Saturday, 28 November 2009

Lessons in Gratitude...


...on the 33 hour (if it’s on time) train journey from Haridwar to Calcutta...  
India, I have decided, enforces a constant practice of gratitude.

When I step in a cowpat (holy shit, quite literally), I am grateful it’s not dog. Or human.

If I get constipated, I am grateful it’s not diarrhoea.

If I get diarrhoea, I am grateful it’s not dysentery.

I am grateful not all the books that have come my way are as pompous as the hagiography on Swami Vivekananda I have spent most of this day ploughing through.

I am grateful I got a berth on this train. I have discovered that it requires a small miracle to get on anything other than a waiting list for an Indian train without booking at least two months in advance. Not great news for a traveller who can’t make up her mind and is working on spontaneity (not my strongest suit). I was number 2 on the waiting list for this particular journey. All the Indians I spoke to said that meant I would get on, no problem, but still, I have a wedding to get to... So when the man at the counter told me I had a seat, I could have kissed him, and was quite happy to listen to his mild flirting (“You have a beautiful name.” Which he can’t pronounce).

I am grateful for the kindness of strangeness, namely, the man who helped me find my seat and get my bag on the train. Unusually here, he smelt of alcohol (mildly). He had missed his train and was waiting for the next one and wanted someone to talk to – so he found me. He told me twice I was beautiful, asked three times if he was disturbing me, only took a couple of deep breaths when he discovered my age (they all ask here), and helped me find my train and my seat. I have never been so grateful for a chat-up.

I am wondering if it was the best idea to get my laptop out just as we’re entering Bihar.

I am grateful most of the world is not as (reportedly) fearsome as Bihar. All the Indians I have spoken to have cautioned me against travelling through it, apparently the land of looters and bandits. The very nice trio who spent the night in my section of the carriage and got off at Lucknow warned me to keep an eye on my belongings as we pass through (a bit challenging when I need the loo). So far, so good, but not the easiest start to days-long Indian train journeys. And it’s given me serious reservations about hanging out at the Bihar School of Yoga, which was a possibility...

I am grateful not all the small boys (they look about eight) of the world are belly to the carriage floors as they sweep them at train stations (one with what looked like his t-shirt, his very ragged trousers barely holding up), covered in filth, and then begging for a few rupees payment. They are the only children to whom I’ve given money so far. In Rishikesh, they start at a very young age (the youngest who approached me was barely toddling). It’s a very simple equation: you look white so they ask for money – often children whom you watched playing perfectly happily before you arrived and have no need to beg. They are not vicious, but it becomes impossible to walk quietly anywhere (forget a meditative stroll along a ghat on the Ganges). They bring out the Cruella deVille in me, and it’s as much as I can do not to chuck them in the rapids, let alone give them anything.

I am grateful there are places in the world where rubbish is collected, where municipal rivers are not thick with trash and faeces, where you can walk without the danger of stepping on someone defecating or urinating anywhere and everywhere.

I am grateful for the possibility of walking down a street without having to put all your faith in divine intervention not to end up run over by bus or rickshaw or cross cow. I am grateful for the intimate lesson on my ever-oscillating adrenaline levels.

I grateful for the rickshaw-truck that took me to the bus stand and the driver who flagged down the bus to Haridwar and was so keen to help me and my bags onto it that he forgot I needed to pay him (until I reminded him).

I am grateful for the nice man who helped haul me and rucksack onto the bus and who accommodated me on his front seat. I was grateful that the vomit down the window was my fat rucksack distance away. I am grateful for his pointing out the sights in utterly incomprehensible (to me) Hindi.

I am grateful that I have not always had to shut a part of myself off at the sight of mutilated beggars.

I am grateful not all the train companions of my life spit on the floor (though my placing of a small rubbish bag seems to be having some minor effect – though not entirely the desired one. For example, I think they took the last one when it was full and just chucked it onto the tracks). I am also grateful not all my carriage companions have spent entire journeys loudly burping (for hours on end).

I am grateful for the generosity and encouragement of the swamis at the Dayananda ashram. I am grateful for the haven the ashram provided from the craziness of Rishikesh and the beauty of the river and the chanting.

