Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ashram life

India is a land of religious and spiritual devotion. With Hinduism, Muslim, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and a handful of other religions I have never heard can't go far without coming face to face with it. It is in the people, the buildings, the streets, rivers, animals, music, movies, art, and tourists. Even the people who aren't as devout as others (such as my tour guide DJ), religion is still a part of their foundation of life.

I for one, did not come to India on some crazy spiritual life quest. However, many people travel here for this reason find a religious or spiritual path different from the mainstream West. Some are just on a 2 week holiday where they cram as much spirituality in as they can, while others nestle into a few years of the Indian lifestyle. You don't have to travel far to find a deep philosophical conversation or a temple to kneel in.
As my long journey is coming to an end and my traveling patience is getting shorter and shorter, I decided to enroll myself into a yoga ashram to tone things down a bit. I had no prior plans to do this and no idea what to expect. But since 1,000s travel to this country on a spiritual basis, I figured what better time then now to give it a whirl.

For the past 2 weeks I enrolled myself into the Sivananda Yoga Ashram in South India

The first day was totally confusing for me as I wandered around trying to get into grips about the place I just entered. There were a few programs going on at the same time so about 300 people were living in the ashram. I met some other people and set up my space in the woman's dorm room. At around 5:45pm I heard a bell ring. This was to signify that it was almost dinner time. I walked to the dining hall and stood in line. When we entered the hall I saw rows and rows of reed mats with metal plates and cups lined down them. You had to sit on the floor cross-legged and eat with your hands (right hand preferably) in silence. The meal was a watery vegetable soup and 2 fermented rice biscuits. Of course, the fat girl in me was like..."Dear God, I am going to starve for the next 2 weeks." I sat in silence and picked through the food....staring at all the people around me.

After dinner, we all had to attend what is called the Satsang. This includes mediation and devotional chanting. This night was unique though, because they had built this fire pit surrounded by offerings to the Hindu gods. We meditated for only a few minutes and then everyone started chanting these Sanskrit Hindi songs and swaying back and forth. Some people were shaking the tambourine or playing bongo drums and really getting into it. After about 30 minutes of chanting people took offerings and threw them in the fire. After that, they kneeled on the ground in a praying position towards the fire and did some weird ritual head bobs and hand gestures. It was one of those moments in my life where I thought to myself..."If only my family could see me now." I was in the back of the crowd taking it all in and waiting for the Swami to say the world was going to end and then bring out a bowl of punch for all of us to drink. I was seriously feeling uncomfortable and didn't know what to do. I tried to keep an open mind....but it was hard for me to simply follow everyone else....especially since I didn't know who or what we were making the offerings to. Obviously, they were giving offerings to the Hindu gods and since I was not Hindu I did not feel the need to bow and pray to them. I was feeling a bit when I knelt I just thanked mother nature and prayed for the health and safety of my family. You have to pay a minimum of 3 days when you enter, so I knew I would stay for that amount of time at least. Hopefully the orientation the next morning would ease my discomforts.

