Archive for the ‘North India’ Category

Mom and Pop Shop

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Traveling with your parents is different from traveling on your own. Didn’t you know?

They arrived in Delhi at three in the morning. I was still drunk when I awoke to them banging on the window next to my bed. Good thing our room was on the ground floor, otherwise they would have had trouble rousing me from my sedative induced slumber. The reunion was sweet, if blurry. I hadn’t seen them in almost seven months. Not a massively long time but my parents and I are quite close and we get along well. I’d missed them.

It’s great to spend time with them again, but it isn’t without sacrifice. Inevitably my travel style has been forced to change. They only have a month and obviously operate on a different budget from mine. Our hotel in Delhi cost ten times what I consider my maximum expenditure for a room. It was nice and, miraculously for the city, quiet. We ate at fancy rooftop restaurants with suited wait staff. Yum.

It hasn’t all been upscale tourism, however. We took the sparkling new metro around the capital, ate in some local restaurants, and booked our train tickets by going to the railway station ourselves, rather than through a travel agency. I’m fairly certain my parents wouldn’t have attempted some of these things if I wasn’t here to hold their hands. When a sleazy tout outside the station told us that the booking office was closed for Commonwealth Games renovations (office is closing for the painting), I sneered at him and went into the station anyway. My mom, having read the “scams” section in the Lonely Planet, knew he was bullshitting, but I could see the doubt in her eyes as he confidently asked us to accompany him to the ‘temporary booking office’. We’ve since heard from other tourists that, at these offices, the staff will apologetically explain that the three hundred rupee train you want has been canceled, but for only ten thousand rupees a taxi might be possible…

Now, though, they are doing fine without me. My dad went and had street-side chai with some neighbourhood men this morning before mom and I were even up. A few days ago my mom spent some time with local women looking through the photos in the guidebook. Upon finding a spread of women draped in a rainbow of saris, they discussed for some time the various fashion decisions – bangle arrangements; colour schemes; nose, ear, and toe rings. They had no English, my mom no Hindi, yet an amicable exchange was made. India is like that – the locals generally love everyone, making it easy to explore. I write this as my parents wander the fort and city of Jodhpur on their own. I decided a chill morning in the hotel was in order.

And that, perhaps, is the largest difference between travel now and travel pre-parents. We are always doing or seeing. Admittedly, Rajasthan (the state we’re moving through) is full of interesting cultural, geographical, and historical sights – forts, palaces, desert sand dunes, intricately painted village homes – but I still enjoy taking the time to relax. Indian streets are not relaxing.

I’m not accusing mom and dad of being ‘listers’, those with a set itinerary of must-sees and can’t-be-misseds. We plan each few days at a time, enjoying where we are and worrying about the next bridge when we get there. But still my mom does her homework on the internet, checking out hotel reviews and reading the LP thoroughly for advice, which is fine. But sometimes you need to get your nose out of the guidebook, not worry about what there is to see or do, and just enjoy the atmosphere, smell, and sound. Well, the smell and sound are often not so enjoyable, but they should still be absorbed.

We’ve been successful, nevertheless, with local buses and such. I say successful, which in India means only that we’ve arrived at the destination we intended within a general time frame we expected. Our bus here from Jaisalmer had perhaps twenty-five seats and fifteen sleeper berths, but approximately eighty people on board. When we arrived in town it took five minutes for our massive clown car to empty out. During the trip I had five teenage boys reading my (English) book over my shoulder, watching every selection I made on my iPod. They hadn’t heard of The Tragically Hip (which is, by the way, amazing desert road music).

And so things are fine. I couldn’t travel like this all the time, but for a month I should be okay. It’ll probably be difficult to get back into moldy, ghetto hotels once they leave, but I’ll be happy to be eating with locals most of the time (the food is generally amazing and ridiculously cheap). What I miss most is the complete freedom that solo travel on a motorcycle brings. I leave towns when I want, without having to arrange a driver or book a train. I stop where and when I want, rather than at restaurants the bus driver chooses, based on which ones pay him enough commission. I do things at my pace.

And, best of all, I get to ride my Tara. I miss her so.

Mother India

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

My mom wrote a guest post for the site. Enjoy.

I have been trying to blow the vegetable dyed powder off of Evan’s computer. Today is Holi, the Hindu celebration of spring, and all morning coloured powder has been thrown about. In anticipation Evan suggested we all buy cheap clothes that could be thrown out after, and right now he and his Dad are off to a family celebration of an all round entrepreneur named Jimmy that we met across the street from our hotel (don’t ask). I took down the license number of the auto rickshaw just in case.

By now you will know this is not  Evan, but his mom. We are on day 5 here in India, and it has been quite the time. Evan started us off with a gentle orientation to the madness of Delhi by taking us to that most Indian of institutions, the main railway station, not once but twice on our first day, hunting for his motorcycle which had been shipped from Chennai after he left by train to join us.

After scrambling to keep up with him through the masses, wandering through dark crumbling rooms along the platform, he was reunited with his precious bike, and then because it did not have any petrol and he forgot his keys, he abandoned us to find our way back to our lovely little hotel through one of the craziest of bazaars by ourselves. We passed, and it has been “bring it on” ever since.

You can approach India cautiously, or remotely, carefully or with disdain. We have decided to go for it, albeit at a slightly upgraded level than Evan is used to. We have ridden the Delhi metro (a dream compared to the TTC), taken many auto-rickshaw rides, which Ken compares to bumper car rides at the Ex and walked through slums and alleys where we greeted people and they greeted us. Evan has a smattering of Hindi and people love him for it, that and his playfulness result in singular street interactions.

Not that there are not issues. I have never felt fearful, but you have to kind of judge how much being ripped off you are prepared to take, and a certain tolerance level makes the money fueled interaction more enjoyable. Today I danced with some sari garbed women with drums, had my face layered with florescent pink powder and was expected to offer up some contribution, which I did happily (50 rupees, just over a dollar). They were laughing and giggling and so was I. Last night two boys with a drum asked politely if we would like to see their puppet show, and they sang us three songs, explained they were not yet fully trained puppet masters, so they would only make the puppets dance, not tell the ancient stories. When finished they looked up expectantly and Ken and Evan paid up a generous $5.00.

Rickshaw drivers expect you to bargain and you know that even when they have come down, you are paying three times what the local pays, but who cares? It is India.

Big excitement this morning. As Canada and the US were playing for Gold, India and Pakistan were playing at the World Cup of Field Hockey. When we booked this hotel in Jaipur, the state capital of Rajasthan, Evan asked carefully if the rooms had TV and ESPN. Assured they did, we booked and after arrival he spent most of the day harassing the staff about the fact he couldn’t find the essential channel on our TV, and once found, then about the quality of the picture. They even traded TVs at one point, and the hotel’s owner promised that if it was not acceptable he cold come to his home and watch it there.

The game started here at 1:45 am so this was quite a commitment! We have been all a bit sleep deprived, we arrived in India at 3 am and stayed up talking the first night, the second night, suffering from sensory overload, couldn’t sleep, the third night had to be up at 4am to catch the Dehli/Jaipur express, but none the less we set the alarm and watched (Ken and I vaguely) the game. India won their match too.

