Our stop motion video of most of our trip!

Colorado to Florida, Mexico, North Carolina, Israel, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Italy, India, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, California and back to Florida! Perhaps it’s disproportionately Colorado, Florida, and Mexico but oh well! hope you all enjoy it!

much gratitude for all of you we got to share our experience with…

tommasina and julian

Reflections on Sadhana Forest

Where to begin a blog post about Sadhana Forest? We spent two and a half months there. What a long amount of time! But also, ten weeks is such a short stretch, even of our trip, that I can’t believe what weight I give our experience there. It was transformative to say the least, but to say the most– well, keep reading.

Sadhana Forest is a project to trump all other projects (not that it’s a competition!) due to the philosophical consistency and strength of its tenets: veganism, a gift economy, sustainability, and unschooling. I’ve described it to practically every person I’ve had a meaningful conversation with since we left. I begin by defining it as “an international volunteering community focused on regrowing an endangered type of forest.” That’s fairly accurate but doesn’t capture how living there was the absolute highlight of our trip to me.

In brief, here are my observations, couched in the form of a critique, with an ultimate expression of my respect and gratitude for Sadhana Forest:

1. the tenets are transcendental, that is, ideal or not necessarily reality;
2. most volunteers who visit are transient and don’t easily accept the tenets as permanent lifestyle options;
3. community living makes it hard for the tenets to get noticed or properly examined, expressed, accepted;
4. the graciousness of its founders and the long-term volunteers inspires change in the direction of the tenets, at the deepest level of personal growth

1. The tenets are transcendental, that is, ideal or not necessarily reality.

The ideals of SF are incredible–I remember thinking, how could it be SO in line with my own thinking?–and also perhaps, transcendental. Transcendental in the sense that such a perfect project, one that represents “sadhana” or a spiritual path, can only exist in our minds. Ideal are just that, ideal, and the people who hold these ideals themselves are also always changing and in changing situations. The ideals are always being contested and re-defined. I mean, I know I believe in veganism and in being vegan. In my mind, some things can seem SO black and white, so vegan or non-vegan, but for example, if a core group of long-term volunteers were out to eat with Aviram, the founder of SF, and one of them ordered a chai (with cow’s milk in it) and Aviram had already said he would pay the bill, and does in fact pay the bill, does that make him or SF non-vegan? The long-term volunteer isn’t vegan, and he is while physically at SF but he hadn’t thought about his beverage choice now outside of SF. Veganism still remains the ideal SF lifestyle, but situations like this can happen at anytime. Veganism is not really ever something that can be 100% in reality, and I’m not sure that perfection is the point. I can name many instances when I’ve completely accidentally consumed non-vegan things, and I know I consider myself fully vegan, but after SF, I’ve noticed how silly it is to try to quantify my or anyone else’s veganism (i.e. 100% vegan). And how trite it would be to point out the long-term volunteer’s chai. What would that have proven about veganism, the animals, or compassion, in general? Nothing.

Interestingly, veganism and unschooling are two beliefs which inspire their believers to identify themselves as fully vegan or fully unschoolers. There aren’t any well-defined ways to be partially-vegan or half-unschooled, though I’m sure people have experimented. In any case, the desire to be fully immersed in the belief set lends a sort of extremist reputation to these philosophies which might turn out to be a false impression. I don’t see these philosophies as extreme because I see them as appropriate political responses to the way our world has become. But without having some sort of discussion of the tension between veganism and carnism, or unschooling and conventional schooling, these philosophies seem extreme and ridiculous. So back to the chai, what sort of political weight would it have to criticize it? None. But it still made me uncomfortable. When I tried to sit with my feelings to understand my discomfort, I realized I had lost sight of veganism as a transcendental, political philosophy and had instead stamped veganism as my identity. It became personal rather than political. I saw my friend’s drink as a direct affront to me, to Aviram, to Sadhana Forest, instead of it being the result of my friend’s being raised in India, drinking chai, and being encouraged to drink cow’s milk for the profits the dairy industry would give his community. The way I interpreted this situation is a key flaw to these movements which were developed in response to politically-charged situations. Since noticing the way Aviram handled the situation–he didn’t say anything–, I’ve really worked to become more compassionate and understanding of others, while still maintaining my political criticism of animal agriculture.

2. Most volunteers who visit are transient and don’t easily accept the tenets as permanent lifestyle options.

These tenets lend a certain allure to the project and it seems like the allure, more so than an actual belief in the tenets, drew volunteers in. I was always surprised by how few vegans there actually were. In fact, I could usually count the number of vegans on one hand–not that I would often count, but new volunteers would always ask, as if they were curious to know if they would be outnumbered.

The type of traveler who comes to India and especially to SF already falls into some sort of stereotype of being more adventurous and more inclined to thinking critically and not just accepting a religion or a dogma. A lot of them are also interested in spirituality and open-mindedness. In my observation, this also meant a lot of people would eat non-vegan things if offered to them, or do non-environmentally friendly things as a means to an end without feeling guilty. Or they have some sort of belief of karma in order to justify eating animal products in this lifetime. Practically none of the volunteers had a belief system consistently based on gift economies or unschooling. (I recognize that I’m passing a lot of judgment here.)

My point is the volunteers at SF learned about the tenets through living at SF, but their lifestyle changes so frequently and they are often at the mercy of whatever project they are at so keeping a certain lifestyle or diet can limit their sense of adventure. Of course, all of us were using non-renewable power outside of projects with solar or other alternative energy sources; all of us traveled by trains, planes, buses, and rickshaws; and the majority of us were schooled conventionally and might volunteer with children who are also being taught conventionally. Veganism seems to be the exception in that it’s easy to keep a vegan lifestyle while traveling if you keep an open heart and are willing to kindly explain your diet and ask politely for vegan options. And we did have a lot of people experiment with being fully vegan while at SF and who tried to keep it up afterwards. I don’t think it’s the fault of the tenets that more people didn’t ‘convert’ to the SF lifestyle; after all many people are very interested in learning about them. It’s simply that nothing is very permanent in the life of a traveler.

