The Land of Ooty

Ooty, Tamil Nadu- Oct. 30, 2011

We left Isha this morning and drove the three hours from Coimbatore to Ooty. The drive was anything but languid, as I sat enraptured by the beautiful scenery that was waiting around every bend. Luckily the sun was shining as we climbed the foothills of the Nilgiris (Hindi for blue mountains). We made hairpin turns through lush foliage, many cascading waterfalls, and the towering cliffs with their tops shrouded in cloud. Gangs of mischievous mountain monkeys were stationed all along the side of the road, greeting the trucks and tourists on their way.


A cool respite from the hot plain lands of Tamil Nadu, Ooty’s main industry is tourism, with hotels, attractions, and restaurants everywhere. This began during the British colonization, who turned Ooty into a vacation playground, building the botanical garden, the boating lake, a horse racing track, mansions, and hotels. Rows of brightly colored square houses are nestled into the lush hills. We arrived in town to a light drizzle. After lunch we meandered through the botanical garden and then made a stop by the lake, a lovely spot for walking and boating.



Ooty really reminds me of Oregon. The climate is essentially the same, with rain year round. The air smells fresh and clear; there are even large cedar and pine trees! As I have been drinking the well water of Pondy for months, I was happy to discover that the mountain water of Ooty is just as sweet as it is in Portland. The climate is conducive to many varieties of fruits, vegetables, roses, and (unlike Oregon) lots of tea. Bini and her family kept asking me if I was feeling cold. It was amusing to watch tourists and locals alike bundle up in earmuffs, scarves, umbrellas, hats, and waterproof jackets. Bini and her family have a whole program lined up for the next few days, thus many more discoveries await me in the land of Ooty.

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A Night at Isha

October 29, 2011
Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

I arrived in Coimbatore early this morning, having taken a sleeper bus from Pondy. The 8-hour bus ride was freezing but the bed was comfortable. Now I’m with Bini and her parents, spending a night at the Isha Foundation ashram. The founder of the ashram is Sadhguru, a guru known for his spiritual depth as much as his modern and charismatic wit. The foundation has a large rural school development project, with 150 schools set up in Tamil Nadu alone. Bini told me that the schools are run on volunteers from all over the world, as only knowledge of English and computer skills is required. Sadhguru has also expanded his reach in the United States, with a large ashram located in Tennessee.

Over 2,000 people live at this ashram surrounded by the misty Velliangiri Mountains. The air feels fresher than in Pondy, and the red clay of lower Tamil Nadu has given way to a darker loamy soil that feeds the rich vegetation on the 150 acres of ashram property.

The temples and facilities of Isha are beautiful, an admirable balance of modern interiors with sustainable materials of earthen brick, wood and stone. The buildings all look like they have been there forever, blending in well with the natural beauty of the hills.

Sadhguru

In the morning we took a bath in Isha’s Theerthakund (place of sacred water). Consecrated by Sadhguru, the pool contains a charged lingam of mercury. This mercury serves to return balance to one’s physical and subtle being, making you more receptive to the vibrations of the temple. The liquid mercury has been solidified in the water, through a very ancient and sacred consecration process. At one end of the pool is a cascading waterfall, and the ceiling displays a beautiful mural of men and women purifying themselves in water. All of the painted murals in the Isha buildings are done with the natural pigments of plants.

ishafoundation.org


Women and men go at separate times to take a bath, so I followed Bini and her mother into the changing facilities. To go into the water you must remove all jewelry and change into ochre-colored robes. Descending down the large stone steps, I admired the way the natural light filters down off of the high brick walls onto the cold water below.

Unlike the forced baptism of the jungle’s daily monsoon rain, my purifying bath was consensual and willing. I made myself slowly relax in the water’s cold, quietly floating. Along with Bini and her mother I touched the shiny lingam, resting my forehead on the cold metal. I stood under the waterfall, letting the forceful drops patter out a massage on my shoulders and forehead. For a moment the sound of rushing water was the only sound that existed. I have much of fire in me, but at my core I am water, at times shifting form to suit the needs of nature, always calmly running towards someplace else.

