Just breathe.

I’m currently on a train from Haridwar to Faridabad, where I thought I’d be volunteering this week. Turns out my ‘cold’ was just my body’s reaction to this terrible air pollution. I broke out in a neck rash Thursday and it seems to be here to stay. When I’m not wearing my face mask, I’m coughing and sneezing. As Faridabad is the 2nd most polluted city in the country (next to Delhi,) I decided to change my plans. I’ve felt badly about this and struggled with the decision because a big part of why I came here, or at least what I told myself, is to volunteer. I had such a wonderful experience doing it in Brazil, I was hoping to do more.

However, without my physical health, I won’t be able to keep going on this adventure, so I gotta do what I gotta do. Hours have passed since I started this and now I’m driving to Agra to see the Taj Majal. It was not high on my list but you know, when in Rome. I’ll then do a couple of days at Ranthambore National Park before heading to Jaipur. This is all, of course, dependent on many things out of my control. I’ve always lived knowing that change is constant, but I’m reminded here daily that flexibility and adaptation are the keys to sanity.

“The whole world is inside of us”

The most significant reflection of my time in Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga, is the irony of what’s being communicated. That everything you need is already inside of you, and also please come to India to search for something outside of ourselves.

Why are we constantly forgetting this? I’m not going to blame it on the media or consumerism, and I’m also not saying that its human nature. I think for many, it is not even considered. What does that even mean, right?

Trust me when I tell you that you don’t need to come to India (or Brazil or Kripalu or Burning Man) to realize that everything you need is already inside. You can find it in your home, your garden, your car… wherever you’re able to take five minutes to breathe, and learn how to listen to your intuition. It will tell you everything you need to know. But they call it a practice for a reason! It takes time. There is no fast lane to self-awareness and peace of mind.

The questions that are becoming clearer to me on this trip are: how can I be of service? And what is my vocation, my calling? I’m good at many things but not great at one. The answer here is, as Rilke says, to ‘live the questions now,’

For me, traveling is the best time for me to get still with my thoughts, not be distracted by, oh, all the things, and be present enough to contemplate. In fact, I was saying this to my husband yesterday, here I have no choice to be present. I’m so present every day, its exhausting! Each moment, an opportunity for some new discovery or situation. I do understand how privileged and lucky I am to be able to travel. I’ve been a seeker and a traveler my whole life. I traveled when I had a baby and a job that paid me, um, well shit? My point is that it has always been a priority, so it happened for me. Your priorities may be different, if so great! Wherever you can find the downtime… just breathe.

Recovering in Rishikesh

Hari Om!

I arrived in Rishikesh Monday afternoon and promptly took a five hour nap. This jet lag has been worse than usual. I’m both tired and excited so pushing myself to stay awake and then crashing, hard. I got my first full night’s sleep in a week and then like clockwork, woke up with a cold. I figure there are worse places to heal than along the Ganges, at the foot of the Himalayas, am I right?

So, this place. #hereareallthewhiteladies, mostly 20 years younger and with friends. There is a yoga studio or ashram or hotel on every corner. I admit that I imagined it differently – less populated, more pristine maybe. But that is not the reality, not so far anyway. Don’t misunderstand… seeing the sun rise over the mountain ridge and the gentle movement of the cloudy green river is truly stunning. However, it is juxtaposed with the trash lined banks, throngs of people, and loud animals and vehicles.

India, to be sure.

Tuesday morning, I went for a walk toward the Lakshman Jhula pedestrian suspension bridge. On my way, I overheard a woman asking a man where to find a particular ashram. He said, “Oh, you’re in luck, Baba is going to do a puja at 10am!” So I stopped and said, “Can I come with?” They smiled, we made introductions (I’d made a goal to introduce myself to 1-2 new people every day. So far, so good!) and I walked toward the Sachcha Ashram. There was a young man scrubbing the steps of the meditation hall and I asked if I could help. It felt good to do some manual labor. Seth is about 23 and from Orange County, where my boy’s Dad’s family is from, so we connected quickly. Turns out the guru of this ashram is only in town for the next few weeks and doesn’t usually do a fire puja at the river, so it was very fortunate for me. The ritual was beautiful – chanting mantras, tossing marigold caps into the river, and sprinkling us attendees with Ganga water.

