Sunday, April 27, 2014

Elephants and Birds

My third stop on my south India adventure was Forest Hills, right outside of Masinagudi, close to the Mudumalai Tiger Sanctuary.  No, I didn't see any tigers.  Sightings are rare, and I wasn't that lucky.  I guess it isn't uncommon to see leopards, but they hid from me.  I did, however, see quite a few elephants and over 60 species of birds.  This is a nature lover's paradise.

We sighted these fellows along the road on the way back from Bandipur National Park.  I saw more wildlife on the trip there and back than I did on the safari in the park itself.  The smaller one decided he didn't like the attention and started to charge right after I snapped this.  The jeep took off just in time.

To get from Bodhi Zendo to Forest Hills required another all day ride.  We spent the morning coming down out of one set of mountains, driving along the edge of the mountain on a narrow mountain road with a steep drop off and lots of hairpin curves.   It was beautiful, but nerve wracking, especially when encountering a bus or truck.  The late morning was spent crossing the plains, back in the heat.  At that point I was glad I'd paid the extra 1K rupees to have A/C.  Then we started climbing again.  We arrived in the picturesque city of Ooty just in time for lunch.  Delicious but quite expensive by India standards.  Ooty is built on the side of a mountain.  And every space that isn't covered with buildings has some kind of produce growing on it, most often tea.  Ooty is well known for its tea plantations, and they are beautiful.  We climbed a little more outside Ooty, then began to descend toward Masinagudi.  Forest Hills guest house is tucked back in off a road that seems more like a path.  

I spent a little over a week here, and got a full dose of being in the wilderness in India.  I was surrounded by the Nilgiris, which means blue mountains,  I found out they are called that because of a blue flower that totally covers the mountain sides when it blooms - once every 12 years.  2006 was the last time it happened, I believe.  I was the only person at the guest house for part of the time, but on the weekend it filled up, mostly with Indian families with children.  I was the only non-Indian there the whole time, but I always felt quite comfortable and welcome.  A number of the visitors had lived in the states.  

For the most part, my days were relaxed and pretty unstructured.  Given nothing to do, a very interesting thing happened.  I realized I was homesick!  I welcomed the feeling, since so far all I had felt was sadness about leaving India.  And in some strange way, acknowledging my homesickness has freed me to enjoy my last days in India to the fullest.  Yes I am ready to go home, but I will miss this crazy amazing country.

There were a few highlights.  Four mornings I went bird watching with Masi, a young man from the local village.  He was a gentle, knowledgeble fellow, and we saw 60 different species.  Some of them even posed for us to get a really good look at them.  My favorite was watching the male plum headed parakeet feed a juvenile.  The Indian pitta was also a real treat.  This is a very rare bird in this area, since it lives most of the year in the Himalayas.  Masi played a bird call on his cell phone and was able to bring it in.  A colorful bird as you can see below.

I went on two jeep safaris in the Mudumalai sanctuary, and one in the Bandipur National Park.  I saw elephants on one of the safaris, and elephants while riding in the jeep.  But the most interesting was the elephant I saw from the watchtower right at Forest Hills.  Zahra the dog and I walked down there about 6, an hour before it gets dark.  I had been down before and not seen anything.  I had heard that sightings are usually after dark.  So I was really surprised to see a tusker come rambling out of the jungle about 5 minutes after I got there.  Elephants can be very dangerous, so I was glad I hadn't crossed paths with him.  He had come to feast on some vegetable waste that the Forest Hills folks had thrown out.  He took his time, and I got to watch him for about 25 minutes.  Zahra was just as still and intent on watching as I was!

One last encounter worth mentioning was with a village woman in Masinagudi.  Sashi the jeep driver decided to stop off at his home in Masinagudi to get a flashlight before we headed out on safari.  Driving down a back road, he beeped at an older woman dressed in a sari who was walking down the middle of the road.  She didn't move until he was driving around her, and then she jumped.  It was obvious she was deaf.  Sashi pulled off the road, said he'd be back in a minute, and disappeared to go get the flashlight.  The woman we had passed walked up to me in the jeep, and I mentally prepared for the by now familiar "Ma" and beggar's gesture.  But that's not what happened.  The woman touched my arm, and gave me the most beautiful smile - a smile with her whole face, including her beautiful eyes.  She made unintelligible sounds as she gestured at the mountains, obviously wanting me to see the beauty that surrounded us.  Then she pointed to a big beautiful tree and drew a tree in the air with her hands, and once again smiled at me to make sure I was paying attention.  Then she pointed at birds, and mimed birds with her hands.  She was sharing her whole world with me, and asking nothing in return but that I saw the beauty with her.  This continued for about 5 beautiful minutes until Sashi returned.  This kind of encounter is one of the reasons I will miss India.

