Category Archives: India

The Long Way Home


My journey to Asia wasn’t an easy one, so it was fitting that my journey home from Asia wouldn’t be easy either. Saying good-bye to friends and family, uprooting your life and moving to another part of the world with a completely different culture is never easy, but somehow both times I managed to find myself with a few extra obstacles to overcome.

After living off my savings for nearly a year (and running out), I was grateful that one of my relatives was a former flight attendant and offered me one of her buddy passes for the trip home. The buddy passes allow you to purchase standby tickets at a significant discount. Standby tickets allow travelers to fill any open seats on the plane, but there are no guarantees. The process involves showing up at the airport as normal and waiting until boarding time has passed to see if any open spots are left. If there is an open space, you get on. If not, you wait to try again another day.

While I had never flown standby before, planes always seemed to have open seats, and I thought this would be no big deal. Additionally, the flight I was looking at flew out of Mumbai, providing me a reason to return to the city and spend a few days with my friends there before going home. It sounded perfect to me.

I made plans to stay with Naren in Mumbai for a few days and then head home. For the first few days, things were great. Naren and I went out on the town, met up with my friends Geeta and Suresh, and I made a new friend, Leah. We also squeezed in some yoga with my new-found yoga teaching skills :).

Leah, Naren and I hanging out in Mumbai before my departure

Leah, Naren and I hanging out in Mumbai before my departure

When it came time to make my final trip home, I prepared myself accordingly. By this point, my backpack was well over 30 pounds and bursting at the seams with months of accumulated clothes, books, toiletries, medicine and souvenirs. While a necessary burden (of love?), my poor back was looking forward to the day I would no longer need to carry all of my belongings with me every place I went. I decided it was time to minimize in order to take home more of the essentials: the souvenirs, of course!

Naren assisted in the process, convincing me this faded yellow shirt could be let go (“But it was a gift from Malaysia!”) and that I no longer needed the three brick-sized Lonely Planets that, alone, made up half of the weight of my backpack (“But I have hand-written notes and memories in there! What if I come back to Asia?”). Eventually I paired down my items to my souvenirs, select clothing and one guidebook, with a promise from Naren he would keep the books and ship them to me if I discovered, in fact, I could not live without them after arriving home.

I put on my favorite purple t-shirt and lone pair of jeans (my designated “going home” outfit), hauled my (slightly) lighter backpacks into Naren’s car, and off we went to the Mumbai airport.

I was in good spirits. At this point, I had been overseas for more than two years. I had spent a year living and working in Malaysia, getting to know the country and its people in depth and making some great friendships. I had explored India and China and Southeast Asia and traveled continuously for nearly a year, a pipe dream I never knew I would actually achieve. And I had recently completed my yoga teacher training course. I had accomplished everything I had set out to do and more, and frankly, I was tired.

We reached the airport, and Naren helped me with my bags and gave me one of those “goodbye forever” hugs you give someone when you don’t know if or when you’ll ever see them again.

I walked into the airport and was ushered into this awkward open space near one of the ticket lines to await my destiny. As I sat on the floor next to my bags, I tried to read to distract myself from the excitement and anxiety of going home after such a long time. As the minutes passed by, I noticed the group of people around me get larger and started to get a little worried. Buddy passes are based on a hierarchy with current airline employees getting priority for the open seats, while those who are friends or family of the airline employees ranked further down. When I met a couple of women who told me they’d already tried and failed three times to get on this flight, I started to get even more worried. To make matters worse, the Indian airport authorities were not forthcoming with information and seemed annoyed when I asked them if there would be seats available.

Sure enough, a couple hours later we were sent home.

While disappointed, I knew there was a chance this could happen and figured I’d have better luck the next night. Fortunately, Naren had waited for me in the parking lot in the chance I didn’t make my flight, and we drove back to the city to wait another day.

The next day, Naren, Leah and I spent another day together, just hanging out watching movies and enjoying each other’s company. I made an effort to follow the standby website more closely and saw the plane was overbooked by about 10 seats, but I was number six on the wait list and still remained optimistic. People miss flights all the time, right?

The next night, yet again, Naren and I headed out to the airport for round two of my attempt to return home. This time, we had a more of a “see you later, maybe” kind of hug.

Again, I was directed to the open space near the ticket line. Again, I watched the waiting group grow around me, this time, with some familiar faces. Again, I watched the Indian airline employees ignore us as we waited for information.

As the night wore on, it became increasingly clear that I would not make this plane either, and I began to panic. I was staying with friends and living off their hospitality, but I could not expect them to keep hosting me and driving me to the airport day after day on the off chance I’d make this flight home. And the stress of mentally preparing to go home and then having it torn away was proving to be too much. This time when Naren came to pick me up, I burst into tears.

Naren was very supportive. We made a plan to look at the standby schedule and determine whether or not my chances of making any of the upcoming planes were realistic before driving out again. After hanging out and watching the overbooked and standby lists get longer and longer over the next two days (not even bothering to drive to the airport), I decided to bite the bullet and buy a full-priced ticket home.