After our bath we went to the Dhanya Linga Temple, a circular meditation temple with another lingam in the center. The temple was built with a very complex consecrative process. Using all volunteer power, the whole temple was built in only three months. Facilitated by Sadhguru, no chemical or hard cement was used to lay the bricks. A special mortar made of herbs was used, which loses its adhesive power within fifteen minutes. So each layer of the dome’s roof had to be placed in fifteen minutes. All the bricks rely on each other for support. If one falls, they all fall. [A month ago I watched a Youtube video of Sadhguru who told the story of an ancient temple architect who built a temple with a thousand pillars. He designed it so that if one pillar fell, the whole temple would fall. And somehow, despite his audacity, the temple still stands today.]

My meditation experience in the temple was wonderful. I sat for half an hour, and when the bell rang to end the session I didn’t want to leave. I could feel the temple’s energy enter through my open palms, a tangible tingle that I have never felt before.

ishafoundation.org

After a nap we toured the Isha conference center, large program hall, and residential school. Before dinner we went to a session of chanting. Since the chants are in Sanskrit, I simply sat with everyone and listened to the rhythm of the collective voice over the drums. After another visit to the meditation temple, hard rain sang us to sleep.

Candlelit Community

“The Good Guesthouse has never seen such a Diwali!”  -Harvinder

US: First of all, shout out to President Obama for producing a Happy Diwali video message, bestowing well wishes and a reminder for the holiday as a time of contemplation and thankfulness. The first US President to ever acknowledge the eastern holiday, he even correctly pronounced sal mubharat (happy new year) and metaye (sweets in Hindi). That’s my boy.

Pondicherry, Dumas Street: Last night we had a wonderful Diwali celebration. Harvinder and I decided it should be styled as a mehefil, a gathering of people who share songs, poetry, and stories by candlelight.

Some expressed doubts about my attempt to organize an event with so many people. Having cooked enough food and planned enough events to know I could pull it off, this talk did less to discourage than frustrate. When you tell someone that they cannot do something, or that it will be too difficult, you are limiting their capability to grow. It is one of the ultimate disempowerments to tell someone they cannot do something. If you are worried I will fail, let me fail. Otherwise how can I learn to succeed? If you want to make rangoli designs or try your hand at gulab jamun, you should do it.  The only secret is to believe in yourself before anyone else will.

The night went off without a hitch. Held in the Society’s Good Guesthouse, a lovely French villa,  the setting was perfect for a festive evening. We decorated the steps with rangoli designs of lamps and candles. The Good Guesthouse staff contributed a bit to our decorating.

The sky was thankfully clear for most of the evening, so we placed candles and small oil lamps all around the wide terrace, creating an atmosphere of soft shadows that lent itself to musical offerings and enjoying good company. We served Maharashtra rice, baingan bharta, papaya compote, and bread pakoras with tamarind chutney; it was all delicious.

Before and after dinner we passed around candles and took turns sharing songs and poetry from all over the world, America, Italy, Africa, and of course many from India, both old and new.

We made so much rice we had to cook it in four separate pots.

Bhaingan bharta, mashed roasted eggplant with tomato, onion, and coriander 

The sharing of songs and poetry were by far the best part. But another wonderful thing about the mehefil was that everyone contributed something. Baburam brought banana leaves and his special flower juice from Matrikunj. Maitreyee, Rathi, Venus and I spent hours in the kitchen. Harvinder got the lamps, and more than one person brought metaye. This communal spirit is exactly what I hoped for, letting everyone offer their best so that all may share in the simple but too rare joy of togetherness.

When we are young we often have birthday parties and play-dates and socializing at school. As we grow into adulthood the opportunities to laugh, sing, and play grow scarce. But I find that these times are necessary and precious to create, as it allows us to bond with the people who we trust, appreciate and depend on in our daily work, whether they be family members or colleagues. Besides, I had to get another chance to wear my sari!

We all left with hearts happier and stomachs full, having a shared candlelit Diwali that we will treasure for years to come.

Bon appetit

Does Happiness Breed Happiness?

Sometimes, like today watching the birds, I have to close my eyes; it is too much.”  -Sushantoda

This Sunday was wonderful. In the morning I slept in, then went for a run to my favorite coffee bar (one sugar, not two) and ran back home. I cycled to the beach with the group of British architects who recently arrived to work on a few design projects for the Society. They are all very nice and we had a great time, despite some minor jellyfish tentacle attacks. We all came back with red noses and forearms, refreshed from the salty swim.

