Monthly Archives: February 2012

God Smells Like Jasmine


I had never intended to go to Amma’s.

Though determined to spend some time in an ashram, my destination was actually the Sivananda yoga ashram outside Trivandrum, not the home of the Kerala’s famous “Hugging Mother.”

But when the Lonely Planet listed Amma’s as an interesting stop to break the monotonous eight-hour ferry ride between Alleppey and Kovalam, I figured I’d check it out for a day or two and continue on my way south.

Four days later, the last-minute Amma’s stop made for one of my most fascinating experiences in India.

Known as the “Hugging Mother,” or simply, “Amma” (“mother” in the south of India), Mata Amritanandamayi Devi is a spiritual leader based in Kerala, India famous for using hugs to reach and comfort people. In fact, Amma has hugged more than 30 million people to date. While many praise her as a saint for her seemingly unlimited compassion and charity work, devotees themselves see her as something else: God. Krishna, to be specific.

I was not aware of this when I entered the ashram. In fact, all I knew was that Amma was a famous hugging guru who had lots of followers throughout the world. But as I entered the rose-colored high-rise, surrounded by thousands of people dressed in white, I knew I was in for quite a trip.

Amma's famous pink, high-rise ashram

To start, seeing Amma in person in India is a rarity. Except for a few months out of the year in India, Amma spends most of her time traveling, hugging followers and strangers alike throughout the world.

For those who make it when Amma is around, a hug is a guarantee. In fact, a highly-organized numbering and registration system makes it so those who have just arrived or are leaving soon are the priority to receive “darshan,” the formal name of Amma’s hugs.

So when I got my number, I was quite excited. The Hugging Mother was in!

But receiving the hugs is not without its wait. In fact, despite having arrived at 5 p.m., my 2000-something ticket wasn’t supposed to be fulfilled until after midnight, which apparently isn’t uncommon at Amma’s house.

So in the meantime, I decided to explore the place. With its famous massive pink skyscrapers, Amma’s place isn’t your typical ashram.

Starting as Amma’s humble childhood home, the ashram has grown into an extensive complex built to house the several-thousand devotees that make their home there, including several residential buildings, a temple, university and Ayurvedic hospital, all painted Amma’s signature pink color (I liked that part :)).

An unintentionally stolen photo of Amma's temple. I found out afterward that photography is prohibited in the ashram.

And though the housing is quite humble (I barely slept a wink in the cramped, four-bed dorm room I shared with three others), the one thing I enjoyed the most about Amma’s was the food!

Like every other ashram or religious retreat I went to (and really, much of India), Amma’s kitchens were vegetarian only, and surprisingly for me, some of the best food I ever ate.

Catering to an international community, Amma’s place comes with a variety of options, sure to impress any palette. Included in the 200 rupee ($4) a day accommodation price were three guaranteed meals of watery rice and vegetables. Alternatively, one could choose to pay for meals in the Indian or Western cafeterias, which serve up a variety of curries and samosas on the Indian side, or nutritious vegetable soups and fresh-baked breads on the Western side. And, if still none of those suited you, you could try your hand at the café, enjoying a range of pizzas, spaghetti and delectable fresh baked goods. And the kicker: a real-life espresso machine. Yes, at Amma’s ashram, a place for quiet contemplation and selfless service, you could get your daily caffeine fix with a fresh cuppa Joe (apparently some of Amma’s Italian followers were not a fan of the previous arrangement :)). This was the coolest ashram ever!

During my wait, I also got to attend the ashram’s daily orientation session. More than two hours long, the session included a video detailing Amma’s extensive charity work as well as an official tour. But what fascinated me most was the discovery that, upon personal request, Amma will give you your very own mantra!

Yes, simply say the word “mantra” during your hug and you will get a personally-tailored, “God”-sanctioned word or phrase that will help you focus during meditation and reach divinity.

Though I am not Hindu, or even really Buddhist for that matter, I had started meditating and thought it would be great to have my very own, divinely-inspired mantra. I soon added this to the plan when meeting Amma.

After hours spent settling in, touring, eating and chatting with some of the other visitors, it was finally my turn to line up. On my day, Amma was giving darshan in the ashram’s main hall. I don’t remember what word they used to describe it, but it was essentially a large open auditorium, no walls, but a large stage that rests in front of hundreds of portable chairs where people can sit and watch if they choose. In addition to the hug, every guest is allowed a special place on stage at least once, where he or she has the privilege of sitting close to Amma for an assigned 30-minute time period. As you can imagine, it was a little bit crowded.

