Full Gurus!

The French and Indian population here have a favorite word: "full." If there's a lot of something or it's big or it's powerful, it's "full ___!" Lots of monkeys in Badami? "Full monkey!" Lots of gurus in Thiruvannamalai? "Full enlightenment!" Full moon at the mountain? "Full Shiva, full Shakti!"
There are a number of ashrams here, and also a number of gurus, swamis, sadhus, yoga teachers, reiki teachers, deekshan circles, baijans and kirtans… The foreigners sample the spiritual practices here a bit like a thali. It's hard not to. "Did you go to Shiva Shakti today? Yesterday, it was a little off, but today, full power." "I like Aum Amma more. I was totally blissed-out after Amma, but Shiva Shakti doesn't do it for me." There's lots of tasting and comparing and evaluating, which feels totally western.
There are at least three gurus in India with the name Amma. I was talking to my silent friend about one of them and I said "Which Amma are you talking about?" and he made a circle with his arms, so I knew he meant Hugging Amma. I was getting some chai and this old Jewish guy named Moon-ee (a traveler for 40 years) started chatting me up and convinced me to take a rickshaw with him to see Aum Amma. Aum Amma is a real jokester. We arrive at the small house, and do about half an hour of chanting (I don't know the words, but I try to pick it up as we go.) Then her swami comes out and tells us she's coming. Then he prepares her flowers and puts the garlands around her neck. And then she is revealed, full flowers, smiling and laughing, and rolling her eyes up high in her head. Swami takes a basket of flowers and drops them into her hand, bit by bit, and she rubs them all over her faces as she laughs. After a while, she begins throwing the flowers at us and I'm laughing, thinking, I could do this! Then, we each have a private moment with her. I walk into the little space, bow at her feet, and she pulls me up to her cheek and smooshes it against mine and I throw some of her flowers at her and I laugh and she laughs. And then we're waiting for the rickshaw outside and I get full mosquito bites.
The plan I had for coming to India was to travel from temple to temple and experience the power of the temples. And honestly, I haven't felt particularly moved by most of the temples I've been to. They're incredible and old, and I appreciate the work and love it took centuries to carve, paint, and construct them. But I am much more moved by actual practice of self-inquiry, and the simple caves and spaces where people just sat for years and years and reached enlightenment.
This morning, we climbed part of Arunachala, the sacred mountain, and reached the caves where Sri Ramana Maharishi sat for seven years. It overlooks a set of temples and the city of Thiruvannamalai. A swami dressed in orange chanted outside the cave temple while monkeys shook the trees with perfect monkey-like abandon.

Sunset Kirtan

Yesterday, I attended an incredible kirtan (call and response singing, known here as baijan.) I'd gone swimming in a fancy swimming pool at a hotel a few kilometers from town and had a thali for lunch. I was really tired and sun-drenched.
I went to Sri Shiva Shakti at 5 pm (I go every day at 10 am and 5 pm for her darshan.) She is a very sweet and powerful teacher. I walked past the heart shaped flower offering by her chair, placed a few roses, and sat in the front row for the first time. After sitting and meditating for some time, I felt renewed and rebalanced from all the Shiva energy of Arunachala, the mountain. Her specialty is balance of Shiva and Shakti (masculine and feminine) energy.
I walked in the direction of Bharat's, which is somewhere on the edge of the town, and got a ride from a woman who was headed there, too, on the back of her bicycle. Many people here rent bicycles, mopeds, or motorcycles and I'm becoming an expert at being a passenger.
So we arrive at kirtan, and it's been going for a while. Everyone is on the roof, and there are six or seven musicians with guitars, drums, and shaky shaky things. We're chanting and the music gets really good and we're clapping and it gets even better and we get up to whirl and dance and the sun is setting and Arunachala is in the background and I'm swinging around and around with my arms clasped with a Dutch woman and then an Israeli woman, and the rose falls out of my hair, and then the music stops and we are completely silent and still.
Afterward, most of us head to Satiya's cafe for dosas and then to another rooftop for Papaji's video satsang, which was really funny. Papaji was making fun of a one of his devotees and then another one was laughing hysterically at his problems and then suddenly became very serious, and just sat there while Papaji moved on to the next person without saying anything, and it was so funny I couldn't stop laughing for a long time.
Then I went home, lit some incense, and finished my Turkish hazelnut chocolate bar, which sent my frontal lobe into spasms.

