The 365th Day

It has been an amazing journey, to say the least. If I think back to the person I was when I thought up this whole idea there are many ways in which I can say that I have changed. I remember standing in the café I was working at, around this time last year and thinking there has to be more to this life than this work and misery cycle. I thought I was saving my money to go back to Indonesia, but I never made it back to the boat where I had spent the previous two years. What happened instead was that I took the first step towards my true self and from there on was led to some of the most life-changing places, moments and people I have ever known. I remember being the kind of girl who was hiding behind her long hair, a little uncertain of her place in the world, insecure, anxious, with no conception of who she was. I had lost my sense of self in a co-dependent relationship and had stopped listening to my inner voice. I remember when I began meditating, how difficult it was to get through five minutes! I was detached from reality, unconscious of the pulsating rhythm of life. I remember being the kind of person that was surprised by spontaneous happiness. What kind of human condition has set us on course to accept infinite sadness as the norm?

I was supposed to be getting married, settling down and becoming the quiet and sedate house[boat]wife. Instead, a tiny voice inside told me to go to India and as I waited for the plane to Mexico, I booked a one-way ticket to Delhi. It was the greatest feeling, knowing I had finally made the decision to go somewhere alone, knowing that I was finally directing my own life. Even as I travelled through Mexico, I remember feeling like I was being dragged along on someone else’s trip. I wasn’t the leader on my own path until I separated from that situation, that person and from the expectation that people around me had.

That pinnacle turning point of the break-up, where I had stood in front of my fiancé and watched him cry and scream and all I could hear was that tiny voice inside telling me I was doing the right thing. To watch another human being suffer is always hard; to know that you have caused their suffering is even harder. Had I stayed, I would have withered and died. I was lost and unhappy in that situation and although there will always be good memories from that time of my life, I never once doubted my decision.

Celebrating the Hindu new-year in the Gedong Ghandi Ashram in Bali, a day of silence showed me how useless all these words had become. I had been to that ashram once before at the beginning of that relationship and then I returned there at the end, the whole experience framed in time by a sense of peace and a reminder that I could only walk this part of the journey alone, because I was all that I needed. Shaving my hair off was like the final shedding of the old self, the abandonment of ego, vanity and superficiality. It also made travelling really easy when I didn’t have to carry around shampoo and conditioner.

Going straight into the Sadhana Mandir ashram in Rishikesh, India, was a confronting and liberating experience. Our teacher, who I aptly named Rafiki after the wise witch doctor baboon from The Lion King, was full of energy, three letter acronyms and bewildering enlightenment. He tore apart our social conditioning and handed us back, bare and naked to see truth in ourselves. I remember crying in the temple, begging Swami Rama to make sense of it all. What was I doing here? What had I done? I just shaved my head and broke off my engagement to come here and be yelled at for closing my eyes when I meditated. All those questions were never answered; they simply became obsolete. I will never forget the coolness of the holy mother Ganga as I stood in the blistering hot sun, a light veil over my head, feeling the coolness creep up from my feet. Or the colours of pink and purple in the dawn as I let my hair go with the current of that holy river. When the course in the ashram was over, climbing to the source, to the Gaumukh glacier I faced the divine and saw only love and forgiveness. After trekking for 19km up to 4000m in altitude, I felt like I had to offer this place something of myself, so I threw in my engagement ring and let go of my old self, of that old life.

Everyone I met in India became shining beacons of hope. I had gone through an incredibly emotional time by myself, with little contact to the outside world, so each of those friendships were connections to the divine. I started to see the light in every person I spoke to. Suddenly the world was shimmering as though it was on fire; I could see life force in everything.

Coming back to Sydney was hard. I felt displaced. I no longer had a room, had lost friends because of the last relationship and was in a kind of limbo about whether to stay or just go back to India or skip on over to Africa… until I met Krystle. My best friend, the strong independent and slightly crazy woman who loves herself so fiercely she barely needs anyone else. But she has me.

