The Final Blog!

Hey all,

Apologies for the long term delays in posting over the last month or two.  With the viruses, dodgy computer shacks, road madness and normal life stuff, it was damn near impossible to keep up online.

I have, however, kept up in my journal.  And throughout the trip have come to so many great realizations, spiritual, psychological, gustatory and comedy, that I’ve decided to just lay it all out in the book.  Upon return to Cali, I’ll get started on the first draft.

In the meantime, I’m starting a new blog, The Weekly Jo.  It’ll be posted through blogspot – friends have recommended it so it’s gotta be worth a try!

So many of these last few pieces have been heavy with history and cultural perspective, this new blog will likely be a lot lighter.  Fashion, food, politics, entertainment will all come into play.  You’ll find editorials on yoga postures, critiques of films, and maybe even a poem or two.  Will send out an email when it’s ready to boogie!

Here’s my last blurb on this whole journey … which ended up being about a lot more than India …

From where I’m sitting, en route from Bangkok to San Francisco, the Beijing Airport wins two awards, hands down …

One for being the most expensive airport I have ever personally visited!  Travelers, beware!  The international terminal is a monetary death trap!

The small bottles of water at any coffee shop will run you around $4 – yes, that’s four United States dollars.  And though they do provide potable water fountains, if you crave a coffee, be prepared to dish out at least $5.  Most every shop in Terminal 3 is a designer boutique, and if you’re looking for any magazines, snacks or reasonably priced drinks – a vending machine will have to suffice.  Isn’t this the capital city of the world’s largest country – set to take over the world any time now?

Whatever happened to a middle class, bubba?  We like variety!

The second award most honorably bestowed upon the airport is for Least Entertaining Airport Facilities.  Whereas Tokyo and Bangkok lay claim to massage parlors, cuisines from across the globe and snack shops galore (check out BKK’s international terminals, gates F & G – where snacks of every origin and taste are sprinkled along the walk ways), the Beijing international terminal offers a few coffee shops that serve all the same European blahs, one Chinese fast food joint, and a Japanese restaurant.

And as far as activities go, just don’t go there at all.  First lesson of the morning: don’t compare apples to oranges.  It isn’t worth your time!

The people in the Beijing Airport were nicer this trip than they’d been in the past – in other words, civil.  It’s quite the change from the Bangkok scene where people really are eager to help.  At least, they were before the Red Shirt fiasco.

My final weeks in Bangkok were tainted with the awful memories of the red shirt demonstrations turned bloody.  Over 80 people were murdered during the protests while the precious leader perused the aisles of the Louis Vuitton store.  Thaksin may’ve claimed to be a man of the people, but Thai business owners, and inevitably their employees, suffered a great deal during the protests.  Estimated private business loss is well over a billion US dollars.

People in Bangkok were never nearly as friendly as in more remote parts of the country … but they were particularly terse this last month.  The psychological imprint of the violence took quite a toll on Thailand’s reputation for the Land of Smiles.  For the first time, and almost every time I got into a taxi, drivers took the long way around.  Bartering was essentially an exercise in desperation.

When I realized this, I took it upon myself to be the playful one, to play the role they’ve so diligently played for me, whenever I enter the zone as a tourist.  Joking, smiling, winking and busting out with as much Thai as I could muster – I saw more sighs of relief than actual smiles.  The Thais are hurt by what happened.  Not only for killings, but because those weeks of near-civil-war marked a division so deep amongst Thai people, many wonder if the rift can be healed.

I felt a longing to help somehow, to come back to be a part in the revitalization of the Thai spirit and tourism business.  Who knows what the future holds …

A few pics from my last days

Grimm Day at the Taj Mahal?

(warning! this entry is not very well organized, and uncategorizable in tone/style. if you’re up for a rambling experience of the taj, do read on…)

Like every good fairy tale, my visit to the Taj came complete with magical setting, intriguing local characters and an important life lesson.  Never let expectations ruin a perfectly good day.

5:15 am and I’m fumbling around my hotel room getting ready for the big day.  I’ve had six hours of sleep and several train rides in my not-so-distant memory.  On top of all that, it’s dark outside.  Which makes my bed seem ever so inviting.

“Why not visit the Taj tomorrow?  It’s so much nicer here,” beckons the big soft mattress, “The building’s been around for hundreds of years, surely it’ll be here after just a few more z’s.”

The bed has a rather valid point.  But I keep on keepin’ on, motivated by years of anticipation and a very tight schedule. I’ve already gone a day off route to see this legend, and my departure time leaves me only a few moments to catch a glimpse, have a bite, and haggle with a rickshaw driver to get to the train station.  Now is the time.

Me and the Taj

For the die hard romantic, the Taj is the world’s greatest architectural testament to love, alluring not only for its shapely curves but for its supremely charming history.  Most literature available to the public claims it was built in 1653 exclusively for Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the ultimate symbol of the purity and grandeur of love.

All nostalgia aside, as a happily addicted traveler, going to check one of the wonders of the world always affords huge satisfaction.  The virgin white marble has an untouched sheen even today, the lines unparalleled in elegance.  It’s known the world over to be the definitive representation of the Mughal aesthetic, a look sprinkled across all corners of the Indian subcontinent.

