Finding Sanctuary in Nepal

After a crazy week of travel through the stinking heat of north India, I found myself seeking refuge up in Nepal. Though the air was cool in Kathmandu, I quickly found myself choked by the oppressive pollution. I got pretty sick for a few days and didn’t get up to much. Once I had recovered sufficiently, I made a break for a quiet village in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been here in Bandipur for nearly two weeks now, loving every simple day, passing each peacefully.

* * *

My days crossing India from Rishikesh to Bodh Gaya were packed with action. I slept on trains two nights in a row and burned the candle at both ends trying to cover ground. Stopping for a day in Lucknow and wandering around in the hot sun was nice in some ways – enjoying a lot of impressive Mughal architecture – but it was an assault on my body. I had only wanted to stop there because my Grandfather was born in a small Canadian town of the same name. Perhaps a silly reason, but why not? After a full day in the heat, and more than a four-hour delay, I boarded my train around 2 AM and continued east.

I pulled into Varanasi early in the morning and decided I would stay a day. It was a beautiful visit. I found a friendly hostel near the train station and rested a bit before setting out to explore the ancient, fabled city by the holy river Ganges. Learning about the cremation traditions was especially powerful. Hindus from all over India travel to Varanasi to cremate their loved ones by the banks of ‘Mother Ganga’. Not all can be cremated, though. Some are simply put in the river to be cleansed. Children are too innocent for the fires of cremation. This also goes for pregnant women. Others are kept from the fire for the safety of the living. Lepers and those bitten by cobras could spread their illness through the fires of cremation.

After watching an old woman in the funeral pyre gradually reduced to ash (a young man poking her bones with a bamboo pole), I noticed a body bobbing along the banks, apparently slipping free from the rocks intended to keep it below the surface. Nobody seemed to think much of it. As I set out from the area, I was annointed with ashes from the sacred fire which has been burning for 3500 years (and then I was given a small parcel of them to bring home). Before leaving town, I took a sunrise cruise on the river, watching the morning rituals along the ‘Ghats’ of what many consider the spiritual centre of India.

I took a local bus (the only one I could find) to Bodh Gaya. I surely would have sprung for air conditioning had I had the chance but I couldn’t do much about it. The dusty bus ride ended up being more than ten hours of slow moving on flat terrain as we covered a mere 250 KM. I felt a bit tested at times, though knowing I could only embrace the journey. I rose early the next morning and explored the temple grounds where the Buddha became a Buddha. The massive Bodhi tree there is something to behold. Cameras are not permitted on site so all of us there were ‘forced’ to be more present in our shared experience of the immense beauty and serenity. I felt an incredibly potent peace there, resting in meditation for a couple of hours. But the heat picked up and pressed me onward, reminding me why I wanted to head north to Nepal.

I caught a rickshaw to the train station, a train up to Patna, another rickshaw to a bus terminal, where I had a bit of dinner before my bus to the border. That arrived the next morning around 5 AM. I joined some guys from the bus in a horse-drawn cart to the border-crossing where I waited a couple of hours for the customs office to open. I took another rickshaw looking for a bus station, now in Nepal, and ended up hopping in a crammed jeep for passage to Kathmandu. That was another eight hours of bumping around on winding roads climbing higher and higher, wondering how secure some of the soil was beneath us. I had heard talk of recent landslides and couldn’t tell if some of the damage on the road was that recent or perhaps still remnant from the massive earthquake that hit exactly two years earlier. I had entered the country on a somewhat tender anniversary. We made it to the busy city and I was guided by one of my fellow riders to a part of town that had been recommended to me, Boudanath. That was another hour on a few different buses and by the time I arrived and found a room for the night I was ready to collapse.

I looked around the neighborhood the next day and could see why it had been recommended to me. A massive Buddhist temple stood in the centre of the area and many charming shops and restaurants surrounded it. I spent another day there before moving to the very different neighborhood of Thamel. This place was packed with little hotels and guest houses catering to western trekkers. I found a cheap spot and set up shop in a dormitory. I ended up spending more time there than I would have imagined, as I became quite sick, the terrible air quality catching up with me and compounding whatever else I had going on.

I bid farewell to Kathmandu (vowing not to return until they effectively address their air quality troubles) and set out for the quiet little mountain village of Bandipur. After resting for a few days and nursing myself back to reasonable condition, I began enjoying some exploratory hikes through the surrounding countryside. This is a little slice of heaven and I am grateful to have stumbled upon it.

