A Dustland Fairytale

•June 2, 2010 • 2 Comments

I am on the back of Salim’s motorbike, roaring down the streets of Agra, and I am not sure where he is taking me.  We pull up to a building that is clearly closed; we walk inside.  “This where I am working,” he says.  “You’ve only been back in Agra for three or four days and you are already working?”  I ask him.  “Yes,” he says, “This my old boss.  He call me, say he need help.  I come work for him.”

We walk over new, marble floors coated in a thick layer of dust from all the construction work.  There are cords and wires everywhere, exposed concrete, building materials.  And, while it’s interesting enough, I wonder why he’s brought me here before letting me check into a guesthouse and stow my bags away.

Hotel Lobby - not yet open

We climb the unfinished steps.  He opens a door.  Before me is a huge, beautiful, brand new guest room.  “You stay here,” he says.  “Hotel not open yet.  You are first guest.”  “Really?”  I ask, “I am staying here?  It’s ok?”  “Yes,” he says, “You are welcome here.”

I put down my bags, and he shows me the rooftop.  Complete with a view of the Taj Mahal.  It is breathtaking.  He shows me two rooms that are being constructed on the rooftop; they are rooms with full glass on one side.  So, no matter where you are – sleeping, showering, using the toilet – the Taj Mahal is in full view.  I love it.

“This is very nice,” I say, “will be very nice.”  “Yes,” he smiles, “We open one week.”  Amazing.  There is a lot to do.

He leads me to the basement and shows me the cows, two heifers and one calf.  I am confused as to why there are cows in the hotel until I learn that these cows belong to the owner.  They use the milk from them to drink, to make paneer (milk cheese), and curd, and lassis.  Sadly though, the cows will be taken to a village soon, because the smell is not good for the new hotel.   But, they will still be treated well and the fresh milk delivered to the hotel.

Baby Cow

He then leads me to the back of the hotel, to the owner and his family’s residence.  He wants me to meet them.  His boss, Jagdish, is friendly and welcoming. We greet one another, and he heads straight back to the hotel to work; I like him instantly.  Salim is talking to someone else, another worker.

It’s a little uncomfortable. I am not sure what to say or where to go as the home is a series of rooms surrounding a big open area.  I sort of stand around, feeling completely awkward and out of my depth for a while.  I am relieved to see a fat, black lab waddling around.  She is precious and so obviously spoiled.  I pet her, heaping love on her and letting her fill that doggy gap that I carry around.  “Chewby,” says the boss’s wife as she is walking into the kitchen.  “Name is Chewby.”  I call the dog Chewby for a week until I finally realize it’s actually Chubby.

Salim leads me into the kitchen where the wife of his boss, Mnjula, is cooking.  “She loves cook so much; she want to learn,” he says.    Then he walks away.  I am not sure where he goes.  I sort of watch Mnjula for a while, feeling awkward.  It is hard for her and I to communicate as she speaks little English and I speak even less Hindi.  Her eldest daughter, Jahanvi, comes into the kitchen.  She is twenty years old and is home for a break from school; she usually lives in Delhi with one of her aunts.   I immediately relax; it is amazing how important language is; how vital the ability to speak and be understood, to express – how our spirit, from the inside out, simply longs to be understood.

I watch the mother cooking.  I speak to Jahanvi.  The mother tells Jahanvi to lead me into the living room, and she brings me a plate of food, freshly made.  And I instantly know that I am welcome here.  I am at a home away from home.   For me, food is love.  This person has taken time to prepare sustenance for my very survival.

And thus begins a relationship with this family.  The week that I spend here, I am included.  I am cared for, cooked for (MumMum always making sure mine is not spicy), taken to a family wedding, made a dozen or more chais (by far the best in India).  I hang out with Jahanvi.  We share life experiences with each other; she shows me my first Bollywood movie and translates every word of it as we watch.  I show them pictures of my family, my friends, my dog.  Jahanvi shows me pictures of her family, she and her younger sister being goofy, her younger brother, her silly friends back in Delhi.  Jahanvi and MumMum teach me how to make paneer. I call the mother MumMum.  I play with the family dog.  I love them.  They love me.  My Indian family.

MumMum, Jahanvi, and half of me

Jagdish and MumMum at the wedding

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Jahanvi and I wake at 5:30AM in order to get to the Taj Mahal by sunrise.   We leave the hotel, walk around the corner, through the park, and we are at the gate.  It takes us about ten minutes.   We enter.

The Taj Mahal.

It’s a sigh caught in the heart, a deep breath again and again.  It’s love.  It’s beauty.  It’s purity and grandeur.  It’s your first kiss.  It’s your wedding day full of innocent hope.  It’s Christmas when you’re four years old.  It’s puppy breath.

It’s the quiet chirping of birds in the morning.  It’s the dew glistening on the petal of the rarest orchid.  It’s the most brilliant sunset dipping into the bluest ocean.  It’s the bright light in the eyes of your true love.  It’s recreation, reproduction, and beginnings.  It’s death.  It’s the end.

It’s epic.  It’s the past, the present, and the future all bound, floating like a white castle suspended in midair.  It is in this world; it is not of it.

And this initiation into this world of beauty, peace and love, of ends, of beginnings – this is the gift for visiting this house of love and death.

I walk around it, in it, resting my hand on the marble, soaking in its purity, pulling in its essence through my pores.  I watch the sunlight pour in and alter the marble from glistening white to pale yellow to soft pink.  I see the patterns of light beaming through, playing on the smooth floor.

The Taj is the most beautiful, photogenic woman in the world.  There are no bad angles, no unattractive sides.  Jahanvi and I sit on a bench in the garden and just marvel at it.  Just watch its gracefulness.

I can’t take my eyes off it, and I know how a young boy in love must feel – full of adoration and longing – lucky to be in the presence of such beauty.   I close my eyes and breathe it in.  The smell.  The feel.  The vibrations.  I will remember this always, this pulsing, this energy.  This.

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Another day in Agra.  I go by rickshaw to the Black Taj, also known as the Baby Taj.  It’s a garden directly across the river from the Taj Mahal.  There is a crude foundation there.  The plan of Shah Jahan was to build himself a building of black onyx directly across from the Taj where his body would be kept after his death.  His wife, Mumtaz Mahal, buried in white marble, he in black onyx.  He began construction.  His son locked him in prison, declaring that public funds should not be spent in this way.

But, the view from the Black Taj is stunning.  The rickshaw driver says, “Sunrise and sunset.  Today, you are done with the Taj Mahal.”  “No,” I say. “I don’t think you can ever really be done with the Taj Mahal.”

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Salim says that I should see the Agra Fort, and he volunteers to drop me off there.  I hop on the back of the motorbike, and he takes off.  I can’t wait for the breeze.  It’s stifling here.  The breeze smacks me in the face as I peer around him to see the road in front of us; it’s so hot that it takes me breath.  I have never felt wind like this.  The heat is searing.  He drops me out front and tells me when I get a rickshaw back to have them drop me at Rani Mundi Circle; from there I can walk to the hotel.  “When get back,” he says, “we go out.”  “Great,” I say.  “See you later.”  He drives away.

As I walk into the Agra Fort, I am reminded that the nice thing about having to pay an entrance fee into tourist places is that the local hawkers don’t go inside.  This provides a little peace; it is actually possible to experience a few moments of quiet.

I see the different parts of the fort, the old celebration courtyard, the glass building where the women in the harem bathed, the silver plated door where the noblemen took their orders from the King, and the older, red sandstone portions, and I suddenly feel this longing.  Just longing.  And I can’t tell what I am longing for.  I just feel it intensely.  So, I walk over to an opening, a window in the fort.  I look out, across the highway, and across the river is the looming lady, The Taj Mahal.  The distance making her small, but still glorious, still other-worldly.  I perch in the window and stare at the building until the guard comes over and makes me climb down.

At the other end of the fort are Shah Jahan’s old prison quarters, beautiful marble with inlay work.  Marble screens.  And never-ending views of the Taj Mahal.  This is where Shah Jahan was kept, where he spent his last years. Locked up by his son, forbidden to spend any more money for personal matters, for a Black Taj.  In his final years, it was here that he stared out at the Taj Mahal, watching it, longing for it, longing for his dead wife.

