Tag Archives: India

because my spirit moves me

…because my 55th year on this planet will be a year of world travel for me….touching ground in 7 countries in 9 weeks…from here to Abu Dhabi to India to either Qatar or Dubai to Kenya to Zanzibar to Tanzania, back to Kenya and then landing somewhere in Europe before flying home….

…because plans are in the works to teach in Australia and Bali next year….

…because I was given travel brochures from Spain and was told “put your group together and go for it”, “it” being a yoga retreat in the Pyranees, in a place where there are no border guards and you can walk back and forth from Spain to France…another sign that this is what I am meant to do….

…because I saw the movie Julie & Julia yesterday, a movie about two women — one young, one who was my age when she found herself — finding their passions and rebirthing themselves….

…because I will anoint myself with water from the holiest river in India….

…because I dance with wildness knowing that I would rather fail at the right thing than succeed at things that are not right for me….

…and because I like Dead Can Dance.

enjoy.

The Invitation
(Oriah Mountain Dreamer)

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon…
I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shriveled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.


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random musings: life, connections, India

I read Why India? this morning and left a comment for Braja. I told her that she was preaching to the choir (and thank you, Braja, for posting that awesome pic that I liberated — that little pic says it all for me!)

Why India indeed? Braja wrote about it — I listened to a deep, inexplicable stirring inside me and I went, alone. I was 51 and had never been overseas anywhere in my life. I told my husband (who for an entire year before I went was very negative and not supportive of my decision whatsoever) that nothing and no one will stop me because the feeling I had was so intense. That sense of urgency is called samvega and if I have to explain it to you, you wouldn’t understand. You just have to feel it and know it in your core. And when you feel it, there is no turning back.

It was my karma. The minute I set my foot on Indian soil at 2 am outside the Chennai airport and walked into a sea of brown faces I knew I had come home. It was primal, visceral, certainly a past life thing, and there has not been a single day since 2005, not one, that I do not think of Ma India. That’s me in the photo, upon first seeing the temple in Gangaikondacholapuram. I stood there amazed. The shakti was palpable.

Now I am planning my fourth trip for January 2010 and I’ll be moving out of my comfort zone of South India. My friend and I decided to visit Kolkata. We’ll be there for about 8 days before moving on to Delhi and then taking the train to Haridwar — where the Ganga spills out of the Himalayas — for the Maha Kumbh Mela. Yup, us and about 50 million of our closest friends. We will be there on a most auspicious day, Mahashivaratri, Shiva’s day, and I will be there when he dances. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but for about the last two years I have felt in my bones (just like I knew I was going to India) that something will happen for me there. A few weeks ago a spiritual adept confirmed my intuition, and if it happens, it happens. I won’t say what she said, you will have to wait until I get back. If I come back. My students and my friends know there is always that chance.

So I’ve been very pensive these few days. The details of my African yoga retreat are being finalized, and since finishing my latest training I can now fully concentrate on my India trip. The line from a Grateful Dead song keeps going through my head, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” Indeed.

Yesterday as I walked to the Chicago yoga studio where I trained I thought about how nervous I was on the first day of training, a mere 7 years ago. Now I am planning my fourth trip to India, I’m leading a yoga retreat in Africa in February, and I might be teaching in Australia next May. I’ve created my own holistic healing modality, a combination of my Phoenix Rising training and yoga therapy teachings from the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, and firmly grounded in insight meditation and mindfulness practice. And yes, I’m trademarking the name, I’m going to play the American yoga game at least in that respect. Seven years. “They” say we go through major changes every seven years.

And those connections we make. I’ve always said that I feel more connected to the global yoga community via this blog than I do to yoga people in my own backyard. For one thing I’ve received more support from people who I’ve never met than from people who know me here. Funny how that works. People like Kevin who paid my deposit to the ashram I was going to study at but then changed my mind (yes, he got his money back from the shady swami.) We’ve never met but he paid a deposit. That’s trust.

People like Nadine who calls me one of her “yoga mothers.” We’ve never met but we both attended KYM at different times so we have the same yoga sensibility (and we both love love love Mark Whitwell.) Nadine hooked me up with the woman who can make my Australia teaching possible. But me, a “yoga mother”? I cried when I read that because I am only a mother to cats. Most people I know would never think of me as mother material, in fact, they’d snort and laugh and roll their eyes at the thought. But what they don’t know about me….it’s their own avidya.

And of course dear Svasti. We are both survivors and connected in that way. She said, “I have this theory about the little blog world here…that it’s made up of similarly disaffected people, who get it because that’s also been their experience.”

Yeah, I get it. Connections. There are others and I hope you know who you are.

None of this is lost on me. Life is ebb and flow. Some of us have some pretty heavy karma to burn through in this life. There are no accidents and all things happen for a reason even if we don’t know the reason at the time. The realizations I’ve had in these last seven years, well, let’s just say that if I died tomorrow (and I am very comfortable meditating upon my own death), I would be happy. Very happy. And grateful.

