A Travellerspoint blog

Tractor ride at sunrise

Working the vendanges in the Pays Catalan

sunny 35 °C

5:45am, the alarm shakes me from much-needed slumber. It's Tuesday morning, day two of this week of the harvests. My lower back and quads scream for another hour of sleep (at least), reminding me that they haven't yet recovered from yesterdays' torture. I ignore them, knowing that I'll feel better after a neti pot in the campground bathroom and a quick café at the cellar before heading out to the vines. We get our stuff together (backpack, water bottle, headphones for the break, sunblock, and an extra shirt for the early morning hours), shove my dust-covered, grape-juice-stained Doc Martins on, and walk out to the front of the campground to wait for our ride. We get in the little Citroen C2 in silence. It's pitch black. The moon will be full tomorrow. The stars are all out. The sun is rising red from behind the mountains obstructing our view of the Mediterranean. It's going to be hot today.

As usual, we get to the cellar and make our rounds of 'la bise'. I watch from the curb as the men in the crew load our big red truck with cases, buckets, and scissors, huddled over my sacred cup of coffee. Mmm. Just before 7, I rinse out my cup and jump on the back of the tractor. I like riding on the tractor in the morning: the wind blows in your face, you have a clear view of the sunrise, and its kind of like a mini rollercoaster ride once we veer off the road into the vines. Sometimes you get a little off-balance, especially when you're riding with a bunch of reject grapes in giant plastic buckets. I'm getting pretty used to balancing, though. It's good for my yoga poses and spices up the morning.

That's about it for morning excitement. We'll spend the next two hours with our heads literally in the vines, cutting one bunch after another until I fill my bucket to the brim and yell 'PORTEURRRRRRRRR!!!!!' for someone to replace mine with an empty one. This morning, we've been assigned a shitty parcel; there's a buckets' worth of grapes on every vine, and there are leaves all over the place, so you can hardly see what you're cutting. Not to mention the pain-in-the-ass wires they put around the plant to keep the grapes from growing wherever they please. Cutting the first bunch is always a testament to the way the day will progress. Bad omen this morning. I can't see the grapes, so I spend about a minute undoing the wires, then ripping all the leaves away, and finally cutting one bunch and then another until I've stripped the thing clean. About a 3 minute process. Then, 'PORTEURRRRR!!', wait a minute for Arthur to run down the aisle with his empty buckets, make a quick switch, and move on. Fuck. This is going to be a long day.

The thing about harvests though is that everyone is in the same boat. Today our team has 8 people, but some days we can be as many as 12. Everyone is suffering equally. We're all pissed off at the condition of the vines, and at the fact that we will probably work for 2 hours straight and move about 100 meters. Totally psychologically dehabilitating. So, we find ways to keep our spirits high. Today, our boss, Christophe, is starting early with the locker room humor. Usually he'll give us at least 10 minutes to wake up, but no such luck today. 'Ehhhhh, Gabrielle, qu'est-ce que t'as? Il faut dormir la nuit, pas faire la folle!!'. Luckily I look more tired than I am. I woke up with a sharp tongue this morning. Before I know it, the sun is beating down on my back and I hear the church bells ring 9am. La Pause. Basically we get a 45 minute break to drink more coffee and eat grapes. Maybe I can do some meditation if I find a flat rock to sit on. We drop our scissors, abandon our buckets and go back to the truck to rest. It's funny how the time passes here: sometimes mornings feel like an eternity, but on days like today somehow the time flies just by people giving you shit and having to dish it back.

During the Pause (it gets capital letters because of its incredible contribution to my sanity), I decide to keep to myself. The day is shaping up to be one of the most beautiful yet. Not a cloud in the sky. From the parcel, you can see the entire valley of the Rousillon Villages. The Pyrenees behind us, the border with Spain, the foothills to the east that overlook the sea, and the little red-tiled villages evenly spaced in between. Also, today there's a nice sea breeze to keep us from overheating. You hardly feel the heat of the sun when the humid 'vent marin' comes through. I relax just long enough to get the energy to get back to my bitch of a job, and to resolve to go back with a different attitude. It's no use fighting with the vines, I tell myself, they don't react to your annoyance. They are plants. This is how they are. You're making yourself angry by taking that kind of attitude with them. Might as well take a step back and cut less rapidly. Plus, this gives me time to think--or daydream--about whatever I want.

This is easily the best part of the harvest. If you have any decisions to make whatsoever, you can bet on having the time to thoroughly consider every option. I go back to my line, crouch back at the vine I abandoned so violently before the first break, and get back to cutting. By the time I've filled the bucket the whole game has changed. Topic of thought: if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?

'C'EST LA PAUSE! STOPPPPP!!!' yells Christophe. I somehow made it through two lines in this time, although I hardly remember having done them. We filled 160 cases with Syrah this morning.

Brazil for the World Cup 2014.

Posted by pack_it_in 09:15 Archived in France Comments (0)

"Welcome to my little helicopter"

rain 28 °C

I'm finally in Varanasi, after about 2 days of travelling from Dharamsala. It's definitely been an interesting experience to say the least. The bus ride was uneventful besides the monk meditating next to me and the guy behind me puking the whole way. Yum.

We got to Delhi earlier than expected. That will probably be the first and last commute in India that happens. Maybe it's because the driver was Tibetan. Thankfully after a couple of bike-cart rides (I don't know what they are actually called) and a first experience in the Delhi metro, I was weaving back through familiar alleyways to Hotel New King. I was meeting my friend Gemma (from Yog Peeth) there so I asked if I could crash in her room until she arrived. They agreed and gave me the first room off the reception. After a much-needed shower, I fell asleep for the entire morning. I only woke up because Gemma was knocking on the door. Her guitar had been stolen as she was leaving Kashmir, and she had been on the road for almost two days. She was exhausted and demoralized. Really, really bad luck. I was glad to be there to give her a hug and try to cheer her up for her last day in India.

