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Posts Tagged ‘India’

Let me begin by saying that I have no clue what ashrams are all about.  Before I went to Amritapuri, I’d hardly ever even thought about ashrams.  If someone asked me what an ashram was, I either would have done things the Indian way and made something up, or I would have admitted my ignorance.  SO if there’s anything I write pertaining to ashrams that sounds wrong or just plain silly, then feel free to say so, because I’m definitely in a learning process.

The Sivananda Ashram in Neyar Dam, Kerala, has very little in common with Amma’s ashram.  That’s really all I have to compare it to.  There’s the nightly devotional singing of songs in Sanskrit that makes me think of a concert geared toward  my four year old cousin (except hereI don’t try to hide my clapping-along enjoyment).  There’s the amazing food- here two meals a day with as many seconds as you want.  Considering the amount of thirds most people get, I can tell that I’m not the only one who enjoys the food.  This is a further fodder for my theory that good cooking just needs to be made with love.

But the purpose of the Sivananda Ashram is completely different than that of Amma’s.  People went to Amma’s ashram because they wanted a glimpse of divinity.  There were over a thousand people there at one time, and at least one hundred lived there permanently.  Even the devotees who were just visiting tended to stay for months.  Here, people come for the yoga.  Instead of doing your own thing and finding a way to do personal meditation, practically the entire day is planned out.  This has both its good and bad sides, but here’s what the schedule looks like:

5.20am – wake-up bell

6.00am – satsang (group meditation, chanting, talk)

7.30am – tea time

8.00am – Asana Class

10.00am – vegetarian meal

11.00am – karma yoga

1.30pm – tea time

2.00pm – lecture (usually on how to live in a yogic way)

3.30pm – asana class

6.00pm – vegetarian meal

8.00pm – satsang

10.30pm – lights out

It’s a lot of yoga.  The main attraction here is a month-long teacher training course.  About a third of the people at the ashram now are involved with that (their schedule is much more demanding).  As for me, it’s been over three months since my Yoga to the People days, so I’m a littlesore.  But it’s great to be moving again.  And the breathing exercises are really interesting.  I’ll be here for about a week, so more on Sivananda later.

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It was like a battle.  That was the first thing that came to my mind.  In the middle of the abandoned-dirt-plot turned fairground, people dressed in saris and dhotis and a few camera-handed tourists pressed into a ring.  At its edge, people balanced on their tiptoes and fathers with toddlers on their shoulders lifted up their chins for a better look.  All eyes were fixed on the drummers.  Lined up four men across and four men back, they wore their leg-length drums at their hip, hanging from a sash across their shoulders.  The drumsticks were curved back at the ends from hitting tight animalskin at full muscle force again and again.  You could see it on their faces, and in the sweat that poured down their chests and soaked into their white rib necked vests.  They were warriors.  Their battle was in their beat- aggressive and competitive, but contained and controlled.  Their purpose was in their eyes and in the quick flash of a smile; they were there to have fun.

The elephant festival happens once every year, and the drummers always lead the march before the elephants.  Hardly like a conventional American balustraded parade, the elephant march went through Varkala’s streets with an air of controlled chaos.  When the drummers stopped, people pressed in around them.  When they started marching again, some people randomly joined the parade followed behind them.  This was a religious festival, including a procession of floats with statues of Hindu gods, but it easily could have been Saint Ubaldo in Jessup or the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village.  Regardless of culture or religion or reason, the energy felt the same.

Now this may seem like I’m getting totally off topic here, but stay with me.  I’ve gotten into the habit of reading the Indian newspapers every morning.  Just like the rest of the world, India’s media is focused on covering ‘the Economic Crisis,’ usually in the light of what the U.S. is doing.  Despite an editorial love of Obama, it’s not American citizens who have won recent praise.  It’s the French.  An editorial in The Hindu this morning praised French citizens who took to the streets on March 19th in protest of their government’s shady response to financial woes.  I won’t rehash the details, because I wasn’t there.  It was well covered in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

While the French are being praised for standing up against bad policy, on the next page of The Hindu is an op-ed from The New York Times.  It’s Paul Krugman’s piece about Obama’s Bush-esque, sure to fail (according to him) bank bailout plan.  As the world is looking us with patient expectation, wondering what our new president will do differently, maybe now’s the time for us to make sure that he does it right.  I’m not saying that we should emulate the French, but maybe we can learn from them.  And perhaps a mixing of Indian and French is the way for us to go.  We can tap into that energy that comes from mass gatherings–whether it’s a parade of elephants, Saint Ubaldo, or crazy costumed New Yorkers–and attach a message to it.  Parades and festivals are not foreign to us.  The idea of protesting doesn’t have to be scary.  Read about the issues, get your stance straight, and then figure out what to do next. The point is to do something.  Or at the very least start talking about what we need to do.

