My uncle and aunt picked me up from the airport. I hadn’t seen them in a decade or so, even in pictures, but somehow their faces still stood out in the crowd.
I mainly came to India to do the Vipassana meditation retreat: 10 days of silence, no phones/reading/writing/technology/talking/meaningful eye contact. You wake up at 4am, meditate for 10-14 hours, go to bed before 10pm, and then do it all over again. The course is completely free and sustained by volunteers and donations. It has no religious component whatsoever. It seems fitting to learn about mindfulness in India, the birthplace of meditation and yoga. The 10-day course begins on March 10th near Jaipur, and I will be exploring Mumbai and Udaipur until then. After India, it’s on to Nepal, Everest, Base Camp. I cannot wait. This is probably the furthest ahead I’ve planned on Bonderman so far.
Presently, I am living out all my food dreams, and the only food regrets I have are for the foods I did not eat. Homemade garlic naan, vegetable pakoras, chole bhatura, chaat, pav bhaji, gobi parathas, fresh mango lassis and kulfi. And of course, masala chai.
I woke up thinking in Hindi…
It is very nice to be able to mostly understand what people are saying in Hindi around me and to be able to respond semi-competently in their language. A lot of times in other countries, I assumed that people loitering around the streets and yelling stuff towards me were saying unsavory things, but actually, now that I know what they’re saying, the talk mostly has nothing to do with me. It was pretty self-absorbed of me to think otherwise. I feel comforted.
We had dinner tonight at Mirchi & Mime, a restaurant that primarily hires people with disabilities; the entire staff knew sign language and the menu had diagrams to help people order dishes in sign language, too. It was a beautiful concept for a restaurant. I was with my aunt, uncle, and cousins and since they are all older than me, of course they began discussing what I was like as a kid and how I’ve changed over the years. They asked about my travels, what I wanted to do, and why I left home. My cousin was impressed by the logistics of it all. After dinner was over, she smirked and said “your dad raised you like a boy.” I know what she meant, and I smiled back.
Today, I visited the Gateway of India monument, an arched beacon for those landing from faraway seas. Nearby stands the Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the most elegant and upscale hotels I’ve ever been in. My aunt got me fresh pistachios from a vendor near the Gateway. We munched and watched throngs of people passing by as waves crashed and splashed towards them.
Hard to believe that eleven years earlier, this exact area was shaken by Pakistani terrorists who targeted such beautiful sites, sites that symbolized India’s democracy, freedom, prosperity, and culture. They hijacked a fishing boat and slit the captain’s throat before going on to kill around 164 people, including some American citizens. As I gazed at the majestic Taj Hotel, the grand archway, and the merriment all around me, I thought about all the vitality and vibrancy I’d experienced here already. I realized such extremists would never be able to crush a proud nation’s spirit, try as they might.
My time in Mumbai — the City of Dreams, where my mother grew up — is nearly over. Tomorrow, I fly to the City of Lakes, also known as Udaipur, to see the place where it all began for my dad.
I’m staying with my other aunt and uncle while here in Udaipur. Their home is very modern and spacious. I’ve also learned that you must say “stop” about 2 spoonfuls before you actually want your Indian relative to stop pouring the food onto your plate.
Gangaur Ghat on Lake Pichola
The relatives I am staying with are both doctors, so I decided it would be a great opportunity to witness what non-western medical care looks like.
The government hospital was very hard to see. There was an unbelievable amount of people waiting for care, wearing makeshift casts or dressings over their injuries. Overloaded providers working to help tend to the swell of patients, but the waiting rooms never seemed to thin. Literally crumbling facilities and a lack of infrastructure maintenance. I saw some private hospitals too, and they are like the ones I’ve been in in the U.S., but they are not as accessible. It’s deeply saddening how unevenly resources are distributed throughout the world. I can’t even imagine needing emergency care in a place like this…
My flight to Jaipur is tomorrow. I will have to take a cab to get to the meditation center which is far removed from the noises and distractions of the city. As I’m getting ready to leave, I’m thinking about how India has been strangely comforting:
• After 7 and a half months abroad, having a family with me (not just spontaneous friends) is so pleasant
• I don’t feel unwelcome or unusual or unexpected. My name, my face, nothing about me stands out here. Until I speak…
• Being able to mostly understand people even when they’re speaking a non-English language is always good
• Seeing through adult eyes where my parents grew up is powerful in a vague, yet fundamental way
Jagdish Temple, a Hindu Temple in Udaipur
Me with a statue of hero horse, Chetak, at the Maharana Pratap Memorial. Maharana Pratap was a Rajput hero and King who defied invasion attempts of Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 1500’s
Sunset over Fateh Sagar Lake
I have arrived at the Dhamma Thali Vipassana Meditation Center. It is extremely low-tech and dusty here, but very beautiful; the facility is one of the oldest ones, and there’s a sense of serenity that comes with the history of a place like this, one that has taught and helped so many people before me. The center comprises a collection of off-white buildings which function as dorms, dining hall, and meditation rooms, all of which are nestled amongst verdant hills. There is a brilliant pagoda with solitary rooms where we will get a chance to meditate later on in the course.
Because I arrived freakishly early for once (involuntarily of course; I had an early flight), I get my own room. The founders were definitely going for a more spartan look when decorating these spaces… My bed is a wood plank with a blanket on top. There are cobwebs and matching spiders in the corners. Besides for a wobbly old table to set my bag on, there is nothing else in the room. The prospect of the ancient attached bathroom frightens me, and I’m not ready to look at it yet. I had to surrender my phone, but I snuck in some contraband in the form of pen and papers. The way I see it, the reason they restrict reading, writing, talking, exercising, etc. is because you are supposed to be focusing and learning away from distractions. However, I learn and process through writing. Not to mention, Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha, always said to think for yourself, even if that means defying the status quo and established rules. So really, by illicitly writing about what I experience, I’m embodying the very spirit of the subject I’m trying to learn about? I will just go with that.
