Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dear friends,

We have left he hustle and bustle of Bangkok and have currently set up camp (or should we say, set up bungalow) on the tiny island of Koh Tao (with an area of only 20 km²) in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Tao, which literally means “Turtle Island” (Koh=Island, Tao=Turtle), got its name due to the abundance of turtles that used to inhabit the surrounding waters. Nowadays the turtles have been replaced by tourists and the island has become one of the premier dive-sites in Thailand and a major backpacker hangout. Still, some of the more remote parts of the island have been able to retain the peaceful paradise-island feel.

View from our Bungalow

Currently, I am sitting in a comfy lounge-chair on the deck of our little bungalow, which is home not only to us, but to some pretty chilled out lizards that hang out on our ceiling (well, its their ceiling really, we are just borrowing it for a bit). In front of me are clear blue skies, sparkling water, protruding rock formations, and small forests of palm trees. Four of the palm trees stand right in front of me, growing at angles to each other, and just about forming a big letter W. Every time I see them I am reminded of “the big doubleya” from that wonderful old movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” and I am half tempted to descend to the base of the big W, and start digging for hidden treasure.

Our Friendly Upstairs Neighbor

Each palm tree is sheltering a cluster of coconuts right below its plentiful green branches. These coconuts are a major food-staple in all of South-Eastern Asia, going into everything from curries, soups, sauces, salads, drinks, and cocktails. Misha and I have established a morning tradition of drinking one of these enormous coconuts for breakfast. The coconut is picked fresh off the palm tree, and then the top is hacked away by a large machete, revealing the juice that fills the coconut to the brim. The warm coconut juice tastes sweet and nutty, is supposedly super healthy and nutritious, and is incredibly refreshing in the morning. Sure beats a cup of coffee. After the juice is all gone, you can hack off a piece of the coconut shell and use it as a spoon to scoop all the yummy soft coconut pulp lining the inside walls. Yummmm.

A Boat and a Coconut

But watch out… there is a menacing dark side hidden behind the innocent exterior of these large, smooth green orbs. Apparently, some of the coconuts have a homicidal tendency; at least one person a year is killed by a falling coconut hitting the head. Now that you have been warned, remember to avoid sitting or sleeping under a palm tree, and tread carefully every time you’re under one. (I am sure this is awfully useful advice to you New (and Old) Englanders).

Rita Signaling OK Underwater

So here we are. We have traded in the temple hopping in Cambodia for beach bumming in Thailand, and I have to say that as much as I enjoyed the amazing temples of Angkor Wat, I am enjoying this trade. We’ve spent most of our time partaking in the quintessential Koh Tao activity: scuba diving! Misha learned to dive three years ago making him an old pro, but for me it was all new and I am still reeling from the breathtaking first experiences of the underwater world.

Underwater World

The bright coral reefs are brimming with life and light and color, and the underwater life is not shy or much scared of humans (they don’t really see us as a threat) and so have no qualms about coming right up to your face and checking out the crazy diver with the goofy suit and heavy oxygen tank. It’s amazing to be down there in the quiet blue world, suspended in buoyancy between the coral reef floor and the translucent top of the water serving as the ceiling. We’ve seen giant triggerfish, and angelfish, and barracudas, and porcupine fish, giant groupers, stingrays and moray eels, and every type of underwater life imaginable. I swam through giant schools of hundreds and hundreds of scads that formed a sort of superhighway and made me feel like I was in “Finding Nemo”. But the hands down highlight was the awesome whale shark that we were privileged enough to share the waters with for an entire afternoon. The mermaid in me was (and still is!) thrilled.

Whale Shark and Friends

We’ve spent the rest of our time swimming in the obscenely hot water. Swimming is a bit of an overstatement as the beaches here are only a few feet deep for hundreds of meters from the shore. You end up spending most of the time in a lounging position with the shallow water barely covering your shoulders, and crawling around the sandy bottom like a crab. We’ve spent our afternoons playing volleyball with the locals until our arms were purple with bruises. The Thais are scrappy little volleyball players, taking the game rather lightly, laughing, joking, and making fun of each other. It’s a hoot.

