"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Personal Legend

One of my favorite authors, Paulo Coelho, talks about his personal legend and asks people to list their unfulfilled desires on his blog.

In his own words, "It's what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At one point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend."

What is my legend? I understand it as swa-dharma. Says Krishna in the Bhagwad Geeta - one's own duty, though it may be worthless, is better than someone else's duty executed perfectly. Destruction in one's own duty is good - someone else's duty, on the other hand is dangerous. But what is that "one's own duty?" I believe each person has to figure that out for themselves. So often, we are so caught up in the mundane issues while living from day to day, that the purpose of life is forgotten. Sometimes life is better than expected, or more painful than expected - either way, we are so lost in the pleasures or disappointments of life, and forget that there is a higher purpose to a human life.

Coelho considers the personal legend "your blessing, the path God has chosen for you here on Earth. Whenever a man does that which gives him enthusiasm, he is following his legend. However, not everyone has the courage to face up to his own dreams." 

Many people are clear on what would make them happy. Many people are still trying to figure out. Some at least know the direction in which they would like to move but they are not exactly sure what they want in the end. Some people find that their goals are changing with time, others think that their goals are getting clearer with time. Some people are precise of what they want - I want to write a book, says a friend of mine. Others have a broad vision - I want to sing, says another friend. Not surprisingly, nobody has told me that their job is their personal legend.

My personal legend is to work with children. Not clear on how, but I know that ultimately that will be my life's work. Working with young minds is my way of tuning in to the Brahman, and finding ultimate peace and joy.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kamal ki hype

Saw 5 episodes of SaReGaMaPa today - loads of singing talent among youngsters in India. There are 5 people left - Sugandha from Punjab with the mimicry talent, Bishakh from Bengal whose girlfriend's name is Sonam, "the laavani girl" Anu from Maharashtra, the ghazal singer Ranjit Rajwada from Rajasthan, and Kamal Khan from Punjab.

Who is Kamal Khan? Though his singing is good episode after episode, I have to strain to remember anything other than his singing. There is no story out there about him, nothing that is made fun of, nothing that is repeated about him in episode after episode - how is anyone to remember him beyond appreciating his singing? And do I remember the last song he sang? - No, such is the memory of the average audience member.

Some of the competitors who have left by now had better hype than this - the girl from Canada who said "actually" thrice in a sentence and was encouraged to speak each time to the show guest, the competitor from Pakistan with a soulful voice, the opera singer, the well-built guy from Punjab who had lifted Salman Khan on his shoulders, the girl from Bengal who was going through a divorce, the girl from Bengal for whom Wajid Khan said he loved her eyes, the girl who was a great classical singer and her family of four who live in four towns in India, the very lovable guy from Pakistan who danced as much as he sang...and the list goes on and on...there is a story attached to each face, but what is the story on Kamal?

In an age where hype pays more than talent and performance, I vote for Kamal Khan as my favorite singer for SaReGaMaPa 2010.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Giving thanks on Thanksgiving

As Thanksgiving weekend comes to a close, we have one day left to finally finish off the left-overs, finally do the cleaning and laundry and finish the homework in the case of a certain young person in the house.

I am grateful to Shiva for my family and friends, for the life and the lifestyle I am blessed with, and the wonderful moments in the year gone by. I am grateful for the opportunities to learn and serve, and a big thank you to the Chinmaya Mission for organizing the trip this summer to Kailash and Manas Sarovar this year with the wonderful group of people who made it memorable, the divine grace that allowed this trip to materialize, and the Sherpas who made it physically possible. 

I am grateful for finally being able to start teaching at Sunday school and work with children again. The innocence of youth gives a fresh perspective on life, and I am quite sure the discussions are far more enlightening for me than for the class. I am amazed at the workload of high school students, and so grateful I am not in high school, and that those who are in high school are so capable. 

Saw the Hindi movie Guzaarish on the eve of Thanksgiving, so I am especially grateful that while the rest of us lose sleep, complexion and hair over mundane issues, such people walk the earth who look divinely beautiful even in unimaginable misery...just kidding, really did like it...a wonderful movie with a wonderful message about what a wonderful gift a human life is.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cooking for Thanksgiving

People always ask me what I will be making for Thanksgiving. Firstly, no turkey in our Vaishnav household. Secondly, all the entrees that I proudly make are called side dishes in the world I live in. Thirdly, we don't  particularly like pumpkins.

We do have plenty to be grateful for. So a Thanksgiving feast it is, each year. This year, I tried convincing the little one that a Gujarati dinner of rotli (pan-roasted flat bread), bataka nu shaak (potato curry), sev tameta nu shaak (tomato curry), undhiyoo (baked mixed vegetables), makai ni khichdi (mashed corn), lachko dal (lentil curry), bhaat (steamed rice), chhundo (pickled grated assorted fruit) had the same ingredients as the classic Thanksgiving meal, albeit with some good old Indian spices.

She said she did not want anything Indian. I reminded her that Thanksgiving was all about accepting the Indians and their way of life. After a brief nonsensical conversation, she knew it was no use discussing this further. She put her foot down and said, I want a tofurkey, a pasta dish, pumpkin pie, mashed potato and desserts.

There is nothing more labor-intensive than making a feast for three people. I could not get hold of a tofurkey which is a good thing, I am not sure anyone would eat it. Got the last pumpkin pie from Tom Thumb and some desserts from their bakery - that only two people would eat in our house. Made mashed potato and cheese macaroni. In place of the tofurkey, could I use paneer? The little God said yes. Does it need to be shaped like a turkey? At that point, why be vegetarian? The little God said no need. Ended up making paneer makhani. Made chhole - chick peas as well. And mango smoothies. The little one said hey, how did so much Indian food get on the table? Too late, time to eat now :), happy Thanksgiving!!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Days After

It has been two weeks since the Kailash parikrama - circumambulation.

