This one time, at ashram camp…

September 2nd, 2009 | No Comments

December 23, 2008

Namaste from Bodhgaya, India!

3 weeks without Internet access means that this is going to be one long travel diary. Let’s start with where I am right now. This morning I meditated beneath The Bodhi Tree. This in and of itself was worth the trip to India. This tree is a direct descendant of the tree that the Buddha himself attained enlightenment under. Much like Machu Picchu in Peru, there is a palpable energy about this place. 2600 years of Buddhist pilgrims opening their hearts in this one spot will do that I suppose. Even after our harrowing 6-hour car ride yesterday, my first breaths in this town filled me with an energy that had me bouncing off the walls. I found that I was very emotional this morning as we entered the grounds at dawn, but sitting under the tree centered me completely. This extra grounding came in handy as we then ran into a woman that we had met at the ashram who took us to the orphanage that she was volunteering at. Nothing entertains the kids more than seeing themselves in photos, so we took a lot of them. A few of us are planning to return to the orphanage tonight with food and what applicable clothing we can find in the market as a gift. It has been an overwhelming day, and this was all before noon. Bodhgaya is like Tibet, but at an altitude where you can actually breathe. I love being surrounded by all of the Tibetans that are here. They truly are beautiful people.

Meditation in Bodhgaya

Meditation in Bodhgaya

Our expectations for Bodhgaya were primarily centered on warm showers and ordering dinner from a menu (choice!). The car ride mentioned above involved our convoy of 3 jeeps carrying 11 of us (from our original group of 15 from the ashram) where the lead car played a thrilling game of chicken with oncoming vehicles. Even though the biggest vehicle won every time, the drivers still wait until the very last second to break to the side. Our driver used his horn like a bat uses sonar, weaving through what would spread across 4 lanes of traffic back home, but that shares the same 12 feet of intermittently paved road here. 80 km/hour with no seat belts was never so much “fun”.

Rewind 3+ weeks to landing in Calcutta. The haze of the city starts INSIDE the airport. Our 2:30am drive through the city afforded us the view of people sleeping in lines on the side of the road like parked cards, or when covered in blankets, like body bags. On our first day in the city we spent 90 minutes walking barefoot around the Ramakrishna temple grounds. Not aligned with any one religion, it was a very spiritual and engaging site. Kids cast magnets with long strings into the Ganges River in order to reclaim any coins offered by visitors. Pam and I saw a river dolphin surface for air, and the serenity of the grounds was represented by the butterflies, plentiful in an area that was mere meters from the chaotic polluted streets of Calcutta. It is a city where you take yourself off autopilot – all senses are on at all times. As far as the marketplace, I don’t know if 15 white Canadians had more of an impact on it or the other way around. In a completely random act of comedy that always seems to find me when traveling, my friend & yoga teacher Shivani (who is behind this trip to India) and I were approached that evening to be in a TV commercial. We had to sit at the bar in our hotel while the bartender mixed fancy drinks and poured alcohol all over the bar itself before setting it alight. Go on a spiritual journey, wind up in a bar commercial. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

The next day we boarded the train for our 6-hour trip to Deoghar, the town closest to the ashram – in the Jarkhand province in North East India. There are separate rail cars for the local women. Rather than for simply the purpose of segregation, I am sure it is appreciated as the women would be free from groping for their whole trip. The locals travel in standard class, packed in like stuffed animals on the bed of a child with indulgent parents, and the locals are about as vocal about their discomfort as the toys are. And here I was disappointed with the Lufthansa flight staff for not fixing my personal TV screen on the flight here. First class is barren and school bus comfortable. It is air-conditioned however, and affords an almost Western allowance for personal space.  I was surprised to see a large Indian man on the train. So many Indians are short by perceived Western standards, and the few that exceed 5’10” are rail thin. Granted they have numbers, but rarely is one an imposing figure on their own. It is odd to be considered quite big compared to the locals.

