Uncategorized

All That Glitters

I admit, before you read, this is a longer post. So grab your Yogi tea or a cup of chai, and have a little sit down. I am 25 miles from the Pakistan border, and the area is worth more than a single post, but I’m going to do my best to give you a taste of it all in one entry.

Amritsar is a bustling city of criss-crossing roads stuffed to the corners with textile markets, fruit vendors with carts stacked in neat papaya pyramids and pomegranate piles. Bunches of green grapes, rows of guavas, and bright oranges catch the sunshine, and a mountain of brilliant green peas wait cushioned on a hot pink piece of burlap (no filters) for someone to come along and buy them for their evening korma.

ABBF055A-A6A1-471E-8269-96FD6BD23B62Every street is a bazaar glittering with bangles and bindies, and as far as the eye can see are pashmina stalls and shops crammed with Punjabi shoes studded with rhinestones or adorned with tiny pom poms and shiny rick rack. I try on a few pairs along the way, but save my purchase for some beaded gold flats I find later on in the day near the Golden Temple (more on that in a bit); I literally click my heels, and plan my night out as an Indian Cinderella! Sold for $500 rupees!!

63381C2D-0704-4973-A61F-F66A84AD52EBMotorbikes swerve around cows, dogs, and throngs of colorful saris. I weave in and out of traffic with ease now on my fourth trip to India; I feel as though no matter where I go, things flow around me, or perhaps I flow around them… there is some kind of strange precision in the chaos of this human anthill, as if the Universe has already decided how this is all going to work. A moped speeds by within an inch of my elbow; a cow horn brushes my pants; I tip out of the way of a tuk tuk fender with a millisecond to spare; I slide sideways along a street to face a woman who makes the exact same move as me to avoid a crowd of men walking in a hard line towards us. My hips sway far left just missing the front tire of a peddle rickshaw who keeps his course despite my gasp; I balance easily on my tiptoes like a cat as I creep along a thin row of cobbles to dodge a pile of garbage. No one seems to care about how easily any one of us could get hit by the stream of motorbikes that rarely slows down; we all move before we think to move… consciousness precedes our thinking.

Hours of joyful zig zagging through crowded lanes yields me a cheap new suitcase and a beautiful array of hand-stitched shawls called dupattas, often worn with sarees. Here they are done in Phulkari style, an art form of Northern India referring to the intricate art painted on the fabric, which is then overlayed with silk embroidery thread called Kantha. The quality of the shawl is determined by the underlying fabric, which is generally faux georgette or chanderi. Both are soft and pretty, but the georgette you find in the markets today tends to be synthetic and less expensive, whereas chanderi is a silk/cotton blend, can withstand needlepoint better than georgette, and because it is natural fiber is lighter to the touch. I opt for chanderi. Some are covered in embroidered flowers; others have bright blue peacock tails or swirled mango leaf borders. There are swirls and trees and butterflies woven into elaborate scenes, all trimmed with yards of bold blue, orange, and pink silk edging. I love them all so much, I can’t decide which one will be mine and which will be up for sale in the yoga studio. Each is exquisite and has every color of the rainbow in its silken threads. They are so gorgeous, they literally take my breath away!

9A736EAB-8CBF-47B5-B531-9FE68729969EI find a small stash of beautiful double-sided silk Kantha shawls handmade from recycled saree fabric hidden in a tall stack of dupattas and my jaw drops; I have been looking for these down South for three years! They are perfectly imperfect, made by women from Bengal to Rajasthan. I could launch into another whole description of this artwork, but this link below will give you more info if you are interested in the history of kantha stitching: https://www.unnatisilks.com/blog/beautiful-thread-magic-sarees-kantha-embroidery/

kantha shawlAfter a little bargaining, I take my packages with a grin as the shopkeeper bows to me. Both of us satisfied with the exchange, I duck back into the whirlwind of the street.

There is a man on the corner selling dried fruits and nuts, and I can’t help but steal a snap of these kiwis. We spend two days walking up and down these streets just to take in all the color!

921336B7-76F2-4746-A400-86323E2EE23A A ten minute walk from the Katra market via a dirty labyrinth of back streets full of trash and dusty cobblestones brings us to an opening resembling a traffic circle. A few food vendors sell sizzling fried vegetables called pakora from massive shallow wok-like pans, various fried flat breads are stacked and ready to roll around falafel, and a gauntlet of masala chai stands are lined up near the rather undecorated entrance of the landmark of Amritsar: The Golden Temple. We walk by this man during the day, but it is later that night we stop to try his golden potato cakes! Here he is putting on a fresh batch:

3E1EADFD-5A9A-4564-9718-1879B223E0DEWe step onto a red carpet just inside the gates, take off our shoes, and hand them to a man who swaps us for a key. After a hundred feet, we float down a set of marble steps, and then enter a tremendous sea of colored turbans in a wide crowd which eventually funnels into a slim line.

F9A0D300-A41B-4C96-B774-36BD3CEB9999The pace is slow, but I don’t mind. I take a few pictures; then my phone dies, and all I can do is be present. Everyone is smiling, chatting, praying. The sun is hot, but it feels good, and I know it is snowing at home once again, so I’ll take the heat. This is the pic Declan sends me from our backyard (gasp as I realize there WILL still be snow when I get back home):0595ECC6-00AA-4403-968B-DB228B916AA1It is a half hour before we pass under the golden arch which leads onto a long promontory where we will “walk on water” to the Sri Hamandir Sahib, The Golden Temple. A man at the end of the bridge lifts an iron bar, and a wave of bodies lunges forward before the bar returns to hold the crowd. Eventually, we make it in, and once inside, I understand the draw. There are two men playing twin gold harmoniums, another playing tabla, all dressed in white, and devotees sit on the floor in rows facing the musicians. One of the men chants into a microphone. The center of the temple is open from floor to ceiling where a giant chandelier hangs, shimmering. Ornate flowers are painted on the walls, and the ceiling is pure gold and lit up from the reflection of the water outside. Many people hold tiny prayer books and follow along with the chants; others sit with eyes closed and sway.  I find a spot on the second floor in a sunny alcove, and let the sun wash over me while the chant goes on and on.

gt-posts-3.jpgA little bit about the architecture: the giant pool of water surrounding the temple is called Amrit Sarovar (lake of nectar), and it is the prettiest shade of blue-green meant to mirror of the sky. The tank was first constructed in 1577, but it wasn’t until about 25 years later that the Golden Temple was commissioned and officials appointed its first head priest. Everywhere are engravings recognizing the lineage of Sikh gurus, and I learn later the temple itself is erected on the site where it is said the very first Guru, Nanak, used to sit and meditate. Built at a level lower than the surrounding land, the temple, or Gurudwara, teaches the lesson of egalitarianism and humility; it is not only a central religious place of the Sikhs of Amritsar and Sikh pilgrims from all over the world, but it is also known as a symbol of human brotherhood and equality. The pure gold on the roof represents the richness we all enjoy in sharing a sacred space, and it is said that everybody, regardless of race, religion, or any other limiting factor, is offered spiritual solace and religious fulfillment here. All are welcome, as symbolized by four separate entrances calling in all of humanity; about a third of all visitors are non-Sikh, so this message is truly an invitation.

