Friday, October 31, 2008

Back to Rishikesh

Prayer Wheels, Tsuglagkhang Temple - McLeod GanjMcLeod Ganj

My last few days in McLeod Ganj were a combination of highs and lows. I found a great non-profit to volunteer for, Rogpa, that helps Tibetans become self-sufficient, and worked with them in their cafe for a while. It instantly felt like home and I met a lot of sweet and committed people. I might go back in the spring and stay for a longer period of time - this place has a very good vibe to it.

However, while I was working there, I ordered a bowl of soup from a nearby restaurant, and then was too busy to eat it for a while. By the time I got to it, it was cool, and I unwisely ate it anyway. Bad move! I had some of the weirdest, full-body-infection feeling food poisoning I've ever had. I walked around like a zombie for a day and a half until the antibiotics I took kicked in. After that I felt better rapidly.

Gina and I had made plans to meet back in Rishikesh to do some filming. I was pretty apprehensive because this involved a 11-hour bus ride, but was feeling a lot better so I took the leap and got on the bus. The first 4 hours or so were on this windy switchback road getting down the mountains, and I thought I'd made the biggest mistake of my life. To fend off nausea, I had to put on my headphones and listen to mellow music like "Amplified Heart" by Everything but the Girl, and try to get to my happy place. After we got off the mountain, the road turned pretty manageable and I even was able to sleep for a couple of hours on the trip. At some point a bunch of college kids filled up the bus, and a very nice guy named Sanjay sat next to me. He invited me to his family's house for Diwali (couldn't go) and ended up saving me and a group of other Westerners when we got lost looking for a bus station in Dehradun.
RishikeshGina - Rishikesh
RishikeshAmrita Little Italy Restaurant - Rishikesh

Hanging out with Gina in Rishikesh was a lot of fun and we had an awesome day of filming up at the Visistha Cave, an ancient holy site where the Gayetri Mantra was originally received. We went into the cave to do some chanting and some monkeys evidently got inside one of our closed bags and stole some bananas. There were tell-tale banana peels under the tree when we came out and some of the monks were chuckling about it. Filming went well outside of the cave, in spite of monkeys dropping things behind Gina and cows weighing in with their opinions once in a while. Afterwards an Indian group that had come to see the cave saw Gina's harmonium and asked her to sing a song for them, which was a big hit. On the way back, the government was blasting a section of the highway with dynamite to widen it, and our taxi driver had to get out and clear rubble so that we could pass. Just another day in India!
Shiva decorated for Diwali - Rishikesh

Gina left for Japan the next day, and I was in Rishikesh on my own for a few days, which included Diwali. Diwali is the biggest holiday of the year for Hindus, a bit like Christmas and New Year's rolled into one. It's a celebration of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty. Everyone lights candles, puts up Christmasy-looking lights, and gives each other gifts, which are often sweets. It was beautiful to see the city all lit up with tons of lights and candles, and to see all of the families who came to Rishikesh to celebrate dressed up in their finest. I went to the Ganga Aarti ceremony that night, which was lovely and a bit like midnight mass on Christmas (the whole town seemed to be there). Jeesh they have lound firecrackers over here though! They really sound like dynamite.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Just saw the Dalai Lama

McLeod GanjMcLeod Ganj
McLeod GanjMcLeod Ganj

I've been up in McLead Ganj for a few days now (this is the town that you really go to when you go to Dharamsala). Tucked up on a mountainside, it's a small and beautiful Tibetan enclave that houses both the Dalai Lama and the government-in-exile of Tibet. The scenery is lovely here and it would be a good place to hole up for a while and hide from the world. Which is what quite a few people seem to be doing. There is quite a community of long-term expats here, and many different volunteering and teaching opportunities to keep busy. Also tons of yoga, meditation, message, etc which makes it a good place to rejuvenate and reconnect. I've found a great yoga teacher and have been taking classes from him.

McLeod Ganj

The other major attraction here is trekking into the mountains. There must be 20 different companies leading treks in this tiny town. I went on an intense day hike by myself. Starting in this nearby village, I stumbled on a path that led up a steep mountain to this stone tower on an outcropping jutting out into thin air (on three sides there were cliffs falling hundreds of feet). In front of the tower lay a flat slate area that was perfect to sit and meditate for a while. A very spiritual place.

Waiting for the Dalai LamaWaiting for the Dalai LamaWaiting for the Dalai LamaWaiting for the Dalai Lama

Today I was coming out of a Tibetan message when I saw people drawing these elaborate symbols with chalk on the road. A crowd was gathering to watch them and I thought - must be for some ceremony or something. Then as I was walking back to my hotel I saw monks start to gather in front of the entrance gate to the town and a news reporter talking into a camera and it suddenly clicked for me that the Dalai Lama was arriving in town! He had been previously in Delhi recuperating from an illness and it had been unclear when he might be coming back. I rushed to get my video camera and waited in the crowd for and hour and a half. Tibetans were waving their flag, or white silk scarves, and burning incense. The crowd got very tight, and huge tour buses kept on having to drive right through the middle of it (there's pretty much one main road in McLeod Ganj). Then suddenly he was there, smiling and bowing to everyone in the seat of his SUV. I was probably about 5 feet away from him. What an unexpected blessing!

