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March 1, 2007

Varanasi!

Namaste, everyone! Yes, we've all made it safely to Varanasi and are settling into a more normal routine. The first week has flown by - the busy streets of Delhi that were roaring with wedding festivities, a long train ride to Allahabad, four days floating down the Ganges, "The Baba Hunts", temples, Matt's historic changing-of-the-overalls, water buffalos, Amit's cooking, and so much more. While traveling down the Ganges, the students broke up into pairs and worked on recording their experience using audio recordings, photography, and creative writing tools. Now that we have settled into a place with internet and, at the very least, reliable electricity, the group is working to put their perspectives together into a digital story that shows/tels their trip down the Ganges. I won't spoil anything, but here are some photos for the time being of the past week in Delhi and on the boat. (For more photos, click on the Flickr icon with the rotating images on the right side of the blog.)

Last night was the student's first night with their homestay families. All of the families are within less than a five minute walk from each other, located in, roughly, the same neighborhood. After Hindi lessons this morning we all gathered to swap stories. The rest of the morning and part of the afternoon will be spent introducing everyone to their ISP teachers... and let me tell you, there are some awesome projects that the students are focusing on. I'll let them write about them, but here are some of the topics: stone carving, audio stories/interviews with the milk-stand-man, working at an orphanage, sitar, and a bunch of others.

Everything is moving along smoothly as we find our steps in Varanasi.

Remy


March 2, 2007

creative writing piece

For their parts in the Ganga Trip project, Caitlin and Noah wrote two creative writing pieces focusing on the same thing: walking from the back of the boat to the front.

Caitlin described what she saw, and Noah described what he felt.

Together, the pieces paint the scene and move to the stern. Enjoy.
(Caitlin's will be up later today)

Here is Noah's:

How I feel walking across the boat.

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As I contemplate how I am going to move from the back of the boat to the front, a small wave hits our side and we rock slightly to the left. I close my eyes and feel us tip back to center. Not often enough do I have the opportunity to contemplate buoyancy and balance.

I feel the constant shaking of the motor. How I adjust situationally always surprises me, ironically catching me consistently off guard. When the motor runs we live with it, all shaking together, our eyes following shaky words in books and our sunglasses like polarized magnets on our nose. When it turns off we forget about it quickly. We resume a normal vocal volume and gather our bags.

The front of the boat is covered in sun. It looks distant from where I sit in the shade. For the past couple of hours I have sat reading, guiltily not looking too intently at my surroundings. I watch my group mates sleeping and I think, “at least I am not sleeping.” I immediately regret thinking that, wondering out loud why I can not relax. It is hard for me to remember that there is no competition in traveling. No element of collection either. I decide that I want some sun, and fold the top corner of the page I was reading.

We stash our bags in the center of our boat. On either side, there are two long white wooden benchs, with a one forth inch cushion coving the top of them entirety. Two nights ago, our first night on the boat, I rapped this cushion around my arms to try to stay warm. Now, on my part of the bench, the cushion has fallen to the floor. I didn’t really care, but I would be lying if I did not mention that this cushion, and the state of its being, did not contribute to my decision to move to the front. Also, I was cold again.

I stand up. The metal hand built roof of the boat allows me to get up to about half of my full height before stooping over. As I turn to my head to face the front, feeling my feet follow, I notice Sarah. She is holding her knees looking out at the river. I think to myself that this would make a great picture. My camera is not accessible. I creak as I stretch, but not really.

I have never thought before about the split second it takes for me to feel ready to move. As I take steps towards my sunny destination, I consistently check and recheck my path, direction and objective. I step over the bags, books and people. The front of the boat is now moving beneath my feet.

March 3, 2007

Happy Holi from NYC, MA, and Around the Globe

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Holi breaks out in the Berkshires

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The B2B Spring '06 Posse, post-fire ceremony, light offering, and Holi Play-sends the B2B Spring '07 Delegates salutations and warm wishes!

Spring like temperatures, blue skies, birdsong, a full moon, and a total lunar eclipse--it must be Holi. Some of you will celebrate your first Holi with homestay families in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges; some of us (Erin, Michelle, Frank, last spring's Brahma to Buddha alum) are gathering together in the Berkshires over the next couple of days to reflect and re-connect; others in the ever widening B to B circle will be under a full moon in Greece, China, Argentina....

Wherever you find yourself this Holi, may the fires burn bright, the rainbow of colors arc brilliantly as winter's cold and gray again make way for spring's return.

John

March 5, 2007

Boating Down the Ganges and arriving in Varanasi.

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Namaste,

Well, it has been a long time since I last posted, so I am going to be writing a lot, the final complete post might take a day or two. and you might see it in a couple of different stages, or unfinished

Delhi was spectacular, probably the highlight of Delhi was visiting the NAZ center (an orphanage for AIDS stricken children). This wonderful orphanage is in charge of 31 children. This exceptionally clean orphanage provides English lessons, onsite medical help and a slew of other benefits many normal day street children wouldn't have access to. As Sarah said, "these children have been given a bad card in life but also they have a great card that many street kids might not have." Even though they are stricken with a life-threating sickness, there living and learning arrangements are truly un-parrelled in India, a country of extreme poverty. Interacting with the Manipurian kid, named Chopsticks was a thrill, his story was sad. Both his parents died from AIDS, so his grandpa but him in an outhouse to avoid interacting with him. Manipur's AIDS rate is so high that his grandpa thought it spread like a common day flu. Also there was a wonderful fat kid, that sat quietly on the floor gazing up with his big cheeks. According to Teresa, this child came into the orphange on the death bed from starvation, and now he is on a diet. And when asked about his name he sometimes calls himself fat ass. This was a wonderful and insightful experience, and I was very interested to hear that this was started by Indian American who lived in the USA working with AIDS in the Gay communities in the early 80's. NAZ has a strong focus on helping the Gay members of society, and many of the actual employees are gay. They also go to local gay hangout spots and pass out condoms. I was also extremly interested in hearing that NAZ works with the Hijra community (third-sex eunichs). This highly secretive society is linked to many religious texts and are considered good omens as well as bad omens. NAZ works with them a lot, and I have always been intriqued with them since I read Zia Jaffrey's "The Invisibles." Maybe I will volunteer one day to help out with Hijra community.


DOWN THE RIVER

ALLAHABAD:
We arrived in Allahabad on a 9 hour train. Coming into Allahabd was interesting, it is a much poorer city than Delhi, and a more cramped and dirty city compared to Varanasi. The actual city is uncharchteristic. Many tents where still erected from the Ardh Mela that occured very recently, though the presence of sadhus was centered down the river, a little further from where we would pick up the boat.

Coming closer into the ghats we approached this large expansive sand bank. Many kids with mangled looking snakes approached us, women making pakoras in front of a large scum pond that was being used probably for the cooking. The landscape was pretty broad as well as the ghat structure, very much like a plain. The defining features where the many boats all cramped together near the dock, the large fort that peered near our boat, and the heavy tension bridge as well as the floating bridge barge ( when ever I think of the Allahabad, I think of these large floating oil canisters that pilgrims drive over when they come to the Mela.)

Meeting our boat man didn't seem like that much of an event even though they would be some of the most wonderful guys I have met, during our 4 day trip. The crew consisted of a father, and two of his brother's sons.
At least that is what I thought I heard. The father spent most of his time, sitting up in front on the bow, chewing paan and enjoying the broad expansive scenery of the Ganges plain area that we traveled through. The darker boatman who almost looked South Indian, would become my smiling partner, we bonded well, mainly through smile, though once we started smiling we couldn't stop laughing. Santos, the suave boatman, was just pure class.
Leaving Allahabad we past a large boat filled with devotees and a loudspeaker, very interesting.

SITAMARIE:
Arriving in Sitamarie was a real exciting trip. Because this portion of the trip had never been made, our actual arrival time was a little delayed. Instead of coming in before the sunset we arrived around 9:00 by the guidance of a small LED flashlight and a crew of impressive boatman. This kind of experience happened to me when I was in Venezuela. It was very peaceful though sitting on the bow of the boat, watching the stars and bugs flicker around, though it got pretty cold, and even the older boatman was wrapped up tightly in his white wool shawl. I was in my beanie and polar-fleece. We were told to look over the horizon on our left, for the glowing aura and blinking red light, this would be Sitamarie. We finally made it there, and this is when we began our first night-time village entry trek. It was a little scary, knowing that some of these smaller towns can be a little lawless, though we followed Santoush and Amit. We finally made it too our guest house, I could tell by the sight of the outside that it would be nice inside. Because there was this elaborate- pseudo wood, stucco work that must have taken a lot of time to make. We entered, and to our surprise the place was nothing less than a palace. The marble floor and extensive collection of Chinese furniture. It was so great to be at a clean hotel, and a really nice and new hotel.

