PostHeaderIcon Exit Wounds.

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.

PostHeaderIcon Climbing the Circuit

(Photos are up for this post now, click on the photos tab at the top)

It was late for us, closing in on 8pm. We’d just agreed on a time to meet for breakfast the next morning. Four. The snow had been falling all day, and would probably keep on into the night. The guides and porters had us convinced: The snow, maybe getting worse, yes? The wind strong later in morning, we get over pass by nine. Leaving four, four thirty is best. If the snow and cold were bad here, how much worse would it be a thousand meters up, at 18,000 ft? People looked worried, scared even. Many of them had next to no experience in snow or real cold. I was woefully unprepared, with my warmest layer a hoodie and no waterproof gear at all. But it wasn’t until right as we were all saying our goodnights, with final words of encouragement for each other, that someone let it slip. Tomorrow is Friday the Thirteenth.

The Annapurna Circuit is one of the most popular treks in Nepal. (No, it has nothing to do with Spock or Picard, a ‘trek’ is the word the Lonely Planet (and therefore everyone else) uses for multi-day hikes in the mountains). The route loops around the Annapurna Massif; an enormous cluster of mountains vaguely in the center of the country. With a peak of 8091m, about 750m shorter than Everest, Annapurna is the eighth tallest mountain in the world. Needless to say, the views are a big reason the path proves to be so well trodden.

Yes, there is no shortage of gore-tex on The Circuit. Tourists from all over the world flock here for some strenuous walking mixed liberally with relatively luxurious living conditions. Instead of camping in flapping tents and huddling around fires, the entire trail is lined by lodges with walls, toilets, beds, blankets, wood stoves and solar-heated water (hot showers!). I had a (half-decent) pizza at 4400m. The tour groups can be a little much, sure, but I enjoyed the comforts as much as anyone.

We began in a steep sided valley at around 1000m. At first I was with three Americans, but the young couple from Washington State were keeping a very slow pace so a Chicagoan and I pressed on alone. Through forest and village we walked uphill and along the east side of the massif for several days. The further we got from the road, the more expensive food and drinks became, as everything is carried in by porter or pony train. The people were of Tibetan heritage so Hindu temples gave way to Buddhist gompas (monasteries) and bamboo pole mounted prayer flags sprouted from every rooftop.

There were also many signs of Nepal’s ongoing political struggle. Maoist flags – red with the hammer and sickle – flew prominently in a few villages. Spray paint scarred cliff walls, demanding an independent Himali state or trumpeting support for the Maoists. Two years ago the rebellion ended (for the most part) when the Maoists were granted amnesty and allowed to form a democratic party. They shocked everyone by winning the election last year.

And yet the mood of the people was refreshingly light. Locals were either outgoingly friendly or pleasantly indifferent to our presence. Even up here, isolated from so much of the world by the difficult terrain, interest in our culture dominates. I think I saw two men in Avril Lavigne t-shirts on the mountain (bringing my total in Nepal to five). Two youngsters approached me in one village and began showing me stickers of wrestlers from the WWE. They loved that I knew the names of some of them (Yes! John Cena, yes! Yes! Shawn Michaels!) and rewarded me by finding me a bamboo walking stick that some foolish soul had cast off. This stick would later prove very useful.

The further we climbed, the more impressive the scenery became. The forest turned from broad-leaved to needled, the mountains grew taller and more wonderfully snow-capped. Rounding a bend on day four we were confronted by an epic curving slab of rock, arcing 1500m (about three CN Towers) above the riverbank. It looked like one side of the halfpipe in a skatepark for the gods. Owing to the pre-Buddhist animist traditions of the area, locals refer to it as the Swarga Dwar – the Gateway to Heaven – based on the belief that the postmortem soul must ascend it after leaving the body.

That night we slept in yet another little family run lodge. We were in the upper part of Pisang, perched above the main part of the riverside village. Directly above us was Pisang’s gompa, gleaming thanks to a recent restoration and home to a handful of monks. We sat down for a quiet dinner of dhal baat (Nepal’s national dish and some damn fine hiking food: lentil soup, vegetable curry, rice, papadum, and spicy chutney are all brought until you can eat no more). Right as we were mopping up the last drops of dhal with our third helping of rice, the horns began to blow. It was the evening puja, an offering of sound and light made by the monks.

