Magical Hampi

January 11, 2010: Hampi

Just a few hundred miles inland from Goa is Hampi. This town is one of those rare universally-loved places along the traveler circuit. Before arriving you can’t possibly imagine what you are about to experience.

After a long, jarring train ride disjointed by frequent layovers and delays, I arrived at the squalid Hospet train station in the middle of the night. The station was dimly-lit by grim fluorescent lights. People were sleeping on the floor and since it was 3am, I considered joining them rather than looking for a room at this hour. An excitable rickshaw driver however talked me into hiring him and before long we were buzzing through the empty midnight streets off to Hampi.

It was 4am by the time I arrived. I really didn’t know what I’d do. Maybe I’d sleep in a temple. Maybe I’d find a place to sleep beside the river. Maybe I’d just hang out and watch the sun rise, which wouldn’t be long from now. The rickshaw driver said he knew the owners of a guesthouse named “Kiran Guest House”, and this all seemed serendipitous, so I let him lead me there. Once outside their gates he hollered to the owners, who explained they had no vacancy but led me up to their restaurant patio, where I slept on cushions beside their dog.

Mosquitos feasted on me and I didn’t sleep much—if any — tonight. Once the sun came up though, I left my baggage at the hotel and began exploring.

The landscape conjures a dream of ancient places and faraway times. There are massive boulders strewn about banana plantations and vast quasi-desert plains. It reminded me of Arches National Park, or maybe Zion—and had the extraordinary geological qualities of Bryce Canyon. And just like the original inhabitants of those places, I can imagine how the original people of this land some 10,000 years ago must’ve come upon this landscape mesmerized by these extraordinary features and concluded reflexively, this is God’s country.

Consequently, Hampi has been a spiritual center for Hindus for many centuries. A thousand years ago, the ruling dynasty set up shop here and built thousands of temples and holy structures. A few centuries later, the empire was conquered and Hampi and it’s ruins began returning to dust. A decades ago, however, the area was revived and established the magnificent ruins as a National Heritage Site. Today, the area is still a powerful spiritual place where many Hindus come on pilgrimage to visit the great temple, to bathe in the holy river, and spend time in the presence of the Gods.

The spiritual vibe here is very tangible. Everything is serene here, the surroundings are magical and beautiful, no one is in a rush. Travelers arrive and stay much longer than expected. Why leave? For this reason, Hampi has become a popular hippie hangout (as is all of India). On the western side of the river is generally the older tourists, the ones who have money and do guided tours and stuff. On the eastern side of the river is where everything is chill and all the hippies are gathered on cushions, playing guitars and banging drums. I chose to stay on the chill side.

My guesthouse was pretty lowgrade. It was really dirty, dark, and had many mosquitos, but the food was excellent and they had a good vibe going in the cushioned hang-out area. The other good thing about this place is that there were a lot of good people staying there. At night we’d sit in candlelight enjoying dinner and conversation. Guitars and drums were lying around. I picked one up and played a bunch of melodies for the folks there. No one really knows my music though, and I think many would prefer if I could play some techno. However, to my astonishment, there was this supercool Indian couple nearby—Vivek and Parbody– and they loved the Dead and Bob Dylan. It was fantastic—we played every Dead and Dylan song in the catalog. Parbody was so beautiful– she’d close her eyes and start swaying to the tune, singing lyrics from the bottom of her heart. It was such a treat finding these Indian Deadheads. We stayed up all night long singing songs, convinced there were still more to be sung.

A big Hindu festival was beginning on my last day in Hampi. (Side note: no one loves festivals more than Indians, and they seem to occur every few days) At 3am I awoke to the sounds of hordes of kids and adults banging drums and playing flutes, laughing, shouting and talking loudly, directly outside my window. When I awoke a few hours later I discovered the river was a mad frenzy of jovial men and women splashing around in sudsy water, bathing in the holy waters as tradition dictates on this holy day.

Crossing the river later on proved to be a harrowing adventure. Usually, the ferry is adequate — you simply hop into a little motorized skiffer that gets you to other side in a minute or two. However, on festival day there were hundreds of people trying to cross. And the Indian mentality concludes—too many people need to cross, therefore we will stop running ferry service for a while. I stood on the shore incredulous, and concerned that I’d miss my bus. When they finally resumed service and the boat arrived, a dangerous frenzy stampeded onto the boat knocking down kids and old ladies. Nobody could even get off the boat—gridlock ensued, nobody could move. A police officer came over and started wielding his baton, and throwing people off the boat. But, the insanity persisted, and for a while it seemed resolution was nowhere near. Making matters still more urgent, the boat was sinking—there were over fifty people on this little rickety tin skiffer that usually holds fifteen max. I shook my head in disgust of the Indian mentality that breeds such situations and crossed my fingers that we’d reach the other side.