THe next morning Sitamarie opened itself up to us. Yes the hotel was indeed beautiful on the outside but we were also surrounding by probably the worlds largest Hanuman statue as well as beautiful marble temple that represented the spot where Sita came out of the earth.

MIRZAPUR:
The first sight we saw of Mirzapur was large industrial concrete bridge, after this where many ghat like structures, I knew this would be a bigger place than Sitamarie. Though once we got to the main ghat area, it really was only one small unique bathing ghat, but once we entered the labyrinth of the city we really got a sense of what MIRZAPUR was all about. Mirzapur was probably one of the more interested cities we went, to, or at least the most interesting because our meeting with the aghori sadhu. Though Mirzapur has a feel that is very raw, this city is smaller than Varanasi though the infrastructure, chaos and garbage are more pronounced here. Once we got to Varanasi, Varanasi seemed real clean to Mirzapur, also Varanasi didn't seem as crazy, maybe the extreme presence of Western tourist impacted this interpretation.

AGHORI BABA SIGHTING:
This experience was probably one of the highlights of the trip thus far. Our group had the privilage to speak to an Aghori baba. This baba is a member of a secretive group of sadhus that are known as human-eaters. They spend most of their time trying to avoid being noticed by the mainstream society, because they spent most of their time near cremation sites. At these sites they worship Kali as well as Bhairva. In their akhara, (ashram) they are able to slaughter goats for Kali, meditate with their human skulls, and eat the occasional charred remains of a former Hindu village member. As Remy and Chris found out, some even eat fresh Muslim bodies from the burial ground. Though this sect is from 1000 AD, they are smaller in size from the roughly 4-5 million sadhus in India. Because of Mirzapur's strategic location on the Ganges, a handful of Aghori babas live within the city precincts. I believe they are able to thrive in smaller towns because the western values that can be seen in a large city like Varanasi are not seeing in these smaller towns as much. Also the lack of tourism keeps tradition alive, usually. We were lead by Amit up the river back toward the high-tension bridge, it was here that a family was getting ready to burn a family relative. Above them stood a large concrete stairway, and above that some type of tin-roofed structure. As we got out of the boat we did so thoughtfully, avoiding coming into contact with those busy with their family ceremony. Up near the top of the steps stood a small (5 0) extremely small boned man. His hair was long, greased back, he was wearing all black and his head was covered with ash, and in the center of his forehead was a black cross made of ash. He brought us to this alcove, dogs barking as we walked there. Inside this courtyard sat a tree, a small shrine consisting of a black head in a block of cement, and to our right was a red-rajasthani stone Akhara. It was here that we were guided up several small steps to the Aghori baba's domain. It was not until we got inside that I got my first glimpses of the tall, lanky, long-haired and bearded aghori baba.

HUMAN SKULL AND LUNCH ON A BEACH:
On our way to Chunar we had an amazing lunch on a stranded beach front. It was literally only a couple of hours from our Aghori baba sighting and I would be in contact with another human skeleton. We were lucky enough to hear villages playing drums and marching across the river, it seemed like they were march for a couple of miles.
It was about the time to leave this placid beachfront after a wonderful lunch, but first I had to use the bathroom, on the way to find a suitable spot on this plainier beach where everyone could see everyone, I stumbled on a human skeleton sitting there peacefully. Near by was straw human form, it looked like a Saraswati or Kali mannequin that they make for special pujas, though it looked like an effigy. I decided I would not go to the bathroom near these remains, the skull would be watching me as I went. But I did feel that it was the skeleton was worthy enough to show the group. I ran back and told Amit, Noah and Chris. At this point Amit and Noah ran to the skeleton, Amit picked it up swaying it around. Noah seemed a little scared to do so. But Chris himself picked it up for a one to one monologue, "for the one i never knew." Then after this Amit placed it back where he found it. I went over to this hay human figure doll (2 feet big) and asked Amit about it, he ripped it apart. I thought it was a human doll to mark where this body had died, though it was probably a Saraswati or Durga figure that floated down the river during the holiday. What bothered me about this interaction was that through telling my former trip mates about the skeleton, the natural peace of the skeleton was disturbed. THough after sometime thinking I realized that this body probably floated down the river, because this was low time and what we were standing on was once underwater. Though, this body was either a Naga sadhu, or maybe someone poor because it wasn't cremated.
What this interaction taught me was there is something cultural different from they way we view skeletons compared to the way Indians do. To me this spot was holy and should remain untouched, as well as the skeleton, but to Amit, there is no life-force left in the object or the space. It really had me thinking.


CHUNAR:

VISHNU BABA: On our way outside of Chunar, Amit again decided that we should visit a baba, this baba lived in a small town, though with a burning ghat. This baba lived.

RIVER LIFE:

VARANASI: We came into Varanasi towards Assi ghat.

MY HOMESTAY:
My homestay in Varnasi is wonderful. I have two great sister, Baby-ji and Sema, and my Mom and Dad are wonderful. I live in a much more modest house than my last homestay family in Jaipur. My dad is older, has white hair, though he has a horrible cough that wakes me up at night. According to his sister this is from the paan chewing. He walks around sometime in his red loin cloth, with his rudraska necklaces. He is very religious and usually I hear him waking me up at 12:00 am, and 6:00 am to pray to the Krishna, and Ganesha objects in the room that I sleep in. Though there is a huge puja room in the room that Sema, Baby-ji and Mom sleep in. Though I guess he feels that it is important to pray to these figures even though they seem more kitschy. The posters in the main sleeping room are beautiful. Old Ravi Varma era prints. There is a squatting toliet, and bucket shower. The bottom of the floor kind of reminds me of a horses stable, because there is open access to the outside, this floor is not completly closed. My host brother lives upstairs on the second floor which consists of his room and a concrete area for cloth drying as well as

four days down the ganga

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Stern, starboard. Stone steps rise up from the water, here broad and flat, here steep and uneven, crumbling into the sandy stretches to either side. Rough concrete buildings and bright canopies stand crookedly on the slope, men talking and children playing in their shade. Our boat’s pink makes it distinctive among the crowd of narrow fishing crafts clustered at the bottom of the ghat, brown-grey wood showing bare in most places, decks open to the sun. Three old women squat by the water, slapping clothing against stone. Shapes grow less distinct as we move away, blurring into loose forms of sun-washed color.

Stern, port. The bank slopes gently back in shades of brown and green, seen dimly through mist; it is raining now, and cold. Fleece-wrapped, we huddle under our corrugated metal roof. Rain bounces up from the river, and Amit boils water and milk for chai on a gas burner; Matt and Noah are asleep against the luggage pile. A sadhu walks along the riverside, his faded oranges the landscape’s brightest color; the staff over his shoulder swings with the rhythm of his stride.

Midships, starboard. Plots of green farmland line the bank, thatched huts standing on the ridge above them, bright cloth draped over fenceposts to dry in the late morning sun. Figures move over the land; they look small and far-away, smudges only, dark and bright. The motor is pervasive, noise and vibration filling the senses and mind, the constant accompaniment of our course down the river—but now it stops, because we are making port for lunchtime. The green has given way to a stretching expanse of sand, pale and rippled and silent like the desert. We eat dahl and rice that the boatmen have cooked for us. Santosh pours a thin stream of ghee onto each plate from a small metal cup.

Midships, port. A little girl walks across a bridge as we approach, skinny brown legs silhouetted against the sky. She sees us and takes the wide, flat basket she carries from her head, crouching to wave between the rails. A ragged blanket falls around her shoulders and she meets my eyes—I can’t stop looking at her. We pass under, and she is still there, waving, when we emerge. The boat keeps going.

Bow. The sun is enormous, almost on the horizon now, red-orange like tikka powder. It reflects in the wake, giving itself back white on the peaks, fracturing rainbow in the troughs. The river is wide here, and shallow. Amit has filled two water bottles—he will take them home for his father. They roll back and forth with the motion of the boat, bumping over the deck. Tomorrow we will be in Varanasi.

March 6, 2007

in Shiva's city...

