Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Final Episode.....for now!

What will I do in my next life? Who will I become? How will I behave? You may think these musings are the result of 9 months in India. And if you think that you may well be right ……… but at the immediate level these musings were inspired by the closing remarks of a conversation about music that I was having with my step dad just the other day, following a tasty lunch of yummy sandwiches made with honey roast ham and mature cheddar cheese on multi-grain with a bit of salad thrown in for good measure (while the details of lunch may seem highly useless and irrelevant to you the reader I simply had to include them, since after 9 months of samosas or dosas for lunch you wouldn’t believe how freakin good a ham sandwich is, never mind a crisp green leaf of lettuce!!). As fellow musicians we were chatting about the merits of various music learning techniques and the draw backs of being classically trained……we were both wishing we had the ability to just sit down and play without reading the notes!! And when you stop and think about it, music is a bit like life that way. There are some people that learn the rules and always play by those rules. And can only function with a full set of instructions and guidelines. And then there are those that seem to somehow manage to just make it up as they go along, either by imitation or pure creativity and seem to have so much more fun in the process. In life I think I actually sit somewhere on the fence, vacillating between one lifestyle and the other – but in music I’m definitely a play by the rules kinda gal. And so – in wishing that I were able to play jazz, to improvise and play by ear I concluded with the thought that maybe in my next life I’d be a better jazz musician. And that’s when it occurred to me that its funny how in conversation we constantly make throw away remarks like ‘in my next life’, without thinking about what it really means and whether or not we actually believe that there might possibly be a next life. However, in India, a statement like that holds so much more gravity.

After my final 6 weeks in India, absorbed in the teachings of Yoga I’m still not certain how I feel about all that (and when I say ‘all that’ I am, of course referring to the possibility of reincarnation, after-life and re-birth in to a new form and shape) because somewhere along the line I do have a feeling that our DNA carries with it some of the lessons we learn in life and passes those lessons on to the next generation (even if our souls don’t literally find a new home in another body – if there even is such a thing as a soul, beyond a series of neural networks with custom designed firing patterns unique to our own brains that allow us to recognize a continuum of thought that established us as us) but I do now feel certain that in this one life that we are currently inhabiting there is untold potential to be and achieve whatever one might chose – but the key to attainment is that to attain one must first chose! There is nothing that a person cannot do if they just put their mind to it. And after choosing they must then remain acutely aware of those choices, commit a certain level of responsibility towards actions that will lead towards those goals and ultimately remain mindful of the fact that those goals can only be achieved and enjoyed if they are admirable goals that cause no harm to anyone and at least some benefit to someone.

So – what does it mean to me to be back in England? I thought that I would be culture shocked by my arrival back to the ‘real’ world, on departing the mayhem of India – but it seems that I am simply so habituated to being on the move, that no alteration of circumstances, no matter how extreme: from hanging with shallow, sallow sadhu’s begging beside bovine bathrooms to sitting in the clinical chaos of Heathrow airport for hours on end to finally be falling into a deep and silent slumber amongst duck down duvets, can rattle my cultural cage! I just roll effortless from one set of circumstances to the next without the bat of an eyelid these days. And I realized that I don’t think the ‘shock’ will actually set in until about 3 months after we arrive in Vancouver when we’ve had a house warming party in our new place and I finally realize that I’m not going ANYWHERE for at least the next 12 months. Perhaps at that point I will start beating my head against a wall and screaming for a way out – lamenting my lost freedom and new found imprisonment (I’ve been warned by many that this may be the case) – but my instinct is that rather than lamenting it – I will in fact be embracing the comfort of routine, the warmth of a home and the love that comes from a family of friends that are constantly at hand just around the corner or at the most a short bus ride away! I think it is safe to say that I have done my fair share of exploring the globe and I’m quite ready for a different kind of exploration that will lead me in to a new world and a new depth of connection with the people that I love and choose to surround myself with.

But despite the lack of culture shock, the return to UK has at least been another step forward, one more step closer to my new life in Vancouver and a final chance for introspection and reflection on the journey, now completed. Amusingly there have already been several moments when I have been forced to wonder: ‘Have I learned nothing?’ For example: Only hours after leaving India, as I sat on a hard plastic chair in terminal 1 contemplating my thoughts during my fourth hour at Heathrow airport, waiting to board the stupid one hour flight north to Manchester after managing to get most of the way ‘home’; despite being curiously ‘unshocked’ I did find myself seriously battling with the urge to throw a major temper tantrum…….so much for maintaining my equilibrium! Let me explain a little: Thanks to the wonderful Icelandic volcano and an impending BA strike we were forced to re-jiggle and reschedule our return flights to reality a number of times prior to our final departure from India. When we finally arrived at Delhi international airport to take the plane away from the madness it appeared we would indeed land in Heathrow in time to make the 3pm BMI connecting flight to Manchester we were hoping to catch. The check-in girl assured us that we were booked on that flight and we would make it. Well – it turned out, after cutting several immigration and security check lines on arrival at Heathrow in an attempt to make the 3pm flight that actually ‘NO!’ our booking in the system was in actual fact for the 8:55pm flight – and there was no way that we could be transferred to the 3, or any earlier flight for that matter. So after hours and hours of transit around India in the last 9 months with very little to speak of in the way of delays, I found myself ‘stuck’ in London for the best part of 7 hours and not surprisingly I wasn’t actually feeling all that inspired to write this last installment of my crash course to insanity…..but what else was there to do with all that wasted time!!! Being stuck in transit is never fun – but when you know that if there’s one thing you should have learned in the last 9 months, it’s to ‘go with the flow’ and all you really want to do is scream at a BA representative it’s actually quite tough to get creative and use your time constructively. So there I was – back in the real world driving myself nuts with the thought that I should have already been on the plane, off the plane, on the train and only one hour from home – but instead I was sitting on an uncomfortable airport chair, trying to remain equanimous with the fact that my Cumberland sausage was still in the fridge and wouldn’t make it to my stomach this side of Wednesday! So much for my personal evolution (never mind my potential to reach enlightenment)! And on top of everything – my body was still tired and sore from 6 weeks of yoga (don’t forget my body clock was all out of whack …… did I mention that I’d been going to sleep at 10pm in preparation for the 5am wake-up) so I wasn’t exactly likely to be feeling on top of the world. But having said that, I was also suffering withdrawals after 3 full days without a single asana and I was itching to get in a good session on the matt. Ahhh Yoga.

For the final 6 weeks in India I was living in Rishikesh, India at the Shiva Resort/wannabe Ashram learning to be a yoga instructor and it was a wonderful journey. My poor old body had quite a rollercoaster ride of it (trying to remember what it felt like to be employed in movement outside the bounds of ‘normal’ motion for several hours a day), but my mind really enjoyed the discipline of a learning environment and the chance to get into a routine of sorts. And while learning the practical aspects of yoga I also had classes in philosophy, anatomy, meditation, and the yoga lifestyle.

