Life in the Straw Village

Basic Luxury in Kajuraho

It’s been an interesting process of getting used to living outside in India.

HI Kaj straw huts

The huts are exactly the same

“Living” means: sleeping, changing, writing, reading, resting, bathing, and answering nature’s calls IN STRAW HUTS. We have real flush toilets (as opposed to squat toilets), buckets for “showering,” and outside sinks (which makes for chilly teeth brushing in the pre-dawn hours when we stumble off to meditation).

HI Kaj wash sinks

There was never any soap at the sinks

“Outside” means: we have the illusion of privacy as well as some real shelter. That illusion is worth a lot.

But the huts are not warm. And many leak. We’ve had several loud and violent storms to test out their waterproofness—and mudproofness and damproofness. I’d give them about 50/50.

Huts inside

Inside our straw castles. Four to a hut! Mosquito nets strung between bamboo poles; industrial green carpet (over straw over mud) keeps out the worst of the damp.

 

You know a lot about your “eco hut”—and yourself— after two days of torrential rain in an area that is not supposed to have rain as the clay earth sluices down the paths and makes a mud dam in front of your hut.

 

HI Kaj straw village doorway

A strip of yellow silk in the doorway brightens up our huts

And the huts definitely do not protect us from the sounds of neighbors. Who knew that SO many people snore so loudly?

For us middle class Westerners, this way of living is a practice of austerity.

But as we’ve been reminded, for locals in Allahabad and Kajuraho, the way we are living is luxurious.

HI Kaj baths and toilets

Toilets and showers

I will admit that this is a step up from tent camping. I am writing this from inside my hut, for example, sitting at a metal table with a blue plastic tablecloth stretched over it. We have metal cots off the ground, and clothes lines, plus lawn-green carpeting to protect us from mud and dust.

And one thing I know: I can get attached to anything. Anything at all.

I got attached to the readily available WiFi in Kajuraho. Even the cold, cold nights, bathing outside from a bucket of was bearable if I had WiFi to make Facebook updates and write blog entries (only slightly kidding).

HI Kaj bucket bath vertical

You haul in hot water with one bucket, mix it with cold from the spigot, then pour over you with the cup provided. Bucket bath!

That disappeared in Kajuraho. But the bucket baths and cold temperatures remained. Wah-wa.

In Kajuraho, I got attached to hut 7 where I weathered the interminable storms. Hut 7 almost flooded in the mud sluice, was crowded with 2 women from Duluth, another from Chicago, and me. It was damp and damp and damp. And damp. Then musty. My bed was both sloped downwards and tilted to the side like a permanent Tilt-a-Whirl.

HI Kaj bucket bath close up

Bucket bath set up–close up. Basic, basic, basic.

And yet I felt anxiety when I had to move into hut 49.

(Now the question is: what do I care whether I’m in straw hut 7 or straw hut 49?! They are exactly the same, just positioned slightly differently towards the bathrooms. Still I got fixated for a few hours on how much worse hut 49 was going to be. I had established my patterns and I didn’t want to budge. This is the stuff I came to India to deal with?!?! Answer: yes.)

But after two or three days in hut 49, I had completely forgotten about the charms of hut 7.

So it goes.

HI Kaj campus flowers and tree

Campus gets pretty after torrential rains

 

Most of us have gotten comfortable with this quasi-camping set up.

Temperatures are getting warmer now and days are brighter. I don’t have to wear every single piece of clothing I brought to India when I go to bed. I don’t have to wait for a warm patch in the day to bathe (or just skip it for a few days until bathing is urgent).

I don’t mind doing laundry by hand. And every time I shower now, I’m sure to wash some undies. Life has become easier.

HI Kaj Silvie laundry

72-yr-old Sylvia does laundry by hand at the hot-water station

And there are some surprise boons. After all that rain, the desert campus has sprung into bloom. Ceramic pots of marigolds, cosmos, and asters line the paths and decorate the huts. The trees are sparkling green.

Birds have arrived in abundance: green parrots, eagles, sparrows, a large swallow-like bird, peacocks, neelkanth, and many many others that sing and chirp and whir. In fact, a pair of sparrows just flew into my hut!

HI Kaj garden cosmos

After the rains

At night the jackals howl their mysteriously poignant songs arching back and forth across the hills. The farmers answer them with their ghostly shrieks meant to scare away nilgai—the large antelope/deer/horse-like creature that tramples crops (the male is actually blue colored).

 

HI Kaj guest services hut

Himalayan Institute campus, Kajuraho

Most of us have forgotten our discomfort in the straw village, our Western privileges, proving that you really can get used to anything.

Even basic luxury can be luxurious.

HI Kaj Sherry Sivlie lunch in town

Sherry, Sylvia and I go into town for lunch–breaking out!

And now some people don’t want to go back to their easy showers and toilets, central heating and A/C.

You really can get attached to anything.

HI Kaj kunda at tree

Kunda (fire pit) at the special banyan tree

Letter from the Kumbha Mela

Published on Yoga City NYC, February 2013. The Kumbha Mela explained.

Thousands and thousands of people crossing makeshift pontoon bridges over the Ganges river became a familiar sight during my 10 day visit to Allahabad, India

The men carried walking sticks or pushed bicycles, while many women, dressed in dazzling saris, lead small children or elderly relatives. They walked in silence with a steady, quiet focus, their belongings bundled on their heads and backs because they were headed to the Kumbha Mela.

While there are small Melas every year throughout India, the one near Allahabad, where the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers meet, is the most important and the most auspicious. This grand gathering happens only once every 12 years, with a Maha—or great— Kumbha Mela every 144 years (the last one was 2001).