We arrived at the ashram during the finale of a massive festival. The road that divides the two halves of the ashram was a wonderful chaos of garu and yellow robes, and locals intent on testing their English with debates on politics and the world economy. While watching the bags, I spent my time trying to convince a local student that of his two choices of where he would like to travel in the world, that Paris was a superior choice to Las Vegas. The 10 women of our group stayed within the grounds of the ashram, while the 5 men were lodged a 20 minute walk down the road. The walk provided a means of decompressing at the end of each day, so that we might fall asleep at the late hour of 8pm each night. For the most part I did not keep a journal in the ashram. Our days often started at 4am and time to yourself was limited, if any. The first week was filled with heavy labour, and week two added daily festival programs to that schedule. Week three was our Kriya Yoga course, which was an intense meditation workshop dealing with the chakras and energy movement in the body. I know that a 2 sentence recap of the entire 3 weeks seems anticlimactic, but I did not have the energy to record descriptions of every poignant moment. Of course a few did lead a pen to paper.

Dinner in the ashram

Dinner in the ashram

If you believe that everything happens for a reason then that opens the door to inquiring what that reason is. Our first full day at the ashram began with a beautiful walk down our dirt road into a bold sunrise that guided our way. After breakfast we were all recruited for our first act of Seva (service) – washing the mats used for seating during meals. We shared a few jokes about the negative repercussions of independent thought in a place like this, and then one of the head swamis tapped Shivani for a very special task. We met Swami Mukti in Vancouver this summer, and he joined 5 of us hand-picked to enter the garden of the founder and head of the ashram – an honour far beyond rare. The back wall of the garden was recently painted and our job was to scrub the wayward splashes of paint from the rocks and foliage within the garden. Clara and I were partnered together, and she gently wiped the individual leaves of each plant while I admonished the rocks with a wire brush. Melissa and Chelah mirrored our roles 100 feet away, and Mukti and Shivani were working from the middle of the garden. Clara stepped away to grab us water, and I had just finished scrubbing the replica of Mount Kailash when the screaming began. Clara was flailing madly, as if she was being assaulted by smoke. Shivani raced towards her yelling “Hold Your Breath”, before dunking her from the waist up in a water barrel. Then they were both engulfed by the swarm. Bees attack with the same systematic dismantling Hitchcock-ian precision that you see in budget horror movies. Mukti stood and was instantly stung. Melissa, who is deathly allergic to bee stings and traveling without an Epi pen, froze with Chelah. Miraculously, even though a battalion of the swarm broke off to do reconnaissance of any warm body in the area, staying completely motionless kept them from harm. Clara finally ran with what looked like a black wedding veil trailing behind her. In hindsight, the dishtowel-sized cloth that I grabbed was a ridiculous attempt at a defense weapon. The two steps I took towards Shivani were enough to alert the bees of another target. At first it feels like one or two, and you still have the confidence to swat through them, but they multiply exponentially. I was lucky to only have about 10 stings. Clara and Shivani had well over 50, each.

This was the first of 3 visits with the doctor for me. Week two it was to assess my broken toe (diagnosis still not 100% confident), and week three it was to buy a few more of the doctor’s samples to treat a possible stomach infection. These were the moments when  INDIA did seem to stand for I’ll Never Do It Again.

Week two was the Yajna, a fire ceremony that drew in thousands of people. On the final day I was able to experience something inexplicable, and not something for a mass email. I would be happy to go into more detail in person for those interested, and open to it. When growing a beard there is an awkward uncomfortable stage, when it gets to a few days beyond mere stubble, and rather itchy and pointed. There is nothing you can do except surrender to the process. On this day the fruits of surrender were revealed as the beard became soft – this was an apt metaphor for all of my experiences that day.

Bags of cement in the shape of the word "Love"

Bags of cement in the shape of the word "Love"

I love dreams. Pam turned to me at breakfast the other day and said “Congratulations Mr. Brandt. Last night you and I won a silver medal in badminton. The Bulgarians kept coming into our court, but we held on for the win”. Reality in the ashram was just as randomly entertaining. I look forward to sharing more experiences when I get home. For now, 3 pages are probably enough. Thanks if you read this far.

Tomorrow we catch a train to Varanasi, the holiest city in India. There we plan to spend Christmas morning on a boat sailing down the Ganges. Our group separates over a few days there, and 3 of us have plans to continue on to Agra. I am sure there will be more to share in the days ahead.

Namo Narayan,


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