Otherwise, we have avoided the touristy party scene filled with smoking and booze, preferring to enjoy the quiet of reading, playing cards, doing crosswords. Yes, we’ve become an old, boring couple, but we kinda like it this way. We just sit around and watch the horizon and the nightly lighting storms that illuminate the dark starry sky, and listen to the soothing sound of the calm ocean waves rolling on the shore. And how could I forget, our most important daily activity: EATING! We have been able to find some excellent Thai food on this island, and still can’t understand why most of the tourists stick to boring second-rate overcooked (but safe?) Western food. Oh well, that just means that there is more for us … more pananag/ massaman/ coconut curries, coconut soups, and papaya salads, and yummy, nutty pad thais, and all that good stuff. Mmmmm… I’m getting hungry just writing about it… I think its time for lunch.

Tomorrow we are leaving this lovely paradise and heading for Indonesia (Bali, Lombok, Gilli Islands, etc). We have a month visa, and will probably only just skim the surface of enormous Indonesia in this time, but it should give us a taste.

~R (and M)

p.s. acouple more general, random observations about Thailand…
First of all there is a 7-11 on every corner. You can’t walk one block without passing at least one of these convenience store mini-marts. Strange, huh? But I have to say, that I have never enjoyed a 7-11 quite as much as I do here in Thailand… often it is the only fully air-conditioned place I’ll visit all day, and in the extreme humid, over 35 degree weather, it’s a welcome relief.
Also… Thai people seem to be incredibly open-minded about sexuality. It is perfectly normal to encounter numerous transvestites during the normal daily routine, working as waitresses or just at the local 7-11. Women dressed as men, men dressed as women, lesbian couples, gay couples... all goes in Thailand, and nobody seems to pay the least bit attention. Kinda cool…

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blogging from Bangkok

Dear friends,

We know we have been less than diligent at regularly updating our blog, but I am sure you can all understand our difficult situation. We have been ever so busy these past few months… traveling in Asia can really take its toll. How can we be expected to regularly update a blog when there are so many pressing responsibilities and duties, such as the daily consumption of papayas and coconuts, the myriad of exotic flowers such as jasmine that require our olfactory attention and, of course, the continuing need to watch mangoes grow (how will they grow if we stop watching!?). We are sure you can all relate to these urgent responsibilities and will therefore not hold the delays against us.

Since our last update, we have spent an additional month in Rishikesh, finally tearing ourselves away from our lovely abode in mid-February. We left India and went directly to Bangkok, Thailand, scratching all our previous plans to travel in Southern India (and in the process learning the complete senselessness of making long-term plans while traveling in Asia). The modernity, fast-pace and general frenzy of Bangkok was first quite a shock to our systems after our rather meditative and “shanti" (it means peaceful in Hindi) experience in Rishikesh. We have used Bangkok as a convenient resting spot and a jumping-off point for travel in Southeast Asia.

We have just come back after a month-long trip to Burma (Myanmar) and are about to head off to Cambodia for a week or so. Below, you can find the freshly posted entries about our time in Rishikesh, our travel experiences in Burma, and Misha’s essay on meditation at a Vipassana center in Burma.