The original plan included a stopover in Amsterdam since there were no direct flights from Mumbai to Detroit. I decided I would purchase a full-priced flight to Europe to a city that then had a long list of open seats for a direct flight to Detroit and try my buddy pass there. Luckily, I was able to find a “cheap” flight to Frankfurt that then had a subsequent direct flight to Detroit with a wide open list of seats available. Additionally, I had a day layover in the city, which would give me one last trip before coming home.

The next day, I packed again for my trip home and we drove to the airport one last time. This time when Naren hugged me good-bye, it was a long one.

As I headed directly for the ticket counter, a rush of relief flooded through me as they took my ticket without question and ushered me to the boarding gate. This was it.

The following day was a bit of a blur. After a brief stop in Beirut, I arrived in Frankfurt to enjoy a day of Europe after having been awake continuously for about 15 hours. When I entered the airport, I was amazed at all the white people around me. After being in Asia for so long, it was strange to blend in.

Frankfurt was beautiful. The day was warm and sunny, and I enjoyed myself walking around the city, taking in the quaint architecture, drinking Apfelwein (yum!) and trying German frankfurters (disappointing). When I finally made it back to the airport that night, I collapsed into a deep sleep on one of benches, the last sleep before coming home.

A glimpse of my day in Frankfurt

A glimpse of my day in Frankfurt

The next morning I headed to the ticket line to wait standby for my final flight home. My sleep on the airport benches had been surprisingly refreshing, and the standby list still looked wide open. To my delight, the German airline employees were very friendly and told me there should be no problem for me to make this flight. I was even more delighted when they called my name to board first class. Not only was I finally going home, I was going home in style.

I had never flown first class before, and the cushy, spacious seats were welcome after days of stress and travel. As I sipped my complimentary orange juice while waiting to take off, I sat back and sighed in relief. Five days of false starts, little sleep and traveling cross-continent, I was finally going home. Two years, one month and 24 days after my first arrival to Asia, I was finally going home.

The final flight home was fairly uneventful. The blue cheese steak and warm cookies were amazing, though the fully-reclining seats and eye-mask did nothing to ease my excitement. I watched “The Five Year Engagement” and teared up at scenes of my beloved Ann Arbor, now only a few mere hours away.

I was nervous too. I hadn’t seen most of my family and almost none of my old friends during the time I was gone. I had no idea how I would fit in back into their lives. I also had no job lined up and no idea what my next plans would be. Re-adjustment to life back home would be a different kind of adventure.

As the flight attendant announced our final descent into Detroit’s Metro Airport, I was grateful to give up my futile attempt at sleeping and sat up in my chair, anxious as ever to get home.

The plane landed smoothly, but the wait to exit the aircraft and retrieve my luggage seemed to last for an eternity.

When I finally arrived at immigration, I was relieved to find a short line. I looked up at the “U.S. Citizens” sign and smiled. After more than two years of going in and out of the “foreigner” line at airports, it felt nice to belong. The immigration officer was unusually friendly. He flipped through my passport, handed it back to me and said “Welcome home.”

I looked through to the arrival hall and grinned. Two years before, I had left from this very same terminal to move to Malaysia, with only a vague idea of what I was getting myself into or how long I would last. Two years later, I was coming home safe and triumphant, no regrets.

I entered the arrival gate and instantly began looking around for a glimpse at someone from my family. Rows of benches ran throughout a narrow waiting area. I wasn’t actually sure if anyone would be there. After days of stop and go, I had not actually had a chance to confirm with my mom that I had made my flight from Germany. And sure enough, the arrival gate was all but empty.

I sat around for a few minutes, anxious as ever if they were just late or waiting for me to contact them. Finally, I walked to a pay phone (yes, they still exist!) and called my aunt’s house. My nana answered worried. Apparently my mother and brother were on their way and just hadn’t arrived yet. She was happy to hear from me, and I was grateful that they would be there soon.

I sat on the bench and waited. The arrival gate to my back, I stared ahead at the revolving doors and large windows ahead, revealing a parking structure behind a road that led out of the airport and into the rest of the state, my state.

Finally, out of the corner of my eye, I see two figures approaching from the right.

When I saw my mom and brother my grin got even wider. It had been more than two full years since we’d seen each other in person. This was a long hug too.

Me and Mom after my airport arrival from Asia

Me and Mom after my airport arrival from Asia

As we drove back to my aunt’s house, I relished being back home for a Michigan summer. The day was warm, not hot. Lush, sturdy trees dotted the flat Midwestern landscape, broken up with familiar shops, strip malls and houses, which I had never before found endearing. To my delight, the cars stayed in their lanes.

We made it home, and I carried my backpacks one last time. I set my bags on the floor of my bedroom, the same bedroom I’d had for more than two and a half decades, and breathed a sigh of relief. After living like a nomad for nearly a year, this place belonged to me.

