Lola Bites Back: And Other Inspirational Tidbits

Location: Bissingen an der Teck, Baden Wuerttemberg, Germany

Laughing all the way...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Getting So Much Better All The Time

In the kesh, sickness is a sign that you're getting better, which means I am doing great!

Yesterday turned out to be a great day, thanks to the many kind-hearted peoples around me. Too sick to move from my room (now it's the flu), everyone came to me instead. The shopwalla delivered a huge bottle of water (got to flush those bugs out of my system), my neighbor brought me soyamilk and movies, Swamiji called to check on me and I had a really nice visit from none other than Shepherd Dan..

Shepherd Dan happens also to be a master musician, so he stayed a while to play the guitar while I sang along. It turned out to be the best medicine; I was actually feeling good by the time he left. What would the world do without music (and Shepherd Dan)?!

Not only that, but he also left me with a few pictures from our adventures together, which I have added to the posting below. Sadly, his camera stopped working just as we said goodbye to Koji Baba, so there are no pictures after that..

That's all for now, I've got sleeping to do..
hugs and love and God bless,

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Indian government makes it a priority to spread the love!

Badrinath Temple

Kak Chowk Ashram, where we regularly went for dinner.

I think this is Mana..

Another very special road sign (and small temple), on the way to Mana.

A Bhotia woman in Mana, doing what they all do: knitting woolen stuff.

A random snap capturing the constant attention from Indians...we were definitely celebrities in Mana.

A "last photo" with friends before we headed up to Neelkanth Valley (to sleep under the rock).

The beautiful valley inspired some impromptu yoga (and a funny picture): this is "downward dog."

The promised rock, and our sleeping place.

Edelweiss flowers!

The view of Neelkanth Mountain and our magic valley, as seen from Koji Baba's cave.

Yours Truly, Shepherd Dan and Romas. Photo courtesy of Koji Baba.

Koji Baba jamming with Shepherd Dan (on the one-stringed base guitar)


Part II: Welcome to India, Please Don't Strangulate the Indians.

It took us three days to hitch hike to Gaurikund, the last town on the motorable road just 14 km before Kedarnath. Our rides ranged from jeeps to private cars and taxis to one huge potato truck. I especially enjoyed the potato truck.

The first night we stayed in a huge ashram in a small place called Mayapur. We were the only people when we arrived and felt quite lucky as we surveyed the peaceful countryside surrounding us. But within the hour, seven thousand screaming Indians showed up - okay maybe it was two, and maybe they were just talking really loud.

I gathered they were the sort of Indians who don't get to see foreigners too often when ten or twenty of them accumulated outside our window. They were intensely curious - what are those foreigners doing in there? - and I was tolerating the invasion rather well, I thought, until some boys followed me to the bathroom to watch me shower. That was finally too much.

As maddening as these experiences can be, I can't help but appreciate the strong education I am getting. The more frustration I experience, the more sensitive and aware I become with regard to my own ignorance.

. . . . .

The next morning we walked less than one kilometer before a small car picked us up and drove us to Chamoli. From there we continued west to Gopeshwar, the very cute town where the entire village of Mana relocates in November (it's impossible to stay in the mountains during winter).

By this time I had begun to exhibit signs of sickness, including a headache and a complete lack of physical energy. All I wanted was to do was sleep, so in the next small town I sat down with our bags while Shepherd Dan went in search of a place to nap.

He found a cleanish-looking spot at the mandir (temple), so I unrolled my blanket and fell into a fitful slumber while he busied himself with lunch. I was vaguely aware of the many Indians coming and going, having a look at the foreigners and such, but I was too exhausted to care. After a couple of hours, I woke up feeling dazed.

So you can imagine my shock when a rockin' taxi pulled up directly in front of the mandir and Ringo Starr from Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band stepped out! What I wouldn't give for a picture of this moment!