Working in bars again was completely against my yogic lifestyle, but I was now entering the Persephone phase. I had to spend some time in the darkness re-planting the seeds of my life so that I could once again grow into the light. I had to explore my shadow side to understand every side of me. What I found was an incredible resilience and strength. I camped in the snow and hauled a sled full of human waste up a 2km slope, carrying a 10kg pack. I ran the City 2 Surf, a 14km race that I had never even thought about before. I looked at a new job as a wine rep and just went for it, with enough confidence to just take it. Anything I wanted, I could manifest. I made mistakes and I forgave myself. More importantly I learnt how to love myself unconditionally. Even when the rest of the world turned against me and started to criticise my life choices, I couldn’t help but be grateful for every moment.

And then it happened. Just when I was telling someone that I wanted to stay alone and single for ten years… I met him. I resisted and struggled against the most powerful force until finally I realised that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. In that funny little place called love. The universe had not steered me wrong and as long as I listened to my inner voice (which had by now become a lot louder), I wouldn’t get lost again. I sat by the south boat ramp in Malabar, a place I had called home for years, and told Matt that I loved him. And he loves me. He is the kind of person that wakes up with laughter every day, who is so full of light that he can make the world smile just by entering a room. In this person I see reflected all the things I love in the world; goodness, purity, energy. And he is the yin to my yang. He is organised and tidy while I lean towards chaos and erratic disorder. He keeps me grounded when I am in danger of floating away and maybe I add a touch of flight where he is in danger of being too structured… We fit together in every way and I am no longer so terrified of this love. I have managed to let go of fear, of future expectations and past projections. Just being in the now, I can see that there is nothing to be afraid of.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on meditation, or yoga. In fact, I gave up teaching yoga the more I learnt about it, until I felt that I could teach in an authentic manner. I don’t pretend that my spiritual journey is over or complete. All I know is that I had to lose everything in order to gain everything. I had to delve deep inside my lightest and darkest and most honest moments in order to truly learn how to love myself. I had to learn to be happy alone. From the person that was constantly surprised when happiness would creep up, I now wake up and am overcome with joy and gratitude for everything that I have in my life. I am awake, conscious and aware of each breath.

I learnt a lot about myself and about the world this year. I learnt that to find peace, I have to stay in the NOW. The past and future do not matter and there is only ever this moment. I learnt that gratitude and manifestation are valuable tools in the pursuit if happiness. I learnt how to become aware of my breath and use it as a tool to keep me anchored into the present. I learnt that emotional energy is the same below the neck; that the mind has a strong influence over our experience over the world and when we learnt to harness it, we can choose the course of our lives. I learnt that to walk the path toward spiritual learning is not always straight and narrow, but wide and curving, up hill and through dark forest. It may not always be clear but when you allow the inner voice to be the guide, it is easy to find the way. I learnt that the only two certainties in life are death and change and to embrace change is to accept the natural flow of the universe. I learnt how to exist in this flow so that I no longer feel resistance to the universe.

And I learnt that nothing is more powerful than love.

At the end of each year I write down my achievements for the year and some goals for the next year. It is always interesting to see how much I have achieved from the goals of the previous year. I found this list and I can tick the 365 Days in Bliss, I also wrote GO TO INDIA! Big tick there… I also found a page at the back of a diary I wrote in last year:

When I woke up today I lay in bed and witnessed my breath. Drinking in te prana, I found stillness and the highest form of meditation, I felt momentary Samadhi; bliss.

If someone came up to me and said, “Who are you?” my answer would be silence.

To just BE is who I am.

So Hum.

I also make a point to write down my gratefuls. I don’t think I could list them all. I am grateful for everything. From this loving man beside me to the sun shining on my leg, to the air in my lungs. This year may have started off as a search, a struggle for bliss. Now it is easy to recognise bliss all around me, to see the divine in everyone and everything, to make every moment sacred. What began as a meditation separate from life has turned into making life a meditation.

