A note on my three blogs

A note on my blogs

(1) vio; in love with india - this one is the main blog about my Indian adventures, which started in 2005. I don't write much on this blog these days because I prefer to write privately in the confidential blog. But check out the categories and the index to figure out your way. I have kept some older posts not about India but which I still find interesting or relevant in Old words. Also check out my new, fun category Only in India in which I post photos of funny, unique, Indian situations...

(2) vio; sounds of india - this is my blog of sounds, because India wouldn't be as incredible if it was not so vibrant and just so full of incredible sounds!

(3) vio; confidential - this an extension of my main blog in which I post entries I do not want to reveal to the entire webspace for privacy or sensitivity reasons. You must receive an invitation from me and then accept the invitation to be able to read it. You may email me if you are interested in receiving an invitation.


Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Singing raga (mostly a geeky music post)

Today I had my first music lesson. Every morning around 9.30am I'll go to class for singing and violin, well, basically learning raga. On the violin you play what you would sing, so it is useful that I should learn Indian singing also.

And today I had the revelation as to why I was so confused by my newly tuned violin!

The notes in India are:
SA - RE - GA - MA - PA - DHA - NI - SA ; corresponding to French:
DO - RE - MI - FA - SOL - LA - SI - DO (or anglo-saxon C D E F G A B).

My violin is supposedly tuned like so:

SOL(G) string: SA (do)
RE(D) string: PA (sol)
LA(A) string: SA (do)
MI(E) string: PA (sol)

For years, when my mind is quiet and clear and if I hear any melody, when each "note-sound" (actual sound) has met my ears my brain has been automatically translating it into its corresponding "note-name" (DO, RE, MI etc.) - so that I could reproduce a melody easily on the violin. That's why I've been enjoying so much playing the violin over the CDs of my favourite music. :) And so I was most puzzled by the way Sukhdev had re-tuned my violin: I would swear each time I practised, that the SA I heard (supposedly DO in French) was not, DO. Yesterday I decided to practise tuning my violin on my own, without the help of my MP3-recording from one of our lessons. I went down and down and down and my SA - I understand now - did become a French DO.

And today I told Shivananda. Tthe key to the mystery is that indian notes are RELATIVE. A SA is not necessarily a DO. It is only the FIRST note of the scale (the tonic)!! So it can be tuned on any actual note-sound. And so my SA had always been a RE dieze(D sharp)! Gaaaah... I was not crazy after all. My ears were not deceiving me after all. Horray.

But that means I will have to change the gear of my brain - again! When I started studying violin in Scotland, I had to get used to the anglo-saxon notes. I had to write each corresponding notes (DO-C; RE-D, MI-E) etc. On a piece of paper and stick it to my wall so I would see it all the time and eventually my brain would know pretty much automatically that DO is C and LA is A etc. But that took a long time. Plus, the first note of the scale in French (DO) is not the first note of the scale in scotland (A)! It was most confusing at first, but my brain got round to it.

And now I find myself in India, and it is another matter all together. I have to STOP trying to match SA with DO, RE with RE (that one is convenient), MI with SA etc. Or perhaps loosely. What I have to really learn is the ORDER and juggling of the indian notes. What I don't want is lose the 'anchor' I have with "note-sound" matching "note-(french!)name"... Because it is most helpful to me! Brain gymnastic! But then, the 'anchor' I got from a lifetime of learning piano/music/hearing music... So i shouldn't lose it from three weeks of learning "different" Indian notes... (But then will I stop after three weeks?) - I guess my brain should only soon(ish) become very flexible in terms of notes... The joy... :P

So I today sang ragas - or rather, a raga (singular!) over and over again. A raga is basically a scale pattern. Or perhaps it can be compared to modes (ionian, dorian, lydian, etc.) in Western music theory. Take a scale, SA RE GA MA PA DHA NI SA, and add a couple of "modifications" so to speak: flatten a couple notes, and these notes also "slide-sing" them (sliding up or down from the neigbouring notes) and make "most important" of the raga... etc.

There are thousands of ragas, but I can make do with learning about 10 - the most important ones... Indian classical music revolves around improvising within a raga/pattern. BASICALLY. Huhu. I knew this pretty much. But after just a singing class learning just the basic of one raga, I get a better picture. (And oh, add to that the tabla/rhythm pattern too...) a whole new music world...

So morning (after yoga!) will be theory/technique class. After lunch will be violin practice on the school's rooftop, followed by violin class with the kids. We shall see where I get after three weeks of this?

* * *

And in the meantime I am settling in the new ashram. I arrived on the last day of a meditation retreat and so most people have gone and it is pretty empty now. People come and go. Swami Rama's ashram. Swami Rama whom I hear a lot about, obviously, and I should really read more about his life and his teaching... I have met most interesting people here. Yesterday found out another thought I looked familiar! Indeed I feel very much at home here, after just about a week.

Of course life is pretty quiet here. And slow (because we add awareness to it, that's the idea of an ashram...) Each morning I have been setting up the alarm at 5.30am. Although I am a morning person, years ago I would have screeched at the idea of getting up so early. But here in India, gradually I have been getting up earlier and earlier and earlier. And today it's pretty easy to get up at 5.30am. (But then I also go to bed by around 9pm; MAX 10pm). And so I've been leaving the ashram around 6am to walk to the yoga school. In the gorgeous garden and through the back gate. Avoiding the noise and mess from the other side... Most of the walk is on the path along the Ganges and facing the mountains on the other side. Very beautiful and peaceful, the timid rays of the sun shining onto the pale holy water. With the mountains in the distance, pale looking too, it makes a very... extended and vast and calm scenery. I like my yoga class. Oh, and an Indian girl has joined the class. I do like the class, then, and make people laugh once or twice every time with my funny questions, but it will probably take me a Long time to join the queue and bow at the feet of no-longer-pervert-looking-teacher after each class. if ever...

