Saturday, March 11, 2006

It must be good karma

It's nine am on Sunday morning. Normally I would be asleep on my hard matress but today I am awake. I'm not only awake but I am sitting in the meditation posture listening to a high monk lecture on the six perfections of Buddhism. The meditation cushion under me feels hard and my back aches yet my mind is held tightly in this room. The red and gold colors of the shrine room reflect off the window panes and twinkle in my eye. Out the windows to my left is the third highest peak in the world. The snow capped moutain tops reflect the glaring sun and watch over the valley below. My mind wanders from the Kempo in front of me to my aching back and pulsing foot. Then, as if something has snapped in my brain, I am once again completely present in the room, fixated on the stories and teachings I am being told. I look around at the faces of the others who are with me and can't help but think to myself how lucky I am. What did I do to deserve this? How will I explain to people who have not experienced this what it is like to sit on a meditation mat and listen to one of the great teachers of the Nyingmapa tradition. Kempo-la takes a sip of the tea that is served to him and immediately one student rises to go refill the mug. There is such ritual behind everything here. We bow when he enters the room to show respect for this great man. It is not that we revere him as a God, but we acknowledge that he has a wisdom far beyond ours-- and we are grateful that he is here to teach it. Together we do three prostrations to the Buddha to show that we are open to receive his blessings. We acknowledge that our body, speech and mind are open to learn the dharma- and that we are prepared to awaken our Buddha nature. Then we sit. We sit and we wait. Sometimes we begin right away but often there are a few moments of silence before Kempo-la speaks. Today we sat for what seemed like eternity, but as surely as the flowing river, the stories started coming and we were sucked into the great tradition that is Buddhism. The two hour talk stretches on past three hours and we are still sitting cross-legged in the shrine room. The midday sun beats down on my legs and I am reminded of the world outside our little room. All is emptiness he says. We are all completely interdependent. There is no table. There is no chair. There are no teachings-- at least none seperate from anything else in this universe. At first the teachings seem so foriegn to me, but gradually I start to see the truth in what I am taught. I try to remember that I am here for academic purposes but it is no use. I eat up the stories without thought, without knowledge. Everything seems so obvious, so real, how could it not be true? Eventually the gong rings and we dedicate all the merit we have attained for the good of all sentient beings. "By this merit may all obtain omniscence. May it defeat the enemy of wrong doing. From the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death, from the ocean of samsara may I free all beings." And then we rise, walk down the stairs and sit around for tea as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Welcome to India I remind myself.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The highest highs

Someone once told me that Varanasi would be a place where I experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows. I thought I knew what they meant, but now I realize that I had no idea. There was never a second where I thought it would be possible to be both completely content and utterly miserable at the same time. I didn't know someone could be having the best day of their life and simultaneously be completely depressed. I didn't know that both ends of the spectrum could be achieved in a matter of seconds. I felt like a pendelum swinging quickly from side to side...tick tock tick tock... I can't describe how this place plays with you. It someone completely engulfs you and within a matter of seconds spits you out a completely different person. The cycle continues day by day, minute by minute until finally you have a brief moment to sit back and look at what has happened. By that point you are too completely floored by the whole thing to even have coherent thoughts regarding them-- so you just sit and let yourself be content with whatever comes your way.

This entry is my attempt to spit back what was thrown to me...let's see how it works.

First thought: I HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME!!!
We walk outside of the train station...its six am and already there is a slew of people there to great us. Immediately we are surrounded by screaming men who promise to take us where we want to go. I want to run back into the comfort of the waiting room. I want to scream. I want to do anything but be surrounded by all these people who refuse to listen to me when I sternly turn them down. Finally we make it to the hotel, ditch our belongings and go explore. The city is waking up now. "BOAT?! BOAT?! BOAT?!" Another mob of excited men. Some are old, some are young, but all promise us the time of our lives for just fifty rupees. Whether it is a boat ride, a silk scarf, postcards, food, or beads, it seems like everyone in this city has something to sell you...and if they don't have it, their brother or sister or mother or cousin does. I say "no" for the fifth time as we pass an eager boat man but he doesn't seem to like that answer. Nevermind the beggars that are tugging at my arms or the hot sun that is beating down on me. No time to think about that. Survival of the fittest...must get away from the docks. Whew! No more boats...but don't worry, every other inch of the city is covered with undercover silk merchants who are willing to buy you chai if you promise to pay 500 rupees extra for their fake silk. no No NO NOOOOO...I can't say no enough. I don't want that dirty old postcard for 10 rupees. I told you that five minutes ago and my answer still hasn't changed. If you follow me long enough I might get pissed off enough to actually push you out of my way...who knows...10 minutes later...No I still don't want the postcard. By the end of the day I am more tired from saying no to people then I am from the actual walk. What a crazy place. The people speak English but only when you tell them what they want to hear. I don't think no is in their vocabulary.