I am grateful for the lessons in corruption. Really, it makes the dodgy west African semi-dictatorship I grew up in look quite functional. Below follows a typical series of events from yesterday, at Haridwar station:

I went to pick up my bag in the left luggage and was told “fifty rupees”. (It’s amazing how people speak enough English to demand money but not enough to answer questions.) This seemed rather steep a cloakroom charge to me and would have used all my change – not a situation I wanted to be in before boarding for a 33 hour journey. Apparently the uniformed official had no change for a 100 rupee note. Undeterred, I stomped out the cloakroom on a hunt for change. I stopped at one of the little shop counters, said I wanted a chai (5 rupees) and only had a hundred rupee note – was that ok? After a little roundaboutation (no, I didn’t want the American flavour chips, hot or not hot, and if he couldn’t give me change for the chai, then I didn’t want anything, thank you), he served me the tea.

“You very clever ,” he said. I handed over my hundred rupee note. He gave me a 5 rupee coin.

“Where you travel?... Oh, Calcutta very far... You travel alone? [a big novelty for a woman to almost all Indians I have so far met] Why you travel alone?... I come with you to Calcutta... We travel together...” This went on for some time, very charmingly, a very fine attempt at distraction. How fortunate that I can be single-minded at times.

“Could I have my change please?”

“You very clever. What you do? I come to Calcutta with you...”

“That’s 60 rupees. You need to give me 30 more.”

“You very clever. You very beautiful,” but my money, of course is more beautiful. Nonetheless, I walked back to the cloakroom with 95 rupees in my hand. Outside I happened to see a sign: cloakroom charges not fifty but fifteen rupees. I handed over 15 rupees exactly, without a word. Nothing was said and I collected my bag. I am sure that had I handed over fifty, nothing would have been said either. Or am I being too cynical? Did I just hear wrong?

I am grateful I occasionally have my wits about me and manage to avoid (possibly) two attempts at petty theft in a row.

I am grateful that there is a possibility of actually getting my laptop fixed in Calcutta (please oh please let it go online again and be cured of any parasites!).

I am grateful there is also the possibility of getting my legs waxed there.

I am grateful the toilets on this train are bearable.

I am grateful the cockroaches in this carriage are very small dainty ones and not Gabonese monsters.


I am grateful for the intuition that tells me it’s really time to put this laptop away, as we cross Bihar and Jharkhand.

On the railway website, when I was checking to see if I had a seat and all it could say was that the lists hadn’t yet been prepared, it listed Shiva as in charge of the computerised bookings. I decided to take this as a sign and travelled hopefully to Haridwar. May Shiva be watching over the second night of this journey to Calcutta. In fact, I’m quite sure he is. Whether or not he intends it to be easy is another matter entirely...


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The above was written a few days ago and I am now in Calcutta discovering the impossibility of getting anything fitted during Eid (all the tailors in Calcutta, it would seem, are Muslim). Oh well, I guess I'll have to improvise for this Bengali wedding I'm going to tomorrow night.

I am grateful the horrors of going through Bihar by train were over-exaggerated. Absolutely nothing untoward occurred. Perhaps the worst testament to the state of Bihar is that everywhere you go, the people doing the most horrible jobs and living in the worst poverty are immigrants from there. And I mean really horrible jobs and living in really horrible conditions.

And I am grateful all the horror stories of Calcutta were grossly exaggerated. Astonishingly, it's the cleanest and greenest city I've yet been to in India. That doesn't quite make it Switzerland, but it's fun and the people are softer round the edges than they were in Rishikesh - and the attempts to swindle you not quite so fierce. I've yet to see any public defecating here, which is a bit of a relief, though there is no apparent diminution in phlegm propulsion or urination. Calcutta does, however, smell less like a urinal than London's Soho in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning.

Apologies for the lack of pictures this time. I've been having great technological problems. It took me 3 days just to get online. And alas, I have discovered that the only places my computer can be fixed under warranty in India are Bangalore and Delhi (each about 1000 miles from where I currently am). I'm not holding my breath as I've not been fantastically impressed with Acer's customer service so far (be warned, if you are considering a purchase!). But at least it helped me decide where to go next.