They blew eight foot long Himalayan horns, as well as smaller horns, and banged on gongs, cymbals and drums. I sat on the flagstones in the cold wind, watching them play the ancient music out over the village and the river valley below. The awesome Himalaya, drenched in snow, lined up on the other side of the valley to listen. Prayer flags whipped in the wind. The next morning the puja was repeated, and so I scaled the few steps behind my lodge to watch and soak up the atmosphere. That morning I struggled with the idea of leaving.

But leave we did. We arrived in Manang, a veritable hub town with an airport and cinemas and internet access. There we spent an extra day to acclimatize to the altitude (we were a little over 3500m) before climbing toward the pass. Dinners of spaghetti and enchiladas, games of yaniv (an Israeli card game) and chess all ensued. We climbed 400m up the valley wall to a small cave cum gompa, where a 93 year old monk blessed our impending attempt at crossing the pass. We left rested and ready to head uphill.

Two shorter days followed, allowing our systems to adjust to rapidly thinning air. Yaks grazed lazily above the path. On day eight we were in Thorung Pedi, which means The Foot of Thorung. A thousand meters above us was the Thorung La, the 5416m pass we were to cross the next day. We had woken to snow that morning, and it had gotten progressively heavier as the day wore on. People were suffering early signs of altitude sickness – headaches, nausea, fatigue. Hikers from warmer climes were frightened of the very idea of walking in snow, and my assurances that it wasn’t a big deal didn’t seem to have much effect. I guess the fact that I hadn’t brought anything waterproof or windproof didn’t lend to my credibility. Two Californians decided to head back. When this news came out I saw several others waver. The whole Friday the Thirteenth thing didn’t help.

But the next morning we set out. The snow was still falling, though lightly now, and the low clouds added an imposing closeness to the darkness. Lines of bobbing headlamps zig-zagged their way up the steep mountainside ahead of us. Apparently 4:15am was too late for some people. We had amalgamated our smaller groups of young backpackers into an international conglomerate of four Aussies, two Kiwis, three Americans, two Germans, and singles from Northern Ireland, Holland and Canada (me). Between us we had three guides and two porters. Almost immediately we were separated.

The Chicagoan I had been with since day one was sick. An Aussie couple, a girl from South Cali (who had originally been walking with the two who turned around) and I stayed with her as the rest of our fellowship pressed on. We arrived at a base camp of sorts, four hundred vertical meters above our starting point, and she told us to go on without her. I objected, but she insisted, so only ninety minutes in we were already one down. The other four of us climbed slowly through the snow, the only sound the crunching of snow beneath our feet.

Ascending further and further, I found it increasingly difficult to breathe. This manifest itself in two ways, neither of which was particular pleasant. The first was an inability to order my body parts around with the reckless impunity I usually enjoy. Unzipping my camera case for photos of huddled hikers or entirely white landscapes became a battle. Even convincing one foot to fall in front of the other was difficult. The other was a lightheaded dizziness that was, eventually, frightening. Closer to the top I would have to stop every five or ten steps and lean on my bamboo stick to catch my breath. More than a few times I thought I was going to pass out.

Yet on we went. A false top presented itself with a few lonely prayer flags and I cursed my gullibility when I saw a line of people climbing even higher beyond it. Some people were doing terribly at this point. A few ponies went by with breathless or puking foreigners bouncing in the saddle. I don’t want to know how much they paid for the ride. One of the Aussies was suffering immensely from nausea and headaches. There was a moment of inspiration, however, when the sun came out.

It was difficult to call anything ‘perfect’ at this point, but the clouds parting to reveal two immense peaks separated by the prayer flag clad pass was as beautiful a sight as I have ever seen. One peak was brown and rocky and rugged, while the other domed in ice and snow. The sun warmed my back and encouraged me on (but only five steps at a time) toward the windy pass with it’s celebratory sign (CONGRATULATION FOR THE SUCCESS!!!). A few foreigners were doing handstands and posing for endless team photos, but we snapped a few shots with each other or with the sign then quickly began the descent.