The Taj Mahal stands 15 feet tall at the center of several acres of sprawling gardens.  As the legend goes, its construction was fueled not only by unwavering love, but 20,000 people, 21 years, 1000 elephants and 28 precious and semi-precious stones.   How’s that for fairy tale scenery?

I remember seeing documentaries on the Taj when I was younger, hanging out with my Gramps, watching National Geographic, eating cucumber sticks in the hot Hawaiian noon.  To a bookworm beach kid, nothing looked more exotic, more mysterious and grand.

But as we all know, life ain’t all Disneyland fairy tales. It’s sometimes more of the Grimm’s variety, where inspired beauty is met with horrific violence, where innocence is tainted by a devious trickster, where happy endings are but a fleeting dream.  Like anything put on a pedestal, my image of the Taj was vulnerable to a shaky little fall.

The Real Story

Take away the travel narrator’s enthusiastic euphemisms and analogies to love, and what you have beneath the surface is quite heart wrenching – though equally beautiful.  The muse of the Taj was actually the shah’s third wife – one of approximately 13 official ‘loves.’  Whilst giving birth to their fourteenth (yes, fourteenth) child, Mumtaz passed in a rather painful death.  Stricken with grief (and packing some serious spending money thanks to his exorbitant taxes), the shah built the Taj as the world’s most beautiful mausoleum, a place where Mumtaz would inspire awe for ages to come.

Upon his great love’s passing, and once creation of the Taj was complete, the shah wrote these words in ceremony:

Should guilty seek asylum here,

Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.

Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,

All his past sins are to be washed away.

The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;

And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.

In this world this edifice has been made;

To display thereby the creator’s glory.

I am of the opinion that any woman, especially one of several wives, who suffers 14 labors for just one man deserves at least a magnificent building or two!  The mausoleum’s central focus is the tomb where Mumtaz currently rests in peace – probably much relieved from not having to bare any more babies!


Before entering the Taj’s sacred space, I took a deep breath. Would the site live up to the hype?  Would this fairy tale visit be all I had dreamed of?  Afterall, I was traveling with a travel partner who was more than just a friend.  Romance was sure to follow . . .

As could be expected, even at the first moments of opening, there were tourists with their cameras out, about, and ready to shoot.  We all congregated around the prime kodak spots, checking angles, making faces, directing the photographers.  The humbling monkey see monkey do phenomenon was in full effect, but it really wasn’t any surprise. Who doesn’t want their photo smack dab in the middle of the Taj Mahal’s garden?

With the glorious marble wonder glowing in the background, we took our turns, most of us patient, everyone with an air of youthful jubilance. So…. here I am…

Not lookin’ too happy am I? Well, all I can say about this shot, ladies and gentleman: be careful with whom you tour an important site on your ‘must see’ list!

Be sure your travel partner is not the type to pick a random pointless fight with you, the moment you enter your fairy tale scene.  Ensure the travel buddy is sensitive to your decade long obsession with said wonder.  I may go so far as to suggest to run a kind of psychological analysis of them before agreeing to travel together.  Something simple like …

True or False

  1. When faced with an event of significance my first instinct is to run.
  2. If my travel partner is looking forward to something on our itinerary, I will be sure to complain.
  3. I often take cultural differences personally and get frustrated with locals.
  4. I am notably tight with money.
  5. Never, ever, will I carry your book for you (what are you, a princess?).

If your travel buddy responds “True” to any of these questions, you may have a problem on your hands.  Grim, indeed.

So, determined to put my game face on, after seeing the state of this picture, I diffused the internal turmoil and carried on.  “I’ll have my own bloody fairy tale,” I thought with determination.  So, on to the garden I went,  past stray dogs playing, security chasing said dogs, a few more tourists and dedicated gardeners.

When I came across the second photo-op of the scene, I took a deep breath and let the graceful lines of the domes wash over me like rain drops.

When you visit a dream destination, you want the photos to tell the story of your enthusiasm for the place, to express the joy you felt when the meeting came to fruition, and convey the timelessness of the subject itself. So I conjured up some yogi magic to rekindle a good mood. Swallowing my self-consciousness, I busted out with “Natarajasana.”

This is known as the Dancer pose, named for a manifestation of the Lord Shiva, as he dances on the demon Apasmara (symbolizing ignorance), playing the drum of creation, surrounded by the flames of the manifest universe.


I held off on the full expression of the pose, not sure how it all looked on camera, but when I came out of it, I felt completely balanced again, even euphoric. It’s amazing what a little asana can do to a bad mood!

The First Lesson in Expectation

Although yoga saved the day, next time I’ll know not to allow the situation to annoy me as it did.  All jokes about travel buddies aside, it was my own expectation for the day that led to my ultimate disappointment.  As is so often the case, especially with partners!

As we drew closer to the building, its intricate marble work came into focus and I was inspired to do a few more asanas.

Unfortunately, Taj security rolled up and in a most agitated manner asked me to “Stop that! Stop doing those things! You take normal pictures!”

“Normal pictures?” Since when do I take normal pictures??!