3. Community living makes it hard for the tenets to get noticed or properly examined, expressed, accepted.

Like I just said, people are interested in the issues of the tenets, especially people who want to try veganism or “ultimate” sustainability, but general community life makes it hard for them to stay, or even to stay committed. Like most progressive ideals, these ideals aren’t accepted readily and they don’t actually play a starring role in the day-to-day life. If the tenets were the things which most people recognized as most radically different in the community it would probably revolve around 1) not wearing shoes, ever 2) wiping (your bum) with your hand and 3) eating a lot of fruit for breakfast. After the introductory “thank yous” (the affirmative list of rules i.e. “thank you for eating only vegan food while at SF”), most volunteers probably forget that these are the vital tenets. After all, it’s already India and the way of life in an international community like Auroville is already drastically different than the Western lifestyle. But after a week or so of being there, the foot fungus you got from being barefoot, your infected mosquito bites, your frequent stomach ailments, and your complaints over the bland and repetitive food are your primary concerns with the community. I’m guilty of these things, but I wish we had all explored the tenets more, especially those of us transient volunteers who lived and breathed alongside those more “permanent” members of the community.

I personally wished I had learned more about unschooling as it is perhaps the least conventional ideal. Almost every volunteer I talked to is concerned about the children and their learning rate at Sadhana. Why can’t they read yet? Why can’t they tell time or count yet? Most people seem to believe that these are the vital skills which should be taught, and everything else can be learned through the child’s desire to learn. I am still not sure how I feel about this issue, but I feel a lot of nostalgia for my childhood literature. Certain books enlivened my imagination and certainly shaped my development as a person. Additionally, the censorship of media strikes me as unfair. How will a child know what she likes if she isn’t ever exposed to it? My parents never censored my books or movies (that I know of…), and I know I was drawn to things which were age-appropriate. Well, I suppose I remember learning about sex when I read Flowers for Algernon, but I don’t think I’ve been scarred for life and I think that accidental exposure allowed me to think about sexuality with a normal sort of curiosity.

4. The graciousness of its founders and the long-term volunteers inspires change in the direction of the tenets, at the deepest level of personal growth.

Since we left SF, we’ve both WWOOFed alongside strangers who had been to SF a year ago, and WWOOFed with hosts who had been inspired by volunteering there 6 years ago. But recounting our stories with these people felt superficial since the SF we each experienced was completely different. I feel so lucky that I made a few good friends there who I know I could tell anything and could depend for support. I credit them of course, but also SF for creating an environment which breeds such integrity in its residents. The comfort of sitting next to these friends during meals in the main hut is a feeling I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so consistently. All of them happened to be long-term volunteers. I also felt a strong sense of kinship with the founding family, the Rozins. Aviram and Yorit dealt with incredibly difficult situations like a volunteer being raped, Cyclone Thane, a pregnant prostitute, outbreaks of illness, broken water filters, and a million other daily issues. They and long-term volunteers and residents handled these situations with incredible kindness and graciousness. Their honesty and integrity are the sorts of things that comprise the greatest literature, the greatest music, and the greatest art of our human history. And it’s so raw, so real, and you can hear their own process at sharing meetings and in conversations at meals. That’s the power of this project.

These are my personal and honest reflections. I say them with utmost respect, because I know it is so easy for most to criticize a community with “extreme” values. SF welcomes hundreds of new and old volunteers each year because something about it just works and feels genuine. I was drawn in, like others, because of the tenets, but I’ve grown to love it, not because of the tenets or some blind belief in them, but because of the goodness and kind tenacity of my friends there.

Sadhana Forest!

Finally we made it!  We’ve been here at Sadhana Forest for about three weeks and have been having a great time.  I’m finally getting acclimated to living here.  Recently I discovered the pool and now I’m gettting covered in water daily.

Here at Sadhana Forest it’s like a manifestation of our ideals.  Its core principles are veganism, unschooling, gift-economy, and sustainable living.  It’s completely off the grid, with energy from solar, and acquires its water from a well.  The huts that we sleep in and live in are constructed from local materials that are ethically harvested.  Its main foundational component is granite, with wood logs and rope to make support beams.  The construction is designed to have big open windows up high for ventilation and ultimately the whole building is open, which allows for it to stay cool throughout the day.  The toilets are composting and the hand wash stations are water saving and so are the showers.  The toilet is basically a hole above a big blue barrel (bbb) that collects the fecal matter.  After one deficates they add sawdust and then close the lid.  The composting takes about a year until it’s safe from human pathogens.  The hand washing system is comprised of a large covered water basin, a bottle of pre-mixed soap and water, and a metal bowl with a small hole in it built into a bamboo shelf.  One rubs soap on their hands first then takes some water from the basin and pours it into the metal bowl.  The water then falls out at a slow enough rate to rinse the hands.  It saves so much water!  The shower is not really a shower at all, but a bucket of water and a means to scoop it out and cover ones self with it.  The only thing that makes it a shower of sorts is that there are stalls, same as the toilets.  The pool often acts as a bath solution although one generally lathers up and rinses before enter it, but at the site.

We’re staying in the ‘luxury hut’ which is very fortunate for us, because it really is luxurious.  We have two stories, with a full sized bed up top covered in a mosquito net and a private toilet and hammock on the bottom level.  There are about 50 volunteers right now, and we don’t have to share a hut with others so that’s nice.

All of us Sadhana volunteers share three vegan meals together daily. The food here is super yummy.  It’s more or less whole food meals with an often Indian flavour.  It’s really a treat to take all these vegan meals together in one big room.

I’ll fill you in on more details in another blog.  Be well!                                         -Julian

If you haven’t been… Goa-to-Bangalore

The next day, we had our night bus to Goa.  As we left Mumbai, we watched the city lit up with firecrackers, including many which were far too close to the bus for my comfort!  In any case, I was feeling very excited to see the ocean the next day but my excitement waned after two flat tires and a four hour delay on our broken down bus.  We finally arrived in Goa in the late afternoon.  After some quick research in an air-conditioned cafe (the luxury!) to figure out what beach we wanted, we took a local bus down the coast.  An hour later, we realized we had gone the wrong way and had to retrace our steps.  As the sun was setting, we found ourselves at Vagator Beach, which was not exactly where we had wanted to be but close enough.  We then set on the hunt for a guesthouse.  Clean and cheap guesthouses are hard to find but cheap happened to be our bottom line, so we settled for a filthy room complete with roaches in the bathroom and sandy sheets.  We reassured ourselves that we would find a new place in the morning and brushed off the bed. The next day we awoke in time to greet the other early risers on the beach, the cows, and to take a walk along the surf. Then we headed to a veg restaurant (finally!) called Bean Me Up.  We weren’t sure if the place still existed or if it would be open since it wasn’t high season yet, but we had our bags with us on the hot beach so I elected myself to walk ahead without the baggage and check it out.  After an hour of searching in the hot humid sun, I found my place.  By then I was out of water and of courses hadn’t thought to bring money.  I looked anxiously at the menu and wished I had money to get a drink then but promised the woman I’d be back.

