Wedding Cake, and Insights from Hyderabad Airport

Upon learning that it was our honeymoon, the servantile waiters at Vivanta Hotel in Aurangabad had one of the least delicious pineapple cakes we’ve ever tasted sent to our room. It was very sweet – they even lit a candle – and we mushed the fork around in it so it looked like we appreciated the culinary flop. Everything else at the hotel was delicious, though, and since we did not have a cake at our wedding, Josh took this first opportunity to smear the icing on my face.

pineapple cake

After a couple of days at the impressive 1500 year old caves of Aurangabad (one of which is is double the size of the Parthenian in Athens and involved scooping out an estimated 400,000 tons of rocks from a mountain side)

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… and a lovely stay at the Vivanta hotel, we boarded the plane for Hyderabad.

The airport toilets contained sage advice in every stall:

Hyderabad Toilet Wisdom

Hyderabad Toilet Wisdom

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On a more frustrating note, the perils of being white (and even worse, American) in India are increasingly apparent. In the security line in Mumbai the personnel assisted no less than 5 women to elbow their way in front of me (I am interested in purchasing spiked shoulder pads should anyone know how to procure such things). And they would not sell a pack of gum to us for less than 150 rupees ($3).

But we have arrived to Vivek’s welcoming family, serendipitously on the Hindu New Year, and have been treated to our first warm taste of family life and cooking in India. And some normally priced gum 🙂

Aloha from Hyderabad.

-j&d

Reconnecting: Thoughts Post-“silence”

Finally we muster the courage to reconnect to the ball-and-chain blessing that is the internet! It was surprising, after the apprehension towards disconnecting from the proverbial “world”, to feel even greater apprehension towards re-connecting. (Though it mirrors the experience of returning to your home country after a long journey – I always underestimated both the ease of integrating into the new space, and the unease of re-integrating into the old.)

We have passed the last couple of days in Mumbai (or Bombay as some locals still call it – contrary to the “law”), a true delight, not only because of the luxurious accommodations at the Taj, the likes of which have satisfied Hillary & Bill Clinton, John Lennon & Yoko Ono and Buddhist practitioner Richard Gere, but also because of the surprising and welcome modernity of the city, including flushing Western toilets (at least in the tourist-laden South Mumbai).

A brief recap of our incredible silent respite:

Day 1 We hurriedly packed our packs, anxious not to miss check-in and room assignments at 1pm. Fortunately I lucked out, getting a single room because there was a dearth of elderly students, and Josh volunteered for a small group room. Unfortunately this surprise blessing cost an extra 1000 rupees, leaving us with insufficient rupees for the fairly hefty 600 rupee library book deposit. Fortunately the compassionate librarian let us check out boks and wouldn’t even take our small stash of postage stamps for a deposit.

After check in, we had a full 7 hours to speak with our classmates. Over these 7 hours I began to be excited; true, I had a fleeting moment of sadness as the gong struck, ending speech, but the nun who initiated us had such humor and tolerance, impressing upon us all the importance of silence, but just as strongly emphasizing that we are to make this individual journey our own – they understand many of us are Western creatures of comfort challenging ourselves to be kind to evil doers, even scorpions and wolf spiders, and that we “need not take the entire package” of Buddhism, only to keep an open mind and take what is helpful and acceptable to us. Thus begins our 240 hours of silence.

Day 2 We studied the Four Noble Truths today. The first of these stipulates that human existence consists of dukkha – sandskrit for “a pervasive state of dissatisfaction”. Essentially our desires perpetually lead to experiences that are not truly satisfying: sitting down appears to be pleasurable, but it is in reality merely a decrease in the dissatisfying state of being tired of standing; so you seek the fleeting illusory pleasure of standing, then sitting, then standing, none of it truly satisfying or enduring. Dharma then, is any study or practice which helps to divert you away from this path of incessant dissatisfaction. Brother Dharampala, aka “BDP”, told us that “generally people who feel that life is enjoyable will not be interested in the dharma”. I wonder if we might be those people, and will ponder for many days to come on whether that is lucky, or not.

I came to learn to let go of attachements – pride, my husband, my mother, my dogs, peanut butter, as attachments lead to dissatisfaction – unfulfilled expectations. My learning so far: I don’t really think I want to be unattached. But I will learn and listen, in case I am ever ready.

Day 3 A gong announces wake-up, three meditation and three teaching sessions each day, afternoon tea and lunch (but not breakfast or dinner – to Josh’s great frustration he has almost missed dinner waiting on for the grub gong that never rings).