As I unpacked, carelessly spreading my clothes, books and souvenirs around the floor, every layer was like unburdening years’ worth of toughness, caution, aggression, self-sufficiency and a general all-around guard that had naturally developed as form of self-protection. While I still had no idea what I would do with my new life at home, I didn’t care. I took my backpacks and placed them in the closet. They weren’t needed any longer. I was home.

All You Need is Love


While it is considered the yoga capital of the world, Rishikesh may be best known as the home of the ashram where the Beatles (and other celebrities) spent some time in 1960s and where they wrote much of their White Album. Though it is now-abandoned, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram is still accessible to visitors, if you know how to get there.

Aside from being diligent little yogis-in-training, many of my classmates were also quite musical, so of course had to check this place out! (and even if you’re not musical, who seriously doesn’t like the Beatles?).

With vague instructions and water bottles, six of us headed out to an isolated forested area outside the main village of Laxman Jhula in Rishikesh, eventually stumbling upon the gates of a tall stone structure marked by three pointed domes covered in individual stones. Though the ashram is abandoned, the park authorities who own the grounds still charge 50 rupees (about a dollar) to enter the place, though once there you’re pretty much on your own.

Beatles Ashram 1

We entered through the gate to find a mostly forested area of lush green trees, spotted with crumbling stone dorms and lecture halls that were slowly being reclaimed by the forest around it. Despite a handful of other travelers, there weren’t many people at the ashram and we basically had the place to ourselves. Every now and then, a random Hindu statue of a bull or yoni/lingham illustrated the grounds were once a place of spirituality and religion, though there were no other markings to confirm where exactly we were or what we were looking at.

Beatles Ashram 2

Perhaps the most interesting part of the ashram was discovering the vibrant Beatles Cathedral Gallery, the only evidence we found on the grounds recognizing the ashram’s spiritual and musical influence on the world.

Located in an abandoned hall within the grounds, the Beatles Cathedral Gallery is a colorful open space full of images of love and peace. On one side, a series of spiritual leaders crossed the wall horizontally, painted in shades of black, white and red, including images of the Dalai Llama, Sri Prem Baba, Ananda Mayi Ma, Amma, Yogananda and Swami Sivananda, with an image of the Beatles dominating in the center. Directly across in the front of the room was another mural, this time, featuring an image of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi painted in black, white and red like the others, but positioned by himself on a blue background underneath an om symbol. Two large circles, one white, one black with opposite facing triangles, were painted next to the Maharishi, with images of wind-like trails flowing from either side.

Beatles Cathedral Gallery

A painted note on one of the side walls described the aim of the gallery as follows:

Our story is one of transformation. Together we witnessed the force of alchemy as this abandoned, sacred place regained its roots. Our story illustrates the lila between surrender and rebellion. This work is entirely illegal and entirely holy. Our story is one of growth. In this hall, one artist became an art director. Within these walls, one group of backpackers became first a community, then a sangha. We are painters, musicians, writers, sculptors, daughters, sons, lovers, bhaktas, rebels, renegades, strangers, yogis and friends. This is our gallery. This is our cathedral. This is our home. This is our satsang hall. This is our story. You are part of it now.

Thank you to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Thank you to the Beatles. Thank you to Pan Trinity Das. Thank you to our gurus. Thank you to the birds. Thank you to the sadhus. Thank you to this place.

May all be welcome here. May you love, may you create, may you inspire. May all beings in all realms be happy and free.


From what I read later, the projected was apparently created by a group of volunteers in April of 2012 but closed down by park authorities only two weeks later. When I was there, it still served as a popular destination and was full of graffiti of words of love and peace from visitors from around the world.

Ever devout yoga students, my friends and I took advantage of Rishikesh’s yoga/musical connection and took a series of fun photos documenting the experience:

Beatles Cathedral Gallery - Yoga 1

Beatles Cathedral Gallery - Yoga 2

Inspired by the musical energy, we then relocated to the top of another building inside one of its rooftop cells for an impromptu sing-a-long and chanting session, taking advantage of the ashram’s spiritual energy and acoustics.

As cheesy as it sounds, singing on top of the Beatles ashram in the middle of the forest with friends was a pretty magical experience and definitely one of the coolest moments of my time in Rishikesh. Here’s a slideshow of some additional photos of the Beatles ashram below.

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Critter Control and the Adventure of Yoga Crab


I’ve always been drawn to animals, and I’m usually excited when they seem drawn to me too. But not all the time.

During my training at the Association for Yoga and Meditation, I was always delighted to watch the langur monkeys playing in the ashram trees.

Does your yoga class include monkeys?

Does your yoga class include monkeys?

I was even more excited when they would occasionally make an appearance in yoga class itself.

"Downward dog!"

“Downward dog!”

While the monkeys mostly kept their distance, a few other creatures decided they wanted to visit with me personally.

During my time at the ashram, I stayed in a small bedroom on the main floor, half-way between the bustling village outside and the holy Ganges River down the stairs in the backyard.

