10 Days of Vipassana Meditation: My Story

Days 28-40 (Oct 3-15, 2014)

Brace Yourselves

Alright everyone, here it is. I have finally had a few days back at home to (somewhat) catch up on sleep, settle in, and compose my thoughts enough to write my final post about the last part of my trip, which everyone has been asking me about but I literally do not know how to even begin to answer. So much has happened that I know that the only way I’ll be able to tell my story properly is to write it all down.

Before I start, I’d like to warn you; this will be long. I’d also like to remind you that I spent 10 full days in noble silence with none of my valuables and no contact to the outside world, so if you think that reading this post is too much “work” for you… then by all means, quit while you’re ahead, this is not a post for someone who just wanted something “fluffy” to read over their morning coffee. This will be a lot of information, a lot of personal details, and a lot of honesty. I can’t promise you enlightenment or a brighter future should you carry on reading, though I can promise that you will learn something, and hopefully will gain a bit of a different perspective on some things. I do hope that if you’re still with me, you’re prepared to hear the ups, but even more so the downs of the final portion of my trip, and if not, I am perfectly content in writing this post for myself.

Either way, I hope that you too will push yourself in your life to do things that make you uncomfortable, knowing that each time you do so you will grow.

It is only when we stop making progress that we die, so may you spend each breath making changes in your life for the better, and finding true love, peace and happiness.

This is my story.

Arriving at Dhamma Thali Vipassana Centre, Jaipur

Day 28 I took a taxi from my hotel to Dhamma Thali Vipassana Centre, Jaipur. The centre was just outside of the walls of the city, about half an hour from the hotel/airport area, and it was up in the hills surrounded by mountains and greenery. When I arrived, I grabbed my bags from the taxi, and as the driver pulled away I got a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized that I was now completely alone, and that this was it. I had been mentally preparing myself for this course for months, and after everything I had been through up until this point in my trip I felt like I could not have been more ready. Naturally, that meant I was terrified.

I knew that fear was part of the process, and that you’re only real concern going into a course like this would be if you found yourself signing the papers without any hesitation or fear, because it is almost impossible to be unafraid when you sign a paper stating that under no circumstance will you be allowed to leave until the end of the course. As myself and several other students signed our papers and completed our registration, a young man waved for me to sit beside him. His name was Emmanuelle, and he was from Mexico. It took all of 5 seconds after we introduced ourselves before he turned to me, looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Promise me that you won’t leave halfway through.” I smiled, and as he held out his pinky finger I hooked it with mine and said, “Only if you promise too!” We made a deal, and I felt a sense of relief in a way, knowing that now I couldn’t back out and run away, because someone else’s success depended on me, in whatever small way.

We were called into separate line-ups after that and we didn’t speak again for the duration of the course, though I never forgot our promise.

There was very little direction given to us on the first day, but I suppose that it was part of the process in making us feel like the floor had been pulled out from under us. We signed our papers, surrendered our passports, put our valuables into plastic bags with tags and handed them to the staff. It was at this point that I freaked out for a minute. I had just turned off my phone and handed it in, along with my money, passport, and camera. These were the items that hadn’t left my side since I left home, and here I was handing them to some stranger to take care of for the next 10 days. I felt sick, and also like I had so much left to do. I felt like I should have sent one more goodbye text, or made one last call home, but it all had happened so fast that there was no time, and I didn’t have anything in particular left to say, though I felt like now that it wasn’t an option for me to say anything, I suddenly had so many things that I needed to say. It didn’t matter either way, it was done. I was handed a slip with my room number on it and was sent off to find my new home.

The centre is set up kind of like a small village. The main building consisted of the office area and some storage rooms, with a foyer area in between. It was connected to the main dining hall, which like the rest of the centre was separated into two sections: the male area and the female area. Outside of this building were several Dhamma Halls, (the places where the students all meditate). The main hall was Hall 3, which was the largest, and was where all students meditated together for the majority of the day.

Since most of the day there was no instruction given, it didn’t matter what language anyone spoke so we were all together. During the evening discourse, and other instructed parts of the meditation, we were separated by languages, so myself and about 20 other men and women went to Hall 2, for English speaking students. Hall 5 was where all foreigner students who spoke anything other than English or Hindi went, and these discourses were taught through individual headsets, so that anyone of any language was able to understand the information.

The Pagoda was right in the centre of the grounds, and was quite beautiful. It had a gold roof that came to a point, and was round and wide at the bottom, full of individual cells where old students (and later new students) would meditate during parts of the day within their own small space. These buildings all followed one main path in a line, and on either sides of the path were the male and female areas. Within each area were many tiny houses/rooms, which each person was assigned to separately.

My Room

I wandered up through the levels of houses until I finally arrived at my room, G1, except it wasn’t my room at all: it was Reema’s. Reema was a short woman from Dubai, and she was beautiful. My first thought when I met her was, “Oh great, now I am going to look like even more of a schmuck with my hair in a messy bun on my head and no make-up, sweating uncontrollably in my clothes that haven’t been properly washed in a month, next to a woman who couldn’t possibly look like anything less than a medium-complexioned, big-eyed, gorgeous-haired, adorably petite actress who just walked off of a movie set, even if she tried.” I was completely right in thinking this, because she continued to look calm, collected and unfairly beautiful for the following 10 days. We talked a bit during the first day (before noble silence started), and I was nothing short of disappointed knowing that we wouldn’t be able to talk again until the 10th day. We had both been assigned the same room by accident, so I went back to the front and was assigned room G2, right next to Reema’s.

At this point, because of the mix-up, I had seen the inside of Reema’s room, which was small with concrete walls, a single bed, and a bathroom in the back. It didn’t look half bad in terms of cleanliness, but that was because Reema had arrived about 6 hours before, and had been cleaning and setting up her things since she got there. When I opened the door to my room, I’ll have to admit it took a lot of will power to step inside without crying. The rooms are left in the state that the previous tenant left them, and I’m guessing that this person’s mother never taught them how to clean up after themselves.

It was filthy, and not just by my incredibly OCD standards, but by anyone’s. The room was a small square, and the single bed had a thin mattress on top of a wood plank, though the mattress was so old that the entire centre area was worn down to basically touch the plank without any padding. The length of the bed took up just about the entire length of the room, which also had a small bench for a suitcase, as well as a short table area to put toiletries etc. The back wall had a door that lead to the bathroom, which made me miss home the most. I do have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to see an actual toilet, as opposed to a squat toilet, though it didn’t flush properly, and was covered in what I like to pretend was dirt.

There was a small sink, mirror, and two taps on the wall over a bucket. This was my shower. The taps ran mostly cold, though sometimes I’d get lucky and have some hot water, which filled the bucket, and I then had a small cup to scoop up water from the bucket and dump it over my head. Needless to say, I didn’t rinse much shampoo out of my hair using the cup, and by the end of the course my hair was uncomfortably greasy and full of soap, shampoo and I’m guessing several small ant colonies. The water from the “shower” ran into one of the two drains in the floor of the bathroom, and the entire tile floor usually stayed wet 2-4 hours after each time I showered. The room also came with a small soap dish, a really small broom, a toilet/bathroom cleaning brush and a garbage bin.

After a few minutes of hard breathing, I composed myself enough to start cleaning. I had to go to the front to buy soap and toilet paper for my stay (which I purchased using paper slips that we would later pay off at the end of the course since we had already surrendered our wallets and valuables). I cannot stress enough how much of a mess the room was, and how many bugs were in every crack and corner. I cleaned the bathroom first, using the toilet brush and soap on literally every surface, inside and out. I filled up the bucket of water and dumped it down each entire wall and the toilet at least 5 times between scrubbing, until it felt like I had gotten rid of most of the grime. I used the broom to sweep all the cobwebs and dust off of the ceiling and from under the table, bench and bed, which of course meant having to deal with hundreds of spiders and ants with each sweep.

After a couple of hours of cleaning, I set up my belongings, put some sheets on the bed (and a pillowcase on my book-sized, dense and dusty pillow), had a shower, (or rather a bucket), and was finally able to sit down. After cleaning, the room wasn’t so bad. It had a fan at least, and 2 windows in the main room as well as one in the bathroom. The windows were small and didn’t close properly, but the screens didn’t have too many holes in them so bugs weren’t a huge problem for me after the initial clean up. It was small, hot, and far from comfortable, but it was my new home for the next 10 days, so I knew I would have to learn to love it.

Our Briefing

At around 7pm all of the students met in a hall near the front entrance for a briefing. We were handed our daily schedules (with the strict time table that is consistent among all Vipassana centres worldwide), and were given the general run-down of how things worked around here. It was vague, and I didn’t fully understand everything that was explained to us, but took comfort in knowing that no one else around me seemed to have a clue what was going on either.

Our First Meditation

Afterwards, we headed to Hall 3 (the big one) for a short group meditation before retiring to our own rooms. As we waited outside before the meditation I spoke a bit to some of the other women. I met a woman named Cecilia, from Chile, who had kind eyes and a beautiful accent. I also spoke to a few women who were taking the course for their second or third time, which made me feel a bit better… since they were still alive (and even smiling). We talked a bit about where we were from, and what we did for a living, not knowing that it would be our last conversation until the course was over, because after our first group meditation, the noble silence began.

Noble silence is pretty self-explanatory, but just to be clear it meant complete silence, other than speaking with the staff/instructors with questions/concerns, and avoiding unnecessary communication with anyone. Eye contact/body language was to be avoided, and any physical contact with fellow students, male or female, was strictly prohibited. Now if you know me, and you’ve met me more than once or twice, you’ll know that I am an extremely affectionate person. I love many and I love lots, and anyone who is loved by me will never wonder if I love them, because I make sure that they know. I love to love and be loved in return, and to not even be able to even SMILE at anyone or say something as simple as, “have a good night!” was surely going to be my biggest challenge over the next 10 days. (By only a few days in, it got to a point that I would literally race ahead of everyone to meditation just so that I could hold the door for a few people, in the hopes that they would look up and smile, which of course many did, (not that it was a big offence or anything), but I just was having such a hard time without any human contact or communication.)

The first meditation session was hard. We simply sat for about an hour and were just introduced to the idea of meditating and being silent and still, but all I was thinking about was how hard this was already, and it wasn’t even day 1. We were told to just focus on our breathing, naturally without trying to change it, which seemed easy enough but proved to be near impossible as my mind buzzed about every person, place and thing that I was missing back home, and the list was endless.

The meditation ended with an announcement that this was now the beginning of noble silence. We had been given our schedules on cards at the briefing earlier, and so we were to head to our rooms to rest, before our first real meditation session the next morning. I cried myself to sleep, as I tried to remember that it was only ten days of my life, though it was impossible to convince myself that the word “only” was applicable here, because it felt like it would be years before I was home again and back to the life I knew.

Day 1 & Understanding the Daily Schedule

Meditation Day 1 began with a wake-up bell at 4am, and we headed to Hall 3 for our morning meditation. Before I continue, I might as well take this opportunity to explain the full daily schedule, as it is the same every day during the 10 day course, and is consistent across all Vipassana centres worldwide. 4am is the wake-up bell, and by 4:30, all students would be in Hall 3 for two hours of meditation from 4:30-6:30am. After meditation, 6:30-7am breakfast was served, and from 7-8am, there was a rest period. 8-11am was the next period of meditation, followed by lunch from 11-11:30. From then until 1pm was a resting period, with time to speak to the instructor (if necessary) from 12-12:30pm. From 1-5 was another meditation session, followed by 5pm tea break (dinner time, though it was just a snack and tea). 5:30-6pm was a rest period, followed by the final hour of meditation from 6-7pm. From 7-8:30, we were sent to hall 2 (for English speaking students) for the evening discourse. This was a video lesson, taught by S.N. Goenka, who was a teacher of Vipassana for many years before his passing in 2013. His videos continue to be used for instruction throughout all Vipassana centres. After the discourse was a short half hour group meditation with instruction, followed by an optional question time with the teacher. 9pm is lights out and rest.

Like I said, each day’s schedule is the same, and incase you lost track, that’s a 17hr day, 10hrs of which are meditation, with 1.5hrs of discourse, and 30mins of instructed meditation each day… it was a lot of sitting.

The female instructor’s name was Mrs. Meenu, and she was an extremely petite Indian woman who spoke little English, though any time I spoke with her she looked into my eyes as though she knew exactly what I was thinking. She was kind and compassionate, even when she didn’t entirely know what it was that I was saying, and every time she looked at me, my heart would slow down, and I could feel my breath grow longer.

When we arrived for our first official meditation session, the room was filled with rows of perfectly placed square pillows, about 2 x 2 feet, with smaller pillows on top, to slide under your bottom where you sat. I was in seat 39, out of about 45 on the female side, and I am guessing there were 70 or so men on the male side of the room. The seats were assigned, and would be our seats for the duration of the course. The instructors sat at the front on a slightly raised stage, sitting in their respective seats, and controlling the audiotapes of Goenka that played (in both English and Hindi) any chanting or brief instructions throughout the day. My seat was in the final row, and it felt extra lonely, knowing that behind me was only empty space. The only thing that made me feel at home was looking over to my right to see a young Indian girl next to me whose profile looked exactly like that of my cousin, Sarah. Her jawbone, nose, eyes and forehead were all the same. If Sarah were to darken her complexion and dye her hair, this would be her. Seeing this student made me feel like maybe home wasn’t so far away.

4:30am Meditation for 2hrs

The first meditation session from 4:30-6:30am on Day 1 was painful, both mentally and physically. I’m not totally sure about how everyone else was feeling, but I was absolutely exhausted, and staying awake was in itself a challenge. We were then instructed to focus only on the breath, without trying to control it in any way. It’s easy enough to say, but to actually sit for two hours and even attempt to stop the mind from wandering was incredibly challenging, especially since I generally have a very active imagination and mind. We were told to focus on the breath, and to calmly bring our attention back to the breath each time our mind wandered, without feeling frustrated or defeated.

Physically, it was also pretty tough to sit cross-legged for that long without getting up to stretch. I went into the course thinking, “All I have to do is sit up straight and I will have a much improved posture and a stronger, healthier back after 10 days, it’ll be so great!” but of course that was much easier said than done. After even 10 minutes of sitting with perfect posture, you start to slump and twist and try to get comfortable. By the end of the 10 days I had made much improvement, but it was far from easy, especially in the beginning.

Breakfast & The Dining Hall

After our first sitting, the gong rang and we were sent to eat. Breakfast was simple; porridge, some sprouts/beans, and a piece of fruit (usually an apple or banana, both of which were very natural, and far from the glistening, wax-coated perfect fruits that I’m used to back home). I didn’t eat much the first morning because I just didn’t have much of an appetite. I did however drink lots of masala tea, which was my saving grace. The cafeteria area was, (not to sound dramatic) like a prison… It was colourless, with stainless steel tables running from one end of the room to the other, and the chairs lined up along only one side of each of the tables so that everyone faced the same way. We lined up for our stainless steel plates, spoons (our only utensil), cups and bowls, and were served buffet-style. I usually tried to sit near a window, and would try to sit near Cecilia (the woman from Chile who I spoke with before noble silence). Not that we could talk, but it was nice to feel a familiar presence next to you, however small. After eating, we washed our own dishes in the back of the cafeteria, and returned to our individual rooms.

The Day That Never Ended

The next meditation period lasted 3 hours, and afterwards was lunch and rest. It was at this point that I realized that the day was only half over. Let me make one thing absolutely clear to you, incase you hadn’t already figured it out: the days were long. The hours didn’t pass quickly and silently, they dragged on 99% of the time, and if you made the mistake of looking at the clock at the back of the hall, then they would only drag on for longer.

When I realized that after what had felt like an eternity of sitting I was only halfway done meditation for the day, I had a small meltdown in my room. I just wanted it to be over, and I was constantly bouncing between telling myself that I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, and convincing myself that I didn’t want to leave even if I could. All I knew for certain was that with each ring of the gong calling us to meditate I was one session closer to the end.

In the afternoon of the first day I experienced a power outage in my room, which lasted for the remainder of the day, until the following morning when I realized that this particular instance had not been a power outage, but was the result of a staff member switching off my power because I had accidentally left my fan running when I was outside. Power outs were a regular occurrence, though they usually only lasted a few hours. The main hall often had an outage during our 1-5pm-meditation session, which was the hottest time of the day. You could feel everyone in the room hold their breath for a brief moment when we heard the power shut off, as the ever so quiet buzzing of the ceiling fans came to a stop. This made the 35-40’C air from outside flood the hall and sit still on top of each student, like a heavy blanket weighing down on us as we sat in our own sweat for several hours, our hair and clothes dripping by the time we left the hall.