The following day I went to the orientation. Our teacher, whose "spiritual" name was Janaki, introduced the ashram lifestyle and rules to us.
The main rules were no alcohol/tobacco/drugs, strict vegetarian diet, no fornication, dress conservatively, lights out at 10pm, and the most important.....attend all classes each day.
The routine was rigorous and included 4 hours of yoga, 4 hours of meditation/chanting, 1 hour of karma yoga (a job you are assigned within the ashram), 2 meals, and a 1 hour lecture. The day started at 6am and ended at 10pm. Attendance to all of these were mandatory in order to remain in the ashram so it made for a long and busy day. After she went over all the details, she relaxed her shoulders, lightened her tone and smiled. She said " I know a lot of you are out of your comfort zone right now. For some, this is your first time to India and your first time in an ashram. An Ashram is a retreat. You are retreating from your normal life back home...from work, family, and society. This time is for is your time to learn and gain knowledge from your teachers and peers spiritually, mentally, and physically. It is up to you how much you want to gain. Some things we will do will be very different then you are used to. I just ask one thing from you....allow yourself to be here these next 2 weeks. Open your mind and take this opportunity for yourself. It may not all make sense to you right now, but someday you may look back and understand it in a different light or experience. Mastering Yoga is not something you can do in just 2 weeks....but what you gain here will help with your foundations."
I immediately felt better. She tapped into all the weird emotions I was having and her ease and openness relieved me. She seemed quite normal and not some radical cult leader. But then my skepticism clicked in again and I figured that David Koresh was probably a really captivating person and eased people into his beliefs as well. Then Ted Bundy and his charming personality flashed in my mind and I began to fidget again.
Open mindedness versus skepticism battles broke out in my head, but finally I relaxed and decided to be open to learning. I reiterated to myself that it was my choice to be here. It didn't mean I had to start praying to Hindu gods or go spend 5 years meditating in a cave somewhere.....It just meant that I should take this time to learn something new. Regardless of anything else though, it was only for 2 weeks.
After orientation it was time for Brunch. I was STARVING!!!! I figured out that brunch is the larger meal of the day and I was excited to see vegetables and more vegetables on top of rice. I frantically shoveled the food into my mouth with my right hand like a wild animal. Others were doing the same around me since the dinner was so light the night before. Before long I could hardly move because I had eaten so much. I wasn't sure how much to eat because I didn't want to "wither" away in the next 2 weeks. Heaven forbid I don't get enough food! It took a few days for me to get used to the diet and how much food I needed to be eating. Given the circumstances though, the food was actually pretty good. Since we were here to study yoga, the diet was that of a true yogi. This meant that it was a strict vegetarian meal with no spices, garlic, or onion. Yogis do not eat anything that will cause stimulation to the body....therefore they don't eat spicy food, drink caffeine, or do drugs. It helps with meditation and brings you closer to "self awareness". It wasn't the most flavorful meals, but I enjoyed most of the dishes. However, over the course of the 2 weeks I had a carb overload. Carbs and a mixture of gaseous vegetables did not do well for my digestive system and bowel movements. I am not sure if my body just went into shock from all the healthiness, but I was clogged up for the first week, then rushing to the bathroom the second week. Over time, I am sure my body would have gotten used to the diet and balanced itself back out. But for the 2 weeks it was not cooperating with me.

When I arrived to the ashram, I thought yoga was just a bunch of vegetarian health nuts holding ridiculously hard postures on a foam mat. I learned quickly though, that the postures were only a small piece to the larger puzzle. Yoga means Union. Not the union between mind a body (which one would assume)...but the union between one's individual consciousness and the Universal Consciousness. The yoga postures are just one method used to reach a state of union with the divine. In the beginning of the course, we were taught the 5 points of Yoga. They are Proper Exercise, Proper Breathing, Proper Relaxation, Proper Diet, and Meditation. After the 5 principles....there are then 4 paths within yoga to help reach self awareness. Sivananda (1887-1963) was one of the most influential Yoga masters of the 20Th century and is the inspiration behind the Sivananda Yoga Centers around the world. He advocated that integrating all 4 paths was the best way to achieve the Universal Consciousness. Our lectures were teaching us the foundations of the 4 paths.

One of the paths is Karma Yoga. This is the path of action or selfless service. It is doing something with no reward or monetary gain. Mother Theresa is probably the best example to use for this path. To live in the ashram you get assigned a karma yoga (job) to help keep things up and to learn selfless acts of duty. Some of the jobs are better then others. For instance, working in the boutique seems much more appealing then cleaning the dorm bathrooms. I must have good karma though because I landed the "coolest" job in the ashram...working at the Health Hut. The Health Hut is the ashram hang out and a place students go to for fruit juices and healthy snacks if the included meal didn't fill them up. A group of us were assigned the night shift. The first night of work, my so called "cool" karma yoga turned out to not be so cool. Our boss was this crazy Venezuelan lady who would start yelling in Spanish when she was stressed out. She had the tough love approach and would blatantly tell us how bad we were doing, but then at the end of the night laugh, hug, and smile at us as if everything were wonderful in the world. For about 1 minute she showed us around the kitchen and said everything was easy and that we should have no problems. A few of us asked if we should learn how to make drinks and figure out where things were. But she replied "Shanti Shanti Shanti" (Peace, peace, peace) and that it was all easy and we would figure it out as we worked. So basically, we had no training and didn't know where anything was located. At 6:30pm, I peaked outside to see a line heading out the door. Apparently, I wasn't the only one worried about withering away with the ashram food and people came flocking to the health hut each night for more snacks.
You would think...being in an ashram where we are studying yoga and meditation and searching for the ultimate goal of world peace that people would be pretty easy going, right? Well if it is one thing I have is that you should NEVER come between a hungry ashram student and a banana milkshake. The first night was a disaster! As we foresaw, no one knew how to prepare anything or where any utensils were located. We had a pile of tickets growing and growing, people yelling at us for taking too long, and about 6 of us running around like chickens with our heads cut off. "I need 3 chai teas, 2 fruit salads one without papaya, 4 plain toasts, a banana milkshake"....and so on and so on. There were 15 orders of toast waiting and it took us about 30 minutes to realize that bread was not even in stock that night. People hastily returned their lukewarm teas and chunky milkshakes. The whole "shanti, shanti, shanti" concept went down the drain when the first ticket came through the window. It was probably the most unsuccessful work day of my entire life. I knew it would be the worst of it because the next day we would have a better understanding of the logistics of the kitchen. Until then though, I decided not to tell anyone in my dorm that I worked in the Health Hut was that embarrassing.

