Travel Stories

Chennai to Mamalahpurum

1. Chennai
         I don’t know what I expected when I chose Chennai as my point of entry into India, but my first impressions of the city are that it is way more and way less than whatever that was.  The smell of the city is omnipresent and intense: old urine, onions, car emissions, something cooking that smells tempting, something rotting that smells and is repulsive, a hint of flowers when there are none to be seen, incense, jasmine.  &;People sleep in the streets day and night.  It is very hot and very muggy.  And at the risk of making a gross overgeneralization, the people who are not sleeping in the streets seem very pushy and very aggressive, even by my New York standards.  More than just the necessary jostle to get through a crowd there appears to be a sense of wanting to get ahead, to gain an advantage, to be the first.  And it is not uncommon for me to be having a conversation with some shopkeeper or hotel receptionist when I am interrupted by someone else who simply wants to get in … now.  
         I did manage to arrive at the guesthouse I had hoped to stay in without a reservation around 11PM, notwithstanding the harrowing reality that the cab driver I rode with and his fellow Indian terrorist vehicle drivers all have absolutely no regard for the lane of the road they are driving in and I cannot even tell if they drive on the right side or on the left.  In fact I think it may change from street to street or as conditions dictate.  And when red lights that hold the vehicle terrorists back on occasion indicate by their digital countdown signal that there are less than twenty seconds left before the light changes to green the honking starts, and with about ten seconds left the entire lane of cars is moving forward through the remaining red light.  As for crossing the roadway as a pedestrian, although it is accomplished by me by attaching myself to any one of the Indian contortionists who do so with casual regularity, to me it seems like a feat of immense daring and perfect timing.
         The guesthouse is locked when I arrive there, but,  after much bell ringing, the door is opened by a sleepy old man and an even sleepier younger man.  They say everything is closed early because it is “election time,” although I’ve seen open teashops on my way into Chennai and later learn that the election itself is more than a month away.  My room at this inn, complete with cold shower, toilet without toilet paper, and terrace surrounded by prison bars, is in an olden Maharaja’s home.  After that it’s all down hill.  The sheets have burn holes in them and I can scratch my itchy back on their roughly textured weave.  The floor is concrete, cracked, dirty - no make that filthy - and has never met a rug or tile.  The soles of my feet are dirty – no make that filthy – within a second or two and I have to take them into the bed with me.   The walls are cracked, ancient, discolored, moldy, and covered with flaking plaster.  Electric wires are hanging everywhere, although there are no electric outlets.  Also no hot water, soap, towels, blankets, cabinets, or even wall hooks.  There is one old rusty metal folding chair.  All in all it feels a bit like a cell.  We are definitely talking upgrade.
         
In the morning I move about the Triplicate neighborhood streets among throngs of people, cars, trucks, rickshaws, horns, mufflers, whistles, and yelling.  Eye contact is rare, make that non-existent, notwithstanding that I look at people directly, and stick out as an obvious, tall, white, foreign guy.  The sight of green trees able to breathe and grow in the city comforts me.  The calling of crows with gray collars that make it look like they too are dirty also helps, although I ’m quite sure that what the kahkahs – which is Tamil for crow - are saying and asking me is, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing here?”  And, of course, the crow guides’ question is the absolutely right question, which I don’t really know the answer to (on a spiritual quest?  studying yoga?), because all I’ve found so far, at least to my eyes, is a dirty, highly polluted, teeming, and somewhat nondescript, gray city. Besides, what I really want to know first, even before I try to answer the crows, is can my diet for the next five weeks in India really consist of only bananas, cashew nuts, Kit Kat bars, and water? 
         
My favorite moments are when taxi drivers seeking to take me on as a fare as I walk aimlessly - the only obvious foreigner - through the streets ask me, “Where are you going?”  And I reply, “I have no idea.”   And I really don’t.   Over the course of four days in Chennai dozens of people ask me, what I am doing here, which I can’t answer, followed by the even more pointed and revealing question “Okay, but why did you choose Chennai?”  And for three days I tell all of them, I really don’t know.

2.  Giri
         
My first full day in India is salvaged in large part when an engaging rickshaw driver named Giri introduces himself to me with small talk and a handshake, and then offers to be my guide.  “Lucky day for me, sir, lucky day for you.
         
Of course Giri is proposing that he show me forts, churches, high-end craft shops (which cut him a commission on anything they sell to folks he delivers), and temples, none of which interest me.  And when Giri asks where I would like to go I have to say, “I have no idea,” and I really don’t.
          
Fortunately there are practicalities.  I need cash.  I need to find a yoga studio, and an Internet cafe.  I need to change residences. I need to get to a bookstore.  I need some new reading glasses to replace the three dollar ones I bought in Myanmar, which have already broken.   I need to figure out what I’m going to “do” in Chennai while Chennai is doing me, and how long I’m staying in Chennai, or in any other place in India, before I rendezvous with Sam in Delhi in three weeks.  And for these purposes the travel gods could not have sent me a better guide than Giri, who laughs contagiously, lives with his wife (the only woman he has ever “known”) and two sons in the village he was born in an hour by train out of Chennai, and from where he commutes daily to his three wheel taxi rickshaw which he leaves in the evening with his mechanic brother-in-law who lives in Chennai, and who I have to and do meet of course. 
          
These errands take hours and hours as Giri drives me to and fro across the city, even squeezing in a few of the high-end craft shops that I really don’t want to go to where I resist skilled salesmen, offers of tea, and some truly remarkably beautiful (and expensive), museum level antique art pieces.  “You must bargain, sir,” instructs Giri. 
          
Every time we drive passed the US Consulate, which happens about four or five times as we speed around the city, Giri says, “There is your country, Sir.”  Every time we pass the Indian Tax Collection offices (next to the Consulate), Giri says, “Wery bad business, sir, wery bad.”  And as the day proceeds Giri becomes more and more comfortable advising me rather than deferring to me.  “Let us not go to the Internet now, Boss, vaste of time.”  “No, do not stay at that hotel, Sir, vhy vaste money?”  “Money flies, Sir.  Money comes.  Money goes.  You are wery good customer.  Giri unhappy if sir vaste his money.”  “Vhy take long train - bump, bump, bump – wery slow, wery dirty.  You fly, Sir.”  “No, Boss, no need go Bengalooru.  Must see Mamallapurm.  Stay overnight, then Puduchcheri.”   At one point, after one of any number of very near crashes we have with trucks, buses, cars, taxi rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows, another taxi driver pulls along side us and pointing at Giri says to me, “He is my brother.”  And I say to him, “He is my brother too.“  And Giri laughs.  And the other driver laughs.  And I laugh.  And after we drive away Giri says, “He is not really my brother, sir.”   
         
By late afternoon I’ve gotten cash, found an acceptable yoga studio, found a reasonably priced hotel within walking distance of the studio, gotten to a bookstore, taken my first yoga class in India, and made arrangements with Giri to chauffer me about the next day to see the beach, to consult with a travel agent, to continue our search for prescription eyeglasses and to at least partially answer the question “where are you going?” if not the subtler “why are you here.”

3.  Yoga in Chennai
         I select a yoga studio named 136.1.  On its website the studio describes 136.1 as the vibrational frequency at which the chant of Om is heard and at which the Earth vibrates.   A man who tells me his name is Norisur and who works at the yoga studio front desk introduces me to the studio.  It takes me about four tries at pronouncing his name before I understand he is saying, “Norris, sir.”
         
I take a hatha class with a handsome flexible man in his early forties (late thirties?) named Ramaman, mostly slow and simple sun salutations, with an immense amount of attention to relaxation, chanting, and pranayama.  Over the next few days I take a few classes with the young and beautiful Joshna, who promises to tell me about yoga in Pune and Rishikesh, and I attend a three day workshop at the studio with the very energetic, commanding, and loud voiced Swapna Gangadharan, a visiting teacher from Hyderabad, who lived and taught on the lower east side of New York for a couple of years, studied with and taught with Rodney Yee, and has returned to her home city of Hyderabad to open an organic market and yoga center.  Her classes are very fundamental but quite physically challenging in terms of the length of the holds, and I really enjoy sweating.  And although I don’t feel I have learned anything (the student is obviously not ready) I do periodically have an absolutely magical moment when I realize that I am actually in India in a yoga class.
         
No class I take has more than eight participants.  All other than me seem to be Indians and I am by far the oldest and most experienced (though hardly the strongest) student in each class.  The women are all slightly or more than slightly pudgy and do the classes in full dress or at least long pants and big blouses.  No woman other than the very young Joshna wears so much as a halter, and no woman wears shorts in yoga, or anywhere I’ve seen, even on Indian music TV.   I do learn in my yoga classes that the parts of the leg above the knee are known as the “ties,” that the parts below the knee are known as the “choughs,” and that we should try to relax them.  Wery good so far.   

4.  Food

            I choose not to live only on bananas, Kit Kat bars, and water and branch out, beginning with coffee and samosas at a high end coffee shop in the building my yoga studio is in, and a veggie burger at a fast food restaurant in the same building … all quite pale.  Next morning I have hot coffee made with tap water at a local outdoor vendor’s - who insists I sit down in his open air shop to drink the coffee - and puts me at a table with another man who doesn’t look me in the eye for the entire ten minutes we are seated alone together, not once.  I observe the water drawn from the tap and the unrefrigerated milk steaming before I drink the coffee.  The man across from me is served some kind of mashed potato and lentils with a red sauce and a white sauce on a piece of waxed paper on a tray without dishes, utensils, or napkins.  The man’s hands are filthy.  He eats his meal with his fingers, pinching some of the potato mix between his fingers, dipping it into the sauces well passed his first finger joint and then shoveling the food into his mouth.  He drinks water directly from a bottle of tap water left on the table for customers to share.   After eating his meal he rinses his hands at the nearby sink and wipes them on his already filthy pants.  My coffee is good.
         I return to my twenty-dollar hotel where a complimentary breakfast, which is also quite good, is served me on a tray delivered to my room.  I particularly like what I think is a masala dhosa, but I have no idea what I am eating and return to bananas, cashews, and Kit Kat bars in the evening.  Next day, at my clean (okay, cleaner) new forty dollar hotel where I have two rooms to spread out in I eat the hotel’s buffet breakfast, which is actually fabulous: a couple of dishes that look like mashed potatoes but have truly awesome and adventurous spicing, pancakes with something very tasty in them, a fried donut that may have chunks of ginger in it, fresh peeled fruit (don’t ask me how prepared or vashed), and hot coffee with milk already mixed in that the buffet staff will not let me pour myself but pour for me in the very stylized Indian manner of raising the pitcher as high above the cup as possible and then pouring the coffee into the cup moving the pitcher deftly up and down (so that the coffee cools on the way down?) while the coffee twists in a downward spiral into the cup.  There are utensils.  Some people use them.  Other folks eat with their hands.  Some of the wait staff walks around barefooted.  The food is so good I have to force myself away from the buffet to awoid feeling stuffed.  In time I trust I will return to using “v”s instead of “w”s, but I find the Indian accent very “quaint” and cute, among not much else that is cute, although I am practicing bobbing my head from side to side, which I’ve mostly stopped thinking means “no” and am conwinced is wery good for keeping neck vertebrae loose and awoiding real anger in the endless play of speed, aggression, and disregard that seem to me to characterize so many street level interactions.  (Even on music videos on TV I see young men depicted slapping women, pulling women around, and fighting with one another.)   By the end of day three, when I eat in the Palm Grove Hotel’s restaurant, which I am told is one of the finest veggie restaurants in Chennai, I order dhosas and naans delivered to me by barefooted wait staff, and which I eat, after I wash and hopefully have sanitized my hands, with my fingers, dipping them into the sauces like the Indians do.

5.  Day Three
           Being in a comfortable hotel, after a couple of days of night and early morning yoga classes, and a lot of running around in between classes, I choose to just chill out this day, other than attend yoga classes, of course, and to walk around a slum which gives totally new meaning to the word slum, and where the collection of houses is called a hutment.  I also spend a couple of hours in an Internet locale (I just can’t call a long dirty overcrowded wery hot and stuffy closet with a row of computers a café), and some time reading a very basic Hinduism for beginners book I’ve bought.  I also make another of my multiple visits to travel agents armed with my big, now annotated by me, India map that I spread out on their desks trying to figure out where, how, and even more to the point, why I am going wherever it is I am going next between Chennai and my rendezvous with Sam in Delhi, over 2,000 kilometers away, in three weeks.   The travel gods and goddesses have not revealed their plan yet, although I know the guides are still smiling when I discover that my travel pouch, which I’ve left under the mattress in the last hotel before I checked out at noon with credit cards, some money, and Miles’ ashes is still there when I return late that night hoping to fetch it.  I am also slowly desensitizing myself (a practice begun in SE Asia) while walking in the streets, from thinking every horn that blows nearby must be directed at me.  And I’ve actually had two, count them, two, Indian women smile back at me when I smiled at them.  And one woman actually said thank you when I held a door open for her, a practice I’m also trying to break myself of, since people who hold open doors in India are clearly either paid underlings or deranged.  In this regard, in for me what was a very funny moment, on my second day cruising around with Giri we stopped at the beach near where a tsunami hit about three years ago and took out most of the government built (and not rebuilt) fisherman’s housing.   (No, Giri, I do not want to see temples.  No, not churches either Giri.  No, not high end shops, not government offices, not museums.  Just show me India please, where people live.  Let’s go to a market, a grocery store, a pharmacy searching for hand sanitizer.)   Anyhow, after I get out of the rickshaw to buy a bottle of water from a vendor on the beach … (No, Giri, I do not want to sit here while you fetch the water for me, I want to get it myself.  Yes, Giri, you can come to protect me from the dangers I will face dealing with a skinny one hundred and ten year old destitute Indian woman selling water to put rice on her table and clearly intending to exploit me if you want … or you just sit here in the rickshaw.)  When we get back with the bottle of water, which Giri checks to make sure the cap has not been loosened, Giri gets into the rickshaw and I squat down outside the rickshaw drinking the water and casually chatting w Giri about something – where to go next, or the drying of fish on sand – when Giri anxiously asks me to please get inside the rickshaw because it makes him uncomfortable to be seen with me squatting outside his rig looking up to him.  “Fuck it, Giri,” I say, “who cares?”   “No, no, please Mr. Bruce, it is not right for you to be there.  Please, more better you sit in rickshaw.”

6.  Yotam

            After yoga on Saturday night I’m talking with one of the men in the class when it dawns on me that he is not Indian, and as I pursue my conversation with him he tells me that he is an Israeli born music producer who has been living in Chennai for eight years.  When I querying him about my further travel in India, Yotam has some very definite opinions, ideas, and experiences he wants to share with me and invites me to come over to his music and video recording, mixing, and production studio later in the evening.  And while I don’t know it at that moment, when I get to Yotam’s studio and spend some time with him I form the definite opinion that Yotam is as good an answer as any to the question of why I came to Chennai and that the travel guides have spoken to me through him. 
         Yotam arrived in Chennai eight years ago after accepting a three-month gig as a sound engineer because his wife wanted out for a while from living in the desert in Israel.  At the time Yotam had one daughter under aged two.  He and his wife now have three daughters, and the three month gig in Chennai turned into a creative and more or less successful business that has kept him in Chennai for the past eight years, although he now commutes to Israel every two weeks - and spends about half his time there - since his wife and daughters returned to live in Israel last year.  At his Chennai studio Yotam has designed and built a top quality video production room and a great sound studio, which has all of the high-end sound mixing and video editing equipment someone putting out top of the line music would need.  His specific interests are in recording and promoting traditional village musicians, and in producing innovative music, most akin to modern jazz.  He has recently spent weeks in Kerala state in India recording villagers using traditional Indian village instruments that he thinks is cutting edge.  National Geographic has purchased two of Yotam’s video music recordings.  He has developed great music contacts throughout India as a producer and sound engineer, and has just recorded the renowned and revered classical India singer Soubaj Mudgal doing a modern duet with an African-American singer poet from Philadelphia, which he plays for me.  Soubaj’s voice is just stunning and she dwarfs the woman singing opposite her, though I love the sound and think the recording is great.  At the studio, Yotam has also built a kitchen and guest sleeping quarters where visiting artists and musicians can stay while being recorded. Yotam’s beautiful and revealing website is www.earthsync.com.  Take a peak.

And while Yotam is without question a very hard working, broadly traveling, singularly talented producer/engineer, he has two additional passions - aside from his work and family.  They are surfing and Auroville.  And it is in regard to these passions that Yotam wants to guide me.  Especially inasmuch as both are on my way to what I had originally projected as my next stop, Puduchcheri, where I now know I would again have had to answer the question why had I decided to visit the equivalent of Bakersfield, California, on my tour of India, rather than going to the equivalent of Big Sur.  So first the surfing. 

Although born in the Sinai, and in love with the desert, Yotam also loves to surf, has done so in many of the highlight surfing spots around the globe, and has even brought his big board to Chennai.  Doesn’t everybody?  I mean, when you think of India don’t you right away think of surfing?  So here is Yotam, son of the desert, in Chennai on the Indian Ocean with his big board looking for places to surf.  And the place that most appeals to him - because of the wave action he has observed there - is a beach and cove in the small over 2,000 year old fishing village of Kovalam, just south of Chennai on the Bay of Bengal, in the Indian Ocean. 

On Yotam’s third surfing visit to Kovalam, along with some Aussie friends and fellow surfers, where they regularly draw a crowd, Yotam is approached by a slight Indian man in his late twenties named Multhiy Megavan, a village fisherman, whose father was a fisherman, and whose father’s father was a fisherman, who asks Yotam if he can use Yotam’s board to try to surf, something no one in the history of the village of Kovalam, at least as far as Multhiy and his friends are aware, has ever done, or seen done, until a few weeks earlier when Yotam arrived and surfed there. Yotam, of course, says yes, and Multhiy Megavan, tenth generation small village Indian fisherman, gets on Yotam’s big board, rides as if he has been surfing for years, and falls instantly and madly in love with surfing and the surfer’s unique relationship with the sea.  I watch the short video Yotam is finishing about Multhiy and Multhiy’s evolution, and, at Yotam’s suggestion, I visit Multhiy of an afternoon in Kovalam on my way to Puduchcheri.

7. Multhiy

The village of Kovalam is as prototypical a fishing village as you will find in any travelogue or ethnographic study about southern Indian fishing villages.&nbsp; Fish and fishing nets are drying in the hot afternoon sun, the air is filled with the smell of dead fish and decaying garbage, ancient log dories are being painted and tarred, the red sand is hot beneath your feet, naked children and their fully dressed mothers are wading in the surf, plastic waste litters the beach, there is one church, one mosque, a number of newer and older temples, a town hall, an older school, and dogs laying in the sun like Indian dogs everywhere, apparently of the universally held Indian dog view, that laying in tire tracks in the middle and at the edge of frequently traveled roadways is the preferred place to sleep. Kovalam has served as the site of Tamil fishing activities from at least the time ships and sailors of the Roman Empire explored and colonized the southwestern shores of the&nbsp;<span id="1637e363-0f60-4983-8d9a-1be98731a79e" ginger_software_uiphraseguid="1319351f-31ba-4cb5-a040-abd25d80e27c" class="GINGER_SOFTWARE_mark">India</span> coast.   And as far as Multhiy knows his ancestors have always lived there and always fished. 

When I arrive in Kovalam Multhiy comes down to the beach to meet me on his motorcycle and takes me back to his house on it.  Everyone in Kovalam knows Multhiy, and Multhiy knows everyone in Kovalam.  First we stop at his mother-in-law’s house, which is closer to the beach than Multhiy’s house, and is where he stores the six surfboards he uses and is now responsible for.  He describes each board to me, the one that is Yotam’s board, the one that was broken and he has been trying to repair, the small one for smaller people that doesn’t track as well.  He tells me to be careful of my head as we pass into every room, and as I stand up in every room.  He remarks that Yotam and I are the same size and compares us to his size.  We get back on the motorcycle and drive through lanes between houses not wide enough for an ox cart.  We arrive at Multhiy’s relatively new stucco home where his very young, very beautiful, and very irritable wife is cooking lunch for us, fish, of course, and yelling at the children.  A TV set is on.  Cricket, of course.  There is running water in their home but no tables and no chairs.  We eat seated on the floor.  No one washes their hands before eating, and everyone eats with their fingers except me who has been provided with a spoon.  And I don’t quite eat, although I do nibble, while the kids literally grab handfuls of rice and stuff it in their mouths without the grace of the better mannered finger pinch and shovel method.  Everyone washes his or her hands after eating.  Multhiy tells me his story, how his father left the village when Multhiy was young, how he feels sad at times for reasons he doesn’t understand, how surfing delights him, how he has become the surfing “coach” for numbers of young men in Kovalam who also love to surf and how much that means to him, how he wants to start a surfing school, and a surfboard making shop, and cannot wait to teach his young son to surf.  And all the while I am treated as Multhiy’s honored guest, and I feel honored.  After all, I’m a friend of Yotam’s, someone who may in some way be able to help Multhiy realize his dreams, a simple fisherman who out of the clear blue sea has had a video made of him and of his love for surfing, which has changed his life.

8 Mamalahpurum

            Mamalahpurum is a seaside village in Tamil Nadu, the most southeastern Indian state, and a Hindu religious site of some significance, with stone temples and sculptures that pre-date Angkor.   And although the temples are small, worn, and not well preserved, they draw very big crowds of Indian people to them.  Abutting the temple sites is a public beach where the crowds also flow.  The path to the public beach is lined with trinket and souvenir shops and food vendors.  On the beach are small hand operated children’s rides, saddled horses to be photographed on or ridden on the beach while being led around by their handlers, and more food vendors selling everything from watermelon slices and coconuts for coconut juice, to freshly fried fish.  Air pressured BB guns with real pellets are available for firing at displays of balloons attached to 4x8 sheets of plywood that people wander behind obliviously and I cannot fathom how no one appears to be injured among the all the balloon popping and balloon missing shots.  The beach is crowded.  The water is warm.  The horses are sometimes led in a run down the beach, through the masses of people and vendors.  There is a festive air about the place.  Some adult men even have their shirts off, although all of the women are fully dressed on the beach whether in the sea or not.  

            Some of the street vendor food looks and smells delicious to me, especially the deeply friend bananas and deeply fried peppers that I studiously watch a vendor dredge in some sort of sticky deep tangerine-colored fritter batter, that she has first literally squeezed in her hands and through her fingers, to mix the batter and assure its ongoing consistency after a day in the sun, before dredging the banana and pepper through it, and then sliding the coated fruits into the oil.  And here, overcoming all the cautions I’ve read about Indian street food, I decide to go for it.  It was cooked for a long time, right?  The oil was boiling.  No virus or bacterium could live through that heat, right?  And when the food comes out from the hot oil the vendor uses a ladle to put it onto a tray; that’s good.  And before the vendor can even touch the freshly cooked food I have previously selected to wrap it in old newspaper - the famous grease absorbing newsprint method - I grab my one banana and one pepper with my recently sanitized hands, assuring the food has not been touched by the vendor after coming out of the oil. The banana and the pepper are hot throughout when I eat them.  And in addition to the food looking really good and smelling good, which is why I was tempted by it in the first place, the spicy fritter batter tastes great, and the fresh pepper is marvelously spicy and deliciously peppery, and days later I’ve lived to write about it.

9. Yoga in Mamalahpurum

            The town of Mamalapurum has a sizable foreign tourist and guesthouse scene, mostly Europeans drawn to Mamalapurum by its beach.   Throughout this section of town are signs and shops advertizing massage, Ayurvedic healing, and yoga.  Most signs list the times for the yoga classes, although in an excess of caution I go into two of the studios to see what they look like and to confirm with a human being that there will in fact be a class the next morning.  In both places I’m assured there will be class, but when I arrive at one and then the other, a rooftop yoga venue where I find two Indian men just waking up, there are no yoga classes, and when I say to one of the men on the rooftop, “Yoga, seven A.M?” he wags his finger at me and says, “Never once.”   But I am determined to do yoga this morning and return to my room, put my mats on the floor, and begin.

One of the reasons I like to take yoga classes from yoga instructors is that I don’t have to think about what to do, I just follow their voices, listen passively to their instructions, do what they say to do, and try to focus on my breathing.  This is in contrast to most times that I do yoga on my own, when I am often distracted by my need to move myself consciously through my practice and cannot surrender my active thinking mind.  But this day for some reason my mind has turned off and each pose just flows into the next until I realize I am in sivasana, a crow is calling, and more than an hour and a half has passed.  I like that, that I have the space to be that person. 

--> Next stop Auroville ...

Auroville and Beyond

10. Auroville
         
Yotam’s second passion is Auroville, www.auroville.org.   He shows me a video he has made about chimes, bells and new musical instruments being produced in Auroville, which is an experimental community self described as a “township in the making since 1968” of over 2,200 people living on land spread out over 30 sq kilometers in over 100 “settlements” with names like Courage, Gratitude, and Surrender - set amidst Tamil villages named Pappanchavadi, Perdamudaliarchavadi, and Sanjeevinagar - linked by roads, cycle and walking paths, water and electric service, and having the goal of disassociating from an “old world ready for death” by working for a “new and better world preparing to be born.”
         
Auroville is truly amazing, comfortable, fascinating, real, and successful.  As an old sixties hippie and communard I am in awe of what they have accomplished.  The housing is lovely.  The roads are dirt and well maintained.  There is a public school system.  It is spiritual and political at its core.  It has integrated into the community it exists in in an amazing way and is surrounded by supportive peasant farming villages that have a decidedly symbiotic relationship to the community.  In the local town are numbers of really good bakeries, small fresh food and organic markets, motorcycle and bike rental stores, Internet services, small tourist agencies, and restaurants, all owned by locals who are benefiting from the success of the community.   The settlements have good purified community drinking water.  There are playgrounds and volleyball and basketball courts, a kindergarten, a soccer field, a weekly community newsletter, lectures, workshops, organic gardens.  What most impresses me is how many local Indian people work in and around Auroville, and how some have even become members.  It delights me to see peasant men and women walking, biking, and motorcycling in and around Auroville who also share in the sense of being part of the larger community, who comfortably hitch rides, who smile back when you smile at them. 
         People who live in the Auroville community are encouraged to be “free of moral and social convention,” but not slave to the ego and its ambition if they wish to find the path to inner peace, which in the Aurovillian view can only be attained in a state of disinterestedness.  And while there is an immense emphasis on truly being “free,” which in Auroville is not possible without acknowledgement of the “Divine,” there is also a pragmatic commitment to working for the good of the community and each adult member of the community is asked to make tangible contributions to the collective good that are distinct from working for one’s self.
         There is something very attractive and beautiful to me about the whole scene, a sense of extraordinariness, immense calm, common laughter, vibrancy, and magic.  It is seductive and comfortable.  And although my current biases do not immediately draw me to want to join Auroville I do find it immensely seductive, relaxed, relaxing, clean, smog free, inspired, and committed to envisioning and realizing a new world.  And it is not as if Auroville is not part of India, it is, complete with cows in the street, women in saris, people balancing great loads on their heads, holy men, beggars, barefoot children, thatched huts, and a very Indian vibe, but being in Auroville is a bit like saying you’ve seen America when you have only been to Provincetown.

11. Urusala
         A French couple in their fifties or sixties are traveling with an Indian woman in her late thirties. I have seen this odd trio from time to time during my stay in Auroville and the man and I have acknowledged each other with nods.&nbsp; When we meet “accidentally” at the beach the man tells me he is a theatre director, and yes, he has heard of Steve Wangh and Steven’s famous book, “Acrobat of the Heart,” although he has not read it.&nbsp; A friend of theirs in France, who is now quite elderly and infirm, adopted the Indian woman they travel with, Urusala, from a convent in South India thirty years ago.  Urusala, who is quite shy and lovely, has cognitive problems, and spends most of her time in a variety of sheltered workshops in France, not really knowing who she is and having no memories of her life before her adoption.  The French couple, who have four grown children of their own, as a gift to their elderly friend, have taken Urusala to South India to see if such a trip will evoke Urusala’s memories.  It does not, although Urusala likes being among people who look like her, feels “at home” in India, and when she goes to visit the convent she was first raised in recognizes and is recognized by one of the young girls she grew up with in the convent, still living there, now as a teacher, unable as an Indian orphan girl to find a life outside the walls. Their recognition of each other thirty years after their separation brings each of the women to tears, and is described by Urusala as the high point of her trip, something almost entirely incredible were it not true, something she feels immense awe, pleasure, and joy about, although it evokes no other memories for her than that she knew the woman as a girl.  Before I leave Auroville I bring out three inexpensive necklaces I bought in Mamalapurum as a gift for my granddaughter Mikaela’s dolls and place them down on a table offering the one of her choice to Urusala as a gift.  The necklaces immediately draw a small crowd of Indian women, each admiring the necklaces (which together cost less than a dollar) and trying them on.  There is general agreement that the most colorful one is the loveliest, and matches the yellow outfit Urusala is wearing and she chooses that one to keep.  The man and I then discuss whether God exists, a perfectly reasonable Indian segue, and he shares with me that it was Descartes who proclaimed the proof of God’s existence was in the doubt of God’s existence.  And inspired by the Descartes reference I tell him the joke about being and doing and Frank Sinatra, and he gets it, and we laugh together.  We laugh together for a long time.

13. Yoga in Auroville  – Shambhu

         I arrive at a 6:30 A.M. yoga class with only two other people in it offered by Shambhu, a smallish man with a very thick French accent, who is a member of the Auroville community and an absolutely dedicated yogi, and who suggests four dollars would be a fair contribution for his class … if you can afford it.  I take only two classes with Shambhu and learn an immense amount from him, things I have never known, about the sound of Om, about the movement and particularization of breath, and about the space between the postures.  It is totally non-aerobic, totally not exercise as I use that word, but a spiritual practice that honors the body and focuses the mind.  I cannot imagine taking yoga classes with Shambhu as a regular practice but I want to be his student, want to know what he knows, want to move with the thoughtful precision that he moves with after what has surely been years and years of practice and study.  “Who is your teacher,” I ask Shambhu after the first day’s class and Shambhu says, “I am not allowed to speak my teacher’s name.”  And after the second day’s class I ask, “Well, if you are not allowed to speak your teacher’s name, could you write it down on a piece of paper?”  And we laugh.  And he says, “No.”  And I ask why.  And Shambhu says, “I do not have permission,” only he says “I do not ‘ave ‘e’s permission.” And I say, “I am leaving tomorrow, Shambhu, and would just like you to know how much I have enjoyed your classes and how much I feel I have learned from you in even this short time.”    And he says, “And I feel I ‘ave learned much from you.”  And we laugh.  And we bow.  And I leave.

