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Emily and Ras walking down the streets of Rishikesh

We have had an amazing voyage. We left Rishikesh last Wednesday with our minds full of new ideas, our bodies well exercised, our eyes imprinted with new visions, and our bags bursting with souvenirs – and dirty laundry. It’s taken me a full week to get caught up enough in my daily life here to write again. (Plus, we dove into hands-on treatment training this week, which has turned our whole daily routine on its head in a very exciting, all-consuming way.)

We arrived in Rishikesh in the middle of the night in a howling rain storm after a full day of travel. Blessedly all of our travel details had been arranged for us by the Punarnava staff, including a friendly driver named Sunny who picked us up at the New Delhi airport and transported us in style the 7 hours to Rishikesh. His minivan was outfitted with understated beige and tan tassels around the sun visors that wiggled in unison with every bump, as well as a dashboard shrine to his guru (which we discovered lights up at night) and electric blue interior lights (which he turned on when we pulled in to a restaurant or any other stop that might provide an audience). When we finally arrived in Rishikesh, and he dropped us at one end of a massive metal foot bridge that was suspended 100 feet above the coursing Ganga below, and we fought our way against the driving wind in the near-darkness to the ashram on the other side that was to be our home for the next ten days. Our friends from Punarnava, Aparna and Nagaraj, met us with hugs and escorted our weary bodies to our rooms.

The front entrance gate

The Parmarth Niketan Ashram is charmingly worn around the edges. I don’t know when it was built, but you can imagine the myriad monks in training as well as more recent yogis and backpackers who have graced its halls. The rooms are very basic, although ours had a hot water heater in the bathroom, which was all the more welcome given that there was no heater in the room itself and it dipped well below 50 degrees Fahrenheit the first two nights. One of our favorite features at the ashram was the clock that tolled the hours – there was a bell tower next door that chimed every hour with a lovely round gonging sound, and just after that, the ashram “bell” would toll, sounding suspiciously like a man banging a large pot with a metal utensil – each night at a different speed, and not always as many times as the clock next door. Emily and I roomed together, and we would dissolve in a fit of giggles every time we heard it.

Upon waking the first day, we headed out to see the town by daylight. The front gate of the ashram let out onto a main street directly in front of the Ganga, and I immediately ran down the ghats (kind of like large steps) to the water’s edge. The Ganga’s presence is massive and fresh and joyful. I can’t explain why it is so magnetic and emotionally riveting to me – putting my hands in the water instantly brought tears to my eyes.

Each night, the ashram holds an aarti ceremony on the same ghats beneath an enormous statue of Shiva, with a fire ceremony and jubilant singing by the resident students of the ashram in their yellow robes. People come from all over the world and join the singing, which is amplified and carries easily over the water casting a spell over the whole town. Every night, I sat rapt watching the water and those boys, some of whom couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7, as they chanted the Hanuman Chalisa (presumably as they have done every night for years), some with their eyes closed in devotion, and I wondered what their inner lives are like. In some ways, as I’d watch two of them joke and push each other in between songs, I could have mistaken them for any boys found across the globe, and then with the next song they’d fall into introspective swaying and I’d remember that they are in training for a life so very different from anything most of us will ever know. They were captivating to watch.

Meanwhile, the singing would roll onward, sometimes in the call-and-response style of kirtan, sometimes a simple singalong. The finale of the evening was the aarti itself, honoring the river with the flames of lit camphor. Everyone would stand and face the Ganga and the ashram boys would light serpent chalices and platters and pass them among the crowd. We’d all take turns placing a hand on the nearest chalice and move the flame in circles to honor and thank the river goddess with our small lights in the waning sunshine, a tiny reflection of all the goodness that Mother Ganga brings to us. Then the chalice would be passed on to the stranger next to you, who by this time is starting to feel like family. This happens every night, rain or shine, a grand display of gratitude and joy and song. It was enough to send me into tears each and every night.

