Thursday, February 25, 2010

Getting Ready to Leave Rishikesh

People walk. I try to imagine where they are all going. There are two main bridges connecting the shores of the city of Rishikesh. Hundreds of temples attract the spiritual seekers. Some of the temples are simple with rudimentary caves and an adorned statue with fresh flowers and aromatic incense burning. Others are as elaborate as large hotels and, instead of accommodations, you can find a series of small rooms for each deity or God. People flock to these temples.

Delicious foods are available in the many restaurants that hide in alleyways and along the open shores of the Ganges. Rooftop cafes offer Indian dishes as well as Israeli, Italian and Chinese. Most restaurants are half empty. Most of the people are just walking.

The façade of the cliffs are crowded with cement structures of varying colours. Pink, Green, blue, yellow are not unusual colours for buildings here. They are homes, schools, restaurants, stores, and temples. There is no organization to what you might find anywhere. Everything is everywhere. And people just walk.

The stores amaze me! There are rows and rows of shops that line the narrow roads. Many are contained in large garage areas of people’s homes. One small stall after another, each one offering basically the same merchandise. I just don’t understand how people make a living. I mean…how many plastic buckets are people buying anyway? But I think my western concept of ‘living’ interferes with that understanding. Because, the fact is, there are no ‘For Sale’ signs anywhere. There are no shut down windows, and I haven’t seen any “going out of business’ sales. Merchants sit peacefully in front of their shops, open to sell. Everyone….and I mean everyone is smiling.

In Rishikesh, the food is pure (satvic). We haven’t found any place that sells meat or fish or chicken. You can’t get a glass of wine or a bottle of beer anywhere!

The only way I can explain the people is by acknowledging that they live on a different plane. They are grounded in Nature, relying on cosmic energy. It isn’t even about reliance. It is a simple, calm and satisfied observance.

Beggars sit with their palms outreached. I believe it is as much about giving as it is about receiving. Sincere smiles and a heartfelt “Namaste” are offered even when I pass without contributing. And it isn’t just some of the people. It’s most! Almost all!

The other day, Paul bought some bananas. The seller didn’t have any change. “Hold on a minute”, he said. Paul watched him approach the nearest beggar for change. Go figure!!!! Only in India!

We’re leaving Rishikesh and moving on to the far north…..the Kulu Valley.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hotel Shikhur in Rishikesh

We have really settled in to our space in Rishikesh. We live in a simple room on the top floor of a small hotel on a main road. We have our own private balcony, and a comfortable bed. There is lots of water, both hot and cold. The spouts come out of the wall like a sink and so we have to fill a large bucket with water and take what we call a ‘bucket shower’. The idea of having hot water whenever we want has become a luxury. Who cares how it gets over our bodies.

Our daily rate is 250 rupees (about $6.00)

Directly across the street is a small restaurant called The Flying Tiger. An American woman from Chicago, Beverly, owns the place. She makes the best food! She calls it Yogi food and it is consistently great! Everything is cooked by gas, with one electrical plug, used exclusively for a kettle. Beverly makes really good coffee and the best chai in town! And…. she’s a great person. It is definitely a hang out. We are there every morning for breakfast and now she expects us and has my coffee all ready by the time we arrive!

There is a community of travellers who meet regularly too. We see the same people from time to time and place to place. There is a familiarity that is established that is very unique and special. We are making new friends with people from all over the world. Interesting conversations and some fun times happen regularly.

Our morning Satsang with Prem Baba is enriching and energizing. It begins at 10:30 with meditation and chanting. The energy starts calmly and allows for deep intraspection. Then Prem Baba shares his thoughts. There is something everyday that I find profound and beautiful. He is teaching me a lot.

The satsang concludes with about 45 minutes of music and dancing and more chanting. I find myself making up Hebrew chants to replace the Sanskrit messages which I don’t understand and, when I do understand them, they just don't move me. I have learned that Sanskrit, like Hebrew, is one of the ancient languages. I think there are many words that are similar between the two. For instace Om and Shalom, or Nemaha and Neshama. So I often translate the Sanskrit in to Hebrew and it becomes so much more meaningful for me. The chanting after satsang is so energetic and joyful with dancing and laughing with the group!