14. Motor scooter

            Because everything in Auroville is so spread out most people who live or visit Auroville for a while own or rent bicycles or motor scooters.  It is literally many kilometers, and would be a very long time consuming walk, to get from my guesthouse, near the post office and the visitor center, to the solar kitchen, the yoga studio, or to the beach, bakery, coffee shop, and groceries in town.  And while driving a scooter in Auroville is significantly different than driving around Chennai or on the Indian roadways - slower, more courteous, fewer horns, a smaller volume of traffic, no big trucks - it is still driving in India and lanes of travel are only minimally respected.

         I rent my scooter from a mechanic who stutters and speaks fairly good English.  He tells me the price for the scooter will be eight hundred rupees a day (roughly twenty dollars), which seems high, but I like the guy and leave him a one thousand rupee deposit. I am happy on my scooter and it moves me around this playland with ease.  We go to the beach, my scooter and me, which is as lovely a beach as you are likely to see, we go to the solar kitchen for late night ice cream, we go to yoga, and the bakery, and in search of the Laboratory of Evolution, which turns out to be a library. 
        While on the road to the Laboratory of Evolution driving slowly past the Matrimony settlement, which is right after Certitude, when negotiating a very narrow turn, I mistakenly accelerate rather than decelerate with the hand speed grip that is on the same side of the handle bar of the scooter as the rear wheel brake and graze off a small tree, lose my balance and fall into the roadway, whereupon a half dozen Indian people appear as if descended from the sky, complete with iodine tincture, cotton, bandages, laughter, and looks of genuine concern.
         I am fine.  I mean mostly fine.  Nothing is broken.  Nothing needs stitching.  Nothing is torn or ruptured.  But I am bleeding from cuts on both legs and my toes, and I do have a significant scrape/road burn on my left knee, which is what I hit the tree with, knocked me off balance, and that I landed on.  After the magically appearing team of what turns out to be Indian cement workers doctor me with great care I continue on on the scooter and have a very nice day, notwithstanding my pains, taking myself to the ocean for a healing soak, driving to a roadside pharmacy where a nineteen year old clerk sells me tinctures, ointments, and bandages and ministers to me with great care, and driving to the Kofi Café where I have a fresh capuccino, a dosa with curried veggies, and fruit salad with yogurt, all of which costs me three dollars. My dinner at the Auroville guesthouse I’m staying in last night with fresh homemade chapattis, rice, and a variety of veggie dishes cost one dollar. (I ate fresh fruit salad in India?)  I don’t know why I’m focused on food in this way, but I am, partly because it is unfolding in India and as such fills me with surprise and delight and partially because I know I am dangerously pushing the edges of the envelope, the furthest edges being the pancakes Joy and I ate on the street in Mandalay, the fish and rice I ate seated on the floor of Multhiy’s house in the village of Kovalam, the filtered water I am drinking in Auroville, and tied for tops on my list, the deep friend banana and deep fried pepper I ate on the beach in Mamalapurum.
         After the Café I drive to the Internet cafe, the grocery, the bakery, and only then do I drive my wounded bandaged flesh to the guesthouse, arriving before sunset, where I again tend to my modest cuts, scrapes, punctures, and bruises, consume the spinach quiche and exceptionally tasty veggie strudel I bought at the bakery, and indulge in an evening of healing, sleep, writing, reading, reverie, and comf<span>ort</span> (make that joy actually) in my aloneness and solitude.
         I am of the belief that in this accident I am more lucky than unlucky.  I am of the belief that my healing proceeds with great speed.  I am amazed at the power of the body and of the mind … and yes, of the Great Spirit.  How else ca<span>n I</span><span> ex</span>plain my laying in bed with my body stinging in pain and realizing I am actually euphorically happy?

15. Sankar

         On the day I arrive at Auroville I am dropped off at the town near the junction of the road to Auroville where I needed a taxi rickshaw to get to the Auroville Community.  The driver of the rig who picks me up is named Sankar, thirty two years old, born in the town, married eight years, with two children, and living with his mother and sister while renting out his own home for the season.  And besides wanting a good fare, over my three days in Auroville I come to believe Sankar genuinely wants to be the most helpful and dependable rickshaw driver he can be for me.  Thus he waits for me at the guesthouse where I register and then takes me to a motorcycle rental place.  And he discusses with me in broken English how I ought not take my rented cycle into Puduchcheri when I go to visit but will need a rickshaw, and that he wants to be my driver.  And maybe it’s all an act, but my sense is of Sankar liking me and wanting me to have the very best time I can.  And on my last day, when Sankar picks me up to take into Pundi to get the bus back to the airport in Chennai we also pick up his wife and young son and he shows me his house, and his mother’s house, and we take his wife and son along in the rickshaw until we drop them off at his son’s pre-school, and I envy the joking and bantering that goes on between Sankar and his wife, how they are laughing together, how she playfully punches him in the shoulder and says “No Engleesh” when he teases her about the fact that she does not speak English.  And I say, mindful of the risk, “Sankar, you are a lucky man, your wife is very beautiful.”  And Sankar says to me, “I am a wery lucky man, sir, and my wife, sir, is wery nice, and I love.”  And he is smiling, and I am smiling, although I cannot tell whether Sankar has merely made a statement of fact or if I am also being chided about my emphasis.

16. Puduchch
        
Puduchcheri, aka Pondicherry, is such a quintessential Indian city I almost feel there is no more I need to say about it other than that.  Just picture everything you’ve heard about the clamor of Indian cities, everything you’ve seen in the movies, everything you’ve read in National Geographic, and there you have Puduchcheri; where I sit in absolute awe in a traffic jam on the immensely crowded main road into town during the morning rush hour, caused in part by a man guiding eight spread out oxen who want to explore the garbage left on both sides of the street to see if there is something worth eating that a dog or beggar hasn’t taken first, followed by a big bus blowing its horn, followed by about ten thousand bicycles, motorcycles, cars, rickshaws, pedestrians crossing the street, kids running, vendors of every kind lining both sides of the street, stores packed shoulder to shoulder behind the vendors, their produce spilling out into the street, alleys, cross streets, colors, flags, banners, billboards, street signs, cooking fires, food vendors, piles of shit, flies, cats, goats, loud voices, high temperatures, people eating, spitting, laughing, animated conversation, music, the tinkle of bells, an Om, a symphony, the chaos of life unfolding of a typical morning in Puduchcheri.  My sister Sheryl, who lived for two years in rural India in the late nineteen sixties early seventies, tells me that if I want to see the real India I’ve got to get out of the modern cities where there are now even supermarkets and malls.  I know she cannot mean Puduchcheri, which is as real as it gets.  And I am so glad to have seen it.  And even more glad not to have stayed in it.

17. Leaving Auroville

It is quite hard to force myself away from the delights and comforts of Camp Auroville, which is in so many ways totally atypical of India - like South Beach is atypical of the state of Florida - yet totally within India and within the Indian context (and has had such a positive economic and cultural impact on the people of the villages which surround it.)  It is as if I landed in Big Sur, or Hawaii, where I’d also have a hard time leaving, but if my goal were to see America I’d have to.  And I do.  I literally force myself to leave Auroville, which is just too comfortable, too much like a vacation, too European and familiar, too distracting for my current purposes with its many stimulations and diversions, notwithstanding its existing within the very alien cultural context provided by Indian villages, peasant farmers, modest sized towns, and even the city of Puduchcheri, to which Auroville is physically proximate and spiritually connected.  And while I can also imagine myself returning to Auroville, not necessarily as a prospective member of the community, but just as a place to be, and do yoga, and go to the beach, and live for a period of time on far less than my modest social security check provides, I also know that I am not looking to be on vacation while in India this time around, that I see this India trip as a broad survey of the subcontinent within the context of a personal spiritual journey, and that wonderful and lovely as Auroville is, and even as much as I was learning in yoga there, I just felt too comfortable and too unchallenged, and in that sense fearful that at the levels accessible to a short term visitor, Auroville was, and I was, instantly a bit stagnant and routinized, even after just two days.  I mean if you are looking for some sort of Club Med for retired hippies, or a retirement community that isn’t in Florida or Arizona, I think Auroville could fit the bill just perfectly.  Which is why I force myself to leave while I was having just an absolutely wonderful time.

Oh, one more word about the scooter.  You may recall that I thought the man who rented me the scooter had said it cost 800 rupees a day and I had left him a 1000 rupee deposit.  So when I brought the scooter back I gave him an additional 600 rupees, for two full days, but I could tell he was looking at me quizzically and that something was not computing, which I instantly assumed meant he was looking for more money.  “This is wrong, sir,” he said, “It is not the right amount of money.”  “I don’t understand,” I responded, “I left you a one thousand rupee deposit, I have the receipt.  What is it you think I owe you?”  “Owe me, sir,” he said, “no it is I who owe you 840 rupees.  The cost of the rental is 80 rupees a day.” 

I’ll just state the obvious; you draw your own conclusions.  The man already had 1,000 of my rupees.  And I was prepared to give him 600 more, a total of forty dollars, not an insignificant amount of money in village India, probably the equivalent of one week’s earnings, if not more.  And instead of pocketing my money he returns over 800 rupees to me, keeping merely the $4 he expected to receive.  Paul Theroux says through one of his characters in Elephant God: “Though the Indians were difficult, India was not hostile, it was indifferent, a great hot uncaring mob … damaged people scrambling on ruins.”  There are many ways this matter of Indian indifference seems to be obviously true – the pushing, the aggression, and the desensitization stand out.  But as a one week long veteran of India travels I have also seen great caring, curiosity, humility, patience, trustworthiness, good humor, kindness, and love.  And it touches me.

18. Transition

            At the bus station in Puduchcheri, where I have gone one day early explicitly to have a face to face conversation with the bus company ticket agent about bus travel to Chennai before I purchase a plane ticket from Chennai to Pune, I inquire when the express air conditioned buses leave for the airport in Chennai, but because the tumult and noise in the outdoor bus terminal is so great, and I can not hear or understand his answers to my questions, we conduct our “conversation” by passing a piece of paper back and forth on which I write my questions and he then provides his answers in a very neat hand with excellently written English.  The bottom line appears to be that express buses leave for Chennai every fifteen minutes and that no reservations are needed because tickets are sold on the bus.  Fine, I need to leave the bus terminal for the airport by these calculations at 9:30, and to play it safe arrive at the bus terminal a bit before 8:30 the next morning, only to find that while “express” buses leave every fifteen minutes, the next air conditioned express bus was not expected to depart until either 8:50, 9:00, 9:10, 9:25, or 10 o’clock, depending on who I asked and when I asked them.  My most reliable informant, who said he himself was taking the express air-conditioned bus to the railroad station in Chennai, and that he did so often, said 9:25.  The question for me was whether to wait possibly an hour and a half or more for air con, and if it didn’t come to risk missing my plane, or to surrender to the slower, far hotter and more crowded buses that were leaving now.  I decided to gamble and wait.  In the end the aircon bus left Puduchcheri at 10:05, the driver moved his large rig with immense skill and a sense of fluidity - regardless of which side of the road he was on - and I did get to the airport in ample time.  Sometimes it is as simple as they say in Sanskrit, “Om tat sat,” which I think means “that which is,” or maybe just “it is” – like I am it and it is me - comparable but not quite the same, "same same but different" as the Thai like to say.   

19.  Getting into Pune

            When I exit the airport terminal in Pune I am approached by a flock of rickshaw drivers offering their services, and as has become my habit I say yes to the first one to reach me, often a runner for other drivers.  And as now is also a pattern on this voyage, when the driver asks where I want to go I shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know … bookstore, Internet cafe, guesthouse.”

            And, of course, the poor rickshaw driver, who has absolutely no idea where I want to go, heads into town toward some general area where he has seen foreigners congregating, which is exactly what I want.  In this instance we end up in a beautiful neighborhood with tree lined streets, in an absolutely charming part of town, near the immense and famous (infamous?) world renowned Osho Ashram.  And when my driver asks another driver how to find a guesthouse around there, the other driver jumps into the cab and I am taken by the two of them jabbering famously and shown a number of rooms in a number of once stately private homes turned into boarding houses, and I select the prettiest one.  “How long will sir be staying,” I am asked.  And I say, “I don’t know.” “But how can sir not know how long he will be staying?”  “I don’t know.”  “But where will sir be going next?”  “I don’t know.” “But price depends on length of stay, sir, perhaps you will stay one month,” the runner says.  And I laugh.  “One day at a time,” I say.  “Three day minimum,” the owner says.   And I think, okay, I don’t have any plans other than to get to Aurangabad and to meet Sam in Delhi in two weeks, I’ll stay here three days, sure, once more knowing with certainty that this is what I have been guided to om tat sat/that which is.  “How much?” I ask. “Ten dollars a day,” the owner replies, twice as much as I paid with a private bath and complimentary breakfasts in Auroville.  “Fine,” I say, and put out my hand and we shake on it. And I give the owner 1,500 rupees.  And the owner gives the runner some rupees.  And the runner gives the rickshaw driver some rupees.  And everyone is smiling, even the guides I imagine, who are delighted to have delivered me to this room that is absolutely lovely, on a tree lined street that is absolutely lovely, and quiet, and clean, well almost clean, in a setting that might as well be Paris, where from the windows of my corner room, with screens, a breeze, a fan, cross ventilation, pale green walls, matching striped curtains, and residual smoke from the crematory grounds, I am bathed in the sweetly filtered sunlight that flows into the streets, and into the homes of Pune, and where I sleep soundly, awaiting the new day, and dwell in peace.

20. My mental state

            I really don’t know where I am, literally, other than to say I am in a rented room somewhere in Pune, India, off of Burning Ghat Street, in the Koregaon Park neighborhood, above the confluence of the Mutha and Mula rivers, with flowering trees, and filtered sunshine that falls on small Indian green grocers where I buy four bananas for a nickel, and barefoot children run among the spirits of those whose bodies were reduced to ashes here at the Ghats along the river.  And I certainly don’t know who I am if measured by either the standard of “who-I- experienced-myself-as-being” before the trip, or by the standard of “I-know-why-I’m-doing-what-I’m-doing,” because I really don’t.  And the depth of my letting go has been beyond anything I could have imagined, and even permits me to say of myself that maybe I actually am on a spiritual journey, and that at this time of my life this is exactly what such a journey looks like.  Om tat sat.  And besides my not knowing where I am, and who I am, as best as I know nobody else on the planet knows where I am or who I am either, and I like that, a man who literally forced himself to leave the idealized comforts of Auroville because it was too familiar and distracting, a man stunned by the comfort, pleasure, and enjoyment he is experiencing, a man who, like the cognitively impaired and simple Urusala, has the sense that this is almost too good to be true, although it obviously is true, this realization of some of my fondest wishes, a gift of my long years in struggle and hope, my commitment to and belief in personal transformation and evolution, the many teachers, lovers, caregivers, children, wives, friends, and therapists who helped bring me here, the presence of the guides and Great Spirit … and, yes, maybe even the Divine. 

Of course, any recognition/acceptance of the Divine is completely new for me, a still confirmed and committed atheist, and thus seems vastly important to explore as a belief and sensation, not merely the familiar sense of wonderment at the beauty, vastness, marvel, complexity, and magnificence of the world, but something more than that, something that at this point I cannot define with words, a belief, perhaps even a knowledge, that causes me to want to explore further whatever the Divine may be (or not be) rather than just categorically rejecting it as pure myth, as I have done since age ten.  This inquiry is consistent with my last few years of living a more spiritual life mostly alone on the Cape, my devoted yoga practice, and this trip to India where the power of Mother India to touch, to reach inside, and to transform the traveler, as it has apparently done so many times, cannot be denied.  There is a particular quote from The Mother, as Aurobindo’s life partner is known, that compels my attention, the essence of which is that the only solution for the “falsehoods” we live with is to “cure in ourselves all that contradicts in our consciousness the presence of the Divine.”  I think about this, a student who may be ready for new teachers to appear.

21. Finding Yoga - Guru Dharmavi

Rickshaw drivers are good sources of information about the location of bookstores and cyber cafes, but I’d not met one who knew anything about the location of a yoga studio.  So I’m more than a little surprised when one says he knows of a place I might like and delivers me to Guru Dharmavisingh Mahida’s studio, which is in an absolutely exquisitely rustic compound at the edge of a park surrounded by flowering trees and where a session is in progress at the moment I arbitrarily arrive.  The problem for me is that Guru Vi is not your average yoga teacher, his “classes” are mostly for individual students doing stretching exercises on ropes, straps attached to the walls, and props that makes it look more like a Pilates studio or a physical therapy rehabilitation center rather than a yoga studio, and he will not take anyone as a student who cannot commit to taking classes with him for at least one month. Still Guru Vi is somehow glad to see me and wants to know how he can be of service.  So I tell him about the nature of my yoga practice, and my goals in practicing yoga and my trip to India within that context, and Guru Vi introduces me to two of his students who have a studio and just happen to be there on this day as part of their ongoing study with him, and kindly says that although I cannot study with him I am welcome to come in one morning and do my routine in front of him and he will offer his observations about my practice, oh, and besides which, in his opinion, no one over thirty five should ever be doing a strenuous asana practice anyway.  So I leave with Dharmavi’s students and end up studying with them at their studio for the entire time I am in Pune, and it is quite wonderful, and I don’t want to leave Pune any more than I wanted to leave Auroville, and I return at seven the next morning to Dharmavi’s for my yoga practice analysis, which, without boring you with details, comes down to deeper breathing, longer out breaths, renunciation of trembling, and opening my chest and heart.  “Come back anytime to practice,” says Guru Vi.  “No charge.  Just use the space.  Watch what we do.  Come back to Pune in the rainy season, it’s so beautiful.  I can help you and would enjoy working with you.  Meanwhile I recommend my students without reservation. You will love them and benefit from them.”  And I do and have been learning so much and am so grateful and can’t wait to tell you about it.

22.  The dialogue.

I don’t leave yoga with Aparna and Pravin, Dharmavi’s students, until some time after 8:00 P.M, as we seem unwilling to stop chatting.  I check periodically to confirm I am not keeping them, that they are not just being polite listening to an old man’s stories and responding to his questions, but there is obvious and genuine excitement and pleasure we are taking in our exchanges and explorations, especially about God, however that may be defined, and particularly our disagreement about the personification of God whether in Krishna, Brahma, Shiva, Jesus, Buddha, the guy who Mohammed is the messenger of, or the guy who commanded Adam, Moses, and the nut case who was prepared to sacrifice his son Jacob before the burning bush.  Helloooo.  But when we get away from the personified god to talk about “creative power” or “forces” or “energy” in the universe we are on completely different ground.  They believe that my being sent to them is no accident, that they are learning so much from me they say, that it must have been an act of god, and besides which, I am their very first non-Indian client.  And from my perspective I also have no doubt that my finding them is not an “accident” either, and that even if synchronistic, it is not “just” synchronistic, and they and I enjoy a shared set of recognitions and assumptions about the difference between “knowing” and “realizing,” not like “oh I just realized that,” but more an awareness that is an internal recognition of a truth other than by mental computation, or scientific “proof.”  There are fundamentally different assumptions we have, they do not believe humans descended from primates for example, and they do not believe in the “Big Bang,” but then neither do I.  But we all three believe the solar system and this Earth are about six billion years old, which leads me to one of my finest arguments about why the notion of a personalized god more or less looking like and acting like a human is such nonsense.  “Look, P and A, you both accept that there was no life on the Earth at the beginning, right?”  And they do.  “And you accept that at one point life began as a simple single celled organism, right?”  And they do.  “So where was this personalized god you believe in before life began?  And if life began a single celles ad organism what was God doing looking like a human at that time.”  This is a very fine argument they acknowledge, but what was the energy/power that created the universe and created the single celled form that was alive and could reproduce, they ask.  And I say we humans will never know that truth.  And they say the answer is “God.” And I ask, “You mean Brahma?”  And they say yes.  And I say I don’t believe it.  And we are fine together.  And I can’t wait to get back the next morning for yoga.

23.  Margapattaville
        I visit the shopping center, a mall I suppose you might call it, that services the Margapatta community in which the yoga studio I’ve been going to is located: green grocers, little shops selling kitchenware, ice cream and pizza shops, Indian fast food joints, restaurants, cyber cafes.  It is Sunday night after 9 PM and the place is alive with people: teens, younger people, clusters of men and women in their twenties, gatherings of women chatting, of men chatting, young couples, young families, young women in jeans, men in shorts, it is all very familiar except for the fact everyone here is Indian, everyone is eating with their fingers and then licking their hands clean, all the signs are in Hindi, the lighting is not quite what we are used to, and I am the only non Indian person there … and very comfortable.

24. Night Market
        After leaving the very comfortable mall in Margapatta I grab a rickshaw for the ride back to Burning Ghat Road.  On our way the <span>driver</span><span> ta</span>kes a short cut that brings us into a teeming night market I had not seen before.  I ask the driver to stop, saying I want to get out and briefly explore the market.  He tells me it is “wery dangerous, not good place, good sir.”  But in my ongoing euphorically distorted state I say I don’t care, that I want to walk around and see it for ten or fifteen minutes, that he can wait for me if he chooses, or he can go on and I will pay him for this portion of the ride.  “No, sir, I not vait here,” he tells me, “wery dangerous place.  No good place.  No vait, Sir.”  “Okay,” I say, “but what can be dangerous, look at all the people, the lights, just stop and let me off.”  So he stops, I get out, I reach into my pocket for my money and he says, “I vait.”  “Ten minutes,” I yell skipping off, “fifteen at the most,” as I implement my now well practiced Indian street crossing maneuver of attaching myself to a group of people already in the roadway, trusting that if they don’t get hit by a motorcycle or a car, I won’t get hit either.
        Once in the market I am swept up in its festive air.  It is crowded beyond a 42nd street merchant’s dream.  Loud fast Indian music is being blasted from speakers throughout.  There are vendors everywhere, kids’ rides, men blowing and selling bubble blowing devices, balloons, cooking fires, phosphorescent lights that people have on and are twirling, and even one darkly dressed Indian woman wearing a pair of lit up red devil’s horns on her head that make her into a very eerie visage and signal a change in aura of the scene, because no sooner have I seen the woman with the horns than I am surrounded by a pack of eight or nine hyperactive boys who I gauge to be ten to fourteen years old and who want to shake my hand, hold my hands, touch me, and are saying things in English that make no sense, and in Hindi that I obviously don’t understand, but are all extremely animated (and a little too close and intimate), and … it slowly dawns on me … are asking for or demanding money, I can’t tell which.  But I just keep smiling, giving them high fives, shaking hands, laughing, saying “no, no, no,” and moving deeper into the market.  And soon they are gone. 

I am reminded here of a sweet note I got recently from my high school friend Susan Levine who said she would never do what I am doing on this trip, but perhaps, she speculates, I get away with it, or think I can get away with it, because of my size.  Who knows?  In short order I’ve explored all I want to explore of the market, have really enjoyed my little foray, and am headed back out through the crowd when I encounter the crowd of young boys again, still screaming, still a little too frenzied and bold, only now swollen to a pack of about fifteen or twenty youths.  An event I witnessed in the Bronx 60 years ago, which I have not thought about for decades, flashes with remarkable detail as I recall a pack of kids I knew of the same age as this group of boys attack a much larger nineteen or twenty year old man.  As I saw the event then, and even as I think about it now, my initial inclination would be to bet on the far bigger stronger man, not believing then, or even now that I have been proven wrong, than the pack of much smaller young boys could beat and bring down the bigger man.  But they did, and I see it with great clarity.  Maybe the man was adverse to the fight, or maybe the boys drew blood early and it scared him, or maybe at first he didn’t take it seriously, or didn’t want to hurt kids smaller and younger than himself, and clearly in hindsight he shouldn’t have backed up to the parked car as he did, thinking perhaps that he was protecting his rear flank when in fact the car provided a launching pad for the younger boys to climb on and jump on him, and take away his height advantage, and deny him room to move and swing freely and turn.  I really don’t know.  But I do know the younger boys won that fight, and bloodied him badly, and dropped him to the ground, and kicked him until he was curled in a ball crying for mercy, and no one intervened to save him until then, speaking of indifference.  And it is here in my reverie that I also make a mistake in the night market, because, still acting as if we are all just having a jolly old time, I impulsively reach into my pocket, take out a Kit Kat bar I had purchased earlier, and hand it to the kid I perceive as the leader of the pack, saying at the same time, in what I intended to be a joking manner, “Now show some respect to an older man.” And the boy yells loudly, “Now show some respect to an older man.”  And the throng of boys chants responsively, “Now show some respect to an older man,” and the leader calls again, and the boys respond again, and have started touching me, and grabbing my ass, and pressing on the small back pack I’m wearing, and in my pockets, all the while as I move toward the entrance, waving at the vendors who care to look at the unfolding event, swatting boys’ hands away, holding on to my wallet, passport, and cash in my left front pocket with my left hand, waving and swatting with my right.  And smiling, of course.  And trying to keep the mood jocular.  And hoping the rickshaw driver is still there as I use the throng of boys to move blindly forward into the roadway, reaching the rickshaw, getting into the rickshaw while five or six of the boys try to get into the rickshaw with me, each saying words akin to, “Take me home with you,” as the driver starts to move forward, easing into the roadway, where the boys are forced to peel away, and the driver shakes his head and scolds me, saying, “I tell Sir wery bad place.”  And after putting what he considers to be an adequate distance between us and the market says, “Sir check money and bag,” and I say, “No, no, it’s all good,” and am really feeling good.  And even as I write this I cannot tell you whether it was all in fun, or threat, or something else we will ever know.  And while it may be “odd” to say this, from my perspective I mostly enjoyed the overall experience - that’s mostly - and was mostly comfortable in it, and I would do it again.

25. Idanna mum – nothing is mine
         Hindus believe, I learn, that at each stage of life an individual should be mindful of his or her obligations, whether it is to gain a good education and learn self-control in our youth, or to procreate and raise a family, or to attain union with the Divine.  In this regard it is assumed that after an active life as a householder/wage earner one will withdraw from active community life to pursue more spiritual engagements, followed by a stage of complete renunciation and freedom from attachment.  It is with more than a sense of idle curiosity that, as I learn of these categorizations, I consider my own renunciation of career and community, and my obvious longing to feel and otherwise experience my identity with the larger whole we are all so obviously a <span>par</span><span>t o</span>f, or as Hindus would say, to experience my unity with God.

26. Burning Ghat
         I continue to feel as if I’m on a magical trip, overwhelmed with happiness, awareness, sensation, and adventure, just putting one foot in front of<span> the </span><span>oth</span>er and greeting what comes my way as I force myself out the door of my oh so comfortable room and into the wide tree lined streets.  I love this room, love where it is located, love the quiet, and the calling of the crows, and have found yoga teachers I truly adore.  I also saw my first funeral procession, went down to the crematorium site, watched the flames and smoke, listened to the absolutely mesmerizing music, the singing of the men, the drums and cymbals being played, was moved, and lifted, and entranced beyond what I have known, literally felt I was in a place of new personal borders, edges, and frontiers.  And was welcomed as a visitor and guest, invited to sit down, smiled at.  Letting go and being opened are gifts in and of themselves.  Also learning a little about Hinduism and Hindu philosophy/mythology and the Hindu worldview in a way that I could never have been open to before, on a path I never would have taken before.  I am in an amazing personal place.  Om nama Shiyava.

27. Hare Krishna

I go to the big Hare Krishna Ishkon temple in Pune at the invitation of Pravin, my young yoga teacher, who was recommended to me by Guru Dharmavi.  Today is a special event at the temple because the current guru of the entire international Hare Krishna movement, American born and raised Radhanath Swami, nee Richard Slavin, son of Idelle and Jerry, Chicago, 1950, is coming to give a dharma talk.  The temple is almost all out of doors and mobbed, at its peak this day hosting over 3,000 people, all of whom are bowing to one another, bowing to Krishna, prostrating themselves to Krishna, prostrating themselves to one another, chanting, counting their mala beads, smiling profusely in greeting, acknowledging me with a warmth that seems engendered by my very presence among them at this communal event, and every last one of us needing to take off our shoes before stepping onto temple ground.  And while this may seem an odd place to focus, there is an administrative problem here, because you surely do not want 3,000 pairs of sometimes indistinguishable flip flops lying around with 3,000 people going through them at the end of the day scrounging through a big mosh pile of shoes trying to find their own as they’re leaving, now do you?  But there is a simple solution that I admire, and seems so quintessentially Indian to me, I don’t know why, which is to already have 3,000 numbered hooks, and 3,000 numbered cloth bags, and 3,000 number tags, so you can provide a shoe checking service, as opposed to coat checking at the Met, and much quicker too.  Plus it’s offered free of charge, which would otherwise really slow the process down. 

Then there is the amazing food the temple volunteers serve, both before and after the dharma talk, given out free to the thousands, and I do mean thousands, of people who have gathered here today.  Two lines of hundreds of people, a soup kitchen on steroids, men on one side, women on the other, being served, and efficiently served, and served with a smile – rice, sauces, dhal, a dessert, a cup of sweet milk, all on a big tin tray, without utensils or napkins, of course, and without environmental waste either.  Everyone eats seated on the ground in rows of people facing each other that seem to have spontaneously formed.  When you finish your food you lick your hands clean and then take your tray over to a very long sink where you rinse it, and then hand it to the tray washers, who spin it around in some soapy water, and then drop it into some cleaner water, and then make a wet pile of trays that are transported back to the serving lines for use by the next hungry devotee.  Simple.  Efficient.  Mighty tasty.  Generous.  Communal.  Not up to Department of Health standards.

Oh, the dharma talk.  Swami Radhanath seemed like the real deal to me, a man who sought happiness in the pursuit of a spiritual life and found it in his experience of God and in devotion to Krishna.  I don’t think Richard will own dozens of Rolls Royces.  The essence of what he had to say, at least that which I was able to take in, was that the sincerity of one’s devotion is measured by the emanations from one’s deepest heartfelt commitment and belief, that external forms of giving and prayer were merely that, external, and that what really mattered, both to God and to one’s potential for real spiritual transformation and enlightenment, was the quality of one’s belief and devotion, and that to experience the truth of God’s existence required one to engage in a process of knowing or realization other than what is available through intellectual or sensual knowledge/awareness, what we’d call faith or belief I suppose.  Nothing earth shattering, just a simple reinforcing message for the troops.

