Daily Click: Journey

Jen Elephant

Amber Fort, Jaipur, Rajasthan

“So we can take a jeep or ride an elephant to the top. Which do you prefer?” he asked  nonchalantly.

“Why wouldn’t we ride an elephant? Is there some cruelty to animals thing I’m missing?” I looked at him bewildered.

“Well, because sometimes it’s hot and the elephant will take twice as long.”

We rode the elephant… because it’s all about the journey….

Daily Prompt : Journey

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This Small Thing

Cross walkThis small thing came flying by and my heart stopped. I’m not exactly sure what it was that went whizzing by my face, but it caused me to turn my head quickly and that was when I saw him. I saw him standing in front of a parked black Lexus. His Ray Ban aviator glasses hung from the button of his light blue shirt that was neatly tucked into white loose trousers fitting  his body perfectly. In that moment I realized he was staring at me. Had he been staring at me long? Had we met before?

I wasn’t sure and the more I tried to focus on his face, the more I realized I was staring at him. His dark, wavy hair, the small sharp nose and chiseled feature of his chin. We stood there for what felt like 10 minutes but couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds, just looking at each other in wonder. For a moment I felt frozen in time. As if I couldn’t move or speak and whatever I was thinking about before that moment was gone. All thoughts vanished. The only thing running through my mind was, “Is he going to walk away? Is he going to just leave me here?”

He didn’t walk away and he didn’t leave me there as I started to cross the street. At that moment the light turned green, people started moving quickly, cars stopped at the intersection and I began to move with them. Gracefully putting one foot in front of the other I walked towards the black Lexus. As I gently brushed away the tingling feeling from whatever whizzed by my cheek I saw him smile. He gave me a big, wide, warm smile and I noticed he hadn’t shaved. He had a rough five o’clock shadow and he was grinning from ear to ear. My stomach felt tense, my movements stiff and there was energy, a connection that seemed to be pulling me in his direction. I could feel myself in a current. The green man on the stoplight started blinking and I felt myself relax as I walked closer and noticed his outstretched hand waving and his bright, infectious smile. I stood in front I him and he was laughing nervously as he said, “You must be Jen. I’m Sam. I wasn’t expecting us to meet like this. I thought we’d meet tomorrow when I had some time to recover from travelling.”

And we laughed together. It was the first of many times in our lives we would laugh like that. It has been said an indication of transformation taking place within you is that you encounter more and more meaningful coincidences in your life. More and more synchronicities, which accelerate to the point where you actually experience the miraculous. It took many months of getting to know each other, only to realize, it was all in that initial feeling we had when we ran into each other on the street, the day before we had been set up to meet for the first time. That moment of knowing how sweet it felt the first time he said, “This is the first time I’ve met a woman who is more beautiful than her pictures. You’re more beautiful than your pictures you know; they don’t nearly capture your deep, rich laugh.”

Kumbh Mela 2013 Part 2 – Varanasi, India

I have so many photos from Varanasi and my first post was really popular so I’ve put together another selection. If you want some background on what the Kumbh Mela is please check out my first post Kumbh Mela 2013, Varanasi, India.

Hope you enjoy and thanks so much for your positive comments.

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Kumbh Mela 2013, Varanasi, India

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Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage with over 100 million people visiting the Ganga River to bathe in the sacred waters. It is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world today and I’ve read it’s been deemed unfit to bathe in. This year the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad was for 55 days, with 6 auspicious bathing days. It’s considered one of the worlds largest congregations of religious pilgrims.

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Every third year it is held at one of  four places by rotation: Hardiwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjian. The rivers at these four places are: the Ganges (Ganga) at Haridwar, the confluence (Sangam) of the Ganges and the Yanuma and the mythical Saraswati at Allahabad, the Godwari at Nashik, and the Shipra at Ujjain.

Kumbh means a pitcher and Mela means fair in Hindi. The pilgrimage is held at these four places because it is believed in Hinduism that drops of nectar fell from the Kumbh carried by gods after the sea was churned.