I already had a new and cathartic experience when I arrived and they took attendance. The class was mostly Indians and a foreigner here and there. The instructor said “Chetali Jain” perfectly, but when she got to all the white people’s names, like Margaret or Caitlyn, she paused before totally botching the pronunciations. Cathartic.
I finally peeked into the bathroom; it’s not so bad, just old. That’s the case with my room too — it’s not unclean, just old. Thank god. And I honestly like sleeping on firmer surfaces; my mattress during undergrad was basically a rock. A slab of actual wood was the logical next step.
I’m glad I brought a digital watch for Bonderman. Without my phone or accessible clocks, the watch is all I have to set alarms and tell time.
Part of Vipassana is accepting how things are temporary and not reacting with any kind of attachment or aversion.
My understanding of meditation right now is basically this: you sit and close your eyes. As you do this, you are supposed to become conscious of the sensations all over your body, concentrate on each sensation — without any sort of emotion tied to that recognition — and then move on to the next body part. Then repeat over and over. Based on the nightly “lectures,” the idea behind this is that any human emotion you feel can be boiled down to bodily sensation(s). Therefore, the goal is to identify such sensations (like itches, aches, etc.), stop feeling any kind of emotion about them, and then just sort of accept their transience, and ultimately, you will stop hating or craving or being attached to anything…
This is a school for little sociopaths!
Benevolent and level-headed sociopaths, though. I need to ponder this further. Good thing I have 14 hours of meditation a day to figure it out.
Every morning before the sun has risen, bells toll throughout the campus to wake us up for our 4:30am meditation session. I am going to have nightmares about these bells.
My guess is that there are about 30-40 other women here (the men are staying in a separate area). We all sort of wander around the place aimlessly and avoid making eye contact. It’s not an entirely unwelcome change after almost 8 months of rapid socialization abroad.
The healthy, unembellished food they serve here is surprisingly good; it’s all Indian vegetarian cuisine with vegan options, as well. There’s even chai in the evenings. I’m impressed.
I continue to be amazed by the natural noisiness of being a human being, even when one is trying to be silent. It’s like watching “A Quiet Place” in theaters.
Feels like forever since I spoke to another person or engaged in intentional eye contact with one. Somehow, even though we are all just sitting for long periods of time, I am exhausted.
A few days ago, I found a pristine, completely intact peacock tail feather in the woods near my dorm. Ever since then, I’ve been spending my breaks searching for more. I’m trying to see how many I can collect. So far, I haven’t found any more of the iconic tail feathers, just a bunch of the dinky blue poofy ones. However, I am determined to find more tail feathers so I’ve been following the flocks around.
Stalking peacocks is all I have right now. Is this what insanity feels like?
We are all starved for entertainment/stimulation, and this has led to an unexpected pastime among my cohort: watching monkey fights. There’s a whole cadre of monkeys that emerge from the woods every now and again to observe us and take over our spaces. Once while we were all in the meditation hall, they carried out a coup on the trees near one cluster of dorms, including my own, and we couldn’t go back to our rooms until nightfall, when they finally settled down and fell asleep. During orientation, they had pointed out signs near the pagoda that caution guests to carefully shut the doors behind them, as a monkey once broke in and wreaked havoc on the monks for a while.
Anyway, after lunch today they had some sort of collective breakdown which led to a multi-monkey brawl on the roof of the meditation hall. Their pounding and shrieks actually kept me awake though, so that was good.
We all went out afterwards and sat on a ledge to watch the (playful?) fight unfold before us. They were ruthless: tossing their opponents off of branches, swiping at the ones who got too close while they were chewing a leaf, baring their teeth if challenged. One monkey got pushed out of the tree and landed in a sitting position, legs stretched out and hands sheepishly held in its lap. It appeared to me that he or she was deeply embarrassed, almost like he/she was mortified that we had all witnessed him/her get shoved out of a tree. I don’t know, I was actually very impressed (and jealous of) how acrobatic and agile the monkeys are. Jumping from branch to branch, off buildings, like it was nothing.
I keep falling asleep on my mat when I’m supposed to be attaining nirvana.
It may sound cliche, but I feel like things are very clear in my mind right now. There’s this all-consuming sense of goodness. Maybe the Vipassana is working. I feel super forgiving and content. I even stopped being irked by people’s audible breathing/swallowing/digestive noises. I just stopped letting it bother and distract me.
Here is what I have taken away so far:
Meditation is about the here and now, but that doesn’t make it shallow. It’s more just being okay with things not lasting forever: not our friendships, not our faces, not our health, not our successes, not our failures, not our bodies, not our selves. Since there’s no question of whether things end, there really isn’t a reason to worry about how long they’ll last either. If it’s for a minute or for a month or for a year or for 10 years — you should give as much as you can to it, and not be sad or happy once it’s gone. At least that’s what I’m getting from all this.
Everything’s always changing, so there’s no point worrying about anything.
Does that make sense? I don’t know. Hunting for peacock feathers is my main form of recreation, so I can’t really comment on philosophical complexities right now.
F***, the word that broke my nearly ten days of silence.
There was a terrace, no barrier. I was just walking. Calm and so restful — I didn’t see what was lying there below my feet, catching me mid-step, plunging me ten feet to the concrete ground. All I can remember before everything went black is falling.
India post 2/2 coming soon…