Just read about a traveler from Rajkot who had returned from Kailash-Manas Sarovar trip to Kathmandu on Jul 3 and passed away the next day. He was with the Shrestha Travels group that had returned to Kathmandu on the day that our group had started the trek around Kailash. My thoughts and prayers are with his family in their grief, and I am glad he was able to complete his trip to Kailash-Manas Sarovar in this lifetime.

I have noticed that whereas focusing on Shiva's name and closing my eyes brought me a visual memory of Kedar earlier that faded into nothingness, now it is interspersed images of Kedar and Kailash that fade away slowly - the former is a temple made by man to replicate the house of the Divine, which is the latter. And I feel truly blessed I have seen both.

It would be great to spend some time in solitude after a trip of this nature, it gives you time for manan-chintan - introspection and analysis. For most of us, it was time to return to a frenzied pace. After the trek was over, I was still unpacking and packing for Haldwani, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Delhi and finally Dallas meeting friends and family everywhere and also talking shop with a few people along the way. I was busy while my mind reeled from the shock of new and opened flows of thought. It was as if somebody stirred the pot, and memories and thoughts and emotions from the sub-conscious were released into the conscious mind. This will take me time to adjust to - there are things I needed to think through. And I will always stand by my promise to myself on the banks of the Brahmaputra that I will always remember its peaceful flow, I will learn to live through everything that life brings.

In Ahmedabad, the Sivananda ashram, my home away from home, was tranquil as ever.

Morning yoga sessions at the Sivananda ashram, Ahmedabad

Lily pond at the Sivananda ashram

Shivalaya at the Sivananda ashram, Ahmedabad, home away from home

Aum Namah Shivaaya!!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Kailash 2010 Day 16 : Back in Delhi, Saturday Jul 10, 2010


We were asked to put our bags outside the room before 6, and leave at 6:30 am to the airport.

The bag pick-up person could only take one of my bags, story of my life. Anyway, I wheeled the other one to the reception counter. As usual, there were three persons from the travel agency who stood and stared but nobody bothered to offer support or service. When I asked the hotel reception guy what I was supposed to do with a bag I have dragged from my room, he rushed out to talk to them and finally I found out that my second bag needed to just sit there outside the hotel and wait to be loaded. Why??? And where was the bag they picked up from my room???

When I came back after breakfast, the second bag was still sitting outside, the first bag still nowhere to be seen. People did not know where their bags were, and Swarn announced that they would check the rooms to make sure everything is picked up. This incomplete logic was infuriating, especially in light of yesterday's chaos. I had to put in my tuppence again - I was not going to budge till I saw the first bag that had apparently been loaded since it is nowhere to be seen but nobody could confirm that - there is no clear handshake, and I did want to see my second bag get loaded before I boarded a bus for the airport. Why is service not given till the customer asks for it??? A couple of others like Sriniji said too that they needed to see their bags before boarding the bus. Shrestha people pulled the bags they had loaded for the passengers to make a visual check. Luckily my first bag was there, and the second one was now loaded into a car, and we were off to the airport.

Another round of chaos at the airport as people unloaded any bag from any car/bus and put in any cart and started pushing. My gigantic military green bags stand apart and I was able to put them in a cart and start pushing. Within fifteen minutes, there were people going crazy because they didn't know whose bag they had and they didn't know where their bags were, and someone had put their Manas Sarovar jal - water, in their carry-on luggage, etc etc. The security at the door checked my passport and said, Neeraja-ji, aap Kailash gaye the? - Did you go to Kailash? The "apnewale" pyaar - love for "my own people", had started again, this time from the Nepali officers and staff. The security guard at the escalator was warm and affectionate and all this stopped when I reached the Jet Airways ticket counter and the lady wanted 5000 Nepali rupees for the extra weight in my bags. This was when I realized the people at Delhi had let me travel with the additional weight. So 5000 Nepali rupees it was to get to the next step.

Off to the pretty invasive manual physical check and then the manual hand luggage check where the security woman pulled out all my camera equipment and started counting all my currency from Nepal, India, China and the US. I had to admit it looks pretty fishy to be carrying so much photography equipment and cash in so many currencies but her supervisor who came running over to inspect the proceedings was very friendly. He suggested I should have said I was Nepali to avoid all this pareshani - problems, and told the security lady to put everything back. He said I looked Nepali, nobody would question me if I said I was one. The final check before heading off to the plane, and the very final check on the plane just before entering - again warm and friendly people wondering if I am Nepali and finally, I got to sit in the plane.

The hospitality of Indian carriers is legendary in this day and age. Already, we had water and juice while the plane was on the ground, and now free beer!!! This is Shiva's brand of humor - free alcohol was being served when there were six Swamijis on the plane, and everyone down the aisle modestly refusing to drink. Luckily I can look at beer without temptation. Besides, I had stopped taking any alcohol in April because of my gratitude at getting the chance of going to Kailash,

Finally, I was back in Delhi - matrabhoomi janmabhoomi Bharat, sarzameen-e-Hind - motherland India again!!! The immigration officer squinted at me a few times but then smiled and let me go - I was entering the country for the third time within six months, - I am glad the immigration officers stay on top of these things.

My bags came fairly quickly. A successful two-week trip and four days of sheer joy sealed with a hug and a kiss - don't know if we will ever meet again, and many Namaskars and Pranams and Hari Oms later, I was out of the airport into the hot and humid Delhi air, going to Jyoti's to unpack and pack some more for my 36-hour visit to Haldwani by train. And then unpack and pack again for Ahmedabad.

Soon, it will be time to return to my karmabhoomi - land of action, America where the immigration officer will squint at me quite a bit and ask me where I have been and why, and take my picture and fingerprints for the third time this year, before welcoming me home.

Aum Namah Shivaaya!!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Kailash 2010 Day 15 : Back at Kathmandu, Friday July 09, 2010

We started at 7 from Nyalam, and weaved through the mountainside to reach the Chinese immigration office by 8:30 am. The processing started at 10 am and again we were on Friendship Bridge, this time walking to Nepal.