The afternoons Paul and I do various activities like strolling into temples and purchasing presents from local merchants. Yesterday we took a day trip into Haridwar to view the Harkipheiri Ghat. We travelled by local bus and walked to the ghat. We sat for the afternoon watching Hindus from all over India splash and play while immersing themselves in the holy water. They are such proud and humble people! Several of them came to sit with us and were eager to explain the practise. The people are so amazing!!!

We are looking forward to trekking into the mountains of the Himalayas. There are several temples and monuments and gorgeous waterfalls to explore.

We’ve discovered a couple of good Yoga classes and we’ve fallen in to a very comfortable routine in the evenings before our dinner. Paul even practises on his own sometimes. I usually prefer the encouragement of a teacher and the support of the community in a class. But I’m also open to practise with Paul on the roof of our house overlooking the city and the Ganges. Not too shabby!!!

There are Internet cafes right downstairs too. I know! I know! I really ought to be able to disconnect more. But, quite frankly, I love being able to feel close to my home of family and friends!

I get so many messages from people who are reading my blog. I so appreciate your love and your desire to know what’s going on. And I also love writing! How fabulous I feel to have the time and inspiration to do so. One of our children wrote to say that he couldn’t understand how I have so much time to have the adventures we’re having, and the time to write about them too.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


She said Namaste

And waved calmly from the well

As I passed her by

Colourful sunsets

I listen to India

Yellow, pink and blue.

Ganga Arti in Rishikesh

The tears flow. They are tears of honey, I now understand. Just like when I am with my loving community at shul or sitting with my family around our kitchen table. They are tears of sweet honey.

Prem Baba started Satsang this morning with these words, “It’s only when you are empty that you can find the heart and put into practise what it tells you.” And “Relationships are the university of life.”

As we travel we transform our relationships in the world. Even our familial relationships strengthen as we separate and develop our selves as individuals. This city of Rishikesh is full of relationships and I am reminded of the chanting of “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti” My heart is with me always and I am in perpetual pursuit of what it tells me.

Tomorrow Paul and I will travel by local bus to Haridwar where the festival of Kumbh Mela is occurring. The festival is similar to the Haj in that literally millions of Hindus migrate to the Ganges to bathe and symbolically wash away sins. It is a goal for Hindus to make this pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime.

At dusk each evening there is a ceremony that takes place on the shores of the River. It’s called Ganga Arti. Last night we participated.

As we approach, I can hear the tambourines clearly. The voices clearly audible through the loudspeakers sound untrained and unpractised. I find the drone a little annoying. As the sun sets people gather along the shores. Others sit drinking lemon soda and lassies in cafes and restaurants overlooking the water. Rishikesh is completely dry. You can't get a beer or a glass of wine anywhere.

There is a fire burning on the opposite bank from where we sit. I watch as the a man lights his fire immediately after bathing in the waters. Now, he too sits and waits for the ceremony to begin.

The sun has set. The Sadhu washes his hands in the river. I hear a clear sound from a conchshell, just like that of a shofar, blow three distinct types of sounds. The ceremony begins. As the music continues a child of about 3 years old, a woman dressed in a bright yellow sari and 4 young men gather at the table to light the small candles perched on a miniature boat like structure. Cowbells are clearly rung. It is similar to the bells I hear at the various temples I’ve visited throughout India. I am loving the music from the harmonium.

As I glance to my right, I witness a young woman preparing her little candle as she bends down and gently pushes it into the Ganges. The leaders of the ceremony do the same with theirs. The small fires wind their way in one direction. It is the direction that the river flows.

I am thinking of Taschlich. How much we are the same. In India there is an expression for this. “Same… Same…and different”. I think about rivers. They are forever flowing. They are infinite and eternal and the water is life preserving. It is a safe place to put our sins.

As the fires flow, the music stops suddenly, people disperse, and it is all over. Tomorrow we will experience the same in Haridwar.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Satsang in Rishikesh

It seems as if we’ve landed again. What I mean by that is we have found another place where we feel content and ‘at home’. We are in Rishikesh. The Ganges River begins here.

The Ganges is considered by Hindus to be the holiest of waters with healing powers and religious magic. Hindus come from all over the world to tip their toes into the waters so that the magic of the flow will take away their sins forever. At any time of the day you can see people bathing at the shores or simply touching the waters with their fingertips. Many people fill small decanters with the waters to bring to their homes for healing the sick and ridding family members of sins, bringing good health and prosperity to their households.

