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In a parallel universe, I’ve just arrived in Delhi, and am spending the night at an airport hotel before flying to Rishikesh for a week in an ashram on the Ganges. My India trip was cancelled a few weeks ago, but the calendar on my phone hasn’t gotten the memo, and is continually updating me about what’s happening and where I’m heading next (Jaipur, Pushkar, Bundi). I could probably find a way to disable these messages, but I like knowing what alt-me is doing. I hope she’s having a good time, or at least isn’t scared.

It would also be good if alt-me were feeling well rested and ready for the intensity of India. But how could she be, having experienced the same grueling October/November/December as I have? The anxiety and woe of the election, the unexpected deaths and illnesses of friends, the fatigue and moderate insomnia? Also, the crazy busyness at work…we both would have worked non-stop right through Christmas Eve, closing the shop just in time to dash to the mall for a last-minute Christmas gift, and then home roast a tenderloin and take it to a party. Flying out four days later would have been nuts.

So most of the time I feel that the cancellation of the trip has been a blessing, because India requires a level of stamina that I’m not feeling at the moment. For Plan B, I’ve booked a tiny cottage in Provincetown for three nights, where I plan to nap, write, read, meditate, and reflect on life. And then I plan to take a substantial amount of time off in January – a staycation to sort things out that need sorting. I will do my best to appreciate each moment of ordinary life, and not go chasing after bright shiny objects.

But India still twinkles at me. Maybe next year??


I’m so excited…I’m going to India this January. Not to meditate, just to hang around and explore.

It’s been five years since my last trip there, and I always knew I would go back. So when my friend Deborah texted Want to go to India?, my instant reply was WHAT???? Hell yeah!

We’re going to base ourselves in Jaipur (think Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). Love Jaipur, a book that was recommended by a woman I met at the NY gift show last month, arrived in the mail yesterday. It had to be shipped directly from India; hence, it arrived bundled up in such a cocoon of cardboard and packing tape that it took me 15 minutes to carefully extract the book from its wrappings. “This is so India,” I thought fondly. Our soap papers come from India, and envelopes of samples always arrive taped up the wazoo like that. (When we get a big shipment, it’s usually in a heavily taped carton labeled Stayfree Maxi Pads. The UPS drivers must wonder about us.)

Of course, this trip contributes to the usual Aiyiyi! quality of my life.  I’ll be plunging pell-mell through the busy holiday season (oh yeah…and we’ll be remodeling the kitchen) and then heading immediately to India! Which is so intense, so stimulating, so exhausting!

Oh well! Life is short! I’ll rest when I’m dead.

Three more of my favorites from the trip…

I love the picture above, because it captures something about the puzzle that is India. A beautiful woman laughs with her friends in the sunshine. What isn’t so easy to see is that the pile of straw she leans against is strapped to her back for carrying. That must be heavy!

By western standards, the lives of so many Indians should be miserable. But are they? Can we know? So often there’s visible joy, color, ornamentation, and dignity existing alongside toil, squalor and extreme poverty. How does it happen? Is there something fundamentally upside-down about our western view of happiness?

One question that several people have asked me since I’ve been back is, “Was the trip life-changing?” I honestly don’t know how to answer that. I’ve only been back a short time. My suitcase is still not quite unpacked. It will take much longer to unpack all the visual memories, emotions, conversations, and experiences to see what, if anything, they mean.

One thing is true: each time I travel, more of the world becomes “real” to me. It’s one thing to see images on tv or in magazines, but when I’ve been to a place, talked to people, and eaten their food, something changes.

Now, when I read about flooding in Thailand or the latest sectarian violence in India, it feels like this has something to do with me. I feel a concern, as I would if I had relatives there. Because in a sense, I do.

If you’d like to see my full album of pictures from India, click here.

The Whole World is a Single Flower group says goodbye in Nepal…

I travel back to Varanasi, and on to Delhi by overnight train with Robin, Diana, and Arthur…

Then the four of us hit the road again…this time by cab (12 hours) up to Dharmsala in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the Tibetan government in exile resides…

We chill out for five days. It’s a welcome break from constant travel and 5 a.m. wakeup calls. There are lots of western travellers in town, which means good coffee, cheap massages, and lots of food choices. Pizza!

We visit the temple and residence of the Dalai Lama. (Alas, he’s not in town.)

And volunteer for English tutoring…

Cool temperatures and clean air! Ahhh!

In October, I joined the Kwan Um School of Zen for a two-week pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in Northern India, followed by another week of travel with several friends. Notes from the road…

As we practice Zen, we hope to become more open, compassionate, and responsive. But how to respond to the poor in India – especially the children – is a conundrum that confronts every traveller. Most sources advise against giving money to beggars on the street. We saw a woman almost fall from the rush of children who surrounded her when she gave to a few. And aside from our own comfort, we probably aren’t doing these children any favors by giving them money directly. But what to do? It’s easy to barricade yourself behind a protective numbness.

Here at the temple in Kushinagar where we are staying, we can see a different response in action. Rev. Thich Nu Tri Thuan, a Vietnamese Buddhist nun, came to India in 1989 and built the place from nothing. Through sheer determination, this petite force of nature created not just a temple, but also a school for some of India’s poorest children. There are 335 children currently enrolled in the school, and over 6000 have been educated since its founding.