Sometimes (often really) I think to go and check the clock in the reception office, but there is not much point; if I am ready to move to another activity (basically, writing, reading, thinking or walking … a veritable panacea) I will go, whether the gong will ring in 15 or 20 minutes. If the gong rings in 5 I can pick up later where I leave off at whichever of these 4 activities I am involved in.

Ironically, coming here was another thing we planned while back in our rat race to “create conditions that make us happy”. Except that we are 24 hours into a 240h course, and I am impatient to reach the 1/4 mark, 1/2 way mark, done! mark. If I just force myself through this I’ll learn the secret of “happiness”.

If boredom is “confusion of the mind”, what is my confusion?

Day 4 I am bored. Which i know is one of those “disturbing emotions”, a conceptual “label” I apply to another of the world’s phenomenons, and i could examine its causes and try to remove them, change my mind’s perspective to relieve my suffering. But i just don’t want to. And, as Brother DP says, if you do not want it to, Buddhism can do nothing for you. Like Step 6 of Alcoholics Anonymous: willingness is “indispensable”. But he also said you can turn your mind from the disturbance and try to generate a wish to follow dharma. And if you wished you wanted to follow dharma, is that merely wanting fleeting, dissatisfying happiness, “using” dharma, hallucinating about it, or is it the step before wishing to live the dharma?

Day 5 I am surprised how deeply i learned of the philosophy of buddhism in 10 years of studying german existentialism, philosophy of science, and psychophysics. There are new tidbits, but essentially westerners of various sects simply independently rediscovered (invented?) the same empirical philosophies as the buddha 2000 years later.

Josh and I received the Karma Yoga jobs of cleaning the “bathrooms” (I’ll leave it to your imagination why that noun is in quotations”) for our stay at tushita, as the glue was still setting on my broken Himalayan shoes, I cleaned our outdoor asian toilets in bare feet today. After washing with soap and bottled sanitizer, I tried to find comfort in the knowledge that the remaining sense of dirtiness was a delusionary perception of my ignorant unenlightened mind.

Day 6 Surprisingly I want to be more alone. Silence is not solitary: we stand in line together for every meal, 5x a day to enter the gompa for meditation and teaching sessions, we also break out in small discussion groups for one hour each day. Most students are young and western (aka, no respect for teachers, elders, any kind of tradition, insolent), and they show up late to class, leave and come back in droves for even 1 hour sessions (even though the initiating nun mentioned the esteemed art of bladder control and beverage consumption planning our first night), and even speak without raising their hands challenging our impatient brother DP with mundane questions often derailing the lesson.

I am no longer bored. That enemy has been subdued, as I have abandoned classes for the library. I use to take solace in the meditation sessions (our meditation instructor is really awesome); but the brazenness of the youngsters’ impatient questioning has begun to permeate even the meditation sessions, and today I even abandoned meditation, opting for silence, solitude, and a high-altitude himalayan sunburn on the roof of the gompa.

Day 7 In a book I read today Lama Yeshe compared the mind to a baby: You do not “push” a baby. Rather you “play with it in a psychologically skillful way”. So I don’t push myself with the Mindfulness Meditation sessions. I try for however long I can, and then I let my mind go.

But the baby cannot just try the brocoli one day and then never again; so every day I try a little bit. And if the kid likes spinach, that’s a decent substitute, so I insert a little analytical meditation into the morning challenge.

The fact that the mind has the ability to “observe itself” is important in explaining the schism or duality of choosing to be at Tushita: we have decided to be here, but constantly confront things that we don’t want to do, to which we say “no way”. So in the beginning it might be that all you can do is observe your habit-mind, unable to control it, until it acquiesces with fatigue, like a toddler, crying, in fits, resisting, until it wimpers into restorative slumber.

Day 8 Excerpt from Josh’s current book:

A monk asks one of his friends “What are you up to these days?” and the friend replied “I’ve been doing a lot of meditation on patience”. “Well, big patience meditator”, the monk said, “eat shit”. And to the monk the friend responds, “you eat shit!”

I think this is the method of Tushita: inundate you with humans and their incessant giggles and idle chatter, when you anticipated silence, and see if you can muster enough dharma to endure – to practice the “patience” upon which you meditate each day. Josh kept saying what a wonderful opportunity Tushita provided for us to all practice dharma, not just learn it!