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Rishikesh (more)

The following day (yesterday) I moved in to my new home; an ashram right by the Ganges. With a wonderful garden, flowers, and opposite the mountains. Quite a small (capacity about 80 people) and empty ashram away from the tourists. My room is huge for my standards; definitely the most "luxury" I've had since I was in India. There are two beds, a bed-side table, I have two comfy seats and a low table. A big mirror and far too much storage for the little stuff that I have.

The concert from the kids of the school yesterday was nice. It was in honour of Mata ji, the Canadian swami who just is no more. It was mostly a gathering of her friends. People were asking how I knew her; it was odd, because of course I never knew her. But now I feel like I did a bit, because I have heard a lot about her in two days. And some people said she would have liked me very much, others that I looked very familiar. To me it was odd too, that feeling of naturalness whilst at the same time being odd (because it is so natural yet so new, somehow). I too felt very well around these people, like iI belonged here there was no question - I am clearly where I am meant to be at that point in time.

And it is all very sudden. In four days in Rishikesh I found it all. Today I feel weak and my throat bothers me. I missed yoga because I needed to sleep. I went to music school to start learning, but Guruji, the teacher is away in Dehradun so there is no class. And then I also realised that today is indeed Sunday! I wonder if the yoga class was off, too?

But it is good that it was not on. A lot has happened this week and I clearly deserved a good rest...

Back in Varanasi, again

Just under a month and a half to go and, again, back in Varanasi. So I'll have spent another month exactly in the Khajuraho family. it took a day and half on the bus to make some 450 kilometres, with a stop in a very unpleasant hotel in Allahabad, but we made it! Buses in India wait for soooo long in every place. And they stop everywhere. And the roads are terrible really. But I should be glad we had a sit on each of the four buses we had to take. I would never do this alone; it's not always pleasant but it does teach you a lot to travel with a local. I should just be glad - well now that it is over, I am! Ha! So, in Khajuraho it was all a little bit like a concentrated of the first few months I spent there half a year (!!) ago. Including two wonderful weeks with Niko. And the two married sisters again came with their children and again there were over ten people in the house. With Independence Day and a brother-sister festival (Raksha Bhandan) to celebrate - I was glad not to be their blood-related sister, because otherwise I would have had to eat far too many sweets for my own good. They did exchange with me one bracelet and I didn't have too many sweets but perhaps a little too much still! I did welcome the break after three full months of discipline, but after a while it felt long. I started feeling the idleness of the "Indian-style-doing-nothing", weighing on my western "wanting-to-do-things" mind. oh, in Khajuraho there was a lot more rain this time, some crazy loud hammering thunder one time that really made me jump too - I had never heard such loud, violent thunder, ever. With some crazy showers. The rain's coolness was very welcome though. Now I am back in the strong heat - 41 degrees yesterday, almost like in April, urgh. I am seriously starting to long for coolness... Being sweaty and sticky all the time is still not pleasant... I love, love Varanasi but I would love it so much more if it was without power cuts. Those hours when the fan does not work are quite painful almost. In the week I have had about three colds because in the night, when the fan goes all is well - then the power cuts and the fan stops and suddenly it's so hot that you start swimming in your own sweat. Then the power and the fan come back and the air on the sweat cools it down and makes you feel cold. Hot cold hot cold hot cold and so on. And for me, this comes with the frustration of not being able to sleep... But it seems I am getting used to it, slowly. Somehow. Or perhaps it was just not so hot last night, I do not know. But - enough complaining.

So Vijay accompanied me to Varanasi again for a few days and he has left now. I am back in independent, disciplined mode again. Violin lessons have started again and I'm very happy. I have learned so many new techniques it seems since last week. And Sukhdev is happy with my progress, he again said that I am a good student; every time he shows me something new I can "copy" him. With practice, slowly slowly, it comes with refinement. I wonder how my time in India would have been If I had not brought the violin with me, ha.

So - that will be a small month of violin now. But the most notable piece of news is this: we were on a boat ride on the Ganges a few days ago, when our boatman showed us - literally a few meters away from our hotel's ghat - the Mother Teresa Hospital! With old people and physically/mentally handicapped people! Hadn't I wanted to do some volunteer work and even go to Calcutta to work for Mother Teresa's institution but in the end it didn't happen!?! And now I'm back in Varanasi for a month and discover that the Mother Teresa institution is three minutes walking distance from my hotel!?! So, the following day we went to visit the place - and of course I was happy that Vijay was with me so that, as an Indian, he could also check out the place with me. Lovely surroundings with lovely people and many faces who told me "Namaste" with a smile. The almost homely feeling of seeing some people with learning difficulties smiling at me. I left with my heart filled.

I started working there this morning: I'll be working around three hours every morning from 7am. We started with the laundry for about fifty people - hard work! But we do it like chain work and it is a lot of fun to work with Indian women, to observe the way they work, and to learn the Indian way! Some less-able ladies join the work too, and one didn't want me to leave this morning. Again I'm so very happy to be able to speak some Hindi. Laundry was followed by cooking for a hundred people - this morning we peeled about a million pieces of a very funny potato/ginger looking root-vegetable and... we made even more chapatis!!!! From the dough kept in a giant pot to filtering the flour to preparing the dough and making small round balls and then cooking the chapati - again chain work, directed by a very funny and small and cute old Indian woman called Mama and who has just one tooth. I had seen my friend's sisters making chapati countless times, in the Khajuraho family. But they wouldn't let me try it (one time I did and my chapati was not round, haha!). Now this morning I was taught how to make chapatis! I am very happy to learn how to make the staple food of north India - and I Love chapati!...