28.  Rupannga Yoga

I have been practicing yoga for twenty years.  I have loved, appreciated, and admired many of my literally dozens of teachers, especially Menalek, my first true yoga teacher, Ana Forrest, who I completed a teacher training course with more than a decade ago now, and also Tricia Duffy, Jennifra Norton, and Don Peccorrill, all of Cape Cod, and each of whom advanced my understanding and my practice beyond where it had been.  But at seventy years of age I am simply in love with Aparna (age 37, mother of a 15 year old, married to childhood family friend) and Pravin (an amazingly mature 28, college graduate in civil engineering, living with his parents), my two young teachers in Poona (which is so much lovelier a spelling than Pune), and think they have so much to offer the world, beyond even what they’ve learned at the feet of their guru Dharmavi. 

What makes them unique, from my perspective, is (a) their use of supportive props, particularly mountain climbing ropes secured to the walls of their studio that permit the student to realize a fuller expression of a posture relaxed and supported by the ropes, (b) their emphasis on breath, breathing, and pranayama practice as an integral/essential aspect of yoga, (c) their emphasis on relaxation, especially of the heart, as a critical part of yoga practice, (d) their commitment to the mental, meditative, mind focusing and mentally clarifying aspect of the practice, (e) the restorative/healing skills they each possess in dealing with injury, and (f) the inescapable awareness they bring that yoga is a philosophy for transcending duality, and that the duality of happiness/unhappiness is often a product of body first and mind secondarily.  They charge three dollars per person for a group class and ten dollars an hour for an individual session. When you’re in Poona find them at rupanugayogaacadamy@gmail.com, because I don’t think I’ll get them to the states soon.  In fact, in a revealing moment, I said to them, “Come on, especially you Pravin, come to the States, live in Hollywood, you’re gorgeous, and charming, and exotic, you’ll be the fitness guru to the stars, make two hundred dollars an hour, drive a BMW,” and Aparna responded, “But Mr. Bruce, that doesn’t charm us.”  Charm us?  “What charms you, Aparna,” I asked?  “Teaching yoga as a system of devotion to one’s self and to God,” she said.  Sounds good to me.  Look them up when you get here. 

Oh, just a few things more. Aparna prepared a great feast for me on my last day with them. Pravin’s mother made and sent the chapattis.  And they presented me with a book on yoga. And in still another revealing moment, when discussing yoga in America and Ana Forest with them, Aparna said, “Money?  Money ve do not care about. But fame … and recognition … oh, that would be so lovely, Mr. Bruce.”  And she laughed, and I love the way she laughs.    I will miss them each, immensely.

29. Moving on

Will there have to come a time when I stop saying I’m euphoric, a despondent side to this mania?  Can I stay euphoric in America?  Have I simply discovered that I like to travel?  Alone?  In India?  I am already sure I want to come back, although I don’t know specifically when or where, though some time in Pune, especially given the personal ties and yoga draw would be nice, as might Auroville, or some time in a yoga ashram, and Sikkim is high on my list.  But I also understand that I have to conclude this journey as part of the journey first, that I have to go “home” and “integrate” first.  Yet even as I say that, and although my travels have nearly four more weeks to go, I am already missing India and am eager to be here again.

I also know that some harder traveling, the putting on some real miles part of the trip, is about to begin in earnest: Pune to Aurangabad, Ellora, and Ajanta, then back to Pune to catch a train to Allahabad, all between Wednesday morning and Friday afternoon, followed by the twenty-four hour train ride to Allahabad and then an overnight bus to Varanasi, hoping to arrive in time for the big full moon festival there.  Stay in Varanasi, open to what the guides and Great Spirit have in store, possible day trip to Sarnath where Buddha gave his first talk as Buddha, overnight train to Delhi, connect with beloved number one son, Delhi to Agra, to Delhi, to Rishikesh by over night bus, to Dharmshala by overnight bus, to Amistar?, Delhi by overnight bus, then big bird home.  Inshallah.  I no more want to leave Pune than I wanted to leave Auroville.  I like the scene here, the vibration of the city, and I love the gift I have been given here in relationship to my yoga practice/studies.  The question is only how I will manifest it.  Om tat sat.

30. Ellora and Ajanta

The caves at Ellora and Ajanta, some predating the birth of Christ, are stunning human accomplishments: the craft, scale, vision, and attention to detail, how incredibly beautiful the art, sculptures, paintings, and architecture.  Each cave, column, and statue hand chiseled into the mountainsides, in some caves to a depth of fifty meters, and sometimes to an equivalent height, the remainder of the mountain above the cave ceiling, sometimes a vaulted ceiling with rows of parallel stone arch supports and curved rafters or roof beams that have no function other than artistic, all being supported by very functional rows of stone columns which have been left attached to the floor and the ceiling of the temple, monastery, study hall, or shrine, as they were chipped away around, each column stunning in its perfect shape, and in the detail etched into it, every column (and statue) being what has been left of the mountain rock, mostly basalt, with nothing added except some plaster on the ceilings and walls in order to provide a smooth painting surface. The imagination, skill, and effort required to create these structures is absolutely inspirational, and quite literally breathtaking for me.  I spend hours and hours at Ajanta, smashing my world record of times per hour saying, “OMG this is absolutely amazing, I can’t fucking believe it, OMG this is incredible,” topping even the pyramids of Ginza, and the temple complex at Angkor Wat, at least for me, although not more amazing than the everyday miracle of birth, or of skin repairing itself, a separate class of creative art and phenomena.  There are about thirty caves at each site, some unfinished.  It is interesting how the unfinished works add to the appreciation of the completed work.  The setting in Ajanta is at a huge curve in a river giving a wonderful horseshoe shape to the complex.  And while we live in a world where anyone with access to the Internet can Google this and learn more about it than I can say or show you, I learn here that Lord Krishna was born in jail and Shiva played dice with his wife, and begged her to play again when he lost.  I also see a long tailed chipmunk sitting here looking up at a very tall column which is intended to be gazed upon as a reminder of our insignificance.  I killed a chipmunk once, for sport, when I was about twelve, with a rifle.  That chipmunk has guided my actions ever since and visited me here.  And perhaps, like Bhahubuli, who stood for twelve years in one position awaiting enlightenment without success I also need a reminder of the ways my elephantine ego stands in my way.  I love the fact that the rock chiseled away from these mountains to create the temples was then used by the local villagers to build their homes, remains of which can still be seen today.  And at the very moment I deposit some shards of my departed nephew into the hands of Mahavurah, in the only Jain cave of all the caves (number 32 at Ellora), near the wheel of law, my guide starts to sing, a child in the adjoining temple starts to laugh, and I go to sit under the statue of the wish-granting tree to ask for my sister’s peace of mind.

31. Foodie

            I continue to push the edge of the “caution you are in India” food envelope in terms of my eating behaviors and thus far am rewarded (not punished?) for my behaviors.  I drink hot chai from vendors everywhere, as long as I can see steam rising.  I eat in select restaurants, including a veg place in Aurangabad that a Cyber Café owner recommended, which I’m sure had never seen a non-Indian at one of its tables before, and where I had a just phenomenal “king” dhosa.  (Don’t ask what was in it, I don’t know, something very spicy and delicious).  And at a bus depot, in a moment of late night bravado, somewhere between Ajanta and Poona, I bought a couple of fresh rolls, with some kind of veggie mash that I watched others put into the rolls, and two slightly roasted hot green peppers that came with it and also went into the roll, from a vendor who boarded the bus and hygienically picked the items up and served them on old newspaper.  Great rolls and peppers; I threw the mash away.  (Yes, out the bus window where I’m sure some dog, goat, cat, crow, or person will find and consume it on the side of the road.)  I bought shelled roasted peanuts from a tremendous pile of shelled peanuts that had a pot of hot coals sitting on the top of the pile to warm the nuts it touched and that the vendor periodically mixed with his hand and sold by pouring a handful or two into an old newspaper “cone” he twisted and made on the spot.  I ate fresh beets and cukes that Aparna washed and skinned.  I bought and enjoyed a pack of mixched anadhalmoo , ng dahl, masala peanuts, pepper chana and chana jor.  (I don’t know either.)  Eating in India is a bit like my overall India experience itself: mysterious, very spicy, unknown, unclean, a little uncomfortable, but wanting to be tasted.  And tied for my peak foodie moment of trust thus far, the lunch I bought on the Poona to Allahabad Express that was made on the train (yes, I visited the kitchen, ys!!!) ikeof rice, paneer in se, somaucveggie mae sala, chapattis, a lelnt criisp, and … tada … some water in a plastic cup with a top on it that said it was “R.O. and U.V. treated,” got to go with that don’t you?

32. Begging and bargaining

The woman with no hands who I see everyday in my neighborhood in Pune is hard to resist, as are very old grandmotherly types who look with pleading eyes and who I believe probably have no other recourse for funds.  Pregnant woman and women with young children are resistible, and evoke in me an unkind sotto voce “you made the choice” or “is it something I did” response, although every once in a while I succumb, we’re talking pennies and quarters here, my friends.  Giving way food is my preferred response to begging, although I’m not often carrying any.  I did give one woman with an absolutely adorable child a small box of crackers right after I bought them, which she took and then looked at me like “Whatdya pay for this, big giver, two rupees?”  And I can’t get home with a bag of bananas without doling them out, which makes me feel righteous, but I should buy more bananas if I want to eat any.  My favorite beggars moment occurred just as I’d left an Internet café with five rupees change (about a dime) still in my hand, when I was approached by a particularly attractive older woman, with an absolutely stunning face, carrying a small woven bamboo tray with a tin cup and a small pile of the red pasty powder that Hindus put on their foreheads resting on the tray.  As our eyes locked momentarily I dropped the change inside her tin cup and, even as the coins were still clanging around the bottom of the cup, she quickly and deftly pressed her thumb into the red powder and then pressed it against my forehead, right between my eyebrows.  “Puja,” she said.  “Namaste,” I replied.  And that red dot made me feel good somehow, like I was one of the folks almost, although I could not interpret the looks I evoked from people in the street once I was branded, or from dogs for that matter, who laughed just a little bit at me and then treated me with the same indifference as before.

Bargaining is just another fact of life in India.  So here’s one piece of data.  I generally operated in SE Asia as if one third of the initial asking price was what I could get an item for, which meant I had to start even lower than one third down, which for some inculcated reason I found embarrassing and feared it was insulting. But an opening askof10,000 kip, or baht, or whatever the monetary unit of the realm, needed to be met with a response around 2,000 to get it for 3,500.  Generally.  But in India I was at least once asked initially for 18,000 rupees for a unique Buddha that I didn’t really want and wasn’t going to buy, no matter what, or so I thought, and I refused to bid on it.  “Just give me a price, your price, any price,” the seller said, “If I don’t like I tell you.”  But I refused to make an offer, because I really wasn’t going to buy it and didn’t want to insult the man.  “Okay, last price for you,” he said, “6,000 rupees.”  “No, I’m sorry, there will be no sale here, Sir.”  “But please, Mister, just tell me price you would pay if you wanted it.”  “Okay, 500 rupees,” I said.  “What! 500 rupees? You think an Indian man’s labor is worth one rupee an hour?  500 rupees!  You must be joking.  Okay for you 5,000 rupees.  No?  4,000 rupees.  No?  Okay very last price, 2,000 rupees.  Give something more than 500 rupees.  I must make something.  I paid more for it than that.  I have four children at home.  What is five dollars to you Americans?  Okay, last price.  Here I give it to you.  One thousand rupees.”  So from an asking price of $180 he was willing to part with it for $10, but not $5, at which price, even though I didn’t want it, I would probably have owed it.  Like I said, just data.

It reminds me of a sad bargaining event I was witness to in the Souk in Jerusalem when an earnest good willed American friend said to a seller of scarves, “Look, I hate bargaining.  I am trusting you.  Just tell me a fair price and I will pay it.”  And the merchant said without blinking, “Well, this scarf is very, very special, made by a woman in my village, and I hate to part with it, but you have been so forthright with me, I will let you have it for $150.”  And the American paid it.  And the merchant took the money.  And I am sure the scarf was not worth more than five dollars.  But as the scorpion who bites the swan ferrying it across the river, causing both of their deaths, said, “what can I do, I’m a scorpion.”

33. Return to Pune     

I manage to get back into Pune from Ajanta after midnight, to absolutely teeming streets in a part of town that is completely unfamiliar to me.  My rickshaw driver magically negotiates a route to Burning Ghat Road and I am in front of my guesthouse that is locked in almost no time.  When I ask the driver to beep his horn he tells me his horn doesn’t work.  I actually didn’t know it was possible to drive in India without a horn.  So in the still of the Poona night I call out softly, “Baba, Baba,” and I wait, and a door opens and in very short order I am in a comfortable room in a familiar guesthouse and fast asleep.  In the morning the guesthouse owner, who knows I’m only staying one night says to me, “Same price as last time.”  So I hand him six hundred rupees and he says, “No, sir, 500 rupees,” giving me back the hundred.  I have a very good idea who is right about what I paid last time, although there is no way to know for sure, ever.  Maybe he felt badly for originally overcharging me, or maybe he just felt 500 was a fair price, but I “know” it was six hundred I originally paid, as I take back the one he doesn’t want.

I’ve seen a sign across the street from my guesthouse in Poona that says, “Yoga.”  I’ve gone into the entrance of the building across the street from my guesthouse in Poona with the sign saying “Yoga” where there is a flyer taped on the wall that says, “Yoga, daily, 10:30 A.M.” There is also a sign painted on the wall inside the entrance to the building across the street from my guesthouse in Poona with an arrow pointing up the stairs that reads, “Yoga.”  I have met the man who is the instructor.  “You teach yoga?” I’ve asked him, and I saw him nod yes.  “Every morning?” I asked, and I saw him nod yes.  So it is on the basis of this information that I arrive at his yoga studio my last morning in Poona at 10:30 sharp.  The yoga instructor is there, in fact besides me he is only person there when I tap on his open door and, and while he looks up at me, he is on the phone and then ignores me for the next ten minutes until he hangs up and looks at me again.  “I’m here for the 10:30 yoga class,” I say.  “Oh, it is much too hot for yoga at 10:30 in the morning in Poona,” he says.  I bobble my head in what I imagine to be Indian style, and stare at him.  He stares at me. “I like hot yoga,” I say.  He looks at me as if I must not have understood him.  He says, “Too hot for yoga.”  Okay, that’s clear, so I say “Namaste” and walk back down the stairs of the building with the sign saying “Yoga” across the street from my guesthouse in Poona leaving me plenty of time to do yoga on my own in my room, get to a book store, and get to the railroad station in Pune over an hour early for my big ride to Varanasi.

When I arrive at the railroad station in Pune more than an hour early there are at least 4,000 people already on the platform ahead of me, most standing in the general seating line.  I really don’t “get” India.  And what is it that draws people’s attention to the tall only non-Indian on the platform a very busy train stations in India, if at all?  That I am wearing shorts?  My red dot?  My shaved head?  My big smile?  I honestly have no idea, and it doesn’t really matter.  I just make this observation, some people laugh when they see me, some stare, and no matter what they are emanating I continue to feel safe, anonymous, accepted, grateful to be here, in Rumi-like “guest” mode, the comfortable recipient of fundamentally indifferent curiosity. 

34. A Word of Gratitude

The twenty-four hour long train ride to Varanasi is mostly comfortable.  I am provided a blanket, two clean sheets, a pillow with a clean(?) pillowcase, and a fresh towel.  I buy a half dozen hot milky teas, tempting the stomach bug gods yet again, and set about reading a wonderfully funny descriptive little bio novel about India called, “Holy Cow.”  Hey, are we there yet?  And, of course we are “there,” grasshopper, we are always “there.”  In fact, twenty-four hours later, half a good, light, revealing book later, a variety of dangerous food consumption activities, not so surprising conversations, and an endlessly flat and fertile landscape later, and we are still here, and I am still comfortable, both in terms of my physical/spatial comfort, and in terms of my deep inner personal comfort in my completely anonymous and self reliant circumstances.  For me this is like being an astronaut sent into deep space and simply being comfortable being there.  I mean, where else am I supposed to be, and besides which, after liftoff there’s no other place I can be or escape to anyhow.  Still, I continue to be amazed, yes, that is really the most appropriate word for it, amazed - followed of course by awed, grateful, and stunned - about this entire experience, both the places I seen and traveled to, but in ways even more than that, the person I’ve been, because the self-actualization and apparent personal transformation I have experienced on this trip evokes in me something verging on disbelief.  I have wanted to be comfortable traveling in circumstances such as these for so long, to be free of excess anxiety for so long, that to have actually realized it on this journey is almost miraculous, like a cure at Lourdes, like someone who can see after years of blindness, or walk after years of being confined to a wheelchair unable to do so.  There is a quality to it of decognizance, (a word I think I just invented), that is the antithesis of recognizance, some experience that is beyond disbelief or unfamiliarity transformed, something more like an experience almost beyond or incapable of being recognized as true because it has seemed so foundationally not true for so long.  The effort required in the Middle Ages to come to accept that the Earth actually rotates around the sun and not the other way around would be an example of this kind of decognizant moment.  Deciding one day that the God you firmly and absolutely believed in doesn’t exist (or vice versa), or the realization that the country you so adore acts routinely in an evil manner, controlled not by we the people, but we the corporations, or that there may actually be “lifeafter the death you believed was so final and absolute, might all be other such decognizant moments.  I am just so comfortable, at home, present, self-approving, and free of anxiety on this voyage, and it is immensely unfamiliar to me to be so in this context.  And in that sense I am awestruck and immensely grateful.  To whom grateful some would ask?  And the answer is to my “self,” of course, but also to my commitment to a lifelong struggle that I was never able to give up on, to the awesome power of hope and belief, to trust and belief in the possibility of transformation and healing, to friends, lovers, Lynne, Joy, yoga, therapists, teachers, the Great Spirit, my sister, Miles, my children Maia and Sam in immense and specific ways, all the Steve’s in my life, to the beloved departed Alan B., to animal, plant, and stone familiars, perhaps even to the Divine, and as they say at the Oscars, “if I’ve left anyone out please know I adore you too.”  For as I am coming to believe, realize, and even “understand,” while it is self, will, hope, effort, faith, trust, teachers, knowledge, family, friends and so forth that sustain me, it is also absolutely true that it is my partnership with the powers of the cosmos that allows my life to appear in a new light.

35. Getting to Varanasi

It was immensely challenging to connect with a bus after getting off the train in Allahabad late on a holiday Saturday, and only after hours of wandering, waiting, and misinformation, the bus station closing, drunken crazed male revelers dancing in the street, and bonfires lit everywhere, did a cranky old bus appear which ended up being so filled with people that it was standing room only and looked like a NYC subway train at rush hour for the three hour cruise to Varanasi.  And once in Varanasi things didn’t get much better, it being 3:00 A.M and hard to find a half way decent room, not to mention the chaotic filth and decay I observed in my travels through the late night streets, which left me trepidatious and reluctant to even step out the hotel door into India when I woke in the morning.  Besides which, all of the hotel staff and the hotel manager told me that it was not safe to go out that morning until after 2:00 PM because “people act crazy on Holi Day.”  But it seems at times that when warned of danger I want to see it.  So out I went into the city, the street virtually deserted, all the shops closed, and the only ones out and about marauding packs of men wearing hideous amounts of multicolored powders, and silver painted faces like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, and carrying bags of iridescent powder and big pump water pistols filled with iridescent powder and charging about on bicycles and motorcycles, stoned, drunk, wild, and spraying or otherwise coloring everyone and everything in sight, dogs, cows, other people who err in being on the street, groping women, driving scarily.  I just don’t get India.  A teenage boy and his buddy approach me, they want to hug me, they are clearly going to throw powder all over me, they yell “Happy Holi Day” to me like New Year revelers.  “Don’t you dare,” I say loudly in English, “Come on, man, this is complete bullshit,” I yell, as I push them away to no avail as my bald head, neck, right arm, T-shirt, pack, and sandals are covered with a hideous powdery turquoise and I retreat to the hotel, a wiser, dirtier man.

The only other guest I meet at the hotel is Heidi, a Swiss woman living in America for thirty years, married to a Swiss man all that time, with two grown children, working her way through the end or not end of her marriage, a serious yoga teacher, in love with one of her students, but not having consummated the adoration/infatuation and not yet sure she will because, as she pointedly tells me, she is “still a married woman.”  She’s nice, Heidi, in her sixties, on a personal spiritual voyage in India, fit, a mandala artist, a seeker, someone who has already been to Rishikesh, who has found a yoga teacher in Varanasi she likes and later that afternoon introduces me to, clearly a fellow traveler who in response to our “fortuitous” meeting wants to share with me four principals that guide aspects of her spiritual practice: that whomsoever you encounter is the right person, that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, that each moment something begins is the right moment, and that what is over is over.  Not my particular cup of” spiritual” tea, and not intended by her as an offering of anything other than a sharing in wonderment that we have encountered each other, such at least superficially similar souls so far from home.

36. Varanasi

            Varanasi is simply the dirtiest, filthiest, most run down, vile, pit of a city I have ever encountered.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t “like” it, it’s beyond that; it’s that I can hardly bear it, can hardly tolerate being there, feel like retching (and come close to doing so more than once) because I feel so personally filthy there, feel my nostrils and lungs under assault by smells and dust, can’t get clean no matter how often I wash, where even after washing my hands I feel I need to wash them to clean them from the first washing, and then bathe them in hand sanitizer, and then even going so far as to rub some sanitizer into my nostrils and on my lips.  And the “signs,” the omens, and the guides are all wrong.  I see and hear no crows.  The dead bird at my feet doesn’t wake up.  The monkey laying in the alley has a horrible grimace on its dead face.  The man laying in the street - clearly recently hit by something, a rickshaw, a motorcycle, a van, a truck, who knows - laying face down and bleeding severely from the head, not moving, maybe dead, blood running copiously into the street red and deep, who people ignore, and drive around, and say tsk tsk but do nothing more that I can see.  And I’m surely not imposing my values on that scene. Nor can I respond or say anything in the “organic” food restaurant that advertizes their ice cubes as made with mineral water, but has such a pervasive powerful smell of stale piss that drinking and eating there is beyond unappealing.  And the streets are unbearable.  And I don’t want to sit down on or touch anything.  And there is dust and flies and stench everywhere, grown men and children shitting and pissing in public, cows laying in the middle of crowded streets, traffic moving around the cows rather than someone moving the cows out of the way.  And the cows so blaze!  I mean why else do these nice people put out food and water and even wash me in the river, the cows must think, if I were not meant to be a king or queen.  And then the goats, and dogs, and cockroaches who are oh so grateful to have been reincarnated into the bounty and blessings life provides for goats, and dogs, and roaches in Varanasi, where bicycle rickshaws are everywhere because they move more deftly than gasoline propelled rickshaws in the packed and basically gridlocked city streets, where cow shit, goat shit, human shit, and dog shit are everywhere.  With fetid standing water.  Stale garbage.  Piles upon piles of unsorted garbage that flies, goats, and cows are eating, that puppies are playing in, rolling over in, laying in.  And we haven’t even made it to the burning Ghats and the Holy Ganges, a river which makes the polluted canals of Brooklyn look as clean as mountain springs at their source.  Or the tiny ants crawling around on every available surface.  Or the cobwebs I repeatedly encounter with my face in dark passages, apparently because I am just those few enough inches taller than most traffic thru the doorways to disturb dust that has established what it though was permanent resident status.  And if the guy who’d served me my chapattis wasn’t the same guy I just saw wiping the floor with a filthy rag I’d be oh so much happier.  And I haven’t even mentioned the mosquitoes.  Fine. 

But Varanasi is also alive.  Amazingly alive.  Throbbingly alive.  Intensely and immensely alive.  “Clean on the inside,” a man I complain to tells me.  The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, older even than Damascus, an ancient city, a genuinely “holy city” whether I like what that looks like or not, a monstrous city arisen from this now dismal swamp throbbing with death and mourning, with burning ghats, with thousands of pilgrims and mourners from all over India walking the narrow streets and alleys of the old city, buying trinkets from vendors, taking boat rides to see the oh so scenic funeral pyres from the Ganges, and behaving pretty much like tourists everywhere, starry eyed and bewildered, or maybe that’s just a personal projection. 

And what of the policeman who on apparent impulse buys me a chai?  Or the uniformed soldier who puts the red mark on my forehead.  Or the endless number of people who say “Happy Holi Day” to me and mean it.  Or the barefooted man who leads me on a ten minute jaunt thru labyrinthine alleys to the yoga studio that I couldn’t find and then won’t accept even a ten rupee offering from me?  Or the ancient rickshaw driver who underbids a fare when taking me to the furthest, northernmost ghat in Varanasi from where I begin my walk south into the heart of the holy city and who, when I give him twenty extra rupees, looks as though he wants to kiss my feet.  And the faces of the people, my god, the faces, thousands upon thousands of classic portraits of humanity as it is, each face more compelling and storied than the next, each a study in character and beauty, of swamis, and ancient rickshaw drivers, and youthful rickshaw drivers, of holy men and beggars, glorious children and glorious mothers, of barefooted soldiers and beautiful women, the flower market, the flower sellers, the regal cows, the prancing horses, the chanting and music which fill a city celebrating life in death, funeral biers moving down the streets with the frequency of city buses on their tired routes, on roads so full of people that walking is as fast as riding, with roundabouts and streets leading off in six different directions, and dark in the daylight alleys barely a shoulder width wide where whatever is underfoot cannot be seen.  A place where, for obvious reasons, I am not only uncomfortable, I am nauseous.

37. Burning Ghats

The ghats are burning.  The corpses are burning, about ten of them in varying stages of transformation.  Chords and chords of wood are stacked against the sides of the buildings that edge the ghats, some to a height of forty or fifty feet, some that run the width of the buildings and extend out from the buildings in piles as much as sixty feet long.  The corpses are carried on bamboo litters to be washed in the Ganges.  They are carried back to piles of wood that have been purchased for five dollars a kilo weighed out on massive balancing scales.  The dead are wearing simple clothes.  Most of their jewelry has been removed.  A few drops of Ganges water are poured into the corpse’s mouth.  Rice is sprinkled into their mouths.  Sandalwood chips are sprinkled onto and under the corpse.  A priest walks around the body with a smoking piece of wood from the eternal fire five times, once for each of the five elements that make a person - earth, air, fire, water, and ether.  The oldest son has had his head and face shaved clean.  He is shaking with emotion.  Crying.  Sniffling.  Trying to hold together as he speaks some words about his mother before her mortal remains are consigned to the flames.  When he finishes speaking the priest hands him the burning wood with which he starts the fire. 

Crowds of people are wandering about the burning ghats and smoldering ashes.  Cows are standing and laying around on the steps and in the river.  Dogs are playing and barking.  Goats are everywhere, eating the leis of stringed flowers that have been left on and next to the corpses.  Barefooted young kids are playing quietly among the dead, the grieving, the ashes, and the shit.  Animated discussions are taking place among arguing loud men about the services, the order of events, about who does what.  People are using cell phones to film and photograph the funeral biers, their relatives, and who knows what else. 

I take out my cell phone and snap a few shots of a corpse laying on the wood after she is brought up from the river.  She was very old and is very dead.  An Indian man who speaks quite good English comes up to me and says with urgent passion that I am not allowed to take pictures, that I don’t have permission, that I have been very disrespectful of the dead and her family, that I have just brought some very bad karma upon myself, but, that for the right contribution of funds to help the impoverished dead and dying I can clear this bad debt I have just assumed.  I am immediately suspicious of a scam but also feeling concerned about even the possibility that I have incurred any bad karma.  I’ll skip the agonizing details of his and my bargaining about a fair fee to clear my karma.  He wanted $70.  In the end I gave him $10.  And then he told me more than I wanted or needed to know about the consummation of flesh in flame, and I still felt played for the rube I no doubt truly am.  But one thing I hadn’t observed that he shared with me I’ll share.  “Do you smell the burning hair and the burning flesh,” he asked me.  And although I could feel the heat and distinctly smell the smoke, I really could not smell the burning flesh or hair.  “No,” I said surprised.  “That is because on the holy Ganga, in the most holy city of Varanasi, at this the Mir Ghat, the spirits of the deceased and their bodily remains are taken straight up into the heavens and no one on Earth can smell them.”

38. Yoga in Varanasi with Sunil

            Sunil Kumar Jinghan, honors in psychology, as his sign says, as well as yoga pushpa, yoga bhusan, yoga visharad, and reiki master.  At forty six years of age Sunil is the real deal, a slightly paunchy yoga master, with an immense chest and lung capacity, surprising flexibility in a man so big, and great strength, who integrates spirituality, breathing, healing, asana practice, meditation, chanting, mudras, affirmation practice, passion, and good humor into his yoga. I spend every minute of my time that he will have me with Sunil in Varanasi, and because his studio is in his home, and he is a gracious man who appears to like me, that turns out to be a couple of eight to ten hour days of yoga, conversation, eating, playing with his infant daughter, hanging out with his young wife and co teacher Bharti (therein a love story), his senior student, Simon, his housekeeper, his cook, the electrician, his brother, his nephew, miscellaneous students, and the monkeys on the rooftop.  I even join Sunil one evening as he moves about in the alleys and streets of Varanasi on missions I cannot fathom, Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.  It is something beyond ironic, in this city that so repels me, that if I never visited again in life or death would be fine with me, that I should find a yoga guru to whom I am so powerfully drawn that I can imagine returning for a two month teacher training immersion.  Is it really true that whatever happens is the only thing that can happen?

            I like Sunil’s character, his energy and passion, the breath of his knowledge, his vibrancy and vitality.  He has far and away the best yoga library I have ever seen.  I read somewhere on this trip that knowledge is the foundation for right action, but that right thinking must be applied to right knowledge to make it of righteous use, and that the final element in bringing right knowledge and right thinking into proper fruition is character.  I’d been thinking about that on the trip in relationship to myself and to a number of people I know before meeting Sunil (who I got to thru a rickshaw driver in Pune, who led me to Dharmavi, who led me to Aparna, who led me to Varanasi, and then Holi Day, which led me to Heidi, who led me to Sunil) - about the nature and quality of our knowledge, thinking, and character – and I particularly admire how these elements appear to be playing out in Sunil, who says more than once that, since effect depends so much on what is going on in our minds – particularly during our yoga practice (which relates so powerfully to my experiences and reactions to teacher, tone, language, and setting in my yoga classes) – that that is why affirmations are of such vital importance.  Sunil has a number of great affirmations he requests his student to say out loud at various times during class, just as we chant, and breathe, and move.  Many of the affirmations are of his personal creation, and many are taken from Gertrud Hirschi’s book, Mudras, www.indianbookcentre.com, which Sunil provides me a copy of.  They are all related to specific asanas.  I particularly like saying while in spinal twist, “In the form of a spiral my path leads to the divine goal where joy and peace rule,” and in back bends, “My heart leads from time to timelessness.”   And although I can’t remember what asana Sunil thinks this is appropriate to I love repeating, “I give my best, the rest is given to me.”