The second day we were there, we hired a driver to take us to Vashishtha’s Guha or Cave, reportedly the actual cave that this legendary sage lived in 9000 years ago. (Today, many yogis know him for the pose named in his honor.) Our teacher, Claudia, had put it on our “do not miss” list. We headed up the river for about 45 minutes of curving roads with switchbacks that offered beautiful views of the green Ganga weaving gently below us. Our driver, who spoke minimal English, eventually pulled over and headed down an unmarked trail on foot, passing cows on the narrow steep path, until we reached what appeared to be a small ashram. No one spoke English,  and the place was devoid of tourists. We were instructed to remove our shoes at the patio and waved towards a door next to a huge banyan tree. It appeared that we were entering a building that was built into the side of the mountain, but beyond the door was a natural stone tunnel with candles lit at the far end. We stumbled towards them, questioning each other, “Is this it?” Moments later, our driver rushed in and said we had to hurry to catch the ferry across the river, so we laughed realizing that Vashishtha’s cave must be across the river. We caught the “ferry,” which turned out to be a big rowboat, and then took a short hike up the other side to another ashram. This one was very, very small and rural. It had some lovely homegrown-feeling shrines, including one to Shiva that was housed in a tin shed.Shiva shrine in the country

Our driver then took us to a restaurant for a late lunch, and as he turned the car back towards town, we started to wonder when we were going to get to the cave. After a belabored attempt to question him about its location, we finally realized that the small cave from the morning HAD been Vashishtha’s cave. We couldn’t believe we had blown right through it, after everything Claudia had told us about the amazing energy inside. Emily convinced the driver to take us back, regardless of the fact that the adjacent ashram was about to close, and we scrambled back down the path and sat for about 15 minutes in the cave. The silence felt ancient and heavy, and after our day of searching, we sunk into the quiet with enhanced reverence.

On a different day, we hired a guide to take us on a hike into the mountains above Rishikesh to the Neelkanth Mahadev Mandir, a Shiva temple.  The hike was about 14 km, all up. There were many Indians taking this trail on a pilgrimage to the temple, and the atmosphere was celebratory. People were calling out as they traipsed up the path and other groups would respond. “Bum bum bolay!” echoed down the hillside, and as we caught on, we joined in which tickled the natives around us to no end. We encountered packs of curious, and at times demanding, monkeys and were grateful that our guide Prem brought monkey food to distract them away from our backpacks. For the last two miles, I chanted “Om namah Shivaya” to myself and prayed that Shiva would transform anything holding me back from wherever this path is taking me.

Outside the temple, we bought flowers and water as gifts for Shiva, and then we stepped into the stream of worshipers as they flowed inside, carrying us with them. After pouring water on the shiva lingam at the entrance, and placing flowers at each murti, and giving a coconut to the priest, and receiving a tillak in the shape of Shiva’s trident on our forehead, we found ourselves outside again. After hiking all morning up hill and paying respect to Shiva, the day felt auspicious and uplifting, made moreso by the festive mood of the crowd.

We’re getting more used to being a tourist attraction at the tourist attractions we visit. One time we came out of the ashram and found ourselves in a crowd of beautiful Indian women who appeared to be from out of town. We all smiled at each other appreciatively, and Emily started taking pictures of them and they started taking pictures of us. Everywhere it seems, people want to be in photographs with us – they will make hand motions to suggest being included in a photo with us, and then they will eagerly scramble to see themselves in the photo displayed in the camera’s monitor.

My hiatus from technology, specifically the Internet, was revolutionary – I highly recommend it. Many of us have become addicted to the constant information flow without even noticing it, but the withdrawal symptoms make it clear it is an addiction as sure as any other. Try this (especially if you don’t think you’re addicted): make a commitment to a certain period of abstinence (say, 24 hours, or even 48) and watch your cravings for stimulation or information as they arise and disappear. Just watch (and don’t give in). After about four days, I didn’t even miss it, and the free time available to connect with the world around me was welcome.

Spending a bit of time as a tourist was also welcome after a month of studying. However, Punarnava’s conference – ostensibly the reason for our sojourn – was truly inspiring and well worth its own blog post, so stay tuned…. In the meantime, consider lighting a candle or bringing a flower into your home today to honor mother nature in whatever manifestation you find her. Jai Ganga ma!

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We’re going to Rishikesh! We just found out yesterday, and we fly out tomorrow – for ten enormous days. We are beset with laundry and packing pandemonium, interspersed with incredulous laughter and open-mouthed amazement at our good fortune. Some fairy godmother must be in charge around here.