My mornings were fairly routine. My alarm rang around 5:45 a.m., I would then drag myself out of bed, pull on my yoga clothes, grab a snack and walk sleepily across the hall to 6 a.m. pranayama (breathing) practice.

One day I got up as usual, grabbed my yoga pants off the chair and got dressed. But as I continued getting ready, I noticed a slight scratching sensation in my pants between my legs. In my half-awake state, I didn’t think much of it. But as I continued, pulling on my t-shirt, putting my hair up and grabbing a handful of the trail mix I usually kept on my nightstand, the scratching did too.

Finally, I put my hand below to “adjust” and was surprised to find a strange lump under my pants. In my groggy state, it took me a few seconds to realize what was going on. And when I did, I screamed, yanking my pants off as quickly as possible. My jaw dropped in disbelief as I watched a quarter-sized cockroach scurry away.

Let me tell you, nothing wakes you up quite as effectively as discovering a cockroach in your pants!

The very next day, I got up as usual, checking carefully inside all my clothes making sure there were no additional new friends creeping around. Luckily, the morning went smoothly.

It wasn’t until after breakfast when I went back to my room that I discovered this next to my bed:



Yes inches away from my pillow, less than a foot from where I rest my head at night, stood a six-inch wide crab, about the size of one of my hands. How long he had been in my room and what he planned to do now that he was there was beyond me, (though I think my snacks may have had something to do with it).

This time, I didn’t scream. I did, however, request help. The next thing I know, one of the AYM staff is chasing the little critter around my room with a broom stick, in a fairly entertaining cat-and-mouse routine. Finally, my classmate Janica stepped in to personally return the crab to his home, presumably back to the Ganges.

You can follow his journey here:

Playing catch

Playing catch



The journey to the Ganges

The journey to the Ganges

Almost home

Almost home



In hindsight, perhaps keeping snacks exposed in a hot, crowded climate near water was not one of my smarter decisions. Though, honestly, I think I’m lucky I faced the smaller critters instead of the monkeys ;).

Fun with Kriyas


One of my favorite classes during my yoga teacher training course at the Association for Yoga and Meditation was kriya class. Kriyas are yogic cleansing techniques meant to purify the body and mind, as well as treat and prevent disease. There are six areas of focus, including the stomach (“dhauti”), the lower intestines (“basti”), the nose (“neti”), the eyes (“tratak”), the abdominal organs (“nauli”) and the brain (“kapalbhati”). Done properly, kriyas clean and strengthen the body, focus the mind, enhance the senses, build stamina, combat allergies and can even help people quit smoking.

Now, some of these techniques are quite ambitious. “Vastra dhauti,” for example, involves swallowing a cloth to induce vomiting. “Gomutra neti” requires one to shoot cow’s urine through his or her nostrils. And advanced stages of tratak involve staring at the sun for long periods of time.

Needless to say, we focused on tamer kriya techniques. And I must admit, sometimes, it was kind of hilarious.

To start, we learned “jala neti,” a nasal cleansing technique that uses a neti pot (a small pot with a nostril-sized spout) to run warm salt water through one’s nose and sinuses. The process is supposed to clear the buildup within the nose and sinuses, desensitize hyperactive nasal tracks and combat allergies and respiratory problems. It is also good for relaxation.

The technique seemed fairly simple. After filling your pot with warm salt water, you hold the bottom of the pot, insert its tip into one of your nostrils, bend forward and tilt your head, making sure to keep your mouth open to breathe and prevent water from entering the lungs. What should result is what I like to call a “fountain effect,” whereby a steady stream of water flows smoothly from the second nostril. Let me tell you, it’s damn sexy.

My classmates seemed naturally apt at this. I looked around the courtyard and saw one fountain spring up after the other and thought, “Ok, I got this.” Then it turned out, actually, not so much.

I thought I was doing everything correctly. I filled up my pot, inserted the tip and tilted. I felt the water go in, I just didn’t feel it come out. There is something about standing around in a courtyard watching people shoot water out their noses that is just really funny. Perhaps part of the problem was I couldn’t keep a straight face.

Eventually, my teachers came by and helped me adjust, ultimately resulting in my own special “Erica Fountain.” It was a proud moment.

Fountain Erica!

Fountain Erica!

The second kriya didn’t happen at all. This one, “sutra neti,” involves taking a sterilized, waxed or rubber string, inserting it into one nostril and pulling it out the mouth and essentially “flossing” back and forth. If this activity doesn’t sound that appealing to you, trust me, it didn’t sound that much fun to me either.

But I tried. Again, the instructions were clear: take the waxed string, straighten it out, then create a gentle “J” curve and begin to work the curved end through one nostril until reaching the sinus cavity in the back, then gently lower down and pull out the front.

Experimenting with sutra neti

Experimenting with sutra neti

I think I made it about three inches before the violent gagging and coughing took place. I even tried to have our teacher, Mahesh, help, though I’m not sure having a different person insert a foreign object into your face is much more comfortable than doing it yourself. It certainly yielded the same reaction.