Goenka & Vipassana

In the evening of the first day was our first discourse, the videos of Goenka, teaching about the practice of Vipassana. Now for those of you who don’t know about the technique, here’s a basic run-down of what it is and how it works. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are”, not as they appear to be. The practice was re-discovered by Gautama, the Buddha over 2500 years ago, when he had experienced the misery of life when he was a wealthy man, and also when he had nothing. He knew that there must be a middle path, a universal truth that was the key to happiness. This was when he sat beneath a tree for some time until he had found the truth, and attained “enlightenment.”

Vipassana therefore is a process of self observation, starting with the breath and bodily sensations, which sharpen the mind when observed, and eventually allow one to see the ever-changing nature of the body and mind and understand the universal truths of suffering, impermanence, and egolessness. In understanding these truths, one purifies the mind of all ignorance, freeing it from feelings of craving and hatred, which ultimately lead us to misery. Vipassana, otherwise known as the Path of Dhamma, has nothing to do with God, or any kind of religion or sect. It is truly universal, and is far more scientific than anything else, based on one of the most basic principles in science: impermanence. For this reason, Vipassana may be practiced by anyone and everyone, however it is asked that for the duration of the 10 day course, each student suspends the practice of any other religion or spirituality, from prayer to yoga, reki or hypnotism.

Only in surrendering oneself entirely to the practice of Vipassana can one truly benefit from it. The practice’s aims are simple: to help an individual understand the universal truth about life and existence, mainly being the impermanence of all things. This releases tensions in one’s everyday life, as one begins to react in more balanced ways to both pleasant and unpleasant situations in life without losing the balance of the mind, and while remembering that all things, good or bad, shall pass. This positive mindset and freedom from hatred and misery is the ultimate goal of Vipassana, which betters both the individual and society as a whole.

Now of course, a 10-day retreat is by no means enough time to pull an individual out of his or her old habits entirely, and to say that anyone will be “enlightened” or “free” afterwards is unrealistic. The Path of Dhamma is a life-long journey, which over time will help one to make changes in their life for the better. It is not a ritual or a duty that must be fulfilled once a month/year for one to be a “true” member of any kind of “group”. It is simply a universal practice that spreads love, kindness, compassion, and true happiness.

The precepts, which must be observed throughout the course, are relatively simple: No killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no telling lies, and no intoxicants. All students are also asked not to physically exercise throughout the course, or listen to any kind of music, use any electronic devices, read/write (though I allowed myself to jot down a sentence or two each day to remember a few things for my blog afterwards), or consume food outside of the strict vegetarian diet provided.

Incase you were also wondering, there is absolutely no charge for the course. The cost of all boarding is met by the donations of old students who have practiced and benefited from the course. In this way, Vipassana is true to the bone in allowing each student to take on the life of a monk/nun for the duration of the course, with each meal and all services and accommodations being charity from old students. Old students donate in discretion without being given any incentive to donate other than the satisfaction of passing on this gift to future students. Centers have no other sources of income, and all staff members are volunteers or old students. This is a key component in removing any feelings of entitlement from the student, which would naturally arise should students have to pay a fee for the course.

At the end of day one, I made a small circle on a piece of paper and filled it in, followed by 9 empty circles, which I would fill in as the days passed, to remind myself that it is, in the end, only ten days. I stared at the ceiling from my bed, tears streaming from my face, as I prayed that the universe would do me a solid and just fast forward the next few days. Eventually… by nothing short of a miracle, I got to sleep.

Day 2

Meditation Day 2, we began to sharpen our focus during meditation, bringing our attention to the nose, nostrils, and area between our upper lip and tip of our nose. In this way, we sharpen the mind by focusing on the sensations experienced in a particular part of the body. It was challenging, though I could actually notice myself getting a bit better at keeping my focus. My thoughts still wandered, but I was able to catch myself and bring my attention back to the breath and nose.

Physically, the pain on the second day was terrible. My back was literally burning, and as I sat through meditation I actually tried to visualize knives sticking into my back, to help relieve the tension, because it hurt so much. My body was in physical revolt, and there was nothing I could do about it other than stick it out, which felt impossible at the time.

My Major Meltdown

By lunchtime, I was a mess. I went to the cafeteria to get my lunch, but when I sat down I just couldn’t eat even though I had hardly eaten since breakfast the morning before. Food had lost its taste. Somehow, my state of mind was literally turning food rotten in my mouth, and I could not bear to swallow it. I fought the urge to throw up, and Cecilia saw me struggling from her end of the table. She brought me a glass of lemon water with sugar, and smiled as she handed it to me and went back to her seat. It was the first thing I had put in my mouth that actually tasted somewhat good, but I was so hungry, and so miserable that it wasn’t enough. This was when I had a full-blown meltdown.

I don’t even fully remember how things got as bad as they did, but all of a sudden I was sitting over my lunch, my head in my hands, bawling my eyes out in the middle of the cafeteria. 3 of the workers came over to me, comforted me and said, “It’s okay. Sometimes this happens in meditation.” One of them hugged me and kissed my forehead, while the other one told me that after I finished some lunch I was to go meet with Mrs. Meenu and she would help me. An older student from Switzerland walked by me and put her hand on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, “I cried during my first meditation too, you will be okay.” It meant the world to me to feel compassion and love from people I didn’t know, but I was still such a mess.

When I went to Mrs. Meenu, I cried and told her that I was okay, I just missed home, and it was very hard. Mrs. Meenu looked at me with her calm eyes and asked, “Do you wish to go home?” I answered “No” without a moment of hesitation. She smiled, looked at me and said, “Vipassana is a surgery of the mind, and sometimes it is very hard. You must remember, in breath, out breath, it will pass. It is okay to be upset. Observe your feeling, and do not react. In breath, out breath.” I knew she was right, but it was just so hard to handle. It felt like I had been there forever, and I was only halfway through Day 2.

Later that day I was greeted by a gigantic lizard in my room, which scurried across the floor and into the drainpipe, which it left wide open behind it. I ran outside, grabbed a big rock, and put it over the drain in the bathroom. The rock remained in this spot for the rest of my 10 day stay.

Goenka’s View on Religion

During the evening discourse, Goenka spoke about religion and anger. He said that all anger is universal, and misery is universal. It is a simple truth, but one that we tend to forget. Regardless of one’s religion, one experiences the same feelings of anger and agitation, which harms the self and others, and leads to unhappiness. The problem in this world, Goenka says, is not that people of different religions believe in doing “bad” to each other or anyone else. Each religion is based on the idea of love and compassion and showing love to one another, the problem lies in each religion’s definition of what “good” and “bad” means. If we take this, and wipe away these definitions, we could say that “good” things are things that we should do, and would like if they were done to us, and “bad” things are things that we should not do, and would not like if they were done to us.

The idea of specific religions being exclusive and fighting over who is “right”, a matter of ego, is defeating the basic intention at the root of all religion: to act in a good way, and refrain from acting in a bad way. Vipassana is a practice which trains the mind, whether it be a Christian, Hindu, Muslim etc., mind, to deal with simple emotions of craving, anger, and agitation, which are the same emotions no matter what one’s background or beliefs are, because they are based on our feelings at an experiential level. This is why Vipassana has no place for god or religion, as it deals with universal truths at an experiential level.

Day 3

Meditation Day 3 was a turning point for me. I had still been periodically crying since lunch the previous day, and I was a bit of a mess. I was starting to eat a bit more, and I was feeling a little less miserable, but I definitely wasn’t skipping my way to meditation. It certainly didn’t help when I looked to my right to find an empty seat this morning… The girl who looked like Sarah was gone, and her pillow had been removed. I had already figured that even though you are told you “cannot leave” that if you started kicking and screaming and demanding to leave the course, they wouldn’t have much of a choice but to let you walk away, but knowing that someone had given up, especially when it was someone who had reminded me so much of home, was devastating.

After the 8am-11am meditation, everything changed for me. As I walked up to my room, tears in my eyes, I noticed a small piece of paper sticking out from under my door. I quickly opened the door, grabbed the folded paper, and shut myself inside, shaking as I began to read. It was a letter from a fellow student, who hadn’t identified herself in any way, other than speaking about experiences that only an old student would know, who had been through this before. I Cried before I even started reading, knowing that there was someone who cared enough about me to write me any kind of letter, which was strictly against the rules. I wiped my tears as I began to read…

The Letter

“Message From God: My sweet, loving and dear child, why are you crying? Why are you in so much pain? Why are you feeling lonely? One thing, I would like to tell you, that you are blessed child of God. God loves you so much that he chose you as a lucky and divine soul to walk on the divine journey. You come alone, you will go alone. Detach yourself from all the traps of materialistic world, relationships and your own body. You are a pure, loving, peaceful, knowledgeable, divine soul. You come to Vipassana because you were destined to come and learn this technique. And help or guide others to walk on this Buddha enlightenment journey. “Passana” (in Pali language) means “to just look at things as they appear” eg: Just giving an outer look onto its beauty, colour, texture, shape, etc. but “Vipassana” means “to see things as they really are” in their truthful state of existence, eg: Look more deeply and experience the truthful quality, expression, colour, shape of anything etc…

The initial 5 days are very tough, because you were enjoying life in a noisy city. And your body and mind were used to it. But here there is noble silence, 5 precepts to follow. So many people around but nobody to talk. Here you talk with yourself. Your body and mind has never experienced this that is why they are revolting inside to run away from this discipline. But my dear child, my sweet lil’ child, after 5 days your mind and body will be used to this routine and will start liking the peace within. And when you’ll enter the phase of Vipassana, your entire body pain, your discomforts will vanish automatically. Because by then you’ll train your mind to see body pains as they really are. Have patience. Be bold and strong and face all the challenges of life. God is always with you. God loves you a lot.

At the end of this program you’ll love this technique (if you practice well) and feel enlightened (you will be thankful to God). If you are missing your friend, lover, pets or family then don’t worry dear, they are all well and doing good in their 10 days, like you. But you are lucky to be here, not they. They are not chosen to be here. Many foreigners have come from London, Japan, USA, China, Russia etc. They have never eaten Indian food in their entire life. But still they are enjoying and relishing their meals properly every time. Respect food. Pray and express gratitude to God for at least giving you a plate full of lovely meal cooked with effort and love. Think of those people who work so hard, get exploited every day and face so much torture, beg in front of people for just one piece of bread to eat.

Don’t forget you are blessed. Take only little food and enjoy it, do not waste it. You are a very strong-minded girl. Don’t crib like a 5 yr old child. You are a grown up young woman, soon you’ll have your family. If your kids cry and crib like this, then how would you feel? Nobody can help you here. You have to wipe your tears yourself, help yourself, check yourself, love yourself. After 10 days you’ll sometime miss the Indian food taste and I’m sure you’ll come back again to India (sometime later). Be strong, be smiling, be happy. Be a good learner, good student (daily), grasp each and every lesson deep into your mind. Because when world will come to an end, people will face crisis and a lot of panic and chaos will be all around, then you as God’s child will be strongly standing firm against all odds of life. You will be able to survive and stay calm and composed in any worst situation of life, just because of Vipassana. So stay happy, calm and at peace. –Your angelic friend and messenger of God, do not tell anyone about this letter.”

Feeling Loved

I sat for a few minutes, going over everything that had been said, feeling a thousand different kinds of emotions. I looked out the window and whispered “thank you” for whatever it was worth, and laid down on my bed. The letter had said everything that I needed to hear. At first, I didn’t know exactly how to feel about all of the God references, because I’m not necessarily a believer in a specific “God” per se, but the more I thought about it, the more everything came together. The letter was sent with love. It let me know that I was not alone, and that someone out there was loving me and looking out for me, while at the same time telling me that I could not rely on anyone or anything else for my happiness, and that I WAS alone, in the physical sense. I came into this world alone, I would leave alone, and in-between, whether I choose to live in denial of the fact or not, I am alone.

I needed to pull myself together. There are people on the streets, which I had seen only days before, begging for the simplest things in life. Here I was, with a roof over my head, and food to eat. I was reminded of my choice to be here, and of the fact that I must accept the challenges and push through them, knowing that they will make me stronger. Most importantly though, the letter said, “If you are missing your friend, lover, pets or family then don’t worry dear, they are all well and doing good in their 10 days, like you,” which I had needed to hear most of all. I was constantly thinking about home, trying to imagine what I was missing, and picturing so many terrible scenarios in which I would return home to my house burned down, or my dog hit by a car, or my boyfriend leaving me. My thoughts had been running wild, and I needed this reminder that it was only 10 days and that realistically I wasn’t missing much.

In thinking about her references to God, I realized a lot of things all in a matter of seconds. I realized that it didn’t matter what kind of “God” she was referring to, even if she was referring to a God of a particular religion which I was not a part of. She had sent me this letter, with only love and compassion in her heart. To me, that in itself, was God. Now try to keep up with me here, because it is hard to explain the things I was feeling, but I’m going to try my best; in this letter, I had found God. Except God wasn’t a person, or some spirit in the sky who decided whether or not to grant my wishes. God wasn’t a thing that I needed to pray to 5 times a day, or complete a certain ritual for in order to get into his kingdom. God was not a singular, tangible being, but rather, “God” was a simple name, used to describe a force. God was a force that brought me this letter, a force that made whoever the author was, feel compassion towards me and write words that would stop me from giving up on the practice and myself. This force was God, and God was love.

God connects us all, and sitting in my bed I realized that this wasn’t my first encounter with God since leaving home. I found God in Philip and Olivia in Israel, who showed me that it is possible to be completely loved and accepted by someone even if they know that you will never share their same beliefs, and that they are okay with that, and accept you as a friend regardless. I found God in the man at the airport in Tel Aviv, who bought me a diet coke when I had thought that nothing in the world could have put a smile on my face. I found God in Danny, the airport worker who was assigned to me in Tel Aviv, who must have been a Buddha in his past life the way he smiled at me through my tears, and told me that everything would be okay. I found God in Josmy, who reminded me that some things are beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean that a bad experience can’t have a positive outcome. I found God in Emmanuelle, who showed me that it is okay to admit your feelings of vulnerability when you are doing something that scares you, and in Cecilia, when she handed me a glass of lemon water with sugar, and smiled at me in my time of need.

Now, I had found God in this letter. This God was love, compassion and selflessness. It was not a person, place, or thing, but a quality which is within us all, beyond all explanations given by science or religion. It is a web that ties us together in ways that we will never understand, and causes us to cry when we see someone in pain, or smile and tear up and get a lump in our throats when we witness, or even read about acts of pure, selfless love and kindness towards others. This was what this letter meant to me, and it was exactly what I had needed. I knew that there was no way that I was going to go home without saying that I had completed the 10 days, and I knew that it was going to be easier to stay by choice, rather than to fight it and tell myself that I wished I was home but could not leave.

I went to lunch, and for the first time since the day of arrival I finished every piece of food on my plate. The most surprising part, however, was the fact that while I was served the exact same meal as the day prior… today it didn’t even taste half bad. In fact, I kind-of enjoyed it.

Day 4

Meditation Day 4 was the first official day of “Vipassana,” and was where we started to “really work,” though I didn’t fully understand what that meant until we started. Starting on the 4th day, for three separate one hour sessions each day, we would sit with strong determination not to move, and to sit through any sensations we were experiencing. Instead of focusing on the nose and upper lip area, we now were instructed to move our attention from the top of the head to the tip of the feet, slowly, but without lingering on any specific area or attaching us to the feelings experienced in any particular spot, be it good or bad. I was unable to sit completely still for the full hour either of the two times we practiced this technique on this day. I had bugs land on me, which happened a lot, but sometimes I would realize that it was not a bug, it was just a hair blowing on my face or sweat dripping. The odd time it was an actual bug though, which happened often enough to convince me that any small sensation was a tarantula walking across my body.

I sat still for almost the entirety of each session, but there was always one thing or another that stopped me from maintaining perfect stillness for the full hour. I reminded myself not to get frustrated, and to simply accept that I would continue to work, and would have many more chances to sit for the full hour in the days to come. The fact that no-one really cared or said anything to you if you didn’t complete the hour, and that there was no reward if you were successful, actually made the idea of completing the goal even more appealing to me. I knew that I had nothing to prove to anyone other than myself, and that no one would benefit or be hurt by my failures other than me, and I knew it was only a matter of time until I was able to say that I had done it.

Day 5

Meditation Day 5 I continued to work diligently and patiently in my continuous efforts to sit still for the full hour each of the three times in the day with strong determination not to move or open my eyes. Again, I was unsuccessful, though I remained positive knowing that I had done better than the day before, and had come much closer to completing the full hour by the end of the fifth day than I had the previous day. Now, I know it sounds like it couldn’t be that hard to sit for an hour, so please allow me to shatter your perception of how easy it was…

After several days of sitting with no back support, my back and neck were burning and aching non-stop. The room was at least 30’C at all times, and there was absolutely no sound other than the (extremely quiet) buzz of the fans, and the odd thumping of a monkey or peacock landing on the roof or making noises. The second you sit down, assume a comfortable position and close your eyes, you lose absolutely all sense of time.