We both stood, mouths open, as it slowly registered that the very stylish guru who stepped out of the very stylish car was not actually Ringo Starr, but the head of an ashram in Badrinath where Shepherd Dan used to live and an absolute dead ringer for the goofy Beatle. He proceeded immediately to embrace Shepherd Dan while I checked myself to see if I was still dreaming...was he really wearing that shiny pink-striped robe?

Still a bit dazed we again set out walking, but now my confidence in the hitch hiking method was waning. We hadn't seen a single car going in our direction for the last hour and the next thirty kilometers were nothing but dense forest.

But Shepherd Dan was feeling great, insisting we would get a ride no problem. And I have to hand it to him...within fifteen minutes a privately hired white Ambassador taxi, complete with little blue curtains on the back windows, stopped and picked us up. It was more than was completely impossible! Shepherd Dan opened the door for me and I stepped inside, feeling quite the princess in our ongoing fairytale.

The next thirty kilometers were some of the most gorgeous rainforest I have ever seen, and after an hour we had climbed more than a thousand meters to the town of Chopta, a.k.a. "the Switzerland of India." And while it was quite beautiful, we couldn't help calling it "Switzerland with Garbage." In any case we were happy to settle in for the night.

. . . . .

Unfortunately, things took a serious dive when we finally reached Gaurikund the next day; the town was small and dirty with aggressive undertones...a stark contrast from our fairytale existence in Badrinath. We took a dank room at Bharat Seva Ashram and immediately fell into a funk. Something about the place was depressing and neither Shepherd Dan nor I was immune.

Our three days of travel had been adventurous but difficult and we agreed to take one day of rest before walking up to the temple, a six-hour, 1,400 meter climb. Unfortunately, things improved little before we set out early the following morning.

I have since realized that part of our problem was timing. We happened to be caught in the peak days of a peak pilgrimage season, and most of the Indians had opted to hire a mule - or worse, Nepalis - to carry them up the mountain. As the monsoon had not yet arrived in full force, the entire 14 km of path was covered in stinking mule crap. At one point we attempted to circumvent the main path, only to discover the surrounding areas piled high with human crap, which is far, far worse... Needless to say, we were a long way from the magic of Neelkanth Valley.

Our mutual funk was not improved by the countless requests for photos. And although we honored most requests (at least, Shepherd Dan did), those who took photos without permission were sure to regret it afterward. The few lewd men who wanted to [have sex with] me were told to ask their mothers instead.

And when young boys asked us for money, we sent them to their fellow countrymen, specifically the ones who had enough money to ride on the backs of Nepali people. It takes four Nepali men to carry one Indian up the mountain.

Gaurikund and Kedarnath were classic examples of what happens when the despicable behavior of a few taints the whole bunch. It was a tourist town at its worst and we were the only white people there. I am not proud of the vitriol that bubbled to the surface during this last part of our journey; it was the epitome of a lose-lose situation.

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I had begun plotting my escape. When I came down from the mountain I would get myself to the internet as fast as possible and book a cheap flight - Istanbul? Marseilles? - I didn't care where; I just needed to get the hell out. I was starting to daydream about strangling the Indians, and everyone knows this is the sign that it's time to leave.

There were a few other factors, irrespective of Indians, that surely contributed to my madness. I had been wearing the same clothes for three weeks, I was sick, I had started my menstruation (three weeks late) as well as suddenly stopped smoking for no apparent reason (If you didn't know I was smoking, you can disregard that last bit). And in the span of two weeks, I had traveled more than I have traveled in the entire six months I have been here. My mental health was in a shambles, and when we continued to get bombarded by thousands of Indians in Kedarnath, I was doing all I could to keep the pieces together...

Once we finally reached the top, we paid our respects at the temple and took a room in yet another ashram. I was pleased to see that it was a quiet place with signs painted on the walls reminding guests to speak softly and observe silence. We had a short nap before all hell broke loose.

