Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Bangalore, Christmas and so on

Bangalore confuses me a bit. But then, so does India, so that’s probably a pointless statement.

Bangalore is the first place I’ve felt that my scruffy traveler garb just won’t do. As a slightly useless consequence, I seem to be acquiring more clothes than I know will fit into my rucksack when it is time to pack up again, despite a few going the way of cheap Indian bargains (i.e. falling apart) and others having literally worn out with the rigours of my arduous travelling life.

I am now staying in a girly household, albeit one much younger than me, and it’s a great relief to be able to ask where to get a bikini-wax and for it to be greeted as a perfectly reasonable question and not evidence of sexual perversion. I am working out whether it will be possible/workable to stay here for the three weeks or so after the person whose room I’m occupying gets back. I’m hoping so, even if I doubt my abilities to room-share in my grumpy old age. Despite the landlady/neighbour’s dachsun who insists on using the bed I sleep on as a toilet given the slightest let-up in my vigilance, I’m enjoying this rather large and untidy house where I have been cooking again and going all domestic – as much as anything for some relief from the traveller restaurant food which is beginning to all taste the same. The wifi and washing machine are also great additions to my comfort (especially when the dog has her way).

I seem to have moved from scruffy no-make-up traveler circles to semi-expat ones. I cite as evidence my Christmas eve spent impromptu in one of the plushest hotels I’ve ever set foot in. A friend of a friend of my housemates was having a party and I did feel rather an imposter tiptoeing into the Leela Palace as the guard saluted me three times when I asked him for directions (and what a fantastic uniform – straight out of the Arabian nights!). Here I am with my housemate Ashti, on our way to the party:

Having been chauffered home after it, I spent the next morning working out the Bangalore bus system in order to go and spend Christmas day with my friend, Nakula. I love these contrasts, from the sublime to the ridiculous, as I got on the wrong bus, was re-directed and watched various fellow-passengers haul their sacks (of rice?) on behind them. Nakula and I walked in a nearby eucalyptus grove until the resident insects decided I was just too delicious for words. Here are his feet (the only part of him he would let me photograph):

And here am I:

The rest of Christmas day was spent laughing and eating. During my bus and rickshaw rides home, the sun had set and I was able to properly appreciate the churches lit up like Disneyland and the contrastingly subtle paper lantern stars hanging all over.

Otherwise, I’ve done a bit of research for my group piece, again with Nakula, have met with prospective dancers and am trying to get my head round a rehearsal schedule. It would help if I knew the performance dates of course, but this is India and she loves to keep me in suspense. However, I have no one but myself to blame for my procrastination in editing my soundtrack for my solo. (Incidentally, if anyone knows of a studio in Bangalore where I can do a very quick voice recording for love, no money, I’d love to know). The idea is to get all these things done this week, as after much laziness, next week explodes into rather frightening activity of daily teaching and rehearsing. I’m not quite sure how I ended up so quickly in urban-work-mode here and I find it a little unnerving.

I had decided it was all so stressful that immediately after the performances, I would flee to Thailand to recover, cutting short my visit to India. After calmer consideration, I have decided that having gone all the way to the far north, in the interests of symmetry, it would be a shame to miss the far south. Plus everyone keeps telling me how lovely Kerala is. And I want to learn Kalarippayattu (which I sense may be another organisational headache). So now I’m thinking I will head to Kerala for a bit of good physical training (my body is remarkably lazy now, despite the prospective dancing) and from there head to Thailand with a minimum of detours.

But best-laid plans as they say…

The other night, I met up with my friend Nisha, who lives here and whom I met doing the Buddhist meditation course at Tushita. She took me to the Shiva temple in Kemp Fort. It was a delight and confusion all in one. I’ve never been in a country where people love to shove so much as here (though generally not with any aggression) and temples are no exception. Just like an amusement park, there was a long queue to get in and all sorts of shops to tempt us (or not) as we waited. Once in, the crowd was herded round a circuit – again a bit like at an amusement park. On the one hand, there’s a definite prickle as the fire passes over me or at particular spine-tingling spots. On the other hand, it’s really very reminiscent of Great America, minus the roller-coasters but with bigger statues, displays of plastic rocks opening and closing to illustrate the stories of the twelve Jyotirlingas and all.

Here I am with Shiva again:

Thankfully, he got me home safely despite an almighty rainstorm and the only rickshaw driver willing to take me (at a perfectly reasonable price too) smoking a worryingly fragrant cigarette. Still, I got back, wet but whole.

The auto drivers (what most people here call the rickshaws – because they’re autorickshaws, as opposed to the cycle variety you see in London and Calcutta, and the poor-barefoot-human-drawn variety I saw in Calcutta) are somewhat of a mystery. Sometimes I will literally have to go through fifteen of them before I find one who: 1) will take me where I want to go, and 2) who will put it on the meter. I have regularly had auto drivers demanding 100 Rupees for what I know is a 20 or 30 Rupee journey. There is something about being a white foreigner that exacerbates this tendency. When I was in Calcutta, I decided this was nothing but blatant racism as both there and in Bangalore I met plenty of locals who have far more money than I do. So it’s not just a question of the rich tourist; there are rich locals too, and whilst it’s known that the auto drivers also try it on with them, it’s not done with quite such shameless abandon.

But every now and then, an absolute saint comes along. One day, I was at the bottom of Brigade Road (a very busy intersection) and having no luck getting a rickshaw to take me back to the house. I’d tried at three different places and they were all asking for between 80 and 100 Rupees, one of them before even knowing where I wanted to go. Suddenly one pulled up and beckoned me over, put his meter on and away we went. Despite our respective language barriers, his outrage was palpable.

“He want 100 Rupees. On meter it’s 30. If you cheat, money doesn’t stay with you.”

The problem is that in Bangalore, if you can’t direct your auto driver, even if he agrees to put it on the meter, he is quite likely to take you round the houses to as much as double the price it should cost you to get to your destination. And sadly, I’m still completely incapable of directing my auto. I’m in the frustrating position of knowing enough to know he’s pulling a fast one, but not enough to tell him which roads to take. Thankfully, I have generally been getting more honest souls lately.