Kumbha Mela

And of course, it is the largest. When I arrived, staying on the campus of theHimalayan Institute about a mile downstream from the main site, a million people had already taken up residence.

More problematic, it’s also the loudest, with countless PA systems blasting mantras, lectures, and “swa-has” for miles around, at all hours of the day and night. I got used to falling asleep to two or three of them chanting at top volume and completely at cross-purposes.

The incessant din added a very real challenge to my daily meditation practice. The banks of the Ganges were very noisy. Numbers swelled again on the auspicious bathing day of February 10th, that coincided with the new moon, a time of new beginnings.

In one day, 10 million people flooded the grounds. Over the month or so of the Mela, 100 million people were expected to visit, living in the makeshift tentcamps, or curled up at the side of the dusty dirt tracks, running shops, serving food to wandering sadhus, and policing the 8 square kilometer area.

For such an enormous “pop-up city” it was impressively peaceful. Saints, families, villagers poor and rich mingled. We never felt in danger, even in such huge throngs. In fact, our biggest hassle was Indian pilgrims taking photos of us Westerners, and even that was done in a very friendly way.

I had come to experience the energies of the crowds and the practices of the sages. But as I reckoned with my jet lag, the noise of the fair, and the exhaustingly huge gathering of people, I wondered what everyone was really coming for, and what it means to be a pilgrim.

Kumbha means “pot” and “mela” means fair: the story is that the demi gods, running out of the elixir of happiness, or amrit, joined with their enemies, the water demons, to churn the ocean and produce more of the heavenly nectar.

But when the nectar at last rose from the sea, the gods stole the amrit for themselves alone. A battle ensued until Vishnu intervened, whisking the valuable pot of nectar away. It took 12 days for Vishnu to escape—hence the 12 year lapse betweenMelas—hotly pursued by both angry parties.

The pilgrims crossing into the Kumbha Mela grounds were not concerned to hear the myth again—they already knew it. They might seek out a sage or take in a dance performance; but their main purpose was to bathe in the Ganges and be purified by her inexhaustible living waters.

And not just anywhere, but as close as possible to the Sangam—the confluence of three holy rivers, where auspicious energy is most concentrated at this time.

The Ganges, the mother and spiritual source, could not only wash away transgressions and karmic impediments, but also replenish the divine grace in our lives. The Yamuna river, representing worldly prosperity, helps to keep our home, work, and social lives to progress harmoniously.

Lastly, the mythical Saraswati river, important in Vedic times, but since disappeared underground, represents the  fortification of intuition and inner knowledge.

In other words, to bathe at the Sangam was like getting an extremely powerful recharge.

For Westerners, the massive number of people was undeniably exciting. Some in our group braved the highly toxic E. coli levels and dipped themselves in theSangam. Others just dipped their mala beads or sprinkled some of the holy water over their heads.

But the moment of highest spiritual buzz for me came outside of the official Melagrounds. On February 10th, the auspicious bathing day, senior teachers at the Himalayan Institute conducted a fire ceremony on campus, repeating a Durgamantra to help mitigate the fear and anger in ourselves—and in the world.

As we offered the samagri—the offering—to the sacred fire we chanted together in common purpose,  propitiating the forces of transformation and new growth, planting seeds of change. It was not an empty ritual; I could feel the energy we were creating.

One important element of meditation or spiritual practice is trustful surrender to the mysterious forces at work in our world. And feeling that palpably around me was worth all the effort of getting to India, the disturbance of the loud nights, the hot, dusty and exhausting Mela, and my initial bewilderment over what it meant to be a pilgrim. I felt fortified, and that, I believe, was the whole point.

Ganga Carnaval: Kumbha Mela by Night

Wrote this way back in February… and then lost access to the Internet for a good long while… Enjoy!

The night before the massive influx of pilgrims to the Kumbha Mela, Ali, Stewart, Cathy and I snuck off campus.  Feb 1oth was going to be an “auspicious bathing day”—a very special day to take a dip in the Ganges—under a new moon, a time to let go of the past—habits, events, troubles—and inaugurate new beginnings.

In fact, ten MILLION people were expected. One million were already on site. We wanted to go into the Kumba at night, to see a different Mela.

We wanted to go before the swelling masses became impassable. Not to mention potentially hazardous. (post script: one of the makeshift pontoon bridges across the Ganges collapsed, and some pilgrims did die…)

We also wanted to escape what has come to feel like a very pleasant and highly scheduled summer camp on the HI Allahabad campus.

Night friends at Sangam

Why not? says Ali

We set off at 5pm aftert signing out at the Himalayan Institute’s main gate, knowing that we would miss dinner. We walked the mile up the Ganges over uneven goat paths and piles of trash.

For the first time, my feet did not hurt in spite of my blisters. It was exciting to be out of the herd. We reached the first and second gates into the Mela in a buoyant mood.

Night gates at sunset

First gates — advertising for holy men is everywhere

We didn’t have to go far to encounter something spectacular: a steady line of pilgrims coming across the first bridge. They were  hunched under bags of bedding striving forward with their walking sticks.

It was sunset, and the sight of all those scarved heads and sandaled feet crossing the river at dusk with such purpose was pretty impressive.

It gave us all a deep feeling for the importance of the pilgrimage, the scale of it in people’s lives. There’s no way that other huge festivals—such as Burning Man or Brazil’s Carnaval—could have such a massive feeling of sweet purpose.

Night pilgrims bridge better

Setting sun illuminates pilgrims

Past the second gate and down a side road we entered the main grounds of the Mela. People were walking, bathing, attending talks, but most were cooking over wood fires.

