There is nothing like train travel to put you in touch with the terrific and true diversity that is humanity. What a bunch of weirdos. Counting in this myself of course, pink leggings, neon pink tail, pink fairy ulti-belt, purple tassle shirt and multicolored pink hair and all. I might be standing out just a bit. At least I’m providing great entertainment to the two elderly ladies sitting near me, chuckling like hens. I decided to go introduce myself to them and give them stickers, to which they seemed enthralled, delighted and terrified all at once.
But let me re-wind to the fantastic experience that proceeded this current scenario. I had set forth the mission that on my last day in Albuquerque, my last day in New Mexico in fact, I would film a hoop video of me simply rocking out, demonstrating all the things I have been teaching in my workshops and studying in my flow. This ability to film in new exotic places is one of the most valuable opportunities that presents itself while traveling. With so much time and energy no longer consumed by my day job, I’m able to use the momentum gathered there to fuel my creative work.
I had suggested to Travis that we should film in front of mural paintings on several down town buildings but Travis threw down a far more tantalizing option. There is an old abandoned rail way station right near the train station that he had wanted to film in for years. Driving by this tattered monstrosity of a building told the tail of a majestic and expansive interior, inside of which, what treasures lay, we could only imagine. We drove back forth on one street flanking the station, pacing like an animal measuring up a kill. Two layers of barbwire topped fence encircled the entire building. Oh but here was a driveway with no gate through the first layer of barbed wire! Hmm. Perhaps there existed a chance we could penetrate these defenses after all.
We parked the car and now were pacing the fences on foot, still muscling up to dare each other to do it. We came to the open drive way and walked in to inspect the inner layer of defense. In a matter of minutes we discovered a perfect, and clearly previously used, place to lift up the bottom of the barbed wire fence. Of course! Why tackle the business end up top when the bottom is closer to the ground and not covered in layers of spikes? This was too easy. We went back to car to grab the hoops and camera and jogged back to the fence, ignoring the red and white signs warning of unlawful trespassing. In two quick movements I then Travis slid under the fence, popped up on the other side and then slinked into the dilapidated building. It felt absurd to be sneaking around dressed in full throttle pink, wearing a fluffy pink tail and carrying neon shiny hoops. But not many people saw us and anyone who did, didn’t care. Still I watched my tail as we crossed the threshold.
Upon turning around, I was met with an enormous space, in which silence seemed to sing. A decaying painting of shattered green glass, rusted wrought iron, and steely cement unfurled before me. A thousand wooden bricks spread the warped floor, scattered with many pockets of rotting, crumbling wood like dark pools in the slanting surfaces.
A victory smoke was had while we surveyed optimal locations for filming. I gave Travis my camera so he could familiarize himself with how to work the video option. Watching him walk about the space, testing the light and backdrop of various walls, I was suddenly struck with a very clear and concise message from Pacha Mama, Gaia Sangha, Source, whatever you want to call her. All I know is I didn’t think it; it’s arrival into my head space was perceptible and it even had a patient, all knowing tone that was not mine. The message pointed out my strength and tendency to be a bossy lead and warned that if I engaged in a romantic partnership with this beautiful, outrageously fun and sexy young man in front of me, before we both had a chance to grow, I would risk trying to manipulate and control him with an upper hand. . . in much a similar way to how I feared Angie might have ruled his heart with her powerful presence. Alternatively, it was imperative that we wait and instead direct our passion and curious chemistry into a potent partnership in the creation of movement art.
I was roused with a start from this dream like download, by Travis pointing to the far wall as a good place to shoot, as it stretched high and was well lit. But it was much closer to the opposite street than the side from which we came. My ears prickled and something in my feet urged me to turn around, but I stayed the course as we marched to the far wall. As I moved to put my things down on a filthy counter close to an archway door, I looked up from my things in time to see a cop car drive by on the nearby street and lock sight on me.
“Aw Shit, shit, shit!” I muttered, quickly scooping up my things and my hoops and marching back the way we came. “I just saw a cop car. And I’m fairly certain he saw me. God Damn my bright colors!”
But we decided rather than flee right then and there we should at least get some filming done before our arrest arrived at our feet. Wasting no time I put my belt and extra hoops down, picked up my smallest hoop, Zippety Pink, and walked to the first filming location. This one was backed by a mosaic of clear and green windows, frosted with filth and in various stages of demise. It was framed by rusting iron and peeling paint and had a floor of cool smooth cement. Standing in front of the camera, and looking right into it’s one eye through my hoop, I thought of the police man, or woman, driving that cop car. To the cop, and to the world at large I sent out a silent message of intent: “I’m here to create art and do no harm.”
And so I launched into that hoop, with no music but my breath and my steps. I could feel the smoke I inhaled peeling apart the layers of my mind, like the fabric of curtains, to allow the unfiltered and blindly bright love of ever creative source to flood through my body, out my finger tips, my eyes, my poise.
After filming in a variety of locations in the building we closed with me walking toward the camera and hooping, staring right into the lens as I approached. It was brilliant work, all of it. It was everything I have been studying and teaching, everything that I wanted to demonstrate to the wider hoop community. Most importantly, it was pure beautiful flow, caught on film. We paused to watch the footage. Only, no, something was wrong. He hadn’t filmed any of it! Instead he had pressed record only during the gaps in my dance and had no footage of me falling deliriously into flow.
I was baffled, breathless, incredulous. How? HOW?? How do you not know how to use a goddamn video camera?!? You press the button and look for the little blinking red dot. ALL video cameras work like that. WHat? SERIOUSLY?! NOTHING? You got NONE of that??? I made a snide comment about him functioning worse than a tri-pod and stomped around for a minute.
None of this brought the footage back.
In my barely bottled rage I let loose a roaring cry of “FUUUUUUCKK!!” into the expansive space and it ringed among the broken window panes.
This also did not bring me back my lost moments.
My knees buckled and I squatted under the weight of this horrible feeling. Tears threatened but I stopped the nonsense right then and there, stopped it dead in its tracks. “Enough,” I scolded myself quietly. “This doesn’t help anything. It’s gone. It’s done. Get on with it.”
Travis walked up beside me and I couldn’t stifle the snarl of another stinging comment. “Hey now,” he said “we’re professionals here, we can handle this.” And something about this straightforward affirmation shook me free from my disappointed, poisoned mind state.
“Alright” I said, a stubborn determination gathering in my chest. “Let’s do this.”
So again, we started at the first location. This time I bid my tiring limbs and smoke winded lungs to work double time. And yes, despite my frustration and my fatigue, there it was; the distinctive presence of flow slipped easily into my bones and directed me about the space. Was this session any better or worse than the one I lost? There will never be any way to tell. The important thing is we caught most of the images and techniques I was hoping to capture on film and we did it in the most bad-ass location I could have ever wished for.
We still had time to kill before my train arrived so I took the camera and pointed it at Travis. He took his turn filling the space with his floating, spiraling and fierce dance. His flow was Tango flavored and Karate spiced with the sweet softness of free form ecstatic dance thrown in for good measure. I captured some brilliant footage of him as well and will use it to create a Tango workshop promotional video for him.
Finally we gathered up our things and took one last survey of this beautiful and ancient space, tinged with decades of neglect but shining with a certain raw authenticity. It was an ideal, expansive space in which to make art.
We slipped easily out of the building, under the fence and out to the street. No cop car fleet awaited us. I can only suppose that either I was not seen or the cop got my telepathic message. A solid high-five exchanged between us hardly functioned to encapsulate the elation I felt at our outrageous success in completing our mission. The thrill of toeing the line and of the rush letting loose our creative expression in such an inspiring place was still pounding in my heart. I relinquished any residual anguish I had toward Travis for his filming fumble. Instead I felt my heart fill with the purest gratitude for my most fabulous adventure buddy, my partner in crime and co-creative compadre. YES. One can only hope to have friends that inspire such lunacy as tangoing with fate in an old abandoned rail way station.