Out strolling in the horrible Delhi heat (over 110 Fahrenheit in the sun), we were both homesick and annoyed at the hoards of Indian men staring at us and making comments. Some guy put his hand on my butt while I was walking down a main street. "SIR! ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?" I confronted my harrasser. He looked at me like he had no idea what I was talking about. I shrugged it off, realizing that there was no way I was going to get an apology out of the man. Ridiculous, but unfortunately I've come to expect such things. I know not all Indian men are like this--I've met loads who are wonderful and totally don't fit this stereotype. But I can't ignore the absurd frequency with which I've felt disresepcted in this country, especially in Delhi. More and more, though, I'm trying to employ the buddhist philosophy of keeping it cool and wishing the people who do such things love and happiness. If they were truly happy people, they wouldn't act the way they do.
Anyway, Gemma and I were kind of fed up so when we saw the sweet shop on the corner we simultaneously suggested we make a pit stop. The only Indian sweets I've ever tried were at Yog Peeth, and I never liked them. This place had such a wide assortment however that I was certain to find at least one kind that I liked. Gemma knew a bit about the sweets, so with her guidance as well as the man's behind the counter, we compiled a small box of treats to try out. Some had nuts, some dried fruit, some what looked like an egg paste, and others completely unidentifiable ingredients even after tasting them. Where to eat our Indian delicacies? I've been to McDonalds twice in my adult life. This was the third, and certinaly the most necessary. The McDonalds was air conditioned, the tables were clean, and I could order a soda without having to worry about contamination. My small coke cost 42 rupees, more than half the price of the entire box of sweets. It was worth every cent. Carbonation, ice (made with filtered water!) and caffeine on a hot day really hits the spot.

We opened our heavenly box and started sampling little bits of each sweet. They all had distinct flavors I couldn't pinpoint as expected, except one that tasted like pecan pie filling. That was my favorite. Another one tasted kind of cream-cheesy... weird. Some of the others seemed like the pastry chef had dumped his entire supply of granulated sugar in the batter. My coke didn't really help dilute the situation. We left McDonalds satisfied, but definitely on sugar-overload. After wandering around Old Delhi for a while, we decided to head back to the metro. People kept telling me Old Delhi was cool and that I would enjoy walking around there, but to be honest, I don't see what the hype is all about. I don't want to trash talk the area too much so I'll leave it at that.

When we walked down into the metro station, we were confonted with something we had both forgotten about: rush hour. There was an absurdly long and aggressive line to cross the metal detectors (all the subway stations in Delhi are equipped with something similar to airport security). To our satisfaction, we realized that there were only men in the line. The womens' line was just to the left, and there were only 3 people queued up. My revenge on Indian men had been executed for me. Gemma and I ambled up to the front of the line, breezed through our security checkpoint, got patted down by an Indian lady in uniform, and made our way through the station to our train. Once again, we boarded the women's car. About twenty minutes of listening to what I'd imagine to be Hindi gossip (because what else would a bunch of women do together after work or school in the metro), we were back at our station radiating with contagious estrogen.

The way back to the hostel was relatively uneventful besides on guy staring at me as we walked saying, "Ohhhh, beautiful! Where are you going?". When I didn't respond and kept on walking -- I've gotten damn good at pretending people don't exist when they try to talk to me in the streets-- he says, "Why you look so pissed off?". Gemma and I supressed laughter until we were out of his earshot. I guess I've acquired an ice queen gaze due to perpetual harassment.

Back at the hostel, we got a recommendation for a restaurant in the area and headed off for an early dinner. Mixed vegetables cooked in a spicy masala sauce, some yellow dal, and white rice. A perfect dinner. What made this restaurant really special though was their toilet. It wasn't a squatter! And it had toilet paper! And soap!!! What a find. I will definitely be returning for my last Indian meal.

After dinner we went back to the hostel so I could get my stuff together for the train. My second night in a row in transit was about to begin. This time I'd get an upgrade from a bus with questionably reclining seats to a sleeper-class train. Around 7:30, I said 'goodbye' to Gemma, 'see you later' to the receptionist at the hostel, threw my pack over my shoulder and walked the five minutes to the New Delhi Train Station. The station was packed. I saw one other foreigner, a small elderly chinese lady with a giant camera. The train pulled in 10 minutes before departure. All the electricity in the train was out. Good thing I brought my headlamp, or else I would have had a hell of a time finding my seat. I had stupidly booked a "middle berth" seat, ugh (in each compartment there are lower, middle, and upper beds on both sides. The middle bed folds back during the day, so all three people can sit on the lower bed and the middle bed becomes a backrest. If you are in the middle or lower seat, you have to wait until everyone wants to sleep to fold out your bed. Pain in the ass). Also, I was the only woman and the only foreigner in the compartment. I knew this poor seat choice was going to haunt me for the entire journey if I didn't set some boundaries up between my bunk mates and me. Gemma had just warned me to be careful with strangers in transit: she's usually super friendly, and the last 'friend' she made ended up stealing her guitar. You just never know, so better to play it safe especially when travelling alone for 12 hours overnight with nothing to lock my bag to the train with.

