Friday, June 29, 2007

A birthday post somehow seemed personally indulgent, yet at the same time it really is just another day in India, full of fun and surprises; ups and downs.

Yesterday we rented a scooter, for 200 Rs, and went with our yoga instructor, Gyanendra, and his family on a daytrip to a temple, waterfalls, and to the banks of the frigid Ganges for a meal. No Indian journey can ever be fully encompassed by one sentance though, as obviously quite a good deal occurred during our casual daytime jaunt. Following Anderson's currently-all-too-daily ritual duel with diarrhea, we first had to obtain some petrol for our "Scooty Pep" - which it technically was not, being a Honda, but nonetheless it is an easy to use automatic scooter, and this particular one even had a comfortable seat! Getting petrol meant crossing over a pedestrian-only bridge, and then a drive down into Rishikesh proper. Indian traffic by now isn't that unbearable (besides the pollution, which is pretty nasty here), so weaving through the madness on a scooter is a nice change of pace, although certainly a bit scary at times.
After spending 80 Rs, on almost 2 liters of petrol, which was definitely more than enough, we met up with them. After a necessary purchase of some mangoes, we headed up into the hills. Twenty kilometers later, we arrived at quite a gathering. The Shiva Temple was packed, with offering-purchasing devotees, and we had to weave through a maze of wet passageways to find the line to the main shrines/altars. Indians seem to struggle with the concept of the "line," so the caged in areas were rather small, such that two-abreast would've a challenge. A slow march began, until our arrival at the no-photo zone, filled with large figures of the gods (all Shiva-related: Shiva, Parvati, & Ganesha), and a large stone Nandi bull (Shiva's vehicle) that people were pouring water on top of. More winding corridors ensued, before we reemerged in a main courtyard, home to a few souvenir shops and what can only be described as an "offering dump" - a large pile of gifts to the gods, primarily foodstuffs, which had attracted a serious swarm of hornets. Maybe the hornet is a Shiva incarnation, or something, but we're just glad we didn't get stung.
Next up was a walk through the source of the wetness - very much in use public baths, full of Hindus of both genders and all ages, getting somewhat clean. As Muslims ritualistically clean themselves, so do Hindus, albeit in a very different capacity - more on that later. We then exited the temple complex, back outside to the swarm of busy shops, one of which had our shoes. We bought a sweet Shiva magnet for 5 Rs, and then had some pakora and samosa for a snack. Descending back down the mountain, after a thankfully averted "walk an hour to another temple" mission suggested by Ghyanendra, we ended up at the main waterfall. It was really a public shower/bathing area in disguise, though primarily packed with men, only the occasional brave lady. We were encouraged to swim, but between our lack of desire to "shower," the inevitable crowd our bathing would attract, the grimy color of the water, and the literal garbage strewn about everywhere, decided we'd really rather not.
Then more scooter-riding, for us the definite highlight, now down to the banks of the Ganga via a small 2-wheeler road. Only after Ghyanendra placed all our mangoes in the river to chill them in the icy water did we realize that we probably shouldn't eat them. Funny how what is holy and sacred (and therefore safe) to some people is literally hazardous to the health of others. Nonetheless the rest of our packed lunch was tasty, but that was preceded by more showering in the river. We wish the Ganges here would be alright to swim in, and it probably wouldn't kill us, but at the same time it is running very high now, so it is full of natural debris as well as way too much garbage. And we saw a dead cow float by while we were eating lunch...
From there we returned to our current abode, took a much needed Western shower, before heading out for a birthday dinner of pizza. Birthdays are pretty low-key on the road, so to crank things up a notch we bought some books at a bookstore before getting on the internet and then retiring to our hotel!

Somewhere in there we also booked a white water rafting trip for this morning, from our next-door "brother" hotel, 20 km for 400 Rs at 10 am, with 2-3 hours in the water on the Shivpuri river. By sheer coincidence it was the final day of the season, the monsoon stops rafting for July and August. That's how we started today then, looking forward to rafting. At 10 we had to walk over the bridge, and then waited with a hotel employee for a taxi of some sort. It never showed, so eventually we got a motorcycle ride with another guy that showed up. The impressive logistics were still amazing us, when it soon became apparent that we were only going to be rafting 10 km, on the Ganges river. Sweet. Motorcycle man said the boss knew it was only 10 km, and then the rafting crew verified that 20 km wasn't happening at all right now. Clearly something is better than nothing, but being intentionally misled and lied to is another issue altogether. Sweet.
So we piled on with the Indian family we were sharing the boat with, received our brief safety instructions, and headed out. Rafting itself was pretty fun, but 10 km meant only 2 real sets of rapids, one of which happened right away. Which is what we wanted to avoid with choosing the longer trip, never mind that the ride really only took around 45 minutes. Not much "rafting" really. It was nice to float down the Ganges, which definitely got us soaking wet, though the continual splashing by the Indians, guides and passengers alike, guaranteed that anyway. We declined to swim again, faithless Western heathens that we are!
We returned home and showered, and then the Indian drama began, after waiting for some hours for the boss man to return from the market. He pleaded total innocence, of course, so much yelling and arguing ensued - why is it we whities are assumed to be so stupid? We can manage to get to India somehow, travel around, but we're supposed to overlook when we're lied to? His suggestion was giving us 100 Rs (our of 800) back, we wanted 400 - we should pay half since we got half of the promised service. He tried to blame it on the rafting company (like he didn't know he was selling a nonexistent trip), and plenty of other brilliant rationalizations...
Well, we got 200 back, so 300 each, as in $15 total, isn't really too bad, but hopefully Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth around here, forsakes his pathetic greedy soul. And we highly encourage no one to ever support Hotel Brijwasi Palace, Swarjashram, Rishikesh. It's listed in the Lonely Planet, and is apparently not content earning the inevitable torrent of cash that attracts, but is also trying to scam extra rupees.
Time is up, but shouldn't leave on a bad note - pizza (again) tonight for dinner was great, and Liz gave Anderson the best b-day present ever - no, no, not that... she washed all of his laundry! Wow!

Tomorrow will probably be our last full day here, then going north to Dharmasala.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Still in Rishikesh, attending yoga classes. Although lately the morning sessions have been a no-go to the infamous "bad stomach." Good times rushing to the toilet...

Afternoons have been great though, still feeling improvement in our flexibility, although a few of the poses we definitely are pretty bad at! We've also managed to lose most of our "rice bellies" - from all those tasty all-you-can-eat thalis!
We are thinking of heading north to Dharmasala soon, we have heard/read that the Dalai Lama will be delivering a week's worth of talks there after his birthday on July 6. His official schedule is here. That sounds pretty sweet, and gives us some semblance of an agenda :-)
Otherwise we've just been reading and writing and internetting, although yesterday we wandered all over town running some surprisingly quick (for India) errands. The owner of our favorite restaurant in Varkala, Kerala, runs a 2nd place here in Rishikesh, so we wandered through Lakshmanjula to find it, after going up the hill in a tempo (shared rickshaw) - but of course the place had already closed for the season. We did an about face, and rode a tempo back down the hill all the way into Rishikesh itself (we are staying across the river, in Swarjashram), in search of a pharmacy selling contact lens solution. That was also no trouble, although pricey at 145 Rs. for a small bottle (that's $3.50, how much the large bottles cost in the States). We got a restaurant recommendation from the "pharmacist" - he runs a pharmacy, but whether or not he has any qualifications is certainly questionable. Anyways, Ripsy's, the restaurant he sent us to, was pretty spectacular - our Indian food and chow mein were both very good, they had cold filtered water, and even an ice cream parlor! Hard-knock life, indeed.
Big adventure, huh? Yet just doing that took several hours, plus of course the tempo ride back to the Ramjula bridge (where you cross the Ganges and enter Swarjashram), and the slow-paced crowded walk through the streets. Wandering around India is always fun as long as you don't have somewhere to be - sometimes it can take forever to walk a short distance because the pedestrian traffic so thick!
This net cafe is strict: the sign reads "Internet @ Rs-- 20/ minimum Per Person; Time: "1" sec to "1" hour." So an hour it is, it's time to eat.

