Thursday, July 3, 2008


The culture that articulated the most thoroughgoing philosophy of carefulness with life (Ahimsa, non-injury) is a land of ecological degradation and human difficulty...I honor India for many things: those neolithic cattle breeders who sang daily songs of love to God and Cow...exhaustive meditations on mind and evocation of all the archetypes and images...But most, the spectacle of a high civilization that accomplished art, literature, and ceremony without imposing a narrow version of itself on every tribe and village. Civilization without centralization or monoculture.The caste system as a mode of social organization probably made this possible--with some very unattractive side effects. But those who study the nature of the rise of the centralized state will find India full of surprises. India has had superb times--now fallen a while on hard times. And, beginning to end, irreducible pride. The sharp-tongued, sharp-eyed village men and women, skinny with hard work and never a big fat meal to eat a whole lifetime, life under an eternal sky of stars, and on a beginningless earth.
-From Passage Through India by Gary Snyder

I found this book on a bookshelf, something I picked up a while ago at a used bookstore somewhere and never read. I began reading late one night, and was interested to find that I couldn't put it down. I referred to the beat poets earlier in my blog. My reverence isn't quite the same as it was in my early twenties, but I still love them. (I also have Allen Ginsberg's Indian Journals...but as much as I appreciate him, it's quite difficult to understand...)

Because I left "ready to go" and have been happy to be home, I wonder if I've deserted my long-beloved India. But as I read Gary Snyder's accounts of eating chapatis and curd, encountering ascetics and adivasis (tribal people), the difficulties of long journeys on second class sleeper trains, and the agony of being surrounded by a throng of desperate but demanding rickshaw well as his critiques of guru devotion and the caste system, I felt myself a part of something larger. I remembered that I learned so much, that I love that complex and complicated place, and I truly began to miss it. We traversed similar paths at times...Dharamsala, Triund, Delhi, the Sivananda ashram, Mumbai...and many of his reflections were similar to ours.

Gary Synder traveled to India in 1962, and I was quite taken by how much was similar: the railway system, ashram culture, thalis, chai, the temples...India is changing rapidly. McDonald's is not an uncommon sight in the big cities, and every urban dweller seems to have a mobile phone. Yet, I really believe that so much will remain: women in saris, turban-clad Sikhs, cows roaming the streets, cyle-rickshaws, rice and dal...along with arranged marriage, the sideways head nod, and wacky slap-stick humor.

There were times during our travels, when we couldn't get honesty from anyone, while being stared at by groups of men, when strange, screaming babies where thrust into our arms so they could be photographed with us, when we were laughed at...that I didn't know if I'd ever want to go back. But it's only been a few weeks, and I'm reminded of watching India roll by from an open train window, and the palm-lined beaches of the South, the possibilities of a meal in a stranger's home, and the awe of a place that at times feel so different, yet functions so well. I miss it. I hope to return.

It's not a surprise to me that reading this book, now that I'm home, would have such an effect on me. Throughout our travels, reading served as a necessary way for me to process what I was experiencing, and even begin to theorize a little about it. Some of my suggested reading about India: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons by Susan Bumiller, Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This is a very small list, but if you're interested in reading about India, it's a place to start.

Thank you for reading my blog.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Monsoon Departure

We are home. The last days of our trip turned out a little differently than we had expected. We did see some more sights in Delhi, including the Indira Gandhi museum (where we saw her blood-stained sari). We did make it the Taj Mahal and successfully avoided being poisoned (unfortunately poisoning is a scam in the budget accommodation area in Agra), endured the worst night of sleep of my entire life (unbearable heat, mosquitoes, illness, and the budgetest of hotels yet) and spent a lovely morning in the opulent presence of the Taj. It was stunning. However, when we thought we were finally leaving Delhi, our overnight train to Udaipur was canceled. Rajasthan (the state that Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and many other popular tourist destinations are in) had been experiencing some unrest with a tribal group demanding more rights. There had been riots and train tracks had been dismantled. We considered not going to Rajasthan at all, but after seeking the advice of many wise people, decided on Udaipur, which is a significant distance from the disruptions in Jaipur, the capitol. However, destiny intervened. We took it as a sign. After asking the railway officials, "What do we do?" to which they had no response, we stood in various queues in various buildings to refund our tickets. It was only after doing all this we learned we couldn't purchase new tickets at this station, and would have to go the New Delhi station across town, the following morning. So, we entered the fray of the Delhi rickshaw scene once again, and pleaded with the Indian Social Institute to take us in, without reservations. Now that I'm safely home, I can say that that twenty-four hour period was definitely a low.