Mahesh's attempt to help with sutra neti

Mahesh’s attempt to help with sutra neti

In the end, I decided my sinuses were pretty good as they were.

After struggles with the “neti” kriyas, I finally had more luck with the “nauli” kriya meant to cleanse the abdominal organs. Now, before you go envisioning more foreign objects being inserted into the body to remove bodily fluids, I’ll tell you, this one required no such action.

Nauli kriya is a stomach cleansing technique that essentially involves lifting one’s abdominal organs up into the body behind the lungs and rotating them around, all without breathing. To do it properly, one must begin with an empty stomach and empty bowels. You then take a long exhale to empty the lungs, bend forward and use your muscles to tuck your stomach in and up before moving it around. The effect is a starved-looking, bizarre-moving body that is super impressive at parties.

Despite my earlier neti troubles, I actually did pretty well at nauli kriya. After a few tries I kind of got the hang of it, even making this super attractive video:

While I did make some progress on my kriyas, I obviously still have quite a ways to go. I recently read of an advanced kriya involving removing one’s own colon from the body and washing it. Now that’s impressive!

Yoga School


If you’ve ever met me, you probably know I’m a little bit nuts.

To describe me as “Type A” would be an understatement, and sometimes I’m amazed how my anxiety seemingly knows no bounds.

When I started yoga shortly after moving to Malaysia in 2010, it was a means for exercise and a productive way to fill some free time in a new country. Then, when I started my India trip a year later, it became a “when in Rome” activity to experience this ancient tradition in its native land. But as I made my way through India, taking different yoga classes, visiting temples, witnessing pujas, studying meditation and philosophy, I began to see a bigger picture. Yoga and meditation became more than a means to physical fitness but a means to mental fitness as well and a desperately sought solution to achieve some calm in my life. I resolved that I would end my trip with a stay in a yoga ashram and see what would happen.

At the end of 2011, I found myself at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram. While I was only there for five days, it was everything I expected and more. The setting was lush and isolated, and the holistic discipline of limited vegetarian meals, meditation and minimal sleep in addition to four hours of daily asana (pose) practice left me feeling mentally and physically stronger than I’d felt in a long time. I knew then that I had to return a do a month-long teacher training program to explore this further.

Unfortunately, my single-entry, three-month visa was almost out, and India’s strict visa regulations required that I wait two months before returning to the country. But I was determined and vowed to travel around Asia for a few months and return later in the year.

I finally returned to India in July 2012, though this time to the Association for Yoga and Meditation in Rishikesh, a city considered to be the yoga capital of the world, with a course with good reviews that was a better fit for my (now much smaller) budget. This would be my last adventure before my big trip home, and I thought it would be a great way to end my Asia experience.

I wish I could say my month in Rishikesh was full of peace, love and butterflies amidst days of handstands, backbends and perfect splits but that was, in fact, far from reality.

As usual, I had set very “realistic” goals for myself.

Yes, I had only been doing yoga for less than two years. Yes, I had been a bit lazy in my yoga practice the past few months. Yes, my arms were about as strong as spaghetti noodles. But, damn it, I was going to walk out of this 200-hour yoga teacher training course as a yoga master, complete with perfect splits, headstands and a gumby-like back to compete with any contortionist. Not only that, my newfound meditation and concentration skills would make me one zen, totally-enlightened bad ass. THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN.

"I totally look the part!"

Yoga School Day One: “I totally look the part!”

Well, clearly, that plan didn’t quite work out as I wanted it to. Though our teacher, Mahesh, had warned us not to overdo things early on, my ego and ambition led me to systematically overstretch every single group of muscles in my body on a rotating weekly basis. First, it was my shoulders, then my hamstrings, then my back and so on and so on. There were seriously weeks where it seemed half my asana classes were spent in child’s pose, resting the damaged muscles du jour.

Additionally, I found it emotionally very taxing. Perhaps it was failing the high expectations I had set for myself. Perhaps it was the growing anxiety about returning home after more than two years overseas. Perhaps it was being forced to look inward and examine my thoughts during daily breathing and meditation courses. Whatever the case, I was not the zen little nun I had sought out to be.

If yoga is meant to humble you in the face of a greater power, I certainly got that part down.

Luckily, you don’t have to be a perfect yogi in order to teach yoga, you just have to finish your course. While my asanas and meditation skills were not progressing as fast as I would have liked them to, my knowledge of the practice deepened significantly. In addition to the poses and meditation, we studied breathing (“pranayama”), yogic cleansing techniques (“kriyas”), philosophy, teaching and more. While I might not have been able to stand on my head, I did learn how to teach someone else to do it as well as why they should do it and how to do it safely. I also learned a whole lot of crazy cleansing and breathing techniques, and at one point, was able to hold my breath for a minute and a half.