Anyway, my saintly rescuer proceeded to tell me exactly how I should direct the autos to go the most direct route from the bottom of Brigade Road. Sadly, between his accent and my confusion, I barely got half of it but I was immensely grateful for his good heart nonetheless. The meter came to 33 Rupees.

I have to remind myself not to get het-up about 5 Rupees occasionally, even if it’s 25% of my fare. But when it comes to quadrupling my fare in a bid to fleece me, well let's just say that it's good neither for my blood pressure nor for my karmic load (all that anger isn't likely to lead me to enlightenment any time soon). 5 Rupees is about 7 pence/cents (Euro) or 11 cents ($). But I’m not on London budgets or wages anymore and while of course the amount is still pretty trivial, if it’s multiple times a day, a week, it adds up. I did one day work out that if I let all the people who tried it have their way, it would pretty much double the cost of my stay in India - which over five or six months gives pause for thought...

In general though, I find the universe is much nicer to me if I retain my sense of humour in these situations. So here’s to senses of perspective and senses of humour.

Hope your Christmas was peaceful and happy and the new year will bring you many, many joys,

from Lucy, with love xx

Monday, 14 December 2009

On Weddings and Dances

Well the Bengali wedding was a pretty epic affair. I did manage to get my legs waxed (not that anyone but me was seeing them; this is India, after all) and fitted my trousers with a safety pin and some elastic (first scrubbed in Vanish and hung out to dry. It’s a mystery to me how so much filth can get into an over-priced tailor’s on a Calcutta street). I looked respectable enough and spent most of the actual wedding studying the beautiful silks of the saris. As all conversations not directed at me were in Bengali, this was just as well.

Here is a modern Bengali bride with mobile phone:

And here I am with Anurekha, the bride:

In some ways, it wasn’t so unlike weddings I’ve been to in the UK: lots of people milling around chatting while nibbles were served. In other ways, it was very different. No alcohol for a start (not that I’ve drunk any since I’ve been here, if you discount the two sips of Chang I sampled in Ladakh - a cross between paint thinner and vinegar). First of all, the bride sat on what I can only call a throne upstairs while guests came to greet her and chat. Later the groom arrived with his escort for more greeting and chatting, and he had a throne downstairs (with a water fountain at its back). I didn’t see him actually sit on his throne, but here is a young lad who thought he’d rehearse for his own wedding a decade or two in advance:

Weirdest to me was that as soon as the bride was brought downstairs, walked a few times round the groom, hidden from sight by a banana leaf, I was told: “This bit is really long. Come and eat now.” And so all the guests trooped out to dinner while the bride and groom actually got married! I rather wanted to stay and watch that bit but didn’t really feel I could while everyone else went for dinner. So here’s a moment of what I did see:

When the evening was over, I was invited back to the bride’s family’s house, where about a dozen family and friends (bride and groom included) sang songs until the morning. I’m very fond of a sing-along, but sing-alongs in Bengali are a bit beyond my capabilities. However, when my turn came, I felt it would be more embarrassing to refuse than to oblige, and so sang a song (in English) I dredged up from somewhere. At three in the morning, it wouldn’t have got me my grade 3 merit, but at least it was polite. Everyone did a turn, be it Bengali singing or poetry, and it felt rude to sit there and not join in. Then we all had a lie-down and I supplied dinner to a hungry mosquito. At around six, tea was served and shortly after that, company dispersed.

I was back in the early afternoon for lunch, more singing and the ceremony of the bride leaving her home with her groom:

It was a bit of a shock when I was called on to bless them as everyone else had done (in order of seniority, I believe) and I felt very inadequate and probably went very pink, not being much in the habit of blessing anyone. Nonetheless, everyone survived my clumsiness and here they are, leaving the family home:

The following evening, the groom’s parents hosted another event, this time to welcome the bride into their family. Here are Anurekha and Subroto, on remarkably good form after days and days with very little sleep:

It was a real privilege to be included in all the festivities and I was very grateful for it. However, I have nowhere near the stamina of a Bengali bride. The upshot was that between organising myself and the wedding, I caught a cold and did no sight-seeing in Calcutta at all, not even the Kali temple, which had been the only must-see on my list. Still, as I said to Paul, my librarian-friend in Ladakh, it’s good to have a reason to come back.

The next night, I was embarking on yet another 34 hour journey across India, heading south to Bangalore. My carriage-companions were rather more civilized this time round: no belching or spitting in the compartment, though an unfortunate habit in one of them of chucking his rubbish behind my bag (no wonder there are cockroaches – though at least no large mouse/small rat this time round. The peace of my slumber was rather disturbed after I saw one scuttling past the old lady opposite me and over my bag, too close to my head for comfort, on the second night of the journey to Calcutta – but amazing what you can ignore when you have to).

It was a real treat to have my friend Abhilash and his spare room waiting for me in his flat when I arrived in busy busy Bangalore. Abhilash was a big shock. When I first met him, he was a shy twenty-three year-old who spoke nearly no English and had just started dancing. Eight years later, he is as loquacious as you please (though has difficulty with my accent at times) and regularly jets about Europe in dancer-about-town mode. After ten days or so enjoying his flat and occasionally zipping about town on the back of his bike (which requires a certain sang-froid in the traffic here, even if it’s nearer what I’m used to than what I experienced in north India) I am now room-hunting to make way for his sister’s imminent arrival.

It seems I am to stay in Bangalore longer than I’d anticipated. After two months of wandering, it’s been a bit of a shock (not to mention a bit sore) to turn into a dancer all over again. I have been doing some teaching at Attakkalari, the local dance company, teaching some wonderfully polite if slightly doubtful diploma students. When one said to me about improvisation, “We’ve learnt that already,” I had to laugh (they’ve been studying dance for about three months). Clearly, I have my work cut out for me. Let’s see if I’m up to it!

