Saturday, 22 October 2011

7-20 October 2011: Weeks 2 and 3 in Rishikesh

Wow. I'm already halfway done with yoga camp. Classes are getting more difficult and the asanas more advanced. I'm making steady progress in my practice and am starting to attain poses that I previously considered inaccessible. I'm gaining strength, balance, and flexibility daily. I still have a long ways to go--not that there's an ultimate place to "end up"--and plenty of struggles, but I'm satisfied with the growth. I get super frustrated with a pose and then as soon as I stop caring, it just starts to happen. I have native flexibility and pretty strong legs from years of hiking, but my upper body is (was?) fairly weak. It feels good to correct that. I'm also gaining a lot more general body awareness. I feel fantastic physically.

Brief rundown and highlights of the last 10 days or so:

2 early morning dunks in the Ganga, before sunrise, no less
1 trip to a goddess temple situated on a mountain at the end of a tortuous, single lane road
70 muscles (soon to be) memorized
1 sitar, tabla, Indian flute performance
Near daily photo ops with Indian tourists
40 Oms a day, minimum
Countless cups of chai (I'm developing a sugar addiction...):
7 chakras meticulously drawn and colored 
1 reading from a vedic astrologer (I should wear my hair long, I was a dancer in a past life, I will move states and change jobs in the next year, I should teach yoga and become an astrologer, seek self-employment)
1 visit to the now derelict ashram where the Beatles turned on, tuned in, and dropped out

Maharishi's meditation pods

I just found out that the school doesn't have a fridge! Including staff, they're feeding upwards of 60 people 3 meals a day. Pretty impressive.

I love papaya so much. It reminds me a bit of cantaloupe, which I thought I didn't like, but I'm excited to try it again.

I miss my dog. A lot.

I'm so glad I brought my Chacos. I live in them and have only put on sneakers once. They're a lot sturdier than flip flops while still being convenient to slip on and off. 

Today I raft the Ganges. Afterwards, I'm going to an Ashtanga vinyasa class and then out to dinner.

This is the best way to spend $2 in Rishikesh:

Muesli, yogurt, and tons of fruit

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Waterfalls and Holy Nights

The days are starting to run together. The first week of school flew by, yet I feel like I've been here a long time. The posts are going to be short for a while as the minutiae of my day-to-day comes off a bit boring in writing, though it's fascinating and loads of learning for me so far.

The evil Ravana prior to immolation.
Wednesday night we attended Dasara. It was festive and amusing. There was an impressive fireworks display within yards of the crowd. I've never been so close to explosives. In addition, the above statue was filled with fireworks which were set off at the end of the night. He went from statue to a smoldering frame within seconds. It was loud and impressive and made me grateful that I've never seen a war because the lights and sounds and suddenness would surely trigger any latent PTSD. Regulatory bodies in the U.S. would never let this fly.
More monkey. These langurs are not as aggressive as the macaques.
Bathing ghat on the Ganges

Today, Sunday, is our off day and it was awesome! I ended up hiking a couple of miles out of town to some waterfalls with a couple of the women from my class. It felt so, so good to hike and get into nature. I'm consistently surprised by how tropical it looks and feels here. Judging from the native plants (many of which we use in landscaping in Arizona), it never gets below freezing.
Holy calves love bananas.
Hare Shiva
 Tonight, the entire class headed to the river for Ganga Aarti, which is a ceremony performed every evening at sunset. There was lots of singing and chanting as we stood before a statue of Krishna. Even though I didn't know what was going on and the fact that the gods themselves hold no meaning to me, I found myself choked up several times. I think it's just the humanity of this place and the sense of community you feel when sharing an experience that's meaningful to a majority of the participants. The divisions between individuals start to melt away a little. Oh no! India's already making me woo woo and wishy washy. In related news, I've quit shaving for the duration of my stay at the school.

Hairy Jordan

Thursday, 6 October 2011

5, 6 October 2011: Rishikesh

View from the yoga room. There are mountains beyond mountains, but the fog obscures them.
Not much to report. I'm settling into the routine here at the school nicely. I like waking up so early. I like the balance of structured learning/practicing/eating and open free time.