As expected, the second the electricity in the train came back, the guy squeezed up next to me says, "So, where're you from?". I looked at him blankly. "Are you travelling alone?" he probed. "Disculpa, pero no hablo ingles," I bluffed. This was a tactic an enchanting Argentine percussionist had shared with me over drinks in Dharamkot. It worked like magic. The guy smiled, looked away, and didn't say a word to me for the rest of the trip. The ride went really smoothly. It was totally weird to constantly pretend that I have no idea what people are saying to me when I understand every word, but so worth the effort for the peace and quiet I enjoyed as a result. I asked the guy in the lower berth if I could set up my middle berth bed around 10 pm with only hand gestures. No one asked where I was going, where I was staying, if I had a boyfriend, where my family was, why I was in India, if I had children... it was paradise. I slept for 10 hours. Fede, if you are reading this, thanks a million. Eres un genio y te debo mi vida :-)

The train was supposed to pull into Varanasi at 8:30. At 10am, were were still moving along with no sign of my destination. Since I had been pretending for the last 12 hours that I didn't speak English (and I clearly didn't speak Hindi), I had no way of asking how far we were from the station. I started to get a sneaking suspicion that perhaps we had already passed Varanasi, and that maybe I had slept through my stop. That would be a nightmare. I would be halfway to Calcutta if that were the case. I decided to wait it out until noon, and if I still didn't sense any sign of arrival I would expose myself as a linguistic imposter. Thankfully at half past ten, I saw the first billboards advertising places in Varanasi. Realizing we must be close, I rolled up my yoga mats (I use them as extra padding on sleeper trains), put on my amphibeous Israeli sandles (aka Chacos), and got ready to brave the rumoured chaos of my home for the next couple of days.

I got out of the station around 11. That's pretty much considered 'on-time' by Indian standards. I chose a riskshaw just outside, handing my bag (and my life) over to the driver. "Welcome to my little helicopter," he said to me as I hopped in the back, "driving in Varanasi is like a video game." He wasn't lying. In fact, I'd probably estimate that traffic patterns here are crazier than in Delhi. For some reason, though, it didn't really phase me. I was as zen in that back seat as I was during meditation in Dharamkot a couple days back. I think I've been in India too long.

I'm writing all this from my little room right off the Ganga in the old part of the town. I like this guest house. It's called Elvis. There are probably 4 or 5 other guests here. At first I thought I'd want to be somewhere social, but now I'm realizing that these couple days are exactly what I need. Varanasi is a very spiritual place: a lot of people come here to die. I don't really know what this entails, but when I go out exploring later today, tomorow, and the next day, I'll let you know.

Someone told me recently that when you travel the way I have been these last couple of days, you body moves rapidly but it takes your soul a while to catch up. That may explain my exhaustion even after sleeping soundly last night to the rumble of the train. Nap time. Shanti, shanti.

Posted by pack_it_in 02:53 Archived in India Comments (0)

Life in the cloud

Dharamsala, Home of the Dalai lama

overcast 16 °C

A couple of days after the graduation ceremony from Yoga Teacher Training, a few friends from the course and I hauled our backpacks through the crowds in Rishikesh to the train station. The streets were 10x busier than usual: that weekend happened to be the annual Shiva festival. Millions of people flock to Rishikesh and Haridwar dressed in orange. I'm not exactly sure what the festival entails. All I know is that there were a lot of young men running round in packs chanting the name of the festival and carrying bottles filled with Ganga water. Nina, Jessica and I took the opportunity to joke around with these devout religious pilgrims. Every time they would chant "Bam, bambalayyyyyy", we'd respond, "WHHOOOOOOOOO!" and throw our hands up in the air as if we were cheering them on. They responded with more "Bam, bambalayyyyyyy!". This continued for the majority of our walk through town. The pack of orange-wearing Hindus chanting behind us excitedly increased little by little, and by the time we got to the Ram Jhulla bridge we had a legit following.

Anyway, this time we didn't have the luxury to hang out with festival junkies. We were in a mild rush to the train station in downtown Rishikesh having left about an hour behind schedule. Missing the train to Dharamsala would be an ominous way to start our journey. Luckily we had sharp enough elbows to wedge our way through the crowds down the road to the rickshaw stand. Normally you can hire a driver right by the bridge, but during the festival motor vehicles aren't allowed past a certain point so you have to walk out to the highway for a ride. Not the most fun of experiences when you're carrying 15+ kilos on your back and the temperatures are pushing 90 with 90 percent humidity, but a train is a precious thing. Especially when you are riding sleeper class!

We ended up getting to the station with enough time to start an impromptu concert on the platform. The perks of travelling with a semi-professional guitarist. Gemma's voice lured in about half the people waiting to board the train, as well as all the workers loading a freight train with what looked like flour on the other side of the platform. It's truly miraculous how universal good music is. We were suddenly surrounded by a group of small children carrying giant plastic sheets (to sell as shelter from the monsoon), several old men who had been sleeping on the benches, and women carrying babies, while the barefoot station workers stood in the background covered in dust. Us yogis just laid back on our packs listening to Gemma's familiar, soothing voice as the spectators accumulated. Feeling the vibe, I borrowed a friend's tin cup to add a little rhythm. Tapping the tin cup on the concrete made for a nicely pitched, yet scrappy percussion instrument. About ten minutes before departure, the concert came to a close and we picked up our stuff to board the train. Sleeper class is minimal, but totally doable. The train looks like it hasn't been renovated since 1920. The seats are worn down bluish brown leather. The scent of the bathroom lingers throughout all of the cabins. There are 3 dusty fans on the ceiling, and they only work when the train is moving. Same goes for the florescent hospital lights. I luckily was allotted a top berth, meaning my 'bed' is always available for me to claim. If you're on a middle or lower berth, during the day the combination of the two beds creates a chair, so you can't sleep unless the people in both berths decide they want to convert the seats.

Exhausted although it was only 5pm, I climbed onto my top bunk, laid out my yoga mat to sleep on, and pretty much passed out immediately. I was awoken some hours later (I don't have a watch) by my bunk mate informing me that I had to switch seats so that a family could sit together. I swear there were 20 people in that family, occupying the better half of the compartment. Indian families are HUGE. Annoyed that I had been woken up, but realizing that upsetting the locals would be a bad idea just on account of my crankiness, I rolled up my mat, slung my sandals back on, and complied. I even tried to smile and say it was okay! I'm becoming a yogi slowly but surely.