Anderson & Liz

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The "One Photo" Phenomenon In India

The request for "one photo" in India is rather baffling as a Westerner. As a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American couple of Scandinavian heritage, we don't really blend in with the subcontinental masses. Our height and clothing seals the deal - we are celebrities with no fame beyond skin color. The inevitable parade of vendors, beggars, gawkers, and talkers is more often than not enjoyable and often amusing, nonetheless it is a tiring aspect of incredible India. An interesting subset of our fleeting friends is the family-on-holiday: a few adults with a herd of children of varying behavioral levels, usually a baby, and a camera-wielding father, or perhaps an uncle.
After the often shortest of formalities, we are requested to join the holiday-makers in an impromptu photo session. A quick herd movement will sweep us up to the most photogenic location within sight, and a few photos will quickly be taken. On rare occasions (the Ooty Botanical Gardens for example) the Indian paparazzi seems to instantly emerge from the previously disinterested crowd once one camera is brought out. After the "snaps," more pleasantries, and we continue on as amazed as the Indians are elated.
Where does this phenomenon come from? White people aren't that rare in India, we see them all the time! Or is this solely a middle-class family from the middle-of-nowhere out on holiday obsession? Is spotting a white couple part of their holiday plans? Surely if you are excited enough by the mere sighting of a white couple to actually have them pose for a photo with your family, then you have at least partially premeditated the encounter.
Arguably more confusing is this: what is said when the photo is developed and shown? Often we are literally nameless foreign whities - maybe we've said we're from the United States of America - so do people collect these photos; or is it the photo-taking moment itself that is more gratifying; or is it only virgin whitie-sighters that get so excited?
Don't get me wrong, the unexpected celebrity is never unenjoyable, although it can be hilariously overwhelming at times. The families are always grateful and polite - its really just the psychology behind it that is so puzzling.

No matter how differently someone looks, we wouldn't take their picture out on the street without even really talking to them... oh, wait, yes we would, and do - we're freaking Western tourists with a digital camera!
Is it so simple then that we're both mere tourists, photographing what is foreign to us in order to remember it vividly later on? Our temples and thalis are their white people? The same way we've already forgotten the names of the rickshawdrivers who returned our forgotten bag in Varanani - we're the equivalent with these Indian tourists. Sometimes we ask for people's names, other times not; clearly in these cases it's been decided that the photo is all they want from us...
Still, feels pretty crazy whenever it happens in the streets, though it puts that last "people-watching" photo in better perspective. Better appreciate this glimmer of fame while it lasts, soon enough we'll be back to being boring!

Talked myself in a circle there, didn't I?
Definitely one thing we didn't expect coming to India though!
We're in Rishikesh, though to be honest beyond the proliferation of yoga classes the endless hype about this place is somewhat hard to understand. Obviously being on the Ganges makes it a very holy place for Hindus, but it is just like every other traveler hangout that we've been to: overpriced thalis, German bakeries, and all too many shops and street vendors selling trinkets. Don't mean to sound jaded, maybe it's simply because we are "here for the yoga." That has been good so far, although it is definitely the slow season here. Many ashrams are closed, our walk around the other day presented only a few options, none really viable for what we want. That being several hours of daily yoga, with no unnecessary (yet included in the price) meditation/philosophy/library time/whatever. So we are staying at a hotel and taking 1.5/2 hour classes twice daily. OK, OK, we overslept this morning and missed our 8:30 am class, but we'd done 5 straight before then. We even had a backup option that started at 11 am, but it turned out to be 20 minutes of yoga surrounded by discussion and meditation - taught by a so-called "Swami." Not our cup of chai, particularly not for more than our yoga-only class has cost us. We've been going to the nearby Green Hotel, down the hotel strip from where we are staying, in Swarjashram "neighborhood," which is on the far bank of the Ganges and a little less touristic. Tonight we are going to check out another hotel's yoga classes for comparison, at a place we've been recommended by a couple different travelers.
Four hours of yoga a day is quite tiring, yet very fulfilling. We are doing the general "hatha" yoga, which merely means "physical." Practically redundant wording, really...
It is a whole-body stretch-out, and we have already noticed some progress in the poses, as well as an improvement in our general well-being. Pretty much the exact opposite of our sense after 3 days of silent meditation!
As said, there's not much to do here (besides people-watch), so we have been reading and writing a bit in our spare time. It has rained a couple of times, which gets rid of the oppressive mid-day heat decently well, but the monsoon is definitely not here yet. Though there is, on many streets around here, enough flies buzzing around that it almost looks like rain. Nasty...

That's that, we're off to yoga in a few more hours, but will be hiding in the A/C in this net cafe for at least a bit of that time!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

To continue on from Orccha, since there's no rest for the weary sometimes, and the beginnings of a very long day... We caught an overloaded tempo to Jhansi, only around 15 km thankfully, since Anderson had only one cheek on a seat, and Liz was either hunched over or hanging out the back!
The Jhansi bus stand was only a few minutes walk away, and after a walk through the entire dirty-as-usual bus stand we found one headed to Agra, via Gwalier, our destination. We grabbed seats, decided to consult the LP to determine our plan of attack... and realized that we ought to just head straight to Rishikesh! We're sure Gwalier is nice, but MP state was very hot, and the sights there were awfully similar to Orccha's, except that Gwalier is a much larger and spread out city, plus the ticket prices were much higher. Rather than spend another day amidst a ruined palace and its surrounding temples, we figured some cool(er) mountain air and some yoga would probably be more beneficial. When traveling, plans change constantly, as one can cater to one's whims much more readily. Apologies to all offended monuments in Gwalier, but we did have to endure quite the journey in exchange.
From Jhansi bus stand to Jhansi train station via rickshaw, and after failing to find the non-Reserved ticket station we wandered into the Chief Booking Officer's (or something equally official title) office seeking assistance. We ended up getting top-notch help; we only had to wait 30 minutes for the next train to Delhi, and from there we would have to switch stations to catch an overnight train to Haridwar (1 hour from Rishikesh by bus). He even went and got our tickets for us, commission and baksheesh-expectant free, saving us a lengthy stint in line. After reading magazines (The Week & Outlook, 15/20 Rs Indian Time-clones) on the platform, a very packed train arrived, and we quickly decided to check out our upgrade options. We primarily ride "Passenger Class," and then take "Sleeper Class" at night, but in this case only "3AC" was available, the relatively deluxe air-conditioned, comfortable, and almost quiet way we rode out of Agra when we hadn't gotten any sleep the night before. Since this was a 9-hour ride, and was to compose most of our day, with a hopeful overnight train (but maybe a long night in Delhi) in our immediate future, we figured 400 Rs each extra wasn't bad, for the quality and comfort, and our general "love of India." At this point, with 6 months under our belt, we can handle anything that India decides to throw at us, but it doesn't mean we want to seek it out, since craziness strikes when one least expects it!
Our ride then was very nice, we each had our own bunk with pillow, sheets, and blanket (all most assuredly used several times previously that day - or maybe longer), and were able to read and write. We met a nice Indian couple who had gotten MBA's in the UK, but had recently returned to start careers back at home. Interesting to get the perspective of "globally-informed" Indians, since unfortunately wandering the streets and clearly being from the West means you primarily encounter touts inevitably selling one or many things - not the most intellectual conversation when it always involves a sales pitch or two! The hours slid by with ease, comfort seems to enable that, and soon enough the New Delhi station was the next stop, just after 9:30 pm. We loaded ourselves, the human pack mules that we are, up with our bulging bags, and headed into the Delhi insanity. We had to catch an auto rickshaw to the Old Delhi train station, and given that our train had arrived late, per usual, we had around 50 minutes to get between the two stations, and then get tickets and find our train. Not the most ideal circumstances, but we knew we at least had to attempt to get there on time; trains often leave late, or maybe there would be another train, but we knew we didn't really want to get stranded in Delhi for the night, have to seek out an overpriced hotel at around midnight, only to reawaken at 5:30 am to catch an early morning express train.
Rickshaw-wallas refused to be reasonable on price, 220 Rs is simply too much for a few inter-city kilometers of travel, so we waded through traffic, thick with taxis, auto rickshaws, and their attached tout-cum-drivers, to the prepaid rickshaw stand, as a few wallahs had suggested. The line was short, the fare ticket 60 Rs, and somehow, and this is truly unbelievable, the stand was fine with only 50 Rs since we didn't have any small change. In India, that is miraculous!
Question: why would you, as a rickshaw driver, send someone to the prepaid stand for a 60 Rs ticket, when you could just agree on a slightly higher (for convenience) price - one that is also fair, of 70 Rs or 80 Rs, versus shooting for the metaphoric moon with a price three times that much? How many people a day ignorantly pay such an extortionist price? Probably quite a few :-)
Delhi's streets were certainly nasty, and we spent our first 5 minutes in a crushed traffic jam, as taxis and rickshaws flooded the street outside the train station until it was bursting; a cacophony of horns formed a veritable street symphony. Our pace quickened a bit, fortunately the passing minutes remained steady, but even then we were hardly going more than 10 km/hour, due to giant potholes, super sized cows, and plenty of other traffic jockeying for improved road position. We rolled up with not more than minutes to spare, and after looking at the bloated Indian-style line at the one late-night enquiry booth that was actually open, we hastily decided we ought to find our train, and deal with the possible consequences of not having a ticket later, since missing the train waiting in line was clearly a realistic possibility. Attempting to dash through the full-power crowds, we checked the first train we saw, on a platform halfway down, but it was definitely not the Mussorie Express, the train headed to Dehra Dun, Uttaranchal, that would stop at Haridwar as well. We finally found a station employee, who are notoriously hard to track down at crucial times, who pointed to the next track over. Rushing down the stairs, through heavy-package-laden women, we realized we weren't the only thing moving - our train was departing!
We mutually decided we might as well chase the train, better to try and fail then to come so close to our goal, so we began running after the train, which fortunately wasn't going all that fast. We paused after 100 meters or so, because the crowd had thickened up, and decided to have one more go at sprinting after our escaping passage from Delhi. This time around luck was on our side, we got even with the last train car door, a woman opened it up, and first Anderson awkwardly jumped on (a 25 kg pack makes most endeavors a bit silly looking), followed by a tossed-water bottle and then a smoother ascent by Liz. Out of breath and laughing at our good fortune as we slid into two available window seats, the karmic balance of India quickly straightened things out: immediately other ladies on the car started freaking out, shouting that this was a "Ladies' Only" carriage, and that we would have to move right away. Of course the train was barreling out of the station by now, so moving would prove difficult, but most of their calls fell on ears momentarily deaf from elation. Thankfully an Indian man and his family got on, and then the defensive efforts of the "Ladies' Only" campaign had to be divided, both in male target and in language.
Then the true insanity struck, as while gliding by an abandoned (suburban isn't really the right terminology here) station outside Delhi, Liz's head got forcibly pulled down - as her earring was yanked off her by a thieving young Indian male from outside the moving train! Thankfully her earring broke in half, rather than her ear, so only a rose quartz stone, wrapped in 1 g of silver, was taken, but the partially-successful theft happened shockingly fast, and with no warning whatsoever. Ear-pain was not the only result though, as the formerly enraged women turned quickly compassionate, plying us with bananas, demonstrations of their own bosom-hidden (gold) jewelry, and much sympathy. Not misery loves company, just compassion conquers all. Quite the overwhelming scene, and so unexpected - shows that you never know what will happen next...
Somehow we managed to ride all night without being asked about our non-existent tickets, apparently the "Ladies' Car" is a hideaway hot spot, although sleep on the hard wooden seats was pretty much impossible. We spent hours shifting positions, constant pains of discomfort preventing us from nodding off for more than a few minutes at a time. Early in the morning Anderson switched to a vacant upper berth, but that was just a metal rack that was excruciatingly painful at times, digging into an already sore back. Thank goodness we were heading to the land of yoga!
This train somehow arrived 20 minutes early, just after 6 am, and after a frantic bathroom search (the grimy bus stand stall wasn't much of a reward, really, beyond mere function), we started to wait for the half-hourly Rishikesh bus. After over-an-hour of standing, a few curious trips to the disgruntled enquiry man, and the question of "Rishikesh?" to every passing bus, we were finally rewarded with a frantic push of the crowd around an arriving bus. Strange, and a little frustrating, that no one waiting for the same bus would mention that fact - the "language barrier" is often all-too-conveniently employed here sometimes...