The ride was very scenic, with mountain views most of the day.

Going through one of the villages, we passed by a whole parade of people, many of whom were wearing headdresses like this.  They were all heading to the local temple.  The driver said it was some festival.  Indrani told me later that it was their New Year.

I saw my first Indian wind turbine.

Ooty is built on the side of a mountain.

The tea plantations are beautiful.

Fields of carrots, another crop Ooty is famous for.

The gardens surrounding the guest house were beautiful.

Masi, my bird expert.  Spending the mornings walking quietly through the area with him was a wonderful way to start the day.  Nilgiris in the background.

Dressed for bird watching.  People here were more likely to wear Western dress, and it was cool enough in the morning that jeans were comfortable.  I'm holding my tiny binoculars.  Forest Hills was kind enough to lend me some better ones for subsequent bird walks.

The Indian Pitta.  No, i didn't take this picture. 

I did take this picture of the common rose butterfly, which was uncommonly beautiful.

Picture taken from the watchtower.  All elephants with tusks are males, but not all males have tusks.  It was thrilling to be able to be so close to this guy and watch him for almost a half hour.

The same fellow, busy eating.

My buddy Zahra.

The only feline I saw was peeking in my window at me.  Quite a large cat, which means a large appetite for mice and rats.

The national bird of India.

A lovely silhouette.

Langur monkeys are common in this area.

As are sambar deer.  They are much bigger than the common spotted deer which look very similar to the deer back home.

The local temple, less than a km. from Forest Hills, is a Mariamman templ.  Mariamman is the Hindu goddess of rain.  It literally means mother Mari.  Interesting.

There was a full moon while I was there.

The watchtower where I stood and watched the elephant.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A week at Bodhi Zendo

My second stop on the travels I planned for myself was Bodhi Zendo, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  Once again, I left with a strong desire to return one day and stay longer.

On the balcony outside my room, looking out at the zen garden in the courtyard.

When I was trying to decide where to go in April, Ravi suggested this place.  When I looked it up online, I was amazed to find that the teacher here, Fr. AMA Samy, is the same person who holds a retreat at Grailville in Loveland OH every September.  I had never been able to attend, but have Grail sisters who had.  In fact, one of them had even been to the Zendo!  

Father AMA Samy has a really beautiful smile and peaceful face.  Quite an interesting fellow.  He was born in Burma to Indian Christian parents who couldn't afford to raise him, so sent him to his Muslim grandfather, who was soon thereafter killed in an accident.  AMA Samy somehow managed to become a Jesuit priest, who later continued searching for his spiritual path by visiting Hindu ashrams.  At some point he found Sri Ramana (who founded the Ramana ashram I visited in January) and followed his teachings.  Sri Ramana's advice was to meditate on the question "Who am I?"  Father AMA Samy spent several years as a wandering mendicant.  He then met someone who introduced him to Zen, and he went to Japan to study there.  He came back to India and established the Zendo in 1996.  He describes himself as standing in the in between of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity.   He's written several books, of which I read Zen Heart, Zen Mind, well worth reading.

There were probably about 40 people there from all over the world.  Probably just over half from the west, some of whom are now living in India, from Europe and the states mostly.  All ages, mostly pretty young and kind of old.  Others are home raising their families.  I've met several people who've been coming for many years, staying for several months.  Apparently I was lucky to get in.  It can be difficult.  I made my reservation in January, and I guess it's good I decided early to come here.  It was the first place I decided to visit.

There is a schedule that one is expected to follow, and everyone did while I was there.  The morning bell rings at 5:30, and of course I was already up.  First zazen, i. e. sitting meditation, is from 6 to 7.  There is a short break for walking meditation in the middle of that time.  At the end of zazen, we did some chanting together,  Also during that time, anyone who wishes can request a short meeting with Fr. AMA Samy, who leaves zazen midway to go down to his space to prepare for visitors.  I took advantage of the opportunity to meet with him a few times.  Breakfast is served at 7, and all the meals were excellent.  At 7:10, the silence that has been in effect since 5:30 PM the day before is broken and chattering begins.  Seva, or selfless service, is from 8:00 to 9:30.  I was assigned to chop up vegetables for lunch and dinner.  All the vegetables come from the organic gardens at the Zendo.  In addition to the overnight silence, we were also silent from 10:30 to noon and from 1:30 to 4:00.  There is a half hour zazen at noon, followed by lunch.  The next zazen is from 6 to 7, followed by dinner.  The day ends with a final half hour zazen from 8:00 to 8:30.  All the meditation sessions start five minutes before the specified time, so 6 AM zazen actually started at 5:55.  I guess to make sure no one was late.  Wednesday was a day of total silence until dinner time.  Thursday was a free day, and many of us went into the nearest town, Kodaikanal.  Sunday afternoon was also free time.  I happened to be there for Palm Sunday, and we had a Palm Sunday service, complete with communion.  I left Monday morning of Holy Week.  There was a sesshin that week, with silence observed all day every day all week long and longer zazen sessions.  In addition, there were some optional Christian services.  