The new bed was the same as the old one, just a few meters over. Good thing I can literally sleep anywhere and at anytime now. The compartment was packed, people played their radios, yelled at each other, children cried... it was borderline mayhem. But I could have cared less, I was out within 10 minutes. I think I've learned to consider all these sounds as white noise, and let it lull me back to sleep. I woke up to my friend shaking my foot from the aisle below. "We'll be there in half an hour," he said to me louder than you could ever get away with in the US without getting yelled at by some irritable passenger. I took that as my cue to go back to sleep for 25 minutes. I might have slept walked my way off that train. Nevertheless I made it to the platform with all my stuff before the train continued on north.

After the short 3-hour ride into the Himalayas, I dumped my bag next to my bed and fell fast asleep for the rest of the morning. When I woke up and walked out to the balcony, I was awestruck. Lower Dharamsala was tucked in the valley sprawling before my eyes. We were nestled in the surrounding mountains. The rectangular buildings stacked up the hill were painted multi-colored, creating beautiful patch-worked village clusters draped in Tibetan peace flags. Thick fog hangs over the city, either due to the altitude (2200 meters) or the threatening monsoon. I haven't quite figured that one out yet. All I know is that it felt like I was floating in the clouds.

A few days into my stay, we were due to head up to Srinegar, the capital of Kashmir, to go trekking. My initial enchantment with Dharamsala hadn't worn off yet by the time we were scheduled to leave, so I made an executive decision to linger behind with some other friends to further experience this magical place. A friend of mine from Wesleyan, Jonathan, had come up from Kerala (all the way at the southern tip of India) to hang out and agreed that some downtime here would be nice. Considering he had spent 4 days on trains to get to me, including a 19 hour delay outside of Bombay and an overnight in Delhi, the decision seemed logical. The next day the two of us moved up to Dharamkot, a little village isolated above Dharamsala for some Himalayan immersion.

Simply put, Dharamkot is the shit. There's one main street with a few cafes and guesthouses, but the gem of the village is the pair of meditation centers five minutes from where we’re staying. There's the Vipassana center, which hosts 10-day silent Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreats. Right next door is Tushita, a lovely community with donation-based filtered water, chai, and daily guided meditations. Also down the road is the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Center, my new yoga spot for the week. B.K.S. Iyengar is one of the most respected authorities on Hatha yoga. He was born in Mysore, India to a very poor family with a life-threatening condition. He basically turned himself into a yoga protégé as an escape from his impossibly difficult life. Then in his young adulthood, he had a terrible car accident that rendered him essentially incapable of doing any of the poses he had worked so hard to master. He proceeded to use props to help his body achieve the poses he could do before the tragedy, and ended up nursing himself to full recovery. He founded a school of yoga all prop-based in order to have perfect alignment, no matter what your body's abilities are. Anyway, I signed up for a week-long course in Iyengar. The course was totally different from anything I had ever done before. We'd do 7 or 8 poses a class. The class was 3 hours long.

Days in Dharamkot were perfect that week. I'd get up at 7:30, head to class around 8, practice until 11 or 12, then walk back up the hill to my room for a hot shower (HOT SHOWER!!!). Then we'd go to our favorite cafe, the Milkyway, for Indian breakfast. Indian breakfast is the best thing on the Milkyway's menu. It consists of a chai, a veggie omelet, some potato and onion stuffed flatbread, and homemade yogurt. Did I mention it's all made from scratch? Most days around 2 we'd get the itch to walk the couple kilometers downhill to town to spice things up, but with the raging monsoon that week we were pretty much confined to the village of Dharamkot. We didn't see sunlight the ENTIRE time. It was constantly either drizzling, or pouring. I don't think I showered all week, considering walking to and from Iyengar was like swimming in the Ganga. Except you didn't smell like a garbage bin afterward.

Minus our village confinement, rain was wonderful at first. It was always cool (about 16 degrees), the air smelled fresh, and we had an excuse to sit on the porch and relax. All. Day. Long. The novelty wore off quickly, though. Iyengar ended on a Monday, and by Wednesday I was feeling serious antsy. Just as I was about to crack and make moves out of Dharamkot to a less rainy location, the monsoon let up. While Jonathan and I were playing chess on the porch of a café, we suddenly realized that we could see the peaks of the mountains surrounding us, and kilometers down into the valley ahead. We were in awe: for the duration of our stay to date, we could never see more than 10 feet in front of us, even at sunrise (or what would have been sunrise could we see the sun).

We resolved to keep our rooms and kick it for another few days to enjoy the weather. Craving yoga, we found a new studio in McLeod Ganj, the larger village in Dharamsala. Our teacher, V.J., was a tiny but ripped Indian yogi who moves like a 12-year-old but was probably pushing 65. He wore the shortest shorts to class. His legs were chiseled, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say those shorts were a little much. V.J. teaches 3 classes a day (Hatha and Astanga for those of you who care) and simultaneously runs a teacher training course. In each of his 2-hour classes, he had a team of 3 to 6 helpers that go around the room correcting every student on every pose. V.J. is a boss. He can push up from plank position to a handstand, and slowly lower his feet back down to the ground, and then weave his legs between his hands without touching the ground once. He’s a Cirque-de-Soleil-comparable acrobat, as well as a human pretzel.