And, my feeling of longing makes sense.  Shah Jahan’s vibrations, his feelings remain here in this fort.  And I can feel them.   I can empathize over the centuries.

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On My Way

•May 9, 2010 • 1 Comment

I am sitting on the train to Bangalore, soaking in my own sweat, waiting for the train to carry me away from Mysore.  I am leaving Mysore with a new sense of passion, of excitement.  I feel ready to ride the trains, to see India, to experience it with my newly forming heart.  In addition to telling me that my heart is reforming itself, Lynda also wrote to me that I may feel confused as to where to go, what to see next, because I am just supposed to be wandering right now, just soaking up the places.   I am ready to embrace being a wanderer, because I am grounded in the knowledge that I will always be in the right place, that I will see what I need to see, experience exactly what I need to experience, and meet the perfect people to teach, warm, and greet my soul along the way.

As the train pulls out of the station, I quietly ask India to show me her secrets, to reveal herself to me.  And as the wheels begin to grind faster and faster on the tracks, I can hear her answer, “All you had to do was ask.”

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Everyone I have spoken to says to skip Bangalore – that it’s just a big, modern city.  No reason to go.  Nothing to see.  Nothing to do.

And that’s exactly why I like it.  Since there is nothing to do, I can do exactly what I want.  I can sit and meditate; I can go to the gym; I can find a Yoga class; I can sit and write.  But I do none of these.  I browse shops.  I watch an American film.  I eat Western food.  I have chai at a locals-only restaurant.  I watch Cartoon Network.  I get my hair trimmed.  I walk around the city.  I walk for hours and hours and at the end of the day, I realize that my toes are completely raw from walking all day in flip-flops.  But, I am okay with that; it feels good to have walked so much.

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I battle through the busy streets of Bangalore to the train station – Bangalore City Railway – one of India’s busier railway stations. I spot an STD/ISD  booth and stop to call Salim (the cook from Varkala) and give him my train number, let him know that I am on my way.  He is so excited that I am coming to visit.  “Thank you,” he says, “I will see you on the 13th at the train station in Agra.  You get there, you call me.  I come to train station.”  “Ok,” I say.  “Thank you.  See you soon.”  He thanks me again.  And again.  For calling him, for coming to visit in Agra.  And, in the short few minutes on the phone, I am unable to make him understand that it is my honor to visit him, his family, his friends; it is truly my privilege.

I walk into the railway station, and it’s so dark I can’t even read my ticket.  The power is out.  I find a security officer and ask him which train is to Agra.  He points to the left.  I buy another liter of water and walk down the line of cars to find my correct compartment, Sleeper #2.

I find it.  I climb in and shuffle through the car to find my seat.  The Indian train is a little microcosm of society.  For the most part, I like riding the train.  I like submerging myself into this world, observing it and participating in it.  And now, I have 35 hours to experience this little world. Let’s be clear.  I’m not talking about air-conditioned, 1st class, 2nd class or 3rd class.  I am talking Sleeper class, no A/C, dusty, dirty, bottom of the rung.  I took 2nd class one time; it’s not the same – the friendliness, the togetherness, the light conversation – it’s not there.  No, it lies in the sleeper class with the manual laborers, the crying babies, and the students.

The first thing I do when I find my seat is to look around for my guardian.  There is always one.  Someone who makes eye contact with me, maybe even a slight smile, but in that second of eye contact, there is trust established – someone to watch over me, make sure my bags are ok if I must go to the restroom, to make sure I don’t miss my stop.  My guardians on this train happen to be in the same compartment with me – a few students studying in Bangalore and going home for the summer break.  They make sure that I am comfortable and that my bag is stowed appropriately.  I am safe.

After a couple of hours, I clamber up to my upper bunk, wipe off the thick layer of dirt and settle myself amongst my bags as best I can. I don’t sleep well; the train bumps and grinds, starts and stops throughout the sweltering night.  I do manage to drift off for a couple of hours only to awaken covered in a fresh layer of grime blown in the windows by the fast night speeds.

The morning comes with cries of “Chai. Chai,” and “Coffee.  Coffee,”  by men carrying pots of hot liquid and small paper cups.  It is amazing to me that you can get whatever you might need on an Indian train.  Young and old Indian men walk through the cars selling hot meals, cold water, soda, lassi (yogurt drink), toys, chains and locks, cashews, peanuts, oranges, lemons, pomegranates, their own personal musical talents, and sometimes even their sorrows in the form of nubs of an arm, a hand, or blindness.   All for sale.

By midmorning, my clothes are soaked through with sweat and my soft, silk pants are dried crunchy from the salt of my perspiration.  I pull out a small sliver of soap, my towel, toothbrush and toothpaste that I have learned to pack on the top of my bag when taking the train, and I go freshen up as best as possible.

On this mid-April day in the mid-afternoon sun, the heat is stifling.  My eyeballs are sweating.  I look at my watch.  It’s 1:45 pm.  The train journey is about half over.  I climb down from my bunk hoping that there is more air circulating below.  There isn’t.

But, I talk with my guardians.  One is about to graduate and become a medical doctor; he is working in a hospital in Jaipur for the summer and invites me to visit him; my other guardian is about to graduate and become a pharmacist; he lives up North in Chandigarh.  He invites me to visit and says he will show me around.  They both give me their mobile numbers and say to contact them if I need anything at any time during my travels in India.  Most Indian people do this – give you their number and offer help.  And, the really astounding thing is, they mean it.  Always.

We talk for hours and hours.  It’s a download of information.  I learn about the caste system and India’s version of affirmative action, the University and schooling system, and lots of random medical information.  They teach me about hypotension, hypertension, what to do if having a stroke, when to not take ibuprofen, medicines to avoid if you have kidney issues.  Tons of information.  Some of it I will remember; some I will forget.  And, I am not really sure why I am getting all of this information, but I know that at some point, I will need it.  India doesn’t give you a lot of things that are useless.

They ask if I am lonely traveling by myself.  “Not really,” I say.  “I had a friend come and travel with me for a while.  And, I meet people.  Some days are lonely.  Some days are good.”  They shake their heads.  They do not understand this  – being alone and being okay with it, actually desiring it.  In conversation, Indians will say lonely, rather than alone.  The word alone, they don’t understand.

They tell me about their communities, their villages, how everyone knows everyone and all of their family history.  “In the US,” the doctor says, “I think you don’t sometimes know your neighbors, even their names.”  “That’s true,” I say.  “Here,” he says, “we know the names, the children’s names, grandparents, brothers, uncles, aunts, how long they live here, who in their family has died, who marries who.  We know all.  For all village.  All community.”

“Yeah,” I say, “India has a strong sense of community.  America is more individual.”  And, we talk about this for a long time.  The pros, the cons, the differences between the two and the values in society that perpetuate these ways of living.  They like their community, their sense of belonging because it is perpetual love, perpetual support.

I long for community, for true community.

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The train arrives in Agra.  The Doctor walks me to the gate.  He finds a pay phone so that I can call Salim.  He pays for the call.  He waits with me out front so that the rickshaw drivers and taxi drivers won’t bother me.  He has taken me into his community.

Salim roars up on a motorbike.  With my huge backpack strapped to my back, I hang on and head down the streets of Agra, ready for India to reveal herself to me.

Not Myself

•May 1, 2010 • 5 Comments

*Before you read this, know that I am about a month behind in my blogs.  I am safe.  I am sound.  I am riding a camel through the desert as you read this post.    

I get off the train in Mysore and within minutes spot Charles pulling in on his scooter.  It’s so good to see a familiar face, to be welcomed at the train station instead of haranguing with rickshaw drivers and trying to figure out where to go, where to stay.  “So sorry I am late,” he says, “Julie had accident on scooter this morning.”  “Oh my gosh; is she okay?” I ask.  “Yes, yes,” he says, “but make me late.”  “No,” I say, “It was perfect timing.  I just got off the train.  I’m glad Julie is okay.” 