Rishikesh itself will have to wait for another post, but we found a decent hotel after only a bit of walking around, and got a few hours of much-needed sleep. Yesterday we wandered around with a fellow traveler from Venezuela and checked out a few yoga ashrams, though with limited success. So far we have taken two yoga classes at a nearby hotel, which have gone well. More details to come...

Peace from Rishikesh, where the Ganges is at least cleaner than Varanasi!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Khajuraho to Orccha went as planned, we ignored our lying hotel owner, who tried to convince us that there were no morning buses (which is absurd and insulting to our intelligence), and caught an 8 am bus to the Orccha road; from there it was a short trip in a packed tempo (over sized autorickshaw) to the village itself. Probably technically a town, but by Indian standards Orccha is very small, although it is a busy Hindu pilgrimage site. After scoping a few hotel options, with Liz leaving Anderson the pack mule behind with the baggage for some price-comparisons, we settled on the dingy-but-acceptable 150 Rs hotel, rather than the nicer-and-cleaner 200 Rs hotel - gotta save those rupees when you can!

Orccha has a few things worth sight-seeing, from ye olde Western perspective, but like Khajuraho, we decided a division between two days was necessary for maximum enjoyment and minimum boredom. So we spent the post-heat afternoon, preceded by a cheap thali, wandering about the town's massive Moghul palace complex. Many of the buildings are quite dilapidated, but the main palace itself is in reasonable condition, and provides amazing views of the town and countryside from its high-up windows. Nice to relax 100 meters up, being blown by a cool breeze, and staring out on the ruins of a mighty former civilization. One of the mahals had some nice painted ceilings, in the former maharajah's and his queen's bedroom chambers - full scenes of Hindu gods, exquisitely painted in bright colors, though now cracked and faded due to poor maintenance.

We then wandered through some of the smaller buildings, including one mahal that had partially collapsed. Strange to wander through a deteriorated building, where you can see where paintings once were, and even stare into the depths of an ancient well, now just a bottomless abyss waiting for a hapless tourist...? More than one building was under construction, or maybe renovation, though with modern Indian building techniques it's a bit of a stretch to call it the latter. Mud-brick and "local cement" simply isn't going to withstand the ravages of time that the initial buildings and fortress walls, expecting imminent marauding enemies, would have been designed to. That said, something is better than nothing, right? While in our third, or was it fourth, mahal of the day, a solitary drummer led a small procession through the streets of the palatial surrounds, an interesting contrast of the modern Hindu and the ancient, abandoned, Muslim.

A bit more detail on our painted ceiling experience (these are Anderson's personal opinions):

Many sites in India have paintings, or other such niceties, that are kept locked up for protection, though they are supposed to be opened for free, as they are (obviously) included in the admission charge (which in Orccha was an amazingly cheap deal, only 30 Rs for we foreigners!). But of course the individual keyholder-cum-guide, does everything in their power to extract baksheesh, sometimes for their information, and other times for maintaining the building, etc. Baksheesh being Baksheesh, clearly it's not going to historical preservation, it's going to the local paan seller (alright, an unfair assumption, though probably accurate :-). The frustrating part is that as a white Westerner, you are asked/pressured for baksheesh frequently through the "tour," even though all you want to see is the amazing ancient artwork, which is in such constantly-increasing disrepair that it probably won't even be viewable within another generation or so. So it's sorta now or never for a lot of these locked-up treasures, as it seems the ancient arts have been effectively lost, or at least deprioritized to such an extent that the mahals in Orccha are never going to be repainted; they are no Taj Mahal, at least as far as tourism is concerned. What makes this all so ironic, in the most ridiculous way, is the rational for the lock-and-key situation, as explained by our guide-who-was-not-a-guide: the reality is that unwatched Indians scratch away paint (we saw a boy doing this high up in the mahal, simply for curiosity sake...), write their name and the date, carve their initials and their girlfriend's too, etc., etc. Everywhere we went within the palace complex, mahals or camel stables it made no difference, literally had countless names inscribed on the walls. This means that we, as respectful, thoughtful, experienced international tourists/travelers, have to deal with unwanted additional headache and hassle, simply because Indians are not thoughtful enough, or are they too busy drowning in a pool of their own ignorance - really, what the f*ck people? - to appreciate their own cultural heritage? This conflict is made worse by the fact that at most sites, whether major or minor, foreign tourists have to pay a higher admission, often 10 - 20x the "Indian" price. Yet Indians are the ones who are blatantly destroying these treasures of antiquity, while we whities foot the bill? Obviously I'm generalizing here, but India is all about such things - after all America is a mystical fantasy land of jobs and automatic wealth to the average Indian on the street - and after 6 months in India, these things warrant comment...

I understand the Archaeological Survey of India lacks reasonable funding from the Indian government, and that collecting additional money from foreign tourists is really the only way they can maintain any semblance of a balanced budget, but it is such so frustrating to have to drop 100, 200, 250, or more (Taj is 750) rupees to see a monument, while Indian nationals pay only 5, 10, 15, or 20, and then they feel entitled to contribute to the downfall of the very historic treasure they are paying to see. If anyone needs a guide while walking around, clearly it is the omnipresent large Indian families - complete with herds of disrespectful children, and the equally omnipresent hordes of young, single (which in this case is being redundant) men, who apparently think its cool to defile historic sites. Now, I'm not ignorant enough to suppose that this only occurs in India, but the magnitude of so-called modern graffiti is at times staggering (virtually beyond belief) and then it's literally right next to prized paintings - as in the ones showcased in the aimed-at-Westerners items for sale (in Orccha's case a collection of posters). Now I'm sure some Westerners contribute to the graffiti problem, whether encouraged by their Indian predecessors is up to debate, but when "Ravi + Lakshmi" is carved out in enormous letters, I think we can safely say its a non-Western couple...

The reality is that India simply has too many historical and archaeological sites to give them all the protection/respect they are due, but what is the best solution for this dilemma?

Mandatory guides at all sites? Group-size limitations? Higher, or dare I say equal, pricing for Indians and foreigners - the extra cost would deter Indians not truly interested in the historical site, those who are merely spending 10 rupees for a "fun" afternoon at history's expense - that would also definitely raise a lot of rupees for preserving India's monuments, and silence Western complainers like myself regarding pricing injustices...

