Monday, September 8, 2014

Camping in the southern San Juan Wilderness

A couple weeks ago, my partner Brian and I went camping in Treasure Canyon,  in the southern San Juan wilderness, about 8 miles northwest of Platoro CO.  We went for five days, and ended up stayng for ten.  Since we had neither cell signal nor wifi, that caused some people to worry, and we learned our lesson on that one.  But it was so beautiful, so peaceful that we couldn't imagine not extending our stay.

Our view as we drank our morning coffee.

Brain is an experienced camper, and this was car camping, not backpacking.  We had a luxury campsite, as you can see in the pictures below.  We had to deal with some interesting weather.  We barely got the tent pitched before it started to rain, so the first evening we had a quick dinner.  There was a storm that night that was a teaser for what came the following night.  Just a little rain and a little lightning.  The next night we had an electrical storm that was truly exceptional.  As Brian said, he saw more light from the lightning that night with his eyes closed than he'd ever seen before with them open.  The light was not only extremely bright; it also stayed light for several seconds.  The third night we had little rain, but 50 - 60 mile an hour winds.  Our tent made it safely through all of it!  After that, nothing could really bother us, except the one night when it got cold enough to leave a heavy frost in the morning.  But we were well prepared.

We had three dogs with us, and they tried to crawl in the tent with us when the storms came.  They found shelter under the fly and made it through okay.  One of the dogs, Homer, had seriously cut his paw right before we left for the trip, and he had to be tied up most of the time.  He made himself a little nest in the midst of some pine trees.

We passed our time hiking, enjoying the beauty of the surroundings, doing a little prospecting, getting to know the fish in the little pool just downstream so well we couldn't go fishing.  It didn't seem right to eat acquaintances.  When it rained we read, talked, played scrabble.  All in all, we enjoyed it so much that we decided to do an extended camping trip in Texas in October and early November.  So stay tuned for more adventures.  I also owe friends and family a blog about Vallecitos, the beautiful falling down village in northern New Mexico where I am now living.  Soon.

Iron mountain, on the road to Treasure Canyon.

Sunrises were spectacular.

The waterfall on Treasue Creek, also the headwaters of the Alamosa River, that fed the pool with the fish we got to know.

The big picture of our campsite.

Homer had to be kept on a leash due to his injury, but that didn't stop him from leaping about 7 feet to the top of this rock.

Desdemona, Brian's white German shepherd alpha female, on the Crater Lake trail up to the Continental Divide.  She kept guard over us constantly.

Jessie Mae, on the other hand, was most interested in getting her beauty sleep, when she wasn't  chasing rodents.

Brian made some delicious meals using his makeshift kitchen.

The skies provided constant entertainment. 

On the Crater Lake Trail.

Brian on the trail, with Jessie looking around to see what's going on.

Beautiful wildflowers everywhere.

Enjoying the sunrise.

Even taking care of biological needs was done in luxury.  And what a view!

But we ran out of dog food, even after buying the last cans they had in Platoro.  So it was time to head home.

So we loaded up and followed the winding road home.

As we drove home, we looked over at the mountains where we had just been camping and saw them encased in black clouds.  We stopped off at a hot springs on the way home, to warm up and clean up.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Journey Ends, the Adventure Continues

"The simple and astonishing truth about India and Indian people is that when you go there, and deal with them, your heart always guides you more wisely than your head.  There's nowhere else in the world where that's quite so true."
Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram

It is with a great deal of emotion that I end this amazing journey.  When I came, I didn't know what to expect, and so I allowed myself to just be open to whatever happened.  I'm not sure how else one can immerse themselves in a totally new culture.  I never could have imagined just how much this experience would enrich my life.  In fact, even now I don't really know, because although the journey is ending, the impact on my life is only beginning.  So I return the way I came, not knowing what to expect, allowing myself to be open to what happens.

My loving hosts, Sheela and Ravi.  And me with my black eye.

I am sad to be leaving.  There are many people I will miss.  Most of all, my Chennai family - Ravi, Sheela, Shraddha, Shruti, Indrani, Praveen, Vignesh, Rani, and Google.  I had the best situation imaginable.  Living with a family gave me love, nurturing, security and allowed me to really get to know the culture.   I wasn't wrapped in a tourist bubble, interacting mostly with other Westerners.  In fact, most of the time I was the only non Indian around.  Yet I felt very comfortable.  I knew the Shankars before, but now they are family.  I know Ravi eats too fast, that Sheela giggles like a school girl sometimes, that Shraddha and Shruti are the most serious students I've ever met.  Indrani has become very dear to me.  Her beauty radiates from the depths of her being.  Praveen who just turned 15 May 6 is a fine young man,  and Vignesh is a new father.  His cell phone ring is now the sound of his daughter making baby sounds.  How I will miss them all!

