Out of the blue, the phone rang, "Hey Claire, what are you doing in January? Will you come with me to India?" The call was from my sister, Alison, asking me to accompany her to Delhi to help with her new business. And what does a yogi say to such an offer? They say yes! It had been 10 years since my first wild and wonderful trip to incredible India. And so, on January 1st, 2017, I boarded the plane...Chennai, here I come.
Stop 1 - Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu - The Holy Fun Guest House
With a rotten cold and after 24 drugged up travel hours I arrived at the Holy Fun Guest House, (yes, I was seduced by the quirky name), where I was booked for 3 nights. It's brand spanking new with a massive chandelier in the foyer and I am very ready to rest. It's 9pm.
"Hello, I am Claire from Australia. Here's my booking sheet..."
"We don't have your booking. The hotel is booked out. We don't have any rooms available " ...
Welcome, Claire! Do I burst into tears now or later? I hold it together and with a little firm urging, (channelling the formidable, not to be messed with energy of my mother, Marge), it transpires that there is one room vacant, right on top of the hotel.
"Please wait madam, we will clean it. But, only for tonight. Tomorrow you will go into a single room..."
Up 4 flights of stairs and WOW. It is huge with shiny marble floors and an enormous bed, and promises expansive views of the sacred mountain, Aranachula. " Yes, I will sleep here!"
And sleep there I do. Over the next 2 days I go through a ridiculous, (and not so Holy Fun), farce of arranging the move to my booked single room. I look for the manager, who is infrequently around and, often, no-one else. I wait. I come back. Eventually we arrange an appointed time to move, at which I pack and carry my stuff down the 4 flights of stairs, only to find out that in the meantime the room has been given to someone else. AARGH. A little more Margey bargey and it's back up to the penthouse. The enormous room does have an amazing view, but also many mozzies, no mozzie screens, and is hot and airless so you need to open the windows. One crucial set of windows that face the bed has no curtains at all, and everyone who walks past looks straight into the room... Nothing my trusty scarves and portable clothes line won't fix! First world problems, yes, and hello dear India, where nothing is ever quite as you expect it to be.
People queueing for their rationed 2000 rupees ($40) after the 2 largest rupee notes were withdrawn from circulation.
I come in search of a hat...
In my less than 100% alert packing state, I forgot to pack a hat! The heat in the south is very intense so I needed to buy one. I was staying in the hip, "spiritual traveller" district, where there are many ashrams and western eateries, and many, many, westerners wandering around clad in their ashram-dress-code garb... Lots of things to buy, but no hats. So I headed into the main town. After much walking in the mayhem, sweating profusely and asking, (well gesticulating and miming), to everyone about hats, I eventually located a reputed hat selling shop. "Oh yes madam, upstairs". Upstairs I went where I had a delightful interaction with the two teenage shop assistants. They found it hilarious and intriguing that this middle aged, sweating woman from Australia wanted to buy a hat. It was a hoot - fun, laughter and charades followed but the selection of hats was minimal. I had the choice of either a logo cap, or a plastic, woven, little girls hat with frills and flowers, (what a shame, too small for me!). So I bought a red, Nike cap which combined with my trusty shawl over the top kept the fierce sun off my head. I looked ridiculous but who cares, in India the fact that you are a westerner - BIG and definitely OTHER - means you are always the entertainment!
My sleeping hut at Sri Anantha Niketan Ashram
Stop 2 - The Great Sleeping Retreat
Red cap donned, and trusty scarves in tow, I arrived at the ashram to register for a week long, silent meditation retreat. It was being held at the same ashram that I went to 10 years prior. Phew, familiarity. I felt relief. Once ensconced in my little room I could rest and get well. Nothing to negotiate, nothing to purchase, no where to go. After the registration process I crashed big time and the cold/flu that I had been battling took over completely. And so it came to pass that this retreat will be ever etched in my being as the Great Sleeping Retreat! I spent the first half of the retreat unwell and sleeping in my room, and the second half of the retreat sleeping, err, meditating in the meditation hall. Unusually, and for me fortuitous, is that this particular bunch of teachers advocate lying down meditation, which in my case translated as relaxations that inevitably morphed into sleep. Sleep like nobody is watching! Sleep like you have never slept before! And then sleep some more!
