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.