hour, maybe more, I respectfully bowed to the image of the enlightened one and left the cave. Cooler now, I started down the rocky trail towards the ashram below. Now, chappals in hand, I stepped carefully in my bare feet. More monkeys, and a flurry of contradictory thoughts. These were not the floating thoughts that easily come and go like gentle breezes, but rather stubborn, nagging reflections. Had I not just had some kind of spiritual experience? Why now was I thinking about the young British boy from yesterday's yoga class? I had talked to him for only a few minutes, and quickly assessed him to be about as intellectually keen as a box of hair. Sweet, age-inappropriate, lovely to look at, and almost painfully simple; the exact type of fellow that usually sets me salivating like a hungry predator. Earlier in the day he'd waved at me from across the main road in town, a vacant idiot grin plastered across his pretty face. Would I see him again? Might I invite him to sit and have some chai, and then? My mind kept snapping back and I wrestled with these needling thoughts as with a recalcitrant umbrella. The visual details from yesterday's class burned into my memory and repeated; his lean flexible body, soft blond beard, the gentle curve of his throat, the arch of his feet.

Noticing physical beauty is one thing, not being able to appreciate the present moment because of some sexual preoccupation is another. I don't even think my preoccupation was necessarily sexual. It may have just been a persistant old idea. Here I am, descending the path of a spiritual pilgrimage, having just meditated on sacred ground, surrounded by nature, beauty, and even monkeys!, yet I remain enslaved by an old sexual idea.

Is this ever something I can be relieved of?

I pray daily to be relieved of the bondage of self. I know that to be happy, joyous, and free I must be willing to "let go of my old ideas absolutely." Knowing this, being willing to do it, and being able to do it are concepts that remain distant from each other, long rocky trails apart. I may visit the location, but moksha, even a temporary encounter with it, remains elusive.