A hard sweaty walk later, and Julian and our new French friend settled down at Bean Me Up.  I ordered a mango lassi with soy milk and was posing for a photo with it when a giant black bee stung me on my knee. I started screaming which caused Julian to yell at me to be quiet–the dense boy did not understand the source of my pain!–and a man came out of nowhere with some sort of balm to calm down the bite. I relaxed and dried my tears and Julian apologized too and then our food arrived. Phew. traumatic beginning to the meal! but still, yum. Bean Me Up makes all sorts of soy products so I had a plate full of tempeh, tofu, homemade mayonnaise and a salad. It was fairly tasty though I missed tasting Indian spices!

After a hot day in Goa, we decided Goa wasn’t for us so we decided to just leave early and take an overnight bus to Bangalore where we could attend a vegan meet-up taking place the next day. This time, we upgraded to a semi-sleeper AC bus and we were shocked at the quality of the bus. I mean, we had clean blankets, reclining chairs, movies, and AC. I know I should say that as a hardened traveler, I am now immune to the Westernized luxuries but I was incredibly grateful to buy a night of comfort on that bus.  We vowed to return again to this bus company for our next trip. 

 Once we arrived at In the Pink, no joke, the name of the all organic veg restaurant, we knew we had made the right decision.  It was gourmet food (Ban)galore. Stuffed ravioli, hummus and falafel, Indian dishes, and dessert! Ice cream and pudding plus fruit.  We lucked out in another way too– we were sitting by ourselves and a friendly woman named Carol started talking to us.  After a few minutes she asked where we were staying and we said we still didn’t know and she immediately offered her place saying she had an extra room and they loved having guests. Wow. We felt so lucky! Especially since Carol, her husband Sujoy and their adorable three-year-old daughter Nikita were such a sweet vegan family. After the amazing gorge-fest and a screening of Forks over Knives, the die-hards and activists socialized for a while longer.  It was SO refreshing to be back in with a vegan crowd and especially vegan activists! We started talking about activist strategies and they told me about their plans to leaflet in a mall, and showed me this handy booklet on milk consumption in India that one community member made.  Then the talk turned to vegan foods and restaurants around the world, and Julian and I felt right at home. 

We spent the next two days eating delicious Indian food, making pancakes and freedom toast, playing card games, watching movies, getting to know Carol, Sujoy and their friends, and adoring little Nikita.  It was the first time on our trip that I felt truly “at home” like I could move into this community given the congeniality of this group of friends.  Our last night was Halloween, and I got to go trick-or-treating around with Nikita and Carol. Nikita was scared of her friends in costumes, and refused to wear her own, so she instead wore a typical Nikita outfit with frills, a garden of pinks and purples, and butterflies which was undeniably cute-as-cute-could-be.  I felt so old witnessing the excitement of the children running from doorbell to doorbell.  Nikita began the evening scared of accepting candy but soon blossomed into a diehard candy collector chiming in with her sweet “trick or treat!” with the rest of the children. My heart was touched when Carol asked Nikita to share some of her candy with children of an Indian worker family who were sitting silently in the dark street watching the ghouls and witches pass.  An hour later, we were scarfing down delicious vegan Chinese food as the taxi arrived to take us to our next bus to Chennai, and I had tears in my eyes as we hugged our new friends good-bye.

An intimate check-in

I came up with this idea that we would record a check-in with each other. Here’s what followed:

10/26

Julian

how are you feeling?
-I have a headache and I’m currently not enjoying myself.  I don’t feel comfortable in this country. I always feel like I’m sick or I have a headache or something. I just want to feel well and not feel like I have to worry about purchases and stuff like that. 

what’s been your favorite part of the past week?
-Meeting CSers and going out on the boat.  I just enjoyed talking to them and feeling like there are similar people anywhere in the world. 

least favorite?
– being heckled for money in Varanasi. I didn’t like being targeted and that we spent so much money for shit we didn’t really need. 

what have you learned so far? -about yourself, your partner, traveling, life, etc.
-I learned that I desire comforts than I have previously known.  Thus, my attitude is affected by not having all the amenities I desire.  

-I’ve learned that she can be irksome and intolerable, that she can also be kind and sweet and take care of me. She can handle others well. And she’s good at organizing things and communicating with others to make it easier for me to not communicate. 
-life is more enjoyable when vegan restaurants are around.

what are you looking forward to most right now?

-feeling well. not having a headache and not having a sore throat. well, actually my throat is not sore, my voice is just hoarse. 

anything else?

-no.
—————–
check in : tommasina

how are you feeling?

-nine lives.  I said unloved, tehe.  I feel sometimes happy at the misfortune of Julian.  that being said, it makes me feel awful. Umm, doing the same is troop for him too. uh-he, uh-hel (slaps knee)
wow, my stomach, it hurts, ehhet. [this is how Julian transcribes my laughter.]

what’s been your favorite part of the past week? 

-when I felt sad and julian…made me cry because I was laughing so hard.  Also, my favorite part was getting off the metro in Mumbai.  It so cool and beautiful, and seeing that big, um, gothic building.  Umm, also I felt really refreshed after the shower at Druesctes place.  Also, when I got to try bel puri.  Also eating a fruit salad for breakfast was really nice.

least favorite?

-every time julian’s upset with me and when we don’t walk together.  hhmmm.  (rubs eye)

what have you learned so far? -about yourself, your partner, traveling, life, etc.

