A Travellerspoint blog

Crazy monkeys and other phenomena

Just another day in Rishikesh

overcast 38 °C

I'm sorry for the dearth of blog posts this week-- to be honest, I didn't feel like there were any good stories to report. In retrospect, though, I'm realizing that what I now consider commonplace in Rishikesh isn't all that "normal".

First off, I started an informal AcroYoga workshop at school. AcroYoga, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is a flourishing new school of partner yoga that combines Thai massage and acrobatics. It's sweet. I took a student forum last semester at Wesleyan led by my oh-so-wonderful-roommate Miles. Miles, a former Yog Peeth student himself, actually brought Acro for the first time to the ashram last summer. I'm honored to keep up the tradition this monsoon season, bringing a way less meditative, more recreational practice to this yoga hub of the world. Anyway, the other day a bunch of us were flying and basing (AcroYoga terms for the two people involved in the practice at any given time) when we heard screaming coming from the other side of the ashram. We all dropped our flyers--oops!-- and ran to the window to see what the commotion was. Jessica, one of our fellow students was up on the roof trying to claim her laundry when a monkey jumped between her and the clothing line. Being the pistol that she is, Jessica made eye-contact with him and when he screeched at her showing his fangs, she just yelled right back. The monkey reacted poorly to her challenge, launched himself right at her and scratched her on the arm. Then, he turned and strutted in the other direction as if nothing had happened. I guess he was claiming his territory. Jessica wasn't too alarmed considering the circumstances. We, on the other hand, the spectators from the window across the courtyard, yelled and screamed for the staff to come upstairs to SAVE HER FOR CHRIST'S SAKE A CRAZY RABID MONKEY IS ATTACKING OUR FRIEND!!!

We didn't actually know if he was rabid, but the policy here is always to play it safe. So Jess had to spend the rest of the week getting shuttled to and from the hospital for rabies vaccines. Apparently the motorcycle rides there were the most eventful part (save the shocking state of the hospital bed sheets and the surprise, free vaccine they stuck her with. Turns out it was Tetnus... which she's already had...).

After the monkey excitement, things calmed down for a couple of days. We went to our regular 2-a-day classes, got our butts kicked repeatedly with ab workouts and extended Warrior poses, and occasionally were treated to more Justin Bieber during our end-of-class shavasanas. On Saturday we got to watch a really adorable Dreamworks animation about bees. I unfortunately fell asleep during most of it, which is probably why I can't remember the title. Accidental naps are pretty normal for me these days. I think I might be too relaxed...

Then, today, during anatomy class, I was napping again when I started feel the building shake. At first I thought someone was trying to wake me up from my slumber, presumably because it's incredibly rude to sleep in class especially when you are right in the center of the room. But as I opened my eyes and sat up, I realized everyone in the room was looking around confusedly. The ground was in fact shaking. Roshan kept describing the muscle groups of the shoulder as if nothing was going on, reinforcing the confusion. Were we imagining this? Was someone... just... uh... vacuuming or something? After about ten seconds someone interrupts the lecture, "Was that an earthquake?". Sure enough, near Delhi today there was a 5.7 earthquake. No major damage, but shit, we just felt the earth SHAKE!!! It was my first time feeling such a thing. I probably shouldn't be excited about this, considering earthquakes usually mean destruction and misery for a whole lot of people, but for some reason I'm having a tough time suppressing my awe. Roshan didn't seem to care. I guess this is semi-common in India.

Well, I'm going to be late for class if I continue to babble on like this about my silly daily happenings. When something real goes down, I'll be sure to report diligently. Unless it happens on one of the days I am on Internet strike, in which case the post will be delayed (I've decided to stay offline at least 3 days a week. It feels nice to be disconnected. Sorry, Mom and Dad, it's nothing personal).

Happy Father's Day, by the way.

Posted by pack_it_in 05:27 Archived in India Comments (0)

The long-awaited nasal floss

storm 33 °C

At 5:15 this morning, just after drinking the usual unidentifiable herbal tea, we gather in the corner of the courtyard around Roshan, our philosophy teacher and resident nasal flossing expert. You can see the apprehension mounting in everyone's eyes: are we really going to put those rubber threads in our noses? What if I can't find the canal? Is this going to hurt? What if I gag and throw up? And what if it gets stuck?!

