Category Archives: Travel

Nepal: First Impression 2008

Nepal is a beautiful country. Terraced hills and grass huts. Peasant farmers and shop keepers, almost everyone in colourful local dress. Goats and chickens everywhere, the odd cow snacking on garbage. The bus drivers think nothing of the cliffs dropping down beside us. The people riding on the roof, hardly seem to notice the goats that are bouncing off them every time the bus hits a bump. With the sound of the horn, everyone politely shuffles over and buses and cars and motorbikes and people and sleeping dogs all seem to squeeze by on these impossibly narrow roads. A man gets pick-pocketed and everyone gathers around to hear his story and tell there own similar ones. Then they depart, without a word, as though they hadn’t just that very moment been having a conversation. Another woman, waiting for the bus to take her two children to a village that is two or three days walking after the bus drops them off eight hours after receiving her kiss goodbye. This mother is looking for someone taking the same bus who can show the children the way to the village. Sacks of rice are being taken up the back of a bus by head. One man puts the sack on his head and he balances it up the ladder to the next guy who takes it off and stacks it on the roof. It makes for good seats for all those passengers who will be riding up there.

It’s the cripples who go around walking on their stumps and elbows (or stumps and stumps) who strike me as living in impossible circumstances. And the snotty dirty children who watch me go by with no hope in their eyes, wondering what my life must be like and being unable to imagine such riches as even I have. There are also the desperate mothers with their babies in their arm waving the bottle around saying, “Milk for baby! Milk for baby?” But mostly there are just men women and children who want desperately to survive who wander every street putting their hand to their mouth saying, “Khana, khana” (food, food). There is more of this than you can imagine. People are everywhere hungry in a land where people really do try to help the hungry. I see the help everywhere, from local people, foreign tourists, aid charities. Everyone seems to be trying to easy the suffering of the poor, but the poor are still poor. Children have no parents, wives have no husbands, low caste people simply no chance.

Bodhgaya: Crossing the River

I just spent ten days silently learning the philosophy of Buddha. Over the years, I’ve read many suttras, stories, and texts which explain the path to enlightenment, but sitting in a gompa listening to a nun tell me how to put Buddha’s teachings into practice was a like listening to a whole new story. It was a Tibetan monastery, so the teaching focused on compassion, loving-kindness, and wisdom. Practices and exercises abound in how to cultivate a mind that can spontaneously exude these principles. The Venerable American nun who gave the lessons has been working for many years to translate the many stories of Buddha’s life that are written in Sanskrit. Stories of beautiful prostitutes who left their work to follow the Buddha and subsequently went on to excel in meditation and inspire bandits to give their loot in offering. Other women who lost their entire families one by one in separate incidents in the same day, only to find solace in the wisdom of Buddha.

But this is only one tradition of Buddhism. I’ve always been more attracted to the other tradition that ignores the stories and suttras that are written in Sanskrit. Theravada Buddhism looks only to the teachings of Buddha; those which are passed down in Pali. Theravada Buddhism also doesn’t focus so much on compassion for others as it does on cultivating ones own mind; on learning to be full present at every moment. Perhaps it’s my western sense of individualism that leads me down this path, but personally, I believe that if happiness comes from within, if suffering can only be brought to an end by expelling the attachments that I form in my own mind, then it’s only by focusing on m own mind that I will find enlightenment.

And just as a brief aside. Wouldn’t becoming a Buddhist only add to ones attachments. Buddha did teach that though his philosophy could act as a raft to get one across the river of suffering, it’s still necessary to abandon the raft and tread ones own path once the river has been crossed.

Varanasi: First Impression 2008

I just spent five days inhaling the smoke from the fires of dead people. Less than 100 paces from where I was staying is the burning ghat along the Ganges river. Over three hundred people a day are turned to ash there. I saw as many as 12 fires going at once. I rented a boat for an hour and the boatman explained that babies, pregnant women, and holy men are never burnt, their bodies are tied to a rock and they’re dumped in the river. It’s not uncommon for then to break free of their rock and find their way back to shore where, as I soon found out, the dogs and the birds have a feast until the next morning when a dalit (an untouchable) comes along and dumps them back in the middle of the river. The alleyways of the old city that hug the ghats which hug the river are narrow and filled with market stalls, cows, goats, many people, and processions of chanting funeral goers with bodies on their shoulders.

Varanasi is the holiest city in India. It’s also most likely the drug capital of India. Everything is available here: opium, hashish, and bhang (pot) are the most popular, though I was told that the man I nearly punched-out was most likely high on heroin.

Varanasi is like a resort town. Tourists everywhere, merchants happily trying to sell their wares, and helpful english speaking locals everywhere to ensure us tourists don’t get too lost in the alleyways of the old city. You can lie under an unbrella and get an aruvedic massage for Rs400, sit on the steps and enjoy a “special lassi” (keeping in mind that I said it was the drug capital), or just stroll around enjoying the many mini-festivals and the beautiful, unpretentious women.