Musings on Traveling and the Death of a Friend

January 8, 2010: Goa

While traveling you see your best and worst sides very clearly. You spend so much time by yourself—so many long stretches of time sitting idle on busses and trains, considering the many aspects of any given situation. Your senses are alive as you observe everything, and you find yourself reflecting on all the new experiences that you are having. Everything is new—some things are pleasant, while others seem terrible.

Eventually you realize that all this reflection on the physical world is just another form of introspection. Like looking in a mirror. You can talk to ten travelers—and equal parts will tell you they love a particular place, while the others hate it. It seems to me that this is because you bring yourself wherever you go, and different places make you more aware of certain characteristics of yourself—the ones you love, which make you happy, and the ones you hate, which make you want to get gone.

All week I’ve been feeling particularly lonely here in Goa. I haven’t been happy. Suddenly I feel very isolated and much out of the loop here. I am in this by myself, traveling, and there is no one to lean on in my time of need. In the silence of my self-directed world I find myself casting fears and musing about things real and unreal.

Last night I learned in an email that a dear friend, Dave Poole, had died a few days ago while traveling in China . I must’ve looked like a crazy man because I burst into tears and slipped into a deep dark hole of helplessness there in the internet café.

Dave was one of my first friends when I got to Portland five years ago. One of the most beautiful, creative, hilarious, and inspirational human beings I’ve ever known, Dave had a magnetic personality and everyone loved him. When I first got to Portland he had just unofficially commenced a weekly-outing social group known as FNAC, or Friday Night Activity Club. The club had rotating members, but Dave was the heartbeat and week after week we all kept Friday open so that we could spend time in the light of his fun, witty, exciting friendship. He was also amazing at saxophone and his bands always rocked. He was way ahead of his time in the field of digital animation and produced many brilliant cartoons laced with hilarious Dave Poole wit. His death saddens me deeply, as he was very much a light in this world.

I can’t attend his funeral, I can’t hug anyone, nor receive any hugs. I still don’t even know he died, my emails haven’t been returned. It’s a strange feeling in my heart tonight, as I contemplate all these things.

Chillin’ in Goa

January 6, 2010: Goa, India

I’ve arrived in Goa, the legendary summer place on the southwestern shores of India. I made the bold decision while in Varanasi, and with unstoppable determination I began laying the groundwork for my flight from coldness to Goa.
For three months now I’ve been cold. Shortly after arriving in Nepal I realized I’d need some warmer clothes. Since then I’ve been wearing my second skin of thermals and down—I sleep with all my clothes on and I spend all my days freezing my ass off, despite my ridiculous puffy blue down Michelin Goodyear jacket. My jacket is the butt of many jokes and has become quite filthy, but I can’t imagine life without it. I’ve been seeking comfort and was aware that decisive action was necessary if I were to escape the winter of northern India and Nepal.

Of course, I knew I had to go south. But I haven’t found my groove in India yet. The country is so huge, I feel disoriented and overwhelmed by possibilities. I hear many intriguing stories of interesting places, but every destination requires a serious commitment in India. The only thing I felt sure about was that Goa had nice beaches and was summery. That’s all I needed to know.

After the standard dizzying adventure of various transports, including rickshaws, taxis, a 15-hour long train ride to Delhi, and more taxis, I hopped on a flight to Goa. The flight was two hours long, during which time I intently studied Lonely Planet trying to figure out what I would do once the plane landed. Nothing was clear to me, though. I felt like I was gonna puke, hadn’t slept in a very long time, my head was cloudy, and I was concerned about the amount of effort that was required of me before I would reach solace. Two Russian girls were sitting beside me on the plane, and after chatting for a little while they told me they were headed to Vagator and invited me to share a taxi with them. Problem solved.

I arrived feeling half dead, paid too much for a beach hut, crawled into bed, and slept for the next fourteen hours.

When I awoke the sun was shining brightly, casting speckles of sunlight on the walls of my bamboo hut. It was warm, it was nice. I grabbed my book and headed on down to the beach to explore and see where I’d arrived.

My hut was set upon a cliff that looked down upon the beach lined with banana plantations, coconut trees, and temporary bamboo restaurants. It was a beautiful summer day and the ocean wind blowing through my hair felt heavenly. I hobbled on down the rocky hill to the beach and found a nice beach chair with a sun umbrella overhead.

It was still early, but as the day progressed I quickly began to figure out what was happening. First thing that struck me was how many Russians vacation here. Indeed, it felt like I was in little Russia. Second observation: techno is the beloved music here and is blasting out of speakers at all hours of the day. Third: everyone is drinking and rolling hash cigarettes morning noon and night. I had arrived in India’s famed party destination.