I mentioned in a recent post that Vaidyagrama’s parent organization is organizing a conference in Rishikesh next week, and here at the last minute they have bent over backwards to make it possible for us to join them. The conference is five days long, and we are going to arrive about three days early for some sightseeing and to help set up. We’ll get to participate in the conference sessions as well as help out behind the scenes as needed. As one of the doctors here put it, “It is a golden opportunity.” Dr. Ramdas will not be coming but has given us recommendations on which speakers to hear – “You’ll have to come back and explain it all to me,” he laughed. I had no expectation of getting to the north of India at all during these six months, and now, with hardly a moment’s notice we are off to dive into yet another community of Ayurvedic scholarship. There is an air of magic to it all.

What I know about Rishikesh could fit in a thimble – or a blog post, as the case may be. Located near the northern border of India in the foothills of the Himalayas, Rishikesh is home to a number of ashrams with deep spiritual roots and history, a mecca for yoga and meditation. Rishikesh itself is only about 1500 feet in elevation – not too high but enough to require a different wardrobe than we have acquired here in the south with our 90 degree afternoons. In Rishikesh, the highs will be in the 70s and it will get down to the 50s at night. We’ll need to make an early shopping excursion to purchase warmer clothes.

We will be staying at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, which would be a tremendous experience in itself even if there wasn’t a pool of Ayurvedic inspiration swirling around us. The five day conference is jam-packed with lectures, yoga classes, and roundtable discussions, with about 350 attendees, mostly Indian students, scholars and practitioners. Aside from hearing Dr. Robert Svoboda’s last lecture before his retirement from public life, I am also looking forward to being with Mother Maya, previously known as Maya Tiwari. She has written several books on Ayurveda and women, a rare focus in this ancient science, and I am eager to feel her presence and hear what she has to share.

Even with all of that, the most thrilling thing to me is that I will get to see the Ganges River. Such a central focus of Indian devotion, considered an actual goddess incarnate, I am eager to stand next to the mighty Ganga as she throws herself down from her source in the Himalayas, flowing right in front of the ashram. There are nightly aarti ceremonies in which candles are floated down the river, spreading the light. I can scarcely wait.

I will not be taking my computer with me, so there will be silence from my direction for the next twelve days or so. I have been ruminating on the effect of remaining tied to the internet while I am here – holding on to the familiar through email and websites – and have been wondering what it would be like to take yet a further step away in mental space, so this time in Rishikesh is an unexpected opportunity to take a technology sabbatical. I will write again once I am back and have had a chance to digest a bit.

Here at Vaidyagrama, it was announced this morning that, in light of our eminent departure, tonight there will be a “cultural entertainment” party. All are invited – patients, students, and staff – and all are encouraged to perform in some way, such as singing a song that represents your home country’s culture. I plan to sing “Amazing Grace,” with thoughts of my late grandmother Naomi, as it was one of her favorite songs. The gathering will be a sweet send-off and an apt reflection of the grace that is so palpable here. Sometimes it’s too easy to forget it surrounds us all.

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The Grown Ups’ Table

This past weekend, I chose to stay put while my classmates returned to Isha, a temple and meditation center that we all went to last weekend. I enjoyed myself thoroughly the first time we were there, but I didn’t want to leave Vaidyagrama again, at least not for awhile. In so many ways, this place feels like home. Deeply home.

In addition to that gravitational pull, there are other reasons to stay put. We are currently surrounded by the most amazing community of teachers, practitioners and Ayurvedic luminaries who seem to have flocked to Vaidyagrama en masse to receive treatment. Two weeks ago, our very dear teacher from the Institute, Dr. Claudia Welch, arrived with her husband Jim to go through treatment for a month. She was the one who originally recommended Vaidyagrama to all of us, and by a wonderful coincidence, we have ended up here at the same time as her. It is so sweet to see her here and to catch the occasional conversation with her on the pathways. Her very presence is inspirational, and to feel her presence here makes a sweet connection between our lives at the Institute and our education here. It really is all connected anyway.

Dr. Svoboda and Dr. Welch talking with a friend visiting from Brazil after a puja in which Dr. Svoboda played a priestly role (hence the garb).

And if we needed further evidence that this place is exceptional, the renowned American Ayurvedic scholar and teacher Dr. Robert Svoboda arrived shortly after Claudia and has taken up residence here in the very same building as us. We’ve all been to his workshops and lectures and read his books (I am actually reading one right now), so when we pass him on the pathways, it’s like passing a celebrity. We try to play it cool. More than once, though, I wished I had a camera on me when I saw my shoes sitting next to his by the building entrance.