Experiences Of An Inexperienced Meditator

Here I am. Sitting on a mat on the floor of a large meditation hall in a meditation center in Burma (Myanmar). My session timer just started. My eyes are closed and I am observing, as taught, the Rising and falling movements of my abdomen – the ever-present activity of our bodies for as long as we continue breathing.
Let me give you a one-paragraph background. In Satthipathana Vipassana Meditation, one is instructed to observe and mentally note (or label) any activities of one’s body and mind such as “stretching, stretching, stretching…” when (for example) stretching an arm out or “hearing, hearing, hearing…” when hearing a sound or “thinking, thinking, thinking…” when any kind of thought comes to mind. Any kind of body/mind activity must be observed, noted and labeled as it really is, without judgment or analysis. When there are no significant activities to be observed, one must observe the falling and Rising movement of the abdomen in sitting meditation and the movement of one’s feet during walking meditation. This way a whole day is spent alternating between hourly sessions of walking and sitting meditations with two brief interruptions for meals which, as everything else, should be done in the same very slow “observe, mentally note and label” fashion.
So, here I am, sitting and observing.
And here comes the Pain, a frequent visitor of a new meditator, whose body is not used to prolonged, motionless sitting. This time it comes just to the right side of the upper curve of my spinal column. Yes, my back is somewhat curved – not the best for sitting meditation.
So, I observe my new sensation: “Pain, Pain, Pain”.
It is still there, maybe even a bit stronger.
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
Still there, intensifying.
“Pain, Pain, Pain, Pain, Pain, Pain”
It really hurts! I know if I shift position it will go away for a bit. It worked before, but then I will keep on shifting, running away from it. This time I am making a resolve to do my very best not to shift, but just to continue observing it. After all, the goal is to understand the nature of things through observing them directly as they actually occur.
Let’s observe. And note: “Pain, Pain, Pain”.
My God, it’s really hurting.
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
It’s supposed to go away as it is being observed – so I’ve been told. Why is it not happening?
“Thinking, Thinking, Thinking”
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
I should see it for what it really is. Aha! Here it is! It looks like this: Imagine a purple arch drawn very roughly in smudged watercolor. The arch is covered with some white spiky lines, like an ivy growth. On the right side of the arch, somewhere mid-height there is a red, egg-shaped pulsation. This is it. This is the Pain as I see it at the moment.
“Imagining, Imagining, Imagining”
“Dreaming, Dreaming, Dreaming”
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
Oh, man! It’s not going to go away, is it? Who said anything about “impermanence of things”? But that purple arch looked really cool!
“Thinking, Thinking, Thinking”
That “Thinking, Thinking, Thinking” really helps with stopping thinking. How comes that “Pain, Pain, Pain” does not help with stopping pain. Or am I still thinking?
“Thinking, Thinking, Thinking”
“Thinking, Thinking, Thinking”
Hmm, did it just get a little weaker?
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
This is becoming tolerable. Let’s see how’s the abdomen doing.
“Rising, Falling, Rising, Falling, Rising, Falling”
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
Still here. Yes, it did get a little weaker. Half of it has now shifted to the right knee. Duh!
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
I am the observer. Pain is just a feeling. Like anger, or pleasure. But is it in my body or in my mind? Anger is in my mind. Or so I think. Pleasure… Hmm… Sometimes it’s in my mind and sometimes in my body and sometimes in both. What about Pain? Just a feeling… But so potent!
“Thinking, Thinking, Thinking”
Beep, Beep, Beep… This is not mine. Someone else just finished a session. Too bad it is not mine. But at least it tells me that the time is not standing still.
I wonder how long I have left on my timer.
Now that I know that time is moving, I am beginning to enjoy this face to face with Pain. Maybe I’ll hold on this time and understand it a little better.
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
Here it is. I am looking at my body and my mind and there is Pain in there. Just some activity is happening and this particular one we call Pain. And we learn or are programmed not to like it.
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
It hurts. But a bit less, or, rather, I react to it less. I do not react, I do not judge, I just note.
“Pain, Pain, Pain”
Hurrah! It’s disappearing. This was an interesting moment. I want to see again how it disappears. But I need Pain for that. Hey, Pain, where did you go? I need to watch you again! Hey, where are you? It’s stupid, but I already miss you. Oh well, let’s pretend to watch the abdomen and peek to see if you just hid somewhere nearby.
“Rising, Falling, Rising, Falling, Rising, Falling”
“Rising, Falling, Rising, Falling, Rising, Falling”
Beep, Beep, Beep. This is mine.
Time to open the eyes, stretch and switch to walking meditation. This was interesting. But very painful.
Thinking, Thinking, Thinking, Thinking, Thinking…….

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Down the Rabbit-Hole into Burma

The second I stepped off the plane onto Burmese soil, I felt like I had fallen down a rabbit-hole into another world. Burma seems to be unlike and other place in the world. This may be because of the isolation of the country from the rest of the world or simply because of its strong national pride and the strength of ancient traditions.

First thing you notice is men in skirts.
After Nepal and India, I was used to seeing women dressed in exotic traditional clothing, but in Burma, not only the women, but also the vast majority of the men, are wearing non-Western clothes as part of their everyday dress. This is particularly interesting since cheap Chinese-made Western clothes are readily available all over Burma, but still, everybody seems to prefer the sarong-style wraparound ‘skirts’ called longyis ( A longyi is nothing more than a large rectangular piece of cloth with the two shorter sides sewn together, thus making a cylindrical tube of material. You step inside this oversized tube, fold it over and tuck it in so it hangs on your waist and goes down to your feet.