Those who weren’t already encamped in a tent camp, simply slept bundled up person to person on the side of the road. The sheer number of people was astounding, and the vibe—so different from a few days before, in the afternoon—was of purposeful excitement.

Night cooking by river

The air was burning with smoke

We walked pretty easily through the masses of people streaming past us, no jostling, no harassment, except for the very gentle delight of every single Indian (it seemed) to have their photos taken. Or to take photos of us, the impossibly light skinned people.

“Single photo! Single photo!” shrieked the children we passed, waving madly at us. “Tata! Tata!” (tata = goodbye)

Walking through swarms of pilgrims

Walking through swarms of pilgrims

We didn’t go into any of the makeshift palaces that lit up the main streets  like Las Vegas, but we window-shopped.

In one, an allegorical play was underway (we understood nothing, but the costumes were fab).

In another much more modest one, a man with long wooden earrings was dancing a very feminine dance on a stage lined with male  musicians.

Night Mela spectacle

KM spectacles

In yet another, a group of very pale Westerners sat around a ceremonial fire (kund) with zombie expressions on their faces throwing offerings of herbs and flowers into the flames. We looked, but we didn’t taste.

Ali was eager for snacks since we’d missed dinner back on campus. Truth be told, we were eating so much (3 very good meals a day) that I was not hungry at all.

But the snack stand was interesting. Ali bought dried and spiced chick-pea sticks mixed with dried peas, served in little cones of Indian newspaper. Yummy.

Night snacks

Night snacks

Finally, our eyes were streaming from the fire smoke and the wandering around began to be painful. We were coughing and a wee bit concerned to get back to campus not too late after our agreed-on time.

For a disorienting 1o minutes we argued about directions and took a few wrong turns (to some dark and smelly corners of the Mela)—but then Stewart expertly guided us back to the road we needed.

We arrived back—smokey and tired, but exhilerated—just before 10pm. And it seemed that back in the Mela many of the more energetic and vocal camps were just getting their kirtans started.

The chanting, singing, preaching, and “swa-ha”s went on all night, as usual. They were loud and fervent and clashing and wonderfully chaotic.

Ah, KM, so much to offer, so hard to decipher.

Night sunset fishing nets

Sunset downstream from the Mela

Flowing with the Kumbha Mela

I always understood that I was coming on a pilgrimage when I signed up to come to the 2013 Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, India. I just didn’t know what part of this trip was going to be pilgrimage. Or even, perhaps, what a pilgrimage was.

Women in saris KM

On the road to the Kumbha Mela

I fantasized about meeting holy teachers who had descended from their reclusive, Himalayan caves—I had read about this in a newspaper article.

I dreamed of unexpected—but very enlightening—encounters with humanity on the dusty road to the great festival: After all, Parahamsa Yogananda famously met an incarnation of his teacher’s teacher at a Kumbha Mela in the early 20th century.

At the very least, I thought, the Himalayan Institute in Allahabad would invite some sages with whom they had personal connections to the campus for talks and maybe blessings, too. This was a long-awaited spiritual gathering  of up to 100 million people, and I was traveling from so far away, after so much preparation—something had to happen.

On the KM road

On the road

I’ve been in Allahabad for 2 1/2 days now. On the first day, we were hauled (literally) up the Ganges on wooden boats til we reached the most auspicious place, the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, as well as the mysterious Saraswati river that you can’t actually locate on any map.

Small, strong men rowed, punted (with long bamboo poles), and pulled us with string. The boat traveled against the current, under makeshift pontoon bridges,  dodging garbage and sand bars, until we reached the sangam, the meeting of the waters. There, we blessed ourselves by scooping up handfuls of the highly toxic river (E.coli levels at 100x what’s acceptable), saying a prayer, then sprinkling the auspiscious water over our heads—and liberally dousing with hand sanitizer afterwards.

It seemed like cruel labor for the men until we were informed that their previous cargo had been SAND (sand from the Ganges is highly prized by cement factories).

 

going up Ganges

 

Still, nothing happened. But no worries, I thought, tomorrow we are going into the Kumbha Mela for real, finally reaching a destination that I have been thinking about for 3 years. With 8 square miles and countless sadhus prominently dressed in orange robes, something was bound to happen.

I set out with Stewart, my new Glaswegian friend. We were so deep in conversation about the pilgrimage itself that we hardly noticed the piles of fine white sand that our feet were kicking up. Soon our mouths were full of sand, and any exposed skin slathering in sunscreen was covered, too. I noticed local women were holding the ends of their saris over their mouths.

KM road

Kumbha Mela road is dusty, muddy, and hot

It was the tremendous noise that stopped our conversation. Singers, chanters, proclaimers and lecturers projected at top volume through cheap loudspeakers. Meanwhile rickshaws, motorcyles, bicycles, and Mercedes Benz jeeps (full of sadhus in orange robes) honked and whistled and rang on either side of us. We couldn’t hear anything else.

We caught up with other people from the Himalayan Institute at a fork in the road: now we would go down into the mele, and maybe cross a pontoon bridge to the Kumbha Mela grounds on the other side of the Ganges.

Bike on road to KM

Anyway, anyhow

We added Ali and Mangesh from London, also Selina an English nurse transplanted to America to our two-some, and together headed down towards the sangam, the confluence. This time from the land.

Along the way, we browsed bangle shops, haggled for malas (since Mangesh speaks Hindi), took photos and generally wondered what was going on inside all the tent camps that lined the makeshift road. That’s where, supposedly, the sages held court.

Often, as we took our pictures, a small crowd would gather to take photos of us. It seemed fair, although it was weird. Or a sage would stop and, with a kindly expression, stand a little too close and stare at us with unblinking eyes.