For some unfathomable reason, Indians love loudspeakers. And positioned on the wall directly across from the door to our room was a big one, suddenly operating at full blast. I went in search of an ashram representative, determined to inquire about the seeming contradiction between the signs encouraging silence and the blaring loudspeaker.

As it turned out, there was no contradiction because - as it was explained to me - the music is devotional music. Oh yes, of course.

And then God realized I was teetering on the brink and sent me a bit of respite in the form of a very sweet Indian family from Calcutta who were charming, educated, civilized and sitting far away from the loudspeaker. I spent hours talking with them and they insisted that I come to Calcutta as soon as possible to stay with them, adamant that it was nothing like Delhi. For a few moments I relaxed; these people were adorable...perhaps they would adopt me...perhaps I could adjust again to the Indians...

The next morning we packed up early and ran down the mountain, anxious to end our visit to Kedarnath. At this point there was no doubt in my mind that I was finished with my yatra. In fact, I'm still quite sure that I will not need to do any more yatra in India, this year, next year...for as long as I live.

Still salivating for an internet connection - St. Petersburg? Jerusalem? - we searched for a direct bus to Rishikesh. But none was available, so we spent five nauseating hours on a bus to Srinagar and stayed the night before resuming our journey to Rishikesh the next morning.

Conditions back in the kesh were steamy and crowded. I went directly to the internet to send an S.O.S. to my mama. I cried at the computer as I wrote of my mental collapse. All I needed, I was sure, was to become female again; to bathe properly, to brush my hair with an actual comb, to put on different, preferably clean clothes. Maybe even a skirt...

It seems I had simply gone too far. Six weeks of bumming around with babas in a single change of clothing had been too much. Even Swamiji suggested I could lighten up a little bit.

Soon after my return I ran into a western friend, and then another one. Their company did wonders to restore my mental health and after a few days I began to feel at home again; I would not be needing to flee the country after all. Now I am settled into a nice room with a kitchen and feeling quite content to hibernate here for the next long while. And with the monsoon (finally!) here in full force, I don't have much choice anyway.

So my dear friends, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

As I conclude this tale of fantasy and madness, I notice that I am coming down with the flu. No matter. I've got nothing to do and plenty of time to do it. That is, unless I have to make an emergency run to the Pakistani border next week...but I'll deal with that hurdle when I get there. For the moment at least, life is pretty damned good. Until next time, hari om!

A worn-out but slightly wiser,

PS Three postings in three days! And I still didn't get to the naked baba!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Nothing On My Mind

July is the off-season for westerners here in steamy Rishikesh. It must be 94 degrees and 94 percent humidity as I sit here now, dripping sweat into my computer keyboard. That means only the die-hards remain. The long-termers. And as I've been spending more time with this strange lot, I've noticed one curious commonality: they're all doing nothing.

Not only do they reject the "work-and-consume hamster wheel" of the west, they also reject the goofballs on the spiritual circuit. Whether from Australia, Europe or the Americas, these westerners are united in that they don't want a guru, aren't interested in karma yoga and couldn't care less about attaining enlightenment.

Is it easy to do nothing? Would you be able to do nothing if you had the opportunity? Have you ever tried?

Most tourists who come here are on some kind of schedule or have some planned purpose to fulfill. Whether it's yoga or reiki classes or an ayurvedic cooking course, everyone seems intent on doing something. Except those who have been here for years. They aren't doing anything, and something in my gut tells me this is a real accomplishment.

When people ask me what I am doing here (or anywhere for that matter), I am usually at a loss to respond. Is it accurate to say "nothing" when I am so busy all the time?

Most days I have a bath in the Ganga, wash clothes, go shopping at the vegetable market and cook something. Often, when I take Ganga bath, I will hang around on the beach for an hour or two, chatting with the random people that pass by, shooing the cows away, or just standing in the water.

Is this nothing?

