Monday, November 23, 2009

America Present

I think it was fall that woke me up. I love fall. It's my favorite season. It's kind of... spicy and magical. Since my return from India a week ago, I've felt like a ghost, or rather a slightly younger Ebenezer Scrooge being herded from place to place by the Ghost of America Present. This is my third re-entry in the last year and a half, but the triple whammy of jet lag, reverse culture shock, and Stockholm Syndrome hit me several times harder this go 'round. Hard to say why, but the last week found me drifting through the Berkeley hills in an exhaustion-induced stupor, feeling like my psychic insides were stranded somewhere over the Pacific, and the rest of me in utter revolt against my own culture.

Apart from those precious moments nuzzling my nephew and giggling through sun salutations with my neice, I just couldn't quite seem to get back in my body, until the air, crisper than a pressed shirt, and the blazing foliage reeled in that old astral cord. It was tenuous at first, and I felt nervous about boarding yet another flight to head back to the east coast, but here I really am, and feeling more in my bones every day.

I was happy to observe (upon arriving in my body) that I don't appear too much the worse for wear, apart from a few missing pounds and a persistent tendency to do head counts before getting into any motorized vehicle. Indeed, the worst damage I've sustained occured a couple of days ago when, during a 5am yoga practice (jet lag, you are a cruel mistress), I attempted an arm balance before my poor body had time to wake up, and landed squarely on my face with the full weight of my body behind it. Though I'm now getting wierd pains in my left temple, the face plant doesn't seem to have done any lasting harm (or, unfortunately, good), and I am undaunted in my quest to master yoga like someone with arms of normal length.

My recollections of the semester have already begun to sweeten and sift out the less-than-savory moments. I've finally managed to pin down some of that elusive gratitude for the lessons of the last three months, and the students who brought them to my doorstep- beautiful little pissers, all, and well on their way, I think, to a better way of being. Or maybe I should just speak for myself. It will probably be a few years before I figure out why the last year and a half of my life felt like something I absolutely had to do, and no time at all to be sure that I'm done.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Break-Up

They say it takes twice as long to get over a relationship as the time you actually spent in it. This one may take a bit longer.

I had almost a day of “free travel” before the next wave of chaos hit. I had just spent the previous four hours at our first “Art of Living” workshop, doing breathing exercises that made my body temperature plummet and my neck muscles spasm, when I learned that one of the aspiring camel trekkers was stricken with severe flu-like symptoms, and would be staying back with me in Udaipur. The days that followed were a blur of hospital trips, swine flu research, and frantic money wire transfers to cover our escalating medical costs. The gods of good health were once more turning their impervious backs on our beleaguered community, this time including my co-leader Francis in their stricken number. In fact, as I write this from my haze of jet lag and administrative catch up here at our home base in California, Francis is swaddled in his sleeping bag up the hill, still fighting this mystery plague. 104 degree fevers, aches, chills, and cough- as the doctor said, if it’s not swine flu, it looks a whole lot like it.

The train ride back to Delhi was swift and merciful. All I wanted to do was get these people on a plane to somewhere where they can drink from the faucets and swallow a mouthful of water in the shower without losing half their bodyweight in gastro-distress.

The following three days back in Majnu ka Tilla passed in a blur of last minute errands and paperwork. The Tibetan Quarter in Delhi is a warren of dark, narrow alleyways, bordered by the now placid Yamuna on one side, and a busy roadway on the other. There’s really nowhere to go but up to the rooftops, where smog blurs the profiles of Delhi’s crumbling suburbs. Last year, I made a twice daily pilgrimage to the roof terrace for yoga and to drink in my last eyefuls of India. This time, with Francis feverishly enshrouded in his sleeping bag and much to be done, I only made one ascent in three days, just hours before we left for the airport. I sat on a small slab of cardboard and watched the sun settle into the urban horizon. I didn’t feel any of the customary sentimental wistfulness at these last sights and smells. I was tired, and ready to go home. I know I’ll go back to India, though the journey will be entirely my own. After three excruciating hours trying to herd the group through money changing, bag check and baffling security snags (An empty box of matches? A coconut?) at Delhi airport, India finally faded away below the clouds.

Later, in Berkeley
I look back at my entry from Hong Kong airport in September, surveying my newly minted student-explorers as they drifted amongst the duty-free shops, tentatively hopeful and optimistic. That’s when I began creating the story that this semester would be the culmination of all of my hard won lessons, and the peak of my career as an intrepid experiential educator.

Sitting here now, benumbed with jet lag and rocked from the inside out by the events of the last few days, I can let go of the need to believe that this semester would be easier, and that I would make it through unscathed by heartbreaking inconsistencies. It’s taken me a while to get to this last entry, and I’m probably still not quite ready to be writing it, though I’m hoping that in doing so I might put this all behind me. To be brief, the program I am working for seeks to foster integrity and responsibility in young adults, and has very clear guidelines prohibiting the use of tobacco, alcohol, or drugs during the semester. We check in with the students periodically throughout our time together to make sure they are in alignment with these agreements, offering support to those who may be struggling with old patterns and new temptations.

Over the last three days, it was revealed that nine of my thirteen students had broken one or more of these agreements at least once during our ten weeks in India, and eight were sent home for drug and alcohol use. The facility with which they lied to Francis and I throughout the semester chills me still, and the knowledge that these lies traveled with us for ten weeks breaks my heart. The students were repentant and remorseful, and I couldn’t deny them my forgiveness or reassurance. My care for them had been too hard won, and if I can’t still believe in them, then the exhaustion I feel now would be meaningless. It will take me a while to figure out how I could have given so much of myself, and felt so much more grounded in experience, with such baffling results. I’m hoping that there will be an uplifting epilogue to this story, and that in the quieter days to come I will discover some perfection in the course of events, and gratitude for things, and people, being exactly as they are.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Free" Travel

I have this new furrow between my eyebrows, which I am telling myself will disappear once I divest myself of my current responsibilities and bid the arid desert plains of Rajasthan a fond farewell. In the mean time, it helps me put my bindi on straight, which I now wear regularly to protect my prana and advertise my married status. Only married women wear bindis in India, and since I've been sporting mine, I get a lot less "Hello, pretty, I'm taking you on my bike." I also seem to get a good bit less professional courtesy, as many of the sponsors my co-leader and I interact with assume that we are husband and wife, treating him like the Second Coming, and me like a lobotomized human ornament. This proves a valuable exercise in both assertion and acceptance, as I sometimes have to elbow my way into discussions, while respecting cultural norms and remembering compassion for the limited view of women with which they are handicapped.

We've just finished our last (!) official day of the semester, and are now beginning the "free travel" portion of our trip. Our closing activities included a collaborative plastics clean-up and signature campaign for Fateh Sagar (Tiger Lake). We worked with the students of a local business school on the project, who were very enthusiastic about undertaking a project as a team, and much less so about actually picking up slimy flip flops, disintegrating plastic bags, and muck-laden wrappers from along the shoreline. We were each given a surgical glove (plastic, delivered to us wrapped in plastic) to protect our right hands for the task, which quickly filled with stagnant sludge, giving our hands the look of swollen mittens, and resulting in a continuous chorus of "Eeeeew!" The slogan for the day quickly became "Get disgusted. Save the lake!" Yes, it was unpleasant work, but well worth it to me for the immediate reward of seeing the impact of our combined efforts, and actually getting ot give back to a place that has given us so much. I still really struggle with the ways it seems we commodify India by coming here and offering such a smorgasbord of experience, with so little emphasis on sustainability and service.

So now begins the final chapter, and no one is more surprised than I about the plot. Originally, the plan was for all of us to head out to western Rajasthan for an overnight camel trek, before heading to Delhi to give the students a couple of days to do some frantic pre-departure shopping and curriculum catch-up. Now, I have done an overnight camel trek in a desert before, and I feel utterly confident that I have never, in any past life, been a rider of camels. They are the mechanical bulls of the desert, and the nemesis of anyone with a less-than-plush backside. I do love sleeping in the desert, however, and was bracing myself for the inevitable bruises when a few of my students approached me with the idea of a second option. It is a three day yoga/breathing/meditation course offered here in Udaipur. Four hours a day of practice and teachings, and they were practically foaming at the mouth to do it! Turns out, 8 of our 13 students, when given the choice between camel trekking and a meditation workshop, chose meditation. This is not a statistic I would have believed, were I not about to jump into rickshaws with these same 8 students for our first day of rigorous personal transformation.

The course is called "The Art of Living", and was developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as a curriculum to help those who do not wish to renounce the world or meditate in a cave for thirty years to achieve inner peace and balance. The organization actually has special consult status with the UN, as these programs are used with various populations to resolve conflict and build peace around the world. I am so excited for the chance to wrap the semester up with something nourishing and centering, and hope that the students walk away with something they can take into their lives back in the U.S. So Francis will head out with 5 students for a little camel time (12 hour bus ride, overnight trek, 17 hour train ride to Delhi- again, no thanks), and I'll stick it out here with the remaining eight. Techinically, free travel is when the students really take over, and the leaders take the proverbial back seat. I'd be happy for even a lateral move to the passenger side. That, or I'm going to need to resort to the Indian equivalent of a Red Bull and a Twinkie just to keep this thing on the road.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Homegrown Revolution

Jules Dervaes and his three children live on a plot of land that is half house, half food. This would not be utterly remarkable in many parts of the world, were it not for three factors: 1) This plot is snugged into the flank of a major freeway in Pasadena, California, near the Rose Bowl 2) The plot itself is 1/5 of an acre and 3) 1/10 of that acre yields 6,000 pounds of food per year. When Manish, our main contact at Shikshantar (a local initiative to re-create Udaipur as a zero-waste “learning city”), informed me that our group would have the opportunity to meet with a California-based family of activists called “Path to Freedom”, I was curious but cautious. The prospect of yet another alt-minded, smug California hipster contingent intent on proselytizing their irrelevant brand of “Whole Foods” yippie sustainability in impoverished areas did not appeal (we prefer to be the only smug alt-minded California group within a hundred kilometers).