I hit one of those low points today. When the soul feels cold, alone and in a dark enclosed space, squinting up and blinking at some distant point of light. I was sitting in my car, alone, surrounded by my fellow city folk, sobbing uncontrollably because I felt like some forgotten animal left in a cage with no key. Every cell in me wanted desperately to be anywhere else, anywhere but in the enclosed padded walls of my red Toyota Matrix car. The car itself sat purring easily, perhaps distantly aware of my turmoil. My imagination winked and I thought I felt her bucket seats hug me a little tighter, pressing warm support, the only thing she thought she could do for her distraught passenger.
I had thought I would bike to my massage appointment, a sure fire way to get there on time as bikes aren’t so easily slowed by the confines of traffic. But 35 minutes felt like a long time to subject my swollen and spasming back to an already dangerous and grueling ride. So instead, I carefully folded my broken body, dainty with white-hot ready pain, into the bucket seats of my Matrix. I spent the next 45 minutes swearing at every car in my vicinity, including my own. I made it to the neighborhood of my appointment late, un-aware of just how long it takes to cross 6 miles in the height of LA traffic. Sitting on Santa Monica Blvd, watching the distant light ahead of me go from red to green, then yellow, then red again, twice without my car moving and inch, I threw in the towel. I called up my masseur and biting back tears of bitter frustration I told him I wasn’t going to make it and that we should reschedule.
I quickly found a place to pull over where I could pound out my frustration on the steering wheel while lazy tears dripped slowly off my cheeks. I sat no more than eight blocks away from relaxation and bliss but the eight blocks of standstill traffic between me and my appointment was more than I could take.
Once I felt clear enough to drive I set off again into the sea of cars and red lights. So much anger welled up in me, it was startling. I was angry at myself for diving, when I know driving is a large reason why my back is injured in the first place. I was angry at Los Angeles for being so car-centric and so dangerous and impossible to navigate by bike. I was angry at slow drivers, at fast drivers and mindless drivers. I felt my anger pool in the base of my spine, liquid pain creeping into my legs, my stomach. This is why I cannot drive, the understanding unfolded like a flower in my mind: I am a caged creature in my car, forced to assume a posture that strains my back, forced to face rolling walls on all sides, forced to wait interminably long spans of time staring at red. And that anger, that hot frustration leaking out my eyes in tight and heavy sobs, that was the condensed accumulation of all these frightful forces. This moment compacted them to a potent pinpoint of toxic realization:
I cannot drive.
Not now. Not until my back gets better. And even then, only when absolutely necessary which essentially is only when I have a private client I must drive to.
Right. Now. is when I build my life around using my bike for transport and commute. Because I never want to feel like a pain-riddled, caged animal again. Ever.
I never thought an airport would be a likely place to have a transcendental movement meditation experience but that is what just happened. I am in the New Delhi airport waiting for my next flight to Kathmandu. I was looking to buy some Indian music and happened upon a store that was playing beautiful classical Indian tunes so I swept on inside. What came to greet me was an entire shift in energy. It was like stepping through a portal. Suddenly I was in a warm, vibrantly colored space, anchored with a deep mahogany wood. This store was for all those dirty hippies, the spiritually vagrant individuals wandering India in the hopes that the country might knock some existential sense into them: i.e. this store was made just for me. There were shelves upon shelves of colorful and luxuriously soft scarves and many shelves of books on yoga, health and spirituality. There were Indian handmade crafts, a section of Ayurvedic medicines and next to it an Ayurvedic doctor giving free consultations. There was a 360 degree kiosk of traditional Indian music from all corners of this vast country and on the stage adjacent two musicians were playing the most beautifully improvised classical music on tabla drums and a string instrument called a Santoor. Every facet of this store simply vibrated with the frequencies of OM.
The most striking element of this store however, lay at its center. In the middle of the store, taking up considerable room that could have been used for merchandise, was a square shallow pool with a textured floor. A plaque before the pool described how in ancient India, townships were founded around a consecrated space. This space formed the heart and the root of the new colony and was always a place of meditative respite and intentional gathering. This pool was a representation of the same sentiment, this time for this store and for those who enter its realm. The plaque also invited guests of the store to remove their shoes and once having cleaned their feet, take a slow meditative walk through the still waters. The texture on the bottom was a grid of even round balls and was constructed as such so as to give stimulation to the nerves and energy channels rising from the feet. Running along the edge of the pool was a stone slab bench with carved messages in English and Hindi. One communicated the message: “I am not body, I am not mind, I am not ego, I am not senses, nor am I matter or space. I am pure consciousness and bliss. I am Shiva.”
As I entered the store and took in all that it contained, my eyes kept being drawn back to this mysterious pool. At its center was a brass orb set in a stone sculpture which is used to represent Shiva. After perusing the music and purchasing a few CDs, the lure of this pool was too strong to refuse. The two musicians were still playing lovely improvisational music that simply floated like sublime incense through the store. As I took my shoes off and placed them in the rack beside the pool, I thought of how nice it was going to be to travel in the waters of the pool with their music shining like liquid light in my mind. With bare feet, pants rolled up and feet properly washed, I sat with legs crossed at the edge of the pool and took a moment to breathe and be still, letting the scintillating tabla and strings of the Santoor vibrate my in every cell.
With conscious awareness I slowly dipped my toes in and then submerged my feet and ankles, letting my soles come to rest gently on the textured bottom. I sat like this for a few moments, feeling the waves I created in the pool rise and fall gently on my lower legs. The force of each wave was so slight but with half closed eyes and a concentrated mind, I could feel the energy of each wave transmit from the water into my body. With my next inhale I rose slowly to my feet. I took a moment to stand still here, feeling the full pressure of the rounded bumps along my feet, feeling the waves of the water and the softly playing music ring clear all around me. Slowly I began to walk. Each step I took, I took with utter awareness. I would balance completely on one foot before placing the next step with careful attention. Slowly I would introduce weight into the next step and slowly I would lift the back foot until I came to balance again on the opposite foot. Each movement I took, I coordinated with my breath, bringing deeper awareness and relaxation to my walk. I walked like this across the pool and then turned around the sculpture representation of Shiva and began walking toward the musicians.
It was at this point that I realized that, although I was moving very slowly, I was still moving to the rhythm and emotion of the music. I invited my hands to become a part of my walk. As I lifted one foot, the opposite hand would rise palm up, as slowly as my foot and with the same attentive awareness. When the foot would be placed back down, the opposite palm would roll down in synchronization with the foot. These movements began to evolve into a slow meditative dance, almost beneath my conscious awareness of it happening.
Slowly I became vaguely aware of a crowd forming around the edge of the pool, watching me, transfixed. I did my very best not to direct attention to them however and continued to direct attention inward, to my breath, my liquid rhythmic and slow movements and to the resounding sound of the music echoing in my body. I did let myself perceive the crowd just enough to provoke more evolution in the dance and thus I invited new inspiration and variation into my movements. I played with the moment of complete balance on one foot, moving the un-weighted foot with a deliberate floating freedom, and coordinating this with movements of my hands. I found myself spontaneously forming Mudras, or hand gestures used in spiritual and healing yogic practice (The most commonly known example is where the index finger and thumb tips are brought together and the remaining fingers extend out. This is the commonly known meditation hand gesture but it is traditionally known as Gyan Mudra). I even found myself coming into Shiva’s dance pose for a brief moment, eyes half open, before melting away into the next Tai Chi-like movement or pose.
