Wednesday, February 26, 2014


 India is changing. It’s been four years since I first came to India, and, since then, I have spent an accumulated 9 months here. India has inspired change in me, and, what I’m noticing this year, is that India is changing.

Perhaps that’s the nature of our world right now. Our world is changing rapidly. India represents one extreme and North America another. Environmental deterioration (and repair), advancement in technology, varied and simpler forms of communication, easy and quick transportation, all make it easier for us to learn about each other. The prospects of ‘East meets West’ is becoming more of a reality!
This morning, as I go into the kitchen to say good morning to Soba, the caretaker of the apartments where we stay, I notice that she is dividing the garbage from the kitchen bin. “What are you doing? I ask. “Plastic” she says as she adds to the small pile of plastic products on the counter,  “and paper”.  There is an awareness that was never here before. I become more aware of the piles of plastic bottles scattered on the streets. They are undoubtedly destined for somewhere in particular. An awareness of the need to separate is being acted on.

There is orderliness in parts of India that I never noticed was here before. The roads through Bangalore are paved and there are the beginnings of a Metro that will take you right through the city from the airport. That will eliminate much of the traffic that is a daily part of Bangalore life. Escalators are available now in most train stations to make it easier for people to access the appropriate track for trains.
As we exit the station in Ernakulum to find a tuk tuk to get to Kochi, we realize that there is an absence of bombardment from the drivers outside the station. A queue of people are orderly standing for tickets. “Wow” I say. “This is so civilized!” “Police enforced” explains the woman in front of me. A signs reads “Prepaid rickshaw service”. What a concept! Standing on line, waiting our turn, and receiving a guaranteed price ticket to take us to where we wanted to go!!! No haggling with the price. No bargaining. No riding away feeling we’ve been ripped off! I like this! I would think it changes the disposition and attitudes of the drivers too!

A woman in a nearby village is physically abused by her husband, while we are staying with friends in Bangalore. It used to be, for the most part, that women are unaware of choices to protect them and their future. Now, women are seeking refuge, and looking for support from police and public organizations. The woman fled with her daughter to the place where we were staying. Days of staying and lots of conversation help her to see that calling police can lead to help and support, not more danger. She does call the police. They do come and listen and record the incident. I’m not sure if they’re at a place of charging and convicting the perpetrator, but they certainly are a little bit closer.

Sometimes I’m not sure if my outer surroundings are changing or if it’s my inner being perceiving differently. Maybe my love for India and my extreme comfort of being here influences the way I see things. People who have travelled here often say “India is so filthy dirty and the poverty is too hard to take. It smells and people just don’t take care of themselves or their country”.  I suppose I see all that. But most significantly I see the other extreme. People are clean here. It’s not unusual to witness morning washing rituals out in the streets. Teeth brushing, body cleansing, bathing are often public. The garbage is evident all over the streets and in waterways. I also witness the cleaners in the parks and in the streets sweeping up the debris from last night’s activities. And the shopkeepers clear their store fronts daily. There’s an awareness of environmental clean up and an attempt to understand. I see such beauty here!

Since my first trip to India I think I have become more accepting, less judgemental. Some people say I’m ‘naïve’ but I don’t think that’s true. I see things in reality, and reality has good and bad. I see them both. I am aware of the possibilities of ‘bad’ and anticipate the possibility. I expect good however, and, I have to say, generally, that becomes my experience. We live in an absolutely beautiful world!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Simple (and Not So Simple) Life

Our lives for the past two weeks have been completely overwhelmed with life. At the Gurukula, life happens and, how we spend our days is all about life!

Cows need to be milked. Food needs to be prepared. People come and go and the constant activity is vibrant and lively. Here, all people are welcome. It is about inclusion and love and personal safety. It is also about responsibility and giving and community. Learning occurs always. When the sunrise so quickly turns to sunset, I am amazed at how fully the day has been passed.

Time and life are interwoven and when night time comes, I wonder how it all happened so fast. How come I never put together the slide show presentation from yesterday’s Guru Pooja celebration? Why did I miss the opportunity to prepare paisam with Manju? What about the book I was going to finish reading? Why am I still dressed for Yoga practise and I still haven’t made it as far as the yoga platform? I hardly even spent time with Mah today!

Important and simple things happen at the Gurukula. Everyday routines are the default, and some days pass with nothing out of the ordinary. I have come to love the simplicity of our daily existence. I relish the time talking with others, the breadth of conversation we have, and the deepening of genuine relationships. There is time for that.