The beach is an endless strip of restaurants and bars—all of them are crowded with Russians and dreadlocked hippies lounging on beach chairs. Smoking and drinking all day long, these types don’t seem to really be the backpacker-types, but rather the fun-loving types seeking endless summer. As I look around I sense that many of these people have been here for a very long time.

It is nice here, but is not really my style. I realized that soon after arriving, but was ok with that because it fit my needs perfectly. For me, this is a retreat, as I seek refuge in summer’s grace. I lay peaceful in sunlight, melting in this blessed warmth, eating occasionally.

I have spoken so few words lately that I don’t even bother to wear my hearing aids. This is my silent meditation. I see around me large groups of English and Australians, Germans, and Russians drinking, laughing and rolling cigarette after cigarette. I think they are probably having more fun than me, but I don’t wish to join them. Occasionally I step out of this silent place and reach out to someone, but they are usually Russians that don’t speak any English, and so with a friendly shrug and a smile, we agree to remain strangers.

The few people I have met here all seem quite eccentric, and definitely fit in the alternative category. There was a 51-year-old French guy I met who was sitting near me in a little G-string bikini bottom. He was ardently sanding a piece of sandalwood for hours, which intrigued me and inspired me to approach him. He explained it was a box to store his hash, and then in his very-French accent launched into conspiracy theories about the Indian police, and how they are undercover and arresting hash smokers here and killing the Goa scene, where he’s been living for the past 35 years.

Naturally drawn to hippies, I have reached out to a few, but have been surprised by my experiences. The hippies here—they are hardcore hippies that make most Deadheads look like wealthy fraternity boys. Their dreads are enormous—and they are very proud of them. Most of them that I have met, however, seem very lost and angry. I feel no kinship and rarely see them smile. The new modern hippie seems to be a sad sort, finding their identity in dreads, piercing, tattoos and hash-cigarettes. I don’t see much spiritual inclination, nor do I feel that wonderful liberating come-as-you-are mentality that always made the Dead family so warm and encouraging. Instead, it’s a dark energy that repels me.

I rented a scooter for the week like every other tourist in the area. At first I was timid and had to keep reminding myself that in India you drive on the left side of the side of the road. Soon, however, I was buzzing around here there and everywhere, enjoying the wind through my hair and seeing how fast these things can go. My favorite place to go to is a hill overlooking Anjuna. I go there at sunset with a nice cold 20oz of Kingfisher and enjoy these moments immensely. The ride down the mountains through darkness is tricky, but it’s not too far and I take it slowly.

The Russians here are quite a spectacle. I am fully aware of the folly of making generalizations, but here in Goa I feel secure in saying every Russian guy is a bodybuilder. These guys are huge—enormous, powerful types, and they wear these funny banana hammock swimsuits. Their girlfriends—most of them seem to be petite vipers with skimpy-to-none bathing suits and seem fit for swimsuit edition magazines. I was sitting on the beach minding my own business when all of a sudden I’d look up and see a photo shoot underway. Needless to say, I was significantly distracted but enjoyed watching their lusty poses.

Side note: I’ve been told that it’s common for these Russian “couples” to go on vacation, and that what’s really happening is the guy pimps his “girlfriend” out. Unconfirmed rumour, possibly…

Nighttime here is all techno. Raves are the craze, as are Extasy and other pharmaceutical drugs. I went to Nine Bar, the most popular bar in Vagator, after sunset to check out the situation. The place was a great venue—a large outdoor space that overlooks the ocean and is lined with candles and coconut trees. Talking with a couple dudes swaying to the groove, I learned that “Goa Trance” is a popular genre of techno music that was born here. I wasn’t much impressed with it, though. It’s a constant in-your-face drumbeat, oscillating whirring of wind, and occasional abrasive sound effects. Nobody seemed to be all that into it though, so maybe I just caught a lame night. There was talk of an all night rave happening down the road later on in the week, which intrigued me but not enough to make me go there.

I feel I should go. This isn’t my summer home. This isn’t the beach I know and love. It is a European perversion of something that used to be unique and Indian. Today, there are no Indians here, except the ones bringing us beers or the ones that disturb my peace, trying to sell me DVDs, bongos and beach towels. These wandering vendors walk back and forth in mobs up and down the sandy stretch—they arrive every 30 seconds and get right in your face until you either lose your temper and say some things you wish you hadn’t, or you succumb and buy something. I regret that these vendors taught me that the only way to deal with them is to ignore them—which inspires much tension in my heart to treat anyone like that, but it was either that, or spend the next twenty minutes trying to convince them I wasn’t interested in buying their crap.