After entering stage right, my group and I proceeded to Amma like musical chairs: scooting along a series of chairs, stopping only for a minute or two before progressing to the next. Though I would have preferred to sit further down for a longer period of time, Amma’s minions weren’t having it, and we found ourselves moving again in an assembly line to the front.

When it was almost time to get a hug, I got a little nervous. How would it feel? Would it be a spiritual awakening? What if I hugged her wrong? And, honestly, after watching her hug hundreds of people all day long, would she smell bad? (I know, I know, I’m going to hell…)

And then, it was my turn. Standing on my knees, watching as the person in front of me got up, I felt one of Amma’s staff grab the back of my head and shove me into her bosom. As I leaned there awkwardly, I was surprised. God smells like jasmine.

Looking down at the eternal white of her shirt, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. It was a hug, but after I tried to put my arms around Amma as well, I was strictly instructed “Don’t touch Amma!”

Ok then.

So I continued to look down, enjoying the lovely jasmine scent, as Amma said incomprehensible things into my ear. (I would find out later that she tends to say something along the lines of “My darling.”)

And then it was over.

I got up, asked for my mantra and was off the stage before I knew it with a little card in my hand (apparently one does not hug 30 million people without being efficient).

Leaving the stage, I thought the hug was pleasant, but like my experience with the Dalai Lama, nothing more. But still that didn’t stop me from pursuing my mantra.

Unfortunately, our tour guide had not filled us in on the fine details. Earlier, all he had said was that after asking for a mantra one of her devotees would give you a small card and direct you to speak with one of the swamis. Then, at the end of the darshan, those requesting a mantra stay back and receive them all together.

The fact that not everyone had immediately asked for a mantra should have been a tip off.

As I looked at the little card in my hand, I got very confused. I had no idea who the swamis were, and since it was close to the end of the darshan anyway, everyone just kept directing me to wait to go back onstage.

When it was finally time to line up for our mantras, about 10 Indians and I (that should have also been a tip off) were given a laminated sheet with very detailed instructions.

As I read the fine print, sirens went off in my head. The mantra instructions went something like this:

“By accepting this mantra, you are hereby devoting yourself to becoming one of Amma’s followers. You are to repeat this phrase every day for the rest of your life and all subsequent lives. Please sign your soul on the dotted line here. Thanks! (Unconditional) Love, Amma’s Minions.”

Ok, perhaps it didn’t read exactly like this, but you get the drift.

Placing the instructions on a nearby chair, making my way against the Indian devotees-to-be, I couldn’t get off the stage fast enough.

Was the hug nice? Yes. Was I willing to worship Amma for the rest of my life (and all my other lives?) No.

I spent the subsequent days relaxing in the ashram and partaking in a special (top-secret) meditation course created by Amma herself and taught exclusively by her swamis. I even had to sign a confidentiality agreement not to share her IAM Meditation with others!

Though I won’t reveal the details here (in fact, I don’t remember them well :/) Amma’s IAM Meditation was nothing overly unique or scandalous. But more than her secret meditation, it was spending time outside the class conversing with Amma’s devotees where I learned the most, not only about spirituality, but about human nature.

I remember reading the Bible as a child and coming to the part where Jesus calls on his disciples to drop everything and follow him, without even looking back. Though I got the point that you are supposed to follow Jesus without question, I remember having a hard time believing that someone would essentially drop everything just to follow another human being. But after four days at Amma’s, I finally get it.

People really do treat her as God. Her images, like those of Vishnu, Shiva or Ganesh, cover the ashram, framed and garlanded for all to admire. During chanting, ceremonies or lessons, we didn’t pray through Amma but to her directly, as if she herself was the one who provided the answers.

So many times I would talk to devotees to find them say things like, “Amma said to do this,” or “I prayed to Amma about this.” By just replacing “Amma” with “Jesus,” you could hear many of the same sentiments in the United States (and I’m sure other largely-Christian communities as well).

As part of the minority that made up the non-devotees, it was a little strange for me to watch. I did, however, get the chance to talk with one middle-aged American man, a former monk, who was able to put it in some perspective for me. After struggles and frustration at home, he finally found peace after meeting Amma and has since devoted his life to her. Like many others, he spends a few months every year working in the United States, then packs up everything to either live at the ashram in India or travel with Amma on her world tours.