I might look into doing another ashram-type experience once I'm finished here. I'm also looking into WWOOF opportunities in India (working on an organic farm in exchange for room and board). Having spent time in both Delhi and Rishikesh, I definitely prefer smaller communities. The pace is less frenetic and the people less forward and pushy. People invite you into their shops here rather than following you for a quarter mile begging for your patronage. Plus, it's a tourist town and they're very accustomed to Westerners, so there's less obtrusive staring.

Yesterday, I had my eyebrows threaded. It took ten minutes and cost $1. I'm pleased with the results, though the brows are much thinner than I normally shape them. It was more painful than waxing or plucking because she had to keep going over the same areas over and over. I had to hold the skin of my eyelid taught while she threaded. It was a good experience and I'll continue to groom my brows this way for the rest of my stay.

After that, I wandered into the village and sat in a cafe that overlooked the Ganges for an hour drinking a papaya lassi. $0.50.

On my way back to the village, a monkey jumped off a wall and started approaching me. Aggressively. A village woman saw the altercation and successfully chased him off. I'm now a bit less enamored of the wildlife, but that doesn't stop the nervio I experience every time I see a baby monkey. Squee.

My evening asana class is moved up so we can attend Dasara on the river. It's my understanding that a large statue, an effigy of negativity, will be burned at sunset. Needless to say, I'm pretty excited to see this.

Yesterday we watched a documentary called Dirt. The teacher is very passionate about food systems and sustainable agriculture. I didn't expect to be talking about this sort of thing, but it feels like a complementary subject. I'd somewhat lost interest in gardening over the past several months and this program has surprisingly reignited it. I look forward to setting up another garden wherever I end up once I'm back in the states. As an aside, Paul Stamets, my favorite mycologist, was featured in the documentary, and I got a little choked up seeing someone so (tangentially) familiar to me in such a foreign place.

I like living with an international community. I like communal living in general so far, which, as an introvert, is a little surprising. There are students from Iran, Singapore, Holland, England, Russia, Canada, Mexico, China, Malaysia, France, New Zealand, United States, Turkey, and Australia. And those are just the countries I can remember. It's a very positive and open group, and I look forward to getting to know everyone better over the coming months.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

2,3,4 October 2011: Rishikesh

Cabs from Haridwar to Rishikesh were expensive, and I couldn't figure out how to navigate the bus station since all of the signs were in Hindu, so I opted to take a Vikram to Rishikesh. 

The ride was rough and jarring, but the scenery more than made up for it. We quickly started gaining elevation as we entered a valley at the base of the Himalyan foothills. Parts of the drive were densely forested and apparently rife with wildlife.

I had the driver drop me off in downtown Rishikesh and then went into a restaurant to get my bearings. I had my first disappointing meal. The restaurant didn't have a menu so the server verbally told me what was available. I had a hard time understanding him, and he me. I consequently ended up with plain (read flavorless) naan and a bowl of curd. Bland. But it cost less than $1, so I wasn't too upset. 

While studying my map, I realized that I was quite far from the area where I thought the school would be and I didn't feel like walking with my pack. I took a Rickshaw to the other end of town. The yoga school is on the opposite side of the Ganges from Rishikesh proper. The two sides are connected by a footbridge.
View from the bridge. It's always overcast. My camera doesn't do the mountains justice. It's so green and lush.
I crossed the bridge and checked into my cheapest hotel yet: $5. Even though there aren't any road names that I'm aware of here, I had a rough sense of where the school was located. I started heading in its general direction and found it.

I went inside and there were already lots of people milling about. The receptionist told me that I was just in time and that orientation would start in 5 minutes. What dumb luck! I paid my fees and went up to the yoga hall for the orientation, which was really more like an initiation. We watched a puja: lots of chanting and candles and incense. Then we were painted with a red a tilaka and several grains of rice were affixed to the wet paint. Red strings were tied around our wrists. We then ate a devotional candy made of chickpea flour, sugar, and ghee. After that we gathered around the altar (to Saraswati, goddess of wisdom) and individually approached the shrine to swing a Hindu candelabra in front of an image of the goddess. We were then blessed with smoke from the same flames.