Varanasi, Sacred City of Light and Death

December 30, 2010: Varanasi, India

The journey to Varanasi was a long one and involved many modes of transport, including buses, Jeeps, rickshaws, walking, and trains. It had taken nearly 20 hours to get this far. It was nine o’clock in the morning and as I exited the train station, my mind was tired, but the craziest part of the journey was just about to begin. My mission was to find a place to lay my head.

Outside the train station I was instantly surrounded by a mob of taxi and rickshaw drivers in my face offering their services. I quickly hopped into a rickshaw, and though I was still on high alert, I kicked back relieved to feel the morning chill and observe the chaotic introduction to Varanasi all around me. I was hoping to find a guesthouse I’d read about in Lonely Planet, but twenty minutes later, the driver stopped in the middle of a tumultuous intersection and explained he couldn’t enter the narrow walkways where my guesthouse was located.

Some sketchy dude nearby, who was wearing a suit and looked like a used-car salesman, offered to take me to my destination. Remembering the advice of many—“don’t trust anyone in India”—I was skeptical of this guy, but for the moment I felt slightly helpless in this chaotic ocean of activity buzzing around me. And so, reluctantly I began to follow him.

He began leading me through a maze of incredibly busy walkways which seemed to be getting narrower and darker the further we walked.My huge backpack posed a challenged and many people were pushing to get past me.

The cobblestone corridors are lined with a lively array of vendors of religious trinkets, glittery bracelets, sweets, snacks, and chai. Endless rows of fast-talking Indian guys are trying to direct you into their shops and they all want to know which country you are from. “Hello my friend, come look at my store. Very nice– nice price for you.” I smile to keep myself from getting discouraged.

My shady “guide” is a few paces ahead of me and I’m trying to keep up as best as I can. We round a corner and come across a pack of huge beastly cows who are just standing there dumbly, clogging up the walkway, looking strangely out of place, as if someone’s cruel joke had placed them here. I’d heard about these cows and quickly saw for myself how, once alarmed, they gallop dangerously through the crowds, conjuring the running of the bulls and posing equal risk.

The walkways in this maze and everywhere are slippery with mounds of excrement and sludge, trash and filth. There is no garbage-collection here, no clean-up crew, and due to the many cows, dogs, and humans depositing their various waste directly into the streets—the streets are seriously nasty and I cringe to see the many people walking around barefoot.

After countless lefts and rights through dark alleys, I’m thoroughly disoriented and find I am totally at the mercy of my guide. Astonishingly, however, we come around a corner and there it is— Brown Bread Bakery, which has an affiliated guesthouse where I hope to stay.

Soon after getting settled in my guesthouse, I begin chatting with a funny Russian girl staying in the room next door. Her name is Oxanna and we quickly become friends. She suggests we go for a walk around the old town, and though I’m extremely tired, she keeps me laughing as we walk.

Sleeper Car to India

December 30, 2010: Varanassi India

The Nepal/India border is practically invisible. There is a bustling road from here to there, and it’s busy with countless samosa vendors, produce wagons, and merchants of all kinds of stuff. To my surprise, the crossing of the border is transparent and, in fact, consists simply of checking in with a couple of semi-official looking guys sitting in patio furniture on the side of the road.

From Lumbini, I had taken a bus to the border, and then once in India I hopped into a Jeep that would take me off to train station four hours away. This small Jeep was transporting 13 passengers, and while it was uncomfortable for me, I was grateful that I wasn’t the guy whose seat was literally under the driver—yes, the driver of the Jeep was actually sitting on this guy’s lap for the 4-hour journey.

From Gahorakpur to Varanasi, I was to take an overnight train in a sleeper car—my first experience of this sort. Having lived through it, I can say it was a jarring experience, but I know that when traveling in India, it’s one that you need to get used to, as sleeper trains are the preferred mode of travel here.

The train station was very chaotic, extremely dirty, bodies laying everywhere—it’s hard to know how many of them are homeless and how many were, like me, seeking comfort while waiting for their train to arrive. I had about 6 hours to kill in this station. Not a single tourist to be seen—just me drifting around in a sea of commotion. I was trying to find a place to sit that wasn’t filthy with pee or crap or sludge or who knows what, but I wasn’t succeeding.

Their was significant anxiety in me, that I would err, or that I might not find the right train, and miss it. There were no police, no railway personnel, no information booths, nor authority who could assuage my concerns. I asked a couple of people which track my train would arrive on—but not understanding English, they all just wagged their heads side to side and looked at me with a hopeless empty expression, pointing elsewhere. I was directed to one guy who seemed official somehow, like maybe he actually worked for the railway—but when I repeated my question, he looked at my ticket and summarized in just three words: “Ticket no good.” Initially I got worried, fearing I’d bought a phony ticket, but then I just smiled and assumed, correctly, this guy didn’t know what he was talking about.