It’s all so connected, it’s all so real to me: yoga is life.

What’s so hard to understand?

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The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India

I want to give a shout-out to a new book written by my blog pal, Shelley Seale. The Foreward is by Joan Collins with endorsements by Geralyn Dreyfous (Executive Producer of Born Into Brothels), Kate Dancy (Save The Children), Dominique Lapierre (Author of City of Joy) and more. I first “met” Shelley through her blog The Weight of Silence — we both share a love of Ma India that is primal.

Shelley first went to India to volunteer with a children’s charity and fell in love with India and its people. I know how she feels because when you travel to India you are inevitably surrounded by begging children wherever you go. It’s been three years since I saw this girl in Pondicherry and the photo still haunts me…those are my rupees in her hand.

Shelley’s book is available in stores right now. Buy her book, donate money, help the children of India.

You can read an excerpt from Shelley’s book here.

Q&A with Shelley Seale author of The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India

1. What is the book about?

By now, everyone had either seen, or at least heard of, the movie Slumdog Millionaire, about the lives of two brothers who come from the slums of Mumbai – made even more desperate after they are orphaned. What many don’t know, however, is that for 25 million children in India, the harsh world depicted in the movie is their everyday reality. Yes, that’s 25 million kids who have been orphaned, abandoned or trafficked. My book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, follows my journey over the past four years into the streets, orphanages and slums of India where these children live without families or homes of their own. I became immersed in their world, a witness to their struggles – but also their joys, their incredible hope and resilience that amazed me time and time again. The ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. My sole purpose in writing this book was to give these millions of children a voice that could be heard by others in the world who, I was convinced, would be as moved by their plights as I was.

2. When did you first go to India, and why?

One day in early 2004 I was paging through a local magazine when an article grabbed my attention. It told the story of Caroline Boudreaux, who had visited India three years earlier and happened upon an orphanage full of children living in incomprehensible conditions. She had returned home and started the Miracle Foundation, a nonprofit which raises money and recruits sponsors to help support the home. I began volunteering for the organization and sponsored a child, and Caroline invited me to go to India with a volunteer group. My first visit was in March 2005.

3. How did you first start thinking about writing this book?

When I arrived that first time, I assumed all the kids there were orphans in the true sense of the word – their parents had died. Instead I was shocked by how many of them had been “orphaned” by poverty; their parents had left them at the Miracle Foundation home because they were too poor to feed them, which in some ways seemed an even greater tragedy. I wondered when each of them had stopped wanting to go back home, or if they ever had. Many of them had also been affected by other issues such as disease or child labor and trafficking; some had been found living on the streets.

As I bore witness to the harm that lay in each of them because of their pasts, as I discovered the stories behind the faces and the names, there was simply no way to go on with my life afterwards as if they did not exist. So I embarked on a three-year journey researching the issues, traveling throughout India and talking to many professionals and those working in the trenches to uphold these children’s rights and improve their futures. I could see that they were “invisible” children, without a real voice of their own. My sole purpose in writing the book was to give these millions of children a voice that could be heard by others in the world who, I was convinced, would be as moved by their plights as I was.

4. How did you involve your daughter in your work?

When I first went to India in 2005 and the idea for this book was planted, my daughter Chandler was a 14-year-old junior high student. Like most typical teenagers, she paid little attention to my volunteer work with the Miracle Foundation – until I actually went to India.

When I returned, Chandler was pretty excited and enthralled by my photographs and the stories I told her. That fall she started at a new high school that was very progressive, featuring a Global Citizen class and a spring “project week,” in which students were given a week off regular class schedules to complete a project of their own design. Some students made videos or art projects, others did community service. Between the school’s focus on social and political issues and living in Austin among a set of friends with broad viewpoints of the world, Chandler decided that her project week would be India – going on the volunteer trip and compiling a photo journal of the experience.

Chandler already had a broader sense of the world than I had at her age, and a compassionate nature. I yearned to foster that seed in her. I thought, what an incredible blessing it would be for a person to grow into adulthood without the blinders, without the sense that the small corner of the world she knew was the only one there was. I knew she would be enriched by the experience, and I also knew it was a gift she would not take lightly. And so I returned to India exactly one year after my first trip, with Chandler in tow. It was such an amazing journey for both of us. The look on her face our first day with the children beat any day I had ever spent with her in my life, after the day she was born. She never once complained about the heat, the dirt, the food, the place we stayed…you have to know that this was not Mumbai, this was a tiny, poverty-stricken, rural village. She didn’t want to come home and cried when we left – as we drove away from the orphanage on our last night, at the hotel, on the airplane.