We have not worried about what we eat. Good food, mainly vegetarian,  though we did have a great Tandoori goat leg the other night. Street food is good too, though every thing is cooked in boiling oil.

Fruits are wonderful. The only concession we have made is bottled water, which we drink lots of. It’s hot here but bearable. Our two hotels have been great, the one in Delhi reasonably priced by Delhi standards at just over $100.00 and the one here, not quite as well appointed (no bar fridge), but clean and spacious at about $40.00 a night. We have already learned to look for hotels with courtyards and gardens. The calm is wonderful after the chaos outside and the birds are great.

So far so good. I think it will be a bit hard for Evan, this is a bit of an adjustment, traveling with your parents. While we are not listers, we do like to visit museums and tourist sites, and so we are slowly reaching some kind of  balance between “hanging out” and visiting the gorgeous forts built by the Mughals and the tombs and gardens they are justly famous for. Also its hard for Evan to be part of the backpacker scene while he has two 60 year-olds in tow. Occasionally we all need our own space and so that is why I am typing in the garden of our hotel while they are out at the Holi party. Ken and I visited the fabulous Humanyan Tomb and walked thru the Lodi gardens without Evan, bravely traveling round by ourselves.

I am trying hard not to be parent like, but its hard. I made him get up and wash his feet the other day before he put them on the bed, so I haven’t been too successful, but we are trying. Check in with us after another week or so and see how we are doing.

Tara and a Crash.

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

I had crashed. A village man and his wife were lying on the road next to me, their bike as smashed up as mine. I lay there for a second breathing heavily, my heart pounding. I pulled myself to my feet. The adrenaline dulled the pain, so I had to visually analyze myself for injury.

About two months ago I named my bike. It’s actually quite a good story. Sorry for waiting this long to tell it.

Ever since I saw the Indian army guys riding their Enfields, I’ve wanted to paint my bike green. I loved the look of the dark, army green on the old-school, WWII style bikes. It’s remarkably cheap to have it painted, and it personalizes the bike. But, first, I needed a name.

In Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, I took a ten day Buddhist philosophy and meditation course. We learned all about different Buddhist deities and some mantras (repetitive prayers) you could do to them. Some of the more religious aspects of the course were difficult to swallow, but many lessons were more practical and applicable to everyday life.

After the ten days had finished, I returned to town and found a hotel. Trying to have a shower, I realized I didn’t have my towel. I had left it back up at the monastery where we’d taken the course. No problem, I thought, this is why we travel by bike. So I rode up the hill out of town.

Arriving at the monastery, I said hello to the monks and volunteers and grabbed my towel. I hopped back on the bike and headed out. As I rolled through the little village nearby, I saw the nun who had been our main teacher at a chai shop. I pulled over to thank her again for all the lectures. She gave me a hug and wished me well. Noticing the idling bike outside, she asked if it was mine. Yes, I said, it was.

“This is very dangerous, you realize?”

“Yes, it is, but so far so good,” I said happily. Knock wood.

“You know what you must do? You must do your mantras to Tara. Especially Green Tara, she is the protector. Ask her for protection on your bike.”

Tara, eh? Green, you say? Well, my Buddhist nun teacher, you’ve just named my bike.

Tara

So, now on Tara, I began the customization process. I bought a two piece brown leather seat. I rode to Rishikesh and, through my Scottish friend Ross, was introduced to a trustworthy mechanic. I left my bike with him when I went trekking to a glacier, with instructions to paint it. Now she’s a matte green, with black trim and chrome piping. I also had a sticker guy outfit the front license plate with her name in an appropriately esoteric font: TARA.

She’s a beaut, an absolute stunner. Her vintage styling, as the pre-1990s (she’s from 1980) bikes were still built to WWII design, along with the new colour scheme… I get lots of compliments. She probably gets more attention than I do (deservedly).

Tara 2

So Tara and I were south of Patna, the state capital of Bihar, on the road the Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment 2600 years ago. The afternoon was getting on so I was in a hurry. Driving at night is never fun, as it’s hard to see potholes or people (both are everywhere) and the bugs are out in force. I was going about as fast as the bike comfortably goes, around 65km/h, when rounding a bend I saw a motorbike parked on my side (the left) of the road. It was beneath a tunnel of tree tops, which shaded the road attractively. Without thinking, I moved out into the center of the road to pass by.

I saw the second bike come out from behind the parked one at the last second. A villager and his wife were on their little 100cc bike, and clearly didn’t see me coming as they pulled out. I slammed on my brakes, locking my rear wheel into a skid as I tried to steer to the right, the far side of the road, to avoid him. But, instead of stopping, he accelerated in an attempt to cross the road in front of me. This moved him, of course, to the same side I was now leaning toward.

I was probably doing at least forty five or fifty when I smashed, head on, into him. They say it all moves in slow motion when things like this happen and such was the case for me. I remember twice yelling paisahb, which means ‘sir’, as I saw him pulling out. At first it was a short, desperate, (hilariously) shrill, PAISAHB!! I remember a sinking feeling in my chest as I realized that we were going to crash, that there was nothing I could do to avoid it. Oh shit, I thought, here it is. I remember bracing myself, flexing my muscles and clenching my jaw. This, along with the fact that I was on the heavier and faster vehicle, is probably what led to me escaping relatively unscathed.

My second paisahb was through gritted teeth and only halfway through when we hit (as in paisahBAM). I was thrown to the right, Tara’s rear wheel lifting off the tarmac and twisting in midair. I rolled and lay there on my back, breathing and staring at the sky in shock. I pulled myself to my feet almost immediately. Checking myself over, I had another shock when I realized I was fine. I felt a little pain in my knees, elbows and wrists. A trickle of blood from a few tiny spots of road rash on my hands and joints. Otherwise nothing.

I looked over to where the man lay on the asphalt. He was woozy and bleeding from his nose. Locals (who, I gathered, he had been talking with on the side of the road before pulling out) ran over and carried him and his wife to the side of the road. She was wailing and clutching him, but physically unharmed as far as I could see. The man lay there, bleeding, with a faraway look in his eyes. I crumpled at his feet. Unable to communicate my sorrow verbally, I touched my forehead to his toes and said paisahb over and over again.

The other villagers, now growing in number, pulled me to my feet shaking their heads. They clearly thought that I was not in the wrong and so shouldn’t be showing such strong deference. Issues of blame hadn’t quite crossed my mind at this point. I automatically assumed responsibility mostly due to the fact that this was his country and I was the foreigner. I was, therefore, in the wrong. If I wasn’t joy riding around his country this never would have happened.

I have heard from other biking foreigners that the best thing to do when you get in an accident is flee the scene immediately. They told me horror stories about mobs of angry villagers beating foreigners and having them arrested. That no matter whose fault it was they’ll always blame you and hold you financially or criminally responsible. God forbid you ever hit a cow.

I had no such experience. The locals were very supportive and making sure I was okay. I said tikka, tikka, saab tikka (good, good, all good). I helped them pull the two crumpled bikes off the road. We put the man, who was now fully conscious and doing fine, in an ambulance and his wife followed on the back on another bike. I sat on the side of the road breathing, fighting back tears of shock and fear. I was physically fine but shaken badly. The locals, in standard form, simply stood in a circle around me and stared. A few who spoke some English showed up and were quite helpful. I asked them about getting a truck and whether I should go back to Patna or toward Bodhgaya. They told me to wait for the police.

