Friday, September 28, 2007

And Monkeys Too...

He actually looked cute, hunched on hind legs and chewing contently on the potted plants of the Alka Hotel.

Me? Well, the plant looked nice, but I was much happier with my banana and honey pancake/crepe.

But then the close relationship between the mind of the monkey and man revealed itself, as our thought patterns merged and Mr. Monkey decided my pancake looked much more appetizing than the plant.

Can you blame him?

A single bound brought him to the table side, where grubby paws grabbed the edge, sending the plastic furniture askew. I leapt back, instinctively going on the defensive in the face of his audacity, and threw my flimsy tin knife at him as he clambered onto the table. Laughable really - think of a comic book scene where bullets bounce off Superman's chest.

It must have been less than a split second before monkey man, my pancake and my dignity were scaling the side of the building in a great escape.

The other guests, arrayed along the railing above, went on with their business...and the restaurant made me a new pancake :)


Bisected by the holiest river of Hinduism, the Ganges, Varanasi is a site of pilgrimage for devout Hindus and adventure-seeking tourists alike.

Life in a Warren of Alleys
The narrow alleys that wind around Vishwanath (the Golden Temple) are replete with life and industry. A non-Hindu cannot enter the temple, but there is plenty to distract you as the surrounding pathways team with small shops selling bangles, brass ware, silks, books, foods and the paraphernalia of worship.

Stopping to chat with a seller, one settles in for a cup of Massala chai and discussion that is half "getting to know you" and half "would you like to avail yourself of the various services that my family offer"!

The "Hard Sell"
All things considered, however, the hard sell is far less than I feared. I was pretty paranoid about India, and must remain wary, but am pleasantly surprised by the ease with which you can decline services in a good-natured away and leave with a smile on both sides. The guide book and fellow travelers had me expecting a den of vipers!

The Burning Ghat
Upon passing from this mortal coil, the Hindu must be cremated at Manikarnika Ghat (the "burning ghat") within 24 hours - fire is considered a sacred gateway to the spiritual world, and reunites the body with the five basic elements: fire, air, water, earth and spirit. Those who cannot get to Ganges in this period use a place of lesser holiness, and the ashes are then brought to be scattered in the Ganges.

Some 200 to 400 bodies are cremated at the "burning ghat" of Varanasi, each taking about 350Kg of wood - including sandalwood to help mask the scent - to burn cleanly. After this one piece of the body is set into the river and the ashes are placed in an earthenware pot which is later cracked open to disperse remains in the holy deluge.

Standing on the escarpment overlooking the pyres one is overcome by the smell of the pyres, which is not wholly free of the scent of seared flesh, the ashes that spiral upwards on the heat waves and the mid-boggling concept that is brought home by the ability to discern the outline of the human form in the inferno.

One interesting point is that cremation is not allowed for children (who are divine), pregnant women, those with skin conditions that could spread through the air, and sadhus (holy men) - the latter having their bodies weighted with stones and sent to the bottom instead.

The Bile
The only shadow on this day comes from a blessing I was given by an old lady who has come to the Ganges to wait to die, to ensure she will be cremated in the sacred waters. She collects donations/offerings in exchange for her blessing, and thus hopes to collect the fee for the wood needed for her pyre.

I cannot comment on the veracity of the setup, and am loathe to pass judgment on them. However, when I sincerely offered my donation, it was refused as too small and anger flared! This was such an echo of the false Sadhus in Nepal that I left with my blessing, my money and perhaps a burden of bad karma.

But in my mind if it is a heartfelt donation - whether 50 cents or $50 - it needs to be accepted in that same spirit of kindheartedness. They said it was not enough to help, and I say it helps more to receive it than to refuse!

However, all in all, Varanasi is a good place in my book (and there are a lot of cows).

Thursday, September 27, 2007


On the street, in the train station - this is a list I will have to begin to update as it grows!