There is an emphasis on spiritual energy here. People who love being in Rishikesh, love it because of what the city has to offer. Everywhere you look there is evidence of Yoga, meditation, music, devotion, inward pursuit and understanding.

Life happens here as it does in other cities, and yet, there is something extra that I feel when I observe my surroundings. People of all cultures wander the narrow streets seemingly on their way to somewhere. As I look I notice crowds of people walking in one direction. That might be because there is only one road in Rishikesh. It is like a main artery to and from the heart. There are veins that connect, but the veins are narrow and lead in alternate directions. Ultimately, you must return to the original source. So people generally walk to where they’re going by using the main artery.

Down the narrow pathways are hundreds of temples or shrines offering opportunity to gather with others in conversation or prayer. Today we even found a Chabad House and, of course, we chose to meander down that narrow pathway. It turns out there is no one there anymore and the place is closed. That was a disappointment for me because, ultimately I find my complete spiritual place grounded in my Judaism and I’m really comfortable there. It would have been nice for me to take the joy I am feeling and connect with other Jews.

For me, that joyful spirituality is significant. We had just participated in a satsang gathering with a Guru, Prem Baba. This blog post is an attempt to describe that experience.

The room we entered at his Ashram is a large white walled auditorium like house with open walls and large doorways that lead out to various scenes. One such scene is a courtyard that inviting sitting and relaxation amongst flowers and plants and natural pottery and simple décor. Another direction overlooks the incredible spectacle of the flowing Ganges River. Along the shores I could see people bathing and enjoying the freshness of the clean clear waters that is available here because this is the primary source of the Ganges, which flows through Northern India.

Cows gather there too because they know when scraps of food will be tossed along the roadways that boarder the River flow.

On the ceilings and along the walls of the room are simple creations of stain glass art. The ceiling ones are exactly like the stain glass design that Seyna made for Darchei Noam when Julia and Lindsay had their Bat Mitzvah in 2001. I wondered if she had seen these because they are truly just like the one she did, right down to the representation of the Magen David symbol. Right along the border where the wall meets the ceiling there are stain glass tulips. That’s all that is in the room. It was simple, colourful and perfect.

The real energy comes from the people who are there. I would say there were about 200 of us. Live gentle music, (Paul calls it the Enya music of India) plays amongst the crowd.

While the music and chanting continued, Prem Baba entered the room. The crowd stood in reverence. He sat without saying a word. And stayed like that for about 10 minutes. With his hands in prayer, he scanned the room with his eyes and offered a gentle smile. It seemed as if he made eye contact with each and everyone of us.

He had my complete attention. I was smiling and felt exhilarated.

In Portuguese, and with an English translator, he then spent the next hour teaching. It was a talk that addressed a specific query from one of his followers. And the response that he gave was beautiful.

I was truly wowed! When his talk finished, many people lined up to say thank you. In India, generally, people prostrate themselves before the Guru and, while bowing, put their hands on the Gurus feet in devotion and gratitude. I have to say that is not my style, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful by being unique. I am grappling with the Guru concept, preferring instead to remember that the Guru is within each of us. Maybe I will send him an email of thanks.

Instead, I stayed amongst the crowd. There was festive singing and dancing and honest and sincere joy. People with loving smiles and welcoming gestures just gathered to celebrate each other and the simplicity of the day. People were partying! And it went on for about an hour. By the time we left it had been 2/12 hours.

I can hardly believe that this happens everyday, but I will certainly be there tomorrow to find out! What a fantastic way to energize and approach the day.

Walking back home towards our room, the markets gave us more opportunity to experience the people. We ate warm peanuts bought from a street vendor and picked up some basic items for our room.

Yoga class today at 4:00 will be a trial for us. Our first Yoga experience in Rishikesh! If it’s as good as the satsang was, we might just be here for a while! Life is good!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thinking of Jacquie in India

Sitting in Indira Ghandi International Airport in Cochi, Kerela. Our flight to Delhi leaves shortly. There is a feeling of ‘flow’ here. It reminds me of a time when we were flying from Israel to Canada with our girls. Circumstances (I won’t go into what they were) made it so that we had a stop over in England. Jacquie, in her profound simplicity and innocence said, “Airports are so multi cultural!” She was so right!!!