Naked, ash smeared, intoxicated Sadhus camp out along the ghats in Varanasi and tourists (like me) give them a small donation to take their picture. Traditionally Sadhus are renunciates, who have left behind all material attachments and live in caves, forests and temples all over India and Nepal. They are solely dedicated to reaching moksa (liberation) through mediation and contemplation. Today, unfortunately, many of them are addicts dedicated to achieving this through the charas, taking “donations” from tourists and quite charming to talk to.

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Celebrating Summer with Jurassic Park 3D

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Remember when exams were over and it was the last week of school before the summer holiday? Yesterday, I got that feeling back spending the afternoon with 115 of the kids from Bowenpally Government School in Hyderabad, India when we went to see Jurassic Park in 3D. These are kids from very poor families so going to an IMAX theater to see a move in 3D is something they don’t get to do. The whole experience was more exciting for most of them than the movie itself. Some of them would put the glasses on for photos and then take them off during the movie and look around and talk with their friends. Luckily we had most of the theater to ourselves.

Shreedevi Chowdary and Swati Sanghi are very involved in supporting the NGO the BPGS ShreePassionate Foundation in building up this particular school and creating positive experiences for the children. A few TV channels came along with some of the Hyderabad press to cover the outing and the children LOVED having their picture taken and being interviewed for sound bites on TV. The movie theater donated popcorn and Chaitanya and his colleagues from the Passionate Foundation arranged the bus ride, breakfast, lunch and snacks for everyone.

BPGS Bus Jump 1The movie scared some of the kids but that didn’t effect their fun and laughter. What’s more fun than spending a school day at the movies? It used to be one of my favorite things to do.

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BPGS Bus Portrait

Mysticism and the Inner Way

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Group Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Pulling up to the security checkpoint at the Isha Yoga Center I saw the outline of the Vellangiri Mountains stretched out against a clear blue sky. Not knowing what to expect or even what clothes to bring, I arrived in Coimbatore to do the Inner Way program with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev because of a recommendation from a friend.

“If you’re open to meeting a Guru who’s something special, you must do this program. It will be profound, “he told me.

Sitting with Sadhguru was an experience I can’t articulate. Some people believe he’s not human; he is an energetic, embodiment of something divine few of us understand. Some can’t find the words to talk to him or hold a conversation. Sitting on his yogi bench hooked up to a mic with a huge screen to his right, at times I thought we were on Oprah. “South Indian mysticism has its own flavor,” he once told us,”It’s not better than other styles of mysticism, it simply has a unique flavor.” Part of the experience was about expanding consciousness, feeling something energetic shift and take root through his transmission.  Magic happens inside us, we just need to tune into it. At times, I felt as if an energy transmission was happening inside me and something was being subtly awakened. It wasn’t anything I could understand or explain intellectually, it was something sensed and experienced.

He didn’t talk “spiritually”. Instead, you felt his absolute love for all human beings and sometimes his total compassion for our stupidity. He distilled complicated yogic sciences down to the bare minimum we needed, to taste the experiences he was talking about. He amused me endlessly with his passion for racing cars, flying planes and charming snakes.

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Sadhguru – Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Quietly, I questioned how and why I came to such a magical place, meeting this particular group of people. Before I arrived at the Ashram I had that strong inner voice telling me to not get caught up in thinking about what it was going to be like. My expectations were based on life experiences up to this point and I had not  experienced anything like this before.

Every day at 5:30am we woke up to someone playing the drums. At 6:00am, we’d hear the second drum which meant it was almost time to go. Then at 6:20 someone walked around playing the flute, which told us we needed to be on our way to Spanda Hall and on our mats ready to start at 6:30am. The yoga mats were set up for us with soft cream-colored cushions and small back support chairs. Each day would build on the practice from the day before, with the Sadilaja asana, Surya Shakti and Suraya Namaskar, until we were in Shavasana (a favorite asana). The two final days our practice included Sadhguru’s transmission of the sacred Shambhavi Mahamudra.

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Cente

Sadhguru led discussions about the yogic sciences and meditation. He shared life experiences, made fun of people who were falling asleep in the front row and kept us laughing with extraordinary storytelling. One morning our session was a short hike into the mountains to have our talk and lunch by a stream. Every night there was a fantastic dinner accompanied by live music, which Sadhguru usually attended.