Sometimes you have to be vulnerable and ask to be included. We are often stuck in our own head, that may be our nature. It takes a lot to say “Hey, would you like to join us?” or “Can I come with you?” Even here, in this place of spirituality and openness. I have heard quite a few times this trip that I am ‘brave’ – for coming here and traveling alone for so long. I don’t think that I’m brave. I think we are conditioned to fear the worst in people. Yes, there are those that in their desperation make terrible decisions. For the most part, though, people are the same everywhere, with the same needs and wants for ourselves, our friends and family. I remind myself of this when I feel my anxiety creep in.

Yesterday, I met a lovely Bengali woman in one of my yoga classes and we hung out the rest of the day. She is from Canada, traveling with her Mom to spread the ashes of her Dad in the river. We talked of how many people come here to find something, to escape something, to ascend to something… and all the while, their reality is still at home, waiting for them to return. My daily routine includes a solid 15 minutes of wondering why I’m here. Why now, why India, what am I looking for? The only thing I know for sure is that it felt like the right time, the right place, and I believe all will be revealed. Or not.

A few more highlights:

  1. Every morning at 4am, I am awoken by the sound of clomping donkeys going to work. They are brought down to the river where they have their sacks filled with sand and rocks, and then brought back up the hill to their respective villages.
  2. Last night’s super blue blood moon. Because the hazy clouds rolled in later, it was like we were looking through gauze but still magical…
  3. The weather here has been clear, between 45-70 degrees F, and no mosquitos. Yes, its cold and windy in the morning, but I’m enjoying this while I can seeing as how the following month of my trip will be all about Deet and A/C and pollution mask-wearing.
  4. The manager of the cafe across the street – every morning, he comes up from his sleeping space, takes off his shoes, puts his hands in prayer position and bows twice to the sun rising behind the mountain. A simple ritual of gratitude.

More photos!

There are loads of statues and shrines here, like this massive one of Shiva.

My first view of the Ganges…

This was during the fire/puja I was lucky enough to stumble onto with followers of Sri Prem Baba.

A little alley art/advertising.

There are cows everywhere (and dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys – see the roof?) They don’t care about things like cars and mopeds and pedestrians. And wow, can they moo loudly.

King monkey. We almost got attacked yesterday by a mama monkey because her teeny tiny babies were too cute to go unnoticed and as soon as we got closer, she howled. This guy is just chillin.

Peace.

Reflections of the sky…

Villagers on their way home at dusk…

Sunset on the Ganga…

Delhi days

I arrived in Delhi late Thursday night and after grabbing some water, cash and a SIM card, went to get a taxi. Outside the airport, there were 100 men for every woman. And the women weren’t alone. This whole ‘there are lots of single women traveling alone in India’ thing I read about must be relative, but we’ll get back to that.

I paid for a state sponsored taxi and when I told the driver where I was going – a haveli in Old Delhi – he had to confer with three other drivers who became animated and agitated. When he finally agreed, he told me the area I was going to wasn’t safe because it was full of Muslims. Racism is alive and well in India, folks!

This is no exaggeration: the taxi ride to the hotel was the most terrifying experience of my life. It was foggy and smoggy and dark to start, and the driver kept saying how dangerous it was for him to be driving at all. The highways were full of speeding cars, rickshaws, tut tuts, bicycles, and pedestrians all coming within a centimeter of killing each other, three to four vehicles across a two lane road, incessantly honking like a flock of geese. After a harrowing 45 minutes, he pulled over by a dark alley and told me to get out. He pointed to a sign with the hotel’s name on it and an arrow leading away from the road. I asked how far the walk was and pointed out the groups of young men on the corner. He gave me an ‘I told you so’ look but said he would take my number and call to see if I arrived ok. I pointed out that since I’d just arrived, my SIM card wasn’t activated yet so I had no service. He reluctantly agreed to walk me to the hotel.

A narrow walkway, a stranger and a foreigner struggling with a too-big suitcase, passing by a mangy stray dog sitting vigil in a doorway with a dozen candles burning and an old man frying up chaat in a tiny alcove. When we arrived at my hotel, I felt like we had really accomplished something. I turned to look at him and he held his arms open a bit, shrugged his shoulder and gave a bob of his head to one side. To me, this was an indication that he wanted a hug so I went in. He backed away quickly and said, “No! No no. More rupees, more tip.”

Lesson learned.

The next day I did a tour of Old Delhi (photos below,) and yesterday moved over to New Delhi. Tomorrow I take my first train ride, to Rishikesh for the week.

Today I’m grateful to be able bodied. Despite jet leg, I’m still able to climb the five flights of stairs in the old Haveli on Chandni Chowk to see the rooftops, to see the rose petals drying in the sun, the open courtyard where prayers are being held with mosque attendees. I am able. And I’m grateful.

