Day 91- first day in India and I’m already putting the Holy Ganges in my mouth.

I barely slept from the noise in Delhi. The Cottage Yes Please is situated behind a market and I can feel the buzz of a city that doesn’t sleep. A horse clomps around the corner and dogs bark in a frenzy every few hours. It is hot and the fan or air conditioning unit is really loud. I wake up and look out the window, spying a chai vendor across the road. I really want to go down and get some tea but for some reason I am paralysed by fear. I want to stay in this room until the driver comes to take me to Rishikesh. I don’t know what is wrong with me, but I think I am a little psyched out by all my friends and family worrying about me and telling me to be careful. Obviously the world is just unsafe and I would have been better off to just stay within the womb instead of making the bold gesture of being born! I get annoyed at myself and at the conditioning influencing me. You can worry all you like, family, but you know as well as I do that I have as much, if not more, of a chance of getting viciously attacked in my own neighbourhood back in Sydney as I do here in Delhi. Finally I shake off the fear and frustration and wonder down to the chai stand. This tiny cup of hot, spicy tea costs me less than 13 cents and is possibly the most delicious liquid I have ever had the pleasure to imbibe. I sit down on the plastic chair and slowly sip away as I watch the world go by. The one thing I am eternally grateful for is that nobody says boo to me. Obviously they are used to the wide-mouthed foreigners, but it is such a relief not to have someone sit down next to me and try to strike up a conversation like they would in Bali, Padang, Mexico or even Sydney. Maybe nobody speaks English. After another round of tea and a pastry finger, I wonder away through the market. The lassi vendors call out to me and make me regret filling up on chai. Taking a photo of a temple, I see a black cow out of the corner of my eye. It ducks behind a truck and I look around, thinking I have gone mad- why the hell would a cow be hiding behind a car in a busy street? Then I remember I am in India. Why the hell WOULDN’T a cow be in a busy street?

The drive to the Sadhana Mandir Trust, Swami Rama Ashram, Rishikesh is about six hours of constant horn-blowing, ox-carts, rickshaws, dust, huge buses and motorbikes. The driver barely speaks any English so I am left to dodge back and forth across the backseat, trying to take photos of anything I can, but eventually I give up and just sit and watch. I wish somebody would invent camera sunglasses so I can press a button that takes a picture of what I see. Maybe they exist in a movie? When we finally arrive at the ashram, I am shown to the room and have enough time to shower before more chai. I am onto the fourth cup of the day and it still tastes amazing!

After tea, I go for a walk along the Ganges river. I have dreamt about this river for years. Thousands of birds call out in the setting sun and mysterious animals sound their calls from the jungle across the river. My favourite sight is the women in saris. The women dress so beautifully, with such attention to detail. I can’t imagine an Indian woman every wearing a mismatched sari. The colours are all so vivid and bright. They say that there are as many different spiritual paths as there are people, and I think the same thing could be said of saris.

At 6pm I attend the Aarti, an evening puja by the river. The Rishi comes down in his white robes, a red line down the centre of his forehead. With a clank, he places a cloth bag down beside a tray of incense and cups of herbs and sugar balls. He gets knee deep into the water and pulls out some weeds, cupping water and throwing it away, as though clearing this small section of river. He throws water over his own head and drinks some, then calls out to us in Hindi to do the same. I follow the lead of my new friend Ameeta, who is from Bangalore. She is roughly mum’s age and has a daughter my age so she takes me under her wing. I wimp out of drinking the water, but put a dab on my lips, contemplating the fine line between holy and shit. I figure a few water molecules are bound to make their way into me. The Rishi passes us a cup of red paste and we flick it into the water, then a pink flower that we hold in our prayer mudras, facing the holy river as he chants. After the flower is tossed, we are given tulsi basil and then sugar balls, with the same process. We pass around the incense and then a tray of burning ghee. I don’t know any of the chants, but when the om comes around, I chime in enthusiastically. In quiet meditation I keep opening my eyes, hearing the call of a peacock in the distance and watching the Rishi beside me. I can’t keep my eyes closed, I just want to drink in everything – the sights, the sounds, the smells… everything except the river water. Finally the Rishi passes the red paste to a large woman in a turquoise blue sari and she places a dot on each of our foreheads. When she reaches me, she applies the red paste and then gives my spiky head an affectionate pat. The Rishi uses his small stick to spread the paste upwards and then gives us some sugar balls, tulsi leaf and water to take. He adjusts my hands, mumbling, and I understand the word ‘mudra’, as he pushes my thumb into the centre of my palm. I walk away feeling as though my heart has just been ripped open. I feel terrified again at the magnificence of this feeling and the enormity of what I am doing. My heart has been ripped open and so has my mind, but that is exactly what I came here for.

After a dinner of Kichari, the seven people attending the Self Transformation Program meet in the meditation hall and are greeted by our ‘guide’, a self-proclaimed ‘monk-key’. He doesn’t lie when he calls himself radical. He loves palindromic sentences such as “stillness in motion; motion in stillness” and tells us that when “everything is changing, one must change everything!” He promises to kill the ego and give us the experience, because learning is not possible without the experience. He insists we refer to ourselves in the third person, stripping away attachment to who we think we are. When he asks in which position we like to meditate, assuming that everyone sits, I say that I prefer to stand. I have no idea why I say this because even though I really enjoy a standing meditation, more often than not I sit or lie down or move. I probably said it just to be backwards, but it has backfired on me because now I have to go through with it. After the meeting, we are sent to our rooms with the warning not to emerge after 10pm until the vegetarian dogs get used to our scent. We must practice silence when not in the discussion times and are only permitted to read three prescribed texts. Our teacher wants to move us from unconsciously unconscious to consciously conscious. As I stand and meditate before my lit candle, I think of the Standing Babas who spend their lives on their swollen feet for god. It really is more comfortable than sitting, though.

Due to the intensity of the course, we are no longer permitted contact with the outside world. I don’t know what will happen in the next three weeks, but I imagine it will be a huge transformation. I have the Doors’ song stuck in my head: “Break on through to the other side!!”

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