There was no breakfast this morning though because I hadn't been organised, just a little food (including our chapatis of course!) at the end of my shift, some four hours later. I had had the bottom of my trousers all wet from the laundry, my body all sweaty from the hard work and the heat, my wet trousers now covered in wheat flour. I was not exactly in a beautiful state - but I wonder how I managed - not that hungry and with no water because I had left my filtered water downstairs. From now own I will have to organise myself better! The heat has been hammering and these last few days I was idle and lazy because of it - and from doing nothing. I have been so busy again today but I feel fine. It's amazing how doing nothing makes me feel bad about myself. It really is not good for the body, it seems. I don't know. But anyway - I feel better now. Work in the morning, and a lot of violin in the afternoon. That will be my program for about three or four weeks...

(And after that I will take the direction of Mumbai Airport, oh my God, already...!!) - But I really think of Europe a lot now. It will be a holiday from the noise and the dirty muddy streets in which I have to be careful where to step my feet all the time. Holiday from the heat and the stickiness and the sweat. Holiday from the tiredness of wearing the same three pairs of trousers for some long months. You know, I never thought I would be thinking of my -beloved- last pair of corduroy trousers, bought in a second hand shop in Brussels a few weeks before going to India. And I usually dislike clothe-shopping! But I have been thinking of them since three or four months, regularly. I long to wear a coat and a scarf. I will be happy to walk in my Doc Marten's and my rangers, to wear my beret, to hang my hair loose (because it's growing, and it's tied up all the time in the heat!). Happy to drink tap water without being concerned whether it is filtered or boiled or treated with some chemical tablet. Although - I have to say I did try to drink some untreated water in Khajuraho, and I had some by "accident" in the streets of Bhopal. And I had no stomach-problem whatsoever! - But somehow in Varanasi I am more careful! And there will be muesli and proper jam and bread of course. Ha. But. I do love India and Indian food. So I have some month and a half to enjoy still. and of course, i will! :)

Friday, 25 April 2008

Rishikesh quest (cont'd)

It was yesterday morning when I had set myself sure to go to Dharamsala that everything happened here - when I completely stopped looking that I found everything.

I had had my first yoga practice-session in the dirty yoga school with the junior teacher, and I hadn't liked it at all. I had arrived for class; it had been cancelled. In the room there had just been me, another Indian man, and the teacher, practising. I hadn't known what to do during the session because I haven't done yoga properly for so many months and so I had just been doing a few asanas, hesitantly. I had been under the impression that they were both laughing at me. And the teacher had a big nose and he looked like a pervert and he had like me too much and had asked me if he could come with me to Dharamsala. I had replied a firm "NO!" and ran away to my guesthouse. There I had phoned my friend in Dharamsala and it sounded so great, he would be there to help me round, the weather would be perfect, and there would be the good Iyengar school there with the great possibility that I would find a violin teacher.

So yesterday I had left the practice session, gone for breakfast and then set out to find an internet place to check one last time that I didn't have an email from Sukhdev with that violin teacher's contact details, before I'd set off to Dharamsala. All the internet places nearby were shut or their system was down. I got on a rickshaw and asked the driver to take me to an internet place. He drove me very far up the other end of Rishikesh and I was reluctant - "Where the hell is he taking me to?" I thought. But then I decided to let life do what it wanted to do with me, so I let go and accepted. Eventually I got to the internet. No contact details. Checked the yoga school in Dharamsala, not much info; last ashram here for Iyengar yoga, not much info. I left empty-handed. Didn't know what to do and just decided to walk refusing the lifts of tempo drivers on my way. In the heat, but realising that I'm really not doing badly in the heat after all, and it doesn't bother me that much really. When I turned my head to the left, I was passing by a small music school. Without conviction I got in and asked the guy if he knew any violin player called Shivananda, the player whose details I had been waiting for.

He did know him! He lived in Rishikesh! Fuck! Reversal of situation, again. I had been so happy to go to Dharamsala, craving the cool weather and remembering how much I'd loved it three years ago. The guy in the school gave me two phone numbers of people who'd give me Shivananda's phone number. I phoned. Both were switched off. Fuck. Go to this other music centre in the evening, he instructed me. Fuck. I wanted to meet Shivananda NOW. I kept phoning but eventually again had to let go. A new track. Be glad. It's a lot of finding in a day.

By that time it was midday and I was in central Rishikesh so I went to that healthy clean place to eat. There I met a Danish guy and we spoke for at least two hours and that was my fix of a great, great discussion with a European after three whole months, finally met. Then I was a good girl, I got back to my guesthouse out of town and practised violin for almost two hours. The three-year old kid living there though came to see me on his wee bike and was quick to tell me 'bas'; i.e. enough. By that time it was almost 6pm so I went back to central Rishikesh to the other music centre.

There a yoga class was taking place and I didn't want to disturb it, and I could see no-one around I could speak to. Grmpf! But eventually one of the phone number I tried got through and I spoke to a young man who was living in the next building, the man who runs the centre. We met. He didn't have Shivananda's phone number, but knew the phone number of the Canadian woman who runs the small music school where he teaches. The woman had just died though, three days before!! He phoned anyway and spoke to someone who gave me the details of that school: Shivananda teaches there everyday from about 9am so come tomorrow. But it's far out of town, my helper told me. He wrote the directions in my little book. OF LOOK! It's far out of town, right by my guesthouse!