And very important things happen here too! Today a woman and her 12-year-old daughter come for refuge from the nearby village of Kagliapura. They are running from Lakshmi’s husband who beat, then hung her from a tree. Neighbours came and freed her and she was able to escape.

The two women arrive at the Gurukula shaken and frightened. We are available to help. The husband comes almost immediately to ‘reclaim’ his wife. There is a constant and very loud battle that lasts for hours. Saraswathi, the young child, benefits from distractions. I take her out of earshot. The Bangalore police are contacted. These are all actions that most village people are not aware are even options. There is learning happening here in India. “The world is watching.” is the message I try to share. We, as a universal community can help bring awareness right here to villages like Kagliapura!

I realize I should not get involved. Mah and Manju understand the mentality of the villagers. I understand the ultimate need for compassion and love and basic civil rights. But how that is realized in India is too different from what I have to offer. Sometimes ‘helping’ is knowing when to stay back.  I reach over to embrace young Saraswathi, I kiss her forehead, and say “Don’t worry, dear one. The world is watching.” I want to make that sentence true! I want to return to North America and do something to help.

Oblish is a 30 something year old man who is completely deaf and dumb. He has a wife and child living in the village of Kagliapura. He is extremely poor. Oblish has been working at the Gurukula for several years now. He lives here too, and carries on all the day-to-day care that is necessary now that Mah is aging a bit and needs extra hands. There is a sign language that they use that is nothing like ASL. Everyone here learns to communicate with Oblish, and his smile and occasional grunt of laughter, makes his happiness evident. He works from early morning to after dark. He is fed and housed, and once in a while he returns to his family to bring them cash and have a visit. I don’t even know what would happen to Oblish and his family if it weren’t for the Gurukula.

The celebration of the Guru, called Guru Pooja, is a weekend event that takes several days of preparation. Villagers come to share meals and teachings and the members of the Gurukula welcome all and host the event. There are musicians playing during the night and friends of the Gurukala gather together. Villagers come as guests and, seated all along the walls of the prayer hall, are served a complete, sumptuous meal. Tents scatter around the land accommodating space for rest. The all night cooking sessions, when residents and members of the family prepare the meals for everyone, are fun and celebratory. Great conversations happen throughout the night. Underneath large awnings, gas stoves heat enormous vats of rice, curries, dahl, choles and paisam. The tandori oven is on for hours baking fresh chapatti and naan. We gather for days and share the chores necessary to ensure everyone who comes is fed and happy. Learning is the objective! This is a yearly event that is anticipated and revered.

People come and go. Swamis, travellers and ordinary people from all over India are confident that they will receive good food here and a comfortable place to lay their head for the night any time of the year. Most days are simple…very simple. And many important things happen here too! I suppose that is a clear reflection of real life after all! What a blessing to be a part of it all!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Finding Happiness

Hindu life is ultimately the pursuit of happiness. The teachers, or Gurus of Hindu thought, believe that the pursuit of happiness is the seeking of self. Once you find self, you become enlightened. Finding ‘self’ is absolute happiness.

Personally, I have no desire to reach absolute truth. I kinda’ like having the capacity to feel and to desire. I like being passionate and loving and scared and desirous. I love adventure and mystery and activity. I also like calm and peacefulness, but certainly not at the expense of feeling the joys and miseries of life.

In my western way of thinking, I, too, believe that in our lives we all strive to be happy. In my experience many people think that the acquisition of money leads to happiness. Many westerners pursue professional success, which gets translated to becoming rich in material wealth.

That’s an interesting concept! My father (bless his soul) worked very hard in his life. He wanted to be able to satisfy all of us with things. He strived to provide, and, in so doing, worked way more hours than he should have, to satisfy the material needs of his family. He died completely unsatisfied, even though he had a beautiful home and many luxuries that could have satisfied most of the population living in various parts of the world. And, my father never really was happy! It was never enough! He always wanted more. I know many people who live like this today.

For me there is a relationship between loving your work and loving life. Most of the people I know who love what they do, are not miserable in their work. But they are miserable in their desires. Many of them want to have time to travel. Several want to go back to school and learn. I have many friends who want to ‘have the time’ to work out, or read good books, or spend quality time with family and/or friends. Work, and the stresses that come with work often get in the way. Life becomes all about the work we do.

People in the west are beginning to realize the need for balance. Many are changing the way they think about money. Having less ‘things’ requires a lessening of the desire for things. More young people seek a compromise between working and play. I notice that with several of my own children. There’s still a strong work ethic, wanting to ‘give back’ to the world. And, I’m noticing, there’s also a desire to explore and develop other things in life.

