Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Yoga Vacation Part III

I went to the meditation/satsang hall the first night in the Ashram. I retract my statement about the inability to remain silent. The Ashramites (for lack of a better word) were meditating quietly. The atmosphere was palpable. Very nice.

After the meditation the chanting began. There was a "songbook" with the words in Sanskrit. I still can't get the hang of the chanting. While I love the sound of the drums and the harmonium, I've never cared for sing-alongs. Admittedly, the Ganesha melody was rather toe-tapping, but other than that, I couldn't get into it.

After chanting, the resident guru gives a lecture. However, this night was special. There was a movie on 2012! I have avoided the media hype around this apocalyptic year. I did the same here. After 15 minutes of psuedo-scientific drivel I discretely left and went back to my private room to sleep.

The room had two opposing windows and a fan so it was comfortably unstuffy. I read for a bit. It was requested that books were of an inspirational, spiritual matter. While I wasn't reading a trashy romance novel I was reading a non-fiction book on India. I figured that bent the rules just a little. I watched a gecko on the opposite site of the wall. He ran under the fluorescent light. I fell asleep.

Somewhere in the late hours of the night or the early hours of the morning (it really didn't matter) I felt a distinct plop on my bare bicep. I woke immediately, grabbed the thing (it felt like a rubbery piece of clothesline) and flung it across the room. I turned on the lights to find a dull red centipede on the floor curled up in a tight coil after his midnight flight. I used the Ashram brochure with all the rules and regulations on it to sweep his ass out the door.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Yoga Vacation Part II

My first afternoon at the Ashram I read the rules: Meditation and satsang in the morning, two two-hour periods of yoga a day, two meals (brunch and dinner) eaten in silence, karma yoga (selfless service like cleaning), no physical touching, no cell phones, no photos in the temples, etc. I walked around the grounds and discovered the Health Hut which served fresh fruit shakes, fruit salads, nuts, toast, and other snacks at specific hours.

I was a little surprised to see only saw a handful of Indians. The ashram guests were predominantly Westerners and Asians. And a social bunch they were. Strumming guitars, yacking, laughing, calling out. It started to slowly dawn on me why the minimum three-day stay was called "vacation" rather than retreat. I also realized it was a cheap vacation. At six hundred rupees a day included accommodations, four hours of yoga, meditation, chanting, lectures, and yoga instruction, it was a bargain. I suspect some people didn't even give a hoot about the yoga.

A bell rang indicating dinner was served. I went to the dining hall. Inside, there were long mats with pre-filled stainless steel trays of food. In all fairness, the food at an ashram is meant to be simple, vegetarian, and proportionate to keep the mind from getting dull. But each dish was watered down so much that only a few vegetables floated around in watery broth. You could eat as much as you wanted and servers walked by dishing out salad, ladling dhal, and handing out chapatis or other types of Indian bread. To get more food, your requested was predicated by Om. One woman seated on my right cried Om, Om, Om holding out her tray as if her life depended on it. A tall thin man on my left, tray to mouth, scooped up five platefuls of food.

Last August, I spent 10 days at a Vipassana meditation in total silence. It was peaceful and thoughtful. I expected a little of the same here. However the only time one had to observe silence was during meals. Damned if no one there could keep their pie-hole shut here. There wasn't even a trace of effort. "Om, please observe silence," came the word over the loudspeaker again and again. Not a second passed before the conversation started up again.

I silently stuffed another chapati in my pie-hole.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Yoga Vacation Part I


About a week ago I stayed for three days at the Sivananda Ashram at Neyyar Dam just east of Varkala Beach . After spending a week lolling around the beach and sipping coconut juice, I was ready for some yoga, meditation, and silence.

I took a two hour taxi ride to get there through skinny, winding roads and jungle. The cab was sweetly scented, since the driver had draped a fresh jasmine lei over the rear view mirror. Colorful Keralan-style houses in every imaginable shade stood out against the greenery of coconut palms, rubber tree plantations and tapioca fields. I saw purple, bright pink, turquoise, teal, lilac, powder blue, melon, lime green, violet, apricot, periwinkle and many more colors. A man on the road herded a gaggle of ducks. He had a stick with a plastic bottle on the end which I surmised was his herding staff to keep the ducks in line. The driver said he sells the ducks for the eggs they lay. "Very tasty, very strong."

Along the way I stopped at the Steve Irwin Crocodile Preserve. There was one rather stagnant pool with four crocodiles floating around. They are served "beaf" every other day. They're doomed. Hopefully the nearby waters were crawling with them.

I arrived at the ashram, ready to submit to structure and discipline. The grounds were beautiful. Set in the jungle were ornate temples, an open yoga/satsang/lecture hall with brick arches, rubber trees bleeding latex, and a "cannon ball" tree with exotic cream and pink blossoms and an equally exotic scent. The requisite crows were there but so were tree pieds, chatty jungle babblers, and Indian robins.

Thankfully, I reserved a shared room. The dormitories were adequate, but a little grim. My room had two beds, a private bath, small table, and a simple veranda. I scored. I felt like I was in the lap of luxury.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Eat, Eat, Eat

Forget the pray and love. The food in Southern India in Kerala is a refreshing change from the heavily spiced, gravy-covered dishes of Rajasthan. I stayed at the Varkala Marine Palace on Varkala Beach and didn't miss a meal.