This morning I had no choice but give another chance to the pervert-looking yoga teacher. Expecting an empty room, I had a big SHOCK when I got in: about fifty Indian men. Only MEN. They all looked at me funny as I got in. I spotted a white-skin face old man and felt short-lived relief ("Yay, a Westerner!") but quickly realised he was Oriental. So that was it: I was the only Westerner, AND the only WOMAN. I coughed in myself, thinking "Nevermind". I am not scared of men. Generally I get along better with men, even. Indian men, never mind. They'll all look at my bum when I go down in uttanasana, never mind. I'll focus on my practice and it will be fine. I know how to handle men, it won't be that difficult, and I'm sure my presence will teach them as much (if not more) than the yoga teacher. So a difficult challenge but one very well worth it. It was not that difficult at all in the end. It was even a very good class; some guys helped me getting my props, I joked with pervert-looking guruji who's quite funny, actually (and who's English accent is at time a total mess and completely hilarious!) and made a few men laugh. All good, all good... Still, I left the class quickly speaking to no-one.

After yoga, it was all there. I found my way to the ashram whose Canadian Swami has just left her body. Instead of her, a young New-Yorker is running the ashram. "You're coming at an odd time." He said to me. "It's all a bit upside down at the moment". They received me, offered me chai and breakfast. It's a small ashram away from the tourists, right by the Ganges, opposite the other side of which is the last bit of nature untouched, preserved, of Rishikesh. It's very beautiful, with lots of flowers and stillness. Before the Swami 'died', only four people were living there... And upstairs of the ashram is the free school for children(!) where Shivananda teaches.

After I had been waiting for a very comfortable hour, I finally met Shivananda. I liked his face straight away. We spoke, I showed my scales on a violin. So I'll be able to join the kids in the school, as they practise violin and other instruments all-day long there, on the rooftop just opposite the Ganges, the mountains, and the preserved nature! I can also have private lessons to catch-up or learn whatever I need (that's probably a lot!) in the morning I can also join the singing classes, afternoon violin. There is another ashram nearby I could possibly stay in, because in this one it's all upside down at the moment and so I have to wait - but maybe in the future. Today school is not on, as to allow my welcome. And tomorrow the kids are doing a concert, to which I am invited, as to give me an introduction to what they do...

The Iyengar school, the music school, the ashram, they are all there right in front of me and in the same area. There is a Buddhist proverb, I don't know by who and exactly how it goes; I heard it in the film Kundun. It says that when faced with two options, one should always choose the most difficult one. Well that is pretty obvious, as ever. Of course fear is never a good reason to run away. Life throws it back at you when you least expect it... "Look fear in the face and it will cease to trouble you", said Sri Yukteswar Giri.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Rishikesh (cont'd)

[Typed from paper journal]

This is a very non-touristic-area of Rishikesh. Today I went to that neighbouring restaurant for the third time consecutively. The restaurant with the eleven-year old (I guess) waiter in a red t-shirt - I like him. And I like the restaurant. I feel if I stay in this guesthouse, the restaurant will become my dining room, since it is just up the road.

A man came in the room with his son (I guess) and fat wife. I was reading my book on Hinduism waiting for the food I had ordered. He stared at me blatantly, from when he came in up until he had found his place to sit. Then regularly he turned to look at me. I don't think anyone had looked at me like that before, even in 'occidental-virgin' Dalpatpur village. His eyes were round and big, as if he was seeing a pink elephant sitting on the chair behind my table. Stunned, completely stunned. He reminded me of French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle, too, who can have a pretty stunned face indeed. Just after he had sat down with his family, his wife too was peeking from behind the wall to look at me. I could see her round staring face.

As I was finishing my oh-so-delicious honey lassi, she suddenly came to sit right in front of me at my table, her glass of chai in hand, and started speaking to me in some unintelligible Hindi. Not only was she fat, her teeth were surrounded with brown stains - I guess due to chewing too much pouch. The red tika between her eyebrows was round and fat, as though to suit her shape and size. She seemed as puzzled in her questions as her husband had been in his stare. 'Where do you come from?', 'Are you studying?', 'What are you doing here?', 'Do you go to college?' I was having some fun knowing my answers would puzzle her more: yoga, violin, no college; going to college is not necessary to study, etc. I did quite well with understanding after all, and speaking Hindi, oh and that surprised her too, even though she had started the conversation in Hindi herself! As she left (and the puzzled family followed her) she said I was beautiful. I thanked her in Hindi with that very Indian 'side-to-side head nod' which I seem to have subconsciously adopted.

There seems to be quite a few fat and rich people here in Rishikesh. I am seeing more than I have everywhere else in India so far I think. Big women especially - like my landlady and her daughter at the lodge too. 'Signe extérieur de richesse' - not a beautiful sight for a pretty saree. My landlord family must be rich; I saw their living room tonight when I came down to ask for a pot for my water-filter. And the way she asked for money - 'You will give me money.' - like an addict begging for her drug, greedy woman.

I like that room very much but I am not sure I will like the landlady in the long run. If I stay I will certainly keep locking my door with her lock as well as mine - and be nice but weary in general. Will I stay or will I go? Time will tell. Perhaps yoga class will tell, too, tomorrow morning at 6.30. Which is why I must go to bed NOW!