However, the following afternoon we found ourselves on a two-tier AC car (by far the fanciest class of travel we'd been on yet, the only seats available...again, I think it was destiny) and were astounded by the comfort we had been denying ourselves (which we couldn't have afforded to take all over the country anyway). But, as luck would have it, an extra family had been let on board and they found refuge in our berth, so we didn't get any of the extra space anyway. Since it was the last train we would be on in India, hardly anything could bother us. We enjoyed the delicious curd in little earthen jars, had interesting conversations with the wise and witty legal consultant across from us, Shoeb, who shared a cab with us in Mumbai, and read the morning papers cover to cover. I may have had my best night of sleep in four months.

We arrived in Mumbai three days into the monsoon. The headline on the paper read, "It has begun." We immediately loved Mumai...the familiar green feel of South India, the mango carts, friendly people, less general desperation than in the North, and the curious mix of a cosmopolitan "Western" feel with sardine-packed India. Our last days were easy, and very wet. I ate caramel popcorn and Ambryn, gelatto, in Mumbai's infamous movie houses, we drank plenty of fresh lime soda, and we explored the beautiful city by foot, monsoon and all. And then one very early morning (after hardly sleeping...convinced during the absolute thundering downpour that the streets would be flooded and our plane couldn't take off...and we would never leave India) we boarded a Finnair flight to Helsinki.

When I stepped off the plane in Helsinki, and simultaneously breathed the fresh Nordic air and saw the pines and the birch on the other side of the tarmac, I literally said aloud, "Oh my God!" We marveled at the simple, elegant Scandinavian design of the airport, the cordial and efficient staff, and the comfortable furniture before boarding our plane for Paris.

In France we ate incredible food, drank delicious wine, enjoyed the hospitality of good, kind people and were fortunate enough to attend the marriage of Joy and Beranger. I even signed official French documents as a witness. Good friends, late night wedding dancing, dogs we could pet, and showers, eased our transition back home.

And after time in Chicago, another wedding weekend in Madison, and four and a half hours in Chicago's Union station due to flooded train tracks in Wisconsin, I'm home.

I think I'll write one more blog entry, and then that will be all. Tat sat, as they say in India. Because I wasn't able to post photos for so long, I've included quite a few here as a sort of "review" of the last half of our trip, in no particular order. I've also added lots of photos to my flickr site, which is a link from this page.

Monday, June 2, 2008

"B" as in Bombay

When I give people my name here, they always ask, "B as in Bombay?" and I confirm. When spelling my name (the next step) I've found myself saying things like, "T as in tabla," and I've realized I'm prepared to say things like "H as in Hanuman" (the monkey god) and "N as in Nehru." This corresponds with the fact that I'm feeling quite settled here in India (though I'll never accept widespread public urination), so much that I think some of the shine has worn off a little. I think this is a good thing, all a part of the process. There is less wonderment and awe, and I think that when we arrive in Bombay in nine short days I'll be ready to leave. I think.

We arrived back in Delhi this morning, after a twelve hour bus journey from Dharamsala. We payed more money for a "sleeper" but were unsure what that would look like, and prepared ourselves (as we always do) for the worst. It turns out that this bus has two levels. There are the usual two seats on each side of the aisle, but where there is usually a space for luggage, there are "bunks." Ambryn and I had a double which was considerably smaller than a twin bed. We were very thankful that we were sharing that imtimate space with each other and not a stranger. But this sort of intimacy is one of India's charms.