First Impressions
There are cows everywhere here man! That being said, it is: hot, humid, sweaty, loud, dusty, aggressive, dirty, crowded, delicious, friendly in a way I have let to decipher and FULL OF COWS.

We arrived at the border crossing at Saunali to a crush of touts that should not have surprised me given ample warning, but amid the honking horns, yelling taxi drivers and dust choking the air it was impossible to tell which way was up. I hooked up with a Kiwi named Darren and grabbed a cab to Gorakhpur, the nearest stop on the Indian railroad system.

I am now in a team of two Germans and a Frenchman to continue on to Varanassi, a city on the Ganges that is an important pilgrimage site and a place where all Hindus hope to be cremated. This is a major tourist center, and is likely to be full on India - everyone trying to get a rupee.

I imagine there will be a few cows around also ;)

Engine Engine No. 9
Our 7 hour train ride in third class sleepers (bunks with three stakes on each side of a compartment) will not be long by Indian standards. I am looking forward to this as I seem likely to spend a lot of time on trains on this trip.

The Indian railroad is India's largest employer, with more than 6 million keeping the trains running, but not on time - our Kiwi friend is delayed 4 hours for his 17 hour run to Delhi (sounds like a US airport).

Where Will Those Trains Take Me?
A few days in Varanasi (as much as I can stand) and then on to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri (a fortified "ghost" city), which should total 5 to 6 days depending on whether I do night trains or not.

Then I will try to resist the pull of Rajathan and the allure of Goa as I boot south 34 hours to Bangalore to visit my friend Morgan. I hope to talk about a lot of what has been going on in my head on this trip, check out her school as a possible place for treatment and/study and maybe sign up for a Vipasana course in Bangalore or somewhere in Kerala.

I think I have said all this in other posts!

But is it Safe?
A few people have written notes to caution me regarding the dangers of India. I don't think that these concerns are necessarily misplaced, but am trying to be careful. For the few hours I have been here so far, I have been in good company - I hope that this continues to be the case!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Quitting Kathmandu

Moving On
After two months in Kathmandu, it is time to move on.

I received my six-month Indian visa yesterday, and am beginning to move toward the sub-continent. On Sunday I will take a bus to Pokhara, in Western Nepal at the base of the Annapurnas.

After a few days in this reputedly relaxed and picturesque town, I will head south to India - just the thought makes my spine shiver. I will cross the border at Saunali, near Lord Buddha's birth place of Lumbini, and bear south to Varanassi - one of the holiest cities of Hinduism.

After lingering in Varanassi 3 or 4 days to soak up the flavor, I will head roughly west to Agra, and the jewel of India: the Taj Mahal. After the few days in the shadow of this monument to lost love, I will make the 42 hour dash south to Bangalore.

Why Bangalore?
No, I am not interviewing for a technology marketing position with an Indian software company. I will visit Morgan, a friend from Korea who is working on her MSC in Yoga at an institute about 30KM outside of the bustling technology hub - where peace and quiet is said to reign :)

I hope to spend some hours in discussion with Morgan to learn of her experiences and what she has learned, meet her fiance, and perhaps to join a 3 or 4 week therapeutic yoga session to try to set my lower back right and perhaps achieve some improvement on my as yet badly sprained left ankle.

I also want to check out the institute itself, as they offer degree programs in Yoga Therapy that I find intriguing. I always considered "back to school" as an option, and its possible that this is the right place - no commitments made, but I am definitely intrigued.

Fear and Excitement
I have to be quite frank: I am really pretty scared of going to India, and long have been.

I have never read a guidebook that is so explicit and repetitive about the dangers of being robbed, mugged, drugged, cheated, robbed, mugged, drugged, cheated, or even robbed!

I guess now I will learn one way or the other whether I have what it takes to face down India's touts, beggars, criminals and crowds. I can only imagine that Varanassi is nearly as bad as it gets, so I will start with a baptism by fire....