Baba

A baba

After a packed lunch of potato chips, pakoras, and (fake) mango juice-boxes we  visited the bathing areas that faced the sangam. Here,  whole families and villages were bathing in the holy river, the Ma Ganga. Selina was excited to immerse herself, but I wasn’t interested in getting closer to the bacteria.

Ganges bathing KM

Bathing in the Ganges

Mangesh did buy a boat of flowers and sent it out into the waters. (It flowed right back in, and Ali made fun of him.)

Girl selling at Ganges

Flower boats

And then we had to admit that we were hot, still hungry, tired, and ready to go back to the campus. Which seemed a long ways away at that point. We were done and we still hadn’t really encountered that thing that was supposed to happen.

We were just tourists wandering in a fair ground, surrounded by thousands of people elaborately wrapped in gorgeous colors, or lining the roads trying desperately to eke out a living.

KM palace

Entrance to a sadhu’s tent camp

The language barrier made it so that we would never really understand whose tent camp we were passing, which ones to go in, and which ones to avoid. They all looked as if they could swallow us up whole, exotic as we were with our very pale skin. Even Mangesh, who is Indian, couldn’t understand what we were seeing.

Tired from the dust, the noise, the heat, and the more-or-less aimless wandering in search of the fulfillment of Our Pilgrimage, we turned back.

“Are you feeling the auspicious energy, or anything?” asked Ali, former IT guy for a London investment bank.

“Not really,” I said. “I mostly feel tired.”

There were some silent, tired nods around our little group.

At last, we picked a tent camp at random and stopped in. The less digestively-challenged of us  accepted the free meal being offered, sitting back to back on the ground with Indian pilgrims who presumably did know why they were here and what they were supposed to be doing.

On the way back, I suggested a rickshaw. Mangesh haggled a price and we dove in—Selina, Ali, Mangesh and me. We picked up Stewart who had booked it on ahead of us. He looked very pleased when we pulled up.

Stewart and Ali KM

Stewart and Ali in the rickshaw

“The Ganges is inside you,” said a senior Himalayan Institute teacher. “Don’t get caught up in whether you immerse yourself or not. Notice her qualities, how the river flows, how constant and abundant she is. This is what you want to connect to. The vitality, the power.”

“There are so many political factions at the Kumbha Mela,” said another teacher later over chai, “And in India politics and religions are completely mixed together, no separation. There are serious lobbyists working the Kumbha Mela. It’s all over our heads. Sure, there are some very accomplished holy teachers in there, but the chances of us figuring out who’s who are slim. Even so, we’re all here at an auspicious time, doing our own practice, and that’s the benefit. The Mela is not the benefit, it’s your own practice.”

The rickshaw ride back was wonderful. Back on campus, we bathed from buckets in straw huts equipped with clean water. I didn’t care how simple it was—the water, the quiet, and the afternoon breeze felt as “authentic” and “auspicious” as anything ever had.

The circus wasn’t the point: the point was—as it always is— all within.

JH Selina Mangesh

Selina, JH, Mangesh

 

In the Beginning, I am a Tourist

entering Taj Mahal V

Gateway to the Taj Mahal

It was a 23 hour journey from Newark, NJ to Agra, India (13 hour flight, 4 hour wait at the Delhi airport to join my group, agonizingly slow bus ride through the “fog”). Left Feb 1 and arrived Feb 3. Feb 2 just disappeared.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Here are a few photos from initial landing in India. Fleeting first impressions.

Spent a blurry Sunday afternoon at the Taj Mahal. Glad to see that the Indian tourists outnumbered the Westerners.

line to enter TM

Sunday pilgrims to Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal, a mausoleum to a Muslim king’s favorite wife, sits on the Yamuna River which is perpetually misty.

Loving the mesmerizing colors of women’s saris.

saris at TM

Great color

We were taken to a carpet maker in Agra. Beautiful, hand-knotted silk and wool carpets. Then out came the chai and the hard-soft sell.

 

carpet makers

Hand-knotted carpets

And that was about enough sight-seeing for me. The next day, a 10-hour bus ride to Allahabad, where we are now. Slowly getting introduced to the Kumbha Mela.

Now that the travel is over, the journey begins.

 

Kill Your Darlings

The great writers all say it—to write is to revise. It’s all in the edit.

The great story, poem, or essay rarely comes out all in one piece. It’s discovered, or uncovered. It doesn’t spring forth like water from the Trevi Fountain, as much as we wish it did. Or suffer because we think it should.

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” — Mark Twain

I like to hear other writers discuss their writing process because it reminds me that I’m not alone. Writing isn’t easy. Perhaps we are a bunch of masochists, but we are dedicated.

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

Because when the ideas are coming and the words are flowing, there’s nothing better.

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” — Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing, 1916

It is hard work. And I’m not even sure it’s noble work, given all the angst. But… we can’t seem to help ourselves. Read more on today’s Flavorpill. 

writing

Holiday Presents (Books!) for Your Yogi

Time for presents! What do you get the yogi on your holiday list?

What I have to suggest has nothing to do with LuluLemon or your local studio, but rather books. Books!

Three notable books come across the Yoga Nation desk this fall. Should you be fortunate enough to have yogis—plural— to shop for, there’s likely a match for everyone.

For your discriminating reader at any point in their yogic career, I suggest Benjamin Lorr’s engrossing memoir Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.

I believe this is Lorr on the cover

I believe this is Lorr on the cover–the Pakistani guy at the deli said, “that’s not art? that’s real person?”

Lorr went from no-good, overweight drunk to hooked on Bikram yoga. Yeah, that stinky hot yoga that people rave about. I mean hooked— he went deep, did the teacher training, entered the notorious competitions, experienced Bikram and his coterie up close and in the flesh.