Waiting for bus no. 3
The road from the bridge to the buses waiting for us in Nepal is all downhill. In the crowd of people - our group and many others, Mallik appeared by my side to accompany me till the bus - my perfect bade bhaiya - elder brother, making sure I don't need a porter, and that I don't need any help from him carrying my two backpacks.

When we reached the buses, we realized there were only two buses with a capacity of thirty each, not enough for a group of 71 with 10 sherpas. An hour and a half long chaos later, we finally have three buses.

The Nepal countryside is more beautiful than I remember from the bus journey two weeks ago.

The buses ambled along till we were stopped suddenly on a village street. The locals were protesting some police action and had created a road barrier. Swarn called the police so that the barriers could be lifted, citing
several sick people on the bus.

I am very concerned that buffalo behind the marijuana plant is high

Things happen for a reason - in the one hour that we stopped on the road, I got an introductory class on marijuana from Seeta Devi. Apparently, it grows in abandon in the Nepal countryside, and the good doctor recognized it. I thought those were tomato plants. I am a bit concerned the buffalo may be high.

There were Kodak moments of the animal kingdom by the plenty - buffalo chewing the cud, a bunch of ducks on a walk, a goat chewing on grass, dogs lazing in the shade, a rooster strutting around, sweet thin cows walking along looking like they need food and exercise to develop some muscle,... Once the police arrived, it did not take long for the road to clear up and we went off to Kathmandu.

Took me back to my Dallas neighborhood where we come to a screeching halt to let ducks cross the street

Borderland Resort, Nepal border
Swarn told me bungy jumping was out since it is 4km away from the place she had planned lunch at. We passed the bungy bridge without stopping - I will need to come back another time.

The Borderlands resort had beautiful planned gardens that opened into each other, with a thatched-roof patio as the dining place.

The dinner tables were Lebanese style - low lying tables with cushions as seats. The food looked good but other than my aloo-paratha binge and the one-time dessert of kheer at Nyalam, I was still on steamed rice and two spoons of dal water. The place felt like a luau, the only thing missing were the Hula dancers.

The world is beautiful when the heart is happy.

The resort had scenic viewpoints like the upper area at Yellowstone. The river gurgles and flows at a remarkable speed around the resort.

Water at high speed around rocks, Borderland Resort, Nepal border

KV Rao

Mallik missing Aparna
Alka had taken the altitude pretty badly, I saw her smiling today after a long time. Sairam was feeling much better as well, everyone is much happier now that we are close to the end.

Anu, Shailaja, Alka, Sairam - saw Alka smiling after a long time

Can never thank them enough...

Seema at the river bank, Borderland resort

As usual, Seema had found a way for us to go touch the water, and just about the time that we reached the river, we heard the ear-shattering whistles from Rajeev and Yogananda, and like trained dogs, we obediently turn to leave. Rajeev and Yoga have been given these whistles since we entered Tibet to herd up the people, I think they have enjoyed the whistling way too much.

My sweetest and youngest fellow traveler, Varsha Appaji
The driver took his own time to reach the hotel. Our youngest and sweetest traveler by far, Varsha asked me riddles in the bus - I have to confess I did not get a single one.

The driver appeared to like driving, and despite the delays we had encountered already, he took a long circuitous route once we entered Kathmandu. What was expected to be a five-hour journey took eight hours and there were cheers when the bus finally reached the hotel gates. I am quite sure the sarcasm was lost on the driver. The extra time was well used in my bus for some chanting - the energetic rendering of the Mahishasura Mardini stotram that I love to hear and only know one line of :), and some others that I faintly recognize or not at all - I grew up in the same country learning only the Catholic prayers said at school. To this day, the only complete prayer I know is the Lord's Prayer that I say at any temple, shrine or deity. Now, having gone through the challenge of trying to memorize Sanskrit stotrams as an adult, I recommend the memorization of Sanskrit with accuracy in recitation from childhood. I am amazed by my friends from Andhra who recite gazillion lines in Sanskrit without having to look at a book. I have been given a second chance in life for learning, not everyone gets that opportunity.

The eight-hour journey cramped in a bus seat had turned my legs into balloon art - I did not have ankles anymore, my legs were swollen into tubes. My Manas Sarovar jal was lost - I had forgotten the containers in my room at Chiu Gompa, it was handed to Swarn and that was the last anyone ever saw them. Repeated reminders in the last three days had borne no result, I had been told the cars would be searched, the Sherpas would be asked, the truck would be searched, nothing had happened yet. The cars were already gone when we crossed the border in Tibet, the truck would leave if not checked quickly at Kathmandu, and tomorrow morning we would be in Delhi. Instead of an apology for losing my things, I was being told that I can go buy a can from the market and Shrestha can give me some of the additional Manas Sarovar jal. This is the last straw. I hate to do this at the end of a satisfying journey, but I had to articulate that I was a paying customer, and I would like Shrestha to make things happen, the jal needed to be delivered to me in a way that I can carry it to Delhi.

When we arrived at the hotel, chaos reigned again, no surprise!!! Some duffel bags were lying on the grass. We were told they would be delivered to the rooms. At the rooms, we found more duffel bags strewn in the grass and it has now started drizzling. My bag was not outside the room, it must still be lying in the grass outside the hotel reception. When I walked back there, there are four people from Shrestha to stand and stare. The hotel manager was talking incessantly into his mobile without any progress on the bag situation. A couple of hotel employees were now bringing the wet bags from the grass to a covered area. I saw my bag now, and asked the manager to have it delivered to my room and give him the number, and finally walked back in the rain on my swollen feet to shower and change for the final meeting at 8pm. At the room again, and no bag. I walked back to the reception counter, now my bag was not there either though it had not been delivered to my room. When I asked the manager where the bags had gone, he told me they were delivered which I assured him mine was not. He told me to go check again. Time again for my second speech today on "let me remind you who the paying customer is" but the hotel manager was too busy on his mobile. When he got free from his many conversations, I told him my luggage tags (for my international bags stored in the hotel) were in my duffel bag which I have not received yet, so how do I get my bags back because it was time to start packing for Delhi now. The answer is not "we will need a photo ID" or "please come back at 8 so we can take you to identify your bags" etc. It is "you will have to wait". All rightey then, time to throw a hissing fit about the hotel's service standards and the lack of basic common sense as well as the apathy of the Shrestha onlookers while customers run from pillar to post searching for their bags, most of which are now wet in the rain. The emotional feedback got due attention that soft-spoken queries were not getting, and I was off in a car with a hotel employee towards the rooms to search for my duffel bag.