Finally I would like to thank all of the people who helped me this year. From my friends and family who were encouraging and kept avidly reading throughout, to the teachers who came into my life and made an impression. I would also like to thank all of those who donated to the I-India project when I cut my hair and to the beautiful people at I-India for showing me around the projects. Also thank you to Sascha and all the girls form Yogatime for accepting me as a teacher when I got back from my travels, to Rosie and all the girls at Embrace for their friendship and help with meditation tools and finally to my mum for… everything. From the bottom of my heart and soul I express deep gratitude and honour for this journey and to myself for having the courage to turn up every day and make something out of nothing, and to be brave enough to write about it with open honesty.

Peace.

Bliss.

Namaste.

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Day 140 – everything changed in India

I am ready to leave the guesthouse at 4.30am, but when I get downstairs the gate is locked and the owner is not answering his phone. When the taxi arrives, I have no other choice but to climb the fence. Is it some kind of sign that I shouldn’t be leaving? I am more than excited to get home and see my family, but I also have a feeling that they will need to physically force me, kicking and screaming, through the airport and onto the plane. I wake up early to do pranayama but there is enough time in transit with nothing much else to do but to meditate. I practice a grounding meditation I did once at the start of this journey, over four months ago when I left Sydney. I imagine a thread of light extending form the crown of my head, down through my body, out my feet and deep into the earth, all the way to the core of the planet.

Before I board the third and final plane that will take me back to Sydney from Bangkok I start chatting to a couple of Swiss guys. One of them asks if my trip to India has changed me. As I nod with a smile, I go back to that moment in January when I sat at the airport in Sydney, waiting for a plane to take me to Bali. How different everything was back then. How different I was then.

“Yes, I have changed.”

“In what way have you changed?”

Unprepared for this conversation with a stranger, I blurt out the most honest answer that is available, “Everything. Everything has changed. I have changed entirely.”

When I left Sydney, I was erratic, half full of anxiety, entirely too full of negative thoughts, my hair was long and I was engaged. Now I feel relaxed, centred, excessively optimistic, my hair is short and I am single. Going to Mexico, I realised just how different my spiritual path was to the path that I was on with my fiancé. We had a great time, but I didn’t get to do all the things in Mexico that I wanted to do. I went back to Sumatra feeling once again way too dependent on my partner to keep me happy. I put unfair expectations on him and then when we were separated, I became despondent and by the time I got to Bali, I gave up my power to my shadow by drinking. I was still practicing every morning but with less energy and less prana. After one more week in Bali, trying to find balance I retreated to an ashram and after practising a day of silence for Nyepi, the Balinese Hindu new year, I went to the local salon in Candidasa and shaved off all my hair. By the time I left for India, I had to say a final goodbye to my fiancé, knowing that my spiritual journey had now led me away from our path together and onward on my own. A part of me had no idea what I was doing and I still remember that crippling fear I felt on that first morning in Delhi when I didn’t even want to leave the hotel. Then, meeting our teacher at Sadhana Mandir Trust, the man who shook my world up, yelling out his TLA’s (three letter acronyms) and demanding that I speak about myself in the third person. Three weeks later and I knew that everything in my life had led me to that point. Trekking up to Gaumukh was the single most life changing moment. As I ascended the final metres, I felt that descending force pulling me up and into the frost tipped mountains. Seeing that frozen glacier, I felt like I had entered the kingdom of heaven. They say that Ayers Rock, in the centre of Australia, is the solar plexus chakra of the world. Well then, the Gaumukh glacier must be the world’s crown chakra. It is a physical place where you can reach out and touch god. As I continued through India, praying at temples and visiting ancient forts, I felt the energy of the ancient land, its rich history culminating to create this world of myth. Meeting the children of I-India I was inspired by the people of this world who, despite having no water, no food, no family or no clean clothes; have undying faith in god, and radiate brightness and joy and dance through life anyway. Watching the Bollywood movie with my friends, I realised how different Australian culture was and how lucky I was to be born in a country where freedom of expression is upheld and even if we have no vegetarian burger available at McDonald’s, we at least consider an ‘honour’ killing a punishable crime.