After some time the crowd had become large enough to block the entrance of the store and the manager came over to ask that people move along to reduce congestion. This shift in energy popped the sheer rainbow bubble skin of my trance and I smiled abashedly suddenly all too aware of the hubbub I had caused. I came to stand still at the edge of the pool to still my mind once more. As I relaxed here my arms naturally fell outward and back, my chest extended up and I leaned back ever so slightly, smiling openly. My palms were facing upwards as if to catch the beauty of this moment raining down. It was at this moment, looking up with half open eyes, that I noticed the array of antique brass bells hung in a square patch of ceiling above the pool. They were beautiful and shimmered slightly in the warm light of the store. “Sheesh” I thought to myself, “these people really thought of everything.”
A funny thing I noticed, when I stopped moving, the musicians stopped playing. I have felt this bond before when dancing to improvised music but it continues to fascinate me. Somehow an energy cycle exists between musician and dancer in improvised music and dance especially and when this cycle is broken, the music must stop and find its own pace separate from the energy of the dancer. Soon the musicians began playing their hypnotic smooth tunes again and my eyes closed so as to best drink it in.
I felt the tug of the music wishing to pull me back into trance but I resisted. I was still too aware now of those who still watched, and those who were trying their hardest not to. I also did not wish to force the arrival of the trance. So instead of continuing my “performance” I sat down on the edge of the pool and closed my eyes. Still I could not sit still. The music moved me even as I sat, swaying my shoulders, entering my chest and my belly causing me to ungulate subtly. Soon I couldn’t resist the invitation to move more freely. I stood slowly, gently and breathed, before again letting myself slip into another movement meditation trance. But I didn’t fall as deep this time still too aware of those watching. After traversing the pool once or twice, I came to sit on the opposite side, by where I had stashed my shoes. I sat there at the edge of the pool with my feet still in the water and I took a moment to absorb the incredible peace and stillness that rang like a distinct frequency in me. Slowly, deliberately I took my feet out of the water and crossed my legs. Sitting in this pose I gave the deepest thanks I could muster. I shouted thank you in my every cell, thank you for this body, thank you for this water, this music, this moment. With my hands in prayer position I bowed to the musicians and to the water and then gently dried off my feet and put my shoes back on.
With my feet wrapped in socks and strapped into sandals I felt uncomfortably chained to the ground. I could feel my feet longed to be still submerged in the pool but I was worried about moving along to my gate and I could feel that the portal to my trance state had narrowed. The meditation had found its close and that was alright. I felt beyond blessed to have experienced it in the first place.
Before I left I asked one of the staff persons in the shop if the musicians had a CD I could purchase or even simply a business card I could have. I didn’t want to interrupt their lovely playing but the Santoor player noticed me inquiring about them and called me over. I thanked them profusely for such inspiring and arrestingly beautiful music and they thanked me for my dance. The Santoor player gave me his card (his name is Prahbat) and he invited me to find his music on YouTube as well. Delighted I thanked them again and bowed several times to punctuate this gratitude.
While I was gathering my things, a staff woman at the shop came up to me to tell me that she thought my dance was very beautiful. We began talking and I told her how spot on this store was; just all the way through it hit all the right points. She thanked me for my comments and asked if I would fill out a feedback form to which I gladly accepted. As I was filling out the form, the Prahbat came over and presented me with a copy of his CD as well as a fan for dancing. He even signed the CD for me. I could have jumped up and kissed the ceiling I was so overjoyed.
I thanked the musicians over and over and I bowed to the workers of the store as I bustled my way out of the store. Walking back out into the airport was again like traveling through a portal. All of a sudden I was back among duty free shops, overpriced bars and grills and the broad open and expansive spaces flooded with harsh fluorescent lighting. I felt like I had landed with a thud back onto the ground from where I had just been somewhere high up in the ionosphere. Walking along the wide corridors with all the other travelers going about their private business, I tried to comprehend just what had happened, what that had meant. All I can know for sure is that, when I move and meditate to music, the most pure bliss courses through my body and radiates outward. This bliss can be felt by others and they are nourished by it in some way. I don’t know if this can be transmitted into performance format but I will certainly try to do so. It just feels too good to be in that space and sharing that energy with those around me. This much I know for sure.
Meditation Notes Evening Dec 6
Meditation practice tonight was very interesting and quite beautiful. Om ji had us begin our session by closing our eyes and humming OM. With each inhale I straightened my back, expanded my chest forward and up and let myself soften into a place of patience and compassion. And with each exhale I let my breath go slowly over my vocal chords and felt the vibrations of OM fill my mouth, my throat, and my chest. I felt these vibrations extend outward to my limbs, to my whole body. While I was humming I could hear when I harmonized with some of the others in the room but most other people’s humming was completely drowned out by the sound echoing in my body. It was in between my breaths that I could hear the beautiful spectrum of sound in the room created by everyone humming their unique OM. The sound had the quality of soft sunlight filtering through a window and it carried similar warmth. As one person’s humming would cease and another’s would begin the sound would shift and shimmer, as if sheer fabric passed through that light, changing its tone ever so slightly. The whole sound bath was so pleasant and calming that I would stretch the holding of my breath before my next exhale just to let it filter down into me. Then again I would plunge myself into my own vibrations, my own sound. I would feel my sound build inside me like a blazing sun, burning brightly and radiating outward. In time I felt it was the right moment to soften my OM, slow the vibrations, and come into stillness. Sitting with the silent reverberations of OM still running through my every cell, stillness came swiftly as the night which blankets the sky. I let the blanket of stillness fall cool around me. I let the vibrations in me quiet. And I let myself feel compassion and patience when this stillness came and went like waves upon the shore.
I arrived earlier this week at my yoga school in Indore. While I am less than impressed with some of the instruction, I'm holding my tongue and keeping positive. The education I am receiving is still very valuable, if not exactly what I expected. If nothing else the meditation guidance we have been receiving has been very helpful and has shown me some new gateways into We just had a fascinating and fantastic meditation session with Om ji. First he lead us through the usual opening breathing exercises of full, complete and yet very fast breathing which floods the brain with oxygen and gets the whole body tingling and awake. After several rounds of this breathing he then told us that now was the time for us to release all of our past sorrows and suffering through sound. We were to shout, and create as much noise with our vocal chords as possible to let out all that pain we have stuffed down and repressed all these years. Of course there was the expected silence after he says this while everyone is trying to get up the nerve to make even just a peep. Even I took a moment to conjure up my sorrows and some sound to express them. I was still feeling elated from the breathing exercises and all I could see behind my eyes was beauty and the incredible miracle of my existence.
But that silence opened itself to me, a tantalizing invitation, so after a few loud exhales I emitted a loud singing wail that traveled around to several notes, and actually managed to land squarely on a few which was nice considering I normally can’t carry a tune to save my life. My wail rose and filled the room and in my head the colors of peachy orange and soft coral burst like fireworks. Soon I heard Massimo, a tall and very kind Italian man in my class, join me, his voice a bold baritone filling the room with its rich vibrations. Together we harmonized in wordless singing exaltations for several minutes. Finally others began to join in, some quite softly, others with gathering gusto. We can hear Om ji urging us onward, calling for us to shout louder and to let go.