After that, there was a brief talk that introduced us to the program. People had arrived days earlier. I didn't realize this. I decided to stay there for the night as classes started at 6 a.m. I needed to pick up my pack at the other hotel first, though. By this time it was 1900. I thought I might be able to make it back by 2000 for dinner. My mental map was faulty, though, and I ended up getting very lost. I finally oriented myself at a neighborhood about 30 minutes walk from my hotel. I felt a bit panicky, but eventually made it back to my hotel. I decided not to brave another night walk, and instead stayed the night in my hotel, leaving at 0500 so as to arrive at the school in time to unpack and start the day.

My room at the school is nice. A big bed, a desk and cabinet, a western toilet, a sink and a shower. I had my first hot shower since arriving in India. The electricity is fickle (it's gone on and off five times since I started writing), but I don't mind.

Here's the daily schedule at the school Monday through Saturday:

0600: Tea
0615: Neti pot
0630: Mantra chanting, asana (physical yoga), meditation
0830: Breakfast
0930: Philosophy
1130: Anatomy
1300: Lunch and break
1730: Mantra chanting, asana, meditation
2000: Dinner

Sundays are free days. I've been talking to some of the girls (I think there are three guys total) about arranging a long day hike one of these Sundays. I think I'll also take a cooking class. That'll be fun!

The long midday break is great. Yesterday I napped because I was absolutely exhausted. Today I went into town and took some passport photos I needed. A local man stamped a bindi onto my forehead for free!

A family stopped me and asked me to meet there little girl. I bought a bar of soap and received a free bag of spices. Being fair and Western makes me both a freak and a sort of celebrity.
The cows are petite.
So far I'm pleased with my experience of the school. The foods good and clean. I'll start taking pictures. I'm so glad to be eating raw fruits and vegetables again. It's all quite light and very healthy. We also get three free glasses of tea a day. I'm hooked on the lemon-ginger-honey variety. We're starting at a very fundamental level with regards to the yoga and will build upon that. I like the teaching methodology and am looking forward to watching my practice grow over the coming weeks. It feels good to be in a structured environment, and I hope I can institute many of the routines I'm establishing here once I'm back home.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

2 October 11: I'm in Rishikesh

Yay! There are monkeys, mountains, the Ganges, forests. And monkeys, did I mention those? I love it. I love India. More to come.

30 September, 1 October 2011: Delhi Delays and Haridwar

Friday night was nice. I changed into my ali baba pants and a t-shirt and wrapped a scarf around my head, indulging my inner gypsy. I spent a few hours on the balcony, watching the city, before heading to yet another rooftop restaurant for dinner. I ate vegetable hadai. Hadai apparently refers to the vessel it's cooked in rather than the dish itself. It was very tasty, and not at all greasy. A perfectly cooked medley of veggies in a thick, spiced tomato sauce.

I'm trying to eat something new every time I go out. I ate it with garlic naan and a chai. $1.60.
It was close to 2200 when I got back to my room. The dhobi-wallah had washed my clothes and they were waiting for me, fresh and pressed. $3. I crashed immediately.

Unfortunately, I woke up around 0200 Saturday morning and couldn't go back to sleep, so I began my day with very little sleep. I skyped and chatted for an hour or two, which was nice. It was the most interaction I've had in days.

My sole agenda for the day was getting to Rishikesh, where, as Sara affectionately/derisively calls it, yoga camp is located. I'd purchased a train seat online last week. The train was booked, so my ticket was wait-listed. From everything I'd read, that's usually an arbitrary distinction and I'd likely have no problem getting a seat, especially if I talked to the International Tourist Office, located within the station.

I packed my belongings and checked out of Rak International. I went back to the cheap South Indian restaurant where I'd had breakfast the morning before and ate a tomato omelet with a sickeningly sweet coffee. Eating vegetarian is so easy compared to a vegan diet. At this point it was about 0930, so I headed over to the train station, very near Paharganj, so as to arrive early and guarantee my seat.