What will hold me here though is a rather surprising opportunity that has come up at the Alliance Française. It seems I will be making and performing two pieces there at the end of January: a solo I’ve been mulling over for a while and a group piece with some local dancers. It feels slightly daunting, not knowing the ropes or the city or the people, and I can’t quite believe all will go according to plan. But as I argue with the rickshaw drivers doing their best to overcharge me, I am grateful, grateful, grateful for the opportunities here, while acknowledging that fulfilling them here in Bangalore will be a challenge.

Oh, and did I say that my computer is finally working again? After going round in circles asking bemused people on the street for what felt like an hour, I finally found the Acer service centre. They completely wiped and reformatted my computer ("Ma'am, you have a dangerous virus," I was informed), which in itself has involved more juggling to restore, but hurray, it is working once more!

So please wish me luck in the smog and the traffic and as I lose myself in roads that all look identical!

From Lucy, with love x

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Lessons in Gratitude...

...on the 33 hour (if it’s on time) train journey from Haridwar to Calcutta...  
India, I have decided, enforces a constant practice of gratitude.

When I step in a cowpat (holy shit, quite literally), I am grateful it’s not dog. Or human.

If I get constipated, I am grateful it’s not diarrhoea.

If I get diarrhoea, I am grateful it’s not dysentery.

I am grateful not all the books that have come my way are as pompous as the hagiography on Swami Vivekananda I have spent most of this day ploughing through.

I am grateful I got a berth on this train. I have discovered that it requires a small miracle to get on anything other than a waiting list for an Indian train without booking at least two months in advance. Not great news for a traveller who can’t make up her mind and is working on spontaneity (not my strongest suit). I was number 2 on the waiting list for this particular journey. All the Indians I spoke to said that meant I would get on, no problem, but still, I have a wedding to get to... So when the man at the counter told me I had a seat, I could have kissed him, and was quite happy to listen to his mild flirting (“You have a beautiful name.” Which he can’t pronounce).

I am grateful for the kindness of strangeness, namely, the man who helped me find my seat and get my bag on the train. Unusually here, he smelt of alcohol (mildly). He had missed his train and was waiting for the next one and wanted someone to talk to – so he found me. He told me twice I was beautiful, asked three times if he was disturbing me, only took a couple of deep breaths when he discovered my age (they all ask here), and helped me find my train and my seat. I have never been so grateful for a chat-up.

I am wondering if it was the best idea to get my laptop out just as we’re entering Bihar.

I am grateful most of the world is not as (reportedly) fearsome as Bihar. All the Indians I have spoken to have cautioned me against travelling through it, apparently the land of looters and bandits. The very nice trio who spent the night in my section of the carriage and got off at Lucknow warned me to keep an eye on my belongings as we pass through (a bit challenging when I need the loo). So far, so good, but not the easiest start to days-long Indian train journeys. And it’s given me serious reservations about hanging out at the Bihar School of Yoga, which was a possibility...

I am grateful not all the small boys (they look about eight) of the world are belly to the carriage floors as they sweep them at train stations (one with what looked like his t-shirt, his very ragged trousers barely holding up), covered in filth, and then begging for a few rupees payment. They are the only children to whom I’ve given money so far. In Rishikesh, they start at a very young age (the youngest who approached me was barely toddling). It’s a very simple equation: you look white so they ask for money – often children whom you watched playing perfectly happily before you arrived and have no need to beg. They are not vicious, but it becomes impossible to walk quietly anywhere (forget a meditative stroll along a ghat on the Ganges). They bring out the Cruella deVille in me, and it’s as much as I can do not to chuck them in the rapids, let alone give them anything.

I am grateful there are places in the world where rubbish is collected, where municipal rivers are not thick with trash and faeces, where you can walk without the danger of stepping on someone defecating or urinating anywhere and everywhere.

I am grateful for the possibility of walking down a street without having to put all your faith in divine intervention not to end up run over by bus or rickshaw or cross cow. I am grateful for the intimate lesson on my ever-oscillating adrenaline levels.

I grateful for the rickshaw-truck that took me to the bus stand and the driver who flagged down the bus to Haridwar and was so keen to help me and my bags onto it that he forgot I needed to pay him (until I reminded him).

I am grateful for the nice man who helped haul me and rucksack onto the bus and who accommodated me on his front seat. I was grateful that the vomit down the window was my fat rucksack distance away. I am grateful for his pointing out the sights in utterly incomprehensible (to me) Hindi.

I am grateful that I have not always had to shut a part of myself off at the sight of mutilated beggars.

I am grateful not all the train companions of my life spit on the floor (though my placing of a small rubbish bag seems to be having some minor effect – though not entirely the desired one. For example, I think they took the last one when it was full and just chucked it onto the tracks). I am also grateful not all my carriage companions have spent entire journeys loudly burping (for hours on end).

I am grateful for the generosity and encouragement of the swamis at the Dayananda ashram. I am grateful for the haven the ashram provided from the craziness of Rishikesh and the beauty of the river and the chanting.

I am grateful for the lessons in corruption. Really, it makes the dodgy west African semi-dictatorship I grew up in look quite functional. Below follows a typical series of events from yesterday, at Haridwar station:

I went to pick up my bag in the left luggage and was told “fifty rupees”. (It’s amazing how people speak enough English to demand money but not enough to answer questions.) This seemed rather steep a cloakroom charge to me and would have used all my change – not a situation I wanted to be in before boarding for a 33 hour journey. Apparently the uniformed official had no change for a 100 rupee note. Undeterred, I stomped out the cloakroom on a hunt for change. I stopped at one of the little shop counters, said I wanted a chai (5 rupees) and only had a hundred rupee note – was that ok? After a little roundaboutation (no, I didn’t want the American flavour chips, hot or not hot, and if he couldn’t give me change for the chai, then I didn’t want anything, thank you), he served me the tea.

“You very clever ,” he said. I handed over my hundred rupee note. He gave me a 5 rupee coin.