As the retreat days passed I battled with my private slumber party. Was I sleeping because I was sick and exhausted, and/or was it some kind of avoidance? Buddha talked about the 5 hindrances to calmness and insight; one of which is Sloth/Torpor (sleepiness, dullness, lethargy). The five hindrances come up as resistance to meditation or entering deeper states of awareness, and in this aspect they are also referred to as the five signs of breakthrough, (the other four are Desire, Aversion, Restlessness and Doubt). With a little reflection and kindness, and after a chat with the teachers, it was agreed to embrace the Big Snooze. I ate and read and dreamed and wandered and wondered, and then just like that the Great Sleeping Retreat was done. No big, mind blowing shifts, but lots of necessary respite. And who knows, next retreat there may well be more sleeping to come?
Dawn on the Ganges
Stop 3 - Varanasi - Dreaming on a River of Solitude
Next stop Varanasi, the ancient holy city on the Ganges. This was going into uncharted waters. I had nothing planned except to sit and soak up the ambience of place and people... on my own.
After a 90 minute, crazy ride from the airport, which culminated in a hair raising 15 minute walk of faith through the narrow lanes of old Varanasi following a porter in an orange shirt, (who simply marched off pulling my suitcase through the crowds and the poo and the..., "Hang on to your handbag and follow that man!"), I arrived at Hotel Ganpati, situated right on the ghats.
This was the view upon arrival (image right) ; the wide expanse of the magical river, the buffaloes bathing, the put-putting of boats and the babbling sounds of people enjoying themselves floating up from the river below. It was quiet and spacious with a big sky, and large swathes of open-ess. Heavenly.
I walked along the river and observed and felt into this very sacred place. I expected to experience a deep, spiritual connection. I took the obligatory dawn cruise and watched the hoards of pilgrims bathing in the mighty Ganges. The atmosphere was electric, joyous and ecstatic. Hundreds, (thousands?), of people whooped, laughed, splashed and celebrated their pleasure of being blessed and cleansed by the mighty mother Ganges.
Amazing to witness, but that was it, I was a witness, and actually amidst all the celebrations I felt very alone and separate. It was a melancholic space to find myself in but short lived, as the next day I was off to Delhi to meet up with Alison for the second half of the trip and 24/7 companionship.
Stop 4 - Me and my sis in smelly Delhi!
Alison is 18 months older than me and as kids growing up we shared a room, (with the invisible territory line down the middle), and we spent much of our childhood years embroiled in sibling rivalry. This trip was a rare opportunity to be together as grown ups without any other family members around. An unusual time in an unusual place with unusual reasons for being there. My job was to be Alison's companion and assistant, and to help her negotiate all things India. We had a lot of fun. We laughed a lot, giggled side by side in our little single beds, worked efficiently to get her business stuff organised, and successfully negotiated the crazy metropolis of 20 million people without much fuss. The 2 weeks passed by quickly and amicably. The buffer of another, and the deep familial bonds made all the ensuing India challenges much easier to be in and negotiate. Thanks sis!
Unbelievable Delhi traffic
One of the gifts of travelling to places that push you out of your comfort zone is the gratitude that you feel when you return. Grateful for the life that you have. Grateful to come home. I came home to the beautiful, clean, green, spacious, natural place where I live, where I belong. This is where my community; my tribe is. This is where my heart is. This is the place that I return to time and time again for comfort and peace. I am understood and I understand. I breathe deeply, am soothed by nature and feel my roots anchored deep into the land. I am nourished. I am safe. And for all of the above, and so much more, I am deeply grateful.
May all beings live peacefully. May we all find our home, within and without.
May we walk the earth with grace and light, and appreciate all that we have. Namaste.
© Claire Heywood, February 2017