Moment of Sin: I broke down and fired up the forbidden iPod today. I was lying in the sun of the gompa roof – the only place that’s not freezing on this property (i’ve been abstaining from drinking water after 4pm because it is so torturous to venture to the outdoor asian toilets in the 10 degree celcious himalayan nights, only to return to a bed that has surrendered all the warmth your body sacrificed to it).

I set my iPod on shuffle, and felt the blissful desire to move my body to the rythms of Bill WIthers singing Grandma’s Hands, like the first bite of warm creamy caramel mixed with crisp smooth vanilla ice cream, smothering your tongue, filling your mouth. No way I’m renouncing desire.

Day 9 We’ve found what we came for and we’ve had enough.

After being chastized by a nun who caught us breaking silence for the first time in over a week yesterday, we snuck off to the forest and planned our escape. Turning in the library books, cleaning the toilets one final time, and grabbing our laundry, it’s off to the bar with us. Yeehaw! We’re practically skipping down the mountain headed back to McLeod Ganj.

Looking back now a few days removed from the experience, neither of us have any regrets. We learned much about Buddhism the philosophy and Buddhism the religion. The power of meditation to penetrate and manage the mental closet is real. Just close your eyes and see how many different thoughts you have in less than 10 seconds. Your mind turns into a two year old and wonders freely without focus. Meditation allows you to control your mind and inturn control yourself. The 11 days that we had outside of the normal india buzz was recharging and strengthening. I recovered from my “Delhi belly” as the locals call it and am ready to hit the road for the rest of our adventure. Carpe Dharma.

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Tushita Bound: 10 Days of Silent Meditation

We are off for a 10-day Introduction to Buddhism at the Tushita Institute, where we will learn about the mind and emotions, karma, love and compassion and the nature of reality.

No phones, no iPads, no kindles, no blogging. Below is a description of our activities for the coming days, and photos can be found on their website gallery.

The Gompa

 

 

Typical Introduction to Buddhism Course Schedule

This is the approximate schedule for 10-Day residential Introduction to Buddhism courses.

Please note that the schedule may vary slightly from course to course, and may change at short notice. Check-In always begins at 1pm and we will post printed versions of the specific schedule around the centre during your course.

Schedule for Shorter Residential Courses: Sometimes our Introduction courses are shorter than 10-days in duration; in which case, the schedule below will remain the same on the check-in and check-out days, and for the body of the course (Teaching and Meditation program) but will not have the 2 days of Intensive Meditation at the end.

Day 1 – Check-In Day

1:00pm Check-in/Registration (in the Dining Hall)
4:30pm Welcome and Introductory talk
6:15pm Dinner
8:00pm Course Introduction

Days 2 to 7 – The Body of the Course (Teaching & Meditation Program)

6:00am Wake up
6.45 – 7.30am Mindfulness Meditation
7:30am Breakfast
9:00 – 11:00am Teaching
11:15 – 12:00pm Stretching (if teacher available) or Walking Meditation
12:00 – 2:00pm Lunch & Karma Yoga Jobs
2:00 – 3:00pm Discussion Groups
3pm Tea Break
3:30 – 5:00pm Teaching
5:30 – 6:15pm Guided Meditation
6:15pm Dinner
7:30pm Guided Meditation

Days 8 & 9 – 2-days of Intensive Meditation

6:00am  Wake up
6:45 – 7:30am Mindfulness Meditation
7:30am Breakfast
9:00 – 9:45am Guided Meditation
10:10 – 10:55am Guided Meditation
11:20 – 12:05pm Guided Meditation
12:00 – 2:15pm Lunch & Karma Yoga Jobs
2:15 – 3:00pm Guided Meditation
3pm Tea Break
3:45 – 4:30pm Guided Meditation
5:00 – 6:15pm Dharma Video
6:15pm Dinner
7:30pm Guided Meditation

Day 10 – Check-Out Day

6:00am Wake up
6:45 – 7:30am Mindfulness Meditation
7:30am Breakfast
9:00am Final Talk & Feedback Round
12:00pm Picnic Lunch
1:00 – 3:00pm Check out
All participants must be punctual and attend all sessions of the course.

 

Until April 4th, namaste.

-j&d

Indian Tourista, and an Overnight Train

Seeking entertainment our last night in Jaipur, our driver took us to Chokhi Dhani, the Dolly Wood of India where Indians watch folk dancing, ride camels and elephants, and even bowl.