My heart began to race watching the scene that would unfold each time a train approached. Due to stiff competition for a limited number of seats in these severely over-crowded cars, the commotion begins as the train pulls into the station. While the train is still moving, many are sprinting alongside and leaping heroically through the doorways. When the train finally haults, at each door there are hundreds of people, throwing elbows and pushing each other, vying to get in before the rest of the horde. I smile and wonder if that’s what I will need to do as well.

By the time my train comes I’m ready to rock—ready to wield my strength and do whatever it takes. There’s no announcement as to which train it is and with an educated guess and blind faith, I hope my calculation is correct. I jump onto the train, which is pitch dark and has an extremely narrow aisle full of people pushing to get past me.

A strange Indian guy with shifty eyes sees me standing there looking like a deer in headlights—he looks at my ticket and points to my cot. My cot is about 7 feet off the ground, in a small chamber that contains 5 other cots. Everyone is sitting around looking like zombies at this midnight hour—no one is talking. The situation is grim in these crowded, dark quarters—perhaps the best we can all do is just endure this moment and recognize transport is the goal here. Try to get comfortable somehow someway and soon morning will come and we’ll arrive at the destination.

I watch several other passengers, trying to figure how you do this sleeper car thing. I just don’t see how it’s possible to fit my large backpack and all my stuff in the cot beside me, securing all things, including shoes, in such a way that thieves can’t m ake off with anything. I watch an experienced Japanese backpacker putting his shoes under his pillow while wrapping his backpack in a large pillowcase and chaining it to the metal bed frame. Imitating him, I crawl up onto my cot and try to do the same but find it extremely difficult to maneuver in this narrow space—it’s tricky like a Rubik’s cube and I keep bumping my head into the roof.

I set my alarm clock for 6:15am, but wake up in advance. If this train is on time, I’m due to arrive at 6:30. I pack up my stuff and along with the other midnight bandits huddled in dark silence, I wait for the train to stop. At 6:30 it comes to a hault—but again, there’s no announcement. My heart is racing again with uncertainty. I look out the window and see only signs in Hindi. I say to my neighbor in questioning tone “Varanasi?” He nods his head yes and with urgency he directs me to get out while I can. Once outside, however, I feel it in my heart that this isn’t Varanasi, and the train begins to move along.

And so it turns out, I got off at the wrong station just a few miles north of Varanasi. I laugh at myself because this isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Lesson re-learned: trust no one, be self-sufficient always.

It’s 6:30am, I’m standing on the platform a few miles from my destination, tired, but amused by the circumstances. I learn that I am in Sarnath, a town I was actually hoping to visit. The Buddha gave one of his four most important teachings here, and today the peaceful town contains a few temples and monasteries. The sun was rising behind thick grey clouds, and in the still of morning I exited the train station and began exploring the peaceful little town.

After wandering the quiet streets and gardens of Sarnath for a few hours, I hopped back on the next train to Varanasi. While approaching the next station down the line, there was no doubt that I’d arrived. The volume of noise even at this early hour announced it. I looked out the window and saw hectic streets bustling with busses and motorcycles and many rickshaws. The train came to a stop, and with a hopeful heart, I stepped out and greeted the fabled Varanasi.

Where the Buddha Once Walked

December 28, 2009: Lumbini, Nepal

Lumbini is special because it’s where the Buddha was born. For 2600 years this village was little more than countryside with a sparse population and a few small reminders of its greatest inhabitant. Ten years ago a large stretch of trees and fields was set aside for monasteries. Since then, each of the Buddhist nations has built a large temple, shrine, or monastery in honor of the Buddha.

It’s 6am at the monastery and my alarm has just sounded. I would’ve enjoyed the extra sleeping time, but I’m hungry and enjoy the curry that is served every meal. At 7 begins morning worship, which consists of chanting and prostrations. Their chant is a flute-song of melodies made beautiful by harmony and devotion, and all the spirited anis (female monks) sing them with playful duty. With eyes closed at this early hour, their sweet song transports me to faraway places, to Nepal, in a monastery.

The fog here is wild—the thickest fog I’ve ever seen in my life. You can’t even see 10 feet in front of you, blurring trees in smoky ambguity.  While there’s not much sight seeing to be done at this hour, I was completely enthralled by the fog and needed to explore. And so I rented a bike that was so rickety I felt like it was my first time on a bike.

Slowly as the day progress the fog began thinning and the outlines of monasteries begin to appear. The sun was rising lazy in vast empty fields, not a sound to be heard except the breeze. Up and down du sty roads, large joyful groups of Indian pilgrims, barefoot and dressed in colorful saris, walk off to the next temple.  I too, end up visiting most of the 26 monasteries scattered abou the refuge.