By the end of the month, I was nowhere near my earlier goals, but I was much improved and actually did get my splits back :). What I came to understand that month was yoga is not a destination but a journey that takes a lifetime. Philosophically, it’s a journey to God. On a more practical level, it’s a tool for mental and physical discipline that can bring you great joy and peace in life.

While I’m still a little bit nuts, I think I covered good ground that month and plan to help others on their own journeys as I continue along mine.

Certified yoga instructor. Boom!

Certified yoga instructor. Boom!

My next few posts will showcase some of the more entertaining/special moments during my course. Below are some fun photos of my progress during my yoga teacher training course.

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An Unexpected Journey


If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – especially when it comes to booking train tickets in India. In my four months in India, I got to understand the train system fairly well and always managed to get where I needed to go, albeit sometimes creatively. Like my trip to Rishikesh.

When I re-entered India in Gorakhpur after leaving Nepal, my next destination was Rishikesh where I had signed up to take a month-long yoga teacher training course.

In India you have several ways to book your train ticket. The first, obviously, is to reserve it in person at the train station. This option often involves standing in long, crowded “lines” where you must literally push and shove to get to the front. If the train station is distant from where you are staying, it can also require extra time and costs to reach the station.

The next way to book train tickets, and my preferred option, is to book online via Cleartrip. This choice clearly shows you your options for times and availability to reach the destination you want, and if the train is full, it allows you to add yourself to the waiting list and monitor said list easily. This option, however, got changed during my trip making it extra difficult for foreigners to book tickets themselves.

Another way to book train tickets is to use a travel agent, of whom there are many located in popular traveler destinations. These agencies will give you your travel options and personally book your trips for you, for a small charge (often using Cleartrip). Sometimes agencies are allotted a certain amount of seats for trips, which can be beneficial if the train you want is “booked.”

Additionally, services like “tatkal” reserve last-minute seats for travelers who book within two days of the scheduled trip, also for an extra cost. And special seats designated just for tourists allow foreign travelers the chance to get on popular train routes, although it does require booking the ticket personally at the station and making copies of your passport.

And when all else fails, you have one last option: to get on anyway.

In this instance, you jump on the train you want and take any vacant seat you can in the hope of finding a cancelled ticket. When the conductor comes around to check tickets, you simply purchase the seat you want and enjoy the ride.

When I first arrived in Gorakhpur, it had already been more than six months said I last set foot in India, but luckily my Indian friend Naren, who had been traveling with me in Nepal, was there to help me re-navigate the country.

The train I wanted was a 14.5-hour night train from Gorakhpur to Haridwar, which would then allow me to take a 45-minute bus to Rishikesh. Since I usually managed to get the trains I wanted, I did not think this would be an issue, but just in case (and at Naren’s nagging), I decided to book my ticket more than a week in advance. What I didn’t realize was that my Rishikesh trip coincided with the Kawadia pilgrimage, during which THOUSANDS of Hindus travel to Rishikesh to bathe in its holy waters at the mouth of the Ganges River.

Naren and I tried all the options.

Cleartrip had me wait-listed somewhere in the 80s, a number I was sure would go down before the date of my actual trip. When that didn’t happen, we visited the station the day of in hopes of a better deal. There were no tourist options for this trip, and again, I purchased a ticket with a waiting list in the 60s.

As Naren and I were headed to different parts of the country, this was a train I would board alone. But after already having done more than a dozen trains in India already, I wasn’t worried. I always made my trains.

Naren’s train had left later that morning, and I chilled out in the station waiting room, hoping to receive a message on my phone that I was officially booked before my train left that evening. When evening came and that still didn’t happen, I prepared for my last resort – to get on anyway and hope for the best.

I hauled on my backpacks, headed to the platform and hopped on to the second-class A/C cabin – the class for which I had purchased my waiting list ticket – found an empty seat and began to relax.

Soon after, I didn’t feel so relaxed. Turns out that vacant seat wasn’t so vacant after all – and neither were any of the others.

I stood by the end of the cabin waiting to speak with the conductor about purchasing a ticket, and when he finally talked to me, he was not happy. He told me I was not supposed to be on this train and that I had to get off and go to the sleeper class cabin – the lowest class of seating – to try to get a seat there.

I understood this as, “There are no vacant seats here, but there are vacant seats in the sleeper class.”

So at the next stop, I jumped off, ran down a few cabins and hopped on to the sleeper-class cabin.

Now, I’d done lots of sleeper-class trains before, but they are definitely not my favorite. They are by far the most crowded, dirty and uncomfortable and where you’re most likely (as a foreigner/female) to be stared at and harassed. But as I didn’t really have other options, I didn’t really care.

So I began to walk from cabin to cabin – the only foreigner around – looking for spaces. In vain. I finally asked the conductor where I was supposed to go – naively assuming there had been a space available for me – to which I was gruffly rebuffed again. He told me I was not supposed to be on this train and had to get off.

This point I started to get nervous. I had only been in the country for a couple days and was still getting my “India legs.” I began to fight back the tears as I retreated to the end of the cabin to figure out what to do.