GT and me

GT daytime 1Sitting among families and foreigners, Sikhs and Hindis, I feel completely at home. Giant koi swim along the edges of the 17 foot- deep reflection pool that makes the temple look like a golden island. Since the water is said to be Amrit, the nectar of the gods, it is customary to wash your face, sip the water, or even take a ritual dunk in certain designated areas. As the sun disappears, the temperatures drop and the breeze picks up, and yet more and more people join the line to get into the temple, which is open from 2:30 am to 10 pm each day. From every direction, the evening chant from inside the temple echos gently outward from the loud speakers placed at the four corners of the complex. Many sing along. Others feed the fish. Some, like these two kids, ask if they can take a selfie with us, and their parents snap photos and then ask for my What’s App # so they can send them to me.

FEB872AF-B584-4070-A465-AAEB5D1BC615

More pics just because.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about this temple is the open air kitchen where volunteers feed tens of thousands each DAY.  The idea originated nearly 500 years ago, when a Sikh guru introduced the idea that a place should exist where everyone, regardless of religion or social status, could sit on the ground together as equals and eat the same food. Langar, as it is called, is served in every Gurudwara in the world, but the one in the Golden Temple has the world’s largest free kitchen which feeds a record 50,000 people on an average day and up to 100,000 during special occasions and festivals! It seems impossible, given the size of the kitchen, but when I ask a volunteer, he confirms what the internet claims. The kitchen consumes an astonishing amount of raw materials to create its daily meal: 12,000 kg of flour, 1,500 kg of rice, 13,000 kg of lentils, and up to 2,000 kg of vegetables every single day! While much of the work is done by hand, there is an industrial oven and conveyor belt nearby producing 200,000 chapatis (flat breads) on a daily basis. Brendan and I are fortunate to eat here twice, and each time the sweetest eyes and hands offer us plates of soup and bread, and there are big bowls of chai which are refilled even before we finish sipping the first. The samosas are the tastiest I eat in all of India, but the best part is sitting on the ground with so many people who simply come to eat. Beggars sit beside well-dressed ladies, and children help the team of volunteers, mostly men, as they shuffle around and make sure everyone has enough. It is a humbling scene, and I am so grateful to be a part of it here on the ground in my bare feet, shawl over my head, looking across at a the chefs who observe me with a smile.

I have so loved my time in this city of Sihks, Muslims, and Hindis all living together. Probably the most colorful markets I have seen in a India are here where the silk and wool overlap in great piles and sway in the breeze outside shop doorways. Always the smell of fried potatoes, samosas, cinnamon, and exhaust…always dust and grime and bells, and horns (both the animal and vehicle kind).

But when I settle in to my room later on, it is chilly and dark. I long for my bed high up in the mountains at my sweet retreat where Chagan and Mohan are already sleeping after a long day of cooking for guests. It is quiet there now, and there is a tiny crescent moon over Jowel’s cottage. Here, a train rumbles nearby, and lorries crank their gears as they climb the highway bridge not far from the hotel gate. Amritsar doesn’t sleep like the villages in the mountains, and I am awake late trying to get used to the sounds of the city.

In the morning, we begin again with a walk through the markets, to the temple, to the chai wallahs and the copper dealers. Later in the day we visit the border of India and Pakistan, and I admit it’s a little strange to me that thousands of people want to go here everyday at sunset to watch the armies salute each other, while during the day tensions escalate. Two days ago a plane was shot down over Kashmir, and the week before that a bus load of Indian soldiers was ambushed, leaving forty dead. Nonetheless, here we are, and there is singing, dancing, pomp and circumstance, popcorn and ice cream vendors walking through the stadium like we are at a baseball game.

At night we pack for the final leg of our India travels: Haridwar & Rishikesh. When we make it to the airport in the morning, it’s not long before boarding and take off on the small twin prop Bombardier Spice Jet airplane.  We taxi, hit the runway, and are off!

9E7B94D8-816D-47D3-BF8F-2ACB0C1AEE4CAnd then…15 minutes into the half hour flight, we take a sharp U-turn and are told that there we are experiencing engine “difficulties,” and must return to Amritsar. The ride was turbulent before the announcement, so you can imagine how engine trouble might make the passengers feel. We land quickly and told to deplane on the tarmac. Two hours later, the flight is officially cancelled, and our luggage is finally returned to us.

An American couple in their young sixties is sitting nearby and ask if we’d like to join them on a train to Haridwar rather than take the next scheduled flight in 24 hours. Without hesitation, I say “yes!” and the wheels are in motion. Laura and Eric call their travel agent, and we wait for a reply.  Fast forward to the train: For 1,000 rupees each, we are on a 9-hour ride in a 3rd-class sold-out sleeper car. A man hands out pillows and blankets. Bunks are three deep on each side (six in a pod) with a set of double bunks running alongside the aisle. I spot a cockroach five minutes into our bed-making; Laura and I take a collective deep breath and embrace the adventure. In just a few minutes, the blue and gray train rolls out of Amritsar into the black Indian night.

Our new friends are great company, and we laugh at the situation as Laura hands out earplugs. We are the only non-Indians in the car (and maybe on the entire train), and when Brendan pulls out his guitar and we start to sing, the place goes quiet. After a few lullabys, I take out my contact lenses, hop into the middle bunk, pop in my earplugs, and pull my own travel fleece up around my shoulders. It is not long before the whole car is snoring in time with the rumble of the train. I smile and wonder how I’m going to describe this experience so people will feel like they are here. Impossible. You just have to go to India one day. And take the 3rd class sleeper car overnight. I promise, you will never ever forget it.

 

Uncategorized

Treatments, Take Two!

I have just finished my first massage treatment of the day—herbalized warm oil bath, my very favorite Ayurvedic treatment of them all.  It is 11:30 am, and already today I have been on a sunrise walk, taught a yoga class for my retreat guests, and had the most amazing breakfast of dosa, coconut chutney, and the juiciest papaya of my life! It is indeed a glorious day!

B95952E1-C682-449E-A5A0-1587609E475CI have an hour to rest in my fuzzy aqua bathrobe and allow my oil to soak in before a bunch of us assemble on the lawn for our daily “round-robin,” abs class. Our half hour is playful, hilariously competitive, and actually quite challenging!  

We are all determined to keep off the pounds lost here on PK (panchakarma, the full name of the 21-day Ayurvedic cleanse we are participating in on this retreat). Some who are on a weight loss program have lost between 5 and 13 kilos (10-26 lbs)! Most of us have dropped 5-10 pounds without trying and have gotten leaner by walking every day, practicing yoga, hydrating more, adding ghee to the diet, and mostly—I presume—by relaxing the mind and surrendering our stress in this unique mind-body-spirit process of letting go and receiving all the goodness of massage, food made with such love, and this beautiful environment we have called home for the past two and a half weeks. With less than a week to go, many of us are already anticipating the return to “the world.”  It is important to remind ourselves to remain present for every moment, as each is a blessing. In the friendships we have grown, we have witnessed our becomings and the goings of things that no longer serve us. I am so grateful for our original group of 13, but also for the handful of others from around the world who have nestled in to our family ❤️

Days are somewhat timeless here. There is structure to each day, but a lot of what we offer in addition to the PK is optional, so each of us can really dive deep and take more personal time if that is what’s needed, or we can allow the offerings to fill our individual well with meditation and yoga, with storytelling, singing, laughter, a tuk tuk ride to town, or a trip to the dentist where you can have your teeth cleaned for all of $20. Oh, this is Velu and his fabulous rickshaw nicknamed the “Lemon.” He always greets me with a humongous smile, and he has a fishbowl in his tuk tuk!