We try our best to figure out how to get Charles, me, and my two backpacks on the small scooter.  I’ve seen families of five carrying groceries on scooters like this; I know it can be done.  A local Indian sees us struggling and comes over to lend us a hand; within seconds, my large backpack is stowed topsy-turvy at Charles’s feet, and the small one is on my back.  Charles offers me a helmet, but since I look ridiculous enough as is, I pass.  If we wreck on this thing, there is really no hope anyway. 

I am hot and tired from the all night train.  Charles decides to give me a tour of the city; it’s not really what I want to do at the time, but he seems excited, so I go along.  We pull up to Café Coffee Day; it’s the Starbucks of India, posh and modern with prices to match.  We lug my bags up the steps and sit outside.  We order milkshakes; not quite what I was expecting when approached with a rest in Mysore with Yoga, meditation and healthy home-cooked food, but I am not complaining! 

We catch up. He reminds me to roll my shoulders back, open my chest. He tells me of his plans for an ashram in Brazil; I tell him about traveling with Tricia and about Hampi. He stresses again, “Julie and I are nothing.  She is not my girlfriend.  I am very clear with her about this,” and I find myself wondering why he feels the need to repeat this.  On Skype, he must have said three times, “She is not my girlfriend.”  And then he says, “Okay.  This is why I wanted to come here first, so we can talk. Julie was a little strange about you coming at first, but I told her that you are my friend and that you need help right now, so I want to help you.”  I cut him off.  “Charles.  I don’t want any problems.  That’s why I asked.  I have no problem hopping right back on the train.  I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, myself included.”  “No, no,” he says, “She is good with it now; she understands.  I had to explain her, ‘Julie, you and I had fun.  But, when you leave for home in three weeks, we may never see each other again.  This can be nothing.  Dana is a friend. . . “   My stomach lurches.  Oh how very uncomfortable.  But, he keeps digging the hole deeper:  “Dana, you know how women can be.  Possessive.  Like they own.  And jealous.  And you are the older (he keeps talking – my mind clings to the word older) woman here, so I know you can make this work.  But, if you have any trouble, I want to you come and tell me.”  Okay.  STRIKE ONE.  I speak firmly. “Look.  I don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable, that’s why I asked you and Julie on Skype.  There is nothing romantic here (and I circle my right arm between the two of us), so there should be no problem.  If there is a problem with Julie, though, I would talk to her before I talked to you.  Or, I will just hop a train.  Easy.” 

“Yes.  It will be good,” he says.  “You need to stay here and get back in the center again, get strong again.” He smiles really big, “Once you are strong, there is no room for bullshit.”  But I wonder if it really will.  Poor Julie.  I would be uneasy if I were her as well; there is a connection between myself and Charles.  For me, it’s sweet and sincere – a manifestation of someone who can help me and whom I can help as well.  For Charles, well, I don’t know his intentions, and while they feel warmly helpful, my spidey senses are definitely tingling.

We leave the coffee shop, and he shows me the neighborhood.  We stop in front of Pattabhi Jois’s studio and home; there is something definitely cool about that.  It’s right around the corner from the house.  Granted, Pattabhi is deceased, and I’m not doing Yoga there because it is overrun with people and there is no individual attention, but he’s a legend.  And, it’s cool. 

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Julie is warm and inviting.  She is looking for a bus to get her from Bangalore to Puttapharthi; she has decided to try to leave tonight to go see her guru, Sai Baba.  He is at his ashram only a couple of hours outside of Bangalore.  If she leaves tonight, she will be there in the morning.  The train from Mysore to Bangalore is no problem; it’s the rest of the journey she is trying to figure out.  It’s a sudden decision for her, and I feel responsible.  I suddenly wish I was invisible.  I want to crawl into the walls and not take up any space.  It just doesn’t feel good.  I can’t quite work out what is happening or why, and I’m tired. 

I make small talk with Julie, trying to ease any tension that might be hers.  We are in the middle of conversation and Charles says, “Dana, go shower and rest.  You must be tired.”  And, like a puppet, I do it.  Without thought.  Without question.   I shower.  I nap.  Julie wakes me up, “Hey.  Charles went to get a massage.  We will walk there and meet him in about 20 minutes for Yoga.”  I get up and put on my Yoga clothes.  Yoga sounds delicious right now.  It’s Ashtanga Yoga though, and I’ve only practiced Ashtanga a few times, but I feel ready for it.

Julie and I walk the fifteen minute walk and talk the entire way.  She tells me about her parents – their backgrounds, how they met and married.   And, it’s a really cool story – the stuff movies are made of.  Her parents are devotees of Sai Baba as well, so her wanting to go see him is nothing new.  It’s just good timing for her now.  I enjoy connecting with her, and I hate that she is leaving tonight.  But, Charles agreed to pay for a taxi for her from Bangalore to the Ashram, so it’s all settled.  She leaves this evening.

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Yoga is perfect.  Just what I need to pull me right back into my body.  Very challenging.  Really, it just kicks my ass all over the mat.  At one point, I literally have to crawl to the top of the mat to do my vinyasa.  My body is tired and defeated.  It can barely hold me up, let alone fight me in the asanas. And, my physical body is still changing so rapidly that I don’t even recognize it on the mat sometimes.  Like today.  I am in a pose, and I look down and think, “Whose body is this?” I wonder how long that will last.

It is Mysore Style Ashtanga which means you go at your own pace in the class, and the teacher is there to assist and pull you deeper into postures.  Of course, since I don’t have the First Series memorized, the teacher stayed pretty close to me so he could tell me what to do and see me struggle.  He is a very serious man, but with my grace and Yoga prowess, I am able to make him laugh a couple of times.  (hope the sarcasm came through there)

Jai, the teacher, and I speak briefly after class.  He asks where and what type of Yoga I study.  I ask him the same.  He studied here in Mysore with BNS Iyengar.  Basically, one man, Krishnamacharya, taught three of the big names in Yoga:  He taught BNS Iyengar who teaches Ashtanga and focuses on mudra, meditation and pranayama, BKS Iyengar who teaches Iyengar style Yoga which focuses on alignment, and Pattabhi Jois who, until his death this past May, taught Ashtanga focusing on linking movement and breath. He says that a beautiful practice is one that combines Iyengar with Ashtanga. 

I remember MyLinda saying that the Yoga world is really small.  Everyone knows everyone, because less than 1% of the world’s population practices yoga.  It’s amazing how small the world of Yoga really is. 

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Charles cooks dinner.  It’s a production.  Julie lays out a blanket in the living room, and lights the candles.  The three of us eat delicious, healthy, fresh food by candlelight.  I look at Julie, “Do you guys always eat like this?” I ask.  “Pretty much,” she says.  “Why not?” Charles asks.  “It’s nice.  It should be like this.”  And, it is nice, but since the fan’s off, it’s really hot.  But, you can’t have glowing candles if the fan is on full blast.

I stay a week.  It’s my only candlelight dinner.

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Let’s just cut to the chase.  Julie leaves. The next day is nice.  Yoga.  Ride around on the scooter and see some of Mysore.  We go out to dinner.  And, Charles tells me all the things I need to hear.  “You are such a strong woman.  I can see this.  But, you hide it.  Like with your shoulders rounded forward.  Why do you hide it?  Why are you afraid to be who you are?  You are so beautiful, but you don’t show it.  Let your hair down.  Be who you are.  You just need confidence. ”

You know – all the right things, the perfect things.  The things that are so great to hear, but by the end of it, I sort of found myself saying, wow, I must really be coming off like a pile of dog poo.  Lucky I have Charles around to see my real potential, my real self.  And, I wasn’t conscious of that then, but I am now.  That’s what happened. 

And we get along well.  Dinner is great.  I let my hair down. Literally. And, I actually feel lively and beautiful, and I begin to remember that there is this amazing person inside of me, that I am an amazing person. 

And then after dinner there is this awkward start of a physical relationship, because what man can resist a woman who feels beautiful?  I tell him that it just isn’t right, considering Julie especially.  He responds, “She’ll be gone for a week, and by the time she gets back, you’ll probably be gone anyway.”  And he buries that line under reassurances.  And while I hear him say, “It’s okay.  We are friends first.  It doesn’t matter to me,”  I am reading his body language which is not in agreement.  He asks me to lie with him, on the living room floor, and just sleep there, but I decline and go to my bedroom, closing the door behind me. 