5. What was a pivotal moment in writing The Weight of Silence?

I was about halfway through the book when I attended the Prague Summer Workshop for writers in the Czech Republic, in July 2007. There I was part of a nonfiction manuscript workshop with about ten other writers. I couldn’t really figure out how to integrate the personal journey and story part of the book, with the bigger picture research and statistics about the issues affecting these kids. It was unbelievably helpful to get objective input into what worked and what didn’t, from people who didn’t know me at all and hadn’t read the manuscript before. And learning what worked – it was almost magical, sitting there listening to the other participants read aloud the passages that they loved. It was like an “a-ha” moment; I knew exactly how it was supposed to flow, exactly how the finished book would read.

6. There is so much poverty and plight in the U.S.…what drew you to India?

This is one of the most frequent questions I’m asked: Why India? You’re right, there is much poverty and need in the U.S., and we must all be aware and active in the struggles against poverty, racism, sexism, social inequities and other challenges that create vast problems right here at home. I believe that, and I am also involved in a huge amount of work on behalf of foster children and children’s rights in the U.S.; I donate much money to these causes and volunteer hundreds of hours a year here at home. I truly believe it is all of our obligation as citizens. It’s not like I think only India has children in need.

My simple answer to the question “Why India” is, why not? Once I got involved and then traveled to India and the orphanages myself, and began researching the issues for my book, the vast differences between children’s issues and lives in the two countries were glaring. Extreme poverty in India is not the same as poverty in the United States. And there are very little, if any, safety nets for the children who fall through the cracks. Although we have vast problems as well, millions of children in the U.S. aren’t threatened by malaria and tuberculosis, denied their entire educations or trafficked – sold into factories or domestic labor if they’re lucky, to brothels if they’re not. A childhood cannot wait for the AIDS epidemic to subside, for poverty to be eradicated, for adults and governments to act, for the world to notice them. And quite simply, because those twenty-five million children exist.

7. Do you worry about being a non-Indian writing about these issues?

Yes, I am very aware of being a westerner writing about India, and am quite direct in the book about its purpose not being to tell Indians how to solve their own problems. My only desire was to give a strong and hopeful voice to these children. Foreigners, including myself, do not and cannot know what is best for India. It is not a matter for us to come and instruct or order; for efforts undertaken in that way, no matter how well intentioned, will always fail in their arrogance. Foreigners rarely fully understand the society they think to “improve,” and the potential for imposing their own cultural bias can result in negative consequences for those whose lives they seek to change. We should come to listen, to learn, to assist where and when asked; and so the goal of this book is simply to allow us to hear what those voices have to say.

8. Who has inspired you on this journey?

From a very early age, my grandparents and parents always inspired me. I have the most wonderful, close, loving family who have always supported me unconditionally. It’s an amazing gift, which is why it breaks my heart to see other children go through life without that. While writing the book, there were so many people along the way who inspired me and have become my heroes. Caroline Boudreaux was the first one – this woman gave up a very successful television advertising career after meeting a group of orphans, by chance, on one evening – and dedicated the rest of her life to supporting them and ensuring their fundamental rights. Dr. Manjeet Pardesi, her Director of Operations in India, has a similar story – he left behind a successful accounting business in Delhi to open and run an orphanage and home for unwed mothers hundreds of miles away.

Outside of the social workers and professionals, there were so many people who awed me with the lives they laid bare to me. One woman in particular in Vijayawada in Central India, named Durgamma. This woman lives in a slum village that has been completely devastated by AIDS, which has wiped out a large portion of the middle generation there. What it has left behind are dozens of families in which grandparents are raising their grandchildren, after their own children have died of AIDS. This type of household is so prevalent there that the women have developed “Granny Clubs” to support each other. Durgamma is trying her best to raise her two young grandsons – one of whom is HIV-positive. She is a stooped, elderly woman who can barely walk, and yet she may be one of the strongest women I have ever met.

9. If you had one wish what would it be?

That there was never a reason for me to have written this book in the first place – that as I sit here and complete this interview, there aren’t currently 25 million children living in orphanages or on the streets in India. All lives, no matter where they are lived, have equal value. All children are born with fundamental rights – to food, clean water, medical care, education, and a home. It’s up to us to ensure those rights – as well as that most basic of rights – a childhood. Once it’s gone, that childhood can never be regained. Let’s not wait until it is too late.

10. What do you hope the readers “take away” from your book?

Two things. First of all, that even though the topic is serious and the stories often heartbreaking, it is not a depressing book or subject! These kids, and their stories, are incredible and awe-inspiring, hopeful and inspirational. In my journeys over the last three years into the orphanages, slums, clinics and streets of India I have become immersed in dozens of children’s lives. Their hope and resilience amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. Even in the most deprived circumstances they are still kids – they laugh and play, they develop strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give. The issues are tough, what has happened to a lot of these kids makes you want to cry – but the bottom line of their stories is a very strong, hopeful voice.