“Where you travel?... Oh, Calcutta very far... You travel alone? [a big novelty for a woman to almost all Indians I have so far met] Why you travel alone?... I come with you to Calcutta... We travel together...” This went on for some time, very charmingly, a very fine attempt at distraction. How fortunate that I can be single-minded at times.

“Could I have my change please?”

“You very clever. What you do? I come to Calcutta with you...”

“That’s 60 rupees. You need to give me 30 more.”

“You very clever. You very beautiful,” but my money, of course is more beautiful. Nonetheless, I walked back to the cloakroom with 95 rupees in my hand. Outside I happened to see a sign: cloakroom charges not fifty but fifteen rupees. I handed over 15 rupees exactly, without a word. Nothing was said and I collected my bag. I am sure that had I handed over fifty, nothing would have been said either. Or am I being too cynical? Did I just hear wrong?

I am grateful I occasionally have my wits about me and manage to avoid (possibly) two attempts at petty theft in a row.

I am grateful that there is a possibility of actually getting my laptop fixed in Calcutta (please oh please let it go online again and be cured of any parasites!).

I am grateful there is also the possibility of getting my legs waxed there.

I am grateful the toilets on this train are bearable.

I am grateful the cockroaches in this carriage are very small dainty ones and not Gabonese monsters.

I am grateful for the intuition that tells me it’s really time to put this laptop away, as we cross Bihar and Jharkhand.

On the railway website, when I was checking to see if I had a seat and all it could say was that the lists hadn’t yet been prepared, it listed Shiva as in charge of the computerised bookings. I decided to take this as a sign and travelled hopefully to Haridwar. May Shiva be watching over the second night of this journey to Calcutta. In fact, I’m quite sure he is. Whether or not he intends it to be easy is another matter entirely...


The above was written a few days ago and I am now in Calcutta discovering the impossibility of getting anything fitted during Eid (all the tailors in Calcutta, it would seem, are Muslim). Oh well, I guess I'll have to improvise for this Bengali wedding I'm going to tomorrow night.

I am grateful the horrors of going through Bihar by train were over-exaggerated. Absolutely nothing untoward occurred. Perhaps the worst testament to the state of Bihar is that everywhere you go, the people doing the most horrible jobs and living in the worst poverty are immigrants from there. And I mean really horrible jobs and living in really horrible conditions.

And I am grateful all the horror stories of Calcutta were grossly exaggerated. Astonishingly, it's the cleanest and greenest city I've yet been to in India. That doesn't quite make it Switzerland, but it's fun and the people are softer round the edges than they were in Rishikesh - and the attempts to swindle you not quite so fierce. I've yet to see any public defecating here, which is a bit of a relief, though there is no apparent diminution in phlegm propulsion or urination. Calcutta does, however, smell less like a urinal than London's Soho in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning.

Apologies for the lack of pictures this time. I've been having great technological problems. It took me 3 days just to get online. And alas, I have discovered that the only places my computer can be fixed under warranty in India are Bangalore and Delhi (each about 1000 miles from where I currently am). I'm not holding my breath as I've not been fantastically impressed with Acer's customer service so far (be warned, if you are considering a purchase!). But at least it helped me decide where to go next.

And I believe in miracles (to quote the song, though I can't remember which one; feel free to enlighten me). Yes oh yes I do.

I went to the foreign tourist booking office of the Eastern Railways today and was served, even though it was the official lunch break. Of course, there are no tourist quotas for trains to Bangalore. This should generally mean I didn't have a hope in hell of getting a ticket within a month. But lo, the gods were smiling upon me and the nice man miraculously found a berth on a train that only runs on the day I want to travel. So off I trot, on another 36ish hour journey by train, two nights and a day, next Tuesday. That'll be four nights out of twelve I will have spent on the rails...

But before that, there is a wedding to attend and trousers to attempt to make fit. And I'm still working on getting my legs waxed.

Wish me luck!
Lucy xx

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Rishikesh Ramblings

“People think that Rishikesh means ‘the hair of the rishis’ but no, it comes from one of the names of Vishnu, Hrishikesha. But they left off the ‘h’ and so people don’t know. But Rishikesh is named for God,” explained the white-robed ashram-dweller (someone said he’s a swami, but as he wears white and not orange, I’m not so sure) manning the library. This was the introduction to an impromptu Vedanta class. I had in fact just popped in for a few books but I seem to be receiving lessons in all sorts of unexpected places at the moment. (Rishis are sages, by the way; it’s the rishis who channelled the Vedas from god, according to tradition.) And in fact, I found Hrishikesha in the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita the next day.

Of course, whenever I quote anyone, you have to imagine the accent, which gives Indian English prose infinitely more music and grace than my transcriptions.

Life at the Dayananda ashram here in Rishikesh is certainly colourful. The other day, the ashram hosted a “bandhara” in honour of a swamini who had died sixteen days previously. I’m not sure if I entirely understood the swami who was teaching my Upanishad class that morning (the accents can take some getting used to) but I think he said she hadn’t taken food for fifteen years and lived to a ripe old age, at odds with the doctors till the end. The bandhara basically involved giving lunch to a hundred or so saddhus and then sending each of them on their way with 50 rupees. The hall was filled with orange-clad ascetics who really didn’t strike me as a particularly easy group to cater for. Half of them seemed to be on some sort of fast or other, while many were decidedly grumpy. They didn’t linger over their lunch and so soon it was our turn, and in honour of the occasion, we got pudding with it. I must have looked especially hungry, because the nice person serving loaded my plate with about six of the sweets whose name I can’t remember, but which involve some sort of batter fried in lots of oil and epic quantities of sugar. I managed two of them, and thought that was pretty good going. We’ve had two bandharas since (but for us ashram-dwellers, not the saddhus), as a group of very kindly senior citizens is visiting the ashram from Bangalore. They are studying a Vedantic text here with their guru and are very sweet about serving us food. Again, I must look hungry, I am regularly laden with enormous quantities by motherly ladies in beautiful saris. “Is our food ok for you?” is a frequent conversation opener.