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Last days in Varanasi & off to Rishikesh

I had some very good four violin lessons with Sukhdev. I practised my scales one to three hours everyday - mostly naked on my bed because it was so hot. And in Varanasi the electrical facilities are bad and so there's no electricity most of the day - that means no fan on, that means more puddles of sweat on the bed. Lots of scales none the less, and I have started learning new techniques mainly of sliding my fingers on the strings, and making the very Indian 'wooiin' effect between the notes - sorry I don't know how to put that into words... Apart from the violin I spent most of my few days in Varanasi in a kind of Western cafe eating tons of fresh fruits (washed in mineral water!) and curd and muesli because it's pretty much all I wanted to eat, and on the internet in the air-conditioned internet cafe... The hotel was so empty that it had become colloquial and I had access to the kitchen to filter my water (but it was so hot in there that I almost had to drink it all by the time I got out!). By the end, too, I could recognise from sounds and chants when people were bringing a body to the ghat for cremation.

Needless to say: it was very hot. About 42, and in a few weeks it should reach almost 50 degrees. Sukhdev has now gone to Europe for two and a half months and so it is the end of an episode of very valuable violin lessons. Not that I was sad, because he has given me many exercises so I have plenty to practise on my own for a few months, and it also meant I had no more reason to be in Varanasi - thank God, in that heat. So I went 24 hours north...

... First to Haridwar, but i didn't like it much. The energy, the vibrations, whatever it is feels hostile. I remember I wasn't very fond of this place three years ago either, but Sukhdev had told me of a violin teacher there. But I am still waiting for his contact. And everybody I asked in music shops in Haridwar knew of no-one playing the violin there. So after one night I fled again.

I am now in Rishikesh. The best place for yoga and meditation, oh yes. Not that it was very easy to get here because the man in the travel agency hadn't told me he was booking me on a package tour to visit temples on the way to Rishikesh. Everybody else on the bus had no luggage, of course they were just Indians, and they were going up to Mussoorie and back to Haridwar to visit temples. So before we really headed to Rishikesh the bus stopped for half an hour and everybody got off the bus with the guide... Everybody but me of course, but then I guess it was interesting to argue in broken Hindi that just because I'm a white tourist (but I am NOT a tourist, but that's not written on my face, I know) and I don't understand anything, he can cheat me etc. I made myself understood, I cried too (fuck I'm so emotional! But it makes me feel better so it's necessary!) And in the end the bus dropped me exactly where I wanted in Rishikesh. What they didn't know however was that I had no idea where I wanted to be dropped. There are so many ashrams in Rishikesh that it makes my head spin. Where to go?? One thing that restricts the choice, at least, is that I want to focus on practising the violin two to three hours a day. Of course none of the ashrams I visited will accept someone who will produce too many decibels for two to three hours during the day, and my scales may not be much fun and rest for anybody else but me...

So when I arrived I was very tired but if I stopped there I wasn't going to do anything in my day. So I dropped my luggage in the first ashram I picked and started my quest. I visited a few ashrams, including the one where I'll do the yoga retreat next month, but it's full till then. In the heat, by the way, because it's not much cooler here either. I tried to find the nice 'laid-back' ashram we stayed in three years ago but in vain because my orientation sense of course would fail me. There is the very famous Shivananda Ashram here, but it's feels like a big touristic machine, and I have no interest in their daily schedule. What I want to focus on is this: practising the violin, studying Hindi, and go to a daily IYENGAR yoga class. Not the typical ashram schedule. I have visited many yoga classes in india and apart from Iyengar yoga I was always disappointed. The Swami this morning (yes, because I found one!) was calling it 'tourist yoga', which is no yoga at all - and exactly what I want to avoid. It's easy to do yoga in India, and it sounds very cool too, but I'd say at least 90% is shallow nonsense... One has to be careful. I have to go back to Iyengar. That reduces the silly abounding choice considerably.

In my guide book of India (not the oh-so-famous Lonely Planet; something that I cursed for a long time but that I am blessing today) there was a list of ashrams and at the bottom it gives the contact details of the 'Yoga Study Centre', a reputable school that teaches the Iyengar system. So at the end of my quest, tired, I just decided to go there. I had hired my own rickshaw driver for a couple of hours to go to all the places I wanted to go. So in the end we went to this yoga school. It's quite far out of the centre of rishikesh, which puts me off slightly but for the wrong reasons (that I am away from the tourists. In a way it's very good, because I am NOT a tourist. But of course once I get what I want the mind comes in and kicks with insecurity and fear. But I know how you work, mind!) So I visited the school. And it didn't seem very famous at all, but the yoga room looked good with all the props required. I had to knock on the door of a room that remotely looked like an information room. In it a man was sleeping so I had to wake him. He took a good few minutes to get himself presentable and in the end said I had to come back in 30 minutes because the Swami was sleeping. Whilst I had decided to go back to my driver and visit a few guest houses around, the Swami had woken up. And so after yet a few minutes I was invited to go up to see Swami ji who was waiting for me. I removed my shoes, they installed a mat, I sat cross-legged in front of him; he was sitting high on a chair.

I had to really concentrate to understand is very heavy Indian accent. Not paying attention one would think he speaks another dialect of Hindi. We spoke. He gave me a brochure, in which it says: "Admission to classes is at the discretion of the teacher". I liked this very much. What's more, classes are by donation. That looked to me like real yoga, not like those ashram where they put you on a list, you pay, and you get in. At the end of our conversation Swami ji told me to come tomorrow at 7am for class. I was happy. But this morning was the last class of a fifteen-day yoga course. From tomorrow I will only go to the regular classes the centre offers, from 6.30am to 8am, and taught by a junior teacher. I like the idea nonetheless.