Second, just to get involved and do something; to realize that just a little bit can move mountains. Too often, I think the natural inclination of most of us in the face of some of the large problems in the world is to become overwhelmed and throw up our hands in despair. They seem insurmountable. But the truth is, the smallest actions can make the biggest difference in just one person’s life, and if you can affect one person’s life, it is the world to that person. Most of us could never sell all our belongings and go work in the trenches in India, but that doesn’t mean we should think, then, that we can’t do anything at all. Amazing things can be done that aren’t difficult at all. A reader doesn’t even have to come away from my book and do something about India – I think the key is to discover what you are passionate about, what you have genuine feelings and caring about – and then do something about that issue. But just do something.

11. If you could ask people reading this to do one thing, what would it be?

Give these children a voice by reading their stories. And, as I said, find the something that is “your thing” and take action to make a difference in someone’s life. Remember, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”


Slum boy using garbage for a toy, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, 2008


Slum children, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, 2008

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home is where the heart is


I have been reading this blog occasionally but have recently been hitting on it more and more (I’ve blogrolled it.) I like to go back and read the very early posts of a newly discovered blog just to get an introduction to the blogger. When I read what I’ve quoted below I thought, oh my god, thank you, thank you, thank you…

The thing is, I belong here. It claimed me, India. The first time I smelled it in the Delhi airport at 1am on a cold January morning; the first time I slid into the back seat of an Ambassador taxi, booked into a true-blue Indian darmashala, sipped chai from a roadside stall, got gut-wrenching dysentry, cried in a temple because I found myself, laughed with a crazy local villager who insisted he was Krishna and dressed like him every day, put my back out on a rickshaw ride from hell, slid into the purifying waters of a holy pond at Govardhan Hill, and bent down and touched the soft, powder-like dust on the ground of the spiritual centre of the universe, Radha-kunda…all these things claimed me and made me their own. Those holy towns left images in my memory; as I paid my obeisance in temples, the ancient floors left impressions in my body that leaked into my heart and remain there still. Home is where the heart is? Yes…

I had never been overseas in my life until I went to India, alone, at age 51, to study at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai. As soon as I stepped onto Indian soil as I walked out of the Chennai airport at 2 AM, it hit me: I had come home. The feeling was primal. Crying in temples because deja vu overwhelmed me? Oh, yeah.

Thank you, Braja, for bringing back my first night in India. There has not been one single day since September 2005 that I do not think about Ma India and count the days until I can run into her arms again.



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the beauty of India

Originally uploaded by snonymous at IndiaMike.com

snonymous said:

“Beautiful and unexpected performance by a pair of white peacocks at the Byculla zoo in Mumbai, April 2009.

Repeat performance on 3 May 2009.

I usually do not look at the caged animals at the zoo which I visit purely to enjoy the rare and varied flora, for which it is a treasure house.

This spectacle however, earned my rapt attention.

The green hue is due to the strong mid summer morning sunlight filtering through the green fiberglass translucent roof of the cage.”

We’re so accustomed to the brilliant colors of India that seeing something absent of color is shocking! The peacock’s full performance is here.

Beautiful albino peacock!

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India stories: It’s a mad mad mad mad Madurai


The day I left for Madurai I went to a beauty salon to get mehndi on my feet. The salon ladies were fascinated by my tattoos and they were admiring them when the owner walked in. She was a big woman wearing a beautiful hot pink sari and heavy with gold jewelry — her personality matched her appearance. She shoved her way through the crowd saying, “I want to see everything!” She stuck her finger in the air and announced, “I want to learn this!”, as if learning the art of tattooing is the easiest thing in the world.

They caught a glimpse of my shoulder tattoo. I did not plan to take off my clothes but the owner commanded, “Take off top, BE FREE, BE FREE!” I wore a camisole underneath so I removed the top of my salwar kameez. Everyone gushed over the intricate flower vines surrounding a colorful butterfly.

Then they saw the large sun/moon tattoo peeking above the waistband of my salwar and two women began to pull it down. The moon has eyes and a Nepali woman loved it so much that she kissed her fingers and touched my tattoo. “The eyes is talking to me, the eyes is talking to me,” she said as she repeatedly kissed her fingers and touched the eyes of the moon.

Women took pictures of my tattoos, the mehndi was started, and the Nepali woman drew my tattoos in a sketchbook. She told me that she loves tattoos and wants to become a tattoo artist, but there is no place in Chennai to learn. The women asked if I wanted to get my nose pierced and the Nepali woman confided that some Indian women get their nipples pierced. “But only married ladies after one baby,” she said very seriously. I loved that she was so open with me, a westerner whom she would never see again. I was just one of the girls that afternoon.

That night I left on the 9:30 train to Madurai and as I sat alone in my berth two young men in their 20s came in. When they saw me they looked as if I had lifted up my kurta to flash them. Their mouths dropped open in unison and they did not say a word. I thought their reaction strange and I felt like saying, “Hello, boys, you’ve never seen a woman before?” I said hello in Tamil and smiled. They sat across from me and as I sat across from them with a half smile on my face they tried to look anywhere but at me.