Situated near the open doors and bathroom stall, I sat on the floor with my guidebook in an attempt to find a solution.

It was pitch black outside, and I had no idea where I was at this point. Other passengers rattled off the names of the passing cities, but Lonely Planet did not have sections for these places and stopping in the middle of the night to find a guest house in the middle of nowhere seemed quite dangerous. On the other hand, I was constantly having to move for the people who were frequently coming in and out of my cabin to use the bathroom or get on and off the train, and I couldn’t very well spend the night here either, especially if the conductors came by. I really didn’t know what to do.

And then, like an angel from heaven, I made a friend.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one desperate to get on this train and soon found myself chatting with a young Indian man who was also traveling from cabin to cabin in search of a space.

He was relaxed about the whole situation and told me to make myself a bed on the floor in between one of the rows of three-stacked sleeper seats that filled up both sides of the cabin.

I was not entirely comfortable with this idea either. Aside from the fact that these floors were nasty, I worried I’d put myself in a vulnerable situation for theft (or worse), lying between rows of strangers, most of whom were men.

Seeing my apprehension, my new friend led to me to a row with a man and a woman on the bottom levels and proceeded to make me a “bed” of newspapers on the floor and told me not to worry, that he would keep watch sitting at the end.

Though I was putting a lot of trust in this random stranger, I decided this was probably the best option I had at this point. I thanked him, shoved my big backpack under the seat next to me, placed my little backpack (with my valuables) under my head as a pillow, covered myself with my sarong and took out my iPod. As I lay there throughout the night – definitely NOT sleeping – I found myself in this little happy place listening to my music, letting my thoughts wander lazily and blocking out the fact I was sleeping on a bed of newspapers on the floor of a dirty train among strangers.

The next morning when my train arrived, my guardian angel was nowhere to be found, but the worst had passed. I was safe, my belongings were safe, and I had survived my less-than-ideal journey. Though semi-disgusted, part of me was quite proud to have “roughed” it, rightfully earning the “backpacker” title held so dearly by those determined not to be called “tourists.” On the other hand, I was grateful this was one of the last legs of my trip and the experience, though valuable, was not likely to be repeated.

And I can still say I’ve made it to every single destination I wanted on time :).

Real Time Update – Transitions


After three months traveling India and two months writing about it, The India Project has officially come to a close.

India was definitely one of the most fascinating countries I’ve ever been to, and I hoped you enjoyed reading my adventures as much as I liked sharing them.

But now is time for change.

After spending the last two months writing and traveling in Malaysia, Thailand and Laos, I have now arrived in Myanmar (Burma) and hope to transition my blog to start writing again in current (non-retrospective) time.

I’m not quite sure what to expect from Burma. Infrastructure and the Internet will be more limited as I travel further into the country, so blogging regularly may be difficult. Furthermore, given the political situation, I may refrain from posting too much until after I’ve left the country on April 5. If this is the case, I may post some blogs on Laos and keep things on a delayed schedule. We’ll see how things go :).

As I move ahead, I may also change the format a bit of the blog. While I enjoyed writing my India stories, creating regular 2000+ posts while traveling at the same time is quite difficult time-wise. Instead, I hope to experiment with shorter, more frequent posts and/or more photo essays.

So as I move ahead, I hope you bear with my transitions. In addition to posts on Laos and Burma, I hope to also travel to China, Nepal and back to India for a yoga teacher training course and maybe other places as well. Only time and finances will tell :).

In the mean time, if you’d like to read The India Project from the beginning, you can start it here. Or, if you’d like to read about my move to Asia and my life in Malaysia right from the start, you can find my very first post here.

And, finally, if you’d like instant notifications of new posts, please sign up to follow me by clicking the “Follow” button on the side of the page.

That’s all for now, more adventures to come!

Stretching Forward


From the very beginning of my India trip, I knew I wanted to end up in an ashram.

As I mentioned in my “Reflections” post, learning to meditate and improving my yoga practice were personal goals of mine, and I figured what better way to attain them than to spend a concentrated amount of time in a spiritual community in, arguably, the most spiritual place on earth.

When I learned about the Sivananda yoga ashram, (technically, the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres), I thought it sounded perfect. Chanting, meditation and four hours of yoga practice a day, it seemed just what I was looking for. The fact that it was having a special holiday program and I would be able to celebrate Christmas in some aspect was just an added bonus.

Little did I know the effect those five days at Sivananda would have on me, both physically and spiritually.

Situated outside Trivandrum in Neyyar Dam, Kerala in southern India, the Sivananda yoga ashram was everything you’d imagine an ashram to be. Lush vegetation and fruit trees covered the complex, interspersed with the occasional statue of Shiva, Ganesh or Vishnu. An open two-story hall formed the center of the ashram, providing us space for our yoga practice as well as the setting for our meditation, chanting and cultural shows. While the bottom floor was fairly simple, used almost exclusively for yoga, the top floor was quite rich. Paintings of colorful deities lined the walls, facing each other, while statues of the ashram’s founders and gurus, Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnusdevananda, and other statues rested on stage in front, covered in orange cloaks. Just outside, a staircase led to a small woods of thick green trees, opening to reveal a quiet lake shimmering in the sun. Just outside the lake opening, life-sized statues depicting Sivananda’s 12 signature yoga postures created a space to keep visitors focused on the task at hand. Calm, beautiful and utterly connected with nature, Sivananda’s was perfect.