I didn’t realize until I started this practice how much our minds subconsciously use sound and sight as gauges of time. When you’ve sat and talked with someone in daily life, I’m sure you’ve heard yourself say, “Oh I lost track of time,” but on a subconscious level, you had a sense in your mind of how long it had been, ie. that it was more than one minute, and less than ten hours, or more than one hour, but less than two days. During Vipassana, over the course of the hour, it becomes absolutely impossible for the mind to know how long you have been sitting. Thoughts buzz through your head as you bring your attention to your bodily sensations, moving from head to feet. After I’d say about a minute, your sense of time is lost. In the same way that some dreams can seem to last a lifetime, even if you’re only sleeping for a few hours, the thoughts in your head seem to be taking up far more time within the context of your other thoughts, than they are in reality.

From the second minute, until the final minutes of the hour, I had no idea whether it had been 3 minutes or 43 minutes, and it drove me absolutely crazy. As the hour dragged on, I began to think, “It has to have been an hour. At least 45 minutes. I have to pee, what if it has only been 5 minutes? Okay now it has been an hour for sure. When is this going to be over? Oh my God, this is never going to end. Is that a bug on my arm? I am so sweaty all I want to do is move. I’m going to move. I can’t move. This isn’t so bad, everything is fine. It may have only been half an hour by now, and that’s okay. I’m just focusing on my bodily sensations and not paying attention to time. It will pass eventually. I am at peace…OH MY GOD HOW IS THIS STILL GOING!? I AM GOING TO DIE HERE!” I can only explain the feeling as being trapped in your own body, screaming in silence.

By the time Goenka’s voice came on the audiotapes and started to chant, speaking words of the Buddha for about 5-10 minutes with the hour ending as soon as he stopped, I felt so relieved that I could cry, even though by the end of the 5th day, I had still yet to sit a full hour without at least opening my eyes a few times, or swatting a bug off of my face. Surely, this hour of practice would be my greatest challenge in the days to come.

Day 6

Meditation Day 6 was a good day for me. By now I was over halfway done, which felt incredible. We were assigned our individual cells in the Pagoda this afternoon, which I had pictured as being a peaceful, quiet, breezy room to myself. Instead, it was a small cell that looked the way that I had pictured solitary confinement in prison, with mouse poop in the middle of the floor, a small stained pillow to sit on, a lizard on the wall (harmless, but it freaked me out), and no windows, whatsoever.

We were given a choice for many of the meditation sessions from here on out to work either in our Pagoda cells or in the main hall. Needless to say, I opted for the main hall anytime I was given the choice. By now, it still felt like I had years before I would be out of there, but knowing that I had survived the first full 5 days was enough to keep me smiling. During the evening meditation, I sat for my first full hour in stillness, and gave myself a silent round of applause.

By now I was beginning to understand how it all worked. I was understanding the things Goenka addressed in our evening discourses, which made so much sense that they were impossible to argue with. Goenka told us that all of our misery in this material world comes from either craving or aversion. He goes on to say that when we experience pain, or have an experience that we perceive as negative, we associate that feeling with hatred or aversion, and we wish for it to go away. If it does not go away, we are miserable, and if it does go away we are constantly wishing for it to stay away. Then, on the other side of the same coin is the idea of craving. When we experience something that we perceive as being a positive experience we are full of joy, and we do not want this joy to go away, so we cling onto it, and crave it the second it has passed. In each scenario, we find ourselves at the mercy of the sensations that we get from our positive or negative associations with any kind of experience, and unless life is going to only hand us the things that we desire (which we all know is never going to happen), we are going to be miserable.

This is why Vipassana teaches us about my favourite word in Pali, “anicca,” meaning impermanence, a word that is used to remind us that as we sit in meditation, much like in life, many sensations will come up that are either positive or negative. Then, as we remind ourselves of the law of nature and the truth of impermanence, we sit and acknowledge this feeling knowing that it will pass. When we experience pain we say, “this will pass eventually, there is no sense tying myself up in knots over it,” and when we experience happiness we say, “this is wonderful, and it too will pass, which is okay, and I will not be in misery when it is gone.” Life, in this way is like a river. We can stand at the edge of the river, constantly trying to change the direction of flow, or we can sit peacefully, knowing that it will always be moving, and that we cannot stop the flow.

Days 7-9

Meditation Days 7-9 were productive. I worked hard, and sat patiently for almost every single hour-long sitting, and was sitting noticeably more still throughout periods of the day which weren’t even intended to be times of “strong determination.” It had become my most focused meditation time, and I was actually feeling as though I was progressing in my practice. As we focused our thoughts less on individual areas and more on larger areas of the body, I could feel subtler and subtler sensations as I swept from head to feet and feet to head. There were several times where I was so focused that I could feel the natural vibrations of my body, and the blood pumping through my veins. It was completely surreal, and it made all of the struggles up until that point worthwhile.

I had grown in my awareness of my bodily sensations, and in my ability to remain equanimous, regardless of the sensations being good or bad. At the question period on day 9, I went to Mrs. Meenu in the hall. I had been thinking so much about whether or not I had been meditating “properly”, and how to know if I was doing it right or wrong, so I figured I should just ask her. I went to her and asked, “I feel as though I am making progress, but sometimes I still have so many thoughts in my head that I’m not sure if I am doing it right… how do I know?” She asked me if I was feeling less sad and upset, and I said yes. She then asked me if I felt that I was making progress in my ability to meditate and focus, and I said yes. Then, she opened her hands, looked at me and said, “Then you are working well.”

I realized at this point that there wasn’t a “perfect” way to meditate, and that even if there was, that it wouldn’t matter if you could meditate perfectly if you were unable to make progress from that point. What was most important was the development of one’s own ability to bring the practices learned here into daily life, and the changes that are made in each individual life for the better. This was far more important than one’s ability to sit completely still for any extended period of time and meditate “perfectly.”

Day 10, Breaking the Silence

Meditation Day 10 was the final day of meditation, and at 10am we were all released from the hall and the noble silence was ended. At first, none of us knew what to do. We stood outside of the hall in silence, slowly walking away from the entrance. It wasn’t until one of the assistant teachers walked up and hugged me that I realized we were actually free to talk and touch each other. We instantly all started hugging each other and crying, congratulating one another. I was finally able to hug my friends who I had hardly spoken to until then. I was so overwhelmingly relieved, happy, and actually a little bit sad that it was all over.

In the back of my mind, I wondered who it was who had written me the letter, but I had a couple of people in mind who I thought it might have been. For the past week or so, since receiving the letter, I had been thinking a lot about who may have sent it to me. Looking back now, I’m happy that I didn’t know right away. Not knowing meant that any person I looked at, I considered to potentially be the person who had written to me. In a way, the anonymity of the letter had made it so that I was open to feeling a profound love for each and every person around me. It was only when I came to this realization that I decided that even if I did find out who sent me the letter, that I it didn’t matter. Whoever she was, she was looking out for me with love in her heart, and without even realizing it she had put me in a position to look at not just her, but at everyone around me with the same kind of love in reciprocation. I hugged every single woman I met on the final day as though it was she who had written me the letter that had meant so much to me.

We all had lunch together, and chatted nonstop. It took us 5 times as long to eat our food as it had during noble silence, and later that afternoon we were given our valuables back. I took some pictures of my new lifelong friends, knowing that only they would truly be able to understand what I had been through. We exchanged e-mails and phone numbers, and I told them all that if they could bare the drastic change in climate, they were welcome to visit me in Canada anytime.

The Women of Vipassana

It was strange to finally be able to talk after so long. My throat was instantly sore, and my ears felt plugged. I was completely overwhelmed, and after lunch I actually went to my room alone for about half an hour, laying in silence to give my ears a break. It felt like I had gone partially deaf over the course of lunch, and everyone sounded like they were speaking through a pillow. Thank goodness they ended the silence on the 10th day, and not the next morning when we were departing, or I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to handle all of the noise when I left the secluded meditation grounds.

In the afternoon, a young Indian woman came to me and introduced herself and we chatted for a few minutes about where we were from and what brought us to meditation. She was about 30 if I remember correctly, and as our conversation dwindled down she looked up and said, “I am hoping my letter found you well…” I was in shock. I didn’t even know what to say. There was nothing to ask, nothing to confirm, she was the one who had written to me. I hugged her and cried, and told her that it had meant the world to me. She said that she didn’t know if she should tell me, but that she couldn’t help herself, and that it was just a message that she felt she had to send to me.

I could not thank her enough, as I thought to myself, “This is the woman who I’ve been thanking in my mind for the past week, and I hardly even noticed her presence in the room before she introduced herself just now.” Before she had told me that she was the one who wrote to me, I had thought that perhaps it was Cecilia, who sat near me almost every day at lunch and brought me lemon water with sugar the day that I was such a mess. I also thought it might have been Carmita, the old student from Switzerland who had told me that she too had cried in her first meditation. Another part of me thought it was Supriya, a woman from Delhi who always looked at me with kindness in her heart. There were several other people I had suspected, including one of the assistant teachers, but I had never suspected the person who it actually was. For the sake of anonymity, I won’t tell you her name. I’ll only tell you that her letter and her decision to tell me who she was, taught me that sometimes love and kindness come from the places you’d least expect, and that just when you think you’re alone and lost, there is always someone out there who will love you and care.

We all said our goodbyes, and I cried like a baby knowing that I may never see these incredible people again in my life. Cecilia told me she had been so happy to have someone just to sit near and pass the occasional smile to at lunch, and I told her I felt the same. I am truly grateful to have met each individual woman who had shared this experience with me, and I know that even if we never speak again, we will all be friends for the rest of our lives.

Day 11, Leaving Vipassana

Day 39 of my travels, I said my goodbyes, and found Emanuelle and thanked him for keeping his promise not to leave halfway through. We shook hands and parted ways.

I left the meditation centre and headed to the airport, where I waited 12 hours (my flight was cancelled and I had to wait for a later one) before boarding my first of three flights that would take me home to Toronto. While in the airport, which was about the size of a small public school back home, I made friends with a shopkeeper named Krishna, and we talked for hours about our different lives. Later, Reema arrived at the airport and we sat and talked until her flight left. I was so happy to have had the pleasure of meeting her, and we shared stories over our first non-vegetarian meal in 10 days. Sad to see her go, I was once again officially on my own.

I boarded my flight later that evening, and could not stop smiling, knowing that I was on my way back home.

Making my way Home After 40 Days & Reflecting

Day 40 I arrived home in the afternoon, and it felt like I was dreaming as I walked through the airport in Toronto, though that might be because of the fact that the screaming babies on the plane had kept me up for nearly the entirety of the past 24 hours.

I had seen and done so much since leaving home, and I had been through so many different experiences that I was almost afraid to have to answer people’s questions about how my trip was, and what I did. It felt like I had changed.

I know that when people see me and talk to me, they will think that I’m the same, because I’ve always been a relatively bubbly and energetic person, and I am still that way. It’s hard to explain, but life feels different now. I’ve changed so much in how I see the world when it comes to the real things that matter. I might be going back to my same life that I had left about 6 weeks ago, but my entire thought process and the foundations on which I base my own identity have changed in ways that I will never be able to explain on paper. I’ve met so many people, who I know I will never forget, and I’ve been through so many experiences that have changed the way I see the world but I think that the most important thing that I learned on my trip by far was to believe in love.

I get that this might not make total sense, because I’m not talking about the kind of love between two people who are in love in the romantic sense, but I have learned so much about the love between all people, all over the world. I had been through a lot of experiences, some good and some bad, and what got me through each experience was confidence in the fact that all people are fundamentally kind and compassionate. I truly believe after my experience that there is a force that holds us all together and that has been buried inside a lot of us as we live our busy modern lives, but that exists at the core of all of us. Call it what you want: God, collective consciousness, an unknown scientific particle, magic… I call it love.

To me, this is God. The quality that made me feel like no matter what I was doing or where I was going or how alone I was, that there would always be someone to turn to; that is what it means to believe in true love and compassion between all beings. Sure, it was hard to believe it all the time, especially when you’re being interrogated in an airport in Israel and held at security for hours. Similarly, it was hard to remember this when I was having different souvenirs shoved in my face in the market, or was being pushed past in various line-ups and knocked around in crowded train stations and airports. However, I believe that people all have bad days. We do things that are unkind; we call each other names, and shove each other around. We take the people we love for granted, or we push them away. Sometimes, we refuse help when we need it out of pride, and sometimes we refuse to give help when someone else needs it out of selfishness. We are stubborn, and we hold grudges, but at the end of the day I think that regardless of our background, country, race, religion, beliefs, and most importantly our flaws, we are all capable of showing love and compassion to each other in times of need. When we set aside our pride and our differences, there is not a lot that separates us all.

I knew that this trip was going to be hard, especially being alone for a lot of it, but I am truly confident now in my ability to do just about anything, go just about anywhere, and face just about any obstacle life throws at me knowing that even when I am by myself, I am not alone.

When I got home, I emptied all of my bags and found the small keychain with a green shoe and a ring on it that Josmy had given me after my airport fiasco in Tel Aviv. I smiled as I clipped it to the rest of my keys.

The world is in a constant state of flux, as are the people in it. At the end of the day, we have come into this world alone, and we will leave alone. In the end, there is only one thing that freely flows between us all, holding us together even after death when we’ve left this physical world. We are all capable of it, though we sometimes forget its importance. It is often left in the shadow of our daily lives and personal problems, though it is never far away, and it doesn’t take much for it to have a great impact on our lives, all we have to do is let it.

This thing is love.

Exploring Massive Mumbai

Day 26-27 (Oct 1-2, 2014)

Welcome to Mumbai!

Day 26 we flew to Mumbai at 7am and met our guide Manik for our first and also last day of sightseeing in the city. Manik was possibly the friendliest woman I have met in my life, and both Jo and myself were jumping up and down when we met her, because up until now every guide, driver or representative we had met was male. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it had felt like forever since we’d spoken with women other than ourselves. She offered new perspectives, and was extremely well informed. She literally spat out statistics and information about names and dates like she was reading it from a book. I suppose she could have been making everything up because Jo and I wouldn’t have ever known, but something tells me that she really was just a great guide.

Namaste

The first thing she said to us, naturally, was, “namaste.” She then explained to us what namaste actually means, which I already knew, partly. The literal translation is “I bow to you,” but in the Hindu context the salutation is used as both a “hello” and a “goodbye,” and essentially means, “the god in me salutes the god in you.” This “god in me” refers to the energy of the universe that I’ve previously talked about, the core belief in the supreme being or energy in the Hindu religion. In this way Namaste is a greeting, and also a reminder of the connection between people and all living things, which I think is really beautiful.

Learning About Mumbai

Manik then briefed us on a few things about Mumbai, which means “the mother goddess of fishermen,” because this was, and is, a city surrounded by water as well as fish. Mumbai is the financial capital of India, with a population of 20.5 million (the highest city population in India), in only 431km squared, which means that over recent years the city has begun to grow upwards as the population rises. The large population has also created an environment which requires services that you just won’t find in any old city. Services including idli delivery (hot breakfast from a bike), ear cleaning (on the street, at the low price of 20 rupees per ear), and tiffin box delivery (hot lunches from home delivered to you at work by a dabbawalla/ tiffin box delivery man), are among the many services one will find at their fingertips in this bustling city. Dabbawallas are used by thousands of people in Mumbai every day. The server is usually on a bike, and each server delivers 20-40 hot meals per day, in a tiffin box from your home to your work using a coding system. There are over 5000 dabbawallas in Mumbai, which means that every day around 200,000 people use this service, which is pretty impressive.

Taxis and buses are popular in the city, which doesn’t allow tuk tuks or rickshaws in most areas because of the high traffic. The number one means of transportation however is the train. The train is fast and cheap but apparently absolutely insane. Over 500,000 people commute daily to and from the city centre station, which is the widest structure built by the British, to date. At 1500 feet wide, this station was one of the stations through which the first ever train in Asia ran on April 16th, 1853. The station has been in use ever since.

Mumbai has been making continuous efforts in recent years to improve cleanliness, poverty and its education system. The city currently has a literacy rate of 88%, whereas India as a whole is at 74%. The slums here are now protected by the government of India, with “school on wheels” programs that teach in slums. Any teacher is free to teach in this area, and as long as enough people sign up, the teacher will have a salary job paid by the government. It is slowly but surely gaining popularity within these communities. Also, young girls pay less nowadays for their education (anywhere but private school), to encourage girls to receive proper education, thus increasing their likelihood of having a career outside of the home.