For me, it's all about the coconuts. A favorite food since I was a little girl, I've managed to eat it nearly three times a day here. In one week I've consumed: fresh coconut juice and coconut meat (hacked up by a strong Keralan woman with her machete), warm coconut pudding, coconut laden vegetables dishes, coconut curries, museli and coconut, and pina coladas with generous jiggers of rum. I've even watched them drying coconut on the beach to turn into oil. It's far more interesting than watching paint dry.

Keralans eat coconut in all forms by the tons. During a ride into town a billboard featured a giant coconut and read: One Nation, One Drink. Brought to you by the Coconut Development Board of India.

In between eating the perfect white fruit, I've noshed on little dumplings from the Tibetan restaurant; thin crust mushroom pizza that easily rivals my favorite in Seattle; lots of fresh seafood including blue marlin, butter fish, giant prawns and seafood fried rice; fresh watermelon, mango, and pineapple juice; the most delicious cucumber raita (with yoghurt sauce); and a thin puffy fried bread filled with cheese that tastes like the most divine grilled Velveeta cheese sandwich only the cheese is white.

The only things I haven't been crazy about were "fresh" croissants that turned out to be stale affairs full of ants, and a few items on the menu that didn't sound very appetizing, like Nutela Banana Craps. I assume they meant crepes.

It's been one year and three return trips to India since I've written, but I feel inspired here (and obviously hungry) and like I'm back in the saddle again. Come back and visit me. Barring spotty internet connections, I'll be here.

As for the pray thing, I did go to Sivananda ashram. Lots of yoga, meditation and "adequate" food. It's better for mental clarity...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Miniature Paintings & More

While in Udaipur in Rajasthan I visited some of the studios known for producing miniature paintings, a traditional Indian art form. Artists painted everything from portraits to idyllic scenes from royal days with the aid of paint brushes made of squirrel tail hair(s). Rather than succumb to the chemicals that modern day painters use, those true to the art form use natural pigments including cow urine for the gold coloring.

Can't make it to India to see these masterpieces? Check out the Garden & Cosmos exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It's a royally impressive collection of 58 paintings and works created from the 17th to the 19th century coming all the way from Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, India. And, it's the first exhibition of these works in the U.S.

These exotic creations of palace life, depictions of the gods, and portrayals of the cosmos are intensely colored in gorgeous hues and shades of gold, lilac, magenta, ochre, and deep jungle green. The paintings are precise, infinitesimally detailed, and mesmerizing. Silvery parrots and snowy egrets roost in lush trees. A bejeweled maharaja is serenaded by nubile bosomed queens and attendants. Steel gray elephants cavort beneath cobalt-blue rain clouds. Red-faced monkey soldiers wearing garments that look suspiciously like underpants bravely battle to rescue Sita, wife of Rama.

When your eyes tire of soaking in the painstaking yet beautiful detail, take a break in the room filled with photographs of Jodphur's and Rajasthan's rich culture including the people, forts, dancers, pageantry and modern day royalty.

Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur
Tues.-Sun., Through April 26 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, 1400-E. Prospect St. 654-3100.

Maharaja Bakhat Singh Rejoices during Holi,
ca. 1748 - 50
Opaque watercolor on paper
Attributed to Nagaur, India
29 x 37"
Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 1986

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Mustard Fields

Some months ago I was looking through one of my many guidebooks on India. In one picture there was a field of flowers with deep green stalks and bright yellow blossoms. It was so beautiful. I hoped that one day I would be in that place.

Last February I was in "that place." The picture was that of mustard fields in bloom in Northern India. As it turned out, I went to visit Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a world renown bird and animal preserve in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, with my friend Regina.

We drove by field after yellow field before stopping. As I walked through the waist-high mustard plants I felt privileged to be there. The driver pulled a few golden blossoms from a stalk and rubbed them on my wrist. It turned slightly yellow and smelled sweet and gentle.

After a day of bird watching we returned to The Bagh, a resort in Bharatpur ( To me, it's more like a little slice of heaven. The expansive grounds abound in fruit trees, flowering bushes, and plants that attract a huge variety of birds. Outdoor pavilions are perfect for lounging and bird-watching in the early mornings and evenings. We took advantage of the heated pool and had oily, relaxing Ayurvedic massages.

In the evening we sat in the elegant but homey bar enjoying gin and tonics and chatted about the birds and animals we saw, including a giant python sunning itself. We had worked up an appetite from our hard day of birding, head massages, and drinks and headed for the restaurant.

The food at The Bagh is divine, with specialty dishes of the region. Quite frankly, it is some of the best food I've had in India. We dined on a dishes with five types of dhal, minced lamb, spiced rice with tomatoes and chilies, and my favorite: fresh mustard greens with garlic. I could not have been happier.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ironing Out the Details

This morning I was hand-washing my unmentionables. I wash my fine lingerie in cold water with a gentle detergent. I rinse the delicate pieces and carefully lay them flat or hang them dry. Taking care of them ensures longevity.

During my first trip to India I was gathering up clothing for the hotel to launder. In the pile was a nice shirt that I typically hand wash. My roommate said, "Oh don't let them do that. They'll ruin it." I thought she sounded like the Ugly American. I have since used that same sentence.

I've seen Indian women at lakes and rivers pounding clothes with rocks and sticks. They wrench and twist them with deft wrists and strong forearms. The clothes take a real beating. Men stand on street corners surrounded by piles of laundry and iron. They use the real deal—heavy irons that are stoked with burning coals.

My laundry comes back very clean and flat. All pleats and ruching are gone. My panties are ironed and folded. Bras too. One T-shirt bra came back with the underwire hopelessly twisted. I threw it away. Now I just send out my jeans and T-shirts for laundering.