And my Chennai friends.  Biking buddies Kannan and Lalitha, who are biking in Bhutan with their daughter.  Charitra, who kept contact with me while I was out traveling to make sure I was okay.  Uma, Shiv and Apura, who showed me around Chennai and invited me into their home.  Mahmoud Hussein who, at the age of 89, still does a 5 minute shoulder stand as part of his Yoga routine every day.   I hope to come back and visit them all again one day.

I'm leaving so much that I'd like to do, so much I've yet to see and learn.  For every place visited, there are a dozen more I'd like to visit; for every blog posted, one that didn't get written;  for every picture taken, a handful that I missed.  Yet I wouldn't change a single thing about my four months here.  Arriving with Dasa and Kelley, having friends to share the early part of the adventure with.  The early travels with Barbara that got my feet wet traveling with a companion.  The months spent in Chennai that allowed me to experience feeling like a resident, not a tourist.  Studying the Yoga Sutras with Ravi.  The solo trip in April that gave me a sampler of the diverse beauty of South India.  No, I wouldn't change a thing.

At the same time, I am eager to get home, to settle into a new home in my new home state New Mexico, which I've barely begun to know.  I look forward to seeing my family.  Erik mi querido hijo and his friend Judy.  My brothers and sisters in law, my nieces and nephews, my grandkids, Shelly and Kaya.  My friends in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Texas, New Mexico, Washington.  I won't try to name you all, because the list would be too long.  I'm eager to meet the new friends that I've made as a result of this trip.  Brian, my dear penpal who has been my steadfast cyber companion on so much of this journey.  Grail sister Ingrid who is planning to visit India soon.  I look forward to hanging out with Barbara, Dasa and Kelley who were with me at the beginning of this adventure.  To seeing my friend Rong from China, who I haven't seen in over three years.  I look forward to getting back on my bike.  Planning my next adventure with Shirley and Donna.  Doing for myself again.  Making a home cooked meal, washing dishes, grocery shopping, driving a car, working in a garden.  And playing - hiking in the woods, camping out, soaking in a hot springs.  Yes, there is much to go back home to.  It will be different than it was.  I am different than I was.  How, you ask?  I don't know.  I do know that I am intensely grateful for having had this experience.  India is now my second home, and I intend to come back soon.

Saying good-bye to Kelley and Dasa at the end of January.

A walk to the beach with my beloved Indrani and her son Praveen a few days before I left.

That day we saw a partial rainbow.  Certainly an auspicious sign, don't you agree?

I wonder if I will ever wear my sari again.  Without Sheela's help I'm not sure I can wrap it correctly.

Not everything is pretty, but I will even miss scenes like this.

We had the start of a woman's cycling group.  I'm sure Lalitha and Charitra will keep it up.

I became quite accustomed to seeing whole families on motorcycles.

Indrani was a beautiful bride.

Ooty is so green with all its tea plantations and other produce.

The simple living and strong dedication to caring for the earth and building community at Auroville appeal to me.

I hope to return to Bodhi Zendo, which captured my heart with the beauty of the surroundings, the soulful people I met there, the discipline and simplicity of daily life.

The beautiful scenery and the wildlife of the Nilgiris allowed me to see a different side of India.

The cliffs and beach at Varkala provided a relaxing place to end my journeys.

The colorful chaos of Chennai.  I will carry it with me.

Books and temples

I did a lot of reading while in India, most of it books about India or at least by Indian authors.  There are many more to choose from.  Here is my list.  

The Music Room: A Memoir by Namita Devidayal, 2009

This book describes the musical career of Namita Devidayal, a classical Indian singer, from the age of ten when she first began studying music through the rest of her life.  It is rich with stories of the history of Indian classical music, including anecdotes about some legendary singers.  A detailed look at one important aspect of Indian culture.

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, 2008

Kannan loaned me this book.  It was recommended to him, and has a chapter on Bhutan, which he is visiting with his family.  It also has a chapter on India.  It is written with humor, some of which works and some of which fell flat for me.  But it is an easy read and I found it very informative and sometimes even thought provoking.  I'll include a picture of the Table of Contents below, which is in itself quite interesting.