I’ve been told that sometimes this is typical male behavior when so close to a woman, especially one as strange as me — western, a tattooed ageless hippie chick, dressed in Indian clothes, and bold enough to look them in the eye. I’ve also been told that some young Indian males are starved for any kind of interaction with the opposite sex — usually there is no premarital sex and there is hardly any communication between boys and girls at school. Growing up like this leaves men clueless as to how to behave and some also believe the misconceptions about western women.

At the last minute an older man sat next to me and I said, “We’re all going to be just cozy now, aren’t we?” The young men again looked like I had not only flashed them but also blew them a kiss. At least the older man had the manners to say hello to me. These boys looked so nervous I felt sorry for them. They finally got their act together, i.e., making sure they never looked at me, and we all settled into our berths for the overnight train ride.

As the train pulled into Madurai in the morning, the older man wished me a nice day and the boys tripped all over themselves in a rush to get out. I was sure that this was the first time they had slept so close to a woman.

After a nine hour train ride I was in no mood for nonsense, but I was instantly accosted by a dozen auto rickshaw drivers, so much so that a station security guard told them to leave me alone. I chose one driver and as we walked through the phalanx of drivers they started to laugh and yell, “here madam, here madam, you want ride, madam?” “That’s it,” I said as I threw down my bag. I spun around and yelled loud enough to make the street dogs run: “ENOUGH OF THIS BULLSHIT!” That got everyone’s attention and I never saw a gaggle of drivers shut up so quickly. “No tension, madam, no tension, come with me,” my driver said. That was more like it and when we got to the hotel I paid him more than what we agreed to.

I stayed exactly 90 minutes at the guesthouse that was closest to the great temple. I took the recommendation of a well-known guide book and I decided that the writer must have been hallucinating from too many bhang lassis when he wrote the review.

I don’t mind cheap hotels in India but I draw the line at towels that looked like they were used to wash a car and greasy hair stains on the pillows. The place was disgusting. It looked like a room for serial killers to hold up during their rampage. The guts hung out of the air conditioner in the “deluxe AC room.”

The room was considered “deluxe” because you could walk out onto the roof of the floor below for a fabulous view of the temple. However, the window did not lock so anyone on that roof could crawl into your bed. The room also had a frosted glass door so it was not safe for a solo female traveler. When a man tried to get into my room about a hour after I checked in, I asked for another room but it had the same greasy towels and pillow cases. I got out, losing 500 rupees, and moved to a better hotel. I learned a valuable lesson for future trips to India: always look at the room before you hand over the rupees.

My first day in Madurai and now I knew why some westerners had that glazed “dead man walking” look in their eyes. It’s a defense mechanism – act deaf, dumb, and blind and maybe you’ll be spared from the incessant touts. I met nice old men who told me their life stories, and how America is a great country, and how their brother/uncle/son/cousin/sister’s husband has a clothes/jewelry/art/silver shop with a great roof top view of the temple, “just look, madam, no buy.”

The market across from the temple was filled with stalls of all types of merchandise and a great place to see those dead men walking. I ended up telling shop keepers and touts, “I’m a poor yoga teacher, no money” or “YOU buy ME something?” or “It’s against my religion.” The last story always worked. I also ended up with a screaming migraine headache from the constant harangue of “just look, no buy” and the heat and the closeness. I went back to my room, turned up the AC, put a cold cloth on my head, and didn’t wake up until the evening.

My second day was spent at the Gandhi museum, an inspiring and peaceful place where about 100 schoolgirls were more interested in me than in learning about their own history. The girls were sitting on the floor listening to the curator as I walked in. He immediately stopped talking and all heads turned around at the same time to look at me. I smiled and brought my hands to my chest and bowed. Everyone said hello to me in English, and I responded with a loud vanakkam. They exploded in laughter and with a big smile the curator asked, “What country, madam? America or UK?” “America.” “Ah, America!” Bigger smiles all around. Their teachers had their hands full trying to keep order all because of me.

As I walked around the exhibits I felt the schoolgirls’ eyes on me. I turned around and the girls would giggle. “Shhhh,” I said, putting my finger to my lips. “Read your history, don’t look at me.”, I told them with a wink. Occasionally I would feel a light touch on my back and I would turn around and a hand would cover a mouth, a giggle unsuccessfully suppressed.

My last day in Madurai was spent on a tour bus. An Indian tour bus is usually not decked out with plushy seats, air-conditioning, and a restroom – most of our seats were ripped and frayed but adequately comfortable. Sometimes you have the pleasure of listening to music played full blast through a shabby speaker, driver’s choice of music of course. I settled in and waited for the day’s adventures.

Once again I was the only westerner and I noticed that everyone had the same reaction to the condition of the bus. They walked up the stairs, stopped, looked around at the frayed seats, and either gulped or sneered. Off we went, all windows open to the Madurai heat and dust.