The question arises why do service providers wait for the customer to be irate before providing basic services??? Why does the decibel level need to be high for us to act??? CRM 101 needs to be a mandatory course in all schools and colleges globally so that we get service of a consistent quality anywhere we go. If the manager had apologized that I had to walk between buildings twice just to ask about my bags, and that he would make sure my bag reached my room, I would have walked back to my room for the third time without kicking up a fuss. We found the bags in a common area, completely wet - it was dumped in the heap of unclaimed wet bags outside the guest building even though it was raining and the dumper should have known better and the dumper was the hotel employee to whom the room number was given very clearly. I explained to the hotel people that if my clothes inside were wet, they would be ironing them all night so I can leave for Delhi in the morning. Of course, my belongings are dry as the desert air, I had packed everything in sealed ziploc bags. I now walked back on my swollen feet one last time to give my luggage tags to the hotel reception to get my international bags.

Rajeev did a great job as the MC for the 8 pm meeting to express our thanks to the gurus, inviting some people to share their experiences. Throughout our trip, at each new place, as we dragged our aching bodies and our bags from our cars, Rajeev would have figured out room allotment and would be announcing it cheerfully. Not sure we thanked him enough. With Bose, Srihari, Yogananda, Rajeev and others, I think the Swamijis chose the perfect volunteers from the group to do the most tedious tasks in a spirit of service. A lady who described Swami Shivayogananda's advice to her before trekking around Kailash gave a very modest and humble and honest close-to-the-heart speech that spoke to me.

I could not believe this was over, I did not think I got enough time with the Masters, I did not think I learned as much as I should have, I did not feel I had experienced enough to change much, I could only hope the spiritual experience of this trip stays with me and reveals itself over the years. No amount of guru dakshina - offering to the guru, can correctly represent my gratitude for what the Swamijis have done for the group - leading us to Kailash and Manas Sarovar, chanting stotrams that I am now inspired to learn, the satsang - discourses that I can never get enough of, and even the bhajans - hymns that, ahem... help me relax. And they have gone beyond the role of acharya - spiritual leaders, and taken on the organization and detailed planning for this trek and they have been directly accessible as the main contact persons for any issue or question.

Swarn handed out certificates for the Kailash - Manas Sarovar trek for the group. AND, delivered Manas Sarovar jal for me, I had something to take back now. Many people had by now offered to share their jal with me if I did not get anything. One more reason to go with a harmonious group like the Chinmaya Mission group for such treks.

And dinner had sugarless yogurt alongside the pre-sweetened yogurt. Finally!!!!

It took two hours to pack everything into my international bags and they are well over the 20kg limit of Jet Airways.

Ab Dilli Door Nahin - Delhi is not far now.

Aum Namah Shivaaya!!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Kailash 2010 Day 14 : Back at Nyalam, Thursday July 08, 2010

We started at 9 from Saga - Swamiji asked me to sit in the ambulance, so-called because of the two doctors who sit in that car. I sat shotgun for the first time in this trip - the best seat for taking pictures and falling asleep, while the doctors fussed over me. I greatly appreciated their TLC that I was dying for the night before. Both of them have done immense sewa, - service, on this trip by cheerfully taking care of all the people who fell sick and making the rounds in each room every day. 80% of the people have needed medical attention at one time or another during this trip.

Exquisitely beautiful Peiko Tso lake
The world was more beautiful today than it was yesterday. The Peiko lake was more tranquil and breathtakingly beautiful than I remembered seeing on the way into the Tibetan plateau. There were birds flying over the lake, and sheep grazing near by. There was a light breeze and a gentle sunshine. It felt like Nature had decided to scale up its beauty every day now since we crossed Paryang. Everyone in the car noticed the spectacular view, and the driver stopped without being asked to, so we could take pictures. The sheer bliss of that day had to be experienced, no photograph can capture it.
Nature unleashes a more beautiful version every day

I have seen everything now
It was a day of few pictures because I could barely keep my eyes open and slept after taking the antibiotics. The doctors constantly gave me Ricola, Vicks, etc on top of medication, and constantly asked if I needed to eat, and kept reminding me to drink water. I would be up and about by the end of the day. Tomorrow, we would be in Kathmandu. If there was a day I had to be sick on, this was a good one - life was perfect.

Our car is stuck
I woke up from my nap thinking that our car was swimming. I think we were in deep sand then, and then suddenly we appeared to float. We were stuck. The driver tried accelerating and reversing to no effect other than creating little sandstorms around the wheels. We asked him if we should get out of the car, he asked us to stay in and tried to muscle the car back or forth. Finally, he gave up and allowed us to get out of the car while he kept trying on his own.

The car behind us is trying to pull our car in reverse
In ten minutes or so while I photographed our stuck car and hapless driver, one of our other cars from the cavalcade show up. Our car was tied to it, and it reversed to pull our car out, we got into the car and off to Nyalam once more.

This is a reason why small groups cannot make this trek. We needed the support from the rest of the cars. The one driver who was technically the best was in the last car so that he would stop for everyone and anyone who needed help.