In India, I am finding contentment in the ‘nothingness’ of being. I tune in more to the sounds and sights around me. It is easier to connect with others and I find joy in the simple existence that I experience. The constant cawing of the crows, the regular honking of car horns, the shrill voices of the vendors on the streets become musical, and I experience a deeper clarity to the visual stimulus around me. I notice the beauty of nature and am settled with the idea of not pushing. I continue to share my essence with the simple interactions that unfold. I am still working and writing and learning. Here, in India the balance is acceptable. There is no expectation for more. I like it!

I am aware that my stage of life affords me the ability and capacity to broaden my outlook. I am working less and being more focussed in my work. I am expanding my skills and learning about other things. I’m travelling and meeting new people who enrich my life. I often think about how I could have done that while I was invested in career and child rearing. I think young people today are more aware. “We are merely visitors in this universe”, says one of my teachers. Finding happiness, experiencing self, can happen in so many different and beautiful ways!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Coming (to another) 'Home'

In India I am in a perpetual state of yoga. Even as I sit scrunched on a public bus with audio blasting a ridiculous Bollywood film (that I don’t understand anyway) I am overwhelmed with love. It’s unlike any feeling I experience anywhere else in the world.  I know I’m so different from these people and yet, I feel such unity with them. That’s yoga!

We smile to each other often, and also often, we exchange words.  “What country are you from?” “What is your good name?” Sometimes our only conversation is transmitted through our facial expression or a simple smile that says “Hello. Nice to see you.” At times a gentle touch on the shoulder or the forearm says “So nice to meet you.”  Connecting is easy here like at the end of a Yoga practise when we clasp our hands together at our hearts, nod to each other, and say, “Namaste”.

When we came to India this year it was our intention to wrap up loose ends, say a longer good-bye to good friends and plan to not return for a while. Within hours of our arrival I realize that this might not happen. Life is good here. It is truly a place where I belong. Here there is a sense of ‘home’ for me.

“Will you live here in India?” asks a man standing in front of me in a bus line. “No.” is my immediate reply. “My children live in Canada.” But not living here doesn’t prevent me from feeling at home. Each time I come I understand just a little bit more.

I feel so privileged. People often stop to talk to me. I am an oddity as I wander the streets. I don’t feel gawked at. I feel embraced. Not a curiosity, but a visitor. Big smiles beckon me as I wait outside the government building for my friend who has business to take care of inside. Young girls on lunch break from school want to talk. They wave from far away. I wave back in a typical ‘open-close’ style forgetting that in India this means “come here”. They do. With big smiles and eager energy they come to talk. “Do you like our country?” they ask as our conversation begins. They too feel welcome! It is a mutual pleasure.

 We fly directly from Bangkok to Bangalore. The 3½ hour flight landed us earlier than we had expected. Our ride from the airport waits for us to drive the 1½ hours to the Gurukula. We’ve stayed here many times with our close friends Maa and her daughters and extended families. The Gurukula is very basic living with its main objective being to teach the lessons of Guru Narayana and his continuing lineage. The grounds are lush with growth of plants and trees and flowers. Pathways from place to place are cleared daily because, as Maa says “you need to clear your path so you can find your way”. On 10 acres of land, we are never far from the communal kitchen or the dormitory style rooms or the yoga platform or the shower and toilet, the library or the meditation shrine. 

The real activity usually centres around the communal kitchen. Cooking, drinking coffee and tea, laughing, talking, singing, that is where people gather. People come and go. Some stay for long periods of time. Some come for a meal. Friends often use the property for workshops and retreats. Maa, Manju and Henry provide the cooking. Everyone who comes here is considered family.

Maa is an amazing woman who has cared for the Gurukula these past 40 years. Here she raised four children who are married and living lives in the cities, except for Manju, her youngest, and her husband Henry who have recently returned to live here and help. There are 5 cows, 15 cats, 8 dogs, 20 rabbits, people coming and going, gardens, and land that requires work. There is cooking and teaching and building administration and general upkeep of life.

We feel like family here. I have become very close with Maa over the years. She and I, we joke are ‘the same, same, but different’. She is the Indian version of me. I am the Canadian of her. We have wonderful times together, mostly working on the property, cooking good food, taking trips into town, and doing whatever has to be done. Work is hard and gratifying, and, often we get to stop and rest, engaging in serious or playful conversations. Being with Maa is simple and exactly what my heart needs right now.
Regular yoga, simple meditation, hanging around with visitors, playing music and cooking and eating food are highlights! Here is my Indian family and I love it!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Big Pets in Thailand

Since visiting the elephants in the Karen Village in northern Thailand, I feel badly. I knew prior to going that elephants are often abused in Thailand since they have become very popular for tourists. There are several elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that strive to protect these endangered animals. We were mindful at the time, and yet, since then I’ve learned even more about the treatment of these wonderful creatures!