We woke up around five am to see the sunrise over the Ganga. We actually said yes to a boatride this was fun saying yes for once. When we returned to dry land the banks of the holy river were covered with Sadhu's and devote Hindu's waiting their turn to bathe, clean, and drink of the precious water. Nobody seems to mind that I look on with eager eyes. Just like they don't mind that one hundred yards upstream there are bodies being burned in the same river that they are bathing in. For the first time since we've been here I am outside and nobody seems to notice me. It is a refreshing feeling-- finally being the watcher instead of the watched. Everyone enters the moving stream for their own reason. Some leave quickly while others take their time in the waters. The colors are a wonderful mix of pinks and yellows and greens and blues. The smells are out of this world, and the feeling is one of complete untiy with God and nature and humans. I wish that I could someone understand the majesty of this river. I wish I could believe what they believe so that bathing in it could heal whatever problems I am facing. The connection that this city has with it's landscape is amazing. I know that I am not a part of it, so I am content with sitting on the bank watching eagerly. I only wish that time would pass slower so that I didn't have to rise and actually start my day.

Thought #3: When five really means fifty
Five more minutes. That's what he said ten minutes ago. The walk along the ghats in the midday sun seems never ending but our trusty little guide friend doesn't seem bothered. Maybe it's because I haven't slept in two days but this walk seems longer then I thought it would be. We pass ghat after ghat, boat after boat until finally we reach the end. Still no Benares Hindi University...damn... "Don't worry, just five more minutes." My body just keeps walking because we don't have a choice but to reach it eventually- I just hope its sooner rather then later. A couple random alleys and busy streets later we are finally standing that the gates. This place is massive! It reminds me of stanford with buildings that are all built to look alike a roofs of blazing red. At least now we know we are close. I think our guide is going to leave us, but he keeps on walking. He promises to help us find the man we are looking for and we have no choice but to follow. He's been trustworthy so far I think to myself. We pass the main administration building and he stops to ask for directions. Fingers point left and then right and before I know it we are on out way again. Right. Left. Right. Left. I have to tell myself to keep walking because these five minutes have now turned into an hour. I look left. There is a sheet covering a dead body with fresh blood seeping through. I should be scared but I am too tired to even process it. We pick up the pace. When we are at a safe distance our friend tells us that there has been a murder. "You can read about it in the paper tomorrow" he says. All I can do is nod. This would have never happened in the US. The authorities would have that place sectioned off in no time. They would never leave a body laying on the ground barely covered and watch us walk through the crime site less then ten minutes after the incident. Welcome to India I remind myself again...where five minutes means fifty and people just keep walking.

Thought 4: Puking is Puking
Sunday morning I wake up early to go puke in the toilet. Pleasant I think to myself. I'm here for four days and I have to spend one of them puking. The thought doesn't continue for too long though because the dizziness sets in and I have to return to bed. I lay there for literally 24 hours because I couldn't stand up wtihout falling over. My only adventures were to the bathroom where I at least had a real toilet to puke in. Too bad the bottled water is all gone and I can't drink from the tap. I'm too tired to even walk downstairs to buy some more. Too bad I don't have a phone to call my friends and ask them to bring me some. I'm too tired to find a phone. Inside I wish that I was home in the comfort of my own bed, so at least I could swallow the water after I brush my teeth. This sucks.

Thought 5: Ain't no party like a Shivaratri party...
Scindia ghat, the home of our hotel and the peaceful morning scene that I witnessed, is capable of transformation. Varanasi India, the most religious city in this world, is capable of transformation. Shivaratri is a Hindu festival that out does any festival that I have ever heard of. It is a 100 km barefoot walk that men do in one day to help cleanse their karma. There is no food taken during the walk-- only water, weed and bhang lassis. Midnight before the walk starts everyone assembles at scindia ghat and parties until the clock strikes 12. No right? Yeah, that's what I thought until I was caught in a mob of high young men making there way through the narrow crowed alleys to scindia ghat. We held hands in order to stay with one another but there was no way to ward off all the hoots, hollers, and hands that found their way to us. And just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, the entire city loses power-- so now we're not only surrounded by high young boys who think that they have a right to grab us, but it is literally pitch black so we can't see them at all. Hands are flying. I am swatting constantly in order to keep them off of me. I turn around and push some of the boys behind me. No use. I catch one hand as it makes its way away from my ass--twist twist twist. The man winces and I can't do anything but smile. That'll teach him. The next guy to touch me recieves a hard slap in the face. For the first time in my life I hit someone with no remorse. How could these men who are making their way to a holy festival do this to us. It is so degrading. A couple punches, slaps, and pushes later we finally make it to the hotel. My clothes are dirty from being spit on so many times, my body feels violated and I'm in shock. The party continues below us as we make our way up into my room. I can't believe that just happened. I can't believe the craziness. From above the scene looks just as scary as it did from below. I thank god that I am out of it and one more time tell myself..."welcome to India!"

