Southern India, Cows, and Playtime for Josh

Southern India is nicer than the north in that the cuisine is easier on the western digestive track, the people are nicer and more genuine (in our experience, and except for the part of Northern India that is essentially Tibet), the people seem to be more literate and can help you out, and the people are nicer – they will help you out and they aren’t trying to charge you 600% more for being white and 800% more for being American (seriously some merchants freaking ask you what country you’re from before giving you a price). And the merchants are not as aggressive down here: they only follow you for half a block insisting “madame, madame! It is free to look! Just come in, see what we have, no cost to look. Madame! MADAME!” (I am trying to work up the nerve to yell “ayi-yai-yai” and see if it would impede their aggression. I really do want to buy something, but after 6 weeks here just walking by a store evokes anxiety.)

On the other hand, electricity, internet and sometimes hot water are not so reliable. And when you request a “double bed” – kind or queen, like, for a couple – 90% of the time they push two twins together. Sometimes they don’t even push them together, but then other times it’s like a “four star” place and they at least put a king size sheet and comforter over the 2 twins.

[[Diversion: Let me qualify – this was our experience in 2 weeks of Kerala, just one state of four in Southern India, and this also didn’t apply to our stay in Mumbai, but there we stayed at Taj Majal Palace, voted “Top City Hotel in Asia.)

Our hotel in Goa has been divine, and our 5 hours at a hotel in Bangalore was something to be recommended as well.

Ramanashree California Hotel

We never intended to end up in Bengaluru, as the natives call it, but the government decided to close the Goa airport for routine maintenance, so our direct flight was cancelled, and we were rerouted to Bengalaru with a 7 hour layover. The airline offered a free lunch as compensation. The trick here is, upon arrival at Bengaluru you have to claim your bags, exit the airport, re-enter and re-check-in, and you can’t check-in at an airport in India until 2hours before departure. So we were going to be stuck outside the airport for 5 hours, and we didn’t even bother to look at how long that “free lunch” voucher was good for. We took a cab 22km to the nearest hotel with wi-fi (correction: the nearest hotel that bribed the airport information desk – Ramanashree Hotel California), paid for a room, and enjoyed 5 hours of functional internet for the first time in almost 2 weeks. ]]

Anyhow, we spent a few days at a “5 star” resort on a swamp (they use the euphemism “Lagoon”) in Kottayam, Kerala, which had zero internet access, massively incompetent service, weird outdoor bathrooms where your towels get soaked when it rains, which is not uncommon, and they gave us a packed breakfast on the day of our departure (because it was included in our plan) which was covered in ants. The room we stayed in, however, had great AC, was beautiful and spacious, had reliable electricity, and there was an amazing pool (though the pool staff won’t really serve you unless you get up to go get them; not a problem, just not very 5-star).

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We went on a great walk through the butterfly and cow preserves of the grounds, and Josh played with swings, cows and some monster lizards.

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We are glad to be in the tourist land of Goa. A few Indians warned us that Goa has been ruined by tourism, but it has all the comforting amenities and the liberal social and dress codes of the West, and we are happy to be here. It is also nice to be treated as humans instead of foreign milk cows that are expected to pay 2-10x what locals pay.

Fun Times from Goa!

-j&d

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Busted Digits, Burgeoning Quads & Martial Arts with Fire

20130428-192431.jpgAfter a massively successful safari trek at the Periyar Tiger Reserve, in which we stumbled upon wild bison, elephants, and were told of how the indigent people use bamboo spikes to ascend 70 foot trees to steal honeycombs from gigantic bees’ nests, we enjoyed the entertaining Kalaripayattu, one of the oldest forms of martial arts and originating in Kerala.

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I had an arbitrary goal of cycling a continuous 70km (50 miles), but I busted my finger on a pool lounge chair, so Josh had to represent on the bicycle as we made the final descent down the mountains to the backwaters.

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Our quads and hamstrings are ginormous (relative to someone who has spent the past 10 years sitting at a computer 8 hours a day). We had our last ride in the flat lands of the backwaters of Kottayam, and were pretty impressive in the speed department (… our speed department) for a good 30km. Bottom left photo in collage below is us with some friendly locals in Munnar who asked to take a photo with us.

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After over a week of homestays I called it quits on the cultural experience, and we cancelled our rice boat reservation and headed for the hotel a day early. As far as we can tell, the rice boats are a recent river-polluting invention for tourists, and given the oppressive heat and humidity, it didn’t seem like it would be that fun to sit on the deck, and it didn’t seem that cool to sit in the AC cabin of some slow-moving water vessel that had no cultural heritage.20130428-192314.jpg


Bring on the beer, bring on the pool.

-j&d

Josh and our homestay host hiding out under a banana tree in Adimali while the rain storm passes.

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Kerala: Cycling in “God’s Own Country”

The first day of cycling was far and away the best day of this trip. It was gorgeous, our guide and driver are awesome to be with, and we are mastering mountains we would have bet money we couldn’t conquer. All the inane clichés apply, and the name the Indians have given to this land – “God’s Own Country” – is the most adequate way to describe the deeply verdant jungles, flowers and fields of tea, banana, pineapple, jack fruit, papaya, mango, vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom, tapioca, and too many other things to name. These plants are landscaped across the mountains of the hill country or “hill stations” as the Indians call them, and each day we ride through kilometer after kilometer of breathtaking life in the hills.