I left Australia with false expectations, attachments and anxieties. I touched the ground of my ancestors. I enjoyed the luxuries and sensory pleasures of Bali. I entered India with fear, was blessed by the Ganges, my ego was burned to the ground, I was chased by a monkey, I walked straight above the clouds and into heaven, I rode an elephant and danced with the beautiful street children of Jaipur. I have become closer to myself than ever before and now feel that my purpose in this lifetime is to search for enlightenment.

What has changed? Besides my body, my mind, my soul, my path? What hasn’t changed as I fly around the world at high speed and high altitude? Well there is no sign of it slowing down. Whether I join a friend and drive/camp to Western Australia, go back to India, Africa, the Morocco or London. I can’t go back now. I have drawn a line in the sand and the only place to go is to keep moving forward. When everything is changing, you have to change everything.

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Day 134 – I-India street schools and Women’s shelter homes

Today is my last day with I-India. They have promised to show me the last of the projects including the street schools and the women’s shelters. We get into the back of the jeep and drive through dusty lots where the makeshift huts begin to appear. They are mostly made of tarpaulin and canvas sheets laid over plank wooden and stick frames. At the centre of this desert community we pull up beside the school, which is a simple hut with no walls, covered in canvas. The children are sitting in the shade. Some have torn clothes and one child is sent out to go and put some pants on. They have little, but besides some dry scabs that are typical of children who play in hot dry weather, they are clean and healthy. I-India brings shower facilities every two days, as the nearest water is a few kilometres away. There is a group of goats bleating in the next hut as the children get up for some yoga. I go through some basic stretches, warrior two and finish with a balance. They laugh uncontrollably, especially when I ask them to stand on one leg. As we prepare to leave, Kavita from I-India asks them to recall any of the yoga I showed them. A few stand up and show us the tree, but I see one child absentmindedly pick up his foot and stretch it straight above his head. It seems these kids could show me a thing or two about yoga.

We move onto Vasihali, which is another street school. Similarly, it is built on the sand, amid the canvas and tarpaulin huts. This one, however, is a little bigger and has four walls, covered in blankets or gudris, and posters of the English alphabet. The room is crowded full of yelling children, chanting, “Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!” I enter and sit in the corner and slowly the children come over to talk to me. They speak endlessly, ignoring the fact that I can’t speak or understand Hindi. A boy named Sanjay comes and spells words for me. Curiously, they all have their names tattooed on their forearms in Hindi and in English. Just like the youngest girls all have the nose piercing, earrings and black kajal around the eyes to protect against the bad spirits. It is a strange sight to see a tiny child bejewelled with smoky eyes. Some children are completing a small test and there is much yelling as they hand their papers to the two teachers to mark. The teachers manage to keep control of the chaos and laugh at each other throughout it all. The children recite poems and songs and then the girls stand to show some traditional Banjari song and dance. It is beautiful to hear them singing together, their arms raised high and their hips shaking seductively.

I finish the day at the shelter home for women. There are two shelters in close proximity to each other and the first one that I enter is full of sleeping young girls. A couple of them wake up and we go through my basic Hindi. They sit around me and place sweets in my mouth. I can’t even tell what these sweets are; they are red and hard and taste distinctly Indian. One small girl, Devi, runs to her locker and comes back with pink blush on her fingers that she lovingly applies to my cheeks. “Pink colour,” she says, simply. I don’t think there is a single place on this planet where little girls are not taught to love the colour pink. As I am trying to get a good picture of these girls as they dash about the room, an elderly lady enters. Her name is Jaya. She speaks perfect English and sits on the floor with me to ask where I have come from. She asks what I have been doing in India and when I say that I came to study yoga at an ashram in Rishikesh, she is very excited. She is from Uttarakhand, which is nearby and tells me I have to go to Renagate when I come back to India. I make sure she writes it down for me but she writes it in Hindi so her note needs translation. She wants me to show her some yoga, not teach, more like perform, I move through the surya namaskars and she tells me that she can see I practice with sincerity. This is one of the most moving compliments I have ever received in my life.