Our class had 115 participants from UK, Spain, Lebanon, Bulgaria, India, China and the U.S.. Over the five days, I gelled with a small international group of friends. As we processed Sadhguru’s talks, danced to the Sounds of Isha and took in the beauty of the place I felt myself relax.

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Photo Courtesy of Isha Yoga Center

Over lunch one day as the program was ending, Shreedevi Chowdary of Hyderabad, turned to us and said, “If any of you come to Hyderabad just let me know. I’ll have my driver pick you up at the airport and you’re welcome to stay.” Feeling at ease I chimed in right away, “I’ll take you up on that. I’d love to come and stay.” She made me feel her invitation was genuine. In that moment my journey took another twist and turn.

Where do you meet a live Mystic & Yogi in India?

Sadhguru

Sadhguru

“Why are you going to Coimbatore?” he asked me. I noticed his mustache was little long. He blue and white shirt was neatly pressed, he spoke English and he was dressed like a business man.

“I’m going to an Ashram for a week. I’m not exactly sure of the name, I think it’s called Isha. It’s a last minute decision.” I told him.

“Ah, yes, how do you know about Isha?” He asked

I explained that I had been travelling with friends for the last week when our tour guide Bharat, from Delhi, mentioned it. He has been going for a few years and loves Guru Jaggi Vasudev. He recommended I go for  Mahashivarathri, a Hindu festival celebrated every year in honour of Lord Shiva, the Adiyogi – the first yogi.

Dhyanalinga

Dhyanalinga

Bharat found out Sadhaguru was leading a program  called “The Innerway” for 5 days before Mahashivarathri. All my friend could tell me was that it would be  transformational and something I  must experience while in India.  I went on-line and read what I could about the Guru and his Ashram / Foundation. He’s a mystic and a yogi who facilitates mediation and yoga programs all over the world. The Ashram has a Dhyanalinga yogic temple, with a 13 foot 9 inch lingam made of high density granite. The temple is purely a meditative space that does not ascribe to any particular faith or belief system. The Isha Foundation is a non-religious non-profit organization entirely run by volunteers. One of the many social initiatives funded is called Project GreenHands. The project is currently in the Guinness Book of World Records for planting over 8.2 million trees by over 2 million volunteers. I decided to throw caution to the wind one more time and do the program.

“I have many friends that go there. I’ve been once. It’s very powerful. It’s magical. You’ll experience magic after a week there. Really,” he said. I could feel the excitement in his voice.

Not knowing how to respond I stayed quiet. Silently I was thinking, “Good,  I want to experience magic in India. I wonder what he means.” I listened to him tell me about a German colleague that was considering going to the Ashram on his last visit to their office in Coimbatore. In the end the colleague decided not to go. He wasn’t open to a new experience  that he  didn’t understand or have context for. It sounded like he was trying to advise me to stay open to a mystical and spiritual experience. Something different from our Western ways of thinking and understanding. Again,  I sat quietly nodding my head and agreeing it was about staying open.

After the plane landed we said goodbye at the baggage terminal, he gave me his business card and said, “Here’s my email, please write me after your week there. I would really like to hear what you experience. Really. Please tell me about it.”

I smiled politely and gave my word that I would send him an email as we shook hands and said goodbye.  Waiting for my bag at the carousel, I felt inside this was the sign I was heading to the next place I needed to be. Whatever doubts or negative thoughts I was holding onto were all in my head.

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Parachuting In – AJWS Global Circle in India

Bikharipurwa Village

Bikharipurwa Village

As a group of 12 young, professional women we arrived in Bikharipurwa village outside of Lucknow to volunteer for one day. Roughly 200 of the Scheduled Castes (Dalits), the lowest castes in India, live there. The day had been arranged by Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra (SSK), an organization working to empower economically impoverished communities by promoting their participation in self governance and positive social change. In contrast to more remote villages, Bikharipurwa had access to water through pumps but they had no working drainage system. In June 2012 SSK had coordinated a group of AJWS (American Jewish World Service) volunteers to stay and work in the village for six weeks. They installed new drains, maintained the road and worked on the school house. When we arrived for a two day visit, I felt like we “parachuted in” just to maintain the groundwork. We smoothed over the school yard, laid bricks and planted trees. The village had asked for these minor things. In a few months another volunteer group was coming for 10 days to help them with more work. By the end of the day I began to see how our day of manual labour was actually part of a bigger picture. I began to understand how connected we were to the group before us in the hearts and memories of the people who lived there. We maintained their connections and hard work as well as smoothing the ground for the next set of volunteers to come.