At 6am the next morning I headed to Satsang to meditate and chant. The Satsang classes were the most difficult sessions for me to get through. Sitting cross legged for 30 minutes while silently meditating and then chanting Hindu Sanskrit for another 1.5 hours was not my cup of tea. On this particular morning, I decided my 1 goal for this session was to sit cross-legged and hold my position without moving. We spent most of our days sitting on the ground and it took a toll on the body. My back and legs were constantly aching as my body took revenge on my 27 years of bad posture. As we went into silent meditation, my mind was far from detaching from my ego and I had one goal only....don't move for 30 minutes. I closed my eyes and focused energy on my third eye and said "OM" over and over in my head. I tried to visualize myself sitting in a perfect meditation posture for days and days ....not moving a muscle. The first few minutes went by quickly, but then my right foot started to go numb. I managed to remain still for a few more minutes, but my spine started to ache again and my left foot felt like pins and needles. One of the bug bites on my arm started to itch but I resisted to scratch it as I continued to focus on my mission. I could feel the sweat building up on my upper lip and my left foot finally went numb as well. For a moment, I wondered if people ever lost the ability to walk from remaining in the meditation pose for so long. Surely this was not good for the blood circulation. long has it been already??? 25 minutes maybe? I sure hope so!
Ok...FOCUS FOCUS pain no gain. Om Om Om Om. With all these thoughts and aches running through my body, I began to get angry and anxious. The meditation isn't over until the Swami says "Om" I started visualizing him leaning over into the microphone and humming "OM' in his low strong voice. Come on.....when are you going to say it. Say "OM"....say "OM".....hurry...please....say "OMMMMMM"...OM...OM...OM....come on you can do it...OMMM...Say flipping OMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!
Just when I was about to give up, I heard the click of the microphone and his voice drawled out a long "OMMMMM". I instantly opened my eyes and had to manually grab my legs with my hands to unravel them since they were both numb and plopped them out in front of me. I achieved my goal, but completely defeated the purpose of the meditation process. I wasn't any closer to self awareness. After this egotistical experience (I was pretty proud of myself for not moving) I was time to reach into my inner self and stop playing these silly games to help pass the time. It was probably better to just shift my body a bit and focus more on detaching from my consciousness. Over the course of the 2 weeks, I never was able to fully detach myself from my ego and get away from my thoughts. A few times I felt really close to it, but wasn't sure if it was me just falling closer to sleep or not. Meditation is not something that comes easily I have a long ways to go. People practice for years and lifetimes to achieve self awareness. It was my first time to ever try it and I definitely built a good foundation for future practice....if it is something that I decide to incorporate into my life.

My fellow peers were people of all ages and from every part of the world. Holland, Norway, Israel, Iran, UK, Australia, Hungary, South Africa, Japan, China, Mexico, and Brazil....just to name a few. With such diversity, it made for really interesting discussions. A lot of the times my head would hurt because we would take the conversation to non tangible levels. As I mentioned earlier, yoga is not just an exercise, but a lifestyle change. The lecture would start with the basic principles of yoga and then turn into these full blown question and answer debates. I really enjoyed hearing different philosophies and ideas and comparing them to my inner thoughts. We discussed God, reincarnation, collective consciousness, devotion (how it works with any religion), diet, environment, positive thinking, tolerance versus acceptance, and all sorts of other mind numbing topics.