She was also a great inspiration for us to be here. She visited India last year!

We’re leaving the South. Northern India awaits us.


I have been barefoot for two days. I haven’t seen a knife and fork in the same amount of time. I think I might have gotten used to sweating. It’s so incredibly hot. The sun is powerful and glorious!

The hundreds of species of birds each sing their own song. Sometimes they just sing. Sometimes, it seems they try to sing harmonically. There is a choir of lions roaring across the lake at the Lion Safari Jungle and the cows in the nearby village of Neyyar Dam moo for attention. Ironically I feel a deep sense of peace.

The Sivanada Yoga Ashram accommodates about 400 people all here for intensive Yoga practise and meditation. There are two satsang sessions daily and several hours of chanting.

We sleep in dormitories, men and women separately. It is a very beautiful ashram atop of the Sahyadri Hills in Neyyar Dam. The lake is a beautiful reservoir where we swim.

Staying in an ashram is very cheap! 450 rupees a day (that’s $11.00!) gets us room and board, 4 hours of yoga, 3 hours of learning about Yoga, and anything else that communal living has to offer.

We arrived here by motorcycle. We rented it in Varkala because we realized that our time in Southern India is running out and, although we wanted an ashram experience we didn’t have the time to deal with trains and buses and such. Renting a motorcycle was the most economical way to get there in consideration of time and money.

Of course, two days in an ashram is not near enough. Ashram life is very strict and I would suggest that, for me, I need more time to figure out how to break the rules respectfully.

It’s been wonderful practising Yoga with so many people. There is incredible energy that is generated when hundreds of people come together for meditation. Although this particular ashram didn’t excite me with it’s Hindu emphasis. I’m not much into worshipping deities and swamis. But I have found ways of making it work for me and my beliefs and the way that I see myself in the world.

So sometimes I refrain from some of the practises. For instance, I did not prostrate myself before Ganesh so that “he would remove all obstacles that might interfere with my reaching complete success towards my intent for the day.” I also did not bow down to the Sadhu so he or she could bless me and place a bindy on my forehead.

I watched for a while as others did, however, and allowed myself to open up. And then…here is what I did do:

I closed my eyes gently and sat still while everyone was lined up in the procession.

I thought about my experience in this life.

I immediately recognized what a beautiful world we live in. I thought about the intense energy the sun provides through it’s heat. I thought about the power of trees, the beauty they provide, the sense of protection and strength they offer, and the gift of the fruits they provide. I thought about the thousands of varieties of flowers that add colour and fragrance to our environment. I thought of the many waterways that are so deep, and take us from one place to another, and of the mystery of the moon that connects us all.

I did thank God for my amazing children…all of them…Those to whom I gave birth (the very nature of birth gives us the most special of connections), my stepchildren (what a miracle it is to have the kind of relationship we have developed) and to my grandchildren with whom I share a unique and different relationship and let me love in ways I’ve never loved before. They all bring me so much joy and love and excitement and they are my greatest teachers.

I did make sure to make eye contact with Paul from across the room, share a loving smile and a grateful sort of glance. My life is so enriched because of the kind of relationship we share and all the amazing things we do together. I am regularly in awe of the simple fact they we have found each other in this lifetime. We have grown so strongly together, and as individuals.

I did think with love about my many wonderful girl friends in Toronto and in New York and all over the world with whom I am able to share unique and important contact. And about my friends in general who enrich my life with spirituality and deep meaningful conversations and fun and love.

I did send out loving thoughts to my mom and dad and two brothers who make up my first primal family and gave me the start I needed.

I grounded myself in the positive energy deep in my own soul to remind myself that I am good and that I try my best to love with integrity and compassion in a world that is sometimes difficult and challenging. I reminded myself to trust in that goodness and to believe that I do, in fact, have that love in my core.

And I didn’t even stop there. I remembered Sajee’s teachings, and I thanked the food that I eat, the books that I read, the music that I hear, and the richness that my life provides for me.