Every day I eat lunch at 2pm. Every night I sleep at 10. Hopefully, I'll start meditating again soon (I fell off that wagon back in May when bronchitis struck). In recent weeks I've finally started reading again, after a hiatus that lasted more than two full years (currently it's The Lives of Saints, by Swami Sivananda).

Yesterday I went to see Swamiji. We talked for hours, about why the naked baba needs to use an umbrella, about prarabdha karma (the karma we inherit from our past lives) and about why it's not a contradiction that even "enlightened" people sometimes get angry, among other things.

Today I washed some clothes and then walked to Laxman Jhulla (3 km?) to buy brown bread. Later I spent two hours trying - rather unsuccessfully - to cut my own hair. I cooked pasta for dinner and now it's seven o' clock and I'm wondering about...nothing.

My mama and I had an exchange on the phone last night that clarified a simple point I would like to share;

We were talking about the westerners who live here - for five years, seven, ten - and what makes them different from the people back home. I explained that there is no difference, actually. The people who live here are not more spiritually evolved or enlightened. They are completely normal in the sense that they have dysfunctional families, financial concerns and relationship and/or personality issues just like everyone. After all, people are the same everywhere.

What is different is that we have all come to a similar conclusion about life in the west. That is, we reject the work-and-consume hamster wheel that keeps us permanently distracted from what's really important. To run continuously on this wheel is like being spiritually disabled, and in some way or another we all sense it.

I guess that's why we prefer to come here and "do nothing." Doing nothing here turns out to be a lot more than doing everything back home.

"Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Lola."

. . . . .

A Note About Astrology and Death

First, I want to disclose my near-complete ignorance on the subject of astrology. All I have are impressions.

My first impression is that astrology has been around for a long, long time, and that all of the most ancient civilizations practiced some form of astrological science. My intuition tells me that if a tradition has existed for thousands of years, amongst highly developed civilizations no less (Mayan, Chinese, Indian...), there just may be something to it. At least, I'm not going to dismiss it simply because I am ignorant about how it works.

I understand that the unknown can be scary, but I have never run away from the unknown. I prefer to reject things based on information and personal experience.

In India, Vedic astrology is commonplace. Most Indians (minus the lowest castes) have their astrological charts drawn at birth. It is a matter of course, primarily because it's considered quite practical. That is, a skilled astrologer is able to tell you many things about your life, including details about your general disposition (whether you are more suited to marriage/family life or the life of a monk) and the manner of your death (time and cause).

I am not afraid of "death" per se, as my intuition insists that death is the reward in life, the heaven part of the heaven/hell dichotomy. But I am fascinated by the idea of knowing in advance the circumstances of one's death, perhaps because it just seems so wrong...but why should it be wrong? Lately I have taken to consulting those around me, western and Indian, for their impressions on the subject.

Unsurprisingly, there seems to be a clear divide along cultural lines; traditional westerners are, in general, a bit horrified by the prospect. But when I asked Swamiji about it, he simply pointed out the practical aspect, claiming that if you know when you're going to die beforehand, you can properly prepare for it by taking care of unfinished business and tying up any "loose ends."

My favorite response came from Louise* (names have been changed to protect the insane), a European woman who was told by an astrologer that she will die within ten years time. When she got the news, her first reaction was of relief, "I have enough money to last until then."

So why it is a bad idea to know in advance the circumstances of your death (I'm listening if you'd like to offer your perspective)? If these things really are "written" as they say, my inclination is toward the practical aspect. I mean, who wants to leave a bunch of loose ends when they head on out of here?

Swamiji did offer one potential downside, saying that if there is something quite bad in your horoscope - i.e. death by violent murder - that such information could stress you out or make you paranoid. It's a good point.

But then, I find myself stressed by all kinds of things, whether it's six thousand moshing Indians, impudent cockroaches chilling out in my kitchen or wondering whether they really will put me in jail for that silly little visa violation. Besides, I've had a funky rash on my arm for the last month, a chest infection that refuses to die, and now, an infection where the sun don't shine. This is the stuff of life (in 94 degrees and 94 percent humidity, it seems).