A few days ago was the Buddha’s birthday and I was invited to join my hosts for the annual parade through town. It was quite an event, full of sound and colour. I didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on through most of the day but I carried on with a smile. There were a few monks among us carrying various instruments – drums, horns and cymbals – keeping us in rhythm. Kids and grandparents alike marched along, descending from the temple on the outskirts of town right through the heart of the village before turning around and returning. I had no idea when or where we might stop, so I was kept on my toes, lugging a bound scripture on my right shoulder, which seemed to get heavier as the afternoon progressed. But I was not alone, as most everyone was carrying something. Besides several bound scriptures, we had different kinds of flags, banners, and a small Buddha statue sitting in an open carriage. Villagers would often stop to pay their respects to the tiny Buddha, leaving offerings of snacks or money.

I felt honoured to be the only non-Nepali in the procession and I occasionally caught the curious eye of other travelers watching the parade go by with a tall white guy sticking out in the middle. There were two elders who kept chants going throughout the parade, call and response, and I caught on before long, beginning to fit right in. I was welcomed in to the beautiful Tibetan temple for a feast afterwards, which was accompanied by a short discourse by one of the local teachers. All around us were statues of the Buddha and offerings of rupees, fruit, crackers and even sleeves of digestive biscuits. The Buddha doesn’t discriminate. 

Just last Sunday my dear sweet Grandmother turned 99. As it happened, with my family back home at church celebrating her birthday, I came to a ‘life decision’ on the same day. Saying it that way makes it seem like a big deal, when it didn’t feel like that at all. I didn’t even feel like the agent of this decision. I simply noticed it. But I had been considering this particular possibility for some time, and suddenly saw that it was always going to happen. I felt an immediate peace about it, which seemed funny after watching my mind flip-flop over the past few years (and especially the last couple of months).

So, as I return home to Toronto in a few weeks, I’ll be preparing for a return to University in the fall. After a decade mostly out on the open road, I’ll be shelving my wandering shoes (for a time) and digging into a Masters degree in Pastoral Studies at Emmanuel College, focussing on Spiritual Care. It’s a definite change of pace but I’m excited about it. I trust I’ll continue to have many new opportunities to share the simple joy of life through this next chapter. 🙂

So that’s about all for now! I’m heading back out on the road tomorrow, soon returning to India. I will leave you with a selection of photos from my time up here in beautiful Bandipur, “Where Heaven Meets” (this is a somewhat funny ‘catchphrase’ printed on pamphlets, posters and t-shirts around town):

Popullution (…and Easter in India)

This place is absolutely crazy. I love it, but it may also be trying to kill me. So many people, so much garbage, set ablaze daily. Rushing through fumes to youthful tombs. Sewage flowing openly in the streets, often stalling, sitting in the sun baking, caking. Wild animals blocking traffic to nose through each other’s fresh faeces. Smiling men selling samosas and potato pancakes. Flies swooping relentlessly, spreading everything to everything else. Stylishly dressed women balancing heavy loads on top of their heads. Cars and trucks, buses and rickshaws, motorbikes and scooters blaring a steady staccato of horns. Bicycles ringing little bells. A small bearded man in orange robes, somehow untouched, chanting his mantra. I stop in awe to watch it all, breathing it in, then get choked up by a sudden stench and start coughing. My lungs suffer the brunt. I’m amazed they can take it. Some days, waking up is simply a chance to clear out whatever gunk has been cluttering them.

After sharing my first post from ‘Indescribable India‘, I have felt like showing another side of life here, a sort of balancing account. It’s a part of India I haven’t yet mentioned. Or maybe I just glossed over it.

My body seems to be deeply affected by the pollution here. In under two months, I have already burned through two courses of antibiotics. (And I’m the reluctant sort when it comes to that stuff.) It often feels like my body is at battle.

Aside from the quick bout of ‘Delhi Belly’ – succumbing to drugs for the sake of returning to work for our tour group – I have just recently been treated for pneumonia. Though I remain not entirely convinced, the doctor at the Christian hospital (trained in the west) told me that was the cause of my stabbing chest pains, mild fever and cough.

