My first night I was tempted to stay in the comfort of my luxurious hotel. I probably spent more on this room, actually rooms, than I would need for the rest of my trip. I wanted to transition comfortably, I suppose, but this was over the top. It was room enough for an army.
The taxi that brought me there had arranged coming back to bring me to Muslim town to buy raw silk. I was tired and did not know if I wanted to leave my room, since I had paid so much for it. It was a trap. This was not me and I knew it. I decided to forge through my exhaustion and rally to town to check out silk. They brought me to a hidden store on the 3rd floor of a back street in Muslim town. I took off my shoes and walked on their middle eastern rugs surrounded by walls of decorative material. I asked for raw silk having not compared prices nor availability anywhere else. I was tired and wanted to get back to bed at a reasonable hour knowing I only had one week in this country. They had me. I was willing to pay most anything for some silk. They pulled out gorgeous earthy colors to include silver gray with hints of green as well as a burnt umber and sage green. The muslim man told me it was $40/yard. I was appalled and minimized my purchase to a few yards knowing I never paid nearly this much on other trips. He knew I was not going to shop around. I surrendered with a measly few dollar discount. He threw in a couple of soft wool scarves reminiscent of ones brought from Nepal by family. I bought a couple again paying exorbitant prices for India but I had no sense of the cost since I had not shopped around. A few days later I regretted these whimsical and extravagant purchases. However at the end of the trip, seeing that I had no time to shop, I was glad to have bought these few things.
My taxi driver busted through narrow streets with hoards of cars riding on your tail with no room for error. I commented on the insanity of driving here and he offered to let me drive. I was intrigued but too tired to partake my night of arrival. I would love to have experienced actually driving in India and in Varanasi nonetheless.
We returned to my hotel where he kindly offered that I pay less because we did not visit all establishments as discussed. I was in awe of a person who actually offered to give you money back in India. That was foreign to me. He then offered to give me a cheap ride to the airport the next morning if I needed it. I was sure the hotel had complimentary transportation to the airport but he gave me his card just in case... TBC.
Happy f------ Valentine’s Day
February 14, 2020
A country to love but also to hate...again
I always default back to trusting goodness in the world...but 15 min after arrival, I am confronted by the conniving cheating stealing corruption in the world as I notice my computer has already been been snagged from my bag still on airport grounds. It must have happened when taking a short bus to terminal 1 to catch a domestic flight. I was still very green and tired. Welcome back to this lovely land of cheaters and scam artists and haggling and harassment and so much more. I am reminded why I never wanted to come back to this f------ land....it makes me laugh though. So typical...did I actually expect it to be different?
Maybe this lovely sadhu sitting by my side can help me find some goodness here.
As much as I hate this country right now, it’s really good to leave my own. These frequent escapes place me in the reality of the world and all it’s demons and saints. Something about experiencing life’s joys and hardships gives me peace.
I had wanted to come to India for years but after my last trip in 2006, I was done and never hoped to return to northern India yet here I am again. It is reminiscent of my first day in this country 19 years ago and again I wonder, what is there to love?
Maybe I will understand by next week but I only have one week to find love for this place. I won’t expect much....Although maybe self love or love for my divine creator will grow exponentially per my psychic.
My brother always said, “you step into shit and it turns to gold.” This may be another example of that as I actually hated this computer. It seemed defective and I wanted to replace it but saw no reason. I’m wondering, “Where is the gold?” But I must give it time.
I try to get cash and the rate is crappy and then I use the machine which declares fraud so I have to make some emergency calls to my bank and I hate this country even more.
I pay a taxi with a credit card and we walk to where they are parked. I get in and start the journey to “tree of life”
and en route they tell me there is an accident. They turn around on the 3 lane highway heading the wrong way against the traffic and I wonder how does anyone get a f------ license here. It is terrifying just watching. They turn off on a side road to escape heading against traffic on the highway.
The sky is hazy as dust floats in the air. I can feel it on my lips and tongue. Thankfully I brought some masks for CORONAVIRUS precautions- a bit overkill but just to be safe. I put one on my face to not taste the dust on my tongue.
My desire to return to India or Nepal was completely extinguished after being intimately involved with Asian culture for 10 years. It no longer carried a bit of intrigue for me. I had learned and experienced what I needed to fulfill that karmic desire. Here I was again, and it was clear I was done. I don’t really know what I yearned for in the past- unless it was that I had this karma to finish up which brought me to this part of the world in the first place.
In the last year, I dreamt that I was strangely required to be present at a festival. I showed up and there was a crowd of Asian folks anticipating a marriage. A carriage was brought out with a woman draped in a sparkly red saree adorned with jewels to include a nose ring, bangles, and diamonds and wavy nearly kinky hair. I watched her betrothal to a man. I felt deep sadness for that woman knowing that this man would never love her and may not be faithful to her. I felt a deep ache for her future.