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As a yoga ashram, the focus of life at Sivananda’s was yoga (duh). Though our daily schedule included four hours of asana (postures) practice, Sivananda embraced a more holistic yoga lifestyle which also included daily meditation and chanting, self-less service (chores) and a vegetarian diet. Our day started every morning at 6 a.m. with an hour and a half of meditation and chanting before our first two-hour yoga class at 8 a.m. Around 10:30 a.m., we were served the first of our two meals a day, usually a variation of rice surrounded by mild chutneys and vegetables, served with water. (Let me tell you, exercising four hours a day with only two meals, you learn quickly how to pack in the carbs when you get the chance. Lucky for us, the food was delicious.) Free time for chores, private yoga coaching or special cultural workshops followed breakfast, before resuming with our second yoga class at 4 p.m. The day continued with dinner and more meditation and chanting, before ending with our special holiday cultural performance in the evening.

After months of spotty yoga practice, lucky if I was doing a class once every two weeks, I had no idea how I’d survive four hours of class a day. But surprisingly, it was amazing. Eating and sleeping little, exercising constantly, I felt incredible. Even after just a couple days I could feel my body getting stronger with more energy and endurance. But the best part of all was the mood. Despite the inevitable aches and pains, I was so happy, along with everyone around me. As cheesy and hippie-ish as it sounds, there seemed to be an overflow of positive energy in the ashram, as if everyone’s endorphins were working together to create a perpetual happy place. No TV, no junk food, no contact with the outside world, and I was running high.

Normally, Sivananda offers mandatory Hinduism classes between yoga practice, but since I came during the holiday cultural program, philosophy classes were replaced with workshops on native Keralan singing, dancing and art. While I enjoyed these programs immensely, I was a little disappointed to have lost my opportunity to study Hinduism properly, especially since the ashram marked the end of my India trip. But after having spent nearly three months in India, I had picked up a few things and enjoyed discussing philosophy with those around me.

And then I met Gloria (another one). High energy, to the point and sarcastic, Gloria from “New Yowk” seemed to be your stereotypical New Yorker. But perhaps unstereotypically, she was also a Sivananda yoga teacher. One day over tea, I asked her what she thought about Hinduism, and whether or not she thought they actually believe in all those different gods or if, essentially, they were just different manifestations of the same being. Her answer was one of the most interesting perspectives I’ve found.

In Gloria’s understanding, Hindu deities represent different aspects of one God. The different personalities, she said, help people find a specific aspect of God with whom he or she can relate and that specific manifestation is the one best to lead that person to God.

When I thought about it, I realized that nearly all Hindus I knew had one particular deity to whom they prayed, and in meditation, we were asked to recite our mantra, picture our God or, at the very least, focus on the basic, all-encompassing sound, “om.”

In Gloria’s case, she favored Shiva, who she considered a modern day “rock star” and found super bad ass. In my case, however, she had a different idea.

“I don’t see you with one of those pansy gods about beauty or something,” she said. “You’re quite fiery. I see you with somebody with a weapon.”

That was, quite possibly, one of the coolest compliments I’ve ever gotten 🙂 (I think).

While I still don’t know who my own personal deity might be, I got to thinking that maybe Gloria was right. Maybe there really is just one God, but throughout the changing cultures and histories of the world, he has just come to manifest himself in different ways.

In fact, there are even theories that Jesus spent his “lost years” in India as a Buddhist disciple. While it may sound blasphemous, there are suggestions that Jesus might have had some East-leaning beliefs, which may have just gotten altered through the centuries in the West. The gnostic gospels, for instance, like the Gospel of Thomas, tend to have a much more mystical focus on self-enlightenment and realization.

I don’t care to go into all of that here, but it does make me think that maybe all these different religions, when boiled down to the core, are essentially the same. Maybe there isn’t just one way, but numerous paths and figures to reach him. For some, that figure is Jesus. For others, Buddha, or even Amma, provide the answers. Still, maybe the path to enlightenment is through Shiva, Ganesh, Laksmi or any other of the several million Hindu deities. And maybe there’s more to come.

Twenty-seven years of religious study and soul-searching, and I still cannot pretend to know all the answers. And honestly, I don’t know if I ever will. But I will say now, after seven years of borderline atheism, I’m starting to have faith again.

I like the peacefulness of meditation, I like the strength and focus I get through yoga, and I like the idea that, maybe somewhere, there is an ultimate being who is looking out for us. Maybe, at the end of the day, what I’ve regained is hope.

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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