I decided to stand right next to Roshan for the demonstration. I wanted to see every step of the process, from the first insertion of this foreign object to his technique for recovering the thread at the back of his throat. He slowly bends his pink rubber strand (probably around a centimeter in diameter) and begins weaving it into his nose without hesitation. He inches it bit by bit, and then stops, and pulls it back out. "This nostril is backed up today," he says, "I will attempt the other". He repeats the same process on the left nostril. This time it goes in effortlessly. I watch the part of the strand still hanging out of his nose shrink, and shrink, and shrink as it fills his nasal passageway. After a few seconds, he opens his mouth and skillfully reachs inside with two fingers. In one swift movement, he recovers the other end of the rubber strand, slowly dragging it out the back of his throat. Then, as if it were nothing, begins flossing. The expression on my face must have been priceless. It was like watching the three-headed turtle freak show on Venice Beach.

"Not everyone will be able to do this on the first try," Roshan cautions us. "If you cannot, do not worry. Do not force the process. It took me five tries when I first began this practice". I have no intention of taking five attempts to master this odd talent. "If I strongly believe it will happen, it will," I coach myself recalling the previous day's philosophy lecture. I take my rubber strand and some tissues, face the stone wall of the courtyard a little ways away from the rest of the group, and bring the object to my nose. I ty to do as Roshan had done, bending it slightly and inserting it into my left nostril, the one that seems to be the best candidate. I find my nasal passageway easily and ambitiously begin pushing the rubber further and further into my nose. You'd think that the thread should go UP, following the bridge of the nose like a Broad Street subway train, but actually the canal is totally horizontal.

I feel like I'm going to sneeze, but then realize that this is my body's programmed response to foreign objects. So I breath steadily, inhaling and exhaling with purpose, convincing myself not to expell this piece of rubber I've intentionally stuck inside my nose. To my immense satisfaction, I'm convincing and soon enough I feel the piece of rubber making its way into the back of my throat. I imagine I could reach back into my mouth and grab it, but just to test the actual location of the thread I swallow lightly. Nothing. So I gently push through another few centimeters, realizing that the urge to sneeze has disappeared, replaced by only a faint tickle. Swallowing again, the rubber emerges just behind my tongue. "Okay, here we go...", I reach a finger inside my mouth, hoping that I can also convince myself not to gag. Miraculously I manage to hook the thread on my index finger, clasp it with my thumb and lead it out of my mouth triumphantly.

The flossing part feels really bizarre. Imagine massaging the inside of your nose and the back of your throat all at the same time. It's kind of a slimy experience, though nothing compared to the sensation of pulling the thread back out your nose. I'll leave that up to your imagination.
Now for the next lesson: thread the same piece of rubber in your ear, out your nose, back in the other nostril, out the opposite ear, clasp both ends with your teeth, do a headstand and then carefully, with the breath, levitate off the ground...

Posted by pack_it_in 20:14 Archived in India Comments (0)

Akon and Crocodile Pose

Sure ways to distract yourself during meditation, even when you find yourself in the yoga epicenter of the world.

sunny 38 °C

Walking through Delhi last week, it was hard to ignore the multitude of people carrying cell phones with unusually loud speakers. The street vendors, passengers on the train, even people weaving through traffic jams played whatever music they felt like, whenever they felt like it. This isn't just an Indian thing-- the trend was also prevalent on the cargo boats I rode in the Brazilian Amazon, for instance-- but here in India this habit seemed notably rampant.

The little street outside the Ashram here in Rishikesh is no exception. Just to give you a bit of a visual, to get to the gates of Yoga Peeth you have to cross Ram Jhulla, the footbridge over the Ganga River, walk past a dozen street vendors, up a stone alleyway lined with dismembered beggars in colorful loincloths, past a school of monkeys, though a bunch of mango and watermelon stands, then turn down what looks like a dead-end street for a while until you see the sign for "Rishikesh Yoga Peeth".