Rather than bringing us into the center of the city where we boarded, the bus dropped us off at a Tibetan refugee colony on the outskirts of town. As one fellow passenger said with a stone face, "Why would we expect that the bus would bring us where we want to go?" So we selected a dreaded rickshaw after being mobbed by about twelve of them and got in after we brought the price down by a third. Only a few meters down the road our ride was flagged down by "police" and after much scrambling for papers, much harrassment by the officers, about twenty minutes, and our driver looking quite depressed, we were off again. This feels like classic Delhi. We got to the NGO where we are staying but learned we can't check in for several hours. After washing our faces in the handwashing sinks in the cafeteria, applying deoderant in the stairwell, and trying to make ourselves presentable for the morning hours in this cosmopolitan city (in bus clothes we've been wearing for 24 hours) we realized that all of these factors combined with the fact that the place in which we are staying is a "social institute," has a chapel, involves coupons to eat, and has strict check-in and check-out times looks a lot like what "homelessness" looks like to many of the folks we've worked with in Chicago and Tacoma. We realized this with a lot of laughter. This is where we're at. A little ragged, but happy. Enjoying the adventure of it all, soaking it all up because the days go so quickly.

Parts of our off-season Goa travel (largely being a spectacle to North Indian men) and most of our Delhi travel kicked us around a little (but we've stayed level-headed through it all...I think we've managed to stay sane sometimes becuase of our ability to find the humor in ridiculous situations). We didn't really know where that Himachel Tours bus would bring us, but we knew it was out of the city and that felt good. Dharamsala, the home of the Tibetan goverment in Exile, was a true respite. We weren't able to have an audience with the Dalai Llama, but we did see his temple, tour the Tibetan museum, and tried to soak up as much of the place as we could. If and when we return to India, we both would really like to return and do some volunteer work to get a deeper sense of the community. The most refreshing part for us was that even though we were just passing through, we definitely sensed the community, something we've been seeking ever since we left Bangalore (so many travelers say this same thing...interesting). It is so exhausting to be a consumer at every turn...for every meal, every night's stay, every snack, every journey further than walking distance. In Dharamsala we met our neighbors, smiled at people, were able to strike up conversations with strangers, made some friends (including a woman from Belgium who has been traveling in Asia for the last two and a half years and was visiting Dharmsala for the ninth time, and a contemporary modern dancer from London), breathed fresh air, walked everywhere we needed to go, ate healthy food, hiked in the Himalayas, took courses in Reiki I and Reiki II, and received Tibetan massages. We learned about the invasion of Tibet by China in 1949 and the subsequent trauma the Tibetan people have endured since. The city is such an interesting mix of Indian locals, the Tibetan community (which I believe makes up the majority of the population) and all of the foreigners who make that place "home" for varying lenghts of time.

So now we're back in Delhi, and despire the overnight bus journey, some tummy issues, and our inabiltity to check into our room for a few hours, I think we're doing well. The combination of our experience in Delhi with the restorative properties of the mountains is pushing us through these days. We're hoping to see a friend here in Delhi, visit the National Museum, and then we're on another train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We'll find ourselves back in Delhi to make a connection, then on to Udaipur in Rajasthan (apparently the most romantic place in India and where Jame Bond's "Octopussy" was filmed), a connection in Gujarat and then Mumbai (Bombay).

Friday, May 30, 2008

Thoughts on People

Throughout our two months at Visthar, Ambryn and had moments here and there when we grew a little anxious to get on the road. Some of our days felt a little 9-5 monotonous when we knew (unexplored) India was just out there, beyond the Visthar gate. However, we've continually been affirmed that our time there provided us with such a good foundation for our travels. We acclimated to India, reminded ourselves how the bus systems work, and had so many people on hand to process, or theorize, with about what we were encountering. We've met some really great people on the road (and here in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Llama, there are a lot of good people), as you always do, but we still certainly miss our friends in South India.