My darling husband also came along for the ride, so we got the opportunity to share in the joys of yoga in 40 degree heat and challenge the concepts behind the practical application. Yoga in its physical form is simply marvelous. It has the potential to heal and promote health, and can be the basis for a calm and contented mind. After finishing Vipassana (10 day silent meditation retreat – for those of you who didn’t read that installment……fair enough really – it was 5000 words), I wasn’t sure whether my mission in India had all been a big fat hoax and the chances for me to find inner peace were all but dashed. But after a few days immersed in yoga I began to feel changes coming over me that I had been striving for, for years. I was beginning to sleep like a baby and my mind was becoming quieter and clearer than it had been in a very long time. Yes, yoga could well be what I have been looking for.

So what can I tell you about the course? Well – we had both Indian and western teachers, which allowed us to have the best of both worlds: The passion and the spiritualism of the East, along with the science and precision of the west. The philosophy and background from the Hindu tradition and the pragmatic, systematic approach to the art of teaching that gave me exactly what I needed to learn not just about yoga, but how to teach it with meaning and enthusiasm for it’s roots. Thanks to the graceful guidance of Kristen, our American teacher I found that I was able to gradually get my feet wet. Over the course of the final weeks she introduced us to teaching in baby steps so that by the time it came to lead a complete class I was confident and totally ready for the challenge. And in fact I now feel completely excited and pumped about the possibility of becoming a yoga instructor.

I have learned that yoga is an age-old tradition that has it’s roots in the Hindu faith but is basically a system that can be applied to anybody’s life to improve well-being. There are many levels to yoga; from the most basic and practical to the most intangible and esoteric and all of them have a place in the world. I’m excited to develop my very own unique approach to yoga and share it with the world (or at least a few people in Vancouver) and hopefully enrich their lives with it. I’m not going to say too much at this point since I don’t want to give my secrets away – but let’s just say, I have some ideas that I think are pretty cool and hopefully I can start a yoga studio with a difference…….watch this space!

So – why exactly has it taken me so long to share these final reflections with you? Usually when I wrote my blog entries in India I would take a couple of days to edit and re-write the final version, but the initial writing phase would be done in just one or two sittings and come out in a smooth flowing jumble of inspiration. Not so on this occasion. Already almost 2 weeks back in the real world I have sat down numerous times hunting for the right words, the correct intention, the moment of inspiration to compel me to write but it just didn’t happened: Did I become lazy with my writing? Did my energies become so distracted with yoga that I just felt out of whack at a laptop, or deep down was I resisting the acknowledgement that this journey had to come to an end? I must accept that I have found my sanity and the crash course is now complete. It is time to press on with life and leave my ‘searching’ behind. In reality I don’t think that the search is ever really over. Every action I will ever take is part of the search. The search for meaning, the search for truth, the search for union with the greater forces of nature outside myself – the force that some describe as God. Well – for me, the last few weeks and in a larger frame of reference the last few months have really helped me to clarify these definitions and the subtle aspects of their meaning for me. I do indeed feel that this crash course to insanity has delivered me to exactly the place I wanted to be. I have a new level of acceptance about who I am, and the weird and wonderful way that I think. I can observe my mind from a new place and on a whole new level. I am at anxious peace with myself – if that at all makes sense? Let’s just say India didn’t change me so much – it just taught me to accept that which is for that which should be and stop worrying about what cannot be changed.

Staring up at the cool blue sky from the deck of my mother’s sail boat the other day it dawned on me that wherever you are in the world, when you tip your head back and look up towards space the view that greets you will be exactly the same. The same sky, give or take a few thunderclouds and droplets of rain here or there. Perhaps a ray or 2 more of sunshine on occasion – but ultimately the same – it’s only when your eyes are cast down that you realize your circumstances have changed and your environment is different. In the last 9 months those circumstances changed again and again and I saw many incredible things. I saw man made wonders of the world both on and off the ‘list’ of the greatest, like the Taj Mahal and the Temples of Hampi, I saw natural wonders of the world like the tallest mountain peak on the planet, Everest and many of her sisters……I even climbed one or 2 of them (let’s not forget I made it over 6000M by foot…….6153M to be precise). I went hunting for Tigers (and never found them). Went in search of wild elephants (and got chased away by them). Sat in silence for 10 days learning the ancient art of meditation and turned my world upside down to find a new perspective through yoga (literally – I can now do a headstand!) And of course I sampled every kind of vegetarian curry under the sun. Where am I going with all this? India was amazing…..certainly Incredible at times, and above all a world of many harsh extremes. India was the perfect landscape to help me recognize that the external world is just a mirror of what you can find inside yourself. If you keep your eyes down you can be distracted by the ever changing faces of ‘reality’, but if you look up to the sky there is an omniscient, constant truth that remains, no matter what storms may come……the blue sky is always there above, waiting to be revealed. I have been here all along. India has helped me find my blue sky above, the power to remember who I am and the wisdom to know it is time to leave India behind and embrace the world and the circumstances that I choose to live in. I loved every part of what I experienced in India, the good, the bad and the ugly, but did I want to remain there in that world of extremes? Absolutely not! As I leave the road behind I feel full of anticipation and excitement about the journey ahead. So to answer my query as to whether I am reluctant to acknowledge the journey is over……No! There are no regrets or doubts, I had no hesitation about pulling the final curtain on this crash course, I just couldn’t quite find the worlds to sum it up – because it is quite a lot to say after all, but if I must put it simply I suppose it would be this: Thank you India, I have loved you and hated you with equal parts and equal passion but now I must leave you because in you I finally found myself and myself doesn’t’ actually want to be in India anymore ……and beside which, life is calling!

Monday, 10 May 2010

A date with the Dalai Lama

It’s just amazing what can happen sometimes when you don’t have a plan! Way back at the beginning of our trip to India we got wind of an opportunity to catch a glimpse of his holiness the Dalai Lama in his home town of Macleod Ganj, but since we had a plan which involved heading in exactly the opposite direction, we decided to give it a miss and plough on with our journey as planned. Although I’ve always thought it would be pretty damn cool to hear his words of wisdom in person, it just wasn’t in the schedule and the Nepalese peaks of the Himalayas were calling. So I arrived in Rishikesh one week ago to be reminded that often in life there is such a thing as a second chance…..by the Rishikesh grapevine we got wind of a little rumor that the Dalai Lama was coming to town for some ceremonial ‘goings on’. We had exactly one week to figure out a way to get our foot in the door and secure our date with the Dalai Lama. In truth, it actually wasn’t that tough. We headed down to the Ashram that was the centre of the action, where his holiness would be staying, hunted out the appropriate peeps with the power, and somehow or other, with a little straight up persistence and a word or two with the main Swamiji – we were the proud owners of 2 press passes to attend the upcoming weekend of events. Dalai Lama lookout!