Friday, October 17, 2008


UdaipurBurning the Ravana effigy - Udaipur

The last stop on the River of Sound tour was Udaipur, in Rajasthan. Beautiful city surrounding a lake with floating palaces and hotels in the middle of it. We totally scored with the hotel that Gina picked, the Wonder View. It's name does not lie - the rooftop restaurant has practically a 360 degree view of the lake, palaces and the main city across the water. And the rooms were huge and palatial.

Udaipur reminds me a little of Venice, though they have opposite problems. In Venice the water levels are rising, while here the lake is drying up. Although there was some water when we were there, evidentally earlier in the year they had to start driving people by car to the posh "island" hotel in the middle of the lake.

Qawwali concert in our hotel room - UdaipurQawwali singers at lunch - Udaipur

The Patriarch of the Qawwali  family - UdaipurAfter Qawwali concert

We spent 4 days in Udaipur, the highlight of which was meeting a family of Qawwali musicians that were friends of Gina's. We had a lesson with them (tough - their vocal range was just a wee bit larger than ours) and they also gave a full-on concert in one of our hotel rooms. It was pretty incredible - the emotional intensity of the music practically knocked you over. And loud too - evidentally people in the hotel were hearing echoes of them from across the lake. I think they played like two songs and that was about two hours. Unbelievably moving.

On Sunday, Muhammad, the leader of the group took us to his mosque. The men in the group were able to go in and have him show us how they worshipped - the women had to stay outside. This was a bit uncomfortable. You also had to have your head covered inside the mosque, and as I had no hat, Muhammad provided me with what looked like a dirty dishrag that kind of floated on top of my curls (hot!).

After praying, the entire family came by and we had a picnic in the shaded area behind the mosque. Finally the Qawwali group performed at the entrance to the mosque - I could watch those guys for hours.

UdaipurSusan - UdaipurUdaipurGoing down! Udaipur

The grand finale of the tour was a camel ride through the Rajasthani desert, followed by camping out under the stars at a ranch outside of town. It was a great ending to the trip as we were able to spend a lot of time with the other tour folks in a relaxed setting. The camels were so sweet, though the riding itself is like doing a yoga stretch for three hours. All of the other animals we encountered, including the normally unflappable water buffaloes, were visibly freaked out by them. The ranch, owned by our host, Dinesh, was really chill and had incredible, fresh-off-the-farm food.

I come away from the tour with a new way to meditate (mantras), much less fear of singing, a lot of memories and a ton of tailored clothes. But the other people on the tour turned out to be the highlight. It was just an amazing group, supportive, generous, good-hearted but also fun to hang out with. I miss them already!

Gina did a terrific job making our time in India as smooth and spiritual as possible, and it was so cool to see her in her natural element. It's no exaggeration to say that in the cities we went to, she was well-known by most people we would run into. We would find ourselves saying to each other, "I found a shopkeeper who hasn't heard of Gina!", like that was some sort of miracle. She also guided us on the best ways to do our part to help out people in the places we visited, so that we were leaving behind us goodwill and compassion.

I got so much out of the tour on so many levels. I was able to experience some moments of deep spirituality and start to understand how to respect and to access that here. It also whetted my appetite for more and I feel ready to dive into the rest of my time in India. I'd highly recommend the tour to anyone - you don't have to be a singer to go (trust me!). Check out Gina's website for details:

I've spent the last couple days catching up on things in Delhi (like uploading 40 billion photos). Delhi's hectic, polluted, and the touts here are more intense and trickier than in the other cities I've been to. I've gotten used to them, but it takes a lot of energy to be here. I am now in the station for my overnight train to Dharmasala. Can't wait!

Thanks to Elizabeth for some of the photos on this post!

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Sunday, October 12, 2008


After our hectic taxi ride here, Rishikesh was a cool, peaceful paradise. Situated further up the Ganges at the foothills of the Himalayas, Rishikesh is renowned for yoga, healing and ashrams. Definitely my favorite place in India so far, Rishikesh has much calmer, more outdoorsy vibe. We had a relatively mellow time here, with no master musicians to meet or classes to take. Instead most of us took the time to get some Aryurvedic messages, hot oil treatments and doctor consultations. I learned I'm a Vata and am not supposed to eat much ice cream or oily, spicy foods (there goes all of those curries I've been eating!). And I had hot oil poured on my third eye for 45 minutes, which was an unbelievably relaxing experience.

The Ganges is very clean at this point and we did quite a bit of swimming in it. The highlight of this segment was going up to this ancient spiritual cave where the Gayatri Mantra was first received, chanting and meditating in the cave, and then having a picnic and swimming in the river. The Ganges Valley is green and lovely up here, and the road has quite a few places where you are inches from a 300 foot drop.