While the book is a great story, it is truly remarkable how much time Lorr spends in  describing and justifying pain.  He cites research, talks to experts, but after all his hard work, I actually wanted him to do something simple, like distinguish between the intense discomfort of stretching something stiff and the sharp pain of injury, something everyone in yoga can relate to.

I confess that I worried about him—about the fate of his body and his sanity (and the state of yoga). At the same time, I was fascinated by his obsessive fascination and kept reading to the end.

Lorr goes to great lengths to disabuse you, reader, of your quaint notion that yoga is not meant to be competitive. It is, he says. In fact, it can be anything we want it to be. There isn’t a script (except in Bikram teacher-training where there is a very strict script).

And while he admires Bikram Choudhury for his knowledge and skill, he clearly has mixed feelings about Bikram as an undeniable megalomanic. (Example: Bikram requires that his teacher-trainees stay up til 3, 4, or 5am watching Bollywood movies just so he doesn’t have to be alone.)

Even if this is a wack story, it’s a highly enjoyable read. Lorr is a gifted writer. And he gives you lots to think about. Recommended.

 

Next up, and probably best suited to your newbie yogi, is Brian Leaf’s memoir, Garden StateMisadventures of a Garden State Yogi. The book’s subtitle—My Humble Quest to Heal my Colitis, Calm my ADD, and Find the Key to Happiness—promises a strange brew, and even several chapters in, I was trying hard to peg the flavor of this cocktail.

Leaf tells of his beginnings in yoga (and eventual journeys and questings) in a self-deprecating, slapstick voice that would be well-suited for stand-up. (Yoga stand up? Why not?!). And so this book might appeal beginning yogis who will be able to relate to his foibles.

In the end, too much bud-duh-bah becomes distracting in book form. Leaf offers advice throughout and appendixes of hands-on stuff at the back.

Watch the book video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcYFYjnU9Cw

 

21st Century Yoga

Talk it out

Next, for the yogi intellectual is 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice. A collection of essays edited by It’s All Yoga Baby’s editrix Roseanne Harvey and former Elephant Journal blogger Carol Horton, this self-published collection gives critical perspective on yoga culture today.

Essays range from how the yoga scene reinforces negative stereotypes of women’s bodies, how yoga needs to include activism, speak to non-violence, how it can heal addition etc. Warning: a lot of essays have two-part titles that include colons (the punctuation mark), e.g. “Yoga for War: The Politics of the Divine.”). You know what that means. Graduate school!

The first essay absolutely infuriated me with its mushed up logic, but otherwise these are conversations the yoga world needs to be having. At long last. Amen.

Finally, forget about William Broad’s The Science of Yoga from earlier this year unless you want to confuse your yogi. Broad may be a senior editor at the New York Times, but he’s no yoga expert. Gary Kraftsow of American Viniyoga Institute expertly tore him a new you-know-what at the Yoga Journal Conference in NYC, 2012. In front of an audience of, oh, a thousand or more. Problematic understanding of Tantra and yoga’s origins (Lorr is much better on this point) and interesting but shady research overall.

That’s it! Happy holidays!

(And drop a comment here or a tweet me @yoganation to let me know what you bought your yogi this year, book or no… )

 

…and this just in: One More Book!

This just in! Got a note this morning from surfer yogi dude, Jaimal Yogis, that his new book will be out January 8th.

Yogis’s 2009 book Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea took a koan-ic approach to the chillest sport ever, as he searched for enlightenment on the waves.

In his new book, The Fear Project, Yogis hopes to answer this question (click to watch):

Jaimal Yogis Fear

Since I don’t have the book in my hands—but I can vouch for Yogis as a writer—I’m giving you the marketing copy below (you know, the stuff you’d read on Amazon or Library Journal).

Great gift for your the surfer yogi in your family?

This provocative, entertaining story follows Yogis as he navigated his own fears, from the monsters under his childhood bed to his personal quest to surf bigger and more difficult waves, culminating in northern California Mavericks—huge, crushing (and sometimes deadly) waves in the dead of winter. The Fear Project explores the complicated spectrum of why we feel afraid: fear of loss, fear of not being good enough, fear of being alone, fear of being trapped in the wrong job, fear of not being able to realize our dreams, fear of pain, and ultimately, fear of our own mortality.

Yogis embarks on a memorable journey as he seeks answers from neuroscientists, meditation teachers, psychologists, and elite athletes. As he learns how to identify and overcome his own fears, he shares the secret to unlocking a sense of renewed possibility and a more rewarding life.

The Fear Project is a captivating look at the age-old lesson that by recognizing our fears and embracing them—instead of running away—we can harness fear’s powerful energy to find true happiness and fulfillment.

Leaving Rio: Why I Had to Go

Leaving Rio

Now that my time in Rio is coming to an end people are asking me whether I really want to go. “Don’t you want to stay longer? Overstay your visa! You could teach English!”

It’s been 2 ½ months—June, July, and half of August. I’ve lived in two apartments in the colonial neighborhood of Santa Teresa perched on a steep, cobblestoned hill in Rio de Janeiro. I also traveled in the Amazon for three weeks. Many people would not want the adventure to end. But I do.

I came to Brazil to change my perspective. I knew I couldn’t do it if I stayed in New York. I needed to know that life was more than just work. After fifteen years of surviving in the Big Apple, many of my ideas about well-being revolved around working. But my life, organized to the minute — so that I could include personal projects and a social life, as well as my job as an editor — has been feeling wrong for some time. It felt like I’d gotten off at the wrong station. It was time to get on a different train.

