Carrying a Bottomless Bucket



They've got camels in Jaipur.  Working-stiff camels.

I finally got out to see a little of the city after two days spent trying to get my equilibrium back cooped up in the hotel.

I don't think my balance has been restored.  Two hours was all I could handle.  Not even.  I was in no mood for being hustled, hastled, pointed in a different direction.  My stomach hurt, it was too hot and I was generally what you might call miserable.



When the fourth camel passed me on the street and I realized that I could almost care less I thought, "I'm done."

I came back to the hotel and promptly started looking up tickets to get me back to Delhi and then onto the states as soon as possible.  Never mind that I am scheduled to leave India in a week.  Six and a half short days away. I want to go home now.

It's no secret to anyone who travels to India that it can turn a person bitter.  You meet fellow travelers all the time who have come to hate everything about this maddening country.  Some of them have been here for 3 day, others for 3 months, some have made it 3 years.  It's always been easy to see how the transformation from India-lover to India-hater could happen, but I didn't think it would happen to me.

And, it hasn't.  Yet.

I still have a tiny bit of reserve left that allows me to step back and to get perspective.  In fact, if I could look at myself the way I sometimes follow my alter ego in a dream, I would be amused by the way my bad mood is affecting my interactions with India and it's people.

This morning, when I went out, I got an auto-rickshaw.  The guy wanted to charge me a 100 rupees when I knew the fare should be 50.  I under bid the going rate and said I'd pay 30. We settled on the fare it should have been in the first place, 50.  Plus, I said very firmly to the driver, "I'm just going to the City Palace.  You will not stop anywhere else.  Understood?"

We went straight to the pink palace; when I arrived, there were still a few minutes left before the place opened, so I  ventured a gander in a shop.  The owner started pulling out this, that, and the other thing, "See Miss, look at this, Miss, look here....".

I very clearly and sternly laid down the law, "I can look on my own." No one spoke to me again.

Ever since I left Santiniketan I've had little patience for drivers and salespeople.  When I arrived in Siliguri two weeks ago on the night train, I exited the station to people pestering to take me up to Darjeeling.  I was tired and I asked the first kid who got close, "How much?"

"100 rupees."

"100 rupees.  To Darjeeling?"

"Yes.  Yes.  100 rupees."

As we got to the Range Rover, the kid tried to sell me the two seats next to the driver for 300 rupees.  I'd have more room with two seats.

I said, "NO, we agreed on 100 rupees."

"Ok. Ok. 100 rupees."

I sat alone in the middle bench of the range rover for half an hour while the kid tried to rustle up more customers.  Eventually a family of 8 arrived and a boss type man tried to get me to move to the back of the car, the bad seats, to give the family the good seats.  I said, "No, I've been here for quiet a while.  I will not move."

Boss man told me that the car had already been booked and I'd have to get out.  I said, "No, you had no customers when I arrived and I've been here for half an hour.  I will not move."

The family piled in, despite the rude American, which I'm sure they'd all decided I was, and we all sat sweating like sardines in a very hot tin can.  Another half hour went by.  Yet another customer was found so that every square inch of seat was now filled with sweating, hostile customers less than eager to make the 5 hour journey up to Darjeeling smushed together.  Then the little guy who'd hustled me into the car in the first place came around to collect his money.  When he got to me he said, "150 rupees," which, to be fair is what he'd asked from everyone else.

But, it was not what we had agreed upon.

"No.  You said 100 rupees."

"No ma'am.  150 rupees.  Government price."

"We discussed it three times.  100 rupees."

"No ma'am.  150 rupees."

"I'd be happy to pay 150 rupees, if that is what you had said in the beginning, but that is not what we agreed on."

"150 rupees. Pay now."

I didn't care that I had a car full of sweating, equally tired Indian people crammed into the car along with me.  I was not letting the kid get away with it.

"Like I said, I'd be happy to pay 150 rupees, but as we talked about three times, you said the fare was 100 rupees."

He opened the door, telling me I had to get out.

"You find me another ride and I'll get out.  But it is your job.  You pulled me over here."

The kid pointed to another car across the way that was only partially full.  The extra room was tempting enough to get me out of the claustrophobic tin can.  Though I didn't know if the half empty car would take me.

"Ok. You will have to get my bag down."  My suitcase had already been secured on the top of the vehicle.

I got out of the car and a very official looking man came over and asked what the problem was.  I explained that I'd been promised a fare of 100 rupees and now was being charged 150.  The official looking man glanced over at the kid who'd pulled me in, and then kicked me out of, his car.  The kid looked nervous.  He started talking in Bengali.

As soon as my bag hit the pavement another driver of a jeep down the queue came over and asked me if I needed a ride to Darjeeling.  I said, "How much?"

"150 rupees."

"Great," I said, loud and clear right in front of both the kid and the official looking man.  I wanted to make sure that everyone understood, this was not about 50 rupees (1 buck), this was about principles.  As I walked away, the official looking man gave me what I can only describe as an extremely admiring look.

It's one of the contradictions of India.  Many many people here want to hustle you, but the same people also admire the hell out of you when you don't allow yourself to be hustled.

Like my bicycle rickshaw man who brought me back home today from the City Palace.  We'd bargained on a fare before I even got into the rig.  He'd said, "100".

I'd said, "50".

He said, "100".

I walked away.

 He said, "Ok, 50."

When we arrived at the hotel he tried to make it 100.  I said, absolutely no smile or leeway in my voice, "No.  50 rupee." I even made him give me change from a 100 rupee note.  As he gave me the change, I could swear he smiled, as if to say, "I gotta admire the tough broad."

India is a shifter, a shaper, a sculptor of souls.  It opens hearts, it expands minds, and it toughens skins.  The trick is to know when the work is done.  Leave too soon and your surface is only scratched.  Leave too late and you become hard.

