Archive for January, 2009

West Coast / Best Coast



18 January 2009                                    Kerala – Karnataka, India


         We confess:  we like the west coast better.  Whether in California or Puerto Rico or Hawai’i, we want to see the sun set into the water.  So we made it to the west coast of India and somehow immediately felt at home.


         While we would have loved to do a leisurely exploration of the Kerala coast, by this point of our journey, we were travel-weary, wanting only to find a place to plop down and rest.  Traveling in India, while wondrous, is nevertheless difficult.


         We also discovered that our idea of finding a beach town to live in was narrowed down considerably by our Western standards:  not only did we require electricity, reasonably good internet, and some facsimile of whole foods, we also wanted a beach that was not considered a garbage dump or public bathroom.  That means not only a place discovered by Westerners, but enough of them have to have made an impact to change the dumping ground perception of a beach.


         So we stopped briefly in green, gorgeous Kerala:  had darshan with Amma (along with several thousands of her devotees), picked up the box of books I shipped to kindly Usha, and then headed north up the coast to Karnataka.


         We hung awhile in Gokarna, a Hindu pilgrimage destination with a beautiful beach still in transition from waste dump status.  We made friends with a local restaurateur who served fresh fish, much to the outrage of the locals (Hindu vegetarians). Also got to know feisty Anita, a budding feminist who left her arranged marriage (at age 16), much to the outrage of the family (Hindu traditionalists).  In this society she is now “damaged goods” and has brought shame to her family and village.


A short boat ride south brought us to more pristine Om Beach and surrounding beaches:  clear blue bays ringed by almond trees and coconut palms.  Anyone there see shades of Rincon?  We certainly did… and I felt so at home, I did not want to leave.  It was like Rincon 40 years ago … with beach palapas selling drink and food (but unlike greasy Puerto Rican fare, this was Indian haute cuisine), playing very hip trance and reggae, and populated by dreadlocked/tattooed/pierced international backpackers swinging in hammocks.  The vibe was Peace & Love (“Shanti”, as everyone says here).   Not quite enough amenities for me to write there, nor enough stimulus for James to be happy, but it sure was a relaxing interlude.


         Westerners have become something of an attraction, and Indian tourists climb the many steps down to the beach or boat in to behold the scene (see photo of sign).  It was a very friendly atmosphere, and I got to feel what it’s like to have cameras pointed at you continually.  Well, (the tourist must admit…) Turnabout is fair play!  James and I actually had a ball interacting with the locals/Indian tourists, but then had to be insistent about wanting to be quiet and alone (Why be alone, when you can make new friends?, according to the Indian view).


         After considering Gokarna as a home, we decided to press northward to that mecca of Western alternatives:  Goa.


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Hell on a Bus

11-12 January 2009                                             Tamil Nadu to Kerala,    India                                   


         Travelling as we do, without advance itinerary and open to the Universe’s suggestions, can lead to magical events as well as disastrous consequences.  We’ve already had a couple hell rooms (one was so bad that the mouse living there hitchhiked out of there in our backpack when we checked-out, as we were too grossed-out by the grunge to even sleep there one night).  So I guess it was inevitable we’d have a hell ride, too.


         While it’s true we are budget travelers, we do try to do the best we can with what we’ve got.  Because of the high tourism season, we could not get any train or 1st class bus out of Pondicherry, so we made reservations on a 2nd class, “semi-sleeper” all-nighter, direct bus to cross South India.    This “direct” bus made so many stops, (sometimes at the drivers’ relatives’ places we think), that it ran 6 hours behind schedule.  We stopped to load burlap bags on top, a box of fish next to our bags down below, take on a man with peeping chicks in a bag, and stop for chai, every time allowing mosquitos to pour in through the open windows (they got to ride for free!).  At one stop a man loaded his motorcycle into the cargo hold, and the bus guys heave-hoed it on top of our bags, thereby smashing and breaking one of them.  James was so exasperated (and no one spoke English) that he chained our crumpled bags on top of the motorcycle so they wouldn’t move them again without our knowing.