I awoke from the dream wondering what it was about. I sat with my curiosity, imagining it could have been a past life and I was that girl and had karma to complete. Maybe I always wanted to go to India to finish up what I was unable to end in a different lifetime. It made sense.
Here I find myself back in this country and I loathe it as I did in 2001, but back then, after 2 months I grew to love it. I wasn’t sure that would happen this time with just 1 week. Already the stakes were higher with much greater losses.
By Darcy Thomas
Excerpts from my journal from 2001 at 27 years old
A Country To Love But Also To Hate
Part of "Shit and Sugar All in One Breath"
My plane arrived safely in India on March 12, 2001. Everything was smooth for a few hours but only while sleeping. When I awoke, the troubles began. I had a flight to the east coast to meet up with a family connection, Jane, in Bhubaneswar. Jane was a nurse who worked at Sloan Kettering. Our family friend connected us after her husband died there. Mr. Shriya, a wealthy Indian man who lost his wife to Cancer, invited Jane as his guest in India. I joined her for the first part of my trip.
My flight to Bhubaneswar was cancelled because I did not confirm it. My plans were unraveling at the seams. There I was in Mumbai staying in a hotel that was largely out of my price range at $50 a night. I was hoping to spend more like $3 a night. I was unwilling to afford the place I was staying. Sitting outside the airport on my giant backpack, I wondered how to proceed. Emotions clenched my throat while tears dripped from my eyes. I hoped someone might feel sympathy for me and rescue me in my helplessness in this foreign land.
A seemingly compassionate auto rickshaw driver approached me from his vehicle and offered to help. I was naïve and assumed he was genuinely kind. I hopped into his auto rickshaw with my pack. We drove off in search of a more affordable hotel. Being new to India, I was not prepared for what came next.
First we visited a travel agency where I purchased a new ticket to Bhubaneswar. I was beginning to accept the price of my hotel and requested that the driver bring me back. A friend of Mr. Shriya’s planned to meet me to give me a tour of Mumbai. My driver had another plan. Unknown to me, he was looking for a commission. He continued to pressure me to find a new hotel and drove me around exploring options. I didn’t argue. None met my standards as a newbie in this foreign land. I needed to transition slowly. These rugged hotels were too much of a dive so early in the game.
I was now convinced that I needed to return to my hotel. The driver offered a guided tour of the city- anything for a rupee. He finally agreed to my endless requests and headed back to my hotel. If I had known, I would have jumped out and found a new ride.
He drove recklessly through strange neighborhoods. Burgundy streaks dripped down his white teeth. I feared it was blood. I was new to betel nut, a stimulant like chewing tobacco which stains your teeth vulgar shades of red. My heart raced and something gripped at my inner organs.
While winding through unknown back streets his rickshaw stalled. After a few attempts to restart it, he swung around and demanded all of my money. Our location was desolate with no establishments nor people nearby. I had all of my belongings. He could do whatever he wanted to me. Tears streamed down my face as I hoped for my savior again. I pulled out 200 rupees ($4) which was what the meter read. His face turned crimson matching the drool from his mouth. I imagined smoke blowing out of his ears as he fumed with anger. He demanded 1000 rupees ($20-25). The average annual income in India at that time was 1500 rupees. Facing the possibility of rape, robbery, or murder, I pulled out 700 rupees and shakily handed it to him. He snatched the money from me wanting to end the battle and waved down the next passing auto rickshaw. After a short verbal exchange between drivers, he shuffled me into the other vehicle. My new driver appeared confused. He whipped his rickshaw around the corner immediately entering the gate of my hotel. No wonder he was so confused! We were only a block away.
I was shaken, eyes wet with tears. The hotel attendants yelled at my new driver, but he was not the one who robbed me. That evil driver had planned his escape to avoid this trouble. After encouraging the hotel employees to leave this poor guy alone, I resettled into my hotel and waited for Mr. Shriya’s friend to give me a guided tour.
In that moment, all I felt was an intense urge to get the fuck out of this country and never come back. My mother’s words, “You will love India, but you will also hate it,” were only partially true. What was there to love? I would understand in time.
Spirituality Wrought With Corruption
Part of "Shit and Sugar all in One Breath"
Being in India felt like I was the middle of a battle field or watching an old film where the characters played parts from ancient times. Natives squatted with bent knees and mixed foods with antiquated tools in short crawl spaces. Hindi and other local languages rolled off of their tongues. I felt more like an outsider than I ever had before despite having traveled through more than 20 countries.
Locals rode by on bikes with adjoining carts interspersed with wandering cows, auto rickshaws, automobiles all heading in dense traffic together. Flies circled beggar’s rotting wounds. Some revealed stumps for hands, arms, or legs. They waved their scarred partial limbs at me as I passed by. Soiled mothers and children with paper thin sarees pulled on my sleeve chanting, “Mommy…Milk… Baby? Milk…Baby?” There was no lack of food here but unsanitary conditions making food inedible.