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Kempie in Color

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Sanghamitra and Tracy keeping a watchful eye on the Holi festivities

Only a few traces remain...the hot pink splash on the chai seller's shirt, spatters of florescent color on the roads, goats, and dogs...The water buffalos and cows gnaw on the remnants from the trash piles by the side of the road. Memories of joyfully playing colors with the group and dancing the night away (until 9pm) on the rooftop of the program house linger in my mind. Life has returned to normal or at least the normality of Benares. I'm thoroughly impressed with how quickly the students have taken to the City of Lights in all of its choas, complexities, and intimacies.

Everyone has become very engaged with their ISPs. Matt and Noah are exploring the life and surroundings of a milk product seller at the crossroads of Assi Ghat and are also learning the fine techniques of sitar playing. Sarah, Caitlin, and Remy are learning the rhythms of the tablas from one of Varanasi's best teachers. Chris is pioneering a boat building apprenticeship. While Caitlin continues her yoga practice, other students have immersed themselves in meditative practices with Tracy. J.B. is learning to navigate the world of pilgrims in the various religious contexts that Varanasi has to offer. Some of the students are also trying their hand at the fine art of Indian cooking.

In addition to ISPs, we have welcomed knowledgeable professors and scholars to speak about the world we are immersed in in order to understand it better. Lecture topics have included women's issues and role in Indian society, the caste system and Dalit activism, the ancient philosophy and science of Ayurveda, and a thought-provoking lecture on Hinduism that the students enjoyed so much that we invited our speaker to give another talk! And to top it all off, we have been embracing the challenges of learning Hindi.

Religion surrounds every aspect of our daily lives here and I'm excited to see the students' curiosity stirred by all there is to understand. Although we are currently in Shiva's sacred city, we took a quick trip to Sarnath last week in which we got our first taste of Buddhism at the site where the Buddha gave his first teachings detailing the 4 Noble Truths. We visited a Tibetan Buddhist temple (gompa) and two informative museums, ate some delightful Indian sweets, and had an insightful discussion on Buddhism, Hinduism, and the role and function of religion cross-culturally. I look forward to witnessing how the students (and my) ideas develop as the trip progresses.

Happy Holi!

Kempie

A Boatman's Blessing

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My Varanasi ISP with the boat builders of the Ganges has been an eye-opening and pioneering experience. I am the first Global-labber to work with the boat men. The skill of these craftsmen is incredible. They build these fifteen to twenty-five foot long boats from memory using a hammer, chisel and hand-saw. These guys plane, rip, rout, and bend wood without electricity on the ghats at the edge of the Ganges. The speed and accuracy of their craftsmanship is something to marvel.

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On Saturday they christened their newest boat with a beautiful Hindu ceremony. First, two women lit a candle and placed it in the center of Holi powder at the edge of the ghat. Flower wreathes were placed around the powder, then the entire offering was moved to the bow of boat. Offerings of food and Ruppies were placed on the bow, as well as the wreathes, powder and candles. One of the women began to sing while the other women placed a yellow hand print around the gunnel. One of the craftsman followed her, placing a red dot in the center of each hand print. Next the master boatman hits each nail on the gunnel one last time. He directed the men to lift the boat and launch it in the Ganges. Twenty men gather around the boat, lift and send it off into the water while the children cheer and jump on the boat as it glides out in the river. I was blessed to be invited to take pictures and share in their ritual.

March 7, 2007

Twang Resination

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A new instrument
Pressing down with my fingers
Twang Resination

Interviewing Sadhus

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Matt visits with a Sadhu

Thus far I have been interviewing Sadhus on the banks of the Ganges, also in ashrams that grace the interior of the city. My translator, Ramesh, has been a wonderful and funny man to hang around. Though we have spent a lot of time getting to the babas, the small amount of time I have had just interacting with these unique individuals has been great. The other day I saw this old baba bathing near Harishchandra ghat. He had long flowing white hair , a potbelly, and a huge crowd of sadhus watching him. He began reciting mantras - head shaking, hands clenched. It was later when he put on his authentic Rudraska hat as well as his tiger skin coat that I knew I had to interview him. The last two days have included an intense dialogue with this compassionate man. According to him, he has a following of 5,000 people. Just finding his personal kashi residence on Chasing Ghat was exciting. Yesterday I talked and took photos of his tiger skin and his unique silver cobra snake chasity belt that he was wearing. Well, I plan to interview him a couple more times though I am trying to get a broad perspective of pilgrimage. I plan to interview the dalits involved with cremation and how they faciliatate pilgrims, aghoris at Kinaram ashram, Sufis at their Varanasi shrine and maybe some other things. Interviewing takes time and my translator is not always free so I will pick what I feel would best suit me. I am trying to get a broad perspective on different kinds of religious devotion.

I have learned a lot just about the process and I have cherished the adventures and the ones that will follow.

Thanks for tuning in,
J.B.

March 10, 2007

homestay reflection by Noah

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Noah and his homestay sisters in Varanasi

I felt like I was marching to my death. My group members were all looking grim as well, trying to distract themselves with small talk. The clouds were dark and I could have sworn I heard thunder from a distance. It was raining. Beneath our feet rocks jumped like spiders. Even the normally funky looking water buffalo seemed somewhat sinister, leering especially at me and shaking their black and white tails. We, as a group walked down a main road, away from the ghats and towards the center of town.

I had heard the name of my home stay family the night before for the first time. I forgot it immediately. Like American names, Indian names are very hard for me. Back home, I am always the last person to learn the names when I am introduced to a friend of a friend, or find myself at a group orientation. We got little descriptions of our families as well. I was told that my family would have a mother and father and three younger sisters, aged 7, 11 and 15. I laughed and looked forward to meeting them eventually.

For the past couple of days I had been feeling a little sad. I wouldn’t say I was homesick, (sorry family), but more that I was missing a loving energy. I had spent the year so far around people whom I felt so comfortable with, and now I had to start over again. As rain started falling, I wondered quietly through the streets, trying not to let myself write “I’m lonely” to my girlfriend Lesley back home in some pitiful plea for sympathy.

This brings us back to our march. My bag felt especially light as I walked to meet my family. I wanted it to be heavier. I wanted it to be filled with lead bricks and hissing cobras, too heavy and dangerous to move. I would announce to the group, faking disappointment, “I’m sorry, but I can’t go to my home stay. I need my bag with me, it has my toothbrush, but right now it is too heavy and dangerous to move. As soon as I figure out how to get these lead bricks out (each one would weigh about 600 pounds) and find some mongooses, I guess I will just have to stay in this easy and safe hotel room.”

I thought about this as I walked, staring blankly at the busy street around me. It started to rain again. I was the first one in my group to get dropped off.

“Namaste.” I put my hands together and bowed slightly. The little girl looked at me for a second and responded,
“Namaste.”

She ran upstairs. I looked at the mother; she was smiling and motioning for me to come inside. I followed her gestures, put my bag down and went upstairs, the whole time engaged in a conversation of thank yous and welcomes. I met them all, each time putting my hands together for another namaste, and getting a more practiced greeting in response.

That night, the 11 year old, who told me her casual name is “doll” and the 7 year old, whom everyone calls “Lovely,” and who most of the time wears a small elegant white frizzley dress, unpacked my heavy bag. Together, they took everything out, one by one, explored it and organized it on the shelves beside my bed. They told me that they would be my sisters, and that I would be their brother. They found, to my immediate embarrassment, a picture of me and Lesley on the beach and paraded it around shrieking and asking me questions like, “where are her clothes” and “when are you getting married.” They combed my hair, pointing at it first and saying “no good, no good.” They made fun of my nails. I dreamt of them that first night and it was a good dream.

Last night, the forth night I had been living with my family, the 11 year old came in to my room looking sad. She sat down on a chair next to me and we smiled at each other.

“What’s wrong” I asked her.
“I’m sad,” she said, crossing her arms and looking up at me.
“Why?” I rubbed her head and she smiled.

She said quickly, “you America go.” I looked at her. She repeated, “You America go.”

“I will be back soon,” I lied. “Plus if we are sad now, we can’t have fun,”

“You are not sad?” she looked at me with wide eyes.

“No, of course I am sad.”

“You America go,” she said again. She paused for a minute. “Write letters? Letters? Understand?” She asked me. I gave her my journal and she wrote down her address in big careful English letters. I promised I would write and we shook on it. I started to joke with her. She hit me on my shoulder, smiled at me and went upstairs to go to sleep.

I put away my raincoat. It was completely dry when I rolled it up. I put it on the middle shelf in order, along with all my other clothes. I had not had occasion to use my coat yet, so I didn’t really expect it to be dripping. This time, I didn’t need it to cover me as I bathed in a genuine emotion, washing my hair and arms in sweet warm rain.