The daily routine changed slightly due to V.J. and the manageable weather. Wake up at 7am, do a personal practice on the balcony for a couple of hours, go to meditation at 9, have a chai, eat at the Milkyway for lunch, then relax for a bit and enjoy the pirated internet from the next door café before heading down to McLeod for afternoon power yoga. Then the greatest discovery of all: STREET MOMOS! Momos, if you haven’t ever had them, are basically Tibetan dumplings. You can get 4 steamed veggie momos with chili sauce for 10 rupees about 100 meters from V.J.’s studio. Clutch after getting your ass kicked in yoga, and having to walk 2 km uphill right afterward to get back up to Dharamkot.

When we get back home (yes, we call it ‘home’ now), our neighbor is usually out on the porch with his Arabic guitar. Arabic guitars have 11 strings, and the neck is bent backwards 90 degrees. It’s a really cool looking instrument, and super difficult to play. Daniel, the Israeli neighbor, is an incredible musician. He’s also incredibly attractive. Jonathan and I took to relaxing on the porch with our freshly rolled charas enjoying a free improv concert. I sometimes go down there with my maraca (I bought one a few weeks ago so I can participate in jam sessions despite my lack of musical talent) to join Daniel, the 2 didgeridoo players, and couple of drummers all huddled together on the porch. If the hoard of partiers next door doesn’t play terrible trance music too loudly, I can usually get to bed around 10. Otherwise, I lay awake pretending the obnoxious bass is an exotic lullaby.

Overall, Dharamkot has been very, very good to me. I’ve had the time to do my personal yoga practice every day, to meditate under the supervision of a Tibetan Buddhist monk, explore other types of yoga, read, write, paint, and listen to music whenever I feel like it, and above all, reflect on my experience in Rishikesh.

Tonight I’m going back to Delhi on a night bus. The pace of my journey is about to change drastically yet again. Bring on the mayhem.

Posted by pack_it_in 23:30 Archived in India Comments (0)

Earning my bindi

Another final essay before 'graduation'

rain 32 °C

The "Essence of the Story" is the topic of the final essay for my teacher training certificate at Rishikesh Yog Peeth. It's the first essay prompt I've been given without an explanation. At first, I wanted to write a piece of comic fiction based on experiences various of my friends here have had during their stay in Rishikesh. The fruits of this silly, but entertaining idea are the previous two entries on this blog. Today, the last day of the program, I decided that those posts only captured a small part of the essence: laughter. I wanted to write something more complete, something more personal. So here's my second attempt. This time I won't write about anyone else, although I believe that we all share the same story in the end. The plot might vary, the characters may have different names, but we ultimately find ourselves with same conclusion...

I didn't know what I would find in India. I knew that for the last 2 years, my life had been a whirlwind of priviledge, opportunity, extreme experiences, and more than anything, confusion. I was constatntly dreaming, wishing I were elsewhere than where I was, imagining that this intangible paradise would answer the questions racing through my mind and settle my incessant need for movement. India began as another one of these dreams, but there was a fundamental, glaring difference: I didn't want to go, I had just convinced myself that I did. I bought my plane ticket to Delhi on a whim the second I felt the courage. I knew subconsciously that it would be important. But I was terrified.

Due to this conflicting mental state regarding the trip, I refused to plan. I didn't pack until the day of my departure, I booked a hostel at random for my first night in Delhi, and didn't even jot down my train number or Yog Peeth's address in Rishikesh. For once, I was going on a journey without any expectation or even an image of where I'd be living for the next two months. This sort of behavoir usually invites stress, especially when you are bound for a country notorious for rampant chaos. Shockingly, my arrival at Yog Peeth was seamless. My hostel turned out to be 5 minutes from the train station. I woke up in time for a 5am departure without an alarm clock, despite being incredibly jet-lagged. I met Julia in the Haridwar terminal (she "happened" to ask me if I knew how to get to Rishikesh, not knowing we would be attending the same program) and we wandered our way to Krishna Cottage together effortlessly. Nothing was planned, and yet it couldn't have turned out more perfectly. Even after settling in my room at the yoga center, I didn't feel my usual new-place-excitement.

In fact, for the first 3 weeks I was in an overall state of denial and apathy. Sure, I went to every asana class, made some friends, paid attention in philosophy and anatomy class, etc., but I wasn't allowing myself to open up. I daydreamed through poses and meditation. I was glued to the Internet during breaks. I missed home, my friends and family, and the comforts of constant distraction.

I can't pinpoint the day this all changed. Something clicked, though, and it dawned on me that my heart had been stifled and crushed for as long as I could remember. I didn't (and still don't fully) know how to love myself. This realization set off a cascade of emotions followed by personal discovery. I opened myself up to past events I thought were 'closed' and 'handled'. I began to identify fundamental questions that had been bothering me for quite some time, those probably responsible for my constant desire for relocation and exploration. I realized that I was never looking for places, or people, or crazy experiences. I was really just looking for myself, but convinced that "I" was somewhere other than where my body was at that moment.

My subconscious knew that isolation would shed light on this reality. I wasn't totally alone (far from it) at Yog Peeth, but I was given the time and space to be with my body and mind with more focus than ever before. I think I've always been scared of what I would find if I turned inward-- so, I surrounded myself with distractions. And when a place or situation got too comfortable, I would uproot myself in search of more external stimulation.

Being here hasn't answered all my questions. If anything, I have more of them now that I've decided to live inside my own skin. But at least I feel like I am my own anchor. From here, my project, my eternal project, is to learn who I am and how I can be useful to this crazy, perfect world. I know that I have many gifts-- in fact, I think just knowing that all the answers are somewhere in my mind waiting to be uncovered is the most valuable gift of all. I also know that I have A LOT to work on. As long as I continue to be honest with myself (or at least being conscious of the fact that I'm really good at lying to myself), and resolve not to return to a life of distraction, my universe has no choice but to improve.