Morning blossoms on the laundry, then pours into the yoga studio in time for savasana; it smiles through the drapes in the treatment rooms where our therapists glide oil over our bodies. By lunch, the sun is high in the sky and hot like our digestive fire, ready to devour a delicious lunch served up by Chagan and Mohan. Sambar soup, freshly-made chapatis, veggies from the garden, and always fresh fruits, like this jackfruit.As the sun passes its zenith, we put our robes back on and begin to take our staggered afternoon treatments: abhyanga massage with herbal infusions, rice bath, steam and bastis; herbal pounding, powder massage, deep tissue and muscle treatments, therapies for the eyes, and so much more! This is me with my eyes full of ghee in a treatment called Netra Tarpana, where a garam dough is made by hand just as I arrive, and while it is still soft, the therapists mold it to my face. It looks a little scary, and it’s a bit uncomfortable to blink for ten minutes into the ghee, but I can assure you, after it’s all over everything looks sharper, and colors are so much more brilliant! I receive six days of this treatment.

And treatments are just part of our daily regimen. Each of us is given a repertoire of daily herbal concoctions, decoctions, pastes, tablets, and tinctures. Guests are here to work with Dr. Mouli on an array of imbalances that give rise to issues such as migraines, Lymes disease, constipation, leaky gut, insomnia, anxiety, psoriasis, and so much more. I am always so mystified and tickled that just the right group of people shows up to share in this 21-day experience. It is nothing short of marvelous!

Afternoon tea time is a favorite, since there is always steaming chai and ginger tea. We gather ’round the table in the garden for check ins and chats, for silliness in a mixture of robes, oil rags on our heads, and clothes purchased here. Jowel and Amaz’jhi are two of my loves here on this retreat ❤️

My afternoon treatment is a butter massage with essential oils, and I smell so yummy after, I want to lick my own skin! Sorry, no butter massage pics.

You might think I’d get tired of 21 days in a row of this… but I don’t! This is my fourth year here with a John de Kadt offering this retreat, and each year I love it even more.

On that note, it’s time for bed. Ayurveda stresses good sleep habits, so… over and out!

~Katie 💕

Uncategorized

Morning is My Favorite

It’s still dark outside, but the birds are already singing at 6 am. I hear the familiar clink of the metal cup on my doorstep and know Vijay has just left my morning herbs for me, so I crawl out from under two layers of blankets and crack open the door to retrieve the cup. The air is chilly, and I quickly close the bolt and turn on my heater.

For a few minutes I text with Declan, who is home in NH buried under snow drifts and 50 mph winds. Yesterday they recorded the strongest winds on Mt Washington in February history: a crazy 171 miles per hour. He tells me about how he tried to scrape the ice off the solar panels but lasted only three minutes with the wind chill and his Irish cheeks freezing off.

Here in the mountains of south India the weather is what I would call perfection. Nights are chilly at about 50 degrees F, and days can get into the mid 80’s if it’s a bluebird day. Mornings are just right for walking, so I pull on my yoga pants, two shirts and a fleece jacket, my hat, and out into the pink dawn I go to meet the walkers in our group.

Some days there are six or seven of us, but usually it’s a handful who are faithful about this daily practice. My favorite route is up the hill through Pemberly and across the tea field to where Bharatnagar sits like a box of colored chalk: houses of every pastel blue, pink, and green you can imagine sit in tiers all the way to the road far below. The concrete steps leading down to the old primary school are an awesome workout for the quads, and every 30 feet or so there is a side lane where the cottages sit side by side, laundry strung up to catch the sunrise.

I have been walking this way for four years now, so I have returned again and again to the same homes, to little families with children I have watched transform from one year to the next. I am always received with such warm eyes and sweet smiles. I know they are both curious and delighted that I always ask to take their photo; and the kids ask every year to be in a selfie. Sometimes I scroll back two or three years in my phone for pictures years so they can see how they have grown up or changed. Always smiles or giggles. Always the gesture of a bow or the salutation “namaskar,” good morning, good sunshine.

Each morning is it’s own, but there is ritual here too. The same dogs sit on the same steps, children dress for school, roosters crow, and women line up to fill their water jugs.

Here the sun climbs up and over walls and into little gardens laced with poinsettia, ivy, and lantana. Chickens are released from their pens and scuttle out to eat bugs on the pathways. A man balances a basket of jasmine flowers on his head and travels house to house collecting 50 rupees per strand. I follow him for awhile just to smell the blossoms.

Some mornings we hike up to a small mountaintop that overlooks a handful of villages below. People greet us as we go, and as we begin to ascend the last quarter mile, the pavement ends, there are no more houses, and the path becomes uneven. Rust-colored earth crumbles under our feet, and we really have to watch each step. Eventually, I duck through a grassy opening that leads out to a ledge. The five of us stop to catch our breath as we take in the sun rising to our left and the moon setting to our right, in the West. We set a timer and take a group shot as the sun begins to stream over us.

Amaz’jhi takes a picture of me in headstand that catches the rays.

From the heart of India, I wish you all a blessed morning. May it be full of beautiful surprises and so much joy.

~Katie 💕

Uncategorized

Coming Home to Serenity

We all know it’s not an easy thing to carve out time for oneself; getting a massage, taking a personal day from work to rest or play, even going on a long walk in the woods can seem more like a luxury than a necessity. In Ayurveda, we call the go-go-go mentality a sign of Vata derangement, of too much air and ether–not enough grounding–not enough mental and physical nourishment, and not enough time out of the rat race for spiritual tuning in and switching on the internal light.

Being here on retreat in the Nilgiris in the heart of India is one way I can help to create that time and space for people to rest, rejuvenate, and come home–to move closer to one’s true nature. Here we work on correcting imbalances in the mind-body-spirit, and both individually and with the support of the group, we take a journey toward homeostasis. In our first complete week here, I have felt and witnessed such a profound shift in each one of us. We are each on our own path, but so very much a family. I wonder how I ever lived without these people in my world. It is an incredible gift to facilitate this opportunity with my dear friend, John, and it is a powerful and humbling time with myself–to allow myself to enjoy all of the work that goes into uploading this event and to just be here in the hands of these miraculous therapists, being fed by our jovial and gifted chefs, receiving the sweetest smiles from the beautiful women who turn down our comforters, and to bow to the gardeners who clear the fallen leaves from our pathways. I am overwhelmed again and again and again.