The ashram is pretty traditional, near the town of Rishikesh itself and a short walk down the river from the more tourist-frequented districts of Laxmanjulla and Ramjulla. Over the river and a little up is where the Beatles hung-out in the 1960's. (That particular ashram is now shut due to some sort of administrative wrangling.) My overnight bus ride here from McLeod Ganj was reasonably comfortable, if pretty sleepless, as only about half the roads on the journey seemed to be tarmaced. I was very glad that I hadn’t eaten since my lunch on the night of travel. Although I had to concentrate pretty hard at times, I wasn’t sick and evinced a respectable imperviousness to the hairpin bends on the sides of terrible mountains roads. We did have to make regular stops for various other passengers to throw up, and I thanked my stars again and again that I wasn’t among them. We made the journey in 12 rather than the advertised 13 hours, but on arrival I was rather too tired to quite know what to do with the mild culture shock that was Rishikesh.

There is one group of Westerners staying here, hanging around for their guru who seems to have nothing to do with the Dayananda ashram and who summons them at strange hours of the day or night. Other than that, they apparently have no involvement in the ashram that doesn’t involve food. Otherwise, apart from the recently-arrived elderly group from Bangalore, it’s pretty much all orange-clad sanyasins and white-clad students.

I started to feel rather more part of things on day two when I began attending classes. This ashram has a strong Advaita Vedanta tradition, and all teachings follow this. We have an Upanishad class in the morning, and so far have spent four classes on one verse of Kathopanisad. The teacher is a delightful elderly swami and I completely love his diversions and stories – which I think always come back to the point, though others disagree. Then a younger swami teaches a class on the Bhagavad Gita. The teaching is very traditional. First they chant the verse in Sanskrit, then they translate and explain, then they chant Shankara’s commentary in Sanskrit, then they translate and explain. Questions are welcome and are always answered very graciously (i.e. What is the difference between Ishvara and Brahman? In what way is Ishvara limited? What is the role of free will if all is Ishvara?). In the afternoon, I also attend a chanting class. I have no idea what I’m chanting half the time, but it sounds nice and I’m beginning to think I’d recognise Swami Guhatmananda’s voice anywhere (he also does the pre-meal chant – with prayers in English for the long life and health of the sponsors of whatever bandhara might be in progress). As for the timetable, neatly displayed on the board in front of the ashram office, I soon decided this was the actual embodiment of the veil of maya over reality. It bears very little resemblance to what is going on and the only way to find out about a class (if it’s happening, what it’s on, what time it is) is to turn up, at which point all becomes clear(ish).

A Japanese brahmacharya (student) has taken me in hand and is coaching me through the Sanskrit alphabet after breakfast in the temple. I am making slow progress but enjoying it, and she is a very thorough teacher – very Japanese!

The temple is at the bottom of the ashram, by the river (I’ve put a picture of the view from the end of the ashram towards the top of this entry). We’re at a particularly peaceful spot, with a ghat going down to the Ganges and tree-filled hills on the other side. I’ve spent hours so far sitting on the benches, watching the water flow (very fast!) and people taking their ritual holy bath or doing their laundry or children riding their bikes up the ghat. The water is really pretty clean here and two days ago, I finally went in for my first dip. The reason it took me so long was the organisation required. An infuriating (to me) double standard exists. Men prance about with impunity in their boxers or the cloth equivalent of a thong, but the poor women have to brave the treacherous water in what looks like full sari. No wonder they don’t go in very far! I can handle covering up to walk around town but when it comes to the possibility of drowning, I get rather irate. On the other hand, I had no wish to cause a minor riot, as people stare at me quite enough as it is. In the end, I went and bought a lunghi (a male sarong sort of thing), put on my tankini, my board shorts that go down past my knees and a t-shirt, with the lunghi wrapped round to my ankles. I must have looked very strange to the people at the ghat, pretty much dressed as a man, but at least I was covered. I decided in the end that they would have to contain their apoplexies at the sight of my shoulders and took my t-shirt off (surely a wet t-shirt is far more indecent than a bathing costume?!) as well as the lunghi to get in the water. And thank goodness I did, because the current is vicious. But it was lovely to get my head under, though I didn’t linger. The lunch bell was ringing and I didn’t want to push my luck regarding the attention-gathering.

Perhaps strangest of all is that I had to come to a Vedanta ashram to meet two Catholic priests in training. They were here last week “for an ashram experience”, as one very humbly put it. They proved my most assiduous guides, helping me make sense of the class timetable and taking me to one of the ghats in town, well away from the tourists, where Hindus make their evening offerings at the river. Once they returned to their seminary, we arranged to meet. In the late afternoon, I was walking along the river - part pathway, part rubble, part latrine - towards the Ramjulla bridge when a group of young boys descended on me, after a rupee or ten. I made my escape thinking “no, no, you’ll make me late for my date” with my two Catholic priests who (after helping me buy my lunghi at an ashram suppliers) took me to a Hindu arti (ceremony, this time involving fire, though I don't know if that's always the case). They have a radically inclusive view of Catholicism and are happy to worship with Hindus or anyone else, apparently. Perhaps it’s because they are from Kerala.

Further up is a picture of a statue of Shiva over the Ganges – with the river coming out of his head (I can’t remember exactly what bit), as it’s supposed to. And below are some people at the fire blessing part of the arti:

Later, my Catholic guides (Anup and Vinit) took me and an Italian who is also staying at the ashram to their seminary, to meet their master. He explained that they trace their lineage to Thomas the Apostle, and apparently there were Christians in Kerala from the middle of the first century C.E. with a very Indian flavour of Christianity. And here is the very Indian (and rather lovely, I think) depiction of Christ the sanyasin in their chapel:

We were shown around with absolute grace, kindness and charm and then given dinner – perhaps my nicest yet in India. Someone had discovered on my Facebook page that I’m on the BBC network, and ever since, they insisted on introducing me as “the BBC correspondent” – completely mortifying, deeply ironic and very erroneous – indelibly stuck now because I didn’t mention it to begin with. The BBC would probably sue if they found out.