The essence of my story, of the story that will begin to write itself from this moment forward, is this internal honesty. I assure its future reader a plot filled with excitement, creativity, beauty, and eternal bliss. The characters will be drawn to the story because they too will share this essence. The only thing I can't promise the reader concerns the resolution: these sorts of stories are always infinite.

Posted by pack_it_in 10:09 Archived in India Comments (0)

Essence of the Story: Part I

A conglomerate of various peoples' experiences during Yoga Teacher Training these past 6 weeks, possibly embellished for comic value. Names may have been changed to protect the identity of the subject.

sunny 36 °C

4:45. My alarm clock goes off and I realize suddendly that I'm on the roof of the yoga center. I could have sworn I had gone back to my room last night after star gazing (it was cloudy). I guess I'm a real Indian now. I decide to do some light stretching before heading downstairs for fennel tea, until I realize that Naval is across the roof staring at me. Oh, shit... yeah, my bra is totally hanging out of my shirt. Not part of the Indian dress code. I get decent, flash Naval a silly morning smile and drag myself to my room, and slip the second I get to the first landing wiping out completely. Yep. I slept through the monsoon last night.

I get to my room and pick up my water bottle, yoga mat, nasal catheter, neti pot, use the bathroom, and leave my room without locking the door. My stomach's been a bit uneasy recently and I don't want to have to fiddle with the lock when I have to run back mid-class to expell last night's dinner. By the time I get my shit together, it's already 5:25. I'm more lethargic than normal today-- guess I should take some spirulina after breakfast. Taking care not to slip on the puddles this time, I tiptoe up to the yoga hall, fill my neti pot up and grab a bunch of napkins (both my nostrils are blocked up today). There are a few other people hanging around cleaning out their nasal passageways. I make my way to the back of the balcony, not trying to make eye contact with anyone while I'm sticking tubes up my nose. Slowly, I inch the red rubber catheter I haven't washed since I got here (Note: it is week 5) up my right nostril. It wont budge. Ugh. Last week I got it up BOTH nostrils, and didn't even gag when I stuck my finger in my mouth to 'catch hold' of the other side. Maybe if I just push a little harder... eh... nope. Not possible. I pull out the meek two centimeters I managed to insert. After blowing my nose violently, I attempted the other side. SWEET! I get it in no problem, and swallow lightly to feel if the tube made it into the back of my throat yet. Oh, it's there all right. So I stick my finger in my mouth to find the other end, ignoring the fact that I'm suddendly oozing from both eyes, drooling all over myself, and immediately feel the gag reflex full on. I fight the urge to puke all over the balcony, tube dangling from my nose as my body lurches forward without my consent. Breathe, I coach myself, just breathe. I don't have the heart to give it a second shot. Plus, I can already hear the "Ohm" resonating from the yoga hall. I'm late. I cut my cleansing short, thread the tube back out my nose, blow once more for good measure, and haul my congested ass inside for class.

Sanjay is not taking it easy on us today. Mantras just ended, and we're already doing upside-down jumping jacks (don't ask, it's a yogi thing). Kevin's got it down. Everyone else has the 'are you fucking serious' look on their face. The aerobic persist for the better part of the class; my mat is just as wet as when I washed it yesterday, except today it's a whole lot saltier. Thank god Alexandra decided to turn the fans on. The rest of the class was pretty typical: Sanjay demostrated peacock pose, palm balance push ups, and a bunch of other poses those of us with girl-arms and western core strength can't do for shit, we all attempted for about 30 seconds and then resigned to child's pose in a mixture of frustration and laughter. I only realized it was 8 o'clock when my stomach started begging me for fresh fruit and muesli. Too bad today we're getting gasoline potatoes and chapati. We chant our 3 "Ohms", coming back to focus just in time to leave the hall.

Breakfast, as predicted, is gasoline potatoes and chapati. I console myself by being the first to order a lemon-ginger-honey tea. We sit around the table, all picking at our trays, waiting for G or Mani to cruise over with our beverages. The quieter of the two comes over with three glasses, placing them in front of everyone at the table except for me without a word. Before I can ask where mine is, he's already teleported himself to his corner of the dining room. Balls! Just as I'm about to go upstairs for Philosphy class, my tea shows up. I say 'shows up' because I literally didn't see it arrive. Someone also clearly went a little overboard with the honey. My taste buds are used to this, though, and I could use the sugar. So I take a few gulps of the warm soothing liquid. A giant wad of ginger makes its way into my mouth. I chew it instinctively, only to start to feel my throat... woooahhhh..... I run back to the buffet to grab another bowl of potatoes to neutralize the flavor. No dice. I fill up my water bottle as a second resort. My mouth still feels like wild ginger fire. No time to ask for milk, it's already 8:50, and class technically started 5 minutes ago. Guess I'll have to suck it up; the flavor usually only lasts an hour or so. Plus, it's good for my digestion.

I'm a bit winded on my way up the last flight of stairs when I spot the poop on the landing. I slow my pace, and after climbing each subsequent stair peer up as far as I can see to check out the situation. Sure enough, sprawled out underneath the skeleton, Roshan's anatomy prop, the culprit naps in the shade. Maybe he's dead, maybe I can sneak past him... nope. After seeing Daniel get chased around the balconies by one of these suckers there's absolutely no way I'm going anywhere near red monkeys. But I'm already late for class, today we're talking about consciousness, and since I never know what Roshan is referring to when he mentions that word I figure it's pretty crucial I attend. Okay, suck it up, just don't look it in the eye. I swallow my fear, remembering all the "Roaring Lion" poses we've done in class (*This is where you sit up straight leaning slightly forward, look up at your eyebrows and roar as loud and aggressively as you can to release anxiety), and harness all that potato-strength to propel myself up the stairs, leap across the landing, throw the doors to the yoga room open, dash inside, and turn around just in time to see the angriest looking monkey I have EVER witnessed collide full on with the glass pane of the doors. HA!! Feeling triumphant, I give it a 'showed you up, bitch!' face and then turn around to see the whole class looking at me. My expression changed instantly from combative to embarrassed. I glue my eyes to the ground, grab a bolster and quietly sit in the corner trying not to draw any more attention to myself.