And then, as the last people in the group offered their prayers to Ganesh, I joined everyone else, in the final Om chanting. There is enormous energy generated when we chant together. When all was finished we sang for peace…..“Shanti, Shanti, Shanti”. The first ‘shanti’, a gentle chant, and is for my own inner peace. The second, slightly more dynamic, is for peace within our extended community. The third ‘Shanti’ is loud and melodic, and is for peace for all living things in the entire universe!


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Changing Plans....Again

Unsure of what we were going to do this morning, Paul and I set out. Our plans are influenced by the fact that we have a plane ticket to fly to Delhi on Wednesday. It was, in fact, the only way we were sure to get ourselves out of Southern India. At this point, if we had our druthers…we’d just stay here. But the fact is, we are meeting our friends in the Kulu Valley, and we are also excited about seeing parts of the North, so we booked our flight to give us the incentive to actually leave. Time of departure…..7:10 Wednesday morning.

But what about the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam? We don’t want to leave Kerala without the experience of this amazing ashram. How would we ever fit it all in with the challenges of time and dealing with India’s trains and buses?

So…..we went for breakfast.

And then we rented a motorcycle!!! We’ve taken the motorcycle for 3 days which will make it easy to get to the ashram…practise Yoga…and get back to Varkala in time for our flight!!!!

The universe remains on our side!!!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Backwaters of Kerala

The houseboat that’s carrying Paul and me down the backwaters of Southern India has a bedroom with a bathroom and a shower, a kitchen, and a living room. There are four crewmembers travelling with us. B.G. He’s the Captain. Chanderan is the technician in case something needs fixing. Binu is the chef, and Binesh is a trainee.

The houseboat is made of wood and bamboo. At first glance it looks like a miniature ancient explorer’s boat with the bough a symbol of some revered God or spiritual deity. From the carving to the steering wheel is a small platform. One of the spokes of the steering wheel is broken off. That doesn’t seem to deter B.G. at all.

The main area of the boat is living space offering several different types of chairs. There are chairs for sitting upright. There are a couple of loungers for reclining. Several stools and benches are available. The two chairs around the table are where we sit to eat our meals. There are no solid walls in the boat.

At first glance, the bedroom seems perfect. It has it’s own bathroom with a shower. There is enough room for a big double bed with newly placed clean sheets. The fan hanging from the wall close to the ceiling, we later discover doesn’t really work.

People have told us that taking the backwater trip is an experience not to miss. The Lonely Planet said it’s an absolute must. Debra Ekclove, a friend from our synagogue community, made us promise we would accept the extravagance and do it. We did.

I love being out on the water. The gentle breeze caused by the smooth passing through the water is calming for me. I am intrigued by life underwater. I view it as a whole layer of existence. There is another (underwater) world going on and I become a small part of it.

The scenery as we glide is dreamlike. Rice paddies cover entire peninsulas of land. I had never seen rice paddies before. They are truly gorgeous fields, neatly organized in what seems to be lakes of water. Some time I really want to walk through those fields to get a better idea of how they actually grow.

Lining the coast are the homes of village people. There are all kinds ranging from shanty shacks to cement, painted homes. Inevitably each home has a garden and backs on to the rice paddies. Periodically you can see temples. There are many, colourful and vibrant.

The villages we pass on both sides of the lake remind me that in India, there is life everywhere. It is almost impossible to escape from civilization here. There is no solitude. Even in the middle of this huge lake (Vembadnad) there are whole communities of people. Virtually they live together relying on each other for their everyday needs and extraordinary events.

Survival in these villages is basic. Rice, coconuts, bananas, cashews and various spices grow almost wildly. Fishermen leave their homes in canoes early morning to try their luck for daily meals. Local markets help villagers by providing space for selling what grows in their own land. Most villagers, it seems, stay pretty close to home for sustenance. In each village there are schools, temples, basic store kiosks and mosques. Occasionally I see a small wooden ferry transporting schoolchildren to another small island. That is their local ‘school bus’. Each village seems to be self -sufficient.

Life is simple and yet, quite complex. The emphasis is on basic survival needs. Role definitions among family members make it easy to know what to do. Women are strong. We’ve seen small frail elderly woman carrying 30 kilos of assorted fruit in a basket on her head. We’ve watched women at rivers and lakes beating laundry with muscle and vigour until the load is clean. They are totally responsible for meals, and for childcare. This seems pretty typical throughout India. In the backwaters, however, the quiet calm that exists makes women even more conspicuous in their homes.