I have also met a patient, Kathleen, who works at Banyan Botanicals, the fantastic Ayurvedic herb importer/supplier based in Albuquerque that was started by graduates of the Institute there. There has been some publicity in recent years about heavy metal contamination of herbs imported from India, as well as some herbs driven close to extinction by unethical harvesting practices here, so having a safe, ethical and sustainability-oriented importer in the U.S. is a tremendous thing. Last week, I was wondering if I could find a particular herb in the States that Dr. Ramdas suggested for my sister-in-law Jeri Lynn’s morning sickness, and it was just too coincidental to be able to simply walk down the path here in Southern India and ask Kathleen if Banyan carries it. (They do). It’s like the epi-center of the Western Ayurveda scene has picked up and moved to Vaidyagrama.

Dr. Svoboda and Claudia have been close friends ever since they met here in India decades ago as two of the few white people studying Ayurveda here. We hear them periodically playing cards in his room and chanting on the roof. Dr. Svoboda recently announced his retirement from public life and gave his last Stateside lecture in Austin in December, which I attended just before leaving for India myself. His last lecture in India will be next week in Rishikesh at a conference that Punarnava Ayurveda (Vaidyagrama’s parent company) has organized. We felt even luckier, therefore, a few days ago when Claudia brought Dr. Svoboda in to our classroom/dining room after dinner to talk with us about jyotisha (vedic astrology) and Barack Obama’s chart. According to Dr. Svoboda, President Obama’s chart is remarkable in a number of ways revealing a propensity for power, good judgment and intelligence. In jyotish, there is an aspect of chart-reading that lays a person’s life against a timeline and allows rather precise prediction of events and states of mind. In July 2012, apparently President Obama will enter a period marked by self-doubt and second-guessing. However, he will come out of it quickly, and it appears that by October – just before the election – he will be in a position of power again. Here’s hoping.

After Dr. Svoboda left the room, we all looked around at each other with stars in our eyes. To have a mini lecture from one of the biggest names in Ayurvedic scholarship while kicking back after dinner…  it’s like somehow we graduated from the kids’ table at Thanksgiving and got invited to the grown-ups’ table. In more ways than one, it continues to feel like a Thanksgiving feast around here.

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Every last Sunday of the month, Vaidyagrama hosts a “medical camp” in one of the nearby villages, offering free herbal medications and medical advice. This past weekend, we got to come along to help and to pick up what we could by observing since we certainly wouldn’t understand what was being said.

We arrived around 10:00 am to set up at the village administrator’s building, which was next door to the school and the bus stop on the main road. Dr. Vasant, one of the junior doctors, was the only staff person, plus four of us students. As Dr. Vasant innocently put it, “You all have white skin, while the villagers are mostly brownish in color, so you will attract some attention.” Indeed. We began to wonder if the entertainment of seeing us may have been a bigger draw than the medical help.

The first thing Dr. Vasant did when we arrived was to set up a sri Dhanvantari figure (the god of healing) on the table outside along with a small ghee lamp, and the village administrator lit two sticks of incense. Even here, spirit comes first. Dr. Vasant then asked us to alphabetize the bags of herbs and to familiarize ourselves with their names. He started seeing patients in the office, sending them out to us with a “prescription” for one or more herbs. The villagers tend to be manual laborers in the surrounding area, so the most common complaints were muscle and joint pain, along with some respiratory issues, colds and coughs, and a variety of bodily discharges. We took turns serving at the herb table and observing in the consult room, standing behind Dr. Vasant to try to read his patient notes, which were in English. Unfortunately, the illegibility of physician’s handwriting appears to be consistent across cultures.

There was no concept of privacy. People crowded in the room while patients told the doctor their concerns, and children roamed in and out playing games. Family members sat down one after the other, with the mother collecting all the herbs at the end. I felt intrusive at first being in the office observing, but after awhile, I felt like part of the crowd just listening in. It seemed no one was concerned about sharing the details of their ailments.

Ayurveda teaches that there are three main methods of assessment: observation, palpation and questioning. Questioning is certainly easiest for us novices, while observation and palpation require more training and experience. Not understanding a lick of what was being spoken provided a great opportunity to use my eyes and ears more intently. I tried to guess what the complaint was just from watching how the patients moved or their expressions. Occasionally Dr. Vasant would ask a patient to stick out his tongue, and the color or marks there would give useful information. I found myself trying to guess how old the patients were, and they were often as much as ten years younger than I thought – striking evidence of the toll their hard lives were taking on their bodies.