The sign points you down another alleyway that skirts a giant dirt lot filled with cows and strangely small horses (they are not ponies, I swear!). Then you dodge the cow shit on the cobblestones, pass a few more corner stores, and down a final residential back alleyway. The nondescript gate to the Ashram is about 100 meters on your left among a couple small houses and a paused construction site. My point is, we're not exactly in the city. And it's not exactly a high-traffic area. At best, you might catch a glimpse from your bedroom balcony of a woman in a bright pink sari ambling up the street, or a lean, dark-skinned man in a wife-beater carrying tools. There's also the vegetable seller who comes at least twice a day with his wheel barrel, yelling in Hindi the names of the vegetables for sale that day. Around 8pm, though, when we are in the meditation room finishing our evening class with a long shavasana (corpse pose), the alleyway is usually deserted.

Tonight's class was fairly strenuous; Manaj had us doing a series of leg lifts followed by exercises he calls "rowing the boat" and "churning the mill". Our abs were tired. Each of our muscles were happily stretched. And it was the end of the 5th day of our training. We felt a pleasant combination of exhaustion and relaxation, ideal for the meditation session that he had planned for the end of class. "Please lay down on your mats. Shavasana," he said almost in a whisper. We all laid back on our mats in silent excitement and let our feet and hands flop out to our sides. Then the unexpected: Justin Bieber's voice, accompanied by a horrendous R&B beat came on in the background. The cell phone concert in the alleyway below was on. I heard a couple of fellow American yogis around me chuckle, making me feel less guilty about cracking a smile. We were a bunch of amused corpses.

I figured the top-40 soundtrack to the meditation couldn't last for more than a few minutes. Usually with these impromptu concerts the owner of the cell phone is just trying to distract his/herself as they walk home. I was wrong. After Justin finished his tune, this one came on:

Yeah... try meditating to THAT. "Slowly move your fingers and toes," said Manaj after a few moments. Then, "I feel you creepin' I can see it from my shaaaadoooowww,".... Still smiling, I obeyed, and anticipating his next command bent my knees, rolled over on my right side, and slowly sat up. "Turn on your stomach, take your opposite elbows in your hands. Crocodile pose,". Again, I complied. Usually crocodile pose is one of the most relaxing--even more so than shavasana. In fact, when we did it yesterday I fell asleep for about ten minutes. Just as we settled into the pose, Eminem chimes in, "Oooooh looks like another club banger, they better hang on when they throw this thing on, get a little drink on!". Good thing it was 8 o'clock, it was time to throw in the towel.

Tomorrow's Saturday. Usually that means it's the weekend, but not at the Ashram. The only difference between Saturday and the rest of the week is that tomorrow we're watching a film in philosophy class. The day of rest will have to be Sunday, and it only begins after our usual 5am wake up call and cleansing process. At least we get a Sunday special: instead of the netti pot, we get to floss our nasal passageways!

Posted by pack_it_in 08:46 Archived in India Comments (0)

The union between "you" and you

An introduction to yoga

overcast 39 °C

Strolling around downtown Rishikesh, you would never know that places like Yoga Peeth existed. Rishikesh, although home to only 60,000 people (quite modest by Indian standards), will probably be the most chaotic place I will ever call home. There are a handful of main roads running parallel to the Ganges, each packed with shops that all sell the same thing: cotton clothing, toilet paper, and knock-off bottles of soda. Most of the tourists here are Indians on summer holiday with their families visiting the region for its well-known Hindu pilgrimages. There are, however, a healthy number of backpackers and aspiring yogis, making it more or less acceptable to walk around in a tank top and shorts. I never thought I'd be satisfied surrounded by westerners in India, but with the heat it's a relief to dress the way I want and not feel like I'm getting too much unwanted attention. Yesterday it was easily over 100 degrees. Long sleeves were just not an option.


Yoga Peeth, the ashram I'll be living in for the next six weeks, is an alternate universe. It's a four-story green and white building slightly offset from the center town with views of the Himalayas. There's a giant courtyard in the center of the ashram adorned with palm trees. All the students in my teacher training course have private bedrooms arranged symmetrically around the balconies on each floor, with windows overlooking the mayhem of Rishikesh and doors opening to the serenity of the courtyard. The gem of Yoga Peeth, however, is the cedar meditation room on the top floor. We spend the majority of our day up there, legs cross in lotus position on our brand new multicolored yoga mats. Mine is bubblegum pink.