After I eat, Jaya takes me to the other shelter. She asks if I want to have some mehindi, Henna, and I am surprised that I haven’t had this done already in my whole time in India. Excited I outstretch my left hand for Rajini, who is a talented artist. Kiran, who I met at Ladli last week, completes my right hand and then in a bustle, I am told I have to leave as the car is coming to take me back to the guesthouse. I don’t want to leave. I am so much enjoying the company of these girls. I try not to touch anything as the brown paste dries on my hands. In the car, Jaya tells me that she comes to the shelter every single day. She lives far away so she has to take two buses to get there. Such selfless service, such devotion to other people is rare in the west, but not in India. When people say karma yoga, the first person that comes to mind is usually Gandhi or Mother Teresa. Karma yoga is the act of service to each other as a means for serving god.

I have a list of things to do before I leave India, so I have had to regrettably cut short my time with I-India. I realise that the only discomfort I have felt when at Children’s Village, or at the shelters, is when I have been served like an honoured guest. In Australia, we only expect service like that when we are paying for it. We don’t really get the idea of selfless service. This cultural difference has become so apparent to me. Since the first time I saw the simple act of touching a respected person’s feet, I have seen that Indian culture is permeated with the essence of devotion to each other as embodiments of god. When one says ‘namaste’, it is not merely a greeting, but recognition of the divine light that resides within each being. I have felt that while visiting these children and young women that I have not been doing enough for them. In thinking of volunteer work, I wanted to be able to offer something of myself to them, but instead have felt like they have been the ones to enrich my lives, to feed me food, sweets and chai. They danced, sung and recited poetry for me and a part of me felt anxious at the idea of receiving so much and feeling like I gave so little. I guess that is part of my social conditioning to believe that I have to give back in order to receive. It is a difficult thing to break down those conditions and accept selfless love. To accept selfless love, in a way, is also to give selfless love.

If there is one thing I have seen with I-India is that it is an organisation built on selfless love and selfless service. From its birth with Mrs Abha’s rickshaw school-on-wheels, to the complex that is the Jhag Children’s Village, still in construction, this is a group of people who saw the needs of others and have devoted their lives to their service. Mr and Mrs Goswami have built their lives around karma yoga, around these women and children who radiate the divine luminosity of beings that are loved.

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Day 130 – Jhag Children’s Village

In the morning I have a message from Priti. She doesn’t tell me she misses me, as she feels we are always together. I love the sentiment but I have to hold back the urge to message back and say that I miss her too! Actually I have to hold back the urge to message everyone I know and tell them I miss them. I only have ten more days in India, but I guess with home almost in sight I am starting to feel my heart being pulled in the direction of Sydney. Just when I am missing my family most, my brother Oli, the Master of One-Word texting, sends me a long and much appreciated message of support, advice and simple wisdom; “Short journey. Live it well.”

I-India pick me up at 10.30am. Sitting in the office with Mr Prabhaker and Mrs Abha Goswami, my eyes wonder over the framed pictures of gurus around the room. One picture in particular catches my eye. It is titled ‘The 42 teachers of India’ and is set up similar to a school photo, with the names listed according to which row they are in. All the classical sages are there, including Sai Baba, Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi and many others I have never heard of. After some patient waiting, we get in the car to drive the 40kms to the Jhag Children’s Village. This is the main project that I-India has created for the street children. On the way I ask Mr Prabhaker how I-India began.