Well, I'm off the podium now, but I'm glad Liz and I yelled at that painting-scratching kid, who of course only spoke Hindi ("no" is pretty universal at this point though), and then had the audacity to follow us around, clearly not content with destroying 400-year-old paintings, but also wanting to destroy our sanity :-)

After our brush with deteriorating history, we decided to modernize, somewhat, our Orccha tour, by meandering through the active and crowded Hindu temple and the surrounding bustling market. Most things on sale were either devotional in nature, or trinkets, but people-watching is always enjoyable, and the Hindu faithful are certainly that, walking around the large palace-turned-temple 3 times, with some super-zealots even laying down every step of the way!

The next morning we then headed down to the river, and its busy ghats, with plenty of bathers, washers, and photo-requesters to keep us occupied! Down by the river are also a large group of cenotaphs (Moghul memorials), all-but-abandoned by now, which were great to wander through. All around the Orccha countryside are other ruins, some literally fallen over, or with only one wall remaining, so things were quite picturesque, as cows and goats were grazing next to the 16-century remains of a former empire. We walked around for 2 hours or so, until hunger forced us to return to modernity. A slow but tasty breakfast at a corner restaurant near the temple was our reward, so we had prime seats for puja processions and the like, while eating fruit salads and such...

Well, that's enough for this post, have to continue from Orccha tomorrow, but to ruin the non-surprise, we are now in Rishikesh, the home of infinite yoga instructors and practitioners!



Saturday, June 16, 2007

We spent today wandering amongst well-preserved temples adorned with erotic sculpture. Khajuraho's many temples, the western complex in particular, are some of the best in all of India. But it's the pornography that has made them famous, and launched the business of a million touts. Not that Khajuraho is thick with salesmen, it just seems that literally everyone is selling something here, whether it's handicrafts, erotic books (ie Kama Sutra), pornographic bronze key-chains, postcards, etc., etc. It's surprising that the mouse running around this internet cafe isn't carrying some mousie-porn in its mouth!
Honestly it's hard not to be "templed-out" by this point in time, having seen much of India's finest architecture, but we broke up the sights into an afternoon autorickshaw ride to the free southern and eastern temple areas, and then this morning's visit to the main, 250 Rs, western compound. For Anderson yesterday's highlight was definitely the one temple that, of course, didn't allow photography once you'd crossed a well-placed line of stones, but it was from the 10th century, and practically a pile of ancient rubble with a white marble Shiva lingam recently reinstalled. What's so fascinating then? Most of the temples here are reconstructed, so if sections are missing of the original stones, they are filled in shoddily with modern concrete, and could potentially qualify as eyesores in many cases. By being primarily rubble, the entire contents of the temple are visible, without the polluting touch of modern man. Plus, it's sweet to see intricately-carved stones lying strewn about, one could clichely comment "like a movie set!"
We rode to about a dozen temples, some around a kilometer away from others, and so hidden within modern villages, such an interesting contrast an antique temple adjacent to modern Indian housing, not slummy, just simple and concrete. Our rickshaw ride ended with some drama, as we'd spoken with one driver earlier about a tour, then returned to his same ("its number - is no number - it's new") rickshaw a bit later, but only his friend was there, so obviously we went with him. Turns out that really upset "Chyote," although of course not at his friend who stole business from him, apparently, but at us for being bad people. Funny how we whities are all the same (as in dollars on legs), but we're not supposed to think the same way towards touts/drivers. Some days it's hard not to be a jaded complainer :-)
The best part, in one way, about Khajuraho, is our hotel. Since it's the off season - too hot for most tourists, evidently - we got a steal of a deal, a mid-grade hotel for a low price (200 Rs). While we don't have AC, we at least have a water-based air-cooler, which definitely makes a dramatic increase in our room's comfort level. We actually decided to stay another day, but get up early, rather than leave late this afternoon to Orccha, our next destination, mostly so we could spend one more night on our soft, comfortable beds! So tomorrow we'll aim high for the 5:30 am bus, but probably catch the 7:00 am one, a little more our style.
As for today, this morning was spent, for 3 hours or so, wandering around the main temple complex, alternating photos of impressive architecture and equally impressive (& acrobatic) temple smut. Not to ruin the surprise of our upcoming photo gallery, but there were certainly a few stone orgies, plenty of rock fellatio, ample carved caresses, and one scene even involved a horse in a non-hunting environment!
The temples, several in three-building complexes, were massive and imposing, with elaborate carving all over, with much of it being ornate and non-erotic, though a surprising number of statues and scenes at least involved nudity (predominately feminine) to some degree, sometimes even 20-30 meters up the building! Most were, shocker, dedicated by lingam to Shiva, although other members of the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu, Parvati, Kali, Nandi (Shiva's transportation), etc., also had temples dedicated to them. Strangely many of them are actually mislabelled, but then again that's nothing new in India. We also got a few discounted books on sites we have seen, so that was pretty nice, all the official Archaeological Survey of India books were 40% off, 99 Rs down to 60 Rs, so we picked up the Ajanta book as well as the Khajuraho one, plus a different cheap book on Hampi. What nerdy tourists are we...
The food has been pretty tasty here, had a rooftop thali at our hotel last night that was quite delicious, and more recently we has some nice samosas and veg pakora off the street. The oil may not be fresh, and flies may have even gotten there first, but a 3 Rs samosa with chutney is hard to beat for flavor! We were escorted around by an assortment of child salesmen this afternoon, so our leisurely walk to the Hanuman temple (which was really just a large statue of the monkey god, covered with orange dye/paint) ended up being an endless question and answer session, with far too much of the conversation being directed towards us buying things of varying nature (dinner, internet, clothing, handicrafts...). No Indian salesman ever believed a disinterested Westerner.
Our journey to Khajuraho (which we struggle to avoid mispronouncing Khujaraho...) actually was broken up over two days from Varanasi, we arrived in the connection town of Satna on a bus too late to catch the next, 5-hour, bus to the land of erotic temples. We went from Varanasi to Allahabad by bus, which took around 3 hours, then after some runaround (no bus, only train to Satna) we rode in relative comfort for another 3 hours. It's hard on the train when no one really speaks English, and one cannot find any conductors (seriously, they practically go into hiding it seems :-), but apparently we were on a reservation-only sleeper car, although we are quite sure most of the Indians riding didn't have proper tickets either - one guy hid in the toilet whenever train employees came through - but being white we obviously stick out just a little bit. Fortunately the guy sitting by us was nice, and didn't care if we were sharing a bench with him, and then the train conductor's, after checking our ticket and telling us we'd have to move (or pay several hundred more rupees), didn't have the desire to show us where we ought to go, as we asked. So we just sat, awaiting Satna, and of course the conductor's didn't really check anyone else's ticket, and the world is still turning...
In Satna hotels were scant, and it was getting dark, so we went to the inappropriately-named Hotel Safari, which refused to budge on its 300 Rs overpriced room, but at least it was air-cooled, and the room-service food (from a nearby restaurant) was fast, cheap, and very good after a day of sitting/traveling. Sleep came quickly, although so did our 5:45 am alarm for our 6:30 am, 5 hour-long, bus ride to Khajuraho. That bus was nice, friendliest driver we've had in a long time, he drove fast, chain-smoking small cigarettes, and kept a smile on his face the whole time. We weren't smiling as much when the bus filled up to capacity (which means well-beyond the Western-sense of capacity), as our seats in the very front were then crammed full of people, but it turned out everyone was heading to town for the once-a-month Shiva Bazaar. After finding lunch and then a hotel, we wandered through the set-up market, but the reality is almost everything on sale is either foodstuffs (which we lack the kitchen to use), or cheap trinkets that by now we really don't need. In general it is a shame that the traditional arts/crafts are being replaced by cheap plastics. Helps to solve the litter problems around here...
That's that for Team Muth, tomorrow will be more rural local bus riding, en route to the peaceful town of Orccha, which has more temples and forts and such. A day or two there, then onto Gwalior, in the far north-west corner of MP state, before heading up to the mountains of Rishikesh, and some welcome cool and clean air!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Just wanted to let everyone know that our photo site has been massively updated. Hundreds of Nepal photos have been uploaded, and about half have been labelled. Enjoy!