While my chest pains have significantly diminished, I still wonder if I simply tore some muscles doing yoga. That’s what a local ayurvedic doctor figures. Seems reasonable. We took a holistic approach and just finished a week of full-body detox; dietary adjustments, thorough daily massage (not that sort of thorough), oil therapy, steam treatment, ear, nose and throat cleaning, plenty of rest, and three days of warm oil and herbal enemas. I was simultaneously pampered and trampled. It was great. But I couldn’t trust farts for a few days.

Riding in cramped little rickshaws back and forth between my ashram and my treatments, it felt like I passed through dozens of worlds at once; chaotic markets, dusty streetside cafes and food carts, skinny kids rummaging through garbage, others begging for foodscraps or cash, shabby makeshift shacks packed with families, grimy auto garages, sudden palatial temples and freshly-painted ashrams, a father and four kids riding a single bicycle, traffic slowing to pass cattle in the middle of the road, sleepy fruit vendors trying to stay in the shade, wiry monkeys scavenging for anything they can grab, homeless folks with eyes full of life hanging begging bowls from missing limbs, boldly advertised adventure tour companies, a quick glimpse of the Ganges hosting rafts and bright flowers floating along, colourfully-dressed women carting large loads of who knows what, robed rununciates sitting calmly amidst the buzz. At once stunning and mundane, I continue to watch it all in passing.

As I move through my days here in India, I see how population amplifies every challenge facing the nation. And there are no shortage of areas for improvement. Pollution is an obvious one to focus on. Aside from the carpet of garbage casually laid out all over the country, waste is actually collected in some places. But most of it just ends up being burned. Once bins are full, they tend to be emptied where they stand and set aflame. A bit of pleasant incense is usually added to the mix for a more palatable blaze, but it all goes up in smoke just the same. I pass by several fires of various sizes every day. On cloudy days people seem even more keen to cushion the grey plumes gliding by in the sky. (Much like smoke stacks back home – notice they spew more waste on grey days, as though trying to go unnoticed.) One cloudy day last week, I could literally taste the waste in the air.

And yet amidst all this, life carries on. I am daily amazed to see real joy on the faces of impoverished children, living in conditions most of us would shudder at. Their joy is whole, if only in the moment. They don’t seem to be lacking anything. It’s so clear that the attitude of lack is learned, not naturally occurring.

I sense that the cultural belief in karma and reincarnation help people to bear difficult circumstances with a smile. Yet this value doesn’t seem limited to the Hindu faith; I see it also among the local Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Christians. It’s as though this sense of trusting one’s path is so deeply ingrained here, no matter how it manifests. I see people taking responsibility for their lives and working to address their highest calling. Everything else is secondary. I feel an inspiring depth of devotion in this attitude toward life.

I recall during my first week here, down in the south of India, seeing streams of people pass by my window early on the morning of Ash Wednesday. I was impressed to hear that almost the entire village attended church that morning before starting their day. ‘Incredible‘, I thought to myself, ‘so many people living with such commitment‘. I have been moved again and again by the level of devotion I see in India. Whatever the faith, people here are living it deeply.

*****

Having enjoyed a variety of Hindu gatherings here in Rishikesh, I was curious if I might also find a church to visit this Holy Week. I have encountered several Christian communities throughout India so far, though they don’t seem as common up here in Rishikesh. I asked around and walked around, not having much luck.

I did recently hear, however, that Christ himself apparently spent time in the north of India. He was known here as St. Issa. (Obviously not all historians agree on this.) During the so-called ‘lost years’ of Christ’s life, it is believed that he traveled east and studied with Buddhist monks and Hindu sages. And why not? After all, the wise men from the east had followed the stars to Jesus’ birth. These wise men, themselves, may well have been Buddhist or Hindu sages. Clearly the trade routes were well established between Nazareth and the near east. Why wouldn’t the young Christ want to explore other cultures and spiritual paths? It seems so natural to me. It even has a poetic sort of balance to it, Christ eventually journeying east, perhaps to see what the lands of these wise men had to offer.

It’s exciting to consider Christ having traveled here. It actually makes a lot of sense to me. His words echo a lot of what the Buddha taught, values also long held in Hinduism. If he were still here today (in person) I think it’s obvious that Jesus would continue to foster interfaith relations. He would challenge the walls we place between communities. The more I marinate in Jesus’ teachings, the more I see the unity of earnest followers of any faith. Beyond that, even the faithless are held in this wholeness Jesus points us to. He wouldn’t care about the mountain of petty distinctions we draw. He didn’t come here to convince or convert anyone. Jesus came to shine light and help us see that we’re already free. Heaven is in our midst. Let’s not miss it.