What would be the evil gremlins of the tale scurried away and we made our way inside.

Entering the building, it all felt so much smaller than I’d imagined, even claustrophobic at times. The mausoleum probably would have conveyed more of its deliberate and heartfelt past, had there not been a factory line of curious tourists trudging along its perimeter.  But with India’s most visited site, this should be no surprise.  2-4 million people visit the Taj annually, all hungry for a peek at the place where the dead lady lay. Thankfully, pictures are prohibited there.

Past the resting hall itself, I took in the long shadows creeping through ornamental window grids.  I meandered the narrow halls and small rooms, exploring in near silence.  I wanted to know more about the rooms, the design, something, anything.  And yet there were no signs explaining the significance of the various architectural elements.

Frustrated and information-less, I realized, having romanticized the Taj for so long, I’d allowed its image to overshadow the reality of its beauty.  I broke the first rule of traveling: don’t let the tourist videos tell you the story.  It’s rarely spot on.

I let the thought sink in and shuffled through the building, coming out to the opposite side, I opened up to the possibility of awe.

And at that moment, when I’d come full circle and began to see the Taj through what we call in yoga “a beginner’s mind,” the magic finally began.  Off in the distance we were blessed to see a glistening winding river, banked by the flora and fauna of a rich and arid land. The sun rose gracefully over the minarets of the east. Small groups of Indian families and large groups of entire villages traversed the marble patio.

Solidification of Lesson #1: Never let expectations get in the way of true experience.

The boldest of the bunch got a few classic photos taken of them … perhaps one of only a handful taken their entire lives.

They asked me to take their photos but for what reason I’m still not entirely sure. They had no cameras themselves, so the novelty of photography must’ve been a draw. They waited to see the images afterward, but for just a moment, sometimes to show other members of their group who’d stood next to me as I took the photos. They didn’t ask for the shots to be sent via email. In fact, they spoke hardly any English at all.

As far as I could tell, it was all for the satisfaction of knowing this moment, this grand moment in their personal history, when they splurged 5 years’ of savings to travel 543 kilometers from some remote village to see, touch, feel and have their picture taken with the great Taj Mahal, would be recorded by some stranger’s truth machine, forever and ever.

Lesson #2: It’s all in the experience.  Live in the moment!

Feeling full from the morning’s experience, I tripped about the grounds for a bit and eventually found a comfy little spot on a bench just outside the museum.  It’d been a long morning already and I wish I’d brought a picnic blanket.  Not that the groundskeepers would’ve allowed it.  Security is tight as a tiger getting into the Taj, and anything vaguely resembling food is taken on sight.  No food means no litter and they aren’t taking any chances – especially not with Indian people being the most casual litter bugs I’ve ever seen in action!

Why so mysterious, Taj?

After a brief shut eye on the bench, I head over to the museum.   Oddly, there were ten pieces on display – with no English explanations.  So much for a rich history lesson!

I left the Taj grounds fulfilled, though wanting more at the same time.  It was the same kind of luscious anxiety one feels when leaving the company of a lover. There was no shortage of eye candy but I still had very little cultural and sociological framework for the building of the Taj.  No one had warned us that the touts outside were our only chance for a guide, or even a guidebook. Once in the palace grounds, no books, maps, placards, guides or even simple signs were provided – even the museum made no reference to the rich tapestry of history related to the building.  Decades of tourism surely would have created some demand for more information . . .

On top of that, I wondered why the India Archaeological Society had not created a cafe where people could unwind from the intoxicating effect of the building’s beauty and majesty.  If given the chance, I would’ve stayed all day long.  But perhaps that is exactly what they were trying to avoid!

My trip to the Taj, though fabulous in its own right, turned out to be more of a Grimm’s style reality check than a sparkle sprinkled dreamscape. There was no romance, nor any enlightening moments of historical illumination.  As we left the wonderous grounds, hundreds more tourists lined up to make their way inside.  Most were on a mission, to see the ‘must see’ monument of India – but a few still had stars in their eyes.  And I hoped it would never die.


Upon further research, I came across a few unusual claims made by a journalist and revisionist historian, P.N. Oak.  He claims that beneath the great mausoleum lies an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to the Lord Shiva.  The town where the Taj was built, according to Mr. Oak, is one of the areas oldest and most dedicated communities to the god.  He sites various inconsistencies in historical accounts of its building, architectural incongruities and linguistic reasoning as evidence.  To see his full-fledged claims click here.

Oak’s arguments are interesting for two reasons.  One, he represents a growing demographic of right-wing pro-Hindu Indians, eager to ensure the past of his nation not fall victim to the great colonial pen.  In the war between historians, the past is an ever-changing entity.  Secondly, if his claims were founded in cold hard evidence, that may explain the absence of information within the Taj grounds itself.  Perhaps the positioning of the Taj Mahal as just another one of India’s multitude of potpurri architectural examples would somehow detract from its world-renowned reputation as the Mughal building to behold.

Even so, taken on the surface (which is the only way the common tourist is allowed to experience the Taj) its doubtful new evidence surrounding its inevitably rich past would remove our dear building from the list of world wonders.