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The people mostly wave excitedly as we ride by, but some gawk, and a newspaper truck even photographed the crazy foreigners puffing up these hills (it is an offense to non-professional cyclers trudging up these hills that they aren’t considered mountains, but such are the insensitive categories of science). After a lifetime of recreational cycling (mostly to the bars on sunny spring days), we are becoming intimate for the first time with first and second gears, which we have spent consecutive hours in the past couple days. During the Buddhist retreat we practiced eating and walking meditation – a zen-ish attending to each bite and step taken. Cycling meditation is, as Josh says, absolutely requisite to make it up the hills. Yesterday the middle 20km of our trek was almost all uphill, and it requires a very singular mindset to plod along, in the tortoise-speed of first gear, unforgiving wind of the mountain (yes, I am going to call these hills mountains) after unforgiving wind.

While our muscles have adjusted surprisingly fast (not to say we aren’t sore, but we’re not dying; maybe because we go so slow), even our cycle diapers cannot prevent the punishment of unpadded seats on the underside of the pelvic bones, and we ease down gingerly after raising up onto our pedals to accommodate potholes and the occasional speed bump. We continue to be astounded by our ability to push through these rides, so far only once opting to be “transported” (loading the bikes and ourselves into the truck; we love the kind euphemism) for the final 20km, which we were told was all uphill and even steeper than the previous 20km had been. Mindfully watching the incline during this transport, we had no regrets; plus, we’d already gone more than twice as far as we’d ever ridden a bike, and more uphill kilometers than the previous 30 years of existence combined.

DHGate Cycling Underwear

DHGate Cycling Underwear

We have been at camps or homestays so far, getting a unique taste of boonie-hill-country residencies and home cooking. There is little hot water, so we fill up a bucket with the warm water and bathe out of that. I have pretty much renounced washing my hair, electing to distribute the grime of my sweaty scalp through my lovely locks with a brush in an effort to avoid dreadlocks.

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Our Luxury Tent

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Inside the Tent

But we are loving this trip even more than we hoped, and it is passing all too fast.

Till we connect again

-j&d

Views from Homestay in Adimali: Karadipara

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Indian Management & the Anticipated Cycling Adventure

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We begin our cycle tour today! Running slightly behind schedule: our hotel was supposed to have breakfast ready at 6:30, and at 7:08 Josh had tracked down the receptionist who had tracked down the security guard who had tracked down the manager (who swallowed the fly to catch the cat). The manager led Josh to a kitchen and proceeded to watch bewilderedly as Eagle-Scout Josh found bananas, a couple pieces of bread, and even scrounged up a knife to slice some pineapple.

This scene reflects a theme in India – personnel seem unable to make decisions, fix things, and generally the standard of work is baffling. We watch brick walls go up, the bricks crooked and the concrete incompletely filling holes; except for the nicest one or two hotels in a city (and forget towns) towel hooks in the bathroom are hung crooked and slightly broken, dish washing would not past the test of either of our fathers and over 50% of the clothes or blankets we inspect for purchase in the markets have stains on them. There are signs in every city for “Management” schools and degrees, but again we are curious what “management” means here, because this word certainly entails a different concept in America.

Today we ride to Thattekad and camp at Hornbill. We are somewhat nervous, as the farthest either of us has ever ridden on a bike is about 15 miles, and Houston is as flat a terrain as it gets outside of Kansas, but excitement far outweighs the anxiety: this has been one of the most anticipated segments of our journey.

Until the next internet connection 😉

-j&d

Communism, Asian Novels, & the Peaceful Shores of Kerala

We made our way down to the backwaters of Kerala and have spent the past couple days in Cochin. As were the mountains in North India, so the beaches in South are a welcome reprieve from the dry heat, crowds and unforgiving cuisine of the Northern cities. Electricity and internet are inconsistent and virtually unavailable, respectively, though we are roughing it (Josh calls it 5-star camping) in the boonies. And the procurement of alcohol has become even more difficult.

But this state, which boasts 100% literacy (we are curious what the operational definition of literacy is …) and has been alternately governed by a communist (Left Democratic Front) and a democratic (United Democratic Front) party since late 1970s,  is stunningly clean, with impeccably swept streets and lacking the piles of rubble and incomplete edifices that pervade the other 5 states we’ve visited. Communism sure seems appealing …

Josh discovered an Indian best seller in the airport – The Shiva Trilogy – and has sped through the first two books in our lazy couple days of reading by the seaside. The trilogy gives a fantastical glimpse into the world of the greatest Hindu Gods, (we’ve heard there are somewhere between 3 and 33 million) as they grew from heroic humans to gain God status on Earth. Josh says their a good mix of Conan and the Hobbit, albeit on Hinduism.

I have finally had the time to indulge in some novels about Muslim culture, including Growing Up bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s wife’s autobiography; Taliban Escape! One Woman’s Journey Out of Hell, as intense a depiction of the horror side of being a Muslim woman as one could hope to find; and Love in a Headscarf, which so far seems like a depiction of the wonderful side of being a modern Muslim woman, with the peace and strength that Islam offers its believers, and the security that the family and societal structure offer. The main character anticipates the interviews with families of potential husbands as a young girl might anticipate a Quincinera. Unfortunately, I only have the sample on my kindle, and it is uncertain when we will have internet access …

Peace from the peaceful shores of Cochin-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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