At least I can choose my reaction to the news. And I have a history of choosing the bright side (at least it was a june bug in my panties and not something that bites..).

So tomorrow morning I will meet with Dr. Amodini, a local astrologer who lives across the river. I will not ask her to outline my future just yet...I want simply to meet her and ask some questions about how all this chart-reading business works. We'll just have to wait and see where it all goes.

. . . . .

Wow, two postings in two days...I sat down to finish my story from yesterday, but a bunch of other stuff came out instead. Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup. Part II of yesterday’s story is bound to flow out sometime,

Jai Guru Deva, Om
hugs and God's blessings be upon you,


Hey T, I heard you think I’m lazy…well guess what? I think you’re lazy!!! Ha ha haa haa ha haaaaaa! Takes one to know one! Love you too much, bro. Laze on.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why Does the Naked Baba Need an Umbrella?

Before I get to the naked baba, I'll pick up where my last entry left off... So much has happened in the last weeks that I am bound to lose myself in the attempt to recount it all, but I will try anyway.

2nd July, 2009

Dressed in my oldest
salwaar kameez suit, I swallowed my fear and boarded a bus for Chamoli, a dot on the map that seemed like a good place to start. I was determined to continue walking, and from Chamoli I could walk west to Kedarnath or north to Badrinath, two of the four major pilgrimage destinations in the Uttarakhand Himalayas.

I walked only a few hours before I decided it wasn't such a great idea after all. Waiting for me in each new village were 50 staring Indian men, all eager to know if I was alone. I could feel my chest tighten as they asked me over and over, "
akele? akele? akele??" I could tell them no - akele nahin - but what evidence did I have to back that up? It was just the sort of scenario I wanted to avoid...arriving in an unknown place and announcing to all the men that I was alone.

I freely concede that it was at best ambitious and at worst naive for me to imagine I could walk the roads alone. I may be a determined sort but I am not stupid; early the next morning I flagged down the first available jeep. It was headed for Badrinath.

You might recall that I have been to Badrinath before, with Omar the Spiritual Speed Racer and his faithful companion Usha (see photos from May). We stayed two nights - just enough time for me to visit the temple and get groped by a stranger - before we headed back to the kesh.

My jeep driver, Jagdish, had a kind face, and after three hours on the road he offered me a room at his family's home in Mana, the last Indian village before the Tibetan border. I remembered that I quite liked Mana during my last visit and readily accepted.

Soon I was settled into my new room in the village, a spartan affair with just enough space for two twin beds and a hanging light bulb. The local peoples were fascinated by their new neighbor; five or six of them crowded into my room to get a closer look.

As they stood there looking me over, I reminded myself once again that, as Indian culture does not have a concept for privacy or personal space, there is really no point in demanding it. You can try - as I and many others have in the past - but it is a lost cause. And as it is my choice to inhabit this alien place called India, it follows that I must be willing to relinquish my western comforts, including my personal privacy. But this, I confess, is an ongoing challenge...

. . . . .

Stepping into the small village of Mana is like stepping back into centuries past. At first glance, the peoples reminded me of Nepalis with their style of dress and the way they carry heavy loads using baskets attached to their foreheads. But as they made very clear to me, they are not Nepalis, Tibetans, or even Indians...they are Bhotias. A friend and I tried to clarify this point further, but the term "Bhotia" seems only to refer vaguely to some peoples of Buddhist decent.

And now seems an appropriate time to explain why there are no pictures to accompany this tale...

In the interest of minimizing my load, I decided not to carry my camera. It was, in fact, a surprisingly difficult decision. But I rarely take pictures anyway - something about it just seems so wrong - and leaving it behind seemed like a good exercise in non-attachment. So now I will have to make up for it with actual words...thousands and thousands of words...