Below is the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, which can hold 25,000 people. It was the ‘final architectural triumph’ of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (commissioned the Taj Mahal) and finished in 1658. We arrived shortly before prayers so couldn’t stay long but it was a serene place amidst the chaos of Old Delhi. Side note: in the mosque, three different young men asked for their picture to be taken with me. Ego aside, apparently its cool to make up stories about knowing foreigners, especially single white ladies.

This was another calm oasis, a small dead end alley off Chandni Chowk. The story is that all of the apartments on this street are owned by the same family and have been passed down generation to generation. There are two brothers right now, living side by side, who never speak to each other because they have competing food stands. Also, they cannot make modern renovations to the outside of the buildings unless they are historically accurate and no one can afford that luxury.

This is along Chandni Chowk, which was miraculously ’empty’ according to my guide, because of the Republic Day holiday. Empty to him just meant that you weren’t shoulder to shoulder with someone. There were plenty of people, bicycles and tuk tuks! The area is a spice market and these flowers are being sold by the kilo.

Ever wonder where those dried rose petals come from in your potpourri? Here. Drying on a roof in Delhi.

Next we went to this beautiful Sikh temple, although they don’t call it a temple, its a Gurudwara. In this case, Sisganj. The story is harrowing. It’s the martyrdom site of the 9th Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by Aurangzeb, the last Mughal Emperor (who sounds like kind of an asshole. He was not in line for the throne but believed himself to be a better leader, so when his Dad gave the older son the crown, Aurangzeb came back from battle and had his brother trampled by elephants, then dragged his body down the street to show the public he wasn’t messing around,) for refusing to convert to Islam. Inside here, you can see a shrine of sorts – its for a book! They don’t pray to a person or a god, they pray to the book. And there are people there, 24/7, providing music and prayer (except when the book ‘sleeps’ because hello, #tired.)

They also provide meals everyday to about 20,000 people. Everyone is a volunteer, and their religion is heavily based on selfless service to others and equality of all human beings.

This is the view from my hotel, a haveli, where they have classical dance performance on weekends.

And finally, a glimpse of my tuk tuk ride to the metro station yesterday.

Why India?

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight bound for Delhi to spend the next 40 days in India. If you asked me in the last 25 years why I wanted to go, I’d give my shpiel about having a best friend who is Indian since I was 16 or having practiced yoga since I was 20. And while those things are true and absolutely inspired the dream of visiting India, today my reasons are different.

When I started practicing yoga, I had zero understanding about my intentions, my anxiety, my joy, or my limitations. Yoga quite literally saved my life, body and mind. I read the sacred texts (though not sure I understand all of the sutras!) and stories, learned anatomy and did my teacher training. I had friends and acquaintances who made the journey or pilgrimage to the motherland, most of them in their younger days or without little kiddos waiting at home. I’d fantasize about going with my BFF and we’d visit her relatives. I had in my mind that she must have the same desire for travel as I did. But life kept moving along, and I never made it a priority to go. I had a small baby, I was in transition from jobs, I was in debt from college, I was a single parent, I had GI issues (true!) There were endless excuses but the dream never died.

The truth is, I was terrified. Of anywhere I have wanted to visit, India is the one that scares me the most. (Close second is Africa and I’m going to get there, too.) Its not the overwhelming population… or the lack of sanitation… or the waylaid trains.

Its the areas of poverty, the inequality in education, the mistreatment of girls, the old culture that is hanging on to the way things used to be done when the world is changing rapidly around them. I’ve never been much for filtering my thoughts, so I knew I would have to be a much more mature human being to visit these places and be respectful. Now, time has passed. I’ve traveled and volunteered enough now that I can see the gray. My passion for justice is tempered by a willingness to hear both sides of a story. And then to see if I can take action, work within the gray.

Oh I have loads of other fears, too. My anxiety has been on red alert since I decided to go. Malaria, dengue, dysentery, oh my! But I am facing these fears the way I have most of my life. Acknowledge, ask questions, be prepared, and then LET GO. I had a wonderful therapist who used to make me write down my fears on a piece of paper, put them in a box, and put the box in the back of the closet. Over time, I forgot about the box. The brain is bananas powerful, people.

So, I’m off. (Like a prom dress, har!) I’ll get a sim card when I land and share my number here on my next post, if you want to say hi. First few days and nights are in Delhi where I’ll be donning my mask because #smog and getting over jetlag.

Namaste, peeps.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. God Himself is not secure, having given man dominion over His works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” – Helen Keller

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