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A ferry in the backwaters

A ferry in the backwaters

I came here from Allepey, a typical south Indian town that reaches to the edges of the Keralan backwaters, a maze of canals with rice paddy gold and green grass borders. Houses line the waterways as they would on suburban streets, but instead of cars in driveways, there are small coffee colored canoes tied to hunchbacked coconut trees.

A palmthatch roof shaded the reed mat and ruby pillows that graced the center of a dirty wooden canoe, just a hand narrower than my arm span and long enough to hold two lounging tourists and a single rower who sat in the sun at the back.  His name was Pushparajan and he’d lived in the backwaters his entire life. Fishermen and ladies washing their clothes in the river yelled greetings to him in Malayalam as we floated past.

Lazing against my cushion while Pushparajan paddled, I wondered if this would be the closest I would ever come to feeling like royalty. Armadas of motorized luxury houseboats, complete with brass railings, man-sized windows, and lacquered sun decks, gurgled past us. There was certainly plenty of regality to be found on the backwaters. But there were moments when I could have sworn that I was on a street, the canal was so congested. Horns blared and the air conditioned four-bedroom houseboats pushed our little canoe into the green growth that hid along the sides of the canal

In this boat-swamped area, it looked like we were canoeing along the edge of a giant soap bubble.  Turning around I asked Pushparajan about the water.  He frowned and put his hand to his ear. I pointed down at the water and asked again.

“Motor oil,” he said, waving his hand  “but no problem.”

I tried to ask him again about it later, but the language barrier rose up like an iron fence that was inches too high to climb and I got the impression that he didn’t want to worry me.  So I let it go.

A head emerged from the water in front of us, and then a torso.  At first I thought the woman was bathing, as many of the people who live here do.

“Fishing for oysters,” Pushparajan said. And the woman opened up both palms to study her coal black catch of shellfish. Unsatisfied, she took a deep breath, grabbed onto the bamboo pole that jutted out of the water like a flagpost without its pennant, and dove back down again.

Then Pushparajan took me behind the main waterways to where his home was, where there were no road signs or huge houseboats or noisy ferries.  And no oil-slicked water.  Here the air stood still so that time moved with the pace of the imperceptible river current, and you could almost hear the cashew leaves falling onto the water. The people of the backwaters live with the river, as a shepherd lives with grassy hills or the Iroquios lived with their forests of Oak and Hemlock.  Because of this, even though these Keralans are removed from the chaos of the wider canals, they live among a different sort of danger.

A thin green layer of vegetation blanketed the canal. With no motorboats to sweep the growth to the sides, there were parts where I couldn’t see any water at all.  My rudimentary knowledge of ecosystem science warned me that this was not a good sign.  Pushparajan led me into the rice paddies behind his house, and told me about the “little bottle of poison” that they use to make sure that the rice grows.

“Not a problem,” he said.  And no matter how I asked him, he assured me that this was the case.

We went back to the canoe.  By this point I’d left my shaded cushion to move into the sun, where there was an extra paddle under the front seat.  It didn’t take long for lounging to get old. Paddling together, we went back to the main waterway, past rice paddies that were golden and ready for the cutting machines to harvest their grains, past the ostentatious houseboats and the people sitting out on their ostentatious houseboat verandas, through the rainbow oil water and back to Alleppey.

And now I’m at Periyar, the wildlife sanctuary without any wild animals, the home of the living plants and trees that are the source of so many things that we use every day; cocoa trees, vanilla vines, cinnamon trees. Today I had fresh, homemade chocolate, made from a cocoa tree that grows in the chocolate maker’s back yard. One more day here to see a tea plantation, and next is Ama’s ashram in Amritapuri, to continue the search for the answers of community living.

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They say that smell is the strongest trigger of memories. Lately I’ve been having flashbacks of my trouble-making youth, when I went through that phase where you like to light things on fire and see how they change. Today on the bus to Allepey I remembered my Grandmother’s damp basement and me and my sister and two of my cousins striking matches and then burning the end of a ballpoint pen. Little black globules floated in the dim lit air like drugged-out fruit flies. My heart raced from the thought of our Grandma catching us. We knew what we were doing wasn’t allowed, but back then curiosity was the excuse that made allowances for everything. I smooshed the melted pen onto a piece of paper and smiled; it looked like a royal seal.

Sitting alone on the bus this morning I found myself holding my breath more often than usual. Every few minutes my lungs would feel the faint contraction that comes from inhaling dirty smoke. Most of the time it was just a pile of old leaves and garbage that was burning- it’s the dry season in Kerala and thinks are getting brittle. But every now and then I’d know that I was smelling burning plastic and my mind would go back to that brown house in the country, the last on the left on Green Grove Dr.