After the visit of the centre I had to find a place to stay in the area. It didn't take long. I came out of the centre and literally put my eyes down on to the sign for 'Ganga Lodge', a family lodge with just three guest rooms. The room I visited looked perfect for me. Shelves carved in the stone wall like that fit my bags perfectly, mosquito nets on all the windows and doors, and even a table for me to study Hindi, and a balcony. And it's only 100 rupees per day! I haven't yet paid anything cheaper for a room. When I saw the room I had the 'happiness tinkles'. So the room became mine. And I instructed my driver that we would now go back to central Rishikesh and back with all my luggage. I slightly overpaid him for the occasion and made him happy.

The class was very good this morning. And it lasted almost one hour more than planned. There were only six other students, two Indian men and four Oriental women. We had lots of space, not like in the official Iyengar Institute in Pune where the class room looks more like a beach in south of France were people have to fight for a centimeter square of space to put down their towels (in the case of yoga of course, it's their mats). So we had lots of space, and we did lots of work on the ropes and Swami ji explained many good things I was not going to understand unless I kept my mind very, very focused on his mouth!

Mainly that I don't want touring for yoga. One class here, one there, another over here, and then you don't stay still in one place for a long period of time and you end up learning nothing. That is exactly how I am not a tourist. I want to settle somewhere and focus on what to do. But after Khajuraho it has proved very difficult. I want to do too many things and what should I focus on at the moment? And I could go anywhere and is this the right place for me? And the right thing to do? And nobody else does the same so how am I to feel encouragement? Oh but I haven't done any volunteer work yet have I? Perhaps I should go to Calcutta. And here, it is still very hot; should I go even further north? And where I'm staying is not central Rishikesh and it doesn't look very nice. I want to learn Hindi and violin and yoga. But I also want an ayurvedic panchakarma and here I know no-one so should I go to Dharamsala where I have a friend? Oh but I have to wait for Sukhdev's email to maybe get the contact of the violin teacher who should be in this area. What if I don't get the mail? What if he is not here at all? Am in the right place now? And it's very full of locals here and not a single white person to make me feel more comfortable. Oh eh oh...

Mind! Stop! It's not what you do that matters, it is how you do it. On 21 May I will start a ten-day yoga course. That I know (or do I? :p) In the meantime what the hell does it matter where I am as long as I just do it and do it well?

I have found a very good wee place to live. And it's even in a Hindi-speaking family with a little kid who was having a bath and playing with his toys and whom I liked straight away, so a very good context to have me practise my Hindi (on my table!) I have found a very good yoga centre away from tourists that still scares me, but then I'll have almost a teacher to myself. And that's GREAT, silly girl! I even like the restaurant around the corner with the eleven-year old waiter who I am becoming found of too. And there's an internet cafe not far, and a few general stores ('janaral stor', in phonetic Devanagari and with rolled Rs) near by. And the tempos (i.e. big rickshaws) here work like buses or lifts, i.e. many people share one tempo, and so it's only five rupees to go to central Rishikesh. And I am still right by river Ganga.

It's all good. But as usual my mind wanders and wonders if it's what I want now. But it's all good, yes? And I have all I need and I know how to quiet my mind, yes..?

Well, we shall see...

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Back "home"

I got my six-month visa; one hour later I was checking-in for my Varanasi return flight! Monday the embassy was closed, so many people had been deceived. I had to cry to the guard at 5am to beg him to help me get in front of the queue yesterday so I wouldn't miss my flight. And he did. And at 11am they gave me my new, fresh, beloved visa. And then I learnt how to say 'thank you very very much' in Nepali to be able to say it to the guard.

So now I am back in Varanasi. Back in the hotel above the burning ghat. I am very very happy to be back in India, despite the temperature announced by the air hostess: 41 degrees!! I have known so many Scots who had a hard time with 25 degrees; frankly I wonder how they would cope here in India. Well, they wouldn't. They would burst or melt or faint or I don't know what. But I seem to be OK so far. Like the Indians I have bought myself a good piece of cloth to wear around my shoulders and regularly wipe the sweat off my face and arms; of course I also cover my head in a scarf. I drink litres of water; I take extracts of neem and amla (for vitamin c) and whilst I am here and free to eat what I want I think I shall avoid Indian food. I need a little eggs but not much, no fat, lots of salad in safe places, dry rice or bread, and curd (yoghurt) for the coolness and the help with digestion that it provides. One really has to be aware in that heat. There is no question of eating what your taste buds desire; one has to be aware and listen to one's body, and follow examples from the locals. I am glad, too, that I have some mud left from khajuraho, because according to my friend it is very cooling. I also have some ayurvedic cooling oil to apply on my face and head. I realise that however much I love the presence of a German bakery here, when I look at the chocolate cakes or pastries and the croissants, I can't even imagine eating them. I celebrated my obtaining a visa at the Kathmandu airport by not resisting that 70% Lindt chocolate... However much I love chocolate, now that I am here I almost regret it (although it is now kept in the fridge of my hotel, it must be said!)

I wonder if I want to change hotel; in the presence of my Indian friend they had promised me a room for 150 rupees a day but they don't seem so keen now. But I can still negociate. And i do like the fact that there is a window with mosquito net right near my bed, because they prevent me to suffocate in the night during the numerous power cuts (power cuts mean that the big fan stops working. In the heat it is very unpleasant). In any case, I don't sleep with a stuffed animal but with my very precious bottle of water.

So I am doing fine. A little scared to go out in the dark, and I don't think I will venture very far, but anyway it is best to go to bed early and wake up with the sun to catch the few precious fresh(ish) hours of day light.

But I love India. When I consider the heat, the noise, the smells, the dirt and the dust and the piles of rubbish in the streets, and the looking men talking to you with mouths full of this funny-smell breath-(oddly)-freshening-stuff, frankly I wonderwhy the hell I love India so much, and why I don't prefer cooler, less aggressive Nepal. This sort of pondering makes the existence of reincarnation very appealing indeed, because having been Indian in a former life may well be the only explanation I can think of. Indian and British, maybe? Who knows!?