When on the train, I passed gloomy faces of adults and children scattered on the streets wrapped in blankets sleeping anywhere there was space. Locals watched me intensely, the pale foreigner wearing different dress. I gazed back thinking they would turn away, but it was not rude to stare. Soon enough, 100 white eyes were looking at me. The mere presence of their stares drained me. Christians, Sikhs, Jain, Hindus, Buddhists surrounding me were all on a spiritual path, yet corruption ran deep.
A Place Of Comfort Amidst The Chaos
Part of "Shit and Sugar all in One Breath"
It was March 22, 2001. I had now been in India for about 10 days. The first week was a rapid tour of Mumbai, Benaras, and Agra. Mr. Shriya funded everything as I traveled with Jane. It was a safe way to enter India but not my style. I was happy to carry on solo from Delhi. They dropped me at the bus to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. I thought I wanted to stay with them, to be in the comfort and safety of their plan, but I had traveled enough to know I didn’t really want that. It was time to forge my own path on my limited budget. I no longer had Mr. Shriya to protect and guide me. I was free. Despite my financial struggles, that was where I liked to be.
I arrived in Dharmsala only to find millions of visitors there for the Dalai Lama's teachings. I came to see Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, the Dalai Lama's former Tibetan physician. I read about him in the book, "In Exile from the Land of Snows." He had magical abilities to sense someone's life story and health limitations just from feeling the pulse.
With all of the foreigners visiting to see the Dalai Lama, rooms were unavailable. I would need to venture out beyond Dharamsala to find accomodations. I had heard that Dharamkot, a small town 20 minutes uphill closer to the foothills of the Himalayas, had rooms. After the short journey up a path through the woods, I arrived in Dharamkot where I ran into Brendon. We were neighbors on the bus to Dharamsala from Delhi. After the 8 hour ride together we felt comfortable sharing a room and a king sized bed.
The next day, I ventured down to Dharmsala to see Dr. Yeshi Dhonden. I encountered a long line of local Indians waiting for his services. When I reached the front of the line, Dr. Yeshi Dhonden stood beside me in his maroon gown, the dress of a Tibetan monk, something he had been since the age of 5. I felt his warmth as he cradled my hand in his own. He reached his fingers to feel the pounding in my wrist while mumbling some Tibetan words to his assistant. She asked me to open my mouth and stick out my tongue. From my readings, I knew he was inspecting it for divets, ridges, spots, and discoloration. I was then requested to urinate into a cup. Holding it up to the sunlight, he investigated its appearance for bubbles which floated or sank. I was handed a bag of small, hard, brown pellets that looked like goat poop, typical Tibetan herbs gathered from the mountains and compacted into a ball. They quickly nudged me out the door. My problems were minuscule relative to others waiting in line. I had hoped to apprentice with him yet he was far too busy and inaccessible. After my appointment, I returned up the hill to my abode.
Each morning I gathered at the local restaurant with Israeli's, Brits, and others from various parts of the world but rarely another American. My morning breakfast consisted of ginger pancakes or eggs scrambled with vegetables and hot water with fresh chunks of ginger. I rarely spent more than a dollar.
While sitting at breakfast with my British friend Mark, we gazed across the dusty road to the gates of the Vipassana meditation center and wondered what it was like, how folks were doing in there, what sort of chaos they were experiencing if any. It was as if they were doing some mind altering drugs during the 10 day retreat. I wondered with fascination, wanting to experience it myself but also terrified having never meditated a day in my life.
This one day we observed a group of foreigners, mostly Israeli’s, exiting from the center. They joined us at our table. Israeli’s were often traveling the world after their year or 2 of military duty. Inquisitive as I was, I asked about their amazing enlightening experiences during this silent meditation. I continued to hear how transformative it had been for each of them.
With three months and no plan, I contemplated doing Vipassana now but I did not want to be in the cold of Dharamsala silently freezing for 10 days. I opted to find a warmer locale to dive into my inner psyche.
Rumors traveled about a beautiful hike to the snowline of the foothills of the Himalayas. I decided to check it out. After ascending 30 minutes from Dharamkot, I encountered a small guest house. Four single rooms were nestled between two small mountains facing white speckled jagged peaks. Each room contained a simple cot and a window that opened to the Himalayas. The owner was a thin tall attractive Indian man with a moustache. I watched him sweep the common area as a few foreigners sat at the dining table under the open sky and read or wrote in a journal. I was drawn to the tranquility being up here away from everything.
Continuing on my journey, I passed 3 chai stops selling crackers, tea, rice, dahl, omelettes, and chapati. It no longer surprised me to see such huts. They were only reachable via paths barely 2 feet wide situated along jagged cliffs that dropped into an abyss. The last one I visited sat across from a hidden waterfall and was called the Magic View Café. It was open half of the year. All day long, the locals watched travelers pass by as the clouds rolled in and out of the sky. It was a peaceful and simple existence, one Westerners would struggle to maintain.