There are some things that I know I will never take for granted again. In the U.S. I can turn on a tap and know that I can drink the water without having to worry about getting hepatitis (I can get this water basically for free, unless of course it becomes privatized and corporations get to charge whatever they want so that they can make a profit from it).  In the U.S. there’s this idea that people have a right to clean air (unless, of course, you’re a poor black kid living in the South Bronx. Or a poor white kid living in Scranton next to Route 81). In the U.S. anyone can get a great education, so long as they study hard (and are already in the middle class so that they have the money to afford skyrocketing tuition).

Something I’m starting to realize is that there are things in this world that are universal.  Everywhere has its mischievous children and scolding grandmothers.  But when it comes to shaping the world that we live in and the way that we’re influenced by it- a.k.a. when it comes to pushing for environmental change- whether it regards health or aesthetics or infrastructure, there is a lot that the U.S. has already been done.  There isn’t trash on the side of our roads and our air isn’t clouded with the toxic fumes of burning plastic.  But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to fight for.  It’s the things in the parentheses, the people in the parentheses, that we need to make sure don’t go unnoticed.  This is why activism is so necessary.  When there’s someone in the U.S. pointing out how clean our air is and how free our people are, someone else needs to be there to point out that actually the cleanliness of one’s air and the freedom that one has depends on the size of one’s wallet.

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Preface: I’m going to put my tendency toward hyperbole on hiatus until further notice. I’m going just going to write the following exactly as it happened.

There weren’t many tourists in Jog Falls. With it being one of the ‘must see’ places in my Rough Guide book, I was surprised to find that there were only two other foreigners checked into the local youth hostle. I arrived just as the sky was growing dark, and spent the night talking with the two men from Israel.

Amir and his friend came through the mountains to Jog Falls on a black Royal Ensfield Bullet with a pouncing tiger insignia on the side of it. The tiger was fitting for the old bike; it growled every time Amir started it, and sputtered sometimes when he switched the gears. His friend had to go back to Gokarna to meet people, but Amir stayed and we spent the day riding around on the Bullet.

We were driving along this random country road. Every so often a house and farm would break the line of palm trees on both sides of the pavement. Cows were grazing in a small clearing ahead of us, behind a fence with an opening to the road. This is nothing spectacular—there are cows everywhere in India. But as we passed these cows I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. When I twisted my neck back to see what it was, there was a black bull the size of an SUV with its head to the ground and its hooves pounding after us.

“Amir, go faster!”

An image of the bull head-butting the back of the bike and then trampling the both of us flashed through my mind. The beast drew nearer.

“Amir!” I slapped his back. All of the muscles in my body tensed up. “The bull—it’s chasing us.”

“What?” He was still clueless.

“GO FASTER. Look in your mirror!”

“Shit.” The engine revved and we picked up speed, but the bull was still behind us. The bike gurgled and I was sure that fate would decide for this to be the time for the engine to go out.

But it didn’t. Later Amir said that he’d been going about 50k. However fast he went, it was enough to get us around a bend and out of sight of the beast. Then the road ended. We’d found the dam that had been build upstream of the falls, and there was a gate across the road. We’d lost the bull by this point, but it couldn’t have been far behind us. I watched the bend in the road, waiting for it to come running down. I was ready to hop the fence, but the bull never came.

Two guards came out of a small building near the gate and we chatted with them for a while. We weren’t allowed to go and see the dam because security had been heightened after the Mumbai attacks. But after we said goodbye, Amir took a dirt road to the side of the gate and we saw the dam anyway. When we passed the guards on the way back, they didn’t seem to care.

I wasn’t worried about getting yelled at by some guards. The only way out was the same way that we came in. Amir didn’t seem nervous at all, but maybe that was for my sake. As we drove back up the road to where the bull had to be waiting, an Indian woman waved us down and stopped us. Her face was creased with wrinkles, and she was only slightly taller than the young boy that was with her. She started speaking something in Malayam, and although I couldn’t understand a word of it, I knew what she was saying. I smiled, put my two index fingers up to my temples and pointed down the road. She and the boy nodded.

Her eyebrows were drawn together, deepening the worry lines on her forehead. She pressed her lips and handed me what I had thought was a walking stick. My smile disappeared. I saw that one end of the thick stick had been sharpened into a point. She was handing me a spear.

I swallowed and took it from her, thanking her. In that moment I realized how serious the situation was. She took the pointed end of the spear and put it up to her collar bone, showing me where to aim. Then she moved my hands so that I was holding the spear across my chest, my right hand above my left, ready. Our eyes met and she put her hand up to my cheek. She said one last thing in Malayam, I think she was telling me to be brave. I nodded and thanked her one last time.

“Ok, let’s go,” I said to Amir.

There was no room for fear in my mind when the bike started moving forward again. I was determined and ready. When the bull came at us, I would thrust the spear into its shoulder with all of my strength and I would not fall off of the bike.

