Sunday, August 9, 2009

India - Varanasi, Taj Mahal & the Mountains

Me marveling at the Taj Mahal

Well after a long 10 hour bus ride back to the Nepal, India border, I met up with people who were heading in the same direction and we got a jeep to the closest major city. We were all exhausted but decided to push on and get a train ticket to the much anticipated Varanasi. Me and the three other girls got our tickets and feasted on amazing curry and naan while waiting, but I guess we enjoyed it a little too much since we suddenly realized we had 5 min to find the train and board, so we missed our beautiful express overnight train. The only option was to take the next local train. Its hard for me to describe in words what it felt like to walk on a local Indian train full of shady looking characters, at 11pm, after 12 hours of travel, with no AC, barely enough space to sit, mosquito's everywhere, and fearful of theft and bodily harm at all times. The train ride lasted over 10 hours and was one of those classic Indian nightmares, but we tried to laugh it off. We arrive 5 hours late the next morning in Varanasi. The city is famous for being a holy city where its a blessing to die there. Hindus come from all over the world to have their remains burned on the burning ghats, and their ashes spread in the Ganges River. The town was bustling and we were so exhausted we just wanted to get to a clean room to shower... Taking a shower in India is like nothing you've ever felt; the feeling of filth is just so profound that taking a shower is like washing away all the pain and discomfort from your personal world. And after getting dropped off at a non-descript location and being guided by an eager scout from another hotel who followed us annoyingly through the tiny alleyways, we finally reached the guesthouse that my new friend Liz had found for us. It was a beautiful room on the water. The heat was very intense, but strong breezes made the it bearable. So I spent a few days in Varanasi watching the burning ceremonies, trying to be considerate but also just shocked at the way that death was so common for these people; no one was crying or making a scene. It was all so ordinary and part of the day. And I tend to like that. The fresh curd sold on the street was amazing, and the fresh samosas frying in the hot sun was probably the best Id ever had in my life. But after a few days, the heat and constant power outages were just too much to bear, and so I pressed on, alone this time, to the much anticipated Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. I had heard that Agra itself is a terrible place, so I planned to see the Taj and on the same day head out to Delhi.

The Taj Mahal truly is spectacular. Called the ultimate monument of love, the Taj is a mausoleum built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Maha. In its center is a casket to represent her remains. The white marble floors and walls are so striking and beautiful. There's something so airy and clean about marble under your feet... I lazed about and enjoyed watching India tourists snapping away on their cameras and asking me to pose with them! But the heat was intolerable and after two hours I had enough! I headed to Delhi on a two hour deluxe train and was back at a nice hotel in the backpacker area, Pahar Ganj, where I finally had reliable internet and electricity! It was great to get a good nights sleep and figure out my last month of the trip.

I next headed to Amritsar, in Punjab, the holy place for Sikhs. The city was amazing, very clean and organized. The Sikhs traditionally wear turbans and do not cut their hair, so I got very used to seeing them. The cities center is The Golden Temple complex, the most holy site for the Sikhs and it was strikingly beautiful, especially at night. I remember my first glimpse of it, thinking that I was looking at a fairy tale. The temple is literally gilded from top to bottom and surrounded by water, with a single entry bridge on one side representing the uniformity of the world. As part of their customs, they offer FREE accommodations to anyone, FREE 24hour ashrum style eating, and reduced prices on everything from sodas to internet. It was such an amazing feeling eating side by side with faithful pilgrims, eating whatever we were given. But as is the case in India in the summer, I could not stay too long from the heat. I met some great people in Amritsar who I stay in touch with till this day.

Next I headed to Dharmsala, the permanent residence of the Dalai Lama, to meet up with Ana who assured me it would be cool and calm. It was great to see her again, and then Karin and Graham also arrived there at the same time. We then met up with Ariel, and the five of us just had an amazing two weeks there, enjoying the cool mountain temperatures, hiking, and mostly eating really good food. We settled in Baghsu, an expat area outside of Dharmsala that is very comfortable and beautiful and cheap! Two weeks flew by and all of us were nearing the end of our trip. Ana had to leave to make her flight home, Karin and Graham were off to Spain, Ariel was signed up for Vipassana meditation in Kashmir, and I was confused as ever not knowing how to spend my last 2 weeks. I had my heart set on going to rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world, but I ran into people I had met in Nepal, who just came from Rishikesh and said it was so unbearably hot they couldn't stay more than a few days. I was distraught and suddenly had a terrible stomach issue that put me out for two days.

Me with Karin, Graham Ana and Ariel at a camp site outside Dharmsala after a rainstorm

In the wake of all of that, something really unexpected happened. I had signed up over a month before to do the 10 day silent meditation called Vipassana, and they responded that there was a long waiting list and I wouldn't get in, but then I got an email that I did indeed get a confirmed spot in the class. I had signed up so many times and got wait listed so I kind of gave up, so I was really torn. The course started less than a week after I got the email, and it would take me three days alone to get up to Kashmir. I hesitated and debated... I was intimidated about it since I could barely meditate for 10 minutes let alone all day, but something in me didn't want to let the chance pass me by. The other issue was that the course literally ended on the same day that I had a flight home from Delhi. Crazy, I know. So I would have to fly from there on the last day of the course, to Delhi, and then go home. It was all so confusing, but suddenly I found myself booking the first in a series of bus trips to get up there. And there I was on the bus the next day, throwing myself into the unknown, with a lingering cough disrupting me all the way. I made it on the overnight bus to Manali, the main city in Himeshal Predesh, and then as soon as I arrived I looked for the next two day bus to Leh, in Kashmir. I luckily found a scout who ensured me it was the only bus leaving that day, and got a seat on it, cheaper than any of the other passengers, (in india it pays to be last minute). The two day bus journey was a amazing, cold, painful, wonderful experience. The bus rimmed the edges of cliffs as we climbed. We had to pass 17,000 feet peak in order to reach Leh, and the cold was worth the amazing views. I finally made it to Leh the day before the course started. I was trying to reach Ariel who was also doing the same course, but his phone was not working. So the next day I got a taxi to the vipassana center and the rest is history.

My reflection in the solar heating element used at to heat our food at the Vipassana meditation site, where I spent 10 days, literally "reflecting"; or learning how to stop reflecting and just seeing life for what it is now.

I wont go into details about what I experienced at the center. All I can say is that it was the best thing I could have done, and the perfect time, and considering all the circumstances leading up to it, I have to just assume that it was meant to be. The most profound lesson I can communicate to anyone is that trust in knowing that you already have, right now, all the tools you will ever need to be happy, complete, successful. And no one, no thing, and no experience can create something for you that isn't already there. And Vipassana is just a method that forces you to realize it, not just talk about it, but actually experience that and know it. I cant imagine ANYONE not benefiting from it if they take it seriously.

Then in a flurry of activity I made my connecting flight to Delhi and there I was on the way home. The meditation helped to be able to handle whatever I felt or thought about and it made the transition home very easy and natural. I cant possibly sum it all in a sentence, and even if I could, I would never want to. Its still going on, the traveling, learning, exploring and living. I only wish everyone would have the luxury of time and love and support that I did to be able to do this and still have people welcoming me home. We will see where this new journey will take me!

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