Within minutes of meeting Jules and his salt-of-the-earth brood, it was obvious that they are about as pretentious as homemade pickles. The Dervaes family found themselves in India due to a short film, originally created as an audio visual aid for a talk Jules gave to a group of undergrads at UCLA (opening for Michael Pollan, demigod of food politics). The video found its way onto YouTube, and evolved into a piece that is being selected for film festivals all over the world. People from Torrance to Torino have become inspired by the Dervaes’s story of how they turned their barren SoCal lot into a lush profusion of edible vegetation and renewable energy, aka an “urban homestead“. Every available surface is covered with some form of plant life, and the acreage is now literally on higher ground than its neighbors, due to the fertile topsoil painstakingly nurtured by Jules and his offspring over the last 25 years. They call it the 100 Foot Diet, and judging by the clear-eyed determination and hearty energy of the bunch, it beats the hell out of Atkins.

I cornered Jules to talk about his vision, his methods, and that unbelievable topsoil, and he took up my ill-informed questions with an enthusiasm that he sustained for the next three days of presentations, film viewings, and community gatherings. He believes that growing our one's own food is the most powerful political, social, and environmental action possible to reclaim sovereignty over our bodies, minds, and communities while restoring the earth. He is a farmer-activist-philosopher in the tradition of Wendell Berry, and I think I’d bronze a gym sock if he’d scribbled some words across it.

I sat with him at breakfast this morning- a beautiful traditional Indian spread of fresh fruits, moong dal, crisped flat bread, and spiced puffed grains, discussing how the Western diet is literally changing the shape of the world and the people in it. He shared with me that he recently saw projections of how meat consumption worldwide is steadily increasing, despite environmental and health hazards and a depressed economy. Heavily populated countries such as China are being lured by the preservatives and prosperity of Western fast food culture, demanding more beef and less broccoli. His urban homestead is off that chart entirely. There's just no room for a cow bigger than a shitzu at "Path to Freedom".

Jules gazed across the table at his daughter’s plate, which looked more like a work of art than the packaged and processed food substitutes many people consume for breakfast. “See, someone take a picture of that. That plate just wouldn’t happen in the U.S. Someone would have to take the time to find and prepare that kind of real fruit, to cook those beans… People just don’t do that anymore.” True, the contents of that plate were about as far from a Pop Tart as it’s possible to get. Someone snapped a photo, and I exhaled a silent prayer that it wouldn’t end up in a museum someday.

The closing shot of the Dervaes’s film, which is called “Homegrown Revolution”, is of a clear blue sky, with a hand thrusting a trowel towards the sun. It’s funny, but also deeply stirring, or at least it was to me. Me, who hasn't grown anything more revolutionary than hair in longer than I care to remember. I do take pride in the work I am doing to bring college students into contact with people like Manish and Jules, but what the hell am I doing? In the last year and a half, I’ve acquired a carbon footprint the size of Greenland (I might be the sole reason it’s melting), and due to my aversion to giardia and typhoid, I’ve gone through more plastic drinking water bottles than I can even stand to think about. I don’t cook my own food, never mind grow it. Hell, I don’t even know what I’m eating a lot of the time, except that it’s spicy enough to singe Satan’s eyebrows, and was probably routed through a major distribution center in Delhi.

I don’t belong to a CSA or replenish the soil with my food waste (though sometimes I feed it to cows on the street to keep them from eating plastic bags). I don’t even have a watershed to defend, unless you count all of the places where I have my cardboard boxes stashed while I hop from continent to continent. But I want these things, I do. I want to stand for what I stand on, and I want what I stand on to be higher ground. Observing the ills “traditional education” has perpetrated on the minds and spirits of today’s youth reassures me that I am here, doing this, for some very good reasons. But looking at the way the pendulous squash bows the trellis in the Dervaes’s backyard (as Pasadena City tour buses line up along the curve to witness first-hand the way life could, and probably should be), I feel a desire to go and plant my own revolution.

Genetically modified foods are dismantling the infrastructure of food security all over the world (the world’s first GMO eggplant is about to hit the markets right here in India), and God knows how altered DNA are changing the most basic definitions of what it means to be human. I have learned a lot about my own humanity, frailties, and strengths in the last year and I half spent in service of the next generation, but in doing so my life has become one which does not acknowledge the finite capacities of the natural systems upon which that life depends. Though my traveling days are far from over, my age, my lessons, and my disintegrating backpack are all telling me that it’s time to find a place to plant my roots, to grow some shelter and live the wisdom I’ve been stalking around India as though it hasn‘t always been waiting right underfoot.

Learn more about the Dervaes family and “Path to Freedom” at

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sunrise, Sunset

Each day post-Great Plague (no hospital runs in three days!) tempts with the possibility of blessed routine, as students dabble in internships with artisans, chefs, and designers, and get their first taste of true Rajasthani hospitality in their homestays. My co-leader, Francis, and I dropped in on one internship at a cooperative of traditional healers, who were immersed in making an herbal food supplement for nursing mothers called “batissa”. It’s a crumbly mixture of over thirty herbs, coconut, clarified butter, wheat, and unrefined sugar, and more than a few tastings were urged upon us. It is inadvisable to consume this mixture if the weather is hot (it is), one is eating spicy food (where does one find “bland” in India?), or not in need of generating regular quantities of breast milk for another human being (between Francis and I, I’m not sure who stands further outside this category).

Consequently, we both strolled away from our morning with the radical herbalists (they spoke little English, but rattled off phrases like “No slave to the system” and “Must localize!“ with ferocious ease) light-headed and somnolent from the intensely rich and potent “batisse”. We did both invest in some Chavanprash, a classic ayurvedic remedy that looks like Vegemite, tastes like jam, and is purportedly an elixir of youth and longevity. It did help alleviate my noxious buttery batisse hangover, and the hope that I might win back a few of the years shaved off my life by too many close calls on the subcontinent will keep me sucking this sweet grainy tar off the roof of my mouth for many days to come.

I do need to be attending to my looks, after all, as I have just had my first brush with celluloid stardom in India. As I sat picking through my bowl of papaya, pineapple, and pomegranate at the corner fruit shop, a twenty-something Indian man approached me and asked if I’d like to be in a movie in Ahmedabad. Given the ostentatious flair of the guy’s motorcycle, and the way he kept jutting his chin at passersby and shouting “Maximum cool, heh?!”, my first thought was, of course, “porn“. It’s actually fairly common here for Westerners to be lured into the possibility of a “fun Bollywood cameo” by curbside touts promising an all-expenses paid foray into Indian cinema. Sometimes it’s for real, and sometimes it’s for raunch.

Though there’s clearly a lot I’ll do for below minimum wage (current occupation not excluded), I’ve never considered a career as an adult film star, nor shall I (probably). My new friend assured me that it was a legitimate “action” movie, and when I offered the excuse that I had fourteen other people to consider, his eyes lit up. “Ah, even better! My quota is exactly fifteen! I’ll take the lot of you.” I had to quell a surge of panic that I’d somehow chit-chatted my entire community into indentured pornitude. Wait. Breathe. The kids are safely under the tutelage of their mentors, Francis is trolling the streets for generator-powered internet, and I am merely sitting here, with my fruit, passing the time of day.

But what if… What if I did just sweep everyone off for a crazy once-in-a-lifetime thrill ride through backstage Bollywood? Perhaps Antioch University could be persuaded to award college credit for getting paid ten bucks to munch samosas and look foreign, while pneumatic romantic leads croon and gyrate in the foreground. But probably not. As I watched Mr. Maximum Cool roar off on his ridiculous motorbike, casting me one last imploring look over his be-denimed shoulder, I allowed the sun to set on my unborn Bollywood career. But tomorrow is another day…

Saturday, October 31, 2009

And counting...

Today marks a week in Rajasthan, the last day of October, and the beginning of the last two weeks of our trip. I shouldn't be counting the days, but a weary, restless fraction of me just is. Each day is a minuet of sincere affection for the students I lead, and blindsided exasperation when the reality of responsibility for thirteen angel/devils spreads me thinner than cellophane on a day-old sandwich.

Two days ago I logged a record three trips to the hospital. As I left patient reception for the third time, with its plaid couches and 4-foot tall Ganesh statue wreathed in incense, I sucked in a lungful of dirty but cool night air and swore never to return. The city is a shallow cup surrounded by rolling hills, and smog sits just above the rooftops like lavender-tinted latte foam. It makes for spectacular sunsets, but I now have the lung capacity of a tubercular millipede.

I whisked my medicated students away to a pre-wedding reception being held by a local family, where the rest of our group (minus an ominous two) awaited us in their Indian finery. The event was sort of like a family talent show, as the caste of this family is peopled with generations of dancers, singers, and storytellers. There was a sound system, stage, lighting, and even the youngest children took their turn twirling and leaping and peering coquettishly from behind artfully arranged hands. The night ended in a massive dance party, driven to a frenzy by Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" (a local favorite) throbbing from the speakers. We were sweaty and vaguely queasy from the spicy reception feast, but laughing as we rumbled home through the deserted streets in our rickshaw convoy.

I discovered upon my return to the guest house that my co-leader, Francis, was in the midst of yet another hospital run with another desperately ill student (the two dance party no-shows), and I braced myself for an early morning trip there myself, to relieve him from his "night duty". Unfortunately, a gurgling gut and fever/chills kept me in delirious discomfort all night, and I was still moaning from the depths of my windowless chamber when Francis showed up the next day. I barely had enough energy to beg for water and a banana, and issue a few half-hearted directives for the unfolding day. I felt like King George- infirm, but unwilling to relinquish the reins of command. I pledged myself to a bland liquid diet for as long as I could stand, and was able to muster enough energy to dive back in the next day.