We waited for the police for over an hour. I crossed the road away from the gathered villagers and sat alone on the dirt shoulder, staring into the rice fields. Children played with old bike tires and sticks, running down a dirt path keeping the tire rolling. Water buffalo rolled in a little pond. Some villagers squatted in rice fields, cutting the stalks at the root and flattening them down to dry in the sun. I cried quietly. I called my friend Steve from Montreal and discussed what I should do with the bike. He told me to get to the biggest city nearby, as it would have the best mechanics. He asked if I was all right. Yeah, I’m fine, I lied. For the first time in the past four months, I really, truly missed you all.

The police arrived in the form of five men in camouflage with automatic rifles and thick moustaches. The villagers told them what had happened. The story was obviously sympathetic to my cause, because their first questions for me were about how I was doing and whether I wanted to make any case against the man I had hit. I asked them if the man and his wife were okay. They assured me everyone was fine. I told them, using my best Hinglish and gesturing to myself and the people gathered around me: this is important, yes? People are important, not bike. Bike is only money. Money not important. They all nodded sagely. I wrote down my passport, visa and bike information, as well as my address in Canada and my father’s name (?). The police seemed satisfied.

Attention turned, however, to Tara. A local man with decent English had set off on his bike to find a truck because, otherwise, she was not going anywhere. The front wheel and fender were smashed and twisted. Both front forks and shock absorbers were cracked in several places, contorted wildly and oozing shocker oil all over the road. The headset, the heavy piece above the handlebars that houses the headlight as well as the speedometer, had a huge crack down the side. Both the brake and clutch levers were broken. The only things on the entire front part of the bike that survived were the handlebars themselves, the headlight (miraculously) and the small number plate with the gold and black lettering: TARA.

A small, pickup sized flatbed truck arrived. We spent some time loading Tara into the back and tying her down. It was now dark. We tried to drive back to Patna to a mechanic, but the headlights didn’t work on the truck. Much arguing between the truck driver and some locals. We drove, with the hazard lights flashing in the darkness, back over potholes to the nearest village. I sat in the cab and watched about twenty different locals take a shot at flicking the headlight knob off and on, wondering why their magic touch didn’t get it working. I even had a go.

Another hour sitting in a chai shop on the side of the road with the police. A second truck finally arrived, again with the same enterprising local man leading it in. It was actually more of a auto rickshaw, a three-wheeled vehicle like a motorcycle crossed with a pickup truck. But it did have a decent flatbed in the back, just big enough to shift Tara out of first truck and tie her down, again. I thanked the man who had found both trucks profusely, but he refused my offer of money. A saint, he was.

We rattled back up the highway and into the teeming city. Patna was still busy in the darkness. We checked hotel after hotel but all of them were full. Just outside of town a massive livestock fair was underway. It took another hour to find a hotel with any vacancy, and it was the worst place I’ve stayed in the country. For a ridiculous 600 rupees, about 14 dollars, I had a grubby room with a leaky bathroom. The windows were busted – one of them was lazily covered by a piece of styrofoam – so mosquitos flooded into the room all night. I slept terribly there.

The next day I took a bicycle rickshaw to a street lined with auto mechanics. I found one guy who said he knew Enfields, but I doubted the sincerity of this. The damage was extensive enough that I wanted a serious mechanic with lots of experience on Bullets, rather than just some 100cc scooter guy who would fiddle around. We found a bicycle-flatbed guy to bring the bike from the hotel, and during this process I noticed an official Royal Enfield showroom and shop.

It was probably a little more expensive, but the uniformed mechanics were so confident and smooth during the day that I felt great watching her get stripped down and rebuilt. Tara was whole again, to the tune of about $300.

I’m also doing much better. I’ve spent some time chilling out under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. I’ve since made it to Varanasi, the holiest city in Hinduism, where I’ve met a great international crew of travelers. I’ve spent evenings watching football (soccer) and playing poker. We even played some football on the bank of the Ganges here. It’s been a nice recovery.

Exit Wounds.

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

It’s difficult to know where to begin. I wrote a piece about my drive into Nepal, I thought it appropriate to pen something on my drive out. As you may or may not be aware, the model of motorcycle I’m driving is a Royal Enfield Bullet. And one thing about bullets, for all you CSI fans out there: the exit is always messier than the entrance.

After my trek and some time living it up in the supremely touristy Pokhara, I slipped off to the small hilltop village of Bandipur. I’d had it recommended to me by a few locals along the way (as well as a few tourists, and the Lonely Planet) so I checked it out. It was nice, a quiet place with nothing to do but walk in the fields and hills around town or sit at a table on the flagstones and drink tea. A little too popular with the domestic tourists, however, who fill the village square and play ringtones on their mobiles well after the power is shut off and everyone is sitting around by candlelight. Such is travel in Asia.

From there I zoomed south and east, making for the border. A few hours out from Birganj, the border town, I heard a noise. Ignoring it (optimistically), I continued until I was sputtering to a stop on the side of the road with nothing in sight but rice fields and water buffalo and a single lonely farmhouse. Standing in front of this farmhouse was a young man, in his late teens perhaps, staring at me. I began checking the few things I know to check when the engine stops – spark plug, petrol line, air filter, carburator. Everything seemed in order. The young man sauntered over and asked if there was a problem. Assuming the worst (correctly), I asked after a mechanic. A few kilometers further down the road, he said, in the next little town.

Walking down the road slowly while trying to stay upbeat, I realized a few km is quite a ways in the midday heat. A farmer on a tractor came up behind me with another villager perched on the back. I flagged him down hopefully and, without much hesitation, he pulled over so I could hop on. I smiled and mimed motorcycle mechanic to them (to do this, stick out your hands like you are holding handle bars, then twist your right hand as if revving a throttle, then mime a wrenching motion). They nodded and on we went.

There was no mechanic in the next town. I asked two different men who both spoke some English and they were both quite confident I was out of luck. Both said the same thing: only in Parsa, 7 km back the other way. Sighing, I flagged down a local bus and hopped aboard. We puttered down the highway, passing the farmhouse with my bike sitting lonely out front. Seven klicks and five rupees (about seven cents) later, I was in Parsa at a mechanic.

The mechanics there were busy, and none of them seemed too excited about having to go four or so kilometers to look at some stupid tourist’s Bullet. They rarely, if ever, get Bullets driving through this part of Nepal (though they’re not unheard of in richer Kathmandu) so these guys probably weren’t too comfortable working on them. I sat there watching them poke around a little scooter for twenty minutes and started getting impatient. I asked about going and checking it out and was told to ‘just wait’ a few times. Two of the mechanics were just sort of watching the main wrench doing all the work, so again I asked if we could get moving. ‘Just wait.’

Eventually I got fed up and walked off looking for another mechanic. I found one, but he wouldn’t go take a look down the road either. ‘Bring you bike here,’ he said. Yeah. I stood on the side of the road for a minute. I’m not sure why I didn’t go back to the original shop and simply wait patiently for them to come with me to take a look. I had already walked off, so returning would have been admitting defeat, or something. Immature, I realize. Seeing another local bus heading back up the road, I impulsively flagged it and took it back to where my bike was waiting. Trying again to fix it myself I began getting frustrated and hot.