I could go on and on about all of them, but I thought I’d write about some of the other characters we met during our time in Bangalore. Our friend Lyola’s husband, Edison, just left his job as the chief correspondent at the Bangalore branch of the Times of India to become the editor of the Chennai (Madras) branch. This expansion makes it the biggest newspaper in the world! Edison has lived almost his entire life in Bangalore and is so knowledgeable about the city. Bangalore was largely a British city, the reason it has so many good private schools, beautiful colonial houses, etc. It was known as “the garden city” and as a “pensioner’s paradise” up until the information technology boom that happened after India began privatizing the economy (and Bangalore ended up as the hub because of it's good climate). Now, the city is drowning under its’ own expansion and uncontrolled growth. (Though the South side, which is mostly upper caste Hindu families, is quite posh. When we visited for the first time and I was awed. Oddly, it reminded me of some of the neighborhoods in South Minneaoplis, except tropical and with lots of cows in the street.) Not that many years ago the climate was ideal, but so many trees have been cut down and it has become much warmer. It’s sad. Edison has told us stories about streets his father was forbade to walk on (as an Indian) before independence. He’s also pointed out the pub in which Winston Churchill has an outstanding tab.

Edison’s grandfather was the chief in his village in Tamil Nadu, and they owned the biggest house in the area. When Gandhi (known here as Gandhiji, a term of respect and affection) stayed in their home when he traveled through during the salt march. Edison’s father was born in that same house.

We were fortunate enough to attend the 65th wedding anniversary party of Visthar’s director, David’s, in-laws. His father-in-law was a general in the Indian Army, and began his career before independence. He has lived all over India, and seen a lot. He was a friend of India’s last viceroy. He tells the story of when Mahatma Gandhi was shot. Apparently, when the viceroy heard the news, he took a drink, and went on the radio to make an announcement. He said, “Mohandas Gandhi, the father of the nation, has been shot. By a Hindu.” He said if he had not said the second part, blood would have flowed through every street in India.

David’s in-laws are very classy people. They own a beautiful home in what was once the outskirts of the city. There is a huge, sprawling mango tree in their front yard. There are vegetable gardens, flowers, and a wide, green lawn. Their house is one of the last left, as most have been leveled and replaced with apartment buildings. Though you can still sense the peace that the British must have felt when they built the tree-lined street. One of the guests we spoke with is the father of an ambassador living in the U.S. During the course of the evening we drank beer, chatted, ate good food, and sang old songs from the 1930s. The evening ended with us singing “Amazing Grace” for the octogenarian couple, as a blessing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Creepy Crawlies

I thought some of you may appreciate hearing about the "wildlife" I've encountered since arriving in India. The last time I was here I had the great fortune of seeing wild elephants, buffalo, several species of deer, bears.... This time, I'll share my trials and tribulations with the more household variety.

In my home: lizards, copious amounts of jumping spiders, mice (suspended above my body scampering across my thin and fragile bed net!!!), mosquitoes, beetles, moths, frogs (and possibly bed bugs?), a scorpion, and enormous spiders that I'd like to call tarantulas but I don't think they are.

In my workplace:rats, bats, mosquitoes

Outside:aggressive monkeys, snakes, bats, mosquitoes, frogs, toads, squirrels, wild mangey dogs (though I still think they're cute), feral cats, goats, sheep, camels, elephants, yaks, mongoose, hundreds of cows

p.s. I'd love to include some photos of a few of these animals but I've sworn off trying to transfer my photos onto computers in internet cafes after I lost all of my photos from Cochin and Goa...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Cochin, Goa, Delhi...Oh...

I'm writing from Delhi, where every tout seems to think we'll gladly follow him into his non-existent official tourist office and hand over large sums of American currency. And thus, we've arrived here in one point of the "Golden Triangle" of India...a big tourist hub. We've only been here for two days and have only seen a fraction of this massive city, but all at once it feels sophisticated, vulgar, spacious, crowded, dirty, and stunning. It's India. The mustaches are also HUGE here in the North, which is very exciting.