On April 3rd and 4th, Parmarth Niketan Ashram, in Rishikesh was billed to play host to a whole host of spiritual leaders and dignitaries including the leader of Buddhists, the world over, the Dalai Lama, as part of a huge celebration to mark the launching of a brand new publication: An 11 volume series entitled “Encyclopedia of Hinduism”, which could certainly be said to be a pretty significant moment in modern Hindu history. Around 20 years in the making, drawing on the knowledge and expertise of over 1000 scholars and academics from all over India and further afield, this publication has brought together a huge mass of knowledge and information about the Hindu tradition in a formal way to both document its existence and make this knowledge available to educate the world. The Hindu faith, is one of the world’s major religions and has an incredibly deep well of tradition and history, which has now been brought together in one comprehensive set of volumes.

To mark the completion of this major undertaking, which was inspired by the dreams of Swami Chidanand Saraswati many years ago, there was a weekend of events planned and an impressive guest list to match this monumental occasion. Since the weekend also coincided with the largest spiritual gatherings on the planet, the Kumbh Mela, where literally millions of people congregate on the banks of the river Ganges in Haridwar, to bathe away their sins, the opening event actually took place in Haridwar, at one of the Kumbh Mela camps. The atmosphere in the speakers tent when we arrived was one of excitement and anticipation and as the moment finally arrived for the speakers to make their way through the crowd and take the stage the politely seated guests turned into a seething mass of bodies, pushing and shoving to catch a close up glimpse and take a shot of the most popular of the guests, the DL himself.

As the ‘Tibetan, secret service’ cleared a path through the crowd, right beside the table I was perching on within the media enclosure I found that I was close enough to see the beads of sweat on the top of his head – but it was all over so quickly, as the entourage pushed forward to reach the stage that my first chance to snap a good shot passed me by before I could even get the camera in focus. Not to worry, the best was yet to come.

After the initial storm in the press pit had subsided, and the flashing had died down, the security just about managed to maintain order and the photographers were finally all persuaded to back away from the stage and take a seat on the floor, so that the audience behind (and the cameras on tripods, shooting for live TV audiences) could get a clear view.

Over the course of the next few hours I had plenty of chances to capture that famous face on digital file, and at one point I was literally no more than a meter or so away from the feet of the Dalai Lama.

Never mind Vipassana – this has to be a fast track to enlightenment – to sit at the feet of the Dalai Lama for a day.

Now, if it hadn’t been for the Dalai Lama’s presence at the ceremony, I will say, that I probably would have been bored to tears, but apparently, even without the Dalai Lama there I should have been impressed because the stage was filled with a who’s who of the spiritual Guru’s of India. And so, as you might expect, each filled with his own sense of self importance, had to have a word or two, or seven thousand four hundred and eighty six!!!! But who’s counting? And of course, the proceedings went off almost entirely in Hindi. So for a westerner attending the event, it was a little on the dull side. Clearly India hasn’t got the memo yet, that a successful event of this kind, starts with a short and simple presentation to show case the work, a few brief words from an author and maybe a sponsor or two and then quite simply the party begins. Let me tell you, there wasn’t a martini in sight, and not even those cute little trays of hors d’oeuvres were being served. The one saving grace, that actually made the day thoroughly entertaining for me was simply watching the mannerisms and antics of the Dalai Lama.

At one point he was passed a packet of wet wipes, to wipe away his sweat and watching him inspect the packet, like some kind of foreign object and then slowly removing one and placing it lightly on his forehead,

leaving it there for some minutes to cool himself off, was like watching a child with a new toy. The highlight though came a few minutes after part of the blessing ceremony, when rose petals had been strewn across the stage and seated dignitaries.

Apparently old Lamaji, had spotted a bug or 2 crawling around on the rose petals, and, being a good Buddhist, he was of course concerned for the well being of all living beings so decided to make it his personal mission to scratch around on the floor ‘rescuing’ the bugs in question,

to save them from certain death.

How cute!

And really there is no other word to describe the Dalai Lama, from the way that he shuffles along in his robes, to the serene and yet at times mischievous expression he wears on his slightly chubby cheeks. From the top of his shiny shaved head,

to the tips of his pudgy little toes

there’s nothing about him that isn’t just so darn cute!

And all the while, the speeches went on and on and on, and even the Dalai Lama was failing to stifle his yawns,

until finally a few words in English were spoken to get my attention. This time the speaker was young, and handsome and the cameras began to click with renewed vigor all around me and I realized that I was listening to the words of Vivek Oberoi,

Bollywood’s latest hot young talent – who summed up the value of this brand new Encyclopedia. “For young Hindu’s, the future of Hinduism and India, there were often questions: Who am I? What am I? What does it mean to be a Hindu? And now there is a place to find those answers. And this is a wonderful legacy for us to leave for future generations.”

Finally it was the turn of the Dalai Lama to speak, and after some words in Tibetan (translated to Hindi by his personal translator) he actually took the mic in English

(because he likes to prove that he can, even though he so humbly claims to speak only broken English, despite the fact that his command of the language is better than most adults I know that speak it as their first and only language) and shared his thoughts with the non-Hindi guests: Halleluja! It was a simple speech that touched on his feeling that he was actually a son of India, having been fortunate to find refuge in the country all those years ago when he was exiled from Tibet, and having relied upon the rice and Dahl of India to sustain his body, and he was proud to be a son on India, because India lives with some great principles. There is a long-standing tradition of tolerance and respect for other faiths and religions within the borders of India, which results in great peace and harmony and he applauded that. He also spoke of the long-standing tradition of Ahimsa (non-violence) that India embraces and how this practice fosters compassion for all living beings. He promoted the need for secular values and encouraged people to see things from many angles. He talked about the world getting smaller and the need for more respect and tolerance of other people’s views, which will enable us all to live together in peace and harmony and really his message was simple: if we can look at things through another person’s eyes and use a little common sense, we can all live together peacefully. In closing he stated that he was proud to be there for this gathering of gurus – even though he doesn’t have the beard of a guru, and then he proceeded to tug on the beard of his neighbour, Ramdevji like a rambunctious child pulling at his father’s beard and the whole audience giggled. Like I said – there’s nothing he does that isn’t cute!
Finally the speeches came to an end and a number of volumes of the new Encyclopedias were brought to the stage for another blessing, and the mandatory round of photographs. Truly it was quite exciting to be in the thick of it all, surrounded by the marauding photographers, desperate for ‘the shot’.

I would have to say though that the highlight of the day was not just to be sitting at the feet of the Dalai Lama for the afternoon,

but to realize, in a moment of distraction that I was actually making eye contact with his holiness and he was cracking a smile just for me……….let’s just say that made my freakin day.