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Our first three days in Varanasi have been very hectic, a whirlwind of activity, with today in particular being quite crazy. After settling into our hotel room, which is standard, simple and small, yet functional, we took our much-needed showers before treating ourselves to our hotel's pristine view of the Ganges River. Hotel Alka is near Meer Ghat, which means it is in the northerly third of the river ghat area, which stretches for around 4 km. So we can see a lot of action right from where we are staying, since at around 15 meters above the main walkways one has a pretty nice view for prime people watching. Much of being in Varanasi is the odyssey that any excursion turns into, as the narrow pathways are cramped and packed, not just with pedestrians, but also animals and, frustratingly, even motorcycles and scooters as well.
For dinner we decided to check out Ganga Fuji, one of several restaurants advertising "free nightly live classical Indian music." While we feared a repeat of our boring but brief stint at a Nepali culture show in Pokhara, we were instead rewarded with a very decent concert, though it clocked in at just around an hour. Nonetheless, wood flute with a tabla accompaniment went well with our dinner, and the food was also above average. Of course our request for "spicy" fell on deaf ears, as it seems to more often than not. Hard to believe, but no one in the subcontinent seems to believe we whities can handle the heat. Apparently too many previous travelers have been scared off by authentic zesty flavors. Please, don't come to India if you cannot handle eating real Indian food :-)
We then recovered from our train journey by sleeping in, just a bit, and then proceeded to get lost en route to the internet. We turned our misadventure into an excuse for some ice cream, with bountiful walking on either side, and when we did finally make it to an Iway, we certainly appreciated the A/C more than we would have otherwise. After failing, again unfortunately, to make any real progress on photo uploads, we then had a rooftop lunch. Once the heat of the day had finally passed, we unironically journeyed to the main burning ghat, Manikarnika, unsure of what our first experience of Hinduism's ritualistic public cremations would be. We cautiously followed an obvious tout onto a rooftop (but resisting his karma-based sales pitch - for funereal wood for elderly women - wasn't too challenging), and soaked up the scene for a decent while. It was very interesting, and not at all sad but rather quite serene. People's bodies, wrapped in colored cloth, are dipped in the holy waters of the Ganges, and then placed on a funeral pyre. For devout Hindus, being burnt at the edge of the Ganges means they escape our current cycle of life, thus making Manikarnika one of the holier, and therefore busier, ghats. Only men are present for the cremation, because women cannot handle being there, according to our talkative unrequested guide. The burnings take place 24 hours a day, every day, and each pyre's fire is started with dry grasses lit aflame by a 5,000 + year old flame first sparked by Shiva.
A little while later we wandered over to a less morbid nightly ritual, the Mother Ganges ceremony, at Dasaswamedh ghat, the main hub for activity along the river. While a live band played, bells were constantly sounded by rows of older men, while younger men in front of them waved incense sticks, tossed flower petals, and then switched over to holding fiery candelabras, all the while chiming additional bells. Quite a large crowd was present, which also meant touts were thick (selling postcards, henna/stamp kits, nighttime boat rides, etc.), as were beggars, but such things merely contribute to the crazy carnival atmosphere. Every night at 7:30 the tradition occurs, we'll probably go back again tonight to see how the crowd can vary, if at all. All this takes place on stone steps at the edge of the river, with the music at full blast (and therefore typically distorted), and numerous lights flashing - both cheesy Vegas style lights above the bell-ringers, and the just about constant flash photography. Women were also involved in the ceremony at the beginning, playing drums and perhaps another type of instrument (our vantage point wasn't the best :-). Afterwards, for dinner, we grabbed a cheap 20 Rs thali, within the depths of Varanasi's endless paths. On the way back home, we grabbed some amazing ghee-based desserts, all sweet and super-sugary - a small box-full for 35 Rs.
Earlier in the day we'd made plans to share a boat ride the next morning with another tourist at our hotel, so that meant we awoke a bit after 4:30 am, and a little after 5 we were down by the water, trying to find a low-pressure boatman. Procuring one was none too difficult, though we had to walk up a few ghats to find one. For 150 Rs the three of us got a 1.5 hour boat, which meant we saw about half of the Ganges ghats. We were rowed by a total of two cremation ghats, which were of course still operational, but the real excitement was possessed by all of the early bathers, frolicking in the (disgusting and seriously polluted) water. Children of all ages, as the phrase goes (though with our opinions on typical Indian maturity levels that isn't really too inappropriate a statement), were bathing, swimming, playing, racing, etc. This is in water that literally has sewers dumping into to it all times, while also being the home to many a dead body sunken to the bottom. Animals, pregnant women, children under 16, sadhus, & hijra, are all unable to be cremated for varying reasons, and are therefore sunk to the bottom of the holy Ganges instead. Dead body sightings aren't uncommon, although we haven't seen any yet. We are pretty sure we saw one on our wildlife-watching rafting trip in Nepal, but we're not 100% sure...
After a quick breakfast at our hotel, mostly made up of deliciously in-season mangoes, we decided to venture down to Heritage Hospital, so Liz could get her needed 3rd Hepatitis B shot. She had the first 2 while in the States, and the year is almost up during which she needed the final booster. After swinging by the ATM, we rode a rickshaw to the hospital, and that's when pandemonium struck. We quickly, but not quite quickly enough, realized we had left our bag in our rickshaw! Nothing of value, per se, just all of our photos from Nepal. Liz was already being processed by the hospital, so Anderson got to run from rickshaw to rickshaw, looking for our bright blue bag. Apparently our karma must be good, and our driver's definitely was, because after about 15 minutes he returned, much to our amazement! Clearly an amazing stroke of luck on our part, we don't know if we could have ever found that same rickshaw again, never mind actually retrieve our bag, and its personally precious contents. All that was inside was our camera case, devoid of the camera - but with all the other components and cards, and our two notebooks, but that basically means all of our memories of Nepal. So thank you, thank you, thank you, anonymous Varanasi rickshaw driver (& friend), I hope the baksheesh was appropriately appreciated!
After that avoided disaster, Liz's shot seemed like no big deal, and it indeed wasn't, as Heritage Hospital was very clean and professional. We got bounced around a little bit, first needing to get a prescription from one doctor, which was filled reasonably quick by the pharmacy, for the booster shot and a disposable (clean) needle. Once in the actual doctor's office, we found out we also needed to buy some sanitary gloves, but obviously we happily did so. Shot went fine, no mark left mere hours later, and a minor arm massage was even included for free! Total cost: around 900 Rs (530 for foreign tourist treatment, 350 for shot, needle, and gloves), just over $20. Total time: 1.5 hours. Total heart attacks: 2, because even we are stupid rookies on occasion :-).
From there we headed to Benares Hindu University museum, Bharat Kala Bhavan, which is "a famous museum of rare collections" according to Wikipedia, though we were far from blown away, although not exactly at full attention due to our already long day and the oppressive heat. Still, the museum houses a fine group of miniature paintings, plus Hindu statues, antique jewels (stored in a bank-type vault), plenty of coins, plus galleries of donated materials from Fred Pinn, a British collector, and Alice Boner, a famous sculpter/painter from Switzerland who was strongly influenced by India. The Boner gallery, if you will, was definitely the most finely presented, with the featured highlight being a massive tryptich of three Hindu deities.
On our way back home we tried a guide-recommended restaurant with an unusual Middle Eastern thali, wasn't all-you-can-eat as we had hoped, but still very filling and flavorful, with 70 Rs getting you two overflowing pitas (once you bought an extra pita, of course :-). Again the rickshaw god - probably Ganesha - was on our side, as we got to share a ride with some Indians back to the main "Old City" for much less than the usual tourist price. Then another fully rewarding shower, and now these finger excretions...
We'll be in Varanasi for another few days, have to mail Jordan her package, as well as soak up all the spirituality that we can!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Our planned week-long stint of silent meditation at Panditarama Lumbini International Vipassana Meditation Center, as mentioned before, ended up only lasting for 3 days, technically a bit over 48 hours. Anderson wrote a few "journal" entries to keep himself sane during that time, so this post first features those thoughts, slightly adapted for the digital world, and then concludes with a little post-silence analysis of the experience. I/We are not trying to directly encourage/discourage anyone from trying Vipassana meditation, whether in Lumbini, Nepal or elsewhere (ie Myanmar), I/we are just trying to share our opinions, as well as the reality of silent meditation, to hopefully better inform anyone whom is remotely interested. To be honest, and this will probably be reiterated further later, it is such a unique experience that it must really be tried to be fully understood/appreciated. Enough of a "make myself feel better, or something" disclaimer, here's the goods:

(One final note: phrases in "quotes" are merely designated as such to indicate Vipassana vocabulary)


Daily Schedule (as posted):

04:00 Wake Up

04:30 - 05:00 Walking Meditation

05:00 - 06:00 Sitting Meditation

06:00 - 07:00 Breakfast

07:00 - 08:00 Sitting Meditation

08:00 - 09:00 Walking Meditation

09:00 - 10:00 Sitting Meditation

10:00 - 11:00 Walking Meditation

11:00 - 12:00 Lunch

12:00 - 12:30 Rest

12:30 - 13:00 Walking Meditation

13:00 - 14:00 Sitting Meditation

14:00 - 15:00 Walking Meditation

15:00 - 16:30 Sitting Meditation

16:30 - 17:30 Walking Meditation

17:30 - 19:00 Dhamma Talk

19:00 - 20:00 Juice & Walking

20:00 - 21:00 Sitting Meditation

21:00 - 22:00 Walking Meditation

Interviews Will Be Conducted

Sun - Fri 08:00 - 11:00


Thoughts Day One (10:15 pm):

Even though it was only a half-day of meditation, since we didn't start meditating until after noon, it was definitely still long and tiring. Don't want to say boring, but certainly not thrilling. Alternating seated and walking meditation (hourly) is great, the variety helps, but still were thinking about personal physical minutiae for an hour straight while doing a repetitive activity. As explained in the audio tapes, which we listened to for about an hour or so this morning upon our 9 am arrival, Vipassana meditation practice follows strict guidelines of "labelling" ones activities. Thus, sitting is focused on one's breathing: "rising" and "falling" should be sole thoughts, and that's what one should always return to when the inevitable frequent distractions occur. Distractions should also be labelled, like "itching," "thinking," "seeing," etc., since they are not inherently bad, merely logical interference when one begins meditating. Walking meditation, while undoubtedly easier, has a slightly more complex thought process, first alternating "left" and "right," while taking larger steps for the first 20 minutes (of each hour), then progressing to "raising" and "lowering" or something similar, for each step. Key focus in general is on being slow, and of slowing down everything one does. A fellow meditator from Austria has it down, a bit funny to watch, the slow-motion facial itch!