Around lunch time, a woman came into the office whom I recognized from Vaidyagrama. She smiled at me and came over and took my hand and started to lead me wordlessly out of the room. Dr. Vasant stopped talking to a patient and explained, “She lives in this village and she is going to make us some tea and snacks – you will accompany her to her house.” If you aren’t good at going with the flow around here, you’ll get more proficient pretty quickly! Emily and Lynn came along leaving Ras at the herb table, and off we went.

The woman kept hold of my hand as she led us down the street, attracting a trail of children as we went. Her name was Vali, and the few words of English she knew were, “Work Vaidyagrama – garden and kitchen.” Somehow, that was enough. She led us down a small side street to her one-room house with a cement floor and corrugated metal roof. There was a boy sleeping on the bare floor when we arrived, who rolled over to the side but remained prone the entire time we were there. Vali unfurled a mat for us to sit on and then brought us three orange sodas each in a different brand bottle and some sweet snacks that appeared to be store-bought. None of us really wanted orange soda, and I remembered all the warnings about drinking from a bottle you haven’t opened yourself, but it felt too rude not to take a few sips.

The children seemed to multiply around us, all smiles. Kavia was Vali’s daughter and appeared to be about 8. Emily had brought her camera, which provided unlimited entertainment. They all wanted to be in pictures with us, and then to see the picture in the digital display of the camera. Then they wanted to take the pictures. There was a lot of laughing. At one point, they turned on a TV (a remarkable thing to see in these surroundings), which we think was for our benefit, but when we ignored it to watch Vali cook, someone eventually turned it off.

Lunch was amazing, all cooked on one burner with a propane tank from a squatting position on the floor. We feasted on uttapam (savory spongy pancakes) with cooked cabbage, dal curry and coconut chutney. The one word of Tamil I’ve learned came in handy – “Nandri,” which means, “Thank you.” We repeated it several times.

At one point, a relation of Vali’s came by who spoke a bit more English and he helped translate a few more basic facts. Vali got out four prized photographs from a weathered envelope and showed us her family – twin boys, now about 15, Rohan and Lakshman, one of whom was the sleeping boy on the floor – her relative explained that he had been working all night (in addition to going to school), thus his sleepiness. She has another boy a bit younger than the twins who we don’t think was there at that time, and then Kavia, the youngest. There was also a father evident in the photo, and the relative explained he had left when Kavia was a baby and now had a wife in another town. Vali teared up as he explained that she was the sole provider now, and then she went back to cooking.

After we finished eating, Vali packed up food for Dr. Vasant and Ras and we headed back to the camp. There were no patients at that moment, so she served them both, including pouring water from a cup to rinse their hands when they were done. Then, with hugs all around, she headed back to her life – and I marveled again at how I ended up with mine. Dr. Vasant later commented, “She doesn’t own her house. Her rent is 750 rupees a month” (about $17 US). We could only guess what her income is. “Amazing hospitality, isn’t it?” Dr. Vasant said. We are still pondering what to do to thank her adequately.

Dr. Vasant and Kavia

For the last hour of the day, it was quiet, so we got to learn more about Dr. Vasant himself.  Thirty-one years old, he got married two years ago to a woman he met in school. She is a naturopath. Her parents were not enthusiastic about their marriage, because he is from a lower caste than her family. They decided to get married in secret, and then once her family warmed up to him, they had another wedding last year. He gives a very serious first impression, but his sharp sense of humor and joking streak catches you by surprise. I think he looks like a 1930’s Hollywood star.

At about 3 pm, we loaded the supplies into the jeep along with the four of us and the driver, and Dr. Vasant got on his motorcycle. However, instead of heading back to Vaidyagrama, Dr. Vasant led the way into the woods. Our driver didn’t speak English, so we couldn’t ask where we were headed. After ten minutes of winding down a rocky and increasingly impassable road, the vista opened up in front of us revealing a lake and the string of mountains we can see far in the distance from Vaidyagrama. Dr. Vasant flashed his winning smile and said, “I thought we should have a picnic,” and waved a bag of fried snacks in the air. It’s hard to know what to do with all the impressions made in just one day here….