This is when that same young man, clearly trying to help, turned on a Nepal-Pop ringtone on his phone and held it out, about six inches from my ear, for me to listen. I asked him, with as much polite patience as I could muster, to please turn it off. He did. I struggled with various parts of the bike. I think at one point I threw my screwdriver into the dirt in disgust. He then suggested I go see the mechanics who have a shop only a few hundred meters back up the road. I suppressed the urge to ask the obvious question: WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T YOU MENTION THEM BEFORE??. I just borrowed his bicycle and went to find them. We ended up towing my bike into their shop.

It took me a few hours, but I finally realized that these guys had never seen the inside of a Bullet before. The sun was setting, the sky darkening, and they were trying many of the same common issues I had been looking at. After ruling out electrical or petrol flow problems, it had to be something inside the engine. So they opened her up.It was at this moment, when they were pulling out pieces and looking at them like some previously undiscovered dinosaur bones, that I asked them to please stop working. I was putting the bike on a truck for India, where Enfields are common enough that mechanics don’t have to assume the role of amateur archaeologist.

That night, thanks to a helpful local man, I slept in a guest room at the local agricultural development bank. It was a training base for more than just farmers, I quickly found out, as it had walls and barbed wire and a big gate and 24 hour security. Yet I spent the evening there with the cook, her husband and their two daughters. I sat quietly at a table, watching her prepare dhal baat for me and her family. The administrator, who spoke passable English, came in with his son and we chatted briefly about my plans and Nepal in general. His son was studying at an English boarding school so he pressured the shy kid into practicing English with me. I drank tea and watched all of them pour over a local newspaper so they could order new ringtones on their phones. They were all very impressed with my terrible Nepali and the fact that I ate the rice and soupy dhal with my fingers, as they do.

The next morning I was standing on the side of the road with a half dozen local men flagging down trucks. It was tough to find a driver willing to load my bike in the back who was also heading to Birganj. Eventually the locals started trying to flag buses. I questioned the logic of loading my bike onto the roof of a bus, rather than the back of a truck. There is the obvious difficulty of loading (bus roofs are higher than truck beds) and the fact that the bike would have to lie on her side, rather than stand up straight. Oil leakage would be inevitable. Eventually they got a bus to stop and the driver seemed eager to get me on board, but luckily another local had flagged a big Tata and for 700 rupees (ten dollars) they would drive me and the bike three hours to the border town (but not the border).

There I was, for the second time, riding up in the cab of a truck with my bike riding in the back. The wingman, Raz, was twenty-one and spoke a little English so we hit it off. They had picked up a few other locals who use trucks like buses, and I bought forty rupees worth of peanuts and bananas and shared them with everyone. The driver, a gruff older guy with a terrible sounding cough, wasn’t too excited to have me around and didn’t partake in the mini picnic.

We stopped every so often for no obvious reason. To a puncture wallah to top up the tire pressure. At the side of the road to talk to a few other truck drivers for a few minutes. Less than 10km from our destination we stopped for lunch. I remained patient and paid for all three dhal baats. On we went. We stopped for diesel and something I didn’t catch happened, but it ended with Raz grabbing a hose from under the seat and leaping out the door. We sat on the side of the road waiting. I got out to look for him, but the driver honked and waved me back in and we drove off without him. I never got to say goodbye to ol’ Razzy.

In Birganj, finally, the driver was eager to be rid of me. He tried several times to boot me out on the outskirts of town, but I knew the words for ‘let’s go!’ (jam jam!) and kept waving toward the center of town. He would grunt and grumble something and drive on. One time he tried flagging down a bicycle rickshaw, as if we were going to balance my 200kg bike on his little cushioned rickshaw seat. Eventually, as the traffic got thicker and we were clearly close to the core of the city, I allowed myself to be hustled out. We got a couple passersby to help unload my bike and there I was, back on the side of the road in the afternoon heat. I stood there helplessly for a few minutes, trying to figure out how I was going to get this bike the final 5km to the border.

A teenager on a bicycle saw me standing there and came over to speak with me. He was studying engineering and so spoke good English. He went off to see if there were any small trucks or auto-rickshaws to take me to border. I noticed a mechanic working on a couple of 100cc bikes so went to inquire. No, he didn’t know anything about Bullets, but there was another mechanic just down the road…

And so this, miracle of miracles, was how I ended up being unceremoniously dumped out of a truck on the side of the road in a Nepali border town within 100 meters of an amazing Bullet mechanic who, thanks to three years of working in a Malaysian factory, spoke decent English. I would spend about seven hours sitting in the dirt in front of his shop as we took my bike apart, replacing rocker pins and both valves. The mechanic and his father were both jovial bike lovers and I had a great time joking and wrenching with them.

The next morning I roared out of Nepal and, some unplanned days and rupees later, into India.

Ahh, India. It was good to be back. I won’t go into detail just yet but there is something intangible about India and her people. I flew south, along a bumpy, potholed highway past more rice fields and water buffalo and smoky bamboo hut villages. I wandered through one of these villages in search of bananas, getting some pretty surprised stares from everyone. I eventually found the market and got a dozen little bananas for 10 roops (about 22 cents). I triumphantly showed them off to all the perplexed villagers as I strolled back to my bike.

I was now in Bihar, India’s poorest state. It is beset not only by poverty but also a Maoist political rebellion and a corresponding campaign of violence. Indian newspapers contain stories of bombed schools or government buildings almost daily. I wasn’t too worried. Cruising through the wonderfully named Muzaffarpur, choking on dust and truck exhaust in the intense traffic, I asked directions. More than a few locals told me I was on the right road. I wasn’t. I wanted to get to Patna, the state capital, but they had sent me down the indirect road that would take me to Patna eventually, rather than the direct but smaller highway. I managed, thanks to my road map and my willingness to ask everyone for directions, to find a little back country road that connected my wrong way highway with the right way highway. The road was, for the most part, smoothly paved and weaved it’s way pleasantly through fields and villages. I got plenty of stares and smiles as I went. Mostly stares. I’m not claiming that these locals have never seen foreigners before, but I guarantee it’s been a while since one went chugging past on an Enfield.

Patna is a small Indian city of to million people, bustling with the urgency and endless horn honks that are ubiquitous in any settlement of decent size. Struggling in the traffic, I wove through town asking endless directions from police and older gentlemen who looked likely to speak English. My system is simple: I roll alongside a man on a bike or bicycle or perhaps standing roadside, and offer a polite paisahb, which means ‘sir.’ I then name the town I’m looking for with a questioning tone. They usually indicate a direction with hand motions and some broken English. Eventually finding the road south, I ripped toward Bodhgaya.

I was about 35 kilometers out of Patna when I crashed. More on this soon.

Diwali! (and movement)

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Sorry about disappearing there. Had a good time in Rishikesh and have spent the last week making my way into Nepal. Some pretty rural places along the way, so no real internet. But I went tiger spotting (without actually seeing one) in the Nepali jungle and am now in Lumbini, the birthplace off the Buddha. More on this soon. Here’s a post on a religious festival in India).