"Any questions?" Roshan asks.

Jeremy's hand snakes up, "Yes, Roshan. What is consciousness?"

Roshan nods, "We will talk later. Any more questions?"

"Um, Roshan, can we please turn the fans on? " Alexandra asks from behind her row of half-finished chai masalas. Roshan flips every switch on the switchboard, even though there are only three fans.

"I think you have to turn the switch on outside," someone chimes in.

"No. I already checked that one," says Alexandra. She shrugs her shoulders, realizing the power is out and that she will just have to sweat this one out until class ends.

Class resumes without further disruption. We are talking about love all the sudden. "When my wife and I married, it was a love marriage. She went against her family. But in one year the love was gone. Now it is coming back. The wee-cle was understanding," explains Roshan. I look around the room trying to catch someone's eye to ask what a 'wee-cle' is without disrupting the class for an explanation. Dominic is sitting right next to me in half-lotus position, and I go to nudge him, but then realizing he's fast asleep. Everyone else--besides Snow who is sprawled out on her mat in the middle of the room completely passed out--is paying close attention, apparently not confused by the 'wee-cle'. I give up, accepting it as another part of the lecture that will go right over my head, and return to my notebook to copy down the diagram on the board. It says: "Matter-Earth-Body-Organs-Cells-Molecules-Atoms-Energy-Consciousness,".

Before I can get to the "Earth" part of the diagram, Roshan has already moved on. "What is understanding, but awareness? What is awareness, but....?" He waits for an answer.

"Understanding?"

I hazard a guess: "Consciousness?"

"Energy?" We blurt out without really know what the terms we are mentioning really mean. Roshan shakes his head. Shit, we're dumbasses. "Consciousness!". He writes it on the board with a circle around it. I SAID that, I think to myself. Without a word I write it down in my motorcycle notebook exactly the way it appears on the board, with a giant circle around it.

Jeremy raises his hand, "Roshan, what is consciousness?".

Roshan nods his head as he says, "We will talk later."

It's suddendly 10am. Class officially ended 15 minutes ago. No matter. "Now a story. You know the story of the crazy swami? I think I have told you before, but I will tell you again to end the class with a smile,". With this comment Daniel's eyes open and he sits up to hear about the butcher and the cow and the swami again. The story ends at 10:15. That gives me 15 minutes to cat-nap before anatomy. I curl up in fetal position on my mat, and only wake up because someone is poking me. Must be time for the "Ohms" to begin the next class. Wrong. It's 11:30. I slept through the whole class. Bummer, I was really looking foward to learning about the structure of the Reproductive System.

"Gather yourselves," says Roshan. I scramble to get myself in pretzel position, or as we call it here, 'easy position'. I would have done lotus but it takes me a while to forcefully bend my knees and even then I look retardedly uncomfortable and my feet fall asleep within seconds.

"OOOOOHHHHHHHMMMM," the class chants with abnormally different pitches. We sound like a 3rd grade choir.

"OOOHHHHHMMMMMM," most people have tried to adjust their pitches to match their neighbors, but since no one stuck to their old pitches it sounds even worse than before.

"Ohmmmmmm," says the cow outside, perfectly in tune before we can chant our third. I try to keep a straight face and prepare for the last 'ohm', but there's no holding back the laughter. My pretzel falls apart, my eyes fall open and I topple over in a laughing fit. Luckily the whole class, even Roshan, also lost composure or else I could have counted on my second moment of profound embarrassment for the day.

During the break before lunch, I decide to pull out my laptop to watch some educational videos.

  • *******************************

Stay tuned for Part II.

Posted by pack_it_in 05:01 Archived in India Comments (2)

"Ganga in the mouth"

Accidental hydration and white water rafting

overcast 29 °C

Saturday night, Roshan had instructed all of the adventurous yogis (a handful of pansies stayed behind for various reasons) to meet at 9h30 on Sunday morning. So naturally we ambled out the back door punctually at 9h45 towards the center of town to catch jeeps upstream. As usual, our pack of non-Indian yogis in western clothes drew a hellofalotof attention. I was wearing shorts and a tank top and bringing up the rear with my ivory-skinned, blue-eyed, red-haired friend from Oklahoma. We dodged cameras left and right the whole way through Rishikesh. The new tactic: whenever some creepo points a cell phone camera our way (as if we don't know it's happening... puuuleeeaze), we stick our hands out, raise our eyebrows and insist on "Ten rupies!". The confused look on the amateur photographer's face was priceless. We walked on giggling to ourselves, stepping over cow dung, dodging motorcycles, oncoming rickshaws, and the man who seems to be on every corner selling bottles of henna ink.