Now we are really starting to go mad. We are cackling, and calling like animals. We are wailing our sorrows, weaving a verbal tapestry of our pain and letting it fall all around us like a curtain. We are screaming our indignation, testing the decibel capacity of our vocal chords and lungs. Our sound is like a tidal wave, rising, rising, rising ever higher. We edge each onward, each new call and invitation for a louder call to trumpet higher, stronger. I feel a drop roll down my cheek which surprises me. I reach my hand up to my eyes and sure enough I feel tears. I’m crying. This discovery inspires me to push myself even farther and I give the loudest wail I can without tearing my vocal chords. I feel my face contort with anguish, my mouth open wide, as the sound comes spilling out of me, thick with forgotten sadness, with buried pain. In the wake of my wail I can hear Cheyenne, a powerhouse of a girl from Oregon, crying, sobbing in fact, as her sorrows seep through the cracks in walls of her mind, and begin to burst forth through the barriers.
This is our practice, our work tonight: taking our voice like a sledge hammer and beating down the walls within us, allowing us the freedom to be angry, sad, and upset. This is for all the times we did not let ourselves feel these emotions and instead built a brick house in our hearts in which to keep them, deep below the surface and away from our conscious mind, away from where we must think about them, process and express them. Now we are processing and expressing these emotions, now we are beginning to dismantle this compartment in our hearts. Now we are beginning to let ourselves feel the sadness and really steep ourselves in it; let it run through us and then out of us, leeching out of us on the rising waves of our exclamations.
After perhaps 15 minutes of this exercise, I am spent. My body is vibrating wonderfully and my mind is like the surface of a still lake, with only a few ripples here and there from a soft breeze, the occasional slowly floating thought. But no, we are not done. Om ji asks us to stand up, keeping our eyes closed, and begin the next phase of this experience, this wild unleashing of our voice, our power, our pain. We are to exhale forcefully and repeatedly while exclaiming “HU” with each exhalation. In addition we are to raise our hands above our heads and bring them down forcibly while exhaling, increasing the power of the exhalation and the volume of our vocalization. After several round of everyone beginning this exercise, Om then demands that we move about in every direction, releasing our body in addition to our voice. Now we are a band of frantic monkeys, flapping our arms, calling “HU!” like mad, and bouncing up and down, squatting with each exclamation of “HU!” and jumping up again. Our eyes are closed but at times my eyes open ever so slightly as I jump and hop about, just so I know I’m not running into anyone. At these times I can see other classmates, some of whom are going just as monkey crazy as me and others which are sticking to their mat but still “Hu Huing” loudly and flapping their arms, and it takes my full effort not to laugh hysterically and the beautiful insanity of it all.
I’m running out of steam soon, and my movements slow, my “Hu” calls weaken, and at last I stand still on my mat, breathing slowly and deeply. There is only so much insanity one can muster at one time. But other members of my class who were a bit more economical with their energy are still going at it, and it doesn’t take long for the energy of the room to rise once more, picking me up in the tide. Once again I am pumping my arms and calling “HU!” like my life depended on it. Now my rhythm is more tribal, as are my movements. I am undulating my body back and forth like an African dancer, pumping my hands toward my chest or down toward the ground with each forceful “HU” exhalation. At just the right rhythm my calls increase in intensity and build like an orgasm. I feel the energy travel up my spine and finally erupt out of my head as I throw my body back, arms wide, and give a wild HOoooowwwwwl to the night. Ooh that felt good, a small, still human, portion of my mind thinks. So I go again, building the energy in my core, feeling it rise up my spine and finally burst forth from my mouth in another window rattling HOOOOoooooooowwwwl. But the authentic effect gets harder as I reach for it, and so I let it go. I let it all go. I let the energy in me simmer and cool. I let my vocalizations soften to a sigh.
Om ji finally calls for us to quiet ourselves, sit upon our mats, and prepare ourselves for meditation. So I stagger to a sitting posture, my body weak, completely spent and a little shaky from the whole ordeal. As I sit and let my attention scan my body, I feel as if I am a pulsating condensed body of light, crammed into a tiny vibrating package of tissues and fluids. I let my attention follow my breath and I feel the boundaries which define me being to blur and expand, especially in the moments between each exhalation and inhalation. I watch as thoughts arise and I watch as my determination to concentrate pops each one like a balloon, or waves each off as if it was a mosquito.
The moments of expansive stillness stretch across several breaths but are often punctuated by the occasional errant thought. Still I feel myself smile somewhere inside, as my determination brushes these thoughts aside and my breath continues to guide me to that place of stillness, of vast emptiness. In and out of stillness, I oscillate like the wind pushing leaves to and fro and I relax into this constantly shifting mental space. I accept that I will not be able to hold onto that stillness just yet. I require many more days, many more sittings, to fully sit in stillness, but I’m OK with that.
Oh my how to even start to describe the incredible, tumultuous mix of emotions, the most terrifying and miraculous experiences that have just befallen me during my first attempt at using the India railways. Well I guess the only thing to do is start at the beginning and let the facts fold out from there.
I arrived in Jammu today from Srinigar, by jeep. The journey itself was pretty exciting and stomach turning as our driver seemed to have a death wish and would swerve insanely around cars and large trucks, ever pushing forward faster faster around the already very windy mountain road. Luckily I had popped two anti-nausea pills early in the journey, and I sat in the front single seat, so I managed to avoid getting sick. But the pills did nothing to keep me from seeing, in full front seat view, the narrow misses and brushes with death that our kind driver kept putting us into and then deftly pulling us out of.
Over the course of the nine hour drive I began to bore of the same Hindi CD playing and offered to plug some of my music into the usb port on the stereo. While none of my music went over terribly well with the other passengers or the driver, it started some of the other passengers sharing their music which got me talking to the three brothers in back. When we arrived in Jammu these brothers offered to split a rickshaw taxi to the Railway station with me, an offer which I gladly accepted as the extra protection and their fluency in Hindu would make the trip much easier. Now I should mention that the rickshaw taxis in India are very tiny; they are like tin golf carts with only one small bench seat in the back. However, despite this, three full grown young men and I, plus all our baggage managed to squeeze into one rickshaw taxi. One brother sat in front with the driver, some bags were shoved behind the bench seat in back and I sat on the bench seat with a brother on either side and my backpack bag on our laps.
At one point the taxi pulled into a lot that looked like hell. Trash was strewn everywhere, some piles were burning. There were cows and dogs milling around the piles and there were hundreds upon hundreds of people existing in a slum-like state. It was at this point that the rickshaw stopped and announced we had arrived at the railway station. “Here?!” I thought, “Where the hell are the trains, the cues, the ticket counters?” To make matters worse, I found out at this point that the brothers’ train wasn’t leaving until the next day and thus we had to part ways. So there went my protection. I lifted my eyes to the smoky mess of the slum lot and asked, my voice trembling with trepidation, how to get to the station. The driver motioned that the station was just up some stairs a little ways off. So, heart hammering in my chest, I gathered up my bags, shook hands with each of the three brothers and marched off in the direction of the station. Now I was fully a single woman traveling alone in very strange and different waters. But I planted one foot in front of the other and walked up those stairs with as much gusto as I could muster, feeling the weight of my situation pull heavier and heavier on me with each step.
While standing at the entrance of the station in utter confusion, walking with the mass of people pushing through security, wandering the crammed station corridors looking for a damn ticket counter, this weight became a swirling thunder, a tornado spiraling in my head. Finally I gave up and walked back out of the station and over to the second class ticket booking counter I saw outside the station on my way in earlier. On my way over I noticed that the tourist reception counter was just next to the second class ticket counter and hesitated for a moment before continuing on to the second class ticket counter. I’d had enough of tourist agencies and their massively inflated prices and while this counter might not give inflated prices, I didn’t want to risk it.