Once I got over my own limiting expectations, I found it pretty damn wonderful, myself.

Road Update: No agro in Agra

Hey hey ya’ll:

This is just one of those posts to let you know where I currently am on the journey.  Day 2 of Agra, and we’re heading out to Varanasi on a sleeper train tonight!  After a magical (and somewhat painful) 5am start, we saw the Taj Mahal in all its majesty and glory.  Though I was thoroughly disappointed by the marked lack of information on the bloody thing!  Not a guidebook, audio tour or placard in site!

Photos are a comin’, including a few yoga asana shots stealthily taken before we were asked to “Stop.  You take normal pictures!  No strange movements!”  HA!  Must’ve forgotten this is a Muslim thang, not from the crazy Hindis!

Anyway, I have quite a few article-type blogs I’d like to write, not to mention in-depth research pieces.  So, before I get too far behind, I thought I’d rock this blog back into “real time.”

Here are a few shots from recent adventuring …

River rafting down the Ganges – we jumped out of the boat and took a little dip here!

Awesome little pup we met outside an ashram.

Friendly kiddies we chilled with along the river in Rishikesh.

Guard outside the Golden Temple, Amritsar – the holiest temple of the Sikhs.

Two Nepali kids we met in Rishikesh – we’d arranged to teach them how to use a computer, but plans fell through last minute on their end.  Tiny for a twelve year old, the young boy spoke better English than most of my kids in Thailand – though he lives in total poverty.

Lots more to go before I’m all caught up, including a wrap up of Rishikesh highlights … and a few touristy daze in Delhi!

Hotbox of Compassion ~ The Dalai Lama in Haridwar

Saturday, April 3rd.  The sun is stronger than normal today.  As the sweat beads form on my brow, I squint into the distance, just barely making out a large white van driving up the dusty paved road.  A beige colored haze forms just above the car, blurring the tops of buildings, the cows in the distance, lazily hunting for food in plastic bags scattering the ground.

We’re waiting for the white vans to pick us up and take us to the Dalai Lama.  Not straight to his lap, unfortunately, but to Haridwar, where the Kumbh Mela still rocks on strong, where the blessing for the first Encyclopedia of Hinduism goes down, amidst scores of saints, politicians, Tibetan devotees of His Holiness, media cats and lucky mo’ fos like me.  We’re all going to the spiritual gangsta’s ball, and I have VIP pass!

No but really, though.  How on earth was I given the chance to go to an event where I’d be within arm’s reach of the Dalai Lama?  Seva.  Sweet and simple. I offered to do some work around the ashram, with only the intention of contributing something to this mad little community, and what started as sweeping turned into hob knobbing with the former prime minister of India, LK Advani.  Just call me the Dalai Lama’s cleaning lady!

We drive for nearly two hours through a gorgeous national park (during which time I nearly hurled), 10 white vans in a line, toting journalists alongside ashramites alongside contributors to the first Hindu Encyclopedia.  The encyclopedia comes in 11 volumes and illuminates over 7000 comprehensive entries, written and cross referenced by over 1000 international scholars of Hinduism. This massive collaboration took nearly 23 years to produce, all overseen by the India Research Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by Parmarth Niketan’s in house swami, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, or ‘swamiji’ as he’s often called.

Arrival in Haridwar is typically Indian: slow going, dusty and slightly confusing.  Our van drivers can’t take on the hordes of people and cows so they stop up the road from the event.  Squeezing past stationary cars, some parked, some stubbornly trying to get through the madness, we come to a massive orange gate and into the event.  It’s t-minus 65 minutes and I’m already sweating balls.

As we walk through the tent to the front rows, I notice eager Tibetan families, lined up diligently as they await the arrival of their spiritual leader.

The second row is almost totally empty – score!  I figure we can sit here until someone tells us it’s not allowed.  Either that, or we pass out from some horrific combination of hunger and heatstroke.

We watch an hour of setting up, all to the backdrop of gorgeous live kirtan, and finally the saints start making their way in.  I’m reminded of the WWF stadium shows I’d seen in Hawaii, where Jake the Snake Roberts and the Ultimate Warrior would walk out from the dark back rooms to screaming crowds and flashing lights. The anticipation, the glaring power of the idol, media folks snaking around, vying for the best shot, and most of all, the heat. These are the holiest of holymen.

I recognize some of their faces, though I don’t know any of these saints’ names; the crowd, on the other hand, are more than familiar with these characters.  The bushy beardy long haired guy who’s all about Hinduism as the ideal path, the heartstrong saint with the shaven head who sings as though divinity were playing his pipes, and the grumpy looking leader of the saints whose staff and face paintings give him the air of a god-like pimp.  Every holy man gets his props.  But when the Dalai Lama walks through, the Hulk Hogan of the spiritual realm, the crowd goes wild.  Immediately my heart starts beating quadruple time and tears start stream down my face.  What the?

I hadn’t expected that at all.  I mean, I respect the man, his teachings are profound and everything I’ve read of his strikes a chord with me.  His people have endured disgusting oppression and yet he continues to lead the path of compassion and forgiveness.  But when he walked in front of me, all humility and smiles, literally just five feet away, I felt nothing but pure joy – my heart nearly leapt out of my chest and into his arms.