After nearly four hours spent trying to extract my student from the bureacratic maw of hospital administration, I stationed myself outside our neighborhood juice shop with a cup of pomegranate seeds, reputed to kill unwelcome intestinal visitors. I wasn't out of the woods, nor was I willing to subject myself to the litany of unregulated pharmaceuticals being urged upon my students. The owner of the shop clucked and mixed me up a spoonful of dried shredded coconut and Amritdhara- an Ayurvedic remedy and staple of every Rajasthani household. Used for all ailments internal and external, it tasted like a mouthful of sawdust impregnated with Vick's Vapo-Rub. A wraithlike Belgian, peroxide blond Brit, and sweaty lost Canadian hooted over their fresh juices as my face spasmed with the effort to ingest the gritty, mentholated bolus. We ended up swapping "India Illness" tales (true and tall) like grizzled vets. Staph infection scars were compared, and bizarre "cure-alls" shared with abandon.

I slipped into an intriguing conversation with the British gal, who works with male prison inmates in Britain, many of whom are the same age as my students. She says that few of them have any incentive to stay out of jail, as being "inside" provides them with the food, shelter, and relative security they lack- "freedom" seems beside the point. I expressed that the opposite seemed true of our students, that having grown up with few real concerns in regards to the basic necessities, freedom (from structure, responsibility, definition, constraint) was all they seemed to crave, even at the expense of themselves or others.

Part of the idea of bringing them to India is to give them a taste of the limits and lack of security experienced by the majority of the world's population, in order to help them re-define the "freedom" they are grasping at. There is a hope that they will realize that a freedom exercised at the expense of another is not freedom - that when freedom is truly exercised, all are liberated.

Perhaps it is the cheap grandiosity of my room, with its garish glass lamps, gold plastic Ganeshas, and the bewildering poster of a girl feeding an ice cream cone to a puppy, but these were the ponderings that had me staring at the cracked ceiling well into the night. Better pondering than gurgling, I suppose, even if they lead to stupor rather than slumber...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Camels pull carts here, and they’re decked out like show girls. A total stranger will walk with you for kilometers to help you find a place to eat/pee/change money/make a phone call, and everything is made from the ubiquitous marble, which clarifies why some people call toilets “throne rooms”. So regal, so easy to clean with just a bucket of water (and an undiscriminating eye for hygiene)!

Rajasthan (and the southeastern city of Udaipur in particular) has proved a very pleasant surprise thus far, despite an interminable journey (about 28 hours) and a variety of unforeseen complications. It seems that the tenacious gut bugs we picked up en masse in the Himalayas stowed away in a few GI tracts to make the trek to this land of pastel temples and Islamic architecture. Consequently, we’ve got one student admitted to the hospital, and two more in for tests at present, and this only the end of our second full day in the land of Rajputs.

I have to think there must be something I still need to learn in the echoing corridors of Indian hospitals, else I wouldn’t find myself so frequently sprinting their lengths with stool samples and convulsing students. I spent my first full night in what must be one of the nicest hospitals in India with a student hooked up to IV’s and struggling valiantly to retain the few nibbled bites of rice she’d finally managed to ingest. The staff were bemused but courteous. Every ten minutes and throughout the night, there were mute women in mint green saris slipping into the room to wipe down doors and tables, mopping floors, scouring sinks, and changing the bedsheets every time my student rolled over.

Tonight, my co-leader takes his shift on the hospital couch, and I try to corral the remaining ten able-bodied students into an overdue group circle on the rooftop of the quirky guesthouse we currently call home. The hospital crises and overload of logistical legwork currently being tossed between my co-leader and I like a hot potato has left the majority of the group somewhat orphaned, and largely in the care of the organization we are collaborating with here. Who’s flipping out about returning to the States? Who’s nervous about homestays? Who wants a cigarette worse than they ever have in their life. I have no idea, and it’s time to catch up with the non-squeaking wheels. Though I’m almost nauseous with the desire for a hot shower (I smell like sterile gauze and surgical gloves) and an uninterrupted night’s sleep, small sparks can lead to wildfires when it comes to group dynamics.

This Rajasthan chapter is an experimental one for our group, and we are making things up as we go along, none of us ever having been to Rajasthan before. Udaipur is a much bigger city than we were anticipating, and most of what I’ve seen has been from the back of slaloming autorickshaws or the top floor of the GBH American Hospital. I have slightly higher aspirations for the next two weeks. Lake Pichola, the Monsoon Palace, Jagdish Temple, and old city bazaar all beckon like mirages in the shimmering midday heat, but there are internships to establish, homestays to arrange, service projects to organize, and amoebas to eradicate. We’re at week eight of ten, and now is no time for me to go all Lonely Planet on my valiant community of experiential learners.

Everyone’s having to work just a bit harder to reign in thoughts of the familiar creature comforts and problem-free bowel function of life in the States, despite overwhelming fatigue and a saturation gauge in the feverish eyes of each of my students that is just a hairsbreadth shy of “Full”. I keep my own gaze on “Scan”, ever-vigilant, and determined not to let my students see that I'm about one hot chai from "Empty".

Friday, October 23, 2009

Goodbye Ganga

Today, we leave for Rajasthan, which shimmers a mere 20 hours of travel in the distance. It’s the last segment of our trip before the few days of free travel at the end, and the only part of our itinerary which I have never experienced before. Our trekking guide, Vipin, tells me that Rajasthan is where the tradition of burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands originated, and that many Hindu women there still wear full coverage, even within the home if guests are present. The stained and well-thumbed addition of Lonely Planet that I picked up in a café the other night assures me that Udaipur (the lakeside city in southeastern Rajasthan which is our destination) is “the most romantic city” in the state, if not the country. With thirteen vivacious young adults in my charge, I’m not sure if “romantic” is the setting we’re shooting for, but the prospect is intriguing nonetheless.

We ended our stay at the orphanage here in Rishikesh with a blowout Diwali celebration, complete with an impressive (and potentially lethal) fireworks display on the Ganga beach. I sat in the sand with two little Nepali girls snuggling in my lap, shrieking in delight and making up rhymes for the different explosions of color (“Green, green, you are mean! Yellow, yellow, you are a buffalo!”). It was incredibly sweet, and such a balm for the five munchkin-sized void in my heart in absence of my nieces and nephews. The kids labored all day to prepare a Diwali feast of kheer, poori, salad, cooked vegetables, and dal. It was chaotic and delicious… and made the seven days to follow a distressing fugue of gastrointestinal ailments for the entire group (what could a five year-old know about sanitizing raw vegetables?).

Dawn saw two students hollow-eyed from a night of vomiting and diarrhea, but they insisted that they were well enough to make the 10 hour trip to our trekking base of operations. Partway through the interminable bus ride, yet another student was dangling out a window regurgitating all over the side of the bus, while still another evacuated helplessly by the side of the road. By the time we rolled into Joshimath, where we would spend the night before our first trekking day, the next victim stumbled off the bus just in time to lose the contents of her stomach in a drainage ditch, and one more stood trembling in blanched trauma, unable to lift her bag or articulate the intestinal clamor in her gut. The three five-hour hiking days at altitude looming ahead seemed to slip out of my grasp- I had done the trek already, and since it was clear someone would need to stay behind with the infirm, I braced myself to love the snow–capped peaks from a yearning distance, while my co-leader ascended with the rest of the group.

Only, as it turns out, my co-leader was off his feed as well, and reluctant to take his compromised system (and the nine ticking time bombs of the rest of the group) up to 14,000 feet. Feeling more than a bit shaky myself (yes, I had the salad), I still felt a stab of joy when I woke up to cloudless skies and soaring peaks and realized I was going up after all. I don’t want to make this a tale of woe. Yes, all but two ended up falling ill up in the mountains, wrestling on the trail and in their tents with intense abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea with varying degrees of stoicism. There were 2am ibuprofen and electrolyte doses to be doled out, and more than one chorus of “This is miserable- I want to go home!” reverberating in those alpine meadows, but no one was immune to the incredible beauty of the Himalayas in late fall, and we more than made it through.

Though we’d passed multiple signs indicating that we were firmly in the territory of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (being only 30K or so from the Tibetan border), the truth of it settled in as we gazed down from our first summit above treeline, and saw fatigue-clad swarms of soldiers executing military drills with rocket launchers on their shoulders in the meadow below. We even hiked among them for a few disconcerting kilometers, and two of them requested a female student and I to pose so that they could take pictures of us on their cell phone cameras. Something about a man in uniform makes me want to apologize, or confess to all of the stop lights I’ve ever coasted through, but it certainly does not make me want to say “No”. If there is an airbrushed body pasted onto my chilled and ruddy face in some Indian Army fundraising calendar, so be it.

As our guide, Vipin, was of somewhat more durable moral fiber than our head man last year, I was free to let him coax the plodding infirm from the rear, while I stayed with the more hale front contingent. Our “peak attempt” at Kuari Pass ended up being a parade of dark horses. Five of the nine I’d taken on the trek were too ill to attempt it, and hiked straight to the next camp, leaving four students and myself to make the final push. (It occurred to me on that day that we were five in town, five at last camp, and five attempting the final ascent. It was the first time it really made sense to me to be slogging through India fifteen strong. )

I say dark horses because our team was composed of: Me, who was not “supposed” to be doing the trek alone with the students again this time around; a female student who had been suffering from consistent gastrointestinal problems for the last month (when everyone else was complaint-free); a male student who forgot his hiking boots, was prepared to hike in crappy Indian sandals, and was decked out like a 70’s version of Gandalf in tight plaid pants and a pointy-hooded robe; another female student who was trekking in moccasins and a wool blanket, and had been fighting off her own visit from the amoeba fairy; and another female student with frequent complaints of toe injuries, back pain, headaches, and persistent daily existential angst. All plowed to the top with good humor behind Bobby, our assistant guide, who valiantly carried our lunch of potatoes and pasta on his back, and eyed us indulgently as we tore into my sacred stash of toasted nori to celebrate our accomplishment.

The crunch of boots in crusts of snow, the clang of bells hanging from the necks of the pack mules, and the singsong chirping of village kids (“Namaste-toffee!”, which translates into “Hello, God, give me some candy!” ) were all familiar from last year, but so much more poignant with the unexpected blessing of this second chance to really see it all.

I kept staring up at the impenetrable façade of these ancient mountains and thinking of Lhamo, who’d traversed peaks much like these with her father into Nepal, with nothing but her purple sweatshirt and a few keepsakes from home between her and the elements. Unimaginable. Our guides kept us warmed by fires and stuffed with as much delicious food (chow mein, pizza, banana pie!), as our uneven appetites could handle, and yet the misery at the hands of the voracious microbes in our group seemed unparalleled. All things being relative, though, much was endured and much achieved.