And I believe in miracles (to quote the song, though I can't remember which one; feel free to enlighten me). Yes oh yes I do.

I went to the foreign tourist booking office of the Eastern Railways today and was served, even though it was the official lunch break. Of course, there are no tourist quotas for trains to Bangalore. This should generally mean I didn't have a hope in hell of getting a ticket within a month. But lo, the gods were smiling upon me and the nice man miraculously found a berth on a train that only runs on the day I want to travel. So off I trot, on another 36ish hour journey by train, two nights and a day, next Tuesday. That'll be four nights out of twelve I will have spent on the rails...

But before that, there is a wedding to attend and trousers to attempt to make fit. And I'm still working on getting my legs waxed.

Wish me luck!
Lucy xx

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Rishikesh Ramblings

“People think that Rishikesh means ‘the hair of the rishis’ but no, it comes from one of the names of Vishnu, Hrishikesha. But they left off the ‘h’ and so people don’t know. But Rishikesh is named for God,” explained the white-robed ashram-dweller (someone said he’s a swami, but as he wears white and not orange, I’m not so sure) manning the library. This was the introduction to an impromptu Vedanta class. I had in fact just popped in for a few books but I seem to be receiving lessons in all sorts of unexpected places at the moment. (Rishis are sages, by the way; it’s the rishis who channelled the Vedas from god, according to tradition.) And in fact, I found Hrishikesha in the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita the next day.

Of course, whenever I quote anyone, you have to imagine the accent, which gives Indian English prose infinitely more music and grace than my transcriptions.

Life at the Dayananda ashram here in Rishikesh is certainly colourful. The other day, the ashram hosted a “bandhara” in honour of a swamini who had died sixteen days previously. I’m not sure if I entirely understood the swami who was teaching my Upanishad class that morning (the accents can take some getting used to) but I think he said she hadn’t taken food for fifteen years and lived to a ripe old age, at odds with the doctors till the end. The bandhara basically involved giving lunch to a hundred or so saddhus and then sending each of them on their way with 50 rupees. The hall was filled with orange-clad ascetics who really didn’t strike me as a particularly easy group to cater for. Half of them seemed to be on some sort of fast or other, while many were decidedly grumpy. They didn’t linger over their lunch and so soon it was our turn, and in honour of the occasion, we got pudding with it. I must have looked especially hungry, because the nice person serving loaded my plate with about six of the sweets whose name I can’t remember, but which involve some sort of batter fried in lots of oil and epic quantities of sugar. I managed two of them, and thought that was pretty good going. We’ve had two bandharas since (but for us ashram-dwellers, not the saddhus), as a group of very kindly senior citizens is visiting the ashram from Bangalore. They are studying a Vedantic text here with their guru and are very sweet about serving us food. Again, I must look hungry, I am regularly laden with enormous quantities by motherly ladies in beautiful saris. “Is our food ok for you?” is a frequent conversation opener.

The ashram is pretty traditional, near the town of Rishikesh itself and a short walk down the river from the more tourist-frequented districts of Laxmanjulla and Ramjulla. Over the river and a little up is where the Beatles hung-out in the 1960's. (That particular ashram is now shut due to some sort of administrative wrangling.) My overnight bus ride here from McLeod Ganj was reasonably comfortable, if pretty sleepless, as only about half the roads on the journey seemed to be tarmaced. I was very glad that I hadn’t eaten since my lunch on the night of travel. Although I had to concentrate pretty hard at times, I wasn’t sick and evinced a respectable imperviousness to the hairpin bends on the sides of terrible mountains roads. We did have to make regular stops for various other passengers to throw up, and I thanked my stars again and again that I wasn’t among them. We made the journey in 12 rather than the advertised 13 hours, but on arrival I was rather too tired to quite know what to do with the mild culture shock that was Rishikesh.

There is one group of Westerners staying here, hanging around for their guru who seems to have nothing to do with the Dayananda ashram and who summons them at strange hours of the day or night. Other than that, they apparently have no involvement in the ashram that doesn’t involve food. Otherwise, apart from the recently-arrived elderly group from Bangalore, it’s pretty much all orange-clad sanyasins and white-clad students.