The table of contents for The Geography of Bliss.  The 10th chapter is America, Happiness is Home.  Not sure what that means for a nomadic American like myself.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen, 2006

In sixteen linked essays, Nobel Prize--winning economist Amartya Sen discusses India's intellectual and political heritage and how its argumentative tradition is vital for the success of its democracy and secular politics.  Another book that gave me a lot of insight into the history and culture if India,  highly recommended.

The Heart of Yoga by T. K. V. Desikachar, 1999

Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who lived to be over 100 years old, was one of the greatest yogis of the modern era. Elements of Krishnamacharya's teaching have become well known around the world through the work of B. K. S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and Indra Devi, who all studied with Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya's son T. K. V. Desikachar lived and studied with his father all his life. Desikachar has based his method on Krishnamacharya's fundamental concept of viniyoga, which maintains that practices must be continually adapted to the individual's changing needs to achieve the maximum therapeutic value.  Desikachar was Ravi's teacher.  A very important book for those of us who want to develop a personal practice.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, 2008

This novel won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.  It is a black comedy, a story told from the lowest ranks of class and caste.  Funny, unsettling, savage, cynical, authentic.

A Search in Secret India by Paul Bruton, 1934

The story of Paul Brunton's journey around India, living among yogis, mystics and gurus, some of whom he found convincing, others not. He finally finds the peace and tranquility which come with self-knowledge when he meets and studies with the great sage Sri Ramana Maharishi, whose ashram I visited in January.

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, 1986

Vikram Seth is a well known, very talented Indian author. This novel is set in the 1980s in the affluence and sunshine of Californias Silicon Valley.  It is an exuberant and witty story of twenty-somethings looking for love, pleasure and the meaning of life.  What makes it truly unique is that it is all written in verse.  And it works!  A great read, although not about India.

Beastly Tales From Here and There by Vikram Seth, 1991
Vikram Seth rewrote a number of folk tales from India, China, Greece and the Ukraine in rhyming couplets and ended off with two fables in the same style of his own creation. It is fun language. The final story, The Elephant and the Tragopan, was my absolute favorite - animals band together and are led by the title characters to lobby humans to save their habitat from a proposed dam.

India: A Wealth of Diversity, Nimrod Volume 34, Number 2, 1988
A collection of poems and short stories from well respected Indian authors, translated from a variety of languages in to English.

Midnight's Children by Salmon Rushdie, 1980
Saleem Sinai was born at midnight, the midnight of India's independence, and found himself handcuffed to history by the coincidence. He is one of 1,001 children born at the midnight hour, each of them endowed with an extraordinary talent. This is a family saga set against the background of the India of the 20th century.  Very well written, worth reading, good insight into India.

On Women by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
A collection of essays on women, providing some insight into the thinking of these two founders of Auroville.  Some great quotes.  "After I knew that God was a woman, I learned something from far-off about love; but it was only when I became a woman and served my Master and Paramour that I knew love utterly." Sri Aurobindo.  "For God's sake can't you forget that you are a girl or a boy and try to become a human being?"  The Mother.
Zen Heart, Zen Mind by AMA Samy, 2002
AMA Samy is the founder of Bodhi Zendo where I spent a week in April.  This book is a compilation of his talks about Zen, with an emphasis on Zen in our daily lives, described as "a way of being present to ourselves and others and the world; being aware, accepting to live life to the full, responding to the call of love and life."   A good book for both beginners and experienced practioners.

The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik, 2008
Among the many hundreds of characters who inhabit the Mahabharata, the classical Indian epic, is Yuvanashva, a childless king, who accidentally drinks a magic potion meant to make his queens pregnant.  As a result, he gives birth to a son. This novel is his story.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata - Condensed into English Verse.  Translated by Romesh C. Dutt, 1910 
These are the two great epics of India.  Well educated children know about them from a young age.  They are an integral part of the culture.  The Ramayana has been compared to the Odyssey, the Mahabharata to the Illiad.  They were written in verse and are extremely long.  The Mahabharata alone is seven times the size of the Odyssey and the Iliad put together.  Dutt has chosen to translate key sections, filling in the rest with narrative.  This approach enables him to stay faithful to the original verse and yet keep it short enough that it is readable.  It wasn't my favorite read, but these two epics are such fundamental parts of the culture that I strongly recommend at least being familiar with them.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, 2006
This novel won the Man Booker award, among others.  It follows the journey of Biju, an illegal immigrant in the US who is trying to make a new life; and Sai, an Anglicised Indian girl living with her grandfather in India. The novel shows the internal conflicts in India between groups and the conflict between past and present.  A good read.