It would be a played out travel-writing cliché to call India an exciting melange of the ancient and modern. Every stupid culture is a blend of old and new (except, perhaps, for those isolated indigenous tribes that have yet to discover the world of fridge magnets and R. Kelly). Even relatively infantile countries such as Canada and Australia combine old European perspectives with fresher (mostly American) influences.

In India, however, the word ancient actually applies. This is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, centered around its longest running major religion. Hinduism developed over 1500 years before Christianity, and the famously Buddhist concepts of karma, reincarnation and liberation from the cycles of rebirth are actually appropriated directly from it. Hindus consider Siddhartha, the Buddha who began teaching the Path to Enlightenment 2500 years ago, to be one of the ten major incarnations of Vishnu. Buddhists disagree, of course, but seemingly without anger. Big surprise, there.

Considering the origins and longevity of the tradition, it was with some excitement that I considered where to be for Diwali, the widely celebrated Hindu festival of light and renewal. Much like back home for Christmas, locals hang strings of coloured lights from their homes and businesses. They light candles and release floating lanterns down rivers. Garlands of (real, so often wilted) flowers are strung up everywhere, and people are generally happy and wishing each other a Diwali Dhamaka!

Based as much on time and distance as auspiciousness, I decided to stay in Rishikesh. It’s position alongside Ganga endows it with some holiness, and its mountainous surroundings provide some scenic background as well as cooler temperatures. It still reaches thirty in the afternoons here, though the evenings are pleasantly cool. Asking locals about the celebrations, however (Lanterns? Singing? Candle lighting?), I was met consistently with a single word: fireworks.

Of course. What other direction could modern Indians take the celebration of light conquering darkness? What better way to symbolize knowledge overcoming ignorance than with explosions? And I mean fucking explosions! These aren’t the piddling Roman Candles you stupidly fired at your friends when you were fourteen. Nah, the locals here can get their hands on some of the big fellas you’d trust only with trained professionals. Locals like the pack of preteens in the alley behind your guesthouse.

Hilariously, the most popular option seems to emit little to no light at all. They’re just little cylinders of gun powder designed purely for maximum pop. The blast easily registers an eleven on Spinal Tap’s dial, and if you’re close enough you actually feel the concussion wave. There’s nothing quite like watching three Israeli girls jump six feet in the air, spin around with death stares blazing, only to see two sheepish six year olds giggling behind them.

Yes, the absolute lack of safety precautions which makes life in India so exciting becomes even more obvious during Diwali. Instead of stepping a reasonable distance away, the locals seem preoccupied with ducking their heads. I guess as long as only your back and shoulders get singed you’re doing well. A spinning disc unit that throws off ankle-level sparks was danced around by three kids about four or five years old. Much to our shocked amusement, they all lifted their pant-legs, as if scorching their feet and ankles was fine but holes in trouser hems would be unacceptable.

It was a much rowdier celebration that we had expected. The staff at our guesthouse restaurant didn’t close up until 11, which meant we had fireworks exploding in front of our third floor balcony until midnight. At least you could brace yourself for the sound of artillery fire thanks to the bright glowing light that filled the room as the rocket ascended to eye (and ear) level. The police and army stations that are ubiquitous in every tourist town were understandably on guard. Bombs and gunfire could have been going off all night without them having any idea.

It was quite the party. It lasted three nights of adventurous walking in dark streets and laneways. Dodging cow, horse, dog or mystery shit is a normal part of pedestrian life here. So is avoiding the aforementioned animals, semi-drunk young men on scooters, maniacal jeep drivers trying to dump their loads of tourists, and truck drivers with questionable brakes.  It’s been fun adding flaming projectiles to the mix. One group of locals started firing rockets into the river. Some of them bounced off the surface and careened onto the opposite bank, where other groups of locals were sending off their own barrage. I watched a South African friend get saved by a rickety fence as a runaway rocket struck it and bounced to the ground before exploding.

India, the land of near misses.

Ganga.

Monday, October 19th, 2009

You’d be hard pressed to find a river more revered than Holy Ganga, known abroad as The Ganges. While not as long as the Nile or as mighty as the Amazon, Ganga possesses a spirituality and character unmatched by the other great rivers of the world. Honestly. Name another river that is actually a goddess descended to earth to cleanse humanity of its sins and illnesses. See?

River worship is quite a practical phenomenon. Rivers are life givers, supporting permanent communities through droughts and dry seasons. A standard monsoon in northeast India lasts only four months, so the river is the sole source of drinking water and irrigation for eight months a year. In such a climate, it’s only natural that the biggest river around would develop into something worthy of  religious devotion (there are many holy rivers in Hinduism, Ganga being the most important).

It begins on the roof of the world, under a glacier high on the India-Tibet border. Sapphire blue and ice cold at first, it mixes with white foam as it crashes over rocks and boulders. Picking up green as it descends, it becomes a brilliant turquoise, slowing as the valleys widen and the altitude softens (hydro dams do their part, as well). Soon it finds the frying pan mud of the Indian plains, turning a warm soupy brown and, having lost its urgency, slowly wanders its way east. Eventually it forms the massive delta in Bangladesh – where it floods often as it meets the rising sea.

Ganga is central to the life of Hindus. Bathing in the river cleanses sins, and many families return home from pilgrimages to her banks with vials and bottles of the holy water. Perhaps more famously, however, Ganga is central to Hindus at the time of death. The greatest pilgrimage in the life of a devout Hindu is to make it to the shores of the holy river in time to die and be cremated on the banks. The body, once burned to cinders, is dumped into the river to be carried away. This is extremely beneficial for future lives, helping to cleanse the soul of sins and aid in its quest for reincarnation on a higher level. Varanasi is perhaps the holiest city in Hinduism, and has developed into the premiere death tourism centre. I’ll be there in a few weeks.

But for now, I’m still in the mountains. The holy city of Rishikesh, where the Beatles lived and got high and wrote the White Album, is low in the foothills. Here the river is quick and cold and wonderful. It probably isn’t as clean as we’d like to think, but compared to its condition down on the plains it is positively pure. So we swim in it. The locals bathe in the holy waters to receive the blessings of the goddess, but we swim to cool off from the heat. I’m not Hindu, but there is a sense of renewal from these waters. The undeniable spirituality of India rears its head again.

But it isn’t enough for us. With Naomi from Sydney and Alon from the Tel Aviv suburbs, I spend twelve hours on buses and jeep taxis and make my way back into the Himalaya. At over 3000m and in freezing temperatures, we spend the night in the small town of Gangotri, which owes almost all of its economic success to religious tourism. Nearly as important as the death pilgrimage to Varanasi is the personal mission to the glacier from which Ganga springs forth.

Called Gamukh, or the Head of the Cow, the mass of ice is known to Hindus as the place where Ganga first descended to earth. The blessings bestowed upon a Hindu for bathing in the river are multiplied greatly if done at the river’s birthplace. I still haven’t quite figured out what draws so many foreign, non-Hindus to the spot, but we nevertheless felt the need to go.

After a night in Gangotri, we walk fourteen slightly inclined kilometers to Bhojbasa, a mountain camp of low stone buildings with corrugated tin roofs. We spend the cold, dark night in an ashram, a combination Hindu temple/guesthouse, eating simple dhal and rice on the floor with the pilgrims. Our room, shared between the three of us, is a stone box with blankets on the floor and a single naked (energy saving) light bulb dangling on a wire. All around us are jagged snowy peaks towering over barren, rocky scrub. The chai is excellent. So are the stars.