Children are at school. When they’re not in school, they are helping at home and playing with each other.

Men….I’m not always sure what they do. In the cities many work in shops, push carts with merchandise for selling, run homestays and cook in restaurants. Many work in construction and there is a lot of construction going on throughout the country. In the cities, you can find boisterous crowds of men hanging out on the streets drinking chai and laughing with their buddies.

When I have asked why there are seldom any women out in the restaurants and hanging out in the streets socializing, the answer is “They are home taking care of the house.”

In the backwater villages, men seem to be at home too, in the fields and helping to take care of the immediate family needs.

Music plays conspicuously through loudspeakers in the different villages. We hear various prayer music throughout the day, and sometimes, sweet women’s voices accompanying workers in the fields. By 4:30 am there was chanting playing loudly, melodically droning through the speakers. Not particularly welcome at 4:30 am, but definitely an experience to hear.

Life here is simple. Each day seems the same; wash, pray eat, love, teach, pray, clean, play, pray etc. Festivals devoted to deities and Gods break up the monotony and enhance routine. There seem to be no grandiose dreams of travel, no plans for big purchases, no thoughts of premium bottles of wine or dinners out at the local gourmet restaurant. Emphasis seems to be on having enough to eat for oneself and one’s family, devotion to God and celebrating life and love with family and friends.

And again, as I ride through these villages, I know I have to let go of those biases. Unless I get a chance to talk directly to people I couldn’t possibly even guess what’s going on for them. Any of those ideas come from my own biases created from a lack of information and enhanced by input from others who also lack first hand information.

I can hear my father as I ride through these villages. “Tsk”, he would gesture. “I can’t imagine what type of life they live. How can they live like that? There’s so little for them to do. Such poverty.”

I wish my father could have seen through his own preconceptions. How did he even know what “that’ was. Knowing my dad as well as I did, I actually think he would have preferred that type of life.

P.S. Lest you think that all is rosy, I want you all to know that our night on the houseboat was a disaster.

The potential for wonderfully romantic experience, with catered meals, and a perfect natural world around us, with absolutely everything we could want at our fingertips was there.

As the darkness started to set in, the lizards began to congregate above our heads. That was manageable. Afraid that they would loose their grip from the ceiling and fall on me or my dinner, I simply moved my seat every time one was above my head. That was easy.

What wasn’t easy was when the cockroaches (more like mini buffalo) began to scurry around. That was a huge challenge. And there were many of them too!

Freaked out, we came into our room, is also the one section of the houseboat that is covered with rattan roof. It was brutally hot. That didn’t stop me, however, from covering my entire body including my head, with a sheet, every once in a while coming up for air.

I never sweated so much in my life. I probably even lost some weight that night. Our first disaster!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Cool Air and Early Mornings in Kumily

Babu was waiting for us downstairs at 5:00 this morning. I’m not so good waking up early in the morning. I have a hard enough time sleeping even when I have no schedule to wake up for. The possibility of meeting up with wild elephants and maybe even a tiger was a bit exciting for me. They said there’s more chance if we go early. I went.

The moon was still strong as we began our walk. The stars were still bright. I wondered where the jeep was that was transporting us to the park entrance. We walked for about 30 minutes before I realized there was no vehicle.

Babu never faltered in his gate. The darkness was in no way a deterrent in his speed. He seemed to have bat eyes guiding him through the forest. There was no evident path. Babu used just intuition, and a sense of familiarity. I simply followed him and Paul was right behind.

As we made our way deeper and deeper into the woods, the day began to emerge comfortably. The atmosphere in Kumily is one of the characteristics of the village I am liking the most. We are very high in the mountains. There is virtually no humidity. The air is noticeably fresh and clean. The sun shines brightly. Early morning, however, the sun too is just waking up. As we walked, I was aware of the sun attempting to make her way through the mist.

We refrained from talking for most of the walk. That was nice. We even had a 15-minute opportunity to sit on a rock, overlooking the forest, able to see the towns of Kumily and the Thekkady. As the sun rose, we each sat by ourselves in meditation. The quiet, the beauty, the calm all contributed to a perfect rest.