The way down was much, much more dangerous than the ascent. With the fresh snow the path was slippery and, lower down, muddy. It was steep and often traipsed precariously along sharp drop-offs. At one point it was a tight-rope walk along the edge of a cliff, with the snow packed down into ice by previous boots. My Aussie friend, still feeling like he’d drank ten times too much Nepal Ice beer the night before, gladly accepted my bamboo stick for the rest of the day. Now without my prop, I just let gravity take over and basically ran down the side of the mountain.

That night we were all gathered around a fireplace eating pizzas and drinking beers. It had seemed out of place at first, but now the Bob Marley Hotel and Rasta Restaurant was home. Around nightfall, our Chicago amigo, lost to us so early in the day, strolled in. She had crossed the pass three hours after us, after a drastic improvement in her condition. Celebrations were now even more called for. The next day we simply hung out in the town for a rest day, exploring some nearby Hindu and Buddhist holy sites.

From there, our walk was over. Many people chose to spend another week walking back down the other side of the massif, but there are roads on the west side and so we chose the four wheel option. We spent a night in Tatopani, which translates directly to ‘hot water’. There we sat in the natural hot springs drinking locally made apple brandy and beer (and listening to some sweet Nepali pop).

It was, all told, a wonderful experience. The fact that it was far more difficult than I had anticipated just added to the sense of accomplishment. It also renewed my patriotism somewhat, as even though I had far less gear than pretty much everyone else up there, I handled the temperature better than most. There are some moments, I guess, where it pays to be Canadian.

Stay tuned for some upcoming posts, where I’ll discuss sleeping in a bank and crashing my beautiful motorbike into a man and his wife on their bike. At over 50km/h. Wheee.

PostHeaderIcon Into Nepal

Well, sorry for the vanishing act again. I’d like to blame Nepal’s IT infrastructure issues, but really it’s my fault. I’ve been enjoying myself here and can’t be bothered to sit and write for hours. I understand that you’ve probably lost interest in my site as a result. This is especially unfortunate because of how much fun I’ve had over the past few weeks. I wish you were here.

From Rishikesh, the site of my last post oh so long ago, I drove for three and a half days to the Nepal border. I spent some time in smaller places generally void of tourists. The road was in the mountains so wonderfully curvy. It was fun but slow driving, especially considering how often I stopped to admire the views. Highlights included the always entertaining conversations with local men about my bike, my trip, and my opinion of India. One evening was spent drinking vodka-Fantas and watching an Australia/India cricket match with the hotel owner, his son and brother on the reception desk TV. Their English was good enough for us to discuss cricket (which I now appreciate as a decent, if slow-paced, sport), motorcycling, and the sporting culture in Canada (i.e. “No, in Canada we play ice hockey, you know? Yes, very cold. No, no cricket.”)

And on into Nepal. Crossing the border was fairly painless. The Banbassa-Mahendrager gate is so little used it’s almost comical in its laid back-ness. Indian immigration was just a couple of old desks under a concrete awning. The desks were lazily draped in purple felt to lend an air of officialdom, but it seemed more like signing up for the three legged race at the company picnic than checking out of the world’s largest democracy. After crossing the purgatory that dwells between nations, I drove right past Nepali immigration because it was, again, a little concrete shack down off the road with very little indicating I was supposed to stop there. The police had to stop me at the gate and point me back to the “office,” otherwise I would have driven right into the country with no visa. The bike had to get a visa as well, at a cost of 113 Nepali rupees (75 Indian rupes, or about $1.65) per day. The customs guys who looked over my paperwork were very interested in the bike, but more out of personal rather than professional motivation.

Yes, she is pretty. I finally had her painted and put on a new seat. She also has a name, now. More on that in another post.

Stamps and handshakes and forms in triplicate later, I roared into the country. The main highway burned east dead straight and flat. Southern Nepal is mostly level, hot plains much like central India. I immediately noticed a few differences, however. The people are much more Mongolian in their facial features – resembling Tibetans or Bhutanese rather than Indians. On the plains, however, they maintain the dark, rich skin tones of their southern neighbours. The people are, in a word, beautiful. Cruising on a motorbike on a busy roadway (buses and tractors and goats, oh my) is dangerous enough without gaping at a group of young women double-riding rickety bicycles. They giggled to each other when I smiled at them and I swerved around a cow I saw at the last second.