So, after a good bit of searching around town (online resources proving a bit thin), I ended up finding the only church in Rishikesh just in time for Easter Sunday worship. It was an Indian Catholic church and the whole service proceeded in Hindi, with only a word or two of English. It was quite an experience. We all sat on the floor on little mats, old folks and young alike, men on the left, women on the right, and the priest sat at a small altar at the front of the sanctuary. There was incense burning and candlelight being shaken by oscillating fans. There was a good amount of responsive singing and prayer, and some hand drumming. The communion was classic Catholic. There was even a baptism. I followed along as best I could, focussing mostly on the energy of the space.

I felt lifted to picture a nation full of souls connecting with the divinity within, each in their own way. And instead of seeing the massive population as an obstacle of any kind, I realized that there are simply more doors here for love to come through. And the countless challenges of life in India give everyone a chance to help out. It’s no accident that, despite the apparent insanity, there is such a special energy here. It calls us back to our hearts.

I came to Rishikesh about a month ago with a spiritual focus. After sitting in the powerful presence of Mooji – a teacher doing the same work today as Christ did in his time – I feel like wrapping up this ‘Rishikesh chapter’ with two short excerpts from a book of his teachings (White Fire):

“Many have long believed in the second coming of Christ, but why only second? Why not the third, the fourth, the thousandth, the ten thousandth coming? For each one who trusts in his words and is absorbed in his spirit becomes a door through which he comes.”

“You are not here to cope. You are not here to survive. You are here to bear witness to and shine as the glory of God.”

I guess that will do for now, friends. 🙂 I’m feeling about ready to press on, after a decent stretch here in Rishikesh. Except for a few days visiting a nearby friend and his wife up in the mountains (just outside of Mussoorie), I’ve been laying low here, healing, resting and meditating. Rishikesh has been a fine host. My simple Ashram home has beautifully supported this quiet time of recovery and continuing discovery.

I think I’ll hop on a train tomorrow and cast a slightly wider glance around northern India. First I’ll try my luck in Lucknow and then probably check out Varanasi. It may be a brief stop as I hear it’s getting pretty hot. I’ll likely continue east from there to visit Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha ‘achieved’ enlightenment). I may even slip up into Nepal. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted once in a while…

In the meantime, keep breathing. I’ll do my best. ♡ And moment to moment, as life dances all around us, let’s see if we can notice what doesn’t fade away.

Indescribable India 

There’s simply no way I can put India into words. Countless writers have tried, succeeding only to degrees. I have enjoyed various reports – in poetry, prose, scripture, song and travelogue – but none can touch what is felt when you come here. And I’ve only been exploring for about a month. Many have immersed themselves for years and come up short of ‘getting it’. Fortunately I am not trying to figure out India. I am simply wandering along with an open eye, keeping my head, heart and hands as open as I am able. I am grateful that there is so much here to support this effort.

I am grateful for a culture that seems to prioritize a sort of ‘spiritual longview’ over shortsighted political whims. Although this also leaves a lot of projects on pause indefinitely – allowing considerable chaos, waste and decay – the general momentum is toward truth, a focus on that which doesn’t fade away.

I began this journey with nearly three weeks of group travel. Eighteen of us were guided from the southern tip of the subcontinent all the way up into the Himalayas, discovering some of the varieties and subtleties of Indian culture along the way. 

In Kerala we were hosted by a Christian family on the backwaters of a quiet fishing community outside of Cochin. 90% Christian, many in the local area were still practicing their faith as it had been introduced by the Apostle Thomas, others through the much later influence of the Dutch or Portuguese.

The weather was hot and humid as we visited churches, temples, mosques and even a synagogue. We were especially touched by our sharing with a Christian seniors group and an orphanage for young girls run by nuns. We shared songs, gifts and food, along with wide, heartfelt smiles. On one of our last nights there, we enjoyed a boat ride taking us through the ‘backyards’ of locals as we weaved our way towards the sea. Once out on the open water, we cut the motor and floated peacefully as the sun set, listening to our host’s story of his arranged marriage and how well it was working out (his wife and kids are incredible…and he’s pretty great too).