It’s late.  It’s around 2AM.  I can’t sleep.  I listen to my IPod.  I get up.  I go out on the deck, and I write.  It’s the only thing that remotely soothes me.  And it doesn’t, really.  I scribble in my journal, “In Mysore.  In a house.  With a man whose girlfriend is away.  Driven by a cab he paid for.  Waiting for the sun to rise.  To be born – so that the light of the day will wash away the doubts and bring with it the promise of a bright tomorrow.  And a Yoga class.”

It’s 5:20 AM.  Yoga is at 6.  I wake Charles.  “I am going to Yoga class,” I tell him. “Want to come?”  He replies groggily, “Not enough sleep.  We will get there and it won’t be a good practice.  After the sun salutations, you will feel tired.”  “No,” I reply. “I am awake. I am going.”  “Do you want to drive the scooter?”  he asks me.  “No,” I say.  “I want to walk.” 

I leave in the dark just before the dawn.  My brain churns away.  Thoughts roll through my head:  Yoga is my best friend right now.  It’s the one place where I can experience true love for myself.  Until I can feel that all the time, I’ll find it in Yoga whenever I can.  Every time I unroll my mat, I know that connection with myself waits within its sticky confines.

And I feel so safe here in Mysore.  It’s nice to feel safe.  I look down.  I have my Yoga mat in one hand and my whistle/compass/thermometer in the other.  I question why I brought the whistle along.  I haven’t brought it out before.  But, for some strange reason, I picked it up before I left the house.  I pass the new construction, I pass the tea shop, I pass the park, and I turn down the street toward the Mystic School of Yoga.  I feel someone behind me.  It’s dark.  The sun isn’t up.  No one’s around.  No lights are on.  I turn around.  There is a man behind me, possibly in his 20s.  I cross the street.  He crosses the street and stays behind me.  My insides go cold.  I slow down to let him pass me by.  He slows down.  I stop.  He walks two steps in front of me and stops.  “Can I help you?  Do you need something?” I loudly ask. My voice full of bravado and courage that my body doesn’t feel.  He looks at me and then looks stupidly ahead.  He’s an egg short of a dozen.  

The road we are walking goes straight. I have to turn right to get to the Mystic School.  He is standing on the right side looking down the road headed toward the school – the school whose lights aren’t on yet.  He just stands and stares.  “Which way are you going?” I ask and I begin to go to the left side of him and pretend to walk straight.  He walks straight.  I cross behind him and turn down the road going right.  He runs up behind me and grabs me, pulling my hips from behind and pulling me to him.  I yell loudly and swing around at him. I push him away.  He backs up a couple of steps.  He stares at me.  I stare at him.  I’m not turning my back non him now; the road is completely dark.  No lights have come on.  My heart pounds so loudly that it’s ringing in my ears.  He stares. I stare.  He charges toward me.  I lift the whistle to my lips and blow.  And blow.  And blow.  He runs off. 

I walk through the gate of the school and go upstairs.  It’s locked.  No one is there.  I sit outside on the balcony and remind myself to breathe.  Another student comes.  We make small talk.  Jai comes and unlocks the door.  I fall into Yoga like it’s the strongest man I’ve ever known.  I tell my practice everything that happened.  And it holds me.  And it comforts me.  And I regain a little of my strength. 

                                                                                ***************************

I walk back home.  I tell Charles what happened.  He says, “You should have listened to me.  I told you not to go.  I told you it wasn’t safe.”  And, in that moment, I should have packed my bags and left.  But I didn’t.  I did stay a week.  I did stay weak.

In those hours after that harmless attack, I reconnect with a passion I thought was gone, a passion Charles ignites with his insensitivity.  He says, “Why are you traveling? All I see in you is fear.  I do not think you are courageous.  It hasn’t seemed to be so good.  Maybe you should go home.  I came for learning chanting and meditation and deepening my practice.  Why are you here in India?”

Through hot tears, tears withheld for too long, I let my soul pour out the answer:  “I think our reasons are different for being in India.  I want to be here to see,” I say. “I want to see the Taj Mahal, the building built out of love and passion.  I want to feel the marble under my hands and my feet, feel its vibrations in my body.  I want to go to Bodh Gaya and sit in the spot where Buddha gained enlightenment.  I want to see it, to feel what it feels like there.  I want to see India, to taste it, touch it and know it.” 

And I do.  That’s what I want. 

And I immediately Skype my parents because sometimes only your parents can make you feel better, can make you feel safe.  And, I don’t tell them about the attack because I don’t want them to worry. I turn on my happy face, my “everything is perfect – I am your perfect daughter” face and I talk with them through Cyberspace.  And they tell me I’m beautiful, and that I look happy.  And I listen.

But I stay another week in Mysore.  Not feeling confident.  Not feeling physically well. Not feeling myself.  I even say that out loud one day – just to myself, I say, “I don’t feel myself.” And I turn the phrase over in my mind, looking at it spelled out, and I see it as, “I don’t feel my Self.”  And I think that’s one of the saddest thoughts I’ve ever had.  So, while Charles is out getting a massage, I lie on the living room floor of the house in Mysore, and I just cry because I can’t feel my Self, and I don’t know where my Self has gone or how or when I lost it.  But, I make a promise to find her.  Fast.

And I do.  I learn to take from Charles what I need, when I need it.  And to protect myself from his disconnected actions.  And there are moments in the week with Charles when I experience every past lover I’ve ever had, my first love, my ex-husband, my sweet boyfriends of years gone by.  All my past lovers.  And by the week’s end, they were all shed.  And I was left.

I contact my friend and energetic healer in Charlotte and told her that I was having a rough time and needed some help energetically. In her email back to me, she writes, “Your heart is recreating itself, and it’s a new, softer skin. It’s vulnerable right now.”  And it is.  And I cry when I read her email because I am astounded at what the heart can endure and still be able to recreate itself, to feel enough hope to be born again, and softer at that.

Suddenly, I am ready to go.  I know it’s time to go.  I book a train to Agra but decide to go to Bangalore for a couple of days, because I can no longer stay in Mysore.  I found myself again.  And I know that anyone who says I am not courageous DOES NOT know me.  I can roll my own shoulders back, expand my own chest.  I am strong again.  And, like Charles says, “when you are strong, there is no room for bullshit.”

I Wish I Were

•April 26, 2010 • 2 Comments

Pictures are not uploading to the site. So sorry!  I will make available to all on Facebook, so even if you don’t have or aren’t my friend, etc., you can still view them.  Here will be the link once they are posted: http://www.facebook.com/#!/danaschilds?v=photos&ref=profile

It’s morning.  I do some Yoga.  I head to the travel agent’s office to check on a train ticket to Varanasi.  As I am walking out, a rickshaw driver is standing near the guesthouse.  “Rickshaw, Madam?”  I pause.  I turn around.  “Possibly,” I say.  “I’d like to see the temples.  How much?”  “How long you want, Madam?  One hour, two hour?”  he responds.  “Well, how long does it take to see the temples?” I ask.  “Two, three hours, I think so,” he says. 

“Ok, then,” I say, “How much for three hours?” We bargain for a bit and come to an agreement.  “Ok.  I need about thirty or forty minutes; I am going to the travel agent,” I tell him.  “I wait for you here,” he says.

I walk past the huge wooden statue standing in front of the Siva Temple and turn left to walk down the dusty road in the center of the Bazaar.  I really don’t get why everyone loves Hampi so much; everyone raves about it and says it’s a must-see. 

I go into a travel agency and, after much questioning and indecisiveness about exactly where to go in the North, arrange for a ticket to Varanasi.  It will be approximately 40 hours on the train.  It’s two trains back to back. I wish I were flying, but I am ready to go; I can do it.  Since there are no seats left, the agent books me an emergency ticket.  It’s called taktal in India; it means that you pay for the entire train ride rather than just the portion that you are actually riding; it costs more basically and is only available two days prior to train departure.  It is exactly what I did while trying to get out of Cochin to Hampi; however, this time, since I am using a travel agent, it is way less of a hassle for me.   I pay him and agree to come back tomorrow to pick up the tickets.