Lunch at a mud-house
Lunch was at a beautiful mudhouse, painted elaborately in primary colors. My lunch was again two spoons of rice and the dal water for flavor and the Frooti, but Seeta Devi will not let me live on that little. I told her I will have my Fruit & Nut bar. But she asked around for a second Frooti, one of the Sherpas offered his own. She would not hear my protests that I can't drink the Sherpa's share, she insisted that I needed the fluids. She reminds me of Priti-ben, Anish's cousin, who constantly battles against our unhealthy habits, and makes sure we stay healthy.

Usha-ji, Gopikrishna-ji and Yoga, Pushpendrabhai at the back

Now I had two Frootis bulging out of my jacket pocket and a couple of locals who had gathered to watch us eat, pointed to my pocket and asked for the drink with hand gestures.

I looked at Sita Devi, she told him in English :) - she is sick, and told me - you drink them. Seema gave her Frooti to the man while I took Seeta Devi's advice, ignored the pleading eyes, and gulped my Frooti.

Dance of the sherpas
Swarn had planned with the Swamijis to have a musical interlude and have the Tibetan car drivers and the Nepali Sherpas sing and dance. But at the right moment, the music that we had tried out earlier did not play well in the car and somebody has to play it loud from the mobile. That did not faze Swarn as she tried to infect people with masti - fun, while the rest of us stood in a circle and clapped. The Sherpas and the drivers joined in.

As we drove on to Nyalam, I felt pretty well-rested, I could stay awake, and I could now fully appreciate the beauty of the countryside. 3 days in a row now, Tibet has evolved into a more beautiful version each day. When the heart is happy, the world glows around you.

Still on earth

Heaven on earth
Pure heaven

Back through the gateway through which we entered the Tibetan plateau nine days ago

As we approached Nyalam, I was struck by how large a town it is. It was a small remote town when I had come here twelve days ago. With the refined perspective from the Tibetan heartland, Nyalam appeared to be a metroplex. I still had quite a bit of medication inside me. Seema went off to walk by the river banks, I could not go with her, I would have slowed her down or even worse, come back after half the distance. Our room was right next to the multi-storeyed toilets, I cannot say things could be worse, I am not sure what could be worse. But someone had to sleep in that room, and Rajeev had decided that it was us. It appeared that some maintenance work had been done since we left this guesthouse ten days ago. The walls had been whitewashed, there was now crown moulding in the rooms, the linen had been washed, there were new blankets and comforters. The room actually looked quite decent if you forgot the restroom next door for a moment.

I dumped my backpacks on the bed, and spent my time loitering in the little compound and then tagged behind Swami Shivyogananda and Rajeev to drink tea, actual chai, at a little place across the street. I would have loved Texas-sized servings, but we were in Tibet. We were served tea in tiny cups meant for little girls' tea parties for which Rajeev ended up paying a fortune. I had barely had one cup when the car with the other Swamijis showed up, and it was time to go back to the guesthouse. The little bit of warm liquid did do wonders and I felt much better. My eyelids were burning a little and I thought I would drink the soup that should be coming soon, and sleep after the appreciation fest at 8.

Appreciation fest, Nyalam
The appreciation fest was an hour-long event to honor the taxi drivers and the Sherpas and the Chinese guides. Swarn had bought traditional white silk scarves and envelopes for our collective contribution for each person. Each person was called by name and honored. We had a live translator for the notes of acknowledgment from Swamiji, and the thank-you comments from the recipients. There were three photographers taking pictures - I am glad we made all this fuss and brought smiles on the faces of people who worked very hard to make this trip happen. Their contribution cannot be measured in $$$. They were there to help us fulfill our prarabhdha - destiny, and they did it with a smile. I was woozed out with medication, but I remember each person's name followed by enthusiastic applause and even more enthusiastic sharp whistles from Rajeev and Yogananda. Swamiji thanked all the volunteers as well, and the "drug-pusher" Sriniji without whose daily dispensing of medication, we would have had larger numbers of people sick at high altitudes.

Dinner was three hours away. After the tea and the soup, I had the strength to walk, and went to the local market with Seema, Swarn, Pratibha and Gaurav to buy anything at all for Anish and Ash from Tibet. Swarn has a 15-month old and there was plenty of cute stuff to be purchased for the baby. She is consumed now with the thought of her baby's first reaction when she sees her after such a long time. I bought a cap and a scarf for Ash, there is nothing for Anish - Nyalam is hardly the Galleria.

Swarn was in a great mood today, and so was her staff whom she asked to make chawal-ki-kheer, - rice pudding after the appreciation fest. The food tasted good, the labor of love from a happy team. I broke my rule of no-dessert since Kathmandu and tasted the kheer, my twin-separated-at-birth Seema's favorite as well but she was fasting, and instead munched on fruit that she had bought on her lone walk to the river.

Tomorrow, we leave for Kathmandu to the same hotel with the pre-sweetened yogurt. I would gladly trade in all my yuans for good old dahi-chawal, - steamed rice and plain yogurt, right now. Not sure if I have said this enough, I am hankering for plain yogurt.

Aum Namah Shivaaya!!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Kailash 2010 Day 13 : Back at Saga, Wednesday July 07, 2010

We started at 3am and reached Saga by 8 am.

I felt a serenity of spirit that appeared to reflect everywhere. The road to Saga was peaceful like all was well in the world. It is difficult to describe the sheer joy that had consumed me - every moment was magical.

I had been requesting Swamiji for some one-on-one and finally I had that opportunity today when I got to sit in his car. Where is the reference to Everest/Sagarmatha in the scriptures? Why did ...Swamiji answered despite his own ill health, and promised to research more and get back. One of the big things I have realized on this trip is that Swamiji is my personal guru not because he heads the Chinmaya Mission at Dallas, but because of my own comfort level with him. He has knowledge, the thirst for knowledge and the understanding of people with a thirst of knowledge, and is able to guide not just the devout unquestioning people, but also those like me who do not have much of a foundation in Sanatana Dharma.

Tibet or England or New Zealand?