         Sleeping was a torturous endeavour.  We suspect the bus driver avoided the toll road, as he seemed to wander around the countryside, hitting bone-rattling pothole after pothole (worse than Taos’ finest during mud season!).  Or maybe that was the highway…


         When we left the state of Tamil Nadu, we had to change buses because of some supposed law that doesn’t allow Tamil Nadu buses to haul less than 7 passengers across state lines.  There were 6 of us going on to Kerala.  So we disembarked at 5:30am, to catch the next bus out at 7:15am.  Finally the new bus started off, but stopped in 1 minute because it had a flat tire.  We finally got on the road at 8:30am.  There was no further dozing, as James used his force of will to keep us out of head-on collisions on basically a one-lane road.  This new bus driver cut it very close many times.  The positive take on the situation is that the Indian drivers are so good that they can cut it close – within inches.  We have noticed that 99% of vehicles have side-swipe marks, and broken-off side-view mirrors.


         The consolation prize was the scenery – banana and palm groves watched over by the distant mountains, the Western Ghats.  Sunny, green, clear, and even clean…  apparently Kerala has a left-leaning socialist government, which I suppose translates into better education and social programs.  There is a marked contrast to the trash and ramshackle quality we found in what we saw of Tamil Nadu.  Kerala seems to us to be quite lovely.  And we made it here alive!

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11 January 2009                                         Puducherry (Pondicherry), India


         Pondicherry used to be a French colony, so we got to enjoy the French-style promenades and real baguettes and croissants with café latté, and I got to speak French more.   Our main goal here was to visit Auroville, the largest intentional community in the world, which is just north of Pondi.  We rented a moto-scooter (from a rental guy with a main street business who told us, “If the police stop you, tell them you borrowed it from a friend.”), and James adeptly jumped into the chaotic fray that is Indian traffic, until we got to the orchards, cottage businesses, and waterways of Auroville – an impressive land-reclamation effort on what used to be a severely eroded, dusty plateau. 


         Ramses, I kept thinking of you as we observed the community putting their high ideals into practice through the gardens, water management, educational programs, arts development, and cottage industries.  What a relief it was for us to be in a place in India that was green, had clean air, little litter, and no honking horns.  We ate  lettuce for the first time since we left the United States … and it was organic!  Oh, and brownies, too!


         This large community was born from the spirituality of Sri Aurobindo, and the visionary manifestation powers of  Mirra Alfassa, known around here as “the Mother”.  An Indian man and a French woman … we liked the yin-yang balance of this powerful duo.  Altho Sri Aurobindo died in the 1950’s, she carried forth the vision to fruition, breaking ground on the community in 1968.  What it is now is commendable, and they are still reaching toward more and more infrastructure and community building.  The statement of her “Dream” I find very inspiring. [see below]


         We connected with 2 friends here:  KK (from Taos, who has just moved from Tiruvannamalai to Auroville), and Tiara (from Hawai’i, founder of Children of the Sun meditation grid, who’s doing her own spiritual journey through India).   


         James and I were very happy to find ourselves back on the coast!


Following is a copy of the Mother’s “Dream”:



There should be somewhere upon earth a place that no nation could claim as its sole property, a place where all human beings of goodwill, sincere in their aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world, obeying one single authority, that of the supreme Truth; a place of peace, concord, harmony, where all the fighting instincts of man would be used exclusively to conquer the causes of his suffering and misery, to surmount his weakness and ignorance, to triumph over his limitations and incapacities; a place where the needs of the spirit and the care for progress would get precedence over the satisfaction of desires and passions, the seeking for pleasures and material enjoyments.