BodhGaya and Bihar

Well,

We just got back from our wonderful, yet brief engagement in Bihar. We were lucky enough to drive on the Grand Trunk Road, a road that has been used by travelers and traders for hundreds of years. If you read Rudyard Kipling's Kim you will understand a greater side of its past. Driving to Bihar we did not experience as many trucks as we did when we came back. On the way back we were stuck in this almost romantic traffic jam as the sunset. I remember this moment fondly, because as the trucks honked there horns slowly moving along, you could see the silhout of farmers, bikers and people just walking. There is a errie stillness to most Indian nights, and driving home from BodhGaya was one of those moments. I was just wondering what these members were thinking, it just seemed like some cinematic procession of village people through this rehearsed "Sunset Ballet".

On the way I had the privilege to talk with our adorable taxi driver, his hair-tuft and all. We joked about dacoits, though I don't know if he knew what I was referring to. We also had this pretty powerful talk about naxalites and there placement in Bihari society. According to him they are good thing, because then the rich don't live off the poor peoples work. He motioned to his stomach and said "food" addressing the fact that many Bihari's are unable to obtain the basic needs. Bihar is considered one of the most lawless states of India as well as the poorest. Buddha even told his followers that the glory of Bihar would one day be taken over by corruption and despair. Driving into Bihar, made me feel like I was in South India, but many of the rock formations looked very much like the Aravalli ranges in Rajasthan. The land was lush, though the architecture and overall infrastructure was much more basic, thatched roofs and mud houses. When we made it to our first larger town, it reminded me of my first trip to Kenya, people were clinging to the streets walking or riding on bike-rickshaws, there was not as much of a car presence.

Driving through the countryside was relaxing, and I also find that through these moments I can get even closer to the epic land of India!

We stopped at a roadside stand on the way for lunch, it was very good!

Finally we made it to BodhGaya. This city sadly has taken a different course that its original purpose, though I liked the atmosphere better than Sarnath, because this city felt like a living religious site.

The Burma Vihar that we stayed at was very quaint and shaded with a considerable amount of foliage that sat in the courtyard. We would be sleeping all together on cots. After checking in we worked our way to the Bodhi tree for our first interaction with it. We would enjoy its wonderful presence alongside the Tibetans, Sri Lankans, Thai, Vietnamese, as well as the western Buddhaphiles. It was peaceful just walking around the stupa, but it was more relaxing sitting behind the stupa and just watching all the activites around the Bodhi tree. I sat and watched a wondeful looking Tibetan nun spin her mani wheel at the entrance of the stupa. People were prostrating themselves, some even doing so upstairs. One man we met from Spain seemed rather novice on the meaning of Buddhism, though he was prostrating as well.

Kempie, Remy and I walked to the other monasteries but opted to go watch the sunset at the stupa.

Our final moments that night at the stupa were spent sitting together meditating about the impermanence of life. We remembered a student that passed away in Bodhgaya, from a different student program. It was a powerful moment, and it seemed very fitting. We lit candles and also watched a Tibetan do the same.

Dinner was a treat, the Om restaurant, though the Indian food was the worst I had ever eaten. Though the key aspect of the dinner was the APPLE CRAMBLE. Which we all thought would be an apple pie, with ice cream. We all ordered one and waited at least an hour, finally when our cramble came out it was small metal bowl completly filled with white flour, though the flour was warm. We dug into the desert, two inches thick of white flour, but we finally reached the apple-jam like bottom. Another couple got the same dish, but left when they were presented with it. We laughed and joked, though it didn't taste that bad with the ice cream.

The next morning, Chris, Sarah, Noah and I woke up for the sunset, we watched it from a bridge that looked over a dried up river. This spot was very mystical, with bikers flying up and down the bridge. On either side groggy villagers squatted for their early morning pee. In my eyes this was the spot were Buddha attained enlightenment, it was just so mystical, and the small hills in the horizon helped.

We visted the main stupa, where Noah picked up a Bodhi leaf. This spurred me into wanting to collect as many as I could later on.

We headed to the Bhutanese, Japanese, and two of the Tibetan monasteries. The Bhutanese one was our favorite it was breathtaking. We got to watch some chanting at the Gelug temple. The Nyingma temple was very quiet.

We worked our way back to the main stupa where I was able to try to pick some leaves of the ground which I think might be from the main tree. Though I bought some from some men that were hunting the mud ground below the tree. I got about 4 from them, the guy said sacred, leaves and they are yellow even more sacred.
I talked to an Indian swami who said he was searching for his path, though he was a Hindu, Muslim, Chirstian, Buddhist. He even showed me a Swami Vivekanda (from Kolkata) book. When he saw me looking for leaves he offered me his, though I said no.

We headed back for breakfast, which was delicious.

After we headed to the large Japanese Buddha which is 80-feet. It was awe-inspiring though, an 80 foot Buddha.

We also visited another TIbetan monastery where we were able to view some traditional Tibetan craftsman as they worked on an alter piece.

I went back to the temple one last time, to say my final words, but I really wanted a leaf that I knew was from the tree, after looking more in the mud, this cute Vietnamese nun, came up to me with two leaves in her hand and offer me one, she motioned up and then gave a praying stance, she said very sacred. I offered her money but she said no. I placed my leaf at special spots in the temple and tree, to symbolically have it blessed.

We finally were headed back home. But on the way we stopped at a huge boulder graveyard.
We got out climbed around and I headed over to the Shiva temple, viewed the area from the second floor of the temple and then I went to offer some thoughts to the lingam. I talked to the priest a little as he slept near this stone Hanuman image. The view from this area was breath-taking as it looked over a huge boulder valley.
We were waved good bye by a group of villagers that came to see us.

Before entering Varanasi, our driver decided to go a little of the beaten path, past rock carved walls, farmhouses, and small city mazes we came to to the Shah Suri Tomb, which was an epic tomb placed in the middle of a pond. Surrounding the pond were beautiful houses, a small mosque and another tomb off in the distance. This Lodhi-style looking tomb was such a great diversion and everyone enjoyed wandering around the grounds!

We stopped at a local Sikh roadside restaurant for bread pakoras, and then we headed back to Varanasi during the sunset. We had a great meal of Pizza and real Apple Cramble.

Thanks for tuning in,
Talk to you soon,
Got to go interview the Dom caste today with Ramesh,
Peace,
Jabes

color, light.

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Ganges Sunset

color and light. our first night in varanasi we walked down the ganga to the main burning ghat, to watch the puja that takes place there every evening after sunset. the river was bright with lanterns and bulbs, crowded with the hired boats of tourists (indian, western) watching the ceremony from the water. we climbed the stone steps up behind, looking down to the platforms standing over the river. seven young brahmins stood in pyramid ranks in the center, clapping rhythmically-- at some subtle signal the beat came faster and faster and then, suddenly, stopped-- they fanned out into a straight line (oranges and cloth-of-gold flashing in the flourescent lights that flooded the ghat) and took their places facing out over gangama. men standing to either side below began pulling long bellropes and the ringing made a top line over the chants coming brokenly from the speakers all around. and then, the offerings; for the next hours in slow, perfectly synchronized motion, with incense sticks and censers and trees of burning candles they paid homage to the river. smoke hung around them, patterning the air, catching the light from the colored bulbs strung into flashing umbrella shapes overhead.

family; holi

i walked with my fellow travellers as we disappeared, one by one, into our homestays, excitement on the tongue but fear in the stomach. down the lane, through the gate and the low doorway, and into my home-- and here, my family all waiting for me, excited (?) and nervous (?) as i. broad smiles and frequent nodding, hands pressed together at the heart over and over in greeting and thanks-- the first evening passed quickly, in awkwardness and eager goodwill. mataji is the beloved ruler of the household, taking care of her four children (my big sisters, shalu and tuni; then essu--also older than me-- and the irrepressible little brother rishu) with an astonishing strength; they adore each other overwhelmingly. and over the next days, the slow magic of human relationship transformed our relationship--discomfort and otherness into easy intimacy. eveningtime we sit together on the big bed they all share in the house's central room; my sisters have a common mania for photography and i have seen the family history back to their mother's childhood (look at mama--she's so beautiful! the most beautiful of her friends-- pointing to her among the other sari-wrapped schoolgirls in a black-and-white photo). every evening tuni helps rishu to study for his exams (social studies and maths over now, english and hindi still to come) with endless, quiet patience--until his fourteen-year-old energy can take no more sitting, and he jumps up to bounce around the room, making absurd faces or singing songs, teasing his sisters endlessly. shalu painted my fingernails and told me about her studies, her cousins, her clothes, her puja; i showed them pictures of my home. they let me help them roll dough for roti, laughing at the irregular shapes of mine.