Yesterday I reposted an entry from four years ago–my very first time here–complete with the daily schedule and some of the therapies I was experiencing. Initially, the treatments are all about pacifying Vata, or the elements of air and ether that have made our minds too busy, our skin and bowels too dry (yes, we talk a lot about poop in Ayurveda, so here’s fair warning for any and all of my posts), or that simply leave us feeling ungrounded, overworked, and undernourished. Sound familiar to anyone?

Although I am doing many of the same treatments as in years past, some are also very different this time around. For one, I am going through a two week series of eye treatments, beginning with Akshi sekam, a lubricating eye wash made from a decoction of steeped triphala powder which is strained and the triphala water is then mixed with ghee and honey. In my treatment, a steady stream of warm liquid is poured gently over my eyelids, while I slowly blink to receive the sekam, which is said to calm the mind, relieve tired, overworked eyes, improve one’s vision, strengthen the eye muscles, and soothe the mind. Yes, please! I can honestly say after almost a week of this treatment, all of the above are true. My vision is clearer, my eyes feel softer, and the colors I can see!! I’ll report back on my second set of eye treatments in the next post!

It is such a gift to be cared for in this way every day–therapists become like loving parents who usher us into the treatment room with warm hands and open hearts. Any initial awkwardness I felt four years ago about dropping my robe as soon as I step into the treatment space disappeared long ago, and now I allow these women to anoint my body with oil, beginning with my face and scalp, to every toe and fingertip. I tell you truly, you have not lived until you have this kind of attentive love and care with two therapists twice a day…omg.

And then there is the food… and our daily village walks…and the fireside music and sharing into the evenings. It is all so rich, and I’ll try to write a few shorter posts about each of these things over the next couple of weeks. For now, I’m just enjoying the serenity of being here with our sweet and wonderful retreat group and all the people who have received us so fully. Amen.

Feeling amazing after my third week in India and my first full week of panchakarma treatments. Until the next post, yours dearly,

Katie 💕

Uncategorized

Varkala for Sunset

Our bus from Cochin is long, hot, and crowded, but there are kind smiles everywhere, and we feel comfortable even though we cannot understand the language. Most of the road signs are written only in Hindi. The few who know English help us to get off at the right stop in Kollam, where we are immediately approached by a tuk tuk driver who helps us with our bags and whisks us down a street heading West. He does not know our hotel, The Lemon Tree, but he stops to ask many people who point him this way or that. We turn around and go down another street, then another. As we get closer to the sea, the lanes grow smaller, and the homes grow larger. Westerners abound, dressed in yoga clothes and toting mats. No saris here.

We finally make it to what is called the “helipad,” a huge flat parking lot where tuk tuk s line up in a neat row under some shade trees.  We pay the driver, and I hoist on my backpack and head down the path which is lined on the right with cafes and Tibetan stores, vegan restaurants and an occasional grocery store the size of a matchbox. On my left is a few feet of land and a sheer drop off to the beach. It is stunningly beautiful, and for a second I just stand in the beating sun and stare at the surf below.

54ABB3FD-BA1B-43E1-ABA7-EFA37F369E46The cliffs rise 70 feet above Papanasam Beach, where you can look out over the Arabian Sea as far as the eye can see. They say here you can purge the body of all impurities and the soul of all sins because of a holy spring that flows from the cliffs into the sea. I can’t wait to get into that water.

People are already coming out for sunset, rolling out blankets and playing frisbee in the slant of the sun.  It is a cool 94 degrees at 3 pm. We have walked up and down the sidewalk and still not found our lodging, until finally a young man says the Lemon Tree is a new name for what was the Sea View Hotel. We literally turn around and the sign is right there. Rashi’s big smile and sparkling eyes welcome us. He says to call him Rambo, and I laugh because he is entirely unlike the movie character. And he has the cutest puppy named Lucky! Omg!

9820A560-B2E2-4DC5-A79B-7057058B0039

The room is sparse and perfect in its simplicity, with a little balcony overlooking the backyard of the Tibetan shop next door. Through the palm trees I can see the glistening water over a few red rooftops. I kick off my sneakers, change into a bathing suit, and head down the 110 steps to the beach.

At the bottom of the stairs a woman stocks a tray of  pineapple and papaya, which she then places on her head and walks down the beach to sell her treats.

The Arabian Sea greets my body like a mother’s touch: warm and strong, and with a rhythmic rocking that dissipates the hours of sitting stuffed on the bus.  My arms surf the rolling waves, and the sand massages my feet.  It is a blissful time.

After awhile we walk down the beach past kids playing in the waves, pick-up soccer games, and frisbees soaring in the breeze.  It’s as if all the world is at peace; everyone is smiling, laughing, walking arm in arm.  You can forget politics and war in a place like this. These two friend chatting on their bellies in the sand capture the atmosphere:

505D9082-049A-4343-BE4D-19D42B248752

We pass a shrine to Vishnu that I hear from a local is 2,000 years old. It sits into the cliff, a bunch of yurts overhead, blending the old and the new in this hybrid place where you can hear five languages at once in all directions.

F7982402-BBA7-41B5-AC7D-A2E0BDFD8F4E

 

We pass restaurants waiting for the sunset crowds to come for dinner, but no one is leaving the beach. The most miraculous sunset is happening, and all eyes are watching with reverence. I feel as if I can reach out and touch it, and Brendan catches the moment as I practice a little yoga on the shoreline.

12D27533-B0B0-4F04-AE48-54B4BAF60E7E

I can’t help myself as I take photo after photo trying to capture what I see. Red rays swim on the surface of the water and paint the waves with fire.

85B559AE-7B51-41C8-B676-482DBDF7F707

A giant fireball drops into the great gray sea, buoyant, and burning, and beautiful.

ACF0593E-964A-4A1C-A9DD-9487623B34BC

Later on the lights from all the shops turn the cliff into a carnival, and I catch the reflection as a wave pulls back the sand:

C89B24B5-772F-4B45-A0C0-9D395663C983

We are here for four sunsets, and each is brilliant; but I would be remiss if I didn’t share a few other highlights…

 

This pack of buff colored dogs in formation trotting down the beach with their tails curled over their backs:

7286D227-6E48-4CD1-9331-6D30B3558BCE

 

Morning croissants with loads of butter and melted dark chocolate. And Americano divine!

 

Another wonderful moment: walking down the beach and finding a little blowfish that had been tumbled by the incoming tide, his tiny yellow fins flapping the air! Brendan scooped him up on a coconut shell and walked him out four separate times past the breakers and threw him back into the sea before he finally disappeared from our eyes:

11157EC9-B963-4B28-B4E2-151429D4A14F

Of course, like anywhere on this planet I go, there are the most wonderful people. Abbi is one of those gems, a sweetheart whose Dad owns a restaurant here in Varkala where we had our first dinner and enjoyed our last breakfast before heading to the train station. Goodbye for now, Varkala.  I will see you again one day soon.

4AB8D084-C8E9-42AA-BA63-79AA74D7BB40

Uncategorized

In Passing

I am once again en route to India, this time passing from Boston through Amsterdam to Mumbai. It’s a 4-hour layover, and my friend Brendan and I walk mile loops around the terminal to stretch and check out the endless cheese carts and tulip shops. This is my fourth time to India to lead an Ayurveda yoga retreat, and Brendan, who I did not know prior to India, has been on the retreat every year since my co-leader John de Kadt and I began.