In this place, children would be able to grow and develop integrally without losing contact with their soul. Education would be given, not with a view to passing examinations and getting certificates and posts, but for enriching the existing faculties and bringing forth new ones. In this place titles and positions would be supplanted by opportunities to serve and organize. The needs of the body will be provided for equally in the case of each and everyone. In the general organisation intellectual, moral and spiritual superiority will find expression not in the enhancement of the pleasures and powers of life but in the increase of duties and responsibilities.

Artistic beauty in all forms, painting, sculpture, music, literature, will be available equally to all, the opportunity to share in the joys they bring being limited solely by each one’s capacities and not by social or financial position.

For in this ideal place money would be no more the sovereign lord. Individual merit will have a greater importance than the value due to material wealth and social position. Work would not be there as the means of gaining one’s livelihood, it would be the means whereby to express oneself, develop one’s capacities and possibilities, while doing at the same time service to the whole group, which on its side would provide for each one’s subsistence and for the field of his work.

In brief, it would be a place where the relations among human beings, usually based almost exclusively upon competition and strife, would be replaced by relations of emulation for doing better, for collaboration, relations of real brotherhood.

The Mother

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   8 January 2009                                                       Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India


         Arunachala is a sacred mountain, and after our relationships with Maxwaluna in Taos and the apus of the Andes, we were ready to meet this mountain.  Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi attained self-realization here, after sitting in silent meditation in a cave in this mountain for many years.  James was especially looking forward to Arunachala, as Ramana was the first guru to get James’ attention, years back when he was living in Spain.  Soon after this he began dreaming of Puerto Rico and remembering me, which led eventually to our partnership.


         “So in a way coming here is coming full circle,”  James said. 


I guess so, in a circles within circles kind of way. . .


         Now that we were in South India (and gratefully out of the cold winter of North India), it was only proper that James should come to Tiruvannamalai and pay homage to his guru.  This meant walking the stone path up the mountain – not the easiest feat for him.  So we went slowly, sometimes he leaned on me, but mostly he did it himself.  Step by step.


         We had agreed to make it a silent pilgrimage, so we did not talk.  As a writer, I am literarily overflowing with words, which accompanied me, incessantly, on our climb.  We passed families of monkeys; they foraged through the bushes, chased one another, and swung from tree branch to tree branch, very much like my thoughts.  Stilling the mind is an enormous challenge, even in a walking meditation!


         James spied some yellow flowers growing just off the path, and indicated that he would like me to pick them for him, so he could make them as an offering.  I winced.  Being barefoot, I was wary to step into the brush, but I certainly did not want him to step onto unsteady ground.  So I picked my way to the bush, as I was silently flogged by my internal growling.  Just as I, glaring at him with the eyes of a martyr, handed him the sprig of flowers, I stepped on a thorn. Shedding my blood on Arunachala, I had to laugh at how adept it was at instant karma. 


         Finally we reached a shrine marking where Ramana had lived and we joined people inside to sit silently.  My mind kept up the monkey circus, so I decided to do the talking:  I prayed there that James be able to transcend the pain of his body.


         Hiking on, we came to the cave where Ramana had spent years on end in silent meditation.  People who used to approach him could feel the power of his divine realization, without him even speaking a word.  Inside I could make out the flower-draped shrine in the light of ghee candles.  Settling in, I closed my eyes, and finally my mind allowed me to drop down, under the radar of my constant internal chatter.  In the quiet, what arose in me was a flame.   Naturally!  I had read that, according to Hindu mythology, it was here that Shiva appeared on the Earth as a column of fire, and Arunachala was his blazing sthavara lingam.  During the holy festival of Karthigai Deepam, in December, a huge lamp is lit at the top of the mountain (using 2000 liters of ghee and a 30-meter wide wick), so that Shiva’s light burns for all to see.