Sensing my incredulity, he said people worship things all the time, if not God, then people or things like movie stars, athletes, addictions etc. Why was it so hard to believe that someone would devote himself to such a pure woman who has done so much good in the world?

He then proceeded to tell me that he himself had personally witnessed some of Amma’s miracles and has no doubt in his mind as to her holiness. According to him, a leper entered the ashram once, oozing sores and smelling terribly, revolting to everyone. Except for Amma. Apparently, she dropped what she was doing to hug him and then proceeded to lick his wounds. Mahatmas (“great souls”), my former monk explained, are known to have healing powers in their saliva. Years later, he claims, that leper came back, totally healed and instantly recognized by Amma.

I hardly believe that this man had any reason to lie to me, but that was his story, not mine. I don’t think I’ll be able to believe it until I see it.

Some say that, if not immediate, Amma’s effect can hit you years afterward. Several months later, Amma still remains to me as a fascinating woman who seems to have a powerful effect on a lot of people. Still, I don’t deny that she is something more special to others, and since they all seem to do largely positively things under her influence, I don’t begrudge them anything.

Who knows, maybe years down the road I’ll change my mind? 🙂

The Dalai Lama Experience


Despite the awe-inspiring beauty that is McLeod Ganj, India, arguably the main draw to the small Dharamsala suburb is to see the Dalai Lama.

Meaning “guru” or, literally, “ocean teacher,” the Dalai Lama is the current head of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the former leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government in exile, which India has allowed to govern Tibetan refugees from its part of the Himalayas.

While I had never really had a strong desire to see the Dalai Lama before, spending a week learning about Tibetan Buddhism while residing less than two miles from the place where he lives, seeing him in person became a priority.

But despite being so close to the source, seeing the Dalai Lama in person is no easy matter.

To start with, the Dalai Lama does not make frequent public appearances, but usually speaks only when sponsored and is often abroad.

So we were lucky that, just two days after the meditation course was finishing, an organization from Korea had arranged a three-day lecture series. With all our new-found Buddhism wisdom, of course we had to stay!

But as I said before, seeing the head of Tibetan Buddhism is not easy.

First, you must register in advance at the Tibetan Branch Security Office in McLeod Ganj, where, after providing your passport and visa information and two passport photos, you are given a little ID card to bring with you throughout the lectures.

Next, for all the non-Tibetan speakers, you must acquire a radio and headset to tune into the broadcast translation of the Dalai Lama’s speech in your native language. For a more comfortable rump, you may also opt to buy a cheap throw cushion to use as a seat for the duration of the speech.

And finally, to secure a spot, you may arrive at the temple the day before (careful not to arrive too early or too late) and place a blanket or scarf on your selected spot, preferably with your name written down and attached.

If this sounds confusing, let me break it down. To try to organize the mass crowds that inevitably come to hear the Dalai Lama speak, organizers section off portions of the temple by language, making it easier for people of the same tongue to access their designated radio station. About the day before the lectures begin, organizers cover the areas with mats, making seating more comfortable for viewers. However, rules say you are not allowed to tape, stick or otherwise attach anything (such as place markers) to temple property. To get around this, people tape their names to personal property, such as blankets and scarves, and leave these items lying on their chosen mat space. I don’t know who came up with this idea or how the organizers feel about it, but somehow there seems to be an unspoken rule that you don’t mess with other people’s stuff.

In our case, since we had no extra blankets or towels, we left clothes. Or, rather, my friends left clothes, and I wrote my name with theirs. Yes, in honor of seeing the probably-enlightened, current father of one of the oldest religions in history, I attached my name to a pair of pants.

Marking our place to see the Dalai Lama

The next morning, radio in one hand, cushion in the other, all potential explosives removed from my purse, I was ready to go.

Joining the masses heading toward Gangchen Kyishong, the Dalai Lama’s residence and government area, our little group passed through security and were relieved to find that our little pants-marker, though no longer alone, was undisturbed. As we sat down, squished between Spanish and other English speakers, we did our best to attain some line of sight to the procession area ahead or at least to one of the screens nearby.

And then, it was time to start. Despite our carefully-selected, pants-designated location, the Dalai Lama procession entered through the opposite side of the temple than the side we were at, and I only managed a glimpse of the crowd around him before he entered inside.

As I tried to tune into the English station, I learned that $3 radios bought on the street work just about as well as $3 radios can be expected to work. After playing around with the tuning buttons, catching bits of sound here and there, we learned how the system works.