I have one week left.  One week.  I know that I can stick it out.  And, as my dear goddess of a friend, Tina, says,  "You just know some magic is going to sneak in at the last minute, no?"

I do know India is capable of delivering magic, even in the darkest of times.  I'm not so sure that I have the ability or even the desire anymore to take in the magic.

But perhaps this is the final lesson India has to teach me during this three month crash course in...... what? Metaphysical soul searching? Finding center in a sea of crazy?  Focusing on the moment because if you focus on the big picture, you will go insane?

Yes.  Maybe this is India's final exam.  Instead of fleeing when it feels unbearable, am I supposed to find the stillness once again?  The quiet in myself?  I've been in a state of discomfort and dis-ease before on this trip.  Only I've never ever wanted to give up and go home.  This is a new level of disquiet, a much higher peak to climb to find peace.

I think there is strength in going home early, too.  There is the self-validation that comes with saying, "I've had enough and I'm a big girl who gets to say it's time to get back to the familiar."

What, pray tell, is India asking me to do?

I'm realizing that for all my talk of eschewing gurus, I've taken one.  I have, for the last three months, been India's faithful disciple.

In this book I'm reading of Sufi stories, there's one about a guy who went to a guru.  The guy begged the guru to take him as his disciple.  The guru said he would on one condition: the guy could not ask a single question.  The guy said, "Oh, that's easy.  Done.  Not a single question."

"Great," said the guru.  "Let's go to the well and get some water."

"Great," said the guy.

The guru then proceeded to pick up a pail that had no bottom.  All the way down to the well the guy was just itching to ask the guru why he had a pail with no bottom and how in the world they were going to gather water with a pail with no bottom.  But he resisted.

When they got to the well the guru attached the well to the rope and lowered the pail into the well and pulled it up.  Of course, water went into the pail and then immediately right back out.  The guru just kept lowering the bucket, making chit chat with the guy, and raising the bucket which was always empty.  Eventually the guru told the guy to take a turn drawing water from the well.

This was the final straw.  The guy couldn't take it anymore and said, "What are you saying?  There's no bottom to the bucket?  How can we gather water with a bucket with no bottom?"

As you might imagine, the deal was off.  The guru was no longer interested in taking the guy on as a disciple.  The guru told the guy that he had one job and one job only, to never ask a question and he clearly couldn't do his job.

Seems if a guru wants you to do something ridiculous, even seemingly idiotic, that's his prerogative.  He's doing it to teach some great life lesson to his disciple and the disciple is meant to humble himself by accepting his tasks and succumbing to the higher wisdom of his master.

So.  I've decided to go to the well and draw water with my bottomless bucket.  I'm not asking any questions.  I will stay the course.

I'll be in Jaipur one more day.  I may leave the hotel.  I may treat it like a holiday in the tropics and hang out by the pool all day.  On Saturday I will go to Agra so that I can wake up Sunday and see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.  I'll hire a car.  Oh, yes I will.  I will hire a car and that car will take me in it's pod of air-conditioned bliss from the door of my homestay to the Taj and back again.

Hey, I said I wouldn't ask questions, I didn't say I'd continuously keep banging my head against the wall, which in this case is fighting for the right taxi fare, letting myself be swamped with relentless requests to look at this and to buy that, and getting dizzy in the sweltering heat. I will allow myself to be what I am, really, a spoiled, by Indian standards~rich, American tourist.

Then I will go to Delhi on Monday to stay with Chandana who is visiting family and I will reconnect with other friends that I've made over the last three months.

Then I will go home.

To Seattle.

Because it will be time.

Metaphysically Speaking, Part Three ~ Closer I Am To Fine

Deep, my guide on the first two days in Varanasi, took me to see his Guru.  I thought, why not, I'm in Varanasi, I should do something mystical.  Deep's Guru, whose name I never caught, is an astrologer.  After meeting Deep's Guru, Guru Guy, I decided that I would make an appointment to get an astrological reading, see if he could enlighten me about what might be coming up next in my life, without me having to do the agonizing work of being patient and finding it out for myself. 

I'm no stranger to astrological readings.  Or tarot readings.  Or Skrying.  So, it wasn't like it was the first time I'd ever sought answers from the celestial spheres.  I actually do a bit of tarot, or intuitive, reading myself.  I've always believed that there are people who can clue into the cosmic data-base that all of us human energy balls are constantly downloading information into and from that data base these intuitives can check out different books that can give us some info about ourselves, in particular, and life, in general.

Of course, there are also a lot of people who can read star charts and memorize books on tarot reading or palm reading or what have you, that actually have no intuitive capability at all.  They probably don't even really believe in all that "crap" but they know that other people do, people who are willing to spend money so that they don't have to learn how to trust their own intuition.  The untalented non-believers, posing as intuitives have no qualms about relieving hopeful suckers like myself of their money.

I had no idea upon meeting Deep's guru whether or not he was an actual intuitive or if he just wanted my money.  But I was willing to spend a few dollars for the experience of finding out what going to an astrologer in India was like.  It seemed like a "When in Rome" kind of a thing to do.

And, sure, hope springs eternal....maybe Guru Guy would tell me something that would unlock all the doors I've been struggling to unlock over the last three months.  Maybe he could tell me what really matters so that I could change my life accordingly and decide what I should do next.

There is a lot of detail I could throw in next about how I got lost trying  to get to the appointment and then Guru Guy was late because he was "doing a ceremony for some American man"....

But that part isn't, for the purpose of this post, important.

When Guru Guy finally did start reading my chart and telling me about myself, I could tell he was pretty good.  He wasn't really telling me anything I didn't know already, either based on other readings about what my chart says or from my own self-knowledge, but he wasn't throwing out gross generalizations that could apply to anybody and he wasn't saying anything that was wildly off the mark about me in particular.