There are so many more thoughts but I've written enough. Time to go watch a movie and forget about life....whew

We Made it! Well...kind of

February 23, 2006
4:30 AM

"Mugulsari!?! Mugulsari!?!" we ask frantically. It is four am and we've just woken up. The night is dark and quiet except for our hurried yells. "Yes!" someone tells us. So up we go, grab our belongings and make our way over the sea of bodies that lay sleeping on the floor. Before I know it the train is moving agin and we are still on it. PANIC!! Lack of seems for a minute that Becc and Jess might jump. "WAIT!!" Matt screams from the back. Make a decision...we are picking up speed...what do we do? "This isn't it!" We are inbetween stops. "NO STOP!!!" we hear from behind us. So we turn around and tramp back to our seats that have already been overtaken by excited train riders. By now the whole car is awake... either because we have stepped on their precious hands or because of our loud unfamilliar voices. We wait. "Where are we?" "Why have we stopped?" "What a chaotic mess!" "How does anyone know what's going on?" Oh wait...they don't!

I take a moment to reflect on traveling experiences that I've had in the states. Nothing compares. Somehow in this mess a kind man walks off with us when we finally reach the station. "Wait here," he says "until at least six am. It isn't safe for you to be on the streets." Oh 18 hour train ride and now we are sitting in the Varanasi train station at four am...much safer. Eventually we make our way to the coed waiting room and find ourselves seat amidst the mosquitos and sleeping Indians. Only two more hours I remind myself. A rickety fan circles continually making this whole stiuation seem somewhat surreal. The walls are dirtied white tile that reminds me of a greyhound bus station.

Welcome to India I chuckle to myself.

First and most certainly not last problem to solve.... which bathroom do we use?
The signs are completely in Hindi and there don't seem to be any smiling faces here to guide us. My companions begin to drift to sleep but I am too agitated for that. It is so humorous that we are sitting- simply waiting for daylight. Welcome to India.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

On the Road Again..

February 22, 2006
Train to Varanasi

Although the beautiful colors have faded away into the darkness of night, our tran is still steadily making its way across the Indian countryside. The beggars, who earlier today were eager to stick their hands through the metal bars of the train windows are now sleeping atop old sacks of vegetables. The incessant screaming of CHI CHI and the other random merchants has also died down and it appears as if this crowd has buckled in for the evening. The humming of the old fan that finally decided to start working (now that it is dark and cold out) offers nice contrast to the methodical rolling of the uneven wheels.
We stop at a train station along the way...the name I don't know because there in no announcer to guide lost travellers. "Special chi-chi!" a boy screams as he walks by me. Apparently the quiet wasn't that valuable. I grin. "Special"-- I wonder what that means. We stop for longer then usual and I wonder what is going on in front of us. Maybe a cow is blocking our way. I wouldn't really be suprised because they walk around these villages with a sense of dignity that can't be matched by the wealthiest landowner. Maybe it is a pickpocket. That was the case at the last stop. Whatever it is, I'm sure we will be moving again shortly and we will drift away from the ragged old man who stirs his chi. I wonder what he is thinking right now. I wish that I spoke Hindi so that I could listen to the men in the next bay over who keep glancing back in our direction. What are they saying? Are they wondering what six your white kids are doing on a train in the middle of rural India? Are they laughing at how silly we look? Or how easy it would be to steal from us? Probably yes to all of the above. I guess there is some beauty in never knowing.
Men in sari's just walked by. I didn't know India had drag queens. "10 Rupees and you can have me!" they offer Matt. I wonder what that means =)
The train has started again. New men have entered who seem completely consumed by our presence here. I guess I should be used to this by now. I'm sure that we are just as wide eyed about them as they are about us. I've seen so many things today that I never imagined could exist. The stretching countryside divided into rice patty fields filled with wandering grazing cows and beautiful women clad in ornate saris. I've seen wart hogs humping and naked children splashing around in muddy water that I wouldn't dare to touch. I've seen villages of thatched roofs and towns of wild plants and exotic weeds. It is only early evening but I feel like I've finally seen the India that people told me about. Now I'm just sitting in the dark aimlessly waiting our arrival.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

February 14, 2006. 6:30 AM.

