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India

We had one full day in the holy city of Pushkar. How did it go? As any good day in India should go, full of the unexpected. This morning, the unexpected was salty coffee. (Those super fine granules at the bottom of the sugar bowl that we thought were just crushed sugar cubes – not sugar.) This afternoon, the unexpected was a Hindu prayer by one of the holiest bodies of water in India.

I had a lovely encounter with an older Sadhu during my first visit to India, that time on the banks of the Ganges. Perhaps my memories of that experience made me a little softer with this white tank top clad Brahmin priest than I otherwise might have been. The Pushkar exchange started with a gentle suggestion from priest Carlo to walk down to the ghats along the water. I had already been and so was patiently waiting for the gentleman to leave before continuing my walk back to the hotel. This, apparently, was obvious, and soon I was, with little choice otherwise, following him down to the edge of the lake.

Ignoring the stairs covered in pigeon poop, I removed my sandals and proceeded barefoot. Ignoring the trash and plastic bags floating in the green water, I took a seat on its edge. Watching and listening to Carlo chant was magical. He filled my cupped hands with water and with minimal resistance on my part I began tossing handfuls of the holy water into the lake, wishing for the long life of my family: husband, father, mother, sisters, brother, and grandparents.

As I walked home later, vermillion on my forehead, a red string on my wrist, and 100 rupees lighter (a donation of course), I thought about my unexpected events for the day: 90 rupees for salty coffee. 100 rupees for a long life full of happiness and prosperity for those closest to me. Of the two, I knew which was the better bargain.

We almost missed this temple during our ride from Udaipur to Jodhpur. The temple closes at 5pm and we rolled into the gate at 4.20pm. We had one person in shorts (a BIG no-no in Jain temples) and cameras in hand, but we were in a stubborn mood. Not wanting to spend the money and time on camera passes (200 INR) and rented pants (100 INR/ pair), our person in shorts decided to stay outside the temple take care of the cameras. We thought this was a great idea until we got inside – the temple was breathtaking. By being stubborn, the only people we were hurting at this moment were ourselves. We rushed out, grabbed our shorts wearer and ran to the ticket booth. 300 more rupees spent. This place was worth every cent.

  

First, let me say that yes, I am back in Goa. We were only supposed to be back for a quick weekend to see friends, but we quickly became held hostage in Goa by Indian Railways.

In the week that we’ve been here, we have attempted to purchase train tickets north from multiple entities in three different towns. Only today have we finally succeeded (with a 2 hour taxi ride, a hurried Xerox exchange, and much elbowing through the lines at the Margao train station – at one point I actually thought my husband might be trampled alive by the dozen Indian men behind him in the, at that moment closed, “Foreign Tourist” line) to purchase an “emergency” ticket for 2 days from now. Geez.

To fill the next 48 hours we decided to stay somewhere out of the hubbub of Margao but still within an easy 10 minute taxi ride – looking at the map, we picked Benaulim Beach. My guidebook called this beach “quiet”, and yes, at 4pm when we showed up it felt relatively empty. A late lunch and short walk later and it was 6pm and people seemed to be coming out of the woodwork. The place was packed. We barely found a spot to sit down. To our right were several paragliders, to our left an impromptu male model shoot, and all around families, couples, and gaggles of friends swimming and talking. I even saw THREE Indian ladies swimming, for fun, each with their significant other. (I have to note that for others this may seem a small thing to note, but for me it was amazing. In all my time here, I have seen plenty of Indian families at the beach. The men always in their boxers splashing around in the water, and the women fully dressed in sari or salwar kameez, just sitting on the beach or timidly sticking their toes in the edge of the surf. That three women of varying ages would be fully immersed in the water for no reason other than their own pleasure, was unusual enough that both I and my husband noted it independently.)

This sunset was unlike any other I have experienced here. It felt like we had suddenly entered a party where we didn’t know anyone and could just be flies on the wall. We had stopped to watch the sunset, but the people watching was so intriguing, I didn’t even notice when the sun went down. We have one last night in Goa before we head north to Gujarat. I know where I’ll be for sunset tomorrow.

The one lesson India can teach us all again and again is about the limiting power of our own expectations. Will my chai be sweet? (yes) Will my chicken be spicy? (yes) Will my cheap hotel have hot water? (no) Will my expensive resort not have hot water? (no) Will the train be on time? (no) Will the person across from me ask me where I am from? (yes) Will the taxi driver rip us off? (not this time) Will I pay too much? (always) Will I be able to keep my temper? (yes) Will my Ashtanga yoga class be hard? (yes) Will my Hatha yoga class be easy? (yes)

The most beautiful thing about being in the country where everything is true, while simultaneously so is the opposite, is that at some point all of your expectations will be wrong. Each of the above questions, I have gotten wrong at some point in this journey, and every time, even after months in India, it was a surprise.