Once the special guests had made their way from the stage it was time to head back to Rishikesh, for the fire puja ceremony, and a special musical performance on the banks of the Ganges by renowned musicians, with the Lama and many of the other revered guests present. With our new favorite toy in hand, the magic key of the event, our prized press passes we were actually able to gain access to the stage, and again were only feet from the Dalai Lama et al. The entertainment was actually pretty good, but again the highlight of the evening for me were those few seconds, when I realized that I was actually standing almost directly in the path of the oncoming Dalai Lama. This time, my lens cap was off, my camera was ready and I did actually manage to catch a couple of good shots before I was thrust aside by one his personal ninjas and his entourage was leaving me in the metaphorical dust.

This was an encounter I won’t forget in a hurry.

Day 2 of the proceedings went off in much the same way as the first. A mangled crowd of desperate fans huddling around the path to catch a glimpse of his holiness, followed by a couple of hours of speeches in Hindi (this time with the emphasis on the launching of a campaign to clean up the Ganges) and then a few more words in English from the Dalai Lama.

He had just a few more things to say. Firstly he stated that in today’s world it is true, and one must admit, that money is important. Of course without money one cannot provide for the physical necessities and comforts of life – but it is also important to realize that while money is important, spirituality is of equal importance in life. One can have all the money in the world, billions of dollars and still be unhappy. For mental comfort, money cannot provide. The idea that money will solve all your problems and unhappiness is an illusion. He knows this from personal experience he said, because he has met many rich people who are very unhappy. There is no supermarket that sells piece of mind. There is no surgical procedure that can take away unhappiness. For comfort of the mind, spirituality is necessary. Again, he emphasized that one does not need to follow a particular religion to follow a spiritual path. He spoke of promoting secular ethics, and a true sense of compassion and care for other life based on common sense. He recognizes that for a happy life one needs to take care of both the body and the mind and emotion.

Secondly, he spoke of the need for a new awareness of ecology and the environment. If we want to be able to take care of our need for physical comfort, we need to extend that awareness beyond ourselves to the greater surroundings of our place and our planet. He acknowledged that around the world there are growing shortages of one of the fundamental necessities of life: water. He spoke of the beauty of the moon, the poetry of that beauty but the understanding that the moon is only beautiful from afar, and could never sustain human life. This planet we live on is the only one we have and so we must take care of it. The Himalayas, with their snow-capped peaks and lush forests are not only important for the locals who live there, but for the entire continent. The Tibetan plateau is the source of water for millions of people. And while the Ganges is a special river to the Hindu’s and for them it needs to be clean so that when the next generation of pilgrims come to her banks they will want to bathe in her waters – to him there is no religious significance. It is just water. But water is everything. Water gives life, and the Ganges is a source of life to millions, who depend on the water in it for survival. Ecologists have referred to the Tibetan Plateau as the third pole, and just as we have seen vast changes taking place at both the north and south poles, so too have we seen changes, in our own lifetimes in Tibet. The rate of change in Tibet is actually faster than anywhere else on the planet and as the temperature rises the water levels fall and something must be done to change this pattern. His message was simply that this information, this knowledge should be shared around the world and that the governments of the world need to take heed of the warnings and make changes to make a difference.

India has shown that religious tolerance and the concept of Ahimsa can create a happy healthy society and these things are what India has to offer to humanity to build a better global society. Bravely, he also commented on the things that India still needs to change, the poverty and illiteracy, and other out-dated traditions. He talked of looking to the future, changing the things that need to be changed and offering the best of what India has to the rest of the world as an example of how we can all live in harmony together despite of our differences.

And then, in true Indian style, for their first act of ‘clean-up’, they managed to pollute the poor Ganga river even more, by releasing half filled helium balloons, that barely made it a few feet in the air before being forlornly blown back down towards the fast flowing river, where they would be undoubtedly be submerged to eventually find a home under a rock, to decompose in over the next 75 yrs (or however long it takes for a rubber balloon to decompose).

Well, I guess their hearts were in the right place, even if the science still has a little catching up to do. And in a final flourish of mayhem, the Dalai Lama was whisked away one last time amongst a crowd of fervent followers and Tibetan ninjas, while we were left to marvel at our good fortune in having had this golden opportunity to hear such simple wisdom and truth uttered from the mouth of the cutest spiritual leader ever to have walked the planet. Overall impression: The Dalai Lama Rocks!

Sunday, 25 April 2010

To Vipassana or Not to Vipassana…….That is the Question?

Once upon a time in a land not all that far away, named anxiety, lived a beautiful but worried princess (at least her prince was constantly telling her she was beautiful so in someone’s reality she was….or is!). Why she was worried didn’t really matter. There was always something or other she could find to worry about. And if there was nothing in particular to be worried about on that particular day she would just somehow manage to worry about nothing at all – but worry she would! So much so, that one day the princess noticed she was becoming the beautiful princess with the wrinkles across her forehead from all that constant worrying. What to do? What to do? Well, the princess had heard about a train called the Vipassana Express. It was a 10-day train that could potentially deliver her directly from the land of anxiety to a land of peace and harmony otherwise known as the state of liberation. She was very excited to find out how to get on this train. Could anybody board? How much would it cost? And could it really take her all the way to that place she so desperately wanted to go? She was so tired and fed up of living in anxiety. She felt sure she was ready for a change. Well – the only way to find out if a train like this really existed was to head on down to the railway station and see if she could buy herself a ticket.

By now the astute ones among you (that’s right – you crazy folks actually bothering to read this little tale) will have figured out that the ‘princess’ of this story is actually myself and this tale is just a simple metaphor about my own state of mental health or more accurately apparent lack thereof. And going to the train station was like coming to India to find the tools that India has to offer that might just give me the chance to explore a new way of being in the world. Because it just so happens that India is the home of all (or at least most) things spiritual, and the current heartland of the ancient technique of Vipassana that has been passed down through the generations by teacher after teacher from the original teachings of the G-man himself (and by G man I am of course referring to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha).

Before arriving in India I had heard a little bit about Vipassana from a wonderful and spiritually well versed friend of mine, named Claudio, who had given me the vague low down on how it worked – he explained it was a 10 day, silent meditation retreat in which you could find a way to quieten your mind and reach a profound level of inner peace. And although the use of this technique has now spread pretty much all around the world, since India was it’s birth place, with the Buddha, and India is where it is most widely practiced today, I felt sure that India was the place to give it a whirl.