It started to get interesting when Guru Guy began to zero in on how I am a very spiritually oriented person ("You have an American body and an Indian soul") and how that focus would only get stronger over the next ten years, which backs up what other astrologers have told me.  But then he said that that spiritual energy would make me more and more confused and unsettled because I was also very physically oriented, my sexual energy was very strong, so that would be apt to get in the way of my finding peace and cause, instead, a feeling of constant "unsettledness".

Internally I went, "Whoa."  I felt like he was touching a new nerve.  Though, "unsettledness" is not the word I would use for what he'd hit on.  Confusion, yes.  Confusion in the sense that I'm no longer interested in having sex just to scratch an itch, to satisfy a craving.  There's got to be a spiritual/energetic connection.

Guru Guy continued to explain that my desire for connection would become more and more problematic as my orientation towards spirituality intensified, because he could see in my chart that my future relationships would continue to be unstable.  I would be seeking out deeper meaning, deeper connection, but relationships wouldn't happen, and then I would have these physical urges and not know what to do.

Ok. I could see how that might have been true in the past...I thought to myself.  In fact, I could see how that had been painfully evident throughout my life and how I'd gotten involved with the wrong people because of those physical needs.

Hmmm... this guy is really good, I started thinking.

Then, he said, "Your energy is so strong.  Like mine. People want some of it.  I understand this.  People come to me and they want some of my energy.  Women come from other countries and I can see they want some of my energy.  This one woman came and I could see she wanted a hug.  I asked her if she did, and I let her give me a hug.  But I told her her hug was not real, not strong enough, if she was going to hug me she should hug me with all her strength because, after that hug, that would be it, nothing more could come from me after."

Hmmm....now this guy was veering a little off course.....

Then Guru Guy shifted in his seat so his mundu (skirt) was split just enough for me to see his package.  But not enough for me to know if he knew that I could see is package.  And let me solve the age old question right now:  Indian men do not wear anything under their mundus.

I just kept looking Guru Guy straight in the eyes, wondering where he was gonna try and go from there.

But Guru Guy did not push his agenda too hard.  He never came out and made it plain that he was suggesting anything specific, you know, about his energy and my energy meeting up. Though I became more and more sure that he was trying to say that if I wanted his "energy", all I had to do was ask.

But soon the session was over and it was time to leave though not before he tried to sell me a very expensive talisman, or the even more expensive "Ceremony", to stop the "unsettled" trend in my life.

While we were walking to the door, I reached out to shake Guru Guy's hand, to thank him for the interesting reading.  All in all, I'd rather enjoyed myself in a "I'm not sure what just happened here, but this guy is fascinating and I can't wait to tell the story about him" kind of a way.  So I reach out and offer my hand and he takes it in his hand and, gosh darn it, if when I took his hand, it wasn't electric.  I mean E-LEC-TRIC!  It didn't excite me sexually, but it did shock the heck out of me.

Guru Guy saw me register his "energy" and said, "You see, you want some of my energy."

I said, "No.  But there is energy."

"I think you do.  I think you want some energy."

I laughed and walked out....quickly...sort of waving my hands by my ears in a "Oh, my God this just turned too weird and too funny all at the same time" kind of a way.

Guru Guy followed me to the outer door of his building and called after me down the narrow little alley, "You come back.  When you have no hesitation, you come back."

I walked quickly, trying to shake off Guru Guy's "energy".  As his electrons fell away, I found myself slowly, but steadily, filling with elation.  I was thrilled.  I had no idea why.  I mean, I should have been pissed.  I'd just spent 50 bucks for some guy to stage an elaborate and bizarre seduction.

But as I let it sink in, I realized that I was happy because I was free.  Suddenly, everything became so clear....Guru Guy could tell me nothing that mattered about myself.  Even if he'd been the most pious and talented mystic ever.  The truth is in me.  My truth.  Just like the truth is in you, each of you, each of us, if we get quiet enough to listen.  That communal energetic database that intuitives tap into is a free library, folks, we all got a card when we signed up for this ride.  And there are certain volumes that only apply to us and we are the only ones who can read the crazy font they are printed in.

A wealth of psychic weight dropped off of my soul and out of my heart.  I realized that I could not only check my own books out of the cosmic library, I could write new ones, I could make my own reality.  I could decide what mattered to me and build the rest of my years around that.

Later that night, I took a little evening stroll and met a real mystic, a kid of about 17 years, named Kundar....he doesn't know he's a mystic....but boy did he put me in my place.....I tried to shoo him away and he just persisted and then said, "Oh, you think you know everything, you think of me as a dog...not good enough to talk to..."  I tried to interrupt him and to have a rational conversation about how I was just trying to be quiet and that my shooing him away was not personal.  But he kept saying, "I'm a dog to you, a lowly dog.  You know everything...."

So finally I said, sharply, "Do you want to be quiet long enough to listen?"

He said, "Yes, of course.  Where are you from?"

"America."

"How long you in Varanasi?"

"Since Wednesday."

"You like it?"

"Yes."

Kundar sat down beside me, calm, gentle, inquisitive.

We had a great conversation.  He taught me how to say "mother fucker" in hindi: mutta chowd, so that the next time I needed to shoo somebody away I could let them know I really meant business.  

Out of the blue, Kundar wanted to know if I thought God was inside of each of us.  He'd heard that this might be true and he wondered what I thought.

"Funny you should ask," I thought.  Hadn't I just had that epiphany this morning.  The truth, aka God, is in each of us.  Sure, I'd heard that before.  But now I knew it, in my bones.  

I said, "Yes.  Yes.  I believe that is true.  God is in each of us."

In turn, I asked Kundar, "Why do the Hindus say "God"-singular when they believe there are over a million different gods.

Answer: God has many faces, so many that we don't even know how many faces he has.

I asked, "If the Ganges is so sacred why do the Indian people treat her so poorly?"

Answer: Because the hand has five fingers and each finger doesn't know what the other one is doing.

See, a natural mystic.