Back in Dharamkot the next morning, I discovered Sharat Arora. He was an Indian man who had trained in Iyengar yoga by BKS himself. He lived down a small hill in a wooden cabin in Dharamkot with his German wife and children. He offered Iyengar yoga intensives for visitors lasting 5 days. Each day involved 3 hours of yoga boot camp. Since I had no plans other than seeing Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, I signed up with Sharat.
At the same time, I sadly bid Brendan and my other new friends goodbye and moved up to the house facing the foothills. I was reluctant to leave the comfort of my new friends, but I would only stay in fear of facing my own solitude.
To deal with the cold up there, I bought a red blanket and a heater which looked like a toaster oven. I cozied up in my bed, turned on the heat, and opened my window to the open air facing the mountains. I painted with watercolors and jotted down stories about my experience in India.
The one commitment I had for the next 5 days included yoga with Sharat so I hiked 30 minutes down to Dharamkot each day. Sometimes I’d visit with my friends before attending the 3 hour yoga workshop. However rigorous the training, it became the foundation of my future yoga practice.
Our yoga room was more like a tent on a hard wooden surface with canvas hanging above and beside you. He was loathed by many students. It was his goal to destroy the ego.
Style is mostly about the language people use to describe one’s actions. He taught by relaying the need to pound the tripod of the foot, including the heel and ball mounds, into the ground. I resonated with his style.
He ordered us to do a specific yoga posture then sauntered around the room yelling, “Squeeze your buttocks like you have a pencil between your butt cheeks! Tighten your quadriceps! Keeps your hips parallel! Ground your heels and ball mounds into the ground!”
Other times he showed us how to invert into a shoulder stand then would demand, “Hold it 10 minutes...uh that person came out of the position! The clock starts over!” Ten minutes would progress to twelve then fifteen then twenty minutes. We often were in shoulder stand well over 20 minutes waiting for everyone to hold it long enough. I gave up and started counting to 600 declaring that I had been in the position for a full 10 minutes. I refused to invert my body any longer.
We stood in warrior one while he screamed, “Tighten your quadriceps!” He proceeded to punch us in the quads. If you were contracting your muscles it did not hurt. If your muscles were flaccid, it hurt like hell. Despite the pain from his yoga boot camp, everyone felt stronger and more balanced after his sessions.
Part way through he said, “You can go and do all of those fancy yoga postures but you don’t need them. These basic poses are all you need for health and wellness! Do these for an hour and a half every day and you will be healthy!” I found what he said to be true, although one could do his postures for 20 minutes and still find great health benefits.
One participant asked Sharat what other modalities he recommended. He replied, “You have to find what works for you! I had my days of trying everything. I did tai chi and weight lifting, but then I chose yoga. If you are looking to make a well and you dig many holes, you may never find water but if you dig one big hole, you will eventually find water.” Yoga was the hole he chose to dig. We each had to choose our own.
My current home in the hills of Dharamkot was peaceful Buddhist territory. It was unlike the rest of India which was dirty and chaotic. I contemplated what next. “If I spend all of my time here, I’m not seeing what I came for. I need to see the real India. It is too comfortable here.” I was ready to be challenged. I decided to head back to the chaos.
The parts of India that I hated most ran through my thoughts. I visualized beggars with missing body parts or soiled homeless/ghetto parents using their dirty and purposely damaged children to ask for a rupee. The worst part was feeling like I had to ignore them to get away from them. Otherwise, I was coerced into giving money out of guilt which propagated the problem. The billions of beggars were legitimately hungry needing amenities to survive, not drugs to feed their addiction which was often the case at home. This was harder to walk away from, but I couldn’t help the billion folks who needed it. I was at a loss but I was also choosing to go back to this.
I dreaded my return but was also excited to experience something different. I felt like I was living in the comfort of Mr. Shriya again. It was comfortable and safe but I wanted to learn from the challenges.
The Golden Temple
Punjabi's were a very different breed from other Indians. The primary religion is Sikhism. A Sikh refers to any human being who believes in one immortal being. Those who are initiated have uncut hair wrapped in a turban or kesh and wear an iron or steel bracelet called a kara. They wear cotton underpants, kachehra, and carry a sword, a kirpan, and a small wooden comb, a kanga. From what I observed, they lived joyful open lives.
While vacating the tranquility found in the Buddhist home of Dharamsala, I entered the land of the Punjabi's. En route to Amritsar, the land of the Golden Temple, a pilgrimage site for Sikhism, the weight of the familiar Indian personality and presence was lifted. I felt lightness emanating from those around me. Amidst the crowded chaos, a peacefulness was present there. I was still confronted with intense looks but instead of staring with blank fearful expressions, they returned a smile.
On my bus, a Sikh with his tall turbine chatted with 2 women amidst bouts of laughter. We made eye contact and surprisingly they shared a smile. I felt refreshed and less trapped in my body. Here I was able to be me. In other parts of India, I felt imprisoned in my body. Laughter or smiles brought on letcherous gazes. Hundreds of white eyes stared at me in public places never to crack a smile. It drained me.