So, here I was in India – with just a small amount of ‘unplanned’ time to fill, before my yoga teacher training was to begin and still I hadn’t managed to ‘squeeze in’ to the 9 month timetable of our travels one of the most important aspects of what I came here to do – one of the things that I was most seeking from our journey. I was running out of time to set out on my spiritual quest and was determined not to leave without at least attempting to fulfill my goal. So finally I hunkered down and gave it some serious thought, opened my laptop and starting googling around. And low and behold – as I hunted around on the Dhamma.org website for a centre that was holding a course during this gap…..serendipitously – there it was – in a location that fit with my plans perfectly – on a date that would allow me to arrive just in time to begin the little ‘train ride –The Vipassana Express’ and finish with time to spare before yoga. It was a clear indication to me (some might say it was a ‘sign’) that now was the time to board that train. Now was the moment to seize the day, pursue my intentions and take that final step. And so I enrolled for the course, booked my overnight train (a real one, not a metaphorical one) from Delhi to arrive in Dehra Dun at the allotted time and my date with destiny had been secured. All I had to do now was show up…….. My bags were packed, I was at the station and I held the ticket in my hand for the Vipassana Express (back to the metaphorical train). All that remained was to board the train and wait for the engine to rev up and pull away from the platform with me aboard and I would be on my way to my escape from anxiety (or on a crash course to insanity).

Now the only problem with all of this was that my good friend Claudio didn’t really go into all the details of exactly how the ‘Vipassana Express train’ worked. He didn’t mention that once you got onboard they would lock the doors and there would be no escape from the train until the 10 days were over – and he certainly didn’t mention that during those 10 days there would be many many moments when all you would desire would be to run kicking and screaming from that train, because it would almost certainly feel like the train carriage was about to burst into flames at any moment, or at the very least it would be an incredibly unnerving rollercoaster ride with the train feeling as if it could derail at any moment, rattling, uncontrollably rapidly along the tracks with seemingly no driver at the helm. But I’ll get to all that in due course!

So – to return to the language of the ‘here and now’ I should probably explain a little more about the technique of Vipassana. The concept is simple. Over the course of 10 days, with the use of some simple meditation techniques while following a few simple rules, you will learn how to quieten your mind, and connect with actual reality through awareness of a few subtle bodily sensations. The ultimate goal is to become equanimous with one simple truth. The law of nature dictate that all there is, is the here and now. Every experience shares one simple quality: that of impermanence. Each moment arises and passes away and if you can remain equanimous with that fact and your experience of reality, be it good or bad, you will connect with the deeper truth and reality of yourself, find peace and calm and ultimately liberation (from your attachments and cravings to worldly things and your fear and aversion to all that you despise), which will lead to an escape from the misery of existence and real joy and happiness. On the surface of things this can sound like a pretty depressing outlook on the reality of existence but if you can get beyond the first impression there is apparently a joyous state of enlightenment amongst all that, that will liberate you from your suffering in whatever way it manifests itself; be it anxiety, depression, aggression or any number of other serious mental afflictions.

Now I’d like to mention – many of my friends held serious doubts that I would be able to pull it off. They thought that although I might manage to stay on the train for the full 10 days there was no way that I would be able to adhere to the rules and regulations that applied. And here’s why: The first and most obvious of those rules was complete and utter silence. Being that I am a naturally gregarious and outgoing soul it is true that this first rule could potentially have posed a bit of a challenge to me. However, I felt sure that it would be easy – and indeed it was. In actual fact (and for you some of you this may come as a surprise), for me the prospect of 10 days without talking was positively a relief. Many times I have actually found that the main source of my anxiety is of a social nature. Sometimes the impulse for conversation arises out of an uncomfortable silence, or the need to be ‘interesting’ and have something spectacular to say. So, to have silence imposed: what a relief! I don’t speak because I can’t – and so it is simple. No words were to be uttered and it was easily done. But you see the ultimate goal of the outward silence is not just a test of will and determination. It is actually to assist the meditator in reaching a state of inner silence. To quieten the mind. And for me it’s just not that simple. You can take out my tongue, but that certainly doesn’t mean you’ll shut me up. The voice inside my mind is a truly persistent one that will not go down without a fight. By day 4, the mind is supposed to be more easily approaching silence. Well – I’m afraid Mr. Buddha that you are going to have to come up with something a little more compelling than the observation of my breath to keep me quiet in the music halls of my mind. The first 3 days of a 10-day course are spent simply observing ones own breath and becoming acutely aware of any bodily sensations in the area directly around the end of the nose, where the breath enters and exits the body. By doing this the mind becomes focused and tuned in to the capacity to sense more subtle and subtle sensations throughout the body. That part of the technique worked well enough, but I’ve always been a pretty good multi-tasker I’m afraid. And so while I was busily honing my skill as a sensation senser – I was also madly chattering away to myself about, as usual, anything and everything that my little mind could think of, to keep me busily twisting and turning myself into little knots and twirls about. Interestingly enough most of the first 2 days of distracted thinking was spent ruminating and jumbling around the most recent and fairly insignificant drama to have unfolded in my life regarding none other than……wait for it……my piano. On the grand scheme of things – it wasn’t even something that important……and it wasn’t even involving people of any great importance to me…….and yet I simply could not put it out of my head…….and so, there lay my first of many lessons that I taught myself in those long 10 days. Most of what I think about, neigh obsess about is little more than banal and boring bullshit that I would do well to dismiss instantly from my mind – in actual fact this was not a new awareness for me – but at least a powerful reminder – but still not necessarily a lesson that is easily acted upon.

And so – by day 3, I was still chattering away in my mind but I had managed to become quite a smarty pants at feeling my upper lip tingling away (supposedly this level of ability to feel subtle sensations allows you to connect with the awareness of the reality of the human body at the atomic level)….yay me! Wasn’t I doing well? (Despite the fact that I’d wanted to smash my face against the wall of the meditation hall with hell and fury out of sheer boredom on more than one occasion…..like I said……come on, Buddha……give me something a little more compelling!)
Well – what is it they say? Be careful what you wish for! Day 4 arrived with the delivery of stage 2 of the technique and something, at least initially a little more compelling. Now that we had perfected the ability to be aware of sensation on one square inch of our skin we were suddenly given free rein to explore our entire bodies from head to foot, inch by inch, part by part, piece by piece in sequence, moving from head to feet. OK – so this was a little more interesting and seemed to me to have a little more potential to take me to a state of ‘bliss’. There were moments when the sensations were verging on pleasant and I was feeling like a bone fide meditator, with the potential to feel that light and fluffy feeling that one imagines meditation is all about. But hold on a minute……the instruction weren’t quite finished. Before we got carried away feeling all tingly and lovely we were severely reminded that this warm fuzzy feeling was not at all the point of the exercise. The point was to experience all this at the physical level from the Point of view of an objective observer, to remain equanimous with the experience and maintain the knowledge that all was impermanent. All would arise and pass away and that nothing, good or bad was to be reacted to with either craving or aversion. OK – so it did seem like a bit of a party pooper move on the old G man’s part – but maybe he was just saving the best for last…..or something…….and so I went along with it……. until the slap in the face arrived.

And for the final twist of the knife. Now that you’ve figured out how to be acutely aware of every sensation on your body at an incredibly intense level……don’t move…..not an inch…….for a whole hour! OK – before you read any more……just try it…go on ……I’ll be here when you get back…..go on…….I’ll time you……ready….set…..go.