Wearing Northface and Lucy style travel pants and cozy long sleeved shirts, our early morning conversations revolved around when to take Pepto Bismal or Imodium and using bug spray. By the end of the day, our conversation shifted to whether doing manual labour for one day was benefiting the villagers or whether we were just patting ourselves on the back trying to feel good. As we sat around a conference table with the SSK staff after we left the village, I began thinking about this idea of “parachuting in”. I recalled how each day after visiting AJWS partners, hearing their personal stories of courage and strength while facing, discrimination, poverty and even abuse, we’d find ourselves back in our comfortable air conditioned bus. At times I spaced out, staring out the window as neighbourhood after neighbourhood of slums, naakas (central meeting points were people can be recognized as day labour and pick up work), cows and water buffalo passed by. Those street scenes felt like movie sets. I experienced a disconnect between my perception of how I feel about my life and the way of life in India.  ” Productive Discomfort” is the jargon AJWS uses to describe the feeling. It means we’re uncomfortable with what we see and don’t know how to react. Most days after meeting with an AJWS partner we would talk about this as a group. What could we do with the discomfort and questions that came from these meeting? Did we have unrealistic expectations that we could make a positive impact after such a brief encounter?

Celebrity Alanna

Celebrity Alanna

When we arrived at Bikharipurwa we were given the warmest welcome, as if we were honoured guests. Little kids ran up to us yelling, ” Alanna! Alanna!”, and we were all confused why they were so excited to see our lovely Alanna. She was a celebrity. Then someone explained that in the last volunteer group a there was an Alana and she became like a daughter to some of the elder woman in the village. They cried when she left. Everyone assumed that because we were from AJWS, we knew their friends. They were excited to see us because of their perception that we were connected to those people they loved and trusted. If we were friends with them, we must be good people.

Sunita

Sunita

Sunita, our AJWS India country representative explained some of the social nuances and changes she noticed that day. With her wide, warm smile and her voice of years of experience she explained that even the moment when one of the elder woman from a higher caste joined everyone for lunch and sat with “the lower castes”because of foreign visitors, was a subtle yet significant shift. She described the attitudes people held that certain jobs were for the “lower castes”, such as cleaning drains. Seeing foreigners come and do menial jobs happily was creating a shift. Little by little attitudes were changing and people were feeling more empowered to maintain the drain system their American friends had installed, or sit and have lunch with the whole community when visitors came. She gave us a small insight into the long and difficult process of creating social change in India. It made me think how much we’re all connected and that showing up for one day, when it supports Sunita and SSK’s long term goals, was valuable. I left feeling respect and admiration for the change we were all creating, very slowly, very methodically, one day at a time, one activist group at a time.

Bikharipurwa Village

Bikharipurwa Boy

Ariel at Bikharipurwa

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Lily planting trees

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AJWS Sistahood Trip

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A group of twelve women, all professional, well educated, funny and not all Jewish. Thanks to Jamie’s adventurous spirit we had an honorary member of the tribe. We met in Mumbai and started our seven day whirlwind tour of Mumbai, Lucknow, Agra & Delhi, meeting with AJWS (American Jewish World Service) partner organizations in Mumbai and Lucknow. Just outside of Lucknow we volunteered for a day in a village called Bhikharipur. In India, AJWS support reaches tribal, Dalit and Muslim communities through advocacy campaigns on land and labor rights, and sustainable livelihood training.

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Each day we met innovative and courageous activists working hard towards social change and we were mesmerized listening to their compelling personal stories. Certain groups specifically asked us not to write about them to keep their work confidential.