39. Getting to Delhi

 

The long train ride is again easy and pleasant.  Comfortable.  I write and read.  I sleep.  I eat and drink things I worry about, but eat and drink anyway.  I have a couple of brief not very interesting conversation, you know, where are you from, where are you going, why, how do you like India, those sorts of exchanges, although one exchange with a twenty-nine year of man who was “in” finance, who had lived in NJ for four months working for Goldman Sachs (you’ve heard of Goldman Sachs, he asked me), who had traveled in the U.S. by car as far as Chicago, spoke quite good English, and wanted to chat me up was noteworthy.  We started with the usual pleasantries, although I was also able to ask him his impressions of the USA (“very well organized,” “highways with even numbers going east and west and odd numbers going north and south,” “subways built a hundred years ago with tall buildings on top of them that have not fallen down”).  And when we get to the why am I here question for some reason I tell him about Miles, about how I’m bringing Miles’ ashes to India, and Miles’ connection to India.  And while I do this in just three or four minutes, he is absolutely wrapped up in the story, and when I finish he is almost on the edge of tears it seems as he reaches out his hand to take mine, he pulls me towards him, and in a slightly uncomfortable hug says, “I love you, man.”

 

40. Delhi

            Delhi is shocking, which is no longer shocking.  India is shocking.  And Delhi is immense, geographically as well as in terms of human population numbers, so it is as hard to speak about “Delhi” as it is “New York” when it is not clear if you mean Queens or Brooklyn, Flushing or Flatbush, the Bronx or the Battery, east 67th or west 67th street.  And the bottom line, at least for me, is that there are still too many beggars, homeless people, filth in the streets, monkeys on the rooftops, and cattle in the roadways, notwithstanding the hard to measure bureaucratic efforts of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Municipal Veterinary Department to comply with a ten year old court order to make the city cattle free, which is hard to do when there are over 2,000 illegal dairies still running in the city.

I spend most of my time here writing, reading, waiting for Sam, exploring just a little, resting, recovering from Varanasi, and hopefully garnering the energy I will need to help make this last phase of this journey a good one.  I do so mostly by treating myself to a stay at the high end YMCA Hostel on Jai Singh Street, and doing yoga at the National Yoga Institute – a very trippy, clean, beautiful, flowery, real institute, that is so hard to reach on foot that I do finally pay for a rickshaw to literally get me across the street.

41. Yoga in Delhi

I sign up at the National Yoga Institute to take classes with Master Bal Mukund Singh, a man who’s got to be near or in his eighties and reminds me of Mr. Maguchi in the Karate Kid.  Master Singh is such a good teacher, so funny, engaging, good-natured, mockingly reprimanding in a loud stern voice as if correcting and chiding errant children.  His classes are taught ninety five percent in Hindi.  And Master Singh loves having the tall American in shorts and a sleeveless Celtics t-shirt as his foil.  And I love serving him.  “So, what is your good name sir,” he asks me loudly.  “Brewsh, haaa, a wery good name.  Brewsh!”  “So why not straighten arms, Brewsh.”  “Left leg not right leg, Brewsh.”  “Are you seventy year young or seventy year old, Brewsh?”  “Ah, wery beeootifool, Brewsh, wery beeootifool, too wery bad not come India younger man study yoga.”  And here I am in the master’s class, the only Anglo among fifty mostly overweigh women in saris, and four other men, laughing and smiling and learning a lot.  And the entire class is laughing, and, in fact, after chanting at the end of the class, after we’ve held a final pose while the Master takes attendance (!) and everyone present answers “Here, sir,” after the last om shanti om, the whole class stands up, we raise our arms high into the air and we laugh loudly on purpose using a deep yogic abdominal “haaaa!”  (Haa is also “yes” in Hindi.)  “Haa, haa, ha, ha, ha!” we exhale using releasing breaths, a bit like kapalabatti breathing but through the throat rather than the nostrils.  “Haa, haa, ha, ha, ha!”  Laughing yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  And then class is over but for the sweet rolling chorus of mostly women calling out, “Thank you, sir. Thank you, sir.  Thank you.”

42. Sam in Brief

Sam and I explore Delhi, the slums, the markets, the Red Fort, India Gate, the parliament.  He bounces his basketball wherever we go, a 6’5” Pied Piper with crowds of young engaged boys flocking to him, trying to get the ball away from him, many unabashedly asking if he will gift them his ball.  One even washes the ball.  Strangers yell out to him, “Good height.”  And he’s such a good sport, Sam.  My favorite moment in Delhi occurs when Sam asks the bicycle rickshawalla pedaling us to the Red Fort to let Sam pedal the rickshaw while the driver gets into the seat with me, which the driver reluctantly and embarrassedly does, and then endures the spirited cheers, jeers, hoots, laughter, and honking that Sam evokes as we ride with Sam serving as rickshaw driver thru the streets of Delhi.  To also say that Sam is overwhelmed by the filth and poverty that is in your face in India is only to state the obvious and inevitable.  And although India is not his favorite venue, he’s good spiritedly into it, even enmeshed by day three, along with one billion Indian fanatics, in avidly rooting for India in the world cricket championship semi final game against arch socio-political rival Pakistan - that India wins, to face Sri Lanka in the finals.

43. The Amber Fort

            Sam and I stop on the very long, flat, hot, and dusty road from Delhi to Jaipur to explore the truly impressive and extensive Amber Fort, where we make what turns out to be a wrong turn and are chased by a swarm of very aggressive very large bees.  So we impulsively take refuge in a very dark smoky dungeon where more than a dozen Indian men, women and children have also sought refuge and are cooking smoky chunks of a recently slaughtered goat hanging over a very smoky fire (no thanks, we don’t eat meat).  We then try to out run the bees, which Sam has read somewhere can be done, and which Sam succeeds in doing, while I get stung in the head (speed being a relative phenomenon) - and Sam pulls out the stinger - only to discover that the only way back to the fort entrance is exactly the way we came, chased by bees once again into the smoky dungeon, all old friends by now, handshakes and hugs all around, no thanks, we don’t eat meat … and then try again to escape the bees into the heat and dust to the fort entrance.

44. Jaipur to Agra

The architecture in the former Moghul city of Jaipur is really great, but the peak positive moments in Jaipur for both Sam and I are an eight year old Indian magician outside the Water Palace who can do his routine in Japanese, Spanish, German, and English … and is good … and a tiny rickshaw driver named Shaq who we meet at the City Palace and who takes us to the National Stadium at the edge of Jaipur, beyond the city’s eight gates, where the sound of Sam’s bouncing basketball and the miracle of cell phone technology draws some real players, one of whom is as tall as Sam is, all of whom can put the ball in the hoop, and all of whom know very little about defense or moving without the ball, but play hard and enjoy the game while Sam conducts a good natured offensive clinic.

            The Jaipur to Agra road is also flat, hot, and dusty, with lines of camels pulling huge wagon loads of grain and feed, interspersed with a palace, temple, or mausoleum or two, and an absolutely unfathomable line of religious pilgrims/worshipers at least thirty kilometers long (no really, 30 kms long), all walking toward some temple, carrying luggage on their heads, baskets of food, bedding, and babies on their hips, who fill the east to west half of the main highway so completely that no vehicular travel is possible in that direction, which results in turning the entire west to east half of the main highway into a one lane mess going each way.  And why are these 1000s of people doing this? And what are they thinking?  And where will they eat? (Just sitting down in the middle of the road, apparently.)  And where will they piss? (Oh just in that field there.)  And where have they all come from in their saris and knitted caps, and cowboy hats, with banners and flags and drums?  And where will they all sleep, because it clearly takes more than one day of walking to get to the temple?   And what does it mean to them?  And how do they think about it?  And, of course, I will never know the answers to these questions, but I’m told the walk happens on or about this day once every year and is also notable for how many enterprising Indian vendors have placed themselves along the line of march with water and food for sale, and how every scrap of paper, plastic, tin, cardboard and other human waste is just left seemingly mindlessly on the roadway, a practice that leaves some India roads looking as if they have three week old mounds of dirty snow lining both sides of the roadway, that on closer examination is all just garbage, which will not melt away.

45. The Taj

We set the alarm to wake up early to see the sun rise on the Taj Mahal, but smog obscures the sun.  And even more disappointingly, no basketballs are allowed on the Taj grounds, so all the crowd action around Sam takes place outside the entrance and at the lockers where we leave the ball.  The Taj itself is very impressive, although compared to Bagan, Anghor Wat, and Ellora and Ajanta it leaves me a bit nonplussed.  Besides, I’ve really had it with India crowds and am longing to get away to Rishikesh and Dharamsalah, away from things flat, hot, dusty, garbage strewn and endlessly long.

46. Rishikesh

 

            Ah, that’s better.  Cleaner, quieter, less polluted, less in your face, the yoga capital of the world, a swiftly flowing river, mountains, trees, a tourist scene, sort of like Telegraph Avenue on the Ganges.  And there are couples, lots of couples, and it finally dawns on me that I nearing the end of this journey.

 

47. Yoga in Rishikesh

            I do yoga in the yoga capital of the world, in many different venues, with many different teachers, but the most memorable class I take in Rishikesh is the one I go to with Sam which starts an hour before sunset on the literal banks of the surprisingly rapidly flowing Ganges, a bit in awe that I am here doing yoga outside in nature with Sam, being called Bhu Bhu by the teacher, watched by dozens of interested Indian people and a pack of curious mischievous monkeys, two of whom get into such a serious fight one day, not mock aggression and grimaces, but paw in clenched jaw tearing of fur and flesh, that the smaller weaker monkey literally jumps into the river, floating quite well in the very rapid current where he ultimately grasps onto a post in the river and rests while the bigger dominant monkey sits on the shore growling until he is chased away by the yoga instructor wielding a metal pipe.  And the magical formations of birds in flight, the flags blowing in the wind, the pedestrian suspension bridge, the calling of crows, a ferocious population of common houseflies, the chalky dust on our hands, feet, and the yoga mats, washing our hands and feet in the cold cold Ganga, praying to take in the energy of the setting sun, while up river people are chanting, and drumming, and incense is burning, and we say “Namaste” to everyone we meet, and we mean it.

48. A Brief Reflection on India

I find it hard to define what makes India attractive and appealing - almost spellbinding in its raw intensity - given how repulsive it is, people sleeping in the street, peeing in the street, brushing their teeth in public, fields with crops of young boys with their pants pulled down shitting, dirty, dusty, grimy herds of people, cows, dogs, goats, cats, monkeys and an occasional elephant or camel, cars, rickshaws, vans, trucks, buses all having failed the vehicle emissions test, all stuffed with people, overflowing with people, people riding on the roof, overweight women with no teeth, delirious beggars, gorgeous and beautifully dressed women, beggars with children, arguments in the open, even fistfights, endless bargaining, manipulation, honesty, kindness, engagement, indifference, pastel colors, good humor, all the best and worst of humanity.  I know it doesn’t sound very attractive.  And I don’t know what it is that makes it attractive.  I’m tempted to say it’s its spirituality, but I think that too facile and trite. More accurately, perhaps it is the energy and the “energetic” emanations of the place itself.  “Mother” India, not “the motherland” or the “fatherland,” but Mother India, a truly beloved, imperfect, grand and glorious, messy, all providing, all consuming, demanding mother, whose children are deeply deeply tied to her as only children can be tied.  India is intense.  It is in your face.  It manifests little of the social space and social boundaries we Americans rely upon and there is only a very thin buffer zone between you and the other.  India is experiential and as such cannot be known from a distance, but must literally be entered (and smelled, and felt), because it can only be truly seen from inside.  And its innards are just not that pretty or neat either, although somehow the people all seem to be coping fairly well, but what the hell can someone who didn’t even know Indian cows eat banana peels and bananas know after one month.  Cows eat banana peels.  Sheesh.  India even won the cricket world cup.

49.  Dharamsalah – McLeod Ganj

McLeod Ganj is a truly magical place and a remarkable finale point for the journey, instantly calling me back to it, or more likely to Tibet, well within the foothills of the Himalayas, filled with mountain weather, sunshine, cold rain, intense birdcalls, green green trees, gardens, flowering plants, snow capped mountains, the gurgling sound of water, and, of course, Tibetans.  And although it required a brutal fourteen-hour overnight bus ride from Rishikesh to get here, even that had its fascination in crazy late night roadside stops and hairpin curves taken by an ancient bus at breakneck speeds.  

The thing that is most compelling for me, of course, is the Tibetan character of the area, along with the overall ethnic mix of people, the character of the shops, the topography, the endless steps up steep mountainsides, the temples, the prayer wheels and the prayer flags, the sense of a community recreating itself in exile, and the political ambience that accompanies all that.  And at the risk of being seen as naively enraptured, the fact is that the Tibetans are lovely, lovely people, devotedly Buddhists, with a large population of monks, taking pleasure in small rocks and the honoring of sentient beings, one example of which, is that when His Holiness the Dali Lama proclaimed a commitment to the protection of endangered species all of the Tibetan people destroyed whatever clothing, tools, and artifacts they possessed that had originated from the identified endangered plants and animals.  Besides, McLeod Ganj is also clean by Indian standards, breathtakingly beautiful, cool in temperature, and charming (in an “Alpine” way).  I also deeply appreciate the manner in which the Tibetan community has been welcomed and succored by the Indian Government.

And all this said, I’m ready to leave within twenty four hours, the journey at its end, all but for the ending.

 

+++++++++++++++++

Miles Everest Dale – 
          I want to share some thoughts about my nephew Miles, who has been so present with me on this voyage.  (See Miles Poems for more detail).
          My sister, Sheryl, married an Indian man who was raised in India and whose mother was Indian, but whose father was a British soldier, thus rendering Patrick in essence a non-caste person.  I know nothing more about his mother, and neither apparently does Patrick (although I always find that hard to believe).  In any event, growing up as a non-caste child right after World War II, in Calcutta, by his ninth birthday Patrick was a creature of the streets, living in the streets, begging, stealing, you can see him in the streets of Delhi, Mumbai, or Calcutta today, everyday, and yet somehow either noticed sufficiently for his particularly troublesome ways, or connected enough, through an uncle or something, I really don’t know much of his story, he is sent to an Indian reform school from which he runs away and ultimately the Indian Army, which he despises and runs away from to Nepal where he meets my sister who has gone there to teach after two years in India as a Peace Corp volunteer.  He comes to America with my sister and they marry, much to my parent’s dismay and disapproval.  And while many Indian people who come to America are quite happy and successful, my brother-in-law is not, not able to take advantage, not wanting to go to school or take more training, deeply depressed and fatalistic, he works as a garbage collector and is fired from that job, after which he works for the railways as a laborer, mostly just laying track, moving ties and gravel, using a pick, shovel, sledge hammer and his back.  A coolie I think he would be called in India. 
          Sheryl and Patrick have two sons.  The first boy is very quiet, but also quite athletic and smart.  He graduates college with a teacher’s degree but chooses to work as a big equipment operator and truck driver for the town he grew up in.  His interests are narrow, he is not married, he seems depressed, but he is honest, good-natured, hard working, responsible, trustworthy, easy going, has a circle of committed friends, and is respected by all in his work and all who he encounters; a handsome, fit, strong, big, genuinely nice guy.  Their second son is troubled from birth, perhaps even suffers a birth trauma in which he is temporarily deprived of sufficient oxygen, has a modest but apparent speech defect, is limited in his academic abilities, and is behaviorally very oppositional, uncooperative, obsessive, and difficult to deal with.  He is also very needy, fearful, and quite sweet, and I like him immensely, as long as I am not bearing the brunt or being burdened by his negative behaviors.  His father is impatient and occasionally cruel with him.  His brother is annoyed and embarrassed by him.  His mother dedicated and exasperated by him.  By his teenage years he is drinking and abusing drugs, partly because that’s what a lot of American teens do for a variety of complex social and psychological reasons, but in Miles’ case clearly as a psychological aid and buffer that modulates his mood, his fears, his obsessive compulsive behaviors, and especially his anxiety and terror. 

I have written a poem about the 15 places where parts of Miles’ earthly remains were left during our voyage and appended the poems to this site elsewhere for those interested in reading a 15 page long “poem.”  But I do want to expand on the ending. 

I carried Miles’ ashes around with me in the tiny plastic bag my sister had given them to me in along with the small, testicle sized purple felt drawstring pursue she had given them to me in.  And when the ashes had all been liberated, in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and India, and the plastic bag had been stretched and torn like a placenta and offered to the Ganges, there was still the matter of the purple velvet drawstring purse, which I was determined to leave in India as an offering as well.  And although I initially had no sense of how I would dispose of the pouch it came as a good idea to me that I would fill it with cash and give it as a gift to an Indian beggar, as I felt would befit Miles’ spiritual inclination.  And after the last of mis ashes were disposed of, I filled the pouch with 28 hundred Indian rupees, one hundred .

A few little known India facts and vignettes.

I go into a very busy coffee shop on one of the main street in Pune and order a grande cappuccino.  Two days later I go back in and as I approach the counter the young clerk says, “Grande cappuccino?”

I’m in a cyber café.  Kids are playing some video game, talking very loudly in Hindi, interspersed with periodic shouts of “No way, dawg!”

Highway sign:  "Avoid Rash Driving.   Do Not Over Speed," i.e., speeding is okay, but over speeding is not.  

An Indian man sits down across from me at a restaurant I am eating in, until then seated at the table alone.  I try to make eye contact and strike up a conversation by asking him what he has ordered that looks like a delicious combo platter.  He gives me a one-word answer.  I ask what brought him here.  He says, “business.” I ask him what line of work he is in.  He says, “business.”  Then, after a silent five minutes or so elapses, he asks, “Are you traveling alone?”  To which I reply, “yes.”  And he asks incredulously, “But how can you have any fun traveling alone without family or friends?”  And I laugh out loud because the question strikes me as so funny given the wonderfully unfettered time I am having alone.  And his face takes on a look of shock, perhaps because he thinks I have laughed at him (?) and we lapse again into silence.  And when he leaves the table it is only I who say, “Be well” and “safe travels,” drawing no reply.

I bring my sandals to a roadside shoe repairman seated on the ground with two friends.  I point out the tear in the side of the sandal I want repaired.  He nods yes.  I take off the sandal and give it to him and then sit cross-legged on the ground so as to not be towering over him as he works.  He and his friends converse animatedly and then looking at me all laugh.  I hear the distinct word “Buddha,” and when I look at the repairman quizzically he points at me and we all laugh.   It is not the only time this has happened in my travels but it is somehow the loveliest.

I discover I am the only person left in an Internet café on the other side of town where I have gone to a bookstore when the café owner tells me he usually closes forty minutes earlier but didn’t want to disturb me.  I close down immediately, thank him profusely for his courtesy, and leave the shop as he locks up.  “Where are you going,” he asks, and I tell him generally speaking the neighborhood I am stay in.  “I will take you,” he says.  And, not knowing exactly what I have said yes to stay where I am while he goes off presumably to grab his car.  Back two minutes later, he is on his motorcycle, his friend is seated behind him, and he motions for me to get on as the third un-helmeted rider.  I try to beg off.  I say I will find a rickshaw.  I say I am too big to add to his bike’s load.  I say I want to walk and see the neighborhood a little.  And to each of these excuses he says things that mean "no, please, I want to take you, and if you don’t let me take you I will find it very strange and will feel deeply insulted."  So I get on his motorcycle and we are off, the good news being that we are traveling mostly on very sparsely trafficked late night streets thus reducing the arithmetic probability of encountering another vehicle in ways I don’t want to, the bad news being that we are traveling mostly on very sparsely trafficked late night streets, which means he can go at speeds above 55 mph.   The Indians also laugh when I look for seat belts in rickshaws.

 OSHO - think Rajneesh – think opulent, beautiful, well designed.  Think purple robes that even a visitor must wear (and buy at $15 a pop), plus entrance fees totaling about $50, which includes a mandatory AIDS test with instant results.  Also think genuinely smiley people, a good vibe, and silence.  Or visit www.osho.com/tour.  The core message: “What we are doing here is very simple, very ordinary, nothing spiritual in it, nothing sacred.  We are not trying to make you holy persons.  We are simply trying to make you sane, intelligent, ordinary people, who can live their lives joyously, dancingly, celebratingly.”

 

Transient

Second Cycle

October 26, 2011 - One week before departure on second trip to India in one year.  
          I just made the best pumpkin pie that I have ever tasted, even if I must say so myself, – three pumpkin pies actually –with a pumpkin I grew in my garden.  And I harvested basil and eggplants on a spectacular fall day.  And there is still arugula, and Brussell sprouts, and gorgeous golden squash flowers still being produced amidst the prolific morning glories. 
          I also began the serious organizational effort required to secure and carry eighteen weeks of a dozen different meds with me to India, Myanmar, and Australia.  And clean and organize the shed.  And turn off the outside water faucets and drain and bleed the pipes.  And clean up a little more of what must be done in my law practice, all in the service of preparing for and moving towards a journey I don’t fully understand, but am going on nonetheless.  An adventure with a sketchy outline, and very little script I can read or see, yet so present that I amaze myself.  The separation will be what it is.

October 31, 2011 - I awaken in a state of great happiness, well rested, the day spectacularly beautiful after an autumn nor’easter that has brought fresh air and olden shipwrecks to our shores.  I linger in bed for hours writing, excited, and pleased with myself.  I am as prepared as I can be for my upcoming adventure, some of which I “get” – the 6 or 7 weeks at the yoga ashram and with Sunil – and some of which I don’t get at all – mostly the 4 or five weeks I need to fill before my rendezvous with Joy in Australia, although I trust, literally and figuratively, that I am guided in this by forces and fates far beyond my ken.  And I am so in love with Joy, and that brings me such pleasure, a love that although obviously familiar in certain ways, is also in ways completely beyond any feelings, thoughts, emotions, or sensations I have ever had about anyone.  It is not the same as love for a child, of course, which has its own unique vibe and intensity, and it is surely not “puppy love,” but it is quite special, the love of this older, dare I say, mature man, for a truly special, evolved, spiritual, whole, sexual, exploring, honest, fully present woman, who I actually know loves me!  Check that one out!  Because I do know that Joy is wildly and madly in love with me, and is a totally trustworthy person, and a totally solid person independent of me.  And sees me in ways I want to be seen.  And in her love, and in her ambit, I am blessed.

November 2, 2011     

            Time becomes more squeezed and pressurized, relative as time may be.  I breathe in deeply and fully, but there is more on my plate than I can conceivably get to before the big bird flies and I am transported blithely from this reality to that such that time itself expands and slows, breaths are expelled and new breaths return, cells do what cells are meant to do, and I am far more aware of these realities as the electronic world fades to black and the competitive squabbles and attention to bureaucratic demands that so characterize life here in this socio-political, antagonistic, conflict ridden time and place of news, murder, theft, war, taxes, politics, perjury, the practice of law, and personal antagonisms great and small, fade from the forefront of my consciousness and view.  Leaving only what is present present … and what is not present not … which is just fine, even real.  My sabbatical is taken, a walkabout is enacted and begun, a vision quested for is revealed in slow frames and small units.  As the Turkish proverb reads, “No matter how far you have walked down a path you know is wrong, now is the time to turn around.”

November 6, 2011

            Mumbai is what the sign at the airport reads, but beyond that I really have no idea where I am.  What I know is that after passing thru Indian customs and immigration - where my passport and visa were examined and stamped by a man with the longest thumb I have ever seen on a human being – no doubt an adaptive response to decades of flipping passport pages I joke with myself while absentmindedly staring in awe at his dexterity - I then ride in three different cabs, one of which I paid way too much money for so he’d take me to an all night ATM where I can participate willingly in my own exploitation, and then traveled - as vulnerable as any old man carrying $5,000.00 in cash might feel in a poor nation at the absolute mercy of its law abiding and kind citizenry - driving through the urban night without car lights - to save on fuel they reason - a familiar yellow half moon visible through smoggy skies, areas marked by the distinct smell of their unique garbage contents, through overpasses, underpasses, and truck terminal districts, passed acres of crumbling teeming tenements, the apartment windows covered in tattered fabric, the only females to be seen on these hot night streets asleep on blankets on the sidewalks.  I walk up three different sets of four story high guesthouse stairways looking for lodging.  I settle alone at 4 in the morning in a clean room with three single beds, a cold shower down the hall, and the distinct overpowering smell of ammonia, all for 10$ a night, where the sleepy clerk knocks on my door a half hour after I’ve checked in, asking me to turn my light off to protect their meager profits, even though my sleep rhythms tell me it is still afternoon where I’m used to living.  I’ve stayed in far far worse quarters than the India Gate Guesthouse provides, but that said would recommend it only to travelers with serious budgetary constraints.

When I awaken to peek out the Sunday morning window the smog is thick, the day is hot, it is oddly quiet, the street beneath my window is empty as well as clean, and I see only a barefoot woman in a sari shifting leaves around with a very skinny broom.  Neither the woman nor the broom can suffice as an explanation for the relative cleanliness of the street.  Besides, where are the blaring car horns, the relentless roar of motorcycles, the dogs, the vendors, the beggars?  Isn’t this Indian?  And even more amazing, I discover I am perched overlooking a harbor filled with small boats.  A harbor?  Small boats?  I am nearer the shore looking out my window here in Mumbai than when I awaken at home by the Namskaket.  I clearly need a map, a GPS, an Internet connection, some sort of reality check to orient me in time and space.  I can’t even tell which direction I’m looking in … or how the sun is moving.  Forget jetlag, I’ve got east west lag.  Ah, a horn.  Maybe even a crow.  Time to leave these comfortable quarters.  Time to wander about on my own two feet for a while.  It is such a joy, it seems to me, this being human.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

            On my last trip to India I did not get travelers’ diarrhea until the very last week in McLeod Ganj.  This time I am kept close to my guesthouse by a bout of diarrhea that begins as soon as I awaken on the first day.  And whereas on that last trip I had pushed hard at the edge of the foods-one-shouldn’t-eat-in-India envelop, this time I have had absolutely nothing to eat, except a sandwich at Heathrow and what I was served on the airplane … and now, of course, lomotil.  So after a quick cruise of my environs, a populated urban peninsular bounded by the Arabian Sea and favored by many Muslim immigrant shop owners, halal restaurants, veiled women, the Marhaba travel agency, and al Fatah cleaners, I’m back in my room on a brutally hot day, sleeping and reading. 

            I dream an attractive Asian woman who I’ve seen just in passing at yoga enough to say hello to gives me a ride in her van and comes on to me very explicitly.  Back at her apartment, which she shares with another single mom, we make love adequately and functionally, but not passionately.  Afterwards we engage in a very clinical discussion about her sex life and sexual encounters.  She is someone who has made love with many different men.  She’s open and aggressive and finds sex whenever she wants to and often.  It is usually very athletic and hot as a physical experience, but there is no emotional connection beyond what is inevitably evoked by the physical intimacy and exposure of self.  Maybe she sees the man again, or even a few times more, but then there is nothing that binds or holds her - and since she can always get more – she moves on.  Even her young son is the product of a passing liaison, engaged in more or less simultaneously with other passing liaisons, although she is sure which man contributed the telling sperm, but has absolutely no ongoing contact with him, doubts she could find him, has no desire to do so, and trusts he has no idea of his paternity.  I don’t particularly enjoy the dialog with her.  And although she is a fascinating creature - cute, opened, and honest - she holds no interest for me.  I am reminded of Scheherazade - the bisexual daughter of Iranian Jews who I had a one night tryst with in Jerusalem - adequate and pleasant as it was – and who said to me the morning afterwards, mostly referencing my age, “It was nice, but I’m never doing that again.” 

            I sleep the afternoon away.  I return frequently to the Asian woman of my earlier dreams.  Her name is Ethica.  She wants me to spend time with her.  She hates being alone.  My mother wants me to spend time with her.  I really need to be at work.  Steve Krugman has lost a hat I’ve given him and is hoping I’ll get him another.  The kids I am caring for, Dylan Nolfi around age six and Sam at around three or four, are in the car with my mother and me.  They want a treat before I bring them home.  We go to the newest rage of a coffee shop.  Dylan chooses an omelet instead of a sweet.  I get a slice of fantastic looking blueberry pie with ginger ice cream.  Maia raises her eyebrows at what is clearly a thousand calorie indulgence.  There is no way I will have the time to spend alone with Ethica.  There is no way I can get to my law work obligations.  The kids are moving far more slowly than I want them to.  I do not want to push things, but time is of the essence.  There is no way to eat in transit because of the mess it will make in my mother’s car.  I feel Ethica’s disappointment. I feel Maia’s, my mother’s, and my own judgments.  I am struggling hard against time.  The feeling of being all jammed up is palpable.  When I awaken I remember the many times I felt jammed up by a variety of women I’ve known since Lynne and how badly that felt.  I had forgotten that experience, driven as it was in part by my lack of commitment or desire to be with them and my deep desire to be alone.  My relationship with Joy, the ecstasy and the pure pleasure of it, are so different and such a gift to me.  I cannot fathom how she and I have gotten here, but it is blissful, dare I even say divine.  I finish these seemingly purposeless writings, though far “better” a pastime than computer aided card games, spread my mat in muggy Mumbai, and do some very gentle yoga.  And let the yoga do me.

            I’m back on the Kit Kat and banana diet.

            My first Indian meal is at Dominos Pizza.