The walls are shaking. The ground is moving. Nothing seems in focus. Before I can even realize what's going on it all seems to drift away. Did that really just happen or was I dreaming? Was that an earthquake? Before I can even figure out what is going on a knock is at my door and Becca is standing there with wet hair and no shoes checking to see if I'm alright. I nod. I don't know if I do it because I'm so shocked I can't think of anything else to do, or if I'm really ok. I'm not bleeding. I'm not hurt. "It's all going to be alright..." I tell myself over and over again trying to sound convincing. Maybe if I say it with enough authority then I'll really believe that I'm not scared out of my mind. We make our way up the stairs to see who else is awake. Before we get up two flights we are joined by the rest of the gang and escorted outside to "safety". Well, I guess everything is relative. I figure outside is safe compared to the concrete structures built into the side of the mountain...but really thinking about it we are still standing under power cords draped accross tree tops on the edge of flat ground. Considering how typical landslides are just from rain I can't say that I'm too thrilled to be out here right after a major earthquake. I guess I don't really have a choice though. When in India...right?

It is funny--looking back-- how people deal with scary situations. First we check to make sure nobody is hurt... and then we laugh. I laughed at my fear as I stood on the roadside outside the Hotel Pomra. I laughed because it was the only thing that I could do to comfort myself. I laughed because I had no idea what was coming next. I just laughed. And then I waited...and waited... and waited...and then just continued on with my life.

The past month of my life I have spent learning about the Buddhist way of looking at things. I guess it is really seeping in. The first thing that I thought once I finally got my wits back was..."I wonder who just obtained enlightenment?" I couldn't help picturing Buddha sitting by his tree with Mara fluttering around him trying to break the concentration. "Why do you get to be the Buddha?" Mara asked in trickery. Instead of answering, he simply touched the ground...and the whole place shook. I lived history today. Nothing fell. Nobody was hurt. But someone, somewhere (I am convinced) realized truth.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Weekend Away

"SILIGURI! SILIGUIRI!" It seemed as if every taxi owner, friend of taxi owner, and young kid wanting to mess with us was determined to take us there. The screams followed us throughout the shared jeep lot as we made our way across town trying to find a hotel. Welcome to West Bengal!

Although the site of a bustling market, crowded streets, and colorful shops is nothing new to me, this city called Darjeeling was like entering another world. It was as if someone had taken Gangtok, moved it 90 kilometers, and doubled the population. It was an entirely new maze of alleys, of people, and of things to explore. Before any exploration could take place though it was necessary to find a problem right? Yeah, that's what I would have thought to. After our fun four hour excersion crammed in the back of a jeep holding 11 people that should have held no more then 7, we were practically tossed into the middle of downtown Darjeeling with no idea of which way to go, or who to talk to. I'm sure it didn't help that there was no place we could stand where we didn't completely stick out. So, we just started walking...the wrong way of course. Eventually we found a hotel that looked "liveable" only to find out that the rooms that were promised to us were actually under construction and no guests could problem, there are tons of other hotels in Darjeeling. So we began walking again, this time with our own personal tour guide who was supposedly taking us to a nice hotel for the same price--the only catch-- he didn't speak a word of English. We climbed a couple stairways, wound through some back alleys and eventually ended up at a hotel named Snowcapped Mountain (in Nepali of course!)

So we made our way up... let's just say you get what you pay for...150 rupees a night (roughly 3 dollars) gets you a room with no running water, a hard bed with stains and an overly friendly landlord. We thought getting there was an adventure. Little did we know how the rest of the evening would go.

I've learned the the language barrier can not only lead to potentially offensive situations but also quite funny ones. While trying to find a place where we could go listen to music at night, our landlord somehow got the impression that we wanted to hear loud music at night. He interpreted this to mean that when we got back from dinner and were trying to go to sleep it would be a perfect opportunity to blast Nepali dance music on the newly installed speakers that were set right outside our door. Of course he was completely lost and offended when we asked him to turn it off! God I love India! Oh, did I forget to mention the power that had the tendency to go off for long periods of time. I think most of our time at the hotel was spent hold candles so that we could see. Thank god all we had to do was sleep there.