Arunachala, the Lake, and the Concert

I'm washing my laundry by hand with blue cake soap called Rin.  My new pair of yellow pants stained my new pair of white pants (made for me by a tailor in Hampi) so my vision of dressing all in white with like some orange flowers around my neck and looking really spiritual is one step further away.
I've been easing up on the chai.  The four top categories in my daily budget are (in order) 1) internet 2) food 3) room 4) flowers (for hair, for puja, for gifts.)  And in total, none those things is more than two dollars per day.  It's hard to know when to give money to people–sometimes I give a couple of rupees to an old woman or a sadhu, but you can't give to everyone, so it's not all the time.  When flowers climbs to the first or second place, I'll consider my journey a success.
Everything here happens in waves (often in three's) at the level of akasha. Someone lent me a book called The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho. I'd read The Alchemist but not thought about the author since. The next day, I was reading the paper (which I never do here) and there was a column by Paulo Coelho. The day after, I had The Pilgrimage in hand and another friend had his book Warrior of the Light sitting on his mostly bare shelf. And I love how it all fits in to my travel in India as a challenging, mysterious, and awe-inspiring journey.
After Shiva Shakti several days ago, I rode with my friend to a lake just outside of town. It's lined with palm trees, and there is one magical tree that is a palm tree growing inside a banyan tree! It's full Shiva Shakti–male and female entwined. We climbed the tree (the Indian rickshaw drivers playing cards below were wary of our tree-climbing skills) and offered flower puja to the trees and sang some baijans.
The next night when the traffic cleared, we rode around Arunachala, the mountain, on a motorbike. We stopped at several temples to Shiva, Shakti, and Ganesh along the way. One is a special temple that you walk around the back and crawl through to be reborn.
The next night–or was it? They blend together… I went to a concert held in the ashram. It was only about 45 minutes long. The melodious flute and the droning mantras and the rhythmic shaker gave it an incredibly jazzy feel. It seemed to end not much later than it began.

Trains and Lemon Mint Soda

I took the overnight train from Hampi/Hospet to Bangalore, second Air Conditioning class.  In 2nd AC, they give you pillows and sheets for sleeping in your little car, and there are four beds per cabin.  I slept well, but someone was snoring so loudly and persistently, it entered my dreams.  I was going to stay in Bangalore for a day and then head to Pondicherry and Auroville, but instead took a last-minute train with my travel partner to Thiruvannamalai, as it was sort of on the way to Pondicherry and I wasn't ready to face the Bangalore bustle at 6 am.  We got to the bus station just as the Thiru bus was pulling away, and actually jumped on with our luggage as it was moving.  And we took turns sitting on the engine next to the driver for the four hour ride, because there was only one seat left.
I've been drinking lemon mint soda everywhere.  It's my new favorite treat.  I've had one
perfect one so far in Hampi–super-bubbly, cold, lemon and mint and sugar all crushed and mixed to the exact right proportions.  I have to ask for it because it doesn't really exist–there's lemon soda and they have fresh mint around, but getting them to put it all together takes a bit of doing.  I've also had my first train-food on the way to Salem.  Some samosas, some rice, some "donuts", all from vendors walking up and down the aisles of the train chanting what their selling.  "Chaia!"  with a deep resonance, as if they'd studied opera singing.  I'm learning to be more Indian.  I'm working on just eating with my right hand (left is reserved for toilet duties.)  I'm drinking little cups of chai for 3 rupees, and practicing (just a little) throwing the plastic cup out the window.  I know it sounds terrible, but there's something liberating about throwing your trash out of the train when you're done.  Things we're using now just happen not to be biodegradable anymore.

Full Moon in Thiruvannaamalai

Auspiciously, we arrived in Thiruvannaamalai the night of the full moon.  It's a city centered at the base of a holy mountain, Arunachala, and every full moon, 200,000 pilgrims walk barefoot 14 km around the mountain.  Along the road people are selling water and food, making offerings to the fire god that is celebrated in this town, sadhus are chanting, people are talking on their cell phones…  
Our new neighbor Shanti Deva invited us to come meditate with Shiva Shakti  in the morning.  But the next day, when I saw him he had taken a vow of silence.  He motioned I could get on his moped, so I did.  We rode down a dirt road, and I didn't really know where we were headed.  But, of course, we ended up at Shiva Shakti.  It's an incredible adventure to get on a motorbike with someone you've met once who isn't speaking and ride to somewhere you don't know and then get to sit and meditate at your destination!  I've been going to sit with them almost every day at 10 am and 5 pm. 
I found a room between the ashram and the base of the mountain that has a shelf and a sink in the corner and the bed is on the floor.  It costs 75 rupees per night (about two dollars.)  I put my four books on the shelf that I've recently acquired and been reading:   Eye Exercises to Improve Vision (this is pretty metaphorical), The Tipping Point (Malcom Gladwell), God Loves Fun (Ravi Shankar), and The Pilgrimage (Paulo Coelho, lent to me by a French/Kashmiri guy who owns a shop here.)
This place is lousy with gurus.  It's wonderful.  I was "talking" (he's still under his vow of silence) to Shanti Deva about one of the Amma gurus (there are at least three) and I said, "Which one are you referring to?" and he motioned a hug, so I understood he meant Hugging Amma.
Everywhere I go, I'm being greeted with many joyful people eager to say hello.  My friend said that walking with other westerners in India, he has not seen such a response from
the Indians as with me.  I am finding people so warm and sweet (except the sadhu from this afternoon who tried to take and eat my Moleskine notebook) and I think it's because of the numerous blessings I've been charged with carrying and sending to people here.