We all made it back here to Rishikesh for a day of comforting toilet proximity and pharmaceuticals, and the allure of the desert is teasing away some of the dull exhaustion from the gazes of my students. I am soaking in one last breakfast on the banks of the wind-stippled Ganga, and pitching my Dramamine into the bin in celebration of the long, flat (not counting pothole canyons) journey across the Gangetic plain.

Friday, October 16, 2009


There was no Siddhi Ma. No chakra-blowing darshan, no profound interchange, not even a glimpse of her radiant white robes. After dutifully scouring ourselves in the Ganga (for the intrepid), or from a spigot (for the typhoid-conscious) and acquiring offerings of fruit to be blessed, twenty of us crammed into two jeeps and trundled off across Rishikesh for our anticipated audience. Rishikesh the day before Diwali (picture New Year’s, Christmas, and July 4th rolled into one) is no treat to navigate in a couple of unwieldy SUV’s packed with sweating American adolescents chartreuse with motion sickness. After taking a few moments to compose ourselves and will our heaving stomachs into submission, we trooped into the ashram, only to be told that Siddhi Ma had left suddenly that morning at 4:30 a.m., and no one knew why or where she had gone. I can truthfully log this as the first time I’ve ever seen Dwabha nonplussed. Her guru had vanished in a cloud of Maruti exhaust, while we were left with armloads of papaya, and not an avatar in sight.

In all of her years as a devotee, Dwabha had never known her guru to simply vanish when an audience had been arranged, as ours had. We had to content ourselves with a desultory tour of the ashram grounds, Neem Karolyi Baba’s Samadhi (memorial), and the largest Hanuman statue in northern India. The statue itself was a bit alarming. Hanuman is the monkey god, the god of wind and the ultimate warrior. He is usually shown in a vigilant stance, and the artist behind this particular piece made liberal use of bulging veins and pneumatic musculature to convey his strength and virility. I felt like he might, at any moment, throw a punch, pound a Red Bull, then turn to me with a with a lift of an eyebrow and say “How you doin’?”

What did impress me is that the statue itself actually stands on a pedestal which is built over and around the cave where Neem Karolyi lived and meditated for years by the banks of the Ganga. While thoroughly sobered by the fact that the Ganga has retreated over a kilometer from that spot thanks to global warming, it was incredible to step into the shadow of Hanuman, and duck into this tiny cave where an enlightenment occurred. It was hardly larger than the inside of a VW bus, with a picture of Neem Karolyi taking up nearly one entire wall, blurred by dense incense smoke. We all crammed in and sat in meditation for a while, until the heat and claustrophobic quarters drove us back out into the sunlight.

I felt like a newborn fawn, wobbly of leg and bleary of eye, as the glare from sun hitting white marble inundated me from all directions. Dwabha was in mid-discourse about the origins of the god Ram, and as I pressed my back against a cool column, I was awash with gratitude for her patter, as the capacity for speech or movement had temporarily deserted me. I wish I could be more articulate about this. I don’t know what happened in that cave. I just felt really quiet is all, and completely surrounded by a presence that had nothing to do with the breathing, perspiring bodies pressing in from all sides. When I walked out, I felt shaky and overwhelmed and unable to look anyone in the face, lest I scare any of my students with an acute case of the “crazy eye”. I felt like there was a new and not unpleasant void in my brain, but certain my students would not have the same appreciation for a bottomless gaze from their leader. This may all be sounding pretty woo-woo for a lot of my home team readers, but it’s about as real as I can keep it at present. I’m in Rishikesh, after all, and you don’t have to be a Beatle to get bitten by woo-woo around here.

Ground zero zoomed up to meet me soon enough, as Dwabha led us in a chaotic foray through the central market in search of fireworks and Indian sweets for our Diwali festivities on the beach tonight. My blown fuses where still smoking gently, so I elected to stay in the back of the jeep with a couple of teenage orphans who had come along for their fourth encounter with Siddhi Ma. The young girls shared a highly entertaining series of jokes about an ant and an elephant with me in halting English, as my students and Dwabha filtered back with illegal variations on fireworks like the “fountain of light”, and something highly ill-advised called “Guns of Fun”. I sent out a prayer to whatever was in that cave with me to protect us all from unregulated pyrotechnics, and tucked myself back into my eight inch by eight inch slot behind the driver’s seat for the head-whipping ride back to the orphanage.

Dwabha postulated this morning that Siddhi Ma probably left before our meeting in order to increase our desire to seek out master teachers in our lives, which we would not have fully appreciated had we been able to gain her presence so easily. I have to admit that I was thoroughly disappointed that our date with the Divine got rain checked, but I will admit to some reservations during our vertiginous drive to the ashram. Many of the students were full of avatar jokes and blessed fruit humor. I’m not sure they were quite ready for the dose of energy they would have received from such a formidable presence, and perhaps neither was I. Dwabha claims that avatars do nothing by accident, and feels certain that Siddhi Ma’s eleventh hour vanishing act was divinely ordained. I guess sometimes the baker knows when the loaves are ready, and when they need to get shoved back into the fire for, say four more weeks. Rajasthan, here we come.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ant's Eye View

Last night, in the small “café” at the orphanage where we take breakfast and dinner each day, we watched a movie called “Fierce Grace”, about the life and work of Ram Dass, American-born academic and spiritual guru. Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, was born to a wealthy Boston family, and later got booted out of a professorship at Harvard with his buddy Timothy Leary for conducting experiments with psychedelics during the sixties. He followed a counter cultural exodus to India, where he met his guru, Neem Karolyi Baba (called “Maharaji” by his disciples), who transformed his life and set him on a path of spiritual study and teaching. Ram Dass returned to the States, wrote the world-famous “Be Here Now”, and attracted thousands to his parents’ sprawling estate for mass meditations, yoga, and mindful frolick (much to the indulgent bemusement of his wealthy railroad tycoon father).

He travelled, he taught, and was revered. Then he had a severe stroke, and recovered fully. Then he had another one, which left him partially paralyzed. He calls it “being stroked by God”, and has since dedicated himself to helping others deal with grief, loss, disability, and aging, reframing them as spiritual paths leading one closer to the God within and without. We watched this movie at the behest of Dwabha, who floated into dinner last night on what I can only describe as some sort of “love buzz” from having spent the entire day with her guru, Siddhi Ma, who was also a disciple of Maharaji, and just arrived in Rishikesh.

Let me make something clear- I’ve never witnessed Dwabha “floating”. Striding, storming, and surging, yes. She had spoken of Siddhi Ma to us during our mountain retreat, explaining that “Siddhi” refers to the extraordinary acts of manipulating time, space, matter, and nature of which her guru is known to be capable. Dwabha has often asked her for guidance and support in the past, only to be told “It is already done”. And it was.

This kind of divine intervention is taken as a matter of course for many Hindus and Buddhists, who are oriented to see the face of God in all beings, and believe that there are many humans on earth who have enlightened while still in physical form (become, in a sense, God-realized) in order to help the rest of us along. Siddhi Ma, a contemporary of Ram Dass, is such a one. What’s more, she’s in town, and she wants to meet us. Dwabha requested her blessing for our journey of inner work last week, which Siddhi Ma granted, and Dwabha believes that she has come to town earlier than expected in order to meet us before we leave. Perhaps it’s like a baker’s desire to poke at the cake with a piece of straw after it’s come out of the oven to see if it’s done.

Throughout last week, I would rise at 6am each morning to meditate in front of the small altar cobbled together on a window ledge. Siddhi Ma’s picture adorned it, beside images of Krishna, Ammachi, Ramana Maharshi, the Buddha, and of course Maharaji. She is slight, and has the kind, wizened face of a storybook grandmama. Dwabha claims she can stop time, move mountains, multiply fruit into an endless supply, and change the weather. This I have not seen, but the woman had Dwabha crooning and trilling like a lovesick schoolgirl, and for me this is a testament to the supernatural.

Our Z Meditation teachers lament that India is full of gurus, but no students, which is why the ashrams and temples these days are so full of Westerners (who have students, but few teachers). As I shoulder my way through the streets of Rishikesh, I can’t help but note that most of the people holding the malas and mumbling mantras are saddhus and Westerners, with their dreadlocks and Ganesha graphic t-shirts. I doubt the autorickshaw driver, with his sticky green hair oil and petrol-blackened hands has the leisure to spend crouched at the foot of a muslin-swaddled master on the banks of the Ganga. Still, the hasty comma of kum kum between his eyebrows and the plasticized image of Hanuman swinging from his dusty rearview mirror hint that siddhis and gods walking the earth may be more at home in his reality than in the hash-expanded consciousness of his Western passengers.

One doesn’t need to travel to India to witness things that cannot be explained by the “rational mind”, but somehow I feel much more in the way of those things here. Perhaps I can’t explain them because I don’t know what I’m looking at. To an ant, the Taj Mahal doesn’t even exist. It’s just one enormous slippery expanse of mosaic white, with a lot more of the same all around. I’m not sure what to expect from my encounter with Siddhi Ma, but a vicarious night with Ram Dass has me hoping that if I find myself standing in front of a human equivalent of the Taj Mahal, my eyes and my mind will be big enough to see it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Going There

Today is a holiday, and I’m not sure which one. As far as I can tell, it has to do with lighting firecrackers and gridlock on the footbridge and rampant consumerism. Laxman Jula feels like a county fair, only with twice as much manure, a lot of amplified Krishna Dass, and fried sweets that would put the glycemic load of any funnel cake to shame. It’s all a bit much for fifteen people who just spent the last week in isolation in the Himalayas, meditating, Sufi dancing, and vision questing.

Such was the rhythm of our days at our mountain center retreat, and the ripe and rampant carnival astmosphere of Rishikesh today is libel to send our freshly blossomed third eyes slamming shut in sensory overload. A dear friend, who is having her own third eye conundrums due to her recent adventures in pranic healing in Varanasi, was told to put sandalwood paste between her eyebrows to protect her energetic circuitry, so to speak. Jangly and skittish from the chaos, at this point I’d smear Colgate with tartar control from hairline to jawbone if I thought it would help.