Kundar also fessed up and told me that Varanasi "runs on money.  Because money never stops, money is always working, always going.  Money never takes a break.  People get tired.  Money never gets tired".

After about half an hour, Kundar said, "Your face looks kind of happy, but I think inside you are a little upset with me, a little angry?"

Kundar was right.  I was a little bit upset, but not with him, with myself.  I had said "no" to his intrusion; I had tried to shoo him away because I wanted to sit with my new found spiritual freedom, I wanted to bask in the light of my earlier epiphany.

I was also sure he was hustling something which I was not in the mood to buy.

Yes, ultimately he wanted to take me to his shop where he works in hopes that I would stock up on souvenirs.  But he didn't push it.  When I said no, Kundar accepted it without question.  And the conversation we had in the meantime was perfect.  A gift.

Kundar was right about another thing.  I didn't know everything.  I thought I knew something; maybe I even felt, in some small way, that my earlier epiphany had given me special powers to know that Kundar was someone I wouldn't possibly want to talk to.  Though I certainly didn't think he was a dog.  But I may have initially treated him as one.

The next day, yesterday, I woke up, as is my customary habit in India, to see the sunrise.  But  instead of going out in a boat, or for a walk on the ghats, I decided to just sit on my own little balcony which sits back from the front edge of the guest house, creating a limited view of life on the waterfront.  The sun would be rising to the left of the corner edge of my view, so I wouldn't actually see the sun, itself, rise.

It felt great to just be in my space without yearning for a better vantage point.  So easy. So relaxing.

As the sky began to lighten, I caught site of a tourist on a prominatory pillar snapping a photo of something in an easterly direction and knew the sun had just crested the horizon.  Soon, I could see rays of sunlight segmenting the sky in  perfect pie shapes.  It was like the sun was reaching out into the receding darkness with a giant hand and all I could see were the tips of the fingers.

It dawned on me that light spreading in the mind and soul and heart works like those sun rays; tendrils of insight reach out into the darkness of closed minds and hearts and if we are patient and easy with ourselves our inner sky will eventually be swathed in light.  We don't even have to move or search for anything, not even a better spot to take in the view, light will make it even to all our little corners of the world, even if we choose not to be out in the middle of everything.

I decided, while the rays slowly spread out and disappeared and daytime came to Varanasi, that I was not going to leave the guesthouse all day.  I wasn't going to go to any temple or puja or astrologer; I wasn't going to go to Sarnath, a town nearby where Buddha taught his first lesson.  Instead, I was going to practice being happy right where I was, accepting what I might know and what I don't know and making peace with the distinct possibility that there are a million metaphysical conundrums that no one can really solve, certainly not definitively.

The magic of Varanasi, for me anyway, is that here, more than any place I've ever been, the essence of what it means to be human is on display.  

Does it matter why we are here?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  But for sure we are here.  

Varanasi makes it clear as sunshine in a matter of minutes that being on this planet, being human is messy, often disgusting, life is hard, death is inevitable, rebirth is a possibility, and yearning is universal.  Everybody is yearning for something: peace, love, money, connection to the divine, to their family, to their friends, a better job, clarity...... the list goes on and on. 

As I sat and wrote and chatted with the staff here at Ganpati Guesthouse, I began to sense that in 12 days when I get on the plane to go back to the states it will be time, not just because that's what my ticket says, but because that will be the next step in my journey and no matter where I go, back to Seattle, Santiniketan, Paris, my view will be as expansive as I allow it to be, my reality will be mutable, my choices only limited by my ability, or inability, to trust in my own deepest intuitions, dreams and visions.

Metaphysically Speaking, Part Two ~ I Went Down To The River To Pray

Varanasi likes to tell a person what matters.  It likes to make a lot of things that many would say are unreal, very real.  Reincarnation, for instance.  It wants to make sure that you understand why we are all here on this planet, why we suffer, and why and how we can be relieved of that suffering, if not in this life, then, surely the next one....or maybe the one after that.

I'm actually a believer in reincarnation.  There, I said it.  Have been for a while.

But like I began to say in that last post, before Varanasi jumped in with all that metaphysical marketing who-ha, I have been batting around the question of what matters and why we are all here and what is real, because you know I might be wrong....maybe we only get one shot at this living thing.  I've also been wondering why we all can't agree on the answers to those questions, even though so many people think they know THE answer.  I've been wracking my brain and querying my heart trying to figure out if all the metaphysical disharmony on this planet rules out the possibility that there is actually

one

reason, singular, that we are all here, that there is only one, or maybe two, things that really matter (if anything matters at all).

On my first morning in Varanasi I got up at 5:30 a.m. and went to watch the bathers and the mourners and the workers and the pilgrims from the safety of a little boat.  I told you about that.  Watching the young widower lighting the funeral pyre for his dead wife.  I sat in my little boat watching from the outside and beyond the incredible intensity of what was happening onstage.

On the second morning, I decided to go out again at 5:30, but this time I walked along the banks, mingling and taking pictures, almost from the inside of things.  Or at least from a more intimate and involved vantage point, sort of from the wings, if you will.  I even found a place to sit and to just be for a little while, without being hustled by boatmen wanting to take me out on the water.

I watched the sunrise, which I'd missed the day before because I was looking at the shore while the sun made it's entrance behind me.  I watched the sun rise over the Ganges and marvelled that only a week ago I watched that same sun rise over the Himalayas.  I tried not to make too much out of that.

When it started to get too hot, I decided to wander back to my guest house.  Holy men looking like Asian gnomes sitting under their little mushroom umbrellas called to me, "Namaste, Namaste.  Come. Come."  But I walked on, sometimes saying what I would say to any boatman, or souvenir hawker, "Nigh-che eh" or "I don't want any."

And, I didn't.  I didn't want any of what those holy men were selling.