At the end of the day I find myself a bit confused. With all due respect, what we have here in Lumbnini is a living museum. We have a bunch of monasteries and shrines to honor the Awakened One. But as far as I can tell, there’s not much happening here. I just see more instances of grand opulence and iconic reverence. And this seems to violate what I thought I understood about Buddhism.

The Buddha stated emphatically that he himself should not be regarded as God, nor revered as special—that his teachings were of utmost importance, not the person. He says “nothing is hidden in the hand of the master” and that each person possesses the ability to become a Buddha.

And yet, here in Lumbini you see once again many temples and objects of reverence that hold the Buddha on a Godly pedestal akin t o Jesus, Shiva, Mohammed, and the rest. No doubt he was an extraordinary person, for which the world is to be immensely grateful. But as I watch the rituals of pilgrims I can’t help but think it all contradict the Buddha’s ambitions.

For me, the Buddha’s presence comes near while sitting beside a peaceful lake this morning, watching the sunrise. The fog was just lifting and a big red sun was rising out over the lake. The tranquility and peace here evokes the Buddha, and with eyes closed I feel certain that his spirit is becoming stronger in my heart and mind every day.

Onwards to Where the Buddha Was Born

December 26, 2009: Lumbini, Nepal

It’s nighttime at a monastery in Lumbini, the place where Gautama Siddartha the Buddha was born. Lumbini is in southernmost Nepal, just north of the Indian border. The monastery where I am staying is one of twenty-six in the area that are strewn about a vast peaceful refuge of trees and fields.

Tonight I took a nice walk through misty moonlit fields. All around me I could I hear the mad howling of jackals whose crazy hoots and hollering sounds like they’re having a hell of a great party. There insane celebrations of freedom delight me immensely. And along my peaceful walk the sillouettes of monasteries appear in the midnight fog.

Todays journey to Lumbini was another wild expedition via an extremely uncomfortable little minivan with only one buttcheek on the seat for close to 10 hours, while the busdriver’s assistant basically sat on my lap. And then after what seemed like we’d transcended hell and crossed many mountains, the bus driver explains in grunts and motions that this bus had reached the end of the line and they were going to put me on another bus, the local bus to Lumbini.

The bus was seriously ragged– just dusty metal and seats and glass that has never been clean. As always when traveling in Nepal, I just cross my fingers and trust that I will arrive one way or another, or else someplace else.

But then an angel arrived. A young guy named Govinda sat down beside me and began speaking to me in broken english. He seemed like a good guy and I liked him right away. As this rickety bus slowly proceeded down the dusty broken road, though, nighttime was fast approaching and I was concerned about the journey that lay ahead of me and trying to find lodging for the night. I didn’t know where I was going, but Govinda told me about the Korean Monastery which offers lodging to weary travelers. It lay somewhere among the vast forest of Lumbini and I had no clue how I was going to find it. Fortunately, my angel, Govinda, told the bus driver where to stop and then offered to lead me there.

We jumped off the bus at an unmarked location and began walking through a dusty dirt road into the heart of the dark forest. Instantly I took notice of the peace in the air– a tranquility that I haven’t known for a while. The air was gentle. There was no buzzing of busses and horns and madness. Just the tranquil meditative air surrounding the Buddha’s birthplace.

The walk to the monastery was a long one and now it was pure darkness. I was so ready to lay down my bags and be free from it all, and finally by 7 we arrived.

Before departing, Govinda invited me to his house for dinner the following night. He arrived at the monastery to pick me up around 5:30. I jumped onto the back of his bicycle and we rode down the dusty street Nepali style. Arriving at his clay thatched roof abode, I learned that his Dad was working in a faraway town and his Mom was out at work. That left Govinda, his sister, and me. Govinda sat me down on a bench while they scurried around cooking seriously greasy scrambled eggs and some rice. They brought the food to me and explained that they’d eat later. And so I sat in the grim flourescent light of their home and ate food by myself. After I was done, he asks…”we go?” And so with that, he drove me back to the monastery and that was our outing. Very strange.

Christmas in Nepal

December 25, 2009: Boudha, Nepal

All week I’ve been listening to holiday music. It fascinates me how music can transport the mind to a different time, and as I listen to these old familiar songs, I smile to recall the years and all of the moments when these songs were my festive soundtrack. There is one album in particular– a beautiful collection of holiday songs played brilliantly on classical guitar by Steven Pasero. Every time I hear Ave Maria or O Holy Night, I find myself sifting through the photographs in my mind of all the people that I miss, and the hot chocolate moments that we’ve shared. I see them all gathered in candlelight around a beautiful Christmas tree and sometimes little tears form up when I get thinking about spending Christmas without them. 