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Oh my. Truly, we may be the luckiest people on this earth.

From the moment we stepped off the airplane onto the tarmac in Coimbatore, we could tell everything was different. There was only a small handful of people waiting for passengers to arrive, and our driver clearly didn’t have to guess which people he was picking up – he saw from afar the three white people and didn’t wait for us to identify ourselves as the names on the sign he was holding. He ushered us into the parking lot, and from the quiet sense of calm in the air we knew we were far from Mumbai.

The drive to Vaidyagrama took about an hour through lush green land dotted with palm trees, small houses, and fields. We were surrounded by vegetation, and before long small mountains appeared in the distance. As we drew closer to them, our driver explained that an engineering school was being built at the base of the mountains by Ammachi’s philanthropic organization. When we turned off the main road and onto Vaidyagrama’s dirt entry road, he said we were about 4 kilometers from the border with Kerala (the next state over from our state of Tamil Nadu).

Several of the staff came out to greet us as we pulled up at the entrance. There was a flurry of introductions and exclamations. I was eager to meet Aparna – she was the main staff person we have been emailing to make arrangements, and she and I had actually been in communication since last summer. She asked, “Which one is Ivy-ji?!” and we hugged hello. They helped us carry our luggage over a rough pathway alongside an evident construction area to our building. All of the buildings here are connected by pathways and courtyards open to the outside air. The four bedrooms in our building will be occupied solely by our group. Lynn and I were led to our room and we entered into a small foyer with a table and a wardrobe adjacent to an ample bathroom. To the right was a large bedroom with two single beds covered by mosquito nets facing double doors that opened on to a private patio. It is amazingly beautiful and cool with tall ceilings and whirring fans overhead.

They told us that we are the first inhabitants in this building, that they had just put the finishing touches on it that day, so to inaugurate the building they were conducting a small ceremony in the back treatment room. We gathered with several of the doctors and therapists around a pot of milk on a small camping-style stove, and they boiled the milk until it ran over the edge of the pot. They poured everyone a cup, added a bit of sugar, and we all drank it down. A sweet welcome indeed.

We arrived here on Wednesday and classes begin tomorrow, Monday; the three of us are so grateful that we got here early and have had these days to settle in and let go of the stress of Mumbai and traveling. The quiet countryside and the simplicity of the buildings and grounds encourage letting go. This place is designed for patients, and for someone receiving treatment here the intention is that they have very little to do, that they unplug from stimulation of every kind (I will write a great deal more about the treatment philosophy in the weeks to come). As students here, we will certainly have a great deal more to do, but for these several days before classes start, life is very simple indeed.

The day begins at 6:15am with optional morning prayers for the patients and students led by Dr. Ramdas. He is the head physician, and he will be our primary teacher. He is a very gentle and warm person, with a perpetual smile on his face, and his chanting is deep and resonant. Prayers are held in one of the patient buildings, all of us sitting together on the ground around the open courtyard, and his voice fills the space with the feeling of a deep, flowing river. We chant eight or nine prayers together  and then Dr. Ramdas chants for about 20-30 minutes. He then leads us in pranayama (breathing practices that improve the flow of energy through the body). After the prayers end, Dr. Ramdas comes to each person and places a few drops of water in our hand (which we drink or place on our crown), then he places a tulsi (holy basil) leaf in our hand (which we eat), and finally he puts a sandalwood paste tilak, or mark of auspiciousness, on the third eye between the eyebrows. It is dark outside when we start morning prayers, and when we are done the sun has risen. It is the most beautiful way to start the day.

The rest of the day is punctuated by meals – breakfast at 8am, lunch at 12:30, tea and steamed banana at 4, evening prayers at 6:15, and dinner at 7. Between those hours, we are on our own. We have been reading, napping, doing yoga, walking a bit, catching up on email (or blogs!) and sitting still.

Each afternoon, the staff come through to fumigate our room – they take two little wooden pots with burning cow dung and pour some kind of herb powder on it which makes an enormous cloud of smoke, which discourages the mosquitoes from coming in. They smoke up the whole room and you can see clouds of smoke emerging from the screened in windows and doors if you’re outside. The smell is strong but not unpleasant. Then a different set of staff come through to do a “turn-down” service in which they remove the bedspread, lay the comforter across the bed, and let down the mosquito net, tucking the edges firmly under the sides of the mattresses. Lynn and I want to sleep in a mosquito net for the rest of our lives – it makes the most secure, cozy cocoon for sleeping.