So tonight at 6pm I will have my second violin lesson with Sukhdev. It is nice to know someone here in this busy big loud and intense Varanasi. Because being here with my dear friend from Khajuraho made it considerably easier. There are still tourists in touristy places though despite the heat, it makes me feel somewhat safer. But I am not scared. Aware and conscious rather than scared because I trust that I have no choice but being here right now, and I have love and faith.

Sukhdev is only here for two weeks, after which he will be going to Europe for three months. So I may be here two weeks at least. And maybe he will recommend another teacher after he goes? If the heat gets stronger; and I think it will, I may go to the north. At least I am now booked on a *Iyengar* yoga course in Rishikesh from 20-30 May. With not just asana classes but also classes of chanting, meditation, yogic philosophy, and... Sanskrit! I am *very* happy about this. At last some yoga, not all these pseudo hatha yoga classes that I have tried in various places and always got disappointed with. Ad with an Indian teacher who studied with mister B.K.S. Iyengar. Iyengar is a very precise type of yoga and however many other types I have tried now I always feel drawn to go back to Iyengar.

So: violin, Varanasi, yoga, Rishikesh for the next few weeks. When one is confused, it is always presence coupled with patience that is required, and faith. After a while the answers magically come to you...

And now I must phone the travel agency to change my return flight to Europe. The new visa expires on 15 October 2008...

Sunday, 13 April 2008

My heart is in India

Friday the Indian embassy would only give me a three-month visa. I left the office, I cried, then gathered my thoughts. Three months is good. Definitely better than nothing, silly girl. Still afterwards I phoned the Paris embassy to give them my details and beg them to do what they could to give me a six-month visa. To do everything I can possibly can and after that let it go and see what life offers me. Tomorrow I'll go again to the embassy for the final verdict.

At the embassy I met a very nice Dutch lady in the process who happened to stay at the same hotel as me. We have been spending most of our time together since. Her heart is in India too, and her first three days in Nepal were spent in a negative mood too. But then a bird pooed on my bag, that made me laugh and reminded me that negative mood brings negative happenings. Since then I have been feeling better, been enjoying some time in Kathmandu, not so much crazily getting lost, I found a wonderful organic health food restaurant in which I want to eat everyday for the rest of my days. Huhu. (Almost.) And with my Dutch friend, also, we went to spend a couple days in a Nepali village 1h30 away from Kathmandu. Terrace fields, mountains, the whole lot for not very far.
So I feel like I have seen real Nepal now. We spent a night in a Nepali family amongst the kids, the Mongolian grand-mother, the cows and the chicken and the goats (the chicken and the goats literally live in the family house. It was pretty dirty and even though it was a wonderful experience, I was glad to only spend one night. I am definitely not up for a trek, either, with my newly repaired foot. It is hard to walk in such mountains but the kids of course are very very competent at it, going and jumping fast with their flip flops, it's impressive. Oh and I finally saw how one milks a buffalo this morning... And this morning also we could see the high, powerful, amazing, snowy Himalayan mountain tops at a distance. when I saw the view I surprised myself saying 'wow!' loudly.

Today is Nepali new year. It was odd to say 'happy new year' to everyone. It's 2065 in Nepal. For new year, all villagers sacrified a beast as offering to their gods. 'Our' family this morning sacrified a goat. I really didn't think such practices were still performed. Even my Indian friend told me that they still did it only about 50 years ago in the Hindu religion, but most people have stopped now. So our host said goodbye to us in a bloody t-shirt, whilst his kids were playing slapping the dead headless goat. Urgh. At least they are aware of what they do. They will eat the beast after, and their beasts are not industrially raised like in the West - that was my consolation for seeing the bloody spectacle. I am glad not to eat meat anymore...

Nepal is amazing. People are very friendly and beautiful. But I just can't explain; there is no reason I can think of, and yet it is crystal-clear: my heart is in India.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Lost in my head and lost in Kathmandu

It's almost like I've just arrived in India. Back to square one. It's like the first time I am truly alone to search for whatever the hell I'm to find in the end. Like I haven't even started to look.

And now I'm here in Nepal, I look around me and wonder what the hell I'm doing here. Yesterday I queued for over six hours at the Indian embassy. I arrived at 7.30 when the opening time is 9.30, but still it was too late and I had missed the token-giving-process so I had no number to get in. I refused to leave before the closing time. I refused to do what the Nepalese police told us to do ("come back tomorrow 6am") because they were not the Indian embassy people. So I stayed in front of the door, calmly. And I cried. I am very emotional but I find it a strength, not a weakness, and often I have won people's compassion and got what I wanted. Not from my ego. But from my shear, honest, crying heart. And so with a couple of others in the end they let us in. We queued some more, filled in a paper, and they told us to come back on Friday. Hopefully I will have another 6-month visa (as opposed to a short, 3-month one), but the officer didn't ask me all sorts of questions like I heard he did to some others, and he seemed to like my job... Fingers are crossed.

After all that I went to back to the hotel to SLEEP, and when I woke up it was dark so on my first day I didn't see much of Kathmandu...

This morning I had to go to the immigration office, this time, to get a Nepali visa, because at the airport when I arrived the ATM wasn't working so I couldn't pay for my visa. So I got a free three-day visa and had to get it sorted in town. So today I have a one-month Nepali visa and won't be an outlaw tomorrow!! And I also realise how glad I am that I got in at the Indian embassy yesterday because tomorrow and the day after the immigration office is closed because of the Nepali election and so otherwise I wouldn't have been able to get a Nepali visa!! I had no idea but chose to come to Nepal for Nepali election and Nepali new year. Haha.