Swamiji took this picture from the car - reminds me of North Island in New Zealand - soft slopes, soft grass, soft sunshine and ... the sheep, oh, the sheep that grazes all over the place. :)
We are back in Saga, will take a bucket bath after 8 days
At Hotel Saga at Saga, again I paid up the deposit of 100 yuan that they will hold back if the room is damaged or all the towels are not in the room when we leave. No water, but god forbid someone should take the towels. They perform a quick room check when guests check out before returning the deposit. I got my cell phone back from the hotel - I had forgotten it in the room 10 days ago. The phone that I was so happy to purchase in India did not work in Nepal or Tibet, except as an alarm clock.

We had to wait for an hour for the rooms. Everyone was in a hurry to get to the hot water that only comes at 8-12 noon and 7-10pm.

The promised hot water did not come. The phone lines were already cut off in case anyone thought of complaining to the front desk. No biggie, my roomies did some out-of-the-box thinking, and poured boiling water from the electric kettle into the cold water bucket to make it lukewarm. Hormonal cycles are unexpectedly altered at high altitudes - not easy in a hotel with no running water. It is almost better to be in a mud-house with holes in the ground. I had my lukewarm bucket bath. Did not use the hotel soap and shampoo today, finally used the branded cleanser and shampoo and conditioner that I had not had the opportunity to use so far - there is brown liquid on the bathroom floor as layers of dust and sand get washed off. Not everyone was so lucky, many people did not get this creative, and waited till the evening for hot water that did not come, and finally ended up going to the public bathhouses in the market. Other than a dip in the lake, or two dips that some of us have taken, this is the first cleaning ritual since being at Saga a week ago. Again in Saga, as on the way in, a squeaky clean body to match my razor sharp intellect!!! :)

The next step was to look at a mirror - the first one we had seen since we left Saga ten days ago. My face was multi-colored and my nose was peeling off. Apparently, I had not applied sufficient sunblock, or did not re-apply it sufficiently through the day. No amount of lotions and foundations could make my skin tone even. Good thing I didn't have to look at myself.

A friend of mine had been severely under the weather for a week now. She had survived the trek with her willpower, the selfless service by Pallavi and Gaurav, and the personal care of the doctors who were fellow travelers. I checked in her room, she was lying in bed with wet hair - taking a shower had exhausted her already. She stretched her head to the edge of the bed so I could brush it while she lay down. This was mind-numbingly shocking - every day I had seen her when the cars stopped somewhere, and I knew she was not eating much but then I was not eating either. I had no idea she was this weak. I brushed her hair and tied it into a ponytail - she closed her eyes and lay in bed. I wished from the bottom of my heart then that she would get better soon. We had met at a party just days before leaving Dallas, she had told me to definitely do pranayam - yogic breathing exercises, every morning. We were so excited about this trip - it was very difficult to see her like this.

In the room, we watched soap operas in Chinese, and tried to figure what was going on by the expression on the faces. We visited the shops on the street for things to buy but found nothing. The stores are meant for travelers who have forgotten things, and not for take-home gifts. I wanted to buy some CDs with Buddhist chants that the drivers had played in the cars, but we were not able to locate them. After Seema and I had walked the length of every market street in Saga, we came back to find a group of people gathered to sing and play antakshari in Swamiji's room with Bollywood songs. I would have loved to escape but I could not have gone very far - my room was next door. Seema, Swarn, Gaurav and I sat around for a short while, and then went out to take long walks up and down the roads, aided by my handy-dandy flashlight headband.

We walked past one of the "discotheques" that Swarn had described - body-shaking, hip-grinding Bollywood songs could be heard on the street from gigantic speakers attached to the outside of windows. Swarn had told us that fully-dressed Tibetan women dance in the beginning, before the floor opens up to the crowd. Wonder how they dance to "item songs" performed by extremely talented, flexible and scantily-clad Bollywood actresses. While walking in the dark down the market streets, Swarn asked us a couple of times if we wanted to go in, but the rest of us are practically a generation older and had no interest. Instead, Gaurav had philosophical questions - life, death, contentment, attachment, happiness... we discussed our life experiences and where we thought we stood in our journey while Kajrare Kajrare... played on the speakers. We could have talked all night except I think I was falling sick.

The lukewarm bath and the air-drying of hair was taking its toll and I was quite sick by night. I was very fortunate to be in a room with Seema, Swarn and Pratibha - people I did not know two weeks ago and whose warmth and affection carried me through my misery. For the three nights that we have shared a room so far, we have laughed hysterically as we shared our experiences - all of us sit in different cars and have many stories to tell at the end of the day. Today, I sat up in bed at night for hours - I had a head cold, an aching throat and fever. As I sat in the dark, unable to sleep, unable to breathe if I lay down, smelling camphor to alleviate the discomfort, my life of two weeks ago with more beds and baths than people in the house, and running hot and cold water, and heat cushions and massage chairs was a distant memory. The mind was in a state of ecstatic joy but I needed my tired body to sleep and rest before we left for Nyalam in the morning.

One of the windows in the room was open for ventilation and the incessant patriotic music from the Chinese military base and the ceaseless howling of the street dogs could be heard continuously like the vuvuzelas. Hope they have been banned from FIFA by now, it has been a long time since I watched soccer.

Tomorrow, Shesh Bamba hotel in Nyalam with the multi-storeyed bathrooms.

Aum Namah Shivaaya!!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Kailash 2010 Day 12 : At Dongma past Paryang, Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Phone booth at Paryang

We started the journey from Chiu Gompa in the morning at 3 am, to reach Paryang before road blocks were put up by construction crews. Beyond the excitement of getting into a car that early in the morning, there was nothing outside the car to sustain my interest. It was too dark for me to see anything. And maybe I should have thought of lowering the glass. No idea how the drivers drive on these unmarked trails in pitch dark, but I slept most of the way, comfortable with their expertise.