“Come early,” he says, “before 10.  Tomorrow is festival.  Too many people.  You can’t walk down the street.”  I look out to the wide dusty road.  Finally!  I timed a festival right! “That is a lot of people.  What is the festival?”  I ask.

“You see this wooden carving?” he asks, pointing over his shoulder.  “Yes,” I say.  “The people come from all over to pray and to see wooden carving,” he says.  “What do they pray for?” I ask.  “Is marriage festival,” he says. “People are praying for good marriage, lucky marriage for their daughters, sisters, selves.  Will be so many people here tomorrow.  Too many people.  People from local villages and from far away come.”  “Ok,” I say, “I will be here before 10AM tomorrow.”

                                                                ********************************

I walk back past the wooden carving, and I stop to watch the people draping it in fresh, beautiful flowers.  I head back to the rickshaw driver.  He sees me coming and approaches me.  “One more person goes,” he says to me.  I stop walking.  He points to a gentleman sitting on some steps nearby; the gentleman looks a little odd, but harmless enough.  “That’s not right,” I say.  “We agreed on a price for just me.  This isn’t right.”  “Ok madam, I give you less.”  And we bargain again.  We reach an agreement and pile into the rickshaw.

I introduce myself to the new guy tagging along.  “Mike,” he says.  “I am from Russia.” And, I suppress a giggle because when he speaks, he sounds a little like Dracula, okay, a LOT like Dracula.  The rickshaw pulls away and heads out of the bazaar and up the hill to the first of the temples. I am a little bothered by having Mike along, because I was looking forward to just being able to be quiet and alone, but after looking at the first couple of temples, I realize it is a blessing in disguise.  The beggars and locals are less likely to bother me when I am near Mike. It is definitely safer.  And, Mike has such odd social skills that it’s a little like being alone anyway.

We drive past two huge boulders propping each other up.  “Sisters,” says the driver.  I immediately think of Tricia. Not only does she love rocks, but she was mine when she was here.  Solidarity.  Support.  I want to take a picture, but the rickshaw speeds by so fast, I don’t have time.  I wish I did.

Next, we go to the Lakshminarasimha, an almost 7 meter monolith depicting the man-lion form of Vishnu seated on a seven-hooded serpent. There are children around; they want their picture taken.  I take it.  I show them.  I turn to walk back to the rickshaw; the view leaving the Temples is so serene that I take a photo, and I notice a streak of orange in the picture – a Sadhu sitting quietly.  I walk past him.  He’s not begging, not looking.  He is just sitting there, on the ground – peaceful and full of something special.  He is the real deal, and I know it.  I pull out some rupiahs and walk over to him.  I place the notes in a bag at his feet.  We offer each other a small gesture of Namaste, hands in prayer at the heart center and a slight bow forward; without speaking, it says, “The God in me recognizes and appreciates the God in you.” 

 I hope to find a peace such as he has.  I walk away from him and feel his power.  I turn to look back at him.  He is turning to look at me.  I smile.  He waves.  I wave.  I get chills all over.  He has granted me a wish, sent me blessings.  I know I will get something I desire, some heart-felt wish very soon.  This sadhu, this holy man, is the real thing.  And, God will take care of him, just as he’s taking care of me.  I long to take a picture, to just walk back and take a picture of his peaceful face, but I don’t because I want to remember this moment in my heart instead of with my camera.  I want the memory to ebb and flow, change with time as memories so often do.  I want it to be able to change with me and become what I want and need instead of remaining static on a computer screen.

With my heart full, I climb back into the rickshaw, and we pull away. We visit temples and ruins, some almost completely obliterated, some well-preserved.  There is an old stepped water tank, a temple dedicated to Siva that is permanently underwater now, Ganesha images, Hanuman sculptures, huge open halls that served as the King’s celebration quarters, and boulders.  Boulders. Boulders strewn everywhere.  Boulders big and small.   An amazingly photogenic landscape that looks different from the way it feels.  A look of light and beauty, a feeling of darkness.

One of the last places that we visit is the Queen’s Bath.  There is a long walkway up to the entrance, but the entrance is gated off.  There is a walkway around the building and a moat in between. The walls are particularly high.  Mike and I walk around.  He looks back at me; “The Queen vas a vewwy guud jumper,” he says.  The mix of the bad joke being said in Dracula’s voice makes me laugh.  The last gate is unlocked, and I walk in.  It’s a massive bath house.  What must it have been like to have a bath in here?  The intricate carvings, the stone seats lining the large open bath, the fountain that once sprayed perfumed water on the women, the now-silence that must have once been filled with the sounds of laughter and shrill voices, jealousy and gossip.  I find a stone seat with deep indentations, one that must has been sat in so many times as to incur a permanent presence, and I just sit there.  I soak it up.   

We leave the Bath and head back to the main bazaar.  Mike begins arguing that we paid for more time, that we need to see something else because we have 30 minutes left.  The driver tells him that there is nothing else to see.  Mike acts like a child.  The driver begins to head back; the road is closed in preparation for the Festival.  The driver has to drive the long way around to get us back to Hampi Bazaar; it will take another forty minutes. He looks back at us and says, “I have bad karma today,” and he agrees to stop and let Mike see one more temple.   He stops at a local temple. There is nothing special or noteworthy about it, and I know that he is stopping just to shut Mike up.  Mike gets out to look; I stay in the rickshaw.  The driver looks back at me and says, “He crazy.”   I laugh and nod. 

                                                                ****************************

Once we are back, I go to the Internet Café and check my email.  Charles has sent me another email inviting me to Mysore.  He and his girlfriend, Julie, have rented a house there for a month and are practicing Ashtanga Yoga and cooking their own food with fresh produce.  It’s tempting, but I just booked my train to Varanasi; Mysore would be heading back in the opposite direction.  However, there is something about it that would be so nice, worry-free sort of.  I’ve been so limited in Hampi by being on my own, that the thought of having people around that I know, that I am safe with, really makes me think twice. 

I email Charles that I’ve already booked a ticket North, but that I will think about it.  We set up a Skype date for the next day.

                                                                ******************************

Around 9 the next morning, I go back to the travel agency to pick up my tickets.  The Bazaar is already buzzing with activity.  Extra merchants are lining their carts along the street selling bananas, sweets, fruits, toys, bangles, baubles and gadgets of all shapes and colors; people are already milling about, but it’s not overrun yet, not crowded.  Up the hill near the bus stand there are white oxen draped in bells and painted pink with polka dots; everyone celebrates the festival.

I ask the travel agent if it’s too late to change my ticket to Mysore. He laughs at me as he hands me the tickets to Varanasi.  “I figured,” I say.

The more I think about Mysore, the more it appeals to me. I like the idea, but the one reservation I have is that I don’t want to infringe on Charles and Julie’s time together in any way.  I am heading to Skype with him now, so I will make sure that I bring this up and get a read on how it feels.

Walking the short distance to the Internet Café, I am accosted about three or four times by people yelling, “Maaaaaaa,” or by small children raising one hand to their mouth and poking me with their other hand.  Within five seconds, I feel frustrated.  I wish I were not here.

I get to the Café; the power is out again, but even though it’s roasting hot because there is no fan working, my laptop has enough battery, and the Internet connection is still running.  It’s nice to see a familiar face – even if it’s on the computer.  “So nice to see you and hear your voice,” he says.  “Same,” I reply.  We go through the usual “How are yous?” and greetings and he asks, “So you coming?”  “Charles,” I say, “it sounds really great, really, but I don’t want to interfere with your and Julie’s time at all.  I’ve already booked my ticket to Varanasi, and I leave tomorrow.”

 “Dana,” he responds, “you need to come here.  I can tell by your emails that you need rest.  I am cooking.  We are juicing.  (he turns off-screen) Julie, come here.”  I see Julie walk into frame.  Charles continues, “Julie, tell Dana that she should come here.”  Julie and I say hello.  Julie says, “You should come, Dana.  It’s great.  We are doing Yoga and eating well.  Come on.  Forget your ticket to Varanasi.  Convert it to American dollars and see that it is a lunch back home.  Come on.  It’ll be good to have you.”  And, she sounds sincere.  Charles reiterates it all again. “Come on Dana.  Get a train.  Get here.  I will pick you up at the train station.  We have a scooter rented.  I will cook. You can rest and decide where you want to go.  I feel that you are shooting in the dark now.  You have no plan.  Come here.  Meditate.  You are powerful; you just need to be in the center again.  I want to help you.”