My dreams are rich, plentiful, and profound, even if their “meanings” escape me.  In one I am trying to study or do some work at a table in a cafeteria.  The table fills with people talking about something they are working on together.  They go around the table making introductions.  When it gets to me I acknowledge I am not part of the group … and although they welcome me to stay, I find another table.  The cafeteria has gotten immensely crowded.  It is hard to find a place to sit, no less to sit alone.  I find an empty space at a table that turns out to be next to a small group that Steve K is running, seated in a circle not at a table, in the crowded cafeteria.  He is doing most of the talking, telling a story about a bull who is very passive until stung by a bee, when he is simultaneously seen by those selecting bulls for bullfighting purposes.  Steve cannot remember the name of the bull, which is, of course, Ferdinand, and I have a hard time not intruding to share what I know of this famous story of the bull ultimately adored for his loving pacifism.   I try to sit alone but a noisy kid sits next to me, who I yell at and whack inappropriately.  We do not treat kids as if they have full rights as humans.  There is a tyranny of adult oppression – including physical abuse – of weak and helpless youths.  I end up driving around in fierce rain with Rick C. and Tracy M.  I suggest a walk.  They decline.  They talk a lot, as opposed to being in the experience of the rain.   We try to make plans for a future rendezvous, but my travel schedule is so vigorous and complex we give it up.

As the dream continues, I bump into a former Met State patient in the cafeteria.  She looks fabulous.  I ask if she is stoned and she acknowledges that she is.  I give her the lecture about not using street drugs, the added ingredients of which cannot be measured and controlled the way pharmaceuticals can.  I revisit Met State on a day it is being assessed and evaluated by an outside agency.  Although I cannot remember the names of key staff persons at Met when awake, in the dream, as soon as I am on the ward, their names – which I clearly now know - all come back to me with surprising accuracy.  A member of the social work staff has chosen to be married this day on the ward.  All the staff and patients are invited, as an event to share in.  A chanting rabbi leads in the wedding procession.  Once the music ends a number of patients cannot keep it together, screaming, laughing, calling out inappropriately, and fighting.  The disturbance is significant enough that the staff choose to clear the hall of all patients so the wedding can proceed, but the bride says she does not want to proceed in this context without the patients, and that the wedding will just have to happen on some other date.  As people are filing out someone is sketching 17th century musical instruments which she is going to craft for the musicians to use at the next wedding. 

I awaken in the middle of the terribly hot and muggy Mumbai night, amazed but not surprised by the menagerie of characters I have brought with me to India.  I am particularly impressed w Ferdinand, who I think so clearly represents me and my lifelong desire and inclination toward tranquility and peacefulness as that competes with immense internal and external pressures to be more of a warrior in some classical sense of that word, and that potentiality, as representing a cultural ideal.
            I dose off back to sleep.  Each time I do the dreams, the dreamed, and the dreamers reappear.  It is weird and good to be this alone.

I dream an old girlfriend has a long Indian last name, something like Pravadavaravalaria, that I am trying to learn properly and keep leaving out one of the “va”s.  She is annoyed.  What does it matter?  Why do I care or want to know?  She is about to go out to cut lawns.  It is raining hard.  We discuss whether she leaves or picks up the grass cuttings and she says her preference is to leave them as mulch.  There is a discussion about the increasingly popular “French” lawn, which never needs mowing.

I dream Russell from yoga is having a big family reunion. He is very anxious about it and wants to do it right.  His brothers are problematic.  There is a humorous give away grab bag roast.  Some of what is given away are machine gun bullets and large empty shell casings.

I dream Joy has fallen asleep in a bed with four candles burning on the bedspread by her head, rising and falling with her breath.  When I confront her about the dangers of sleeping in bed with lit candles she gets very upset.  She believes the risk is not great, that she was not really asleep, that she was aware of the circumstances.  I cannot seem to control my emotional tone, which is confrontational.  She asks me what I am “on.”  I say that we don’t even need to discuss the merits of my concern, that we can talk about what is happening between us and why it is so angry, why she is so defensive, why I am so self-righteous, but we can’t get out of our own way and continue arguing about “facts,” i.e., what percentage of people who sleep with candles start bed fires, what percentage get burned, and what percentage die.  Loren arrives.  He wants to make peace, wants his mom to not be upset, but also wants it all to be safe in fact.  He wants me to get off my attitude, my high horse.  He agrees with me factually about the candles, but doesn’t feel my attitude is helping permit Joy to acknowledge that what she was doing was not well thought out, which she somehow cannot do if I am on her case, but her inability makes me frustrated and angry, and I can’t get out of my own way.

It is soooo muggy and hot here in Mumbai at six A.M., but I feel as though I am on the sleep schedule I’d hoped for, that I brilliantly gave myself the time I knew would be necessary to transition and adapt, that I am a fucking genius relative to my own traveler needs, well and lightly over packed, carrying a complete medicine cabinet of 126 days worth of daily and emergency meds, money squirreled away in 3 or 4 different compartment, extra passport photos, me and lomotil ready to see if we can find a good SIM card, a bus to Nasik tomorrow, and a cabbie willing to show me all of Mumbai in six hours.

November 8, 2011

            Here’s an odd little inquiry, which did I enjoy more - my day traveling around Mumbai yesterday, filled with adventure, curiosity, great characters, and pleasure, or my dream this morning, filled with adventure, curiosity, great characters, and pleasure.  On the enjoyment scale I’d have to say it was a tie.  And if the axis these two events were being measured on was not the enjoyment axis, but rather the revealing, sensational, profound, or useful axes, then which stretched me more?  And in that I would have to give it to Bombay, which was ever so much more sensual, visual, multidimensional, unfamiliar, colorful, complex, ancient, layered, populated, and, in certain important ways, more real.  Besides which, if I am to be properly respectful of the reader, I also know Mumbai is truly far more interesting, although as the writer I also know it is far far harder to write about.

            First the dream, in which Lynne, I, and my parents are trying to sell the house at 251 Chestnut Avenue in current time.   A young couple has come to see it.  I show them around.  There are so many fabulous features.  It merges the best of the three houses I owned in Boston and Brookline, but there is also a very spectacular defect involving the emergency exterior exit stairway, which is functionally not useful and in such a state of rot and decay as to compromise the entire integrity of the property, dangerously so.  And as the broker, the young couple, and this 71 year old me scamper about in the attic of this house, an attic I don’t think is “real,” although I have seen and dreamt it many times before, a huge potentially useful attic, almost like a barn loft, but completely empty and under utilized, where we encounter real physical hazards, like ladders we are on giving way in slow motion, and stairs collapsing, which require the greatest calm, trust, lack of panic, and balance to ride out to a safe landing.

            Now, as for Bombay, it is immense … and, at least where I travel, so obviously the inheritor of British colonial architecture and boulevard design.  The trees make it quite beautiful in parts.  The coastline is very long.  There are miles and miles of beaches, miles of commercial ports.  I spent a lot of time in the fish market.  The boats are hulking creatures with small real houses on their decks.  Men are washing on the decks, off loading large and small dead creatures of the sea, taking on ice and gasoline.  There are no ship-to-shore radios to be seen, no radar, and no obvious safety equipment.  It is a fleet out of the late 19th century, not a metal or fiberglass hull to be seen, broad beamed, and delightfully colorful.  The deckhouses are a diverse palate of designs, slogans, and names.  There are many flags and banners flying.  The netting, cork floats, clothes drying, barrels, holds, and fat nylon lines make up a rainbow of colors.  There are dozens upon dozens of women, hundreds of women, dressed in brightly colored saris, squatting on four inch high stools, shelling shrimp, hour after hour, day after day, huge circles of women, chatting, shooing flies, building vast communal piles of transparent shells while filling small individual bowls with shrimp.  There is a lot of staring going on between the women and me, and quite a bit of nodding, and even occasional smiling.  And besides, the crows and the seagulls are having an absolute party.

            What I should have begun this description of my day in Bombay with was negotiating for a guide with a drunk runner who also offered me women, hash, “anything good sir wants,” chatting with a deformed sandal repairman and his nephews who are off from school on this Muslim holiday, making traffic bearable, but making no impact on how insufferably hot this November day is, sweat dripping off me while sitting still, watching endless events in which huge weight is being moved by human mules, seeing the site of the Muslim terrorist landing in 2008, photographing fish drying in the sun, miles of incredible sandy beaches where no one enters the filthy water, the Jain temple where women “draw” design offerings with kernels of rice, the huge outdoor laundry, the Gandhi Museum, the grown men who want to have their pictures taken with me so they can post them on their Facebook pages, the place in the city where my guide says bodies are laid out to be picked at by vultures as a holy way of disposing of flesh, and the hanging gardens, so named because in the olden days women who were mistreated by their husbands and had no other avenue for escape came here to end their days.   “But no more,” my guide Solomon says smiling, “now only the men hang themselves.” 

... the ashram ...

December 8, 2011

            On board the Nasik to Aurangabad RR Express, rolling past seemingly endless spectacular fields filled with grapevines, tomato plants, sugarcane, cotton, mangos, papayas, coconuts, corn and cabbage.  The earth richly brown and well tilled, stretching across the dry Maharashtra plains as far as the eye can see, the plants and trees surviving on some very minimum amount of water from sources unseen.  Some trees in this climatic zone actually live for eight months without rain.

I’ve become a far bolder, more familiar and comfortable a traveller, still surprised at myself, and still pleased and excited beyond my ability to adequately express, at peace on this time and space traversing multicar transport vehicle, headed toward a rendezvous with the flesh, the blood, and the supreme consciousness of my sister and nephew, people who share my genetic and familial history and lineage as much as almost anyone now on the planet, other than my own children.  I still feel blessed in so many ways as well as immensely grateful, and although life is distinctly more stressful, complex, demanding, and anxiety evoking on the road than in the bubble created behind the gate of the ashram, I am also happy, excited, awed, and even liking myself. 

I still feel that I have not in any way adequately captured or expressed the essence of what the ashram was for me, and what it is as an “objective” entity.  Nor have I satisfactorily expressed what it is like to be seventy-one years of age, living inside of this specific and particular mind, body, and consciousness.  It reminds me of what I thought an anthropologist’s highest aim was, at least as I saw it, which was to first accurately and “objectively” describe what is being observed (ethnography) and then to express what it is like to perceive reality through the mindset, worldview, consciousness, and lenses worn by the members of the subject group.  And although I think I can do so for a variety of subsets of Americans, on a variety of issues, ideas, actions, choices, values, hopes, fears, etc., I am quite sure that as to the Indian people I encounter I cannot conceivably say with any degree of accuracy or confidence what the world looks like peering out from their eyes.  Which is another way in which I think the ashram succeeded admirably, namely in describing with some accuracy what the world looks like when viewed through what Gandharji, and his father, and Ghandarji’s guru, a disciple of Satchidinanda, saw traditional yog as being.  

 December 9, 2011

            Not your average day in my life and yet a day in which I did something I had already done once before, retracting my steps, step by step, in the very same calendar year that I had first traveled from Aurangabad to Ajanta, its thirty caves and two thousand year old frescos, this time in the company of my sister and nephew, including a long sit with them in the meditation cell in cave #6 where I’d left a pinch of Miles’ ashes a mere eight months ago.  Not your average day, indeed.  I read the poem I wrote about this cave and Miles’ ashes.  Sheryl and Ian cried.  We each left a rock as a reminder we’d been there.  Sheryl talked about Miles’ anniversary memorial at Pine Lake in November, the poems read, the words said, the unreality of his absence, how seven of his friends showed up at her door late in the afternoon bearing roses and loving memories of who Miles was and of his friendship.  But as Saint Patanjali directs, “Now yoga.”

December 10, 2011 – stranger still, this time revisiting Ellora, where we find an absolutely marvelous bee hive, alive and dripping with wax, where I am separated from Ian and Sheryl for hours and hours, each of us making distinct suppositions about the other’s behavior and reasoning and Sheryl being worried and freaked out about my separated circumstances in a way reminiscent of how she’d respond to Miles when they were not in synch, and visiting the Jain cave where I left parts of what was once Miles, now in the care of hundreds of bats who live in this very safe and sanctified space where the ceiling is the ground, and no one crawls or walks since everyone can fly.  As for me, I had everything I needed to survive alone anywhere in the world warm enough to not need another layer of clothing, and was quite confortable – including in my minimal survival kit: passport, credit card, laptop, iphone, change of underwear, washcloth, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a week’s worth of meds.  What more does a fellow need?  And as we rode back into Aurangabad the Earth came between the sun and the moon and covered it in a full eclipse of darkness and shadow.  And thus it was … on earth as it is in heaven.

December 11, 2011

I have caught Ian’s cold, or someone’s cold, or maybe even a flu, and it is weighing on me, scratchy throat, hacking cough not in my lungs, woozy, achy, chills, occasional sweating, temp of 101.5, lack of appetite, inordinately tired. 

We visit Shirdi, Sai Baba’s temple, in an absolute storm and crush of humanity, being marketed by forces outside anyone or any organization’s control that I could see or find, even searching the Internet.  We also visited Sheryl’s old peace corps village, Rahata, now totally unrecognizable, far more a good size town than a village, and then spent the night in a nice hotel in Pune where we ate Tibetan momos in a student enclave near the hotel and I took my first real hot shower in over 5 weeks.

Dec 12, 2011.  I am officially sick.  Sheryl and Ian are off for Kathmandu and I have found a fourteen-dollar a night room in a nice enough house on a quiet lane near where I stayed before on Burning Ghats Road in Pune.  I have also found Apurna and Pravil, am also exploring going to Kathmandu, but most of all I am sleeping … and drinking water and juice … and blowing my nose … and trying to be at peace with what is currently a clammy, sore, diarrheic cold, an ear ache, and maybe a flu, while being kind to myself, respectful of my circumstances, and not too anxious.  It is hard to know how much of my mood is a result of being sick, but I am feeling immensely lethargic and without energy, and don’t have any idea what I wish to be doing next on the voyage … other than laying abed and resting … which is not the easiest thing for me to do anywhere, but especially challenging alone here in this alien land.   What I am clearly called upon to do at this moment is simply rest, be kind (including to myself), manifest patience and calm, and just be conscious and heartfelt.  This is my first real illness in a year of SE Asia travels, a fear manifest, and both a challenge as well as a teaching experience.

            The ashram I found so engaging, relaxing, and beneficial, already seems far away.  The time w Sheryl and Ian revising the ancient man made caves at Ellora and Ajanta - where I had left pinches of miles' ashes a mere 8 months ago - was mostly predictable.  Going to Shirdi (Sai Baba's temple), and visiting the once-upon-a-time farming village (now a bustling good sized town) where Sheryl was in the Peace Corps 45 years ago were each memorable and worthy of a paragraph or a poem, but not now.

After separating from Sheryl and Ian I visited the Iyengar yoga teachers I’d met here in Pune on last trip, took a yoga ropes class from them - quite nice/very different - and went with them to house party/Krishna gathering/darshan, kirtan and Prasad in the modern apartment complex where the yoga studio is, a real glimpse into middle class urban Hare Krishna Indian life.  (The hosts had lived in the US for six years and had found Krishna while resident in Bloomington.  Who knew that’s where he was hanging?)  My favorite lines from the evening were: (1) - "there are only two possibilities, either god exists, or god doesn't exist.  and both of these possibilities are very scary," 2 - "when seeking pleasure be guided by what pleases god," and 3 - "99% of all spiritual enlightenment arises from earnest and dedicated chanting."  The yoga teachers chant every morning from 3:30 to 5:30 and say it makes them very happy.  As I said, who knew? 

And on the medical front, at the Krishna gathering I was introduced by the yogis to a very handsome, well spoken, dignified 45 or 50 year old MD, who inquired about my symptoms and then went home to gather and return with some unidentifiable and unnamed pills, which I took.  I mean, how can you not trust a certified anesthesiologist who says he learned as much medicine from the Bhagavad Gita as he did in medical school?

            And then, in a moment of truly evolved travel chutzpah (that's Sanskrit for bravado) - I booked a flight from Pune to Delhi to Varanasi on-line! for tomorrow!, just like that, even getting a better rate without the use of a travel agent.  I also nixed a side trip to Kathmandu, having gotten very mixed info about reentry into India from Nepal and just didn't trust I could get back in after leaving India on the type of visa I have without a 2 month wait ... and I didn't want to gamble on that one ... espec since my flight to Myanmar on 9 Jan - where I am planning to rendezvous w Steve Wangh for a day or two - originates in Kolkata.  Anyhow, I’m hoping my time in Varanasi with Sunil and Bhatti will compensate for how otherwise challenging I know Varanasi is.  Christmas in Varanasi?  I really have no idea how the time between here and Myanmar will be filled, although I am definitely looking forward to some of that time being in the Himalayas in Sikkim, where I hope to hike, find yoga teachers, and/or pursue my solo yoga practice with the new and old arrows in my fully replenished yoga quiver ... and for some reason I'm also looking forward to visiting Kolkata.  

Finally, for now, it is worthy of note how the lack of structure out of the ashram requires a completely different mindset/consciousness, inasmuch as it leaves me totally on my own in terms of filling time and mental focus and I have observed in that regard how often I actually find myself chanting ...

Dec. 15, 2011

I arrive in Varanasi quite sick, wondering what the hell I am actually doing here, and appalled as ever by the conditions, the crowding, the shit and spit underfoot, the air quality, the chill in the air - I’m wearing a wool hat, a fleece, and two pairs of pants in the dense and chilly London-like fog that has settled over everything like a dirty blanket of smog.  Still, the guesthouse I'm at is located on a very sweet (relative as that term must be) cul de sac, with an Italianate courtyard, where I have a private bath, the rate is 11$/night, and it's actually quiet and relatively clean!  Did I really say that?  And Sunil and Bharti's home/studio is literally less than 5 minute walk away.  

Now, as is my wont to believe, the Indians won't cheat you or steal from you - at least in my experience - but they will take you for all they can get, every last rupee.  So, after a conversation appraising my needs and goals, Sunil and Bharti conclude I needed an intensive two week yoga certificate course ... which will cost me 40$ a day (group classes are 4$/2hour class.  Okay, that's steep, but it's also what I came for ... and I’m unlikely to ever be back here, anymore than back in Pune, or frankly India … and these are the guides talking to me, right?  So I sign up, 4 to 6 hours a day they say.  Fine.  Then - after further consultation – my trusted teachers decided that what I really need to augment and anchor my yoga practice is to take an intensive Reiki course, after which I will be certified as a reiki master.  Now, as we all know I’m a very skeptical fellow about crystal healing, the efficacy of prayer, reiki, Ayurveda, Zoe, etc., but the cost was explained to me to be only 100$, and I figured I might as well scope Reiki out with as open a heart and open chakras as I reasonable can.  So I signed up for that too.  Only Bharti has “inadvertently” (though not without psychological significance I trust) left a zero off the end of the course price and it is really1000$ dollars for the two weeks, and even though that seemed beyond totally exorbitant, and I felt like a mark with a big bull's eye painted on my back, I also felt that I was being quite clearly guided to these opportunities and being offered a portal through which to explore the possibility of increasing my capacity for energetic healing that I was unlikely to ever encounter from people I distrusted less.  Ever.  

And so that's what I’ve set about doing in Varanasi for two weeks, taking another intensive yoga course, and studying Reiki.  Who knew?  I mean I certainly believe we each receive and emit energy from a “universal” source, and I certainly believe energy can be focused and directed, that doesn’t seem too weird.  And more than that I don't really know.  But in a way akin to the truth that yoga found me, and stretched, deepened, and opened me ... there is also no doubt that Reiki has arisen very explicitly, and declared itself with great clarity, standing boldly right in front of me on the path.  And so it goes.  I spend an hour doing neti today using fresh cows’ milk and managed to coax a ghee-lubricated catheter thru my nose and down my throat, although I couldn't quite get the catheter out over my tongue and through my opened mouth.  (Even with Sunil ever so helpfully putting his lovely clean fingers down my throat.)  And then I spent an hour doing pranayama.  And then it was time for my nap.

December 22, 2011

            A week slides by, much of it doing yoga or asleep.  Aside from a trip to the hospital and an ATM machine my days are encompassed and lived exclusively and literally on the perimeter of a one block square - the Teerth guesthouse on one side, the Brown Bread bakery and Wi-Fi on the second side, (there is a second Brown Bread Bakery across the alley, but that is the one we don’t go to), Sunil and Bharti’s home and studio on the third side, and the Megu Japanese restaurant - opened only 10 to 3 - on the fourth.  (I have travelled across half the globe to live on and in the parameters of one square block of crumbling real estate.)  All of my time is spent within these boundaries.  All of my needs appear to be adequately met here, and, in truth, there is no more of Varanasi I am interested in seeing or encountering.  I’m studying yoga.  I’m practicing Reiki.  I’m recovering from the flu.  I’ve still got it in my head that I’m going from here to Sikkim.

And on the medical front - my trip to the hospital on Saturday was a truly unique event.  First of all the hospital was mobbed as you’d expect, secondly it was clean, not quite what you’d expect, and third, at least from what I experienced of it, was highly efficient (which may just be what the absence of paperwork and paper records can do), if not effective (the measure of which would require a more substantial longitudinal study than this idiosyncratic clinical case report of a 71 year old man with a grippe can offer).  I “registered” at a counter along with dozens of other milling pushing folks, for which as a non-Indian I paid 20 cents.  What “registered” means is that I gave someone behind this busy counter my name and ten rupees, they gave me back a single piece of paper with my name written on it, and I was assigned to a doctor in a cubicle.  The doctor sat alone and collected the pieces of registration paper as the papers were thrust at him by the patients, filed them with the most recently added paper at the bottom, and then called out a person’s name.  The person came forward and sat at the doctor’s desk to the doctor’s left.  The doctor nodded, giving permission for the supplicant to say what she or he was doing there.  This took less than a minute.  The doctor then took a very deep meditative breath, exhaled, flicked lint off his cardigan, and wrote something down on the paper, presumably the patient’s complaint.  Then he wrote out a prescription on the paper and handed it back to the patient.  Then he called the next person’s name; time with doctor, less than 3 minutes.  I watched this process 5 times including my own.  Twice he took the person’s hand and looked at their fingernails, perhaps focused on the half moon next to the cuticle, but how would I know.  Twice he lifted his stethoscope to his ears and listened to the person’s chest.  He listened to my chest through five layers of clothing.  I took two breaths.  He wrote out a prescription for five day’s worth of four separate meds.  I asked what he made of my condition.  He said, “Take the medication.  You will feel better in five days.”  Then he called the next person’s name.  I went to the pharmacy … right next to registration.  The meds were named things like “knock-out,” “staph-go,” and “flu be gone.”  The filled prescription cost me six dollars.  I left the hospital meds in hand less than a half hour after arriving.  I took all of the meds.  Five days later I felt much better.  My good American family doc and close friend Lyle says I got what I paid for.  I dunno.  Being sick was no fun.  I slept clothed under two blankets.  My temp went as high as 103.5 and as low as 93. 5.  It’s still under 96.  And all the time I was ministered to by Saint Bharti, who gave me Reiki energy healing, plied me with Ayurvedic medicine, and assured I drank lots and lots of sweet fresh milky tea, and caught my cold.  The most striking part of the whole experience, the hospital, the doc, the cost, the pills, and Bharti, was my state of mind: my profoundly comfortable aloneness, my overall level of acceptance, the sense of solitude and quietude.  Of which there is still more to say that I haven’t come close to capturing … mostly about what being alone in this cave was actually about, how totally alone I am, and what that has meant about self, ego, spirituality, etc.  And no, I don't think you get what you paid for ... at least not outside the realm of material goods.  But what I do think is that we each mostly give to life our complete and absolute best ... and that then all the rest is gifted to us. 

December 27, 2011 - The “even more unknown” part of my trip is about to unfold.  I have booked an overnight sleeper car train ticket from Mughal Sarai Junction, Uttar Pradesh to New Jalpaiguri, leaving from near Varanasi on Thursday evening the 29th and arriving in NJP as everyone calls it some 16+ hours later.  Even the names of these places sound romantic and lyrical to me, although they often do in India until you get there.  I have to travel to NJP because there are NO trains or planes from anywhere in the world to anywhere in Sikkim.  And from New Jalpaiguri I'll have to get to Gongtak, Sikkim by bus, or to Darjeeling and then move on by bus.  I’ll make those decisions depending on what connections I find and what time I actually arrive in NJP Friday morning.  I fly out of Kolkata on 1/9/12 for my rendezvous w Steve Wangh in Mandalay, Burma, so my need to arrive earlier in Kolkata will guide my movements and choices in Sikkim.  Then I hang out in Burma for close to four weeks b4 my rendezvousing w Joy in Perth ... and come home to the Cape - inshallah - via San Fran in late Feb.  So far, just like I planned it, although Bali is also competing w Myanmar as a draw …

December 29, 2011

            Up early on a chilly, gray morning - probably last time forever in this life time and this material form - in Varanasi, clothes washed yesterday still wet on the line, listening to Jai Uttal on the laptop and getting ready for a three class yoga sprint to the finish line and the train at 9 PM out of Moghul Sarai.  Been having a great time the last few days within the boundaries of my square block existence comprised of a routine that includes AM and PM yoga, no food until after 6PM, evening Reiki, and that, my friends, is about what makes up the day.  Been writing a little poetry that mostly doesn’t satisfy me, but is at least making its way to the page and, of course, deep in thought, and even occasional discourse, about consciousness, divinity, divine consciousness, spirituality, etc.  Hey, that’s what you do on a spiritual journey isn’t it, at least apparently if you are me it is.  In fact, when people ask me why I came back to India so soon after my last visit, I find myself saying, “I hadn’t finished my work here.”

            Went to Sarnath yesterday, where Lord Buddha gave his first talk/discourse after his enlightenment.  It was surprisingly moving, complete with Bodhi tree, good archeology, good statuary, rows and rows of burning candles, incense, Tibetan prayer flags, and mobs of Tibetans, Buddhist monks, Himalayan and hill tribe or ethnic Indians, and straight up Indian Hindi families on outings and in pilgrimage groups.  The most impressive part for me was an overwhelming sense that Buddha was still there, that his teachings were still current, and that people were coming to the site at Sarnath to be in the literal or resonant presence of the master.  I’m not sure why this is any different than Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, or pilgrims going to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to be present where Jesus’ blood and body were present, but Sarnath definitely felt like a spiritual place, being visited by people moved by a spiritual message, more about morality, reverence, and enlightenment than about dogma, more about honoring a set of teachings than about a god.            

I should write something about Reiki and about my session offering healing to the American, David, and his reaction to it ... and something about Monika Mueller, the healer.

            At the end of my time in Varanasi I was aware of a special bond that had formed between Sunil and me, Bharti and me, and even between me and their one and a half year old daughter – who could say “nose,” mouth,” and eye” and point to her right body parts by the time I left – as well as their live-in help, Ram, and their servant tobacco chewing woman housekeeper.  Bharti liked to talk w me about philosophy.  She had meals prepared for me every lunch and dinner.  I was taken into their household in a way I’ m sure they do not do with most of their students and there was a common acknowledgement that I genuinely honored and respected them and that the feeling was mutual.  Bharti would say frequently how surprised she was that her daughter had opened to me, wanted to see me, was comfortable with me, and that I was a “pure soul.” 

I think our bond was in part about the respect that the older generation gets in India, my genuine respect for them as teachers, a “natural” response to my friendly, comfortable, unpretentious, openness, and some kind of genuine indefinable energetic emotional attraction/connection.  I know they valued my friendship and the respect and warmth I showed them, and I quickly became a “senior student” who they showed off to others and took a sense of pride in.  And it wasn’t just respect between us either, although that was a big piece of what was going on … it was also something that I would call love, personal warmth and … dare I say it … a spiritual connection of consciously bound souls.

December 30, 2011 – Crossing the divide … or to get to Sikkim you have to really want to get there.

I arrive at the Mughal Sarai train station for the 9:20 PM train at 9P quite proud of my ability to negotiate the passage from guesthouse checkout after two full weeks there, to Sunil and Bharti’s, and from Sunil and Bharti’s to the train station, complete with the use of a “coolie” to carry my bags on his head, and another terrifying cab ride in a three wheel rickshaw over the busiest, most amazingly erratic, dusty, bumpy, pitted, alternatively dirt, gravel, and black top, without lanes or borders, main road to a busy train terminus, I’m thinking, in the entire world, only to discover the train is delayed 5 hours.  That’s five, count them ladies and gentlemen, five hours and no guarantee it wouldn’t be longer … in an Indian train station, complete with cows, dogs, rats, I mean big un-frightened rats who think the waiting room is their personal garden of Eden, and Indian families sleeping and eating on the floor and pissing over the edge of the platform on a cold December night.  Fortunately, Bharti had prepared some food wrapped in old newspaper for me to take on the train, which I ate all of before midnight. Plus she called crying to make sure I was okay and to remind me that India was not the nicest place for a “pure soul” like me to be cruising around in.

            Then, as if on cue, and even more fortunately (I almost said divinely, but lets not get too carried away here) I was engaged by the most charming thirteen young old boy – Anurag Sharma - my newest guide – who with his seven person Nepali-Indian family was headed toward … you guessed it … Gangtuk, after their family’s memorial visit to Varanasi, and who adopted me on the spot in the train station, where we spent hours playing a variety of games and exploring my computer.  I was also a source of great interest and laughter for the Indians as I ate the aloo paratha Bharti had packed for my trip, unwrapping each paratha ceremoniously from the old newspaper they had been wrapped in and truly enjoying eating them as any old Indian would.

And then at 2:30, the train pulled into the station, only to discover that the “sleeper” class I had booked was not “first” class, which meant there was no heat, and no blankets, and I had to put on just about every piece of clothing I’d brought with me, including two pairs of pants, two pairs of sox, seven layers of shirts, vest, sweater, sweatshirt, windbreaker, and winter hat and actually slept for three or four hours, awakening to the sun rising through the cold morning mist bound for New Jaigulpuri and Sikkim, conversation in Hindi surrounding me, the train alive with tea wallas plying the narrow crowded train corridors calling out “chai,” “hot chai.”  I mean, what’s a fellow to do awakening to a reality like that, but whip out his laptop computer and start writing, which, of course draws an unabashed crowd of Indian men and kids – some of whom speak English – looking at the computer and reading what I am writing over my shoulder, which is inhibiting my free expression and making me very self conscious about what I want to write about, which is the absolutely incredibly dreamlike reality of being on a lively, crowded, and I do mean crowded, bustling, challenging, in your face and over your shoulder train on my pilgrimage/voyage to Sikkim.

So I stop writing and go into laptop photo exhibit mode – this is the ashram I was at in Nasik for 28 days, here’s me, my son, my daughter, my grandchildren, this is my girlfriend – which always gets a huge laugh from the crowd and a flurry of questions - the town I live in, my yoga teacher, my bungalow, the beach, tigers, elephants, deer, moths, dead dolphins and birds, my now dead dog, my ex-wife, my garden, snow, friends.  Okay, photo display over, time for music … Jai Uttal singing Sita Ram, and yes, amazingly, even the girlfriend singing a song she wrote and playing guitar to music she composed, and no, not famous, and yes, beautiful.  Which brings me to my recording of the South African National Anthem, which I play for them and say “Nelson Mandela.”  And they ask if I have the American National Anthem on my computer, and I don’t, so they ask me to sing it, and, I mean, what the hell, and there I am singing about the dawn’s early light on a train riding through India.  I get it.  