First, the Dalai Lama speaks undisturbed for a few minutes. Then the translators speak and you fight with your radio to catch on to what the Dalai Lama just said.

Though not ideal, I did manage to catch most of what was going on. To my sort of surprise, however, everything the Dalai Lama was saying was a repeat of what I’d just spent over a week learning about at the Tushita Meditation Centre. Apparently the Dalai Lama speaks according to the request of the sponsors, and our sponsors were Buddhist newbies.

I’m not sure what I had expected, perhaps something more profound or enlightening, but I realized, more than the lecture, I was there to see the Dalai Lama himself, in person.

And after his two-hour lecture, I finally got my chance.

Covered in his standard maroon and yellow robe, encircled by an entourage of supporters and protectors, the Dalai Lama made his way through our side of the temple. Despite the vast amount of people pushing to reach him, the Dalai Lama simply smiled, trying to shake hands and bless as many people as he could.

As I was a good 10 feet away from the edge, I knew there was no one way I would be on the receiving end of any handshake or blessing, but I was hoping for a smile.

More than a week of intensive preparation, hours of silent study and meditation, numerous internal debates on whether or not I could become a Buddhist had all led up to this moment. How would it feel to look into the eyes of the Dalai Lama?

And then…nothing. The Dalai Lama turned his gaze to the forthcoming stairs and continued on for our scheduled lunch break.

No handshake, no blessing, no smile, no eye contact. And honestly, no real spiritual stir on the inside either.

But truth be told, I was ok with this. I was, after all, only a novice “Buddhist” at this point, and my history and skepticism were not exactly conducive to having impromptu spiritual explosions. It was, however, fascinating to watch hundreds of followers from nations all over the world gather to hear words of wisdom from a beloved leader.

But as much as I admire hundreds of people coming together for positive reasons, I don’t always appreciate those people coming together around me. After a morning of scrunching in the cold, squeezing through crowds and fighting with my radio to hear mostly a repetition of what I’d been taught the week before, I decided I had had enough of the Dalai Lama Experience. With his lectures available online, in the comfort, space and warmth of your own home, I figured I could listen to them in private later. My main goal was to see the Dalai Lama in person and that mission had been accomplished.

While I will not list seeing the Dalai Lama in person as a life-changing experience, it was a fascinating one. In a world that appears to become increasingly more secular, it was incredible to see the effect a spiritual leader can have on people from all over the globe, especially on people who would have had little exposure to that religion in their native countries.

Maybe the world isn’t becoming so secular after all.

I wasn’t able to photograph the Dalai Lama, but here are some images of McLeod Ganj. I hope you enjoy.

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Buddhist Beginnings


When I started my India trip, my plan was to travel for the first few months then settle down in an ashram in the end to focus on yoga and meditation and, hopefully, learn more about Hinduism.

As I mentioned in my Mehandipur post, I have always had a fascination with religion, psychology and philosophy. I enjoy learning about different belief systems, their history and what motivates people to behave in ways that they do. Hinduism, in particular, has become religious fascination number one since I arrived in Asia, and I was dying for a chance to learn more about the Hindu gods, karma and all their rituals.

So when I heard about the eight-day “Introduction to Buddhism” meditation course being offered at the Tushita Meditation Centre in McLeod Ganj, I had mixed feelings. As home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, McLeod Ganj is a magical place in the Himalayas full of Tibetan refugees, monks and lots and lots of Westerners, all there to enjoy the breathtaking views, peaceful atmosphere and positive energy. (McLeod Ganj was MY FAVORITE destination in India).

Me in front of the Himalayas in McLeod Ganj

However, a week-long introduction to Buddhism course was never in the plan. India was supposed to be learning about Hinduism, not Buddhism, and I was afraid my Buddhism course would cut into my ashram time in the end.

But something pushed me to stay. I don’t know if it was the desire to stay in McLeod Ganj, sheer curiosity or something more powerful, but in the end, I decided to embrace Tushita. And it ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Located about 15 minutes outside the city, the Tushita Meditation Centre is a Tibetan Buddhist center that hosts free daily meditation sessions and regular Buddhist courses and retreats. It is also home to several monks and nuns.

As the title suggests, the “Introduction to Buddhism” course is an intensive retreat focusing on the basic philosophy of Buddhism through a series of lectures and guided meditations.