Our choice of elephant camp turns out to be a good one although we weren’t sure when we agreed to go. There are many places in Thailand where the elephants are exploited and their well-being is only second (or sometimes even third) to tourists’ happiness.

I was happy that when our ride was finished each of the elephants got ridden home to their families. They are each the pets of the people who bring them to a common gathering place for people to ride.

The feeling I experience when I ride elephants is completely exhilarating!
The trail takes us through the villages. We pass homes and small shops along the way, down narrow paths through tree lined woods and then into the river where the elephants are almost completely submerged

I thought we would be riding bareback. When we arrive we are escorted up a short flight of steps where we are helped onto a small box that sits on top of the elephant’s back. A driver sits on the animal’s neck and steers the journey. I am disappointed. I want to get close to animal and feel his skin. I want him to feel me on top of him.

So shortly after we begin our trip I gently tap the driver on the shoulder. Using short words and clear body language, I ask him if I could get in his place. He smiles and immediately jumps off the elephant’s neck leaving me his space to sit in.
Once my legs embrace the neck of this enormous animal I am happy. His playful, floppy ears begin to hug me back I hold on tight so I won’t fall off which reassures me that his bulk will keep me stable. As he walks, my body shifts from side to side and I maintain my position and move with his strides. We walk for over an hour. I have nothing to grip except the bulk of his neck. I hold on for my dear life with both hands. His skin is old and wrinkly, sprinkled with short coarse hairs that provide some security as we walk. And, as I keep me hands gripped, occasionally he hugs my legs with his big floppy ears as a sign of acknowledgement and calm.

The elephants in Thailand have historically been very important, for practical as well as spiritual reasons. Kings rode elephants in battle defending the country, and, of course, the animals were used as beasts of burden in the building of cities and villages. They are treated positively and are sometimes revered as deities, often symbolizing strength and wisdom.

Personally, I like the idea of elephants as pets! They are gentle, friendly, and very smart! I wonder what kind of attention I’d get riding my elephant to the local grocery store back home! Watch out Gabriola Island!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sa Wah Deepi Mak

It’s the Chinese and Lahu New Year, which, this year happens simultaneously! Who knew when we planned to be in the hill villages of Northern Thailand that we would be part of this incredible vibrant celebration?

Lahu people are descendants of Chinese and, though they have established their own culture since they’ve come to Thailand, they still maintain some similarities.

Our experiences with the Lahu people were many. Several meals were shared in various homes. Interestingly, like Indian culture, many hosts think it's okay to serve food and leave the room for us to eat alone. But we got to share some meals together. Both men and women love to smoke their own home grown tobacco rolled in long sheets of maize and drink home made whiskey. Laughing  is such a great way to share time with new friends!

The children inspire me! They so easily interact with us and they love playing. I teach them “Oh Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun” and counting to 10 in English. They love to put on make-up and nail polish…not only on themselves but on others too. They love candy way too much, and play video games on hand held devices with amazing skill! They are happy with the simple things available to them, and, even with the many hours I spent amongst them, I never heard a Lahu child cry.... not even when this boy’s balloon burst! They are totally adorable and oh so, loving!

The dancing in the various villages was a performance and also inviting. Bright, ornate and colourful costumes indicate from which village each person is. The dance is similar to line dancing with a twist. A single musician plays the gentle music. Pipes of some sort or string instruments are often played so gently, all I could hear, sometimes, was the beat of the step. Now I understand what people meant when they said, “You’ll hear the dancing all night.”

We became  friends with many of the people in the village. We met Sumbek on the second night of festivities. He was totally drunk and just wanted to play with us all. He ended up giving Kyle a jacket which is a typical pattern and design from his village. Opium growing has recently been discouraged here, but smoking opium brought in from Burma is common practice.

If it wasn’t for that 800-meter slope walking up from the village, we might have even gone walking more. There was no other way in to our home other than that walk. I suppose it got easier the longer we stayed at the lodge. It was a visually spectacular walk, but it definitely wasn’t easy!
While waiting for the dancing to begin, we stopped in the café in the village to have a beer. The village is vibrant and alive. We waited there a  long time and I got to observe the everyday events that take place, particularly with the teenagers! They’re just like any teenagers everywhere!

I'm so happy that Paul and I look for ways to get out of the typical flow of the 'tourist'. Sometimes it's a bit scary, but, I find, all in all, that people are people everywhere and it's such a joy to get to know them and live in their world!