At seven the next morning we clamber over boulders and rocky streams toward the glacier. Four kilometers later, a 15m tall jagged wall of dripping ice looms over us. From a dark cave rushes forth the holy water. I had expected, thanks in part to the Lonely Planet’s use of the word embryonic, for it to be an icy creek or brook. Not a trickle, surely, but at most a fast stream. Wrong. A full fledged river courses out of the ice with a flow of surprising intensity. It is at least five or six meters wide, not deep but moving quickly. And it is icy, icy cold.

But we wash in it. Alon strips down to his skivvies and goes in fully, while Naomi and I just wash our face, neck and hair. Some of the pilgrims go in all the way as well, though not all of them. The sun is bright and strong but the air is cold at almost 4000m in mid October. We drink our fill, as well. I’ve never tasted such clean, cold, delicious water. Bottle that stuff and you’d make a fortune. But the negative karma would be astronomical, I’m sure. Still, we fill a plastic water bottle so we can ship home a little glacial Ganga water. I hear drinking it can cure serious diseases. Get your own.

We watch a BBC documentary team film some footage of the glacier. They interview a local glaciologist who explains how much the wall of ice has receded even in the last six months. A very up close look at climate change. During the filming, a local guide arrives and grows angry with all the tourists standing too close. Apparently two foreigners died last year when a chunk of the wall broke free and crushed them. The BBC crew calms him enough to get their footage, but he manages to get everyone else to move a safe distance away.

We sit and enjoy the energy of the place. Alon and Naomi write in their journals. I join a few pilgrims and meditate next to the river for a few minutes. The sun is getting hotter as it climbs, the thin atmosphere doing little to calm its blaze. We walk the four kilometers back to the ashram for more dhal and rice before packing up and walking the rest of the way back to Gangotri. Early the next morning, we’re in a jeep taxi for the nine hour ride back to Rishikesh with two ladies from Pune (near Bombay) who now live in San Francisco.

Now it’s Diwali, the biggest festival in the Hindu calendar. I’m still in Rishikesh for it. Will post on it soon, in all it’s fire and noise and madness.

Sikhism and local conversation.

Friday, October 9th, 2009

I know I’ve spent the last two posts bigging up Buddhism, but I now feel the need to give a shout out to my other crew, the righteous Sikh massive. I defy you to name another religion that encourages its followers to change their names to Lion, will feed anyone and everyone for free, and blasts musical prayer from its temples for fourteen hours a day. Please wash your feet and slip on an orange bandana before entering.

I left Mcleod Ganj, finally, the other day. I’d spent almost a month there, which is a long time considering I’ve been in India for two months all in. Granted, the month includes my ten days at the meditation centre, but still it was a long time to spend in a single town even if the Dalai Lama is a host who boasts a mean (mostly vegetarian) roast.

I headed south and east, down into the plains of north central India. The heat rose as I descended, and soon I was back in a state of perma-sweat. It’s like when Homer shaves on The Simpson’s: as soon as he walks out of the bathroom his five o’clock shadow pops back onto his face. In India, you can shower all you like, but as soon as you’ve dried off you’re instantly covered in a sheen of grease that will last until the next bath. Indian air is saturated with dust and dirt and soot, and the perma-sweat is like fly paper. You don’t really notice how dirty you’re getting until you see the colour of the water when you take that next shower. Ewww.

At any rate, I had a long road ahead of me. As my bike’s engine had recently been repaired (new piston, new valves, new carb, new head, etc etc) I had some breaking in to do. I could only run her at around 40 or 50 km/h, and would need to take breaks every couple of hours to let her cool. So I planned on three days to Rishikesh, instead of the standard two. I just needed to figure out where to stop for my two nights.

After consulting maps and the Lonely Planet, I decided on Anandpur Sahib, a Sikh holy town. It’s the second holiest place for Sikhs in India, so it’s well on the domestic tourist map. But, like many domestic tourism hotspots, it’s an unknown for foreign tourists (unless they’re Sikh). I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner in the whole town. I didn’t mind.

I rolled in and headed straight for the massive, gleaming white gurdwara (Sikh temple) that dominated the town. The sound of tabla, some sort of organ and Punjabi singing emanated from huge loudspeakers mounted on the walls of the complex. Old men with huge turbans and ancient beards strode about, and hundreds of Dalit beggars (the lowest caste, the untouchables) and their kids milled about aimlessly.

You see, Sikhs are incredibly inclusive and generous. Even if you are not Sikh, there are pilgrim’s rooms and free meals available at nearly every gurdwara. They had non-a/c rooms for 50 rupees (a buck) and a/c rooms for 200 (four bucks). I considered going cheap, but it was hot and I figured most real pilgrims will probably appreciate the cheaper rooms being available, so I took a beautiful room with vaulted ceilings and an air conditioner. In a temple. For four dollars.

I went across the courtyard to a huge building devoted entirely to the feeding of anyone who wishes to eat. Beggars, holy men, even politicians and businessmen sit cross legged on mats and get a simple meal of dhal and chapati. As the building is holy, you have to remove your shoes and don one of the communal orange head scarves. I ate in silence. I got a lot of looks as I walked in, grabbed a metal tray and spoon, and sat down. I told myself they weren’t looking because I shouldn’t be there, but because they never see foreigners. The looks stopped, however, when I started eating Indian style. Tearing the chapati into smaller chunks, I folded it over into a cone and pinched one end to stop the soupy dhal from spilling out the back. Then I scooped it into my mouth. Once they saw me eating this way, I belonged.

After dinner, I washed the dhal from my hands (I’m still learning) and went up and into the gurdwara. Before entering, you step down into a pool with water running through it to wash your feet. Again, on went an orange head scarf. I followed some older men up and into the central chamber, where the musicians were playing and praying. The music never stops all day, beginning around 8 am and running until 10 pm. At the very heart of the temple was a table with some of Sikhism’s holiest objects placed upon it. I watched the men prostrate themselves before the items. I peered over their shoulders for a glance at the relics. Weapons. All weapons.

Central to Sikhism is the idea of Khalsa, a belief in a race of soldier saints who abide by certain moral codes. While they believe in equality for all beings (hence the free meals for everyone) like Buddhists, they do not so strongly believe in non-violence. Just as the uncut hair and beard are important symbols for a devout Sikh man, holy swords or sabres are also essential. The name Singh, taken by many Sikhs, translates literally to “Lion.” The weapons in the temple were indeed holy, as they were used by one or more of the gurus who founded Sikhism and defended its existence from Islam and Hinduism in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The next morning I continued on. After a great day on mostly smooth roads I stopped in a mountain town called Nahan. Here I was again out of place, as this town is infrequently visited by your average backpacker. I was mobbed by cricket playing kids in a park, kicked a soccer ball around with some youngsters near an artificial pond, and generally attracted lots of looks and smiles no matter where I went.

The conversation, when a local worked up the guts to approach me, generally went something like this:

“Hello sir.”

“Hello, brother, how are you?”

“Yes, fine. How do you do?”

I love the bookish, British English that most of the older men here use. The proper, old school vocabulary mixed with the poor grammar and syntax make for some excellent menus, signage and general conversation.