09C26FA1-092A-4B64-BCEE-1561F3897952

Already I miss my Declan, who has slept through a day of my travels at home in NH; it feels like I’ve been gone for days. At 3:45 am I am eating a warmed-up, day-old butter croissant with an Americano.  I know I shouldn’t be drinking coffee right now; but it’s the croissant that requires the java—and lots of extra butter. It was after the last flaky bit that I reviewed my e-ticket and realized that what I thought was the boarding time was actually the scheduled take-off! Maybe it was the Americano, but I would bet you never saw two sleepy travelers snap awake and haul some serious biscuit to the other end of the terminal like we did. You DO NOT want to miss a flight (or any other travel connection in India, for that matter) if you ever want to make it to your destination. Let’s just say, we made it there as the last business class passengers were heading through the gate. Oh, and it is in the middle of all this that one of the shoulder straps on my backpack rips free of its housing, and Brendan has to tie the frayed strap in a knot to keep it attached to the bag   Reminder: do not buy a knock off North Face backpack in Rishikesh for only $8; it will fall apart.

CDD18B23-8070-4DE5-9B44-ADFEEDBE2364A quick sunrise hop to Cochin and a bus through morning traffic gets us to the old fort city in a few hours. I’m wrecked by the time we make it to Calvin’s Inn, a homestay with a handful of rooms that open into a common dining area. Krishti, the owner, checks us in, and although all I want is a nap, we agree to go for a walk to stay awake, hoping it will be easier to adjust to being on the other side of the planet.

The western end of the island is full of street vendors set up facing the sea. There are a few little restaurants, and it’s been awhile since that croissant, so we stop for what we think will be a quick late lunch of gobi Manchurian and a red curry with coconut rice, but the meal takes nearly 45 minutes to come out, during which time Brendan is literally falling asleep at the table. I admit it is probably the best gobi I have ever had, but the wait was seriously laughable (which we did once we got past our exhaustion-inspired hunger frustration). When we finally extract ourselves from the restaurant, we head down River Street where the vendors are set up on both sides of the road, banked up to the curb sides. Brendan peeks into cart and a buys two anklets for his girlfriend back home.

In between the stalls on the beach side of the street are little walkways that lead out to piers where the old Chinese fishing nets splay across the sky. The contraption is made of gigantic wooden spider legs about 75 feet high, each attached to sets of ropes that call up the nets from the water. It takes several men to hoist the lines, which are weighted with boulders and huge hunks of old concrete that hang from ropes and act as a series of ballasts.

C2712140-9A76-4717-A288-3C4765FB4B4CAfter watching the process for a few minutes, Brendan and I are invited to try, so we climb up on the pier and each take one of the five ropes. The men chant as they pull in sync, and I squeal when my feet leave the ground for a second during one of the pulls.

 

A34292D2-52DB-4573-A32D-55032704CEABFarther down the street are ladies selling trinkets spread out over sheets on the ground. I stop to peek and am drawn into the wishful eyes of a girl dressed all in yellow. She shows me dozens of glittering anklets, and while she tries to get me to buy, I can feel the eyes of the sellers in the next shop waiting to see if I will make a purchase.  Each one says they “have a special price” just for me.  Sometimes I wish I had more than my backpack, but it is a good reminder to go slow with my shopping; I have six weeks, after all.

78517940-F5F1-4A4C-973C-23E57D378F0AAt 6 pm (4:30 am at home), the boardwalk is alive with throngs of people who come out to watch the Cochin sunset. Families stroll together, toddlers in tow, young lovers lean into each other, wrists entwined, and fishmongers call out to passers by, hoping to sell off the last catch of the day. The red sun sinks into the waves, a half circle like my eyes which I can barely keep open. By the time we get back to Calvin’s it is dark, and I sit on a couch and text with Declan about the day. It’s only 8 pm by the time we say goodnight, and I fall fast asleep.

In the morning we eat omelets and fresh pineapple, drink coffee, and head toward town.  Before we get a few blocks, a tuk tuk driver approaches asking if we want a “one-hour tour” of Old Cochin for only 75 rupees (a little more than a dollar). He introduces himself as Haris, and I can tell by his broad smile, he is super sweet. Without a thought, we are in his ride and tearing down the street toward our first stop on the tour: Santa Cruz Cathedral, built by Portuguese missionaries who arrived in Fort Cochi on Christmas Eve in 1500. There is a long history of its first stone set in 1505, the cathedral being spared by the Dutch in 1663 (they destroyed every other Catholic building), and then later demolished by the British when they took over the city.  It was eventually rebuilt in 1887 and recommissioned as a cathedral once again.

 

Next stop is St. Francis of Assisi.  Apparently St. Francis loved Cochi, and it is said he was interned here after his death, but his body was eventually returned to Italy. We are only here for a few minutes, but it is a sweet little shady spot on a plaza, and if it weren’t for the people pushing malas and souvenirs just outside the doorway of the church, I could’ve stayed here longer.

We slip back into the rickshaw for a spin to an arts and crafts shop, where the carpets are gorgeous, and the prices are dear. Haris tells us in advance that if we buy something here, he will receive a small percentage, but that we should not feel pressured in any way. We appreciate his honesty.

Inside there are many rooms arranged by theme (jewelry, furniture, statuary, and carpets).  The salesman rolls out a ridiculously beautiful 9 x 12 foot turquoise sea of silk on silk that takes my breath away. He invites me to take my flip flops off and feel it under my feet. I am ruined after this, for every government craft shop sells hand-knotted carpets (900-1200 knots per square inch!), but none is as pretty as this blue beauty. For $8,500, I can have it shipped directly to my door!  I smile as I heave a sigh, step off my dream rug, and head back to the tuk tuk.

7228b99f-d3ca-4e75-9cef-ba8d7e5c38c2.jpegNext stop, and heading into the second hour of our 1-hour tour, is a visit to Dobi, an old laundry center where large-scale hand washing of linens for hotels still happens on a daily basis. Cloths are submerged in small square rooms, where the washers, each in a traditional cotton sarong, stand knee deep and scrub fabric over a huge stone with a brush. Once scrubbed, families of laundry are wrung out and hung by clipping the corner of the garment or cloth between tightly wound  cords of rope.

After drying, pieces are finished off with a cast iron steam press and folded, every last bit by hand. Haris points to the brand new washing machine, the delivery box still at its feet.  He suggests it will take a long time for anyone to want to use it. I already know this is my favorite stop on the tour.  I love laundry lines, and I snap dozens of pictures.

There is so much more in this day… more craft stores, a beautiful mosque where a man calls in hundreds of pigeons that circle one of the temple towers several times before he throws buckets of corn and rice on the plaza where they encircle his bare feet. He passes out grain for all of us to hand feed the birds, and before long, pigeons are fluttering up to sit in waiting palms.  I hold out my hands for a few minutes before this happens:

After awhile of feeding the birds, we get back in the rickshaw, Haris asks if we want to stop for lunch, and says there is a great place where the locals go.  We say yes and he pulls into a side street where we park, and enter a little place where with a hand washing station. Haris helps us order, and in minutes a huge tray of veggie dishes and rice comes for each of us. There are chutneys and Dahls, a choice of rice, a coconut soup, and a banana tapioca dessert. It is the custom to eat with your right hand, so we do like the natives and dig in!  Not only is it delicious, it is only 290 rupees for all three of to get completely stuffed! Sorry, no pictures—up to my wrist in curry!