India and The Fringe

I arrived in Bombay a little while ago, and I'm well, if a little dizzy from the heat at the sweet chai…  see, this morning I got up at 4:30 to ring the bell for morning chanting.  It was the lat day of a 10-day Vipassana meditation course in Igatpuri at Dhamma Giri. Caught a ride to the train station, and took a 4 hour train rode to Aurangabad with some new Vipassana friends.
 Aurangabad is a city about 7 hours east of Bombay, and like all the cities I've been to so far, the crazy streets are lined with little shops selling clothing, electrical cords, batteries, bananas, dead goat meat… Tomorrow, we're giong to see some caves carved by monks two thousand years ago (Elora). Tonight, though, Caz, Mahesh (who has a crush on Caz and is treating us all like royal guests in his city), and Annalia are going to see an Indian movie called Mythia!
Oh, and I just check the Fringe Festival lottery website, and it appears my show *The Punchline* will be one of the shows put on by the Fringe in September! Hurrah! Pictures of my travels are on the way…  still working on uploading them.  Thank you for all of your wonderful wishes for my trip–I'm sending you my best as well. 
with Metta…

Driving in India is One Big Game of Chicken.

So… I was hanging out in Aurangabad for a number of days. It's a slightly larger city, less than a million people. You have to book trains quite far in advance, and I was a bit sick to take a bus, so I booked a ride in a car a day and a half from Aurangabad to Hampi, stopping at a mosque called Golgumbaz and a bunch of temples in between. Golgumbaz has the second largest dome in the world after St. Petersburg. I met a couple there who were married four days back, and they invited me to their wedding reception (my second so far)! But I was on my way to Hampi with Nandu and Shotrugun, two driver's of Ashok's, the rickshaw guy listed in the Loneley Planet for Aurangabad. It was in fact a terrifying day and a half of driving with two very pleasant men. Driving in India is one big game of chicken. It's mostly one lane each way, and the road is shared with cows, goats, chickens, kids, rickshaws, busses, and giant trucks that says "goods carrier" on the front and "please horn ok please" painted in English (and Hindi?) on the back. Technically, one drives on the left side in India, but you wouldn't always know it from where you are in the road. Honking horns while passing is polite, and pretty much everyone passes everyone all the time, regardless of how much space is between vehicles. And then a motorcycle passes in between whoever is passing who. There's nothing like the rush of your tenth near-miss, passing a bus at full speed, while also watching a bus pass a line of trucks in "your" lane, and not seeing one driver break a sweat or slow down. They make James Dean look like Howard Dean.
In the past three days, I've seen my first monkeys, camels, and elephant in the temples. You can't swing a set of prayer beads without hitting an ancient temple here. There's one in my backyard. I passed through Bijaur, Badami, and Pattadakal, all with incredible carved caves, temples, pools. One of my favorite things is that there are constantly groups of school children visiting the monuments, and they all want to say hello and take pictures. They're totally friendly and full of life and playful. They're like sqirrels in Yosemite, who haven't had the fear of humans instilled in them. I got to hold a baby for a photo when a family introduced themselves to me at Golgombaz.
I booked a train ticket out of Hampi right when I arrived, in order to avoid riding the overnight bus. Met a guy named Mitch from Italy slash Germany, and we've been touring the temples and restaurants together.
Sai Baba was supposed to be in Hospet, so we caught a half hour bus across the river, and walked for a number of kilometers to try to see him, but didn't find him. We had an incredible street dish called Gobi Manchurian (chinese fusion dish with deep fried cauliflower and red spices). There is a constant stream of male attention here. As I'm typing, the guy who runs the cafe has just asked where I'm from, what is my name, and if he can take a picture of me. It's flattering, annoying, and overwhelming. It's said that Mother India is a very male country, and I've discovered that female infantacide is somewhat common, which one reason there's so much dude vibe here. Did I mention this before?
Last night, the women at my guest house helped me put on my new silk sari (which is incredibly difficult and I don't remember how) put flowers in my hair, put a necklace on me, and we walked out to this restaurant called The Mango Tree, which overlooks a river and the cottages across the river. All of the shopkeepers shouted out, "Indian girl!" and "Nice sari!" This place is a wonderful tourist trap, but also a very sweet little community of people (about 2,000) who all know each other, and the kids run around all day on their own it seems (with no diapers! but I've seen much more cow poop than baby poop). We walked around and looked at drums in the bazarre (I'm going to try learning to play one today) and I got my hands and arms painted with henna last night while having lemon chai fed to me and chatting with the mendhi people who were from Delhi. Incredible mendhi work. (Still haven't uploaded my photos, but I'll send a flickr link to my album as soon as I do.) The mendhi woman was three years older than me and had an 18 year old son.
The computer I'm typing on is missing the enter key. It's very funny.
I just bought a book by Ravi Shankar called "God Loves Fun." Ravi says "Stop thinking. Thinking is the source of all your worries. If you didn't use words, you won't have any words to worry with." I have very few worries today.
My speech has morphed into the kind of English one speaks with babies. "You want eat?" "I from USA." "What you name?" It's like one big Robert Hawkins joke. "No step here!" "You five dollah!"
I made the right choice to take that off-the-beaten-path route down here. I'm off to Bangalore, Pondicherry, and maybe Auroville (or an ashram) in a couple of days. Looking forward to Ayruvedic massages, chanting, and meeting more new and interesting people every day. What a great perk of traveling!
Be happy!
Alicia