Nepal is also much, much poorer than India. Simple shacks dot the rice fields, water buffalo roll in muddy pools, and little half-naked kids run out onto the roadside to wave to me as I pour past. Enfields are rare in Nepal, especially in the poorer south of the country. When the kids hear one coming, and there is no mistaking that sound, they know it must be a foreigner and so come running out of their shacks and up onto the raised roadway. My wrist was tired from waving.

I spent my first night in a small safari style bungalow operation on the edge of Bardia National Park. There I met an American guy who was doing NGO work in the isolated mountains in the north. The next day we went tiger/rhino/elephant spotting in the park and, except for a semi-domesticated rhino that hangs around the park entrance, saw none of the above. We stumbled into plenty of rhino and elephant tracks and took photos of the tiger claw marks and prints we saw all around us, but no actual sightings of the animals. Still, a great day walking in the jungle.

The next day I flew east toward Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. It was another long, hot day counting kilometers and hoping I’d get there before dark. I didn’t. The last hour was spent anxiously watching the sun dip behind the rice paddies. As the sky darkened, it filled with bugs. It was like driving through the rain only, you know, with bugs. Above me flew fruit bats bigger than crows, silhouetted against the pastel purple of the late evening sky. It was a frustrating, beautiful, hilarious scene. I couldn’t wear my sunglasses because of the darkness, so bugs were flying into my eyes and mouth and, when I’d look up in awe at the massive bats, nose. Every so often a big one would bounce off my forehead or cheekbone like a bullet. I’d swear loudly and scare some villager carrying a load of straw down the road.

But I got to Lumbini. The next morning outside the temple built directly on the auspicious spot, I sat down under a tree to meditate. Soak up the energy of the place, etc. Ten minutes later a tour group of a hundred Indian Hindus showed up and ended my meditation session. As with the Buddha, who is revered in Hinduism as an incarnation of Vishnu, the Buddha’s mother, Maya Devi, is worshipped as a goddess in her own right.

I spent the day riding my bike around the site, which is dotted with Buddhist monuments built by the governments of Buddhist countries. The whole place had this unfinished feeling, as if the Nepali government had only just last week realized the potential tourist gold mine it was sitting on. Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims aside, there really wasn’t much in terms of visitation to the area. It made my time at some of the temples quite special, as here were these massive monuments and temples lying empty in the hot sun. A few times I was the only one strolling the grounds or examining the murals. I met a young Thai family in the Royal Thai Wat and luckily remembered my sawadee kraaps and sabai dee mais.

From there, I sped back along a busy, intense highway toward the hills that make Nepal famous. Eight of the ten highest mountains in the world are at least partially in Nepal (Everest, the world’s tallest at 8848m, is on the border with Tibet and Kanchenjunga, the third tallest at 8598m, is on the border with Sikkim in northeast India), making it easily the most ridiculously mountainous country in the world.

In these hills I would join the reams of travelers who trek for weeks beyond road and rail (though, as I would find out, not beyond WWE wrestling) and into the snowy peaks. Where multicoloured prayer flags flutter above French tour groups clad in gore-tex. Where bearded hippies dodge herds of yaks. Where the temperature drops, the air thins, and people who have never seen more than inch of snow cross an 18,000 foot pass in a blizzard on Friday the Thirteenth.

More soon. I promise.

PostHeaderIcon Diwali! (and movement)

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.

PostHeaderIcon Ganga.

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.

PostHeaderIcon Sikhism and local conversation.

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.

PostHeaderIcon Mahayana and Meditations.

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?

PostHeaderIcon Compassion, Slavery and Silence (sort of).

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).

PostHeaderIcon Buddhism?

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.