The station's parking lot and entrance hall are full of men trying to convince you that you're going the wrong way. “Come here. Tickets this way.” “Tourist office relocated.” “Where you going? I take you cheaper.” While I didn't do a lot of research into places to visit, I read widely about the culture here and possible obstacles I'd face as a foreigner. I'm glad I did, because it'd otherwise be so easy to be led astray, and while it's not necessarily physically dangerous (generally), it's easy to get ripped off or even outright robbed. I finally made it to the tourist office only to learn that I wouldn't be getting a seat on my train. The Tourist Office has a great in-person reservation system in place, so I filled out some paperwork and queued up. I ended up getting a seat on an afternoon train that'd get me to Haridwar, the closest stop to Rishikesh, in 4 ½ hours. The seat, in an A/C train car, cost $7.

I had 5 hours until my train came but no interest in wandering around a hot, crowded city with all of my belongings on my back, so I opted to hang out in the station all day.

The train station obviously attracts a much broader swathe of Indian humanity than do the more tourist/city-centric areas I'd visited. The people watching was fantastic. Let me mention how pleased I am with the technology I brought. I would feel so isolated without this netbook. And my ipod provides a reprieve from the constant auditory barrage and also discourages interaction. I just pretend not to hear. People watching is great, but people watching while listening to your favorite songs is sometimes transcendent.

In general, despite the crowds, heat, filth, and noise, people seem composed, even when rushing about. I rarely see expressions on faces or in body language that indicate a person is on edge, overextended, anxious. Even the honking, which is constant, is more just social habit than driving aggression. It doesn't say “screw you, man, get out of my way.” It's more like, “here I am. Here I am. Here I am.” The dichotomy of stressful and laid back is interesting to me. Especially since I watched myself getting stressed throughout the day.

The train station consists of 16 platforms. I couldn't find a master schedule that tells which train arrives at which platform, and my ticket was partially in Hindi, so I asked where I would find my train. Platform 15. I found a bench and waited for hours. A train pulled up right on time and I started looking for my car. I then realized that this train was going to Rajasthan, not Haridwar! I ran off the platform and into the main thoroughfare, frantically looking for my train number. Luckily it was only a few platforms over. I didn't have time to make it to car, and had to board at the front of the train, just as it was starting to move. I would've missed it had I been even one minute later. My car was at the opposite end of the train, so I spent the next 20 minutes pushing myself through the crush of people. By the time I found my seat, I was soaked and stinky and exhausted. Also, this was my fourth form of transportation in India in 3 days.

The train moves slowly. I saw a lot of countryside before it got dark. It was incredibly green. While most places along the way weren't crowded, there were no entirely uninhabited stretches. So many people!

Since it would be dark when I arrived, I decided to stay the night in Haridwar instead of pressing on to Rishikesh. I'd studied a map of Haridwar on the train and chosen a cheap hotel close to the station. I didn't want to wander around at night. I was feeling kind of edgy, arriving after dark without a definite sense of where I was going. I ignored the touts and drivers and quickly walked through Haridwar, finding the hotel within 15 minutes. The Himalyan Lonely Planet is apparently very outdated, as they were charging over 4 times what I expected to pay. As tired and frazzled as I was, I still wasn't willing to pay over $20 (!) for a room. I know I'll be exhausted and overheated and exhausted plenty of times on this trip. I can't afford to get into the habit of overpaying for convenience.

It was over an hour until I finally found a place. It was close to $10. So far, India is not as cheap as I expected it to be. Lodging will be cheaper shared as will in-town transportation. The room was comfortable and the proprietor was nice. Soon after checking in, someone started trying to open my door. I got scared and called the office. The owner came up immediately. I guess it'd just been one of the employees checking to see if I needed water. But trying to open the door? Creepy. I was glad there was a deadbolt.

There was a restaurant downstairs and I ate Navratan Korma, which was like a regular vegetable korma, but this one also had pineapple, raisins, and cherries. It was perfect, especially since it was the first thing I'd eaten in over 12 hours. I'm going to head down there now for breakfast, then I'll find a cab to Rishikesh. I'll edit and add images later because my internet connection is sloooow.