I was taken to the Golden Temple in a bike rickshaw when I arrived in Amritsar. The Golden Temple was located in the center of a manmade pool with a path around it. The temple was constructed of copper and marble coated with a golden foil. Families took religious pilgrimages here to walk around the pool of water chanting and singing and praying. Inside the temple puja was offered which was a clump of sweet dough consisting of butter, sugar and flour.
There was another temple beside the main one dedicated for people to stay for free. With 100,000 daily guests to the temple, many brought sleeping bags and camped out on the temple floor. I joined in on the party and stayed in the area where all the foreigners resided.
The making of the food was another process. As a non Sikh, praying and chanting was not something I could do all day. I wandered to the front porch of the langan or community Sikh kitchen. A group of Sikhs were peeling pees. I joined in to help.
Next I ventured inside the langan where food was being made. A Sikh with a turban stood with a spoon taller than his body and stirred a pot of dahl that spanned 5 feet diameter and about 4 feet tall.
Another group of Sikhs sat on the ground rolling dough into a ball slightly smaller than a tennis ball. When finished, they threw it to the center. Another person placed a ball onto one of the many round wooden boards. With a rolling pin in hand, he or she would roll it flat into a chapati and then throw it into a pile. Another Sikh would heat the flat dough over a fire pit then flip it until the dough was cooked on both sides. The chapati was placed into a basket to be passed out at the next dining session.
Every hour, the langan opened its doors for free food. Nearly five hundred guests filed into the dining hall seating themselves in rows on the floor. A volunteer walked quickly by tossing each guest a metal plate. Another volunteer would walk through with a bucket pouring each guest’s plate with a ladle of dahl. The last volunteer passed through with a basket of chapati and threw each person a piece of bread. Every hour the process repeated and everyone was welcome. I was grateful for this blessing of free food, yet it was hard to not feel like a pig in a corral waiting for my slop.
It was a refreshing change to be in the land of the Punjabi’s. I still got many stares and requests for a photograph, but the people were smiling and joyful. It was ok to smile back here. That was a relief.
Part of "Shit and Sugar all in One Breath"
Excerpt from 4/1/2001: INDIA
One night back in Delhi I returned from a gathering at the ashram of the hugging saint, Ama. It was about 11 pm. I ran into a man named Peter who I had met in Dharamsala. He liked to smoke, drink chai, and hang out with the locals. I sat on the sidewalk beside him needing water to take my Tibetan herbs. I ordered hot ginger from the man with the chai cart in the street. Even at this hour, there were people everywhere. It was like New York, a city that never sleeps although you might feel as though you went back in time.
While drinking my tea, a boy crawled over to me. He pulled himself with his arms and slid along on his buttocks. His thighs projected out perpendicular to his sides and his calves folded underneath them like mere bones with no meat. His feet twisted in the other direction opposite that of his calves. He wore a pair of army pants torn off at the knees. The pants were tied in knots at the bottom and shredded above from all of the wear. He wore an old blue soiled t-shirt. While approaching me, he asked, "Madam, Chai? Chai madam? Chai?" I said, "OK" and went to pay for my drink and his. He proceeded to ask me for money for new pants. I looked at him kindly with no response. As always I wanted to give, but I did not know what to say because everyone legitimately needed something.
Peter then turned my attention to an old woman begging by my side. She rubbed her saree together mumbling to me in Hindi. She was asking me for money to buy a new saree. I thought about the new clothes I throw out each year because I never wear them. These people begged for something to keep them covered. She was filthy and the saree was thin as paper. I looked at her and she returned a gaze with her dark brown sunken eyes. The whites were yellow and tired. She turned away maybe from guilt or shame about having to beg her whole life to survive.
I looked back at the boy who spoke English quite well which surprised me for a street person. He stopped begging for pants and started to converse with me. “Madam, which country?” I told him. “Madam, your name?” I asked him his name. I thought he said “Sadhu.” When I repeated it, he laughed and said, “No Madam, Radu!” He turned around and pointed to a man in an orange cloth with a bucket to collect alms and said, “Sadhu.” Then he pointed to himself and said, “Radu”. I laughed.
Of course I wanted to know his birthday. I asked him and he shook his head, “No”. I asked him again thinking he did not understand me. He shook his head again, “No”. I asked him how old he was and he said, “18”. I laughed not believing him, but then I realized I was fooled by his small stature due to not having legs. He had legs but unlike any legs you see in my country. He asked me how old I was and then a question I heard often, “Madam, you married?” I sat in silence not wanting to lie and not wanting to tell the truth. I looked at him as if I did not understand him. “Madam, you married?” I still did not respond as it might bring up a conversation I did not feel like having. “Madam, you speak English? I speak English. I speak Hindi. You crazy, Madam. You speak English?” I chuckled again. He had a bright perfect smile and a round head like the character on Mad Magazine but dark like an Indian. He had the same bowl haircut and glowing white eyes. Once again he said, “Madam, you married?” I did not answer. There was an Indian man sitting next to me who was my age. Peter had left. Radu proceeded to ask me to marry this man by my side.