In contrast to the simple longyis, my drawstring pants appeared to be at the cutting edge of technology. On a couple of occasions, I had people come up to me to examine my pants. They couldn’t quite understand how it all works, but they were highly impressed that the pants were being held on my hips by a string without any need for folding or tucking.

I can just imagine the British colonizers mocking this inferior and simple race that, in all its years of development, couldn’t even come up with a simple drawstring to keep up their bottoms.

Misha and I also didn’t fully appreciate the longyi until we both had an occasion to wear one. Then we both realized that its beauty is precisely in its simplicity. There are no parts that could stop working… no rubber bands that could snap, no zippers to break. It is a one size-fits-all affair. No need to try it on. No need for dressing rooms. After an especially large meal (which you are very likely to have in Burma), you simply adjust the longyi as you tuck it in. If you gain or lose a few (or more) pounds, no problem. No need for a new longyi. And of course its great in the hot local climate, as it allows air to circulate. Simple and brilliant!

Second thing that you immediately notice before you’ve even left the airport is women (and kids and sometimes men) with some kind of white mud on their face. It looks like they put on a facemask at the beauty parlor, and forgot to wash it off. This is called thanakha (, a yellowish-whitish paste made from the bark of the thanakha tree. It is worn as a combination of skin conditioner, sunblock, and make-up, and can be quite attractive on some. Each woman puts it on in her own style and pattern. On kids, it is often used like face paint to make a design of teddy bears, flowers or leaves on their cheeks. I tried it as well a couple of times, and the skin feels quite soft and smooth at the end of the day once you’ve washed it off.

Soon you adjust to the men in skirts, and the women with facemasks, but there is another surprise around the corner that sends you tumbling further down the rabbit hole, and it happens as soon as one of natives opens his (or her) mouth and reveals a frightening sight of bright red, decaying teeth. Is it a mouth full of blood? Is this a country of vampires? No, this is a side effect of the highly popular mild stimulant known as betel nut (, which is made from the chopped areca nut and a paste of slaked lime wrapped in a betel leaf. The locals chew and suck on this leaf-concoction for a light buzz, and occasionally spit out bloody red remnants. As a result, the sidewalks and street-corners are all dotted with red droplets giving it the appearance of blood stained streets. The chewing of the betel nut seems to be a national pastime of enormous popularity. You can spot the red-teeth on men and women, young and old, monks and laymen. A betel stand (or two or three) can be found on practically every corner.

Once you leave the airport and get on the road, there is a pleasant surprise that awaits you: right-hand driving! After the dizzying disorientation of left-sided driving in Nepal, India and Thailand, here is something normal that you can finally wrap your head around. But as soon as this thought crosses your mind, you realize, with a sudden pang of alarm, that, though the traffic is moving on the right side of the road, the driver, who you would naturally expect to find on the left side, is precariously missing. And we’re back, tumbling down the rabbit-hole once more. The pang of fear soon dissipates, as you realize that, no, the car is not steering driverless. That’s right… the driver is to be found (where else?) on the right-hand side of the vehicle. But soon the fear returns full-force, when you observe that same driver blindly zooming to the left to pass the car in front. It is up to the person in the passenger seat (if there is one) to help out or else this dangerous and common maneuver is done completely blindly. The driving in Burma hasn’t always been on the right side, but to distance itself from the British colonial period, the military government instigated an overnight-switch from the left to the right in 1970. Since many cars date back to pre-1970, or are cheap Japanese models, most steering wheels are perilously found on the right-hand side. It makes for some entertaining driving situations.

Now that you have tumbled down the rabbit-hole straight into Wonderland, you begin to relax and notice that you have stepped into an afternoon tea party. Really, the tea party seems to be happening 24 hours a day. The streets are lined with tea-stalls, surrounded by knee-high plastic tables with tiny plastic chairs or stools, like the kind you would find in a kindergarten class. Its quite humorous to watch crowds of grown Burmese men (and occasionally women) situate themselves on these tiny plastic chairs made for 5-year-olds. The tea is served in tiny cups with saucers and small metal spoons. The best part is that you get served tea with your tea. Let me explain. When you sit down at one of these tables, you are expected to order something, usually tea, which is black and sweetened with tons of condensed milk, sugar and cream, but alongside your order comes the complementary all-you-can-drink pot of tea, which is a mild green tea. So, you get tea with your tea, and its quite enjoyable, and everyone is happy.