-I learned that I’m very capable, more capable than others.  That, uuuuh, I really like a good breakfast.   I have very low tolerance for bad attitudes.  Being around intellectual friendly people makes me rear happy.  Reading books makes me really happy, and talking about books.  I don’t really want to go to University next fall…’bout chulian, he’s not as nice as he looks.  He, umm, needs more than I do.  He’s not very good with people.  I don’t really like babying him or nagging him.  I don ‘t want to be that type of person.  We aren’t really that into each other anymore.  I don’t know if it’s because we’re traveling or if it’s run its course.  well, traveling.  traveling by yourself seems a lot of fun, aaannnd, sorry.  (rubs eye) mmmm, I’d think you’d meet a lot more people and a lot more friends and I like it by myself.  I think being in a relationship isolates me.  I really crave being in social interacts with others.  Okey, that’s all, next.

what are you looking forward to most right now?

-cold water, oh no, just water.  My stomach hurts from this juice, tis a stupid idea.  Does your stomach hurt?  I don’t want it.

——–the end———-

Mumbai Couchsurfing, Diwali, and Caves, oh my!

From Varanasi we bumbled along by overnight train to Mumbai. I exchanged smiles with the couple sitting across from us and unlocked the generosity of an Indian auntie. She soon insisted on feeding me a plate of bitter melon, chapati, and pickles.  Another boy who had been observing Julian and a Julian devotee (who was telling Julian that with his Hare Rama Hara Krishna shirt on, he looked like a bonafide sadhu) sat with us.  He wore the Congress Party’s white cotton scarf with colored fabrics stitched on the edges swept over one shoulder.  He spent the next two hours translating the conversation between all of us and teaching me more Hindi.  He disembarked and the train fell quiet.  Soon it became dark and we ordered some rice and mix veg subji for dinner from the train food walla.  After dinner, the beds unfolded from the wall, we spread their plastic covers with our personal allotment of starched sheets, and began more intimate conversations.   At some point we were also joined by a Muslim grandfather and his friend.  This man seemed gentle and humble but in a self-assured way.  He was curious about our travels and our background and we, grateful for the chance for an easy English conversation, indulged in answering him.  His questions turned more difficult though as he inquired about our religious views, our views on marriage, veganism, the politics of the US and war.  In the middle of this friendly interrogation, we all shifted seats so that he would have a full seat on which he could perform his evening prayer.  Afterwards, we continued sharing until Julian invited me to play cards.  No one else wanted to play so we climbed up to his top bunk and played until it was time for lights out.  

The next day, I got to know the sweet auntie and uncle who also shared our sleeper compartment.  Chandra R, the man, worked for the railway so was very knowledgeable about where we should get off to meet up with our couchsurfers.  Before I went to brush my teeth, he gave me a neem stick which he called an Indian toothbrush and he demonstrated how to use it. He also explained pan, the mixed spices (often with tobacco) on a banana leaf sold on every street corner, and the cause of much absent-minded chewing and sidewalk expectorating.  This couple was actually going to their house near our couchsurfers, so we alighted, purchased more tickets, and got on the local Mumbai train together.  With this help, the transfer took much less time than it would have had we relied on signage and strangers for directions.  
    
As in Delhi, Kathmandu, and Pokhara, we had great luck with our Mumbai couchsurfers.  Pooja is a writer who, at the same age as me, has already published an Indian history book!  She is also a Gemini like me, and we had fun discussing how we can never decide what we’d like to do in life, and how life feels more rich when we’re on the move. Ankit is a  research equity analyst; I still don’t understand his job except that he took off time so that he and Ankit could make a vegan Indian lunch for us. What a nice treat that was to eat immediately upon dropping our bags!  After lunch, we decided to go walk around Sanjay Gandhi National Park, right behind their apartment complex.  We stop for some fresh cut cucumber slices sprinkled with chili and salt.  They told us about a train that goes around the park and we decide to give that a whirl.  The yellow train is packed with Indian families as it’s Diwali time so families are celebrating being together.  Our journey begins and the train loudly makes its way through the jungle, most likely scaring away any wildlife.  The view is mostly closed in by lush vegetation anyways so the four of us just talk and get to know each other.  It turns out that we have a lot in common like our belief in environmentalism and alternative healing.  

The train finishes its circuit and we decide to go on the paddle boats next.  The paddle boat man turns out to have an incredible mullet so Julian snaps a photo while I explain the “business in the front, party in the back” hairstyle.  We paddle around discussing books and I feel like Pooja and I could go on forever about our favorite stories.  We seem to have identical taste in books so we then decide to visit the nearest mall to tour the bookstore, Crosswords. Once we’re there, Pooja, Julian and I are comparing our favorite Indian authors and Ankit disappears for a little.  Soon he returns and presents a gift for Pooja.  He somehow got a beautiful illustrated calendar and journal for her to write her Reiki healing appointments and notes down in. He even wrote a little card to her about her gift with healing others and how lucky he was to be married to her. Wow. I was blown away by his sweetness and sincerity!  Their love was such an inspiration to me. 

The next day, Julian and I go out on their recommendation, to the caves at the National Park next door.  We’re joined by lots of monkeys but only a few tourists who decide, unwisely like us, to brave the intense midday heat. There’s over 108 caves so we knew from the beginning we wouldn’t see them all but we attempt to see the ones that are most notable. I could look up the details on Google, but I’m going for a more zen approach: Buddhists monks from a long time ago lived in these cool caves and meditated. They had lots of different versions of the cave, some with Hindu deities and some with Buddha images. They also had neat cisterns to hold water during the dry season. 

That night, we were staying with a friend of Pooja and Ankit’s since we were there during Diwali, and they were required to attend their family celebrations. Luckily for us, their friend was also into CSing and his family was cool with letting us participate in their festivities. We ate an awesome Diwali meal with lots of new flavors, and jaggery candy! Then we watched his parents read prayers to Laxschmi and Ganesh while fireworks popped loudly outside from all of the surrounding apartment complexes. 

The next day we went to see more caves at Elephanta caves outside of Mumbai.  To get there, we took the train into the city and explored Colaba, the area of Mumbai where Shantaram takes place.  I was totally starstruck even seeing Leopold’s restaurant. We looked at the massive structure that is the Gateway to India, though I mostly remember chiding Julian for accepting a sadhu’s blessing and giving him money.  Then we hopped on the ferry to the caves.  We then found out that the caves were 250INR to enter, which was more than half of our daily budget.  Whoops. We decided to still enter and I’m glad we did.  The caves were very impressive, though only 5 this time.  But wow, the carvings of Shiva and his friends and lovers, and his lingum, were incredible.  Luckily, the loads of tourists meant that Julian and I could eavesdrop on several tours to learn the history of the caves.  