Seated meditation is tough: sitting cross-legged and unmoving hurts, pretty quickly, never mind while keeping perfect posture, being silent, and focusing on my breathing. Fortunately we are all on our own, so you can stretch, switch positions, or even do walking meditation as needed. It's very odd having a group of individual silent meditators though. Myself, Liz, Austria man, Japan man, and Nepali guy, plus a nun from Myanmar (?), all follow the same schedule, but we cannot communicate at all, so we effectively act as though no one else exists. An odd path to enlightenment...!

The 2 nuns who run the center can talk, and do so outside the main area; I really thought that they would be silent, too, except when duty calls. Meals are low-key, and low-volume obviously, but lunch was very good, white rice with boiled cabbage, plus okra, and some other vegetable (potato?). Plus veg momos, which were very good, and bananas, watermelon, and cucumber for dessert. "Juice" wasn't really that - since no solid food is allowed after noon - but it's totally imported mango-flavored imitation Tang.

During last seated meditation, power cuts prevented fans from saving us from an inferno, as though things weren't tough enough already. Monsoon better be soon, animals must think so, dogs and cats were howling/meowling tonight (we later determined some/all of cat noises must have been birds...).

Dhamma talk is nice because you can sit comfortably, but the CD recording was hard to hear, vocals were recorded low so CD is unintelligible at times. Never mind the subject matter (its taped talks from before, so you can hear the audience at times), topic equals needing a mediator for meditating, like a villager would need one to see a king. Power cut out, so no conclusion, instead more walking meditation.

Alive and well, but weary. Six hours of sleep maximum is allowed, going to get all I can. See how first full day goes starting at 4 am! Three cats roam the compound (fourth is currently injured and locked up), one is totally blind, and another has only partial vision I think. Have own room and bathroom, by a serene pond full of frogs and lily pads, a bit away from the main compound, so that is very nice, and Liz lives across the small pond. Very modern building, with low intensity lights, Western toilet, tile floor, bed looks solid yet comfortable. Checking into that now.

Thoughts Day Two (10:00 pm):

First full day, obviously, watch alarm beat gong alarm by just a few minutes. Getting up not really too difficult, fortunately. Definitely rained during the night, collected quite a bit of mud walking over to the center, very slowly, in the dark around 4:20 or so. There are 3 types of housing available; dorms located in the actual center, conveniently located but quite communal (toilet is for all to use); 3 sets of triples are a little down a stone path; our individual rooms, 6 in total, are a further ways away. Privacy is well-worth the short walk, as is the personal shower and toilet!

Both forms of mediation are slowly getting easier, takes time to properly take things so slowly, and to get used to observing yourself via repetitive mental labelling. Walking is still definitely preferred, though the progress with seated meditation, both comfort and focus alike, is more noticeable. Early morning walking and seated flew by, breakfast truly seems like the first event of the day, though we were awake for about 2 hours by then. Simple food, of course, primarily cereals and fruits, toughed it out through a muesli/cornflake mix, dry of course, with apple slices on top. My disgust with milk on cereal can be a bit inconveniencing at times!

After more meditation alternation, had first interview, simultaneously with Liz (which seemed a little odd) around 10:15. Talk was very down-to-earth, mostly discussed meditation, but Burma/Myanmar came up as well. Reading the LP guidebook that the center has now, semi on the sly (?). Interview lasted almost an hour, which was unexpected since 20 minutes was the allotted time, but worked well since segued right into lunch. Food was actually better than the first day, a trio of tasty beg dishes accompanied by rice, with the apparently daily soup.

Afternoon went by reasonably quick, though diarrhea interrupted one walking session, which thus partially became a scurrying session!

Dhamma talk was about obstructions while meditating, far from riveting, the speaker talks in circles, with minimal substance hidden beneath the pauses, Pali-language words (from Buddha's time), and thesaurus-esque over-interpretation/explanation. At least it's right before juice time, so there's a metaphorical carrot waiting at the end of the talks. The concept is good, I guess, just the delivery is a bit drawn out, to say the least. Last seated session hard to concentrate during, hot, tired, and itchy, from needing a shower, is a bad combination. But the shower was worth the anguish, great to be clean to pass out. 5.5 hours of sleep upcoming, and too rapidly decreasing...

Thoughts Day Three (8:15 am):

Today is rough going, as though the extreme ridiculousness of this is setting in more. It practically seems anti-Buddhist to be so radical - what type of middle way is silently meditating and moving as slowly as possible? I feel so out of touch with reality, pretending as though there is nothing else in existence. Thus, this seems rather indulgent, egotistical, and self-centered, to focus solely on my own personally-experienced minutiae: the raising and lowering of my feet, "lifting," "leading," and "placing;" the "rising" and "falling" of each breath I take. Meditation is certainly relaxing, and there are probably (hopefully) some physical benefits from my feeble/awkward attempts at extended cross legged-ness, and walking for hours on end is clearly beneficial, but it seems yoga would be more beneficial for my physical and mental well-being, and that anything from reading to playing video games could assist my power of concentration. Plus, this whole silent group of individuals is definitely a bit uncanny. It feels like I'm experiencing a zombie-world, post-human eradication, so now we zombies just amble about slowly and intently, but we lack tangible goals (or the ability, apparently, to realize them), and we must be dependent on an unknown source for daily nourishment, since supplies of human flesh are unobtainable!

It just makes me question things, since if this is truly the path to enlightenment, is this really what I want? Buddha himself spent 29 years in one posh extreme, then a stint at the other end of the spectrum, before deciding neither was right and that balance should be sought. This all seems a bit disproportionate, and utterly imbalanced, with a day consisting, silently, of alternating sitting and walking, both with a total de-emphasis on motion, with breaks solely for nourishment. Vipassana is definitely a far-out approach to existence...

(11:40 am)

Just had lunch, which was again tasty, unusual highlight being seaweed omelets. Preceded by interview, which was in turn preceded by a mostly ineffective seated meditation session. Partially, probably, due to a rule-breaking chat with Liz, while getting my weekly malaria pill, she read my previous writing from this morning, and agreed whole-heartedly. Maybe this just isn't for us?

Mindfulness can be equated as constantly labelling every physical activity, rendering one's mind devoid of free thought. It's like being trapped in your own mind, but only being able to describe/comprehend physical actions. Right now I should constantly be thinking "writing" until such labels drive out the thought/desire to actually write, thus enabling myself to get back to basics: the "rising" and "falling" of my breathing. Eating, in a way an exception, should primarily be labelled as "chewing," and "drinking," although I'm sure "scooping" with the spoon ought to factor in at least a little bit.
Apparently free will/thought is then lost to one's physical digressions, and even those need to be simplified to a mere handful of activities, as previously outlined. Constant repetitive thought, physically-based, is done in order to drown out any alternate mental tasks. Multi-tasking is obviously completely out of the question, as is this very writing...
It seems intriguing that this meditation technique originates in Myanmar, infamous for its highly repressive regime. To be a touch facetious: who needs a military junta when one can ruthlessly oppress one's own mind and thoughts, in the quest to enlightenment?
Now I'm paradoxically feeling bad for breaking these rules I've voluntarily subjected myself to, while also being overwhelmed by the futility of this - it feels like a psychological experiment, albeit self induced, but while I am intrigued by the technique and the actual meditation, I cannot help feeling that I am utterly wasting my time. But, as was said at today's interview, that's just because I'm currently losing the internal struggle with doubt. Right?

(2:15 pm):

Going to depart soon, I know that Vipassana is not for me, and it would be unfair to the center for me to remain, taking advantage of their generosity towards practitioners. Awaiting Liz's arrival, to see what she wants to do. Will stay in Lumbini tonight, and presumably leave Nepal tomorrow. Last meditation session technically not that at all, couldn't stop my mind from thinking, and know now that my heart is no longer in this. Glad for the experience, definitely have an interest in continuing meditation, I've just never been a fan of extreme sports :-). Am I just a weak, foolish American (insert other derogatory phrases here)? I don't know, but I'm alright with that.


I did not mention in my writings anything specific about the eight precepts that a meditator must abide by, so here those are, a bit simplified:
No killing, no stealing, no sex, no lying, no drugs, no food after midday, no music or ornamentation, no high seats or beds.