Speaking of holy men.  I've been reading this book by a Sufi named Osho.  Who knows, this guy might be famous.  I might write "Osho" and half of you out there go, "Oh, yeah, of course, Osho."  But I didn't know Osho from anybody, but I bought this book on a whim about a month ago and started reading it on the plane rides to Varanasi.  Ok.  It wasn't a complete whim.  Ever since I read Ellen Burstyn's autobiography where she talks about being a Sufi and why she's a Sufi, I've kind of wondered if, maybe, I'm actually a Sufi, too.

Anywhoo.  This Sufi master, Osho, talks really eloquently about why it's bad form to pray just to pray.  That a soul should only pray when it is

moved

to pray.  And wherever that prayer happens is ok.  Any place where someone prays sincerely becomes, instantly, a sacred and holy spot, a temple, a shrine. Osho also talks about how trying to be like the Buddha or Jesus or Mohammad or any Guru you could name out there, is also very bad form.  Because to be truly divine, we must all be wholly and completely ourselves.  If we just try to copy Buddha or Jesus we only succeed in becoming, at best, a good imitation of somebody or something we are not.  There was only one Jesus and only one Buddha.

So, as these Varanasi holy men tried to sell me a moment of serious devotional prayer, I told them I wasn't buying.  I had neither the inclination to pray or the the desire to be them.

This resolve wavered a bit as I approached what I call the Big Circus Ghat, where every night they do an extremely elaborate Puja, or prayer service that strikes me as a bit of a cheat put on for the tourists, as well as, the grief stricken Indians who will pay anything to find peace.  The Ghat is wide and deep and can hold a lot of holy men, each on their individual little platforms, under their individual large mushroom shaped umbrellas.  Pretty soon I had said, Nigh-che eh so many times that I was sick of hearing myself say no and when a certain priest called out, something in me was drawn in.

I went over and, in the blink of an eye, found myself sitting barefoot, in the criss-cross apple sauce pose, a red dot on my forehead, flowers sprinkled with holy Ganges water and a coconut wrapped in flowered cloth all sitting in my cupped hands.  And, I was chanting.  In Sanskrit.  The priest would chant, I would copy.  Sometimes I'd squinch up my face to indicate I hadn't caught what he'd said, and he would repeat.  Sometimes I would simply butcher the Sanskrit sounds that I was trying to parrot and then silently wonder to what strange deformed deity I might have just promised my first born.

When Sanskrit Priest was done with me, another guy suddenly appeared beside me.  The English Speaking Guy.  He explained that he would say a prayer for all of my family each and every day for the next month to rid my family of bad karma forever. Then I had to chant some more.  But this time in English.  Cuz English Speaking Guy was leading me.    Then English Speaking Guy made me bend forward and he put his hand on the top of my head and he chanted some stuff I wasn't supposed to copy, having to do with peace and happiness for my family and a good marriage for me.  That good marriage part was his idea, but, hey, who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Then I had to get up and walk down to the water with yet another guy, Water Blessing Guy.  Suddenly I found myself weaving towards the Ganges through a bevy of devout Pilgrims.  Suddenly I was no longer backstage, but

on

stage.  I was a real Pilgrim.

I stepped on the first step into the river.  There was only enough water on this level to feel like I was dipping the souls of my feet in a shallow puddle left after Shiva finished mopping the floor; I wasn't taking the plunge any further.  Water Blessing Guy leaned over and took a handful of the sacred liquid and sprinkled it on my head, saying something benifacting.

Everything was happening so quickly.  I didn't know what to make of it.  I remember climbing down to the edge of the river and thinking, "How did I get here?"  I also had a very clear moment when I was stepping in the water where I thought, "This water feels great.  Special.  Blessed."  I was glad that I was there, getting sprinkled, relieved, even, that I hadn't missed my chance; all the filth and the potential disease that I had previously imagined might muddy the experience of the divine Ganges, disappeared and all I could sense was joy.  I was filled with the awareness of millions of drops of faith that infused the water with some kind of special power to filter out all the gross particles and to leave only the blessings.

Then Water Blessing Guy walked me back up to the platform and English Speaking Guy did some kind of final little magic.  Then, I had to write down my address in a book along with all the names of my immediate family members.

Then

I had to write down how much my donation was going to be to the Temple where generations of bad Rowe/MacCracken karma was going to be wiped clean.  I wrote down 100 rupees and then was told that that was too little.  To prove his point, English Speaking Guy showed me in the book where Indian's, who we all know have no money, had given 2000, 3000 rupees for the spiritual safeguarding of their entire ancestral line.

I added another zero and called it a day.  Not because I don't think my ancestral line is worth the cash, but I'm also thinking my ancestral lines only go back a fraction of the way that most Indian family lines go back, and my people only made a handful of souls compared to all those generations of Indians, so my donation seemed to be appropriate to the task at hand.

I wasn't surprised that the blessing came with a price.  Nor was I particularly disillusioned by the hard sell after a slightly transcendental experience.  I was rather shocked, however, that I'd just been suckered out of my whole day's budget.  But I got over that in a few minutes.

Can you really put a price on the spiritual salvation of your entire ancestral line?  Probably not.

The night before I had been to a puja down at a small Ghat close to my hotel. I'd noticed the small puja while I was watching this Puja, The Big Circus Puja, on my first night in Varanasi:

This daily ritual is very elaborate.  Using several different holy implements, conch shell, bells, incense, fire, more fire, then a little more fire, sandalwood oil, fire, feathers, fire, water, fire, the priests do a series of synchronized rituals honoring all of the elements, but mostly fire, addressing the six directional points (North, South, East, West, the Heavens, and the Earth).

But at the little puja, instead of 9 priests lined up on 9 individual rose petal covered stages, there were only 5 priests, situated on one platform, arranged like dots on dice.  I was one of about 20 people watching this intimate affair, because the other two thousand pilgrims were all at the puja big top.

The guy who keeps the show running at this little puja, Munnar, invited me to sit close, presumably because I was the only white person who bothered to stop and because I was alone.