         In my meditation  I did not perceive the fire element as I had in Hawai’i – the churning and erupting of the goddess Pele – here it was a candle flame:  constant, consuming, yet continually renewing.  The flame lapped up the center of my body, so that I was the connection between the earth and the sky.  In fact, all humans forged that circuit with our internal light, allowing energy to flow between the worlds.  We were the bridge, and at the same time, the river.  I envisioned all of us as human candles, a glowing aura around the Earth, and its light bathed me in love.


         When I opened my eyes, several people sat cross-legged in silence, and James had gone out.  I found him outside the cave, and he offered me a banana.  Breaking our silence,  I said, “You mean you have bananas left?”  He had been giving out fruit to beggars and saddhus all along the way.


         As we carefully placed our steps going down the mountain (which was steeper and more difficult than the ascent), I asked James if he had had any realizations or experiences on our little mountain pilgrimage. 


         With a determined grin, he replied,  “Before enlightenment, there are many bananas to carry.  And after enlightenment, there are many bananas to carry.”

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Varanasi Views

A few more views for you ….

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Got the Ghats – Varanasi

New Year 2009                                                               Varanasi (Benares), India


         When James and I first found our way to the ghats, the steps and platforms along the Ganges River, we soon came to the charnal grounds.   As we stood there beholding several funerals in progress, a Dom struck up conversation with us.  He was a man from the Untouchable caste, people “low” enough to handle corpses.   Making the best of the position, the Doms charge for the wood, the sacred flame that they have tended for hundreds of generations, and all the arrangements.  With all his necklaces, he looked like a Puerto Rican loan shark, but that he had dyed his hair orange, which matched his teeth (turned reddish from chewing betel nuts).  As he explained the funerary procedures, the sun was setting into the smog of the city, casting a sickly orange glow onto the charnal grounds.  James and I witnessed corpses in various stages of demise:  from the man whose relatives sprinkled him with Ganges water before lighting the pyre underneath him, to a roaring fire, to red embers of a body totally consumed.  We also saw a body wrapped in orange cloth and marigolds rowed out to the middle of the river, tied to a stone, and dropped overboard (this burial reserved for saddhus, holy people, children, pregnant women, and others who did not need the purifying force of the fire for their souls to depart.)


         As the dead man’s face was covered with gauze, the rituals performed, and the fire lit, his body slowly was engulfed in flame.  I could hear sizzling and popping, and the smell of the smoke changed … more acrid.   Ash fell on our shoulders.


         “Burning … is for learning,”  the Dom proclaimed.


         James and I stood there transfixed by the scene.  On loudspeakers a woman sang to Mother Ganga (the Ganges goddess), constantly repeating the refrain, flowing like the river.  I did not photograph the rituals (but from a great distance), out of respect for the families.  There was no crying or wailing, “so not to make the soul want to stay”, the Dom explained.    I asked why no women were present among the mourners (if you can call them that).  “Women are not allowed because they cry.” 


         “They cry,”  I repeated.  The Dom nodded.


         He went on, “Also, suttee is now illegal.”  He was referring to the old practice of burning the widow when the husband died.


         “I don’t think too many widows would throw themselves onto the fire.  Do you mean the relatives might throw her on?”  I asked.


         “Maybe!”  he said.  “It’s better the women stay up there.”  He pointed up the ghat to a terrace high above.  I gave him a dubious look.


         Leaving the charnal fires, James and I hired a boat to row us downstream.  In the twilight, a fog gradually obscured the horizon.  The broad Ganges blended into the sky, the temple spires and ghats seemed to float in space, and every candle and light made dancing reflections on the water.  “I feel like we are on the River Styx,”  I said to James, as we glided over the water.  All reference points blurred; we travelled between worlds.


          We came upon Dasashvamedha, the main ghat, where an elaborate ceremony (puja) was underway on the platforms above the water.  Officiants dressed in red and yellow rang bells, twirled candelabras, and led the packed crowd in chants.  I joined in as I could and clapped in beat to the chants.  Soon our little boat was hemmed in by larger boats all filled with Hindu people joining in the puja.  The Brahmins twirled large incensers in unison, and we were enshrouded in frankincense smoke.  The night felt eternal. 