At the second class ticket counter I told the man my destination and he quoted me 155 rupees, or about $3. This price seemed absurdly low for a second class ticket, which is just one notch below the top class, but I didn’t argue or ask for clarification and instead simply took the print-out he handed me and waltzed off to the platform. Once settled at a good spot to wait for my train, I took out my print out and my confidence started to wane. Nowhere on my “ticket” was there a train number printed, nor any time of departure, or, most importantly, a seat number. I began searching faces for ones that looked like they belonged to someone who spoke English. Some women across from me were staring at me unabashedly so I decided to start with them, but no, none of them spoke a lick of English. In fact, I found out later, they were illiterate. The women sitting just next to me perked up and one of them asked “Can I help you?” “Yes please!” I replied. “Can you explain my ticket for me?” She scanned the small slip with a furrowed brow and announced that she didn’t know enough about the trains and train tickets but that her brother could help and he would be back in a few minutes. Lovely.
When her brother returned he looked at print out and told me that it wasn’t a reservation ticket but rather a general ticket referred to as a non-reservation. There are two non-reservation cars per train, one at the front and one at the back, and in these cars people are crammed in like cattle. Sometimes there is only room to stand, and you must travel like this through the night. This obviously wouldn’t do so this nice man, whose English nick-name is Ricky, took me to the counter where I could make my reservation. Once there I found out that all the seats for the train I wanted to Agra were sold out. Now my pulse really started to quicken and my mind began spiraling into panic. The thought of going back out of the station, now at night, through the slum lot of burning trash and hoards of people, to find a rickshaw who could take me. . . where? I have no names of any guest houses in Jammu, no idea of where to go.
Noticing my increasing unease, Ricky motioned for me to sit down on a near-by chair. He sat down next to me and, after a moment’s silence, said “Why don’t you come with my family? Buy a reservation ticket for sleeper class and come to our town. It is in the same state as Agra and it wouldn’t be hard to travel to Agra from there.” At this I was overcome with relief and gratitude. Guilt managed to creep in there too and I told Ricky I was so sorry my stupidity might make me interfere with his and his family’s travel plans or that I might be an inconvenience but he simply waved off my guilt like passed gas. “Don’t worry. You are our guest. We would be happy to have you.”
As he got up to find me another ticket form, tears sprang up in my eyes. I felt so much gratitude for this human, and the millions like him across the world who genuinely care for others and live selflessly. So much gratitude filled my heart that it came spilling over every side and came flowing from my eyes. I quickly bit back my tears however, embarrassed to seen so emotional, and went about the business of buying another ticket. Thankfully there was a seat available for me. I could have kissed the ticket slip. This one clearly printed the train number, carriage number and seat number showing that I definitely had a spot on this train. Glory be!
Ricky and I went back to the spot where his sister, Rosie, their mother and auntie were seated watching over all our bags. Ricky told them about my situation and his offer and they quickly opened up their little circle to me. They laid down a second blanket on which to sit, and their auntie began serving out dinner, including a portion set out for me. And like that, I was a part of the family.
If the sky wasn’t a filthy dusty oil streaked railway station ceiling, I would have floated up and kissed it. In a few short minutes I had gone from being a doomed target on the dark streets of Jammu to an adopted member of an Indian family; happily eating delicious mixed vegetable curry and chipati bread next to people I did not know but who cared for me just the same. The incredible tumble of emotions pounding through me threatened to push more tears from my eyes; gratitude swelled within me with each scrumptious bite and I was in awe of the happiness and beauty in this small family gathering on the railway station floor. The two aunties and the brother and sister cracked joke after joke and together they laughed and laughed, their laughter bubbling like water in a mountain stream.
But instead of being frozen and overwhelmed by my incredible dumb luck, I instead involved myself in learning about my new family. I spoke with Rosie, the young woman who first asked me if I needed help, and though her English was far from perfect we managed to talk about such profound subjects as her lack of belief in Indian marriage (due to the sheer number of spousal abuse cases she knows about), the cultural shortcomings of the USA and the infuriating way in which the government has fractured my pride in being a US citizen. We discussed the massive societal and cultural problem in India of discrimination against women, and the general closed-mindedness that pervades Indian society. We even talked about our dreams and plans for the future. She wants to be an actress and plans to fund her art by teaching. I told her how I hope to be a professional dancer and will fund my art through healing work and teaching yoga. I found out later by looking at our train tickets that we are the same age too! Both of us are 24, unmarried with no kids, but living in two completely different worlds, hers far more challenging and oppressive than mine.
Rosie also helped me begin a new Hindi translating guide in my notebook. The first things she had me jot down were “Hello!”(Namaste), “How are you?” (Toum ke say ho?) and “Can you help me?” (Qui-a-ahpu maidee madate karengay?). Next, at my request, came how to say delicious (swadist) , beautiful (sunder) and very beautiful (bohor sunder). Rather than barrage her with endless questions I left it at that for the time being, but throughout the evening, while talking to Ricky or Rosie, I would ask for translations and scribble them down. Soon I had filled a page with useful tid-bits like “I’m fine” (mei theek hu), “My name is Erin” (Mei-ra naam Erin heh), “Thank you” (sou-kria), and “Yes” (Haan-ji).
At one point Ricky informed me, laughing, that auntie Chitra likes me and wants to take me home for a few days. My hands flew into prayer position at my chest as I exclaimed “Yes please! I would be so honored!”
So after a bone rattling night in the sleeper class of the train, I was taken to the house of Chitra nad her husband Yogandra, who are distant relatives of Ricky but whom he still calls auntie and uncle. Still feeling foggy from a less than restful sleep and a bit confused as to just how I came to be adopted into an Indian family, I tottered after the round colorful shapes of the two aunties and the slim forms of the brother and sister, up and over the railway tracks and to the waiting car of their uncle. In the following day I would be fed delicious home cooked Indian food, introduced to friends of Chitra and Yogandra, all eager to meet the stranger from afar, and treated like an honored guest and member of the family. I offered to help Chitra in anyway possible, so at one point I helped her roll chipatis in the kitchen, a task that proved rather difficult for my inexperienced hands. I also did the dishes once with Chitra standing by nervously. I could tell she preferred to do them herself so from then on I simply did my best at keeping my things in order and being a courteous guest. Chitra and her husband spoke basically no English so my Hindi improved quickly. Ricky taught me some crucial phrases before he left for the night such as “I am hungry” (Mu-je bhook lagi-heh) “what is this?” (ye kia heh?) and “I want to sleep” (Mei sona cha-tee ho).
The next day Ricky took me over to another house to stay, this one belonging to a direct aunt of his. It was in the neighboring town of Meerut, a short 30 minute bus ride away. Here the energy was much more youthful, lively and relaxed as this aunt had two children who were still young and at home. (Chitra’s children were grown and both studying toward college degrees in Mumbai and Delhi.) For the two days my face was stuffed with more delicious home cooked Indian food and sweet chai tea with biscuits and I met many friends and family. Often cousins of Ricky, who were in college and had studied English sufficiently, would call him and ask to speak to me. One time however, I was handed the phone when a relative who could not speak any English called and asked to speak to me. After saying “Hello!” and “Namaste!” a few times and the little tid bits I could manage in Hindi such as “Toum ke say ho?” and “Mei teek hu”, there was little we could do but laugh and sit in awkward silence before I handed the phone back to auntie.
The one great frustration with staying with this family was that I could not leave the house at will. Meerut is not a very prosperous city and is in fact renowned for crime. Not to mention it is far off the tourist map and here I stand out even more than I would in more touristic areas. Add to that a small dash of the Indian sentiment that women should always be in the company of a man and you have me pretty well pinned to the couch. So instead I bided my time by doing yoga and practicing hula hoop on the roof and fantasizing about the next mouthwatering Indian meal that would be placed in front of me in another few hours. All in all it was an utter blessing and dream come true to stay with an Indian family and witness Indian culture from the inside out. I have a few ideas of how I will attempt to repay their great kindness and hospitality upon my return to the US. And perhaps one day, a member of this family might come to California and if they do, they will have a family with open welcoming arms waiting for them.