I’ve sought out my favorite Rishikesh haunt (Moksha- it means “liberation”) for a soothing dose of brown rice and kim chi. Do chakras like pickled vegetables? Regardless, I’ve spent enough time with chapatis and dal for the last week to warrant at least one indulgence outside the realm of Indian cuisine. Okay, two if you count the slice of banoffee pie I have my eye on (bananas, nutella, ‘nuff said).

We’ve returned to this city at a bend of the Ganga for a week of volunteering at a local orphanage, run by our ex-pat guru, the formidable Prabhavati Dwabha. Our days will be taken up with teaching and tutoring and trying to play with some semblance of the utter absorption and presence of these ridiculously charming children. Seriously, last night I almost ate one. Fortunately, the grounds of the orphanage, and the small rustic streamside hut I am camping out in for the week, are cool and quiet. The noise of the sprawling city is muted by a thundering stream (which runs right past my hut- a bit like trying to sleep with a team of Clydesdales doing a polka by your ear, but oddly relaxing) and the Ganga itself, which slides past in crème de menthe languor. If one has to recuperate after psychic surgery within the calamity of Rishikesh, it’s probably one of the better options.

Psychic surgery is not a term I use loosely. Dwabha, in her customary laser beam fashion, began the retreat with a day of meditative gardening, followed by a thorough examination of our individual “roots”, and the imprints we’ve taken on as a result. Cultural heritage, family skeletons in the closet, that awful year of fifth grade when you tried to hide the fact that you never learned how to tell time- it was all laid out like an unsavory buffet of angst.

I watched with nervous anticipation as Dwabha invited the students to the edge of vulnerability and revelation, and gasped in wonder as they unhesitatingly swan dove into the morass of their own unhealed places. They just…went there, and I felt like there was no better way to signal my admiration (and keep tabs on their emotional safety) than to squeeze my eyes shut and dive in after them. The end result was a week of getting to know each other at a far deeper level, risking judgment, and building trust in a steady and (dare I hope?) irrevocable way.

It wasn’t an entirely comfy experience on my part, and not only because I was excavating some painfully calcified psychic detritus of my own . The stories of what has shaped these students, and what drove them to India in search of themselves chilled me to the bone, when it wasn’t making me weep. Broken homes, absentee parents, substance addictions, depression, and all of the ways our society alienates and medicates its youth for the vulnerability, the emotional rudderlessness, the mania that the world we’ve created inspires. It’s a wonder some of them are still alive.
This week recalled to me many conversations I had during my time in the Peace Corps with the people in my host village. It was so difficult to explain the widespread social poverty, a poverty of values, connection, and meaning afflicting much of the Western world. I struggle to make sense of it here as well, where a discarded wrapper can be a source of livelihood for a person or even a family. But it also helped me reconnect with the meaning I find in this work. Even since last year, there are more medications, more alienation, more trauma in the students I work with. From all I’ve seen and heard, it’s a trend that extends far beyond my experience of it, and it’s not getting better.

So though I often feel like a tour guide, a number cruncher, and a herder of cats, I know that I am something more than that, and even when the students are at their most fractious and self-absorbed, I can remind them that they are something more as well.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Maybe a Monkey?

I was sitting in my favorite café in Mcleod Ganj enjoying some Tibetan brown bread and a book, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a hulking shape drift into the room from outside. The dogs in Mcleod Ganj, as opposed to the worm-eaten specimens found in most other parts of India, are shiny of coat and relatively robust, so I assumed that one of them had just slunk in hoping to score a hand-out. But then a squeak/giggle erupted from the florid American tourist who sat placidly beading necklaces across the way, and I raised my head to see that a large monkey (seated on the floor they were eye to eye) had stationed itself by her table, and was contentedly devouring the remains of her morning pastry. She had retracted into the far reaches of her chair, helplessly goggle-eyed. “G-go on. Y-you can have it” she whimpered. Monkey skirmishes on the streets ending in bloodshed for animal and human alike are not uncommon in Mcleod Ganj.

This particular simian obviously had something more continental in mind. I half expected him to request a decaf latte- just something in his posture, and the discriminating way he pulled the flaky layers of croissant apart before turning them to doughy pulp between his sharp teeth. I can honestly say that I have never breakfasted with the smell of monkey so very present in the room. I found myself wondering what the omen of a monkey at breakfast portends, exactly, especially as this was our last day in Mcleod Ganj before heading to Rishikesh.

The day was spent in making sure we’d thanked everyone who needed to be thanked, paid anyone who needed to be paid, and offered the last rueful apologies for the seismic impact a group of fifteen American young adults inevitably has. I had my last session with Lhamo and Jigme at Gu Chu Sum, the center for Tibetan refugees where I have been tutoring in English. This has been the most amazing part of my journey thus far. They do not want to learn how to say “Where can I buy some bread and a magazine?” They ask to learn how to articulate things like “The Communist Chinese government has been steadily transferring populations of Chinese citizens into Tibet, and now we are a minority in our own country.”

Lhamo (who crossed over from Nepal with her father), and Jigme (a Buddhist nun) are roommates, and so we often went down to their room so they could show me their pictures, give me tea, and talk about their future plans. On this last day, they brought me downstairs, handed me my cup of sweet milky tea, and started showering me with words of appreciation and prayer scarves and gifts given to them by family in Tibet. We were all in tears by the end. They told me I have to keep my body strong so I can come back and see them. As Suruchi suggested as I left Z Meditation just a few days ago, I think I will come back, but maybe without the 14 or so extra bodies. The more I form relationships as I return to these well-loved places, the more curious I become about how I would experience them without the omnipresent responsibilities of group leadership.

One long overnight train ride and an exhaustion-hazed day of logistical coordinating later, and here we are in Rishikesh. Today, we drive up to a mountain retreat center with our guru for this next section, Prabhavati Dwabha (Coloradan ex-pat and philanthropist extraordinaire), before returning to Rishikesh for ten days of work with her orphanage here in Rishikesh. Knowing that we are about to lose all control of how the next two weeks unfold (one does not tell Hurricane Dwabha which way to blow), I got up at 6am for some stolen quiet moments and a solitary breakfast. Well, almost solitary.

The French couple at the table in front of me is in full-on make-out mode, the waiters are still rolling up their bedding in the kitchen before brushing their teeth out on the sidewalk, and the monkeys swinging along the electric lines outside the window are giving my muesli more than a casual glance. The guy in the gift shop is in a dhoti, fresh from his morning swim in the Ganga, and patting his furry chest with talc. From here I can see that the footbridge that stretches across the Ganga to Laxman Jula is deserted, and I feel an insane urge to race across it waving my arms, and then leisurely spit from the top while watching the currents speed by under my feet. The bridge is about five feet in width, with cows and monkeys and motocycles and photo-snapping tourists all clogging this delicate artery at once. Trying to cross it at midday is like trying to blow a hard-boiled egg through a needle-sized hole in the shell. Alas, no time. There is money to change, a comprehensive update to write to the office, bags to pack, and, of course, Dwabha. I wonder if I could convince that French couple to give me a hug? Might have to settle for a monkey.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Silent Week (or I Was Told There'd Be No Math)

9/23/09 I = C

Do you know that scene in “Pretty Woman” where Julia Robert’s prostitute heart-of-gold character is standing on the sidelines watching the polo match? And Jason Alexander (playing Richard gears blood-sucking lawyer) comes onto her after he finds out she’s really a prostitute? And then she gets really mad at Richard Gere, because she wasn’t expecting to be reminded of her job, with her defenses down, when she was supposed to be allowed to be someone else for a while? Well, I’m going to go for the hyperbole a bit here, and say that that’s how I felt when, after almost an entire day and night in total silence, plus hours of meditation teachings and sitting practice, one of my students came up to me and shoved a late assignment under my nose. I was in a soft focus world of contemplation, gazing out at the misty valley, when suddenly I had crumpled pages of hastily scrawled “religious studies” content thrust in front of me. I looked at it like a walrus might look at a Mercedes Benz- what in the world is this thing, and what am I supposed to do with it? I scrambled for my mental wire-rimmed spectacle, pinch-mouthed schoolmarm persona and accepted the paper.

We had told the students before going into silence the day before that no school work should be done or handed in during the six day retreat period, yet I couldn’t quite chalk this one up to “Oh well, typical with this age group that what’s said and heard are not often the same.” Primarily because this particular meditation lineage has us focusing on what repetitive thoughts disturb our peace during meditation practice, and my repetitive thoughts have been something to the tune of “Sheesh! What’s so confusing about “Don’t do that”?! I was just trying to look out the freaking window for two freaking minutes! Why does no one listen? Why? Whyyyyy?! What if the rest of the students saw that, and I spend the next six days watching them scribble clandestinely in their notebooks when they should be meditating, so they can slip their hasty pages to me while I’m trying to connect with my divine freaking essence?! Am I not a person? When I speak, but only in a room full of young adults, do I make a sound? If I were here alone, I would SO be rocking out on this meditation thing. Obviously."

So, no use pretending the waters are calm, when our instructors are dunking our heads in the sea of our own discontent. They claim that this is in order to root out the cause of the disturbance, determine its validity, and eliminate it for good. As our sweet-faced teacher Ajay says, “One cannot be peaceful and dependent at the same time”, which is distilled into the formula “I + X= does not equal C”. “I” is me. “X” is that thing I think I need in order to be complete, peaceful, happy, etc. (e.g. students that listen when we ask them not to do something), and “C” equals completeness. If there is always an “X” factor you will never feel truly complete. You’ve got to be able to get that job done regardless of external circumstances. As Ajay says, “Over there, my happiness. This is the life of most people in the world.” Or in my case, as I stared holes through the back of the offending student’s head, “Over there my unhappiness”, secretly hoping he would feel the weight of my irritation like a pall on his post-assignment triumph.