The days were fairly routine. Every morning, a gong would sound at 6 a.m. to wake us up in time for our morning meditation session. The rest of the day followed in a sequence of breakfast, morning lecture, stretching, lunch, chores, discussion groups, afternoon lecture, dinner and evening meditation.

I’m not sure if I could pick a place more suitable to learn meditation. Situated right in the mountains, Tushita is completely surrounded by trees, fresh air and beautiful views of the woods below. The gompa itself, our hub for meditation and lessons, was also impressive. In front of the rows of cushions and tiny desks where we sat, a massive gold Buddha commanded the attention of everyone in the room, surrounded by walls of colorful paintings and a photo of the Dalai Lama.

The gompa at the Tushita Meditation Centre in McLeod Ganj

Our housing, however, was a bit more humble, consisting of basic single beds and shelves with shared toilets and showers on the outside (some can opt to pay more for their own room and bathroom, however). And as if you’re not removed from society enough, Tushita was quick to take away any distractions that may otherwise hamper our development, including our phones, cameras, laptops, etc. that got locked away for safekeeping. But I think the one thing that kept the distractions most at bay was one particular rule: no talking.

Yes, apart from asking questions during lecture time and group discussions, the entire retreat was meant to be in silence. No meal-time conversations, no chatting with your roommates, just lots of time to reflect on the day’s lesson, meditate or read Buddhism books.

Ok, I’m pretty sure the ones watching from home right now are laughing in astonishment at the idea of me being quiet for a week, but I’m proud to say, I did it! Better than many others in our group, I might add (you know who you are).

Surprisingly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, it was a bit of a relief at times to be able to sit quietly alone and not feel bad that my frequent anti-social self wasn’t participating in the seemingly-exciting discussions nearby.

Instead, I listened. I read. I watched the monkeys play in the trees (an endless source of entertainment). But most of all, I thought.

Buddhism, when you break it down, is fairly simple. Basically, it’s the idea that through aging, sickness and death (among other things), the human condition is one of suffering. But through meditation and awareness, one can learn to be unattached to temporary, material and emotional things (the causes of suffering) to attain peace, knowledge and, ultimately, enlightenment, an eternal God-like state of bliss and understanding.

On the surface, it’s an easy enough concept to grasp. Removing any sense of karma, reincarnation or beliefs in the spirit realms, even the most devout Christian or adamant atheist can find Buddhism a useful tool for coping through life or deepening one’s own, different, sense of spirituality. In fact, many argue that Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion anyway.

For me, who is often overly-emotional, irritable, and/or anxious, Buddhism, in its most basic form, promised a way to find peace, despite external circumstances. But learning to meditate is not easy, especially for one with the charming aforementioned characteristics. To start, just sitting upright, cross-legged for a prolonged period of time can be quite painful without proper strength, flexibility and practice (that’s where yoga helps). And then the really hard part: stilling one’s mind. In training, they teach you to watch your breath, sometimes counting, to help you focus. When thoughts come, as they inevitably do, the idea is to simply observe them and let them go, as if watching a still from a movie. No analyzing, no obsessing and no judgment (not even to scold yourself for thinking), just recognition and release.

If you’ve ever tried this yourself, you know how difficult it is. It’s amazing how many thoughts go through our heads each day, even more amazing when you consider how much of them are repetitious or useless, serving no purpose whatsoever for our ultimate well-being and oftentimes, causing more trouble.

When one gets really deep into meditation, some claim to get glimpses of enlightenment, sublime experiences that are out of this world. Others drudge up old or repressed memories or, sometimes, even past lives. And still, with intense concentration, some gain the ability to transcend human limitations of pain and endurance (so I hear). The whole process is, essentially, a massive clearing out of the junk inside your head that distract or otherwise prevent you from seeing things as they truly are and reaching enlightenment.

In my eight days at Tushita, I got nowhere near enlightenment, nor did I have any freaky out-of-this world moments. I did, however, have one strange experience that took me by surprise, a memory, actually, from the 10th grade.

This was not my first kiss, not some melodramatic teenage argument, nor some significant award or competition that was important to me then. Instead, it was a simple lunch with friends in my high school cafeteria. While I still can’t figure out why this image came to mind, I do remember the olive green color of the shirt I was wearing, the exact positioning of my friends at the table and the random 15-year-old thoughts going through my head at the time, happy to chat with my friends, nervous to talk to the boys I had a crush on. But that’s it.