All this while children are crying, mothers are chasing their kids with toothbrushes, men and women are walking up and down the train corridor selling everything from flashlights and small locks, to peanuts, water, socks, breakfast, lunch, dishes carried in pails served out by the naked handful into old newspaper to be eaten with the fingers of the right hand, money older than god and looking like used toilet paper passing back and forth, beggars scuttling along on the floor with their hand out, coconut sellers, fresh cut fruit sellers, and even a very stunning, attractive transvestite, with long hair, huge earrings, eye shadow, a silk sari, and his/her beard showing through the makeup, not afraid to make eye contact with me, and offering to dance for money, as total gay as anyone you’d meet on the streets of P’town, who said about me in Hindi the onlookers say, “He is soooo cute.” 

Had enough?  Everyone in India has a cough.  There were no blankets or electrical outlets in sleeper class.  Two twenty-one year old Korean women, who were in one yoga class with me in Varanasi and remember my name as Bruno sleep in the two bunks immediately above me, although more amazing than the coincidence, at least in my eyes, is the fact that they actually had sleeping bags.

As morning advanced I was able to take off six of the seven layers of shirts, vest, sweater, and windbreaker that I had slept in and to buy chai after chai, although I couldn’t bring myself to throw the plastic cup out of the train window.  “It’s India, just throw it,” said the Indians.  The Korean women bought a fried egg omelet.  We all tore it apart with our unwashed hands and ate it.  I also ate bananas, cookies, peanuts, hard-boiled eggs, and even a samosa and some aloo dish that I bought, yes, from a vendor on a train station platform halfway to NJP.  As I said, you have to really want to get to Sikkim to get there.  And it’s not just the five-hour wait in the train station, of course, which is merely the prelude, there’s also the actual train ride itself, which takes 21 hours instead of 16, and the physical and social and environmental strain of being on the train.  And even that, of course, is also only the beginning because here we are early on the last day of the year 2011, having left Mughal Sarai on the 29th and still not in Sikkim on the 31st. 

December 31, 2011

Our train gets in to NJP around 10:30 PM on the 30th instead of the originally anticipated 1:30PM.  There are, of course, no buses or jeeps running to Gangtuk at this time of night.  And there are no local guest houses available for our party of now 10 - seven Indians, 2 Korean women, and me – except one guesthouse that had part of a dorm becoming available at 2AM, and since the first jeeps start running after daybreak around 6:30A from right next to the train station, the father in the Indian family suggested we just spend the night in the train station waiting room, as we had done the night before at Moghul Sarai, and who am I to say no to the guides.  So here I am, literally dizzy and still sea sick/motion sick more than 4 hours after getting off the rolling train (is there any doubt – among other reasons - why I don’t love boats), my yoga mat spread out on the floor of the train station and me trying to sleep on it, Indian style, but having no luck in a room of snoring, coughing, sneezing Indian people, the train station public address system going off every once in a while to announce the arrival on platform 2 or 3 of some train from somewhere and the 7 hour delay of the “special express” coming from who knows where, all of which may account for how many Indian train travelers have the smarts to bring blankets, tarps, rugs, five gallon jugs of water, food for a week, and cooking equipment and fuel before they arrive at the station for a train trip.  Did I say you really need to want to get to Gangtuk to actually get there?

            Anyhow, challenging, even brutal, as all that is, by 7A I am packed like a sardine into an old jeep, driving on roads comprised almost exclusively of hairpin turns thru the most spectacularly beautiful foothills of the Himalayas, on my way to Gangtuk, and by1PM, oh sweet miracle of life, I am in a hotel room overlooking the western sun shining on the third highest mountain in the world, not a bad way to end the year at all.

January 1, 2012 – Gangtuk, Sikkim – “No entry without purpose.”  Sign seen on this New Year’s Day posted on door at Remtuk Monastery, as good guidance for the New Year as any I can imagine. 

I awaken to the smell of ceremonial candle wax burning, first day of the New Year, Sikkimese people frequently asking me as the year 2011 closes and 2012 begins if I think the world will end in 2012.  I doubt they ask it every year.  Maybe it is about some calendric foretelling, but whatever the cause I laugh and say “No.”

“So what do you think will happen?” they ask me quite seriously. 

“More suffering.  Much more happiness,” I say. 

Went to the old monastery in Remtuk, sat chanting and drumming with young monks, awed by their discipline, the artwork surrounding them, the creative energy it took to make the monastery a reality, our debt to the past, and their willingness to have me just plunk myself down beside them.  Was asked if I was a lama.  Smiled and said, “No,” but maybe it’s another of those definitional problems.  Spun about a thousand prayer wheels.  Ate crazily.  Went higher up into the mountains than I’d been advised to for health reasons, but couldn’t resist Hanumantok at 8,200 feet.  Felt the altitude.  Took Prasad in the temple there.  Ate it.  Drove within 30 miles of the border with Tibet at Nathula.  Too bad no one but Indians can get in, nor any Tibetans legally get out.  Gave myself Reiki; need more practice.  Had an immensely romantic encounter with a butterfly.   Caught some nice morning glimpses of Khangchendzonga.   Wrote.  Got to an Internet café and sent a satisfying number of pictures and messages.  Was called by Bharti who wished me a Happy New Year and said they all missed me, which was immensely touching.  Decided to move on to Pelling in West Sikkim tomorrow, further out than I’ve been, and looking forward to it.

But now it’s time to listen to the Pats streaming from Providence.  You can take the boy out of Boston …

January 2, 2012

My wrist watch stopped working, my cell phone ran out of minutes, I cannot call out or get email, I can see my breath in my room, I dreamt of Alan, Carmen, my old black BMW and what a truly wonderful car it was, trying to get an esoteric car part for it, retirement plans, money, the constraints that a lack of money imposes, and the constrains a fear of not having enough money imposes.  All of which reminds me I am still of this world … and still within the arch of so-called sanity … even if I’m the only person I have serious conversation with, day after day for months, other than an occasional call with Joy or brief exchanges with my kids, who I miss.  I am also laughing a lot, with no one to hear me or note I am doing so other than myself, but many daily encounters and occurrences strike me as humorous, and it is humorous to be who I see myself as being, and it is often humorous to see what I see.  Which this morning are clouds so thick I might as well be in a jet airplane as in a hotel in Gangtuk planning to take the overland somewhat treacherous ride to Pelling.

Ah Pelling – if only I could see it …

The road from Gangtok through Ravanga and Legship to Pelling is one of the world’s most spectacular auto roads.  I have certainly never driven on a rougher, more dramatic, or narrower road, and that includes the famous road to Hana in Maui, with almost no height and fewer waterfall coming down from holy, royal Mount Haliakala, of which there is only one, whereas this is within an entire mountain range, the road to Monte Verde in Costa Rica, which is much wider and far less steep, although the potholes and rock outcroppings are similar, and even the back road to Mooselookleguntic in Maine, which goes for maybe twenty miles, but is in a similar condition of disrepair.  This road curves up and down the Himalayan ranges between eastern and western Sikkim through five sub-climatic zones, although I see mostly what I’d call rainforest, although hardly tropical, with seemingly innumerable waterfalls, avalanches, rock slides, boulders in the road, palms, bamboo, ferns, moss, lichen, flowering plants, tall trees, gigantic poinsettias, and wild orchids that has completely altered my view of what temperature and how much water some of these plants need/like in order to thrive/survive.  And while I was driving through clouds with very limited visibility for most of the time, I was nonetheless truly amazed at the human habitations I saw and the wondrous beauty we are enfolded in.  Amazed.  We (my driver and I) also stopped at two tea shacks where I got hot tea, a delicious spicy fried egg, and, of course, steamed momos.  If I survive the sanitation on this trip I will be happy as a clam, which is not a bad analogy for certain kinds of food processing talents.

January 3, 2011 – Pelling, Sikkim

Had a long and lovely phone conversation with Joy who is back home on the Cape after visiting Loren in L.A. over Xmas, followed by a lovely dream of making love with her that included us so enjoying our contact and crescendo-ing physical engagement when all of a sudden I just stopped abruptly, as if completely done, and said, “That was great.  What would you like to do next,” and we both laughed knowing it was a joke, and that we would soon return to where we physically and emotionally wanted to be.  And although there is a way to pathologize elements of the dream as depicting a break from intensity and a joke to diminish feelings, and some of that probably was present in the emergence of the joke, the main fact is that the joke was also precious, a way of poking fun at ourselves, a way of making a connection, of explicitly sharing our appreciation of one another, and of taking a moment to acknowledge and articulate that, “Hey, this is really wonderful and I’m glad to be here sharing it with u.”  It is so nice to have a relationship with a creature such as Joy is, with the person/woman Joy is, and immensely enabling and positive for me.

In another dream I was in a country that doesn’t actually exist, but combined elements of a number of places, real and imaginary, in both SE Asian and colder clime, like Lapland, or Tibet, Mongolia, or Sikkim. I was madly in love with the place and with its people.  Ethnic dress continued to be worn by the young.  As isolated as the country was, I attended a forum being held concerning the plight of the Palestinians as an indigenous people.  I absolutely could not figure out the country’s currency, which was something like 7260 units (I think that’s about the height in feet I’m sleeping at) to the dollar.  I was totally lost in the streets and comfortable with that fact because although I cavalierly left my hosts without their address or a phone number I did know the name of a landmark in their general neighborhood and trusted I could find their place once I can got back to that landmark.  I also visited what was called a circus, but was really just an amalgam of acts happening all at once in the round.  I also visited a bar where delicious foods were offered from a buffet you selected your treats from.  It had coed bathrooms, with showers.  The people were so alive and vibrant.  Everything was BIG.  Firemen used massive matched teams of Belgian and of Percheron horses.  Huge Saint Bernard dogs roamed the streets bumping into people as they obliviously frolicked.  Some were even used to pull sled-like carriage taxis, running like a dogsled team with great speed and grace through streets and picturesque tunnels. I want to live there, to be among these people, to detail their energy and grace, to be a cultural anthropologist/ethnologist amongst them.

This desire to be an anthropologist/ethnologist (the distinction between the two, or how I use and differentiate the words, at least to my mind, is quite fascinating), and to understand the attitudes and worldview of others - personality and culture it used to be called - is a very prominent hunger of mine here in Sikkim, where there is so much I do not understand, but know would be accessible if I could only speak the language and live among them for a time.  And the socio-cultural history of this place fascinates me. I wish I could find some academic cultural historian and chat with her or him for a while.  It is mostly what I perceive as their bubbly happiness, gentleness, kindness, humility, good humor, pride in people and place, that draws me both to the Sikkimese and to the people of the dream, as has that same perception often drawn me to other cultures and peoples who seem to be taking more pleasure in their existence and in the simple content of their daily lives than Americans appear to choose or be able to, at least to my perception.  And, of course, I continue to feel quite alienated from America and Americans, much as I have all my life he writes, staring out the window as the clouds that have enshrouded the proximate Himalayas now rise to create spectacular partial peak visibility, as I worry, in a not very here and now moment, about what will equivalently engage me when I am at home.

But today, Pelling, a truly remarkable place, even if the clouds did cover most of the higher mountain peaks, because (a) I’m just in an amazing place as a seventy year old guy travelling thru time, space, and Sikkim, (b) because I’d did get some great occasional sun splashed glimpses of Rathong, Khangchendzonga, and other peaks in the range in the early morning, and (c) because I again spent the day driving around, as I did yesterday, saying over and over again, “This is so beautiful.  This is just so beautiful.”  And, of course it is beautiful, spectacular I’d say, houses perched on the very thinnest ridges of impossible peaks and crest lines, terraced fields at 6,000 feet, a descent from Pelling at approximately 7,000 feet to Rambi, which is on a river’s edge, perhaps still at 3,000 feet, a vertical distance of less than a kilometer, taking 12 kilometers of twists and turns to get down.  And everywhere people walking on the most deserted stretches of road, obviously going from someplace to someplace else, but, man, I have no idea where, and wherever it is, it’s gotta take them many hours to get there.  I said to my surprised driver, “let’s pick up some of these people, please.”  And he did (reluctantly?).  And when we let them out a good five or six kilometers down the road and they offered the driver money he shook it off, a very nice move, I thought, both for him and for me. 

I also had what sometimes seems to me almost like my requisite three less than “this could really have been bad” accidents/reminders early – my iPhone falling out of my jacket pocket onto a little slotted bamboo bridge, where it got lodged at a crazy angle barely precluding its falling into the water below, banging my head coming out of a bathroom down by the river, and banging my head a second time on a long bamboo shaft leaning up against a wall at a monastery above Pelling while not quite paying proper attention.  (Duh.  Obviously.)  Reminded me of Colin Turnbull writing of his life among an African rainforest band of pygmies in “The Forest People,” that he figured the role he fell into with them was village idiot.  But I don’t want to be unkind to myself, or unnecessarily critical of myself, except to note that most pain I now experience seems avoidable and that choosing pain is a blunder.

And there is more.  After descending from Pelling to Rambi, we climbed again to around six thousand feet where the road literally ended after about 26 kilometers at the small village and monastery of Khecheodpairi, a short walk from “Wish Fulfilling Lake,” a small mountain lake clearly shaped in the form of a huge left foot print that certain Buddhists believe was made by a goddess passing through the mountains.  I was particularly moved on the path to the lake by the manifestations of the love of rocks, rocks carved and inscribed on, rocks piled upon one another in precarious balance, rocks laid out so that they appear to be growing up a tree stump, rocks on top of rocks, offering the simplest, most accessible kind of devotion, remembrance.

I lit three butter candles inside the monk’s cabin at the lake, my wishes encompassing all my blood relatives now living, Joy, Loren, my departed parents, Miles, and my adopted cousin Robert.  Be in peace, beloveds.  Be in peace.

After the lake I drove back up to 7,000 feet or so, covering the same muddy, rock strew, collapsing 12 kilometers of road and ended up at the lovely Pemayangtsi Monastery just outside of Pelling, near the ruins of the old Sikkimese capital, followed by a visit to the totally isolated, delightful Lotus Bakery where I bought a most delicious “apple roll.”  I mean, delicious. 

Then, after more momos at the local “café,” a shack overlooking the street on one side and the mountains on the other, more chai with farm fresh steamed milk, more peanuts, and the precious occasional Kit Kat, I was ready to face the long lovely night, looking forward to writing, to reading, to rest, and to what I hope is another spectacular drive tomorrow, continuing on to Darjeeling.  Amen, Great Spirit.  Amen.  

January 4, 2012

Two powerful and quite thematically similar dreams accompany my first mildly uncomfortable/distressed night on my voyage, alone in Pelling, my cell phone out of minutes for techno reasons having to do w “roaming charges” and being in Sikkim I think, thus leaving me feeling more cut off and vulnerable, a disturbing sensation in my chest I hope is mostly related to food, or altitude, or bronchitis, anything but my heart please; being un-tired and restless with a long dark cold night in front of me; the father in “Namesake,” the brilliant book I am reading, dying suddenly of a heart attack; the manager of the hotel I am at in an impulsive moment of wanting to give me something, borne of what I now see as a familiar pattern of people being moved somehow by some combination I’d guess of who I actually am, by my energy and my smile, by my mala and shaved head, by my age and the fact I am bravely traveling alone, by some perception that I am, if not a holy person, then at least an interesting, attractive, and warm person, ceremoniously giving me a postcard of blue Six Armed Mahakala, surrounded in flame, skulls adorning his headdress, to “protect” me and keep me safe he says, but disturbing to me and “religious” as opposed to “spiritual” in a way that makes me uncomfortable, even as it was given as a “gift.”

              As for my dreams, in both I am a younger man, in my forties or early fifties, very lost, without purpose, without income, unable to motivate myself to do anything to make money, depressed in my being if not in my affect, and frightened by my inability to engage, aimless, and concerned.  I turn to Steven for help.  Steven, who I imagine must still distance himself from the internal critical voice that arises within him when making the inevitable comparisons between the life he has chosen and the life I have chosen, mine a life he would absolutely not want or like, his a life consistent with his truest self, but still it is the comparisons themselves that make him uncomfortable.  He has little to offer other than urging I find a way to take the need to make money seriously, to make compromises if need be, but to allocate at least some of my energy and time to the pursuit of a monetary bottom line, or in the alternative a genuine passion although neither of us have seen any evidence of creative passion and direction in my life for quite some time.  I then counter his concerns by pointing out I am actually in my late sixties, not fifties, and that I am involved in a very conscious and calculated gamble about how long I will live, and have decided, that at least for me, money is really not the issue, that purpose and engagement are the issue.

And here we find me, on the floor of my hotel room in Pelling, Sikkim, seated cross legged on a prayer mat, close as I can get to the heater, clouds almost totally obscuring the snowy peaks, but the valleys clear and green below, as I recall a very interesting image from last evening of looking up at the sky and not being able to see any stars, and then looking down and out into the long deep valleys, where the lights from houses glistened like stars in the heavens, spread out on an inverse canopy or apron, heaven above and heaven below.  I consider myself deep into my spiritual journey, mindful that one must truly be careful what they wish for, that “mann tracht und gott lacht,” insecure/concerned at times, in a way I can generally overcome, about my “rationality” (if not also at times my sanity), not exactly “praying,” but definitely trying to channel energy and be open to energy, and be opened to spirit, and to spirit guides, and much as I know that projection and suggestion are powerful powerful forces in the human sphere, and attitude is everything, and perception is reality, still, my perception is that energy is being moved, if not “transformed,” directed, redirected, and channeled all the time, and that my being’s ability to “consciously” (and unconsciously) partake in and even influence the movement of energy has risen immensely and that I am somehow closer to a conscious awareness of and an intentional, non dualistic living of my own spiritual/energetic essence. 

One last thing worthy of mention here: as I practice yoga these days I imagine myself “leading” a class, which, of course, requires me to be talking to myself as I provide guidance and instruction.  And while the talking is a bit of a distraction from my own meditative asana and breathing practice, what I notice is the emergence of my own language, emphases, direction, rhythm, priorities, and pace.  And I like them, a lot.  And whether anyone else will … ah for that grasshopper there is only practice.   

January 5, 2012 – Siliguri, West Bengal

My dream of Sam becoming suddenly accidentally totally blind at age eleven was so immensely painful that I woke from it vigorously shaking my head as if to clear it, begging that it was just a dream, and actually even frightened to write about it or speak it’s terrifying name.  The loss of sight to a boy at age eleven would be so painful and sad, and although I trust it might be overcome and compensated for over the course of a lifetime, even transformed into a “gift,” it was in the moment of the dream’s devolution completely devastating and tragic, reminding me of the horrible reality of the boy at Camp Beckett who was struck with that weird encephalitic disease that literally cost him his arms and legs (just kill me, please).  Don’t know where all this came from, I mean besides inside my brain, but the association I make to it in a personal psychoanalytic sense is of the transformation I went through from living as an essentially blissed out spirit/soul/fetus in a warm placental cocoon (there were some moments of adrenalin induced anxiety even there), and a mostly mellow spirit swaddled warmly in my infant body, to being an anxious, unhappy, frightened, self critical, not very loving, not very awake, human child and adult.  And how then, after seven decades of living, learning, struggling, working hard, the love, friendships, teaching, and learning I did receive, a few mind altering medications, and some marvelous good fortune (“I give my best, the rest is given to me”), was, lo and behold, transformed into a creature preparing peacefully to surrender to non-existence and also able to drive six hours from Pelling to Darjeeling, arriving after sunset, and distinguish between irrational anxiety and real physical discomfort, and make the rational, though ambivalent and not easy to reach choice to forgo staying overnight in Darjeeling and instead heading out toward the airport in Siliguri, hoping to find a hotel and be able to book a flight to Kolkata a day early the next morning.  And therein lies a tale.

I left Pelling with my twenty year old, fairly decently English speaking driver at 9A.  Our first stop, of course, was at the Lotus Bakery.  Afterwards we drove all the way down to south Sikkim and then up West Bengal to Darjeeling.  I think the drive took close to six hours.  And when we got to Darjeeling I found it so cold and noisy (there was a music festival blasting in the town square) that I had my driver take me back down the mountains to Siliguri where I found a reasonable hotel and from where I will fly out.

January 6, 2012 – Calcutta/Kolkata

Bruce gets so lost in the Lahiri book that he begins speaking to himself like her narrator, thinking like her narrator, describing his experiences as she describes Gogol’s. 

The flight from Siliguri to Kolkata is short and uneventful.  He sits in Kolkata airport searching the Internet for hotels without any idea of the dimensions of the city or what he is looking for other than a clean affordable place in an interesting part of the city.  He chooses randomly and rides into the city in a one of the ubiquitous yellow taxis manufactured in the 1950s that crowd the city.  His driver speaks no English, but can open the door to his cab at any speed and spit out into the streets. 

It is a long drive from the airport.  The city is gray.  The sky deeply overcast.  The air thickly polluted.  The cab stalls out at every red light and is restarted on every green.  The dirt, decay, and the poverty around him contrast sharply with newly risen glass constructions and neon signage.  The hotel he has chosen is in the Elgin Rd. area.  His room faces a noisy street. After checking in he wanders past the Lakshmi Temple, buys a chai from a street vendor, and finds a Crosswords bookstore where the clerks all speak English, the air conditioning works, the lights are bright, and familiar soft jazz music is being played over a speaker system.  It is reminiscent of home and he likes it, spending hours there browsing, reading about Kolkata, trying to figure out what might engage him in this city of twenty million on the banks of the Ganges that is clearly not Paris, but finds his searches fruitless. 

An effete and well dressed clothing designer buying oversized coffee table books reduced in price after the holidays for his showroom overhears Bruce’s inquiry of the store manager for a restaurant recommendation and directs Bruce to a well known traditional Bengali eatery located in an alleyway not far from the bookstore.  The restaurant is quite busy, there are many English speakers eating there, and it must be quite well known or appear in many guidebooks.  He eats a full three course meal for the first time in many months: roasted eggplant, daal chips, poori, home made chutney, lentil cakes, a potato and cabbage dish, zucchini in yogurt sauce, even a cold desert which comes wrapped in a banana leaf.  He thinks about the interrelationship of his searches, for hotels, destinations, books, teachers, even god.  He knows today is not to be one of his more engaged or higher days, but he has just descended from Sikkim, from the forces and energies of the mountains and their peaks, and it is a time of transition, his nine weeks in India drawing quickly to a close and he feels that ending keenly.  As he prepares to move on he remembers this time in India with great fondness.  It was not so much India that had inspired him he thinks, as it was his being in India. 

And with that he forces himself to break away from his writings, his reading, yoga, and all he can comfortably do in any room, anywhere on the planet, and wanders out aimlessly, his bags not yet unpacked from Sikkim, back into the streets of the city.

January 7, 2012

It is “odd” to be leaving India after more than two months here.  On the one hand I just can't wait to be away from what for me is an overwhelming intensity and physical/emotional challenge being in this godly/ungodly place.  On the other hand I am truly appreciating the positive transformation(s) and opening(s) in my spirit/soul/psyche that I believe being in India has fostered and made possible.  I have also "fallen in compassion" with no less than 3 Indian boys/young men, all of whom I wish I could bring home ... only not really ... including a deaf boy here in Kolkata of about 11 years of age, whose condition I suspect is correctable, who works at a street walla's tea shop not far from Mother Teresa's HQ for about a dollar a day and, as best as I can tell, lives under the tea walla's table and tarp.  

It's a perspective altering reality, this India place, both the genuine spiritual consciousness and positivity to be found here, and the poverty you know is here but can forget about most of the time, especially living in the opulent west.  But one day on the streets of Kolkata, chased by beggars, starving kids, grossly deformed humans, hard working people laboring in sweatshop conditions, women employed breaking big rocks into gravel with hand held sledge hammers eight hours a day six days a week, barefooted sixty year old rickshaw "drivers" running thru the streets pulling their fares like oxen in their traces ... I dunno ... The yogis try to teach us to accept what is real without despair, not to be inactive or non-responsive, but just to understand that the world we see is the world we think exists the days we see it ... and that the most any of us can ever hope to do to change it (if that's our wish), is to change ourselves.

January 8, 2012 – Kolkata – last day in India

Wide-awake at 4:30A.M., the day overcast, chilly, and raining.  Bruce thinks he has literally not seen more than one or two glimpses of the sun since leaving Ellora more than four weeks ago.  And although in a foreign city, on foreign soil he is not likely to return to, where he is “supposed” to be out doing things and encountering the world and the glories of god, the prospect of spending the day relaxing in bed, just resting, letting his soul release India, do little, do yoga, read and write is so pleasant, adequate, and satisfying a view of a lovely day that he surrenders to it.

He talks early on the phone with Joy who has sent him an excited email about a big design project she is likely to get in Orleans.  She is at work on a Saturday.  She is such a delightful creature, much as Bruce knows he is quite glad not to be living inside her skin.  And although he cares about and loves her immensely, the time and priority she gives to her engagement with her business, and her focus on the need to make money, is not a place where he is any longer interested in spending much time.  And while he sees how Joy’s work structures and seizes her, he wishes she were more interested and able to come out and play, to travel with him, to make music and draw, to free her mind, which is apparently more likely to be done at seventy than at fifty five.  And the truth is, that this labor of creativity and love is what Joy is meant to be doing at this time, and what works for her, gives her the most balance, permits her time for physical exercise, spiritual exercise, some music, and some friends.  “It is not a problem of not having enough time,” she says, “it is a problem of not having enough cash.”   And in its mysterious way, the life that is living Joy is best for both of them anyway.  Very nice, very nice, Bruce says to himself.  Remember?

I spend my early morning writing and reading.  I have been writing and reading a lot.  Arbitrarily I pick a year of my journal to see how it ended and began, to contrast it with 2011.  I open 2004 and get so sucked in and engaged I carefully read half of it and skim the other half.  The writing is excellent.  If there were a more engaging plot I’d think it substantial enough to be of interest to others.  I observe how much I have been writing each day and wonder again what it would be like to be working on a book, but no plots, and no substantial storylines other than my subjective narrative and my occasionally descriptive ethno-sociology compel me.  I have begun reading Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name is Red,” and am once again bowled over by the remarkable skill, depth, and breath of his talent, and how all of that, when merged with his remarkable story telling ability, gives his work the imprimatur of “literature” and makes for its recognition as genius and its broad appeal.  This was true for “The Tiger’s Wife,” and “Namesake,” that the good writing was wrapped around a good narrative plot.  And I cannot find such a compelling storyline, other than my own autobiographical, not even when provided access to a life such as Alan’s … although every once in a while I still think the Franklin materials meritorious, and compelling, although I am so far away from those people, their oh so youthful struggles and follies, and how far away it seems. 

2004 – when I was apparently still in love with Lynne.  When Sam was still at home, his HS basketball team playing for the state championship, and he was applying to and going off to college.  The year my mother died.  The year Maia and Karl married and Maia became pregnant.  The time when I was enmeshed in the Kucinich campaign, and the world of dreaming, and completed the month long Anna Forest teacher training program in Santa Monica, and left my law practice for a month.  In reading the 2004 journal I thought the death of my mother, Maia’s marriage, and Sam’s leaving home were all immense in fostering the personal transformation just starting to peak up over the horizon and about to unfold … in trips to Palestine, the affair with Trish, the end of my marriage, my move to the Cape, the transitioning of my law practice, but nothing had greater impact than the death of my mother, even Sam’s leaving home which so changed the balance and ecology of Lynne’s and my lives together.

Now, where was I, oh, yes, Kolkata.  I went to the deeply underwhelming Indian Museum yesterday, but for someone raised on the American Museum of Natural History the bar is, of course, placed quite high.  And the displays I saw lacked color, the lighting was poor, and the range of material objects displayed was quite limited.

In the evening Jaimual the deaf boy and I go shopping among the street vendors that line the sidewalk along the main street of this area of town.  I buy him a nice winter jacket, as I’d agreed to.  He picks out one that costs five or six dollars, is at least two sizes too big for him, and can’t be persuaded to choose one more consistent with his current size.  And this is to be his choice and he is clear and consistent as to which jacket he wants.  I also buy him a reasonably solid pocket wallet for a dollar and give him a couple of dollars worth of rupees to put in it.  He also wants a pair of black imitation leather and wool gloves without fingertips that are again too big for him and costs a dollar and a quarter.  I do not understand why he wants the gloves and hold out a dollar in one hand and the gloves in the other and indicate that he must choose and may only choose one or the other.  He considers his options thoughtfully and patiently and is clearly torn as his eyes wander back and forth between the gloves and the rupees.  In the end he choose the gloves.  I let him know the shopping trip is finished when he next is looking at belts with nice buckles. 

I say goodbye to Jaimual without returning to his cart.  As he accepts my proffered hand in a man-to-man handshake I look him carefully, and in what I intend to be warmly and earnest say to Jaimul, “Have a good life,” as if ordering him to do so.  And holding his right hand with mine I point at him admonishingly, the index finder of my left hand wagging and a huge grin spread across my face, “Have a good life,” I command him.

In the morning it is raining so hard the taxi driver can barely see the roadway ... and then I am at the airport ... and then again in Myanmar.  The miracle of the transition is deeply felt and  I am very glad to be out of and beyond the overall Indian experience.

 

Getting shorter

40. Delhi

            Delhi is shocking, which is no longer shocking.  India is shocking.  And Delhi is immense, geographically as well as in terms of human population numbers, so it is as hard to speak about “Delhi” as it is “New York” when it is not clear if you mean Queens or Brooklyn, Flushing or Flatbush, the Bronx or the Battery, east 67th or west 67th street.  And the bottom line, at least for me, is that there are still too many beggars, homeless people, filth in the streets, monkeys on the rooftops, and cattle in the roadways, notwithstanding the hard to measure bureaucratic efforts of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Municipal Veterinary Department to comply with a ten year old court order to make the city cattle free, which is hard to do when there are over 2,000 illegal dairies still running in the city.

I spend most of my time here writing, reading, waiting for Sam, exploring just a little, resting, recovering from Varanasi, and hopefully garnering the energy I will need to help make this last phase of this journey a good one.  I do so mostly by treating myself to a stay at the high end YMCA Hostel on Jai Singh Street, and doing yoga at the National Yoga Institute – a very trippy, clean, beautiful, flowery, real institute, that is so hard to reach on foot that I do finally pay for a rickshaw to literally get me across the street.