Monkeys roam freely throughout the town, and particularly on the two "walking" bridges that connect the different sides of the river (walking bridges in India include bicycles, motorcycles, and the occasional cow). I was walking with another person on the tour, Elizabeth, on the bridge and she literally had a monkey jump on her back after she took a picture of it. Luckily it didn't bite her or anything...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Taj!

Truly beautiful, though not as huge as I imagined. I guess seeing all those pictures from clever angles made me think it towered above everything around it for miles. It was more along the lines of St. Peter's in Rome. Very big, but not freaky big. And so gorgeous it kind of hums.

After the Taj Mahal, we took a 12 hour taxi ride from Agra to Rishikesh in these really nice SUVs that were made to seat about 4 fewer people than the 13 in the tour. The entire way we were bouncing around in heavy traffic, passing cars while enormous trucks were blazing towards us head-on, or having to swerve to avoid cows. Sometimes the highway would suddenly drop 6 inches and turn into a dirt road full of huge potholes. Have to say though that the drivers here are amazing and while it looks like any moment could be a huge catastrophe, things seem to work out. This was good mental training for any other driving adventures I might have in India (right now we are on a 5-hour jeep ride back to Delhi - no problem!) and also made me want to take the train whenever possible.

Along the way we stopped in Vrindavan, which is home to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or the Hare Krishnas. We joined in on the Hare Krishna chant that keeps on going every day forever there. You know, a lot of people shave their heads and wear saffron robes over here so this place didn't seem unusual at all.
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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Train station hoe-down

We took the overnight train from Varanasi to Agra, and it was probably the most intense experience so far. The minute we arrived at the train station platform, a crowd surrounded us, just to stare at us. Thirteen Westerners with a mountain of luggage became the entertainment for the evening. There must have been a tight crowd around us for over two hours as we waited for our (late) train. Not threatening, more curious, but very close.

After a while Gina brought out the harmonium and we started singing and chanting to the crowd. This instantly lightened the mood and everyone became noticeably friendlier. Three women dressed in beautiful saris returned the favor and sang us a few songs as well. Suddenly I felt like I was in a musical or something. Like so many things here, this could have been a drag and turned out unexpectedly beautiful.
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Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Assi Ghat - VaranasiVaranasi

First stop on our trip has been Varanasi, which we flew to after one night in Delhi. We have been so busy for the past few days I haven't had time to blog - so much to see and do here. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and it is also one of the holiest for the Hindu faith. Ritual affects every aspect of life here and it's an amazing environment to be in.
Shiva Temple - VaranasiMain Ghat - Varanasi

The center of spiritual life here are many bathing areas or ghats where you can walk down and bathe in the Ganges river. This is a major pilgrimage site for Hindus, who believe the Ganges is literally a goddess, the "Mother". Bathing in the river cleanses you of your sins, and the most holy event would be to be cremated at one of the burning ghats along the river. This is believed by the Hindus to stop the cycle of continual rebirth.

VaranasiBazaar leading to Main Ghat - Varanasi

We have been getting up at dawn and walking down to the river to observe the morning rituals. It's beautiful early in the day here (plus it gets too hot and sticky to do much in the afternoon - not as hot as Dubai but more humid). While we were here we witnessed the end of a three week ceremony honoring your ancestors by fasting and doing rituals in the water. They also hold very large nightly ceremonies to the river at the main ghat (pictured above). The road to the main ghat is a huge bazaar, and really the biggest sensory overload I've ever experienced.

Gina - 1st night at Assi Ghat VaranasiAnoop-ji

Gina's River of Sound tour has been a truly amazing experience so far. She has arranged for us to meet with a number of master musicians and spiritual teachers that she has studied with. This has been a privilege - the gurus are some of the best musicians in India, and just wonderful, good-hearted people. We have had a packed schedule of classical Indian singing and dancing lessons or concerts, as well as going to some of the local temples and doing some chants there. I'm not an experienced singer at all and I've discovered that I really like it. I'm thinking of pursuing more lessons in the future.

The other people on the tour are all great and we've been getting along easily. Many people are on a similar voyage of self-discovery. I was a little worried about the transition from solo backpacker to organized tour but not a problem.

We took a river boat out to see the ghats at dawn, and on the way back the oarsmen couldn't row all of us against the current and we kept on running into bathers on the ghats. Gina's advice was to keep chanting this friendly local chant - she said "if we are going to run into them we can at least sing them a song" - which worked surprisingly well. The Indian temprament in general has been incredibly patient with us so far. There are of course the constant beggars, requests to take rickshaw rides or "come see my friend's garment shop", and that can be get overwhelming sometimes, but by and large it's a pleasure getting to know people over here.

Varanasi's also known for its silk and textiles so we've been getting some clothes made here. Which is a relief because my wardrobe wasn't really humidity-friendly. Been averaging about four showers a day...

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