Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chaos of the most chaos-iest kind.

There is one big chunk of humanity lining the banks of the Ganga tonight here in Haridwar. Wow. They arrive from many places in India, with bags typically balanced on their heads, find a flat spot and call it good. They're sleeping on concrete with a piece of plastic under them and a thin blanket over them, and they'll be up before dawn to take their holy dip in the icy Ganga on that very auspicious day. The spirituality and devotion is beautiful to see.
Less beautiful to see was the giant rugby scrum I got in today, trying to squeeze a mass of enthusiastic pilgrims through a tiny opening in the barricades leading to a bridge. For some reason the police just stopped letting people through, so families and groups were separated and unable to reunite. It wasn't clear what they were doing or why, or how to get back together if you were separated. I could have just wandered off, since I didn't need to cross that bridge, but the chaos was spell-binding and too fun to miss. At one point I was in the middle of this throng of enthusiastic pilgrims - everyone was pushing so hard that I thought if I was being pickpocketed I wouldn't even know it, or be able to do anything about it. And I was right! When the smoke cleared I was minus my phone. Since I had a lot of your phone numbers and a few e-mail addresses in the phone book, don't fall for any "send money" scams.
My train leaves in two hours, so I'm off. We'll chat again in 40-ish days or so...
Love, love, chaos-filled love,

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"When you work for God, not self..."

Hello dear people,

I'm one long day until 40 days of silence, so I thought I'd post some more photos. I'm staying now in Rishikesh, way upstream from Varanasi, still on the holy Ganges, frequently referred to here as Mother Ganga. For the devout Hindus who've been raised to believe and the pliable Westerners who will believe anything, the Ganga CANNOT be polluted. Ignore the scientific tests that show more fecal matter at the shores of Varanasi than in your average pre-flush toilet bowl. If you swim and get sick, it's because you need to be purified. If you die? It's your bad karma - may you come back as a higher caste. At the same time that my analytical brain ponders that sort of belief, I'm honored and humbled by the beautiful devotion, openness of heart and surrendering to God that pilgrims from all over India show when bathing in Mother Ganga. When I hear the swimmers in Varanasi, half-way across the wide river, shouting "Mahadev! Mahadev!!" which translates to "Great God! Great God!!" it sends tender shivers up my back. Is there some kind of inconsistency in those competing viewpoints? Somehow, not for me. But don't ask me to explain it. (You can't explain it to someone who doesn't get it, and you don't need to explain it to someone who does. Good enough.)

The water in Rishikesh is beautiful and cold and green with no fecal tests to confuse me, so I'm happy to swim here - theoretically. I'm still not a fan of freezing cold water. Tomorrow I'm going back downstream 20 miles to the town of Haridwar, where the massive Kumbh Mela festival is happening. I don't know the whole story, and I'm sure it would fill a book, but these gatherings happen every few years, with this Maha (great) Kumbh Mela happening every twelve years. There are auspicious days for bathing in the river, and the next one coming up is in two days - the day our retreat starts. I'll miss that, but I'm spending the day beforehand wandering around the huge tent city, among the throngs of arriving pilgrims and ash-colored holy men, or saddhus. At midnight friends and I board the train for the 8-hour trip to the foothills, with a two-hour drive to the retreat center. I'll post again sometime after I'm out, on April 25th.

Much love,

The photos below are also here:

This feel-good sign was inside a train.

This saddhu is naked and covered with ash. For all we know, he was a banker earlier in his life. It's not uncommon for men in their 50's to renounce the worldly life and travel as saddhus. It's typically supported by the family and society in general.

I was invited into this small tent by the saddhu on the left. The young man in the middle is in the early training stages. All of the saddhus in this tent (and most tents, probably) smoke strong marijuana most of the time. It's part of their religious practice.

Smoking a "charas" or plug of marijuana, mixed with tobacco, in a pipe.

This kid makes me melt!

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I think this guy was my Marketing professor at Berkeley.
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This young woman just about turned inside out when I turned my camera from her child to her. She could barely stand it!
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I tried so hard to get him to smile, but he only would when the camera wasn't pointing at him.
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This kid doesn't look so healthy, but wow, what a smile.
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A procession of saddhus came through the camp.
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Waiting in line for free food from one of the saddhu's camps.
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(The End)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Holi Moly! India's annual Festival of Colors.

The much-loved and much-dreaded festival of Holi just swept across India on its annual pilgrimage, reeking rainbow-licious mayhem, delighting Indian youth and terrifying saner people of all ages. Most tourists I know go outside on Holi on their first trip to India, but on subsequent trips take the local's advice and stay inside their hotels until its over. It's called the Color Festival because on this day you throw powdered colors and colored water on friends and strangers alike. You can imagine how exciting that is for a kid - I know it would have been for me. Young men are beside themselves with delight at the prospect of throwing colors and water at a tourist, who are off limits every other day of the year. But it can also get quite aggressive, with young men frequently drinking, and feeling up of Western woman is pretty normal if you go out into the streets.

So we thought we'd play it safe and stay inside the hotel compound. The hotel staff and a few enthusiastic guests had other ideas!

These 45 images, plus a few more, are here in larger sizes:


This is Sanju, who's worked at the hotel for 12 years. When I left last year just before Holi, he was so sad he was pouting. "I want to make colors with you," he said. When I told him I was sorry that I had to go, he said, "Sometimes for the heart, sorry is not enough." How could you not love a place where men talk like that?

That isn't a mask - it's a thick layer of the likely-toxic silver paint.

Bustin' a serious move on the dance floor.

Torsten from Switzerland, who I know from a trip to France some years back, gets pummeled by Whitney from the Bay Area.

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This little boy, a son of one of the staff at the hotel, just broke into dance periodically.
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I've been coming to this hotel in Varanasi since 1995, and there are always lots of Japanese and Korean travelers staying here.
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Sanju, in his element.
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Francois, the crazy Frenchman, and principle provocateur.
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A successful green powder attack, and the infrequently-use "bucket defense." 
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The "bucket defense" in its full glory. 
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The photographer and his expensive camera were largely spared. But that silver paint smelled nasty - like gasoline fumes!
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Sabina, another crazy trouble-maker - in the best way. "Watch out for my camera!" I said as she's aimed a bucket of water at someone. She said, "Zen don't take peek-tures!!"
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The place is destroyed. Sanju declares it a complete success!
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This is Madanji, the hotel manager since I came the first time. When I called last year after a three-year absence I said, "This is Mr. David from the U.S.," and he says, "Yes, yes." I said "I've been there lots of times," and he says, "Yes, yes, I know." Either he really did know or he faked it well! This, by the way, is his only facial expression:
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I love this kid.
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This reminds me of that famous American soldier photo from Iraq. Taking a little break after the battle...
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This plastic chair was white when the party started.
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These 45 images, plus a few more, are here in larger sizes:

(The End)