One visionary who shared his story with us was Shubhranshul Choudhary. He’s Indian and worked for over twenty years as a journalist with the BBC and the Guardian. He left journalism to devote his time to an experiment which creates a model for democratic media. In the process he has created the world’s first community radio using mobile phones. It allows people in remote villages to access local news and events, connecting them to what’s happening in the other remote communities around them.

As we parted in Delhi I felt like it was ending too soon. Two of the talented sisterhood, Jesse and Julia, wrote a song for Bharat, our tour guide, to the tune of the Beatles, “all you need is love.” They titled it, “All You Need is Bharat.” We sang it to him at our last lunch together and I’ve never seen a man so completely shocked, moved and speechless all at once. He was serenaded by a group of beautiful women. That moment reminded me that laughter is one way to digest the difficult issues we became aware of about life in India.

With Bharat

With Bharat

At the end of the trip a few of us admitted we were curious about what it would be like travelling with all women.  It can be a hit or miss experience without the male energy to balance things out. Luckily Bharat sealed the deal, as he was a pro at managing our time, our shopping and our different needs and wants. I was reminded that in the midst of a tight schedule with heavy personal stories and meetings to process, a group of women can always fit in a little power shopping and keep the laughter going with their warm sense of humour.

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Flashback

With Sukri in the kitchen

With Sukri in the kitchen

Flashback to the beginning of January when I’ve been living at the Ratu Bagus Ashram for a month.  This Ashram is in East Bali and Ratu Bagus teaches an ancient shamanic shaking practice. Everyday we shake for an hour and a half, three times a day to a whole range of music from techno/trance, to pop or chanting. We do this to raise our energetic vibration for health and well being, as a spiritual practice and as a healing practice. With Ratu’s guidance people have healed themselves of Cancer, Hep C, and other fatal and chronic diseases. Some people are on the spiritual path and others are cleansing and healing themselves of drug and alcohol addiction. Initially, I came to write an article but over time I realized I’m on the spiritual path and I’ve stayed because I love the people and I’m learning how to love myself and laugh again. That’s what Ratu actually teaches. He brings out  that deep spontaneous belly laugh that babies do naturally. For so long I had lost my laughter. Life wasn’t funny  any more and I lost my sense of humour about it all.  I realized how much I needed to laugh and how much I wanted to laugh. Laugh at myself, laugh at my ridiculous thoughts and all the wild things I do.

By the beginning of January I found my laughter again, so it felt strange that as my laughter was coming back and I was happy at the Ashram,  I kept getting this powerful feeling that it’s time to go to India & Nepal. At the same time I got an email about an AJWS (American Jewish World Service) trip to India. About six years ago I went on a volunteer trip to a village in Mexico with AJWS and it was a fantastic experience. Their mission is to empower people throughout the world (not only in Jewish communities) to achieve justice and self-sufficiency through the promotion of human rights, education, economic development, healthcare and sustainable agriculture.  This  trip was designed for younger donors and the itinerary consisted of one week of going to three cities in India primarily to meet a few of the partners who were receiving money and support. I knew it would give me access to people and experiences in India that I wouldn’t be able to have on my own. When I arrived at the Ashram in November I wanted to go to Burma and now I was definitely getting the pull to go to India & Nepal.

I can hear you…please stop saying, “This is sounding more and more like Eat, Pray, Love everyday…”

India has not been on my radar and I don’t write like Elizabeth Gilbert! I admit I had moments of serious doubt before I left. No men signed up for the AJWS trip so it was going to be a “sisterhood trip” and that made me hesitate for a moment. Some very cool and very wise women quickly talked me out of that negative self-talk.

Then slowly it started to come together. First Bangkok for a few days to brush up on my photography. Then, Chennai & Pondicherry for a week before I met up with the AJWS group in Mumbai. After that it was just going with the flow to see what unfolded next. That is how and why I came to India. I was shaking at an Ashram in Bali, I got an email about an AJWS trip to India in February just as I was asking the universe for a fun, heartfelt trip anywhere that was filled with love, friendship and romance.

Ratu on his 63rd Birthday

Ratu on his 63rd Birthday

Ratu & his son Gede at a Fire Ceremony

Ratu & his son Gede at a Fire Ceremony

Putu & little Gede on Christmas Day

Putu & little Gede on Christmas Day