Anyways, after dropping our stuff off we decided to head out and explore the town. We wound our way through the neverending bazaars, smiled at a couple of little kids, and turned down quite a few beggars. Saturday morning we woke up early and walked up to the Himalayan Mountain Institute only to find out that the price for foriegners was five times more then the price for locals. A little pissed off Becca and I decided to walk down into the tea fields that surround the entire city. It was the best decision that I've made all trip. After a couple of minutes down hill the city seemed to melt behind us. The honking of horns that never ends on the main road faded into the distance behind us. Eventually it was just us, surrounded by tea fields and butterflies. So we sat. And we watched. And we talked. And life went on around us, barely noticing we were there. What a nice change...I don't think there has been a moment where we have just blended in since we entered India. But like normally, all good things must come to an end. Eventually we had to rejoin the rest of humanity up in the madness called Darjeeling.

The rest of the weekend was anything but planned. We originally wanted to spend two nights there but Jess (the other Jessica) got sick and needed to come back. We caught the last jeep we could out of town and returned to Gangtok early. That jeep ride was even better then the last one. Five hours seems pretty long when the girl sitting next to you is vommitting up breakfast, lunch and dinner. I can't blame her though...she was really really sick...we ended up taking her to the hospital the next night. Besides, I'm starting to believe that everything happens for a reason. If she hadn't gotten sick, we wouldn't have left Darjeeling on Saturday, and then we wouldn't have been in the jeep when the driver had to pay off the policeman who was going to write him a ticket for having an extra person. It was truly an India experience! =)

Friday, February 03, 2006

Musically Inclined...or not

India Tabla: A beautiful instrument that sounds as good as it looks when the right person is playing it. The right person: certainly not me. Today was my first Indian Tabla class...if the fact that I haven't played an instrument since fifth grade doesn't say enough then I'll be forward. I am what one would call "musically challenged". It's not that I don't like music...I do...really. It's just that I can't really hear it all that well, I don't pick it up quickly, and given the chance to "jam" I think I'd have most people running for the door. I don't think it is necessary to rehash all of the two hours that Jessica and I (no I'm not suddenly refering to myself as two people- there really is another Jessica) spent with out teacher Guru Gee. Most of it was us trying to place our hands correctly on the drums- or at least close enough to get some sort of sound. The real story was the run down the mountain, weaving through countless stairways, frantically trying not to lose him. Ever run down a hill before? Yeah me either...till today...and let me tell you the broken concrete slabs soaked in sewage water aren't really condusive to bounding. We finally made it to his little house tucked away at the bottom of Derali, hidden behind stairways and mud piles after a very stressful fifteen minutes. Wow...what a crazy man...what a crazy class...what a crazy land. I guess I should just throw my hands in the air and say c'est la vie. That is life right? People completely surprising the heck out of you and then turning around and doing it again. I never would have expected my teacher to lead me through falling down tin houses in the middle of Northern India to go sit on a cold floor and be served fried veggies and chiiya. I never expected that somebody with such great talent could live in a two room house with little furniture, a curtain for a door, and a mat for a table. I never expected a lot of the things that I've seen here...but isn't that the point. Hopefully I'll get better at this thing I claim to be drumming. Hopefully this will be something that I can take with me back to the states as a memory of my time here. And hopefully in the process I can brighten the day of his little six year old boy at least twice a week =) because isn't that what its all about?

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Something to meditate on...

I was reading this really interesting article titled "The Four Foundations of Mindfulness" (yes this is the stuff that they give up mountain children to read) and I came across this really interesting argument that I haven't been able to get out of my mind all day. It stated, "So we tend to create waves of emotion which go up and down; In the beginning we create them deliberately, as a game of trying to prove to ourselves that we exist." The article continues to argue that in the end we get stuck in this bittersweet web of emotion (that is more of a hassle then a pleasure) where we are constantly trying to challenge ourselves more then we originally intended. As weird as this sounds, I haven't been able to get that out of my head all day. Is it true? Do I do that? I've approached it from every angle that I can come up with...trying desperately to prove it wrong, because if it's wrong then it's ok that I get passionate about little things, or sad about insignificant events.
Each time that I've attempted to dismantle it though I've come to the same conclusion. That is so true. Damnit! How do I know that I exist? How do I seperate myself from others? It is because I alone feel my pain; I alone feel my sadness. I know that I am a separate identity from the person sitting to my right because she cannot experience the exact same emotion that I am experiencing... and even if she could we would never be able to verify that. I need to feel emotion to know that I am alive. But why is that? Is there another way to exist? I know that Buddhism tries to teach one to separate themselves from ego... and reach this level of nonexistence as oppose to ultimate existence. All that I can think about is what happens to the body if that actually occurs. What does that feel like? Can I nonexist? I'm even stating the question in that way makes it impossible, but this stuff that I am trying to understand is so beyond ME that I can't even comprehend it. Do I even want to stop existing? If there is no me, and therefore no suffering, will there also cease to be extreme pleasure as well? All these questions...too few answers...