We had to stop at Paryang around 2pm because our supplies truck slowed down, or got stuck, or whatever it is that happens to trucks that size. In the sweltering heat, in a non-air-conditioned car with windows closed to avoid sand from coming in, I took the opportunity to get some fresh air. The car had stopped near a telephone booth. I made my call to Anish after 10 days of non-communication - "Do not cash in on the insurance, I am coming home". He took it very well, considering it was 1:30 am in Dallas.

Finally, we got news our truck was doing OK, and the cars moved another 500 yards, and stopped in a meadow. The temperature difference between the town and the meadow was amazing - there was a cool breeze, people sat on the grass and chatted. Why we could not have waited here for the truck remained a mystery. A group started antaakshari - a song contest, with bhajans - hymns. I moved fast as far as I could from the spot, they were enjoying the game, they didn't need tone deaf people like me. I used the time to take pictures.

Magical afternoon outside Paryang, on way to Dongma

Unforgettable afternoon outside Paryang, on way to Dongma

Moments of sheer bliss outside Paryang, on way to Dongma

The scenery was out of this world - the green meadow, the clear water running in the stream, vast expanse of sand beyond which was the snow, clouds all around like cotton candy and the blue skies beyond. Suddenly, two tall birds were seen in the far distance, walking on sand dunes on very long legs. I don't know where they came from or what they were. They walked slowly over the dunes, and were not seen again. Nor were there others like them around. It was like a dream sequence in a Hindi movie. There was magic in the air, it was an enchanted afternoon. Standing in that meadow, as I took pictures, I felt a surge of sheer joy. I was at peace with the world, and life felt extremely good.

Kal Bhairav outside Paryang, on way to Dongma

The last car of our 18-car cavalcade came into the parking area with extremely sad news - one of the cars from another group of Kailash trekkers had just had an accident at Paryang, that killed two locals riding a motorcycle. The dead bodies were lying by the accident site and the taxi driver was waiting for the police to show up while the passengers had been moved into another car.

With the usual prayer, we started our super-late lunch. Dongma was 3-4 hours away. Again, I savored my half a cup of steamed rice and spoonful of dal water. It was my Fruit & Nut bar and Frooti that kept me going. Some of the people who ate early on, started serving so that the Sherpas could sit down to eat. One more reason I am glad I am a part of the Chinmaya Mission organization - people from whom I learn each day.

Rajeev, Venkatarao-ji, Gaurav and serve food to the Sherpas

Tibetan children with whom we shared goodies
The village children ate the goodies we shared with them.

Coated with sand and dust, without a shower for a week now except for the two sets of immersions in the lake, I was lucky that I had over-packed and had fresh sets of clothes every day, only my dirty ski jacket and dirtier rain coat/pants needed to be put on as the last layer in the morning - many people had run out of clean clothes. Lifting me high above the grime and discomfort, the magic of that afternoon will stay with me forever. I don't recall ever being so happy before.

One more view of the divine Brahmaputra
After lunch, we drove along the peaceful Brahmaputra. The average height of this river for the next thousand miles is 13K ft, making it one of the highest rivers in the world. Being a trans-boundary river for China, Nepal and India, it assumes critical importance for energy generation. After years of denial, the Chinese have announced recently that yes, they are building a hydro-electric plant on the Brahmaputra but it should not bother India. The serenity and tranquility and bliss of this river transforms into disastrous floods and catastrophes in the springtime.

I needed to hold on to my perfect mental state of peace and bliss of today that I see reflected in the river, to be remembered when life goes into turbulence and tumult in the days to come. The day had been enchanting and the road continued to be so. It felt like I had achieved a major milestone for this life though I was not yet sure what it was, and the world around me appeared to acknowledge this. Life is supposed to be this beautiful.

Tibet grows more stunning before our eyes
The world is beautiful when the heart is happy

This is how life is supposed to be - vast expanse, blue skies

Laid-back sheep walking off slowly to let us pass

At one point, the road was blocked, and the car driver reversed on the "highway" into the sand and then drove through a series of fields. The sheep grazing there appeared quite disinterested and moved slowly a few inches here and there to let the car pass. They reminded me of the herds of snowy white sheep I had seen at Uttarkashi, moving at their own sweet pace, lazily, regardless of the urgency of car horns.

On our way to Kailash, we had lunch at the Yak Hotel at Dongma a week ago. Today, we planned to spend the night there - five people to a room. My room did not have a finished floor, it was the ground with creepy crawlies moving around. I went to sleep without changing, with my shoes on, couldn't bear the idea of something crawling into my shoes at night. The electricity will flow and stop by itself - the sole bulb in the room will let us know that. There were the usual hole-in-the-ground restrooms here but such is the comfort level of some people with using open spaces now that they prefer them to the stinky restroom.

After the much-needed tea and then the very-welcome soup, Swarn came to the room to say that the Sherpas were making aloo parathas - pan-roasted potato-stuffed bread, to be served at 11pm. Could the day get any better? I had not cooked anything in 2 weeks, I so badly wanted to make the parathas myself. It was the first time in the trek that I had felt like actually doing something active instead of flopping in bed the moment we arrived - that was in itself a good sign, back to my hyper energy level. Of course, the Sherpas were already hard at work, as always.

Everyone in the room was napping, and around 10, I went to bed as well. Seema was awake when the Sherpas came by with the paranthas, and woke me up - we took two paranthas each, and kept a look-out for more :). The others in the room were sound asleep. When the Sherpas came by again, they were very surprised - do aur? CHAAR aur?, - two more? FOUR more? I knew then and there that Seema and I were friends for life - anyone who can stay awake till 11 pm to eat four aloo paranthas without once bringing up guilt about butter and calories, is my cosmic twin.

Back to the mud house at Dongma, check out the well in foreground for drawing water to wash face and hands
This blog is incomplete without a mention of the well seen in the picture above. We drew water from this well, about 50 ft deep, to wash the sand and mud off. Even on the return journey, there were new things to be learned each day. The mud house had a series of adjacent rooms. We were worried about ventilation till we realized there were cracks in the wall, parallel to the frame of the door as well as the window - no worries about fresh air.