After a few hours, we had seen all we could see, and we headed back into Mumbai to meet back up with Ankit.  He met us at the metro station and we headed back to their apartment, collecting supplies for Diwali on the way.  We got brightly colored powders to make a puja, cotton wicks and little tealight holders to burn oil in, and some veggies with which we could make dinner. We enjoyed our last evening together with conversation and Reiki sessions for each of us.

On street children in Varanasi

itinerant nomads: they wander place to place looking for tourists to target, to befriend. perhaps we fell victim or perhaps we adopted the role they wrote for us which is to say we were not so much victimized as transformed into routinized empathizers.  they call all tourists they interact with ‘friends’ so in all of their stories they seem very popular. we smiled kindly at them, and so became their friends.

in exchange, they gave us advice. they warned us not to give money to the fake sadhus who are transmogrified into cripples and begging for money. but they didn’t ask for money per se. 

they sit sweetly, close and comfortable, next to you, speaking in amiable tones, in English.
 
 we met three in particular when we were walking near the Ganga river looking for the burning ghats. Julian was offered a shave for 10 rupees and having become quite furry, he accepted. we were led to a wooden platform where the barber quickly shooed off an old man who was sleeping, claiming the grumbling man was his father. he laid down some sheets of plastic and directed Julian to sit and pointed for me to sit across from him. as he started rubbing some sort of shaving cream all over Julian’s face, a crowd of Indian men gathered to watch him with cell phones in hand. it was then the street children came. one who was the tallest of the three asked me to sit next to her. she had a sweet smile with betel-stained teeth and a heavy golden nose ring. she introduced herself as Sumani and stuck out her thin hand for a firm and confident handshake.  with my hand in hers she pulled me gently to sit next to them on the steps across from Julian. as he continued to be whipped up into white lather, i was told the so-called stories of my new friends’ lives. Sumani went to school and just sold things at the ghats in her free time. she wanted to be a teacher.  her japanese friend helped pay for her school fees.  she said if we had time, maybe we could stop by her uncle’s shop. literally, that’s what she said. 

at the time, I had no conception of manipulative street urchins breaking deals with shop owners.  I was enjoying talking to bright young minds who seemed to have a deeper, cynical perspective on life.  soon sumani had a Western friend who she had to leave to meet up with her.  

I was left with another young girl, who was maybe 7, who warned us not to trust the men or other children at the ghats.  she immediately offered that Sumani doesn’t really go to school and that she bosses the other street children around and steals their profits.  this young girl seemed earnest and like she had nothing to gain by making this accusation so for some reason, I decided that I believed her.  

when she said she had no plans and could show us the burning ghats, we accepted.  and in my head, i started making plans to help her out. my ego was just warming up to what I could do to make this girl’s life better. first I thought, I’d buy her some shoes as her little hardened feet were walking all over town and over some nasty shit, literally nasty bull shit. She expertly jumped over the greasy slimy streaks on Varanasi’s famous cobblestone alleys, streaks from garbage-eating bulls, not the grass-eating bulls. Then I kept thinking how this honest young girl could be kept in school. Soon I was planning out her life in my head, while faintly nodding my head to her quiet descriptions of the passing ghats. 

She stopped walking just before we reached the main ghat, and warned us not to give money or listen to anyone, just to follow her.  We nodded of course, and soon were climbing up the steps of a “sanctuary” for dying to look out at the busy burning ghats below.  The air was thick with acrid smoke and floating ashes. A man who claimed to run this sanctuary building came to us and started his tale of how he fed and kept comfortable all the poor dying souls without families. He pointed out one ailing woman lying on a pile of soiled blankets on the floor.  “See? she has no family left!” he entreated. It seemed true enough to us.  What could we know? 

We entered the top floor and studied the ceremonies below, at the riverside.  People dressed in white, or a holy yellow, waving handfuls of burning incense sticks, pouring ghee over bodies, bathing in the river, chanting with other family members, the simultaneous rituals circling around different stages of burning bodies.  I soon felt cheap, watching death with no sense of remorse.  The smoke was also burning my eyes so that they were tearing continuously.  I motioned for us to go and we all started down the stairs.  

The man hastened his still ongoing narrative about the dying person sanctuary and was now begging us to donate, any amount!, to help buy the wood to burn these bodies once they pass.  His story seemed reasonable enough, but we were still on a tight budget. (I was criticizing us for being so gullible and so frugal at the same time. Who to believe?!) At the bottom of the stairs, Julian was already thumbing through bills but I was trying to discreetly shake my head at him.  He failed to notice and handed over 50 rupees, not exactly a generous donation.  The man was loudly offended and showed the donation to the aforementioned ailing woman onthe floor.  

At this point, I’m embarrassed at the scene the man is making and I make eye contact with our guide.  She shakes her head which to me meant “you silly tourists, you don’t listen to the only person who isn’t trying to sell you anything!”  She leads the way for us to go and we gratefully follow, leaving the man trailing in outrage in our wake.  She’s quickly walking through the narrow passageways and my sense of direction is lost once we lose sight of the Ganga.  

Soon, she slows and we’re standing in front of a pink store.  She invites us in, claiming that it really was her uncle’s shop and he had met Goldie Hawn! We’re intrigued so she takes us back to the private show room where gold emblazened photo albums prove that this rotund Indian man did in fact meet Goldie Hawn and her son too!  The man in the flesh soon inquires if we’re looking for anything in particular and I feel compelled to look at some Ali Baba pants.  He takes us into another show room and starts the famous reckless Indian shopkeeper trick of pulling out every pair of pants in every color and spreading it out in front of me. I start shaking my head but then, of course! one strikes my fancy. I hold it to my body in the mirror. Not bad. 

Then there’s Sumani again! She appears in the doorway holding a tray of black tea and chai for us all.  My inner dialogue is so confused now.  Are they cousins? Rivals? What’s going on?  Why would this man allow his nieces to sell postcards and bindis on the street? Everyone’s smiling and I’m persuaded to go try the pants on.  Even Julian seems happy and encouraging.  The sale is made for a poorly-bargained price that I’m still too embarrassed to admit and we say good-bye to our new best friends.  