Back to the tuk tuk for the final part of the tour.  Haris takes us to a women’s cooperative spice company where you can but packages of every kind of spice powder or raw. Downstairs, the ladies organize piles of ginger and nutmeg:

Upstairs, they bag spices which are shipped around the world. They serve us samples of chai, ginger tea, and herbal coffee. Yum!

After 5 hours of driving through the maze of backstreets, we are dropped off on the doorstep of our homestay, and pay our sweet guide. Haris. We really owe him for showing us so much of Fort Cochin in a single day! Exhaustion has caught up with me, and even though it’s still early, I feel ready for a nap. Nightly night from Old Cochin.  Blessings to you all.

720695E0-1EFB-4285-BB83-786A73E17B0E

Uncategorized

The Beach of Long Life!

 

Playa Viva

PV BEACH sunset

In researching where on the globe to bring our guests, Declan and I carefully consider our collective carbon footprint. We look at retreats help to sustain the community, where the meals we eat are plant-rich, grown and gathered locally, where the environment is protected from over-development and/or where owners and locals are working to foster greener practices that not only support the communities that are affected by tourism, but that our travel there actually helps the local population in an eco-conscious way. 

It’s not always easy to do this, but it is important to us personally, especially as Dragonfly offers several international retreats a year now, including our 4th annual retreat to India this winter, where the retreat supports 30 local families from the revenue of our visit, our group trip to Ireland this coming April, where we will travel a section of The Wild Atlantic Way, a glorious and carefully protected section of Ireland’s coastline, and our second trip to Mexico this coming Fall.

You might ask, why Mexico for a second year? It would be an understatement to say that Declan and I fell in love with Mexico this past November. The colors, the food, the temperature, the water, the people… as we were getting on the plane to journey home, we were already planning our next visit! And this year, we have the most special place to share with you! Here it comes!!!

PV Air View

Nestled between the sparkling waters of Mexico’s Pacific coast and the majestic Sierra Madre Mountains is Playa Viva, a 200-acre eco-retreat situated on a mile of pristine and private beach, where for the past ten years, the owners have dedicated their efforts to preserving the beach, the estuary teeming with birds, and an incredible turtle sanctuary where they have helped over 400,000 turtles make it into the sea!! They are dedicated to the local community by supporting the education of girls and women, hiring and teaching locals to care for their organic farms and educate them in regenerative agriculture, to collect and care for turtle eggs and hatchlings on site in their turtle sanctuary, and to hire locals from the nearby town to steward their retreat center. For the past two years, Katie has been corresponding with the owners and making plans to take you here on retreat. It is truly a magical place.

PV Turtles

We are incredibly proud and beyond excited to announce our 2019 fall retreat to Playa Viva, Mexico. Here s a recent post from the retreat itself about the effect of our travel on community, conscious consumption, environmental action, global warming, and green travel. Playa Viva Blog Post. We hope you will join us! Space is limited to 12 rooms, each of which opens to miles and miles of untouched beach and endless sky where we will eat beautiful organic food grown on site, visit local coffee and cacao farms, relax on the beach or beside the gorgeous pool, go surfing if you like, and to practice yoga in the amazing open-air studio that allows us to connect with nature and all of its elements. 

For more information, visit our Mexico 2019 Retreat page. Rates and registration coming soon!

Uncategorized

Feather in Hand

I held a little wood thrush chick for a half hour this morning, walked around the edge of the yard close to the forest, tried to get her to lift off.  It was touch and go as she went limp, eyes closed, head falling into my hand… I bounced her gently in my palm-nest to jostle her awake, and her eyes popped back open, studying me, little heartbeat fluttering against my own life-lined hand…

IMG_9231

Declan and I are no stranger to bird rescue. Our kitty cats bring them to us sometimes, jaws full of feathers and a garbled meow as they present the gift.  If they could only understand we’d rather have their wings up in the sky than on our doorstep. Most often, I can get there in time to grab Puddy by the scruff of the neck, so he’ll relax his jaws and set the bird free; sometimes it’s too late. Occasionally a bird is stuck on the back porch, trying desperately to fly through the screen back into the trees.  We have scooped up scores of juncos, a few bluejays, chickadees, and even sawhet owls, but the hummers are the hardest to catch.  Declan managed to corner one a couple weeks ago, and when he closed his fingers gently around its back, it cried out as if to say, “Oh noooo!”  But sure enough as we opened the door and Declan uncured his fingers, the ruby throat zipped out into the sun with a sharp chirp.

Some birds come to us on the road, injured and in shock, as our latest barred owl did on Sunday evening on our way back from Father’s Day dinner. We were out with friends visiting from Ireland, Eamon was driving, and we were nearly home.

Our back road is very dark at night, with maples and oaks shrouding any light from the stars and rising moon. On this night the air is still and very warm, and as we slip under the trees in the silver rental car, I can see the barred owl up in the distance sitting squarely in the middle of the road. It is the same spot where Declan and I have encountered MANY owls before; in the daytime, they sit on a few of the overlying branches, looking out for chipmunks and mice; at night they swoop down over the car as if following the headlights. Once a few years ago, this guy bounced off the windshield as Declan was coming up the road to home:

Barred in Declan's Hands

What a gorgeous huge bird! He was completely knocked out, his downy chest rising and falling… it was an honor to hold him in our arms like a baby, even if just for a half hour or so. When he woke up, he sat on my arm for another bit, and eventually flew up to the roof, where he sat for over three hours before disappearing into the night.

Tonight’s guy is very alert but sitting still, and it is hard to tell if he is injured or not.

We stop the car, and Declan floats out like he is on his own wings and approaches the bird, whispering, “hey, Buddy.”  It flutters a bit, stands, and Declan again moves slowly in to see if he can aid the bird. It flaps one wing, while the other falls and drags on the pavement. I tell Eamon to wait a minute, and I leave Rachel and their 14-year old son Max in the back seat, and head the thirty feet to where Declan is now down an embankment where the bird has hopped and rolled. One wing is clearly broken. Dec manages to take the owl’s feet and lift him gently upright.  He tries to flap his hurt wing, and then settles down.  I hand Declan my jean jacket, and he places it between the skin of his arm and the bird’s claws. We speak softly to him, but he makes three very loud claps with his beak to let us know he is not charmed, and we stand wondering what to do. “We can’t leave him here… he’ll die,” Declan says. So once again, we are bringing an injured barred home to see what we can do.