These are just the first impressions of a truly unique country largely unspoiled by tourism. It’s a country populated with warm, smiling, genuinely friendly people, who on occasion want to sell you a postcard (or two or ten) or act as your tour-guide, but more often than not, are just interested in chatting, finding out which country you are from and what life is like there and telling you all about their own country which they genuinely love.

p.s. If you are desperate to see images of Burma, you can navigate to Misha's albums from his previous trip to Burma:

Friday, March 20, 2009

Photos from Rishikesh

Dear Friends,

Hopefully you just finished reading our Rishikesh report posted below. Here are some pictures to accompany our story.


Instant Enlightenment School

Rishikesh in a Nutshell: Rita, Sadhu, Cow

The Art of "Simple" Home Cooking

Feeding Cow

Yogi Cow

Housing Crisis in India???

Our Dogs (Sorry Leela...)

This Monkey Sucks!

A Daily View From Our Balcony

Kama Sutra View From Our Balcony

That's all folks. The "real" (i.e. artsy-fartsy) pictures will be coming later on Misha's Fotki website (i.e. upon our return to civilization the way you know it).


Rishikesh, India


Here we are after two months of living in Rishikesh. We have completely switched out of the tourist sightseeing mentality with which we saw so much of Nepal, and have settled into a nice, domestic routine. We are no longer tourists… we are dwellers. Rishikesh feels like a home away from home.

There is a sharp contrast between being a traveler and being a dweller.
As a tourist, I got to see many places, but in each place I felt like I just barely skimmed the surface. No sooner had I arrived somewhere, that it was already time to move on to the next place, and then to the next. You are always en route between where you have just been and where you are just now going. Tourism consists of an itinerary, and a checklist of the “must-see” destinations. You get so focused on checking things off the list, that you sometimes you forget to stop and take it all in and just enjoy. Tourism is a mile wide but only an inch deep.

There are many tourists here in Rishikesh, but they are easy to spot. They are the ones buried nose-deep in a thick guidebook of India, or else hidden behind the lens of their camera. They are always in a rush, and seem somehow detached from their immediate surroundings. The dwellers are also east to spot. They have long ago dropped the thick Lonely Planet, and put away their cameras. They walk slowly. No rush. Or they just sit around in once place and observe the life around them.

My time as a dweller is less action-packed and may seem less exciting, but it has allowed me to form a deep connection with one place, and this has felt much more satisfying than having a casual connection with many places.

Being a dweller allows you to develop certain domestic routines.
We have made an arrangement with a local family so that every morning we are delivered fresh milk right to our door. When I say “fresh”, I really mean it! A young boy comes to us with a pail of milk after just milking his family’s cow. This milk is so creamy, it still has a bit of yellowishness in it. I am no fan of milk, but this stuff tastes like nectar, and every day Misha and I treat ourselves to a warm glass of milk.

Being a dweller also allows you to just stop and observe.
I have been able to observe the ever-changing shades of the Ganga. I have seen its deep turquoise in the early morning, at sunset when the light just grazes the top of the water, and at night, when it reflects the moon and the streetlights. We sit on our balcony and observe the beautiful, majestic birds with a huge wingspan circling around overhead. Once in a while a flock of smaller birds starts to chase them through the air and bully them around. They are fighting for their turf, and surprisingly enough, the smaller birds usually win.

Being a dweller also allows you to form certain relationships. Some of them may be brief and superficial, yet somehow they combine to make a meaningful experience that makes it feel like home.

For example, we have developed daily relationships with particular vendors. We always buy our fruit from our favorite “fruit guy” who has a special knack for always picking out the best papayas (how did I ever live without papayas!?). Then there is the boy who makes us pomegranate juice, who can get all the seeds out of a pomegranate in about 30 seconds. We always buy our vegetables from two skinny, lanky boys with huge smiles and shining white teeth. They are brothers, and in the evening, after a day spent in school, they wheel around their father’s vegetable cart while he rests after a long day’s work. You can see the pride with which they do their father’s job.