I could go on with the various ways in which these same street children found us again and persuaded us to buy other trinkets from them or from other ‘family member’ stalls, but it’s honestly embarassing and redundant.  Towards the end, I had no idea who to trust. I just knew that I felt so sorry for supporting their labor and whatever unfair infrastructure is keeping them on the streets.  But even to the last hour that we were in Varanasi, Sumani found a way to hop in our rickshaw with us to the train station. (I’m guessing she also found a way to get a cut of the charge to our driver.)  She kindly inquired again if we had bought a hand stamp kit from her ‘friend.’  I lied to her face and said I hadn’t, since the other girl had told me not to tell because otherwise she’d have to give some of her profits to Sumani.  But this Sumani was still maybe only 15 years old, and just trying to support herself, or her family.  Sigh. What did we get involved with?! To that last second, my heart was torn on who deserved my honesty and affection.  What a horrible feeling to direct at children!  This has been my sad experience with the street children of Varanasi. 

From Sonauli to Varanasi

Last you heard from us, we were in Kathmandu and since then, we made the long bus journey to Varanasi.  Our plans had been to work on a farm in Bharawai near Sonauli, at the border, but when we called the farm after the long bus journey from Kathmandu, the farmer told us that he couldn’t host us anymore.  His farm guide had gotten injured and was transported to Kathmandu so there was nothing for us to do.  It was difficult communicating with him since I don’t speak much Nepali and he English, but I realized that we no longer had a farm to visit or place to stay.  We then set out to walk around in the dark trying to find a decent hotel to stay in.  We were once again astonished at the condition of some of the rooms  (torn and stained sheets, roaches, floaters in the toilet, you can only imagine!).  It’s funny to me that all the hotel owners want to show you their rooms to convince you to stay in them but they act indifferent to the actual state of the room.  Ugh, here I am again generalizing.  But we saw several different rooms in Sonauli and that’s how the experience went.   We finally found a slightly expensive , but *clean* place– 600 Nepali rupees a night.  The owner of the hotel mentioned that he sold bus tickets to Varanasi so we gave in to the allure of an non-stop bus, and purchased our tickets from him.  (Non-stop buses are the ones where everyone has a seat, and there’s no stopping to let on an infinite number of random people who will crowd into your seat.)

The next morning as we were leaving the hotel, we were joined by an awesome Korean travel companion, Super Sport.  Isn’t that a great nickname? It was very appropriate too as he was very relaxed and up for anything.  We had great conversations the entire time, and played cards and shared traveling stories.  Once we arrived in Varanasi, we set out to find this cafe where Super Sport said we could find other travelers and tips on places to stay.  We had a really nice rickshaw driver who guided us through the winding narrow lanes of Varanasi through lantern lit corridors and past countless shops, cows, and even the passage of several chanting groups of families on their way to burn their dead.  We finally found Nagra Cafe, a Korean restaurant whose employees let us use their WiFi and gave us advice on where to stay.  Super Sport found a good review online for a hotel, so we got directions and set off.  We arrived and were welcomed by two friendly older men and were escorted to our clean rooms.  What a relief it is to find a clean place to stay! We were then asked to provide our passports for a photocopy but they insisted on holding them till morning since the power was out.  We thought to ourselves, ‘strange’ but acquiesced.  In the meantime, Super Sport was given half a bottle of whiskey from the men (I’m not really sure why but the man gave a sweet little speech about being generous!) and the three of us went out to dinner at a touristy but tasty restaurant up the street.  In the middle of dinner, Julian’s stomach started to feel upset so he headed back early.  He was fine, but we decided to sleep in the next day.

By early afternoon the next day, we still hadn’t received our passports back as promised.  I was getting very suspicious at this point.  What could possibly take that long?!  After a heated conversation with one of the men, I was able to trade our passports for a photocopy that we had brought with us.  Most travelers know to bring copies like this, so why they wouldn’t ask for a copy up front, instead of making on themselves, was unclear to me.  After this confrontation though, we were off special treatment from the owners.  (As in, instead of asking us how we were and what we were up to, we got slightly less-than-enthusiastic ‘namaste’s. Oh well!

The rest of our time, we had plans to observe the burning ghats and to walk around the city but in retrospect, we mainly got to know some street children.  This actually entailed spending too much money buying things from the places the street children took us because we felt sorry for them, and for wasting their time.  We also discovered an amazing fruit called custard apple! and had amazing bananas.  I also had a great 3 rupee snack of a samosa covered with a spicy sweet curry in a banana leaf. The food has been enjoyable, but I’ll update later with more on our experience with the street children…

 

Delhi and Pharping, Nepal

We’ve made it to… Nepal! Nepal? you ask. Yes. Of course. It should be
obvious that Julian and I are really making this up as we go, so when
we heard that our dear friend Travis was getting ready to leave Nepal
to go to Ethiopia, we thought we should hop over and visit his
monastery and town before he left. Little did we know this “hop” would
be more like 51 hours of straight transportation via train, and four
different buses with no proper meals, bathrooms, or showers. The
roughest part was definitely being on my period. Having emptied my
moon cup in several very grimy locations, I am confidently an
extremely empowered female. Too much information? Welcome to my
reality.

Anyways, we spent four peaceful days in Delhi with an amazing CSer
host Saha. He was very accommodating, generous, and calm. Our third
day was the day we had been planning to take the bus to the border,
but we woke up very late (due to long but fascinating conversations
until 3am). Upon seeing my worried face, Saha said “Hey, just calm
down. You can stay an extra day, no worries here.” We realized
that—duh—we have no deadlines, so what’s the point in rushing? Good
lesson.

(At some point we’ll have to write about Europe, but there’s just
toooooo much to do it now.) To start from the beginning of our
post-Europe trip: From the Delhi airport, we took the metro to Govin
Puri station where we were supposed to meet up with Saha. Holy cow,
the Delhi metro is absolutely insane. People are SO pushy. So, the
metro cars from the airport to Delhi central station were empty and spotless.
We both agree: the nicest metro we’ve ever been in. But once you
travel within the city, every car is completely packed full of people.
At least that’s what you think. Julian and I were so bewildered
seeing the cars so full that we waited up a train to see how people
managed getting on and off. It’s almost like pushing uncooked lentils
through cheese cloth. That’s a horrible analogy but the only way to
get on or off is by sheer force or luck of being near the door. The
second time around, somehow we managed to push our way on with our big
backpacks. Luckily, (I think) people made more room for us since it
was clearly our first experience on the metro. Also, very few women
ride the normal metro cars; they opt for the “Ladies” cars which are
often pleasantly full of seated women. I think I had more room so men
could stare curiously at me(/us) in addition to some courteous space
for being a “lady.”