And really, this may be a good time to be moving on. The petrol shortage in Kathmandu is becoming more acute by the day, and could raise tensions significantly. Drivers are waiting anywhere from 10 to 20 hours to fill up their tanks at 60-70 rupees a liter - the only alternative being to pay 150-300 rupees a liter on the black market.Combine this frustration with the growing Maoist activism as the election approaches. Today the city center was virtually shut down by bus loads of activists unfurling massive red hammer & sickle flags and shouting slogans with raised fists - and me the ogling tourist with no camera to record the sight.

I don't know what will happen as elections approach, but have already seen tires burning, sat in the confused aftermath of public bombings, and seen the city fall silent at the insistence of the red-clad masses....maybe it is a good time to move on!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Trail I Tread...

The answer to that universal question: "Where am I headed? What is my path in Life" is so easy to answer in my case - I am headed to India, my path leads through Pokahara and on to Bangalor via Agra and the Taj.

I am not trying to make light of what is as serious and weighty a question for me as it is for anyone. To be honest, in my vanity and self-consciousness, I tend to think that these questions weigh heavier on myself than on many others.

However, I do think that the next stage of my search will play out between Nepal and India, where I am seriously considering spending an extended period of time. Right now I am contemplating spending anywhere from the next 6 months to the next 2 years here on the Indian sub-continent, exploring more of myself, the practice of yoga and the intrinsically linked experience of meditation.

To do this I am, I admit, digging heavily into my savings, which could be considered irresponsible from some angles. However, I tend to think that I have been blessed with having some disretionary funds, and that it would be foolish of me not to use them to improve my body, mind and spirit in any way possible. No?

"Please Bleed"
I am, contrary to prior reports, missing my music at times. This morning I so wanted to listen to Ben Harper's "Burn to Shine," particularly the track Please Bleed. On the weekend it was Stan Rogers that I had a hankering for, and before that I went through a phase of really needing ome Brand New Heavies - which really doesn't fit with the calming nature of yoga and meditation well, but is just plain groovy in any case :)

"Fight For Your Mind"
But the iPod has been sold, and I am left with just my own mind to learn to live with.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Economies of Travel

In manufacturing, the concept of "economies of scale" describes how (almost) any given product is easier and cheaper to produce in mass quantities than in small batches. The idea is pretty much accepted as axiomatic, and is only now being challenged from the marketing/advertising side as market fragmentation begins to mean that people are looking for less "mass consumption" products (check out Converse's "design your own sneaker" site as a good example).

But that's not the point, the point is economies of travel - the longer you stay in an area the cheaper it becomes. I went for an Ayurvedic massage today, and realized on the road back that my transit to and from the clinic cost be 150 rupees (about $2.20) vs the 600 rupees it has cost on every prior trip.

Why? Because instead of two 300 rupee taxi rides (there and back) I have now figured out how to do the journey in 3 minibuses and one short taxi ride, netting a similar time investment (maybe a half hour more) and a 450 rupee savings - there is one segment I am still working on, but that leg may fall from 120 to 12 rupees on my next excursion.

So that means my trip is costing a pittance, right?
I wish! Travel was SO much cheaper 10 years ago, when every bus, taxi, travel agent and restaurateur didn't shake their head apologetically and say "sorry, petrol prices." And sure, sometimes it is an excuse to jack the price up for the tourist, we all know that happens sometimes and accept that it will happen on occasion (hopefully not too often).

However, sometimes it is just the truth. I keep meaning to snap a pic of the petrol cues here. When a station gets a fuel shipment, the cars stretch seemingly to one horizon and motorcycles stand 4 to 6 abreast on a cue reaching toward the other. Yesterday I lost count at 76 cars waiting at one station near Sundhara (downtown KTM), and I didn't consider trying to count the motor bikes any more than I would consider counting the stars in the sky....

No, the trip is costing a fair bit. Daily costs at the moment average:

Accommodation: 300 rupees US$4.60
Food: 500 - 1000 rupees US$7.70 - 15.00
Transportation: 0 - 400 rupees US$0 - 6.00

Now US$20 - 26 may not seem like a lot, but this doesn't include yoga course costs when I am doing them, nor does it include incidentals. It really adds up when you have no job and when you add course fees!