Not all was glamorous and fun at the ashram though. 4 hours of yoga and 4 hours of meditation and devotion each day started to take a toll on each of us both mentally and physically.
Sometimes negativity or inner problems can surface in environments like this because it really is a full-on intense process. The staff had warned us at the beginning of the program that things can come up. They even offered counseling throughout the day. A few people had break downs or ended up leaving because they couldn't handle the ashram environment for various reasons. My biggest struggle was being around extreme people and learning an extreme way of life. I strongly evaluated my own lifestyle in comparison with what we were being taught. I think it was just a lot of extremities in such a short amount of time. At first, I told myself that by entering the ashram I was taking a baby step to learning more about this particular lifestyle. But this was far more then a baby step. Some days it took a lot of effort for me to think positive and keep my energy going. The chanting was becoming more and more difficult for me to participate in. I think being devotional is a personal thing and chanting was not my specific channel of choice. It works for some the "happy-go-lucky" staff for instance, but I couldn't get into it. Towards the end of the 2 weeks I simply attended the devotional chantings only because it was mandatory.
One day, my friend Kristin and I were complaining to each other about the Satsangs and how we were losing our motivation about them. This girl who had arrived a week late and had only been in the ashram for 1 day overheard us and said "You realize it is just your ego talking to you right now and challenging you to not accept the chanting." Even if she was right...(any negative excuse is blamed on the ego) she hadn't been there for the full two weeks. I looked at Kristin and said "I give her 4 more days with the chanting sessions before she cracks."
Fortunately, every Friday was a free day. You were able to leave the ashram as long as you were back before 10pm. The staff offered field trips to tourist destinations in the area. I decided to sign up for them so I could see some parts of South India as well. The field trips were hilarious. There were about 50-60 students on them and you could tell we were super excited to be out of the ashram. We guzzled down coffee and ate chocolates and sweets. Some people snuck off to smoke cigarettes and have a cocktail (I chose not to drink for the entire 2 weeks). We snuggled into the comfortable bus seats and enjoyed not sitting cross legged on the hard floor. We talked about movies, music, and fun travel stories instead of chanting or meditating. It was a much needed break. It wasn't until our day off that I realized just how intense the program was.

The yoga asanas (postures) were progressive classes in which they teach us the 12 basic yoga postures. There are 84,000 postures in Sivinanda Yoga in which only 84 of them are mostly used. The 12 that we learned are the most important and the basic foundations into the other postures. The classes were challenging, but good and I feel that I now have the confidence I need to attend other yoga courses. I truly hope that I continue with yoga postures throughout my life. In just two weeks I was far more flexible and holding positions that I never visualized myself doing before. Under my layer of travel chub...I can feel that my strength has improved vastly.

All-in all, the 2 week program was a positive experience. I would be lying if I said it was easy and always fun...because it wasn't. I had some good moments and bad moments and lots of frustration in between. I guess that is what happens when you challenge youself physically and mentally and start addressing the difficult questions about life. I am nowhere close to becoming a yogi and don't plan on being vegetarian (yet). But I learned a lot and hope to slowly incorporate some of those things into my life. As Janaki told me at the beginning....the things I learned in this program may effect me gradually througout my life rather then immediatly.

On our last day, a big group of us headed to the reception. We handed in our sheets and mosquito nets and they handed back to us our wallets, cellphones, and computers. After our balance was taken care of we were given a "check out" card. WE WERE FREEEEEE!!!!!!!!

There is this beautiful beach about 2 hours from the ashram called Varkala. It is a white sandy beach surrounded by gorgeous jagged cliffs. For the past few days a group of us have been enjoying the coastal winds and sounds of the waves. I have been drinking fresh fruit juices and eating grilled fish and vegetables (my first time to eat meat in 2 months!). Each morning I wake up to do my yoga session on the rooftop of the hotel. I feel great! I have about 2 more weeks left of my travels and plan on cruising up the west coast to Bombay where I fly out. Since it is winter back in Austin, I am going to soak up the sunny weather as much as possible.....

Before I head back I will try to write one more blog to end my travels and sum up my journey. I hope all is well with everyone this holiday season and I look forward to seeing some of you real soon.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Holy Cow.....India!