Wow. It takes a few minutes to recover from the overwhelming emotions, and I’m wondering if maybe this means my heart chakra is way too open or something. No one else seems to be crying and I have a sneaky suspicion I look like one of those religious freaks who go into uncontrollable convulsions when enraptured by the spirit of the lord.

75 minutes, two buckets of sweat, and four hundred pages of incomprehensible Hindi later, it’s finally time to hear the Dalai Lama speak.  First in Tibetan, translated to Hindi.  And then, a different speech, in English, for all us liberal minded academic hippy type folk in the West.  While the Tibetan speech, according to a girl I met at the ashram, mainly addressed the necessity to carry on, not to lost hope, and to always stay true to the teachings of Buddhism, the English talk emphasized Buddhism’s respect for atheists, the necessity for universal understanding, and the acceptance of compassion into every person’s heart.

It’s a brilliant 15 minutes (all recorded on video!), and I feel so grateful for being a part of this event.  From the long drive here, the presence of the saints, the blessing by the Dalai Lama, and the chance to just be present … it’s been the most incredible of days.

(Even if we were nearly murdered by a series of seemingly blind drivers on the windy road back to Rishikesh!  Thank fuck for our driver – a true surgeon of the road – who whizzed by more than one near-death collision that evening!  There’s so much more to write on the day, the lead up to it, and the denouement.  But I’m on the road, a bit behind on these entries, and I suppose I should save somethings for the book … ;o) )

A Rishikesh Day

Sitting in the Sanskrit Hotel café, overlooking the Ganges, finally outta that abysmal heat! The pre-monsoon sizzle is coming on in Rishikesh, and it’s coming on strong. All the more fire to burn away past dramas, and if that doesn’t work, you can always send them down the River Ganga. At uber high velocity!

The Ganga’s current is usually somewhere between “meandering” and “white water rush,” sometimes so loud I can hear it from the ashram bedrooms. All day, Indian pilgrims dip into the waters in the hopes their sins, and the sins of whomever they pray for, will wash away, never to cause suffering again. I’ve only dipped my toesies in so far, but if you could feel how cold this mama is, you’d definitely understand!

And here I am, in the spiritual town of Rishikesh, where the holy Ganga, made from the dreadlocks of God Shiva himself, flows from the Himalayas onto the Indian subcontinent.

My day looks a little something like this: I rise in the pink-tinged darkness of 5:30 am to brush my teeth and change for yoga class. The class is an hour long from 6-7 am, and is taught by a woman with a most mysterious veil about her person – Indu. With long jet black hair, just my height and age – a local girl who went to a college in Haridwar for a Masters in Yogic Studies. Of all the practices I’ve dabbled in here in Rishikesh, mantra with Indu has made the biggest impression on me thus far.

Her chanting is truly inspirational. So inspirational that after a few days of singing with her (with no special instruction whatsoever), I’ve finally realized how to use my body as an instrument of song. As we chant “OM” I can feel the vibration in the lower regions of my body, and as the tones change, the vibrations travel up my center, in a spiraling all-encompassing emission. I envision each chakra subtly balanced by the vibrations as they make their way up – I can’t wait to check out more mantra classes …

The asana section of the class is pretty easy going, but just enough to wake the body for the day. I rest or read for an hour before breakfast – usually some porridge and a banana, provided by the ashram. After that, I sometimes teach English to the young boys at the gurukul here – a school for impoverished or orphaned boys. We play games, practice dialogues, the students are all bright eyed and curious.

One of my big goals on this journey is to perform seva – selfless service, a form of karma yoga. Teaching’s an easy way to give something India doesn’t necessarily have a surplus of already: lessons from a native speaker. Only recently has India made school up until the age of 14 compulsory – shocking considering the length of time the Brits were here. Only a few states have got it together enough to provide this kind of service – conditions west of Bengal (in the state of Orissa) are so dire, starving villages are now overtaken with Maoist rebels.

But that’s another entry!

Next on the agenda: Kundalini Yoga. It’s an hour and a half of intense Kundalini exercises, a yogic practice developed in the Sikh tradition. It was brought to the west by Yogi Bhajan, an accomplished diplomat, lawyer, political leader and spiritual leader during the great divide between Pakistan and India.

My teacher here is Ram Desh, a fervently God-loving woman from New York City. Having quit her corporate position in pharmaceutical sales and dropped out of law school, Ram Desh is now 100% yogini, fully dedicated to spreading the good word (and practice) of this powerful spiritual technology.

Kundalini is a different approach to yoga than Hatha. In this practice, the focus is on awakening the spiritual core at the base of the spine, and releasing its energy through quick repetitive movements, mudras (hand positions) and meditation. Unlike Hatha, the connection to the divine is not made through the body, it is made through energetic cultivation using the mind. At the end of the day, it’s all yoga.