A Sucker Born Every Minute
Nor does it include souvenirs, something I have traditionally spent next to nothing on in my travels. I have a few nice pieces from a trip to Bali in 2001, but these were not costly.

Yesterday I bit the bullet big time...

They say a sucker is born every minute, and maybe i was the sucker for my moment on that summer day back in '74. But yesterday I finally broke down and purchased a beautiful antique oil lamp from a shop near the Patan museum. The weighty, 20 cm cast-bronze figure is a nondescript man in court attire bowing slightly while joining his hand to signal "Namaste" - it is truly beautiful to see the flickering flame play on his features and his greeting, which is framed by the halo of his shadow on the wall behind.

Purchasing the Namaste man was spendy, but his price was dwarfed by a sublime gilt, cast-bronze Buddha that caught my eye as I negotiated the sale. My Buddha is 20 cm tall, sitting in padmasana, with one hand in his lap and one gently touching terra firma - invoking the earth mother's sanction as a demon challenges his right to sit on the ground beneath the bodhi tree at his moment of enlightenment. A classic pose. The gilt is rubbed off with age at places, and this scarring adds to the weight and gravity of his presence.

Antiques? We make Antiques here!
Now, amoung all of the "antiques" in the world, why did I agree to pay a hefty sum for these two, both of which are direct copies of pieces from the Patan royal palace, and were cast 50 - 70 years ago. Sure, the soot on the oil lamp and the worn gilt sheen of the Buddha look old enough, but I am more than aware of how easily a patina of age can be added to these items.

No, I had two reasons:

1) I had spent the better part of a week exploring every shop in every alley of several neighbourhoods, and had never seen anything that looked like these. No one is selling an oil-lamp anywhere near this physical weight nor in this posture and with this charisma. For its part, the Buddha is made unique by the fact that he does not sit on a lotus leaf, meaning his hand actually reaches down and touches the literal ground it sits on;

2) I was drawn to these pieces instinctively, enough so that I broke a 10 year habit of not purchasing this type of product and instead bargained long and hard for a transaction that I am very happy with.

The bottom line, however, is that I decided what these pieces were worth to ME - antique or not - and decided that I would be happy to exchange X dollars for them. This means that I cannot be upset even if tomorrow I find the same piece, looking the same age, with the same weight, in some tourist shop for half as much.....

Now all I need is a home to place these pieces in (you are invited to see them and have a cup of tea and a game of crib when I do).

But I guess the big news is that I am soon headed for India...more news on that as I learn more!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

"The Art of Living"

Today I made the long trek from Matathirta into the city to change some money, pick up some supplies and check my e-mail. Not a lot has happened in my world for the past week - which is a good thing.

I now live in in a quiet, rural area where my days include about 3 hours of yoga, and hour or so of meditation, and nightly singing/chanting with my instructors and local musicians. The slow pace of life suits these pursuits!

I am also, interestingly, on a vegetarian diet for the first time in my life. The past 6 days have been purely Nepali, and, despite my initial concerns, this has been great! I love the food everyday, and I am not missing meat or eggs. In fact, a glass of Yak milk this morning made me feel sick - which could be because it was Yak milk (!) or because my body has quickly acclimatized to the vegetarian diet.

"The Art of Living"
I am also reading a fair amount, and am now in the middle of a book is the first I think I have ever found that is speaking to me like I imagine the bible speaks to a true Christian or the Koran to a devoted Muslim.

I read sentence by sentence and think "Yes, that applies to my life and I want to implement that in my daily existence". It is called "The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation" by William Hart.

So this provides a new direction, so to speak, and imbues my yoga practice with new meaning: I want to be flexible enough and focused enough to sit and concentrate for the time required to embark on the practice of this form of meditation. I knwo I can begin at anytime with the body and mind I have, but am doing yoga now and want to maintain my focus on this practice before attempting to build on a partial foundation.