In order to get around Rishikesh, one must learn how to weave through a maze of cows, monkeys, street dogs, beggars, fugitive mules, and eager entrepreneurs and shop owners trying to sell anything from spices to jewelry, from postcards to sugarcane juice, or just simply offering a good ear-cleaning (really!).

Cows are everywhere! And that of course means one thing: lots of manure. You have not been initiated into Rishikesh life until you have at least once (or if you are like me, then many many times) stepped ankle deep into a pile of cow manure. We’ve learned that the cows are docile creature who will eat just about anything. We have begun to gather all the waste left from fruits and vegetables after we cook and offer them to our favorite cows, especially the calfs, who swallow everything out of our hands with their rough tongues that feels like sandpaper against the skin. They are serene animals, never in a rush. They chew everything slowly and thoroughly, in a manner similar to someone who is chewing a large quantity of gum.

Each cow has its very own and quite unique set of horns, almost like fingerprints. After living in Rishikesh for a while you start to recognize familiar faces. There is the cow with only one horn, the pregnant cow, and the belching cow (she has some serious indegestion issues). And then there is my favorite, who I have lovingly christened “Holy Cow” because her large, round horns stand perfectly erect and look like a halo over her head. Besides, its just fun to say “Holy Cow!” whenever I see her.

Then there are the monkeys. In stark comparison to the cows, they are energetic and crafty and always on the move. They seem to spend most of their time just “monkeying around”: jumping from tree to tree, from building to building, grooming themselves and each other, and demonstrating to the public the various positions of the Kama-Sutra. I woke up this morning to the sounds of someone knocking gently on the window next to our bed. I opened my eyes and found myself face to face with a monkey, with only the glass separating us. Mr. Monkey was just chilling on our balcony with his entire monkey family… perhaps he recognized me as one of his own.

Unlike the cows, the monkeys don’t wait to be fed, but prefer to snatch food right out of your hands. If you have something of value, hold it tight, or else. Another right of passage into Rishikesh life is to be the victim of a food snatching by one of the eager monkeys. They are very observant and are always on the lookout for inattentive tourists carrying plastic bags full of goodies. In a flash they jump down from their perch, rip open the plastic and snatch the food of their liking right out of the bag (we are still mourning the loss of a pricey pomegranate at the hands of an enterprising monkey). Once, I saw a monkey who had just stolen a plastic bottle of coke from an unsuspecting pedestrian, and was sitting on a branch trying to figure out exactly how to open it. It was somehow able to bite a hole through the bottom and drink some tasty coke. It was quite an entertaining sight, and I am sure it would have made an excellent Coca-Cola commercial.

And then there are the street dogs. They are all similar looking mutts, probably all interrelated with long and lean bodies and short fur. If you see them in the daytime, you would be under the impression that these were the calmest, most serene creatures on the planet. Most of them are sleeping peacefully or strolling languidly from one corner to another. But in the nighttime, they show their true nature. We often fall asleep to the noises of intense and passionate barking that sounds like gang warfare.

It is a common sight to see a newly-born litter of pups (6 or 7 in total) all sleeping in a pile in their mother’s lap and suckling on her for milk. I have watched a particular litter of puppies, which were born around the time we arrived in Rishikesh. I saw them when they were still fluffy and goofy little balls, which could barely take two steps without toppling over. Now they are more than two months old and are full of energy… running around independently and getting into all sorts of trouble, while Mom finally has a chance to rest quietly by the side of the road.

We have formed a special relationship with one particular dog, which, one day, just showed up at our door. When we first met her she had a ragged coat, and was limping and lethargic. She goes from door to door in our building and gets a little treat from every room, and when she comes to us, she usually gets a few bowls of milk, some bread and butter. We have allocated a special bowl just for her. She is looking much healthier nowadays, with a thick, healthy coat. A few days ago, she showed up with fully-grown puppies (4 in total), and so now we are feeding the entire family!