One would think that with all that silence there is little chance to get to know people, and at first I thought that was the case.  But after a few days time I had met a number of people who I consider kindred spirits.  I hope to keep in touch with them.  I think being there strengthened my practice.  I left with a peaceful heart, and an intention to come back some day.  In the meantime, it appears there is a New Mexico connection.  Barbara, a fellow Leo who turns 80 this year, lived in Santa Fe before moving to India.  She'll be back for a wedding and we will get together in June.   Ritish, the young man who works in the library, spent several years living in a number of places in the States, including Chicago and El Paso, and he speaks Spanish!  He told me about a sangha affiliated with Fr. AMA Samy that has a space in San Lorenzo,  not far from Silver City.  In fact, I've been biking there quite a few times.  And finally Karl, who is from Taos and has lived in India for the past 8 years, is flying back to the states in May.  It turns out, on the same flight I'm on as far as London!  

The drive from Auroville to Bodhi Zendo was long but beautiful.  The first mountains I'd seen in India. 

I had a lovely view of the mountains from the window in my room.  This was my view as I sat at my desk.

The view as we did walking meditation.  Hazy but beautiful.

The beautiful gardens that provided much of our food.  Maintained by both volunteers and employees.

The lotus garden behind the buildings.

The grounds all around the Zendo were filled with wonderful surprises and great places to sit in silence.

Sitting in the shelter beyond the bamboo here, the view across the valley to the mountains on the other side was beautiful.

At the entrance to Bodhi Zendo.

Outside the door to the meditation room.

Lunch in town.  Sabine from Vienna, Joelle originally from France but now lives in Auroville, Barbara from Santa Fe who now lives in India, Eltrue from California who now lives in India.

And across the table, the young woman from Japan whose name I forget, Krishna from India who lived much of her life in England, and Robert from Australia.

On an outing to Elephant Valley not far from the Zendo.

 A lovely place for a hike.

Me with my Einstien hairdo.  It happens sometimes.

Some of the local children came on our outing with us.

Crossing the suspension bridge was scary for some.

A lovely place to enjoy tea before we head back to the Zendo.

The flowers around the Zendo were a delight.

Barbara, Krishna and Karl, our last meal together.  Krishna and I talked about meeting up in Kenya to take a hot air balloon over the wild animals there.  She had done some research.  She loves to hang glide.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Return to Auroville

left Chennai on Saturday, March 29 and spent two nights in the Seaside Guest house in Pondicherry.  I connected with a friend from Albuquerque, Victoria, and her daughter Aria.  The three of us spent Sunday doing some shopping and treating ourselves to a facial, an inexpensive treat in india.  On Monday morning, we all climbed in Suresh's taxi and he gave us a ride out to Auroville.  Those of you who have been with me for a while may remember my earlier visit and report from there.  I don't want to repeat myself, so it might be good to take take a look back at it.

The Center Guest house where I stayed in Auroville.

I dropped my bags at Center Guest House where I was staying and went over to the Buddha Gardens for a tour and a bit of history.  The Buddha Gardens is one of about 120 small communities that comprise Auroville.   I think any Aurovillian who has a vision and the means to realize it can start a community.  These are usually focused around a set of values and goals, or sometimes around a particular handicraft or project.  They are not religious groups.  Religion is entirely a personal matter in Auroville, and any proselytizing is strictly prohibited.  The communities vary in size, from just a handful to maybe forty or fifty tops, I believe.  The Buddha gardens was started many years ago on one acre of land by a very dedicated woman named Priya.  Her vision was to have a totally self-sustaining organic garden.  The one acre of hard packed dirt has grown to be 10 acres, with raised beds that have rich soil and yield produce that is used throughout Auroville.  Short term volunteers can contribute by working in the gardens any weekday morning from 6:15 to 9:00.  The reward, in addition to the camaraderie, is breakfast.  I helped out on Friday morning.

I was warned that it would be very hot in Auroville at the time I chose to visit, and indeed it was.  In fact, between the hours of about 10 and 4, it was difficult to be out and about.  I had intended to do some bike riding there.  In fact, many people get around that way, although motor scooters are the preferred method of transportation.  But it was so hot and the bikes were in such poor condition that I opted to just walk.  I found plenty to do just in the area that was within walking distance.