41. Yoga in Delhi

I sign up at the National Yoga Institute to take classes with Master Bal Mukund Singh, a man who’s got to be near or in his eighties and reminds me of Mr. Maguchi in the Karate Kid.  Master Singh is such a good teacher, so funny, engaging, good-natured, mockingly reprimanding in a loud stern voice as if correcting and chiding errant children.  His classes are taught ninety five percent in Hindi.  And Master Singh loves having the tall American in shorts and a sleeveless Celtics t-shirt as his foil.  And I love serving him.  “So, what is your good name sir,” he asks me loudly.  “Brewsh, haaa, a wery good name.  Brewsh!”  “So why not straighten arms, Brewsh.”  “Left leg not right leg, Brewsh.”  “Are you seventy year young or seventy year old, Brewsh?”  “Ah, wery beeootifool, Brewsh, wery beeootifool, too wery bad not come India younger man study yoga.”  And here I am in the master’s class, the only Anglo among fifty mostly overweigh women in saris, and four other men, laughing and smiling and learning a lot.  And the entire class is laughing, and, in fact, after chanting at the end of the class, after we’ve held a final pose while the Master takes attendance (!) and everyone present answers “Here, sir,” after the last om shanti om, the whole class stands up, we raise our arms high into the air and we laugh loudly on purpose using a deep yogic abdominal “haaaa!”  (Haa is also “yes” in Hindi.)  “Haa, haa, ha, ha, ha!” we exhale using releasing breaths, a bit like kapalabatti breathing but through the throat rather than the nostrils.  “Haa, haa, ha, ha, ha!”  Laughing yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  And then class is over but for the sweet rolling chorus of mostly women calling out, “Thank you, sir. Thank you, sir.  Thank you.”

42. Sam in Brief

Sam and I explore Delhi, the slums, the markets, the Red Fort, India Gate, the parliament.  He bounces his basketball wherever we go, a 6’5” Pied Piper with crowds of young engaged boys flocking to him, trying to get the ball away from him, many unabashedly asking if he will gift them his ball.  One even washes the ball.  Strangers yell out to him, “Good height.”  And he’s such a good sport, Sam.  My favorite moment in Delhi occurs when Sam asks the bicycle rickshawalla pedaling us to the Red Fort to let Sam pedal the rickshaw while the driver gets into the seat with me, which the driver reluctantly and embarrassedly does, and then endures the spirited cheers, jeers, hoots, laughter, and honking that Sam evokes as we ride with Sam serving as rickshaw driver thru the streets of Delhi.  To also say that Sam is overwhelmed by the filth and poverty that is in your face in India is only to state the obvious and inevitable.  And although India is not his favorite venue, he’s good spiritedly into it, even enmeshed by day three, along with one billion Indian fanatics, in avidly rooting for India in the world cricket championship semi final game against arch socio-political rival Pakistan - that India wins, to face Sri Lanka in the finals.

43. The Amber Fort

       Sam and I stop on the very long, flat, hot, and dusty road from Delhi to Jaipur to explore the truly impressive and extensive Amber Fort, where we make what turns out to be a wrong turn and are chased by a swarm of very aggressive very large bees.  So we impulsively take refuge in a very dark smoky dungeon where more than a dozen Indian men, women and children have also sought refuge and are cooking smoky chunks of a recently slaughtered goat hanging over a very smoky fire (no thanks, we don’t eat meat).  We then try to out run the bees, which Sam has read somewhere can be done, and which Sam succeeds in doing, while I get stung in the head (speed being a relative phenomenon) - and Sam pulls out the stinger - only to discover that the only way back to the fort entrance is exactly the way we came, chased by bees once again into the smoky dungeon, all old friends by now, handshakes and hugs all around, no thanks, we don’t eat meat … and then try again to escape the bees into the heat and dust to the fort entrance.

44. Jaipur to Agra

The architecture in the former Moghul city of Jaipur is really great, but the peak positive moments in Jaipur for both Sam and I are an eight year old Indian magician outside the Water Palace who can do his routine in Japanese, Spanish, German, and English … and is good … and a tiny rickshaw driver named Shaq who we meet at the City Palace and who takes us to the National Stadium at the edge of Jaipur, beyond the city’s eight gates, where the sound of Sam’s bouncing basketball and the miracle of cell phone technology draws some real players, one of whom is as tall as Sam is, all of whom can put the ball in the hoop, and all of whom know very little about defense or moving without the ball, but play hard and enjoy the game while Sam conducts a good natured offensive clinic.    

The Jaipur to Agra road is also flat, hot, and dusty, with lines of camels pulling huge wagon loads of grain and feed, interspersed with a palace, temple, or mausoleum or two, and an absolutely unfathomable line of religious pilgrims/worshipers at least thirty kilometers long (no really, 30 kms long), all walking toward some temple, carrying luggage on their heads, baskets of food, bedding, and babies on their hips, who fill the east to west half of the main highway so completely that no vehicular travel is possible in that direction, which results in turning the entire west to east half of the main highway into a one lane mess going each way.  And why are these 1000s of people doing this? And what are they thinking?  And where will they eat? (Just sitting down in the middle of the road, apparently.)  And where will they piss? (Oh just in that field there.)  And where have they all come from in their saris and knitted caps, and cowboy hats, with banners and flags and drums?  And where will they all sleep, because it clearly takes more than one day of walking to get to the temple?   And what does it mean to them?  And how do they think about it?  And, of course, I will never know the answers to these questions, but I’m told the walk happens on or about this day once every year and is also notable for how many enterprising Indian vendors have placed themselves along the line of march with water and food for sale, and how every scrap of paper, plastic, tin, cardboard and other human waste is just left seemingly mindlessly on the roadway, a practice that leaves some India roads looking as if they have three week old mounds of dirty snow lining both sides of the roadway, that on closer examination is all just garbage, which will not melt away.

45. The Taj

We set the alarm to wake up early to see the sun rise on the Taj Mahal, but smog obscures the sun.  And even more disappointingly, no basketballs are allowed on the Taj grounds, so all the crowd action around Sam takes place outside the entrance and at the lockers where we leave the ball.  The Taj itself is very impressive, although compared to Bagan, Anghor Wat, and Ellora and Ajanta it leaves me a bit nonplussed.  Besides, I’ve really had it with India crowds and am longing to get away to Rishikesh and Dharamsalah, away from things flat, hot, dusty, garbage strewn and endlessly long.

46. Rishikesh  

Ah, that’s better.  Cleaner, quieter, less polluted, less in your face, the yoga capital of the world, a swiftly flowing river, mountains, trees, a tourist scene, sort of like Telegraph Avenue on the Ganges.  And there are couples, lots of couples, and it finally dawns on me that I am nearing the end of this journey.

47. Yoga in Rishikesh

I do yoga in the yoga capital of the world, in many different venues, with many different teachers, but the most memorable class I take in Rishikesh is the one I go to with Sam which starts an hour before sunset on the literal banks of the surprisingly rapidly flowing Ganges, a bit in awe that I am here doing yoga outside in nature with Sam, being called Bhu Bhu by the teacher, watched by dozens of interested Indian people and a pack of curious mischievous monkeys, two of whom get into such a serious fight one day, not mock aggression and grimaces, but paw in clenched jaw tearing of fur and flesh, that the smaller weaker monkey literally jumps into the river, floating quite well in the very rapid current where he ultimately grasps onto a post in the river and rests while the bigger dominant monkey sits on the shore growling until he is chased away by the yoga instructor wielding a metal pipe.  And the magical formations of birds in flight, the flags blowing in the wind, the pedestrian suspension bridge, the calling of crows, a ferocious population of common houseflies, the chalky dust on our hands and feet and yoga mats, washing our hands and feet and faces in the cold cold Ganga, praying to receive the energy of the setting sun, while up river 1000s of people are chanting, and drumming, and incense is burning, and we say “Namaste” to everyone we meet, and we mean it.

48. A Brief Reflection on India

I find it hard to define what makes India attractive and appealing - almost spellbinding in its raw intensity - given how repulsive it is, people sleeping in the street, peeing in the street, brushing their teeth in public, fields with crops of young boys with their pants pulled down shitting, dirty, dusty, grimy herds of people, cows, dogs, goats, cats, monkeys and an occasional elephant or camel, cars, rickshaws, vans, trucks, buses all having failed the lowest standard vehicle emissions test, all stuffed with people, overflowing with people, people riding on the roofs, overweight women with no teeth, delirious beggars, gorgeous and beautifully dressed women, beggars with children, arguments in the open, even fistfights, endless bargaining, manipulation, honesty, kindness, engagement, indifference, pastel colors, good humor, all the best and worst of humanity.  I know it doesn’t sound very attractive.  And I don’t know what it is that makes it attractive.  I’m tempted to say it’s its spirituality, but I think that too facile and trite. More accurately, perhaps it is the energy and the “energetic” emanations of the place itself.  “Mother” India, not “the motherland” or the “fatherland,” but Mother India, a truly beloved, imperfect, grand and glorious, messy, all providing, all consuming, demanding mother, whose children are deeply deeply tied to her as only children can be tied.  India is intense, and that’s also appealing to me.  It is in your face.  It manifests little of the social space and social boundaries we Americans rely upon and there is only a very thin buffer zone between you and the other.  India is experiential and demanding and as such cannot be known from a distance, but must literally be emotionally and physically entered (and smelled, and felt), because it can only be truly known and seen from inside.  And its innards are just not that pretty or neat either, although somehow the people basically seem to be coping fairly well, but then what can someone who didn’t even know Indian cows eat banana peels and bananas know after one month.  Cows eating banana peels.  Sheesh.  I even saw them eat newspaper.  Hey, it’s India, which even won the cricket world cup.

Sunil and Getting to Delhi

38. Yoga in Varanasi with Sunil

            His name is Sunil Kumar Jinghan, honors in psychology, as his sign says, and yoga pushpa, yoga bhusan, yoga visharad, and reiki master.  At forty six years of age Sunil is the real deal, a slightly paunchy man, with an immense chest and lung capacity, surprising flexibility and great strength, who integrates spirituality, breathing, healing, asana practice, meditation, chanting, mudras, affirmation practice, passion and good humor into his yoga. I spend every minute of my time that he will have me with him in Varanasi, and because his studio is in his home, and he is a gracious man who appears to like me, that turns out to be a couple of eight to ten hour days of yoga, conversation, eating, playing with his infant daughter, hanging out with his young wife and co teacher Bharti (therein a love story), his senior student, Simon, his housekeeper, his cook, the electrician, his brother, his nephew, miscellaneous students, and the monkeys on the rooftop.  I even join Sunil one evening as he moves about in the alleys and streets of Varanasi on missions I cannot fathom, Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.  It is something beyond ironic, in this city that so repels me, that if I never visited again in life or death would be fine with me, that I should find a yoga guru to whom I am so powerfully drawn that I can imagine returning for a two month teacher training immersion.  Is it really true that whatever happens is the only thing that can happen?

            I like Sunil’s character, his energy and passion, the breath of his knowledge, his vibrancy and vitality.  He has far and away the best yoga library I have ever seen.  I read somewhere on this trip that knowledge is the foundation for right action, but that right thinking must be applied to right knowledge to make it of righteous use, and that the final element in bringing right knowledge and right thinking into proper fruition is character.  I’d been thinking about that on the trip in relationship to myself and to a number of people I know before meeting Sunil (who I got to thru a rickshaw driver in Pune, who led me to Dharmavi, who led me to Aparna, who led me to Varanasi, and then Holi Day, which led me to Heidi, who led me to Sunil) - about the nature and quality of our knowledge, thinking, and character – and I particularly admire how these elements appear to be playing out in Sunil, who says more than once that, since effect depends so much on what is going on in our minds – particularly during our yoga practice (which relates so powerfully to my experiences and my reactions to teachers, tone, language, and setting in my own yoga experience) – that that is why affirmations are of such vital importance. Sunil has a number of great affirmations he requires the student to say out loud at times during practice, just as we chant, and breathe, and move.  Many of the affirmations are of his personal creation, and many are taken from Gertrud Hirschi’s book, Mudras, www.indianbookcentre.com, which Sunil provides me a copy of.  I particularly like saying while in spinal twist, “In the form of a spiral my path leads to the divine goal where joy and peace rule,” and in back bends, “My heart leads from time to timelessness.”   I can’t remember what asana Sunil thinks this is appropriate to but also I love repeating, “I give my best, the rest is given to me.”

 

39. Getting to Delhi

The long train ride is again easy and pleasant.  Comfortable.  I write and read.  I sleep.  I eat and drink things I worry about, but eat and drink anyway.  I have a couple of brief not very interesting conversation, you know, where are you from, where are you going, why, how do you like India, those sorts of exchanges, although one exchange with a twenty-nine year of man who was “in” finance, who had lived in NJ for four months working for Goldman Sachs (you’ve heard of Goldman Sachs, he asked me), who had traveled in the U.S. by car as far as Chicago, spoke quite good English, and wanted to chat me up was noteworthy.  We started with the usual pleasantries, although I was also able to ask him his impressions of the USA (“very well organized,” “highways with even numbers going east and west and odd numbers going north and south,” “subways built a hundred years ago with tall buildings on top of them that have not fallen down”).  And when we get to the why am I here question for some reason I tell him about Miles, about how I’m bringing Miles’ ashes to India, and Miles’ connection to India.  And I do this in just three or four minutes, but he is absolutely wrapped up in the story, and when I finish he is almost on the edge of tears it seems, as he reaches out his hand to take mine, and pulls me towards him, and with a slightly uncomfortable hug says, “I love you, man.”

More of India

31. Foodie

            I continue to push the edge of the “caution you are in India”food envelope in terms of my eating behaviors and thus far am rewarded (not punished?) for my behaviors.  I drink hot chai from vendors everywhere, as long as I can see steam rising.  I eat in select restaurants, including a veg place in Aurangabad that a Cyber Café owner recommended, which I’m sure had never seen a non-Indian at one of its tables before, and where I had a just phenomenal “king” dhosa.  (Don’t ask what was in it, I don’t know, something very spicy and delicious).  And at a bus depot, in a moment of late night bravado, somewhere between Ajanta and Poona, I bought a couple of fresh rolls, with some kind of veggie mash that I watched others put into the rolls, and two slightly roasted hot green peppers that came with it and also went into the roll, from a vendor who boarded the bus and hygienically picked the items up and served them on old newspaper.  Great rolls and peppers; I threw the mash away.  (Yes, out the bus window where I’m sure some dog, goat, cat, crow, or person will find and consume it on the side of the road.)  I bought shelled roasted peanuts from a tremendous pile of shelled peanuts that had a pot of hot coals sitting on the top of the pile to warm the nuts it touched and that the vendor periodically mixed with his hand and sold by pouring a handful or two into an old newspaper “cone” he twisted and made on the spot.  I ate fresh beets and cukes that Aparna washed and skinned.  I bought and enjoyed a pack of mixed chana dhal, moong dahl, masala peanuts, pepper chana and chana jor.  (I don’t know either.)  Eating in India is a bit like my overall India experience itself: mysterious, very spicy, unknown, unclean, a little uncomfortable, butwanting to be tasted.  And tied for my peak foodie moment of trust thus far, the lunch I bought on the Poona to Allahabad Express that was made on the train (yes, I visited the kitchen, yikes!!!) of rice, paneer in sauce, some veggie masala, chapattis, a lentil crisp, and … tada … some water in a plastic cup with a top on it that said it was “R.O. and U.V. treated,” got to go with that don’t you?

32. Begging and bargaining

The woman with no hands who I see everyday in my neighborhood in Pune is hard to resist, as are very old grandmotherly types who look with pleading eyes and who I believe probably have no other recourse for funds.  Pregnant woman and women with young children are resistible, and evoke in me an unkind sotto voce “you made the choice”or “is it something I did” response, although every once in a while I succumb, we’re talking pennies and quarters here, my friends.  Giving way food is my preferred response to begging, although I’m not often carrying any.  I did give one woman with an absolutely adorable child a small box of crackers right after I bought them, which she took and then looked at me like “Whatdya pay for this, big giver, two rupees?”  And I can’t get home with a bag of bananas without doling them out, which makes me feel righteous, but I should buy more bananas if I want to eat any.  My favorite beggars moment occurred just as I’d left an Internet café with five rupees change (about a dime) still in my hand, when I was approached by a particularly attractive older woman,with an absolutely stunning face,carrying a small woven bamboo tray with a tin cup and a small pile of the red pasty powder that Hindus put on their foreheads resting on the tray.  As our eyes locked momentarily I dropped the change inside her tin cup and, even as the coins were still clanging around the bottom of the cup, she quickly and deftly pressed her thumb into the red powder and then pressed it against my forehead, right between my eyebrows.  “Puja,” she said.  “Namaste,” I replied.  And that red dot made me feelgood somehow, like I was one of the folks almost, although I could not interpret the looks I evoked from people in the street once I was branded, or from dogs for that matter, who laughed just a little bit at me and then treated me with the same indifference as before.

Bargaining is just another fact of life in India.  So here’s one piece of data.  I generally operated in SE Asia as if one third of the initial asking price was what I could get an item for, which meant I had to start even lower than one third down, which for some inculcated reason I found embarrassing and feared it was insulting. But an opening ask of 10,000 kip, or baht, or whatever the monetary unit of the realm, needed to be met with a response around 2,000 to get it for 3,500.  Generally.  But in India I was at least once asked initially for 18,000 rupees for a unique Buddha that I didn’t really want and wasn’t going to buy, no matter what, or so I thought, and I refused to bid on it.  “Just give me a price, your price, any price,” the seller said, “If I don’t like I tell you.” But I refused to make an offer, because I really wasn’t going to buy it and didn’t want to insult the man.  “Okay, last price for you,” he said, “6,000 rupees.”  “No, I’m sorry, there will be no sale here, Sir.”  “But please, Mister, just tell me price you would pay if you wanted it.”  “Okay, 500 rupees,” I said. “What! 500 rupees? You think an Indian man’s labor is worth one rupee an hour?  500 rupees!  You must be joking.  Okay for you 5,000 rupees.  No? 4,000 rupees.  No?  Okay very last price, 2,000 rupees.  Give something more than 500 rupees.  I must make something.  I paid more for it than that.  I have four children at home.  What is five dollars to you Americans?  Okay, last price.  Here I give it to you.  One thousand rupees.”  So from an asking price of $180 he was willing to part with it for $10, but not $5, at which price, even though I didn’t want it, I would probably have owed it.  Like I said, just data.

It reminds me of a sad bargaining event I was witness to in the Souk in Jerusalem when an earnest good willed American friend said to a seller of scarves, “Look, I hate bargaining.  I am trusting you.  Just tell me a fair price and I will pay it.”  And the merchant said without blinking, “Well, this scarf is very, very special, made by a woman in my village, and I hate to part with it, but you have been so forthright with me, I will let you have it for $150.”  And the American paid it.  And the merchant took the money.  And I am sure the scarf was not worth more than five dollars.  But as the scorpion who bites the swan ferrying it across the river, causing both of their deaths, said, “what can I do, I’m a scorpion.”

33. Return to Pune       

I manage to get back into Pune from Ajanta after midnight, to absolutely teeming streets in a part of town that is completely unfamiliar to me.  My rickshaw driver magically negotiates a route to Burning Ghat Road and I am in front of my guesthouse that is locked in almost no time.  When I ask the driver to beep his horn he tells me his horn doesn’t work.  I actually didn’t know it was possible to drive in India without a horn.  So in the still of the Poona night I call out softly, “Baba, Baba,” and I wait, and a door opens and in very short order I am in a comfortable room in a familiar guesthouse and fast asleep.  In the morning the guesthouse owner, who knows I’m only staying one night says to me, “Same price as last time.”  So I hand him six hundred rupees and he says, “No, sir, 500 rupees,” giving me back the hundred.  I have a very good idea who is right about what I paid last time, although there is no way to know for sure, ever.  Maybe he felt badly for originally overcharging me, or maybe he just felt 500 was a fair price, but I “know” it was six hundred I originally paid, as I take back the one he doesn’t want.

I’ve seen a sign across the street from my guesthouse in Poona that says, “Yoga.”  I’ve gone into the entrance of the building across the street from my guesthouse in Poona with the sign saying “Yoga” where there is a flyer taped on the wall that says, “Yoga, daily, 10:30 A.M.” There is also a sign painted on the wall inside the entrance to the building across the street from my guesthouse in Poona with an arrow pointing up the stairs that reads, “Yoga.”  I have met the man who is the instructor.  “You teach yoga?” I’ve asked him, and I saw him nod yes.  “Every morning?” I asked, and I saw him nod yes.  So it is on the basis of this information that I arrive at his yoga studio my last morning in Poona at 10:30 sharp.  The yoga instructor is there, in fact besides me he is only person there when I tap on his open door and, and while he looks up at me, he is on the phone and then ignores me for the next ten minutes until he hangs up and looks at me again.  “I’m here for the 10:30 yoga class,” I say.  “Oh, it is much too hot for yoga at 10:30 in the morning in Poona,” he says.  I bobble my head in what I imagine to be Indian style, and stare at him.  He stares at me. “I like hot yoga,” I say.  He looks at me as if I must not have understood him.  He says, “Too hot for yoga.”  Okay, that’s clear, so I say “Namaste” and walk back down the stairs of the building with the sign saying “Yoga”across the street from my guesthouse in Poona leaving me plenty of time to do yoga on my own in my room, get to a book store, and get to the railroad station in Pune over an hour early for my big ride to Varanasi.

When I arrive at the railroad station in Pune more than an hour early there are at least 4,000  on the platform ahead of me, most standing in the general seating line.I really don’t “get” India.  And what is it that draws people’s attention to the tall only non-Indian on the platform a very busy train stations in India, if at all?  That I am wearing shorts?  My red dot?  My shaved head?  My big smile?  I honestly have no idea, and it doesn’t really matter.  I just make this observation, some people laugh when they see me, some stare, and no matter what they are emanating I continue to feel safe, anonymous, accepted, grateful to be here, in Rumi-like “guest” mode, the comfortable recipient of fundamentally indifferent curiosity.

34. A Word of Gratitude

The twenty-four hour long train ride to Varanasi is mostly comfortable.  I am provided a blanket, two clean sheets, a pillow with a clean(?) pillowcase, and a fresh towel.  I buy a half dozen hot milky teas, tempting the stomach bug gods yet again, and set about reading a wonderfully funny descriptive little bio novel about India called, “Holy Cow.”  Hey, are we there yet?And, of course we are “there,” grasshopper, we are always “there.”  In fact, twenty-four hours later, half a good, light, revealing book later, a variety of dangerous food consumption activities, not so surprising conversations,and an endlessly flat and fertile landscape later, and we are still here, and I am still comfortable, both in terms of my physical/spatial comfort, and in terms of my deep inner personal comfort in my completely anonymous and self reliant circumstances.  For me this is like being an astronaut sent into deep space and simply being comfortable being there.  I mean, where else am I supposed to be, and besides which, after liftoff there’s no other place I can be or escape to anyhow.  Still, I continue to be amazed, yes, that is really the most appropriate word for it, amazed - followed of course by awed, grateful, and stunned - about this entire experience, both the places I seen and traveled to, but in ways even more than that, the person I’ve been, because the self-actualization and apparent personal transformation I have experienced on this trip evokes in me something verging on disbelief.  I have wanted to be comfortable traveling in circumstances such as these for so long, to be free of excess anxiety for so long, that to have actually realized it on this journey is almost miraculous, like a cure at Lourdes, like someone who can see after years of blindness, or walk after years of being confined to a wheelchair unable to do so.  There is a quality to it of decognizance, (a word I think I just invented), that is the antithesis of recognizance, some experience that is beyond disbelief or unfamiliarity transformed, something more like an experience almost beyond or incapable of being recognized as true because it has seemed so foundationally not true for so long.  The effort required in the Middle Ages to come to accept that the Earth actually rotates around the sun and not the other way around would be an example of this kind of decognizant moment.  Deciding one day that the God you firmly and absolutely believed in doesn’t exist (or vice versa), or the realization that the country you so adore acts routinely in an evil manner, controlled not by we the people, but we the corporations, or that there may actually be “life” after the death you believed was so final and absolute, might all be other such decognizant moments.  I am just so comfortable, at home, present, self-approving, and free of anxiety on this voyage, and it is immensely unfamiliar to me to be so in this context.  And in that sense I am awestruck and immensely grateful.  To whom grateful some would ask?  And the answer is to my “self,”of course, but also to my commitment to a lifelong struggle that I was never able to give up on, to the awesome power of hope and belief, to trust and belief in the possibility of transformation and healing, to friends, lovers, Lynne, Joy, yoga, therapists, teachers, the Great Spirit, my sister, Miles, my children Maia and Sam in immense and specific ways, all the Steve’s in my life, to the beloved departed Alan B., to animal, plant, and stone familiars, perhaps even to the Divine, and as they say at the Oscars, “if I’ve left anyone out please know I adore you too.”For as I am coming to believe, realize, and even “understand,” while it is self, will, hope, effort, faith, trust, teachers, knowledge, family, friends and so forth that sustain me, it is also absolutely true that it is my partnership with the powers of the cosmos that allows my life to appear in a new light.

35. Getting to Varanasi

It was immensely challenging to connect with a bus after getting off the train in Allahabad late on a holiday Saturday, and only after hours of wandering, waiting, and misinformation, the bus station closing, drunken crazed male revelers dancing in the street, and bonfires lit everywhere, did a cranky old bus appear which ended up being so filled with people that it was standing room only and looked like a NYC subway train at rush hour for the three hour cruise to Varanasi.  And once in Varanasi things didn’t get much better, it being 3:00 A.M and hard to find a half way decent room, not to mention the chaotic filth and decay I observed in my travels through the late night streets, which left me trepidatious and reluctant to even step out the hotel door into India when I woke in the morning.  Besides which, all of the hotel staff and the hotel manager told me that it was not safe to go out that morning until after 2:00 PM because “people act crazy on Holi Day.”  But it seems at times that when warned of danger I want to see it.  So out I went into the city, the street virtually deserted, all the shops closed, and the only ones out and about marauding packs of men wearing hideous amounts of multicolored powders, and silver painted faces like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, and carrying bags of iridescent  big pump water pistols filled with iridescent powder and charging about on bicycles and motorcycles, stoned, drunk, wild, and spraying or otherwise coloring everyone and everything in sight, dogs, cows, other people who err in being on the street, groping women, driving scarily.  I just don’t get India.  A teenage boy and his buddy approach me, they want to hug me, they are clearly going to throw powder all over me, they yell “Happy Holi Day” to me like New Year revelers.  “Don’t you dare,” I say loudly in English, “Come on, man, this is complete bullshit,” I yell, as I push them away to no avail as my bald head, neck, right arm, T-shirt, pack, and sandals are covered with a hideous powdery turquoise and I retreat to the hotel, a wiser, dirtier man.

The only other guest I meet at the hotel is Heidi, a Swiss woman living in America for thirty years, married to a Swiss man all that time, with two grown children, working her way through the end or not end of her marriage, a serious yoga teacher, in love with one of her students, but not having consummated the adoration/infatuation and not yet sure she will because, as she pointedly tells me, she is “still a married woman.”  She’s nice, Heidi, in her sixties, on a personal spiritual voyage in India, fit, a mandala artist, a seeker, someone who has already been to Rishikesh, who has found a yoga teacher in Varanasi she likes and later that afternoon introduces me to, clearly a fellow traveler who in response to our “fortuitous” meeting wants to share with me four principals that guide aspects of her spiritual practice: that whomsoever you encounter is the right person, that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, that each moment something begins is the right moment, and that what is over is over.  Not my particular cup of” spiritual” tea, and not intended by her as an offering of anything other than a sharing in wonderment that we have encountered each other, such at least superficially similar souls so far from home.

36. Varanasi

            Varanasi is simply the dirtiest, filthiest, most run down, vile, pit of a city I have ever encountered.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t “like” it, it’s beyond that; it’s that I can hardly bear it, can hardly tolerate being there, feel like retching (and come close to doing so more than once) because I feel so personally filthy there, feel my nostrils and lungs under assault by smells and dust, can’t get clean no matter how often I wash, where even after washing my hands I feel I need to wash them to clean them from the first washing, and then bathe them in hand sanitizer,and then even going so far as to rub some sanitizer into my nostrils and on my lips.  And the “signs,” the omens, and the guides are all wrong.  I see and hear no crows.  The dead bird at my feet doesn’t wake up.  The monkey laying in the alley has a horrible grimace on its dead face.  The man laying in the street - clearly recently hit by something, a rickshaw, a motorcycle, a van, a truck, who knows - laying face down and bleeding severely from the head, not moving, maybe dead, blood running copiously into the street red and deep, who people ignore, and drive around, and say tsk tsk but do nothing more that I can see.  And I’m surely not imposing my values on that scene. Nor can I respond or say anything in the “organic” food restaurant that advertizes their ice cubes as made with mineral water, but has such a pervasive powerful smell of stale piss that drinking and eating there is beyond unappealing.  And the  unbearable.  And I don’t want to sit down on or touch anything.  And there is dust and flies and stench everywhere, grown men and children shitting and pissing in public, cows laying in the middle of crowded streets, traffic moving around the cows rather than someone moving the cows out of the way.  And the cows so blaze!  I mean why else do these nice people put out food and water and even wash me in the river, the cows must think, if I were not meant to be a king or queen.  And then the goats, and dogs, and cockroaches who are oh so grateful to have been reincarnated into the bounty and blessings life provides for goats , and dogs, and roaches in Varanasi, where bicycle rickshaws are everywhere because they move more deftly than gasoline propelled rickshaws in the packed and basically gridlocked city streets, where cow shit, goat shit, human shit, and dog shit are everywhere.  With fetid standing water. Stale garbage.  Piles upon piles of unsorted garbage that flies, goats, and cows are eating, that puppies are playing in, rolling over in, laying in.  And we haven’t even made it to the burning Ghats and the Holy Ganges, a river which makes the polluted canals of Brooklyn look as clean as mountain springs at their source. Or the tiny ants crawling around on every available surface.  Or the cobwebs I repeatedly encounter with my face in dark passages, apparently because I am just those few enough inches taller than most traffic thru the doorways to disturb dust that has established what it though was permanent resident status.  And if the guy who’d served me my chapattis wasn’t the same guy I just saw wiping the floor with a filthy rag I’d be oh so much happier.  And I haven’t even mentioned the mosquitoes.  Fine. 