The weather is perfect. It is cool in the morning and evening, requiring a light shawl or wrap, and while it is certainly warm in the mid-day sun, if you stay under shade or a ceiling fan, it is lovely – especially in the buildings which retain the coolness of the night in the clay brick of the walls. There is usually a breeze, and the mosquitoes only come out at dusk and dawn. While we have all gotten a few bites (except for Ras, ironically the only one taking anti-malarial medication), they are not swarming.

The evening we arrived, as I looked out at the horizon, I could see palm trees surrounding us and the mountains in the distance. From the vantage point of Vaidyagrama, the nearest mountain looks like the silhouette of a now-familiar friend.… It seems we have found a very special new home.

Mount Anamalam

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Farewell Mumbai

One thing that makes Mumbai so challenging, I find, is the juxtaposition of order and chaos, glamour and poverty, development and rubble. It prevents you from making easy judgments or putting things in tidy boxes – or from averting your eyes.  There is luxury and excess to be found here on par with any western city, but also there is an inability (or perhaps a lack of desire) to hide the underbelly of the city. It’s all mixed together. There are begging children with babies in their arms sitting right next to fine restaurants, and shiny new high rise apartments climbing nearly on top of decaying houses.  In the United States, we take great pains to remove beggars from the main thoroughfares, to keep downtown areas “clean” and appealing to visitors, to segregate the downtrodden from the affluent. In Mumbai, there is no such pretense.

It is jarring and painful to walk by dirty malnourished children who don’t have an adult with them, even though I knew to expect it. I guess I don’t really want it NOT to be painful, and certainly that’s a risk too – becoming numb to the sight. Rather, it feels like somehow it’s appropriate that tourist attractions and visible impoverishment are mixed together, that I can readily see the poor children whom I know are here. It just feels honest; brutal, but unapologetic. You’re walking through real lives. There is no artifice.

On Tuesday, two of my classmates arrived in Mumbai and we met at the SiddhiVinayaka Mandir, a renowned temple of Ganesha located smack in the middle of a busy city block. We felt it would be auspicious to start our India experience with a visit to this holy site to make offerings of laddus (the sweet confection that is Ganesha’s favorite) to ask him to clear our path of obstacles.  Lynn and Ras had also each been told by a jyotishi (a vedic astrologer) that they should make an offering of radishes to Ganesha at this particular temple to appease a certain planetary arrangement in their birth charts.

Miraculously, we found each other immediately among the crowds outside, which I took as a remarkable sign considering I was rather late due to my search for radishes at an outdoor market for them. Lynn and Ras had landed only hours before and were feeling rather ragged. After only five minutes or so in the queue, we found ourselves at the doors of the inner sanctum which held a surprisingly small orange-red murti of Ganesha, maybe three feet tall, seated on an altar and surrounded by flowers. There were four or five bare-chested priests who received the offerings from the crowd, placed the gifts briefly on the altar before Ganesha, and then moved them to the side, one after another – all day long, all year long.

It was at this point that it became a full-contact event. As we approached the altar, people began pushing from behind and we ended up pressed against the low wall of the priests’ area with people thrusting their offerings over our heads. Someone’s flower garland was dangling over my face and suddenly I found my ear nestled against Ras’s radishes as I listed sideways. I was leaning heavily against Ras’s shoulder, trying to raise my arms to lift my laddus onto the counter. When I finally did, I said a quick prayer and then ducked my head and started slinking backwards until I popped out of the crowd like a smushed grape relieved of its skin.

After leaving Lynn and Ras with plans to meet at the domestic airport the next morning, I took one more walk around Daniel’s neighborhood. It was my last day in Mumbai and I wanted to photograph some of the buildings I had seen around his apartment. Their flowery and bucolic names might have seemed ironic had there not been an entirely unselfconscious quality to their idyllic reach. Instead, they seemed somehow naively optimistic.

For more photos on an ongoing basis, you can check the home page of this blog at http://www.AyurvedaInTranslation.wordpress.com and look in the right column for “My Photos.” Clicking there will take you to my photostream on Flickr.com, which I will update throughout my time in India.