The truth is, my difficulty clearing my mind has no more to do with student behavior than the color of my eyes has to do with the weather in Belgrade. I’ve just got a squirelly brain case, and there’s no two ways about it. (Note: This philosophical turn of mind was available to me only after I sent the facilitators a note asking them to remind the students not to do schoolwork during the retreat.) Nonetheless, I do notice some improvements from my first experience of this retreat a year ago.

In our first session, Ajay asked us to do a concentration exercise (in silence, of course). On the inhale, say “Om”, and on the exhale count “100”. Then inhale “Om”, exhale “99” and so on. Every time a distracting pattern of thought enters your mind, you’re meant to start over again from “100”. No one in the history of these retreats has ever gotten to “1”. Last year, I couldn’t even break “97”. This year however, while I never dipped below “86”, I noticed that I wasn’t being distracted by thought patterns, but just…patterns. Seriously. Calico, gingham, paisley, you name it. Because I was finally managing to keep the yammering voice out of my head, my oh-so-resourceful inner monkey went into creative overdrive and starting furnishing glorious swatches for my delectation. Each number had its own texture, colors, and shape, and I don’t have the first idea why there’s some part of me that thinks “95” is midnight blue velvet with white eyeley trim. This whole visual parade actually felt very meditative. That is, until I started trying to use the fabric- a sassy bolero jacket here, a modern window treatment there, what’s the harm? Next thing I knew, I was lost somewhere between Pottery Barn and Anthropologie. With “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman cranking in the background. Darn kids.

9/24/09 Complete Before Cataracts

“Freedom is the test and the gift of love”. It’s not every day that someone lays that one on you before 7am , but I suppose that’s what makes this a silent retreat, rather than a silent New York Times crossword over Pop Tarts and Sanka. Not that most of my students wouldn’t already sell their own mother for anything approaching the sugar content of a Pop Tart, even at this early stage, yet I think for the most part we are all acquitting ourselves admirably. I do worry that I may be setting a bad example by choosing to nap during the time allotted for cleanliness (the “Shower of Joy”), but my senses tell me no one’s fallen down on the personal hygiene yet, and I’m planning a dutifully joyful shower tomorrow.

Ajay and Suruchi talked about freedom a lot this morning, and what can keep us from the experience of it. According to them, when staying in the place of “I=C” (I am complete within myself) is the top priority, this is freedom, because one is not dependent upon external conditions for happiness, peace, etc. To put it in terms we debt-addicted Americanos can understand, every time you identify a new “X” factor (that thing you think you need to be complete), you open a new account. If you eventually get that thing and close the account, ten more accounts open. In other words, you pay off the Bloomingdales, and celebrate by opening up a Gap, Barnes and Noble, Victoria’s Secret, etc.

And then he said something which is still rocking my world even as I write this. Something so obvious that it’s probably on the back of a cereal box or the lid of a jar of Snapple somewhere, and yet I never really got it until now. “If the object of desire (X) is transient, so will the outcome be.” Simple as that. Hmph. When has getting something I wanted ever made me happy and peaceful and free of all wanting forever? Never. Not even when I got that killer burrito, that truly good haircut, or that job I’d always dreamed of. Nothing will ever be as good as I expect it to be, if what I expect is that it will make me complete. Tough love, but long overdue.

Then, while we were all still reeling from this early dose of gospel, they hit us with more math. If you persist on locating completeness outside yourself, then you will spend 95% of the time chasing the thing, and only 5% enjoying it. I doubt they pulled this one from the world of researched academia, yet it definitely strikes a chord in my own reality. Sometimes I’m lucky to get that five percent before I start worrying about losing the thing I just got, or if I got the best one, or if I’ll be stuck with this thing forever, whether I keep wanting it or not. So everything changes, with one exception. If you are constantly chasing after things or running away from them, your circumstances change, but you do not. You are always seeking happiness, and never really finding it. And then you die.

I can’t remember when it happened that I stopped seeing the elderly as though they’d hatched from eggs as shriveled octogenarian character actors to play the part of “old folks” in the unfolding drama of my life, and started seeing them as my eventual self. Maybe it was when someone asked me about “when I was young”, or when my friends and sisters began having babies, making grandparents of our moms and dads. It certainly wasn’t when those sisters and friends started getting gray hair. That never happened. But if I had to name it, I might identify this perceptual shift as the moment when I realized that life was slowly going to love my physical self into the ground (literally), a sort of Velveteen Rabbit made real by too much undeniable evidence to the contrary, and that it might be a good time to figure out how to be happy even when the cataracts come a’ calling.

Fortunately, this does not mean abandoning all aspirations, but only ensuring that I am not hanging my sense that all is as it should be on their attainment. That’s a lot to take in before breakfast, but the rigors of self-inquiry are relentless, so they walloped us once more before the morning porridge. “You cannot change other people. They must choose to change. People act compulsively, and you can’t take it personally.” So I get that, and yet I looked around the room at my charges, eyes squinched shut in heroic feats of mental digestion, and couldn’t deny some tiny warm squiggle of hope that in my choice to be here with them, I might play some small part in the change they are all reaching for. I’ll just tuck that little “X factor” into my pocket until November, then I’ll ditch it. Promise.

9/25/09- Deep Thoughtings

Same stories, same practices, same day-to-day routine as last year, so why aren’t I bored? Is it possible that I have more to learn about detaching from any thoughts that would disturb my inner peace? Moi? Ajay and Suruchi are very careful to make the distinction between thinking and thoughting. Thinking is to be encouraged. It is necessary, productive, and allows us to fulfill our dharma through mindful action. Thoughting is repetitive mental meandering which harps upon the same events, themes, feelings, etc. again and again with no other result than making us walking zombie prisoners of past and future, ghosts of the present.

Seems like a bit of a fine line to me. I mean, one minute you’re pondering the next phase of your professional development, doing some really quality-type strategizing, and the next thing you know you’re fantasizing about the vacation home in southern France you’ll acquire once you got this sweet-ass job, and what kinds of obscure cheeses you’ll buy in the neighboring village for your afternoon baguette. And let’s face it, some thoughts are just flat out fun- and I think you know which ones I mean. So how to reconcile the idea that through our thoughts we create our reality, and the necessity of reigning in our tendency to walk around in dreams of how life could be, rather than an acceptance of how it is?

Ajay answers this by saying that the key difference here is whether you are thinking about something because you are chasing or running from it, or because you are peaceful, balanced, and consciously creating. The kicker is, you have to be willing to attach and detach at a moment’s notice, without losing your sense of peace. Easy when it’s a song I kinda sorta wanted to hear, not so easy when it’s that person/place/thing that is in all ways wonderful and so instrumental to completing my fantastic vision for perfect existence.

Not to mention the fact that I am more than a little bit in love with my own thoughts. Granted, sometimes I feel like I’m being dragged through a field of thistles behind a herd of blind, rabid wildebeests, but I quite often enjoy the ride, if not the view. This might be the hardest point for me to swallow. I’m not saying all of my thoughtings are gushing with creative inspiration, but I am a little worried about turning off the tap entirely. Z Meditation claims that only a mind which is truly clear is truly creative, because it creates a space for inspiration to enter in. But if inspiration is not snatched from the jowels of that tangent about ceramic tiles and zucchini muffins, where will it come from? Unfortunately, there’s only one way to find out…

9/26/09 Sounds Like Teen Spirit

This morning, when Ajay began with “When you leave day after tomorrow-“, all of my warm fuzzy detachment went flying out the window, and suddenly I’m not only attached to being here, I’m scrabbling for every last moment ‘til my fingers are bloody and the only sound is the deafening “Noooooo!” reverberating in my head. So much for equanimity. How can it almost be time to go? I’m just getting started, and I only today realized the difference between the kind of acceptance where you are at peace with the way someone/thing is while remaining firmly convinced that they are in error by not being like you, and accepting something exactly as it is, no judgment, no unspoken “Poor lamb, I accept you, even though you insist on being so very wrong.” This is big. Subtle, but big, and I suspect indispensable to my sanity in the coming weeks, not to mention years. I need more, MORE I say!

Yesterday marked day four of our “silent retreat” (note the irony implied in the use of quotes), and I thought the students were holding up remarkably well. True, there did seem to be a lot of announcements by the staff about respecting the silence, but I thought these were just general, routine public service-type things. Until Ajay, when suggesting to another staff member that we might break silence just long enough to sing happy birthday to one of our number, said jovially “Why not, they’ve been talking all day anyway!” Say what? The curtains of my yummy meditation trance parted, and I was suddenly all too aware of the resounding lack of silence. The students were not flipping out by day four of silence, because the students were not, for the most part, silent.

In fact, they were gesturing at each other like frantic umpires or Marcel Marceau with gesticulatory Tourettes. They were snorting and giggling and just flat out talking, and passing enough notes and drawings to qualify for what might be the world’s longest ongoing game of Pictionary. This, despite the fact that not only were we requested to be silent, but to avoid passing notes, physical or eye contact, and any noise of any kind. Suddenly, the corridors of the ashram seemed to echo with their explosions of communication, until I had to fight the urge to hurl a plastic chair at their wildly wagging heads. Last night it peaked with an all out screech-fest over some dramatized spider-spotting (c’mon, people, it’s a spider), which ellicits a startliing Raging Bull response from my exasperated inner voice- “You want something to scream about, I’ll give you something to scream about!”
I state all of this in the past tense, not because I have, on this fifth day, ascended finally and firmly into the realm of equanimous non-attachment, but because the “gentle reminders” from the staff have become decidedly more firm, and momentarily tamed/shamed the burgeoning rebellion. Or so I hope.