In the afternoon a group of Society members had planned a trip to the ashram’s lake land, so Krishna and Rathi and I made halwa for the trip. Halwa is a  traditional sweet, with as many variations as there are regions in India. Made sometimes from grains, vegetables, with nuts, raisins, and always lots of butter and sugar. We made our halwa with semolina flour, cashews and raisins, and lots of ghee (clarified butter).

On the the ride out of the city the air smelled fresh and clear. The clouds had puffed and swirled the light into lofty castles.

The biker gang

Our first stop was the island bird sanctuary. Thousands of migratory birds have come to this small, protected island. For our benefit they would fly in circles around the island and then settle back down again. More and more kept flying in to rest on the already crowded island. Black and white coromandels, herons, egrets, and even one giant pelican! Their chorus of calls was joyous, free. We watched the sun set on the lake, the light making the dew drops on the lily pads glow like diamonds.

We took a night walk through the lake land gardens, the dogs leading the way. It was a new moon, leaving the land in pitch darkness, but it only heightened the nocturnal music of the crickets. We were going up to the pond to hear the frogs singing and then we saw them–the fireflies! Magical, dancing pieces of sparkle.  I have never seen fireflies before!  Having taken the parallel path to the rest of the group, Rathi and Istopped to gently pick up a glow worm, the firefly’s wingless fluorescent cousin. It stayed for a while, crawling all over my cupped hands, resting on my wrist like an effervescent jewel. I thought, I want jewelry, nay, I want love that is only like this.

Slowly we wandered back to our motorcycles and drove to Matrikunj to have snacks and enjoy each other’s company. The dogs were hyperactive, so eager to see so many visitors. We had our halwa, and Rathi had also brought delicious fresh coriander and cheese sandwiches. Baburam’s mom made us tea and her special pancakes with jaggery and coconut.

It was great fun to sit with my Indian family at the table that I often sit at alone, in the heat of the day with my laptop. Trupti and I decided that we will soon spend a night out in one of the thatched-roof makans.

This day packed with too much beauty and life, I wanted to cry I was so happy. Sushanto and I discussed it all, walking through the night of the garden.

“I just want to share it, I want people to see what I see.”

“But Sushantoda, that is why we are artists, because we want to share what we see and feel with others… Sometimes my heart gets so full of beautiful things it would be selfish of me to keep it inside.”

Before I went to sleep I pencilled down my memories of this glorious day, impressing them deeper upon my happy soul, twinkling like a firefly.

The Light of Diwali

Next week is the five day festival of Diwali, the main festival of Hindus all over India. Diwali is the festival of light, celebrating the triumph of goodness over darkness. At a a deeper level, it is to celebrate the triumph of the Light within.

(The first time I ever heard of Diwali was in an episode of ‘The Office,’ when Kelly brought the whole office to a community Diwali celebration and the inevitable Michael Scott mayhem ensued.)

Diwali literally translates to a “row of lamps,” as this festival celebrates when Rama defeated the demon Ravana and came back to his kingdom after 14 years in exile. Members of Krishna’s kingdom lit rows of lamps to welcome him home. Today celebrants light clay oil lamps, wear new clothes, and distribute sweets to friends and family.

The shopfronts of Pondy have put up glittering displays to lure shoppers inside. Alas, just like Christmas, the real meaning behind the holiday has gotten bogged down in commercialized consumerism, with fireworks, toys, sparkly saris, the works.

I was surprised to learn that Diwali is also an official holiday in not only India but Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Fiji, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and Myanmar.

This October festival is also the end of the harvest season, and also marks the end of the fiscal year for businesses. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and celebrants ask for her blessings for a good year.

Look familiar?

I will be in Pondy for Diwali and then travel to Ooty to stay with my friend Bini for a week. Rathi and I want to put together a celebratory gathering for all of us who are far from our families this holiday season. Look for more photos of the real thing soon.