[Addendum (Sept 13): Ok, I have have overstated the religiousity of the impact of this book on me - it strikes me in retrospect that this is sounds like exactly what Carolyn was so concerned about, making it sound like i am planning to join a cult. For those who know of Vipassana, you know this is not the case, for those who do not, I urge you to Google it. The bottom line is that I want to implement this practice in my life.]

Slow Going
And that is slow going. In my doubting moments I give into the frustration that my body seems to be a pure manifestation of: tight, inflexible hips and hamstrings that are yielding almost imperceptibly to the practices I am following; weak ankles that limit greatly what postures I can even begin to practice; a lower back that screams resistance to seated asanas and seems unlikely to yield, though I know it will if I continue mindful and patient practice.

But regardless of goals or directions I remain completely at peace with what I am doing. I am not doubting or debating the wisdom or appropriateness of what I have embarked on. I know I have repeated this numerous time on this page so far, but belabour the point because in my life I have been sure of few things to this degree.

I do, however, also spend time thinking about the future outside of my yoga practice - where to go after Nepal and what profession to return to or embark on. All I can say for now is that I have lots of ideas ranging from safe and boring to pipe dreams that seem unrealistic.

Stay tuned for further updates....

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Petition For an Absolute Retreat

Hours ago explosions rocked the streets of Kathmandu, with rumours circulating to the effect of three bombs that have killed several people. There are no details that I can find on the Internet as of yet, but I did spend hours in traffic today in wonder at the amount of military and police presence.

As my friend Bishwar said, "Why can't people just come together and work for peace and prosperity?"

So perhaps this is a good time to retreat from the chaos of the city into the quiet and comfort of rural Nepal, where horns and engines give way to bird song, and smog and concrete yield to rice fields and distant snow-covered mountains.

I am leaving tomorrow for Matathirta, a small village only about 10 kilometers outside of urban Kathmandu, but seemingly a world away. The village is famous for a temple dedicated to mothers, which I will visit to light a candle in memory of my own mother, and is home to the Ananda Yoga center - which is run by a friend and colleague of my current teacher.

During one month in this ashram, I will practice the foundation routines I have learned over the past month, and hopefully build on the gains in flexibility that I have already achieved. My goal is modest: to return ready to pick up where I left off with my lessons at the Divine Yoga Center in Patan. This entails allowing my ankle to heal fully and gaining a significantly greater range of motion in my hips and hamstrings.

There are several reasons why this will be, if anything, an even more demanding month than the one I have just completed:
  • The center is isolated and empty of other practitioners, which is a positive in that I will be able to focus and receive personal attention, but is intimidating as I have already reached a point where I am lonely for communion with friends and family (talking to my Dad and sister yesterday brought literal tears to my eyes);
  • The food at the center is all vegetarian Nepali. I like Nepali food, but I do not care for it every day (let alone several times a day), and have on more than one occasion reacted to the cuisine with embarrassing intestinal complaints (an integral part of travel I have been lucky to never encounter before Nepal);
  • The schedule is pretty tight and ambitious, starting at 5:30 a.m. and running through 8:00p.m. to encompass two yoga sessions, a walk in the nearby village, a yoga nidra (psychic sleep) session, a meditation session and a session of mantra chanting to close the day. Check out the schedule at:
  • The center is, to say the least, bare bones. Maybe I just got too used to hotels during my business travels, but even if that is not the case, these bare concrete rooms with metal bed stands and 2 inch thick mattresses are not inspiring: no closet, no shower (a faucet pouring cold waer in a shed serves this purpose), no carpet (just concrete), no mosquito netting (I will furnish my own) and no chair or desk to sit at - its even more bare than it sounds.

Will I last 1 month out there? Who is to say at this point - I crave the quiet and beauty while fearing the conditions. I do know that I will be on Internet very little in the coming weeks, and will be counting on e-mails to boost my spirit when I do log in.