Today I did see Kathmandu, but the maps are difficult to read for my poorly-orientated brain and the street names literally impossible to find. And the streets are narrow and crowded so yes, all I did today was getting lost. I didn't even find the temple I wanted to see and by that time was so annoyed (and proud!?) that I refused to take a rickshaw. I was determined to walk, too, because I hardly walked for a whole month and I didnt do any yoga (or hardly) and usually when I don't exercise for a while the result is that my mind gets its power back to convince me that I'm fat. So I wanted to walk and had to meditate to let go of the thoughts that that girl's bum is smaller than mine and that my thighs are huge when they spread as I sit, and then I wonder why this woman is bigger than me but looks good but I look really bad. Oh dear. So I walked. And I got lost.

Lost in Kathmandu and lost in my head. It's like I've just arrived. Like I know even less than when I first got to India. But I do realise that I only feel like I know less. I knew no more, but felt like I knew more. I had pre-conceived ideas in my head of where I wanted life to take me. I knew I didn't know but deep down I had wishes.. wrong ideas. I knew in theory that my experience here will help me know what comes next. But I had wrong ideas I didnt want to admit. Today I have dropped the wrong ideas, and instead of those wrong ideas there is nothing. There is space for real ideas to take their place. And so there's nothing and I feel lost; it feels like regression but it is progress. And so I must keep at it.

Perhaps there is Varanasi and violin lessons to come next week when I return to india. If I return to India, that is. I could stay here and do a meditation retreat. I need one soon. (But then life is a meditation here so why the hell would I need a meditation retreat? I have been on a meditation retreat for five months. Or have I? Still, being alone with my mind for ten days would perhaps be a good idea.) I could stay here where it is cooler, but then I look around and don't really want to be here. I don't know. Whatever the hell do I know? Perhaps the violin learning is a security. Or perhaps as a good old illusion of security it only feel like security. Perhaps I will do something else instead. But it's OK. I just have to keep at it. I feel very alone after two months of being constantly accompanied; I crave people's company. Yet I feel like talking to no-one here. It is so full of tourists and I crave one or two to come and speak to me, yet I want to go to no-one. I know I feel like I know nothing and have learnt nothing, but perhaps this time alone and lost is just an opportunity for me to process the mass of information I have (indeed) learnt in the past five months. It feels uneasy. But it is necessary. It is good to be alone, even it feels no good. I only have to feel it, anyway. That's all I have to do and it is very easy... Or is it?

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Varanasi, & Nepal

Varanasi, the ghats and the Ganges, the chants and the music, the heat, the traffic - a big place after small Khajuraho for over two months.

We stayed in a good hotel right above the burning ghat. An amazing view. Every thirty minutes all day long corpses were being brought for cremation by the Ganges, underneath our window. It was intense. Vijay could tell me from the colour of the veils covering the bodies if they had been men, women or sadhus. He explained a lot to me about the Hindu rules for cremation, like that it is the male head of the family, dressed in white and with a shaved head, who directs the whole process. he knows, because he prepared the fire for his own father. and so we could watch the whole process from prior chanting, to bringing the bodies, to preparing the bodies and fire, to burning down to ashes... everything is in your face in india; there are taboos but not like those in the West. The 'scary' things we hide, here they are in full view.

Varanasi in the company of an Indian was good, really good. Riskshaw drivers, business men, Indian people in general, couldn't cheat me. The hotel was owned by a friend of his friend; that's how we chose it. We got a deal for the room and Vijay found a hotel for me in Nepal through this contact. He explained to me how the cheating of tourists works here, what important points I will have to keep in mind to take care of myself. But a white person in the company of an Indian clearly was standing out, from the looks we got. Usually white people are in the company of Indians only for the time that they will be cheated. But I was not, and I do really understand my luck. Khajuraho boys especially are considered 'big cheaters', but it seems my friend really is one of the most honest and bighearted of his kind. I am lucky.

And we met my new violin teacher. On the first day we met him in one of the (numerous!?) German bakeries, and the night he was also playing bhajans in a town hall type venue and so we went so I could hear him play. It was so weird, because mainly at first it was a religious talk that clearly didn't attract any tourists. Again I was the only one white person in this big town hall, and many were looking at me. W left early, as soon as I had heard a little extract of my teacher's skills, and when the rain had stopped. Following day, that's yesterday, I had my first 'Indian style' violin lesson. We went to his house, through the narrow, narrow streets of the city. He had so many prizes and pictures on his walls; the whole family are musicians. We started promptly - new posture, new tuning, and scales to practise everyday whilst I will be in Nepal before I come back to Varanasi next week.

Kathmandu, Nepal. Just one hour's flight. Full of tourists. The Nepali rupee is even cheaper than the Indian rupee. The Nepali face is a cross between the Indian face and the Tibetan face. Nepali sounds a little like Hindi but with a more oriental feel. The script is the same so I can still practise my reading everywhere on the signs in the streets. It's clearly close to India but it feels different. It is a lot cooler for a start; I can wear my jumper and trainers and it is a lovely break from the Indian heat. It was nice to see the Himalayas from the plane window. I have hardly seen Kathmandu yet but it is big and pleasant. There are Tibetan shops everywhere.

Still right now I don't really want to be here. I was tired when I arrived. I slept a lot this afternoon. I feel a little better now. But my heart is in India; clearly I am not interested in tourism or 'country shopping' however interesting a new country may be... I need a reason to visit a new place. My reason is the new visa... I will go to the Indian embassy tomorrow early morning.