Ohhhhh India....such a crazy country it is. My friend once told me that you could be in love with India at one moment, and then despise it the next.....and this is all very true. For instance, the other day I was riding in a beat up bus that looked as if it had been blown up from the inside out. How it was even running was beyond my knowledge. Anyways, I was sitting next to the window listening to my ipod and being enamored by the scenery outside. India is truly an amazing country. The sites, sounds, and smells are mind-blowing and it will be really hard to describe the things I am seeing and experiencing here. So there I was, reflecting on life and the world and being amazed by the village streets...kinda having a dream like moment, ya know? When all of a sudden WHAM! something flies all over me. At first I thought that this rapture like bird must have taken a massive shit and somehow it landed through the window on to me. But moments later I saw the kids laughing outside and looked down again to see that I was covered in mud and sand. I reached my head out the window to see this little prick of a kid running down the street laughing because he just threw mud all over a white girl on a bus. Anger came over me but there was nothing I could do because the bus was still moving. All of a sudden I was in a huff and a puff as I shook the mud off of me. The enchantment of India instantly lost. The streets that I was moments ago enamored looked disgusting to me. The smell of urine and trash was lingering even heavier and the horn of the bus was louder then anyone could imagine. Finally, I breathed in deeply a few times and gathered my thoughts together( Something that I would have to do many times in this country) . It wasn't that big of a deal really, but it was just another reminder to me that this is what India is all about.....the highs and the lows and everything in between. From one extreme to another your senses are so heightened that each night it is hard to turn your mind off, but at the same time you can hardly keep your eyes open with exhaustion.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind and I have seen and experienced a lot.

Digvijay (DJ), our guide, is really cool and I have learned a lot about the Indian culture through him. He is 24 and comes from the Hindu "Warrior" caste which is the second highest caste level. He is well educated and comes from a respected family in which his father is a doctor. What your father does, your education level, and caste status all play a role in how you are viewed in the society of India. However, in the past 10 years, western views are slowly coming in and it is not as big of a deal to marry outside of your caste or venture from the traditional religious norms. Things are progressing more and more to the western culture, but there is still a major Hindu influence everywhere you look. DJ is a bit unusual and is not your token Indian....he says he is different for 3 reasons. For one, he does not like spicy food. This is actually pretty crazy since most of the food contains some deliciously spicy mixes and normally wouldn't come close to making an Indian sweat. As for me, I love spicy food, but the food here has given me a run for my money in the heat department. Second, he is scared of the Holy cows. As you know, Hindus believe the cow is sacred and they don't eat the meat or wear leather. The cows are King of the streets and wander around wherever they please. I have seen men embracing them as they pass by. However, when DJ was younger, he had a traumatic run in with a cow and the fear has never left him. When we see a cow on the street he steers clear from it. And lastly, he is not religious. This is very interesting considering that religion appears to be the livelihood for most everyone in this country. His family is Hindu and he respects the religion, but he views it more as a tradition rather then the purpose of all life. His family tells him he will be born an outcaste in his next life, but he is not worried since he doesn't believe in it. He enjoys the philosophical approach and learning about other beliefs besides Hinduism. With that said, I have really enjoyed talking to him and asking him questions about his country. He in return, enjoys learning about our countries as well. He has never been out of India, but hopes to travel abroad someday soon.

The tour I did took us from Delhi, down through the state of Rajasthan, then over to Kolkata. This is the main touristy part of India which includes lots of forts, temples, and of course... the Taj Mahal. I had never been to a fort before, so those were extremely interesting. Some of them were built in the 12th century and the shear size and strength of them are awe inspiring. There are pictures of some of them on my Picasa. I wished I could go back into time and see how the fort looked with elephants, peasants, and kings around. Obviously, the Taj Mahal was a site to see as well. It is one of the prettiest structures I have ever seen and so much history surrounds it. My friend, Emma, and I ate some apples off the street the day before we went to the Taj. We both ended up getting pretty sick from it. So we weren't able to enjoy it as much as we hoped. She was dashing to the bathrooms and I was breaking a sweat as I walked around. I finally left and layed in bed all day. I had stomach issues when I visited Machu Pichu in Peru and my friend Robin coined it Machu Poo-Poo.....let's just say....we now call this place.. Terd Mahal!