After working up a little sweat we see G, one of our Indian friends from Yog Peeth, crossing the highway to a set of jeeps parked on the side of the road. Our rafts were strapped to the roofs, paddles in the trunks. We hoisted ourselves into the open trunk of the last jeep. I squatted among the paddles, and Nina made a bold move by sitting on the back door, feet in the jeep, arms holding onto the roof, red hair ready to fly freely in the breeze. The jeep lurches forward and we were off, winding away from the city into the hills, weaving around curves as if it weren't a two way street. "Six flags adventure!" yelled Nina through the roar of the petroleum truck our driver decided to pass. Some people hate being passengers in India. I kind of dig it--sure, it seems super dangerous and sometimes makes your stomach turn, but as one of our Indian buddies put it, "If you're too careful you can't survive on the road here. It's when you stop to think that you have an accident,". It doesn't make sense at first but the more you watch traffic here, the more you get it. You have to be impulsive and aggressive behind the wheel. If you're not, the other drivers who are will take you out. And with the ravines on either side of the road and the poor safety features on most vehicles here, it's not going to be pretty. Moral of the story, trust your driver, keep your cool and enjoy the rollercoaster.
I was having a ball in the back of that jeep, almost to the point where I didn't want to get out when we got to the rafting spot. I consoled myself knowing that the ride on the river would be just as exciting, if not more so. Plus, rafting was the reason I came out to begin with. So we jumped out of the jeep, put on some lifejackets and helmets by the side of the road, claimed our oars, and followed our rafts down from the highway to the river. After waiting for a while on the bank (everything is delayed in this country for no apparent reason if you haven't gathered that already), we formed a group of 8 and boarded our raft. Yog Peeth hired 4 rafts. We would be a motly fleet riding down the Ganga.

I'd been rafting once before, but for some reason I totally forgot the number one rule: DO NOT under any circumstances sit in the front. Sigh... I volunteered myself for destruction. As I took my suicidal position, clouds moved in for the monsoon to make its daily appearance. We were all instantly doused in a warm drizzle... mmmm. But before we could settle into the warmth and comfort of the rain, our guide yelled, "Paddle backward! Faster! Faster!" in his adorable Indian accent, and we were off. I guess learn-as-you-go is the policy here: note that we didn't really get an introduction on how to white water raft. Just a quick tip to sit in the "side compartment" of the boat, whatever the hell that means.

A couple minutes later we were coasting into our first rapid. "Faster! Faster!" screamed the guide over the gushing river. We complied, putting to use our well-toned shoulders (lots of sun salutations this week) and synchronized breath, propelling our raft forward into... "EEEEEEEEEEEEEHHH BIG FUCKING WAVE!!!". I was drenched immediately. "GANGA IN THE MOUTH! GANGA IN THE MOUTH!" screached Jessica from the position right behind me. Suppressing explosive laughter I tried to keep calm and focus on paddling, remembering my roommate Miles' warning that sometimes the guides tip the raft on purpose for comic value. I looked ahead to see what the rapid had in store for our inexperienced little boat just in time to see another giant wave coming our way. WWHHOOOSHHH. I might as well have been swimming in the Ganga. I was completely soaked.

"Anyone want to jump in?" our guide asked. Yeah, why not. I'm already covered in river water, might as well seal the deal. So I dropped my oar and leaped in the river after a few of my crewmates. Coldest. River. Ever. I screamed like a little girl and lasted about 15 seconds before making a friend pull me out by my lifejacket. It's shocking I didn't realize how cold it was when the rapids drenched me. I guess the adrenaline and excitement of lobbing up and down, side to side over the waves makes you desensitized from the icy quality of the Ganga. A couple people stayed in the water quite some time, hanging by a rope attached the the back of the raft. I have no idea how they did it. I thought my bones were going to freeze solid (In Anatomy class we learned that the bones are in fact soft! So this is not be being ill-informed about the consistency of bones, but actually a scientific observation!).

The rest of the rapids were pretty similar to that first one. They got a bit more intense I suppose, but generally I just took a lot of water to the face, in the nose, ears, mouth, eyes, and made it safely (save the bacteria I certainly ingested) back through downtown Rishikesh. We got to be those idiots that ride on rafts underneath the two footbridges-- I think I've described them in previous posts-- and scream up obnixiously at the people walking with our oars in the air. And then clearly we had to attack the other rafts to defend our honor as champions of the Ganga. I felt like a foot soldier on the front lines. Whenever anyone (including myself) launched holy water at other rafts, the retaliation hit me straight in the face. I ended up with a mouthful of Ganga in fetal position, copping out of the fight I had probably started. Not very tactful on my part. But I was cold and it was misty and I was tired!

Then the crown achievement of the day: G, one of the main instigators of the waterfights, fell overboard. HA! Talk about Karma...
Finally we pulled up to the shore of Ram Jhulla, dismounted our rafts, stripped off our lifejackets and hilarious construction-worker-type helmets, and walked up the steep stone steps from the shore of the Ganga. Whoo! My raftmates and I agreed that Sunday Funday was off to a great start. Turning down the path away from downtown Ram Jhulla, we walked the back route to the ashram, weaving past cows, old bearded men in orange robes, and stray dogs hiding under the trees from the rain. The monsoon was still going pretty hard, but at this point it didn't matter considering how wet we all were from the rafting. We strode through the flooded streets in our amphibeous shoes, trying to leap over puddles clearly infected with cow feces unsuccessfully. Gross, I know. So we stopped every now and then when a clear-looking water streamed off a tin roof to rinse our feet. Clean. Ish.

After a while we made it back to the ashram. "5 minutes and we're going for lunch," we decided. "So no dillydallying in the shower?", we joked, as if any of us wanted to be soaking in cold water again for any significant period of time. None of us were late, for once. We were going for a 'Hello to the Queen': a heavenly ice cream sunday with bananas and graham crackers about 50 meters from the front door of the ashram.

Vanilla ice cream had never tasted so delicious. We were dry (more like damp, actually), warm, and eating outside the walls of Yog Peeth for the first time all week. Sundays (ice cream) have now become a Sunday (day of the week) tradition. They are also my and Jessica's reward for spending 3 days this week offline. 'Hello to the Queen' makes it more than worth it. Yum.

This week we're upping the anti: 4 days offline, 2 of them consecutive. It's week 4, meaning I need to start turning even MORE inward to deepen my yoga practice. Not to worry, I have a couple new tools to help usher in the intensity: my new bag of spirulina and those giant gulps of her holiness, the Ganga.

Posted by pack_it_in 02:32 Archived in India Comments (0)

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