We arrived via a 28+ hour train trip from Goa aboard the Radjhani Express. We were lucky to share a berth with some friendly college students. There was a loud, boisterous Punjabi man sitting across the aisle from us. While we were reading he would stare at us, and if we put our book down for even a minute he would strike up a conversation which resulted in displaying how knowledgeable he was. It's the kind of scene that is often replayed over and over around here. He stood out from the archetypical Indian man in that his clothes were not pressed and did not (even remotely) match, his buttons were unbuttoned almost down to his navel, and his oiled gray hair was long and shaggy. A character. Throughout the long night he loudly cleared his throat (this is putting it SO politely) and would alternately moan, sing, cough, and talk. I was feeling very unfriendly thoughts toward him as I tried to sleep and then I remembered, "You're on an overnight train to Delhi."

We only have a handful of weeks left in India...and I was reminded that this slight inconvenience is a small price to pay for this adventure.

Cochin was cozy, warm, hospitable, interesting. If I hadn't suffered a camera memory card debauchle (and lost all my photos from Cochin and Goa) at the last shoddy internet cafe I would include photos of the Star of David alongside a statue of Ganesha in "Jewtown" in Cochin. Cochin was colonized by the Portugese, Dutch, and British, and a small Jewish population remains (a fraction of a once substantial community). We visited the synogogue amongst many other interesting historic places, including the first Christian church in India, where Vasco De Gama was buried. The architecture and culture are quite unique, and so interesting. We also spent a day on Kerala's luscious backwaters. We glided along the narrow canals in our little wooden boats, past small villages of women doing their washing, men rhythmically swaying their bodies while fishing for mussels, and children splashing each other in the heat of the day. Kerala is the "land of the coconuts" and I'll spare the dramatic story and just tell you that I was the victim of one of the branches (thankfully not the fruit) falling from the sky and hitting me! (I'm fine.) Kerala also boasts a 99% literacy rate and continually democratically elects a Communist government. As the result of a land reform act of 1967 most everyone owns a small tract of land, as it was taken back from the landlords. It's a fascinating (and unbelievably beautiful) place. I'm so thankful we were able to be there for a while.

From there we moved on to Goa, to see for ourselves what all the hype is about. We thankfully arrived post tourist season which meant that we had days of almost private beaches and as long as we were shaded (and could ignore throngs of men staring at us when they came to the beach around sunset) we were quite comfortable. We ate most of our (delicious) meals right on the beach and soaked up as much of the sound of crashing waves, hot sand, and beautiful sunsets as we could. On our last night I spent a few hours engrossed in conversation with an octogenarian named Mani. An Indian (Brahmin) born man who "escaped" India in his twenties and has only been back to visit a few times since. We talked about food, books, India...all over gin and tonics, under the stars, and listening to the waves.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Ashram and Me

I am in quiet, lovely, adorable seaside Cochin after a week at the Sivananda Ashram in the foothills of the Ghats in Southern Kerala. It was a trip.

The Sivananda Ashrams and Centers were founded by a yogi named (aptly) Sivananda, and his apostle Vishnu Devananda. These men are respected for reviving the yogic way of life, as well as recognizing the West was "ready" for yoga and spreading it all over the world. Vishnu Devananda came to Canada in 1957...he is also known as "the flying guru" because he flew an ultra-light plane over conflict zones in the world, such as the Berlin Wall, and dropped peace pamphlets and flower petals. From what I learned, I think I can really respect these men. They stressed the importance of the full spectrum of yoga (of which asanas, the postures, are just one of five parts) and of yoga's connection to spirituality, and as it were, Hinduism. What I was not prepared for was being one of many white people chanting "Hare Krishna" (and MANY others) and venerating different Hindu gods and goddesses for hours every day, in the middle of India. Sometimes I felt foolish. Sometimes I felt like I was in a Saturday Night Live sketch.