Before our arrival, the Kwan Um School organized a significant donation to the project. After an early morning visit to the site of the Buddha’s death, we returned to the temple for a hurried ceremony with the children. They waited politely while we passed out new uniforms and packages of cookies to row upon row of eager hands. It’s a small thing, but it feels good to do something.

Then it was back to the bus for another 13-hour ride to Lumbini in Nepal, the final stop on our tour. As the hours went by, we passed from sociability, to boredom, to sleepiness, to silliness. The last leg of the journey was a push. We sat idling in traffic at the Nepalese border for two long hours while visas were sorted out. Carlos and George started dancing in the aisle. Finally, music was pumped over the p.a., and we belted out Simon and Garfunkle songs in exhausted and full-hearted 100%-ness.

We arrived at the Korean Temple during evening practice. The monks were chanting, and in the dark, the temple glowed with lanterns and candles like a huge jack-o-lantern.

In October, I joined the Kwan Um School of Zen for a two-week pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in Northern India, followed by another week of travel with several friends. Notes from the road…

As the two week mark in India approaches, I’m feeling pretty beat up. Fascinating though India is, it’s not an easy country to travel in. Let me count the ways:

You are constantly breathing in dust made of finely-powdered human and animal feces, and also breathing toxic smoke from the countless trash piles burning in the streets.

There are no functional sidewalks in most places, so a simple stroll down the street is a life-threatening adventure through crazed honking drivers, cows, dogs, and pushy peddlars.

Because it’s hot, it’s easy to get dehydrated and have your electrolytes depleted. I can tell it’s happening when I feel an exhausted inner tremor.

My body is also rebelling against the unaccustomed steady diet of Indian and Korean food. (We have a cook accompanying the tour who prepares many of our temple meals: boiled greens, more greens, rice, fermented cabbage, spicy curries, radish soup, and did I mention boiled greens? Pretty good stuff, but for breakfast?)

Everything at all times seems to be jerry-rigged and under construction. Take our hotel in Rajir, for example. Last night there was jackhammering on the level directly over our heads till 10:00 p.m. George finally went downstairs and yelled at the management. The jackhammering stopped, but some defiant banging continued for another quarter hour.

The hardest thing, though, has been the length of the bus rides. India is just not set up for long-haul travel by road. I’m starting to brood about the long distances still to come.

The trip to Kushinagar today started at 6 a.m. with an estimated arrival at lunch time. This was quickly revised to 3 p.m., and then dinner time. That time passed, and still we continued to bump along through the gathering darkness, surrounded by smoke and cooking fires.

When we arrived at the Vietnamese temple after 14 hours of travel, everyone was exhausted. Diana and Maggy and I went to our room and I flopped down on the futon-like bed. A moment later, from the bathroom, came an enormous crash.

“Uh…you alright in there, Diana?” I went in to check on her and this is what I saw.

The sink, which had been affixed to the wall with two small dabs of plaster, had flipped off at her touch and smashed to pieces. What could we do at that point but collapse into hysterical, helpless, snot-flying laughter? We laughed and laughed, and all the fatigue and difficulty sort of melted away. It was great.

India is funny that way. The “bad” stuff and the “good” stuff seem to be inseparable.

In October, I joined the Kwan Um School of Zen for a two-week pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in Northern India, followed by another week of travel with several friends. Notes from the road…

As we travel from place to place, toilet stops every two hours or so are an unexpected source of enjoyment. Sometimes the buses stop at grungy rest areas, but just as often we are “toileting” in nature. The men pee quickly and then retire to smoke cigarettes, while the women coalesce into a comradely band as we search the bush for suitable coverage. Our tour guides are willing to erect paper port-a-johns (the blue thing in the picture below), but most of us prefer to find a tree and squat. Diana says, “I’m at a point where I don’t care who sees my butt!”

Which is a good thing, because no matter how remote the location, people instantly materialize from nowhere to enjoy the spectacle.  These men and boys are watching the action from the road. The women below, who are collecting kindling, came along during our pee stop in a teak forest.

Elsewhere on the road, we have to come to terms with the Indian-style toilet. Western seats can be found here and there, but the norm is the squattie with a faucet and bucket for bottom-washing. (Toilet paper is strickly a bring-your-own affair.) Thanks to yoga and good knees, I’ve found this operation do-able and even sort of fun, once I got the hang of it. Here’s a video on how to use an India toilet, in case you’re curious. The video is posted on Breath, Dream, Go, a wonderful website for anyone interested in India.

In October, I joined the Kwan Um School of Zen for a two-week pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in Northern India, followed by another week of travel with several friends. Notes from the road…

Leaving Varanasi. Trying to get out of the hotel driveway is comical…our way is blocked by a bedlam of wall to wall bicycles, motorbikes, herds of cows, rickshaws, taxis, and trucks. As the bus inches forward, we look down from our orange air-conditioned cocoon at people who are looking back at us. Some of the men look pissed off but many wave and smile. The women look wary. The young girls are the best. It’s a relief to finally be able to make eye contact.