I don’t remember exactly what was on the tour, I just enjoyed riding around with a bus load of Indian tourists. Every time we stopped the driver would announce in Tamil where we were and how long we would be there. At the first stop I asked him how long and he sneered at me and grunted. I was on my own. I knew that if I did not get back in time, I would be left in the street. Finally a man told me in English “20 minutes” and at every stop I would look at him and he would smile and tell me how long we would be.

I loved the vignettes framed by the bus window. I saw a huge ram with massive horns sleeping peacefully in the gutter while a woman carefully swept the street around him; two flower sellers with their carts, talking quietly, engrossed in conversation as only women can be, as a street goat happily munched the flowers from one cart.

It was a lazy day and the only excitement we had was when the driver took a curve too fast and I felt the tires on my side of the bus lift up for about three seconds. People started to scream and the woman next to me flew out of her seat. She would have landed in the aisle had I not caught her sari and pulled her back down. I practiced equanimity — if I die in India so be it. I started to doze as the passengers yelled at the driver.

At one stop we were besieged by begging children, girls and boys. I saw that Indians rarely gave to beggars, so when a beggar sees a feringhi it’s an onslaught of constant cries for money. Trapped on a bus, I was ripe for the picking. I sat next to the rear door and it was the perfect place for a little girl to plant herself on the steps in front of me with her hand out with a constant cry that sounded like “ma” over and over and over again.

You need a thick skin to handle the beggars in India, even if they are children. I was not in the giving mood so I ignored her and stared out the window. Occasionally I would look at her and shake my head and tell her no in Tamil, but she never stopped. Every Indian also ignored her, but I had an idea. I pointed to each person on the bus and told her “ask him” or “ask her” and rubbed my fingers together, the universal sign for money. I said, “They give rupees, I give rupees”. She left me and went over the Indians. That finally got everyone’s attention, and when she started harassing the Indians, a woman said something and she left. The bus finally started and as we left I looked back to see the begging children swarm the next group of tourists, like yellow jackets to fresh meat.

Late at night when everyone was tired, hungry, and complaining we stopped at a Murugan temple, our last stop, and most of the passengers did not get off the bus. The temple would have been the highlight of my day because it is a very important temple, one of the six abodes of Lord Muruga, an important Hindu god worshiped in south India. It is huge temple carved into rock, but it was impossible to explore in the time we had, so I had to be satisfied with a quick walk-through. I should have planned my last day more carefully, but I wanted to leave the planning to someone else, even if it was a bus driver who spoke no English. Go with the flow, there will be a next time, and I remembered the words of the Chennai beauty shop owner, “be free, be free.”

We headed back to Madurai, everyone quiet now for the ride home. Despite the heat, the dust, a migraine headache, and the incessant touts that I experienced over the last few days, I again felt at peace here on a bus with strangers in a strange city in a strange land and I almost fell completely asleep.

We were in Madurai and I woke up to people screaming at the driver again. Apparently he wasn’t dropping people at their hotels, he was dropping people off wherever he felt like it. It was late, and the streets were crowded with people walking to the temple so the bus driver had trouble getting through the streets. I watched everything with detachment, watching group dynamics and mentally placing bets on who would win.

Every few blocks he would kick people off the bus, and the people would complain as they flagged down autorickshaws. Finally it was me and an older couple. I got off the bus and the husband started to argue with the driver. There was much hand waving and head wobbling, but the driver won and the husband finally got off. The bus left and the three of us stood in the middle of the street. Suddenly they spoke to me in perfect English, complaining about the bus and the driver. How funny that they never said a word to me all day yet we had sat across the aisle from each other.

I returned to my hotel and spent the rest of the evening in the roof-top restaurant, looking out over the temple complex and thinking about what India had taught me so far – more patience, how to be in the present moment, and detaching from the outcome. Anyone on the yoga path knows that these qualities sink a bit deeper into the consciousness the longer one does the work. But somehow, being in Ma India, my heart could open more fully, just as the lotus opens its petals as it rises out of the mud to reach for the glorious sun.

Goodbye Madurai. OM MURUGA, lead me from the darkness and into the light.

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India stories: I Heart Rameswaram

Writing the last post made me think of my own India stories. I leave for Spirit Rock this weekend and will be gone for 15 days so I decided to re-post one India story a day for your reading pleasure.

I entered these stories in a travel writing contest sponsored by a travel website (I didn’t win so I’m not mentioning the name!) The grand prize was a trip to Machu Picchu and the other prizes were bags — I would have been happy with a bag! I wasn’t bummed out when none of my stories were selected because I know they kick ass anyway.

India is definitely not for everyone, but it must be in my DNA because as soon as my foot hit Indian soil (my first overseas trip, alone, at the delicious age of 51), I felt like I had come home. There has not been one single day since 2005 that I have not thought about Ma India. Not one. Not even when I returned from my third trip in January 2008 with virulent salmonella food poisoning. I flew 18 hours from India sicker than a mangy Indian street dog — I almost passed out in the Chennai airport before I even got on the plane.