We walked for 3 hours. Babu had no problems with the trek. We later discovered that he was 29 years old. I have to say that both Paul and I had some challenges. Several times I had to remind Babu “No more going up!” It just seemed that we always were climbing. Isn’t there supposed to be a downward path too?

We didn’t see animals. We saw lots of elephant shit though, and some of it smelled strongly. It was clear that they were there ‘just this morning’. We also looked for cobras because we saw evidence of a moulted snakeskin left behind. We picked wild chilli peppers and curry leaves. We saw some awesome sights over the hills. The sun was wide-awake before we made it back home. It was a nice way to start the day. It probably would have been just as nice if we had started at 9:00!

Travelling brings many different experiences. Kumily is nice. Paul and I are appreciating the relaxing that we’re able to do here. The women who cook at our Homestay are excellent cooks and we can just hang out on our balcony, reading, writing and just talking. We’ll just relax today. Tomorrow we move on again… the backwaters of Kerela.

We are all the Same...We are all Different

In India mostly everyone is Indian. Now, that might sound a bit strange, but, think about it. In Canada people come from all over the world. It is common to wander the streets anywhere in Canada and see people who look different.

It is obvious, here, that Paul and I are different.

There are so few westerners walking the streets. People openly stare at us and shower us with curious attention. Yesterday, we went walking on the streets of Kumily and a young man asked if he could take our picture! What a surprise that was! And it got me to think about how homogeneous a society they have here.

I think, in Canada, we take cultural diversity for granted. I can’t imagine what a person would have to be wearing to attract my complete attention. There is so little we don’t see. We are familiar and usually comfortable with worldly attire and customs. We generally understand cultural practises and, for the most part, celebrate the rich diversity to which we are exposed.

Immigration in India is probably close to 0%. There are few people, I would guess coming to remain here. The Visa laws have recently been changed to discourage foreigners from staying too long. I understand that a 3 -month visa all that’s being offered to travellers. The buzzword about that is, that the Indian masses are concerned about westerners coming and exploiting the cheap labour and inexpensive existence. There’s probably a great deal of truth in that, but, I would think that travellers also add to the economic benefits too.

As I travel through this country I more and more appreciate the extreme differences with which we all relate to the world around us. There is uniqueness of opportunities that are offered to us as a result of the place we are born. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. And there are benefits and challenges where ever we live. Though people are curious about me here, it’s not in an aggressive way. It’s more, “I want to know more about you.” or “Where are you from? Tell me about your country.” I’m so happy that we are travelling with a computer that stores all our photographs. It is wonderful to share pictures of our children and home environment with the people here. It reminds us, practically, that we are really all the same. We all love our children. We have aging parents. We struggle to maintain homes. There are many in both countries who don’t have everything they need. We all die sometime.

Several people in Toronto warned us about the dire poverty in India. “Why would you want to go see so much dirt and poverty?” someone asked. I find myself continuing to let go of my western biases. Observing has been more helpful than judging. I find if I’m busy trying to understand, that I miss the real person. I’d rather bend down and listen to people. If I try to figure things out, I hold back. If I open up my heart I learn more. There is a lot of joy, even in poverty sometimes, and certainly an open caring culture. So far in Southern India we have seen no police officers clearing the streets of homelessness. There is an evidence of institutional support for the handicapped, the destitute and the poor. It’s not perfect. That’s for sure. But there is a lot of good going on. I have found my interactions with people very invigorating and enriching. I have learned so much about so many.

Life is not perfect. There are many people in need without the where withal to access help. But in general, Yoga is evident everywhere in the streets; patience, compassion, selfless service and love. Not a bad way to live after all.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


We’ve landed again. This time in Kumily, Kerela. Kumily is well known for its jungles with wild animals, and tea plantations. Coffee and various spices also grow abundantly here. It is a huge conservation area, relying heavily on tourism to show off the natural beauty and God given gifts.

The bus ride here was completely uneventful. We left Ernakulum on time (8:00 am) and arrived in Kumily according to schedule (2:00 pm). It was a relatively short ride. I slept some, read some, and also had a chance to appreciate the changing scenery. As I listened to R.E.M. on my iPod, I thought of Jonathan (he loves R.E.M.) and home, and felt so good.

The views along the way were spectacular as we wound our way through bustling villages into the dense forests of the mountains. I must admit there were some moments that frightened even me! It would have taken just a sneeze to shift our bus over the edge.