Hinduism & Cows

As we drove through the city, appreciating its surprisingly large tree population and the sweet sound of aggressive driving, we learned a bit more about Hinduism from Malik. Apparently, (so the story goes) there was once a churning of the ocean, with the gods on one side and the demons on the other. Out of the ocean emerged 14 precious things, one of them which was the cow. This is why Hindus worship the cow according to tradition, though the practical reason for worship is much more scientific…

Cows obviously provide milk, which is a source of food for whomever owns the cow, as well as income should one decide to sell the milk or cow. The cow is not only worshipped because if the milk it provides however, it is also worshipped for its dung. Cow dung is made into pattys (which we have seen stacks of on the side of the road), that when dried are an excellent source of fuel for fire. Dung is also commonly used as UV ray protection, as well as insect repellent in a home, and the soot when it is burned is even used for teeth cleaning (these practices are used much more in villages than developed cities like Mumbai). Some studies also show that cow urine consumed in small amounts can help clear blood infections (though I can’t say that I’d be an overly willing patient were it prescribed to me).

The Dialects

Malik informed us that throughout India, many different dialects are spoken, in each different state and even city. In total, there are 1652 different dialects in India (many of which are mixes with Hindi), which makes travelling hard even for people who speak the national language, as some dialects are much more different from Hindi than others.

The Incredible Dhobi Ghat

During our drive through the city, we stopped at a road that overlooked the famous Dhobi Ghat. If you recall, ghat is the word for riverside (like we visited in Varanasi), however there is no river here, but rather a manmade water system. Dhobi is the word meaning “washerman,” and here at the Dhobi Ghat, washermen pay taxes for the land on which they run their laundry services.

These men soap, soak, boil, beat and thrash laundry that they collect from homes and businesses all over the city. The clothes are then aired to dry which makes for quite a view, with clotheslines filled with different items draped all over the area below us for quite a distance. After drying, the clothes are pressed, folded and delivered back to their owners.

Dhobi wallas use a coding system to keep their orders straight, but it is hard to imagine ever being able to keep track of what is what as I look out over the area and see thousands of sheets, shirts and pants. Just another unique service that Mumbai has to offer.

Poverty & Wealth, From One Extreme to the Other

As we drove through the city, we saw an overwhelming mix of rich and poor. We saw the insanely large house of the richest man in India, and not even a 20 minute drive later we had to lock our doors as beggars knocked on the windows asking for food, which was hard to watch. I will never be able to erase the image from my mind of a little girl with her hair in knots who knocked on the window as her little brother (I assumed) walked beside her. He couldn’t have been more than two or three years old, and he was totally naked with patches of hair missing from his head, dragging around a single roller blade. I wanted to open the door and take them with me, but of course doing so would not change the lives of the thousands of others in the same position just around the corner.

It was a strong reminder to me that life isn’t all about money, and that if some of us made the choice to take a smaller slice of the pie that maybe there would be more left for everyone else. The earth is not an infinite source of money and resources. Here I saw a house worth likely several billion dollars next to a child, whose sole possession appeared to be a roller blade. It really changes your perspective to see two extremes such as these side by side, knowing that the price of this billionaire’s pool could probably buy clean water and food for every homeless person in the city for a year. I hope to remember this lesson, if not to stop me from spending any amount of money, then to at least make me think twice about what I mean when I say that I “need” something.

The Religions of Mumbai

Malik pointed out slums, co-op buildings, skywalks (for people to walk over the traffic, not that it stopped anyone from hurling themselves into the street), and places of worship all over the city. Mumbai is 67% Hindu, 18% Islam, 5% Buddhist, 4% Christian and 3% Jain, with a mix of Jews, Parsis, etc. making up the remaining 3%.

As we passed a Jain temple, Malik taught us a bit more about the religion, which was great because up until now there hadn’t been a lot of serious talk about Jainism. The Jain religion is a branch off of Hinduism in a way, but with certain practices and beliefs that vary. They believe in being strictly vegetarian, even so far as to not eat the fruits of plants that must be killed in the harvesting process (of course like in all faiths, different people follow rules to different extents). Their salutation, “Jaijenendra” translates to “salute to the supreme being,” and they believe that every soul has the potential to be a supreme being, comparable to the Hindu belief of the supreme energy.

They pray to Jenendra, depicted in a similar way to Buddha, but with a diamond in his chest, as well as long arms and ears as a sign of eternal life of the soul (as ear lobes and fingernails never stop growing). Jains practice 5 rituals. The first is Pooja, the worship of the statue, followed by Aarti, the waving of a lamp. Third is pradakshina, walking in a clockwise direction in the temple, followed by Bhajan, or group singing. Last is Prasad, an offering made to God, which if returned is a blessing. The bell ringing in the temple is often misunderstood as the “awakening of the gods”, though it is actually intended to awaken one’s own spirit, in listening to the echo of the bell with eyes closed.

Mani Bhawan: The Gandhi Museum

After our lesson in the basics of Jainism, we headed to Mani Bhawan, the Gandhi museum and memorial in Mumbai. Here we learned about the life and struggles of the incredible Mahatma (a name given to him by the people, meaning “the great soul.”) We walked through the dioramas and pictures that depicted his life, and there was a separate room filled with framed letters written by Gandhi himself addressed to Roosevelt, Tolstoy, Einstein and ever Hitler, asking him to refrain from war.

It was hard to believe that one man had done so much and made such an impact over the course of a single lifetime. It was an inspiring visit and one that I will never forget. Perhaps my favourite part was a quote on the wall from Gandhi that read, “There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything. I feel it though I do not see it. That informing power or spirit is God.” What I believe Gandhi meant by this is that “God” is something different to different people, yet if we trace each definition to its source, the word describes that which is beyond science, and beyond numbers, pictures and tangible data, that connects us all.

I had never heard this quote before visiting the museum, though it instantly resonated with my own beliefs, and my artistic practice as my paintings describe our mortality as a uniting factor between all religions, and stress my belief that there is something else that is beyond the physical world in which we live. What this factor is, no one knows, but many call it God.

The “Queen’s Necklace”, The Garden, & The Prince of Wales Museum

After the museum, we drove along the “Queen’s Necklace”, the U shaped promenade which lights up at night like a sparkling necklace. We then walked through the garden near the beach, with beautiful banyan trees, flowers and butterflies in a garden that looked like it came straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

We visited the Prince of Wales Museum, with beautiful gothic architecture featuring a white dome. Unfortunately, it was so hot inside (the building was undergoing restorations and had no air conditioning) that we had to cut our visit short, though it was an incredible museum nonetheless. We ended the day of sightseeing at the Gateway of India, followed by a stop at the train station to drop off Manik. When we handed her a tip, she kindly refused and said that she truly enjoyed the day and wished for only a handshake and to hear that we enjoyed ourselves. If only we had gotten more time in Mumbai for the sole purpose of talking to Manik for another day, but of course all good things must come to an end.

Mumbai Madness On The Road

We said our goodbyes, and headed back to the hotel with our driver Moin.
He hadn’t spoken much throughout the day, but he seemed really tired and a bit “off”. He spoke little English, which might have been a blessing, otherwise he would have understood us freaking out in the back seat as he drove us back through the city in what was now rush hour. The 20-30 minute drive took us 2 and a half hours, and we held our breath almost the entire time.

I thought that after Varanasi I had seen it all, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. We swerved and jerked from left to right, cut straight through oncoming traffic, got bumped by one car (probably more, but one that we heard/felt), and our driver got in an argument for 10 minutes with a traffic officer. Then we saw an ambulance squeezing through, which no one made room for, and motorcyclists driving right over dividers on the road. To say it was stressful would be an understatement, and we could not hop out of the car fast enough when we finally got to the hotel.

Saying Goodbye to Jo

Miraculously still alive, Jo and I had some dinner before she packed up for her flight. Sad to say goodbye, I was so grateful that we had shared this experience together. It was hard to watch her leave, knowing I still had about 2 weeks until I would get home. It feels like I’ve been gone for so long and done so much that a big part of me just wanted to hop on the plane with her, but of course I knew I couldn’t do that.

On Oct 3 I will arrive at the Dhamma Thali Vipassana centre in Jaipur, and the following 10 days will be spent in silence and meditation with no electronics, valuables or contact with the outside world. I know that this will be the most challenging part of my journey, but I must keep remembering that it is supposed to be a challenge, and that fear is to be expected. Still, knowing that I’ll be spending thanksgiving away from everything I know is a hard pill to swallow, but in my heart I know that it will only make me stronger.

Back To Jaipur

Day 27 I spent the morning flying to Jaipur, where I took a taxi to my hotel for one last night before heading to the meditation centre. I have been watching t.v. and eating mini bar food all day, since I know that the days to come will be extremely quiet, and lacking in junk food. I have been nervous and lonely and a bit sad since Jo left, but I know that only good can come from this experience. I am venturing farther out of my comfort zone than I had ever imagined was possible, and it both terrifies me and excites me to my core. My next post will likely not be until I am home, 2 days after my meditation, so I am saying goodbye for now.
Sending all my love with all my heart, Namaste.

Udaipur: India’s “Most Romantic City”

Day 24-25 (Sept 29-30, 2014)

Travelling to Udaipur

Today we drove away from the pink city of Jaipur, and headed towards the picturesque city of Udaipur. Ashok picked us up from the hotel at 8am, and it took until 4:30pm for us to reach Udaipur, with about an hour of breaks total. It was a long drive, but I actually really enjoyed it.

We talked to Ashok for most of the drive, who was chipper as always, and who replied the same way he does every morning when we asked him how his night was, saying, “Rest is best, madam!” He was always saying little rhymes and riddles as he drove us, and loved to crack jokes. Whenever we went over speed bumps (which in India feels more like driving over piles of rubbel), Ashok would yell, “free massage!” while we bounced around in the car.

We got to know a little more about him over the course of the day, and about India. He pointed out different things as we drove by them, particularly in the marble mining areas. For literally an hour of our drive, on both sides of the road, were soccer field sized lawns in front of marble shops just covered in marble slabs of different shapes and sizes. Some areas had sculptures and different decorative items, but most were simply counter top slabs. It was incredible to see such large quantities of the stone, polished and sitting out in the open on the sides of the main highway, and with donkeys, dogs and water buffalo meandering right through the same area. It was really quite a strange sight.

The “Bathroom” Stops

Naturally, over the course of an 8 and a half hour drive, several bathroom stops were made, though we tried to minimize them as much as possible because public washrooms in India aren’t exactly the most pleasant places, to put it lightly. First, you pay whoever owns the shop/gas station you stop at, and then you enter a stall with a squat toilet, typical of India. Squat toilets are basically holes in the ground. They reek, are almost never cleaned, are absolutely full of flies, cannot be flushed, and have no toilet paper. They’re not air conditioned, and with the level of heat and humidity here, they basically feel like saunas full of poop. (Sorry for the visual.) Sometimes they have a sink (with soap if you’re really lucky) but not often. If I only had the luxury of man parts I don’t think I would have ever used a washroom at all. Of course I knew what I had signed up for when I came to India and had accepted a long time ago that unless I planned on not leaving the hotels, this was going to be a part of the experience, so I brought lots of Purell and packs of Kleenex (which have probably been the most appreciated items in my luggage since arriving). Generally speaking, the washrooms outside of the hotels haven’t been fun, but I think its safe to say that I won’t be complaining again about squatting in the grass while camping!

Masala Chai

At one of the rest stops today, Jo and I sat and enjoyed one of the best cups of tea we’ve had since we’ve been here. It was masala chai, with a bit of milk and sugar, and I literally have never had such an intoxicatingly delicious drink in my life. I bought the spice the other day to bring home, and I can only hope that I’ll be able to make it just as good when I’m back. If you haven’t tried masala chai before, it contains cardamom, saffron, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, and a few other seasonings, made with milk or cream and traditionally served with a bit of sugar. It is spicy and sweet and creamy all at the same time, and it is the most delicious tea I’ve ever had in my life, hands down.

On The Road

Driving through the countryside we passed hundreds of trucks full of marble slabs, hay stacks and people, and motorcycles with 2-4 (yes, four) people piled on. Usually one or two of the passengers were women in bright coloured saris that blew in the wind behind them like a scene from a movie.

As we got closer to Udaipur, the view out the windows shifted from flat roads and fields to the Aravalli Mountains and valleys, with winding roads and incredible views of Udaipur’s three manmade lakes. We passed by cliffs covered in goats as well as monkeys, and Ashok told us that he’s even spotted tigers in this area in the past.

After a long day in the car, Jo and I watched the sun set from quite possibly the nicest swimming pool I’ve ever been in at our hotel in Udaipur. After, we ordered food to the room for dinner. It was the perfect way to end the day. Our hotel is beautiful, as all of the hotels are here in Udaipur, the “city of romance”, and we can hardly wait to see more of this incredible place tomorrow… 

Udaipur, India’s “Most Romantic City”

Day 25

The city of Udaipur is known as Rajasthan’s “most romantic city.” Home to 500,000 people, it is relatively busy, but with several beautiful lakes, mountains and fields in the surrounding areas. It was founded in 1559 by Maharana Udai Sing, and boasts beautiful temples, as well as the second largest palace in all of India.

Jagdish Temple

Our tour today started at Jagdish temple with Mr.Singh, our guide. We first admired the architecture outside of the building, made in a traditionally Hindu fashion, with layers of patterns, figures and animals. Mr.Sing explained to us that all Hindu temples are built in similar ways. The bottom layers are simple, symbolic of our birth and childhood before we have learned anything. The second section of layers depicts demons, dancers and animals to show the adult stage of life, when we are tied to cravings of worldly possessions, and also when we become educated.

The third section up is for the retirement stage of life, with a focus on family, and the final stage of life is focused on prayer and meditation as one prepares to die and return to the universal energy above. This is why the temples come to a point, as one’s life ends and one moves upwards towards heaven.

The temples are built facing East, as it is the Hindu belief that with the direction of the rising sun, positive energy also flows from East to West. The word “temple” otherwise known as “mandir” literally means “place of the inner self,” and so the goal in prayer is to become closer to one’s inner self, and to the energy that connects the inner self with the universe. We walked through the temple with the cool marble floor beneath our bare feet, to the sound of chanting and bells as people clapped and brought in beautiful pink and yellow flowers as offerings inside. It was a space full of energy and love.

The City Palace

After we left Jagdish temple, we went for a tour of the City Palace. The palace was absolutely massive; full of courtyards, gardens, banquet halls and galleries. We looked at original paintings and photos hung on the walls, and admired the incredible view of the city and Lake Pichola, with the Lake Palace in the centre (where the Maharana would go for the summers). Looking across the lake, we could also see the mountain with the Monsoon Palace on top, where the Maharana would go during monsoon season to escape the heavy rainfall.
The inside of the City Palace was full of silver, ivory and marble. Photography was prohibited in several areas, but believe me when I say that it was beautiful and luxurious.

The Lake Palace on Lake Pichola

After walking through the city a bit, we went for a boat ride around Lake Pichola to get a view of the Lake Palace, which today serves as a hotel starting at over a thousand dollars a night (just a bit out of our price range). We stopped briefly at the island of Jag Mandir, admiring the view of the lake and the ghats from which we came. The boat ride back felt beautiful, with a breeze that was just enough to take away the suffocating feeling of the sun that had been on us all day.

Crystal Gallery

When we arrived back on dry land, we visited the Crystal Gallery, that houses thousands of custom made crystal items including a bed, chairs, tables and chandeliers. These crystal items were ordered custom from Birmingham, England by the Maharana. Unfortunately, most of the items arrives 22 years later, and the Maharana who had ordered them had already long passed.

In memory of the great ruler, the crystal collection is now on display and has still never been used to this day. Imagining the wealth of the rulers during these times is truly mind boggling to me. I will never get over the incredible quantities of money that went into each of the palaces we’ve visited. The crystal alone had to have been worth tens of millions of dollars, and that doesn’t take into account the beautiful solid marble rooms in which they are now held. It’s beyond me.

Turbans

As we walked through the bazaar in the city we asked Mr.Singh why we hadn’t seen many turbans. He told u is that today, everything in India has become more modern, and turbans aren’t seen as often as regular hats nowadays, but he explained to us a few of the benefits to wearing a turban, each of which we had been previously unaware. Apparently, while protecting one’s head from the scorching heat of the sun, a turban was also commonly used as a pillow if one needed to rest, and offered protection from falling objects, like a helmet. Most interesting though was its use in getting water, as men would take off their turbans when they reached a well, and would hang them down into the water. They would then pull up the cloth and squeeze out the water to drink. It was quite impressive to hear these uses, especially since I used to think that turbans were basically just fancy hats with pretty colours. Who knew!?