I used to be a moderator of the best India travel website in the world , a site with over 30,000 members, each one with their own story about India, and most, I’m sure, with a love/hate relationship with India. Last year one of my teachers told me that I’m a native now — that the first time you go to India you’re a little scared and apprehensive; the second time you love it and you want to stay forever because nothing is ever wrong; the third time you begin to see things as a native does — the good, the bad, the horrible, the indifference, the enthralling, and the enchanting. India in all its glory. Last year instead of people asking me “what country, madam?”, people asked me, “do you live here, madam?” Ahhhhh….I had finally arrived.

In an old post I wrote: “India has her hooks in me like an old lover — an old lover who you’ve told yourself that you never want to be with again but who keeps re-appearing like a hungry ghost tapping on your shoulder, and no matter how fast you run you can never escape him because he is a part of you forever. You know this and you hate it but you love it all at the same time.”

India nourishes me and I need to visit Ma India as much as I need the air to live. One of my favorite bloggers once wrote: “…if I don’t follow my Heart, I will lose a piece of my aliveness. It doesn’t take too many compromises to become a walking dead person…”

So these stories are not about your India or her India or his India. This is MY INDIA and I count the days until I am in her arms again.

Shanti.

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I arrived in Rameswaram about 3 pm on a Saturday after a 7 hour car ride from Kodaikanal. The ride was interesting as I watched India flash by. . .caught in a cattle crossing, eating lunch for 10 rupees at a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere where the proprietor took me in his kitchen to show me what he was cooking since he did not speak English. I can’t remember what it was called, all I remember is that it was delicious. I was starving and inhaled the meal as all four people in the restaurant stood around my table with big smiles watching me eat.

I arrived at the Hotel Tamil Nadu, showered, and took a nap. I woke up about 5 pm and planned to walk to the temple and find dinner. The phone rang and being alone in India, getting a call was shocking. A man told me “if you want to see the temple, I can take you.” Still groggy from my nap, I thought how did he know that’s what I’m going to do? I babbled something like who are you, who’s calling, where are you, whaaaat….? The man said he was downstairs at the desk, and I said, yeah, whatever, and hung up.

I got downstairs, still trying to wake up, and the clerk was behind the desk with another man. I had my torn out page from the Rough Guide that said “R. Kannan, who can also be contacted through the Hotel Tamil Nadu, happily gives foreigners advice, even if they do not use his services.” I asked the clerk if he knew R. Kannan, and he pointed to the man who appeared to be waiting for me and said, “this is Kannan”. Wow. He materialized out of nowhere. But how did he know exactly what time I was going to leave? Ah…delicious serendipity. No….most likely he got the call, “feringhee in da house, come on over!” I stood there, thinking go with the flow, whatever happens tonight, happens.

As it turned out, I spent four hours with Kannan that night. We went to the Gandhamadana Parvatam, where I took pictures of a beautiful sunset, and to the Nambunayagi Amman Kali Temple, where I saw a man with a pet egret, and sat with him as he fed it worms he dug out of the sand. Kannan and I planned my weekend all within one hour — I was to spend it with him.

As we were driving back, Kannan asked me if I wanted to see the children dance — of course I did! We stopped at what looked like a school, the yard filled to the brim with people — local business people, politicians, parents, and children. The little girls were dressed in their beautiful South Indian dance attire, their hair and makeup perfect. One little girl was so beautiful I wanted to take her picture, but there were so many people, I got pushed along with the crowd. We ended up at the back of a long, narrow lot.

So many people, and me, the only westerner, once again. But the difference between where I was now and Kodaikanal in the morning was amazing. The energy, the attitude, the graciousness, was totally different from Kodaikanal. I did not feel claustrophobic here, even in this crowd of people.

We sat down and after a number of speeches, the show began. Little girls and boys dancing beautifully, carefully, with a few missteps that added to the charm, music that blasted my ears. Unfortunately I was sitting too far back to take any decent pictures. Then one group of kids dressed in street clothes started dancing to music I recognized from a Vijay movie. The only Vijay movies I had seen were on the Lufthansa flights from Germany to Chennai, but I know who Vijay is — a very popular Tamil actor. You’ve heard of Bollywood? Tamil movies are Kollywood with their own set of popular stars.

There was a group of boys sitting behind me and as soon as the Vijay music started, they got up on their chairs, and started clapping and dancing, hooting and hollering. I got up and started to take pictures and of course that started a riot. “Madam, Madam, take me, take me!” I yelled “dance like Vijay!”, and put my hand to my forehead in the gesture Vijay uses in his movies. All their eyes got wide and suddenly I was in the midst of hip shaking, pelvic thrusting Vijays. It could not have been choreographed any better. As soon as I took a picture, they ran over wanting to see it, then ran back to dance again. I loved it. Kodaikanal was already a distant memory. The people in the immediate area weren’t watching the stage anymore, they were watching all this commotion and laughing.