But Varanasi is also alive. Amazingly alive.  Throbbingly alive.  Intensely and immensely alive.  “Clean on the inside,” a man I complain to tells me.  The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, older even than Damascus, an ancient city, a genuinely “holy city” whether I like what that looks like or not, a monstrous city arisen from this now dismal swamp throbbing with death and mourning, with burning ghats, with thousands of pilgrims and mourners from all over India walking the narrow streets and alleys of the old city,buying trinkets from vendors,taking boat rides to seethe oh so scenic funeral pyres from the Ganges, and behaving pretty much like tourists everywhere, starry eyed and bewildered, or maybe that’s just a personal projection. 

And what of the policeman who on apparent impulse buys me a chai?  Or the uniformed soldier who puts the red mark on my forehead.  Or the endless number of people who say “Happy Holi Day” to me and mean it.  Or the barefooted man who leads me on a ten minute jaunt thru labyrinthine alleys to the yoga studio that I couldn’t find and then won’t accept even a ten rupee offering from me?  Or the ancient rickshaw driver who underbids a fare when taking me to the furthest, northernmost ghat in Varanasi from where I begin my walk south into the heart of the holy city and who, when I give him twenty extra rupees, looks as though he wants to kiss my feet.  And the faces of the people, my god, the faces, thousands upon thousands of classic portraits of humanity as it is, each face more compelling and storied than the next, each a study in character and beauty, of swamis, and ancient rickshaw drivers, and youthful rickshaw drivers, of holy men and beggars, glorious children and glorious mothers, of barefooted soldiers and beautiful women, the flower market, the flower sellers, the regal cows, the prancing horses, the chanting and music which fill a city celebrating life in death, funeral biers moving down the streets with the frequency of city buses on their tired routes, on roads so full of people that walking is as fast as riding, with roundabouts and streets leading off in six different directions, and dark in the daylight alleys barely a shoulder width wide where whatever is underfoot cannot be seen.A place where, for obvious reasons, I am not only uncomfortable, I am nauseous.

 

37. Burning Ghats

The ghats are burning.  The corpses are burning, about ten of them in varying stages of transformation.  Chords and chords of wood are stacked against the sides of the buildings that edge the ghats, some to a height of forty or fifty feet, some that run the width of the buildings and extend out from the buildings in piles as much as sixty feet long.The corpses are carried on bamboo litters to be washed in the Ganges.  They are carried back to piles of wood that have been purchased for five dollars a kilo weighed out on massive balancing scales.  The dead are wearing simple clothes.  Most of their jewelry has been removed.  A few drops of Ganges water are poured into the corpse’s mouth.  Rice is sprinkled into their mouths.  Sandalwood chips are sprinkled onto and under the corpse.  A priest walks around the body with a smoking piece of wood from the eternal fire five times, once for each of the five elements that make a person - earth, air, fire, water, and ether.  The oldest son has had his head and face shaved clean.  He is shaking with emotion.  Crying.  Sniffling.  Trying to hold together as he speaks some words about his mother before her mortal remains are consigned to the flames.  When he finishes speaking the priest hands him the burning wood with which he starts the fire. 

Crowds of people are wandering about the burning ghats and smoldering ashes.  Cows are standing and laying around on the steps and in the river.  Dogs are playing and barking.  Goats are everywhere, eating the leis of stringed flowers that have been left on and next to the corpses.  Barefooted young kids are playing quietly among the dead, the grieving, the ashes, and the shit.  Animated discussions are taking place among arguing loud men about the services, the order of events, about who does what.  People are using cell phones to film and photograph the funeral biers, their relatives, and who knows what else. 

I take out my cell phone and snap a few shots of a corpse laying on the wood after she is brought up from the river.  She was very old and is very dead.  An Indian man who speaks quite good English comes up to me and says with urgent passion that I am not allowed to take pictures, that I don’t have permission, that I have been very disrespectful of the dead and her family, that I have just brought some very bad karma upon myself, but, that for the right contribution of funds to help the impoverished dead and dying I can clear this bad debt I have just assumed.  I am immediately suspicious of a scam but also feeling concerned about even the possibility that I have incurred any bad karma.I’ll skip the agonizing details of his and my bargaining about a fair fee to clear my karma.  He wanted $70.  In the end I gave him $10.  And then he told me more than I wanted or needed to know about the consummation of flesh in flame, and I still felt played for the rube I no doubt truly am.  But one thing I hadn’t observed that he told me I’ll share.  “Do you smell the burning hair and the burning flesh,” he asked.  And although I could feel the heat and distinctly smell the smoke, I really could not smell the burning flesh or hair.  “No,” I said surprised.  “That is because on the holy Ganga, in the most holy city of Varanasi, at this the Mir Ghat, the spirits of the deceased and their bodily remains are taken straight up into the heavens and no one on Earth can smell them.”

ellora and ajanta

The caves at Ellora and Ajanta, some predating the birth of Christ, are stunning human accomplishments: the craft, scale, vision, and attention to detail, how incredibly beautiful the art, sculptures, paintings, and architecture.  Each cave, column, and statue hand chiseled out of  the mountainsides, in some caves to a depth of fifty meters, and sometimes to an equivalent height, the remainder of the mountain above the cave ceiling, sometimes a vaulted ceiling with rows of parallel stone arch supports and curved rafters or roof beams that have no function other than artistic, all being supported by very functional rows of stone columns which have been left attached to the floor and the ceiling of the temple, monastery, study hall, or shrine, as they were chipped away around, each column stunning in its perfect shape, and in the detail etched into it, every column (and statue) being what has been left of the mountain rock, mostly basalt, with nothing added except some plaster on the ceilings and walls in order to provide a smooth painting surface. The imagination, skill, and effort required to create these structures is absolutely inspirational, and quite literally breathtaking for me.  I spend hours and hours at Ajanta, smashing my world record of times per hour saying, “OMG this is absolutely amazing, I can’t fucking believe it, OMG this is incredible,” topping even the pyramids of Ginza, and the temple complex at Angkor Wat, at least for me, although not more amazing than the everyday miracle of birth, or of skin repairing itself, a separate class of creative art and phenomena.  There are about thirty caves at each site, some unfinished.  It is interesting how the unfinished works add to the appreciation of the completed work.  The setting in Ajanta is at a huge curve in a river giving a wonderful horseshoe shape to the complex. And while we live in a world where anyone with access to the Internet can Google this and learn more about it than I can say or show you, I learn here that Lord Krishna was born in jail and Shiva played dice with his wife, and begged her to play again when he lost. I also see a long tailed chipmunk sitting here looking up at a very tall column which is intended to be gazed upon as a reminder of our insignificance. I killed a chipmunk once, for sport, when I was about twelve, with a rifle.  That chipmunk has guided my actions ever since and visited me here.  And perhaps, like Bhahubuli, who stood for twelve years in one position awaiting enlightenment without success I also need a reminder of the ways my elephantine ego also stands in my way.  I love the fact that the rock chiseled away from these mountains to create the temples was then used by the local villagers to build their homes, remains of which can still be seen today.  And at the very moment I deposit some shards of my departed nephew into the hands of Mahavurah, in the only Jain cave of all the caves (number 32 at Ellora), near the wheel of law, my guide starts to sing for no reason apparent to me, a child in the adjoining temple starts to laugh, and I go to sit under the statue of the wish-granting tree to ask for my sister’s peace of mind.

final? Poona posts

26. Burning Ghat

I continue to feel as if I’m on a magical trip, overwhelmed with happiness, awareness, sensation, and adventure, just putting one foot in front of the other and greeting what comes my way as I force myself out the door of my oh so comfortable room and into the wide tree lined streets.  I love this room, love where it is located, love the quiet, and the calling of the crows, and have found yoga teachers I truly adore.  I also saw my first funeral procession, went down to the crematorium site, watched the flames and smoke, listened to the absolutely mesmerizing music, the singing of the men, the drums and cymbals being played, was moved, and lifted, and entranced beyond what I have known, literally felt I was in a place of new personal borders, edges, and frontiers.  And was welcomed as a visitor and guest, invited to sit down, smiled at.  Letting go and being opened are gifts in and of themselves.  Also learning a little about Hinduism and Hindu philosophy/mythology and the Hindu worldview in a way that I could never have been open to before, on a path I never would have taken before.  I am in an amazing personal place.  Om nama Shiyava.

27. Hare Krishna

I go to the big Hare Krishna Ishkon temple in Pune at the invitation of Pravin, my young yoga teacher, who was recommended to me by Guru Dharmavi.  Today is a special event at the temple because the current guru of the entire international Hare Krishna movement, American born and raised Radhanath Swami, nee Richard Slavin, son of Idelle and Jerry, Chicago, 1950, is coming to give a dharma talk.  The temple is almost all out of doors and mobbed, at its peak this day hosting over 3,000 people, all of whom are bowing to one another, bowing to Krishna, prostrating themselves to Krishna, prostrating themselves to one another, chanting, counting their mala beads, smiling profusely in greeting, acknowledging me with a warmth that feels engendered by my very presence among them at this communal event, and every last one of us needing to take off our shoes before stepping onto temple ground.  And while this my seem an odd place to focus, there is an administrative problem here, because you surely do not want 3,000 pairs of sometimes indistinguishable flip flops lying around with 3,000 people going through them at the end of the day scrounging through a big mosh pile of shoes trying to find their own as their leaving, now do you?  But there is a simple solution that I admire, and seems so quintessentially Indian to me, I don’t know why, which is to already have 3,000 numbered hooks, and 3,000 numbered cloth bags, and 3,000 number tags, so you can provide a shoe checking service,as opposed to coat checking at the Met, and much quicker too.  Plus it’s offered free of charge, which would otherwise really slow the process down. 

Then there is the amazing food the temple volunteers serve, both before and after the dharma talk, given out free to the thousands, and I do mean thousands, of people who have gathered here today.  Two lines of hundreds of people, a soup kitchen on steroids, men on one side, women on the other,being served, and efficiently served, and served with a smile – rice, sauces, dhal, a dessert, a cup of sweet milk, all on a big tin tray, without utensils or napkins, of course, and without environmental waste either.  Everyone eats seated on the ground in rows of people facing each other that seem tohave spontaneously formed.  When you finish your food you lick your hands clean and then take your tray over to a very long sink where you rinse it, and then hand it to the tray washers, who spin it around in some soapy water, and then drop it into some cleaner water, and then make a wet pile of trays that are transported back to the serving lines for use by the next hungry devotee.  Simple.  Efficient.  Mighty tasty.  Generous.  Communal.  Not up to Department of Health standards.

Oh, the dharma talk.  Swami Radhanath seemed like the real deal to me, a man who sought happiness in the pursuit of a spiritual life and found it inhis experience of God and in devotion to Krishna.I don’t think Richard will own dozens of Rolls Royces.  The essence of what he had to say, at least that which I was able to take in, was that the sincerity of one’s devotion is measured by the emanations from one’s deepest heartfelt commitment and belief, that external forms of giving and prayer were merely that, external, and that what really mattered, both to God and to one’s potential for real spiritual transformation and enlightenment, was the quality of one’s belief and devotion, and that to experience the truth of God’s existence required one to engage in a process of knowing or realization other than what is available through intellectual or sensual knowledge/awareness, what we’d call faith or belief I suppose.  Nothing earth shattering, just a simple reinforcing message for the troops.

28.  Rupannga Yoga

            I have been practicing yoga for twenty years.  I have loved, appreciated, and admired many of my literally dozens of teachers, especially Menalek, my first true yoga teacher, Ana Forrest, who I completed a teacher training course with more than a decade ago now, and also Tricia Duffy, Jennifra Norton, and Don Peccorrill, all of Cape Cod,and each of whom advanced my understanding and my practice beyond where it had been.  But at seventy years of age I am simply in love with Aparna (age 37, mother of a 15 year old, married to childhood family friend) and Pravin (an amazingly mature 28, college graduate in civil engineering, living with his parents), my two young teachers in Poona (which is so much lovelier a spelling than Pune), and think they have so much to offer the world, beyond even what they’ve learned at the feet of their guru Dharmavi. 

What makes them unique, from my perspective, is (a) their use of supportive props, particularly mountain climbing ropes secured to the walls of their studio that permit the student to realize a fuller expression of a posture relaxed and supported by the ropes, (b) their emphasis on breath, breathing, and pranayama practice as an integral/essential aspect of yoga, (c) their emphasis on relaxation, especially of the heart, as a critical part of yoga practice, (d) their commitment to the mental, meditative, mind focusing and mentally clarifying aspect of the practice, (e) the restorative/healing skills they each possess in dealing with injury, and (f) the inescapable awareness they bring that yoga is a philosophy for transcending duality, and that the duality of happiness/unhappiness is often a product of body first and mind secondarily.  They charge three dollars per person for a group class and ten dollars an hour for an individual session. When you’re in Poona find them at rupanugayogaacadamy@gmail.com, because I don’t think I’ll get them to the states soon.  In fact, in a revealing moment, I said to them, “Come on, especially you Pravin, come to the States, live in Hollywood, you’re gorgeous, and charming, and exotic, you’ll be the fitness guru to the stars, make two hundred dollars an hour, drive a BMW,” and Aparna responded, “But Mr. Bruce, that doesn’t charm us.”  Charm us?  “What charms you, Aparna,” I asked?  “Teaching yoga as a system of devotion to one’s self and to God,” she said.  Sounds good to me.  Look them up when you get here. 

Oh, just a few things more. Aparna prepared a great feast for me on my last day with them. Pravin’s mother made and sent the chapattis.  And they presented me with a book on yoga.And in still another revealing moment, when discussing yoga in America and Ana Forest with them, Aparna said, “Money?  Money ve do not care about. But fame … and recognition … oh, that would be so lovely, Mr. Bruce.”  And she laughed, and I love the way she laughs. 

I will miss them each, immensely.

29. Moving on

Will there have to come a time when I stop saying I’m euphoric, a despondent side to this mania?  Can I stay euphoric in America?  Have I simply discovered that I like to travel?  Alone?  In India?  I am already sure I want to come back, although I don’t know specifically when or where, though some time in Pune, especially given the personal ties and yoga draw would be nice, as might Auroville, or some time in a yoga ashram, and Sikkim is high on my list.  But I also understand that I have to conclude this journey as part of the journey first, that I have to go “home” and “integrate” first.  Yet even as I say that, and although my travels have nearly four more weeks to go, I am already missing India and am eager to be here again.

I also know that some harder traveling,the putting on some real miles part of the trip, is about to begin in earnest: Pune to Aurangabad, Ellora, and Ajanta, then back to Pune to catch a train to Allahabad, all between Wednesday morning and Friday afternoon, followed by a twenty-four hour train ride to Allahabadand then an overnight bus to Varanasi, hoping to arrive by Saturdayin time for the big full moon festival there.  Stay in Varanasiopen to what the guides and Great Spirit have in store, day trip to Sarnath where Buddha gave his first talk as Buddha, overnight train to Delhi, connect with beloved number one son, Delhi to Agra, to Delhi, to Rishikesh by over night bus, to Dharmshala by overnight bus, to Delhi by overnight bus, then big bird home.  Inshallah.  I no more want to leave Pune than I wanted to leave Auroville.  I like the scene here, the vibration of the city, and I love the gift I have been given here in relationship to my yoga practice/studies.  The question is only how I will manifest it.  Om tat sat.

INDIA – third venue – Pune

19.  Getting to Town

            When I exit the airport terminal in Pune I am approached by a flock of rickshaw drivers offering their services, and as has become my habit I say yes to the first one to reach me, often a runner for other drivers.  And as now is also a pattern on this voyage, when the driver asks where I want to go I shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know … bookstore, Internet cafe, guesthouse.”

            And, of course, the poor driver,who has absolutely no idea where I want to go, heads into town toward some general area where he has seen foreigners congregating, which is exactly what I want.  In this instance we end up in a beautiful neighborhood with tree lined streets, in an absolutely charming part of town, near the immense and famous (infamous?) world renowned Osho Ashram.  And when my driver asks another driver how to find a guesthouse around there, the other driver jumps into the cab and I am taken by the two of them jabbering famously and shown a number of rooms in a number of once stately private homes turned into boarding houses, and I select the prettiest one.  “How long will sir be staying,” I am asked.  And I say, “I don’t know.”“But how can sir not know how long he will be staying?”  “I don’t know.”  “But where will sir be going next?”  “I don’t know.” “But price depends on length of stay, sir, perhaps you will stay one month,” the runner says.  And I laugh.  “One day at a time,” I say.  “Three day minimum,” the owner says.   And I think, okay, I don’thave any plans other than to get to Aurangabad and to meet Sam in Delhi in two weeks, I’ll stay here three days, sure, once more knowing with certainty that this is what I have been guided to …om tat sat/that which is.  “How much?” I ask. “Ten dollars a day,” the owner replies, twice as much as I paid with a private bath and complimentary breakfasts in Auroville.  “Fine,” I say, and put out my hand and we shake on it. And I give the owner 1,500 rupees.  And the owner gives the runner some rupees.  And the runner gives the rickshaw driver some rupees.  And everyone is smiling, even the guides I imagine, who are delighted to have delivered me to this room that is absolutely lovely, on a tree lined street that is absolutely lovely, and quiet, and clean, well almost clean, in a setting that might as well be Paris, where from the windows of my corner room, with screens, a breeze, a fan, cross ventilation, pale green walls, matching striped curtains, and residual smoke from the crematory grounds, I am bathed in the sweetly filtered sunlight that flows into the streets, and into the homes of Pune, and where I sleep soundly, awaiting the new day, and dwell in peace.

20. My mental state

            I really don’t know where I am, literally, other than to say I am in a rented room somewhere in Pune, India, off of Burning Ghat Street, in the Koregaon Park neighborhood, above the confluence of the Mutha and Mula rivers, with flowering trees, and filtered sunshine that falls on small Indian green grocers where I buy four bananas for a nickel, and barefoot children run among the spirits of those whose bodies were reduced to ashes here at the Ghats along the river.  And I certainly don’t know who I am if measured by either the standard of “who-I- experienced-myself-as-being” before the trip, or by the standard of “I-know-why-I’m-doing-what-I’m-doing,” because I really don’t.  And the depth of my letting go has been beyond anything I could have imagined, and even permits me to say of myself that maybe I actually am on a spiritual journey, and that at this time of my life this is exactly what such a journey looks like.  Om tat sat.  And besides my not knowing where I am, and who I am, as best as I know nobody else on the planet knows where I am or who I am either, and I like that, a man who literally forced himself to leave the idealized comforts of Auroville because it was too familiar and distracting, a man stunned by the comfort, pleasure, and enjoyment he is experiencing, a man who, like the cognitively impaired and simple Urusala, has the sense that this is almost too good to be true, although it obviously is true, this realization of some of my fondest wishes, a gift of my long years in struggle and hope, my commitment to and belief in personal transformation and evolution, the many teachers, lovers, caregivers, children, wives, friends, and therapists who helped bring me here, the presence of the guides and Great Spirit … and, yes,maybe even the Divine. 

          Of course, any recognition/acceptance of the Divine is completely new for me, a still confirmed and committed atheist, and thus seems vastly important to explore as a belief and sensation, not merely the familiar sense of wonderment at the beauty, vastness, marvel, complexity, and magnificence of the world, but something more than that, something that at this point I cannot define with words, a belief, perhaps even a knowledge, that causes me to want to explore further whatever the Divine may be (or not be) rather than just categorically rejecting it as pure myth, as I have done since age ten.  This inquiry is consistent with my last few years of living a more spiritual life mostly alone on the Cape, my devoted yoga practice, and this trip to India where the power of Mother India to touch, to reach inside, and to transform the traveler, as it has apparently done so many times, cannot be denied.  There is a particular quote from The Mother, as Aurobindo’s life partner is known as, that compels my attention, the essence of which is that the only solution for the “falsehoods” we live with is to “cure in ourselves all that contradicts in our consciousness the presence of the Divine.”  I think about this, a student who may be ready for new teachers to appear.

21. Finding Yoga - Guru Dharmavi

          Rickshaw drivers are good sources of information about the location of bookstores and cyber cafes, but I’d not met one who knew anything about the location of a yoga studio.  So I’m more than a little surprised when one says he knows of a place I might like and delivers me to Guru Dharmavisingh Mahida’s studio, which is in an absolutely exquisitely rustic compound at the edge of a park surrounded by flowering trees and where a session is in progress at the moment I arbitrarily arrive.  The problem for me is that Guru Vi is not your average yoga teacher, his “classes” are mostly for individual students doing stretching exercises on ropes, straps attached to the walls, and props that makes it look more like a Pilates studio or a physical therapy rehabilitation center rather than a yoga studio, and he will not take anyone as a student who cannot commit to taking classes with him for at least one month. Still Guru Vi is somehow glad to see me and wants to know how he can be of service.  So I tell him about the nature of my yoga practice, and my goals in practicing yoga and my trip to India within that context, and Guru Vi introduces me to two of his students who have a studio and just happen to be there on this day as part of their ongoing study with him, and kindly says that although I cannot study with him I am welcome to come in one morning and do my routine in front of him and he will offer his observations about my practice, oh, and besides which, in his opinion, no one over thirty five should ever be doing a strenuous asana practice anyway.  So I leave with Dharmavi’s students and end up studying with them at their studio for the entire time I am in Pune, and it is quite wonderful, and I don’t want to leave Pune any more than I wanted to leave Auroville, and I return at seven the next morning to Dharmavi’s for my yoga practice analysis, which, without boring you with details, comes down to deeper breathing, longer out breaths, renunciation of trembling, and opening my chest and heart.  “Come back anytime to practice,” says Guru Vi.  “No charge.  Just use the space.  Watch what we do.  Come back to Pune in the rainy season, it’s so beautiful.  I can help you and would enjoy working with you.  Meanwhile I recommend my student without reservation. You will love them and benefit from them.”  And I do and have been learning so much and am so grateful and can’t wait to tell you about it.

22.  The dialogue.

          I don’t leave yoga with Aparna and Pravin, Dharmavi’s students, until some time after 8:00 P.M, as we seem unwilling to stop chatting.  I check periodically to confirm I am not keeping them, that they are not just being polite listening to an old man’s stories and responding to his questions, but there is obvious and genuine excitement and pleasure we are taking in our exchanges and explorations, especially about God, however that may be defined, and particularly our disagreement about the personification of God whether in Krishna, Brahma, Shiva, Jesus, Buddha, the guy who Mohammed is the messenger of, or the guy who commanded Adam, Moses, and the nut case who was prepared to sacrifice his son Jacob before the burning bush.  Helloooo.  But when we get away from the personified god to talk about “creative power” or “forces” or “energy” in the universe we are on completely different ground.  They believe that my being sent to them is no accident, that they are learning so much from me they say, that it must have been an act of god, and besides which, I am their very first non-Indian client.  And from my perspective I also have no doubt that my finding them is not an “accident” either, and that even if synchronistic, it is not “just” synchronistic, and they and I enjoy a shared set of recognitions and assumptions about the difference between “knowing” and “realizing,” not like oh I just realized that, but more an awareness that is an internal recognition of a truth other than by mental computation, or scientific “proof.”  There are fundamentally different assumptions we have, they do not believe humans descended from primates for example, and they do not believe in the “Big Bang,” but then neither do I.  But we all three believe the solar system and this Earth are about six billion years old, which leads me to one of my finest arguments about why the notion of a personalized god more or less looking like and acting like a human is such nonsense.  “Look, P and A, you both accept that there was no life on the Earth at the beginning, right?”  And they do.  “And you accept that at one point life began as a simple single celled organism, right?”  And they do.  “So where was this personalized god you believe in before life began?  And if life began as a single celled organism what was God doing looking like a human at that time.”  This is a very fine argument they acknowledge, but what was the energy/power that created the universe and created the single celled form that was alive and could reproduce, they ask.  And I say we humans will never know that truth.  And they say the answer is “God.” And I ask, “You mean Brahma?”  And they say yes.  And I say I don’t believe it.  And we are fine together.  And I can’t wait to get back the next morning for yoga.

23.       Margapattaville

          I go to the shopping center, mall I suppose you might call it, that services the Margapatta community in which the yoga studio I’ve been going to is located: green grocers, little shops selling kitchenware, ice cream and pizza shops, Indian fast food joints, restaurants, cyber cafes.  It is Sunday night after 9 PM and the place is alive with people: teens, younger people, clusters of men and women in their twenties, gatherings of women chatting, of men chatting, young couples, young families, young women in jeans, men in shorts, it is all very familiar except for the fact everyone here is Indian, everyone is eating with their fingers and then licking their hands clean, all the signs are in Hindi, the lighting is not quite what we are used to, and I am the only non Indian person there … and very comfortable.

24. Night Market

          Afterward leaving the very comfortable mall in Margapatta I grab a rickshaw for the ride back to Burning Ghat Road.  On our way the driver takes a short cut that brings us into a teeming night market I had not seen before.  I ask the driver to stop, saying I want to get out and briefly explore the market.  He tells me it is “wery dangerous, not good place, good sir.”  But in my ongoing euphorically distorted state I say I don’t care, that I want to walk around and see it for ten or fifteen minutes, that he can wait for me if he chooses, or he can go on and I will pay him for this portion of the ride.  “No, sir, I not vait here,” he tells me, “wery dangerous place.  No good place.  No vait, Sir.”  “Okay,” I say, “but what can be dangerous, look at all the people, the lights, just stop and let me off.”  So he stops, I get out, I reach into my pocket for my money and he says, “I vait.”  “Ten minutes,” I yell skipping off, “fifteen at the most,” as I implement my now well practiced Indian street crossing maneuver of attaching myself to a group of people already in the roadway, trusting that if they don’t get hit by a motorcycle or a car, I won’t get hit either.

          Once in the market I am swept up in its festive air.  It is crowded beyond a 42nd street merchant’s dream.  Loud fast Indian music is being blasted from speakers throughout.  There are vendors everywhere, kids’ rides, men blowing and selling bubble blowing devices, balloons, cooking fires, phosphorescent lights that people have on and are twirling, and even one darkly dressed Indian woman wearing a pair of lit up red devil’s horns on her head that make her into a very eerie visage and signal a change in aura of the scene, because no sooner have I seen the woman with the horns than I am surrounded by a pack of eight or nine hyperactive boys who I gauge to be ten to fourteen years old and who want to shake my hand, hold my hands, touch me, and are saying things in English that make no sense, and in Hindi that I obviously don’t understand, but are all extremely animated (and a little too close and intimate), and … it slowly dawns on me … are asking for or demanding money, I can’t tell which.  But I just keep smiling, giving them high fives, shaking hands, laughing, saying “no, no, no,” and moving deeper into the market.  And soon they are gone. 

          I am reminded here of a sweet note I got recently from my high school friend Susan Levine who said she would never do what I am doing on this trip, but perhaps, she speculates, I get away with it, or think I can get away with it, because of my size.  Who knows? 

          In short order I’ve explored all I want to explore of the market, have really enjoyed my little foray, and am headed back out through the crowd when I encounter the crowd of young boys again, still screaming, still a little too frenzied and bold, only now swollen to a pack of about fifteen or twenty youths.  An event I witnessed in the Bronx 60 years ago, which I have not thought about for decades, flashes with remarkable detail as I recall a pack of kids I knew of the same age as this group of boys attack a much larger nineteen or twenty year old man.  As I saw the event then, and even as I think about it now, my initial inclination would be to bet on the far bigger stronger man, not believing then, or even now that I have been proven wrong, than the pack of much smaller young boys could beat and bring down the bigger man.  But they did, and I see it with great clarity.  Maybe the man was adverse to the fight, or maybe the boys drew blood early and it scared him, or maybe at first he didn’t take it seriously, or didn’t want to hurt kids smaller and younger than himself, and clearly in hindsight he shouldn’t have backed up to the parked car as he did, thinking perhaps that he was protecting his rear flank when in fact the car provided a launching pad for the younger boys to climb on and jump on him, and take away his height advantage, and deny him room to move and swing freely and turn.  I really don’t know.  But I do know the younger boys won that fight, and bloodied him badly, and dropped him to the ground, and kicked him until he was curled in a ball crying for mercy, and no one intervened to save him until then, speaking of indifference.  And it is here in my reverie that I also make a mistake in the night market, because, still acting as if we are all just having a jolly old time, I impulsively reach into my pocket, take out a Kit Kat bar I had purchased earlier, and hand it to the kid I perceive as the leader of the pack, saying at the same time, in what I intended to be a joking manner, “Now show some respect to an older man.” And the boy yells loudly,“Now show some respect to an older man.”  And the throng of boys chants responsively, “Now show some respect to an older man,” and the leader calls again, and the boys respond again, and have started touching me, and grabbing my ass, and pressing on the small back pack I’m wearing, and in my pockets, all the while as I move toward the entrance, waving at the vendors who care to look at the unfolding event, swatting boys’ hands away, holding on to my wallet, passport, and cash in my left front pocket with my left hand, waving and swatting with my right.  And smiling, of course.  And trying to keep the mood jocular.  And hoping the rickshaw driver is still there as I use the throng of boys to move blindly forward into the roadway, reaching the rickshaw, getting into the rickshaw while five or six of the boys try to get into the rickshaw with me, each saying words akin to, “Take me home with you,” as the driver starts to move forward, easing into the roadway, where the boys are forced to peel away, and the driver shakes his head and scolds me, saying, “I tell Sir wery bad place. Wery bad place.”  And after putting what he considers to be an adequate distance between us and the market says, “Sir check money and bag,” and I say, “No, no, it’s all good,” and am really feeling good.  And even as I write this I cannot tell you whether it was all in fun, or threat, or something else we will ever know.  And while it may be “odd” to say this,from my perspective I mostly enjoyed the overall experience -that’s mostly -and was mostly comfortable in it, and I would do it again.

25. Idanna mum – nothing is mine

          Hindus believe, I learn, that at each stage of life an individual should be mindful of his or her obligations, whether it is to gain a good education and learn self-control in our youth, or to procreate and raise a family, or to attain union with the Divine.  In this regard it is assumed that after an active life as a householder/wage earner one will withdraw from active community life to pursue more spiritual engagements, followed by a stage of complete renunciation and freedom from attachment.  It is with more than a sense of idle curiosity that, as I learn of these categorizations, I consider my own renunciation of career and community, and my obvious longing to feel and otherwise experience my identity with the larger whole we are all so obviously a part of, or as Hindus would say, to experience my unity with the Divine.