Since Rishikesh is a major pilgrimage destination, there is a constant influx of Indian tourists coming to visit the holy city, stay in one of the numerous ashrams, take a bath in the Ganga, and visit the local holy shrines. An ashram is a very curious concoction of temple, hotel, and retirement home. First and foremost it is, of course, a holy temple filled with religious icons, paintings, and altars, and with its own swamis (religious teachers) who daily perform pujas (religious ceremonies). These are the places where people gather to pray on a daily basis and especially on the holiest days of the year (and there seems to be no shortage of holy days in India). In that sense it is very similar to temples familiar to us in the West. But these temples also function as hotels. Most of them have hundreds of rooms where visitors and pilgrims can stay during their visit to the ashram. In addition, at least some of these rooms are permanently occupied by aging seniors. Many Indians, at some point in time in their lives, can choose an ashram to their liking and pay that ashram in small installments for a certain number of years. When these people decide to retire, they can come to the ashram and a room will be provided for them. It’s a type of social security. So, instead of being cooped up and forgotten in some lonely retirement home, these seniors live out the last of their days in these thriving and lively ashrams, which are not only full of spirituality and religion, but also constantly full of visitors of all ages. I think it’s a nice system.

The Indian visitors to Rishikesh are an interesting bunch. Many of them come on pilgrimage tours from distant, remote parts of the country, and some have never (or perhaps, rarely) encountered a Westerner. It often seems that we are more interesting to them than they are to us. Indians have no concept of personal space or distance and they have no qualms about coming very close and just staring, pointing and commenting. Many of them want to take a picture. One day, Misha and I were walking along a narrow road in the mountains here in Rishikesh, and a car zoomed past us. We heard it come to an abrupt stop dangerously on the side of this narrow road and watched as a huge family piled out of a compact hedge-back. We thought something was wrong with their car, but no… this large family (uncles, aunts, cousins) just wanted to take a picture with the two funny looking Westerners.

For a lot of the Indians (especially the young Indian men) taking these types of pictures with a Westerner (especially a female Westerner) seems to be quite a hobby. We live in an age when everyone has a cell-phone (I swear I have seen homeless men on the street with one) and that means that everyone also has a handy camera at their disposal. Many Indian men like to take pictures of Western girls especially while pretending that they are searching for something on their cell phones. I can’t count the number of types I have been stopped and asked to “please please please one picture one picture”. I have often wondered what they do with these pictures, and have come up with a theory that they must collect them and then trade them like baseball cards. “I’ll trade ya two brunettes from Mexico for one tall blonde from Sweeden”. Of course it feels kind of nice and flattering at first… wow, its almost like being a celebrity…. I must really look nice for all these men to want a picture with me. But soon it just becomes a nuisance. It once took me 10 minutes to cross a 100-foot suspension bridge because I was accosted by a group of excited Indian men who wouldn’t let me go without at least one picture with every one of them.

In general, Rishikesh is a very special and holy place and I can’t really begin to do justice to it with my words. I will end this entry with one short story that to me encapsulates the spirit of Rishikesh. It is customary for the ashrams to have early-morning prayer services that start before the sunrise, sometime around 5 or 5:30. The time right before the rising of the sun, before nature has woken up, is considered a specially holy and peaceful time. At around 5am, you start to hear the ringing of the bells and then choruses of people praying and singing. Some time ago, I started hearing the most beautiful and peaceful singing and was surprised at just how early it was starting (around 4am). I would often wake up for a few minutes at this early hour and enjoy the sound of this singing. One time I woke up at 4am, heard the familiar voice and decided to find out just who it belonged to. I left our room all bundled up in three layers and multiple scarves (its quite cold and extremely windy here in the nighttime), and started crossing the long suspension bridge over the Ganga river since I thought the sound was coming from the opposite shore. The bridge was swaying in the powerful gusts of wind and I was surprised to see another figure on the bridge. This man was standing in the intense wind and cold wearing nothing more than a holy-man’s loincloth covered by a thin orange cotton sheet. He was standing all by himself in the exact center of the bridge, singing to the river Ganga. He was praying to her like she was his beloved lover, in the most passionate and tender way, with his arms outstretched as if he was trying to merge his soul with her waves. It was obvious that the bitter cold wind was not affecting him in the least because in his mind he was in another plane. He was not there to put on a show, or for a handout or for anyone to notice him, it was just a selfless act of sincere devotion. His voice echoed beautifully back and forth across the river and made it sound like there was a whole chorus of singers. It was so surreal and yet so beautiful. Where else but in India, and Rishikesh especially, could this happen?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Go With the Flow