Staying with Ben and his family was a blessing. But even with our calm home base (Ben’s Homestay), it wasn’t hard to stumble into noisy crowds and blaring horns as we set out on the roads to various surrounding areas. One such adventure was a visit to a nearby elephant sanctuary, which we all deeply appreciated. It was a humbling feeling laying our hands on these mighty creatures.

Leaving Ben’s, we had a long and wild ride to Varkala Beach, getting caught at a pair of railway crossings for nearly an hour as vehicles lined up and jockeyed for position. Incredibly, heads remained cool. A major recurring theme throughout the journey was our amazement that there wasn’t any sign of road rage in India. Somehow traffic just kept flowing, however thick, as though there was a subtle understanding that we were all in it together. We eventually made it through the traffic and after spending a restful day at a cliffside resort, we flew up through Mumbai to Jaipur, in Rajasthan.

Suddenly I noticed a different India, with slightly lighter skin tones, more turbans and moustaches, some more piercing eyes and obviously more lavish architecture. This was the India many from the west would picture in their minds. The Muslim influence was unmistakeable. One of the major impressions I took from our time here was the inherently inviting nature of Hinduism. Throughout history it has generally welcomed visitors and invaders with similar generosity. Our guide, Sher Singh, told us about several pivotal Hindu intermarriages with Muslim rulers coming from the northwest, thus avoiding bloody conflict. The state of Rajasthan exemplifies this religious and cultural blend beautifully. I even learned that the Sikh faith was born of a blend of Hinduism and Islam.

There doesn’t seem to be much fear here that other cultures could weaken their own traditions or connection to the divine. This strikes me as a confidence that God can not be lost or watered down. Simple wisdom like this seems commonplace in India. I find it inspiring.

After a lot of shopping and checking out a few forts and palaces (even staying in an opulent hotel that was a former Raj Palace), we drove up into the madness of Delhi. My stomach was beginning to feel a bit tender and I ended up in bed with a full-blown case of ‘Delhi Belly’. I blasted through it in a day and was back on my feet early the next morning (thanks in part to the antibiotics I took half-reluctantly). Everyone told me I picked the best day to miss, as it was pure insanity on the roads. I’m sure I could have appreciated the experience, but I was grateful for the day of rest at the retreat centre. We then set out for our flight up into the Himalayas, heading for Dharamsala.

All of a sudden, the air was cool. What a change from only days before and the sticky heat of the south.  Four white van taxis and our new tour guide, Vikas, met us at the airport and drove us further up into the mountains to Mcleod Ganj. Apparently the British set up shop here to escape the hot summers down below. Especially the Scots among them found it a lot like their highlands, feeling right at home.

Much later, the Indian government gave a hefty chunk of this land to Tibetan Buddhists escaping Chinese oppression. This continues to anger the Chinese, but Tibetan culture is thriving in this setting very similar to their own homeland. I liked the feeling of life up in the mountains. The air was crisp and people seemed quick to smile. We thoroughly embraced the Tibetan cuisine, enjoying warm soups and momos, and plenty of honey, lemon & ginger teas.

We even had the great timing to witness Tibetan Uprising Day (the national holiday) and the great honour to see the Dalai Lama speaking on some Buddhist precepts. He has such a warm, affable nature, even in the midst of his deep contemplations. Our days sped by up in Dharamsala and it was soon time to return to Delhi and head our own ways.

A few of us were keen to come up to Rishikesh, where one of my favourite spiritual teachers (Mooji) was giving one more week of Satsang before finishing the five-week season. It was a true blessing to be with him and to have his very direct pointings towards what is important in life. He is here to remind us that we’re already free, loosening the apparent grip our minds have on our lives. The whole Ashram was continually permeated with very subtle and supportive energy, two-thousand people squeezing in daily for his teachings, which were live-translated into more than a dozen languages and broadcast around the world.

Rishikesh is undoubtedly an auspicious place. There are countless Ashrams and yoga schools here. There is a great tradition of people coming here to live by the River Ganges and centre their lives more deeply in spirit. I could imagine staying a while.

So that brings me up to the moment. 🙂 Here in Rishikesh, freshly settled into an Ashram after a week sleeping in a hostel dorm, meeting good folks. I’ve got some months ahead here and no rush to get anywhere. I’ll keep on taking it all in one breath at a time.

Sending love to all my family and friends all over the world…and anyone else stumbling across this post.

Keep it simple, friends. We’re not here to figure it all out, just enjoy as best we can day to day…and try our best to share whatever good comes our way.