Something I ate (though we only ate at the buffet they sent us to) made me really ill. I was so sick josh packed for me this morning and got our hotel to give us an extra hour before checkout.
The hotel let us sit in the lobby another hour before the driver came to take us to the train station.
I look so bad, sweating, pale, stooped posture and shallow of breath, that people keep asking if I am sick. I know dry toast is the only acceptable food, and even that in minuscule quantities, but after the second local says something about the medicinal effects of banana lassi I think maybe they knew something about being sick in India that is different from my mom’s unquestionable knowledge of being sick in the states, and drink a few ounces of it.

The driver I can tell feels terrible for me; I can’t sit still or sit up straight. Whatever is in me causes intense pangs in my stomach and cramping in muscles all over my body.
We get to the train station, and when josh and the driver finally stop walking I sit down on the dirty ground (there are dirtier grounds in India, and even if I cared I simply cannot go on standing). But it’s not the right platform so I get up and continue following them, they hauling all my stuff and me breathlessly putting one foot in front of the other, wondering if listening to some George Straight on my iPod would give me fortitude or make me weep. I want my mom. I want my dog.
As soon as josh and the driver stop at the next platform I sit down, but the driver insists I get up to take the seat he’s asked an Indian man to give me. I do my best to make the namaste bow of thanks to him. I am dizzy and nauseas and I think everyone is staring at the white girl panting and sweating.
I tug at Josh’s shirt, interrupting his conversation with the driver. I tug harder, scared. “The sink” as he points to the left “or over the edge”. He helps me over our backpacks to a trash can, and as I puke the medicinal banana lassi into the trash can, a train station of Indians staring at me, he assures me that I am strong, and that, contrary to my protests, I can do this.
When my stomach has stopped reeling I follow him to the train, and we find our four-berth air conditioned sleeper class cabin. By 14:00 the antibiotic has abated the worst of the pangs and aches, and we sleep, along with our companions, some Hindu-Muslims who insisted we not drink whiskey when we entered the cabin. The train is fairly comfortable, clean.
The site of curry-stained paper bowls littered in the train station make me nauseas. The smell of strongly spiced food incites my gag reflex. I loved Indian food so much, and now all I want is mrs bairds, no butter no jam please.
Note to travelers: stick with the antibiotics and toast; lassi doesn’t work on foreigners 🙂

 

Trip to the Krishna Temple and sad Update: Amarillo is a Scam

The morning after meeting Amarillo we woke at 7am to feed the cows before morning temple, for luck. After sufficient difficulty finding the temple we gave up on the cows and decided to follow the throngs of people entering the Hindu service.

India is impressively efficient with security: they scan the millions of people riding the metro, entering the monuments and museums each day with much more grace than the American TSA musters within the states each day. The same is true of the temple: you must walk through a metal detector, and if you have a mac air or iPhone in your bag you are easily shuffled to the bag check (if as few Americans carried such devices as Indian Hindus attending morning temple, TSA bag check would surely be more efficient too).

The service was much like most religious ones: people sang traditional songs, congregated, greeted one another, bowed their heads and gave each other a sugary food, bringing good karma. They marched circles around the statue of Krishna or Shiva (7, 11, 21, 31 to 101 times; even numbers are bad!). They raised their hands and sang, their volume increasing as the curtains finally lifted to reveal the Hindu god Shiva; Josh said it was like witnessing some very old tribal mystic ceremony. As quickly as it began, it was over, and the worshipers began their exodus, save those last few with more rounds to make around the shrine, depending on the gravity of their wish or blessing.

On our way from temple to market we saw a merchant with food very similar to that we saw being distributed and eaten at the temple (a doughnut-hole looking food). Through broken English he finally understood that we were asking if this was the food of the temple, and he gave us some, explaining that sharing it was good luck.  A few meters later we entered a shop that had a quilt we had been wanting. Less than 60 seconds after we entered the man who had bestowed the temple doughnut upon us entered. He, like Amarillo, was a charming multi-lingual, also offering us tea and seamlessly engaging us in compelling philosophical and cultural discussions. We left 40 minutes later with the quilt.

Within 10 minutes of picking us up later that afternoon our driver told us that people like Amarillo and doughnut-man and a handful of others that we had met over the days – charming multi-linguals working the markets – are a known part of the system. These men charm up the foreigners with tea and fulfilling conversations in their native tongue, telling the foreigners how glad he is that they have come to visit India, of the important things across cultures like family, the whole time building trust and rapport and then delivers the unwitting dupe to the next shop (always his brother’s or father’s shop), where he overpays 50-200% and the charming multi-lingual tourist bait takes his commission (could be up to 40% like the tour guides) and moves on to the next fish.