Turning his gaze inwards, affectionately recalling the past that has led him to this point he begins, “20 years ago, I was a professor and my wife was a researcher. We began a research project to create a socio-economic profile on the street children of Jaipur and Jodhpur. That was a significant turning point in our lives as we realised how many children were living without shelter, without food, education or any proper care. Some were abused at the hands of their own family members and others were being forced to beg in the streets. We submitted the research and my wife was very disappointed to find that nothing was done about all this information. She began asking the children whether they would like to attend classes, if education was offered. Despite the mixed responses, she soon quit her job and gathering the teaching materials herself, she obtained a rickshaw and drove around to the areas where these children were and gave them basic education, food, sanitation and medical treatment right there in the street. This was the beginning of our School on Wheels program. Soon we were able to get our first buses and set up some mobile showers and classrooms.”

When we arrive at the village, the sun is already at its highest point and the sandy playground is deserted. The school principal welcomes me and takes me on a tour through the empty classrooms. There is construction happening all over the village; a second floor is being built on the school, an auditorium and a medical centre is going up. The young teachers are in a staff meeting in one section of the school and stand to greet me. I realise that this is the first time I have had a whole room of people stand up just to say hello to me. I wave awkwardly and to my relief, they eventually sit down. When we enter the boys’ home, two young boys of about 11 and 13 are waiting at the entrance. One has a dish on which he applies the blessing of red paste in the centre of my forehead and a small scattering of rice. He then takes a handful of pink flowers and throws them over my head. His shy smile is broad and welcoming and I say thank you in Hindi. They are about to turn and run away when I pull them back for a photo, which they obediently stand still for. I am given a short tour of the dorms and told that each child has their own bed. The medical wing at the back of the building is littered with some boys who don’t even look sick. When I ask the doctor what is wrong, he tells me that they are at the tail end of a chicken pox outbreak and these boys are almost better. Chicken pox already ruined my 11th birthday, so I am safe. Each of these boys sees the camera and demands I take a picture of them. The male ego appears to be universal.

In the girls’ home, I am welcomed with the same greeting. When I use my only Hindi sentence to ask the girl what her name is, she says, “Mera nam Priti,” and holds my hand to lead me through the tour.  I send a silent thank you to my friend Priti, who has sent this angel to guide me and remind me that we are never alone because we are all one. When I sit down amongst the girls, they crowd around me and using my single Hindi sentence, I ask their names. Realising I have no other way of communicating with them, I go through the numbers in English and in Hindi, then the colours.

Far too soon, I am told lunch is ready and taken back to the boys home where I sit alone amidst eight empty chairs and am served a never-ending plate of food. Chapattis are thrown at me and I worry that I am offending the cook when he looks concerned that I don’t accept the third helping of food. When I finish I realise that the strange look he gave me could have been because my face is probably as yellow as my fingers. Ever-grateful that I never go anywhere without baby wipes, I clean up and head to the boys’ play room. They seem more or less uninterested in me, so I approach a group of serious looking kids sitting around a board game. It is like a game of pool but with flat discs that kind of look like Casino chips. One of the boys has his focussed game face on while he gesticulates angrily at the board. Another of them who was arguing his point finally gives up and laughs and they resume playing. Satya, who was one of the two who gave me the greeting blessing, pulls a tiny picture out of his shirt pocket. The picture is of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant headed deity who seems to be continuously appearing on this journey to guide me. From my teacher at Sadhana Mandir to this small child, this god of luck has appeared at all the significant points along the road, like a marker in the road that says “keep going, you’re on the right track!”