Dining Duty

God has no religion.” -Gandhiji

Two weeks ago I began working at the Ashram dining room, every night at 8 o-clock. I usually have my dinner at home and then get in place for my shift. I work in the washing section, where I dry plates. The Ashram has a large car-wash-like sanitizer for the thousands of metal cups, spoons, plates, and bowls that are used everyday. A worker delivers stacks of hot plates that we wipe dry and place in a neat pile for another worker to collect and take back to the main dining room. You have to wipe fast because before you know it another hot stack of plates will have arrived.

I chat with my fellow plate-dryers, and nod hello to my friends that pass through to drop off their empty dishes. I have been trying to correct my posture, and so I practice sitting perfectly straight on the wooden bench for an hour. My mind is free to wander over the day’s happenings, listening to the clatter of dishes, fans, and the whirring of the monstrous sanitizer. I usually think about Hindi, turning the day’s newly learned words and phrases over and over, polishing them like collected stones or seashells.  Many of the ashram workers converse in Hindi. (I can now read and write very slowly! Very exciting.)

Doing physical work as part of my yoga spiritual practice is rewarding in many ways.  Karma yoga is the yoga of performing selfless work. One’s being and intentions become purified, and with constant invocations of God to guide you, one can better connect to the Divinity within.

It is a healthy contrast to my peaceful days spent in the air-conditioned Society office, overlooking the sea. It makes me feel more connected to the  ashram community, starting to recognize the faces of those who have lived and worked here for years. Every day I appreciate how well this place runs without anyone in charge but the guidance of the Divine. The shift passes quickly, and by the time I am finished hanging the wet rags on the line I am more than ready to cycle home and fall into bed.

 

 

Ayurvedic Class: Foods that Cure

The Sri Aurobindo Ayurvedic Health Center is right next door to Shelter, and offers weekly classes by the Ayurvedic doctor in residence, Dr. Nivay. Last week Leonie and I decided to check it out. Dr. Nivay was a very nice man who is learning French and laughed at his own jokes. Here is what we learned:

First of all, doctors do not cure diseases, our body’s life force does. Health care in India (and the US) is all about building shiny new hospitals and medical centers. Modern doctors study the biology of the body, disease and medicine. But what they don’t study is how our diet and lifestyle affect our overall long-term health. When you go to the doctor, does she ask about what you eat, or give you a recommended diet along with your prescription drugs? Probably not.

There are four pillars in Ayurvedic health: a natural diet, a lifestyle with good sleep and exercise routines, detoxification or inner cleaning, and stress management, as our physical body is intricately connected to our vital and psychic health.

This month’s theme was ‘Foods that Cure.” We learned a lot about how to prepare and eat food to maximize its benefits.  Here are a few tips:

  • It is important not to overcook your food, as heat destroys the vitamins. When cooking vegetables do not cook them to mush, but only enough to take the raw edge off. They will taste better and last longer in the fridge too.
  • Vegetables should be eaten with the peels on as much as possible, as under the peel are where the vitamins are (this is why eating organic, natural produce is so crucial.)
  • Add salt after you cook your food, you will need to use much less. Although our body needs some salt to survive, salt is not a digestible or conscious mineral. Green veggies like chard, for example, have a lot of natural salt in them.
  • Fruit and salad should be eaten on an empty stomach for maximum absorption of vitamins.
  • When making tea, add the milk after you boil the water and tea leaves together. This preserves the natural vitamins and minerals in the milk. Milk also has good bacteria that help your digestive system, if you boil it too much you kill the good germs along with the bad.
  • Try to eat less refined sugar, as it is 3 or 4 steps removed from its original form of cane sugar. Jaggery (boiled sugar cane juice), honey, agave syrup, are all natural sugars that are better metabolized. Sugar is not bad, but as Dr. Nivay says, “why not go for the better alternative?”
  • Drink water 30 minutes before you eat or 60 minutes after. The purpose of water is to cleanse your system. If you chug water after a meal, you will wash away your body’s natural enzymes that help digest your food.

Controversial: Meat or no meat?

Just out of curiosity:
  • Dr. Nivay argues that humans have evolved to be vegetarians, as we have similar teeth to other herbivore mammals. His other hen animals are killed, their muscles become filled with the poison of anxiety and fear. These toxins get ingested when we consume meat.
  • I would argue that humans have eye teeth and canines to eat meat as well, but I think it makes sense that humans would have evolved to eat both. This makes us more adaptable to diets across varied climates and availability of plants and/or animals.