I thought so…….it’s only 7minute, 37 seconds and you’re back already! Not that bloody easy is it? In fact it’s f*&^ng excruciating isn’t it? My good friend certainly never warned me about this part. Now maybe he’s just a masochist and he liked this part. Or maybe he knew if he told me about this bit there was no way in hell I’d ever be crazy enough to try it – but Claudio – I have one question……WHAT THE FREAKING HELL? To sit in a meditative pose, with your eyes closed without moving your arms, legs, or any part of your body for that matter is one of the most painful experiences I’ve had in my life time….and there’ve been a few – including fracturing my pelvis and sustaining a pretty serious third degree burn on my upper, inner thigh (don’t ask……a teenage camping trip in the garden gone wrong!!). But anyway – none of them even compare with the pain that you will experience the first, second, third, fourth and probably fifth time you try it after about 30 – 40 minutes or so. After that……well – let’s just say that Buddha teaches you how to deal with the pain! And here is where my problems with Vipassana began and why I began this little story with the title that I chose…..to Vipassana or not to Vipassana…..a play on words based on one of the many great and famous speeches from a little ditty by the bard: Hamlet. Since at the essence of this meditation is the question of what it means ‘to be’. The theory behind dealing with this pain is that in remaining equnimous with the pain – by not developing an ‘aversion’ to the pain one gains control over the mind…..that old ‘mind over matter’ phenomenon. But to me it just seems like you get really good at playing games with your mind and convincing yourself that what you are experiencing is not really pain, when in actual fact it is incredible, excruciating agony. Any technique of meditation that involves habituating yourself to pain, conditioning your mind to ignore one of nature’s most natural and helpful instincts – that of responding to pain to protect one’s own well being – well – to me it just can’t be a good idea. It simply can’t be healthy. And so, in my mind, on day 4 began the constant debate about whether or not by continuing on this train I was actually doing myself more harm than good. Now the first couple of times that I tried to adhere to this new stipulation of complete stillness I managed to bring myself to tears. Quite literally rivers of tears were streaming down my cheeks with the pain – my face was twisting into all sorts of shapes and contortions reminiscent of the face that stares back at you from out of a fun house mirror and I felt like the sad and lonely child in the playground with no friends that tries to hide it’s pain following a tumble, resulting in a bloody knee, for fear of ridicule and rebuke.

But after a couple of goes – I did somehow manage to hold back the tears – quell the urge to scream and run away and simply ‘deal with the suffering’. And at this point, sure, I could tell myself that I had gained control of my mind – that mind over matter works – but the very fact that I breathed the biggest sigh of relief when that hour was finally over, that for every minute of that last 30 minutes I was craving and praying for the final bell to arrive was a clear indication to me that all I had managed to do was muster the will power to prevail and repress the painful sensations rather than, as was instructed, remain equanimous in the moment being only aware of the nature of the sensation, that of its impermanence and begin the process of releasing my negative karmic pain.

From here on in, each day I would ask myself whether or not I could believe in a process that uses pain as it’s primary tool to effect change and each day I would almost come to the conclusion that I could not, only to be persuaded by the daily discourses, scheduled at the end of each day that my thought process and experiences were all just part of the process and that the wisdom of it all would finally prevail. Through it all I tried hard to remain open to the possibilities, and undecided about the potential of the technique – but my tendency towards skepticism was only compounded by the obvious potential weaknesses and failings of its implementation at the instructional level. You see, despite the 10 day vow of silence, we were permitted to discuss any problems or issues concerning our meditation practice with our assistant teachers (the actual teacher, S N Goenka – was heard on audio tapes during meditation sessions and seen once daily on the TV screen for the evening ‘discourse’) and during several of the meditation sessions we were called forward in pairs by the assistant teacher to discuss our progress and receive ‘advice’. In one or 2 of these brief ‘interviews’ it became quite apparent to me that the other half of my pair was struggling considerably with the process; suffering from panic attacks with increasing frequency as the days progressed, and it was blatantly obvious that the assistant teacher was completely incapable of offering any useful advice or words of comfort.
Now, one can argue of course that my growing aversion to the practice was simply a symptom of the sickness of my mind, the weakness of my mind, my inability to become master of my mind and therefore I am a person in greater need of the technique than the next guy – but one could also argue that my aversion was simply a natural reaction to a process that was potentially quite damaging and harmful to a delicate mind – just exactly the type of mind that might seek out and hold hopeful expectation for great results from a technique like this. I myself, at times through the process felt a little like I was losing my grip on reality, that I was potentially spiraling towards insanity – but fortunately for me, my analytical mind was able to look at it all from many angles and gain a little calm objectivity outside of the pain of the meditation hall. Again I admit that perhaps this belief I hold is simply my overwhelming ego taking hold (the ‘I’ that desperately wants to maintain control and protect it’s very existence) but on the other hand, perhaps this belief is actually an accurate understanding that for me, and likely many others this is not a technique that offers a healthy approach to enlightenment.

I was fast coming to the conclusion that if reaching enlightenment means pursuing this past time of sitting with your own sensations hour upon hour then I feel confident I’d actually rather continue in the ‘misery’ of my life than trade it for the ‘joy’ provided by the utter boredom of meditating on impermanence.

Or perhaps it’s simply that I’m just not ready to give up my cravings and aversions. Perhaps I enjoy the dramas of life a little too much. What is it they say? “The unexplored life is not worth living” and I have to say that I agree. I know a great number of people who know exactly how harmful cigarettes are for their health but have absolutely no intention of ever quitting – because they like it, they like the way it makes them feel and they are OK with the fact that their pleasure seeking behavior may ultimately result in their own demise.

I was fast concluding that yes – my addiction to life is alive and well. My affliction of loving the highs and the lows is at this point in my life incurable.

And so Vancouver I’ve got news for you.

I will be arriving in the city, happily and thoroughly unenlightened and truly equanimous with that fact. I came on a journey of discovery: a search for the truth in myself, and the possibility of inner peace. Well – I’ve found out that the cost of inner peace is a price I am at present unwilling to pay. I actually like my life the way it is and myself pretty much the way I am. I simply love to love with fiery passion, and to react with infuriation to the irritations of life, in equal doses. How else would I know that I was actually alive? How would I know that I was living? Buddha would tell me that I can know I’m alive by being in the now and walking on the path of dhamma – but I think I’m realizing that I like my way just fine. Sure - I recognize that my tendency towards reacting to the world the way I do may cause me some anxiety, and this is not always my favorite sensation to experience – but for right now this may be just be a symptom that I have to learn to live with.

Partly in my mind I wonder if I ever actually boarded the Vipassana Express at the beginning of the ride or whether I was just standing at the platform with my suitcase in hand, watching the train disappear into the horizon, only imagining what it would be like to be on board, but part of me definitely feels like I took at least some of the journey before I bailed out. Maybe I was just hanging out of the door, like one of the last passengers to alight that couldn’t quite keep a firm grip of the handrail to pull herself up. Or maybe I was riding on the roof. Taking the journey without actually being inside the train and experiencing all the delights that came inside the carriage. I’m sure I could go on and on with the metaphors but you get the point!