Once we arrived, we exited the metro station and began looking for a
phone or internet café to call or email Saha. This was Julian’s first
moment in the craziness that is India, so try to see it from his
perspective. Constant beeping of rickshaws, buses, and private cars;
street dogs; street vendors shouting their wares; offensive smells and
then some intriguing ones; people walking, sitting, begging, sweeping
everywhere you look; and two policemen observing it all. We had
exited onto a very busy highway with all of this going on, so asking
the policemen where to go or at least how to cross the street seemed
to be an obvious first step. Unfortunately they knew little English
and my rough attempts at drawing a street and miming us crossing it
didn’t work well. One of them finally got it and immediately proceeded
to stop almost 8 lanes of crazy Delhi traffic to escort us across the
street. We shyly followed him as all eyes nearby followed us. We
thanked him and as we did, we saw the other exit of the metro
conveniently on our side of the street. Whoops. Oh well. We managed to
find an internet stand, and a phone place quickly (seriously, I have
lots of gratitude for these modern conveniences!) and arranged to meet
up with Saha.

Even though Saha is not a Delhi native (he’s from Kolkata—so we had
many Bengali culture questions and stories to share!), he still had
some great places to visit up his sleeve. We went to this fabulous
restaurant our first day with mirrored murals on the walls and cushy
couch seats, not to mention great coconut idli and masala dosai. Then
we visited this amazing open palace that was a little run-down but
completely open to visitors to traverse its staircases and secret
passages. It felt like a magical palace in the jungle but was right
in the middle of the city! On our walk back to the main road, we
stopped at a park and saw lots of peacocks and deer. The poor things
were kept caged in for people to stare at. The deer were crowded in a
small space full of their excrement but as we walked we saw they
actually had a ways to roam but were staying in one area. Hmm. There
was also a rabbit compound. Sad. Later, we shared some coconut wedges
with a man at this elaborate Hindu temple. This foreshadowed the
fresh coconut water we enjoyed on the rickshaw ride back. The way it
should be: coconut water straight from the coconut. Finally, we were
feeling refreshed.

That night we met up with a Japanese CSer staying
with us, Yosuke. The five of us, including Saha’s German roommate
Carolyn (I *know* this is not how she spells her name! sorry.), made
for quite a multi-culti affair. To top off the night, we watched
Siddartha.

The next day, we visited the Ba’hai Lotus Temple (so after seeing the
terraced gardens in Israel, I’ve now been to two of their temples!
Funny.) It’s strange how so many religions converge on the idea of
universal religious acceptance. Why is it necessary to align yourself
with any religious label then? Anyways, after a quick lunch at a
restaurant at Nehur Place, we stopped by Old Delhi in what turned into
a few hour shopping excursion. I made the mistake of calling myself a
“fast shopper”—a term which I will never live down to my three
shopping companions! I was trying to get a salwar- kameez set, and
knew that getting it from Old Delhi would be cheaper than anywhere
else but no one had any pre-made kurtas. They were all
ready-to-be-tailored. We exhausted our options though, after walked
through SO many tiny stores and stalls. It is incredible how much
competition one type of store can have! We passed stores with
specialties like: birthday cards, hinges, toilet seats, and used MCAT
books. (I really enjoy shopping for one specific thing, so this kind
of market really entices me. Luckily, we have absolutely no space in
our bags and we absolutely need nothing.) Our next stop was the Peace
and Conflict Day Celebrations at the Delhi Habitat Centre. We watched
a moving documentary on a Indian Hindu journalist’ experience staying
with a Pakistani Muslim family during Eid. The father of the Pakistani
family had a dream to the Taj Mahal, but his visa request has been
denied five times. It’s silly how we restrict the movement of people
with arbitrary borders and rules… We discussed this all in English
which was really considerate of the audience and discussion leaders
seeing how only three of us were (obviously) non-Indian. Later we
watched a short clip on the rape and slaughter of a woman in northern
India which is under military control due to this Armed Forces Act.
It’s not very well known but it’s a perfect example of the government
creating exceptions for its governance. This incredible woman Iron
Chanu Sharmila has been on a ten year fast to protest the periodic
killing of villagers by these Assam Rifle groups. Look it up.

The next day we enjoyed lunch at a Bengladeshi place (not quite as
delicious as our favorite Bengladeshi family’s cooking!) and went to
the City Forest. We sat for a while under this tree where Yosuke
played his Japanese flute and Saha taught me useful Bengali and Hindi
phrases. (Julian watched birds in the distance.) We walked through a
little neighborhood on our way out and all the children came and said
hello. It reminded me of Bangalore with all the sweet children coming
out of the shadows to ask us questions. Then we took a rickshaw to
the biggest mall in India (according to Saha). I’m sure it’s like
this in many so-called developing countries but the disparity between
little neighborhoods and gigantic cement-steel-window complexes like
the mall never fails to astonish me! Wow. This mall was *nice.* I got
sucked in to one department store with lots of reasonably priced
salwars and found myself an outfit. Two hours later Saha pointed out
that I was “so fast!” Ha. We found an “all-veg” doughnut place which
means that there aren’t any eggs in the dough, so we managed to find
icings without any dairy and tried them out. They were a little stale
so we were disappointed but excited for future doughnut finds. Carolyn
met up with us and we decided to head to a bar. There we talked and I
gleaned lots of book, music, and traveling recommendations from the
group. Soon the funny techno music called to us, and we were all
dancing “yoga moves.” We had such a good time!

This brings us up to our bumpy, loud, and
seemingly unending journey to Nepal. It makes me tired thinking about
it so I’m skipping over it suffice it to say that yes, Dad. We did
realize we could fly but! we saved $60. Just don’t ask us if it was
worth it!