I almost said no to that invitation, too.  I'd been sitting far up on the steps where I felt I could have some space to really connect with the ritual, to feel it, to take it into my being, to invite in my own prayer, if the occasion warranted.  But Munnar came up and told me to sit down next to him and his family near the little machine that clangs the drums that keeps the priests in step with each other...the drum metronome.    Because it was so loud, and there were so few people, and because Munnar and his niece had to jump up frequently to light the next line of candles or to place incense, I had quite a lot of time to sit by myself, with the drums resonating in my chest and the bells and smoke of the ritual surrounding every nook and cranny of my being.

"This is the real thing," I thought to myself.  "Visceral.  Palpable."

At some point a small boy of 4-ish or 5-ish, appeared at my side.  He was talking to me, but I couldn't hear him over the drums and the bells.  So, we adapted and started talking to each other in head bobs and blinks and with points to the moon.  If he pointed to the moon, I pointed to the moon.  If he put his hand out in a sort of high five gesture, I put my hand out in a high five gesture.  If I winked, he smiled, then cocked his head to one side and gave me a lopsided look that showed off his missing front teeth and then I would laugh out loud, joyfully.  I thought the kid was angling for a little hand out.  I wasn't going there.  But he never asked for anything.  And just as suddenly as he'd appeared, he looked at me, got up, said, "bye bye," and left.

As the Puja went on for quite some time and eventually Munnar and Punam ran out of tasks, I let Punam distract me from my intention of calling in a moment of personal prayer by letting her decorate my hand with henna.  This is not something Punam does to make money.  She is not skilled.  I will be walking around for the next month with a strange heart with an arrow through it, glaring from the palm of my right hand.  But I like my tattoo so much more than those professional jobs that so many tourists get that cover their calves and arms and feet and hands.

Munnar and Punam didn't want money for either their hospitality or the unique, one of a kind, tattoo.  I tried to give them something, but they refused.  Though they did extract a promise that I would return the next night, and I knew, eventually, that I would be asked to go to some store to look at something....and indeed I was asked just that, when I went back.

I started to have a feeling that first night, though, which I think was still in effect the next morning when I got suckered into paying the 1000 rupees to the priest at the fancy pants ghat.  A feeling born of finding myself at the river Ganges among so many people who yearn for purification and blessing from the river, and others who just want to make a buck, and then, others who just want to reach out and connect with something or someone in the course of their simple, ordinary lives.  It was a feeling born of discovering that sometimes a person could want or need all three at once.  I mean, just because someone wants to make a buck, doesn't mean they don't also want to genuinely connect.

At one point, in the dark night, mesmerized by the candles flying in the priests' hands, the river black and bottomless and vast behind them, I caught sight of a strand of cobweb floating on an air current.  It danced silently by me, past Munnar and his niece, and hung in the air for a few minutes at the knees of two holy men who were chatting on a step nearby.

Trying to figure out what matters, what to pray for, who to pray to, even trying to ascertain what is real, is like trying to catch that little cobweb floating on an air current in the dark.  Sitting there I knew I didn't even want to try to catch the cobweb, it was magic enough to notice it.  I just took a deep breath, and followed the wispy thread till it settled down on the ground between the two holy men.  Even though I was sitting only a few feet away.  I have no ideas if those guys saw the web, maybe yes, maybe no.

But I did, and maybe that's all that matters.

"This is Reality."



Varanasi is disgusting.  The Ganges is equally repulsive.  If you are even slightly germ-phobic, do not, I repeat, do not come to Varanasi.

I've seen a lot of cows in India.  I think there may be as many cows in Varanasi as I have seen spread out over all of Kerala and West Bengal.  And, they can go wherever they like.



They can also "go" wherever they like.  Shit is everywhere.  You know it's not like me to use the vulgar if I can find something else that is nicer, but equally effective.  But in Varanasi, it can only and should only be called Shit, with a capital "S".  Piles of it, gobs of it, settlements of dung, coat the streets which are narrow, too narrow for cars, and dangerously narrow for pedestrians trying to avoid stepping in shit, especially when motorbikes careen at their own speed (too fast) through the alleys.

Shit foot-print

Mother Ganga, the holiest of rivers, is, presumably, also filled with Shit.  But that is the least of what it is filled with.  There's your pedestrian trash and non-biodegradables, there's the snakes, there's the slimy film which might be soap or scum from all the bathers, or the laundry, or God knows what.  There are also the bodies.  Some you can see.  There are the live ones, pilgrims doing puja or bringing their dead relatives,  people taking their daily bath, Laundry-wallas doing the wash.

Bathers
Laundry Wallas
You can also catch a glimpse of several dead cows, huge and bloated, sailing slowly down river.

But there are also the bodies you can't see, the ashes of millions that have been left here for safe keeping over the centuries.  And, I was told today, sunk in the bottom of the river are the bodies of those who cannot be burned: Particular Brahmins, lepers, small pox victims, and children under the age of ten.

Just as you shouldn't come to Varanasi if you are germ-phobic, you should not come to Varanasi if you are uneasy with death, with grieving, with in your face, no holds barred, "Life comes to an end and then something must happen to the empty body and the people left behind will be the ones to do it."

In Varanasi, bodies are brought to the river's edge night and day.  These bodies have been washed by river water, blessed, wrapped, if they are men in white, if they are women in colors, maybe their wedding sari, and adorned with gifts left by grieving friends and family.  The bodies are sandwiched between two bamboo stretchers, which are more like ladders, in that the bodies are by no means concealed.  It is on these stretchers that the bodies are brought to small pyres.  Wood is purchased, weighed in some proportion to the weight of the corpse.  The heaviest lot of wood is stacked near the shoulders, if the deceased is a man, and under the hips, if it is a woman.