The last few days, while taking paddle boat trips on the lake, it has finally begun to sink in just how incredibly lucky I am to have been able to come visit this village in Kashmir. This feeling set into place with a satisfying click today while I glided over clouds and lily pads resting on the perfect mirror surface of the lake. The quiet and beauty one feels on this still and endless body of water are beyond measure. When you listen closely, you can hear wisdom of water ring clear all around you; from the physics of ripples, to the flowing frictionless surface, to the random yet synchronized dance of lily pads and crystalline clouds. Sitting so close to its surface and paddling gently, rhythmically, my mind softens and becomes still as the water. The lake is so clear that, peering into that other relm, as I slip by silently above, I can see both the red, coiling, roots of the lily bellow, her graceful green pads floating on the surface, and the reflected arching sky above all in one frame.
Then looking up one sees the towering mountains, shroud in a fine mist, which boarder the lake on three sides. Above them the sky is a misty blue and, near sunset, is strewn with a thousand thin cirrus clouds, skipping like ripples across the heavens.
The villages scattered throughout the marshy waters of the lake’s interior are a far cry from anything I have ever known or seen. The “roads” are all water ways; some high trafficked canals are clear while the lesser used pathways are thick with tiny floating plants making a green carpet and the illusion of land. Everyone travels by boat, and all the boats are powered by paddle. Even small children carry their own little paddles, though how much paddling they actually do remains a mystery. Still it’s a sight so unbearably cute, these small children with tiny hands wrapped around miniature paddles, it makes me want to stop everything and snap a thousand pictures. The houses, perched on small patches of land, are a shoddy mess of wood, sheet metal and brick. Sometimes they are painted, but are often just raw materials patched crudely together. Still there is a distinct charm to the way the buildings look, raw and earthen, tucked between trees and vegetable patches and rising out of the water, reflected in its surface. Some stretches of water way are indeed magical, passing below weeping willows and bridges laced with bright green moss and climbing vines, the small floating plants speckling the dark water like stars in an inky sky.
Some families keep chickens, goats or sheep on their plots of land and ducks are a constant feature along the canals, constantly scavenging the shallows for food. Men are seen out in the lotus fields, perched on the bow of long narrow boats, expertly harvesting the delicate and prized lotus root. They use a long rod with a hook on one end which they hammer repeatedly into the lake floor, to loosen the dirt and pull up the roots. They later bundle the roots for sale using palm leaves to tie them together. The women, in contrast, work to harvest the lily plants which are sold in the market and used to feed livestock, especially animals that are milked as the plants are supposed to support good milk production. These women also work from the bow of the long thin boats, piling the lily plants high behind them, in the belly of the boat.
Paddling along between the lotus and lily fields many birds can be seen circling the skies. Quite often one sees the large imposing silhouette of the eagle circling above. If you’re lucky you might see him pause his scouring of the sky to rest regally on a wooden post nearby. Smaller water fowl scamper along the water’s surface, scurrying along on the lily pads, stopping to swim only when the vegetation thins. One can often see the brilliant blue or the white and black spotted Kingfisher, master of his trade, flying swiftly above, hovering in place for a few crucial moments before rocketing down into the water to catch his next meal. Crows are also a common sight in the skies, their dark forms swooping low to rest on roof tops or fence posts. These crows have adapted for the frigid winters here and sport fluffy grey ruffs around their neck.
Despite the constant twittering and flight of the birds the lake maintains a beautiful stillness that infuses my consciousness. The pace of life here is slow and deliberate, like the even measured rhythm of paddle strokes. Despite the hardships of poverty, the people here live and move by this pace and it is distinctly felt while watching them work and live and while gliding through their world.
Landing in India is like landing in a dream; it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t. But this sensation takes a day or so to set in. My story begins before that. It begins when I was to be reborn in India with shaved head, done at my own hands. I had decided a few months previous that I would shave my head in India. Many people, when told this, feel compelled to ask “WHY? Why would you do such a thing?” To this I have many answers. For one, I’ve wanted to shave my head at least once in this life as sort of a bucket list item. But on a deeper level, I wanted to come into India as a new born, with eyes open and new. I wanted to be as a child here, eager to learn and discover, and open to all that I see. I also wanted to remove vanity from my time in India. I sent home all my makeup (except the glitter, of course, which I’m saving for when I teach hoop at a circus school in Nepal. Why glitter is important in hoopdance is obvious and a silly question I won't take time to address.) and I’ve resolved not to pluck my eye brows or shave. I want to be serious in my yoga studies, meditation and devotion while I am here, and to remind myself of this, I see my shaved head each day in the mirror.
The very first thing I set about doing, after checking into my hotel, was to finally do what I had decided I would do several months previous. I would shave my head, by myself, if I had to. Earlier that day while still in Cambodia, I set out to find a set of clippers so I could do the job myself if need be. I managed to find some clippers and now, safely deposited in my New Delhi hotel, I pulled out the buzzer, clipped on the proper guard, and pulled a large bucket underneath the mirror. Before beginning I took a few final photos of my hair, a last goodbye before it disappeared for the next few months. I gave myself a good long stare in the mirror and then broke into a huge smile and stretch, reaching my arms far into the air and back, as if I wished to hug the whole world and all of its inexplicable strangeness. Because, despite all those reasons above, I still do not fully know why I must shave my head, I just know I must and thus I stopped asking myself bottomless questions and accepted that not all can be explained.
I plugged in the buzzer, dipped my head over the bucket and flipped the switch. . . Nothing happened except a low “mmmmrrrrrr” sound. The blades did not move. “Fuck,” I thought to myself. I tried plugging into a different socket. Nothing. I tried moving the lever arm which shifts the position of the blades. Nothing. I waited and thought for a few moments, directing some carefully chosen telepathic words to the stubborn buzzer. I tried a few more times to turn it on. Nope. Nada. Not happening.
“Well shit,” I thought “I guess perhaps I was not supposed to shave my head in India after all.” And on this puzzling note, I went to bed.
In the morning I woke up with renewed vigor to tackle this darn buzzer problem. I took out the kit with all the accessories and examined each one. I came across a small bottle of oil and an idea struck me. I took the oil, clipped off the tip and dripped a few drops onto the blades. I then took the small brush which came in the kit and spread the oil between the blades on all sides. Satisfied all the oil was spread out, I plugged in the buzzer and flipped the switch. “BRRRRSSSSSOOWWWW” the buzzer declared triumphantly. “YES!!!” I shouted to the mirror. “Now we can get on with this.”
Holding the buzzing buzzer poised at my temple, I gave myself one more appraising look. “This might be harder than you expected,” I say to myself. “Fuck it,” I say back “let’s do it.”
Half an hour later, I’m looking at a new face in the mirror. Not all the hair is even, and I messed up the back when I took off the guard, forgot, and then went even out the hair at the base of my head. This left a few run-way like stripes before I realized what I had done. At this point I swore loudly and started working on blending the every short areas with the slightly longer areas, using my camera as an extra mirror so I could see what I was doing back there.
Something about my face looks more elegant and severe. I’m hypnotized by my own new visage and take far too many photos trying to document what I see. So much for avoiding vanity. Still I can’t help but fell exhilarated and refreshed. I take shower, running my hands over my prickly yet silken soft scalp over and over again, somehow still incredulous that it’s gone, my hair is no more.
So far my time in India has gone rather smoothly but I can feel this place has its suckers on me, holding me still and extracting all the money it can before letting me go. I let my money go too easily, unsure, naive in this new foreign place. Ever since my first taxi cab ride yesterday morning which plopped me off at the Government Tourist Agency, I have been caught up in a tide, rolling along the gushing flow of money draining from my pockets.