Hatha classes can be physically gruesome – but so can Kundalini classes. You may not realize just how hardcore holding your arms straight at a 60 degree angle really can be. Seriously. By the time two minutes is up, you’re sweating not just at the brow but all across the shoulders, your arms are probably shaking, and if you’re doing breath of fire, your nostrils are probably ready to drop off your face. And what, pray tell, is breath of fire? It’s basically the same schtick as Kapalabhati – a pranayama (breathing exercise) where the focus is on a quick and rather intense exhale, initiated by pulling in the muscles of the belly. It strengthens your inner abs and heats the body almost immediately.

Right, so more on yoga in Rishikesh in a later post! For now, the day continues . . .

Post-yoga, me and all the other solo yoginis walk through a scorching sun to the ashram cafeteria, where we’re served delicious sattvic food of the Indian persuasion. Sattvic describes food that is rich in nutrients, fresh, organic, and free from hot spices, garlic and onions. Just today we had a proper spread of cauliflower and potato with garamasala, lentils on rice, bbq flavored beans, chapatti and a fresh tomato and cucumber salad with sprouted mung beans – yum!

The art of breaking chapati with just one hand!
Lunch is pretty chilled out. Most ashrams require silence when eating so you can properly sense and appreciate your food. Parmarth Niketan is not like most ashrams. It’s kind of a cross between an ashram and a hotel. An ashtel? A hoshram? Yes. It’s a hoshram.

Though yoga classes and one meditation class are offered, they aren’t required. Similarly, the food hall is meant to be a place of silence, but most people just chat away at low volume. Of course, low volume in India is pretty much the equivalent to a western “normal” standard – and the food hall buzzes with chitter chatter all through lunch. It’s always fun figuring out whether or not your neighbor prefers the serenity of a solo lunch, or if they’re up to chat about asana classes and sites to see!

New friends from the ashram and a local holy cow.

Once lunch is all munched down and I’ve had a big glass of water to wash it down, I head home for a much needed shower. My room fills with sunshine during the day, and though the construction outside causes a whole lotta dust, it’s usually very tidy. The bathroom has hot water and a western toilet. Really, I couldn’t ask for much else – especially since I get the room all to myself!

Now I have a big block of time between 2 and7:30 pm to write, email, explore or just chillout and read.

A day out with Shan and Seema at the Shiva Blue Throat Temple – a 45 minute drive up the twistiest turniest tummy-wrenching roads in the Himalyas!

There aren’t loads of things to see in town, which is actually a big relief since I didn’t want any big distractions from yoga classes. Oh the yoga classes! There are so many on offer here, some free, some up to 300 rupees (6 bucks) – mostly hatha classes with an Iyengar twist, at least from what I’ve seen so far. They’re held at big ashram halls or medium sized hotel studios, while some are even right there on the river Ganga in the morning! Before I leave, I’ll do a proper run down of the yoga and ashrams here. If I wanted to, I could spend months in this city alone, just checking out all the options!
So where were we on this “day in the life of” business? Mmmm, we were right at dinner, back to the ashram for bite to eat and an end of the day round up with the girlies. There are so many solo lady travelers here, it’s been really nice to connect and share stories about India, yoga, traveling, life!
Yeah, life is good here so far. It’s only been a few weeks, but Rishikesh, by all reports, is a very soft landing for a first timer in India. Not too many beggars, haggling is low key, clean food is easy to find, and the weather’s been fully bearable, so long as I’m not running around the place between the ungodly hours of 1 and 3pm! Just a handful of narrow dusty roads and two metal pedestrian bridges make up this part of the city, but it’s just enough to keep me entertained. People watching alone could easily eat up the greater portion of a day! Henna artists, cows, fruit stands, soaking wet bathers, sadhus, babas and families galore!

As for convenience ATMs and the post office are just up the road, and getting in and out of the city is a breeze. Rishikesh seems to have taken only the most necessary steps toward modernity – the newest big-scale project is constructing massive steps and stages leading down to the river for holy bathing. And this is fine by me. Not one iota of corporate taint is visible here, and I hope the locals keep it that way.

Come nightfall, I’ll usually end the day with a walk and sometimes attendance at aarti, a holy ceremony held every night on the river. Tonight’s aarti will host His Holiness The Dalai Lama ~ better go get my camera battery juiced up!
Next up: “Hot Box of Compassion” and “Rishikesh: The Top 10”

The Uneven Road to Rishikesh

Goddamn am I beat.

After nearly eleven hours of travel, I’m finally sitting in my room at Parmarth Niketan.

Amidst backpackers (fewer than expected), Indian families and people on pilgrimmages, I find myself somehow floating above reality. Hopefully this is a spiritual thing, rather than a full fledged shut down of my immune system!

So, to continue where I left off in the last blog, I’ll move back in time to the Yes Please Cottage Hotel, 5:30 am on a Sunday morning.

I woke up at five to check out and get my booty to the train station for my six am ride. Everything went seamlessly at the counter, an otherwise monotonous experience made ever so slightly surreal by the Eddie Izzard look-alike who was about to checkout just after me. Little did I know, this brief little cameo set the stage for a series of rather farcical events, and even more farcical characters along the way.