Only men may light the fire, a wife's husband, a mother's son, a husband's brother.....Women are considered apt to throw themselves on the fire out of despair if they are allowed too near.  I was told once that some grown children whose deceased father married a much younger second wife might let the healthy young widow come near, in hopes that she will decide to do the honorable thing and relieve her step-children of the burden of keeping her in dal and rice for the next 50 years.

After the body is burned, the ashes are kept for a certain period with the family and then they are returned to the Ganges by the whole family who have each shaved their heads and or facial hair, depending on their faith.



These pilgrims mix with other Hindus and Muslims who have made a sacred journey, as well as, the thousands upon thousands of religious and cultural foreigners who flock here, well, for a myriad of different reasons.

My guide to Varanasi for the last two days was bequeathed to me by my hotel, Ganapati Guesthouse.  I chose this place because Nicole called me up and said I would like it, plus, Ganapati is another name for Ganesha, so I thought it would be the perfect place to brave the high-octane energy of Varanasi.

Deep showed up with the driver at the airport.  He shook my hand and said with a full heart of sincerity, "Welcome to Varanasi."  Right off the bat, I knew Deep was, well, deep.  Before we reached the car Deep had already noticed my rings and informed me that I was wearing my butter amber ring on the wrong hand and finger and that for full ayurvedic effect I should switch it immediately.

Deep's insights into my life and his homeland came so quick and steady that I couldn't and can't remember them all, even a fraction of them.  A guy of about 30 who can neither read nor write, who is single, the caretaker to his recently deceased older brother's kids, Deep spent the hour in the car from the airport trying to make me laugh ("Your face looks so happy, but your heart is not".)  When I did finally laugh at his proclamation that "mobile phones are for the lies," he looked at me, his heart full of sincerity and said, "Thank you for that."

Deep thinks that mobile phones are so popular in India because it allows everyone to lie from a safe distance, "Oh, yes I am just around the corner, I will be there in 5 minutes....They will not be there in five minutes.  It will take an hour.  You see, lies!"

I hired Deep to be my guide to the "old town" this morning after a two hour boat ride on the Ganges at dawn.  I put "old town" in quotes because the city is over 2,000 years old, so when did they decide to draw the line between "Old" and "New", I wonder.  Deep was patient with my incessant stopping to take photos, and he was able to ride the fine line between telling me interesting info about the city and being quiet so that I could absorb the energy all on my own without too much extra babble.

Deep is a devout Hindu.  He comes from a family of believers.  They do nothing without consulting their guru, who is the son of their old guru.  If they buy a lamp, they must call the guru to find out where the lamp should be placed for best benefit for personal and economic health.  According to Deep, in his religion his Guru is greater than his Mother and Father because the Guru teaches Deep how to release his negative traits, how to open his heart and to live in Peace.  Deep's Mother and Father are greater than any God because they gave him life and make sure he is provided for on the planet.  So, by my reckoning, the Gods comes pretty low on the totem pole in Deep's interpretation of Hindu doctrine.

You wouldn't know it here in Varanasi.  There are, again according to Deep, 56 BILLION temples in this small city by the Ganges.  Yes.  Billions.



He tried to explain to me exactly how that could be, but I couldn't quite grasp it in a logical sense.  However, walking around the one square mile of "Old Town" this morning, I was, admittedly, taken aback by the astounding number of temples.  So many belong to Shiva, the patron God of Varanasi. But you also have your Hanuman temples, Durga, Krishna, and, my dear friend, Ganesha who besides getting some good playtime in various temples, also gets a shout out above almost every single door in town.  Well, at least in "Old Town".  Who knows what they do in the more modern hoods.



Besides the temples, there are priests EVERYWHERE.  What's that saying about throwing stones...???   All along the water they sit under large umbrellas waiting to dole out blessings.



They'll also gladly exchange a photo of themselves for a few rupees.  I've been tempted to ask for both a blessing and a photo because they do have some of the greatest faces I've ever seen.  It's like their faces are painted with wisdom.  In some, the eyes are what give them power and prestige.  The eyes fairly dare a person to look back....they say, "Can you handle the truth?  I've got the truth. Can you handle it?"

So far, the only truth I've sought, well not sought, but welcomed when it arrived, was Deep's.  In the car ride into to town, before I'd seen anything of the Ganges, Deep said, "To you all (meaning us tourists) this place is magic.  To us, it is just reality."

When I got here and Deep had gone, I walked out onto the balcony of Ganpati Guest House and got my first look at the Ganges and the life that swarms along her shore.  I believe my exact thought bubble was, "HOLY FUCK".  Again, sorry about the crassness.

But Varanasi is crass.  It is rude.  It is brutal.  It is in your face.  It is "reality."  It is life and death and Shit with a capital "S".  It is hiding nothing.  If you look into it's eyes it is prepared to tell you the truth.



Out on the water this morning, I watched as a young widower laid his wife's body down on a funeral pyre.  Her body was wrapped in the bright red sari she was wed in.  He walked around her five times, then a priest brought some straw lit from the eternal fire which has been going, by Deep's account, over 3,000 years.  He walked around her again, went to his wife's feet and lit the pyre.  All around him, the city hummed with the visceral energy of the living.  As the fire struggled to take hold, the husband stepped aside, sometimes he watched, but mostly he looked away.  I saw him wipe a tear away.  One moment of introspective, silent, grief in a very public ritual of death and letting go.



"We burn to learn," said Deep from his side of the boat.  "This is reality."

But Varanasi is not just crass.  "We are not monkeys," Deep would say.  "We are not animals.  We are the humans, we must make not just our bodies happy like the monkey, we must make our hearts and our spirits happy.  We must make for the good Karma.  We must do all this that we do when our family member dies so that they will be respected and so that their ghost will be free and not stay here to make our soul unhappy.  We are not monkeys, we are humans.  We must nurture the soul."

Here's where the magic comes in.  What we westerners might, according to Deep, call magic, anyway, is  the ever-present thrum of spirit and faith that feeds off of and refuels the mystery of the Ganges.  There is no doubt here that life goes on after death, that the whole of this existence is just a chain in the events of countless existences.   Everything about this place runs on that same fuel, that supposition, that fact, that Reality.  