Night stay at Dongma, will always remember the passage conversations and the aloo parathas
Tomorrow, we need to start at 3am again to dodge the road-block time windows to reach Saga - the last place where we had switches for light and sometimes, water. But today, my mind was in a state of bliss that I have never felt before. Life had changed forever.

Aum Namah Shivaaya!!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Kailash 2010 Day 11 : Going back to Chiu Gompa, Monday, July 05, 2010

Today was the third and last day of the trek around Kailash. This is the day of most contentment in the whole fifteen-day trip, if the trek has gone well. We had immersed ourselves in the Manas Sarovar lake, we had seen all the faces of Kailash, and today the cars were 8 km away, and an hour's drive beyond was Chiu Gompa with the panoramic views of the lake and the mountains.

Relatively tame third day of the trek around Kailash
Swami Jaganmitra (at right in the picture) sang bhajans, and at some point my hatted pony driver and others tried to join along. Swamiji started a sing-along, he would sing a line that the crowd would repeat.

We went on and on with Jai Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram, and the like. The Tibetans thoroughly enjoyed the singing, and all this was interspersed with the universal chant - "Aum Namah Shivaaya".

Spectacular scenery once again as my sinner horsie took me through some hair-raising bends in the mountains. Merciful death if the pony slipped and my head hits a rock with the right force at the right angle, far worse and far more probable to break multiple bones, but ponies don't slip as a rule, they just like to walk on the edge.
Ponies walk along the edge of a steep slope

Buddhist shrines along the way

On the way were Buddhist shrines with each rock inscribed with mantras.

Finally, we could see the lake Manas Sarovar in the far distance.

We had to walk the last steep stretch up and down the mountains. The horses walked alongside, relieved to be walking without riders, see beautiful picture of a pony below from Jayanthi's collection. The end of the Kailash parikrama was near now. At the end, we would find our cars to take us to Chiu Gompa.

Relieved pony walking alongside travelers on steep slopes

Travelers getting off the ponies for the steep climb

Beautiful pony driver couple, happy under tough circumstances
Ushaji and I had discussed what we wanted to give our porters. Without Pema, this trek would have been extremely challenging for me. He was modest and humble for the immense service he had provided.

My pony driver looked very thrilled with the tip he received. All these three days, he has been walking with his lady love, leading my pony and Ushaji's pony.

Every once in a while, they would get all lovey-dovey, come close and hold hands, causing Ushaji's and my horse to crash into one another. After a couple of collisions on narrow ledges, Ushaji had shouted to get their attention and hand-motioned to the young lovers to separate before their love took our lives. They did, and Ushaji and I were able to complete our last stretch of horse-riding without further collision.

When we finally got off to get into cars, my pony driver willingly posed for a picture with his girlfriend, even asking her to remove her face mask - beautiful couple, happy in hardship.

Swamiji trying to take a group picture

Group picture

People danced to celebrate the successful end of the trip. Swamiji was sitting on top of a parked truck trying to get the whole group in one picture. For me, the thrill of the parikrama is over, I need to understand next steps to get excited. I slinked back to my car after the group picture. The group pictures above are from Yoganand's collection.

Golden ducks at Manas Sarovar
Back at Chiu Gompa, we went for the second dip in Manas Sarovar. On the way we saw some golden ducks on the banks of the lake, and the driver took advantage of our interest to say this is how far he would go. Swarn told him there would be no payment if he did not take us till the original place where we had taken a dip three days ago - we had negotiated a payment of 100 yuan to this car driver for this trip. After a little bit of argument with the driver going "stop" and Swarn going "no pay", finally he took the car to the spot Swarn wanted him to go to.

Monastery on top of the hill, directly above our car

Amazingly beautiful lake Manas Sarovar
There were no changing tents, and we were parked at the foot of the vertical face of a mountain. We changed in the car. There was a monastery on top of the mountain, seen in picture above. Hopefully the monks kept the faith and looked away.

It was still afternoon, much earlier in the day than three days ago when we had arrived at the lake. The water was warm in spots.

My second set of three immersions in a natural body of water - I think I had begun to enjoy this.

My room mates -  Seema, Swarn and Pratibha
Back at the guesthouse, the Sherpas had made tea and soup and were now unloading duffel bags from the truck. My duffel bag had come off at the seams - three days of travel ahead for Kathmandu across the border!!! Swarn said I could have a gunny sack, there were no extra duffel bags. This is a recommendation to the travel agency : mine was not the first or last duffel bag to come apart on its first trip. Knowing fully well the quality of the bags provided and the nature of the terrain and the trek, it is essential to carry a few additional duffel bags for the convenience of the travelers.

As I emptied the contents of my duffel bag to fill up the bed, I realized it was more convenient to spread things on Swarn's bed next to mine, while I rested on my bed. Swarn came into the room, took one look at the contents of her bed, and offered me her duffel bag - she could put her things into a gunny sack - an offer I gratefully accepted. A new duffel bag from Day 11.

Little children ran around with plastic bags asking for candy - I gave them some Toblerones. It is refreshing to see candy being eaten. Such healthy habits are followed in our tiny household of three in Dallas, that all desserts stay untouched if guests do not eat them. I signaled to the children to smile so I could take a picture. Only one child understood, the other two blindly copied my gesture. :)
Awfully cute Tibetan kids smiling for a picture, carrying little plastic bags to collect candy from the travelers
The immersion in the lake had left me cold and hungry. There was a little store in the guesthouse that sold noodle packs and poured hot water into whatever pack you purchased. With each noodle pack were three packets - sauce, salt/pepper/spices, pieces of meat and vegetables. Not sure what the sauce contained and certainly not wanting to eat meat, all of us threw away the two packets and sprinkled the spice packet over the noodles and asked for hot water. It tasted great, I can only hope this was truly a vegetarian meal.

Tomorrow, the long drive to Paryang starting at 3 am to avoid the scheduled road-blocks for construction activity.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!