I tried to find out his birthday once more. He nodded “no” once again. I surmised that he was born and abandoned never knowing his parents or the date of his birth. I wondered, Did he have abandonment issues, depression? He would if he lived in the US. Those issues were for the privileged. He was too busy trying to survive. I was amazed by this boys charm, humor, and kindness despite his lifestyle, but what did I really know about him anyways.
How easily people got around despite their physical limitations. They adjusted to what they were given. Another man with his calves chopped off walked normally on his stumps as if nothing were wrong. Talking with Radu was one of the first times I was able to have a conversation with someone from such a world. They usually did not speak any English nor I any Hindi for us to communicate.
Usually they conveyed guilt in the tourists as they tried to get a spare rupee. Why shouldn’t they. We had so much more.
Radu exuded immense joy at least on the surface. I wondered about happiness. Maybe money was not that important. Ideally we have our basic needs met like food, water, shelter, and good health. Despite what he lacked, he seemed to find enough elements of joy in life to create a smile. Where did this joy come from, I wondered. Maybe happiness came from inside, from being at peace, from accepting what one had and not expecting from others.
Many travelers get lost here with the wandering sadhus, lost in the spirituality. A lot of it is real but there is also a lot of bullshit.
I hated not being able to trust anyone and being a woman alone in India. There were other travelers but if you didn't know them, you were still alone. It was not that I didn’t feel safe here. It was just harder than anything I had ever experienced. The constant harassment and begging was draining. No matter what, it filled me with guilt that I would carry until long after I returned home again.
I talked with some travelers who did a vippasana meditation retreat and had just finished. I decided to head there to be in total silence for ten days. I had never meditated a day in my life. I knew I would be challenged in a different way that I preferred at that time.
As exhausting as it was outside of Dharamsala, I was glad I left Buddhist Country because it was so easy. It would have given me an unrealistic vision of what India was like. It was not India there. It was a respite from all of the chaos which was much needed.
I took a break in Rishikesh where I walked along the ganga to the next little town. On my journey I passed vendors selling popcorn and chiclets, sadhus wearing bright orange gowns, women in sarees holding their childrens’ hands, and cows grazing on anything edible. I stopped and sat on the rocky shore of the ganga and read. It was finally quiet and peaceful.
A group of boys traveling to Rishikesh for a religious vacation with their families ran up to me. First a boy with a camera asked to have "a snap". I said, "Ok,” but it was not that simple. Suddenly a large group of 15 boys miraculously appeared. They crowded around me squeezing themselves into a tight clump beside and nearly on top of me. My peace was disrupted. The first boy who initially asked for a “snap” reached his arm around me and gestured for me to do the same. I ignored his request. Then he said, "Kiss please." I was overwhelmed by the complete destruction of the peace and solitude I had just experienced. I felt invaded in so many ways. Sometimes I could handle being the main tourist attraction in this country, but not anymore. All of these people appeared out of nowhere to demand more than I wanted to give. I stood up, immature in my reaction, and stormed off feeling completely frustrated. My hatred for this country ascended to an all-time high. I missed my home. This was seemingly small, but I could not take it anymore. The harassment was wearing on me. I was constantly stared at by everyone. I rarely met someone I could talk to.
Part of Shit and Sugar all in One Breath
Below: Written in March/April 2001 after Vipassana Meditation in Dehra Dun India
I am still trying to digest the past 10 days. I have so much spinning in my head after 10 days of sitting for 10 hours each day and thinking or trying not to think that it is really hard to try to communicate the experience to everyone.
I could not read. I could not write. I could not speak. I could not smile nor show any acknowledgement of others. There were 10 women and 25 men. We had separate eating quarters and sleeping quarters and walking areas. We entered the Dhamma Hall (meditation hall) in separate areas. The room was split by an imaginary line separating men and women. When you do Vipassana, you take 5 precepts: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no use of any intoxicants. That part was easy.
The first 3 days we spent 10 hours focusing on the breath, and not trying to control our unruly minds. On day 3, we began vipassana meditation where we spent 10 hours a day concentrating on our sensations, our cravings, our aversions, and our pain. We heightened awareness of our body by tapping into our sensations from our head to our fingers and toes. Through meditation, we felt blind spots and sharp sensations soften. It may not sound so bad, but for me it was hell.
At this time, vipassana meditation felt like the greatest challenge of my life, but 8 years ago when lost in the Andes on an ice climb with six loads of shit trapped in my leggings fearful for my life, one might argue that that was the hardest, most challenging experience in my life, but I can’t compare. Looking back, the harshness of my challenging experiences fades as does this very experience.
Here is a small piece of writing I did while trapped in that hell on day 7 and illicitly took out a piece of paper and wrote.
“While I was learning to meditate, I realized that I am prone to all five causes of suffering: craving, aversion, drowsiness, agitation, and doubt.