After my 3 months here, I have begun to genuinely enjoy the humor that comes from when something I am so sure of, happens so differently from how I expected. I am learning to let the world and the people around me, surprise me. From that is coming a new kind of joy. A joy that comes from seeing the world or a person for what it/he/she is instead of what I want it/him/she to be.

One of my favorite yoga instructors in NY used to always start class by challenging us to dig back up that joy we used to have while playing as children. I see now that his challenge was 2 fold – not just to play physically, but to also play mentally with power of dropping our expectations and taking the moment for what it was, limitations and all. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is why children can be so innately happy, even in midst of hardship — because they have not yet had the chance to create the expectations that limit us as we get older.

How much more could we accomplish, how much happier could we be if we just went forward, dropped our expectations, and asked the world for nothing? Nothing, but to surprise us.

Considering I ate here 5 times in 3 days, it’s a pretty solid favorite find. Hidden in a little alley in the old part of Fort Cochin, this café offers the best salads and soups I’ve had in India and a pleasant dose of local art. The tables, many made of old sewing machine stands and each with their own fan, meander through a series of open sided rooms and courtyards. The feeling is magical and the butter oatmeal will convince you to come back again for breakfast tomorrow.

As we began our trek north from the southern tip of Kerala, we were planning to take a train up the coast to the backwaters at Alleppy. Fate, however, had a different plan. The night before our departure the train tickets didn’t come through, and we made a last minute decision to take the eight-hour ferryboat ride instead.

To break up the long boat journey, one of our now four-member group suggested that we stop half way and overnight at a well renowned ashram along the route. The Matha Amrithanandamayi Mission ashram is one of the few female run ashrams in India, has 2000 permanent residents, and is known for its international disaster relief work. Up to this point, I had never visited an ashram in India. If I wanted to mark that experience off my list, this was going to be a great place to do it. I decided to go along and try it out.

My first impression of the place – huge pinkish apartment buildings jutting out of the otherwise flat and palm tree lined landscape. Hmm.. This slowly manifested into a small pinkish city fully enclosed within its own crumbling walls. Walking through the grounds, the whole place seemed somewhat surreal and I was not quite as enchanted as I had hoped. But here we were, so onward we go. Within a few hours, rooms were assigned, an orientation was attended, clothing was changed, and that was it. We were part of the group.

The early evening was spent in the ashram’s “western café” listening to other religious seekers share stories about their time here. Apparently Amma, the Hugging Mother and  ashram’s guru, became famous for selflessly giving away hugs to the distraught and inconsolable. I heard the two girls next to me discussing their own hug experiences with Amma. It went something like this: “How was it?” one asked. “It was… um… weird” the other responded. Even if I was lacking in enchantment before, I was definitely now at the least intrigued. Weird? How could something so natural and loving as a simple hug be weird?

We quickly learned that we were fortunate enough not only to be at the ashram at the same time as Amma, but to also be there on a day when hugging priority is given to those that just arrived or are just leaving the ashram. What does this all mean you might ask? It means that we were VIP’ed through the ticket line and quickly found ourselves waiting patiently on a packed stage in a line of squeaky plastic chairs for our own chance to receive a hug.

Slowly we scooted from one chair to the next, only stopping to read the plastic covered sheet listing rules and regulations and to wipe our face on the handkerchief provided. As I inched my way towards the front of the line, I watched follower after follower kneel before Amma and wait for her to embrace them. If my lack of enchantment had previously turned to intrigue, it now became an intense desire to flee. Unfortunately I was in the middle of a stage covered with what must have been 200 or so faithful followers and only one, now blocked by five new followers trying to fight their way onto the stage, exit.

Everyone but me seemed to be mesmerized by Amma’s presence. Was I the only person on that stage hyperventilating at my lack of a spiritual experience?  I played out every scenario in my head and decided that escape was not an option. I resolved that I would take a few deep breaths and open myself to the experience. I knelt before Amma and leaned in for the embrace. Before I could process what exactly was going on, the woman to my right took my head and, with the confidence of someone who has done this thousands of times before, placed my left cheek square on Amma’s right bosom. Amma reached around, put her arm on my back, and leaned down to whisper into my ear. I stayed there for what felt like eternity but was in actuality only about 20 seconds.

As I walked off the stage, my husband came over and asked, “So. How was it?” All I could respond with was, “It was… umm… weird.”