As we were leaving, another of the priests training at the seminary pointed out the yellow and red dot on my forehead and asked if we had been to the arti. “We all went,” said one of my priestly guides. It was remarked that the Italian had no mark on his forehead. “I like Hindu metaphysics but I am not interested in the popular religion,” he explained. “And you?” I was asked. “Oh, I take my blessings where I find them.”

And so on that note, blessings and love to you,
Lucy xx

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Dharmic Dilettantes

It’s been a long gap, so apologies if you missed me. I sit here copying this onto the blogger website in the Tibetan internet shop in McLeod Ganj, as a Buddhist monk types away next to me in Tibetan script. It's slightly odd to see him answer his mobile, ringing from the folds of his red robes, but the Buddhists are definitely moving with the times.

I appear to be less technologically savvy. Sadly, my new netbook seems to be sick and has refused to go online since Leh. I have shown and asked various people and all the obvious solutions aren't working. I am trying not to get very upset and trying to practise non-attachment (and generally not doing very well). It's deeply frustrating as I bought the netbook especially to go online on my travels. So if any of you has any ideas (or contacts at ACER), I'd be grateful to hear. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time moaning that I didn't buy another Apple - but that was rather beyond budget and big.

But enough of my woes. Onto the real stuff:

I flew out of Leh to Dharamsala via Delhi on October 23rd, and other than four friskings in one day (slightly more intimate than I’m used to), all was pretty uneventful. Once I got to McLeod Ganj (where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile have their bases), it was pretty hairy finding accommodation as His Holiness had just finished teaching and everywhere was packed. But all was well that ended well and I found a very nice, if slightly overpriced room, courtesy of my taxi-driver, for my night before heading to my Buddhist retreat. And here is a cow on the road towards it (my room, that is):

Tushita, where I did my retreat, was a great place where the monkeys put on regular shows and made some of my yoga practices memorable (and slightly alarming on occasion). Dharamsala is a bit like the southeast of England, in that it is the second wettest place in India but there are water shortages. Tushita suffers particularly acutely with this, being towards the top of the hill, and probably the thing that marked me most during the retreat was only being allowed three bucket washes over the ten days (spot the attachment there). The loos were pretty grim at times too, as we were requested not to flush unless absolutely necessary – but I suspect you'd really rather I did’t need to go into that! I was in a dorm with eight other women and thought I’d escaped the cold going round, but alas, succumbed in my last couple of days. However, all is better now and I was very grateful for an extremely clear grounding in Mahayana Buddhism (of the Gelug school, for those who like to know these things). We were taught in the main by two Australians but on two occasions, the Dalai Lama’s main translator, Geshe Dorji Damdul (I hope I’ve got that right) came and taught us, which was completely wonderful. It just proved to me that I’m a sucker for a great teacher, be it Dharma or dancing. I was really glad he made the time for us before jetting off to Japan with His Holiness.

The teachings themselves left me a bit torn. I have a lot of time for much of it and know and love many Buddhists. However, the Buddhist nature of reality doesn’t quite sit with me (they might well argue that I’m just too dense to get it) and sometimes I felt like I was simply the recipient of endless lists (e.g. “Calm abiding is attained by progressing through the nine stages, relying on the eight antidotes to abandon the five faults. This is accomplished through the six powers and the four mental engagements.” I kid you not). Being a rather anal sort of person, I like to make my own lists and it somehow spoils the fun if they’re already made for me.

So, I knew it beforehand but it quite confirmed that I’m not a Buddhist – though lots of the practices are very useful to me. Interestingly, I didn’t find keeping the silence difficult over the ten days, and sometimes even wished away the discussion groups (our hour of allowed talking on each of the first seven days). It wasn’t unlike wandering around London at times: lots of bustle all around but quiet in my own head – or maybe that just makes me very antisocial!

Shiva made an appearance in some of the visualisations we were doing, and I was very glad for his company and am beginning to wonder whether I’m not getting too attached to my godhead visitations. The day after we left Tushita, back at McLeod Ganj (in a fantastically nice and cheap room this time, as His Holiness had left town and my hotel is at the bottom of some serious steps), I found myself with a group of four Hindus from the Tushita course on the way to a local Shiva temple. Apparently, the lingam there has been a site of worship for 10,000 years (and even if that’s an exaggeration, it’s very old). It was a lovely introduction with lots of explanations from Zubin (from the course) to my first Hindu temple, and after a bit of prompting, I shared a little of my Shiva visitations. It seems I’m very lucky and such things are very rare and prayed for by Hindus (seems a bit unfair that I should get them then, but I’m not complaining). On the back of that, I was recommended to go to a Shakti temple about 60km away.

So, a couple of days later, in the company of three women I’d met at Tushita and after a morning with them of Dharma talks from Lamas at the Tibetan library in McLeod Ganj, I set off for the Jwalamukhi temple.

The story goes that Shiva went crazed with grief after his wife, Sati, immolated herself in protest at an insult to him, and set about destroying the world while carrying her body (I think I have this right). In an attempt to calm him down, Vishnu cut her body into pieces, which landed in 51 places over India, each one now sacred to the goddess and a place of Hindu pilgrimage. Jwalamukhi (I think) is where her tongue is supposed to have landed. The hill spurts fire in places and is apparently impossible to put out, even when water flows over it – original girl power. All ended happily, however. Sati was reincarnated as Parvati and all around the temple are little stalls selling portraits of the ultimate nuclear family: Shiva the destroyer, Parvati the goddess and their son, elephant-headed Ganesha, all smiling beatifically.