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saturday was holi. for twenty-four hours the streets of banares went mad, a riot of color-- men danced and drank bhang and threw neon powder until faces and skin and clothing were unrecognizable, lighting gigantic fires on the street corners. women stayed at home, and i spent the day with my sisters-- we cooked traditional holi sweets (dry milk and fruits wrapped in pastry, deep-fried in ghee) and watched the celebrations from the rooftop. that evening the men returned to their homes and the children came out-- walking from house to house to recieve candy and blessings, drawing bright lines of tikka on the foreheads of their elders, touching their feet. shalu whispered something to one of the groups of children, and when it was my turn for tikka they attacked me instead, rubbing yellow and purple and pink and green into my hair and over my cheeks and forehead.

March 13, 2007

Co-Pilgrimy Yours

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Professor Rana-ji Singh leads our group's re-tracing of the Panchakroshi Yatra

We've returned, missing being soaked by hail stones and torrential downpour by about 30 seconds, from the Panchakroshi Yatra! This yatra is a Hindu pilgrimage to important sites around the Banaras area. Many pilgrims travel this route on Shivaratri (Shiva's Night) during the middle of February or every three years during the extra month added to the Hindu calendar. The 84 km route encircles the surrounding villages and is usually walked in five or six days stopping to perform ceremony at the important points along the way. We did just this, utilizing the modern marvels of fossil fuel.

Rana-ji Singh, professor of cultural geography at Banaras Hindu University, was our guide on the journey and we enjoyed his passion and giggling at his stories of Shiv and Parvati, Balarama and Krishna as they came alive to us through his candid storytelling.

We started from the program house at 8 am and as we approached the final site of the yatra, thick dark storm clouds billowed overhead. We saw the original Shiva linga (representation of male and female energy that is honored by adorning with milk, honey, flowers, incense and money) and a special dancing Ganesha (the elephant-headed god) before the power went out. We raced back to the cars to beat the rain, and made it just in time. Rain (much less hail) this time of year is unheard of in Banaras, or so the locals say.

Embarking upon pilgrimage such as this is a special privilege and one that many Hindus do not have the opportunity to complete in their lifetime. Each time I hear Rana-ji explain about these important sites, I am more inspired to dig deeper about my own belief systems. I'm certainly grateful to have shared this day with the eight of us and am looking forward to the new adventures in the coming weeks as we wrap up our time here in the City of Light.

We'll hear a speaker about Islam tomorrow, and one on the Indian political system before the week is out. We'll wrap up our ISPs and share what we've learned with each other, say heartfelt goodbyes to our homestay families and catch a train to Amritsar. There, we will take in the Golden Temple, the most famous Sikh pilgrimage place, on our way to Dharamsala.

I hope everyone is enjoying early daylight savings... not quite sure I understand the reasoning on that one. Anyone want to fill me in?

Jullay for now,

Tracy

March 15, 2007

under the bodhi tree

six hours by car down the grand trunk road (this, perhaps less smooth than some highways) left us stiff and sore and grateful for freedom as we arrived at the Burmese pilgrim's house in bodh gaya. leaving our things in the small dormitory (stringing nets against the swarming hordes of mosquitoes sharing our residence there) we set out. a short walk brought us to the stupa, standing at the site of the buddha's enlightenment under the bodhi tree.

Bodhi Tree

the deer park at sarnath where the Buddha gave his first teaching felt like an important historical site when we visited, replete with statues and monuments, carefully kept gardens spread over the once-wild deer park. but an element of the air at bodh gaya made enlightenment somehow a conceivable thing there, a very definite power pervasive in the atmosphere. said power, the reason Gautama chose this spot for his meditations? a thing imposed there by his spiritual efforts so many years ago? or is it a culmination of the energies of so many offerings, so many devotions, so many prayers? philip larkin called a church a serious house on serious earth. if there is any place proper to grow wise in, it is such a place as this.

paths for circumnambulation stood on different levels, growing smaller and closer as they descended towards the temple in the center. all around monks in robes of different colors made prostrations; an old tibetan woman prayed down a string of beads; laymen wandered, cameras in hand. small square pillows were strewn everywhere within the temple gates--in the gardens, between statues, on the ground-- and everywhere people sat meditating, warm, colorful cross-legged forms interspersed with the stone ones. the bodhi tree itself was the third generation from the original, and a crowd of sri lankan pilgrims (all in white) worshiped at a small shrine at its base.

the next morning i went early again to the stupa. there was a water tank on its north side, strung all around with prayer flags; i sat on the steps leading down to it, sun still low over the water. two monks came down next to me with newspaper plates of warm rice cereal, and began throwing small clumps into the pool-- the water was home to hundreds and hundreds of gigantic catfish, their thick, heavy bodies twisting over and around each other as they swam for the food. the monks offered thier plates to me and then we fed the animals together (right hand only, for offerings)-- scraping the hot, sticky mash from our fingers, throwing it as far out from the bank as we could.
__________

recipe for apple cramble
from the kitchen of the om restaurant, bodh gaya, india

preparation time: 2-3 hours
serves 9

ingredients:
1/2 small apple (any kind)
1 jar strawberry jam-like substance
white flour (lots)

instructions:
send one boy to purchase missing ingredients from neighboring vendors. chop apple finely and mix with jam substance; thinly coat the bottom of nine small metal dishes. fill the remainder of each dish with flour (this should be approximately two inches deep) and bake until the surface browns-- really, as long as you like. serve lukewarm with the cheapest vanilla ice cream available. garnish with a paper napkin.

Thanks, Remy

Remy's now safely back in the USA, with 4,000 photos from India...

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And some very colorful memories.

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From all of us at Global LAB, thanks Remy for helping to get the spring India semester off to such an outstanding start. We are all looking forward to seeing, reading, and hearing more of the digital storytelling projects you have been mentoring with the students as they engage with India!

John

March 16, 2007

'She was all "chai and biscuits" about it'

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Matt, giving thanks in a kind of Hindi

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Matt's Homestay Mom

JB had us all laughing this evening at our farewell party to our homestay families here in Banaras with this quote!

We're wrapping up our time here, and reflecting on what we've accomplished these past three weeks. Learning reaches deep with each of the students. I watched some insightful presentations on beginning tabla (da ti ri ki te ta ka), sitar, hammering straight nails into recycled wood to build boats, and Hindu Tantrism. More than the new (mad) skillz the students have picked up is the insight with which they all seem to be approaching and navigating life and culture in India. We arrived in Banaras literally fresh off the boat and leave here seasoned travelers starting to stretch our wings.

The best part of today, though, was watching the students connect with their homestay families over samosa, gulab jamun, halwa, chai and other such snacks at our farewell celebration. The room filled with light-hearted laughter as each student shared their touching thanks to their families in bobbled Hindi. I've not seen some of the homestay moms laugh so hard! The connections each made with their families was crystal clear.

Tomorrow, we leave the heart of Hindustan and head west for adventures in Sikhism.

Stay Tuned!

Peace,

Tracy

Varanasi to Amritsar to Dharamsala

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Chris and Sanghamitra

Thanks for the update, Tracy, and thanks to all of our friends in Varanasi who have once again helped to create such a remarkable range of learning and living opportunities.

Galen, Michelle, and Erin and many others were with some Himalayan friends here in NYC recently; check out Galen's post on last semester's blog for more on the NYC-Dharamsala-Alaska-Tibet-Vermont connections that were happening on March 10!

Safe travels as you make your way from the plains up to Amritsar and then Dharamsala.

John

March 20, 2007

audio reflection

Below is an audio reflection that Noah recorded.

March 21, 2007

Blessings!

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Caitlin meets her Homestay Mom in Dharamsala

Hi Everyone, and a loud Tashi Delek to you as I sit here on Yogibara Road in Dharamsala basking in the amazingly cool weather and the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

We were so fortunate to receive a blessing from His Holiness this morning as we attended a long life ceremony for him sponsored by the Sakya Lineage. We stood amongst hundreds of Sakya devotees as they sat and chanted along with the prayers, received blessed food, and beamed with happiness as His Holiness walked with His Holiness Sakya Trizin Rinpoche down the stairs and across the courtyard of Namgial Monastery.

