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 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… 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… 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!

Friday, 16 April 2010

How 'bout that marble dome?

It’s really impossible to say anything about this experience without saying something that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before……but I’d be a fool not to at least try…….I think I owe you guys that much! What else could I possibly be referring to, but our visit to none other than that oh so infamous wonder of the world, the Taj Mafreakinhal…..well I bet it’s never been called that before!

I do actually now consider myself to be an utterly spoilt brat of the backpack brigade because, for me, this was actually a repeat performance, having visited the Taj on my first foray in India many years ago. But fortunately for me, for all my travel companions this was the day to pop their Taj Mahal cherries and so off we went with a bounce in our rickshaw ride and a spring in our flip-flopped step to have an encounter with the sublime. I say fortunate for me, because I got such a kick out of watching them all, (especially my step-mum) stride out in calculated haste, with such eagerness to get to the ticket booth and dispense with the formalities, so that they could hurry up and catch a glimpse. Just like a child on Christmas morning that hasn’t yet learned that Santa is just a tale made up by the adults, Diane had that excited gleam in her eye and was raring to go. It made the second time around for me that much more sensational to be sharing it with them all.

But, how does one describe the indescribable? Of course we can go with the basics…..milky white marble,

spectacular inlaid stone work,

simple water features and manicured lawns, perfect symmetry, bladdy, bladdy blah. But the essence? The magic? How do you capture that? And a photograph doesn’t even do it justice.

There really is no substitute for actually being in a place like that.

We had decided to arrive around mid afternoon so that we would have plenty of time to explore every corner of the grounds and just soak it all up before the golden hour arrived,

and the setting sun would begin to set the dome alight, but somehow it still didn’t feel like enough time.

The sheer scale of this gargantuan monument is of course a huge factor in adding to it’s wonderousness and impressive presence, but I think that what fundamentally clinches the peak of its impressibility is the fact that this incredible piece of architecture was built solely for the purpose of celebrating a life. Shah Jahan, the ruler who commissioned this colossal structure was basically building a shrine for his dead wife, Mumtaz Mahal to commemorate her life……now that’s a pretty serious display of adoration. He also planned to build an identical structure out of Black Onyx on the other side of the river for his own interment, whenever that day came, but he never managed to pull that project off, thanks to a little issue with his son, who, being afraid that his father was going to spend all of his inheritance, locked him up,

in the Agra Fort for the last remaining years of his life and took over as ruler and lord, before daddy dear had managed to get that project off the ground.

As the sun slowly began it’s descent across the hazy sky we watched with admiration, observing the subtle changes taking place in the colors and hues reflected back from the marble of that majestic iconic dome. Magnificent, magical, mystical, momentous, marvelous and that’s just the ‘m’ adjectives that spring to mind. It truly was one of those days that will remain etched in my memory banks forever. Now that’s “Incredible India”!

But if you do ever find yourself with a couple of free days in Agra, I would like to point out that there’s definitely more to Agra than just the Taj Mahal.

There are actually several other, almost as equally impressive, monuments and mausoleums to be seen. For the price of just a bagel and a juice back home we were able to see the rest of Agra’s highlights in a day, by way of our very own chauffeur driven rickshaw, with the reliable and rambunctious, Haneef, who fortunately (for us and him) found us looking for a means of locomotion from A-B as we set out for our day. You see, most of the rickshaw drivers in the big cities of India spend their day touting for business, napping and occasionally picking up the odd 10 or 15 rupee fare for an Indian family that will only pay ‘local price’.

So the rickshaw drivers are usually quite excited to find a few tourists who want to hire them for the day and pay the equivalent of a king’s ransom (to them) for the privilege.

We visited the Agra fort,

The Baby Taj

and Akbar’s Mausoleum and never tired of playing tourist,

constantly surrounded by the spectacular relics and reminders of ancient times.

But the highlight of our second day of sightseeing in Agra was undoubtedly the way we decided to finish it off. It’s not often in a lifetime that one gets the chance to view one of the wonders of the world and so we all agreed that it was only sensible to get a second look at the Taj Mahal – but this time from afar.

By backpacker standards our digs in Agra weren’t half bad – but for the regular tourist one might say that we were kind of slummin’ it (well that’s certainly what the look on my step-mum’s face said when she first opened the door to her ‘suite’ and discovered, much to her dismay, that there wasn’t even a wardrobe inside the room! – but props to her – she managed it all without a single word of complaint – just as one would expect from a lovely gentile English lady), so we felt perfectly justified in feeling that we’d earned the right to a little luxury. Our final stop that day would be the ‘Oberoi Grand’, please Haneef. Thankfully, our trusty guidebook had mentioned that one could stop by the Oberoi in the afternoon for a ‘sundowner’ without actually being one of the privileged few guests residing at these luxury accommodations. It had been a long day of taking in the sights, our feet were tired and we were very, very thirsty. So – with the help of daddy dearest’s wallet we took refreshments in the Oberoi hotel bar that must surely claim to have one of the top ten views in the world. As we sipped on our cocktails, in the pleasant cool of the air-conditioned lounge, we gazed out of the glass patio doors, to a distant, but perfect view of the softly glowing domes of the Taj Mahal, and marveled that we practically had the place to ourselves!

Phew – what a view, what a day!

our second yummy cocktail it was decided that this actually wouldn’t be a half bad joint to have a spot of dinner, and so we dined in style that night. Thankfully the restaurant didn’t seem to impose a dress-code because I’m pretty sure my dusty flip-flops would not have made it through the ordeal, and to be sure we did feel just a little out of place, since we hadn’t even had time to stop back at our digs for a shower – but oh well – the food was delicious and for Darko and me, it was a wonderful little reminder of what life in the real world was like. Not a dread-locked hippy, or pot smoking Israeli in sight and all the waiters spoke perfect English, and catered to our every need with the care and attention that one might expect from the finest hotel in the city…..ahhhhh!

With Agra ticked off the list we spent a day at the nearby Fatephur Sikri before it was time to head off to the land of forts and palaces in the state of Rajasthan, and for that we were going to need a little extra help. In the weeks preceding my father’s arrival I had put together a grueling itinerary that would have us covering an immense amount of ground in a relatively short space of time and so we had decided that the best way for us to get from A-B was to actually have our own car and driver, instead of relying on bus and train – now while this may sound a tad extravagant, in actual fact in India, it is far from it. Firstly – since everything here is so much cheaper than in the west, the price was still less than you might pay for a hire car alone in Europe but secondly and most importantly, unless you have a serious death wish, there is absolutely no way in hell that you would want to drive yourself on the roads of India. Besides the regular rules of the road that no one actually follows, there are clearly a whole series of unwritten rules in India, which all the Indians are thoroughly familiar with and follow to the letter, but as a foreigner – it’s pretty much impossible to fathom. And so our exit from Agra was made in the comfort of our very own spacious and roomy SUV, driven by the amicable and affable, Krishna. Now the adventure would really begin……and just a couple of hours out of Agra, our first unforeseen event: a blowout. Not to worry – we’d only just stopped half an hour before to fix the spare – so with a nifty, quick wheel change we were back on the road and crossing our fingers that this would not be the shape of things to come. And if it was – well so be it – we were in ‘Incredible India’ after all, where anything can happen! And besides – we’d already seen the Taj Mafreakinhal – so did the rest even really matter…….?