 I feel my heart lifting at the thought of being invited somewhere, of being wanted somewhere and of being in a safe home.  I decide to go to Mysore and tell him that I will email him the train times and details later.  I wish I hadn’t already purchased the ticket to Varanasi.

                                                                ******************************

I decide to check out the festival . I round the corner of the Main Bazaar, and there are people jammed up all along the street.  It’s absolutely shoulder to shoulder and bananas are being flung through the air.  Enough festival for me.  I turn right back around and head the other way.  As I am passing a restaurant, the waiter says to me, “How do you like Hampi?”  And, I debate saying “It’s fine,” or saying the truth.  I opt for the truth.  “I don’t like it,” I say, “too many people begging and touching and calling out.”  He doesn’t seemed surprised.  “It’s the festival,” he says, “many people here who are not usually here.  They never see foreigner before.  Is too much, I think.  Not usually like this.” 

I walk to the river, to the ferry.  The river is crowded with people bathing, swimming, playing.  I make my way down to the ferry dock (a big rock) and climb in.  I disembark on the other side and walk up the short hill.  It’s so green.  It’s beautiful.  I duck into a quiet restaurant to grab a bite to eat and end up chatting with a couple of girls from Australia.  I finish eating and leave them in the restaurant to walk around.  This side is the light side.  It’s beautiful; it feels beautiful.  And, I feel relieved.  I finally understand what all the fuss is about.  I see why people rave about Hampi.  But, you have to be on the light side to see it.

I enjoy the light for a while and head back to the ferry.  It’s blazing hot.  I see a dog drag himself into the river and just plop down and start drinking.  He’s got the right idea.  I wish I were in the river right now.

I head back to the guesthouse and stop at a different travel agency along the way to buy a train ticket to Mysore.  I’m too embarrassed to go back to the same man.  I purchase the tickets and email Charles to give him the details.

I can barely sleep because I am excited to be heading somewhere to familiar people, to be greeted and picked up at the train station instead of fighting my way through the rickshaw mafia and searching out a hot, dingy guesthouse.  But I do sleep.  A little.

And, I wish.

The Little Beggarman

•April 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The train pulls into Hospet, and even though the old man from the train advised me to take a bus into Hampi due to it being much cheaper than a rickshaw, I decide to take a rickshaw anyway.  I have become a bit dependent on the rickshaw drivers to help me find a guesthouse or room within my budget; they always pull through for me.

I remember Emily telling me at Sivananda Ashram that Hampi has two sides and that she wished she had stayed on the opposite side of the River from where most people stay.  I ask the rickshaw driver to take me to the opposite side.  I agree to a price that I know is too much, but I am tired and don’t have a whole lot of energy to haggle.  I want a room.  I want a shower.  I want to sleep.  The rickshaw wheels out of the train station and down the narrow roads.  We drive for a good twenty minutes. 

I suddenly see boulders all along the highway and temples dotting the panoramic landscape.  It’s staggering to behold.  The rickshaw driver turns to me and says, “Welcome to Hampi, Madam.”  And that moment, the sincere greeting, the combination of hearing the words “welcome” and “madam” while at the same time seeing such gracefulness and strength in a landscape beyond imagination makes my breath catch in my throat.  It is one of those moments that I know I have taken a snapshot of and filed in my memory – the picture, the words, the feeling.  All mine, all for me to recall at whim.

The rickshaw driver makes small talk, asking me where I am from, when I came to India, where I have been and where I am going next.  I answer his questions and let him know that I am heading North next, not sure where or when, but that I am ready to get up North.  I’m so tired that it’s hard to really hold a conversation, but I try my best.

We pull into Hampi Bazaar, the main part of the little town.  It’s a dirt road flanked by shops and food stalls lining the way to the temple.  There is a massive wooden carving being placed right outside the huge temple that stands at the end of the Bazaar.  The rickshaw driver pulls up to one of the shops, a travel shop.  He looks back at me, “Go in.  Ask about ticket to North.   I wait.  I wait.  No problem.”  “No, that’s ok,” I say.  I’m tired.  I want a shower.  I’ve essentially been traveling and carting my huge backpack around for almost 48 hours straight now.   “No. Go in.  Check.  No problem,” he says – extremely emphatically. 

It’s happening.  What I’ve heard about that I was just telling the guy in the Cochin train station yesterday hadn’t happened to me yet – the rickshaw driver is taking me to shops so that I will buy something and he will earn a commission.  The guy that I met in the station was a grad student studying tourism, and he said that this was one of the main complaints of tourists.  There is no arguing with the driver now.  He has turned the rickshaw off.  I must get out. 

I walk into the travel office.  “Hi,” I say.  “I am not ready to purchase a ticket, I just have some questions,” I blurt out.  “Come back later,” he says, “Your rickshaw driver wants commission.  Tell him you no buy and come back later.”  “Ok,” I say as I walk out, knowing I will not come back to this shop; there is no honesty here.

“Not buying now,” I say to the Rickshaw driver as I walk out of the shop.  “Now, please take me to the other side of the River as we agreed.  I want to check into a guesthouse.  I am tired.”  

We drive about 500 yards.  I see the river, and I see a small little boat with people disembarking.  “Here,” he says, “go catch boat.”  “This is not what we agreed on,” I tell him, “you said that you would take me across the river and help me find a place.” 

“I can’t drive across River.  No bridge,” he says.  I want to smack him a good one.  He should’ve told me that before.  But, I quickly remember that I was advised to take the bus, yet I didn’t.  This is my own doing.  We go back and forth a few more times.  Bottom line:  there is no way for him to drive me across the river.  If I want to stay on the opposite side, I must hoist my bags on my back, catch the mini ferry across and go in search of a guesthouse on my own. 

I just don’t have the energy.  “Fine,” I say.  “Let’s find a place on this side.” I look at one guesthouse; the room is dark.  I pass.  I look at the next guesthouse.  It’s decent, but I will try one more just to see.  At the third guesthouse, the owner says, “We have 24 hour power. No going off.”  That’s an odd thing to say, I think.  In India, the power always goes on and off, but it tends to be for small amounts of time.  Not a big deal.  However, the room is too much, so I pass.  I go back to the previous guesthouse and negotiate a great rate; I pay my rickshaw driver, and take my bags into my room. 

As I close the door, I see a sign hanging on the backside.  It has tips on it.  One of them is “Be very aware.  Don’t go into dark or no exit places alone.”  And, I remember that when I emailed Charles from Brazil that I was going to Hampi, he emailed back, “Be careful there.”    Ok, I get the message.  I get it loud and clear.  I will be vigilant.  I will pay attention.  And, if I feel unsafe at any time, I will simply go back to my room and read or write or meditate. 

With that in mind, I turn the fan on high and lay down.  I am asleep in minutes.  

The power goes off.  It’s so hot with no fan.  And the power stays off for hours, but I am so tired I sleep in my pool of sweat anyway. 

                                                *********************************

The next day I wake and do Yoga in my room.  I check email and update the Blog, and then I decide that I want to see the temples.  I want to walk around, stretch my legs, exercise my feet and ankles. 

I walk up past the bus stop and into the first fenced in temple that I come to.  It’s creepy. It’s filthy. People are coming up to me begging. I am being watched by many pairs of eyes and followed by a couple of young boys.  I don’t have a good feeling. I walk up to the actual temple, and there are three other German tourists there.  One of them offers to take my picture, and then they leave.  Once they are gone, I am again followed by the young boys.  Something just doesn’t feel right.  And, the way the grounds are laid out, it would be easy to get in a bad situation quickly.  The grounds are huge and puzzle like, winding around with many dark corners and abandoned temples.

I turn right back around and head back to the guesthouse.  Walking around the temples is not safe.  That much is clear.  And, as I sit down on my bed in my small room, the power goes out.

I use the time to think about where I want to go next.  I want to go North.  Salim said that he would be in Agra by the 9th of April, but it is only now the end of March.  I could go straight to Varanasi, then back over to Agra.  Going to Varanasi sounds like a good idea.  I decide to think about it some more and see a travel agent tomorrow.