Whispers from the Wild by E.R.C. Davidar, 2012
E.R.C. Davidar was a well-known wildlife conservationist from southern India.  He established maybe the first ever private elephant corridor in India, near his jungle-cottage, which was close to Forest Hills where I stayed.  His essays on the wildlife in the Nilgiris show his deep love and concern for this beautiful region.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, 2012
Katherine Boo, a Pultizer prize winner, spent three years among the residents of the Annawadi slum, a sprawling settlement of more than 300 tin-roof huts and shacks in the shadow of Mumbai’s International Airport.  She reports on the lives of the people there with compassion and honesty.  A very well written book about an unlovely aspect of India.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, 2008
The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—is the theme of the eight short stories here.  A delight to read, and a great way to gain insight into Indian culture.

BBC documentary series:  The Story of India by Michael Wood, 2007
A six part series, written and presented by historian Michael Wood, about the history of India
He explains historical events by travelling to the places where they took place.  Lots of detail and hard to follow sometimes, but good big picture view of the amazing history of India.

The following pictures are from the Srirangam temple near Trichey, and the Rockfort temple in Trichey.  One of the numerous blogs that didn't get written.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Few Travel Tips

Each experience is different, but here are some tips that may be helpful.

Pack light.  You can buy most anything you need more cheaply here than you can at home.  But bring an extra empty suitcase for things you will want to take home.  India is a great place to buy souvenirs.  I kept thinking of more and more people I could buy for.  And of course, for myself.

Restrooms are few and far between and usually don't have toilet paper.  Plan accordingly.  Use the toilet before you leave home, and whenever you have a chance.  Always carry toilet paper with you.  And hand sanitizer.

This is the only pay toilet I saw in all of India.  It was in Pondicherry along the beach, a tourist area.  Don't ask me what an E-toilet is.  I guess I should have checked it out, but I didn't.

Dress like the people around you dress, as long as you can be comfortable doing that.  Most of the women in Chennai wore traditional dress, either saris or kurtas and salwars.  I opted for the latter.  They were inexpensive, lightweight and comfortable, colorful, and allowed me to look a liittle more like I belonged here.

The length of your trip will determine what you get out of it, of course.  I am glad I stayed a little over four months.  The three months in Chennai allowed me to actually live here, rather than be a tourist.  They were the richest time in terms of learning about India.  The travels in April were great too.  I'm very glad that I allowed at least a week in each place I went.  It gave me a chance to settle in and explore a bit.  I'm not much for touch and go tourism.  The only place I did that was the Taj Mahal.  I think in that case, it was okay.  Agra was not a place I wanted to spend more time.

I wish everyone could stay with a family like the Shankars.  And in fact, they do offer residential Yoga workshops. The other option is to check out homestays.  I don't know much about them, but I know there are some available here that you can research on the web.  If at all possible, don't stay wrapped up in a tourist bubble with other Westerners.  

That said, be cautious.  I met a lot of young women traveling on their own here, some of them looking for the cheapest place to stay.  I worried about them.  When I first got here, I stated that there was no way I was going to travel around India on my own.  Yet that's exactly what I did in April.  I would have preferred to travel with a companion, but there was no one available.  I was very careful in planning my trip to make sure I knew that I would feel safe each place I was staying.

The most challenging part of being in India, to me, was getting from one place to another.  In the city, I think autorickshaws are probably the best bet.  But if you go alone, try to call a rickshaw driver who Is known to you.  Or ask the place you are staying to arrange for a ride for you.  Always make sure someone knows you are going out, where you are going, and when you plan to be back.  Traveling from city to city I prefer either private drivers, working with a reputable company, or planes.  Trains and buses are cheaper, but they are not as safe.  A bomb exploded on a train in Chennai just as I was returning from my April adventure, killing 1 person and injuring 14.  This morning, a train derailed, killing 18 and injuring hundreds.

Know a little about India before you arrive.  There will always be surprises, but it helps to have some idea what you will be experiencing.  Read, talk to people who have been here, see movies.  I continued to read about India the whole time I was here.  No need to bring books with you.  There are many bookstores, and the books are cheaper here than In the US.  Checking out a newspaper is good too.