IMG_9138

Once in the kitchen, we check out his wing, and Max, Rachel, and Eamon complete their last night in NH with the gift of seeing this majestic bird up close. We are all very quiet, and the bird sits wide-eyed watching, his fuzzy head swiveling nearly all the way around as we move to peek at his gorgeous feathers and his humongous eyes. I quickly get online to read about what to do with a barred in his condition: soft towel, animal crate, don’t try to feed it, no water, put a blanket over the crate, but leave an end open for ventilation.  He is more likely to die from shock than his injuries tonight, so we need to put him somewhere quiet until we can find someone to take him. We email our friend Chele, who is a local animal tracker and birdwatcher, and look up local rehab centers.  Mr. Owl goes downstairs away from cats and kids for the night, and I try to sleep, hoping he will be alive in the morning.

Flash forward to today.  The sweet baby thrush sits in my hand, and I cannot get it to fly.  I attempt to get it to flutter its wings, but the more I try, the more it’s belly warms into my palm, and its sweet little eyes get heavy like the light is going out. I call out to God, to Source, to Light, to give this baby bird back her wings. I think about the children being torn from their parents arms at the border.  I break down and cry at how cruel some humans can be to each other. For a moment, all of those children become this one little bird, and I am determined it is going back up into the trees with its sibling chicks and mama bird up there singing my favorite bird song of all.  But it won’t leave my hand. I decide to go get my phone to take a picture. This bird is going to fly away–I am willing it. I am already writing this story in my heart, so dying is not an option. I am going to document its survival. This story is about hope… yes, the one with feathers, to quote Emily Dickinson.

Back to Monday morning, the day after Father’s Day, and Declan and I go down to see the owl.  He is sitting upright in the crate, wing extended, eyes open.  Okay, he’s alive. We have people to contact.  Chele emails back the name of a rehab clinic in Madison, and we call right away. Kathy answers the phone and agrees to meet us at 11 am to take our guy.  In the meantime, we hug our Irish friends goodbye, and once they head off, we take the barred away in the car to a person who can help.  When Kathy sees him, she takes a deep breath and sighs in a way that makes my heart sink. She goes on to say that if he survives, it will be a long haul.  What we thought would be a few weeks of rehab is really more like nine months… and that’s if he makes it. She was being honest.  Taking care of animals, or children for that matter, means a commitment. And even if you commit, they might not make it.  Would you still help out, even if you knew your efforts might not save someone?

IMG_9137

We left Mr. Owl in good hands with the promise they would keep us in the loop about his status.  The next night we learned he had eaten a mouse but couldn’t see the veterinarian until Wednesday to get his wing looked at and possibly set.  We still haven’t heard how his appointment went, and that was yesterday.  I am hoping no news means he is still alive, and that maybe next spring he will be released here on Bennett Street, his home. If he doesn’t make it, I admit, my heart will be broken, but what are we to do? We are here to help each other.  Declan couldn’t NOT jump out of the car to help the owl. It is in our hearts to care for each other. Ram Dass says “We are all just walking each other home.” How is it that some people cannot see that those Mexican children are THEIR children too, and that those parents are THEIR parents too? I don’t get it. How is it that people decide to protect an “endangered species,” keep pets, have children, love their families, go to church, give to children’s charities, treat people politely on the street, and then decide that because of some invisible boundary line in the dirt that families should be ripped apart because they are seeking asylum? I’m sorry, but I just lose my shit over this kind of insanity. Henry David Thoreau said “Anyone living in a country where the laws are unjust has an obligation to break the law.”  Time for some new laws, I think.

So my story is about the bird. It is about us humans and our capacity for goodness. It is about reaching out to offer your hands with love. It’s about taking a half hour to do what you can to bring healing, caring, support, and light into this day, whether it is for an animal, a person, or this oft forsaken planet. Come on, people! Open your hands!! Hold each other up! Let us do whatever we can, but let’s not sit still and watch things crumble around us. The word Namaste teaches us to do just this: I honor the divine in you; I honor the place in you where the entire Universe dwells; and when you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are as ONE. 

IMG_9232

After a little while of standing and holding the little chick, she stood up on her skinny pink legs, stuck her tail feathers out over my hand and pooped, then looked to the woods and flew awkwardly up to a beech branch. Her stumbled launch left a single baby feather on my thumb. She sat for about five seconds on the branch, turned her head my way, chirped, and then disappeared into the trees. I will never know if she made it, but for today, that’s okay.  Open hands. Open heart.

IMG_9233

With love from Dragonfly in North Sandwich, NH,

~Katie

Uncategorized

Varanasi

Our taxi deposits us on the side of the main road, still bustling with rickshaw, car, and foot traffic at nearly 10 pm. There are no streets in the old town wide enough for cars, so we hoist on our backpacks, the driver points to an unlit walkway barely wide enough for us to stand side by side, and in we go. Somewhere here in the thicket of ancient walls is the Lotus Guest House. The stone pathways of Varanasi crisscross and wind inward like a labyrinth, and people squeeze up to the walls as mopeds and a steady stream of Royal Enfield motorbikes weave between bodies, several cows, and more dogs and puppies than I can count, most of which are already curled up for the night amongst the litter, some in the middle of the pathway. I wonder how they survive with so many tires, feet, and hooves, but they seem too exhausted to care. I am struck by the shadows, the contrast of vivid color and monochromatic dirt, and the constant vibration of voices and barking and horns and laughter from rooms up high, all of which are already forming a dull hum in my brain.

B48AB71A-04A3-448C-9E85-6416FAC6DFDE

We are greeted at the door to Lotus by Kandu, a handsome young man who smiles at us and immediately takes Brendan and I up the wide stone steps to our rooms. We stop at the “Rose” room where Brendan has a queen en suite with a new bathroom. His bed isn’t made up yet (at 10 pm), so we continue up to the third floor to my room “Sunflower,” the smallest of the rooms at Lotus with a shared both across the hall, and the last open room at the time of our booking. It is clean, sweet, and at 500 rupees a night, it’s a deal. Kandu tells me I can shift rooms in two nights, if I want to upgrade to a bigger bed. Eventually Brendan’s room is ready, and as he heads back down the stairs, we agree to sleep in and catch sunrise another day.

6CBB39A1-D2D5-4886-80D7-D45F9BD22940

I am awake most of the night. All of the eight rooms at Lotus are full, and my floor is all young men who are awake late into the night, and one guy is hacking up mucus in the shared bathroom just outside my door, which, by the way, has only an in-floor toilet, a sink and vanity full of messy guy toiletries and with their wet underwear and tee shirts hanging from the few hooks on the wall. There is a shower spout, no shower stall or curtain, and I wonder if I will shower in Varanasi at all. I am too tired to think, crawl into my bed, and cry a little in the dark. I miss the familiarity of my room at the retreat, and I miss our guests who have become dear friends over the past three weeks of panchakarma together (sorry guys, three of you didn’t make it into this pic).

2018 india group.jpg

My sleep is intermittent at best, and at five am I hear the conchs and first voices of the morning singing out chants. I pull out my iPad and begin to look through pictures and write. Two hours go by before Brendan comes upstairs to check on me, and we decide to head to the ghats for what is left of early morning prayers and to see in person the bathers practice their ritual dunk in the exquisitely beautiful and unbelievably filthy Ganges River. Each morning we wander the skinny stone streets that wind from our guesthouse to the river, between pastel painted buildings, past stray dogs, one with three little puppies curled up in a ball in the middle of the road.