We saw many sites and visited several cities. But it was more India in itself that has been the experience for me. Every minute of every day is surrounded by things that I am not used to seeing. I knew it would be different over here and that was the biggest drawl for me. I will try to explain some of the daily sites and obstacles that I have faced.
So, let me begin by taking you on a short ride on a rickshaw (small taxi) through the city streets. The first thing you will notice is the horrific and catastrophic traffic. There is no apparent order here. The rickshaw driver will aggressively weave in and out of traffic on whatever side of the street he pleases. He will rarely use his breaks (only at the VERRRRRYYYY last minute before a collision), but instead lay on his horn. The horns are atrocious. I am convinced that India would be a very peaceful country if the horns were simply removed from it. My head hurts and ears are ringing daily from the horns beeping everywhere. As we are driving, we are coming within centimeters of other vehicles, people, animals, bicycles, or food carts. All of these things are competing for space on the road and it is almost maddening. But all works. Once you can comprehend the traffic situation and accept the fact that your life is now in the hands of your crazy rickshaw driver, you start to take notice of the other things around you. One of the most intriguing things are the Holy cows. The Holy Cow is King of the road here in India. They are large, dirty and can walk wherever they please. Often there will be a major traffic jam because some cows have decided to congregate in the middle of the streets. The Indians don't seem too worried about it though, because they love and respect the cows dearly. DJ thinks it is hilarious that the tourists are so captivated by the Holy Cows....I explained to him though, that I only see cows in pastures....not painted with flower necklaces walking through the city streets as they please. Another common site are camels or elephants roaming down the streets. Some will have a cart behind them pulling food and goods. Add to this dogs, pigs, chickens, water buffalo, goats, and rats and you can begin to understand how the average street in India is nothing like that in Austin, TX.

There is litter and trash EVERYWHERE.
This is by far the dirtiest country I have ever been to. Rarely do I come across a public trash bin and I am constantly seeing the Indians throwing stuff on the ground. It is aggravating. Often we will drive past piles of rubbish being burned in the streets. When I walk around I see animals and people rummaging through the trash. DJ explained to me that there are plans to help alleviate the trash problem. The government and education system is trying to teach the younger generation about the environment and hoping to make an overall mental change. They have a long road ahead of them though. When I visited the Terd Mahal, I went outside one of the gates to the river. It was shocking to see how littered the river was only feet away from one of the prettiest buildings in the world. While I was standing there, several families came down and dumped large plastic bags of rubbish into the flowing river.....I couldn't believe it.
As you drive or walk down the streets, foul smells of trash and urine are entangled with the aroma of curries and fried breads. People use the bathroom anywhere they please. Mostly I see only men or boys and they urinate or shit in corners or on the sidewalks. If you see a wet spot anywhere, it is most likely urine. Some Indian men also chew on these things called Paan, which is a combination of betel leaf and certain types of nuts. They keep it in the side of their mouth and chew on it throughout the day spitting constantly. The paan turns their mouths blood red so when they talk to you it looks like their teeth are bleeding. You have to constantly watch that you don't get spit on.
In contrast to the dirty streets, roaming animals, polluted air, spitting men, and chaotic traffic are the beautiful Indian woman walking around in their stunningly colorful sarees. The traditional Indian woman do everything in their sarees....from working in the fields to scaffolding a building. Somehow they always seem fresh and clean and very well put together. The sarees are of all sorts of bright colors with gold sequence and interlacing designs throughout. Some wear shawls over their faces and a multiple amount of bangles along their arms. Henna is sometimes painted on their hands and forearms. Amongst all the dirt and grime of India....these woman stand out like beautiful paintings.
Poverty is another thing that I come across daily. According to Lonely Planet, an estimated 350 million Indians live below the poverty line. The major cause is illiteracy and a population growth rate that is substantially exceeding India's economic growth rate. I can't decide how to handle the poverty situation yet. Kids, mothers, the disabled, and lepers are on the sidewalks begging in most of the cities. Some of them even grab onto you and walk with you for blocks asking for money or milk. Even if I wanted to, it would not be wise for me to hand out money because a mob would surround me in an instant. One time a woman in our tour group gave a girl some candy as we waited in the train station. Next thing we knew we were surrounded by 10 kids and they didn't leave our sides until our train came an hour later. Most guidebooks and websites suggest not giving money to beggars. It promotes begging and keeps kids on the streets using it as a way to make a living. Sometimes it can be heartbreaking though. I asked DJ his thoughts on the poverty and how to handle the begging situations. He said he never gives money to beggars. There are opportunities for most of the beggars and they chose not to take them. Most of the kids could go to an orphanage and get an education, the woman could learn a skill in a woman's shelter and the disabled have charities they can get help from. But a lot of them end up back on the streets because they find it is easier to get quick cash through begging. I understand where DJ is coming is a similar situation with the homeless in the US. But in the US, the government would take the kids away and put them foster homes. Here, it is the babies and small children that are starving that really break my heart.
On the flip side though, I have seen a few scams take place in front of my eyes. One time I saw a child ask a foreigner to buy him milk from this store. The woman brought him in thinking she was truly helping the child and giving him nourishment. She grabbed a small bottle of milk and then he instantly said no and insisted that she get the bigger bottle. She generously did so. She purchased the milk and left. A few moments later the child sold the bottle back to the store clerk and they both profited from it. I have also seen kids running around having fun, then the mother or "boss" coming up and scrutinizing them while pointing to foreigners. The kids then change their facial features to somber and helpless as they run to the foreigners asking for money. Clearly, they are just working for this woman and putting on an act. I am not trying to sound cold hearted about the beggars. It is clear that there is a poverty problem and it aches inside to dismiss mothers with crying babies and step over people with no limbs. I am trying to figure out a way that I can help with the problem besides giving money and food to beggars. Because unfortunately, some of the people are not as helpless as they seem. In Kolkata, I visited the "Mother house" where Mother Theresa is buried. She opened a missionary in 1953 and helped 1000s of poor and sick people in India. It was really neat to walk around the missionary and read about her ambitious story. I hope to use some of my energy someday to help humanity. Perhaps I can help with the illiteracy problem or promote more education.....I am not sure yet. But there are ways to help without giving money to beggars. I just need to figure that part out.