Indian Paintings

Before heading back to the car, we stopped by a small gallery in the city. Here, traditional Indian paintings were produced on rice paper and camel bone using natural colours from ground stones and metals. The paintings were small and intricate, almost too delicate to touch, with some of the faces so small and precise that a single hair from a squirrel tail was used to paint them. We watched a master at work, as his young apprentice explained the process to us.

There is such a connection between the artists here and the materials they use that I really hope to try to find when I get back home to my canvases. Grinding rocks to mix with glue and trapping animals for small pieces of hair for brushes before letting them go are certainly not practises I have had experience with, but the paintings in the end were made with such care that it was impossible to ignore the work behind each different colour.

After a hot day in Udaipur, Jo and I went for a nice swim in the hotel and tried some new and exciting Indian food for dinner. Tomorrow morning is our last full day of touring before Jo heads home, so we are resting up before getting up early to head a bit farther South to the hustle and bustle of Mumbai!

Agra & Jaipur: The Taj Mahal & The Pink City!

Days 21-23 (Sept 26-28, 2014)

Agra

Day 21 we woke up bright and early after possibly the worst nights sleep of our lives. The “Durga Pooja” festival has recently begun, which celebrates 9 goddesses for 9 days, during which each participant fasts (or eats less than usual), and apparently listens to extremely loud music for most of the day and night. Our windows were not even close to being thick enough to hold back the sound of the Hindu music. It wasn’t so bad when we first arrived, but at 2am after about 10 hours of hearing it in our room, even over the tv, it became less endearing.

Tired and a little bit cranky we met our guide Joshi and headed to Agra Fort. Joshi explained on the way that almost all of the monuments in Agra are Muslim, made by the Mughal dynasty. The Mughals invaded this area from Uzbekistan without much effort, because of their possession of gunpowder, and fell in love with the land. Seeing its beauty and fertility they decided to stay, and quickly became famous for their monuments and their love for the art of building.

The first 6 Mughal rulers of this time were known as the “Great Rulers” and they were, for the most part, very liberal. They were loved and respected by all of the people, including Hindus. They helped their people, and created beautiful monuments which all of the people admired. Akbar the Great was the 3rd Mughal ruler, and the one responsible for the construction of most of what we would see today at the magnificent Amber fort. Akbar was a very liberal man, who had great respect for each major religion. He had 3 wives: a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian, each with their own bedroom and a separate place of worship, (naturally).

Shah Jahan & The Taj Mahal

Later, after Akbar and his wives moved out of Agra Fort, Shah Jahan (the 5th Mughal ruler) took over, and added most of the decorated marble palaces within the fort. Here it is said that in the market one day he saw Mum Taj, who he thought was the most beautiful girl in all the land. He was instantly in love, but waited many years before he married her. Together, they lived at Agra fort where they had 14 children. Sadly, during the birth of their last child, Mum Taj died, and wished before she died that Shah Jahan would build her a beautiful tomb. Today, this tomb is known as the Taj Mahal.

After the death of lady Taj, one of her sons named Aurangzeb imprisoned Shah Jahan (his own father) for 8 years, and killed his brothers. He was the 6th and final “Great Ruler” of the Mughals, though he was not loved or respected half as much as those who came before him. Eventually, Shah Jahan passed away and instead of being placed in his own tomb, (whose building plans were destroyed by Aurangzeb, but included a proposed twin to the Taj Mahal on the opposite side of the Yamuna River) he was placed immediately next to his beloved, in the Taj Mahal.

Agra Fort

Agra fort was an incredible sight. It was absolutely massive, built of primarily red sandstone with marble palaces inside, boasting beautiful inlays of stones such as cornelius, lapis lazuly and jasper. The inlays had been made with such care and precision that most of them had remained perfectly intact. The designs and inlays were all symmetrical, in true Islamic fashion, and were all made by hand, a fact that I can still hardly believe after witnessing such precision and intricacy.

The Petite Taj

After leaving Agra Fort, we took a short drive to Itmad Ud Daula, otherwise known as the “Petite Taj”. Built in 1622, this tomb is believed to be the original inspiration for the design of the Taj Mahal. It was built by Queen Nur Jahan, for her father (and later the rest of her family), and was perfectly symmetrical on all sides. The four gardens outside and 3 false entranceways to match the real entrance were also constructed symmetrically, in true Islamic fashion. The patterned stone inlays on the marble walls followed suit, absolutely perfectly precise, delicate and colourful. I could only imagine the money and patience required in the construction process of such a beautiful place. This tomb is said to be the “perfect” tomb, and a representation of heaven. It was truly perfection.

Our final stop of the day was the finest marble shop in Agra, where stone inlaid marble items were made and sold by the ancestors of the original builders of the Taj Mahal. We were given a demonstration of the shaping and inlaying of stones into marble all done by hand, using family secrets that even the business owner did not know, because it was only for the family of the original builders of the Taj Mahal.

After seeing the Petite Taj and knowing we were headed to the Taj Mahal the next day, it really put into perspective how much time and resources had been put into the buildings, seeing the handmade works at such a small scale in comparison. We went to the shop, where we saw the finished works, and it truly took our breath away. Every surface was covered in different patterned marble inlay tables, including 10-foot long dining room tables, at $45 thousand dollars and above. After watching the amount of time it took to make one small inlay and guessing at the amount of time (years) that went into the tables, we weren’t even surprised at the price.

I told the owner that if I ever sold paintings at the same price as these tables that I would come back and buy one. He gave me his business card and I laughed as I took it, knowing that in my life I would likely never see that kind of money. Of course that is something that I’d love to be proven wrong about, but I’ll probably have a better shot at winning the lottery.

We headed back to the hotel after a day full of gasping and ogling, and rested for the evening knowing that at 5am we would be up with the sun to see the one and only Taj Mahal.

Seeing the Taj Mahal

Day 22 began with my heart beating so loud I could hear it in my sleep, literally bursting with excitement knowing that in less than an hour we would be standing inside the incredible Taj Mahal. We drove through Agra as the sun rose, and stood in a long line for the security check before we entered through the main gates to the Taj Mahal. We couldn’t see even the top of the Taj because of our position, which only made the view more spectacular when we turned the corner and looked through the gate.

It was stunning. It is said to be the largest monument built for love, but I’d have to say that it was the most beautiful monument built, ever. Unlike the Petite Taj, this was not a “perfect tomb” only because it faced the river (which for us was dry land after a dry monsoon season) and was not perfectly symmetrical on all 4 sides. For me, this only added to the beauty.

Because of the materials used: solid marble with stone inlays of cornelius, lapis lazuly and jasper, (to name a few) the structure reflected the colour of the rising sun, glowing orange and slowly becoming a cooler shade of white as the sun rose higher above us.

To think that this building was made for Mum Taj, a single human being, was mind boggling. After seeing a $45 thousand dollar table the night before, we guessed that today it would have cost billions in stones and marble to build the monument. It took 22 years to build, and it was absolutely surreal to see in person. I still haven’t fully processed that we were there as I look through my pictures. It was one of those experiences that you know was real, but that felt like such a dream that you don’t believe it when you look back.

We walked around the inside and outside of the monument, took some photos, stood by the gate for one last look at one of the wonders of the world, and after a deep breath we turned around and walked away. Getting into the car, it still hadn’t hit us. Maybe it’s one of those things that never will.

Fatehpur Sikri

We drove for about an hour afterwards, heading towards Rajasthan until we reached Fatehpur Sikri, the abandoned capital of the Mughal Empire between 1570-1586. Akbar the Great built this city (after building Agra Fort and palace) in celebration of the pregnancy of his Hindu wife (he was the ruler with 3 wives: a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian). He was a great builder, who once again built a separate room and place of worship for each of his wives. The palace was built by a small lake which would soon dry up, forcing the ruler and his wives to leave after little over a decade.

After leaving Fatehpur Sikri, we said goodbye to our guide and new friend Joshi, and joined Ashok in the van, where we settled in for the long ride to Jaipur. We drove for another 3 hours or so, until we reached the famous Pink City of Jaipur. We made sure to tell Ashok, “Ap bohut acha” meaning “you are very good” as he drove us through the hectic streets of the city. He said that, “a man only needs 3 things to be a good driver in India: a good horn, good brakes, and good luck!”

Arriving In Jaipur

We arrived at our hotel and were told not to tip anyone during our stay, but to leave a tip at the front desk on our way out if we wished. Now this may not sound like exciting news to anyone who has never been to India, until you understand just how much money you can spend on tipping alone. Everywhere you go, someone helps you with your bags (even if you say no) and then stands and waits for a tip. Every time you get a guide for the day, you tip. Every driver at the end of each day, you tip. As if that wasn’t enough, every bathroom outside of a hotel either costs money to use, or has a worker inside who turns on the tap for you, puts soap on your hands, and hands you paper towel before you even realize what is happening, and then stands and rubs their fingers together for a tip. Not only that, but every temple in which you can’t wear shoes, you leave your shoes with a man outside who you have to tip, and sometimes someone will walk up to you (even if you have a guide) and tell you something about the space, and then rub their fingers together for a tip. Now incase I have yet to get my message across, here’s the kicker: women in beautiful saris, men dressed up in elaborate outfits, children who are dancing or singing, snake charmers or street performers as well as people who jump out of nowhere and put a big red blob of a bindi on your forehead… ALL stop what they are doing, and ask for a tip if you’ve taken a picture, which anyone passing by with a camera would naturally do.

Literally every person I’ve taken a picture of has asked for money. Outside of tipping, beggars knock on the car window at every stop asking for money. I do understand that as a tourist, I may look like I’m made of money, and that surely these people don’t make as much as I do back home, but as heartbreaking as that is I simply do not have the finances to tip or help everyone. We tip our drivers, guides and people who help us with our bags or watch our shoes, but generally not anyone else, and we’ve gotten much more firm about carrying our own bags, which is really hard to tell someone as they pull it out of your hands the second you enter a hotel. I don’t mean to complain, but If I had tipped everyone who asked at this point, even just a dollar, I would have given away over a thousand by now and I am not even exaggerating.

So, as I was saying, it was nice to hear that tips were not expected in this hotel for meals, room service or bellmen.

Bubbly the Camel

After settling in at our hotel, Ashok agreed to meet us to take us for a camel ride in the evening. We went for a ride down the main road on our camel “Bubbly”, who was rather bony and awkward as all camels are. It was very exciting for me especially, since I don’t even remember ever riding more than a horse or pony at a fair when I was younger. We tipped our camel driver, and the guy who took pictures of us with my camera (after pulling it out of Ashok’s hands) and said goodbye to Bubbly.

Tea & Spice Shopping

After a brief photo shoot with a man who turned his motorcycle around and parked just to get a picture with us (this trend still hasn’t stopped, and I average probably 5-10 people per day stopping for pictures), we hopped back into the van and went to a spice market.

We smelled hundreds of teas and spices. It was a really neat experience to hear about each tea and each intended use, medicinal, sexual or otherwise. We passed on the “winter tonic” a spice intended for better stamina, and headed back to the hotel, bellies full of tea, in a bit of disbelief at how eventful our day was. I never thought in my life that I would see the Taj Mahal, and there it was, now on the long list of things that I’ve been utterly blessed to see in my lifetime. I honestly feel like the luckiest girl on the planet.

Elephant Rides & Regrets

Day 23 we met our guide for the day, Arun, and he told us that our first stop was for an elephant ride! We were extremely excited, and hardly listened to him as he told us that there would be 200 boys standing outside the car trying to sell us things when we arrived. He wasn’t joking. In fact, I think he underestimated the amount. Every step until we walked up the stairs and sat on an elephant, we literally had hundreds of different items being shoved in our faces and voices shouting at us to buy the items for however many rupees. We were glad we learned the work “nahi” meaning “no”, but it didn’t stop anyone from trying. When our elephant named “Ronnie” started moving, we could not be happier to get away from the bombarding, but 10 feet away was another group, and then another, who followed us as we rode through the jungle trying to enjoy our elephant ride, shouting about what a great deal they had for us.

For about 10 minutes we had some peace, in between the groups of salesmen, which was lovely. We walked slowly through the hillside, trees all around us, watching peacocks casually walk by, and we even heard the loud roaring of a tiger not too far away. We couldn’t see it, but the elephant “driver” said that in the past he had seem many tigers that circled the elephants and scared them. Luckily the tiger this time was not close enough to spot. After our ride, a man tried to sell us printed pictures of ourselves, which we had to actually yell at him to get him to understand that we had our own pictures with a good camera and we did not want his pictures. He followed us right to the car telling us a lower and lower price with each step until we slammed the door in his face.

The guide told us we did a good job, even though we felt like we had been cruel, but it is so overwhelming and frustrating that you are given no other choice than to be angry to get someone to stop trying to sell you things.

*I’d like to add, also, as I review this post 2 years later, that at the time I had NO idea how terrible elephant riding was for the animal. It was included in our tour that we had paid for, and overall it was actually a pretty sad experience as we were swarmed by salesmen and barely got to spend any time actually touching or appreciating the elephant. Since travelling through Southeast Asia in Jan-May of 2016, I have now learned just how cruel these elephants are treated when they are being ridden, and the amount of torture they go through in the training process. If there is one thing I’d like to emphasize here, it is to make sure that if you want to visit elephants, you do so at an elephant sanctuary that prohibits all types of elephant riding. We went to a place in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, known for rescuing elephants from the non-ethical places, where we got to swim with, feed, and pet the elephants in an area where they were free to roam around and well cared for, and where all “training” is done by giving them food as rewards, not beating/whipping them into submission. The experience in Thailand was incredibly different, and felt much more positive to walk away from. 

Amber Fort

Relieved to drive away from the crowd of salesmen, we looked at the beautiful walls surrounding the original city of Jaipur, known as Amber Fort. Inside was Jagmandir palace. Jaipur is known as “textile city”, “jewel city” and most famously “pink city”, which made sense as we walked through the fort which was a 15km long wall surrounding the old city, that was pinkish orange in colour. It looked beautiful against the blue sky and greenery.

This palace was where king Akbar’s wife lived, sister to Maharaja Man Singh, before they were married. It was partly because of Akbar and his 3 wives of different faiths that the city was the first city in India where Hindus, Muslims and Christians lived in true peace side by side. The chief architect of Amber Fort (a Hindu man) also became the commander of the Muslim army, which further helped to create a peaceful environment in Jaipur.

Amber Fort and Jagmandir were built similarly to the other forts and palaces we had seen, with Islamic architecture, royal bedrooms, and an open audience (for the general population to hold court) and a private audience (for wives or other important people to hold court). What separated this palace from the others was the housing situation. Arun tells us that the 12 houses around the private audience area were for each of Maharaja Man Singh’s 12 official wives, and next to those were houses for his other 350 unofficial wives. Arun then says “I don’t know how he did it, that’s 362 wives, so he would only have 3 days off a year!”

We laughed but were truly blown away. I couldn’t imagine that kind of life. Even more impressive was the fact that his 12 official wives were apparently transported in wheelchairs, because each one was decorated with over 33kgs of jewellery… a little excessive if you ask me.

Handicrafts

After the fort and palace we visited the Jaipur Handicrafts shop and production, where I got to try my hand at wood block printing on cotton, and we watched as experts made carpets from wool and silk, an extensive process that is taught and passed on through generations. It was incredible to watch, and made the finished product all the more impressive, knowing that a large floor rug of silk would take two experts over 2 years to finish.

We left the shop, sadly without the finances or luggage space to purchase a new rug, and headed to Hawa Mahal, the palace of winds for a photo. This is a sight that Jaipur is famous for, a bright pink facade with hundreds of small windows for royal ladies to watch the grand processions on the main street below.
We then stopped to see the production of hand polished stones at the largest stone manufacturing company in all of India, and largest coloured stone exporter worldwide. Again we were impressed at the time and effort put into each small piece of jewellery. After trying on a $100 thousand dollar necklace, we decided that we would be looking at, not buying the jewellery here, though it was all beautiful.

Jantar Mantar Observatory

We went for a short visit in the afternoon to the City Palace, a textile and household item gallery of Jaipur, and Jantar Mantar, the old observatory in the city, home to the largest sundial in the world which still works perfectly today, telling time down to the second.

After a busy day we headed back to the hotel, where we packed up and got ready to leave in the morning for a long drive with Ashok to Udaipur.

It has been a hectic, full and overwhelming week, and it feels like we’ve been in India for months by now. I am missing home, while keeping in mind that the longer I am away, the more stories I will be able to bring back with me.