In line with my recent mode of travel, I didn't have a clue what I was getting myself into until yesterday, Day 1 of the course. Knowing, dear reader, that you have no reason to know any more than I did prior to arrival, I'll give a sketch of what a typical day looks like at the ashram.

4:45 - An anonymous fist knocks on my door. I have no watch or alarm clock, a conscious decision not to worry about time while in India. This in-person wake-up-call was the proposed solution to get me out of bed and downstairs for tea on time.

5:00 - We meet in the eating area for a glass of herbal tea, and to gently ease ourselves out of dreamland. As soon as we finish our tea, we start migrating upstairs to the meditation room with our netti pots. If you're not familiar with the netti pot, it's basically a recipient with a sort of nasal funnel. You fill the pot with a salt water solution, crouch down, open your mouth to breath, insert the funnel in your favorite nostril and let a steady stream flow through your nose. The water filters through your sinuses and drips back out the other nostril. You repeat the process on the other side. It's a weird sensation at first, lukewarm and confusing since most people don't usually explore their nasal passages that way. Afterwards though, you feel like it's the first time in your life you've breathed through your nose.

5:45 - The whole group convenes in the meditation room (there are 30 of us) with Sanjay, our morning teacher. He leads us through a series of mantras in Hindi. We sing from a sheet with all the words written out phonetically in English. The words are really long, and I'm still trying to figure out how to pronounce them. I'll admit that sometimes I hum along to the tune instead of annunciating properly. Apparently in a few weeks we'll all know them by heart. I hope Sanjay is right, but I'll believe it when it happens.
After the mantras we do Asanas, a series of deliberate movements that correspond to the rhythm of the breath to loosen up all the joints in the body one by one. During the second half of the class we work on well-known yoga poses starting from square one. It's slow moving, but nice to know that I'm actually learning the poses properly instead of just repeating what I watch someone else do without really knowing whether I'm reproducing them correctly or not.

7:45 - Breakfast!

8:45 - Yoga Philosophy class with Roshan the Philosopher. "Each class," he claims, "we will start with a new definition of what is yoga. So what is yoga? In a few words please." Various voices in the class chime in: awareness, understanding, peace, harmony, union, etc. "Yoga," says Roshan, "is not just any union. It is the union between you and you." Confused faces stare back at him from every color mat. "There is Roshan. My parents called me Roshan when I was born. Roshan is a philosopher. Roshan is married. Roshan has a four-year-old daughter. But then there is the true 'me', the one inside. We are talking about appearances versus actual being, who we are in reality." What the hell is he talking about?, I thought to myself recalling having had the same feeling while reading Kierkagaard my junior year at Wesleyan. The majority of the first course went on in this way: defining yoga, qualifying and revising definitions, confusing and clarifying concepts. Unlike courses at university, though, this class supposedly directly applies to what we practice during our morning and evening yoga classes. I don't yet know who the external "me" is versus the internal "me", but according to Roshan this will all come clear during my six weeks at Yoga Peeth.

10:30 - Anatomy class again with Roshan. What are the components of the human body? What are the types of tissues? What is the lifespan of different types of cells? What are the scientific explanations for the practices in yoga?

13:00 - Lunch! (I'm using exclamation points after the meals because I've never been so excited for meals in my life. There's something about how much we are sweating due to the heat, how much pointed physical activity we are doing, and how healthy the meals are that results in a serious appetite. I imagine this will fade after a few days, but for now meals are definitely a highlight of the day. Especially because it's all family-style Indian food. Yum.)

We have free time for the majority of the afternoon, from 13:30 to 18:00. Yesterday I went for a walk around Rishikesh and dipped my feet in the Ganges. I also slept for 2 hours and missed the first half hour of the evening yoga class. Another consequence of not having a watch, and of the combined exhaustion from the heat and the jet-lag. Today I think I will wash some of my clothes, read my book, and buy some mangoes. Or maybe just take a shower and sit under my fan on my bed and call that meditation instead of laziness.