I still insist this memory was rather trivial, but the one thing I do take from this scenario is how incredible the human mind really is. Maybe we don’t actually forget as much of our lives as we think we do, maybe it’s just a matter of training our minds to drum up the past and, with practice, we can relive the most amazing or even insignificant events that made us who we are today.

As for the rest of the group, we all seemed to have powerful experiences in some form or another. In addition to stilling our minds, our meditation guide, Rinchen, also took us through a series of intense, and at times painful, meditations where we focused on love, forgiveness and death. I tell you, nothing gets the emotions up like imagining what it would be like to say good-bye to loved ones if you only had six months to live or recognizing who you still have grudges against when forced to concentrate on forgiveness.

But, in one of my favorite moments in all of India, Rinchen says, with complete seriousness, “And if you’re older than 26, death is closer than you think.”

In a massive relief of tension, the entire room, made up largely of 20-somethings, bursts out laughing in a tremendous, gut-level release that even Rinchen partakes in. Apparently, there’s only so much gloom and doom we can take.

By the end of the week, despite not talking, we’d all found a deeper connection, not just with ourselves but with each other. In a massive show of unity and friendship, nearly all 100 of those in our group filled the rooftop of Carpe Diem restaurant in McLeod Ganj the day the course ended for dinner together, and I still continue to keep in touch with many of those people today.

I won’t go so far to say I’m a Buddhist just yet, but I will say that after Tushita, I have opened up my heart and my mind to seeing what Buddhism can do for me, and maybe those around me indirectly. Though still a beginner, I have started to meditate regularly and try to use Buddhist philosophy when I find myself frustrated or overcome with emotions.

Could Buddhism be the new Xanax? 😉

India and Spirituality


My Indian yoga teacher in Malaysia once told me that everyone with a desire to go to India is seeking something spiritual.

While images of the Taj Mahal, camels and temples came to mind, my Catholic-turned-agnostic self began to wonder if maybe he was right.

For the first 20 years of my life, I was deeply religious. I went to church every Sunday, prayed daily and was quite outspoken on what I believed to be right and wrong.

Then the questions and the doubts began to pile up, eventually becoming overwhelming, and I decided to take a break from God, a break that ultimately turned into abandonment.

It’s not that I didn’t want to believe. The idea of having an omniscient, omnibenevolent being always looking out for you, waiting for the day to take you away into eternal bliss is incredible, comforting and altogether a desirable thing. But, as I’m sure God would know, if you don’t really believe in it in your heart, you can’t force yourself.

And so, for the past seven years, I’ve sort of teetered the agnostic-atheist line, not quite confident enough to believe God doesn’t exist but not placing my bet on the fact that he does.

But to live with that sense of isolation, that life is ultimately futile, can be quite difficult. When things go wrong, “Maybe this happened for a reason” or “God will get me through it” just doesn’t work anymore and you only have yourself or chance to blame and, ultimately, to rely on.

Living this way does have its benefits. If you believe you only have one life to live, without any notion of a higher purpose, you are less likely to put up with undesirable circumstances in the present in the hopes of greater rewards in the future. Your life becomes your most prized possession and making yourself as happy as possible becomes the ultimate goal. (Note: pursuing happiness and pursuing pleasure are two different things. A hedonistic life does not necessarily bring happiness, and a person (including an atheist) can certainly achieve happiness by dedicating his or her life to helping others).

But despite my own doubts on the existence of God, one thing that has always perplexed me has been the conviction and frequency of other people’s experiences with the supernatural. While nothing has ever happened to me personally, I have known so many sane, intellectual and trustworthy people who have had anything from freaky ghost-story experiences to deeply enlightening spiritual awakenings that have caused me to reconsider my beliefs.

While I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, I decided to go to India with an open mind and dedicate time to learn meditation and yoga and see what happens. My goal was not necessarily to discover God, but rather, to learn how to control my mind and emotions instead of remaining a slave to them with my high-stress, anxious, mood-swinging personality (which has often been an obstacle in my happiness :)).

While I still haven’t figured everything out, I think my three-month trip to India may have inadvertently made me a believer again, though on a much different level than I believed before.

In the next segment of my blog, I’d like to share some of my spiritual experiences during my time in India and how they have changed my beliefs today.

The Ups and Downs of Riding a Camel


Riding a camel. Every girl’s dream.

Well, at least it became my dream after reading about the famous Rajasthan camel safaris in my guidebook.