Here are a group of pilgrims on their way to the fire enclave:

It was a really wonderful afternoon, and after being blessed by the Brahmin and the fire, we climbed to the top of the temple complex where there was another temple to the goddess, in the form of Tara this time, and at the back of which was a beautiful view of the hills. I could quite see why a goddess would choose such a place – and then I looked down to all the rubbish. From the divine to the disgusting in the flicker of an eye: therein is encapsulated the duality of India. My feet have never been as filthy as they were at the end of this trip round the temple. The goddess clearly wants us to approach with our feet in the dirt. Here is one of mine on the way back to my shoes and wetwipes:

And here are three of the four of us in front of Durga, the goddess (Anna from Finland, me and Barbara from California - thank you Veena, Canadian of Indian origin, for taking the picture):

We also became the focus of two teenage boys who were desperate to be photographed with the foreigners. This was not unlike my experience at the Dalai Lama temple a couple of days previously when a group of girls from the Punjab (on a sports tour) very politely requested photos with me and then bombarded me with kisses. I think I was the highlight of their visit to the temple, which seems a bit wrong somehow.
I really enjoyed being somewhere hot and sticky and full of joyful Indian tat: bangles and toys and plastic pictures of the gods. It convinced me that it was time to move down from the cool Buddhist mountains and down to the hot Hindu plains.

And after days of trying to contact various people unsuccessfully (clearly I was meant to stay put for a bit), I finally managed to organise myself. I leave for Rishikesh (otherwise known as yoga Disneyland) tomorrow night where I will be staying at the
Dayananda Ashram for ten days and hopefully learning a bit more about Vedanta. I may well be incommunicado there too. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to the overnight bus trip, but really it seemed the simplest way to get there – and the most direct.

So until I emerge from the ashram, sending love and joy,
Lucy xx

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Heading Down the Mountains...

This is mainly a picture addendum as I prepare to leave Leh tomorrow. I am flying - all going to plan -(via Delhi) to Dharamsala - a little lower down (hopefully a bit warmer) and a lot wetter than Leh. With characteristic timing, I just miss the teachings of the Dalai Lama. However, the day after I arrive, I will be starting an introduction to Tibetan Buddhist meditation. I hadn't particularly meant to explore the Buddhist path, but as at the moment it seems much more accessible than the yogic, I thought I'd start with what was in front of me. I will be incommunicado during the time of the course - so until November 2nd. So if anyone is worried about not hearing from me, no, I have not been abducted by aliens.

Here is a part of Likir Gompa, the monastery that looks after the ancient paintings at Alchi I mentioned in my last post.

And next to it is its fairly new and very impressive Buddha:

And here is the view from the hotel terrace on a nice sunny morning...

and then about a week later in the snow.

Here I am outside Leh Palace, preparing to go in...

and later outside the monastery above it, while the French film-maker interviewed me:

A final thought to leave you with: perhaps my most memorable experience at Stok Palace (where the Ladakhi royal family stays when not in Delhi) was not the view of the Indus and the mountains, nor the artwork, nor the architecture, nor even the thing made of a human femur (it's very hard to argue, after such exhibits, that Tantra isn't all sex and skulls). No, it was the toilet. I've used compost toilets before, but here it really looked as though the hole went down about twenty metres. I overcame my fear of falling down it (I was quite desperate) by reminding myself that this is how medieval nobility in draughty European palaces once did it. But I don't envy the Ladakhi royal family their palace - nicely decorated but hardly comfortable

Hopefully the Tibetan Buddhists will turn my thoughts to more enlightened avenues.

I will end with a detail of Spitok Gompa, almost most impressive for its view of the airport. I watched a plane take off and it really looked like it was heading straight for the mountains (that'll be me tomorrow) but somehow just nosed over the top of them.

As ever, from Lucy, with love, xx

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Hobbling in the Himalayas

Meet Nawang. Here he is with Punzo, who might be his daughter, and who is on the frontline dealing with us travellers. Punzo is also very lovely, but for now I will confine myself to Nawang, who typifies everything that is attractive about Ladakhis. He laughs and smiles and lot and is unfailingly friendly. He is one of this family who owns and manages The Oriental Guesthouse Ladakh, where I am staying. I found out the other day that he is sixty and I don’t know whether this is typically Ladakhi, but by Western standards, Nawang is a new man. He is frequently in charge of his toddler grandson (a couple of days ago, he was strapped across his back, recovering from the trauma of inoculations in the bottom) or in the kitchen with Gopal, the Nepalese chef (also something of a new man when it comes to toddler-care).

I have been getting to know Nawang better ever since I went to the Tibetan Hospital Wednesday of last week in the hope of finding something that would stop my hip hurting enough for me to be able to walk again. I was given seven days’ worth of herbal balls (different ones for morning, noon and night) to be crushed and taken with hot water. I got back to the hotel and ever since, Nawang has been supervising my recovery, interspersing advice on clothing suitable to Ladakh (wear two pairs of trousers) with reflections on his experience of the “amchi” (Tibetan doctor). He or Gopal crush my medicine balls for me with unfailing cheer, and I even have my own special crisp packet in the kitchen they keep especially for the task.

The hospital itself was very clean and professional looking, with a sign explaining that Tibetan medicine is a fusion of Chinese medicine, ayurveda and Tibetan Buddhism. Well, I’ve had some success with both Chinese medicine and ayurveda in the past, so I was very cheerful about my prognosis. Whenever I told any of the Indian tourists at the hotel what I was doing, they looked at me in horror, as though I was wilfully returning to the dark ages. Nonetheless, I started to improve almost as soon as I started my treatment (which after five days of pain was a great relief) and can now walk pretty normally, albeit not as far as I would wish. I returned to the amchi today, who gave me another ten days’ worth of herbal balls and approved of my next move, to Dharamsala, to do some meditation.

I have also heard Nawang’s take on global warming (he says Ladakhi winters are not what they used to be – much milder apparently) and on Ladakhi youth (young Ladakhis in their twenties and thirties are getting pains in their joints because they are too addicted to fashion to wear warm Ladakhi wool trousers – two pairs – in the winter. In view of the extremity of Ladakhi winters, that’s a heroic dedication to the sartorial). Nawang also thinks Ladakhi children have it easy these days; they all have shoes. He got his first pair of winter shoes when he joined the Indian army. Until then, it was two pairs of socks and open slippers in minus thirty (or colder). No doubt about it, Ladakhis are tough.