But before I completely dissuade any of you potential Vipassana heads out there from giving it a shot, I should point out that there was also an incredible amount of very powerful things that came out of those 10 days. Each night, during the dhamma discourses, Goenka manages to weave so many of the teachings of Buddha, into his exploration of the Vipassana process. And let’s face it, a lot of what Buddha taught was just pretty damn good, good old common sense. I learned that none of the meditative aspects of the practice can do a dash of good without first living a life of ‘Shila’ – a moral life. And as guidelines for this he offers, not 10 commandments, not 5 pillars, but 5 simple rules to follow: Do not kill, do not steal, do not participate in sexual misconduct, do not lie and do not take intoxicating substances that will introduce impurities to the mind. I think you’ll agree that most of us can pull that off for at least 10 days. A life time? Well that may be a little more tough, and we can always find ways to justify bending the rules in our mind but at the core of it, I think that most of us will agree these rules are in fact pretty sensible rules to live our lives by (yes – even the one about intoxicating substances. We may like having them in our life, but essentially it’s pretty obvious they really aren’t beneficial in the long run). Now once you have these rules in check you move on to Samadhi: mastery of the mind. Which is where the meditation comes in. I’ve already explained how I feel about the Vipassana technique itself so I won’t repeat myself again, but in principle the concept of learning to become master of your mind, rather than slave to it through meditation is obviously a pretty good one (even though one may argue that on some level this is actually just creating a little control freak of your inner conscience!). And then the final step of leading a good life is to develop Panya: wisdom, which is gained through the process of Samadhi. Again – who can argue that they wouldn’t like a little more ability to see things as they really are – rather than through the rose tinted, dark mirrored or perhaps polarized spectacles that they may be filtering the world with! Throughout the discourses, Goenka peppers his teachings with little fables and tales to offer clear examples and a direct understanding of the theory, which are so simple and yet so perfect in their application that you can’t help but be persuaded by their logic. Nevertheless, when it came to the actual Vipassana technique my instincts just told me that the involvement of pain was simply not something I could accept. Now it’s true that this method clearly works and is cherished by thousands and thousands of Vipassana meditators around the world (one guy on my course was on his eleventh retreat) and there is a great deal of good that comes out of 10 days of silence, but for me the hunt is still on for a way to find inner peace. I do at least now know exactly what it is that I am looking for and think I have a great deal more clarity about how I may be likely to reach that place, so for that I am grateful.

There were also moments of incredible euphoria in that meditation room. During one of my first hours of complete stillness I experienced a few moments of utter bliss and loving joy emanating from my being – that feeling of love and compassion for one’s fellow mankind that I have always believed should be the ultimate goal of deep meditation – and I glimpsed it, I tasted it! As tears of joy streamed down my cheeks I felt like I was peering into a vast ocean of possibilities and only just tapping the surface of an eternally deep and never ending supply of pure and clear love. It wasn’t until later of course that my left brain kicked in and decided that those sensation were probably just my mind’s interpretation of the sensation caused by the rush of endorphins that had been released by my body to help me cope with the excruciating pain I was experiencing. I was quite surprised though with how much I managed to avoid growing an attachment to this sensation and managed to remain equanimous as the feeling past me by, only to be replaced by the more familiar sensation of a burning throbbing agony throughout most of my legs. Now according to Buddha, as soon as you experience this euphoria and attach a preference to this sensation, you have failed at the purpose of the meditation, which is to reach a deep understanding of the nature of reality – that all is impermanent and you should remain equanimous, with no attachment to this sensation, however I will admit that although I didn’t try to cling to the sensations in the moment, those moments are definitely cherished and savored in my mind, because they opened my eyes to the potential of a person to feel a complete harmony and joy with the world. To me, that is where the potential for a better world to live in can be harnessed. If everyone could share in that awareness then surely the world would be a much happier, safer and more joyful place to be. And so – to Buddha I apologize, but to that experience I will remain attached. I certainly will not crave it – but I will place it on a little bit of a pedestal, as a state to aspire to in one way or another – permanently or impermanently – so that it may color my choices and actions in the world and make me a better person, a more loving and giving person who wants to take care of the world around her and the people in it. And this was my greatest lesson from those 10 days and one that I can already feel permeating the choices and decisions I am making and the way that I choose to interact with the world.
So to conclude, I suppose I should answer the question that I posed at the beginning. To Vipassana or not to Vipassana? Well – if the Vipassana Express was supposed to deliver me to peace and harmony (which in actual fact it isn’t, as I learned through the course – since a 10 day Vipassana is actually just the beginning of a life long journey), I could come to the conclusion that it didn’t work – that my carriage got unlatched and I was left somewhere along the track – I didn’t make it to the final goal and so in a way for me the process failed (or I failed at the process) and one might decide that embarking on those 10 days was a complete waste of time – one might say ‘not to Vipassana’. But when I step back from it all – with a couple of days to clear my head from the vivid memories of the pain, I am certain that I did take at least a part of the journey. Maybe the train almost got derailed and so decided to go back to the station for another service before setting out again. Anyway, whatever part of the journey I did manage to take, along the way I certainly gained a big chunk of wisdom and some wonderful insights into my soul that I believe can guide me forward in a happy healthier way in life. So I would have to then conclude: ‘To Vipassana’.

Now, would I do it again? Well that’s another question. Probably not……but don’t quote me on that when I’m signing up for another round of torture a few years from now. But am I happy that I did it? Absolutely! Although it is without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life (even harder than climbing a 6153M Himalayan peak), it showed me the potential of a life – it showed me the possibilities of ‘being’ and for that I will be eternally grateful – that is as eternally grateful as one can possibly be in the moment, the only moment, the here and now of existence, the ultimate truth of being!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

This is the touristy bit!

Not surprisingly, Rajasthan is one of the most popular states in India for the average tourist to visit. And the reason for that is simple: Around the 16th Century, Rajput strength was at it’s peak and the state was made up of a series of kingdoms ruled by powerful leaders and Maharajah’s, who built impressive palaces and forts to protect their domains.

Over the years those fortresses were put to the test time after time, in defense against attacking powers and so Rajasthan is rich in both fascinating history and monumental architectural structures. In just over a week we made it our mission to visit as many forts and palaces, as was humanly possible. Some have been perfectly preserved or reconstructed to give you an atmospheric glimpse of their original grandeur – some are in a sad state of disrepair but all share that magic quality of ‘viewability’ – that made our time in Rajasthan captivating.
We began our tour of Rajasthan in Jaipur, visiting the Amber Fort

just outside the city (where I was delighted when our guide asked if Darko was my son……seriously – has married life really taken its toll that much?)

as well as the city palace (still inhabited by the Maharajah of the city today)

and the impressive, weird and wonderful observatory.