On the Subject of Gurus

My friend Marianne recently wrote and asked if I was going to Varanasi...actually, she asked if I was going to Benares, which is the old name of Varanasi.  I said "Yes", and wondered why she asked.

She said,  "The city has always caught my imagination as being the mystical center of that spiritual universe."

Well, everything about that sentence hits me like a gentle punch in the gut and makes me want to yell, "YES, YES, YES. Me too.  That's the way I see it too..."

Long before the Beatles went to meet Ravi Shanker India has drawn spiritual seekers like bees to honey.  People don't call India "Mother" for nuthin'.  She's the bosom, heart, soul for billions of folk.  After all, she birthed two of the oldest religions we've got: Hinduism and Buddhism.

I have been wooed at different times in my life by Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as, Sufism, Catholicism, Judaism, Quaker-ism.....

The problem, not really a problem, more like a conundrum, really, with all those "isms" is that I'm not particularly down with the idea of gurus, wether they are called "guru", "sensei", "Pope", 'Rinpoche', "Rabbi."

On the other hand, call someone a "Teacher" and my hesitation goes away.  I love teachers.  I've had some fantastic teachers...both in school and out.  I see teachers everywhere.  I try to value each being I encounter as both a teacher and a student, each relationship, no matter how brief or how long, as an opportunity to learn, to grow.  This is a huge daily practice for me, as I like to do things my own way.

But when a teacher is elevated, or elevates themselves, to the realm of "Guru" I get squeamish, especially when they purport to have the only lesson plan for my personal enlightenment.

It's not the knowledge and wisdom that Spiritual leaders impart that I object to.  I'm just not big on the idea of putting the picture of some famous guy or gal like the Pope or the Dalai Lama on my wall or alter and praying or meditating or self-flaggelating myself "to" or "for" or "in the name of" these other mortal humans who have, lets face it, been coddled and cocooned and isolated from many of the kinds of relationships and interractions (marriage, parenthood, knocking up their girlfriend when they were teenagers, living openly as a homosexual.....) that try us ordinary mortals.

I know, I know...they study their whole lives (or over several lives in the case of the Dalai Lama), they dedicate themselves to the betterment of humanity.  I get it.  I do.  I admire that immensely, deep down into my boots, I admire that, I do.  I think the Dalai Lama is an incredible human being, like Ammachi, the Karmapa, Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle.....

I've been blessed to be in the same room with Ammachi and Pema Chodron, though not at the same time.  (Wouldn't that be something?)  Each time there were hundreds of other people in the room, most of them between me and each of these Bodhisattvas, but their calm, their grace, their infinite emotional space and open hearts were astounding, humbling, jaw-droppingly beautiful.  Each of these tiny women filled every nook of the cavernous auditoriums that they sat in with love and, even from so far away,  I felt washed clean by their powerful light and energy.

Each of these teachers/gurus/women have their own distinct style.  Ammachi, a Hindu who is also known as The Hugging Saint, makes you feel warm and safe, the way a small child feels cradled in the arms of their mother and, like a mother would, she feels the pain and heartache and frailty of all of her children and she loves you anyway.  Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, loves without attachment and holds within her emotional embrace the secrets that might help each of us release our own attachments to things that bring us pain and, as it turns out, from things that bring us joy.

I would like to know what each of these women know.  No doubt about it.  But I cannot imagine asking one of them to be my guru or, more likely, one of their disciples to be my guru.  I cannot see putting their picture on my wall as if they were a member of my family...how presumptuous that would feel to me.  I could, actually, go to Ammachi's ashram when I am in India.  It's possible.  I will be right up the road.  I have looked into it, thought about it, wondered if I'm so resistant to the idea of a guru because I really really need one to evolve spiritually.  It could be argued, I'm sure.

But my gut has always said, "no."  "YES," to India. "No" to gurus and ashrams.  Though I think I would like ashram life, that's the funny thing.  I'd love to live for a few weeks or months chanting with hundreds or thousands of other people, meditating our way into our higher minds.  I love the idea of everyone chipping in, doing the dishes, cleaning the floors, making food.  I would welcome the idea of living for a while in community like that.  And I think the discipline of that kind of devotional practice would be good for me.  But when I ponder further, it also makes me feel a little bit like I'd be drinking the kool-aid.

An intuitive woman once told me that, unlike many people who walk a path that was cleared long ago by someone else, I would always feel like I am chopping my way through uncleared jungle with a scythe creating my roadmap one step at a time.  As I am writing this post and "listening" to myself talk about gurus and teachers, I wonder if the method of exploration and discovery that I've chosen is made unnecessarily difficult by my refusal to humble myself in some important way to a guru who has already cleared a path that I could follow.

I have always yearned for a spiritual home, a place that I could hang my hat and settle in.  As I get closer and closer to setting down in India for a few months, I wonder if that home might be in the place, India itself....if "that spiritual universe" populated with galaxies of gurus will hold enough power taken on its own to help me clear my path and get closer to my personal "mystical center", even if I don't choose to cross the threshold of an ashram.  Can I learn how to stop working so hard and settle into the core of myself while reaching out in genuine connection with the divine without explicit guidance from one clear voiced human guide?

Or, might I discover that all my hesitation about elevating one teacher over all the others, about taking a guru, as it were, melts in the heat of India?  Might something about the culture of India crack through my resistance and show me that there is a path already marked out for me and that walking beside me, or slightly ahead is someone far wiser than me into whose hands I can completely and willingly put my spiritual education?

I am trying to hold these questions lovingly, giving myself permission to change my mind as my heart opens and India teaches me, well, whatever it is I'm meant to learn from her.  It would seem, it occurs to me just now, that maybe, just maybe, India is all the guru I will need.  At least for now.