Keep a beginner's mind.  No matter how much you prepare, it won't be enough.  Your first few days will be intense.  Go with it.

Don't give money to beggars.  I won't go into all the reasons; you can study up on that or ask me and we can talk about it.  If you must give something, carry some dried fruit or nuts with you to give.  It isn't easy.

India is not one culture.  There is a big difference between the north and the south, and even within those divisions the differences are huge.  Each state has its own official language.  Each state's food and dress is at least slightly different.  Yes, there are also regional differences in the U.S.  But nothing like the differences here.

Don't expect everyone to speak English.  In fact, unless you are in a tourist area, chances are English will not be spoken by the people serving you.

Keep an open mind.  On the surface there is much to be critical of, but in the end it all seemed insignificant compared to the richness of the culture and the inner beauty of the people.

Don't be stupid.  Don't dress provocatively or draw attention to yourself.  Don't be rude or crude.  Know the customs and respect them.  India can be dangerous, especially for women.  I only went out alone at night one time, and that time I had the autorickshaw driver who took me home talk with Ravi by phone so he knew someone was expecting me.  

Be prepared for power outages.  In my experience it happens frequently all over India.  There is a real shortage of electricity.  Some outages are planned and can last all day.  Also, I had read that power surges can play havoc with cell phones, iPads, etc.  I always plugged my chargers into power strips with surge protectors.  In fact, I carried one with me when I traveled in April.  Of course you will also need a plug adapter.  I tried to find the right one before I came over, and had no luck.  They are inexpensive and easy to find here.

Be careful about what you eat to begin with.  Stay with bottled or filtered water, don't order things that have water in them, like chutney or lassis.  Know what your stomach can take in terms of spice.  I had one short, mild case of stomach rumbling.  No fever, no need to take the meds I brought with me.  In fact, I look back on it as my inoculation.  The longer I was here, the more adventurous I became.  But I was always aware of the choices I was making.

Get an Indian cell phone if you are going to be here for more than a couple weeks.  It was important for me to be able to communicate with folks locally.  It gave me a sense of security, knowing I had a way to contact someone if I needed to.  I also found that calling the states was incredibly inexpensive, like less than 2 cents a minutes, if you have the discount plan for calling the US.  I think that plan cost me less than 50 cents for a month.  You can also use Skype, of course.  Wifi was available to me almost everywhere I stayed.  iMessage and FaceTime work great if both ends have an iPhone or iPad.  The most difficult thing was figuring out what time it was back home and scheduling calls appropriately.

See a travel doctor several months before you leave, in fact as soon as you start to think about international travel.  Hepatitis protection requires a series of shots.  Some other things need to be done weeks in advance of leaving.  Make informed decisions.  I opted not to take malaria meds because I was not staying in an area where it was a problem.  I made my own insect repellant using essential oils, because I didn't want to be doused with Deet every day.  You can buy oils here, so no need to bring a bunch with you.  There are lots of suggestions on the internet.  Sometimes and in some places, mosquitos were an issue, but not as often as I had anticipated.

I wished I had brought along small gifts for people I became acquainted with while I was here.  But it's hard to know what to suggest.  The one thing I think I can get better in the US is chocolate, and Sheela concurred.  For kids, she suggested markers and crayons.  Otherwise, she suggested novelty items from Trader Joes or Whole Foods.  Like maybe a gourmet pasta or a really good brownie mix.  I had a hard time finding chocolate chips when I wanted to make cookies for my family.  Novelty items from someplace like Bed, Bath and Beyond are also possibilities.

And now, some unrelated pictures.....

Rural India.

With Pravin, the guy who cleaned up my eye after I connected with the cement post that day.

A fisherman at Pulicat.

I will miss the colors.....

...and the readily available fruits and vegetables.

A performer at Dastkari Haat, the traveling handicrafts show that I went to in Chennai.

She actually danced as one of the other performers piled these pots on her head, one at a time.

Morning assembly at Sacred Heart School, where Ravi and I went to teach Yoga to the teachers.  Birthday children can dress up.

Searching for shrimp.

Working in the peanut fields.  Much of the manual labor in India is performed by women, usually dressed in saris, in my experience.

In front of the Mylapore temple here in Chennai.

There were four young men on this motorcycle.  They do seem to be enjoying the ride.

Outside the temple, collecting an offering for Hanuman.  To request help for the girls to get good marks on their exams.