Dear friends,

Misha and I left Kathmandu over a month ago.
Our plan was to head for the southern region of India and explore the southernmost states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This is one area of India that Misha had not visited in his previous trip; we figured it would be a perfect destination as it would be a new experience for both of us. Besides, we had gotten tired of the cold weather during our long treks, and were itching to head south to warm up and relax.
Our minds were made up. It would be too cold in northern India, we thought. Better go south and enjoy the warmth.

But India had other plans for us…

It insisted that we first make a stop in Rishikesh, a small city in northern India about 200 km north of Delhi, and if that wasn’t enough, it insisted that we stay there.
So here we have been for over a month now, with no immediate plans to leave.
How was India able to derail our plans and have its way?
How did we end up coming to Rishikesh and staying here for so long?
The road to Rishikesh was paved in “coincidences” and “chance meetings".

Some of you may remember Misha’s descriptions of Rishikesh from his prior trip. He came here three times in his previous travels, and stayed for about six months. Like many of you, I listened to Misha’s stories of a lovely, little town located right on the banks of the holy river Ganga, nestled between the narrow river valley on one side and the majestic foothills of the Himalayas on the other. A place known as the “world capital of Yoga”, where the Beatles had come to study under the Maharishi in the 60s, and where they wrote most of the White Album. I listened to Misha’s stories, and dreamed of visiting this place myself… some day…

But lets get back to Nepal for a second…

While strolling down the narrow streets of Kathmandu, we just happened to run into a man who Misha recognized from his previous stay in Rishikesh and who informed us that contrary to our beliefs, the weather in northern India was lovely and unseasonably warm this year. On top of that, he told us that Misha’s favorite yoga teacher, Surrinder, who he had studied under during his previous trip, was back in Rishikesh after a long time abroad, and again teaching yoga.
That was how India offered us the bait, and we bit into it, hook, line and sinker.

In a few days, we crossed over the river Ganga by foot via a suspension bridge and found ourselves in lovely Rishikesh. The weather was indeed unseasonably warm; it was even warm enough for us to dip ourselves in the frosty Ganga. We wouldn’t stay long, we reasoned, just a few weeks while the good weather lasted, and then head south to bask in the warmth.

We started attending Surrinder’s yoga classes, and discovered that, if anything, his teaching ability only improved in the three years since Misha’s visit.We strolled around Rishikesh and made plans for possible future visits.

A particular three-story building overlooking the Ganga caught our attention. This place was far more luxurious than out current hotel room. The apartments consist of both a living room and a bedroom, a kitchen, and a large balcony overlooking the Ganga. We were told that the place had no current vacancies, which was just as well since our hotel room was adequate for a short stay. I looked wistfully at the third floor apartments, and imagined myself sitting on the balcony of the very corner room. This balcony had the best view of the Ganga as it was the only one not obstructed by the building in front. If ever we would come here for more than a month, this would certainly be the place to stay.

But Rishikesh was not done with us yet…

After a few weeks here, a friend mentioned in passing that there was a couple living in her building looking for someone to take over their apartment. They had paid rent up until the 24th of December, but needed to leave earlier and didn’t want to loose all that money.
We quickly learned that the couple lived in that very same building right on the banks of the Ganga, on the third floor, in that very top corner room that had caught my eye. And if that wasn’t good enough, they were happy to leave us a fully stocked and furnished kitchen. We just couldn’t pass it up.

It seems that India decided that Rishikesh was the place we needed to be, and who are we to disagree? When you spend some time in India, you learn to just go with the flow and not resist. You learn that you can simply follow the road of “coincidences” and “chance meetings” and that it will not lead you astray. You even start to suspect that there is no such thing as “coincidence” or “chance”. This is the power of India. This is the power of Rishikesh. This place seems to possess certain amazing magnetic and attractive powers. Many of the people who we have met here never planned to come here, and those who did, rarely planned to stay for long. Yet here we all are, staying month after lovely month.

We will write again soon, but for now, we are just going with the flow…

~Rita (and Misha)