Khajuraho & The Kama Sutra Temples

Days 19-20 (Sept 24-25, 2014)

Khajuraho

Day 19 started with what felt like my 100th time in an airport this past week. Jo and I flew from Varanasi to Khajuraho, (luckily a short flight) where we were picked up by our guide Denish, and our driver Jagdish. (Incase you were wondering, most Indian words and names are pronounced just about how you’d expect them to be, with more rolling in the r’s and a little less h in “sh” than there would be in the English pronunciation.) Khajuraho was 36’C on the day we arrived, and we quickly picked up the phrase “bohut garmit,” meaning “very hot”. We’ve been trying to pick up a bit of Hindi here and there, but of course in this heat it’s hard to retain much. It is mostly our way of entertaining our guides, who laugh at us as we attempt to speak their language.

We were dropped off at our hotel, with only an hour until we were to be picked up by our guide for the day, Anoop. As we drove through the city of Khajuraho, it became overwhelmingly apparent that we were not in Varanasi anymore. Here lived a population of about 15 thousand people. The driving was much quieter and less stressful than in Varanasi, and to be quite honest there seemed to be more cows, water buffalo, dogs and goats on the road than there were people. This, we soon found out, is because Khajuraho is mainly a farming community. In contrast to the rows upon rows of houses and shops in Varanasi, here it was hard to find any building more than two stories high.

Small farms with wide landscapes behind them stretched along the main road, with certain areas that had more shops and housing, but nothing close to what we had seen the day before. It hardly smelled, and when it did it was the farm-like smell of cows and trees. There was also a lot less garbage. It was much more comparable to litter found in a place like Toronto, still a problem but you are able to look out the window without seeing a heap every 5 blocks.

As we drove down the main street, (me with my head and camera hanging out the window in my usual fashion), children ran out onto the street beside us, waving and yelling, “Hello! Hello!” To which we waved and yelled back. You’d think we were a limo full of Kardashians the way people smiled and jumped up and down when we waved back. It’s still bizarre to me, being looked at as so completely “different”.

I have learned that Indians absolutely love Canadians, and just about everyone we meet says, “you are American?” To which we reply “Canadian!” This is when they smile big and say “Oh Canada! I love Canada! It is cold there!” I don’t think anyone believes us when we say that our summers include a couple months of 20-30’C. They also don’t believe us when we say our winters are as low as -20’C to -30’C. They say, “Wow, you must need a lot of clothes! I feel cold when it is 10’C here!” We laugh because at 10’C most Canadians are running around in shorts and t-shirts in anticipation of summer.

The Kama Sutra Temples

After a short drive, we arrive at the largest group of Hindu temples in India, located here in Khajuraho. A UNESCO world heritage site, this group of temples was created in the 10th C, AD, by the Chandela Dynasty. Because of their remote location as well as durability (made of sandstone), these temples were unharmed by the Muslim invaders in India. The temples are absolutely covered in carvings of the world famous Kama Sutra, every inch with either a pattern or picture. From far away, each separate temple was an architectural masterpiece, even on its own. Up close, the details of even the smallest surface held an entirely different beauty.

Most of the images were of either elephants or people. The people were in different sexual positions, and the elephants were shown either crushing someone (a common punishment during these times) or peeking over at the people having sex. Anoop tells us, “elephants are dirty too!” and that if you are having sex you must first always check if there is an “elephant in the room”. I’m not entirely sure that this is the origin of the phrase, but what a great story!

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Anoop then explains that the Kama Sutra was the first “dirty” book ever written, and was a celebration of love and sex. He then points out that all the girls in the carvings have tiny waists and absolutely huge breasts and says, “men had unrealistic expectations even a thousand years ago! Who do you think carved these? Men!” We laughed at this funny truth. He then pointed out an image of a woman with her hands wrapped around a man as she looks over at a monkey beside her. Anoop said that this is what they call “monkey business” because the man is smiling at the monkey who was bothering the woman and making her run into the man’s arms. The entire group of temples was beautiful, and was looked at in what seemed like such a peaceful and lighthearted fashion. It was a great place to be.

Jain Temples

After these temples, we visited a group of Jain temples, slightly different in nature, but very similar stylistically. Again, these temples has remained unharmed since the time of the Muslim invaders. It is said that the temples in Khajuraho represent life in heaven, and as the sun set behind us shedding light across the temples and greenery it was not hard to see why.

After the temple visit, we made a trip to visit some of Khajuraho’s finest jewellers, and we may or may not have helped support the locals by each purchasing a beautiful silver ring. Incase you were wondering, I’ve gotten great at bargaining by now. I say there’s no way it is even close to my price point, and once they get closer I pause, think, and say “no, it is so beautiful but I just really don’t think I can spend any money.” Then, the price is cut yet again, and I reconsider if it’s reasonable. Usually I end up getting at least 30-40% off of the original price. It is much more fun than fixed price tags. That being said I’ve still spent far too much money on souvenirs, but what are the chances I’ll come back to this place again in my lifetime? I tell myself “never” in order to justify my money spending, but in truth I hope that I’ll be back at least once more.

The Most Colourful Dance Performance

This evening we went to a dance hall to watch a performance of song and dance. The dancers were beautiful and in the most colourful and detailed costumes I had ever seen. We had front row seats, and I smiled from ear to ear until the performance was over. What a perfect way to end the day.

Safari Jeep Tour

Day 20 we met Denish early in the morning for a safari jeep tour. We hopped up in the back of the open vehicle and held on tight as we drove down the bumpy roads. At a few stops, children ran up to us asking for shampoo and chocolate. I found it a bizarre request, that of course we were unable to fulfill. This happened several times. We still don’t know why these two items popped up so much. It was hard to see so many people in poverty here and to think of how much we have back home in comparison. Watching children beg for shampoo and chocolate was humbling and it really helped me realize how lucky I am that I would hardly have to lift a finger for access to a box of chocolates and a bottle of shampoo back home, a lesson we forget all to often in the midst of our busy days. Regardless, the fact remained that I didn’t have either items on hand at the time.

Ranir Falls

We drove through a forested area, passing an antelope on the way, until we reached the beautiful Ranir Falls, which was more rocks than water. Our guide showed us pictures of the falls only a few years before, with water up to just about where we were standing. Now, after a dry monsoon season, we looked down a few hundred feet to the river below. It was incredibly beautiful, and surrounded by some of the most interesting trees we had seen yet.

First was a gum tree, with light blue and orange bark and massive leaves. Right next to it was a teak tree, whose bright green leaves when rubbed together release a blood red liquid. I watched as Jo rubbed the leaves in her hand, and the red literally made me cringe. It truly looked like she was rubbing her fingers raw because the red was so bright. We took some photos of this hidden gem of a place, and headed back to the jeep. We were slowed down more times than we could count as we drove right through the middle of several herds of water buffalo.

Learning Local

Our next stop was a small home inside the village, where a friend of Denish welcomed us into her home, a typical farm-based self-sustaining (mostly) home. She had a small brick open house that was more the size of a garage back home, and a large field area out back where she grew lentils, corn, papaya, bananas, ginger, okra, potatoes, peanuts and wheat (and even some more that we couldn’t see). She showed us how to churn butter, which she had been doing before we arrived, and then she ground flour and made us a small chipati (like a pita) in the fire outside. We spread fresh gee (clarified butter) onto the bread, and had a taste. It was authentic and plain, a staple part of any local diet. We were amazed at the work that went into even the simplest of meals.

After thanking her for letting us into her home, she lead us out. This trip had been beyond enlightening for me. Similar to the feeling I had in Israel at the open spice market, my love and respect for food grew enormously after seeing the work that went into a meal here.

Orchha: The Hidden Place

We left the village, and headed back to the hotel where we traded our jeep for a van and drove 3.5 hours to Orchha, literally meaning “hidden place”. Just outside of Jhansi, this palace was hidden on somewhat of an island by the rivers surrounding it. The palace was built for a ruler over the course of 22 years, and contained both Hindu and Muslim architecture as well as paintings and some remaining tilework on the outside of the building in lapis lazuly and turquoise. The most incredible thing about this place however was not its architecture, nor was it the paintings, it was the fact that after 22 years of grueling work, the palace was used only for ONE night, and was afterwards gifted to a friend of the ruler.

The friend had no use for such a palace, and since re-gifting is highly frowned upon, the palace has remained abandoned almost entirely ever since, with the exception of a few monkeys. Lucky for us, a few of the original fresco paintings were still intact and open to be viewed by the public. The paintings mainly depicted the 9 incarnations of Vishnu, and had been pretty well preserved.

Learning More About The Hindu Gods & Goddesses

After asking our guide about some of the Hindu gods, we were taught that the Hindus believe in over 300 million gods and goddesses, and that even a devote Hindu would likely not even know half of these gods, but the importance is in understanding where they come from. All of the gods and goddesses in Hinduism are synonymous with all of the species of each living thing; people, plants or animals. The gods are not so much “gods” as they are the “parts” of the one eternal energy that is within all forms of life. To me, this was perhaps the most beautiful lesson in Hinduism to date, that when Hindus speak of so many gods and goddesses, that they are worshipping the energy that connects us all and is within us all, much more than they are worshipping a specific plant or animal, or “god” as most people would imagine one praying to.

In truth, our guide tells us, the statues of gods and goddesses are present in temples mostly just to help those who have a hard time praying/meditating without something to focus on. The important part of prayer for Hindus is to focus on connecting with the universal energy, and to become closer with that energy through our connection with all living things; something that Hindu or not, we could all undoubtedly learn from.

Jhansi Train Station

We left Orchha and drove another 45 minutes to Jhansi, where we waited for our train that would take us to Agra. As we waited, hundreds of people flooded through the station, coming and going from all directions. We even saw a cow, just relaxing on a platform by the tracks. As the trains came and went, Jo and I looked at each other with fear in our eyes. The trains were old and had holes rather than glass windows, with small bars across them, and just enough light inside to see the hundreds of people cramped into such an unbelievably small space. Of course, when our train arrived it was much less intimidating, and we each had a seat to ourselves. It certainly wasn’t fancy, but it got us to Agra, and after everything that I’ve been through at airports by now I was not going to complain one bit.

Arriving In Agra

We arrived safely in Agra where we were picked up by our driver Ashok, who had been each of our drivers when he picked us each up at the airport (separately) only a week ago. Of course I didn’t remember him because I had been such a mess by the time I arrived in Delhi, but he certainly remembered me! He said that I had tipped him ten dollars on that trip! I laughed so hard and hardly believed him. I had absolutely no recollection of the transaction, and told him not to expect that kind of money regularly because I was quite sure I was sleep-tipping in Delhi. He laughed and said “I don’t mind!” I could hardly believe I couldn’t remember it at all, but after everything I had been through it was a small price to pay to arrive finally in India.

Today marks the halfway point of my journey, and its hard to believe because it feel like its been months. Ive seen and done so much already, I can only imagine what is yet to come.

The Ancient City of Varanasi

Days 16-18 (Sept 21-23, 2014)

Click on the Cities/Sights in the grey italics to take you to the google maps Page for each location, where you’ll be able to see where it is, some images, and a brief description of each place. 

Arriving in Varanasi

Day 16 began with a flight (yes, another flight) to Varanasi, or Banares as it is called here in India (sometimes also referred to by its oldest name, Kashi). The city is 16 x 5km approximately, and is home to over 2.5 million people. Our Varanasi guide Kamesh tells us that “people travel everywhere else in the world to live, but that here they come to die.” This is because Varanasi, the oldest living city (according to most historians) is the holiest city for all Hindus.

Home to the river Ganges, or Ganga as it is called here, the city is a site for many pilgrims who wish to wash away their sins in the Ganga. It is also believed that if you die in Varanasi and are cremated by the river, your soul will be free of sin and you will be freed from the cycle of death and reincarnation (thus achieving Moksha). The Ghats (steps leading to the river) at Ganges are most holy in Varanasi, because this is the only place where the river has turned and runs North (the direction of heaven), whereas before and after turning at Varanasi, the river runs South.

A Lesson In Hindu Gods

Varanasi is a city dedicated to lord Shiva the destroyer. It is he who decides, according to one’s karma, if your soul will be freed, or moved up or down in the caste system in your next life. The caste system originally was decided by one’s occupation, but since one’s last name was originally determined by their occupation, and since blood determines one’s status according to their father’s status, the caste system is now determined by one’s last name.

Today, this basically means that if you were born into a family with the last name meaning “soldier” or “teacher”, this will determine your caste and your status in religious context, but you are still allowed to pursue any occupation (though some traditional families stick to their caste name), and you can still be upper class economically and likely will move up in the caste system in your next life, according to your karma.

Shiva

Lord Shiva is the one who takes life, or removes the soul, from one body and who places it in another. So the idea is that if you were born with the last name meaning “cleaner” and had good karma, your soul in the next life would maybe be assigned to a body born into a family name “thinker”. If one achieves Moksha, which is guaranteed if one dies at the Ganges, then the soul is free from the cycle of death and reincarnation. This is why Hindus pray to lord Shiva primarily, and not so much to Brahma (the original creator of all things) or Vishnu (the preserver of life).

When hindus pray to GOD, they pray to G (Generator/creator, Brahma), O (Observer/preserver, Vishnu), D (Destroyer/giver of new life, Shiva.

“Ether”

The Hindu belief is that the three Gods are not actually the ultimate supreme being, but that they all come from one original creator. This creator is referred to by some as “God”, by some as “She” and by others as “Ether”. The 5 elements according to the Hindu beliefs are fire, water, air, earth and ether/space. This ether is God, or the presence of God, but most easily understood as being the energy from which all things come, to which all things will return, and through which all things are connected. It is something that science has yet to understand, and even Einstein could not explain, though he was aware of there being something “else” at play. Something more.

The story in Hindu tradition is that “She” created Brahma for a husband, but that he would not marry her because she was his creator/mother, and so she created Vishnu, though his answer was the same. She destroyed them both and created Shiva. Shiva said that he would marry her but only if she brought back his two brothers, and gave him a third eye, an eye of this “energy” that “she” is. She agreed, but when she brought back Brahma and Vishnu and gave Shiva a third eye, Shiva refused to marry her. Since he didn’t hold up his end of the deal, she created three incarnations of herself, married all of the brothers, and gave them the jobs as being the three gods.

After Kamesh’s lesson on Hinduism, it was time to head to Deer Park to learn about Buddhism.

Tell me about this “Buddha”

Buddha was a man named Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in an upper class family with a wife, a family and wealth. He realized that these things did not make him happy, and so he left everything he knew behind, in search of the truth about the meaning of life and happiness. He joined 5 Hindus, who became his friends, and together they fasted for 49 days, until a woman offered Siddhartha some food. Starving and near death, Siddhartha realized that religion such as Hinduism did not give him happiness and that the worshipping of a god and praying in a temple with a priest did not bring him happiness, but it helped only the temple and priest to gain followers, and in turn money and power. Fasting also had proven to not bring him happiness, and so he accepted the food offering.

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Painting of the woman offering Buddha food

His friends left him, and he sat under a fig tree, known as the “bodhi” tree, and meditated. He found that both his life in riches and his life with nothing did not bring him happiness, and decided that there must be a middle way between the two, where one may live and take, but without craving and desire for more than what is necessary. Siddhartha then became the Buddha (literally meaning “enlightened one”) as we know him today.

Deer Park

When Buddha had found nirvana/enlightenment, he heard that his friends were not far away in Banares, and so he went to Deer Park, where he delivered his first sermon to his disciples. It was not long until he had many followers. From here, his followers spread out to tell everyone about the middle way, the one true path to enlightenment.

Since this time, Hindus have adopted many practices of the Buddha, and have added stories of his childhood, birth and life. They worship him as a god, though Buddha did not believe in the idea of worship. In this way, many Hindus are also Buddhists, but true Buddhists are never Hindus. This is also the reason why the Buddhist population in India appears to be almost non-existent, because in truth Buddhism is very popular, but most of those practicing in India are Hindu first, and Buddhist second.

Varanasi Ghats & The Evening Aarti Ceremony

After learning about the teachings of the Buddha, Kamesh took us for a walk through the crowded streets leading up to the ghats in Varanasi, absolutely overflowing with people, cows, wold dogs and garbage.

We boarded a small row boat, and watched the sunset from the river as the Aarti ceremony took place. Each night, Hindus perform this ritual of song, dance and fire along the side of the Ganges river as their way of thanking mother Ganga. The ceremony was incredible to watch, and thousands of people spread along the ghats for a view. Also along the river, we were able to see the two cremation pyres which burn 24/7.

Cremation at the Ganges

It is believed that in cremation a body is returned to its natural 5 elements. The body burns in fire, releases smoke in air, becomes dust for the land, and in the final releasing of the ashes into the water, the “ether” or soul is freed and the body has achieved Moksha.