From Jaipur we had a quick stop in Bundi, one of the smaller towns on our circuit, where Rudyard Kipling spent time writing, which actually gave us a wonderful insight into why people used to fall in love with India.

Wandering the narrow lanes and alleys filled with bright blue buildings (painted blue to represent the Brahmin caste to which the inhabitants belong)

we were greeted with warm smiles and an amicable willingness to pose for a picture

without ever being asked for ‘rupees’ or ‘school pens’.

The streets were surprisingly clean and garbage free

and the ram shackled, falling down palace towering above the town, on the way up to the impressive fort on the hilltop behind, made a suitably romantic excursion for the late afternoon and early evening as the sun set behind the horizon.

In Bundi we stayed in a 500 yr old renovated Haveli with stained glass windows and traditional murals that made us feel like we were stepping back in time.

From Bundi we made our way to Chittorgah to explore the various ruins and structures of yet another hill top fort,

with its Palaces, Tower of Victory and Tower of Freedom, displaying sculpture and stonework that rivaled that of Hampi.

This was where we also managed to get a taste of the real authentic Indian experience for my Dad and his wife,

since most tourists only stop by for the day and visitor accommodations are sparse. We found ourselves a cheap hotel with mostly Indian guests and were treated to the usual delights of loogie hocking sounds through the paper thin walls and even a special visit in the night from the hotel clerk trying to deposit a second loads of guests into the room already occupied by my dad…..just so happened he was standing naked by the bed at the precise moment the door was flung open. Needless to say, the clerk made a hasty retreat and certainly got an eyeful of a naked Dave out of the deal! 5 Star service all the way!

From here we made our way to the magical city of Udaipur.

Considered by many to be the most romantic city in India, and I have to say, I think I agree.

The view from our hotel rooftop was utterly spectacular, looking out over the lake on the banks of which the city nestles. The island beyond the shore is actually home of the lake palace, now an exclusive hotel where part of James Bond, Octopussy was filmed and so we enjoyed several meals just gazing out to this picture of elegant beauty. And surprise, surprise there was a palace to visit, with exquisite mirror work and murals throughout decorating the walls and ceilings. Mostly the palaces of Rajastan are a series of rooms and courtyards that have been constantly amended and added to over the centuries that give you the sense that you are lost in the labyrinth of a fairytale castle.

It’s easy to spend hours just wandering about from room to room, imagining in your mind’s eye, the life of the Maharajah and his Maharani, with all their servants and courtiers.
After a second day in Udaipur, spent riding around the surrounding countryside of the city, on thoroughbred Mewari horses (don’t forget to ask Diane how much she loved that morning more than any other part of the trip) and dining in one of the finest restaurants of India, overlooking the lake with a lovely bottle of rose, it was time to move on once again.

This time to Jodhpur: another Brahmin blue town

with charming alleys

and friendly faces,

and yep, you’ve guessed it a fort with a palace.

Finally we made it to the final destination on our sightseeing itinerary in the town of Jaisalmer, and said goodbye to Krishna, our wonderful driver who had miraculously got us all the way there in one piece without a scratch or a dent, although at one point we did wonder whether we were going to be stranded in the desert with the clutch in pieces on the highway, since his ability to change gears almost completely arrested by the time we made it.

Jaisalmer is less than 150KM from the border of Pakistan and so we noticed a distinct difference in the personality of the place.

Perhaps it is just the dry arid heat of the desert that calms the mayhem of India, but to me it seemed decidedly different to the rest of India.

From here we arranged a camel safari,

to spend a night out under the stars, eating by the light of campfire and enjoying the fresh cool air of the desert at night. As we lay on our blankets waiting for sleep to wash over us we were treated to the spectacle of a shooting star or two to wish upon and thankfully awoke to find that our wishes had been granted and our camels were still on hand to take us back to civilization.

Although Darko discovered unhappily that his camel managed to take the concept of ‘morning breath’ to a whole new level while he was preparing to mount and found himself gagging from the foul odor emanating from his camel’s mouth, we were glad of the ride, since by 9am the scorching sun was already beating down on us full pelt and giving us a taster of the heat to come.
Finally we caught the overnight train back to Delhi, where we were to part ways with our travel companions and point them in the direction of the Himalayas, whilst we would head off on our final task of this crash course to insanity, of seeking a little spiritual enlightenment. On the train we had a chance to reflect on our whirlwind tour and reminisce on some of the more memorable moments. The very concept of traveling in India with novice backpackers in the over 50’s category was truly a bit of a daunting one, but we were glad to say that our buddies handled it all with ease (although Diane may disagree if you ask her about that lovely train ride back to Delhi and the aftermath – but that’s for her to tell!). Despite the daily growing stack of luggage, and the inability of my father to show up on time for anything (nothing new there then!), we all proved to be a pretty well behaved troupe of travel companions. Amongst the most memorable moments though I have to say, it wasn’t the beautiful mosaic mirror work on the ceilings of the palaces or the impressive vistas from the roof of a fortress. Nor was it the silence and stillness of the sand dunes

as the cool evening breeze began to blow whispers across my face, or the rolling lilt of the camel’s rhythmical stride under the scorching sun. No, it was the repeated queries from my father, about the schedule for the day that had already been discussed 17 times over breakfast, or the constant questions for Darko about camera settings and ISO speed. And then there were the hilarious moments on the overnight trains, watching with amusement as Diane attempted to hoist herself up on to the top bunk of the sleeper car and failing miserably (making it eventually, with a bit of a boost from behind), or learning that Diane was actually planning to ‘hold it in’ all night because she just couldn’t bring herself to do the ‘squat and squirt’ in one of the ‘hole in the ground’ toilets. (Apparently the stench was just too foul and made her wretch the minute she bent down – which I guess probably would inhibit the relaxation of the correct bladder muscles for urination). Ahh – such giggles we had at the expense of poor Diane – but don’t worry – we finally found a stall with a ‘sit upon’ as she called it and the call to nature was successfully answered. And then of course there were the lessons on how to get rid of the beggars and touts and the imparting of the wisdom that the salesmen are almost NEVER telling the truth, as well as the multiple training sessions we attempted to provide (mostly in vain) about the nuances of a successful haggle – lets just say that Diane’s poker face needs a lot of work! It was all these personal moments and many more that made our little jaunt around Rajastan more than just a trip to India – but a portion of this crash course to insanity we are on that I will always remember with fondness and pride.

I discovered that I can actually get along with my father for more than two hours at a time and that family truly is a precious thing. (Especially when that family helps to up your daily accommodation budget from $10 to $25 and you actually get a good night’s sleep as a result – India looks so much better after a good night’s sleep with a chauffeur driven car!). But all joking aside, traveling with family really is a great way to get to know one another in a neutral environment that can help you to see a person in a whole new way and I really would recommend it to everyone……..but don’t quote me on that!