934B5594-E3FE-44F8-8E7A-D2A7CCAA510E

Shopkeepers open their tiny snack shops to serve chai and pastries, women sweep dust from their doorways onto the street, and then this: a portal that leads us from the city streets down multiple set of steps, called a ghat, all the way to the river’s edge. This particular ghat has fifty-seven very steep, uneven and irregular steps, which I take slowly in my treadless flip flops.

D6856E81-14C9-4901-B983-7A85DDD70CC2On this first morning, we walk through colorful saris and a stream of Chinese tourists with breathing masks on and each holding at least two cameras. There are packs of locals swimming right off the ghats, praying, chanting, lighting candles. People sit at the Puja (pooja) huts where priests paint peach-colored stripes on their foreheads and dot them with a red powder bindi. I am stunned at the colors, which in my pictures are muted by the morning sun. Women and men change between bathing clothes and back into saris and cotton tunics, and boys jump into the river, splashing each other as they go. Some sadhus sit praying and others are ready to ask for tips if you try to take their picture. It is wonderful in every direction my eyes can see.

 

Our wanderings take us past the main ghats by all the boats. There are men, women, and children selling malas and bangles up and down the ghats. We sit up high and watch the day unfold. I fill my phone with dozens of photographs to edit later. After awhile, I spot a pretty lady standing under an umbrella near a mala stall. I climb a few steps to her and find every kind of mala you can imagine: necklaces and bracelets strung with rudraksha seeds, wooden beads in numerous colors, black lava, bone beads with little Oms painted on them, skull beads, and lotus seeds. She has dozens of anklets with little silver balls and bells. She comes right to me and we smile at each other. I ask her name: Lakshmi. She asks mine and then says it out loud. Her voice is soft and friendly like her smile, and I don’t feel pressured to buy a thing, unlike at every other stall we pass.

Lakshmi's stall

I trace my fingers over the anklets and think about bringing a bunch home. She doesn’t ask me to buy anything until I ask her “how much,” which i know will yield a different answer to each person who asks. It is easy to see the sellers size up the tourists, asking the biggest price first with the expectation of their bargaining. I begin to look through the designs, and ask if she can get more of certain ones. I try a bunch on and decide I like the ones with jingles the best. They are not not real silver and will probably leave a ring around my ankle, but I don’t care. “You come back in the afternoon, and I will bring many. Need to go to the market first.” I tell Lakshmi I will return before sundown, and she puts an anklet on my left leg, we hug, and as I walk away, she waves and puts her hand over her heart. I do the same.

Lakshmi and meSmoke rises over the boats as we round the river bend to the burning ghats. As we approach, an Indian man tells us “No cameras!” He says he can take us to a spot where we can take a few photos. I ignore his request to be our paid guide, and modestly keep my phone out and camera on without aiming at anything. I will try to capture what I see in the most respectful way I can, never bringing the camera lense to my eye, and opting instead just to hold my phone low and do my best to aim and click.

ghats sticks

The atmosphere is intense, and the ancient stone buildings are covered in a thick layer of soot. There are several fires going, orange tongues licking the hazy sky. Wood is piled high in countless square stacks and layered upwards against nearby buildings and free-standing on the blackened beach littered with trash bags, roaming cows, and men who scrape refuse into the smoldering ends of the fires. A row of bodies is lined up above the ghat steps, each awaiting its cremation. Five men slide a body wrapped in red and gold fabric down a chute made of thick wooden sticks. Together they act like a series of dowels, rolling the dead toward the Ganges where the previous body is already engulfed in flames and sending thick gray plumes into the air. I manage to capture a few far off pictures so I can explain the scene to my kids. When they receive my photos in a text message, they suggest I do not swim in the river. It is half with humor but also a knowing that their mother is a “when in Rome” kind of woman. I think about all the bodies burned on the Ganges over the years… and how people still bathe in the putrid water here, insisting on its healing and magical powers. Maybe I’ll swim once I make it north to a Rishikesh in a few days where the water still flows clean up at the base of the Himalayas.

burning ghatsEventually, we leave the waterside and snake our way through the minute manure-filled streets, market lanes full of tourist shops with wares hanging into the streets. We find our way back to Lotus to have a late breakfast, but only after stumbling upon a heart wrenching scene: of the three puppies we saw earlier this morning, one is now dragging its hind legs behind it, trying to keep up with its siblings and a worried mother dog who paces back and forth. I guess out loud that the helpless creature has been struck by one of the many motorbikes. It is a struggle to keep walking, but there is nothing I can do. It will certainly die unless someone takes it in, and there are so many stray puppies here. I have to pull myself away, helpless. Later when we walk this way back to the river to see Lakshmi, the little buff puppy is dead where we saw it, abandoned and pitiful, it’s little body outstretched as if in a nap. My heart lurches into my throat and I choke away the bigger sobs that would drown me if I allowed. I feel the crack in my heart giving way, and I cry in between bites of breakfast. The rest of the day is a blur of shopping and wandering, with a siesta before sunset and Aarti celebration on the river.

Lakshmi sees me from a distance and smiles. I am greeted with a hug and the patting of her hand on the steps to come sit beside her to look at anklets. As the sky turns pink behind us, we talk about our kids, she wants to know why I am here and what is my job, and who I am bringing all these anklets home to in America. I explain that I am a yoga teacher and the anklets are for my twelve very special yoga students who are becoming teachers in a just a couple weeks. “Ahhh, this is good karma,” she says, followed by “for this, I give you good price.” We sit together talking for an hour while Brendan receives an uninvited massage by a man who grabs his hand and launches into a full rub, complete with finger pulls. Lakshmi and I laugh out loud together as Brendan shrugs his shoulders and submits to the experience. By 6:30 pm, the ghats are once again alive with throngs of people families and sadhus, dogs, cows, foreigners, and merchants. Chanting has begun on the main ghat, and people holding flowers and candles as an offering to the river Ganga Maa pile into wooden boats which are ushered into the fray of watercraft which line up in ragged rows facing the show about to begin onshore. I pull Brendan away from the masseuse and explain I am hopping onto a boat if he wants to go.

On shore there is incense, fire, and people packed and singing devotional songs. Groups of women light candles and chant as they set them on the water and whisk them away with their fingertips. Out where we are on the boats, boys hop from boat to boat with pails of hot chai. The atmosphere is joyful, celebratory, and overwhelmingly beautiful. It helps to clear my heavy heart.

This day in a nutshell barely scratches the surface of all I have experienced.  My brain is in overwhelm mode.  My mind wanders over the images of vendors, the little dosa shacks, the dog fights, three men who separate paneer cheese from the whey with a blue cloth, dodging cow patties in the streets, the women carrying infants who plead for money, saying they need milk for their babies, the little dead puppy with the broken legs, the sadhu reading the newspaper in the sun.

Sadhu News.JPGMore: how I feel later on when I see the mother dog down at the bottom of the steps in the evening light with her two puppies dangling from her underside as they stand up on hind legs. Eating dinner on the top floor of Sita’s Hotel, overlooking the river. Lakshmi’s sincere hug and our wish to see each other tomorrow as she places the jingling string of silver bells on my ankle.