Varanasi was indeed a lovely resort town of death.

India 2010-2011

Every year I get a little deeper into the country and come to understand the culture even more. This year I made huge strides in learning Hindi: reading, writing, grammar. My pronunciation still causes a great deal of confusion, but at least I can communicate with the locals a little bit beyond getting my necessities met.

Other than my requisite stay in Varanasi, this trip was all about Madhya Pradesh, the middle province where the Narmada river begins on the eastern border in the town of Amarkantak and gathers momentum as it heads west through the marble canyons near Jabalpur, before settling into a lazier pace as it goes through the Holy towns of Omkareshwar and Maheshwar. About 100km before it finds the Arabian Sea it enters the province of Gugarat.

From Varanasi I went straight south by bus to get to Amarkantak. There were a few small water falls nearby Varanasi, but as the bus climbed the mountains, natural beauty gave way to coal mining and power generation. In one particularly polluted town that tasted lie coal dust, I was told that there were ten coal power plants within 40km. My morning chai even had the undrinkable taste of coal. Several of the people I met here or on the buses near here were engineers enjoying the prosperous employment provided by all the smoldering black diamonds.

As the I continued south, the air began to clear and the people began to look healthier. Prosperity gave way to poverty. This is mostly tribal lands: jungle and farm. Huge, ranch-style mud houses with simple line work and dots painted on the outsides (tell-tale indications of tribal people); beautifully simple. I made my way thru Ambikapur, from the bus stand to the train station, surprising all the locals in this quiet city. I suspect that stopping for a night or two would have rewarded me richly, but Shiva Ratri was approaching quickly and I wanted to be in a suitable Shiva town (I was thinking I would get to Puri after a brief stop in Amarkantak). The driver of the shared auto who took me to the train station after I’d walked a few km refused my money and sped away singing what I think was a Bollywood love song.

Waiting for the train I encountered some rare racism: teasing and jokes that I could not understand but made me uncomfortable enough to move to the end of the platform. A couple boys who witnessed it cautiously approached me for conversation and quickly became close friends and guides for the next 14 hours. One boy was shy and from a low cast, and the other had just graduated from collage and was working as a pharmaceutical rep. Both were very cool. I got off the train one stop before they did and found myself a cozy place on the floor of the train station to sleep until morning and slept through until almost ten before catching one more bus to Amarkantak.

In Amarkantak I quickly learned the difference between asking for a “Sasta Hotel” (a cheap hotel) and a “sasta Kamra” (cheap room). Sasta Hotel is about Rs600/night ($15.00), and a sasta kamra is about Rs100/night ($2.50). The cheap room was a dung floor thoroughfare for rats with spiders in every corner and a thin mat on the floor for sleeping; perfect. The Phalhari Ashram was up the hill and had a beautiful view of the Ancient temples across the river (Sri Shankyacharyia, 1100AD) and the white spires of the new temples in the forground. All around me were huge Mango trees that were just starting to consider offering us (and the monkeys) fresh mangos.

The ashram in Amarkantak was nice and simple: a thin mat on a dirt floor, two meals a day and chai in the morning. The rooms all had rats passing through, but for Shivarthri someone apparently supplied them with poison and they began falling from the ceiling as if to beg for mercy. They were offered none. The foreign presence was small here, just myself; Mark, the Bhakti German fellow; and a hippy Alaskan guy with his daughter. Taj, the international gangster came later.

Taj had stories to tell, many stories about his upbringing in Kashmir, his immigration to Canada, his adventures around the world. He was in his early fifties and in the process of assessing his life. He was a doubter and a cynic when it came to religion and spirituality. He had no use for either and he enjoyed spouting his opinion in the ashram, to devotees and even to Babas. The Phalhari baba who ran the ashram wasn’t much different so the two of them became quick friends. Baba was a great manager and had completed 12 years of intense tapas eating only fruit while practicing yoga and tantra. He certainly didn’t recommend such a lifestyle, it was very hard on his body.

I stayed here for a few weeks listening to Taj’s stories and practicing intense yoga and meditation in my room. Baba spoke no (or very little English) so there was no instruction and he led no practices. As an ashram, it was merely a place to stay.

For Shivarathri I was given access to a private Puja in the main temple that went on for over three hours. It was he most intense puja I’ve ever witnessed. I’m certain that they recited an entire Purana with the speed of an auctioneer. When I left, my mind was swimming; I was high from the intensity of it all and I’d felt as though only a few minutes had passed. I wondered if I’d been lulled into some kind of trance. It was beautiful.

Taj and I left together catching buses and trains to haphazardly make our way to Maheshwar.