What do I think of Vipassana meditation now, several days later? I don't regret doing it, but I feel that a little goes a long way. I haven't yet meditated, though I have been busy traveling, but will probably do so soon, since Varanasi is a high-intensity town! I believe that the meditation was highly beneficial, the noble silence a bit less so, but that moderation is the key. Watching television all day, a very Western activity, is none too healthy, is mentally watching one's breathing merely the Eastern alternative? If so, at least it is remarkably less commercialized!
I've concluded that while 3 days was not a waste, spending the entire planned week there would have been, at least for me personally. No way of knowing, obviously, maybe if I had more perseverance I would currently be achieving the initial stages of enlightenment, but I think that is a rather silly delusion. After all, people come for 30 or 60 day retreats at the center, and while they probably reach a higher level of meditatory concentration than I did - I think once or twice I truly got in the zone for any extended (and therefore unknown) stint of time - one must question to what extent that really is true. Hard to be scientific about something so unscientific... and like any religion or philosophy, however one defines those terms, Vipassana requires a leap of faith, from sceptic over to believer. Clearly the nuns there long ago made that choice, but currently I guess I'm just not ready!
If you've never thought about meditation, being silent will probably be a bit overboard for you as well, I would presume. However, for me the duration of time was the biggest hindrance; I felt a small sample of Vipassana highly informative, and even enjoyable, but as hours dragged on to days, increasingly I couldn't help illicitly thinking about the other subcontinental adventures I could be on. After all, one can silently meditate anywhere, you don't need to be at the birthplace of Buddha to do so, although being able to stay at a silence-observing center was clearly beneficial, and there was a wonderful existing infrastructure to support and nurture meditators. Being able to live on a low-Western-cost donation (we gave 1000 NRs, around $15, for our 2 nights of lodging and our 5 meals) is obviously a nice perk, but we weren't there for financial benefits, were hoping for spiritual ones. Not that I didn't find any, certainly being so relaxed for so many hours was very helpful, and like all religions/dogmas, there are certainly valuable insights to be gained and learned. But our mid-week "weekend retreat" felt like the right amount of time, and if I ever desire to continue Vipassana practice, I know have the know-how to do properly do so. And I guess you as a reader do to, although having the daily interview definitely was helpful both for information/correction and moral support. To conclude, for me it wasn't bad, but it wasn't amazing either, but I am still glad that we decided to give Vipassana an earnest try, regardless of the fact that our 3rd day felt at times like we were giving the proverbial "college try" :-)
2,000th Visitor CONTEST WINNER:

Our good friend Jordan Kauffman-Biber, of Iowa City, IA! Congratulations for being a regular blog reader (& commenter, too), we will be sending you our subcontinental goodie-box in the near future! She beat out another good friend of ours, Stephanie Pratt, formerly of Iowa City, but now a new home-buyer, with her husband Jeremy, in Ogden, UT. Her consolation prize? This shameless shout-out :-)
Thanks to all who were trying hard to win, glad that people are following along with our adventure!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Well, of course our plans have changed, albeit not too dramatically, but 3 days of silent meditation turned out to be about all we could handle! A complete post regarding our experience with Vipassana meditation will follow, so this is just an "update" post, but since we'll be internetting it for a while today, to begin the long overdue photo dump, there will be ample time to wax nostalgic about being silent while being mindful. Two days ago, then, we departed the meditation center in the afternoon, and rode a cycleshaw back to Lumbini, where we rechecked into our hotel, and relaxed for the remainder of the day. After getting a normal night sleep (both in length and timing), we departed relatively early the next morning, aiming to end up in Varanasi, India, as soon as cheap transportation would allow.
Our first bus ride was to Bhairawa, near the border, and was again on the bus rooftop, since there was a definite lack of seats available. It was nice and breezy, though again sitting on metal bars wasn't the most comfortable. Better than boiling alive in a cramped bus though, and we certainly had a bit of that later in the day... In Bhairawa we had lunch, our last "Nepali thali" of daal bhaat, at least for a few months, but our plans to ride a shared jeep to the border town of Sunauli were dashed by an inconveniently timed bandh (strike), which literally began during the 20 minutes we were eating lunch. So we took a cycleshaw, easily talked our way through the barricaded street (blocked by a micro bus and jeep), since our explanation of needing to exit Nepal due to our expiring visa was thankfully satisfactory to whomever was in charge of the blockade (seemed to be a mid-20s man in semi-communist garb...). The cycleshaw took forever, and of course we got passed by several jeeps that were obviously still running, but in due time we arrived at the border. Taking a cycleshaw doesn't really make one feel the best, as a thin, sweaty driver pedals the huge load of 2 people and baggage along the bumpy, dirty streets, on a definitely outdated and low-quality modified tricycle. But it's a "catch-22," since the drivers need the work, to earn money to feed their families, and they want it very badly, we were followed by around 5 vigilant drivers, and the one we finally settled on even waited while we ate lunch - but you can't help feeling terrible that you forcing someone to physically abuse themselves solely to transport us a few kilometers. Is it better then, to refuse someone work who wants it, especially if the nature of the work is utterly degrading and potentially physically harmful; or instead give them the work they need, regardless of the cost, so that they and their families do not starve? The ethics of international travel are depressingly tricky more often than not.
Once at the border, we attempted to change our Nepali rupees into Indian rupees, while being bombarded by taxi touts, but everywhere was demanding (but not being up front about doing so) a 2% commission, and since we will be heading back to Nepal soon enough, we decided to just keep our extra currency rather than lose some of it to greedy middlemen. Our actual border crossing was quite simple, a bit of paperwork to leave Nepal got us our exit stamp, and a little lengthier form enabled us to reenter India with our multiple-entry visa. The whole process barely took 30 minutes, which was unexpectedly easy. Since we hadn't changed any currency, and the border lacks an ATM, we only had 300 Indian rupees that we had saved from beforehand, so we had to be very fiscally responsible in order to get to Gorakhpur, on the way to Varanasi, where there would be an ATM (despite what the money-exchange touts kept telling us). Lying touts are highly annoying, and unfortunately inevitable, so we have finally come to the conclusion to simply lie right back, not that two wrongs make a right, but we just need to deal with all that unnecessary hassle because we feel "bad" towards someone who is trying to either take advantage of us or personally profit off of us. Fortunately the bus ride from Sunauli was only 70 Rs each, leaving us 160 rupees of usable currency. The bus ride, however, was slow, hot, and ridiculously packed. Not that Nepali buses weren't stuffed with bodies, but this bus at times could not have fit another person, sitting or standing. Everyone was uncomfortable, and had no choice but to suffer through it, with the worst part being a half-an-hour off-road on bumpy dirt tracks, clearly not intended for a bus. At one point there was an impromptu bathroom break, primarily so enough weight was off of the bus in order for it to ascend a steep hill!
We eventually escaped the inferno, to every one's obvious delight, and were able to get off the bus directly in front of the Gorakhpur train station, which was full of chaos and unfortunately reminded us of Lucknow, though thankfully not quite so frustrating. Liz played the gender card and got in the ladies' queue, which still had a decent line, while Anderson wandered about trying to determine when the next train to Varanasi would be. Turns out one was scheduled to leave in about 2 hours, so decent timing on our part, and then A's next mission, the ATM, also proved readily obtainable, which meant we had enough money to actually buy some much-needed mineral water. We were concerned that finding an ATM would be difficult, so we were saving our rupees for our train tickets, but everything fell into place nicely, as a lady train station guard, after busting up a bunch of line-cutters (Indians struggle with the idea of an organized line, and that is really being as polite and culturally sensitive as is possible...), then let Liz, as the only whitie, do exactly that. Sweet irony, though obviously rather unfair, but what can you do?
We then headed over to our platform, bought some magazines, and began waiting for the train. And we kept on waiting, until an hour after it was supposed to have departed, which we deemed as more than sufficient time for potential lateness, we headed back over to the information area to see what was going on. We still don't know for sure, but either somehow the train arrived and departed without us being aware of it (rather doubtful), or it simply never showed up at all.
Back to the lines then, first to book unreserved sleeper seats on the next train, departing at 10:45 pm, and then to get a refund on our unused first ticket (minus 20 Rs processing fee). Pretty painless, and in some ways an overnight train works better than arriving in a big city just before midnight, so maybe that was simply our fate :-)
We then had a surprisingly delicious dinner at a restaurant across from the train station, reminding us that Indian food is truly spectacular, though the ice-cold Kingfisher Strong probably didn't hurt our enjoyment of things! We took our time, since we had plenty of time to waste, around 5 hours or so, but soon enough we were back at the train station, waiting at a different platform. Since we were wait listed, that meant we didn't have a reserved seat in the sleeper section, so we weren't sure how things would work out, but thankfully we got bunks, middle and upper berths, in the car that we were supposed to. Sleep came quickly, but wasn't at all of adequate length, as we arrived in Varanasi earlier than "bright and early" at 4:30 am. After wading through rickshaw touts, and their multitude of Westernized (read: increased) fares, we finally took one for 40 Rs to the main ghat area. Iain & Claire had recommended a hotel by Hotel Alka, listed in the LP, though they hadn't stayed there themselves, so we headed there first, wandering through feces-filled alleyways for a ways first. The morning Ganges rituals were just beginning, so we relaxed on the stairs, soaking in all the insanity, as the Hindu faithful bathed in the literally toxic, yet very holy, river water. Boats of tourists, Indian & Western alike filled the river, today being Sunday meant things were busier than usual. We decided to wait until tomorrow for our boat ride, so that we'll be less sleep-deprived and thus more prone to fully enjoy ourselves. Of course constantly we were being asked about boat rides, hotel possibilities, and a few charras offers for good measure. How we love thee India, and your infinite simultaneous stimuli!
We checked out the recommended hotel, and then the next-door Alka as well, and in a tight race of alright places with alright prices, Alka won, its higher fan speed being of higher importance than its more-claustrophobic bathrooms. Seriously, the squatty-potties barely even have room for a user to squat! After breakfast, tasty and filling, and some aimless street wandering, we found ourselves at a nearby Iway, which is obviously where we are still at :-)
Sorry about the rambling nature of this post, must be the lengthy travel combined with the lack of sleep...
Next up: full report on Vipassana meditation - so no talking!