View from Santa Teresa over downtown to Guanabara Bay

I knew Brazil—especially Rio—could help me with this. The most important thing in Rio is one’s connections to other people; it’s about having fun (with people) and enjoying life (with other people). It’s definitely not about work. Sunday nights are bigger party nights than Saturdays: people celebrate hard on their last free night before Monday. And, while people seemed to be constantly hustling up work, no one I met in Rio had a steady job.

Brazil is famous for being the land of alegria. Nothing is a problem. Don’t have a friend? No problem: go to the corner bar and within the hour you’ll have a few. They’ll make your evening fun, they’ll invite you to eat at their house, and when you meet on the street afterwards they’ll greet you with impossibly warm and open smiles. You’ll feel like family.

Don’t know your way around the city? No problem. Cariocas will instruct you on the best places to go and anyone overhearing the conversation will give their opinions. Can’t speak Portuguese? No problem. People will band together to communicate with you. No stress! Don’t worry!

This “no stress” attitude means that plans are unnecessary. Three hours late for a dinner party? No problem. Forget to call your friends? No problem. Stuck in traffic? No problem. Land of happiness, land of alegria. I even saw a woman walking down my street with a T-shirt that said “NO stress” (in English) yesterday.

I just met this guy

And once you connect with people the warmth is genuine. Brazilians will stick around to help you solve whatever problem you’re having (bus didn’t stop for you, can’t find a street, don’t understand something etc). They will lend you money no questions asked, give you a ride far out of their way, make you food at any time of the day or night, let you cut in line.

In fact, friends of friends will be assigned to pick you up at the airport or entertain you for an afternoon if your one friend in Brazil is not available. They don’t mind extending this exceptional hospitality. Most Americans (and Canadians) would find it absurd and imposing; they would resent it.. But Brazilians like it. They become instant family. And they remember you like a dear friend. Next time they see you, they will give you a warm kiss on each cheek and stop whatever they are doing to speak few tender words. There’s never a rush. They’re never too busy to talk.

This (along with the music, the dance, and the hilarious commentary on day-to-day life) is what Brazil does exceptionally well. And it’s this I wanted more of. Brazil has helped open me up to a whole different way of living, with more ginga (swing in your game), more sensuality (I like the extra bum exposure on the beach, and the men’s bikini, the sunga) and a less Puritan morality. More alegria, less worry. As a chronic worrier, all this has helped me a lot over time.

 

But there’s another side to this wonderful carinho (tender warmth). And it’s this other side that really bothered me this time in Brazil. The other side of alegria is tristeza—sadness—and there is plenty of crying going on in Brazil, especially in Rio. For good reason, because things aren’t safe, there’s very little accountability (from organizations or individuals), and when things go wrong there’s no recourse.

You have to apply a jeito—a work-around—to deal with the multiple maddening problems that come up in a day, for issues as small as buying a certain kind of hook to hang your hammock to rather larger ones like what to do when your house is on fire.

Here’s a minor but good example: when my Carioca friend discovered a match-stick in his feijão (stewed black beans) he didn’t complain to the waiter. What was the point? he said, it wouldn’t change anything. He had lived in New York for ten years and knew what I was thinking. But he did make a little chorinho—a little sob story—for extra beans. And the waiter brought them, kindly, as if he was doing Daniel a personal favor. In Brazil, you have to know how to play the game.

Daniel, philosophical after finding a match in his feijao

I didn’t realize when I went to Brazil how profoundly this particular tristeza is a part of the culture. I didn’t realize how deep it ran. This tristeza is erratic by nature and so it put me up against my own need for order. The casual attitude towards important things put me up against my tendency to worry, and the general lack of accountability made me scared for my day-to-day safety. I found it hard to roll with things— to be enrolando, “in the rolling,” as Cariocas are—even after a couple of months in Brazil.

I felt this keenly on my last day in Rio when I finally went up the Pão D’Acúcar, the Sugarloaf, a 1,300 foot rock accessed by a cable car that can take 65 people at a time up to a spectacular viewing area.

The thing I really noticed other than the breathtaking view was that I felt safe. I wasn’t afraid that the cables would snap, that someone would fall out of the bondinho (cable car) or off the top of the rocks. It felt like a first world experience. And this was a tremendous relief. I worried about safety constantly as I walked through the city streets of Rio.

View of Rio from Sugarloaf

Most of the time in Brazil, I was not so much afraid of being robbed as I was afraid to do simple things such as walk on the sidewalk. In Santa Teresa, the sidewalk was so narrow that every few feet I had to step off into traffic. There were also unavoidable obstacles like poles in the middle of the sidewalk that had to be sidestepped, and parked cars, or mounds of uncollected garbage. (Not to mention the ever-present clumps of dog poop.)

Wires hung down dangerously from telephone and power lines over the sidewalk. They dangled at head-height and were hard to see in the bright sun and the dark rain.

Wires hang down at head-height

The traffic coming around every corner was fast, erratic, and fearless. Motorbikes avoiding the tram tracks would come within inches of the sidewalk (that you might just be about to step off to avoid a pole, for example). Buses routinely came so close that they ripped off the rear-view mirrors of parked cars. Cars played chicken with pedestrians—not out of malice, out of habit.

City buses shook so violently I was afraid I’d bite my own tongue, my teeth chattering around in my head uncontrollably. The buses clogged the streets and competed with each other for degrees of recklessness. One driver told a friend who got on with her 5-year old daughter to hold on—and before he had even closed the door, the bus was careening down the cobblestones at top speed like the apocalypse was coming.