I started to feel rather more part of things on day two when I began attending classes. This ashram has a strong Advaita Vedanta tradition, and all teachings follow this. We have an Upanishad class in the morning, and so far have spent four classes on one verse of Kathopanisad. The teacher is a delightful elderly swami and I completely love his diversions and stories – which I think always come back to the point, though others disagree. Then a younger swami teaches a class on the Bhagavad Gita. The teaching is very traditional. First they chant the verse in Sanskrit, then they translate and explain, then they chant Shankara’s commentary in Sanskrit, then they translate and explain. Questions are welcome and are always answered very graciously (i.e. What is the difference between Ishvara and Brahman? In what way is Ishvara limited? What is the role of free will if all is Ishvara?). In the afternoon, I also attend a chanting class. I have no idea what I’m chanting half the time, but it sounds nice and I’m beginning to think I’d recognise Swami Guhatmananda’s voice anywhere (he also does the pre-meal chant – with prayers in English for the long life and health of the sponsors of whatever bandhara might be in progress). As for the timetable, neatly displayed on the board in front of the ashram office, I soon decided this was the actual embodiment of the veil of maya over reality. It bears very little resemblance to what is going on and the only way to find out about a class (if it’s happening, what it’s on, what time it is) is to turn up, at which point all becomes clear(ish).

A Japanese brahmacharya (student) has taken me in hand and is coaching me through the Sanskrit alphabet after breakfast in the temple. I am making slow progress but enjoying it, and she is a very thorough teacher – very Japanese!

The temple is at the bottom of the ashram, by the river (I’ve put a picture of the view from the end of the ashram towards the top of this entry). We’re at a particularly peaceful spot, with a ghat going down to the Ganges and tree-filled hills on the other side. I’ve spent hours so far sitting on the benches, watching the water flow (very fast!) and people taking their ritual holy bath or doing their laundry or children riding their bikes up the ghat. The water is really pretty clean here and two days ago, I finally went in for my first dip. The reason it took me so long was the organisation required. An infuriating (to me) double standard exists. Men prance about with impunity in their boxers or the cloth equivalent of a thong, but the poor women have to brave the treacherous water in what looks like full sari. No wonder they don’t go in very far! I can handle covering up to walk around town but when it comes to the possibility of drowning, I get rather irate. On the other hand, I had no wish to cause a minor riot, as people stare at me quite enough as it is. In the end, I went and bought a lunghi (a male sarong sort of thing), put on my tankini, my board shorts that go down past my knees and a t-shirt, with the lunghi wrapped round to my ankles. I must have looked very strange to the people at the ghat, pretty much dressed as a man, but at least I was covered. I decided in the end that they would have to contain their apoplexies at the sight of my shoulders and took my t-shirt off (surely a wet t-shirt is far more indecent than a bathing costume?!) as well as the lunghi to get in the water. And thank goodness I did, because the current is vicious. But it was lovely to get my head under, though I didn’t linger. The lunch bell was ringing and I didn’t want to push my luck regarding the attention-gathering.

Perhaps strangest of all is that I had to come to a Vedanta ashram to meet two Catholic priests in training. They were here last week “for an ashram experience”, as one very humbly put it. They proved my most assiduous guides, helping me make sense of the class timetable and taking me to one of the ghats in town, well away from the tourists, where Hindus make their evening offerings at the river. Once they returned to their seminary, we arranged to meet. In the late afternoon, I was walking along the river - part pathway, part rubble, part latrine - towards the Ramjulla bridge when a group of young boys descended on me, after a rupee or ten. I made my escape thinking “no, no, you’ll make me late for my date” with my two Catholic priests who (after helping me buy my lunghi at an ashram suppliers) took me to a Hindu arti (ceremony, this time involving fire, though I don't know if that's always the case). They have a radically inclusive view of Catholicism and are happy to worship with Hindus or anyone else, apparently. Perhaps it’s because they are from Kerala.