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Matt with his Homestay mom in Dharamsala

All of us were quite "blissed out" at this happening, especially its timing as we had a talk scheduled at the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives with Ven. Geshe Lhakdor-la, the current director of the Library. Geshe-la delivered a wonderful talk on the basics of impermanence and precious human birth in the context of the current political happenings all over the globe. Students asked thoughtful questions and we all left the room feeling quite light, taking time to look over the balcony of the roof at the towering, lush green Himal across the valley.

Tonight, students are safe and sound with their homestay families and the rains have arrived yet again. At least today, the hail has held off, though the thunder and lightening are clear. Tomorrow, we will start our study of Tibetan language and hear from the first of our guest speaker series as well as get started with our various ISPs that will hold our focus for the next bit of time. An exciting two weeks is planned before we head into retreat for 10 days.

We hope you are all well and emerging from winter successfully!

a Global-LAB ad

"How we doin'?" as they say in Maine... a little different from the "Namaste" that I became accustomed to over the past month in India. After testing every transportation vehicle except a pair of roller skates and a pogo stick, I'm back in northern New England. A fresh dump of snow has changed my mindset quickly - I grab a down jacket now instead of a pair of flipflops. Chai addicts have been replaced by coffee addicts. The streets are a bright white, rather than a dusty brown.
I imagine the group looking over the himalyas and feeling the bite of cold temperatures compared to the increasingly warm and humid air of Varanasi. How is the transition from Hinduism to Buddhism going? Hope all of you are taking care of each other and soaking in everything around you.

Below is an ad made by the students during the first weeks in India. Originally, the format of the ad was to be serious, but after such a crazy day/two days of travel... well... crowded Delhi streets informed the narrative. It's comedic style and choppy shots of the street are telling of late nights and jetlag-leftovers during the first week in Delhi. ENJOY.


Global LAB ad

March 22, 2007

When We Went to Wagah

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I knew that Pakistan and India were serious competitors. Their rivalries has been bubbling since Partition, boiling over in 1971, again in the nineties over Kashmir, and in international Cricket matches. But to me, these rivalries have been pages in text books or stories on the evening news. I had never experienced their rivalry first hand until Monday. Our adventure to the Wagah Border crossing began with our arranged rickshaw ride trying to exploit us, which Tracy would have none of. After negotiating an acceptable price for ourselves and another westerner who was being ripped off (Global-LAB helping others) we made our way across the Punjab towards Pakistan.

The ride was uneventful (except for passing a gym called "Guns") until we arrived at a dirt parking lot with small food stands lining the far side of the road from the car. As soon as we pulled in to the parking lot the car was swarmed by kids selling the cheapest cardboard visors and Indian flags for ten rupies each. After negotiating the price down to five each, we all bought something from then to show our blood bleeds orange, white and green, except for Caitlin. Since she had no pro-Indian paraphernalia, a herd of child-vendors followed her around shouting "please, please, please" and becoming increasingly insistant that she should by a visor or flag. They eventually dispersed after insisting that she was not interested in their useless stuff.

As we approached the border, we could see a large arch over the road with bleachers on either side. A lone guard in a goofy dress uniform stood under the arch. He was wearing tan pants and button down shirt with highly polished black leather shoes and and white pleather ankle raps. the strangest thing about his outfit was the black felt cap with a red, black and gold fan atop his head. It stood straight up about fifteen inches into the air, and was attached ot the right side of his head. He was tall and wiry man as many of the guards were. He forcefully pointed us towards a fenced path around the guard house. we walked along toward two men in black dress uniforms on horseback behind a low barbed wire fence and hedges. We soon guessed that these men were Pakistani guards on their side of the border, no more than twenty feet away. We all came to silent agreement that,despite the head fans, the Pakistani guards looked far more menacing than their Indian counter-parts. Some Pakistanis and one westerner stood with the guards across the border staring at the crowd of Indians filing through.

As we rounded the guard house we could clearly see the stadium surrounding the road to Pakistan and the gate separating the two nations. Hundreds of Indians packed the bleachers, some down by the gate taking a picture with the family. We found our seats and waited for the ceremony to begin. From our position on the bleachers I could clearly see the Pakistani stadium. It was smaller than the Indian side, but the most striking feature was the separation of men and women. on my right sat the men, dancing in the isle, while the women sat quietly on the other side of the road.

After five minutes in our seats the ceremony began. Some lucky Indians ran towards the gate waving a large Indian flags to the delight of the crowd. After three passes, music blared over the PA system while a group of Indian men began to dance like it was Holi in the center of the stadium. Immediately Noah, Matt, and J.B. began to debate whether it was wise to venture into the mosh pit fuelled by nationalistic fervor. After some tense minutes of "will they, won't they" they ventured down into the crazed group of men. Immediately they were spotted and mauled by the party. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for the three of them) the bugal sounded only after thirty seconds in the party, signaling the beginning of the ceremony.

The guards began to march while another guard shouted through the PA "HINDUSTAN!" We shouted back "ZINDA BAAD" (probably spelt wrong) which translates to "long live India". It is interesting that the guard shouts Hindustan because a large portion of the group were Sikh, not Hindi. The guards lined up and with impressive high stepping they opened the gates. Three different guards approached the border, touched the other side and returned to the line with the last guards shaking hands. the Pakistani guards mirrored each move. After this saluting and marching, each side raised their flag on their respective sides inches from the border. After a moment of cheering while the flags were raised, the flags were lowered, each side saluted and the gate shut.

This event is carried out seven days a week. In retrospect the event showed much professional respect between the guards and the chanting was positive. The guards showed great pomp and posturing, but they shook hands and were not hostile to each other. The feeling in the stands was pro-India, but not anti-Pakistan. I cannot speak for Pakistan's side, but the chants were similar. Even so, the two countries remain divided this ceremony does little to bridge that gap.

March 23, 2007

at the golden temple

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Washing dishes at the Golden Temple, Amritsar

we left shiva's city early on saturday morning. my mother pushed a tiffin box of breakfast into my hands as i hurried to pack my things, and with it, a beautiful woolen shawl i had seen her wearing in the evenings. to keep you warm-- on the train. she would not hear of my refusing it, any more than she would let me leave the house in the mornings without having taken my chai. she kissed me on both cheeks. tuni and shalu walked with me to meet the rest of the group, and the rickshaws that would take us to the train station.

one day and one night, and we were in the punjab-- the golden temple in amritsar, holiest of holies for the sikhs. arriving and leaving our things in the dharamshala there (dharamshala meaning "refuge", the pilgrims' resthouse, where we would sleep), we went to eat our lunch in the public kitchen. on either side of the staircase people stood with stacks of spoons, bowls, and metal plates, hands flying as they distributed them among the pilgrims. we passed through their lines and through the doors, into an enormous hall filled from edge to edge with scarf-wrapped women and turbaned men. people sat cross-legged on the floor in long rows, facing each other, an aisle between-- more helpers moved down these at incredible speeds, ladling dhal and aduki and rice and kheer onto the empty plates. men with large flat baskets of chappati swung from one side to the other, dropping the hot bread into waiting palms (two hands for receiving, right laid over left).

a marble path led into the temple from the dharamshala and the langar (the kitchen), crossed at one point by a channel of water for the pilgrims to cleanse their feet. passing under an arch i came out into the large, square main court. a broad path circled around the outside (part sheltered and pillared like a cloister, part open to the air), the stone tiles set over the ground in spectacular geometrical patterns. a huge pool of still, clear water spread over the center of the space with the golden temple in the middle, a narrow walk connecting it to the path on the far side. a few people bathed in the waters, but its primary purpose lay in giving the temple's reflection back to the sky. i stayed and watched until the sun set behind thickening clouds.

that night after dinner we gave our service in return for our food, as all of the pilgrims do. four long troughs stood to the side of the langar-- scraping, soaping, first rinse, final rinse-- and for the next hours i washed. there is a tremendous camaraderie that comes in shared work, and with four or five words of common language i made wonderful friends under the overwhelming smash and clatter of metal dishes. time passed without indication or notice in the rhythms of scrubbing and shy, earnest laughter until eventually the little boy working next to me pulled on my arm-- please didi, take tea, take tea. realizing suddenly that in legs and back and body and mind i was completely exhausted, i followed him gratefully over to the stone benches at the side. an elderly sikh man with a long white beard and blue-green kashmiri eyes poured me a bowl of chai, and my trough companions and i collapsed together, smiling happily in the comfort of warm drink.