PostHeaderIcon Bargaining with Kashmiri Boatmen

As much as any place I’ve experienced, Kashmir is a land of businessmen. They aren’t swindlers, however. Unlike the Vietnamese, they never give you the wrong change or alter a price once an agreement has been reached. But they speak excellent English and know exactly how to respond to every objection or excuse. Here’s a typical conversation we’d have sitting on the veranda of our houseboat. The merchant quietly paddles his shikara (similar to a broad, wood plank canoe) alongside our steps and bids us a good morning.

“Hello, my friends.”

“Salaam Alaykum,” I respond, touching my right hand to my chest.

“Walaykum salaam. You would like to see some of my beautiful things?”

“What you got with you, brother?”

“Oh, some beautiful things my friends, wonderful. All locally made, by hand. My family has a small workshop.”

Always locally made. Always by his family, which has a shop nearby. Perhaps we’d like to visit the shop? We’d have more than one shikara merchant try to sell us the same stuff, so either they are all in the same family, or they’re lying to us.

“You see my friends? Many beautiful shawls. All one hundred percent local Pashmina wool. Kashmir wool, you know? Very famous, very expensive except in Kashmir.”

“Oh, I’m not a big shawl guy, brother.”

“Yes, but your mother would like? Your girlfriend would be very happy with these yes?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend, brother.”

“Perhaps if you bought some shawls, you would then, yes?”

Soon he’s climbing aboard our boat, resisting our protests and assurances that we won’t be buying anything. It’s free to look, they all say. No effort to look, my friends. Once again, the Indian disregard of personal space is demonstrated in full. I was enjoying my Haruki Murakami book, but I guess I’ll put it down.

Now there are a few dozen wood carvings or paper mache jewel boxes or shawls or carpets or necklaces or uncut stones or small blocks of Kashmiri hash arranged on a white cloth on the floor of the veranda. One boatmen only sold baked goods: chocolate covered cashews and butter cake and peanut cookies. Two different men cruise about in boats piled high with everything you find in convenience stores: Coke, Lay’s, Marlboros, toilet paper. One guy started offering us opium and heroin.

Our attendant, Golam (goh-lahm, not Gollum), would come out on the porch and watch us bargain with the guys. We quickly learned that kickbacks went to houseboat owners when their tenants bought something. Golam would quietly encourage us to speak with certain boatmen rather than others. He’d assist in the sale. Once, when considering a carved chess set, Golam was an active participant.

“Nine hundred rupees for this one? Seems expensive, my friend.”

“No sir, not expensive. Look at the board, the pieces, hand carved walnut wood. Walnut very expensive wood, you understand?”

Golam scampered into the dining room adjoining the veranda, pulling back the table cloth.

“You see? This table also walnut wood. Insects do not go inside this wood.”

Thanks, Golam. As if my big worry with my little chess set was a termite infestation. I ended up buying it anyway, damn it. I bought a few things, in fact. I got a jeweler to make me a necklace with piece of Kashmiri jade the size of a quarter.

“Kashmiri jade? It is from Kashmir?”

“Yes, my young friend. It is local jade.”

Sure. I read an article in the Economist about how wines from Ontario and BC are allowed to claim they are a product of Canada even if the grapes were imported from Chile or Australia. So long as they are ‘cellared’ in Canada they can be sold on shelves alongside wines made from homegrown grapes. I  get the feeling that Kashmiri jade is a similar situation.

But, all the visits from paddling merchants aside, it was a peaceful place. A small, quiet lake full of birds. Kingfishers splashing into the water next to you, smacking the wriggling minnow against the porch railing before swallowing. Our houseboat owners provided us with a small shikara of our own, so I would paddle out beyond the weeds to the middle of the lake for my daily swim. At around 1000m, Srinigar is pleasantly warm and sunny. I read my Murakami, did some writing, took a shikara ride through lotus gardens. Calls to prayer echoed across the lake from mosques on the far shore. Chanting and singing in the pre-dawn and post sunset hours marked the feasting that is necessary during Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting.

After six days on the boat, however, we moved on. Ross and I rolled off to Dharamsala for a date with the Dalai Lama. From Hindu to Buddhist to Muslim and, now, back to Buddhist. Indeed, one of the spiritual hearts of Buddhism. Also, back to the monsoon rains of the Himalaya foothills.