We have spent 9 days taking turns with optimism and pessimism; knowing we were traveling to a totally foreign land and tolerating the misuse that begets, and then being beyond toleration. Josh tonight is the more sanguine between us; I’m slightly reeling at the realization that every conversation that we’ve had that we thought was a “cultural experience” was someone trying to scam us. And I’m definitely done bending over backwards to make sure I don’t offend the locals.

Amarillo, Texas in Jaipur, Rajasthan

Meandering the Tripolia market of Jaipur tonight we met an Indian wearing a large, rodeo-style Levi’s belt buckle and a cowboy boot pin in his hat reading “Amarillo Texas”. He invited us to his shop for tea, and he was impressively conversant in Spanish, Italian and French (the only languages we were able to vouch for) and said he knew enough Chinese to get the tourists to buy his jewelry.

amarillo

He was quite charismatic, said he prefers selling his jewels and meeting the tourists to the cush government job he could have, and claimed to have had an Italian girlfriend for the 22 days he spend in Italy and currently his Mexican girlfriend lives with him in India.

He confirmed some prices of goods for us that he doesn’t sell, though he sent us to a neighboring store for these goods, so as ever, we remain wary. Josh was 100% successful in bargaining today, getting our elephant photos for 100 rupees instead of the original 200, two oranges for 10 instead of 20, and a blanket for 500 instead of 18,500. We are at least gaining a good foundation of the mark-up here, and confidence that as we’re walking out the door every merchant has caved to giving us what Josh calls “Indian prices”.

Ganesh is finally looking out for us. May he remove obstacles in your day today too.

-j&d

ganesha: Remover of Obstacles

Taj Mahal

Today was the quintessential tourist day: the Taj Mahal! Josh in all his newfound glory woke up early to ride the bike at the gym again (this stranger has worked out in the hotel gyms 5 times since we arrived, his first time solo in a gym in 10 years). We were our habitual 30 minutes late to meet the tour guide, then a quick drive to the Taj Mahal.

As with all monuments in India, foreigners pay a high premium for entrance (eg, 750 rupees ($15) for the “High Value Ticket” vs 20 ($0.20) for the locals braving the the heat in long lines). Josh and I both appreciate this as an effective mechanism to give the impoverished native population access to the wonders of their heritage, while giving the foreigners extra incentive to fund it.

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The Taj Mahal was Shah Jahan‘s attempt to bring heaven to Earth; he chose special translucent white Indian marble because it is non-porous – enduring, and the stone of God was white in the scriptures. It follows the compulsory rule of Muslim mausoleum, with four quadrants split by the four rivers of honey, milk, wine and water. My immediate experience was white, airy lifting of stone in the morning sun; the engineering of the structure remains a mystery, with unparalleled symmetry in design and optical illusions of perspective considered in the angles of every minarets, which are tilted outwards 15 degrees to give the impression of being perfectly vertical to the human eye from afar.  Even the font used in the inscriptions grows in size as it ascends the front of the tomb to give the illusion of being the same size from top to bottom. It took 20,000 imported persian artisans years to build this edifice to God.  There are several stories that circulate regarding Shah Jahan‘s motivation in constructing the Taj; the abounding story is that it is a tomb for his beloved wife, who passed after giving birth to their 14th child in 16 years. Our guide’s own hypothesis, which we find more compelling than the Bollywood love story, is that the Shah could not have organized the logistical feat of bringing the tons of marble the hundred kilometers distance, and tens of thousands of artisans and architects from far away lands, in one year after her death. Yet construction began on this behemoth within the year. Thus our guide believes Jahan had planned the tomb several years before in honor of his own death, as was the custom, tradition and obligation of the great Mogul Kings. Though the Brits insisted on romanticizing the history, and the Indians perpetuate the love story with musical productions for the tourists to see, we are inclined to agree with the evidence.

As for the inside of the Taj, there is not much open to the public – you flow with the sea of humanity down the halls of the mosque and out of the exit. Just as there is a comfort and peace in viewing the front of the Taj in the morning sun, it instills a sense of respite upon entering after standing in line in the north Indian sun: the smooth, cold-to-the-touch marble, as you walk barefoot through the mosque, as shoes are forbidden.

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Our guide also confirmed that the Indians wanting to take our photos and shake our hands are not scammers, but Indian tourists who come from places where there are no fair-skinned people; we will be more understanding of their curiosity.

btw, the picture of us “holding up” the Taj is apparently required for couples.

may you have the chance to visit and hold your own Taj Mahal

-j&d