18:00 - More yoga, this time with Manaj, a teacher with the most soothing vibes of anyone I have ever met. His message yesterday: love your body. With that love will come relaxation, and with relaxation, meditation. In his class we repeat our Asanas from the morning. The second half of the class is all meditation. Yesterday I fell asleep for about 30 minutes, only woken up because Manaj unclasped my hands from across my chest (I don't even remember having put them there) and moved them gently to the sides of my body. "Let's move to shavasana, corpse pose," he said to me softly to remind me I was still in class. When we finished our three 'ohms' to signal the end of class, I crawled up from my mat, rolled it up slowly and ambled out the sliding glass doors in a trance.

20:15 - Dinner. I think I was too tired to be hungry. I would have passed out right then and there if the smell of curry and naan hadn't wafted up to the door of my bedroom. By the time I made it downstairs, the wind had picked up, forecasting a storm. Monsoon season officially began June 1st in northern India. Through all of dinner and most of the night, heavy rain flooded the courtyard, the power went out a few times and the wind violently slammed doors and windows all around the ashram. Regardless, after dinner I passed out in a food coma on my bed, despite the red curtains flapping uncontrollably and the door creaking against the strength of the monsoon.

Posted by pack_it_in 01:59 Archived in India Comments (0)


Why you should never change your assigned seat on a flight

sunny 40 °C

The first 12 hours in the air were pretty average: I checked a few movies off my must-see short list, read the first few chapters of The Fountainhead until my eyes melted into the pages, and chatted with my Pakistani neighbor about political unrest in the region, and took a 7th inning stretch with some Californian doing hamstring stretches in the back of the cabin. By the end of the flight, I was strolling around the aisles so leisurely that one of the hostesses asked me if I was part of the crew. She was serious. Things didn't get exciting until we descended on Dubai, an artificial city made up of glass walkways suspended in mid-air, deliberately crooked skyscrapers, and a winding highway system crawling with titanium spaceships. It's a Brooklyn-shaped island, except the boats in the harbor are yachts and there are no Wesleyan students to be found (BAD JOKE). The international airport in Dubai fits the mold perfectly. It's basically a giant upscale mall. My neighbor told me I could spend the whole day shopping if I had a layover, but luckily for me I didn't have to torture myself with the overwhelming consumerist feel of it all because my next flight was off in less than two hours. Not to mention, Dubai's healthy supply of oil comfortably funds free public WiFi in all the terminals. That ate up my entire layover, even leaving a little room for dessert.

My next Emirates boarding experience was as efficient as the first. This time around, though, I happened to be seated next to a gregarious Indian middle-aged woman with glowing green marbles for eyes. She told me at once that she had been visiting her daughter in Dubai, and asked why I was headed to her homeland. When I told her I was studying in Rishikesh, she immediately chimed in, "Oh, that's close by my home. You must come visit. I have coffee parties with some German friends each week. They would be delighted to meet you, I'm sure". I was a little confused by her over-friendly nature, mostly because we were still too early into the flight to "use our portable electronic devices". What would she bring to the court for the halftime show? I figured that at the least this woman was just a motherly soul befriending someone the same age as her daughter who she had just left behind in the pseudo-reality of Dubai. Whatever her motives, she seemed warm enough so I started opening up a bit about the objectives of my yoga pilgrimage. "I do yoga every morning," she began. "When I was a girl I loved to be active. I would swim for hours to the point where the boys in my class called me Octopus,". She opened her palms to indicate the fingertip pruning responsible for this less-than-flattering nickname. We chatted about the meditative, rehabilitative, and strength building aspects of yoga for a while, both admitting prior physical weaknesses that the ancient practice helped to strengthen. And then out of no where, "You were raised a Christian?", she probed. "I'd say more atheist," I responded hesitantly observing the red stain between her eyebrows. "To be honest I think I've developed into somewhat of an agnostic. Travelling's brought me into a few strangely cosmic situations I have a tough time attributing to chance alone. But I wouldn't say I believe in God, per se," I qualified. She responded that she agreed, and identified herself as "spiritual" above all. "Things happen for a reason. It's all predestined. Whether God predestined it or not I don't know. It seems irrelevant. But I too have experienced miracles that I would be foolish to ignore or brush off as coincidence,". The sudden change in her tone surprised me yet again. But I focused intently, for some reason with the feeling that she was about to say something important.