After several days I met a young German boy (hereafter to be known as "Shepherd Dan") with whom I was able to freely roam the mountains around Mana. Together we explored all the local
gufas (caves), waterfalls, valleys and one magic forest called Lakshmi Van.

Lakshmi Van intrigued us because it was a forest located above the tree line. We thought this unlikely and were compelled to investigate further. After 8 kilometers of a rather treacherous uphill climb - including one near-vertical stretch of glistening white sand dropping directly into the massive, rocky Alaknanda River below - we finally reached the magic forest, which turned out to be a patch of about ten trees.

If the "forest" itself left something to be desired, the path to get there more than compensated. I was especially fascinated by the thousands of sheep and mountain goats roaming the landscape; standing in their midst was, for me, akin to an out-of-body experience. Shepherd Dan was somewhat less impressed.

Only 22 years old, Shepherd Dan had the diplomatic air of a wise old soul. He had been living in Badrinath proper (3-4 km from Mana) for several weeks and introduced me to all the local ashrams where we could take food with the babas for free.

I really enjoy the ashram dining experience; everyone sits cross-legged in rows on narrow strips of burlap, chanting and singing as the ashram workers distribute plates and cups of water...
jai ram shri ram jai jai ram...then come the large metal buckets containing standard ashram fare: copious amounts of plain white rice...jai ram shri ram jai jai ram...watered down lentils...jai ram shri ram jai jai ram...and chapattis (Indian wheat-flour tortillas). If we're lucky we also get a "vegetable," (usually a miniscule serving of spiced potatoes). And if we're really lucky, we also get something sweet, such as halva (semolina fried in oil and drenched in milk and sugar).

If you'll notice, this meal is 95% carbohydrates. It's cheap and good for babas, most of whom have waists the size of my thigh.

So while I'm not entirely sure why -
is it the camaraderie? the simplicity? the marriage proposals from ashram staff? - I do love to eat in ashrams.

At some point we met an eccentric American guy named Romas who convinced us that we could sleep under a rock at the base of Neelkanth mountain (6,600 m / 21,654 ft), only 6 km from Badrinath proper. For some reason this seemed like a good idea, so we packed our warmest things and headed up the valley.

The venture turned out to be the most unexpectedly magical experience of my life.

Along the way we met several cave babas, including one Japanese who has been living in Badrinath for the last four years in a small but first-class cave with a great view of the mountain. He made us chai while we listened to the BBC on his shortwave radio.

(random aside: I used to have some impression of the BBC as being somewhat more "objective" and reliable than other news outlets, but in Koji Baba's cave I suddenly understood why it is simple propaganda just like all the rest. It's amazing what becomes clear if you can just get away from it for a while! I'm tempted to expound my case further, but I have no alcohol and, well...politics no longer falls within the scope of this blague.)

Koji Baba had fashioned himself an instrument - a one-stringed bass guitar, if you will - from a large stick, one string, a couple of screws and a plastic bottle. Shepherd Dan pulled out his mandolin (actually not a mandolin, but a similar instrument from Greece, slightly smaller and with only three double strings) and, after rendering a few songs, presented the instrument to Koji Baba as a gift. It was an emotional moment that I cannot hope to capture in words. Thank you, Shepherd Dan, for your inspired example of selfless generosity, an experience I will never forget..

As we continued on our way, we could see and hear Koji Baba rocking out on his new instrument (must be quite a thrill to go from one string to three!), his silhouette bouncing along to the music as he danced on the rock in front of his cave.

Further along the path we saw a giant brown and white eagle, and then we saw many of them. We watched in awe as they climbed to six or seven thousand meters (18,000+ ft) and then, with wings outstretched, proceeded to glide down, circling effortlessly through the air for ten or fifteen minutes on end. I suddenly understood the significance of phrases referring to "where the eagles fly." They were majestic and peaceful and inspiring to witness. Later we found some fresh eagle feathers, the size of my head and fluffier than anything I could imagine. I wanted so much to keep them, as a memento of this impossible valley, but in the end I left them in the crevice of a huge rock. Some things just can't be possessed.