Further up is a picture of a statue of Shiva over the Ganges – with the river coming out of his head (I can’t remember exactly what bit), as it’s supposed to. And below are some people at the fire blessing part of the arti:

Later, my Catholic guides (Anup and Vinit) took me and an Italian who is also staying at the ashram to their seminary, to meet their master. He explained that they trace their lineage to Thomas the Apostle, and apparently there were Christians in Kerala from the middle of the first century C.E. with a very Indian flavour of Christianity. And here is the very Indian (and rather lovely, I think) depiction of Christ the sanyasin in their chapel:

We were shown around with absolute grace, kindness and charm and then given dinner – perhaps my nicest yet in India. Someone had discovered on my Facebook page that I’m on the BBC network, and ever since, they insisted on introducing me as “the BBC correspondent” – completely mortifying, deeply ironic and very erroneous – indelibly stuck now because I didn’t mention it to begin with. The BBC would probably sue if they found out.

As we were leaving, another of the priests training at the seminary pointed out the yellow and red dot on my forehead and asked if we had been to the arti. “We all went,” said one of my priestly guides. It was remarked that the Italian had no mark on his forehead. “I like Hindu metaphysics but I am not interested in the popular religion,” he explained. “And you?” I was asked. “Oh, I take my blessings where I find them.”

And so on that note, blessings and love to you,
Lucy xx

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Dharmic Dilettantes

It’s been a long gap, so apologies if you missed me. I sit here copying this onto the blogger website in the Tibetan internet shop in McLeod Ganj, as a Buddhist monk types away next to me in Tibetan script. It's slightly odd to see him answer his mobile, ringing from the folds of his red robes, but the Buddhists are definitely moving with the times.

I appear to be less technologically savvy. Sadly, my new netbook seems to be sick and has refused to go online since Leh. I have shown and asked various people and all the obvious solutions aren't working. I am trying not to get very upset and trying to practise non-attachment (and generally not doing very well). It's deeply frustrating as I bought the netbook especially to go online on my travels. So if any of you has any ideas (or contacts at ACER), I'd be grateful to hear. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time moaning that I didn't buy another Apple - but that was rather beyond budget and big.

But enough of my woes. Onto the real stuff:

I flew out of Leh to Dharamsala via Delhi on October 23rd, and other than four friskings in one day (slightly more intimate than I’m used to), all was pretty uneventful. Once I got to McLeod Ganj (where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile have their bases), it was pretty hairy finding accommodation as His Holiness had just finished teaching and everywhere was packed. But all was well that ended well and I found a very nice, if slightly overpriced room, courtesy of my taxi-driver, for my night before heading to my Buddhist retreat. And here is a cow on the road towards it (my room, that is):



Tushita, where I did my retreat, was a great place where the monkeys put on regular shows and made some of my yoga practices memorable (and slightly alarming on occasion). Dharamsala is a bit like the southeast of England, in that it is the second wettest place in India but there are water shortages. Tushita suffers particularly acutely with this, being towards the top of the hill, and probably the thing that marked me most during the retreat was only being allowed three bucket washes over the ten days (spot the attachment there). The loos were pretty grim at times too, as we were requested not to flush unless absolutely necessary – but I suspect you'd really rather I did’t need to go into that! I was in a dorm with eight other women and thought I’d escaped the cold going round, but alas, succumbed in my last couple of days. However, all is better now and I was very grateful for an extremely clear grounding in Mahayana Buddhism (of the Gelug school, for those who like to know these things). We were taught in the main by two Australians but on two occasions, the Dalai Lama’s main translator, Geshe Dorji Damdul (I hope I’ve got that right) came and taught us, which was completely wonderful. It just proved to me that I’m a sucker for a great teacher, be it Dharma or dancing. I was really glad he made the time for us before jetting off to Japan with His Holiness.

The teachings themselves left me a bit torn. I have a lot of time for much of it and know and love many Buddhists. However, the Buddhist nature of reality doesn’t quite sit with me (they might well argue that I’m just too dense to get it) and sometimes I felt like I was simply the recipient of endless lists (e.g. “Calm abiding is attained by progressing through the nine stages, relying on the eight antidotes to abandon the five faults. This is accomplished through the six powers and the four mental engagements.” I kid you not). Being a rather anal sort of person, I like to make my own lists and it somehow spoils the fun if they’re already made for me.