“I’m great, thanks.”

“Which country is your origin?” This is a standard question, sometimes the only one I’m asked. It comes in many forms. Sometimes simply “Where are you from?” or “Which country?” but many men like tossing in words such as “origin” or “nationality” or “citizen.” Younger guys tend to use more American, Hollywood-ized language, but it’s no less entertaining.

“I’m from Canada.”

“Ah, yes. Which region?”

“Toronto.”

“Indeed. Many Indian people living in Toronto, isn’t it?”

Ahh, the infamous Indian “isn’t it?” It’s used much in the same way we Canadians use “eh.” Essentially, it turns a statement into a question. It’s quite genius. In fact, I’m a big defender of the use of “eh” by Canadians, because it’s way easier to say “Cold out eh?” than something like “Don’t you think it’s cold out?”

“Yes, many Indians.”

“And you are enjoying your stay in India?” This is the next most popular question.

“Of course, brother, India is beautiful.”

“Excellent. I hope you enjoy your holiday.”

“Thank you, my friend, good luck to you.”

“And to you.”

I always end my conversations with that line: “good luck to you.” I’m not sure why, but there it is.

At any rate, part of the genius of the bike is stopping in these smaller towns where foreigners are a rarity. I end up meeting tons of people who have absolutely no interest in my money, but lots and lots of interest in me. They like to briefly practice their English and learn a few things about the kinds of people who visit India. Questions about my marriage status, schooling, and job back home are not taboo. It’s also perfectly acceptable to ask after how much I made at my job, how much I paid for my motorbike, and other things that one would approach gingerly in the West.

But now I am in another tourist stalwart in Rishikesh. This is where the Beatles came and got high and wrote the White Album. It’s on the banks of the Ganges in the lower foothills of the Himalaya, so the river is reasonably clean (for India). I’m looking into some eight dollar white water rafting trips and I’ll probably spend a day just lying on some riverside beaches and swimming in the holy river. Any blessings will be purely accidental.

Mahayana and Meditations.

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

Expanding on Buddhism could be dangerous, as I know I’d be tempted to write eleven or twenty one posts on the topic without break. Eleven and twenty one are two auspicious numbers, by the way, so mantra recitals or clockwise circulations of a stupa (a conical structure representative of the Buddha’s mind) are often done three, seven, eleven, twenty-one or 108 times. I should mention that my lessons have been exclusively in Mahayana Buddhism, specifically Tibetan, though the same tradition is prominent in Northern India, Nepal, and Bhutan. There are many forms. Theravadan Buddhism for example is the familiar Thai tradition which is also dominant in Burma, Laos, and Sri Lanka.

It’s difficult to call it a religion, because it lacks classic western features such as a creator god. Even when Buddhists prostrate themselves before an image or statue of a Buddha they are bowing to the qualities of an enlightened being: universal compassion, unending generosity, omniscience, etc. Buddhas, or “awakened ones,” come in countless forms. THE BUDDHA, as he is known, is the familiar Siddhartha – the pampered Nepali prince who fled for a life of asceticism and eventually attained enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree in 600 B.C. There were countless enlightened beings before him, it’s just that he was the first to use his awakening from slavery to teach others the path to freedom.

Ahh, freedom. You must understand that we are all in samsara, the prison of worldly pleasures and sufferings. As I mentioned in the previous post, Buddhism contends that the world is actually made up solely of emptiness, and that the things we experience are simply objects that exist only in relativity to us and our senses. I cannot describe the taste of a mango, nor can I know that when you eat one you are tasting what I taste. We all see green, and can name it green, but how do we know that what you see is the same as what I see? I actually covered topics very similar to this in some of my philosophy courses back at university. In terms of understanding reality, all we have to work with are “sense data” which may or may not be indicative of the outside world. We need to use them to survive, sure, but never assume that you have any clue what’s actually going on around you.

Samsara, then, is this mysterious world of sensual experiences. Even when we think we feel pleasure – through food or sex or entertainment, whatever – all we are doing is creating cravings for future pleasures. We’re never satisfied. We get bored with our sexual partners or need to keep buying more video games. Even our favourite foods would make us sick if we had to eat them all the time. In pleasure there is suffering. We are also prone to damaging emotional reactions to our daily lives, getting angry or violent or depressed. This is samsara, and it took an enlightened being to fully appreciate it and tell it to the world.

It’s like in The Matrix: we are all in a prison in our minds, and only those already free from the prison know the route out of it. The Path, as the route is known, has many stages of realization. One can come to truly understand and appreciate equanimity, the view that all beings (right down to the mosquito) is equally deserving of compassion and love. But eventually one reaches nirvana, or liberation. In some traditions, this is the end of the road – you are free from samsara and no longer trapped in the endless cycles of uncontrolled reincarnations. You could, if you wanted, never reincarnate again and your consciousness (the soul-like continuum that carries on from life to life) would dwell in blissful peace forever. But, of course, you’ve developed boundless compassion and wisdom and so will choose the form and place of your rebirth in order to help others achieve nirvana.

In many traditions of Buddhism, the buck stops at liberation. In Mahayana, however, there is another stage of full realization above nirvana. This full enlightenment adds to freedom a state of omniscience, or all-knowingness. A full fledged Buddha is aware of all things in the universe, even what is happening in other universes (Buddhism is tight with quantum, believing in multiple dimensions and such. There are several books on the eerie parallels between a 2600 year old spiritual practice and the absolutely newest ideas in metaphysics). A Buddha could deliver a teaching to people from all over the world and they would hear it in their own language. A Buddha knows your mind, so even before you ask your question he (sorry, no female Buddhas yet) has his answer ready. Still, not a creator god. Even though a  Buddha is ostensibly aware of how this universe began, there is not really much covering the topic. When one is trying to escape from prison, one isn’t too interested in the name of the architect who designed the place.

Indeed, living in the moment is key. We are obsessed with the past and future. Have you ever stopped and considered how much time you spend running over memories like watching old films? I sometimes find myself thinking about embarrassing moments from ten years ago, seeing again the reactions of people and feeling anew the guilt or remorse. Why do we do this to ourselves? Or we’re always in the future: I’m nervous about this or stressed about that, even though it’s days or weeks or months away. If your mind dwells on the past and future even half as much as mine does, you know what I’m talking about.

And so we meditate. Meditation isn’t necessarily the mystical mantra-reciting, past-life-viewing Eastern tradition it can seem. Usually it’s just about mindfulness, about staying in the moment and learning to calm and control our hyperactive minds. As Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (the English nun who spent 12 years meditating in a cave in the Himalaya) puts it: “We spend so much time cleaning and arranging our homes, but we really live in our minds. When was the last time you went into your mind and threw out all the junk in there?” Think about all the experiences – every conversation, every TV show, every book, every stubbed toe – that are piling up in your mind. Have you ever tried to just close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath entering and exiting your nostrils? Try it right now. Close your eyes and just focus on the breath. How long does it take for some random thought to pop up and lead your mind down the garden path? Two seconds? One?