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Turns out I know even more people in this enormous, anonymous city than I thought. Sunday afternoon I took a taxi from Daniel’s apartment in to Mumbai proper, about a 45 minute drive south, to meet up with my friend Aditya’s parents. As my 18 month old niece Koruna says, I felt like a Big Girl, heading off by myself into this roiling mass of activity. Daniel had prepared me well for the taxi: “The meter is on the outside of the cab, on the passenger side, so the driver will reach over to the outside of the car to turn it on. When you get to your destination, the meter will say a number and the driver will hand you a card with a grid that shows all the numbers and the fares that match up so you can see the appropriate fare- unless it’s an electric meter, and then it will just say the fare. And there is no tipping.” Got it.

Miraculously, I managed the taxi on my own and found the right flat. Aditya’s parents Rohini and Shekhar were waiting for me with lunch on the table – the most scrumptious meal of green pepper, onion and spices, peas and potatoes, and roti (thin bread cooked on the stove top), followed by rice and yogurt. Rohini explained the finer points of using your hands instead of utensils, a lesson well needed.

Gandhi's room at Mani Bhavan

After lunch, Shekhar took me to a very conveniently located tourist attraction – Mani Bhavan, the home of Mahatma Gandhi when he was in Bombay, is literally across the street from their flat. The three story house now holds a library, many historically significant letters and documents, and a sweet little display of figurines depicting important moments in Gandhi’s life. It felt right to pay homage to Gandhi during my first days in this country, and fortuitous that such a site emerged in my path without me even seeking it out.

When we returned, Aditya’s brother’s wife Heetal had arrived.  I liked  her instantly. She took me with her to buy some candles a few blocks away. It is fun being someplace so different (and being in an open enough state) that a simple errand becomes an exciting field trip, an opportunity to simply see things around you. On our way back, we passed what looked like a nondescript office building with a small crowd at the entrance, and I could hear chanting inside. When I asked, Heetal said it was a temple. “Do you want to go in?” she asked. I hesitated, nervous about looking out of place, but realized this was only the first of many times that that feeling would arise in the coming weeks. “Absolutely,” I said.

Inside, about 25 people were standing in a small room facing a murti (a sculpture of a deity) ensconced in glass in the middle. I stuck close to Heetal’s side as many pairs of eyes followed our movements. At the edge of the group, several women moved together to make room for us and waved us closer so we could view the murti more easily. It was a beautiful goddess, with flowing colors and flower garlands around her neck. I didn’t recognize which form of the goddess it was, and Heetal explained it was Ambe Ma, also known as Ambe Mata. We stayed several minutes, and when Heetal started moving towards the door an older gentleman brought us each a flower from the murti as a blessing from the goddess.

That evening, Aditya’s parents had arranged a dinner party inviting Aditya’s cousin Sanjay, whom I had met at Aditya’s wedding, and a couple I used to know in Boston, Maya and Dunigan, who unbeknownst to me had relocated to Mumbai. Dunigan works at Bain as a consultant and Maya just gave birth to their second child three months ago. It was wonderful to see some familiar faces. We caught up over another delicious meal until my jet lag kicked in and my eyes started closing.

The next morning, Rohini planned to take me to several tourist sites, but their driver had not shown up. Neither Rohini nor Shekhar drive these days (a wise choice, I think, having now seen the Mumbai traffic), so they hire a driver who is on call for them during the workdays. Rohini called her brother and was able to borrow his driver for the morning, so we headed off to the Hanging Gardens, which overlook the Arabian Sea. Next, we drove down to the Gateway of India, a large Arc de Triomphe-style arch on the waterfront built by the British to commemorate the visit of King George V to India in 1911, the only visit of a reigning British monarch to India. Ironically, the last British troops to leave India in 1948 exited through the Gateway too. The Gateway of India is right next to the Taj Palace, the high end hotel where terrorists targeted tourists in the November 2008 bombing. We went into Victoria Terminus train station, drove past the Rajabai Clock Tower and drove down Fashion Street. In honor of my brother Ian’s visit back in 1999, of which Rohini happily recounted many stories, we went into an art gallery that she had sent Ian to.

I am reminded how much energy it takes to simply take in sights, to observe, to feel the movement of countless bodies around you. It is no surprise, then, that with jet lag and visual overload, I thankfully fell into another nap that afternoon. Hopefully by now, I am finally caught up on lost sleep.

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