And it’s not like the roads, tracks, or cars are well-maintained. A tragic example is what happened to Santa Teresa’s beloved bonde (streetcar) last year. A charming last vestige of old-time Rio, the signature yellow, single-car train connected the various areas of the hilly, colonial neighborhood and crossed the old aqueduct down in the city proper, ending up in the beautiful Jardim Bôtanico, the city’s famous botanical gardens. On August 27, 2011, the bonde lost control on its way down to Lapa, smashing into a pole, killing the conductor and 5 passengers and injuring 51 other people.

Beloved Santa Teresa, facing Cine Santa, the adorable cinema; also see the bonde tracks, narrow sidewalks, and racing van

The extra tragic part is that it was avoidable. Everyone knew the bonde and its tracks needed maintenance. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before something bad happened. There was a lot of talk about it. But as political discussions continued, people continued to ride, overloading the tram as usual. Nothing was done. Then— the worst thing possible happened. Now people are dead and there’s no more bonde.

So I adjust the motto of Brazil as land of alegria. I’ve come to call it land of “alegria now, chorinho later.” This lack of accountability and action, this disposition of “oh well” proves itself to be charming and relaxed in the moment, but dangerous and reckless in the long-term. Engage any Brazilian (at the corner bar, of course, that’s where things get worked out) in this subject and they will agree, nodding and saying, e uma locura, it’s a madness. (But you’ll see those same people doing the alegria thing themselves soon enough.)

Another maddening aspect of Brazilian culture is a lack of respect for other people, especially when it comes to public space. This is pretty puzzling for a culture that puts so much emphasis on relationships, family, and social ease.

But I’ve spent hours and hours walking around downtown, Centro, looking for Rio’s impressive colonial churches and in all this time ambulating, it’s been normal for Brazilians to walk out in front of me and stand exactly in my way. They don’t have to do this. Then, they refuse to move as I am trying to figure out how to get around them. This happens not with malevolence, but with absolute indifference to my presence. I see other Brazilians on the sidewalk throw out their hands and say, “Poha!” Shit! with a gesture that’s says, ‘what the hell are you doing? Can’t you see I’m here?’ Even though they probably do the same thing themselves.

Igreja de Nossa Senora da Gloria do Outeiro 1714-1729

If you go to a shop and want to buy something, you will have to make your presence known. Even if you are standing at the counter. Even if you are the only customer there. Even if there are 10 people behind the counter, you will need to say, loudly, firmly, “bom dia,” good day, and then bark your order. It doesn’t feel right. But their main objective is not to serve you. You have to remind people that in order to buy the Band-Aids, you need to give them money. And they are the only ones who can take it from you.

They are also famous for playing boom-boxes, speakers, car stereos, or telenovelas (soap operas, a national passion) so loud that you can’t think straight, and they’ll do it right into their neighbor’s houses without a second thought to how it’s affecting anyone else. It’s enough to make otherwise patient adults—not to mention parents of young children—lose their minds.

But here’s the other thing: no one complains. Brazilians are so reluctant to give offense that they won’t say, “Yo, asshole, turn the motherfucking stereo off, it’s 3 a.m..” Or even, “would you mind turning down the music?”

Without protest or complaint, or even an ‘excuse me,’ Brazilians will shove and squeeze you out of the way as you are getting off airplanes, boats, buses and other forms of mass transportation. And then if anyone gets hurt in the process—if the delivery guy barrelling down the sidewalk with his huge cart overloaded with crates of beer or boxes of diapers gashes your thigh, for example, as he presses forward at a dangerous speed, or knocks over your 2-year old or your frail mother—he is terribly, terribly sorry, genuinely hurt and concerned on your behalf. It’s as if he had nothing to do with the situation.

Alegria now, chorinho later.” Everything is in the moment, at the moment. Worry about consequences later.

my friend Arjan — just a friend

I noticed this fleeting urgency in my interactions with men. If a guy thought I was attractive, within an hour he would be trying to get me into a dark corner to make out. If I refused but gave him my info, he would inundate me with come-ons and invitations for the first few days, but if I happened to be busy right that moment (taking a Portuguese class or meeting up with another friend, for example) he would just give up. As far as I could tell, there was no such thing as a period of seduction or, even a period of dating. It was now or never; all or nothing. I found all these rituals startling, bordering on predatory, but for Cariocas they seemed normal: like if the guy didn’t try to kiss you at the end of a couple of rounds of forró (a country dance) then something was wrong.

Although the dating rituals were perplexing (I couldn’t see how anything more than a quick hook-up was possible in Rio), they were harmless. Things got scary when this lack of patience—fortitude, perseverance, or even focus— extended into services on which public safety depended.

One night, I came home from Bar do Gomes, my local and charming boteco (bar) around 1:30am and to my surprise,  I saw that the house next door was on fire. Helena, the woman I was renting from, was urgently calling the fire department. Her son, Rafael, and his friends were running out into the street, trying to get into the burning house. It was under renovation and no one lived there.

The boys managed to break in and douse the fire with bottled water. Then they found a n unconscious man, a worker on the house (one who had routinely played horrible radio stations at top volume, disturbing all of us). Helena drove off to get the house’s owner.

Neighbors had spilled out into the street and started a rumor that the man had snuck into the house to kill himself. At great personal risk, the boys dragged the half-unconscious guy into the street.  They shook him by his arms and legs, trying to rouse him from a smoke-induced coma.

A long time had passed without any sign of the police or fire department. It was about 40 minutes later when the police arrived—slowly, and clearly annoyed to have been roused from sleep. They sauntered over to the comatose man and yanked him up from the cobblestones where they boys had laid him. The boys rushed in to protest. The policeman, aggravated, pulled his gun.