I was craving home, swimming in the ponds, running in the woods, hanging out with friends, working in restaurants, and working on my home. I planned all the work I wanted to do on my apartments. I was creating a mental list of everything I needed to do when I got home: call this repairman, apply for this scholarship, pay these bills, etc. Then I realized that this is what you meditate for, to get rid of these obsessive thoughts, and I was adding to them and making them more complicated. My head started to hurt. Then I started thinking I was getting a tumor from thinking too much.
If I was not craving a hamburger, a piece of chicken, Korean food, or an ice cream, I was having major aversion problems, wanting to avoid a pain in this knee, a pain in this ankle, a pain in my shoulder or my lower back, a pain in my jaw or an itch in my skull. I started imagining ants in my hair creating a nest which then became lice or other nauseating insects.
Less so, but when I wasn’t agitated, I was yawning, slumping over, thinking it has to have been an hour by now. I wanted to run out the door to clean my nails. I thought, “Isn’t it over yet?” anticipating the next five minute break between sittings.
I wanted to get up every five minutes to file another nail, scratch my hair, pumice my feet. I have never known body and clothes cleanliness until this week. People were cleaning out their backpacks. I washed my shoes and each and every article of clothing about five times. My nails were filed three times a day. My hair was brushed, braided, twisted into all kinds of knots. I could do nothing except a few things and I did them with dedication, determination, washing every stitch, preening and plucking and picking every nail, hair, pore on my body that needed it or not.
I did not doubt the teacher or the teachings too much but as Goenka (the teacher from the video) said on day six, “You may doubt yourself thinking, ‘well maybe this works for a lot of people, but maybe this is just not for me. Maybe this is just not the right time now.’” I had to laugh, because every day I had these thoughts multiple times allowing myself to not concentrate, to float off into another day dream, to not try harder, to give me a reason to take out a book and start reading, to write in my journal, or to do any of the things they really discouraged doing because they would interfere with the practice.”
In the beginning I looked forward to day five thinking that would be the half way point and it would be downhill from there, but when day five arrived, all I could think was, “Are you f------ kidding me? I have to go through another five days of this hell!!!” It kept getting worse.
On day seven, I had a momentary revelation during an hour of meditation. The sun was shining. In the heat, I felt a halo of coolness around me. An intense energy flowed through my head. Sharp sensations dulled and melted into one large subtle sensation running through my body. I felt a vacuum sucking every thought from my head so I could be in the moment.
I assumed, “Yes, I got it!! I can feel it!! I am reaching enlightenment! I can feel no pain!!” But that was not what Goenka was teaching. When I lost it, this wave of heaviness sank on my head. When I closed my eyes, I started to spin. During one of my two brief sessions with the meditation teacher, I asked him about this. He chuckled and replied, "You are trying too hard." Having never meditated a day in my life, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel.
I thought the last two days would get easier, but they only got worse. I shifted uncomfortably on my sit bones. I moved from cross legged to bent knee positions every few minutes. Minutes felt like hours. Sleep was strained as my body could not distinguish meditation from rest. With eyes closed, my head went into cartwheels. Sitting was an arduous task more taxing that insulating a house or digging tree holes in the hot sun. I’d prefer anything to just sitting.
On day eight, the clouds rolled in. The sun was completely gone. The rain started. Thunder came. I could not bear another hour where Goenkaji told us to sweep through the body feeling subtle sensations. I could not concentrate on the blind spots nor pay attention to the gross sharp sensations. I was done.
On day nine, I tried to bring my awareness to a blind spot that had been ever present in my upper back during the meditation. It was a place I injured back in college after a 25 mile bike ride. My friend and I decided to jump off of a 40 foot bridge into the water. He told me to watch the horizon as it was less scary. I did, but I also watched my feet and noticed I was lying flat the moment before hitting the water. The entire back side of my body was bruised. From that day onwards, I had a point of pain in my back, in the heart meridian, that radiated to my neck and head and caused migraines. Rather than becoming a drug addict to hide my pain, yoga became an essential management tool.
That moment in meditation, my awareness approached the area near my left shoulder which had been a blind spot. However, it shifted to an ache which started to ooze into my lower skull. “Oh, No!” I thought. A migraine was building. I only knew how to cure it with a good run and yoga. I was trapped with the pain. “This meditation is supposed to be healing! What the hell! This is not healing! It is making me sick!” were my immediate thoughts.
For that last hour of meditation with one easy day left on day ten, I tried to run, to get away, to free myself from this hell, this prison, even if just for the night. When I jumped one of the walls and followed the path, there was a road leading to nowhere and gates on all sides. I could push through the bushes, but there were snakes out there. I was trapped. I had to go back. Like a dog with his tail between his legs, I walked through the front gate and directly to my room.
A volunteer approached me in my room. She was advised to bring me back to the dhamma hall. I was crying. She spoke to me, “Are you ok?” Clearly, I was not.
“I feel like I’m going crazy,” I replied.
“You are not doing vipassana unless you feel that way,” she reassured me.