the next morning i woke at five, planning to watch the sunrise from the temple's roof. already the dharamshala's courtyard (toilets, public shower, makeshift beds) was bustling like midday under cold blue electric light. the line into the golden temple was tremendous, even so early-- i waited for three hours in a claustrophobic, surging crush of bodies (the sun rose without ceremony behind a bank of clouds). but at last i was inside, seated in front of the book holding the teachings of the entire lineage of the sikh prophets. a small group of musicians sat behind and sang to tabla and guitar, their music broadcast over speakers all through the temple complex. an endless stream of people moved in and out, recieving whatever virtue this most precious of encounters had to offer.

jallianwalla bagh also lies in amritsar, a short walk only down the street from the golden temple-- this, the site of the 1919 massacre in which over a thousand (innocent civillians? peaceful protesters? fierce agitators verging on riot? this, it seems, depends on who you ask) were killed by british troops. now there is a park, and a memorial; some of the old walls remain, the bullet holes apparent in the brick. there is a well you can look down--large, and deep, and black-- in which more than 120 bodies were found. people trying to escape the gunfire. it was a sunny day when i visited, and the traffic on the streets running nearby was noisy. well-dressed families were there to picnic, and educate their children in history.

before dawn on tuesday we set out from the punjab-- now, by rail and bus to the mountains, and dharamshala.

the power of place

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In Dharamsala

This morning we got a clear view of the towering snowcapped Himalayan Mountains that bridge the gap between heaven and earth here in Dharamsala. It seems that everyone is enjoying the fresh mountain air! Our past two days have been filled with getting to know homestay families, beginning ISPs, and learning Tibetan language and script. The highlights have certainly been the passionate and inspiring talks given by Lhasang Tsering, former president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, and Ama Adhe, a survivor of a grueling 27 year prison sentence. Both have written powerful pieces in English and I encourage you all to seek them out. It has been a true honor to have them in our presence. From the plight of the Tibetan people to their unprecedented kindness all under the backdrop of this beautiful mountain town, one cannot help but be moved by this place.

March 24, 2007

A Really Good Map - A Call to Action

Blogging connects all of us through the internet in amazing ways. We can share in our loved ones' journeys across the globe, comment with sentiments of support, encouragement, and information. We are quite lucky to have this tool to deepen our personal connections while we are far away from each other, or while we are right next door.

With this in mind, I thank you all - parents, students, friends, loved ones - for contributing to our online Global LAB community. And with this post, I ask for even more response and interaction than before. My gratitude in advance for reading on.

Lhasang Tsering.
Tibetan Freedom Activist.
He spoke to our group the other day. His talk left all of us reeling with hope and determination to contribute in whatever way we can to the cause of Tibet. The students and I were totally charged.

One piece of his talk, which rang true to me last semester when we heard him speak as well, stayed with me again this time:

Lhasang-la suggested that we use our power and privilege in a functional way when we get back to the states. "When you get back home, there will be so much to tell and share about with your family and friends. Please talk about Tibet," he says to us. He asked us to "ask our politicians to take a good look at a good map," one that shows the actual boundaries of Tibet during the last centuries and point out how Tibet was independent of China. Not only this, but look at a good map currently that shows how the 4 occupied territories have been assimilated into China.

Last semester, I asked him about where I could find a map of this sort to show folks back home. We looked and looked for one but couldn't find a "good map" of these things. I am continually inspired to find one, or make one that shows these truths.

Map making is totally subjective. Maps are arbitrary visual communications of political borders that are constantly changing. There are maps made these days that are "fair to all people of the world." (I know this, but my good ol' gradschool SIT has them for sale in the bookstore.) But are they really? Are maps able to communicate genocide and millions of people living in exile from their homes? are they able to communicate families being split apart with no hope of seeing each other again in their lifetimes?

My question for all of you...
Does anyone have connections with a mapmaker, or know how one would go about making a map? This is where the networking and the wonders of the internet come in. I would really like to make this happen. More amazingly, I would like to publish such a map and make sure it gets into the hands of political powerfuls in the U.S. Government and plenty of activists in all communities that are working toward the cause of a Free Tibet.

What do you all think?

March 25, 2007

tabla, new family, and lost pieces of the puzzle

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Learning about the burning ghats on the banks of the Ganges

The city of Banaris was quite the experience. I was reminded on many ways of NYC. Mind you NYC doesn't have cows and water buffalo wandering streets freely eating from the many piles of garbage. You will also not have rickshaw drivers everywhere you look all asking "Hello ma'am, Rickshaw?". You cannot walk along any Ghats watching people bath or bodies being burned. You won't see Baba's or people carrying incredible loads on their head. You will find the same sort of energy you find in NYC, but Banaris is simply so uniquely Banaris.

My homestay family was absolutely wonderful. I had great fun playing the various forms of cricket my younger brother Chootu (not quite sure how you spell that) taut me. Watching him play I was struck, as I was in Nicaragua, by how differently he and the other kids amuse themselfs. For example he knew just how to throw his ball against a wall, corner, the ceiling or floor so that it came right back to him. Making me think this game was one of (in addition to reading the paper) the main ways he amused himself. My mother, or mataji, was a wonderful woman. Always willing to make me an early breakfast so I could get to that 8 or 9 o'clock Hindi lesson. As well as an early dinner so I could be in bed by 8:30 9:00 (where as the family ate closer to 11:00 pm). Never once did I feel unwelcome and my family was most accepting of my American habits (like making my food into a burrito, which they found most amuzing).

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Sarah & Caitlin present to the group about their study of the Tabla

For my ISP I took Tabla lessons, with Caitlin (forgive me for not knowing how to spell your name! >.<) and Remy. Quite the crazy instrument Tabla is. And heavy, ouf.

Banaris was also when Remy left us. We were all quite bummed to say the least. I liken it to a puzzle; now with one of it's pieces missing. Sure the rest of the pieces still fit together and you can still see the picture and so the puzzle still works. But there will always be that empty spot in the middle.

videos

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During the in-country orientation, one place that the group visited was the Gandhi Museum. Along with drafting the group's charter, looking at maps, and framing the trip, the group relaxed on the lush lawn and learned/perfected the art of cartwheeling. Afterwards, the group toured the high-tech museum, participating in the interactive multi-media exhibits. For those who are traveling in or through Delhi, the multi-media Gandhi experience is a must. For the group, it brought up questions focusing on simplicity: Would Gandhi want such a high-tech museum in his name? Would he want one at all? What is the purpose of these multi-media exhibits? Are they more powerful than the written word or still picture? Does this technology communicate Gandhi's ideals? What are your thoughts?


Watch the most-excellent cartwheelin' sessions at the Gandhi Museum in Delhi:

Video 1

Video 2

Cartwheeling with Gandhi

March 28, 2007

Peter Sonam checking in...

Hello,

Here in Dharamsala everything is very fine and super, just now we back from Tsopema Rewalsar and been to Tashi Gonj for mass Dance for Guru Rinpoche birthday, we arrange and it was really good and they are happy for all. So here everything is going very well and no need to worry.

Peter Sonam, Dharamsala Coordinator

March 29, 2007

in the presence of holiness

Since I last wrote we have had the pleasure of speaking with Palden Gyatso, meeting with His Holiness Karmapa, attending a JJI Exile Brothers concert, taking an overnight to Tso Pema and watching masked lama dances in Tashi Jong on Guru Rinpoche's birthday!

Palden Gyatso, a monk imprisoned in China for 33 years, spoke to us about the torture he endured and he has dedicated his life to exposing the atrocities committed towards the Tibetan people on an international level. That night, we all gathered in the JJI Exile Brothers' Cafe, run by their mother and our lovely language teacher, Nimala, for a concert. It was a powerful night of passionate music (sung in English and Tibetan) about peace and freedom, and we even enjoyed a special opening act by our very own Matt, Noah, and Tracy!
Tracy_Spring07_Peter and Palden, Tracy_Spring07_Peter and Palden 2

Meeting with the Karmapa was a true blessing for us all! Thangkas and malas were blessed and he allowed us to sit with him and ask questions for 20 minutes. According to Peter, he usually only allows for 10-15 minutes of questioning, so the gods must have been on our side that day! The students asked very thoughtful questions and H.H. Karmapa even gave us some tips for our upcoming meditation retreat.