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Funeral Pyre at Ganges

Only a few exceptions exist to the belief of cremation purifying the soul of all beings; the first being babies and pregnant women, who are believed to be pure already. Next are those who have been bitten by snakes, as it has often happened that a person was not actually dead, but paralyzed in a coma, so they are not cremated to prevent them from being burned alive. Lastly are those whose job it is to deal with the dead (untouchables), and those with smallpox, as it is believed that disease cannot spread in the holy water, and so these people, along with babies, pregnant women, and the snake-bitten are released directly into the water without cremation, but also achieving moksha.

Making Sense of it all

After a long day, full of information, we headed back to our hotel and thought about everything we saw today. As an artist, my work deals primarily with the subject of life and death, body and soul. Learning about these beliefs and rituals has truly left me feeling closer to understanding what it is that we are, and what it really means to be alive. I think that Kamesh said it best when he told us, “There is some kind of energy out there that we cannot understand, that is more than all of this. Religions are all different paths that people walk on in the hope of understanding one truth.”

The Morning Rituals on the River Ganges

The following morning we left the hotel at 5am to return to the river and witness the morning rituals. We once again boarded a row boat and rode down the river to watch as people bathed in the Ganga at sunrise to wash away their sins, and to offer their prayers to the rising sun. We didn’t go in the water ourselves, though we got dripped on by a few ropes hanging overhead, which I think was enough Ganga water for me.

The sunrise was stunning, and the ceremonies were beautiful.

The Banares Hindu University and Temples

After our boat ride, we returned to the city for a tour of the Banares Hindu University, the largest residential university in Asia, known for its population of over 60,000 residents including teachers and families. The university is referred to as a city within a city, and is home to a beautiful and spacious Hindu temple for students and non-residents alike. Within the temple we saw several statues depicting different gods and goddesses, as well as a few recurring symbols. One of the symbols was a swastika… which we naturally had to know more about.

What’s With The Swastika?

Kamesh told us that the swastika is actually an ancient Aryan symbol that was adopted by Hindus long before the second world war and the time of Hitler. The clockwise swastika is a symbol of the cycle of death and reincarnation, and the freedom from the cycle through Moksha. It is said that when Hitler first saw the symbol it was in a mirror, and that is why his swastika is counter-clockwise, though this direction swastika was also a symbol used by Hindus, but in ancient tribes known as “Tantric”, who practiced live sacrifices of women, and the spilling of blood. The two sides to the swastika together are a demonstration of all things coming from both a positive and a negative energy. Today, the Tantric rituals still exist, though are much less common, and performed primarily using coconuts as the “sacrifice”, as it resembles a skull, and contains “flesh”.

Om.

The second symbol prevalent in the temple was the Om symbol (looking like a fancy number 3 with some doodles above it). Kamesh told us that this symbol is the symbol of “She”, and is the sound of the vibration or energy of the universe. He then got out a pen, and showed us that broken down into parts, the Om was made up of symbols from all of the major religions.

The star of David was on top, representing Judaism, just above a crescent moon facing upwards, symbolizing Islam. The 3 with a line, if turned right 90 degrees resembled a trident, the symbol of Hinduism, and if the two outer points were straightened to each side, the trident would become a cross, symbolizing Christianity. Kamesh reminds us again that each religion is a path, leading to one truth that the Hindus refer to as “She”, symbolized often by the Om.

Mehta Silk Production

After our visit at the temple, we went to the Mehta Silk production, where we watched old masters use looms to weave intricate patterned cloths. The process is an art that is dying, as mass production using more efficient techniques takes over, and only 7 masters remain in this particular “brand”. Each master has spent their life working on a single pattern that they have memorized and learned to create on the loom by hand.

It is hard to explain the process, which I myself still don’t fully understand, but each pattern is created slowly over several days, only at a rate off a few inches per day, and once these masters pass away, the Mehta Silk production will be left to the card system, a different loom system which can create patterns efficiently, but not the unique signature works of each artist. This is because it takes years to perfect one design, and no one wants to learn this art anymore, so it will soon become extinct.

It was beautiful and also sad to see the elders make the patterns slowly and without ever looking at a book for reference. The process was like watching a flower bloom, almost too slow to notice the progress, until it is finished and the masterpiece that has been created is revealed. I suppose that the best things in life are worth the wait.

 

Ramnagar Fort

The following day was short but hot. It was 32-35’c and 80-90% humidity. Even Kamesh was uncomfortably hot. We visited Ramnagar Fort this morning, a museum that was once home to the Maharaja of Banares, Balwant Singh in the 18th century. The fort is located on the opposite side of the Ganges to the side that we had previously visited, and is full of weapons, cars and household items adorned with ivory and silver.

After a tour of the museum we headed back to the hotel, picking up a few snacks from a local grocery store on the way. Kamesh helped us pick out some fun new things to try… Jo and I enjoyed them far too much for our own good. At the hotel we relaxed and regrouped in preparation for the days to come. It is hard to believe that we’ve only been exploring India for 4 days, already having learned so much, and with so much still ahead to look forward to!

First Day in India: Hello, Delhi!

Day 15 (Sept 20, 2014)

Click on the Cities/Sights in the grey italics to take you to the google maps Page for each location, where you’ll be able to see where it is, some images, and a brief description of each place. 

Driving through Delhi

At 10am, only 4 hours after my arrival in India, Jo and I began our tour in Delhi. Our guide Yogi and our driver Sansar picked us up and we headed first to the Lotus temple in New Delhi, a Baha’i house of worship. Delhi is supposedly a little less hectic than other areas in India when it comes to driving. Even so, our car ride was terrifying. When they said that Indians don’t have rules of the road I imagined people cutting each other off and honking. This was not the case.

The roads are small and narrow, usually one or two lanes going in each direction in which the lines separating each are completely invisible to drivers, rickshaws, people on motorcycles/bicycles, and cows alike. Cars drive literally directly towards one another in order to avoid obstacles, only to swerve in opposite directions seconds before impact. Jo and I stared out the window in horror and looked at each other as if to say, “it was nice knowing ya!” as we clutched our armrests and tried not to watch.

The Lotus Temple

It felt like nothing short of a miracle when we arrived at our first stop. The Lotus temple was surrounded by gardens and pools of water, and the petals (making up the roof) were made of Greek marble, perfectly strong and symmetrical on all sides. The Baha’i lucky number is 9, and for this reason the lotus flower is an important symbol, with 9 petals in each of the 3 layers. 9 is also the highest single digit, and symbolizes unity and oneness. As with many temples in India, no cameras were allowed inside.

The Baha’i faith is centered around the belief that all religions are equal, and that within a house of worship one may pray to whomever they choose, and however they choose. There are no lectures or rituals allowed within the walls. This temple surpasses even the Taj Mahal in visitors per year due to its free entrance and openness to those of all faiths. Sitting on a bench inside the temple, knowing that to your left and right were people praying to separate gods in separate ways all under the same roof was something that I wish there was more of in this world.

It was nice to know that while some people pray separately from one another and are consciously looking at the differences between their beliefs and the beliefs of others, that here they were all the same. They were all just humans praying to something bigger than themselves, and this unity was a beautiful thing to witness.

Almost Famous

After leaving the temple I experienced something that I had heard of, but hadn’t truly believed until it happened. I was asked if I would mind if someone took a picture of me. Because of my blonde hair, light eyes and fair skin I stick out like a sore thumb here. There are far fewer tourists here than I imagined, and with the population so high in India, tourists really seemed few and far between in comparison to locals even in areas that are big tourist attractions. When I agreed to be in a photograph, the young man shook my hand as the photo was taken by his friend, and then they switched spots so that they would both have a photo with me. It was a truly bizarre feeling.

In Canada, I am just a girl with the typical “all American” look, which is not unique, especially in a society full of white people and hair dye. Really, having light features is no more a defining feature than being female. Here it was so different. I think that they honestly thought I must have been a movie star from Hollywood, the way they thanked me so much for allowing them to be in a photo with me.

This happened with 3 additional groups of people throughout the first day, and one of them was a mother asking me to pose with her children, like I was a saint (I assure you, I am not). I cannot express enough how utterly bizarre it felt, and if only I spoke the language I would’ve told them that I’m nobody special, but instead I just smiled and laughed, enjoying my 15 minutes of “fame”. I had heard that this would happen here, but as I said, I really didn’t believe it until I experienced it myself.

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One couple even asked me to take a photo of THEM, on my camera… they didn’t even want a copy sent to them.

Red Fort & Chandi Chowk Bazaar

Next, we headed to the Red Fort for some photos from outside, and then to Chandi Chowk, one of the oldest and busiest bazaars in the city. The narrow roads through the bazaar were packed full of people, rickshaws, and wheelbarrows full of product. Everything here was sold in bulk, and was purchased mainly by locals at low prices. In some of the back alleys we could see right into people’s homes, which in this area were small and half-demolished.

To me, seeing the poverty and understanding how little these people have was comparable to the way I have thought about rich people in Canada or other developed countries. When I picture someone with 100 million dollars, it is the same as when I picture someone with 100 billion dollars. They are such massive amounts of money that they all sound the same to me. It felt similar to see poverty here, in that there were so many poor people with so little that the lines between average, poor and poorer were blurred until it all just looked the same and felt surprisingly less shocking, only because there was nothing around to compare it to.

Raj Ghat, Paying our Respects to Gandhi

After the bazaar, we visited the Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi’s serene and modest cremation site. There were a few trees, flowers and fields surrounding the site, and a small eternal flame lit in the center as a  reminder of Gandhi’s life and presence even after death.

Jama Masjid Mosque

We later went to the Jama Masjid (where I was unable to bring my camera) which is one of the largest mosques worldwide. It was made of marble and sandstone. Every surface was planned meticulously when it was made, and has been more than cared for ever since. As in all traditional mosques, there were no idols or depictions of gods present, but only the written Arabic of the Koran. I have fallen in love with written Arabic and Hebrew (in Israel) throughout my trip, as it feels like there is much more of a love for the art of writing in these cultures than anywhere else I have ever been in my life. Each word is a work of art, and is proudly carved into old buildings.

Qutb Minar

Our final stop on our tour of Delhi was the Qutb Minar, the largest minaret in the world, and in history. A minaret is a victory tower that marks a Muslim mosque. While most were build modestly throughout history, and were simply tall towers for the practical reason of being able to spot a mosque’s location from a distance, others were built much more for pride’s sake. The Qutb Minar is a primary example of the latter.

Surrounded by an elaborate complex built using the ruins of the old Hindi temples before it, it stands tall and proud. The Mosque ruins, surrounding the tower appear fragile. Each pillar holding up a roof is composed of small chunks of rocks from the remains of the Hindu temple before it. In re-using the materials, the Muslims defaced all idols and figures from the Hindu temple, so that it would be okay to include in the mosque, but the detailed bodies and faceless carvings from the temple were still visible and present, sometimes even placed upside-down by accident. This gave the mosque an undeniable uniqueness. Even more impressive was the fact that no cements or bonding materials were used in the making of the mosque, only the shapes of stones working together to defy gravity and survive for over a thousand years now.

The Tower of Jealousy

Beside the mosque and minaret, stood a much less impressive tower, only half-finished. Yogi tells us that this tower was built by another ruler, who was jealous of the Qutb Minar, and who wanted to impress everyone in the land by building an even larger victory tower. Unfortunately, his jealousy and greed got the best of him, and he became ill. He passed away when the tower was still in early stages of construction. With no successors or loved ones, the tower was never completed, and is now referred to as the tower of jealousy. The story is a reminder to all that jealousy and greed do not make a happy life, but are toxic to our goal of happiness in what we have, a lesson that I hope never to forget.

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Tower of Jealousy

Exhausted & Loving it

By the end of the day I had exhausted myself completely. After the 48 hour airport fiasco only the night before, and with only a few short hours of sleep before the day began, I was spent. Jo and I went back to the hotel, both exhausted and excited after our first day of touring in Delhi, India, and looking forward to the long road ahead.

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The view from back in our room

 

48 Hours of Crazy: Missing My Flight Leaving Israel

Days 13-14 (Sept 18-19, 2014)

Goodbye Eilat!

Day 13 I was up bright and early to catch a flight from Eilat (Southern Israel) to Tel Aviv (Farther North). I arrived at the Eilat airport at around 5am, and safely made it to the Tel Aviv airport at around 9am. From Tel Aviv, I was scheduled to fly at 12:45pm Israel time (Sept 18) to Jordan (with Royal Jordanian Airlines), and then from there to Qatar (with Qatar Airlines), and finally to Delhi (also with Qatar Airlines). I would arrive in Delhi at 3am on Sept 19, and on Sept 20 at 10am, I would meet my friend Joanne and our 14 day tour of Northern India would start in Delhi. As I said, I arrived in Tel Aviv at the airport at 9am, which meant I had 3 hours and 45 minutes to get onto my flight. I was right on schedule, and everything was going just according to plan… until it wasn’t.

When Things Started To Fall Apart

I was one of maybe 20-30 people on the entire floor of the initial security screening in terminal 3 when I arrived, and I was approached by two airport workers who informed me kindly that there had been a strike at the airport, and that they did not have any other information for me at this time other than the fact that no one would be passing through the initial security screening until the strike had ended. I looked at the clock, and figured I had lots of time, and thought to myself, “how long could it possibly last, anyways? People need to go where they need to go, and if nobody can get on their flight, surely the empty plane would have to wait.” Not long after, the rows on nearly every flight board read “DELAYED”, which was comforting to me, knowing that while I was stuck (with the other passengers) on this side of the security, our flight was not leaving without us. At this time, I looked at my itinerary and saw that in Amman, Jordan (my first stop), I had a 3 hour layover. So I knew that as long as my flight left with less than a 2.5 hour delay, I should still be able to catch my connecting flight. It was still only 10am so I had lots of time. I had lots of time.

I had lots of time…

Patience is a Pain

As I waited near the front of the line, other passengers for separate flights began to arrive. By around 12pm the floor was full. Hundreds of people were sitting and lying down on their luggage, and no one could move. I waited patiently, but of course was nervous. It was starting to get to a point where if I waited much longer, then it wouldn’t matter if this flight waited for me, because the connecting flight through a separate airline company would still leave on time regardless. A man I was standing next to, possibly the most patient man I had seen in the entire crowd, could see how stressed I was and began to chat with me. It helped a lot actually, just being able to talk to someone about life and work and things that didn’t involve the thoughts in my head, which, of course at this time were, “I AM GOING TO MISS MY FLIGHT!” He flew a lot for business, and had been through this airport more times than me, and he assured me that the flights have always waited when things like this happened in the past, and not to worry. I believed him. He also bought me a diet coke, which somehow in that moment was quite possibly the most elated I had felt in several days. I literally almost cried when he handed it to me. (Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make us feel like everything is going to be okay).

Soon after, we were informed that the strike was nearly over, and the workers began to call forward the passengers from a few flights one at a time. Watching people go through the line was nerve racking. I could see the other side, and had been right by the front for hours. All I wanted was to get past the few blue ribbons that divided the lines, and stood between me and my flight. I was so close, and yet so far away.

Interrogations for Everyone!

All of a sudden, every entrance to the ribbon-marked area was opened by the workers, and it was every man for himself. I would guess that nearly 150 people had gotten ahead of me by the time we reached the new line-ups for the security check. By now, it was 12:45 and I was freaking out a little. When I got to the front of the line, I was questioned (interrogated) about my intentions on this trip, my profession, the places I visited in Israel, and why I was travelling alone. Even after all of the line-ups, I knew that the best way to get through an airport is with a smile, and manners…but I don’t think anyone had ever told any of the workers that.

I was literally flat out asked if I was carrying a package containing a bomb from Gaza, which I almost laughed at because I never expected such a bold question. I answered kindly that I had never been to Gaza, would never go to Gaza, and was here simply to travel. I was asked several trick questions, and asked the same questions several times, just to ensure that I was telling the truth, or at least had my story straight.

Before I continue I just wanted to note that I really do understand how airports work. I knew throughout this entire process that they were thorough with me be because they were thorough with EVERYONE (especially because of recent events in Israel), and that it was part of the process to ensure a safe flight for everyone, which I do truly appreciate. I was not mad at anyone other than whoever was responsible for the strike happening (and even that, I’m sure was for a good reason, but it was unfortunate that it had to be before my flight). Again, I just want to express my true appreciation for the thorough steps taken at the airport to ensure the safety of every passenger, and I knew that I had nothing to hide, and that I was just being put through the same process as anyone else would be whether they were an 84 year old grandmother in a wheelchair delivering cookies, or a single male travelling with no luggage who had recently been to Gaza. It was in some ways comforting that even a 22 year old Canadian girl was no exception to the rules.

Passing Security… And Missing My Flight.