When someone asks why I have short hair, I pull out my iPhone to show a picture of me with long hair. They are shocked and keep asking if it is my sister. I say no and point at myself but they just shake their heads. One of them asks if this thing has music so I put a playlist on shuffle. The whir of the fans drowns out the sound, so I hold the phone to Vijay’s ear and he listens intently to Sweet Home Alabama. I ask if he likes it and he slowly nods, his mouth half open in wonder. When the song changes to Adele, though, he hands the phone back to me with a frown and a shake of the head. A 16-year-old boy named Arjuna sits down next to me. He speaks a lot more English than the younger ones and as he starts to ask questions his extreme Vata energy hits me. Suddenly I see myself how my teacher in Rishikesh must have seen me; talking quickly, randomly jumping from one thing to the next, standing then sitting and throwing hyper-flexible limbs around. He shows me the triangle pose and wants to know more. He demands three poses for getting taller, three for losing weight, three for memory and concentration and three for relaxation. When I am trying to explain meditation, Sanskrit comes in handy and I say “Dhyan”, to which he responds by whipping his legs into a cross-legged position and joining his thumb and first finger together. How long should he do this for, he asks, ‘five minutes?’ Then he asks how long he should sleep for, when he should practice, when he should eat. Mind you, about ten minutes has gone past while this rapid conversation has taken place. I am left a little dazed and confused by the speed at which he is tossing questions at me when finally a boy offers me a game of cup and ball. I am just glad nobody has asked if I want to play cricket. Being from Australia, there is always the risk someone will completely throw me if they mention Ricky Ponting. It’s not that I don’t like cricket… I just prefer to stick pins in my eyes while watching paint dry.  It’s right up there with ten-pin bowling on my list of top-ten things never to suggest to me.

After a couple of hours, some boys have taken themselves off for a nap in the dense afternoon heat. I decide to go back to the girls’ shelter home but find that they, too, have succumbed to the heat and lay sprawled all over the floor. Puja, the only one who is awake, quickly tries to wake everyone up to greet me, but I tell her not to worry and to show them that I don’t care if they sleep, I lie down on the carpet with them. A few with messy hair and that all-too-familiar look of “why the hell am I awake?” throw their bodies back onto the ground and resume napping. The small group around me lay down but eventually they become curious of the photos I am taking of them. Like male ego, female vanity transcends all places and the girls smile coquettishly. When they all start to wake up, Puja asks if I like music. I nod yes and they put on a DVD of Bollywood video clips. Several girls jump up, align themselves across the room and I am given a live concert of Bollywood dance and music. The older girls of 11 and 13 know most of the moves by heart and the younger ones follow along, moving their little hips in time. Another universal imperative in the world of girls; it is absolutely essential that I admire the Barbie doll collection. A smaller girl near me named Sunita falls silent as she stares at two Barbies. She smooths out their dresses and lays them next to each other. She seems to be studying them. Suddenly I wonder why they even have blonde Barbies in India. Shouldn’t they be olive skinned, with a long black braid and a sari? What kind of ideals and comparisons are these white-faced effigies creating?

In the car on the way back, the song playing on the radio is the same as the pop song that Puja and Priti were dancing to. It has been a long, hot day and I didn’t lift a finger in terms of “volunteer work”. I don’t feel like I gave anything, but rather gained so much. With the boys, I learnt more Hindi in two hours than I have learnt in over a month in India. With the girls, I saw what it is like to grow up in the current Indian pop-culture and I was welcomed and fed like a revered guest. I lay myself down to sleep at night with a simple prayer of gratitude and a vow to somehow help do more for these children of the world who despite having nothing, can radiate such bright hope and luminosity.

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Day 126 – the Taj Mahal

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We wake up early to get to the Taj Mahal before the tourist crowd. We are lucky to be here in the middle of the off-season so it is extremely quiet and we actually get photos of each other standing alone in front of the building. It is not too hot as the sun slowly rises around the four pillars and the marble glitters. It is so stunning. The inlay of black onyx, carnelian, mother of pearl, tiger’s eye, jasper, bloodstone and lapis lazuli are in intricate floral designs and verses from the Qu’uran.

After breakfast we go to see the Red Fort, which was a palace and then later a prison for Emperor Shah Jahan. As we walk through with the guide, my imagination does me the favour of filling the courtyards with bustling courtiers in sheer veils, jewel encrusted lords and politically weighted glances. I am not listening to a word the guide is saying. I snap back to attention but it is getting really hot and it is only 10.30.