Yesterday, we came back to D'sala after our quick, but rejuvenating excursion to Tso Pema (Lotus Lake), a pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists. In this location, Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, the protector of the three jewels of Buddhism and who is responsible for bringing Tantric Buddhism to Tibet, meditated in a cave for many years. We got up for sunrise yesterday (an especially auspicious day for it was Guru Rinpoche’s birthday) and hung prayer flags around the meditation cave. Peter called out to the gods as we hung the flags to call their attention to our presence and the blessings we requested for those names of family and friends we wrote on our prayer flags. We also paid homage to Guru Rinpoche by circumambulating the site at which he transformed fire to a lotus-filled lake and by feeding the huge catfish in the blessed lake.

On our way back to D’sala, we stopped in Tashi Jong to watch a Tibetan lama dance. These masked dances are performed by monks and function to help Tibetan Buddhists visualize their eventual journey through bardo, a liminal space between this life and the next.

After a short break, we picked our Tibetan language classes back up this morning and this afternoon we visited the Men-Tse-Khang (Institute of Tibetan Medicine and Astrology). We received a great introduction into the science of traditional Tibetan medicine. Some students will return tomorrow morning for a consultation.

In the past week, Tracy and I have had the pleasure of sharing a meal with a few of the homestay families (we plan to visit them all before we start our retreat) and I am reminded of how fortunate our students are to have such an experience! The families are taking such great care of each student and everyone is being fed very well :)

March 30, 2007

The Day we met the 17th Karmapa

Tashi Delek,

Meeting the 17th Karmapa was one of the highlights of the trip. We all arrived at his monastery in the early morning on the day of the 26th. I was wearing my brown chuba that I bought down on temple road. All of us had our selective objects for blessing. I brought a little more than most individuals, two thangkas, a bag full of malas, bodhi leaves, some silk, and a bronze Buddha, the Karmapa himself even rolled his eyes when I placed my ripped brown paper bag filled of stuff in his hands.

Our meeting was very intimate and with every question H.H. peered deep inside his soul to answer the questions that we poised. My question was "As a spirtual leader, what do you feel your purpose in life is, and also what do you think the purpose for the ordinary man is?"

This was a big question, but for him the most important thing is continuing his studies and keeping the role of this 900-year old lineage, after that then he can attend to his own needs. According to him the ordinary man, also has to work, study, and then attend to himself. The answer was not as introspective and deep as I would have liked but it was thoughtful none the less. He continued to sit in his Plexiglas sofa, in this room filled with Astroturf and windows on either side. I noticed that the thangkas and embroidered art on the wall seemed very low-quality.

Chris asked an interesting question, "why are you always so serious?" According to H.H. he is so wrapped up in thought and intention that most of his emotion stays inside. So if he were to laugh, it would be to laugh inside. Though when sitting up close to him, as I smiled at him as he talked, it seemed like he noticed and even gave me a half-smile, so it seemed like even behind the facade of power, he is very human. All of a sudden he just said "done," and we were finished. After our talk he stood up, hovering over us, he is not a small man 6 foot with a football players body. He chanted some mantras and took out a silver jar, topped with a small ivory knob. He opened this, and sprinkled some type of water, beads or rice on us.

He then blessed all of our items, I was scurrying around trying to get everything in place, soon after giving my thangkas to the assistant and giving my paper to H.H., I was whispered to in the ear by H.H., and he humanly said "photo," like we were at some theme park. We turned around and took our shot, and this was the time we were supposed to leave.

Group Photo with His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa

After the photo, I turned around and looked at H.H. and said thank you, and seemed very much happy with my good thoughts. I clumsily waved goodbye, and slowly walked to the door, first with my back facing him, and then realizing this was improper, I turned around, and again clumsily walked out the door, waving him goodbye, H.H. probably thinking I was a nut-case with my awkward mannerisms. Though after leaving I really felt that he was very human, and the connection that I made with him that day, seemed like I could go back anytime and just start a everyday conversation, he didn't seem as un-earthly as I thought he would be.

After our meeting, I went home and went with my brother Namgyal Monastery to take some photos in my chuba.

Then my brother and I went to Palden Gyatso's house to talk further about the idea of freedom, the Iraq war and the notion of militarily imposed freedom. The evening ended with an exchange of a khatag and some malas blessed and given to me by Paldenla. He even showed me his prayer room, and he told me whenever I come back to Dharamsala, I should come back to him and learn some teachings.

It was a very succesful day,
Peace,
J.B.

pictures from Tso Pema trip

March 31, 2007

My Certification

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The Majestic Touch
The Him She Who Takes Me There
I Have Arrived, God

- Matthew

My ISP

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Every morning my home stay mother wakes me up at 7:30 before I get dressed, so I have started sleeping in my clothes. After she apologizes for waking me and I assure her that I don’t care, she makes me five pancakes and asks me how I am feeling as we both watch the news on TV. Until 11:00, when Tibetan lessons start, I spend my time walking around town, filming, recording and talking to people, gathering media for eventual projects for the blog.

After our language lesson, guest speaker and lunch, which generally all wraps up by 3:00 pm, I take Tibetan guitar lessons on the roof of the Ladies Venture hotel on Yogibara Road. During the lessons, certain things always seem to happen. My hand is physically too big for the guitar, so me, Matt and the teacher, always spend some time laughing about that. The teacher and I can’t really communicate and gets to be frustrating as well as humorous, so we spend time laughing about that as well. Through all the confusion though, I end every lesson with a furthered appreciation of what seems like a simple instrument and a long page of music to memorize for the next lesson.

At 5:00 massage class starts. Matt is my partner in the class and we practice all sorts of different techniques on each other. It is so much fun and very relaxing.

I stay in the shrine room at my home stay, which is always smoky with incense by the time I get home at night. The grandmother sits on the porch outside my room and says, “Tashi Delek,” to me as I walk by her. Every night I say, “Tashi Delek Momola,” back. Also, for some reason, I always explain to her that I just have to drop off my bags in my room, feeling like I need an excuse for just walking by, as if she expected me to engage her in a wonderful conversation in Tibetan or understood my guilty excuse. I can’t have that conversation even though I would like to, so after I have finished dinner and tried my best to make small talk with my family, I generally go to sleep early, always trying to at least say thanks in as many ways as I can.

-Noah

Philosophy and Conversation

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Dharmsala presents a unique opportunity to learn about Tibetan Buddhist philosophy from Geshe Manlom-la from Kham, Tibet. Every morning Tracy and I walk down to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives for an hour lecture on suffering and impermanence from The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Paltrul Rinpoche. Geshe Manlom-la teaches us about hungry ghosts, hedonistic gods seventy feet tall with a strong fear of death, and suffering caused by the attachment to materials. After class Tracy and I suffer at least one of the realms of hell on the long trek back to the Ladies Venture. We sweat our attachment to water as we discuss the day’s teachings.

After Tibetan language class and the daily speaker, I talk with Tibetans learning English with an organization called Lha. I spend an hour answering questions about famous basketball players, who will be the next President of the United States will be and who are my favorite actors. I explain that I am from New Hampshire, which is near New York City. The students then struggle with the pronunciation of my state, routinely calling it “New Hampster.” Many of these people are refugees born in Tibet. I ask them about their journey from Tibet and what life is like in Tibet under Chinese rule.

-Chris

My ISP

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For my ISP, I wanted to do jewelry making. Pyar Mohhamed (who would have been my teacher) was, however, visiting family in Rajasthan. So I did Tibetan Massage instead, with Caitlin, Matt, Noah and two other pairs. And now that the 5 day course is over, I’m going to do English conversation and Thangka painting. English conversation is quite awesome. The other day I spoke with two individuals. One was a young monk, maybe around my age, who left Tibet when he was 8. The other was a man who liked Basketball but not reading, and came over when he was 25. The point, as I understand it to be, is to help them practice speaking English/to develop their ear for it.

Sarah

Patience

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Eveningtime, after dinner has been eaten and my brother and sister have settled for nightly cartoons I walk up the steps to my neighbor’s house. I duck under the curtain in the doorway—tashi delek—come in, come in. He or his wife will be stirring vegetables and noodles in a pan; their baby sleeps or giggles in the corner. The room is warm and bright; I sit cross-legged on the couch and my teacher makes an easel with a pane of thick glass and the low table in the center of the room. First, I show him the Buddha head I have drawn for homework. See here? And here? He points to my mistakes, smiling kindly, voice gentle. A few quick, dark lines and suddenly the face is symmetrical, the eyes properly arched, the ears and lips the correct length. Good. Try again. Carefully I take his ruler and draw the grid, the proportions the same as they have been drawn for a thousand years. Perfect—well, almost perfect. I try again.

Caitlin