There it was. As we passed the gathering of cows, I locked my eyes on the black bull and raised my right hand above my ear, so that the spear was ready to strike. The bull hesitated, and for a moment I thought that it wouldn’t follow us. But then it charged again. It wouldn’t catch us. This time the bull didn’t jump onto the road, but stayed on the other side of the fence. On that uneven terrain it could hardly keep up with us. Amir stopped and told me to drop the spear on the side of the road.

“Right,” I said, and threw it away from me.

I sighed. The moment had passed. For a while I knew what it must have felt like to be a warrior, having to defend myself if I wanted to live. Never would I have thought of spearing a cow. But as its horns were chasing me, no other option entered my mind.

For the moment a warrior, now again a traveler. I’m in Mangalore now, and tonight I’ll be braving a night train again to go South into Kerala, to Kochi. Until then.

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The bus ride

Never did I think I could get a workout from riding on a bus. But after spending four hours yesterday and another five hours today on (and off, considering all the times I was literally thrown into the air) the peeling blue vinyl seat of a public Indian four wheeler, my muscles feel just like they did after the first time I tried yoga. Except now I have neck aches instead of a spiritual breathing high.

I am exaggerating a little. Although I did get flung into the air a few times, there were definitely stretches of relative smooth sailing. And I have to say, the public transportation infrastructure here is something to be envied. I know that I can go to any major city and there will be a bus or train going to wherever I need to get to next. At the most it’ll be a stop away. When I’m on the bus, I see hardly any cars on the road; mostly it’s circus-colored freighter trucks and other buses. I did have a little trouble on the way to Hampi. My overnight 2AC (it has beds with curtains) train reservation didn’t make it off of the waiting list and I had to spend the night—all twelve hours of it—on a wooden bench with my meager general ticket (but that’s another story).

Imagine a train network that ran all across the U.S… If you wanted to go to California, book a sleeper and you’d get there in a few days. New York to Florida? Not a problem. But I can’t even get a train home from New York City to Scranton. The tracks are there, but I’m guessing it probably just wouldn’t be profitable. After all, when everyone has cars that they can chill out in while they’re going their average four miles an hour (I know I’m repeating this, but I just can’t get over it), who needs trains? I’m just saying, maybe cars are great, maybe they’re the worst thing ever invented. But either way, grade A good public transportation is something that we Americans missing out on.

To be honest, I like the long bus rides. India’s landscape changes so quickly that I’m content to stare out the window and watch the vast planes of cotton fields and rosella plantations turn into forested hills that look strangely Pennsylvanian. And yesterday a flock of middle schoolers just happened to get my bus and flock to the back, where I was quickly treated like a glossy magazine pop star. They all wanted to shake my hand- something that happens a lot, and something that’s started to make me feel really uneasy. So instead I taught them the ‘secret hand shake’ shake, grab the thumb side of the hand, and finish it off with a pound. They liked that. As for me.. well, it’s certainly humbling to be the one white face in a bus full of brown ones. And precious time to just sit and think and reflect becomes suddenly plentiful when you don’t have to focus on the road.

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I’m sitting in the arms of an ancient bull statue, in the shade of a rough-cut pillar that seems naked compared to the ornate columns of the other temples.  In front of me, just behind wide-branched, leafy trees is the towering Virupaksha Temple. The black box sky scrapers of Manhattan are children’s toys compared to this cream colored temple of enrobed maidens and sculptured detail.

In my life I’ve never seen boulders as big as the ones that surround this bull and its modest stone housing.  The bull used to be a rock like that- huge, imposing, erratic in its shape.  But somehow, without the help of oil-powered machines or monsterous consturction equiptment, this boulder was changed, no longer an ordinary rock, but now something more.. something sacred.

Probably it was alredy here, and the temple constructed around it.  After all, how could simple men move a boulder three times my height and over five times my width?  But then I glance up at the pyramidal temple towering before me.  Like everything else, it was made before the time of gas and electricity.  When I went inside this morning, I saw that fires had charred the roof and columns so that they looked like smooth onyx .  It still smelt of sulfur.

Today, in the stone arms of the bull, I realized that we are greater than the machines that run our lives.  When oil runs out (which it will in at least the next 50 years)  and the life blood of the industrialized world runs dry, either society will trip to a crumbling halt, crippled without its cars and planes, or by then we’ll have found another way to feed our ever growing hunger for power.  But even if solar panels and wind mills have not spread far enough to catch us in a safety net of dark glass and slowly spinning arms, I know that we’ll be ok.  Maybe we’ll be forced backward to the times of these people who built the temples and lit them with fire.  Maybe we’ll spring forward and generate energy in a way that everyone can have the comforts of an industrialized world without polluting our planet and depending on limited resources.  The thing is, the path humanity takes will be decided now, in this crucial time of growth and development.  Ultimately, the question is whether we’ll fall back or jump ahead.

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