My hotel fetched me a rickshaw bike to ride to the station, saving some unnecessary pain at the start of my heavy journey. The rickshaws always look so cute, so old skool – painted garishly, decorated in local nic naks, manned by friendly, albeit hard-sell riders. Rickshaws never appear as uncomfortable or frightening as they actually are in experience. This poor old dude cycled my chocolate-loving American ass just a smidgin’ down the road – but it was the longest bumpiest ride I’ve experienced in recent memory. No shocks on this, baby, no way. I’m pretty sure certain discs somewhere in my lumbar region are still wondering what the hell I was thinking.

Arrival at the train station. The sun’s not out yet, and at this point there’s no way I’m taking out my camera, far too many skeezers around, including some pushy mo’ fo’ who tried to carry my bags across the street. When I make it to the station, I inquire with an official where to wait – and though it’s the last platform on a long walk, I’m stoked I made it on time, in one piece.

Too bad while I’m settling into my spot, a kind couple from Dubai strike up a conversation leading to the discovery that I’m at the wrong platform. Here we go.

The lovely couple from Dubai who helped me. I’d later run into them on the other end and they made sure to give me their phone numbers in case I needed anything. So sweet!

So I gather my things, go to another official and he insists I go back to the platform. Until a fellow official interrupts and tells me I should go to the other side of the station and ask a customer service rep.

This is not sounding good.

Off I waddle, backpacks hanging hard. When I reach the counter, I’m intercepted by a jovial Brahmin looking fellow who I later find out is named Vino. He reminds me of my friend from yoga school, Harish – clever, funny, and very keen to help. But this Vino looks more western than I do, in his geezer track suit bottoms and red striped polo shirt. Vino insists on helping me in his perfect English. Of course, it’s bad news. I’m at the wrong bloody station.

New Delhi, is not Delhi station. Old Delhi is Delhi station. Obviously. So, with no time to spare, I’m instructed to find the conductor of the train at the platform where I first waited and basically bribe him to get me on the next train. Otherwise, it’d be another day in the asscrack region of Delhi, and I’m not sure I’m up for that again. Besides, I’m always up for some under the table winkin’ and nudgin’ – a perfect introduction to Indian train travel!

Twenty five minutes and fourteen laps around the platform later, I am about to pass out and the conductor is no where to be found. My shoulders are literally ripping into bright red shreds of once-was-muscle. Poor Vino looks like he’s going to have a heartattack. Dentists may have money, but they can’t all cut it jogging around the New Delhi train station (or was it Old Delhi?).

No worries, I think to myself. I might feel like crying now, but it’s just an extra day in this shithole. I’m sure I can find something to do. Resigned to wasting another moment away from the ashram I go back to customer service and ask for a ticket for the 3pm train.

“No, I’m sorry, madame. This is your last chance! You must find the conductor!”

“Believe me, we tried. We went up and down that platform for ages, we can’t find him.”

“Come with me.”

Ignoring the sizzle in my thighs and the dying of my shoulders, I soldier up the stairs, round the bend, down more stairs past a group of men fighting to get aboard the unreserved car and down the length of the platform once more.
There he is. The most wanted man on the track.

The conductor looks important. And it’s not just his uniform. His nose has an air of distinction. Tall enough to look down on most, and in more than just literal sense. My representative works the Hindi action and I’m presented with the following deal:

“You stand on that car. If seat, you pay one thousand rupees.”

Twenty bucks? Argh. Better than wasting a day and paying that for a hotel room somewhere shitty. I’m shuffled into the kitchen car where I proceed to squat on my soft bag and guard the computer bag w/ my life. This ain’t too bad, I have to say. I’d almost prefer not to get a seat so I can ride here for free. I mention as much to the conductor, but whatever I pay he’s essentially pocketing, so it’s out of the question.

“Oh no, no, ma’am. You’ll get a seat!”

“And you’ll get your twenty big ones,” I think with a knowing smile.

And I do. It’s the nicest seat in the house. The seat that normally costs two thousand five hundred rupees. We’re presented with a big bottle of water, hot milk cornflakes, chapatti and jam, and a whole lotta hot British tea – yum! A full customer is a quiet customer indeed.

You might’ve mentioned I said, “we.”

The character cherry atop this morning’s little farce, a rackety ride with a stick thin rickshaw biker, the scamming bag carrier, the idiot train guards, laps around the platform and the kind hearted chubby figured expat Indian, is my fellow stowaway named Karma, a 42 year old Tibetan born in the north of India. He’s married, lives in Australia much of the time, and is about to embark on a one year sojourn through the subcontinent.

According to today’s story, he saved up for months as a cab driver to make this trip home. And won’t be going back for at least 12 months. Now that’s one understanding wife!

Karma is a tall lanky fellow, his long angular face framed by gelled-up jet black curls, He’s forthcoming with various forms of identification – which is more off-putting than comforting – and seems to have very little to say. Though he’s insistent on keeping the conversation going.

I make him nervous, which makes me wonder whether or not that means I should be nervous. Perhaps this should set me at ease, because clearly he is not a predator. Or perhaps, he is a predator, a very good one, and he’s attempting to trick me. Then again, he could be a very bad predator who too easily gives away the anticipation of running away with my stuff.