 

(Since I have been in India I have eaten fish twice and a few eggs, but that’s it. Even though I love meat, I don’t really miss it. Over the last few years I have eaten less and less meat.  Organic meat was too expensive; I’d rather eat eggplant with sweet basil and tomato.)
Here’s to becoming more conscious of what and how you eat. Be well.

Fall Far From Here

Today Shivakumar and I had a great skype call with Alternative Break Coordinator Keri Bellotti to work on the December trip details and itinerary. It’s really coming together and I am excited! The Alternative Winter Break guidebook I have been working on is nearly finished and I have sent it off for editing.

Also: I am going to the beautiful region of Ooti and Coimbatore to stay with my friend Bini’s family at the end of this month!

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On Wednesday I went for a cycle ride with the ashram crew and we stopped at a one of the ashram’s mango farms, where we climbed mango trees and cut open some tender coconuts for a refreshing treat.

Despite my love of all things tropical, I am starting to miss the crisp fall of Oregon, with the fiery deciduous trees that light up the whole Willamette Valley. In Pondicherry it is always summer, as palm trees are forever.

Oregon in October

I love the distinct seasons of Oregon, the yearly cycle of everlasting change. Fall is by far my favorite season. I almost always wear fall colors: orange, red, green, and deep blue. Plus I am a Scorpio, my November birthday making my love of squashes, soccer practice and darkening days inevitable. This morning I drew a poor substitute, but it made my heart a little lighter.

 

STFU Smokers

 

 

 

 

The University of Oregon has kicked off its smoke and tobacco free campaign this fall with a daring STFU campaign, which stands for ‘Smoke and Tobacco Free University,’ but also hints at getting whining smokers to realize that the rest of campus deserves the right to clean air. 4,000 green T-shirts with the STFU logo were passed out at the October 6th home football game.

 

The KVAL story quotes my successor, Ben Eckstein: “We are proud of the ASUO’s leadership in making it happen…I am excited to collaborate with university administration to make our campus a leader in efforts to promote a healthier student body.” Check out the UO’s STFU website for more info.

Over the last five five years, UO students and staff  fought a long and worthwhile battle. I was privileged to play a part in it. UO was the first school in the PAC-12 to make this happen, with OSU following months after. Now we can start to say that UO is becoming a school that values sustainability, as well as the physical and mental well-being of our campus community. Go Ducks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Rangoli

(I have a lot of work to do in the next few days, but I just had to post.)

On Saturday I cycled to the beach with some friends (this time I went the right way), and it was wonderful. So refreshing to float in the warm and gentle waves. Every day I watch the sun rise in the east, but today I watched the sun’s column of golden sparkle fade into the West. We watched tourists take surfing lessons and cheered them on when they caught a wave.

On Sunday Leonie and I went to the market to buy vegetables and other knicknack necessities. We took a long nap after lunch and then tried our hand at making a rangoli. We practiced a bit on Shelter’s inner terrace, then decided we were ready to graduate to the threshold on the street. Our initial few lines looked like the thin body of a papillon, so we decided to go with it. Little did we know that our amateur art project would create quite the scene.

Cars slowed, people pulled over to talk to us and take photos. One man said he had never seen foreigners do rangoli before. A family on a motorcycle pulled over and the mother showed us the proper technique of rolling the fine powder between your thumb and index finger to get perfect, thin lines. Another Tamilian woman stopped and wordlessly explained that one has to mix the colored powder with the white for easier spreadability. Previously we had just been winging it, not really knowing how to do it but not caring either. But then we started to really get the hang of it!

Children stopped to watch us color the butterfly with rich streaks of violet, green and deep orange. One man stopped to watch for at least half an hour, so enthralled that he wanted to join in and help. Not one to prevent any kind of creative expression, I let him sprinkle some green on the wings and antennae. His toothless grin at being included exuded pure, contagious joy. He ran off and brought back some bricks to protect our creation from meandering motorists.

Our rangoli creation was a bigger success than I could have imagined. After numerous warnings and reservations from others, we discovered drawing in colored powder was really not so mysteriously difficult after all. It was amazing to see how one step across the cultural gap by two people could touch so many others. This is what community building actually is, I thought. A little powder and some courage made all the difference.