Golden sand dunes swirling all around, my turban flowing gently in the wind behind me, I immediately pictured myself as some exotic Arabian princess crossing the desert on my noble steed in my search for an oasis (so what if princesses don’t wear turbans and probably don’t actually have to find their own watering holes, my dream ok?). A Rajasthani camel safari shot right to the top of my India “must do” list.

Turns out, riding a camel is not as glamorous as it sounds.

Now, don’t get me wrong, riding a camel is pretty awesome, but like a camel itself, no ride would be complete without its ups and downs.

The program is quite simple. You and your group are led on a journey throughout the Thar Desert by local guides on a camel. Some trips are true multiple-day safaris, sometimes spanning over several weeks, where others may be as short as a half a day to just get the overall feel. Though most of the time is spent passing through dry terrain and shrubs, most trips include at least a visit to the more “desert-y” sand dunes.

In our case, my friend Gloria and I opted for the ever-popular, two-day safari that included a visit to several local villages and an overnight stay in the sand dunes. Joining us were three other travelers who were also staying at our guest house.

Day one was great.

Clear blue skies, bright, shining sun overhead, Gloria and I could hardly contain our excitement as five camels appeared in the distance. Decked in bright blue and red blankets, two days worth of food and water balancing on either side of their humps, our crew was ready for adventure.

Up close, camels are fascinating creatures. Though ours did not spit, they certainly liked to chew a lot, offering a brutish contrast to their beautiful Minnie Mouse-eyelashes above. And, turns out, some camels just have one hump. But the things I found most interesting about camels were their legs. With long limbs, flexible knees and just two toes, camels have a certain gait as they walk, and the padding in their feet makes it look as though they’re melting into the ground with every step.


As I slid on to Simon, my camel for the duration of the trip, I was also surprised at how tall camels actually are and how ungraceful they can be when standing up and sitting down. I learned to hold on tight real quick!

But as we glided throughout the desert, dry, open land for miles around, bars of “Alice the Camel” and “Jai Ho” alternating in my head, I found my stride. I even got to wear my turban.

Gloria and I in our turbans

Of course, one cannot travel across the desert alone, especially not five Westerners whose only experience with the desert has been through the likes of “Aladdin.”

Leading our team were three guides who not only served as our leaders, but as our cooks and camel caretakers along the way. One special guide in particular will stay in all of our hearts: Mr. Gaji Khan.

Gaji Khan

At the ripe age of 11, Gaji Khan could do more things as a child than many of the people I’ve met can do
as adults. Though by far the youngest member of our entourage, Gaji led the camels like a pro, keeping them in line when they got out of hand and even leading them across the desert back to camp alone in the early morning.

Gaji was also an accomplished chef. Along with his two co-guides (luckily, actual adults), Gaji would sit down with them before meal times, peeling vegetables with his knife, cooking bread over the open flames and helping prepare our simple meals of chapati and daal.

But for all his praises, there was one thing that Gaji never could figure out: most of our names. In fact, the only name he could remember was Gloria’s. After a half a dozen conversations to a few of us beginning with “What is your name?” he eventually gave up and began addressing all questions or announcements directly to her. Camp and meal times often went something like this:

“Gloria, lunch is ready.”
“Gloria, do you want some more tea?”
“Gloria, it’s time to go.”
“Look at this, Gloria!”

Though the rest of us would, at times, try to speak with Gaji directly, we often found our responses channeled through her, as she became our involuntary, though proud, group representative.

And though my “I’m Erica from America” trick usually worked to help people remember my name, even the two adult guides had trouble figuring me out. Soon, I gave up and conceded to being addressed in unison with my camel, simply as “Simon.”

Answering to “Simon,” speaking to Gaji through Gloria, the day carried on to be mostly uneventful. Our group traveled across the desert, admiring the peacefulness of the vast open space with only a few shrubs to break up miles of hard, dry ground.

And then we saw them. The sand dunes. The climax of the entire trip.

Large, calm and powdery, the dunes were every bit as beautiful as they look in pictures. But as both the sun and the temperature were going down, we only got a fleeting glimpse before it was time to make camp.

Our guides went to work preparing vegetables and chapati for dinner, as we helped unload the layers of mats and blankets from our camels, creating a little ring around the fire.

After dinner, as I lay tucked beneath my blankets, toasty and snug despite the cool night air, I looked up at the sky and was immediately fixated, enchanted by the magical dance above.