I’d much rather pass the time soaking in Suruchi’s radiant Mona Lisa smile, marveling at Ajay’s lashes, thick as push brooms where they hover atop his plump cheeks during meditation, and watching lightning play around a tangerine sliver of moon hanging above the valley in the early evening. It’s much easier to stay anchored in my mantra-induced serenity when my mind is occupied with nothing more complex than the phenomenon of the moths that begin to swarm around the lampposts a full thirty minutes before they are switched on at night. Mother Nature, caught in the act of living for the future! Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

9/27/09 My Silence

Silence is a construct, like a nation or a relationship. You can’t touch it or dress it up for Halloween, or put it in a hermetically sealed container wrapped in electrified barbed wire, encircled with fifty-foot watch towers, and patrolled by Dobermans and unstable men named “Bubba”, and “Pain Train”. If silence were a thing, I could call it mine. I could recognize it by sight and smell, and carry it around in my backpack wrapped in a fleece jacket to prevent breakage. It turns out that silence is more like air- air which can be polluted by the noxious exudations of others like second-hand smoke. If someone is a scratcher or a throat-clearer or a helpless giggler or involuntary moaner (now I know they exist), then those become the soundtrack of one’s life, if one wishes to live among others and not, in fact, in a hermetically sealed box.

And yet something in my mind persists in thinking of what I have cherished so deeply about this week, and felt so ferociously protective of, as My Silence. When someone chooses to break Their Silence, they also make a decision about My Silence, and its right to exist. This is dramatic, as has been my response to the second-hand sounds of others. It makes me want to wring my hands, draw a chalk outline on the floor and keen while tearing out my hair- “Look! Just look at what you’ve done to My Silence! My beautiful, broken Siiiiilence!” Operatic emotions of Betrayal, Frustration, and mostly Intense Irritation become my great golden excuses to dodge the work of mind-clearing and digging out my lazy mental patterns. But after a week of “deal with yourself” boot camp, I now let myself have my Scarlett O’Hara moment, take my bows, and hunker back down over my own business.

We leave tomorrow, back to India with all of the demands on our energy and integrity She will make, and I feel like I’ve found a new orientation to this job and these incredibly noisy young people. Of course they are jabbering and hugging and grimacing grotesquely at each other, despite all requests to the contrary. At that point in life, the dominant questions seem to be “Who am I?”, “How do others see me?” and “If no one sees me, do I even exist?” It’s all about socializing, learning yourself through relationship to others and the world. How to know anything unless it’s been trotted out in public and reflected in the gaze of one’s peers? It is a particularly tricky joke we play on them to bring them here during their second week in India, and ask them to divest themselves of all of their conditionings and beliefs. Most of them are just now hatching into a stage in life where they can identify their own beliefs, apart from those of their parents/ hometown/ religious background/ etc. So if their resistance looks to me like derision and sarcasm, it likely feels to them more like being allowed to choose your own name, then having someone tell you you have to go by “Mr. X” instead. Not o.k.

I am bolstering myself with these types of compassion exercises in preparation for our first group circle after breaking silence tomorrow. I’m feeling a bit tender about the edges after all of this psychic excavation, and am just hoping that I can keep grounded in the comforting law of impermanence. No matter what mini-quakes this week sends rippling through the group, I know it will pass.

I remember when I lived in L.A. after my stint in the Peace Corps. It was an incredibly sad and difficult time (Note: Don’t move to L.A. after your stint in the Peace Corps). I used to walk in the hills of Will Rogers State Park looking down at the city, and feel completely convinced that things would always be sad and difficult, because everything I could see from there was infinitely sprawling L.A., and I couldn’t imagine that there was anywhere else to go, or anything else to feel. In the end, it turns out that all I had to do for the landscape to change, was keep walking . In the moments where the shrapnel of a student’s overwhelm and confusion is hurtling at my softer parts, I hope I can remember that even those razor-edged shards (and the collateral damage where they land), will pass.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meeting the Monk

The Dalai Lama left yesterday. The night before, one of my students learned that His Holiness would join in a parade down the Temple Road at 8am, so I launched myself (screaming hamstrings and all, courtesy of Vijay the Merciless Yogi) out of bed just before seven in order to grab breakfast and score a good spot to watch the procession before yoga at nine. When I slipped into a café to bolt down some muesli and curd, the guy at the counter informed me that the Dalai Lama was, in fact, leaving, but not until after nine, and would only be exiting the gates in an SUV and heading straight down to Dharamsala.

At a bit of a loss, and wishing myself back in bed for another hour of logistics-free oblivion, I decided to head down to the temple gates anyway. In stark contrast to the surging throngs of the past three days while the teachings were going on, the entrance to the temple was populated by only a few street vendors and idly strolling tourists. I could hear the monks chanting in the inner sanctum of the monastery a few floors up. The low monotonous rumble seemed to vibrate right into my eye sockets, and I followed it like a cat with the scent of sushi in its nose.

One might remark that my next couple of strategic moves to gain access to the inner sanctum may seem ironical, mercenary even, given both my devotional surroundings and the fact that it was all to the purpose of joining in morning prayers. One might also cut a sleep-deprived girl with a serious case of Dalai Lama love a little slack, but let your conscience be your guide. When I hit the first security gate, a burly Tibetan asked me if I had any cell phones or cameras in my bag. I did, in fact, have my Nokia cell (that necessary albatross of my “leader” incarnation) in my possession. Does the fact that I shook my head “No” rather than actually uttering the word make it less likely that I will go to hell for lying in a monastery? I’ll be honest, this question only occurred to me after the fact. Way after.

My flare of triumph at evading detection was quickly doused when I hit the pat-down point, and a soft-spoken female guard found my cell phone amongst the pens and probiotics at the bottom of my bag. No amount of wide-eyed innocence could compel her to let me leave it there and retrieve it when I left. So I faked a retreat back through the first check point, dove into a bathroom, and hid the phone behind a plastic waste bin, under a pile of urine-scented straw hand brooms. The eventual repugnant retrieval was well worth it.

I sailed back through security, and found myself in the inner sanctum with a large contingent of monks, nuns, Tibetan lay people, a smattering of Westerners, and the Dalai Lama himself. I was able to walk up to within twenty yards of where he sat in prayer, and sank down to the floor transfixed by his earnest, peaceful profile. By the stern look of the older man who asked me to move a bit further off, that was rather like a Martian toddler strolling into the Vatican, plopping down at the Pope’s feet, and demanding a bedtime story. I offered him an apologetic look that I hoped conveyed mental incapacity and endearing cultural ignorance, and retreated to a raised dias towards the back of the room where women of all ages cuddled and swatted their fidgety children.

The Tibetan horns sounded by the high lamas sounded like trestle tables being dragged across a cafeteria floor, and this, punctuated by clanging bells, created what I can only describe as a uniquely symphonic cacophony that felt somber and celebratory at the same time. I meditated for a bit, then joined a slowly moving river of devotees in a couple of perambulations around the central altar for a few more glimpses of His Holiness before trekking back to the dank bathroom, where I excavated my now bacteria-infested contraband. As I strolled back up the Temple Road towards another interminable yoga marathon, I reflected on the fact that, though I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of the Dalai Lama’s teachings a few days prior, this experience of participating with him in his daily devotions felt much more powerful somehow. I have heard His Holiness say in many interviews that he is only a simple monk at heart, but I could never quite reconcile his profound presence with this image until I heard his voice joined in the same words of prayer as the modest sea of Buddhists around him, all facing the same altar, asking for the same peace, compassion, and patience.

Third Date

The handrails along the steps leading up to the inner sanctum of Norbulingka Monastery, where the Dalai Lama offers his teachings when in residence at Dharamsala, were completely swaddled in bright yellow cloth. I didn’t notice this until I watched an elderly woman reach for one of them while descending, only to be pursued by a gangly Tibetan wearing what appeared to be a canvas tool belt, hands flapping in dismay. The walnut-faced matron with her cloth bound braids raised her hand and muttered at him, shaking her head, in what I imagined to be a variation of “Alright, young whippersnapper, keep your shorts on!” I hypothesized that the cloth-consecrated handrails were only for the express use of His Holiness, not to be tainted by the dermal secretions of the less enlightened, but the Dalai Lama scurried up those steps without so much as a hand at his elbow. I filed this enigma under the already “at capacity” category of “Things I See But Don’t Understand.”

My third date with the Dalai Lama this year bore a great deal of resemblance to my initial encounter last fall, even down to the seat I chose amongst a crowd of Tibetan elders in front of the television screen where we could watch His Holiness deliver his teachings from the hall above. This spot also afforded me a prime view of the Dalai Lama as he made his entrance, not by darkly tinted SUV this time, but striding in on foot with a detachment of monks and security, swift and sure as a man half his age. I was once again without access to the inner sanctum, as we had arrived in Mcleod Ganj too late to register for passes.

The English translator appeared to be the same as last year, judging by his heavy accent, and tendency to breathe loudly through his mouth into the microphone. I started to develop a bit of a grudge towards him as the teachings progressed (mouth breathing aside, unpardonable though it may be), as the other translators tended to go on for a few extra minutes after he had ended, and I wondered if the Anglophones weren’t getting the short end of the stick. Not to mention the fact that when he is speaking, His Holiness cracks himself up on a regular basis with jokes and puns, and these little zingers were not deemed worthy of translation. Oh, the power wielded by the polyglot!

The teachings themselves were somewhat obscure, as they were specifically addressing the Mahayana school of Buddhism and various sutras associated with it, which I wouldn’t know from the Book of Job. However, with his customary ease, the Dalai Lama did manage to present some pearls for the layperson. The gist of it seemed to be that the Buddha teaches us that our perceptions affect appearance- that all external objects are extensions of our internal reality, and we respond to each reality to the same degree on all levels.

Now, I was following all of this to the best of my ability, despite the ridiculously precious exchange between a broken-toothed monk and the cackling toddler trying to consume his face one gummy bite at a time just in front of me. I mention this as a caveat, in case what I think I heard the translator say may not be what he actually said. But what I think he said (in the words of his Holiness), was that a prime example of how we respond to internal and external realities in the same way is the fact that when one has a sexual, um, experience when dreaming, one often awakens to find that one has had that same experience in external reality. The word “emissions” was used with enough frequency that I stopped checking my earpiece, and settled in to the possibility that the Dalai Lama was just keeping it real for the sake of accessibility.

Later, I asked some of my students whether they had heard this particular analogy, and I got enough “Oh my God, I thought it was just me!”-flavored responses to resolve most of my lingering uncertainty. So either it happened, or we were all projecting some sex-obsessed reality onto one of the most spiritually evolved beings on the planet. Either way, message received.