Here in Hindu/Buddhist Nepal, I only get little doses of Christmas. Up at the Hyatt hotel here in town, they have a great big Christmas tree all lit up in the lobby. The lobby is beautiful, well-lit, and warm, and best of all-  a couple of excellent Nepali musicians play there every night.  I learned this a few days ago and have since been going up there every night. I sit at their side and close my eyes and take in their beautiful music. The tablas, the flutes, the singing bowls, the fiddle-like sarangi melodies– their sweet sounds flow through me as I’m transported into a blissful musical meditation. And when I open my eyes, the sight of the Christmas tree makes me happy.

I’m kind of like their student, and in between songs the musicians in this band teach me how to play their instruments. Two nights ago, Bharat Nepali, the superb sarangi player, taught me the basics of his 4-stringed instrument, which is positioned in front of you, like the cello, and is bowed similarly. When the band took a break for dinner, he encouraged me to try his instrument. 

Sitting in the light of the Christmas tree, I began fiddling with his sarangi trying to find the melody to Away in a Manger. Astonishingly, the melody rang out and I realized that the instrument was surprisingly easy to play. I was amused to imagine guests who were hearing me and thinking that I was the hired entertainment. “Jeez, this guy really sucks,” I was imagining them saying and was expecting hotel staff to silence my scratchy, poorly-played sarangi music but no one seemed to mind. And so with great happiness in my heart, I sat there in the lobby of this multi-million dollar hotel, beside the giant Christmas tree, playing every Christmas song I could think of. I smiled to myself and acknowledged with gratitude that this is my humble Christmas. A different kind of Christmas.

The stupa coincidentally is all dressed in Christmas lights right now. Ribbons of colored lights stream down from the stupa on through the various levels. At night time when the stupa becomes quiet again I go down there and sit in silence, admiring the beautiful Christmas stupa. Last night I took my new little Nepali hand drum on down there and must’ve walked around that stupa for several hours banging my drum– I was completely at peace and had nowhere to go, nothing to do. It was Christmas eve, and this was my celebration. It was just me, a couple of street dogs, and the Christmas stupa. Beautiful.

Before going to bed on Christmas eve I made a few phone calls. It felt real nice to hear the voice of those I miss so much. Especially at this time, hearing their voice was a gift. And to hear my dear little niece Paige sing “Silent Night”, that just about made my Christmas complete. I cried and smiled at the same time, not knowing what I was feeling.

On Christmas day, I had a party to go to. Two and half months ago when I arrived in Nepal, I met Susan the 65 year old Buddha like angel. When she learned I was back in town she invited me to a party at her house that she was hosting for all the Australian volunteers that work under her guidance. So Christmas morning– a day that seemed no different than any other day– I jumped on a bus headed into Kathmandu. Arriving in crazy Kathmandu, I found a bicycle to rent and rode off to Susan’s house in Patan, a village just south of Kathmandu.

The party was festive and fun– many happy smiling people laughing and sharing. Susan had prepared a delicious Christmas feast. She even had several bottles of excellent Australian red wine, and so I  got to enjoy some of my first few glasses of wine since I’ve been in Nepal. Side note: wine was a great treat for me because the beer and wine here is relatively expensive and is usually not that good, so I’ve drank very little since I’ve been here. Today, however, I was indulging and enjoying every sip. Near Susan’s house there is a Christian school named St. Xavier’s, and they were having some kind of Christmas concert. Loud upbeat Christian rock was blasting out for all the town to hear, and thought it wasn’t Joy to the World, it made me happy. This was my Christmas celebration– it was way different than usual. 

Tomorrow I head off to Lumbini, the town where Buddha was born. 

Living with Monks in Boudha

December 21, 2009: Boudha, Nepal

For the past two weeks now I’ve been in Boudha. In traveler time, two weeks feels like two months, or maybe even two years. Indeed, it feels like I’ve lived here for a very long time.

The fact is that I’ve become part of this community and it feels real good. I love how everywhere I go I am surrounded by Buddhist monks and hear the perpetual clanging of bells and gongs, while monks line the road in prayer and rituals are taking place everywhere I look. Also, over the past two weeks I’ve come to know many interesting people around here. I now have a fun group of friends with whom I meet for tea or dinner. I know many great musicians and their performance schedules. I have my daily rituals, I walk circles around the stupa many times per day, and in general, feel really comfortable here. It’s easy to slip into this life and watch days and weeks go by. 

Sometimes I get anxious and think that I should get gone to someplace else. I flip the pages of the guidebook and read about experiences that I’d like to have. But this sense of friendship and community is a beautiful thing and I guess I’m not ready to leave it quite yet. At least not until after Christmas.