At some point we stumbled upon a patch of wild strawberries and soon we were all crouched on the ground, munching the tiny red berries as quickly as we could gather them. What they lacked in size they made up for in flavor, and I turned into a giggly nut, thrilled by the specter of wild strawberries growing all around me. I kept wondering...
is this really happening? Are we in a storybook fairytale?

I could describe the wild horses grazing peacefully on the mountainsides, or the small patch of furry white, star-shaped edelweiss flowers, or the vast waterfalls and looming glaciers, but I'm no Steinbeck, and you've got plenty of other things to do. So I'll just say that Neelkanth valley was memorable and leave it at that.

. . . . .

But this is India, after all, which means that there are plenty of Indians creating memories as well. That takes us out of the fairytale genre and into the realm of science fiction/horror.

My first moment of horror came early, on my second day in Mana. The morning began innocuously enough; I awoke to a beautiful sunny day, stepped outside to brush my teeth at the water tap alongside my neighbor ladies, and decided to head up to Vyas Gufa.

Ved Vyasa was the legendary author of the Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures), and supposedly he authored a few things in this very cave, hence the name. I climbed up to the cave and planted myself next to the two babas hanging out there.

One thing I love about India is that you don't have to do even a single thing for the adventures to begin...

I was hoping to continue up to Mujhkund Gufa, where supposedly Lord Krishna had left his footprint. But the babas told me I would need a guide, and they clearly weren't volunteering for the task (they were more interested in smoking chillum or playing volleyball with the Indo-Tibetan army guys). So I contented myself with observing the environs.

Slowly more people began arriving and four men inside the gufa began playing the harmonium and chanting, their voices broadcast on loudspeakers outside the cave. An ornately decorated Naga baba from Shimla - Hari Om Giri Baba, who I had already met several times before - arrived and took the spot on my left. I joined him in chanting and clapping to the music while organizers prepared the fire for a havan ceremony. I assumed it was some kind of holiday, which is not unusual because every day is a holiday in India.

Soon, a young man in a black sweater, glasses and a
dhoti (a sarong for men) sat down on my right and said, "My guru told me to come talk to you" (how's that for an opening line?!). He turned out to be Rahool, an Indian from Gujarat who grew up in LA and was spending a month in India with his guru. Hari Om Giri Baba didn't appreciate Rahool so much and gave him the evil eye while we chatted. Soon it was time to go inside the gufa for the start of the ceremony.

I was surprised when 30 people managed to cram themselves into the small dark cave for the opening ceremonies, and a little anxious when the influx of bodies continued unabated. As the air thickened with incense and body heat, I decided it was enough and began pushing through the mass of bodies in the direction of the cave entrance. I was relieved to get out, until I realized that outside it was even worse...

Somehow, in the span of less than 20 minutes, thousands of Indians appeared and started moshing in front of the gufa. A sea of people pushed and shoved each other to get closer to the gufa entrance and I was going in the wrong direction. I managed to squeeze my way to a stone ledge nearby and take refuge on top of it. From there I could make out my Shimla baba, beckoning for me to come where he was on top of the gufa, but already it was too late. Bodies upon bodies precluded any movement whatsoever. I spotted Rahool in another corner, but he was gesturing for me to stay put.

It seemed that more and more people were arriving, and airspace was running out. Then I saw what the fervor was about; two Swamis - from Andhra Pradesh, I learned later - were slowly making their way toward the gufa.

Holy men are not to be touched, so they moved with a small cushion of airspace around them as their devotees allowed them to pass. They made it to the top of the gufa and waited for the microphone and loudspeakers to be adjusted.