Helena, having arrived back with the owner’s lover, appeared in the street, shouting, “Amigos de Rafael, sai da rua! Sai! Vai na casa!” Friends of Rafael get out of the street! Get back into the house!

She could see the situation spinning out of control. She’d rather that the police kill this already half-dead man than pull the trigger on one of her sons’s friends—who had gotten too involved by challenging the police. I thought I was going to witness the kind of stupid murder we all saw in the movie, “City of God,” about the out-of-control drug trade and police corruption in Rio.

the fire dept finally arrives

Meanwhile a sluggish and reluctant fire truck appeared at the end of the street. It has been almost an hour since Helena had called. The station was only 10 minutes away. The truck turned in where cars were clustered on the sidewalk. The L-shaped street had another entrance—as the firefighters must have known—very close by and it was free of parked vehicles. But instead the firefighters waited for the neighbors to move their cars, slowly, one by one.

Meanwhile the fire in the house had re-ignited and thicker, greedier flames were shooting out of the second story windows. Those of us on the street stood with our mouths agape. “E uma locura!” Said a girl next to me. “What are they doing!!??” I asked. “Nao sei,” someone said, “I don’t know.” No one knew. It was a warm night but I was shivering with anxiety. It wasn’t even my property but I felt extremely unprotected.

“And this guy, if he wanted to kill himself, why didn’t he do it some normal way, with a knife or a rope? “ said a woman standing next to me.

“He wanted to make a show,” said Helena. “Burning down someone else’s house. Incrível.” Incredible.

When the bombeiros finally got up in front of the burning house, they were in no rush to put out the fire. They didn’t try to prevent the boys from continuing to run in with their water bottles. There was not even a gesture towards crowd control. The firemen were very casual about arranging their gear. They were dressed in clothes from another era that looked like they should be in a museum.

The men slowly hooked up the hose on the truck and slowly turned on the water. But when they unspooled the hose and walked towards the burning house — the hose was too short.

Meanwhile, the ambulance that had arrived did not administer aid to the comatose man (who was now more conscious and looked drugged up). Instead, the man was handcuffed and left in the back of the police cruiser while the cops —about 10 of them—stood around and shot the shit.

I stood in the street, watching helplessly. I was shaking all over. I couldn’t sleep after the fire was out and the firefighters and the police with their suspect had departed.

However, even more suprising, the next night when I related the story to locals at Bar do Gomes, no one thought it was shocking. They looked at me blankly. It was as if I had a problem. Silly, gringa, I didn’t understand that this was normal.

“There is no help. If anything happens here,  I am responsible for the situation, for this house, for everyone,” Helena said the next day. “If I don’t put the fire out next door, then my house gets damaged and no one will solve that for me. If there is trouble in the street, I have to deal with it. There is no security, no safety, no guarantees. This is Brazil. It’s all a big mess.”

I imagined what it must be like owning a house in Rio. It made me very tense.

(Ten days later, one of Brazil’s biggest art collectors lost his entire personal collection in an apartment fire. It took the fire department an hour to get the ladder up.)

All of these things happened in Rio de Janeiro, a big world-class city with a lot of educated people and established infrastructure, a city that is preparing to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

So just imagine how wild, raw, and lawless other parts of Brazil can be.  In remote areas—from the Amazon to the northeast, for example—long-distance passenger buses are routinely held up and robbed, Wild West style. If someone is killed in the Amazon—in a misunderstanding, a drunken brawl, a land dispute, for example—the dead just disappear.

Kimberly and Cece

My ex-pat friends in Rio are used to living on Brazil’s shaky foundation. It seems that their passion for Brazil outweighs their frustration with the infrastructure or any fear for themselves. I applaud that. Maybe if I had moved to Brazil at the peak of my own passion I wouldn’t mind the difficulties so much, either.

Now that I’m back in North America, feeling safe, clean, protected, and more-or-less understood, I do miss that Brazilian ginga. I miss that extra spice that makes people want to stay forever in “the marvelous city.” I miss the warmth and the permissiveness and the humor of Brazilians, how there’s always a way, always a work-around, and no favor is too big or small to ask for. Rules, schedules, and protocols get to feeling very restrictive and unfriendly here in the north; they are more concerned with maintaining a cold bureaucracy than with fostering human joy. Life on a schedule, I now realize, is half a life.

Vinicius

But one thing I have left Brazil with is the knowledge that in New York I live with a lot of security, a lot of safety. I didn’t know this before. I live with the knowledge that if I need an ambulance, an ambulance will come. Fast. And first-responders will treat me no matter what my race or income. And that is a very, very nice thing.

Luke, teaching English to a bar owner who prefers to feed him triple-decker sandwiches!

So I need to wait before I got back to Brazil again. I have to wait until I again reach the point where I’ve taken my day-to-day safety for granted or begin to feel frustrated with America’s Puritan mindset, or slip back into my tendency to overwork.

I have to wait until I forget how nice it is to have very safe and clean streets, clean water,  fellow citizens who make an effort to look out for my well-being, to accommodate for me in public space, friends who make (and keep) plans, and a first-world fire-station right around the corner.

Last lunch in Rio: tchau, ridiculous and marvelous city!

 

 

 

10 Can’t-Miss Snacks in Rio de Janeiro

And now for something completely light and fluffy…. !

Here’s my post for Fodor’s travel blog from July on the snacks you *must* try when you come to Rio.

I realize my posts are running from the sublime to the ridiculous, but such is the way of beauty and commerce…

Bar food, street food, snack food, beach food—Rio de Janeiro thrives on snacks. And so will you, if you can find your way around the hundreds of sometimes baffling options. Here is my top-ten list of can’t-miss bites from mouth-watering cheeseballs to popcorn with condensed milk.   Keep reading