         That was how James and I spent the first evening of the New Year.


         I hired a boat along with some Argentine girls one morning at dawn to row me down river.  We passed saddhus with painted bodies and wild dreadlocks performing puja, old and young soaping up and dipping or making offerings to the river, the washerwomen and men beating clothes at washingboards at the shore, and groups of people doing yoga (I especially liked it when they shouted “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”:  laughter yoga!).  When we got near the Narad and Raja Ghats, where legend has the Buddha receiving enlightenment under the tree, he put in ashore so I could do my own puja.  The oarsman seemed very happy to accommodate me.  I had brought with me three little bottles:  water from icy Lake Wai-au high atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai’i, from  Sacsayhuaman in the Andes, and from the Rio Pueblo de Taos, which flows down from the sacred Blue Lake of the Pueblo people of New Mexico.  Bringing blessings from these holy places to mingle with the Mother River of India, I poured them in, envisioning the unity of water that we all share (being made 70% of water) and thanking the waters for sustaining life on the planet.  If Dr. Emoto’s research is correct, those waters had a lot to communicate with each other.  The Argentine girls were fascinated and snapped pictures.   During my little ritual, standing in the Ganges, I really got the feeling of gratitude for this grand river who gives so much to the people.  As polluted as it must certainly be, it somehow seemed like holy water to me, too, purified by a million daily prayers.  Blessed Mama Ganga.


         I spent our days in Varanasi wandering the ghats. (James was often resting, done in by all the steps).  I put on my full Punjabi garb, covered my head, and put a bindi on my forehead.  This seemed to increase my invisibility by tenfold.   Hardly any touts hassling; instead men calling me “Madame-ji”, “Auntie”, and “Punjabi”, and women meeting my eyes for a change.  I walked, I sat, I took it all in. 


This is like nowhere else I have been on Earth.  Along the banks of the Ganges are people talking, praying, selling, shitting, pissing (but not directly in the water), giving massage, beating drums, teaching, chanting, burning, playing cards, wrestling, resting on dais, patching boats, washing clothes, making cow pattie pies (for cooking fires), herding cows and goats, charming snakes, wailing to God, flying kites, shaving, and of course:  bathing.


Here in India James and I have witnessed filth, squalor, and human decrepitude, but so far Varanasi wins the prize in all categories.  Many people walk barefoot, but I feel like I should’ve been wearing a haz-mat suit.  People believe that to die in Varanasi allows the soul to achieve moksha (liberation), so there are sick and old people here.  Locals we talked to consider themselves fortunate to live in “the holiest place on Earth”, and in spite of all the nastiness of Varanasi, I could feel what they meant.   The saddhus are here – the half-naked ascetics who cover themselves with the ashes of the dead, who have renounced all worldly attachments, who will perch cross-legged and give teachings.  There are thousands of pilgrims who come to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges.  Some sit at the shore chanting their hearts out.  A few raving lunatics are here, too, with wild eyes and staggering gait.  Lepers who point their stubs of appendages at you and women in dingy saris with kids on their hips who gesture at their mouths (“Feed me!”) beg for rupees.  Children chase through the cows and goats.  Monkeys climb the temple spires.  Mangy dogs run in packs at night, growling and fighting.


As I was wending my way through the labyrinthine lanes behind the ghats (this city is thousands of years old, once a center along with Babylon and Ninevah), navigating through the piles and plops of shit, I was suddenly enveloped by two overwhelming smells:  the perfume of jasmine and the stench of urine.  And I thought:  that’s Varanasi.  The two extremes of the sublime and the wretched are so radical that they meet in a common netherworld that is neither entirely and yet both.


         I am so grateful to have come to Varanasi, but I got to a point of being ready to leave.  The smell of burning got caught in my throat, and I just had enough of it.




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