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Tomorrow we are going to begin a 7+ (?) silent meditation program at Panditarama Lumbini Vipassana Meditation Center, run by Myanmar. It is a well-respected program, attended by around 100 international every year, many for longer stints than ours. Due to our visa expiring on June 14, the maximum we can stay there is 9 days, but we'll see how it goes. Being quiet for days on end, while alternating hours of seated and walking meditation (12 hours total daily) may be quite a grueling task, but it should also be highly relaxing and mentally rejuvenating. The website has pretty much all of the information the curious could desire, but in brief our life will be very simple and strict, with no solid food after noon, less than 6 hours of sleep a night, and of course a pure veg diet. Meditation begins at 4:30 am, and there is a nightly dharma talk, although from the literature we have read it seems most of them are tape-recorded.
This should be a very interesting experience, probably full of good parts and bad parts; physically all the sitting still and slow walking will probably be rather exhausting, mentally we will probably be pushed even further!
We will be staying at the center, as full time meditators, and consequently will not have internet access barring some type of emergency. Hopefully since Anderson had eye problems recently, our cosmic energies are such that we will not be stricken with any more ailments :-). His eye is doing well, vision is pretty much normal in the left eye, perhaps just a tad bit weaker than the right, but now after over scrutinizing his vision-condition for two weeks, it is somewhat hard to tell! The drop regiment, with eye cream at night (as weird and nasty as it sounds... a bit string of goop draped across each eye right before going to sleep) will be continued, probably unnecessarily, but better safe than sorry while "off the beaten path."
Yesterday evening we saw the archaeological site of Buddha's birth, a green stone encased in glass, with what might be some semblance of a footprint, but might just be millenia of decay setting in... Also saw the pool where Buddha's mother was bathing when Buddha decided he'd grown weary of being enwombed, all very relaxing and serene, large trees filled with prayer flags, and appropriately virtually devoid of noise (and therefore tourists).
This morning we arose early, and after some chai we again rented bicycles (100 NRs/day) and saw the remaining temples that we did not see yesterday. Highlights today included the rather fancy German compound, as well as a massive Korean temple that is still very much under construction. Many temples are in the process of being built, almost half in fact, as it seems a second wave of nations are getting involved in the Lumbini action. There are many European countries, surprisingly, though America is not (yet?) represented. Most of the places are rather extravagant, so even with Nepali building materials/costs the temples must have some wealthy donors. Where we will be meditating is at the other end of the spectrum, a small discrete group of buildings set off the main road and in the woods. Hopefully our next week will be very peaceful, surely that is what Buddha would have wanted :-)

So no posts for a while, you'll have to fulfill your travel fantasies elsewhere, maybe here?

Anderson & Liz

Monday, June 04, 2007

Short post due to high-cost/slow-speed internet (combined with ever-decreasing wallet-size makes a bad combination)...
We made it to Lumbini yesterday morning, after a lengthy 2-day travel stint from Pokhara. We ended up riding four buses in one day, while still on one ticket/route, due to continual bus switches. So at least our long, hot ride was broken up, with different seat positions and heat intensities. Our fourth bus ride, around 12 km, was on the roof of a bus at night, since down below was crammed full, with no room for two sweaty white tourists with large backpacks. The roof was by comparison uncrowded, although we were sharing space with a space-hogging bicycle.
The best part of our journey was that we didn't even make it to our final destination, instead having to stay in the India/Nepal border town of Bhairawa, which is pretty awful from the little bit we had to see. Our dinner was sub-standard, and our lodging even worse: we stayed in a large cardboard box essentially, the thin corrugated wood walls barely held together; the door was broken and stuck every time; the sheets almost covered the pad on a wood frame that was being passed off as a bed; the squatty-potty toilet absolutely reeked of stale urine, while the sink was merely a faucet with a basin attached, water spilling out underneath...
Fortunately our listening to the amazing new Hunab CD - Random Coincidences, drowned out the blasting Hindi/Nepali pop music that was blaring from below, although nothing accept Liz's yelling would discourage the peeping Tom who kept staring in at her through our window.
Definitely one of our worst night's yet, and yet at $2 it was still a total ripoff (they refused to bargain for less than 150 NRs) - but what can you do late at night in a crap town with no other options within visibility?
Whine about it on your blog the next day, I guess :-)
Our morning bus ride to Lumbini was fast, however, and although yesterday was obscenely hot, over 100 degrees for hours (and the heat was accented nicely by the continual lengthy power cuts all afternoon), this is a very relaxed place. "Shanti" as cheese-off subcontinental tourists of a certain new-age vibe might say, but Lumbini, the historic birthplace of Buddha, is indeed peaceful. The village, where we are currently staying, is very small, with only a few hundred meters of modern development before housing materials turn to the traditional mud and bamboo combination that we lived in while teaching at Thakurdwara. Across the road, where we went biking this morning, is the massive complex of temples, monasteries, dharmasalas, etc., spread out over a sprawling natural area, many square kilometers in size. At one end are the historical ruins, which we will visit this afternoon, including a pool at the site where Buddha's mother Mayadevi gave birth, as well as an ancient temple in her honor. Around a lake, set past a burning Eternal Flame and a Taj Mahal-esque waterway (currently dry), are over a dozen modern Buddhist temples/monasteries, built by international Buddhist organizations. The two main schools of Buddhism (one believes that enlightenment can only be obtained individually, the other "softer" belief is that all of humanity can be enlightened through the efforts of enough believers) are on separate sides of the waterway, so this morning we went to the "hardcore" Eastern side. Temple highlights were the Thai and Myanmar sites, though the Thai's white walls, with simple carved stone dragons around the pillars, was certainly less indulgent than Myanmar's circular golden building, with an enormous spire at the top. Certainly what Buddha would have wanted... haha.
We also visited the World Peace Pagoda (our 2nd, 1st outside Pokhara), set at the end of the main Lumbini compound, next to a bird sanctuary. We were the only tourists (of any nationality :-) there, so it was a very peaceful beginning to our day, after a several kilometer bike ride of course.
Larger and more powerful than the WPP in Pokhara, though the nearby grave of a Japanese monk killed during construction was sobering - where are these people who don't want world peace, and what is wrong with them? And who kills a Buddhist monk anyways, that's just terrible...

Anyways, we are going to try and find a silent meditation program later this afternoon (the heat of the day makes doing just about anything unbearable - at least its only 3 days until the monsoon is supposed to strike), as well as see some more temples, both modern and ancient - another day touristing :-)

Anderson's eye is pretty much back to normal, still dousing it with eye drops pretty constantly - like right now - so hopefully that medical annoyance has been dealt with!
Our Nepali visa expires on June 14, so we have about 10 days as a maximum to stay in Lumbini, depending on how silent meditation goes (assuming we can find it, it is still happening during the "tourist off season," etc.), and then we will return to India, going first to Varanasi. Which may be "Varanasty" due to the monsoon (hot and wet climate, combined with an overflowing filthy Ganges doesn't sound all that inviting), we shall see!

Not to sound redundant, but

Friday, June 01, 2007

So we're changing our plans and heading to Lumbini tomorrow (we think...), a bus strike/street strike stopped all hopes of going anywhere today, and since we have been sitting around doing nothing for a bit, we are suitably antsy. Thus we're headed to the birthplace of Buddha, for some relaxation, some silent meditation, and probably some yoga as well. Hopefully that will put us in the right frame of mind to return to India! Our visa expires on June 14, so we'll be in Lumbini until then if we are enjoying ourselves. We are going to save more trekking and rafting until we return to Nepal (in 4 to 6 weeks), since river levels are very low right now, being pre-monsoon.
That's that in our ever-changing world, a freaking thrill a minute!