We all sat down again to watch the show, and by this time of night, I was exhausted. Kannan asked me if I was OK, and I said we should go back, since I was dead on my feet, and we had an early morning walk to Danushkodi the next day. We started walking toward the front, but people were sitting on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. It was packed and not an inch of space between them. There was no way we could walk out through the front without doing major damage to someone’s hand or foot on the ground. It was also hard to see because it was pitch black with only the lights on the stage.

We turned around and Kannan asked, “can you jump?” “Jump?” “Yes, climb and jump,” and he pointed to the brick wall topped with three strands of barbed wire that was our enclosure. “Sure, why not, what choice do we have?”

Kannan jumped over the wall and I threw him my camera. The wall was about four feet high with barbed wire on top. This woman of a certain age is very flexible so I put one foot on top of the wall. Suddenly I heard a low “ooooohhhhh” coming from all the young Vijays. I grabbed a corner pole as I pulled myself up and put the other foot on top of the wall, straddling the barbed wire. A louder “ooooooohhhhh” now, mass rumbling coming from the Vijays. Louder and louder whispers in Tamil. How often did these boys see an American woman straddling barbed wire on top of a brick wall? Making sure my salwar kameez would not catch on the barbed wire, remembering that I had my tetanus shot, and hoping that I would not land in a big pile of whatever, I lept over and landed on my feet in a beautiful squat on the other side.

The young Vijays exploded. Laughing, clapping, cheering me on, fists pumping in the air yelling “Yes, madam!”, as the music blared and the little girls danced on stage, swirling around in a rainbow of colors.

I turned around, curtsied, and ran into the Rameswaram night.

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upon first seeing the temple

Brihadisvara Temple, Gangaikondacholapuram, Tamil Nadu, India, January 2008

“Yoga is a generic name for any discipline by which one attempts to pass out of the limits of one’s ordinary mental consciousness into a greater spiritual consciousness.”
–Sri Aurobindo


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Ma India, take me home

As I’ve mentioned time and again on this blog, ever since I returned from my first trip to India in 2005 there has never been a day that I do not think of India. it can be a child’s face that flashes through my mind, or something I learned in my yoga classes there, or a smell that makes me remember where I was when I first smelled that smell. a soap or a spice will bring me back. even the clothes that I bought in India still smell “like India.” I brought back a supply of my favorite shampoo and sometimes I sit on my bathroom floor, open up a bottle and sniff…sometimes I cry on my bathroom floor.

I came across the blog of a professional photographer — the photographs of India and Indians are beautiful, so I’ve posted this video he took in Chennai in 2006. I’ve been to Chennai three times and I’ve never visited Marina Beach. I’ve been on the beach in Pondicherry and Rameswaram but never Chennai….next time.

I want to, need to, return to India so badly. now that I am going through some rough emotional times I think even more about being in India, maybe for 6 months out of the year. India is the only place that heals my soul. an Indian friend told me that my heart is calling me to India because I am missing something here that I need very badly.

a regular reader of this blog and his wife will study yoga at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram for one month later this year and then travel to my favorite temple towns. email discussions of their itinerary make my heart ache — I was in Tamil Nadu in January and I can still feel the temple ground beneath my bare feet, the sun on my bare arms, the smell of jasmine in my hair, and the touch of shakti all around me as I sat in temples. even though I returned from India this year sicker than a mangy Indian street dog, I was home less than a week when I started dreaming those Tamil Nadu dreams.

I want to go home. jai Kali ma, take me home.



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nandri!



Nandri is “thank you” in Tamil and I’m thanking Sindhu for giving me these blog awards. nandri, nandri, nandri, Sindhu! hugs to you, my Indian sister! I think you know how I love Tamil Nadu!

Please check out Sindhu’s other blogs, especially Flower Girl’s Rural India and Flowergirl’s Recipes (for all you Indian food lovers.)

Sindhu honored me by asking if I would write something about my Indian adventures so mine was the first post in her Travelogue section of her blog. anytime I feel “homesick” for India (although I’ve only been to Tamil Nadu three times I consider it my second home), I go to Sindhu’s Rural India blog. my most wonderful experiences have been in rural Tamil Nadu, and I’ll tell you a secret: my dream is to open a yoga shala in Kumbakonam, teaching western visitors and helping the locals with therapeutic yoga. sigh…if only…hey, there’s a donation button in the sidebar, hint, hint…maybe I’ll get an anonymous benefactor…sigh….

People talk about wanting to go to India to see the “real India” — people think that the “real India” is all about naked sadhus, spirituality, yoga, and temple incense. but all of India is the “real India” — from the $200 a night hotel rooms to the rich Bollywood movie stars to the street beggars to the naked slum children using garbage for their toys. one of the things that I love about India is that nothing is hidden, everything is in your face 24/7, life and death on the streets. that can be very hard for westerners to get used to, if they ever do, but for me, it is liberation.

you either love or hate India, there is no in between. as soon as I put my feet down on Indian soil, I feel as if I have come home.

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