Meanwhile the masses were turning ugly. As more and more people shoved their way forward, some began resenting my position on the stone ledge. I fought them off as they tried to grab my clothes and hair and pull me down. I screamed at them in English, calling them animals and refusing to budge from my spot. At some point, a woman was pulled beneath the crowd. Three or four of us tried to pull her back up, but the crush of bodies made it virtually impossible. I began to fear for my life.

By now Shimla baba was also indicating that I should stay put. But this was a moot point, as there was not a single place for me to go.

Finally one of the Swamis began Telugu. Now, I don't need to tell you that I don't speak Telugu. So you can imagine my state of mind, trapped on a stone ledge in the now-blazing sun, inches from a mass of sweaty bodies just waiting to suck me under, and subject to a speech I had no hope of comprehending. Every ten minutes or so, a few people in the crowd behind me would become irritated and start tugging on my legs or clothes. I ignored them and gripped the stone harder; there was no way in hell I was going anywhere.

After nearly an hour I had pretty much given up any hope of early escape and was daydreaming (my trusty method of mental escape) when I noticed Rahool had forced his way to within two meters of me and was motioning for me to follow him. By now the crowd had settled into a rather listless state, depleted by the sun or perhaps just enthralled by their guru's words. I decided to take my chances and dove into the crowd shouting "chapal, chapal," hoping to locate my shoes and escape before the masses could suck me under. After miraculously managing to locate both my shoes, I stretched out my arm towards Rahool, who grabbed me and literally dragged me out of there.

While individual Indian people can be sweet and charming, Indian crowds are scary as hell. One of the reasons I dislike them so much is because they force me to get aggressive. It's everyone for himself; push and shove or get pushed and shoved. I can't help but think back to D.C., where you can get ahead if you're just willing to step on everyone else.

. . . . .

During my ten days in Badrinath/Mana, I managed on four or five occasions to visit Taptkund, the hot spring bath near the main temple.

At first I was shocked to witness the writhing mass of half-naked Indian ladies shouting and shoving each other to get to the water. Had the water been a bit cooler I could have waded in and escaped them altogether, but as it was I had to fight for my spot at the edge just like everyone else, and believe me this was no easy task.

These Indian ladies had no qualms about grabbing my bucket from my hands, or my soap, or shoving me out of the way if it suited their needs. I invite anyone out there with knowledge on the subject to assess my claims, to defend and/or explain the mentality of these beastly women, because I was (and am) nonplussed. They were worse than animals.

By my last visit to the bath, I had grown cold and cynical. When someone grabbed my bucket, I grabbed it back. When someone shoved me to the side, I shoved back. When an Indian woman complained that I was splashing water, I shook my hand dismissively in her direction. When another one bitched because I wasn't adequately covered (the water, like most everything else in these places, is holy), I shouted back with sarcasm, "that's because I'm taking a

Clearly, it was time to move on.

. . . . .

Shepherd Dan and I agreed to hitch hike to Kedarnath, our next holy stop on the pilgrim route. We spent our last day making the rounds and saying goodbye to all the characters we had come to know and love. Early the next morning we set out walking in the hopes of catching a ride to Joshimath, a town three hours away that was rumored to have both cake and a working internet shop.

At first many jeeps and cars stopped, but only so the Indians inside them could get out and pose for pictures with us (we must have posed for hundreds of photos in the span of one week). We walked for 30 minutes in the rain before a jeep filled with young Sikh boys from Punjab finally picked us up...

. . . . .

And that, my friends, is all I can manage for this installment. But now that I am back in the kesh (emotionally and physically exhausted enough to stay put for a while), I have plenty of time to continue this well as expound on all the new thoughts and insights generated by my latest adventures on the road…

Of course I’ll be back, because I'm sure you're all dying to know why the naked baba needs an umbrella (feel free to speculate if you think you have an answer...)

Still (barely) clinging to sanity and still (barely) practising non-violence in the South Asian Subcontinent,

(Om Shanti Om)