Sure they have been wonderful to me, treating me like a queen, driving me around New Delhi and watering me with cups of chai. They have invited me into their home to eat beside them and relax in front of the TV with them before letting me sleep on their queen size guest bed. But still, I can sense the dark greed lapping at their heels. Yes, my host was exceedingly helpful last night in planning my trip itinerary so as to make the most of my time here and to ensure I book my train tickets early so as to not get stranded in one place for too long. But how much of this helpfulness came from good will and how much came from the unrestrained desire to squeeze dollars from my pocket?
At one point he got on the phone to make my reservations but he spoke to the person on the other end in English, and the buttons and screen on his phone were dark. I had the distinct impression that he wasn’t talking to anyone on the other end. After he hung up (a movement which caused his phone to light up suspiciously) I asked him why he had spoken to the person on the other end in English. He hesitated for a moment before replying that it was so that I could understand what he was saying, but why should I need to understand? I understand he is making my booking, that is enough, I do not need to know every word he says. I was unsatisfied but had nothing more to say short of accusing him of faking this phone call, which I could not do seeing as how generous of a host he was, so I kept my lips shut.
This morning when I could not give him cash for the reservations he asked for an advance of $100. As I only had $90 on me, I reluctantly gave him all my US dollars. Before he left me to have his driver shuttle me to the Airport to catch my flight up north, I had him scribble a note of the advance on my receipt but even this feels like a feeble effort to validate my submission of handing over the money.
Money money money. Here I am, in beautiful India, about to gaze upon the Himalayas for the first time and all I can do is gripe about money. Ok, so I might be getting stiffed. It is my first time in India and I do not know how to avoid these things yet. I must be patient and talk to more travelers, get more information and advice before I can expect to know better.
Still this dreamlike state continues. In the plane ride my mind is clouded by the dark stories brewing in the compelling novel that has me spellbound “The Space Between Us”. My mood is further fowled when I retrieve my bags off the belt only to find my hula hoops have been bent. This might seem like folly to get worked up over but these instruments are like brushes for a painter: break them in half and the art is so much harder to produce. In my art, my hoop dance, the magic I weave arises from the manipulation of a perfect circle. Even a small dent in this circle, rendering it into a slight tear shape, makes it so much harder to weave the same magic. So I cursed, too loud, and threw them on the ground, cursing several more times, but quieter and under my breath. I knew there was no one to whom I could complain and what difference would it make anyways? The damage was done and no airport official would give a hoot about my stupid hoops, a child’s toy. So I just had to bottle up my anger and stuff it deep down.
My anger quickly melted, however, when I stepped out into the sun and was greeted by my new host, the manager of the guest house where I will be staying. His name is Ash and his face was warm and softened by a distinct kindness. The first thing he said to me after calling me by name was that I appeared to him in a dream, with my eye brown ring and the color and shine of my eyes. What a bizarre and yet beautiful thing to say. I liked him instantly and could tell he was a spiritual man.
I lifted my gaze from this man and noticed the crisp stillness of the air and its clear coolness against my skin. The sun was positively beaming down, bouncing brightly off every white car and wall. Even the sounds were clearer, more sharp and crisp. It was the silence between each sound that created its definition. There is no silence in Delhi, one quickly realizes. The sounds in Delhi are like liquid, all flowing into one another, creating a sound-scape that is like a crowded fish tank, full to the brim and teeming with frequencies. But here, I could hear every rustle of fabric as I took off my bag and shoved it in the back seat of the car. I could hear the shuffling of feet against the pavement 30 feet away. Each sound stood out like a gem and rang clear as a bell. I stood for a moment, awestruck, and wondered, not for the first time since I arrived in India, whether or not I had landed in a dream, whether what I was experiencing was real.
We are driving into town from the airport now and I am overwhelmed by everything I wish to capture, in words and in my camera. The people and the buildings are so different here. The women and men dress more warmly and in a more middle-eastern style. Many more women wear the head scarf and men wear white skull caps or short cylindrical caps. The men wear long flowing garb, a heavy baggy poncho like garment, and loose pants beneath while the women wear the usual splash of colorful sari’s and Punjabi’s but with extra sweaters and scarves for warmth. (The Punjabi is another traditional Indian dress that consists of a long tunic like dress worn over billowing loose pants which close at the ankle, and a long scarf which is draped around the front of the neck and falls behind each shoulder.)
The buildings look more European with painted window panes and tipped roof tops. The leaves on the trees are turning from green into yellow, yellow into orange, the sign that is fall here. The yellow leaves stand out like lights against the sheer blue sky. Other trees sport bright orange leaves, maple I think, and still others look like the trees in DC, tall, erect and stripped of all leaves. Winding through this small city are many canals which serve to amplify the colors of the trees and painted boats by multiplying each image in the rippling reflections.
We travel down a street running alongside a large lake, along whose shore rests hundreds of colorful painted boats, long and wooden with cozy bench seating. The seats are long and reclining and adorned with patterned fabric and cushions. It is into one of such boats that I am led and soon we are off, paddling across the lake. All along the opposite shore are endless house boats which serve as hotels on the lake during the busy tourist season in the summer. Each hotel is decorated with fine lattice wood work and boasts a large sign declaring some ridiculously pompous name such as “New Panama”, “New Taj Mahal”, or “Crystal Palace.” One apparently belongs to me as it is named “Top Erin Deluxe.”
As we continue to paddle farther across the lake I am struck with the strangest sense of Déjà vu. Suddenly I am entering another floating village, spookily similar to the one I had visited just days previous, worlds away in Cambodia. There are floating stores selling food wares and water. Others sell clothing or craft wares. And running between these stores is a traffic of boats, large and small, all powered by paddle and thankfully not noisy stinky engines. Boat drivers and store keepers all call out hello to each other and joke playfully before continuing on their way demonstrating the easy camaraderie and familiarity between all the men. I have stumbled my way into yet another floating village except this one exists at the foot of majestic mountains which tower out of the mists and ripple in reflections on the lake; this one lives in the far north of India where the culture and the language is a blend of Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese and countless others; this time, instead of merely passing through and snapping photos of the village, I will be living in it.
Upon arriving at my host’s abode, I quickly realized that though I am not the first traveler to pay to stay here, this certainly is not a guest house in the usual sense of the word. I am staying in the family’s house (though to be fair I had the option to stay out in the floating boat hotel out front but refused, preferring instead to skirt loneliness and stay closer to the family) and am waited on hand and foot by their kindly, yet quirky servant Monzouri. Also living in this house is the warm and smiling Mama Hassina, the two daughters Sofina, who is about to finish her degree in Business communications, and a younger daughter who’s name escapes me, as well as the elderly Abdul, and Ash, my host. I have a bright sunny room all to myself, which was further brightened by the colorful vase of flowers Mama Hassina brought up for me yesterday. The flowers are from the garden outside where dormant roses line the lawn but other flower bushes, scattered here and there, are in full bloom.
It’s quite cold here, even within the house I can see my breath, and I am cursing my veneurable shaved head. The large poncho they provided me is a saving grace, as are the “winter wife” heaters they keep close when sitting. The heaters are wicker baskets with clay pots inside. The clay pots hold coals and, when, stirred with the metal spoon attached to the basket, emit a wonderful glowing heat. To keep warm, one holds a winter wife under the poncho and sits with it close by, holding ones’ hands over the wicker handle to warm them. To keep my head warm I wear a scarf wrapped around it and this does the trick just fine.