Auroville is large and spread out.  It is laid out in a circle with about a 5 km. diameter, although some of the communities lie outside that circle.  Auroville currently owns about 3000 acres of land, mostly within the circle.  Most of the 120 settlements welcome volunteers who are willing to come and work for a period of at least two weeks in exchange for room and board.  The room is often dormitory style and the meals are very simple, usually vegetarian and locally grown.  And the work is hard.  There are also quite a number of guest houses where one can pay a fairly small fee for daily room and board.  The cost varies according to the room.  I stayed in one of the nicer rooms.  I paid about $20 a day for my room and three meals a day, laundry service, and the use of a bicycle, such as it was.  It costs a little more in the high (cooler) season, and it fills up fast.  The rooms are already taken for next winter.  Many people come for an extended stay.

The bulletin board outside our dining hall was filled with interesting offerings.  I could have easily stayed at least a month and found interesting things to do every day.  As it was, in addition to Buddha Gardens, I managed to enjoy an excellent yoga class for women; a live play, Romeo and Juliet, put on by Aurovillians;  a full day seminar on Kaya Bodha, body awareness;  a trip to the little village of Kuilapalyam where I bought more souvenirs and gifts that will make my luggage weight an even bigger problem; a tour of Sadhana farms, a settlement focused on water conservation and reforestation where Victoria and Aria are doing their volunteer work; an hour long meditation for world peace; a fabulous Ayurvedic oil massage that lasted 1 1/2 hours and wasn't nearly long enough.  I also spent some time enjoying the view of the Matrimandir from outside, and was able to get inside for a meditation session.  The latter was the highlight of my stay.  I am not particularly fond of the appearance of the Matrimandir from the outside, from a distance.  But once inside the inner circle, the gardens are truly beautiful.  The inside is stunning,  all white marble, like being inside a white marble globe.  The light all comes from a hole in the top of the dome that directs light in a ray down to a crystal ball that then sends light out to the whole room.  That's in the meditation room, which is on the top floor.  To get there, one walks up a spiral ramp.  Everything is white.  At the bottom there is a pond in the shape of a lotus, with flowing water that makes designs that no human could replicate.  I can't do it justice, and no photos were allowed.  

The people are what makes Auroville really special.  Their dedication to caring for the earth and all its creatures and to living in true community is exceptional.  And the visitors were people I really enjoyed getting to know.  Auroville isn't really India, although it is most definitely influenced by India.  Only about half the people who live in Auroville are from India;  the other half come from 50 different countries.  The visitors, of course, are even less likely to be from India.  I've decided there is a New Mexico connection somehow, because two of the Americans I met at Center Guest house had spent the last year living in Taos.  There were also people from Rome, Germany, Korea, France and I don't remember where else.  The last night I was there we ordered pizza, which took forever to be delivered.  Tom and Brian had the group reciting "Sally sold seashells..." in about 7 different languages.  A fun group, and I hated to leave.  Another place I hope to come back to one day.  Next time I will come when it is cooler, I will stay at least a month, and I will rent a motor scooter.  I was offered a ride a few times, and always accepted.  It is the best way to get around here.

The red dirt roads of Auroville are lined with flowers, mostly bougainvillea I think.  It is a very pretty area.

Sri Aurobindo's statue stands outside one of the many beautiful public buildings that are scattered around the center of Auroville.

The Mother was really the driving force behind Auroville and the Matrimandir.  She saw the interior of the Matimandir in a dream, and was driven to realize it.  A French architect provided the design of the exterior.  Her goals are listed here.  Pretty ambitious.

An Auroville elementary school just down the road from where I stayed.

The solar kitchen, so called because much of the energy for cooking comes from the large solar bowl on the roof.  They fix about 1000 lunches a day here, about 540 going to local schools.

On the road to Kuilapulyam.  I passed this by without thinking, then realized this is the kind of thing I am so used to seeing now, but won't be seeing once back in the states.

The Goddess Durga, one of my favorites, overlooking the streets of Kuilapulyam.  Temples like this have become very common sights to me now also.

More deities guarding Kuilapulyam.

Volunteers weeding at Buddha Gardens.

Tom and I worked on collecting green waste to feed the compost bin.

Working on the compost bin was hard work made great fun by the mischievousness of the mostly young volunteers.

And finally breakfast is served.  Yes, I was old enough to be granny to most of the volunteers.

Getting a tour of Sadhana forest.  Thanks to the water conservation and reforestation work they have been doing over the past 10 years, their neighbors wells no longer run dry in the summer.  The water table has been raised 6 meters.  They have started similar projects in Haiti and in Kenya.  Very dedicated and inspiring folks.

The banyon tree at center guest house.  We sat at the table in the middle of this tree to eat some of our meals. When the mosquitoes weren't too bad.

The last resident of Center Guest House I saw, as I was preparing to leave.