Regardless of who was to blame for my predicament, I was still in trouble for time, and I was starting to sweat. When I passed through the initial security screening, I was pointed towards the line up for the more thorough screening (personal items, etc.), with a sticker on my passport that I could only assume meant that I was to be looked at with extra measures because of my status as a lone traveller. I was set to the side and asked to wait, again, while I once again watched people who had arrived hours after I had, pass through the security line, and head to their flight. When I finally spoke up, starting to cry a little as I asked what I could do to get through faster, because I was going to miss my flight, a female security worker took pity on me and pulled me forward to begin my check. Because of my insulin pump, I was screened even MORE thoroughly than anticipated. Every piece of every item in every pocket of every bag I owned was taken apart, examined, swabbed for chemical tests, and handed back to me. Afterwards, I was examined. Every seam, every button, every zipper of every fold in every layer of clothing was thoroughly checked by a woman in a private room, right down to my underwear. I was crying nearly the entire time (trying not to, and apologizing as I did) while being assured that I would not miss my flight. The airline would wait for me. At 2:45 (after almost 2 hours of checking) I was cleared. My flight had been delayed until 1:30, but after being assured that it would wait, I was confident that I would run through the gate with moments to spare, and the crowds would cheer as I boarded the flight. Instead of crowds, I sprinted to my gate only to find a worker shaking his head, as he told me that the flight had left after waiting one hour for me (only 20 minutes before). I had been the only one not to make it, and they even walked through security to find me and rush me through, but since I was in a private screening room they couldn’t find me, and I was marked as a no-show.

Now What!?

I was devastated. I sobbed as I asked them what to do from here, where to go and who to talk to about transferring tickets to a new flight. They had no answers. They said that they waited for me and that there was nothing else they could do. Then they said that since my flight from Jordan was with Qatar airlines, that they couldn’t arrange for anything to be done about my missed connecting flight, because Qatar has no representatives in the Tel Aviv airport. I was hopeless, lost, and stuck. I felt like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. The female worker at the counter finally walked with me and explained my predicament, and where to go from here. She said that my luggage was taken off the flight, and before anything else, I would have to get it from the arrivals area. Here, I was assigned a worker to stay with me and help me locate my luggage (and to keep me calm in the meantime). His name was Danny and he didn’t stop smiling from the moment he walked up, even as I sobbed like a baby.

Thank Goodness For Danny

Danny looked at me and said, “Look at you! You’re okay! Everything is going to be okay. You will get your luggage, and you will get to India.” He bought me about 5 chocolate bars as he laughed and handed them to me, calling me out when I smiled. Thank goodness for Danny. Even though he didn’t do much, I finally saw genuine kindness in someone’s eyes, which up until then I hadn’t seen much of. After several hours, Danny did some investigating and found out that my luggage had been removed and held for safe keeping, and that in a few MORE hours, I’d be able to get it. In the meantime, we went to ticketing, where I was able to use the airport phone to call Expedia, the site that I booked through, which was my only hope at settling the whole Qatar Airline dilemma. I was put on hold, and the man working at the counter cut my call off and told me that it was not a personal line. I asked if there was a help desk I could call from. There was nothing. Finally I was able to get through on my cell phone (which I was sure would end up costing me an arm and a leg), and I was able to get most of my money refunded for the 3 flights I had missed. I then booked a new flight (about 300 dollars more than my original ticket price) that would leave at 10:30pm that evening. I would have a 20 hour layover in Amman, and make it to Delhi at 5am on Sept 20th. I didn’t care anymore, as long as I made it there. After getting my new ticket, I was put back at the INITIAL security screening line, where people saw me absolutely covered in sweat and tears, and told me to go ahead to the front of the line. I could not have been more grateful. I was once again interrogated, checked, and finally put through. I made it on my flight, and on Sept 19 at midnight I arrived in Amman, Jordan.

Arriving in Amman, Jordan & Meeting Josmy

It was here I met Josmy, a young woman from India who had also missed a flight and who was put in the airport hotel in the room next to me. We talked over dinner, and agreed to meet in the morning for breakfast. I never thought I would appreciate a simple bed and a shower so much in my life. At breakfast Josmy told me she was happy she missed her flight, and that she thinks God planned it so that we would meet. I was so moved, and as she left for her new flight, I was a little sad to leave my new friend. Later that evening, I went to the lobby to check out and head to my flight, when who should I see there other than Josmy! They had mixed up the times, and she was moved to the same flight as me! We sat together, talked, watched a movie, and slept. She laid her head on my shoulder for a few moments and I almost didn’t notice that she was crying. When I realized she was, she lifted her head and said “I don’t want to have to miss you!” tears rolling down her cheeks. I told her I felt the same, and we said that hopefully someday we would meet again, and exchanged information. By now, all the pain of missing my flight was gone, and I could see that there was a silver lining. My silver lining was Josmy.

Delhi, At Last!

I arrived in Delhi at 5am, and met my friend Joanne at the hotel at 6am, 4 hours before our guide was scheduled to pick us up for the tour. I laid on the bed, closed my eyes, and could not feel anything other than gratitude for the fact that I was out of an airport, and finally in Delhi. It had been 48 HOURS since I was outside of an airport/plane/airport hotel, and boy was it good to be free. I took a deep breath, hit the snooze button, and prepared for my first day in Delhi.

 

Ein Gedi & Eilat

Days 10-12 (Sept 15-17, 2014)

Click on the Cities/Sights in the grey italics to take you to the google maps Page for each location, where you’ll be able to see where it is, some images, and a brief description of each place. 

Relaxing in Ein Gedi

Day 10 was quiet, but it turned out to be exactly what I had needed. I spent most of the day relaxing and regrouping in and around the incredibly beautiful hotel here in Ein Gedi. The hotel has access to mineral pools, swimming pools, the dead sea itself as well as a Turkish hammam bath (kinda like a steam room with running water into buckets and tables to lie down on). Naturally, I tried everything, and it was HEAVEN. The dead sea was so calm. There is no life in the water (because of its high salt content, hence “dead” sea), and there are no boats on the water (because the salinity would corrode all metal parts). Also, to avoided possible health issues from being in the water too long, people shouldn’t spend more than 15/20 minutes in the water. This in turn means that the beaches are also quiet, as people come and go fairly quickly. The combination of these factors makes this body of water unlike any other I’ve ever seen or been in. It was surreal, to say the very least. The ground leading up to and continuing beneath the water was salt rock. Hard, rough, and slippery. Floating in the sea was nothing short of amazing, and it turned out to be what can only be described as a “healing experience”. Within seconds of entering the water your skin feels different. Afterwards, cuts begin to heal quicker and skin blemishes begin to fade. I can only describe it as magic, and if I had it my way I’d start off every day for the rest of my life with a dip in this water.

Checking Out The Botanical Garden

Day 11 I left the paradise by the dead sea, but not before taking a long walk through the world famous botanical garden. I had heard about the garden here and was told it was spectacular. Small trails wind through the area, around tall and winding trees, short flowers and all kinds of cacti and bizarre looking desert plants. I’ve never seen such a wide range of plants in one place before, and left the garden feeling amazed, peaceful, and a little bit sweaty.

Next Stop, Eilat!

After checking out of my hotel, I headed down the winding road to the bus stop in the scorching heat, and waited literally in the middle of nowhere with no buildings or cars for as far as I could see. It looked like a scene from a movie, where everything was completely open and deserted (other than the hotel hidden up the hill), and nothing but myself and that little bus stop were visible among miles of dry hot Israeli desert. About an hour later (after my phone had died, I had finished my water, and I was completely covered in sweat and beginning to lose faith that I would ever be rescued), I was picked up by the very late bus headed to Eilat. Almost 4 hours after that, I arrived at the Orchid Resort Village Hotel, on South Beach, Eilat. The view, the room, the food and the pools here are amazing, and after spending the past couple of days relaxing, I’m going to try to have some fun tomorrow! Eilat is a huge vacation spot, so there are lots of activities to do all along the beach, and I’m sure I will be anything but bored.

Exploring Eilat & Saying Goodbye (For Now) To Israel

Day 12 was my second and final day in Eilat, as well as in Israel. I spent the morning at the Underwater Observatory in Eilat, which was absolutely amazing, with some of the best aquariums I’ve seen in my life, and an incredible lookout point from up top. Afterwards I went to the city for a bit of shopping, which is another BIG reason people go to Eilat, and I picked up a few souvenirs for my family. After taking a bit of a hit to the wallet, I walked along the beach of the Red Sea and went for a swim. The Red Sea was salty, but not nearly as salty as the Dead Sea, and the beaches here were made of small red and yellow rocks. It was a bit rough to walk on, much different from the soft sand at the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv, and the rough salty bottom of the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi. I waded in the water and relaxed on a chair nearby, until I was asked for $20USD for using the chair for an hour… so I decided to continue my walk for free instead. I guess that’s what you should expect when you go to vacation spots like this.

I didn’t spend much time in the hotel here, but I think that it worked out for the better anyways. Most of the other people staying at this hotel were locals on vacation, and almost none of the hotel staff spoke English, and were visibly frustrated with my inability to speak Hebrew. Their English was much better than my Hebrew, no doubt, but for a hotel that I had seen online seemed to take pride in being a large vacation destination with excellent customer service (that cost a pretty penny) and “had english speaking staff”, I was surprised. This hotel was one of the places I was most excited to visit initially, small villa rooms up the side of a hill overlooking the water, several pools on the property and amazing restaurants… and I wasn’t really impressed with it when I got there. It lacked a certain ambiance that I had found so much everywhere else in Israel, and to be honest it was the first time I felt a bit lonely, and just wished someone was there to hang out with or talk to. Looking back, I think that some of the things I enjoyed the most during my past 12 days in Israel were the things that I was initially the least excited about, just as the things I was most excited to do were not necessarily the highlights of the trip. It just goes to show that you never know until you try, (and that the most expensive spots aren’t necessarily the best ones) and I hope to keep reminding myself of that for the rest of my trip.

For now, I’ll have to say goodbye to Israel as I pack up my bags and get ready for Delhi, tomorrow! Look out India, here I come!

Me, Myself & I… Back to The Dead Sea!

Day 9 (Sept 14, 2014)

Click on the Cities/Sights in the grey italics to take you to the google maps Page for each location, where you’ll be able to see where it is, some images, and a brief description of each place. 

Carmel Market With Friends

Today, for the first time in 8 days, I slept in! Until 8 that is. The tour has been so full and busy, I’ll have to admit that I’m a little relieved its over. Its been truly amazing, but I’m excited to move on to the next part of my trip now, and to have a few days to do my own thing.

After breakfast I met Philip and Olivia (the young couple from the UK) and we walked to Carmel Market, an open spice market (or “shook”, in Hebrew) here in Tel Aviv. As soon as we entered the market, a kind lady running one of the stands welcomed us by yelling, “Taste, Taste, Taste!” and handing us pinches of fresh spices from the piles overflowing behind her. It was incredible to me to see the food all out in the open like that; unpacked, in such abundance, and free to touch and taste. Back home I would never even THINK of tasting food at the grocery store before paying for it at the risk of being kicked out of the store. Here, it is encouraged! Of course, places like this exist back home, just as supermarkets and mass production exist in Israel, but it is so much more common here to buy food from the open market and local farms than it is back home.

My first instinct tells me that this can’t be sanitary. If I was allowed to touch and taste, then who else’s hands have been on the food? And what about the bugs?! After taking a step back I realize that maybe I’m the crazy one. To me, good food is always clean, free of imperfections, wrapped and labelled. It is sterile, free from dirt and bugs. But food comes from the land, which is MADE of dirt and bugs. Maybe the real concern is that I consider food that has been polished, perfected, waxed, frozen, shipped and wrapped in plastic, to be “good” food, and food that has been grown, picked and touched by other people, to somehow be “wrong”.

The people here seem so much more connected to the land and to what they buy and consume than I am used to. Everyone smells, feels and even tastes their food before they buy it. Each meal seems so much more appreciated here because it is almost always made fresh, and more often than not comes from right here in Israel (especially when it comes to dairy products and fruits). I think that today, in the age of mass production and over consumption, we spend so much time stuffing ourselves to the brim that we’ve forgotten to appreciate where our food comes from. I’ve decided that when I get home I’m going to try harder to care about what I’m consuming. I think we should all have more respect for our food and where it comes from, and for our bodies and what we put into them. Of course I will do this while still over-indulging from time to time I’m sure, because who doesn’t love a late night pizza run here and there?

After we left the marketplace, Olivia, Philip and myself headed to the beach for one last drink before parting ways. We said cheers to a wonderful 8 day tour of Israel, and reflected on our time together. We all agreed that the most fascinating part of the tour was knowing that we were walking in the same streets and were surrounded by the same walls as Jesus was over two thousand years ago. Also incredible was the fact that these streets and walls were ruled by such famous kings as Herod the Great, even before the times of Jesus. Perhaps the most interesting part to me was learning that so much of the Bible is actually history, and not so dependent on faith. Whether it was from an opinionated atheist such as our first guide Mark, a Jew such as Paulio (our second guide), or a devout Christian as were Olivia and Philip, the stories of the land were the same. The only thing debated by other religions or non-religious people was whether or not Jesus was the son of God, who performed miracles (the parts of the stories with “magic,” for lack of a better word). As for his life and death and people who lived during the same time as him, it was almost all inarguably history.

For anyone who doesn’t know me, let me say that I’m not a particularly religious person, though I do consider myself to be spiritual in many ways. I am very interested in the beliefs of others, and what common threads tie together different belief systems. I used to think that believing any of the stories in the bible meant believing in God and Christianity, but now I’m starting to see that isn’t entirely true. I have learned so much this past week, and can’t wait to learn even more.

Goodbye Tel Aviv!

Sad to leave my new friends, I hopped in a cab, took a deep breath, and headed to Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. This bus station is the biggest in the world since its opening in 1993. It is several stories high, and resembles a mega mall on the inside; absolutely packed with shops and restaurants. It was chaos, and it certainly didn’t help my feeling of panic when I noticed that basically everything was written in Hebrew, with the exception of 3-4 small signs in English. Like a fish swimming against the current, I began to follow the signs that lead me to my bus. Thank goodness I did my research ahead of time and knew at least what platform number I was looking for, and the symbol of the Egged Bus company (the largest in Israel).

Before I could even get up the first 5 steps to the next level of the station, a man who didn’t speak a word of english ran to my side, smiled, picked up my bags, carried them up the stairs for me and ran off. It was all I could do to yell “Toda! Thank you!” Before he was out of sight. It nearly brought me to tears to see someone help a silly tourist without any obligation or reward, and without even being asked. When I got to the top of the stairs, a young woman walked next to me and asked me where I was from and where I was headed. She pointed me in the direction of the bus I needed to catch, and it wasn’t long from then until I was on my bus heading to Jerusalem.

On the bus I sat next to a young gentleman who was about my age. He asked me about my life, my trip, my art and my home, and I asked him about his. He moved to Israel from Baltimore about 5 years ago, completely on his own. He served nearly two years in the Army, and now works and lives in Jerusalem. For those of you who don’t know, in Israel all citizens must join the Israeli Defence Forces for 3 years (2 for girls), upon completion of high school. Orthodox Jews are the only ones exempt from this rule (one of the reasons why other citizens sometimes have tension with them from what my guide Mark had told me earlier). There are also several other studying and religious programs which allow for the teens to spend less time in the army.

The gentleman I was sitting next to told me that serving in the army unites a lot of the people here in a very special way, having to give back to their country through the IDF. It’s hard to imagine this for me, coming from a place like Canada, where I was born and stay entirely freely (more or less) without such obligations as joining the army. The way he talks about it somehow sounds both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. He told me about his commander who was recently shot in Gaza, along with one of his friends, and how they thankfully both survived. It felt like he was talking about a different country when he talked to me about Gaza, having just been in one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever stayed at in Tel Aviv. Israel in this way is very complex. It is a small country with many different faces, some of them only a few miles apart.

Back to The Dead Sea

When we arrived at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, I said goodbye and headed to my next bus (slightly less panicked this time, and feeling a little less intimidated by the chaos). Several hours later, I arrived at last at the Ein Gedi Kibbutz Hotel, a picturesque hotel built right between the mountains and the Dead Sea, on a hill overlooking the mountains from one side, and the sea and Jordan from the other. The hotel features access to mud baths, mineral baths, and the sea itself, as well as what is supposed to be one of the most beautiful botanical gardens on earth.

I spent most of my evening reflecting on my past week here, and looking over my plans for the weeks to come. I watched some Hebrew TV, and some English TV with Hebrew subtitles, and listened to music on a Hebrew pop music station… it was actually surprisingly catchy. I may or may not have danced by myself on my bed all night…

On my own now, I can’t help but miss home a bit, but am learning so much that I know I’ll take with me forever, and I know that my life will still be waiting for me when I come home.