As these thoughts meander through my consciousness we exchange small talk about places we’ve seen and histories and what not. Like that Ram dude I met before, he’s not a politics talker, no history either. Anything from the paper, even cultural chit chat, falls to the floor like a led pancake. I’m tired, bored and wondering why I even owe him a nice conversation. Just because we’re in the same situation, and sitting next to one another, that doesn’t mean I have to be nice and chatty. He clearly doesn’t want to talk about family or the Dalai Lama or China, nor has he shown any interest in hearing my stories.

So I let my eye lids close naturally . . . and begin to drift off to a calmer place . . . when he starts in with the small talk again.

This might be a longer ride than expected.

So my stop is coming up and I’m more than relieved. Missed connection after missed connection, I’m about ready for some alone time. I gather up my belongings and try to get to the door. Before I go, he tells me what a beautiful voice I have. Uh oh.

“Oh, thanks, yeah, someone said I should do radio once, maybe it’s the yoga teacher training that did it. But it’s really amazing what you can do with your voice, if you think about it. You can make some quite mad sounds come out of there. Have you heard of Bobby McFerrin?”

Whew. Compliment diffused.

Of course he hadn’t heard of Bobby McFerrin. He had, however, heard of Rishikesh, and my seat neighbor was suddenly all gung ho about getting off with me and going there too.

“Huh?!” I actually could not control my surprise or aversion. “But your family’s waiting for you in the North. And anyway, I’m going for some yoga, I really don’t think I’ll be up for cups of tea and all that.”

Which is kinda the truth. As close as I could get without being a bitch. Yeah, I’m here for yoga. But I’d love to meet some people on the same wavelength as me and maybe share some tea with them. Thankfully, the white noise conversationalist took the hint and brushed it off. Waiting at the door for the train to stop, he said he’d miss me and was I sure I wouldn’t hangout with him?

Yes, I was sure. More sure about that than about much else at the moment.

I wait for my taxi driver for over an hour, eventually succumbing to the multiple bids offered me by dark skinned light eyed dude named Peesh. The ride gets off to a bad start when Peesh sideswipes an eighty year old man trudging along on his circa 1929 bicycle. And Peesh doesn’t say sorry.

We ride through Haridwar, where millions are gathered to bathe in the Ganges. It’s Kumbh Mela … so things here a little bit … bustling.

I get to the ashram, after walking twenty minutes in the blazing sun, check in and relax in my double room in the Ganga Block (and that’s pronounced with two hard “g”s for those of you who are snickering right now!). When the calm sets in, I’m totally surrounded with gratitude for the kind people who helped me get to Rishikesh. As a solo female traveler I really felt taken care of by the locals I encountered, even if they were all technically expats!

Next up … A day in the life of Jo … in Rishikesh :o)

Kumbh Mela ~ Celebrating Mojo

As the story goes, when the gods suddenly lost their power, they conspired with the asuras (evil arch nemeses of the gods) to churn the primordial ocean of milk and gather an unprecedented volume of amrita – the sweetest nectar, the elixir of immortality, the yessuh-i-gotsta-have it mojo of life.

The holy and unholy ones greedily fought over the amrita over the course of 12 human years. Finally, Lord Vishnu (the god who preserves life) four drops of amrita fell down to crusty earth. It is on these four sites -Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik – Hindus from around the globe come to dip in the Ganga. When Jupiter and the sun are in the zodiac sign Leo (it is held in Trimbakeshwar, Nashik; when the sun is in Aries it is celebrated at Haradwar; when Jupiter is in Taurus and the sun is in Capricorn Kumbha Mela is celebrated at Prayag; when Jupiter and the sun are in Scorpio the Mela is celebrated at Ujjain.

Millions of devotees, pilgrims, sadhus (holy men) and tourists gathered together for this four month holy spirit bonanza. Kumbh Mela literally translates as festival of the pitcher, the pitcher from which the amrita spilled to our realm. It occurs once every four years at each of the four locations.

The festival in 2001 attracted 60 million people as the stars were aligned in a way that only occurs every 144 years. This was the largest gathering in recorded history.

According to Wikipedia: the first written evidence of the Kumbha Mela can be found in the accounts of Chinese traveller, Huan Tsang or Xuanzang who visited India in 629 -645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana. However, the observance dates back many centuries to Ancient India’s Vedic period (the second and first millennia BCE continuing up to the 6th century BCE) where the river festivals first started getting organised. In Hindu mythology, its origin is found in one of the popular creation myths and the Hindu theories on evolution, the Samudra manthan episode (Churning of the ocean of milk), mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana.

The festival lasts four months, with certain days being particularly auspicious for dipping in the Ganga. The dips are both organized and impromptu and gurus from around the country come with devotees to go in as a group. Dipping days are determined by the constellations – and unless I find an Indian guide, I’ll not likely head out on those days!

From what I saw driving up to Rishikesh, Haridwar is totally inundated with Ganga dippers and tent cities have been set up all along the way. The atmosphere is much like that of Glastonbury, minus the drugs, add a bit of devotion. Wash away your sins, the sins of your loved ones, and have a good time camping with the fam – sounds like a nice weekend out to me!