As we leave the city behind, the brown dusty smog is gradually replaced by smoky white haze coming from cow-patty cooking fires. Do Indians know the sky is blue? Our route takes us through many rural towns and villages, where life in conducted on the street. So many lives we get a quick glimpse of!

Bodgaya is a small town, home to the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha was enlightened. We’re staying in the Chinese Temple, which is wonderful despite the ultra hard beds (a thin pad over a wood platform). This town has Buddhist temples of every kind: Thai, Buttanese, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Tibetan, Cambodian, each with it’s own distinctive architecture.

Our room overlooks the Tibetan Temple, where the monks chant and blow horns and bang drums every afternoon. In the night I try to get comfortable on the mattress. Outside, in the wee hours, groups of dogs have arguments that wake flocks of birds roosting in the courtyard. They tweeter and squawk for a while and then go back to sleep. Would that I could do the same.

We rise before dawn each day for intense, sweaty mornings at the Mahabodi Temple where the descendant of the Bodhi Tree grows. As we walk to the temple, children come towards us in the darkness – little girls with outstretched hands and murmered pleas, and vigorous eight-year old boys pushing maps, cards, malas, flowers, and other trinkets. Inside the compound, the place swarms with Buddhist pilgrims and monastics of every stripe and color.

One morning we occupy a corner for chanting and meditation. The pilgrims ambulate by in waves. Since I’m on an outside corner, I’m lightly brushed by the passing throng. There’s a group of white-dressed women led by a regal leader with a complicated Dr. Suess-y headdress and a gold fringed parasol. Their loud speaker blasts out a chant that sounds like SA-DU-PA! I slide into “listening to world sound,” immersing myself in the bath of drumming, chanting and clanging of bells that surround me.

Finally I’m practically dizzy with Buddhist overload. Waiting till it’s time to leave, I sit on a ledge and watch the bare feet walk by, while an ant skitters across the tiles, trying to avoid being stepped on.

In October, I joined the Kwan Um School of Zen for a two-week pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in Northern India, followed by another week of travel with several friends. Notes from the road…

photo courtesy of Allan Matthews

Long bus ride from airport. Color and dust. Must get used to feeling dusty, because that’s how I will spend the next three weeks. Also having my clothes smell like smoke. The restaurant in Delhi left my shirt smelling like an ashtray, and the hotel room smelled like a smoker had just vacated. At home this would have been unacceptable, and I would have requested another room. Here it’s just the fabric of life, along with the smoggy brown air. Nothing to get your knickers in a twist about.

I notice that we are all doing a lot of comparing. This is like that. The neighborhood where I stayed in Delhi is similar to the one where I stayed in Bangkok. “India is like a combination of Mexico and China”. “Kuala Lumpur is similar to this.”

Mostly this is a good thing. It helps us get our bearings and feel more at ease. I liked that, therefore I will like this and be okay here. But there’s something to be said for experiencing a place that is entirely new and different. It hits the senses in a new way.

We got up at 4:30 this morning for a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. After a short bus ride, we joined a dense crowd in the pre-dawn darkness, surging towards the ghats. I had to scramble to stay with the group, dodge traffic, puddles, and cowpies, and shake off persistent peddlers and beggars. The only effective response with this last category seems to be to completely ignore them. YOU DO NOT EXIST. I don’t like to treat people that way, but even a tiny head shake is taken as encouragement and intensifies their attention. Eye contact is out of the question.

Finally arriving at the muddy river bank, we loaded onto three rickety wooden boats. My stomach was beginning to feel off. Is this because I took my malaria pill on an empty stomach or is it a visit from Delhi belly? Then I discovered that my camera batteries were dead.

The ghats in Varanasi have to be some of the most wildly photogenic places in India. I’ve seen so many pictures and read so many descriptions, I’ve been expecting it to be the high point of the trip. And instead, here I am camera-less and queasy. Dukka on the Ganges. Ah well.

Perhaps it’s a blessing that I got this out of the way early on. From now on, we’re going places that I have no mental picture of, no expectations about.

~Try not to expect anything. In this way, everything will open up to you.

photo courtesy of Allan Matthews

In a few hours I’m heading up to Cambridge for the night, and then I’m off.

Whenever I fly, I think of this poem…one of my favorites:

By Billy Collins

At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
with the possible company of my death,
this sprawling miscellany of people—
carry-on bags and paperbacks—

that could be gathered in a flash
into a band of pilgrims on the last open road.
Not that I think
if our plane crumpled into a mountain

we would all ascend together,
holding hands like a ring of skydivers,
into a sudden gasp of brightness,
or that there would be some common place

for us to reunite to jubilize the moment,
some spaceless, pillarless Greece
where we could, at the count of three,
toss our ashes into the sunny air.

It’s just that the way that man has his briefcase
so carefully arranged,
the way that girl is cooling her tea,
and the flow of the comb that woman

passes through her daughter’s hair…
and when you consider the altitude,
the secret parts of the engine,
and all the hard water and the deep canyons below…

well, I just think it would be good if one of us
maybe stood up and said a few words,
or, so as not to involve the police,
at least quietly wrote something down.

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