One of my other instructions from the amchi was to take my medicine with hot water (it looks a bit like crushed incense) and to drink only hot, not cold water. Here in Leh, 3505 metres up, we need to drink a lot of water in order not to get mountain sickness or, more prosaically, headaches. I have been carrying around thermoses of hot water all week, and it only occurred to me yesterday as I watched Gopal fill the kettle, that I am drinking my water straight from the tap. Granted, it is boiled, but all the warnings say you have to boil water for many minutes to kill all the nasties, particularly at high altitude. The guide books all say Ladakh is a hotspot for contaminated water but either they are wrong or I have a super-resilient stomach. Touch wood, but so far, no lurgies.

I have ventured out of the hotel, albeit infrequently. Last week I shared a jeep with my Italian librarian friend Paul (such a relief to know there are people in the world who own more books that I do – he has over 14,000) to Alchi, which is on the road to Srinigar. The main attractions at Alchi are the eleventh century Buddhist paintings, some of the very few of that period to escape the ravages of the fourteenth century Islamic invaders. By the time I’d hobbled down the town to see them, I was in rather too much pain to appreciate them as they deserved. I did however love the drive. It’s impossible to describe the landscape without resorting to cliché. The Himalayas here are a brown desert, the higher ones snow-capped, and every now and then in a plain, trees rise like a miracle, along with a small settlement of houses and the odd cow or dzo (cow-yak hybrid). Here I am, courtesy of Paul, squinting over the Zanskar flowing into the Indus:
I have managed to walk further afield recently, with a walking trip backwards and forward to Leh to go the bank, phone my own bank and pick up various supplies. I am certainly eating very well. All the hotel vegetables come straight from the organic garden and as I type this in my room, I can hear Nawang singing as he ploughs the little field with the oxen below me. And just to prove I’m not completely incapacitated and am indeed moving again, here I am in the hotel garden on my way to a sirsasana (headstand) a few days ago:
Hoping this finds your world the right way round, wherever you are,
From Lucy, with love. xx

Monday, 12 October 2009

The trident descends

Well here I am in Leh. In fact I’ve been here since Thursday, after 24 hours or so in Delhi. All I have to say about Delhi is that I don’t think I will return unless either interesting work beckons or I know someone there. Granted, I didn’t venture far from the airport but it did confirm my feeling that I’m not particularly interested in spending much time in big cities over the coming months. After London, I’ve probably had enough of them for a while.
The Delhi airport domestic departures lounge is very civilized – more so than Heathrow terminal 3. Costa Coffee Indian-style is nothing like Costa Coffee in London and a few disgruntled Indian customers were sent packing in no uncertain terms when they had the temerity to ask for tea. I’m not quite sure how to describe my decaf mocha: thinner maybe, but no worse for it. The flight over the Himalayas from Delhi to Leh was quite remarkable. I don’t know exactly how high the mountains we were passing are, but at least 6000m, so the plane wasn’t far above the peaks. The journey was made all the nicer by the air-hostesses actually calling us by name (we are not passengers but “guests” in India) and the smiles of the Ladakhis as we got off the plane into the crisp early morning light.
The light here is particularly beautiful: very clear and strong so that the outline of everything (trees and mountains spring most to mind) seems to be picked out in near-shimmering white light.
Apparently, I’m in a desert, so although the snow-capped peaks aren’t far off, here everything is grey-brown. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that it gets a lot colder than I remember Sinai in June and the mountains are generally rather bigger, it does look quite similar, certainly in colouring and dust.
Leh is the capital of Ladakh, once a Buddhist kingdom, and here is a picture of it, as viewed from the terraces of the half-ruined Leh Palace:

You see more mountains than town, but that tends to be the case wherever you are here. And here below is the gompa (monastery) set on the hill above it (those of us visiting on the day spent a while wondering how they got the prayer flags across):
It was while visiting the gompa that I was filmed by a French film-maker (who usually works with ballet dancers, would you believe it?). He’s going round India asking people the same 10 questions and he decided I’d make a good subject. I suspect I’ll get edited out, but if not, check out your nearest French TV or film festival in upcoming months. All following a theme, as last night, a nice couple from Mumbai (though they called it Bombay, so I’m at a bit of a loss as to which is the culturally respectful version to use) asked me if I was Juliette Binoche. This might have something to do with the fact that I’ve spoken virtually no English since I’ve arrived, as my guesthouse is populated with French-speakers. Nonetheless, I’m taking it as a compliment as I look pretty travel-worn at the moment and haven’t taken off my green wool jumper all week as it never gets warm enough to wash it (but cashmere being cashmere – and as Ladakh is technically eastern Kashmir, what could be more appropriate? – hurrah, it doesn’t smell!). The same goes for my increasingly baggy purple woolly longjohns; although I only wear those in the unheated evenings (it's bitter when the sun goes down), I don't dare risk that they won't dry in a day.
Despite the pretty pictures, taken in Leh itself, which is hardly large, I haven’t seen a great deal beyond the hotel. After my first day of mild adventures, my twisted hip which sometimes likes to remind me of its existence, flared up in spectacular fashion. There’s something quite interesting (not to mention daunting) about being half-way up the Himalayas and unable to walk. And so Shiva’s trident came down (as well I knew it would) and clearly I am meant to stay pinned for a while. It’s been an opportunity to discover how kind people can be and to watch various travellers coming and going from their treks while I enjoy the spectacular views from the terrace or my bedroom, do a bit of restorative yoga or read some of the small library I brought with me. Happily, the hip seems to be on the mend now (though at that annoying mid-convalescence stage which lasts far too long), and doubtless I shall be skipping once more in the near future.
My next challenge is to see whether I can get this to post to the internet in the hotel internet café – which seems to have a few viruses which have upset my USB stick. Endless adventures.
But enough warbling from me. It’s got to the time of day when there’s the greatest likelihood of hot (as opposed to lukewarm) water, and so off to shower I go. Here’s hoping to see you soon and that wherever you are, life is treating you kindly.
Lucy x