Meditation helps control this “monkey mind” from hopping from thought to thought. It allows us to calm our emotional reactions and relax when the world is stressing us. In fact many of you have been meditating without even knowing it. I’ve now realized that the reason I enjoy working out in the gym so much is not necessarily what it does for my body but what it does for my mind. Timing my breathing with the contractions and relaxations of my muscles. Counting the repetitions slowly, with each lift of the weights. My mind is focused entirely on the moment, on what I am doing right now. After the gym I feel mentally relaxed yet energized, prepared for my day. I always assumed that by burning energy I was calming myself, but now I understand that really I was meditating; I was shutting off the endless internal monologue, living in the here and now.

Perhaps for you it’s running, counting breaths. Or maybe gardening, pruning and weeding require concentration. Perhaps it’s driving. While sitting in rush hour traffic isn’t relaxing, driving a winding road demands focus on the moment, calming the mind. It could be anything, provided it forces you to stay mindful of what you are doing. Cleaning, painting, knitting, whatever.

At any rate, that’s all for now. Perhaps more later on more types of meditation, and I’ll try to go deeper into some of the philosophical issues. For now, though, know that some of our meditation sessions left me in tears. One involved drawing the suffering out of someone close to us and using it to shatter our selfish tendencies. It was powerful, moving stuff. Your eyes rolling yet?

Compassion, Slavery and Silence (sort of).

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

As per usual, I’m late to the latest fashion. Buddhism, as a Western fad, has already passed through its honeymoon period. While intriguing to the liberally minded types who find themselves bumming around India for month after month, mentioning a meditation retreat back home could just as easily be met with eyes rolled as eyes widened. But, as you may have noticed, I’m in India.

So I registered myself for this ten day residential course. We learned a lot about Buddhist philosophy in lectures from a nun, and also had three guided meditation sessions daily. Both the lectures and the meditations were in a gompa, or Tibetan Buddhist temple, sitting on the floor on cushions. A massive, golden Buddha statue loomed over us at all times. Ostensibly, absolute silence was required for the entire time, except for the daily hour-long discussion groups and question periods during lectures. Three meals a day were served, in silence, and we were all assigned certain chores around the grounds of the monastery cum school. Some did dishes, others cleaned toilets or showers, I had to sweep the dining hall and wipe down tables after the evening meal. The chores were affectionately referred to as Karma Yoga.

It was a tough experience, but an awakening one. The silence, even for me, was not nearly as difficult as I had assumed. It was nice living within myself for such a long period of time. Although, as you might imagine, I managed to silently communicate with people when the urge struck. The meditations were difficult, however, for both physical and mental reasons. I’m not the most flexible cat in the alley, so sitting for even 30 minutes in a half lotus position was trying on my leg muscles and joints. My back still aches. Additionally, my high energy demeanour extends to my brain, which was endlessly leaping from thought to though like a lemur, rather than simply focusing on my breath.

The philosophical lectures were eye-opening, especially for me. We learned about the classically Buddhist topics of non-harm, reincarnation and karma. Compassion is a biggie, specifically pertaining to the concept of equanimity. In essence, the argument is that all sentient beings (from worms and grasshoppers to dolphins and humans) are equal in wanting to be happy and avoid suffering, even if they lack an internal monologue on the topic. We should treat all beings with the same respect we’d treat our own mothers – especially considering that we’ve all lived countless previous lives in countless previous forms (you were very likely something badass like a T-Rex or wooly mammoth), so even that annoying little mosquito was actually your mother at some point in history. Cool, yeah?

But the most intense and practical topic was HOW TO CONTROL YOUR MIND. You see, we are slaves to our mind. Didn’t you know? Your mind probably forgot to send you the memo. I’ll explain briefly here, but I’ll also try to write a more fleshed out post later.

Basically, everything exists within our mind. There is no reality outside of the experience of our senses as interpreted by our minds, so we have no idea what “reality” is really like. A dog can hear a dog whistle but we can’t; it’s outside the range of our ears. What else is happening that we’re not aware of? Makes sense, right? As far as we’re concerned, the world is a figment of our imagination. It follows, then, that emotions like anger, sadness, and joy are all created and exist solely within the mind. If all of our positive/negative emotional reactions to external events and people are just in our heads, why can’t we control them? Oh, right. We’re slaves.

Consider this: if you were in control of your mind, you could just wake up every morning and decide how you were going to feel that day. “Today I’m going to be happy and generous and generally relaxed with the people I encounter, even people who give me a hard time!” So why can’t we do this? Because we aren’t in control. We get impatient and snappy and frustrated and depressed and fed up and tired and so on. Buddhism, in a very real sense, is about understanding how your mind works. Once you can understand the mind, you can begin to control it. You can allow negative emotions to pass, and you can stop positive emotions from creating addictive cravings – the junkie mind that results in lustful drooling, constant seeking of new experiences, vast chasms of boredom and disillusionment, and a propensity to lean on drugs and alcohol to alter perspectives. Yes, I am guilty of all of the above.

So, while the course was simply scratching the surface, it was a healthy introduction to observing and analyzing the behaviour of my own mind. It’s like I’m an anthropologist sitting in the jungle watching the monkeys interact, only I’m watching emotions arise as my mind reacts to the events and people I’m confronted with all day. It’s fucking fascinating. Why did I feel the need to use “fucking” there? I don’t know, okay? I’m just getting started with this shit.

At any rate, I had a wonderful time. I met some incredible people. The school was up on a mountain top removed from the town below, so the normal sounds of dogs and  truck horns that permeate India were faint or nonexistent. We were basically inside the clouds all afternoon and evening, so you could watch the mist come floating up through the trees. It would even slip silently into the dining hall and obscure everyone’s view of whatever vegetarian meal was on offer. There was definitely an energy about the place, especially on those misty evenings.

For those who are interested, the course was the 10-day residential Introduction to Buddhism at the Tushita Meditation Center in Dharamkot, which is north of Mcleod Ganj, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. That’s a lot of capitalized words.

More soon on the meditation and philosophy. Love you like you were my mother (mom, I still love you more).

Buddhism?

Friday, September 18th, 2009

It’s older than Christianity, has a celebrity spokesman on par with Bono, and believes in the end of suffering for all the world’s beings, it’s Buddhism!

All kidding aside, I’ve been in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Government in Exile, and some many tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees. Almost every single one of them, including His Holiness himself, spent 25 to 30 days on foot over the ridiculous Himalaya to get here. Hearing their stories has been incredible. The Chinese Army sits on the border with rifles, waiting to pick off any would-be refugees making the trek. They don’t bother with arresting them, they just kill them.

I’ve been to a few “teachings” here with H.H. the Dalai Lama. Six or seven hundred people – mostly Tibetans, but many foreigners – gathered on cushions at the temple in his residential complex to hear him speak about Buddhism and life. The English translator is good (you listen over FM radio) but the concepts are difficult.

So to help with my understanding, I’m beginning a ten day Buddhist meditation and philosophy course tomorrow. We live in the school, eat in the school, in fact I don’t think we’re allowed to leave the school. No electronics of any kind, no books except approved material related to Buddhism, etc. In fact, we’re only allowed to speak for an hour a day, in little discussion groups after our daily lecture on BUddhist philosophy.

I’ll looking forward to it, though also apprehensive. I’ve never really meditated before, though I’ve heard good things. At any rate, I’m going to disappear for a while, and when I get out I’ll tell you all about it.

Love you, miss you.