The other thing that has kept me in Boudha so long is my cello. I brought it with me on my journeys so I could make music with musicians I meet. My goal is to write and record an album of music during this time that I’m gone, and if this mission goes as planned, I think it will be amazing. The problem, however, is that it’s simply not possible to travel with a cello.  (Yes, I know many of you, along with my gut-instinct, warned me against taking it with me. But driven by crazy dreams, these are the situations Kieran finds  himself in.)  Anyhow, my cello doesn’t even fit in Nepali taxis, and the thought of taking it to India is just out of the question. So I have decided to leave it behind in Nepal while I travel around India. Therefore, I have a limited time to record with my cello before I must leave it behind.

And that is what has kept me busy for much of the past week. I have the mobile recording studio set up in my hotel room and have been working feverishly around the clock, laying down tracks and creating the foundations for a bunch of new songs. So far there’s close to fifteen of them, and the progress is encouraging. My goal is to record the foundations and formulate the structure of the songs before leaving Boudha, so that I’m prepared to begin adding textures and sounds as I come across musicians on the road. I will take my recording gear with me and am hopeful that I will meet tablists, flutists, and many other great musicians who will hopefully contribute to these recordings.

Last Saturday night I had my first “gig” here in Kathmandu. I sat in with a jazz group that jams at a happening little joint in northside of Kathmandu. These guys were only around twenty, but were serious musicians that sounded as good as anything you’ll hear in New Orleans. The audience consisted of Nepali hipsters and my friends Nika and Jasper. We were all gathered sitting on cushions on the floor with candles burning, drinking Nepali beer. 

I was planning on leaving for India a few days ago but nationwide strikes have paralyzed the country. Strikes occur on a regular basis here. Sometimes one day a week, maybe a few days per month– or back in 2001, the country was shutdown for a whole month.  The Maoists, a competing political party, strive to make their voice be heard and they go about it by declaring “bandh” and shutting down the country. On days of “bandh”, they go around telling all business owners to shut down or get beaten down. To get their attention, usually they whack a few people with sticks and kill a handful of dissidents. People take it seriously, but the Nepalese don’t seem to mind that much– they just take it as an unplanned vacation. It’s the foreigners who get all frustrated, because on days of strike there are no busses, no taxis, no nothing on the road, and no way of getting anywhere. I don’t really mind that much though, because I’m enjoying this limited time with my cello.

Monkeys, Cremations, and Sufi Music

December 6, 2009: Pashupatinath, Nepal

After class today, a couple classmates invited me to come along to a concert with them down the road in Pashupatinath. The show sounded really interesting– some musicians from Rajastan, India who play the sacred music of the Sufi mystics and sing the divine poetry of Kabir. Using sitars, drums, violins, harmonium, and the flute-like melody of their voices, these musicians were singing love songs written to God and the energy was powerful.

The town of Pashupatinath is quite old and is a very important Hindu village that is rich with culture and shrines and curious religious stuff everywhere. This is also where the dead come to die and all day and night bodies are prepared along the river, before being set aflame and cremated– their ashes then released into the holy Bagmati River. All day long, wafts of smoke are drifting everywhere around town like some kind of perpetual fog. Kind of a strange vibe to think that all this smoke, which I’ve been breathing all afternoon, is coming from bodies burning.

The monkeys in Pashupatinath are quite entertaining too. There is a huge population of them crazy creatures living here and they walk around the place as if they own it. It’s totally surreal to find yourself surrounded by hundreds of monkeys that are leaping from tree to tree and strolling on down the walkways beside you. At first, you don’t know whether to be affraid or to laugh, but when you see their profane bright pink buttcheeks, it seems unthinkable that these silly creatures could pose any risk.

When I got back to my hotel room this evening I found a letter under my door from Irati, a new friend of mine, suggesting we have dinner together. I met her at a coffee shop, and after doing a couple loops around the stupa, catching up on the wild saga that is life since we last saw each other, we headed off to a nice little restaurant.

At first when we got there the power was out and so the place was lit up with candles. It was beautiful. I gotta say, I love it when the electricity goes out in Nepal. It happens every day for varying durations and at different times. Sometimes it can be a nuisance. But one of the good things about this is that it’s the only time when them dingy fluorescent lights that light up all of Nepal get put to rest. This grim lighting has a way of making every space look like depressing police interrogation centers. When there’s no electricity, though, everyone uses candles. And for a while all is quite beautiful and romantic around town. It makes me laugh, though, because once the power comes back– all ambience and the intimacy of the situation get snuffed out right away. They immediately blow out the candles and flip back on their ghostly fluorescent lights.