My belly was a bit ominous on this day, so I decided to slip out when the gigantic vats of butter tea and what I call “Tibetan frisbee bread” (for its unique taste and texture) began to make the rounds. The grandma beside me had already shoved a piece of politely declined cardboard under my bottom with enough velocity to send me toppling (you will NOT sit on hard concrete, granddaughter!), so I was under no illusions about my ability to evade her insistent offerings of food. I did return the next afternoon for the last round of teachings, and was amazed at how deserted the place was. I had an incredible spot on a mostly empty dias, and when the Dalai Lama strolled in, it seemed as though he would walk right up to me and pat me on the head. I sat in dumb wonder and fought the urge to wave maniacally like Gilligan at a rescue plane. As it turns out, this last afternoon was to be a question and answer session exclusively for the Korean monks who had requested the teachings, and there was no English translation to be had. I gave my transistor radio to an elderly Tibetan lady sitting beside me (the sound system upstairs was not up to the task of filtering down below with any accuracy), and made my way out through the serpentine monastery corridors.

If there is one thing I’ve gleaned during my forays into religion as it is practiced in India and other parts of Asia, it is an unshakeable belief in the power of simply being in the presence of an enlightened being. There are many parts of my ego-dominated psyche that resist the idea that I might in any way be improved by mere proximity to another, but the experiences I have had with my nieces and nephews, my mentors, my loved ones, wild places, and the Dalai Lama himself have given me considerable evidence to the contrary.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

(All) Night Moves

We arrived in Mcleod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh (seat of the Tibetan government in exile and residence of the Dalai Lama) via the most comfortable bus I've ridden on any continent. Let me qualify that. The seats reclined further than any I’ve experienced on commercial transportation, the overhead lights shone with the perfect degree of luminosity for desultory reading, and the upholstery was blessedly free of malodorous mystery stains. In all other ways, it was about as uncomfortable as any overnight bus ride in India is destined to be, due to the liberally cratered road surfaces, periodic REM cycles of our driver, and a form of on-board entertainment that mesmerized and alarmed all passengers save one- the performer himself. For eleven hours and forty minutes.

At the front of the bus, just a few rows ahead of where I sat and directly across from two of my female students, was a wiry Tibetan man in his twenties with a hennaed mullet/goatee combo, hand-held MP3 player, and some very tenacious ear buds. How do I know this? Because for the better part of our twelve hour journey, he proceeded to spasm and contort with the chutzpah of an epileptic Liz Minelli, utilizing every available surface as prop and partner, including his seat, the plexiglass shield separating him from the driver, the overhead compartments, the side windows, and his beleaguered seat mate’s armrest.

Every lurch of the bus seemed to inspire a new movement sequence, as he transitioned seamlessly from the “Axel Rose Stationary Waddle” to “Mime in a Glass Box” to the lesser known but no less compelling “Man with Bear Claws Walking on Eggshells”. His range was baffling but boundless. With his beat-up Vans and oblivious trance, he could’ve been just another tweaked-out Venice Beach side show, but our Dharamsala-bound bus, his angular Asian features and turquoise “Free Tibet” t-shirt hinted at a different story. The students held it together reasonably well, even though his airborne perspiration flecked their new punjabis as he began humping his seat sideways, then nearly launched himself out of the side window entirely. Of course, when he stepped off the bus to relieve himself, the entire bus broke into incredulous guffaws, and from behind me I heard one of my less diplomatic students bellow “What the f***? Who the f*** do you think you f***ing are, Michael f****ing Jackson?!” (We are working on “right speech” in this program, but we’ve still got a ways to go- can I buy another asterix, Pat?).

His brush with self- induced defenestration inspired our intrepid entertainer to confine his gyrations and gesticulations to his seat for a spell. This gave rise to an unprecedented series of head and neck improvisations that would’ve made all but the most stalwart chiropractor implode with dismay. Inevitably, the rhythm drove our tireless friend to his feet once more, and he was still perfecting his windmilling jazz hands and pelvic thrusts as we rolled into Mcleod Ganj the next morning. The students bore no grudge, and some even snapped a few photos with him before disembarking. They tucked themselves under his wiry wings, and his hollow, sweat-slicked cheeks pressed to theirs like they were boozy pledge sisters at a spring formal.

My co-leader was red-eyed from his night of vigilance in the seat in front of mine, unwilling to allow this whirling wild card an unmonitored moment in such precarious proximity to our students. As for me, between the unpredictable jolts of the vehicle, flapping and flailing at the front of the bus, and my inventive but unsustainable sleeping posture contortions, I stumbled away with only a few stolen hours’ repose. This would have been completely impossible if not for a double dose of Melatonin, to be referred to hereafter as “Melastonin’”. Seriously, my jaw went numb, and I think I saw my third eye when I caught my bleary reflection in the window. If Mister Magic Moves hadn’t still been getting his groove on when I re-surfaced at around 4am, I probably would have consigned him to the realm of “natural sleep aid”-induced hallucinations as well. I guess we both needed a little something extra to get through the night.

In retrospect, I may have gotten exactly what I asked for when I boarded the bus in Delhi. I believe my exact words were “Wow, check this bus out! This is going to be the best bus ride ever!” Of course, the gods must know that I am a closet devotee of all things “dance”. Fame, Star Search, you name it. I even turn off the ringer on my phone for a new episode of “Dance Your Ass Off”, and not turn it back on until I’ve wept my way through the final elimination round. Next time, I will just have to be a little more specific. Saturday Night Fever is no substitute for a good night’s sleep.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Taking An Inch

I think I’ve found the Starbucks of Majnu ka Tilla. A rat that looked half-digested scurried across my path moments before I stumbled upon this oasis of fresh carrot juice and climate control, and the beggar waving his smooth shiny stump at me from the street outside reminds me that India is just one inch of glass away.

We’ve spent the last three days in the Tibetan Quarter of New Delhi, with the Yamuna River at flood heights unseen since the 1920’s roiling by just yards from the rear balcony of our guest house. We leave today for the Tibetan community of Mcleod Ganj in upper Dharamsala, and I’m practically panting with excitement at the thought of the long hikes, amazing encounters (including my third Dalai Llama date since last fall), and steaming bowls of thenthuk that await. We’ve booked ourselves onto what sounds like the swankiest form of wheeled transport I’ve ever taken in India, or so the ticket prices imply. If she’s sound, stays on the road, and free of random livestock poop salvos from overhead bins, I’ll count it a triumph.

The reluctantly departing monsoon has kept skies overcast and the daily high temps in the low nineties, which has been a blessed reprieve from the salwar-soaking oppression I recall from last September. We’ve let our charges loose on Delhi with little more than food per diem and tattered maps to bring them back to us safely at the end of the day, and despite the offers of hashish, “special” services from oily touts, and sacrum-shattering rickshaw rides, our group of fledgling adventurers remains thus far intact.

The tentative hope that we will not only make it through, but that I may actually be doing a service to India by bringing these people here is taking root, though every superstitious bone in my body has me wanting to spit twice while hopping over a broom backwards to ward off the evil eye such auspicious beginnings surely attract. I watch the students engage with the poverty, injustice, and food security that impact the vast majority of India’s population on a profound and daily basis, and they are not turning away or trying to change the channel. They’re registering the shock, the sadness, the guilt, even the disgust, and still staying curious about the problems and the solutions. The inexorably swelling Yamuna, as it slowly consumes the villages on its banks, has forced all of us to witness a drama of destruction and helplessness in the face of overwhelming force from our privileged perch, and I’m fairly clear that it is this potent presence that’s giving the students their first real lesson in India.

I know that India, like the Yamuna, will be swallowing and digesting our wandering village of fifteen in the next ten weeks in her own inevitable way. It feels like we are suspended in that moment just after something tremendous swallows you up, and just before it starts to work you between its molars like a cow with its cud. In the interim, I submit to the whir of frothing lattes, the embrace of what might be the most comfortable chair in India, and the cool comfort of one inch of glass.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Notes from Concourse F

We've landed in Hong Kong Airport, many miles and a moon from our sweetly nurturing launch pad in Calistoga.  Our mission:   to entertain ourselves here for the next seven hours (as opposed to elsewhere on this lovely little island or in the city) due to swine flu concerns. From my station on a lozenge-shaped lounge chair on the upper level, I can see surgi-masked travellers with their competent luggage clipping briskly towards the departure gates below. The students have been let loose with their $10 per diem to soak in these last hours of immaculately scrubbed floors, duty-free shopping, and untroubled digestion before the last leg to Delhi.

The mantle of leadership still rests fairly innocuously on my shoulders, as the comforting capsule of international flights keeps us all within well and frequently fed distance of each other. Yes, there have already been tears and tensions, but I cannot suppress the urge to say that I really like these people, and am having something that feels suspiciously like fun, even while suffering the extortion of airport currency exchange agents, and the neuron-deadening exhaustion of 30 plus hours of travel. Of course, my life is still largely my own, and India has yet to sweep us up in her quixotic embrace.

Successes for the day:
figuring out what day and time it is
resetting my watch to account for said information
acquiring food (mystery squiggly marine life in hot rice broth)
finding a quiet airport nook to pull 3 chairs together for an illicit nap

-and it's not even 10am yet! So, despite the fact that we missed Thursday altogether (one of my favorite days as a college undergrad, as it heralded the first night of the weekend's debauchery)due to time zone changes I will probably never fully grasp, I am feeling quite content to revel in these small triumphs. From here, I can look out across the tiers of shops and restaurants, and watch as my students wend their bleary way through flourescent-lit noodle bars and glittering jewelry kiosks.

It's happening. I am starting to love them in that now-familiar inexplicable way- for their expectations (soon to be ungently dismantled), for their anxieties (soon to pale in comparison to challenges they could never imagine), and for their energy and curiousity, which  has already bolstered my own flagging reserves. So though my eyeballs feel like a pair of fried egges from too many sleepless, contorted hours in canned air, and the seafood squigglies from my morning rice porridge are beginning a tentative rhumba just behind my navel, life on Concourse F seems sweet indeed.