"You make choices," she continued, "but you are who you are from the beginning and thus you are destined to chose what you do. For this reason yoga is important. It teaches to be in the moment, to experience the present, to be within your skin and your body. They are deeply connected, as you know. So when you told me earlier this afternoon that you thought you might have left too early for this journey, in fact, you left at exactly the right time." I was fixated. "You miss your family and friends, but like a dove you've flown away and you will come back with a message. And if those relationships are genuine, they will be right where you left them when you get back, and you will be ready for them with your newly discovered knowledge. If they are not strong, they were not meant to last anyway. You must understand that none of this is under your control." It was like listening to some sort of prophecy, listening to a possible answer to all my pre-departure anxiety. As if she had not affected me enough, the wisdom kept flowing: "Yoga will quiet your mind. You are thinking too much. Thinking confuses things. Your confusion will confuse others. It's all quite simple if you allow it to be."

The conversation (more like a monologue actually) continued in this fashion as we soared over oil country, divulging the secrets of relationships and marriage, men and female dynamics in India, the struggles of bi-nationality, and methods of education. I chimed in every now and then, but mostly I was asking leading questions unintentionally. She responded fully and completely to each of my inquiries, feeding me her life's accumulated knowledge but with no pressure for me to adopt it as my own philosophy. Talking about serendipity during such a serendipitous discussion was bizarre. Eventually I expressed to her that this felt to me like one of those predestined moments, meant to shape me in some way. She sort of brushed off the comment, probably to avoid flattering herself. "I'm just a housewife. I watch Opera, Discovery, National Geographic, and the headlines occasionally,". You're more like Moses watching your staff part the Red Sea, I wanted to reply.

But before I knew it, the captain was on the load speaker announcing our proximity to 110-degree Delhi. [i]Octopus[\i] (rhymes with Moses) had successfully prophesied for the duration of the second leg of my trip. She gave me her window seat so that I could observe the sprawling city, and we sat in silence for the remainder of the ride chewing my Orbit gum and trying not to let our eardrums explode under pressure. Before getting off the plane, she tidily etched her address in my Moleskin journal and gave me a heartfelt hug goodbye. "See you in two months for coffee," I said sincerely.

"Yes," she replied with a smile. "Welcome to India."

Posted by pack_it_in 07:15 Archived in India Comments (0)

Graduating to the Ashram chapter of life


sunny 32 °C

Graduating from college was one of the strangest things I've ever experienced. Part of it was probably that I thought I would be immune to the whole extravaganza, having recently been outside the Wesleyan bubble and surviving to tell the tale. These past weeks prove that no matter how many days you've spent thousands of miles from campus, it's always going to be a shock to say goodbye to good friends for a while, and to the majority of people, forever. The worst part of it all was that the whole week before graduation was so chaotic that I didn't realize the full extent of what was going on until I was sobering up at the ceremony, around noon on Sunday, May 22nd. There's Paul Farmer regaling the tales of his remarkable achievements in Haiti, people all around me are nodding off to his jokes, and all I can think about is how the hell I'm going to pack my house in 24 hours while spending final moments with my family from the last four years. Well, I'm not quite sure how it happened but here I am less than a week later at my parents house packing yet again. This time I only get to stuff a backpack, and instead of getting in a car down the Jersey Turnpike I'm boarding a plane to Delhi. Uhh... what?!?!

So yeah. Apparently I will be in India this Saturday afternoon. As hard as it might have been to comprehend pulling out of Middletown for the last time, it's nearly impossible for me to conceive how drastically my life is about to change this time around. I will have a single day to digest the rumored insane northern indian capital before I board a train north to Rishikesh, a town at the foot of the Himalayas and the shores of the Ganges. Whenever I think about the train ride, the Wilson brothers pop into my head acting out a scene to the Darjeeling Limited. Doubtful that my experience will be anything like a Wes Anderson movie, but the point was to illustrate what a vague/nonexistent image I have of the place I'm about to travel to. This mythical train supposedly will take me to Rishikesh, the home of the Ashram that's hosting me for the next couple of months. The goal is to leave Rishikesh a human pretzel. Pretzel: Noun. Colloquialism for an International Yoga Instructor.

See you in 3 days, two flights, and a dozen timezones.

Posted by pack_it_in 23:16 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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