The place we found to stay is incredibly comfortable. It sits along the road of an uphill village. It’s called The Rainbow Inn. That could be because it is painted with about 15 different colours. It reminds me a bit of an amusement park. The people are incredibly friendly and eager to help us plan our time here. It is family run with the women cooking, the men cleaning and planning and the children doing whatever else needs to be done. Surrounding the Inn is a regular village with hundreds of huts and cabins and shop fronts. Everywhere are people with sincere smiles and words of welcome.

We had our dinner on the rooftop of the Inn and even had two beers with our deliciously homemade meal. Kerela is generally a dry state so we have not had too many beers since we’re here. So far we are finding this place perfect.

For the first time since we’re in India we have a TV. in our room. Paul is so thrilled and planning to wake up for a 5:00 am start to the Super Bowl on Monday morning.

I just hope it doesn’t interfere with our elephant ride!

High up in the mountains, Kumily is cool and breezy. Sitting on the balcony we noticed the clean air while we ate our dinner. Along with our conversation we could hear the vibrant energetic activity taking place in homes. So many homes. So many people! So much activity….everywhere. It’s a wonder there are no high rises anywhere. People just live side by side by side by side….happily!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Getting Ready to Leave Cochin

This morning, riding my bicycle from my morning yoga practise with Sajee, I smiled a ‘good morning’ smile to one of his neighbours. “Good morning,” he said, “Yoga is finished for today?”

“Yoga is never finished”, I replied.

Sajee teaches a lot about selfless service. It is the same idea as tikkun olam. It is not enough to pray and commune with God. We benefit too from acting Godly. Selfless Service.

This afternoon, Sajee, Alicia, Paul and I took the local bus about 7 kilometres to the Shilpa Special School. Shilpa was a young energetic girl who suffered in her life with mental handicap. She also suffered from several attacks and diseases because she was born with a hole in her heart. Shilpa died at age 11 and her parents, (both of whom are doctors) established and created a school for mentally handicapped children to service this needy population in Kerela.

The children in the school number about 175. There are about 40 teachers all of whom have specific training in special education.

It was immediate energy as we entered the two-tiered building. There were children everywhere, some of whom could barely walk because of deformations in their legs. Many were completely non-verbal. Some had limited or no use of their upper body. Several had mongoloid characteristics. And all of them wore huge smiles and were animated in their desire to make contact with us and to play.

I had such a great time being with so many of the kids. I was able to sit with several during the hour or so we were there and just play. Making letters with clay, writing on paper together, colouring in the lines, reading books all made them happy. And it made me so happy too.

There was one large table where several special men were sitting. The school services them too. They come to school everyday and make paper bags from newspaper. I watched them for a while and then I asked one of them, Lenni, to teach me how to do it too. With Lenni’s help, I made a paper bag from newspaper. Lenni was so excited to be my teacher. I was thrilled to be his student. It just reinforces what I believe…. we are all teachers in this world because we are all learners.

I got to speak to many of the teachers and we spent quite a bit of time with the Principal. The Vice Principal invited us back. I told her if we come back to Fort Cochin for a month or so, I would love to volunteer at the school. She was so excited. I would certainly make that part of why I would come back here…..Yoga, Ayurveda, volunteering!

Paul and I are also going to arrange to purchase a bunch of tambourines, and shakers and drums to send to the school before we leave. It wouldn’t cost that much for us, and it would be such a wonderful gift for them!

We said good-bye to Sajee today. He is a special teacher and I have no doubt we will connect again. He just got an email account and he says he checks email daily so I’m sure we will be able to stay in touch. I have learned so much from him, and he has given us such a rich Yoga practise.

It’s Shabbat evening in Fort Cochin. Paul and I went to the synagogue, our second Shabbat experience since we’ve been in India. I have to say it was a better experience than the first, in Arombol. People were friendly. Mostly everyone there was a traveller. The fact is there are only 10 Jews left in Cochin and one of them invited us to dinner. That felt good. It was nice, but Paul and I decided we would decline and have a nice last dinner here on our own.

We have an early morning auto rickshaw booked for tomorrow to take us to the bus station in Ernakulum for our 6-hour ride to Thekkady. We’re going to ride elephants!!!!!