I go back out and walk around Hampi Bazaar a little bit. I walk into the main Siva temple that sits squarely at the end of the Bazaar.  It doesn’t feel right to me.  I don’t like it.  I am walking through the temple and an old man says, “Come.  Look,”  and he points to the back wall where a reverse shadow of the temple gleams on the wall due to the sun shining in through an opening in the temple wall.  I look at where he points.  After I look, he walks up to me, holds out his hand and says, “Money.”  He is demanding money for pointing at the wall and saying “Look.” Unbelievable.  I hand him the only coin I have; 2 rupiahs.  I walk out of the temple.  I am bothered by the demand for money even though I can’t say exactly why.  I go to put on my shoes that I left outside the temple.  They are not there.  I look and look.  A man says, “Here,” and points to my shoes.  Out of all of the shoes, I have no idea how he knew those were mine.  I put them on.  “Pay, Madam,” he says.  “What?”  I ask.  “Pay for me keeping shoes,” he says.  “I have no change,” I say and begin to walk away.  “I have change,” he says.  I keep walking away.  “Later you pay,” he says. “Yes,” I say walking away.  I will not come back. 

 I am sorely disappointed in Hampi.  I expected quiet temples, devastating ruins, picturesque views and sereneness.  But, Hampi is dirty and crowded, and there are beggars at every turn, at every step yelling out “Maaaaaa, Maaaaaa” or “hello” with outstretched palms and beckoning hands; children, men, women sadhus, all begging.  All needing.  I expected that same peace that I feel inside a church, the same awe-inspiring grace that overwhelms me when I step inside a European cathedral.  But, India is relentless about reminding me not to have expectations.

But, I am not ready to leave Hampi yet.

Warning Sign

•April 21, 2010 • 4 Comments

So.  Bangalore for a day.  I walk off the train and am rushed by the Rickshaw mafia, all asking “Where to?  Rickshaw, Madam?”  And, I simply answer, “I don’t know.”  Because I didn’t.   “Hotel?  Hotel?  You need hotel?”  “No,” I reply.  “No hotel.  Train tonight.”   And, the rickshaw drivers become so baffled that they simply walk away. 

I pull my Rough Guide and a clean pair of undies out of my backpack and check my bag in the Cloak Room.  I find a quietish spot in the train station and read the section on Bangalore; it’s a technology/software oriented city, so there isn’t a lot for tourists to do.  I decide to go to the main area, MG Road, and see what’s there. 

I hire a Rickshaw.  It’s a pretty good ride to MG Road.  I notice that there is green – trees, parks, sidewalks.  It’s a pretty nice city.  I see a woman driving a motorbike stopped on the side of the road.  She’s wearing a sari and driving a motorbike.  It’s powerful for some reason – vulnerability meets power.  I snap a picture, and it is darling; there is something in it, something about it that I just love.

(and of course, the photo uploader isn’t working.  It will be on facebook.)

I get dropped at MG Road and just sort of wonder around, in and out of shops. Just looking.  I stumble upon a local cinema, and I go check for any English movies.  There are none here, but the security guard directs me down the street and to the left to a huge shopping mall; “English movies there,” he says.  I saunter off. 

I find the shopping mall and head for the restroom.  I wash my hands and arms and wish I had thought to bring a bar of soap and towel with me, because as grimy as I am from the night train, I am not above bathing in the bathroom.  But, since I didn’t think that far in advance, I pee and change into clean panties.  It helps a little.  

I roam in and out of some of the shops.  If I am being honest, it’s a little bit of a break, a relief.  The people around are dressed a little more Western style, and they don’t stare; it doesn’t seem unusual for them to see a white person walking around, so I can drop my guard a bit. 

I go to the cinema and Avatar is playing in a couple of hours.  It’s in 3-D.  I buy a ticket.  I roam around the shops some more.  I step in Bath and Body works.  I suddenly long for home, to have a hot shower and scrub my skin with clean, scented products.  And, I crave a pedicure.  Actually, my feet crave a pedicure.  They are grizzly bear feet at the moment.  Coated in a permanent coat of black dirt and dry and cracked all over.  It can’t be helped in this country where the streets are filthy and flip-flops are the shoes of choice.  I look down, apologize to my poor little feet and promise them a pedicure the first chance I get. 

I go to the Food Court, look around, and with the too-recent memory of maggots, settle on Subway.  I ride the escalators back up to the cinema where I stand outside the entrance, in line for the movie.  They search my bag and make me take the battery out of my (Garland’s) camera and leave it out front.  I enter the cinema and stand in line to give my 200 rupiah deposit for my 3-D glasses.  To my right, I see a little stand that sells Dim Sum.  I think of Garland and Tricia and watching movies at Garland’s house, gorging on chicken dumplings, caramel cookies, and Coca-Cola.  I miss them.  I go in to find a seat.

The movie is great, even though about halfway through, it suddenly cuts off mid-sentence and a sign comes up on the screen that reads, “Visit the Refreshment Center Now.”  There is a five minute break while people get up and get snacks and use the toilet.  I stay seated.  Patiently waiting.

The movie is great, and the things from my meditation – the idea of being connected to the Earth, to everyone and everything – is reiterated, brought to life.  It’s the perfect time for me to see it, to really soak it up.  I walk out of the theater in a daze, rehashing the movie again and again in my mind, turning it over, rolling it around.

 I have another Western meal for dinner and go find a Rickshaw.  It’s time to get back to the train station.  I haggle hard for the ride back; I hold out, and the rickshaw driver is finally so exasperated, he just looks at me and jerks his head toward the backseat.  “Ok,” he grumbles.

It is a long ride back.  My mind races forward and I think of Hampi, wondering what it will be like, look like, feel like. I’ve seen some beautiful photos of Hampi.  Photos.  Oh my God.  The camera battery.  It’s still in the plastic bag wrapped in a piece of paper with my name and my parents’ home phone number on it, shoved under the podium at the security gate in front of the cinema.  “Oh no,” I blurt.  “I forgot something at Garuda Mall.  I need to go back.”  The rickshaw driver pulls to the side of the road.  He slowly turns back to look at me.  “I’m so sorry,” I say.  “I forgot something.  I will have to pay you more.”  I glance at my watch.  We will have to drive fast so that I don’t miss my train.  He throws a new number at me for the ride.  The haggling begins again.  He has the upper hand this time.  We come to an agreement, and he wheels the rickshaw around and hurtles back through Bangalore.  I retrieve the battery, buy a Coca-Cola for a little sugar boost and go back out to my wilting rickshaw driver.  He hauls it to the train station.  Driving well, but wild.  His driving skills are impressive.  I tip him well.  “Good driving,” I say.  He smiles shyly.

I bust it to the Cloak Room, grab my bag and go to the platform.  The train is late.  Or, more accurately, the train is running on time for India.  The men walk by me on the platform and stare.  I pull my camera out of my bag and sit with it in my hand, vowing to snap a picture of every staring man that walks by.  Interestingly, they stop staring.

The train arrives.  I find my bunk and settle in.  Lightly drifting in and out of sleep on the grimy, dirt coated pleather. 

I wake early and make friends with an older gentleman who gives me great advice on getting to Hampi from Hospet (where the train will end).  He also looks me square in the eyes and says, “Be very careful.”  And, there is something in his voice, in his tone, in his eyes that makes the hair stand up on my arms.  It’s not him.  It’s something about Hampi.

Wasting Time

•April 18, 2010 • 1 Comment

Now that Tricia is safely on her way back to Varkala, I can try to figure out how I am getting out of Cochin.  I walk to the tourist office hoping that they can book me on a private bus; I’d like to get to Hampi, but I know that it’s far, and that I may have to go elsewhere to be able to get out of Cochin immediately.  The tourist office directs me to the enquiry desk right next door.  I go to the enquiry desk and ask them about the next train leaving for the North.  “Bangalore,” they say, “Go to reservation get ticket.”  I walk across the station to the reservation desk.  “Train full,” they tell me.  “Go to enquiry desk.”  “I just. . .”, but I give up before I even finish the statement “came from there,” I trail off as I turn around.