You can't walk or drive down the street without seeing symbols of the Hindu religion. Hinduism isn't really something you can sum up in a matter of a small paragraph. For one, they don't have 1 God....but 36 million gods. Yes, that is correct. I did not have a typo there...36 MILLION!!!! You cannot convert to Hinduism but are simply born into the religion. And with that, you are born into a caste. The highest caste being the Brahmins (the priests and teachers), followed by the Ksatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaisyas (Farmers, merchants, artisans), Subras (laborers), and lastly....the Untouchables (outcastes or polluted laborers). I honestly don't know much about it yet and don;t have the time to do much research....but since it seems to be amongst everything in this country....the people, animals, buildings, is hard to not pick up tid bits here and there.

One day in the city of Jaisalmer, we got a unique opportunity to have lunch prepared for us in the home of a Brahmin. His wife and sisters cooked up a traditional Indian meal as we sat cross-legged (which I always called "indian style" growing up and now the puzzle pieces all come together....because Indians do sit cross legged all the time!) on the floor of his home and ate and conversed. The man was in the middle of some sort of religious fast and this was the one meal he was allowed to eat for the day. He spent the entire lunch talking about the Hindu religion and explaining to us about the Brahmin caste. I gathered that he was not always a devout Hindu and that it was only a few years ago that he changed his lifestyle to practice his role in the religion. Now he plays the role of the priest and teacher and does fasting and pilgrimages. It was really interesting to eat the lunch and listen to his thoughts and religious views. Since people cannot be converted into Hindus, I asked him how his religion viewed all of the other people in the world...were we just considered outcasts with no hope? He smiled to me and replied "At the end of the day, it is better to put a smile on your neighbors face then to light a candle in the temple.".....I really liked that response.