All around in endless blackness, no street lights or neon signs to dampen their glory, hundreds of stars shone proudly, proving to the distracted world below how insignificant they were in comparison. Vague memories of my eighth grade astronomy class came to mind as images of Hercules, Orion and all seven Pleiades sisters came into shape.

Together beneath the star-lit sky, my four companions and I relished in the calmness and the beauty of the night, amazed at how frequent shooting stars actually are, immersing ourselves in wish after wish.

Like a middle school campfire, we gathered round, sharing jokes and ghost stories. No phones, no Internet, no TV, just the sheer pleasure of natural beauty and human companionship.

I stared at the sky for what seemed like hours and never wanted to stop, but the day began to weigh on me, and I felt myself eyelids succumb to the pressures of sleep.

When I awoke the next morning, the soft light of the dawn transformed the dunes in a vast black sea of waves, silhouetted against the swirling pink, orange and purple sky. Still cozy under a weight of warmth, I admired the sunrise quietly in my makeshift bed as my friends continued to sleep.


As the sun changed from pink to yellow, my companions began to wake and the full glory of the desert shone before us. Mounds of swimmingly delicious golden sand dunes loomed around, begging us to climb them, jump in them, roll in them.

This was our chance.

Like children, five 20-somethings joined Gaji Khan in an all-out play-fest, running through the sand, jumping over faded yellow cliffs, landing into a massive pile of soft dust below. (“Gloria, look at me!”) Day two was looking good so far.

Three hours later we were finally ready to leave. As we prepared to continue our journey, some of the members of our group began to ask about seeing the Pakistani border, something that had apparently been promised them by our guest house owner. Gloria and I had known nothing about this, and since I had already been to the border in Amritsar, it wasn’t a huge priority for me. But after much insistence from others, we soon found ourselves trotting along in what appeared to be the direction of India’s estranged brother.

After about an hour or so, our guides pointed to a vast area of desert to our right, claiming this was the Pakistani border. No fence, no guards, no patrols, but this was it, they tried to convince us. Our group, however, wasn’t buying it. Again, after much insistence, we found ourselves heading toward “Pakistan.”

After another hour or so, we were told, once again, that we had reached the long-awaited border. This time, it seemed a bit more convincing. Rows of small white houses, barbed wire and even a road, suggested some sort of camp, maybe a patrol. But as we continued past, a large white sign bearing “Oasis India Camp” revealed we had been duped. As we would find out later, the Pakistani border is more than 80 km away from Jaisalmer, an unrealistic distance to attain on a two-day camel safari!

Now, as much as I wasn’t overly concerned about returning to the Pakistani border, I do care about being lied to, specifically, I don’t care for it. But as we still had half a day left on our tour, I tried to shake it off and make the most of it.

Off again we trotted, this time, however, through a menacing-looking area full of thorn bushes. I felt a bit like Prince Phillip as he cut through the bushes to reach Princess Aurora in the tower, but since one of our (adult) guides was holding the reins behind me, I figured I need not worry.

I was wrong. Despite my repeated requests to be careful, my guide allowed my camel to ride directly into a thorn bush, scratching up my foot and causing it to bleed.

My cut foot after my camel went through the thorn bushes

While injuries were minor, the cut was quite painful, and as we headed to our final destination, another problem that had been growing steadily got pretty bad: turns out, even without scratching your foot, riding a camel hurts.

For anyone who has ever ridden a horse you know that, unless you’re a frequent rider, your butt and thigh muscles get quite sore after riding for just an hour, leaving you with the very attractive “squat-walk” when you get off.

Now, add a few feet, a hump and, like eight hours, and you’ve got yourself, not only sore thighs, but what Gloria and I like to call “butt chap.”

As you can imagine, butt chap is what happens when the constant friction between your cheeks causes the skin to come off, leaving you another reason to do the “squat-walk” after riding. Originally, I had been quite excited to trot the camels, but after a day and half, the “clop” “clop” “clop” turned into “ow!” “ow!” “ow!” In one of the few unanimous decisions of our group, all five of us decided we would rather sit under a tree and wait for the jeep to pick us up instead of riding the remaining few hours of our camel safari. We had all had our fill of the camel safari.

While perfect it was not, I will say the Jaisalmer camel safari was one of the most interesting and magical experiences of my life, and I will carry the memories with me always. But just in case they begin to fade, I’m sure the scars on my feet will remind me forever :).

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