 I walk back to the tourist office and set my bag down hard, letting them know that I am not leaving until I am helped.  They ignore me for a few minutes.  I block the door so that no one can get in past me.  Finally one of the men says, “Yes?”  “I need to leave Cochin tonight,” I say.  “How can you help me?” 

“Go to train office outside across street.  Train to Bangalore is full.  You need permission.  Go to that office,” he says begrudgingly.  “Where is it exactly?” I ask.  “Outside.  Cross street.  3rd building left side.”  I pick up my backpack, hoist it onto my back and walk outside the train station. 

It just looks a confusing mess.  I amble across the street and bear left.  A rickshaw driver sees my confusion and shows me the building.   I walk in.  It is a huge office with a bunch of Indians standing in a bunch of different lines.  Some of the lines are numbered, and there are two that state “Enquiry.”  I decide that one of the enquiry lines is the best place to start.  After about fifteen minutes, it’s my turn.  “Hi,” I say, “I would like the next train out of Cochin heading North.”  He chuckles.  “You are ready to ditch Cochin?”  he asks.  I nod vigorously.  He laughs out loud.  “Where do you want to go?”  “Anywhere North, but Hampi if it’s possible,” I respond.  “Okay.  You need the train to Bangalore, then from Bangalore, you can go to Hampi.  Train is full.  Fill out this form to try to get a seat and take this form over there.”  He vaguely points to all the lines to my left. 

I fill out the form and choose a line.  I wait.  And wait.  And wait.  And finally decide to take my pack off and set it in a chair.  I wait some more.  After about twenty minutes, I am at the front.  I hand him my form.  “Full train,” he says.  “Where do you want to go?”  “Hampi,” I say.  “Okay,” he says “I can’t get you on the next train to Bangalore, but there is one leaving at midnight tonight that I can get you an emergency seat on. You will get to Bangalore at 6:40 in the morning.  The Hampi Express leaves Bangalore around 10pm.  You will be in Hampi around 7 the next morning.”  “Okay,” I say.  “Let’s do it.”   He books me a confirmed seat on the train to Bangalore.  He looks at me and says, “The train to Hampi is full, but pay now and go to Supervisor’s office.  You are tourist, so he will be able to confirm your seat.”  I sigh inside.  At this point, not only am I wilting from the high heat and humidity, I am simply overwhelmed trying to navigate in a country that I don’t fully understand, in a country that is not my own.  “Okay,” I say.  What other choice do I have?  I fork over the money, get my papers and try to find the Supervisor’s office.  I finally spot it at the end of the building. 

I go in and tell him my situation.  He picks up his mobile, makes a call, scribbles down something on my ticket and hands it to me. “Seat confirmed,” he states simply as he leaves the office.  Leave it to India:  once you are so overwhelmed that you just want to lie down on the floor and kick and scream – something is easy.  The other elderly man behind the desk smiles and me and says, “Where are you going?”  “Hampi,” I respond.  “Oh,” he says, “Hampi is so nice.   Bangalore on the late train?” he asks.  “Yes,” I say.  He looks over at my bulging backpack.  “Check your backpack in the cloak room so you don’t have to carry.  They will keep it for you.”  “Thanks,” I respond. 

I head to the train station, find the cloak room and check my bag.  Ahhhhh.  Much better.  Now, I have about twelve hours to kill in Cochin.  I look at the guidebook pages and see a museum and a Shiva temple that I would like to see.  I will see if I can walk and find them, I think. 

I start walking.  I am sweltering.  It’s noon; the sun is blazing.  It’s around a hundred degrees, and high, high humidity.  I keep walking.  I give up on finding the museum and the temple.  I see a nice hotel with a restaurant attached.  I go inside.  It’s air conditioned.  It’s heaven.  I sit down and order some Western food, vegetables au gratin.  No maggots.  I eat my food and read my book.  The waiter keeps talking to me, but I am in air conditioning, so I sort of don’t care.  I sit there for a couple of hours.  I ask the waiter about a cinema nearby that might be playing a movie in English.  He goes out, gets the newspaper and returns to give me the details of the cinema, where to find it, and the movie time.  I thank him and leave.  I have several hours until the movie starts.  I decide to just walk around and see where I end up.

I end up walking right to the art museum and the Siva Temple.  Sadly, the art museum is as disappointing as the guidebook said it would be.  There are a couple of works that intrigue me, make me think about Indonesia and twinge on my desire to go back, but overall, it’s a slim show.  I do think to snap a photo of the two exhibit names just so I can remember whose art I looked at.  I mosey over to the Siva temple, still clad in the bright silver decorations left over from the festival that ended yesterday.  Somehow, I always miss the festivals.  Darn it. 

Art Exhibits

Siva Temple in Cochin

The Temple is still very much in use, and the experience of it is not quite what I expect.  It’s busy inside with windows from which to purchase candles and incense, people singing, people circling the statues of their chosen deities, and a man busy draping a statue with fresh beautiful garlands of flowers. 

I leave the temple and ask several people the way to the cinema.  “Need bus,” they tell me.  I walk to where one man says I can catch a bus.  The women there tell me “No.  Not here.  It’s back the other way,” pointing to where I just came from.  Oh.  I think.  This game again.  I’m not playing this time.  And I start walking.  I get a long way.  I ask a rickshaw driver for directions. He convinces me it’s too far, so I let him drive me.  He is right.  It was too far to walk.  

I walk to the ticket counter.  “No English movies today, Madam,” says the man behind the counter.  I cock my head to the left; “But, the newspaper said today at 6:10.”  He laughs.  “Newspaper always wrong,” he says. 

My rickshaw driver is gone.  I start walking.  And walking.  And walking.  A couple of miles at least.  My poor flip-flopped feet are caked in dirt and aching.  I look like I’ve just emerged from a shower with my clothes on; I am soaked through with sweat.  I head back in the direction of the train station since I don’t know what else to do.  I’m tired.  I walk past a Pizza Hut.  I do a double take.  Pizza Hut?  I shouldn’t, I think.  I am in India.  I should find a little Indian café.  I ate maggots yesterday.  I walk into the air conditioned Pizza Hut and sit down.  I order a Pepsi and a personal pan cheese pizza. 

It tastes so good that I order another one instead of getting dessert.  I listen to the horrible 80s remakes blaring over the speaker system, and I write in my journal.  I decide to draw the pictures of the powerful meditation that I had on the way to Cochin.  I start sketching them out in a circular formation.  And, I write the colors of each next to it.  The reds and oranges of the birthing, the greens of the tree, the blue of the lungs and whites and pastels of the ocean.  And, it suddenly dawns on me.  It’s related to the elements.  Fire, Earth, Air, and Water.  It’s all connected. 

I open my novel, Shantaram, which I am currently reading.  Such a stunning book.  Astounding prose.  I bought it in Varkala the first time I was there, and I have been savoring it in small chunks.  I want to read it, but I don’t want to be finished with it.  The exact passage I read talks about the ocean and how we are all from the ocean, that we carry it with us in our bodies; our blood, our sweat, our tears – almost identical to the salt content of the ocean.  It goes on to say how mothers create a small ocean when they carry a child, for the birth sack is almost identical to the salt content of the ocean as well.  And, I think about Varkala, about the ocean catching the tears and how that pool of grief is so vast and so shared by all of humanity.  And, it’s just beautiful.  All of the seeming coincidences – the meditation, the passage in the book.  Everything just fits.  And, even though I can’t put it into words and explain it to anyone else, I can feel it – I know that I have discovered some base truth to humanity, to our existence, and I can feel it working and living in my body.  It’s our connection to the past, to the elements, and to each other.

I go to the train station, collect my backpack, hire a rickshaw and have him drive me to the other train station in Cochin – the one my train is leaving from.  I sit on the platform, and I wait.  I meet a friend.  He tells me all about Orissa and why I should come and visit.  His friend hands me a Namaste bracelet.  I put it on.  They run to catch their train.

My train is late.  It’s a little after 1 in the morning before it arrives.  I climb on board, find my seat, and sleep. 

Before I know it, I’m in Bangalore.  Only about twelve hours to waste here before my next train to Hampi.  And, I sure could use a shower.