Though I have been enjoying my time here thus far, watching everything with eyes wide as a child’s, yesterday culture shock hit me like a kick to the stomach. I went for a walk through the town with Abdul and the intensity of the small city and its crowded trafficked streets was overwhelming. Gone was that initial stillness and quiet I had felt in the Airport parking lot. Instead a rushing pulse, like the one I felt in Delhi, courses through the streets. Everywhere I looked my eyes met foreign sights: strange street foods, unfamiliar dark faces pressing past, crowded shops whose merchandise was spilling out into the cramped walkways. I finally felt the cloud of that elusive sensation I for which had braced myself my whole trip but had not felt in full force until this moment. “So this is culture shock,” I thought to myself. In need to talk to someone or something, I whipped out my note pad and scribbled down my thoughts:
“I’m having a hard time engaging my surroundings. Everything feels strangely unreal, like I could pull back a curtain and discover a world closer to what I’m used to. Everything, the faces, the dress, the streets and buildings, the language and the eyes upon me, everything feels profoundly different. The pace of the small city here leaves me breathless and seeking a familiar face, or even just a familiar language in which I can confide my inner turmoil.”
I wrote this while sitting in the watch shop of one of Abdul’s friends, a kind and large man who quickly offered me tea and biscuits while one of his shop keepers ran out to fetch a power converter for my camera battery charger. The people I meet are always so hospitable and generous, and genuinely interested in where I came from and how I came to visit their removed little city of the North. It is not the kindness of these strangers that is bothering me, but it is rather the simple fact that I am among strangers which has me in a somber and pensive mood today. Later on while sitting with Abdul in very tiny café (so tiny that I had to share my small bench seat with a plump woman eating the lunch they serve), while eating vegetable samosas with tea, more words were eager to tumble out of my mind, through the pen and onto paper:
“It’s the eyes that really get me; soft, dark and bottomless, these eyes, hungry with curiosity. Sometimes they belong to a strikingly handsome face and it takes some will power not to return such a powerful gaze. It also kills me how silly I feel under their scrutinizing stares as they scan my hodge-podg mess of patterns and garments that are foreign and wrong. I want so forcibly to wear the traditional dress and hide my pale skin and foreign face behind the cover of the head scarf. Shanti Shanti, they always say. Slowly slowly, in time.”
So I breathe patience; patience that I might get used to the stark class difference in the home between servant and resident; that I might get used to being waited on like a princess, a hot water bottle ready in my bed at night and tea and food prepared for me. Patience that the faces will soften with familiarity, that the streets will not seem so claustrophobic, and that living in the middle of a lake where a boat ride past floating stores and houses is the only way to get out to the city, might not seem so bizarre in another few days. Shanti, shanti. Slowly, slowly and in due time.
Right now is the month of the lantern lighting festival in Chiang Mai, known as Yi Peng or Loi Krathong. It’s a spectacle so popular that a photo of it graces the cover of the most recent addition of the French Lonely Planet Thaïlande guide book. I will not be in Chiang Mai for the festival date itself, which falls on November 10th, one day after my flight departs from Bangkok to New Delhi, but I was able to attend the opening night’s ceremony at a university campus just outside of town. I rented a motorbike for the occasion and motored out to Mae Jong University with two of my friends from my guest house. We took a rather winding, circuitous if scenic route out there but still arrived with plenty of time to enjoy a relaxed meal, sitting beside the canal which ran alongside the path to the University campus.
Everywhere were stalls selling food, drinks, desserts, toys, and stacks upon stacks of white lanterns. Of course none of the patrons of such stalls made any mention of the fact that these lanterns were not allowed on the University campus. No, all the tourists had to find this out for themselves when, upon reaching the gates, they were told their lanterns must stay outside, and once inside, only the event-sanctioned lanterns could be purchased (for triple the price of those outside). But locals and tourists alike put away their grumblings and willingly purchased the $3 event sanctioned lanterns because this is still a very small price to pay for what will certainly be a most memorable experience.
As dusk approached we made our way onto the campus grounds along with the pressing tide of thousands of other participants, stopping briefly to purchase our $3 lantern. At last we arrived at the sloping lawn where everyone was gathering and settling onto the grass. Spaced evenly throughout the lawn were unlit candle lamp posts for lighting the lanterns later on. We sat next to one post that wasn’t yet claimed and waited eagerly for the ceremony to begin. However, once the prayers and chanting of the ceremony did commence our eagerness gradually faded to boredom as the prayers stretched on and on for an eternity. One of my companions and I found ourselves slumping closer and closer to horizontal, until finally we both took a small snooze for a spell. We arose briefly for the taunting excitement of lighting the candle lamp posts. But no, it wasn’t yet time to light the lanterns. Still the lamps created a beautiful warm glow across the grass, illuminating all the participants, their families and friends, everyone’s faces shining, full of eager anticipation. Before we were to light the lanterns we first were to sit in a communal meditation to the beautifully haunting sound of chanting by a head monk. During the meditation the monk’s soothing chant easily quieted the mind, but perhaps a bit too easily as again I found myself drifting rather than focusing on my breath.
After a second eternity had passed we were finally called to stand and unfold our paper lanterns. In another few moments the call came for everyone to light their lanterns. All around us, tall glowing white paper columns started mushrooming up out of the air. To light the lantern, one must first unfold the paper and extend it to its full length. Then, careful not to light the wispy thin tissue paper, one lights the coil of fuel soaked paper at the open end. And now you wait for the hot air of the burning paper to inflate the lantern to its full height and girth. These lanterns were perhaps a meter or more tall and about a half meter across so you can imagine the bizarre sight as you look around and see nothing but massive glowing marshmallows interspersed with people carefully tending to their glowing puffed marshmallow. A moment of silence fell as we were called to raise up our lantern but hold still and wait for the signal. “What signal??” I kept thinking. “How will we know?” Then all at once there came a massive “BANG!” Before I could regain my senses a second huge “BANG!” sounded and no thought was needed. We gently let go of our lantern along with thousands upon thousands of other lanterns and watched, awestruck, as they rose slowly into the sky. It was one of those moments where time seemed to stretch for a breath; where everything was suspended in wonder. We watched in rapture as the endless glowing lanterns gracefully lifted into the sky like a school of fluorescent jellyfish making their migration to the stars.
Indeed the lanterns began to resemble swarming stars or galaxies as they drifted ever higher. New waves of lanterns were being released constantly into the sky as people lit and released their second, third or even fourth lanterns. The soft breeze created the most surreal effect as it carried the lower lanterns one direction and the higher lanterns in another. The result was a beautiful shifting pattern, again giving the lights a life force and the illusion that they were caught in a gentle liquid current.
It was all the three of us could do to simply stand there, heads thrown back, mouths open in incredulous grins, eyes wide and shining. Finally the rapture broke and we laughed, overcome with wonder, and danced about, falling into a warm group hug. We expressed our deep thanks for the each of us being there to share the experience. The two individuals with which I witnessed this beautiful spectacle were named Dan and Gil and they were two fantastic, intellectual weirdos who I met during my time in Chiang Mai. I do not have their e-mail, nor do they have mine, and I doubt I will ever see them again. But they both, in their own unique way, added light and learning to my experience in Chiang Mai and I won’t ever forget them, nor could I ever thank them enough for being there with me.
I still get shivers when I think of him
When I think of how he held me
And that highway of light that flowed
Through his touch.
No one expects to find connections like these while traveling.
In fact they are an inconvenience.
They counter the essence
Of endlessly exploring
The external world.
They make you want to throw in the towel,
Stop the mighty tide of moving from place to place
Be still and
an entire Sunday
through the bed sheets
But I’ve still got my towel.
And now I’m a world away
Of his touch
Of That highway of light
Our frequencies a resounding resonance
I won’t ever forget.