I'm happy to have had an ashram experience in India. It is so much apart of the culture here. The traditional (pre-colonial) education was that of studying with a guru (which translates to bringing light into the cave, or darkness). The effects of this are everywhere. It seems so easy for people to be elevated to a god-like status: yogis, Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan, NGO directors, cricketers, prime ministers, spiritual leaders. I learned so much about the incredibly complicated, beautiful, inspiring world of yoga, and consequently, Hinduism. I met interesting people from all over the world: Investment brokers/traders who left their jobs from Ireland and Switzerland, two American girls our age who were on their way to a pancha karma (3-4 week intensive Ayruvedic cleanse) in the Tamil Nadu jungle, an Indian family with their 8 year-old daughter, and lots of other backpackers from all over the world. I also feel quite good after a week of four hours of asanas and pranayama(postures/exercises and breathing) a day, sparse, healthy vegetarian food, and hours of meditation. Also, the alarm bell went off at 5:20 and it wasn't even that hard to get up.

Both the high and low point of the week was a silent night walk we took on our last evening during satsung (like Vespers). We ended up walking right past a LARGE and brightly lit Christian revival. We walked behind the stage, then right alongside it, then all along the vast crowd of Indians listening intently while their leader shouted, "Halelujah! Thank you Jesus! Praise the Lord!" through LOUD speakers. (I often marvel that not everyone is deaf in this country.) There we were, a bunch of white people, carrying yoga mats and meditation cushions, preparing to chant "Jaya Ganesha" in the dark in India, interrupting their tent revival. They stared and I don't blame them. I think we were quite a sight. It was one of the odder moments of my life.

There is so much I appreciate about the incredibly diverse, aesthetically rich, Hindu spirituality. The religion of Ghandiji. Still, I was interested to realize how uncomfortable I was with certain beliefs. One is that of the need for humans to recognize our ability to merge with the gods (This is my simple understanding of something incredibly complicated...something that needs to be translated by teachers, another thing that is hard for me to digest, though I think it is present in all spiritualities...a struggle for me.)...involving the yogic belief of freedom: that you are able to do what you don't want to do, and that you don't have to do what you want to do. In so many ways, this makes much sense to me. I can understand how this is freeing, and I think to a certain extent, I try to push myself in these ways to be more happy. Still, I think some of life's purest, simplest joys are God-given and are to be LIVED fully, and humanly. Love, music, natural beauty, good food...this is it. For me. Like my Grandma making cinnamon rolls every Friday. I'm happy for people who find freedom in this more Hindu life, who find happiness, fulfillment. My God has to allow me to simply be human. It has to forgive, it has to involve grace. And, as it turns out, the one I was born with provides this. What a phenomenon.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with Shafi, the driver, at Visthar. (Consequently, Ambryn has said that if she were going to follow any guru, it would be Shafi. Though I don't think he would allow it.) He asked me, "Are you Christian?" (It's taken me a while to realize people aren't asking me if my name is "Christine" when they ask this.) I explained that this is my culture and tradition, my family, how I was raised, but that my beliefs are actually probably more agnostic right now. Shafi (a muslim) replied, "Not Good." He said (in broken English) that it was okay for individuals, but that it is so central to have an identity, especially for children. That you needed to know where you come from, wherever that is. He then explained that he thinks God is like a tree. There are many branches, different ways of expressing God, but all the same God. I told I thought he was right.

So, this week did actually leave me with some clearer ideas of where I come from, and where I'm at now. Interestingly enough, Ambryn and met an incredibly sweet young Catholic priest named Nadhil on the train, who chatted us up almost the whole trip to Cochin. We both felt better about the future of the church knowing he will be a priest (after he completes his 11 years of study). We talked about our families, about our personal relationships and friendships, about translation of scripture, and about the ordination of women.

I realized I'm really an "all or nothing" kind of girl. I found that if I couldn't accept the whole schbang hook, line and sinker, (and if I couldn't decide to live the rest of my days in that ashram wearing only yellow) that it was hard for me to be a part of any of it. Though, slowly I think I was able to accept what was beautiful...the RICH worship involving flames, flowers, sweets, conch blowing, chants, the centuries old wisdom, the health of the yogic way of life, the emphasis on peace...and leave what didn't jive with me. Hopefully I can continue to learn to do this with my own spirituality of origin.

I'm also hoping that this experience will give me a greater understanding of the Beat poets whom I appropriately fell in love with around the age of 20. We'll see.