Okay, so fast-forward to Nepal. (I’m also going to skip the part where
we got totally ripped off with the transaction fees for changing money
at the border. Life just felt immediately better once we got in Nepal
though. The man at the bus stand let us use his computer and gave us
a map. In retrospect, this does not seem uncommonly nice but at the
time, I felt extremely grateful!) We got off the bus in Pharping
after an hour bus ride from Kathmandu. We found an internet place and
after putzing around waiting for the incredibly slow internet to load,
we stumbled into Travis. He immediately gave me “the most thoughtful
present”: my old belt! He borrowed it in Colorado since his pants were
about 13 sizes too large. He now returned it in completely useless
condition claiming that he had gained weight and his pants fit now.
He lifted his shirt to demonstrate and of course, his pants were
rolled up three times. Crazy kid! Soon afterwards he shared the
supposed source of his weight gain, these incredible doughut-like things
called “sawl roti.” He literally knew every hour when they were made
fresh, and it happened to be right at that moment. We savored these
things, so warm and fresh! We didn’t know that we’d have them every
day, perhaps twice a day, from then on. Gosh. I could go for one
right now! (Only an hour until they are made fresh again!) Okay,
after our snack we climbed up this big hill to the Benchen Retreat
Center where Travis hooked us up with a deal. We are staying a week in
this fully furnished apartment with a view of the foggy, prayer-flag
donned mountains, for around $3 a night. It’s considered expensive
actually. But it is beautiful, and such a retreat from the hectic and
dirty traveling we’ve been doing. Since then, we’ve been meeting up
with Travis during the day and hanging out, but night falls around 6pm
so we say good night earlier so that he has time to get back to the
monastery. The first day, Travis, Julian and I had lunch with
Pema Durgy, an 18-year-old monk and Dukpa, a “little monk” of eight
years at a little family-run restaurant (actually, they are all family
run.) I had the tastiest bowl of veg. thupka which is a
brothy-noodley-veggie soup, and Julian had delicious momos made from
nettle! (seriously, we need to go back to this place!) Afterwards, we
hiked up a mountain to Guru Rinpoche’s cave. He supposedly meditated
here for so many years that his handprint is left on the outside of
the cave wall. I touched it and it felt eerily warm. We continued the
climb to the top of the slippery muddy mountain. Every turn led us to
a more beautiful view of the valley and Kathmandu in the distance.
Coming down turned out to be more dangerous and fun than going up, and
we ended up following Dukpa’s method of just sliding like
snowboarders.

The next day was incredibly rainy, like the first so Julian and I hung
around our ‘retreat’ until Travis met us there. He told us of the
rivers we’d have to cross getting back down to town so we prepared
ourselves to get wet. We were going into Kathmandu, and then getting
a different bus to a Boda with the second-largest Stupa (called
Bodanath Stupa for those google-rs in the crowd) in the world. It
quit raining for just a little, so Travis, Pamadurgy, Julian and I
decided to sit on the top of the bus from Pharping to Kathmandu in
order to avoid the wet crowds below. We had no idea that we were
going to have the most refreshing ride with fresh air and breathtaking views
of the valley as we dropped into the city. It was SO amazing. Once
in the city we had to hop inside since the police will fine the buses
for having people on top. Then we were stuck in the polluted air like
everyone else. The air is so horrible there that many people wear
masks. Julian and I are hopefully getting some soon. One accidental
deep breath of the acrid air can leave you winded coughing. It’s
nasty. Anyways, we were dropped off at the Stupa and spent a few
hours circling it clockwise, as is the custom. I sat for a little and
watched people praying and was reminded of the Western Wall. We met
up with Travis and Pema Durgy (and his two brothers), had tea together,
and went to a dharma bookstore where Julian and I stocked up on
postcards, a Nepal sticker, and a book on love by my favorite Buddhist
Thich Nhat Hanh.

Yesterday was also rainy, but we were luckily staying in Pharping.
Travis, Julian and I ate lunch at another family-run restaurant, this
time on the roof-top (a little leaky but not badly). Once again Travis
and I had thupka, and Julian had mo-mos. We then set off on the
forty-minute walk to Travis’ monastery, passing rockslides due to the
rain on the road. We arrived in time for evening prayer. The bells,
drums, horns and chanting of the monks (mostly younger than 18 years
old) was chilling and surreal at times, and familiar and happy at
others. The rhythms and intonations of the chants changed so
frequently that following the tune was meditative in its own right. I
felt lucky, happy, and safe listening to them. Travis gave us a
little tour afterward but the ominous red foggy skies led us all to
feel that a “Karmageddon” was on its way so Julian and I headed back
to our home. We picked up some veggies—eggplant, ladies’ fingers AKA
okra, chilies, garlic, rice and salt—for dinner and went up our hill.
Every night we’ve made yummy dinner with lentils, rice, and veggies
for way less than eating out. A typical dinner out would cost maybe
150 rupees (around $2) and making dinner costs maybe 40 rupees.
That night, Julian decided to make everything himself and I got to
practice yoga in our meditation room with some spiders for company. We
ate dinner and listened to an Animal Voices podcast on the Ipad as we
did the night before and went to bed. Ah, routinization can be so
comforting.

And today! Today, we were blessed with a gorgeous sunny day which
meant time for laundry! Wowee, I have never felt so excited to do
laundry. I woke up at 7 to do it! I washed almost every item of
clothing we have by hand using just the bucket of water I filled while
taking a quick shower. Conservation of water is extremely important
here where clean water is hard to come by. Using such little water
was actually easy and we decided that doing laundry like this is
really the best way. Travis was also excited by the good weather and
met us at our house to encourage us to come to the monastery this time
for a proper tour. We left for town, and ran into his friend Anna on
the way. Anna, who has been in Nepal for only three months, has
decided to start a consciousness school in eastern Nepal. She’s
already had land donated for the cause. And, she’s only 25.
Impressive. We’ll hopefully get to help her out somehow. Anyways, we
all went to lunch at a Newari restaurant which had much spicier foods
than typical Nepali places. We enjoyed a long lunch but Travis had to
leave for the monastery for a lesson before leaving for a meditation
in a secluded village tomorrow (so no visit from us today). And as I
type, it just started pouring so we must run back up and try to gather
our laundry. Hopefully it isn’t soaked!!

Excuse the excessive detail. Life is rich and varies so much day to
day that I want to remember as much as possible. I note though that
impermanence is the thread connecting each of these stories. Hmm, yes! love to you all!