Transportation from city to city has been interesting as well.
For instance, our 5 bus ride to Jodhpur was quite the experience. This was my first bus ride in India and 5 hours seemed simple enough to me....I had tackled far longer routes in my journey. Well, don't ever underestimate what India may doesn't matter how long the destination is, but instead, how many people they can fit on the bus! many people do you think they can fit on a bus in India? From my experience....nearly 150...and this is no joke. When we got on the bus there were about 36 or so seats. Fortunately, we grabbed some and took our positions. Above the seats are these small cubbie holes about the length of a person. At first I thought this was a sleeper seat for longer journeys, but turns out it is just a way to maximize space. In an area where I pictured one person to be sleeping, they instead would cram an Indian family of 6-8 people in the cubbie. The aisle going down the seats was filling up with people. After more and more people climbed on, I thought surely they would stop soon, but no....the people kept coming on in masses. You would imagine a single file line of people down the aisle....maybe 15 or so. But just in our seat area alone, there had to have been 5 people standing on top of one another without and inch to spare. People were sitting on half our seats as well so the whole "seat" concept really doesn't make a difference. But it wasn't over yet. In the front cabin where the driver is at, they managed to squeeze 15 more people which was more then unbelievable. How the driver managed to even function is beyond me. And then there was the roof. Luggage and people sprawled out over every square inch of the roof....I swear it was sagging in from the top. At each bus stop the people in the aisle had to file out so that people in the back of the bus could get was a long a drawn out nightmare of people on top of one another for 5 hours. We were soooo happy when that ride was over and I was not looking forward to the future bus journeys.
A few times we took over night trains. After the crowded bus journeys, I was really excited to take the train. Although, the trains are not so reliable when it comes to the time. We were booked on a 15 hour train ride from Varanasi to Kolkata. We arrived to the station at 4:30pm and the train was expected the leave at 6pm. To make a long story short....the train didn't arrive to the station until 5am......we sat in the station for nearly 12 hours. Since the train was late, it meant that all other trains took priority over it...delaying the ride even more. So the 15 hour ride turned into 24 hours. In was a 36 hour ordeal! Apparently, the Indians plan for horrendous train delays. As we waited in the station I noticed families beginning to lay out blankets and getting comfortable. By 10pm that night the entire waiting area and all of the platfroms were covered with people sleeping. Families were cuddled up with one another and luggage was sprawled out all over. Men were walking around serving chai teas and selling fried breads. Holy cows were walking throughout the sleeping people and urinating as they pleased. I had to weave through all of them to go to the bathroom or get a drink. Steve, a guy on my tour, mentioned how hearty and durable to Indian people were. They can sleep on stark cold pavement and wait hours for trains....and it just seems normal to them.
One of our stops that I do feel like noting is the city of Varanasi. It is one of the holiest cities in India. It lies along the holy Gangas river and Indians make pilgrimages here to wash away a lifetime of sins or cremate their loved ones. If people are close to death, then they try their best to get to Varanasi as it is the most spiritual place to die. The river is lined with ghats or steps that people use for their daily use of showering, laundry, and cremating. We took a boat ride at sunrise and sunset. It was neat to see the city come awake and the people bathing themselves in the morning and then at night to see the cremation ceremonies. The river itself is extremely dirty and I can't imagine ever swimming in it. But Indians travel far distances to get a chance to bathe in it. According to Lonely Planet, about 60,000 people bathe in the river each day. However, along the same area there are 30 large sewers continuously discharging into the river. Samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100ml of water. In water that is safe for bathing this figure should be less then 500!!!!
Ashes from the dead are put in the river and dead pregnant mothers, babas, and lepers are placed in the river without cremation. We saw men carrying a dead Holy cow and dropping it in the river....only meters away from people bathing. It was crazy....

So.....I am sure from my description you are wondering why the heck I am even traveling in a place like this. But I must admit....there is something very intriguing about a life lived so differently then back home. Most of the people I have come across are extremely friendly and kind hearted. And it is always interesting to take a peak into a culture/religion/world so different then your own. It makes me kind of wonder about things....
I think the West lives in such a structured and sanitized world that it is hard to imagine a life like this. I for one, have been psycho about using my hand sanitizer. I now have some awful rash and cracked dry skin on my hands from overuse of the stuff. I think it is some form of eczema. I probably would have been better off to just eat with dirty hands.
I guess the point I am trying to make is that we are so germophobic in the West and used to lines and rules and safety and hygiene....that places like India blow our minds away. But India has been around a lot longer then most civilizations today. If it weren't for the ongoing stress with Pakistan, it would be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Yes, they have a lot of problems....pollution, population and poverty to name a few big ones. But the people here are living....surviving. And they aren't going anywhere soon. I would love to come back here in 20 years to see, if in fact, the changes that the government are working on do go into effect. DJ has high hopes for his country and I hope it does improve.

I know this blog is all over the place. Every time I sat down to write it, I was overwhelmed with thoughts and sites and everything I had experienced in India. I didn't even know where to start. I just tried to get the thoughts from my head onto the blog. As I re-read it now I can see the chaos going through my head as I was trying to get it out on paper. This is kind of how I feel in this country though, so instead of trying to revise it and make it orderly....I'll just leave it be.

I only have about a month left before I head home. India is a good country to end on....It will be nice to get home after this. I am pretty exhausted and as much as I hate to admit it....I am a little over traveling right now. I need to recharge my batteries, see some familiar faces, and be in the comforts of home. Instead of trying to see as much as I can, I have decided to chill out for the last month of my journey.
In a few days I will enter a spiritual ashram. People travel from all over the world to find spirituality and be enlightened in India. That was not my specific reason for traveling here, but I feel that now may be a good time to reflect on the past year of my life. What better way to do that then to do yoga and meditation for a few weeks. Not sure what is in store for me, but I am looking forward to it.

Hope all is well with everyone and I will let you know how the spiritual ashram goes.