Little did I know how much it would affect me to have someone talk to me, to acknowledge my presence. She led me back to the dhamma hall as was her job. I was hyperventilating. I sat down, sobbing. It was inappropriate for me to be there during this silent attempt at absolute stillness. I wasn’t even close to that.
When the hour finally ended, I saw my roommate, Irene, slip into our room and then out again. She had left a glass of pink and yellow flowers from the tree out back in the small space between my bed and the window sill. They brightened the drab gray room which contained a simple cot and white sheets. I stepped outside and picked a small orange flower and lay it by her bed. I knew I would make it through.
On day ten during the last one hour meditation, I sat more peacefully. As I did one last awareness of breathing and sweeping sensation through my body, the blind spot in my upper back near the left shoulder was gone. The simple or not so simple act of breathing and awareness helped my pain. As a budding osteopath, this lesson would carry with me as long as I would remember. The rain had finally stopped as the noble silence ended and the storm went out of my head.
Part of Shit and Sugar All in One Breath
The phrase many people told me since I came here, "It is really hard to come to India, but it is even harder to leave India" rang more and more true to me as I approached the end.
After recovering from Vipassana, I returned to Delhi. While I was on the train, I noticed a man out my window on all fours crawling along the ground on his hands and one knee. The other leg was suspended above ground and appeared to be slowly disintegrating revealing his tiny calf bone. His feet were twisted inwards 90 degrees. I watched him through the tinted windows of the train as he crawled along with a limp, dragging the one functioning but also deformed leg.
I then noticed a group of monkeys passing by in a row, maybe a baby following the parents. When I first arrived in India, they were so cute. Quickly I experienced them stealing my fruit, and heard stories of them breaking into living areas, ruining furniture, crawling through trash, throwing it everywhere, and destroying gardens and fruit trees. They were mere pests now.
They reminded me of children begging, hanging on your clothes, pulling you, following you until you gave them a few rupees. They too, sadly, had become pests to me. As time passed and my energy waned, I was just trying to survive. I watched local Indians whack the head of beggars or grab them by the hair as if they were a bad dog or cat crawling on the kitchen table. At first I was horrified watching this, but then I started to develop my own coping mechanisms.
Last night I talked to this traveler who also always dreamed of going to India. He almost left after 2 weeks of being here. He hated it. We were discussing why India made us so tired all the time. I never understood why I took 3 naps a day yet could sleep well at night after doing nothing all day. I thought it was digestive problems but after talking to him I realized it was not that at all. He had no intestinal complaints yet also felt exhausted every day. It was like I felt as a kid where I could not keep my eyes open any longer, and my parents had to carry me half asleep to bed. That was how I felt in India every day. I would fall asleep at the most random moments or struggle to keep my eyes open when the day had just begun.
He reminded me that every time we did anything like cross the street to buy a bottle of water, we were bombarded with so many hassles. We had to dodge auto rickshaws, bike rickshaws, bikers, cows, people rushing by, or anything that would knock you over without a second thought. You had to be aware of the ground to make sure you didn't step into a pile of human or cow dung or a 5 foot ditch. You needed to ward off beggars and sadhus, people selling you chai, hash, Siva stickers, hand-made bags, anything made in India. People would try to get you to use their tour company. Others asked you, "Your name? Which country? You married?" and numerous other questions if you let them. When you finally crossed the street to get some water, you had to bargain with the seller to make sure they were not ripping you off. You’d try to get away without them selling you juice, toilet paper, shampoo, or any other product they carried. Finally you had your water and were totally exhausted ready for a nap. Yet you just woke up. Here I was wondering why India made me so tired when every day I had to buy 3 meals, a couple of bottles of water, and possibly take a rickshaw to another part of town to check something out each action requiring just as much work as buying a bottle of water plus more.
In Delhi I had been thinking about going back to the states and comparing how that would feel. When I imagined myself back in New York City wandering the streets, I would wonder, "Where have all the people gone?" It would feel empty in comparison. I would pass by a beggar I saw every day on my way to work on the corner of 8th street and 6th avenue. I would look at him and think, "What is your problem? What are you worried about? You have both of your legs?" I would also feel liberated being able to smile without worrying about people leering at me in return. I could wear my clothes comfortably and buy a bottle of water without feeling totally exhausted.
These last few days in Delhi, I borrowed a tape recorder from another traveler and walked through the ghetto of Pahar Ganj. I wanted it all: the horns blaring from auto rickshaws, the cows mooing, the beggars begging, the music blasting, the harassment surrounding me. I wanted to record it all to remember how crazy this experience was for me. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by it, I felt empowered. The recorder and the desire to have and experience it all allowed me to waltz through the streets without feeling a hint of stress.
For the first time in 2 months, I felt sad to leave. I could finally handle it. It had been a living hell, but I was just starting to love it. India brought out the animal in me. It was a struggle for survival that put you in the moment. There was no past nor future to dwell on. I had to learn to join in the stampede or I’d get trampled. Finally my mother’s words, “You will love India but you will also hate it” were fully realized.