So, I knew it beforehand but it quite confirmed that I’m not a Buddhist – though lots of the practices are very useful to me. Interestingly, I didn’t find keeping the silence difficult over the ten days, and sometimes even wished away the discussion groups (our hour of allowed talking on each of the first seven days). It wasn’t unlike wandering around London at times: lots of bustle all around but quiet in my own head – or maybe that just makes me very antisocial!

Shiva made an appearance in some of the visualisations we were doing, and I was very glad for his company and am beginning to wonder whether I’m not getting too attached to my godhead visitations. The day after we left Tushita, back at McLeod Ganj (in a fantastically nice and cheap room this time, as His Holiness had left town and my hotel is at the bottom of some serious steps), I found myself with a group of four Hindus from the Tushita course on the way to a local Shiva temple. Apparently, the lingam there has been a site of worship for 10,000 years (and even if that’s an exaggeration, it’s very old). It was a lovely introduction with lots of explanations from Zubin (from the course) to my first Hindu temple, and after a bit of prompting, I shared a little of my Shiva visitations. It seems I’m very lucky and such things are very rare and prayed for by Hindus (seems a bit unfair that I should get them then, but I’m not complaining). On the back of that, I was recommended to go to a Shakti temple about 60km away.

So, a couple of days later, in the company of three women I’d met at Tushita and after a morning with them of Dharma talks from Lamas at the Tibetan library in McLeod Ganj, I set off for the Jwalamukhi temple.

The story goes that Shiva went crazed with grief after his wife, Sati, immolated herself in protest at an insult to him, and set about destroying the world while carrying her body (I think I have this right). In an attempt to calm him down, Vishnu cut her body into pieces, which landed in 51 places over India, each one now sacred to the goddess and a place of Hindu pilgrimage. Jwalamukhi (I think) is where her tongue is supposed to have landed. The hill spurts fire in places and is apparently impossible to put out, even when water flows over it – original girl power. All ended happily, however. Sati was reincarnated as Parvati and all around the temple are little stalls selling portraits of the ultimate nuclear family: Shiva the destroyer, Parvati the goddess and their son, elephant-headed Ganesha, all smiling beatifically.

Here are a group of pilgrims on their way to the fire enclave:


It was a really wonderful afternoon, and after being blessed by the Brahmin and the fire, we climbed to the top of the temple complex where there was another temple to the goddess, in the form of Tara this time, and at the back of which was a beautiful view of the hills. I could quite see why a goddess would choose such a place – and then I looked down to all the rubbish. From the divine to the disgusting in the flicker of an eye: therein is encapsulated the duality of India. My feet have never been as filthy as they were at the end of this trip round the temple. The goddess clearly wants us to approach with our feet in the dirt. Here is one of mine on the way back to my shoes and wetwipes:




And here are three of the four of us in front of Durga, the goddess (Anna from Finland, me and Barbara from California - thank you Veena, Canadian of Indian origin, for taking the picture):




We also became the focus of two teenage boys who were desperate to be photographed with the foreigners. This was not unlike my experience at the Dalai Lama temple a couple of days previously when a group of girls from the Punjab (on a sports tour) very politely requested photos with me and then bombarded me with kisses. I think I was the highlight of their visit to the temple, which seems a bit wrong somehow.
I really enjoyed being somewhere hot and sticky and full of joyful Indian tat: bangles and toys and plastic pictures of the gods. It convinced me that it was time to move down from the cool Buddhist mountains and down to the hot Hindu plains.

And after days of trying to contact various people unsuccessfully (clearly I was meant to stay put for a bit), I finally managed to organise myself. I leave for Rishikesh (otherwise known as yoga Disneyland) tomorrow night where I will be staying at the
Dayananda Ashram for ten days and hopefully learning a bit more about Vedanta. I may well be incommunicado there too. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to the overnight bus trip, but really it seemed the simplest way to get there – and the most direct.

So until I emerge from the ashram, sending love and joy,
Lucy xx