We are taken to see some workshops where local artisans embroider velvet with silk and carve intricate marble and gemstone tables, plates and statues of gods and elephants, but by mid-afternoon we just go back to the hotel and its swimming pool. I start doing laps and realise how much I miss the ocean. I haven’t been immersed in water since Bali. Over a month. That is probably the longest I have gone without a salt-water fix. Within minutes my breath, strokes and mind find simple rhythm and I feel my mind return to the same focus and meditative state I used to get when I swam across the bay at Malabar. I finally get tired and get out to sit by the pool and read but the flies are driving me insane in the thick, hot air. I can’t read so I sit and stare at the bright blue water. I’m suddenly overcome with the knowledge that this spiritual path in starting to overtake everything else in my life. Suddenly, nothing else seems as important. Everything has been sacrificed for this journey to enlightenment; my relationship, my physical home, my university degree… Everything has just dissolved in this burning fire of desire for union with the divine truth that is the universe. Love has gone from the external as it now comes from deep within, money has become a means to walk the physical path in search of that consciousness, family and friends are either either supportive of my decisions or secretly think I’m crazy and yet I have never felt more alive, more close to that truth and more aware of my essential nature that permeates all illusion. After last night’s ‘supermoon’ I feel driven to pursue this spiritual passion has gone from a flickering candle to a raging inferno, illuminating my one true path.

Day 123- past, practice and pumpkin curry

I have spent most of the day staring at either the yoga mat or the computer screen and I’m starting to wonder if I didn’t waste my last day in Rishikesh. They serve a pumpkin curry at the ashram that they have never served before with some kind of pumpkin fritter ball floating around in it. Suddenly my small tummy decides it can fit in three bowls and I spend the rest of the day rolling around like a half filled water balloon.

It is evening when the four of us sit around and battle Mosquitos, spending our last evening together talking. As usual, the topic is life, yoga, meditation and the etcetera’s. My phone starts making noises and I’m singing along to AC/DC’s Back in Black for a few seconds before I remember that this is my ringtone. Wow. My phone hasn’t rung in ages!

When I answer it is the past calling and I have nothing meaningful to say. What happens when you let go of the past but it is still holding on to you? Guilt is what happens. I am condemning myself. How could you be so selfish as to move on, to grow and evolve, Liz? But if I didn’t come this far, if I never climbed that icy mountain, seen what I’ve seen, done the hours of practice that I’ve done or met these beautiful souls, would I be at this point where I can so easily speak my truth? I know the answer to that. The simple truth is P.P.P. practice persistence and patience.

You never step in the same river twice. I’m sorry for changing but “time grabs you by the wrist and directs you where to go.” (Yon pointed out the words to this Greenday song and said it made him think of me.)

Here I am, speaking my truth and that truth is that the past is gone, the future does not exist and all we have is NOW.

Day 117 to Day 122 – trekking to the source of the Ganges, the Gangotri Glacier in Gaumukh

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Day 117 – Uttarkashi

Last night we arrived with the rain and the setting sun in Uttarkashi and came straight to the Monal Guest House, which is only 100m from the Uttarakhand Forest office where we need to get the permits for the Gangotri to Gaumukh trek. The guesthouse ranges from about 600Rp to 1000Rp per night ($12 – $20 USD), but is well worth the price. Located halfway up the hill, there is a balcony that overlooks the expanse of the wheat fields all over the valley. The balcony is a perfect place to practice some yoga and healing sounds, but closing my eyes is useless because I am so gobsmacked by the beauty of the mountains in front of me. I allow my mind to empty of content as I stand there staring at the broad expanse of green.

The owner of the guesthouse comes straight over at breakfast to introduce his animated self. He tells us that rain in Uttarkashi usually means snow up in Gangotri so we need to go into town and get some rain gear. An English couple tell us that the forest office require a photocopy of our passports and visas for the application, so we decide to stay another night and head down to the main market today to get ourselves organised.

The morning is actually hotter than we anticipated and I can hear myself complaining a bit about the walk, which makes no sense since I am doing all of this just so that I can go on a really long walk. The only trekking shop in Uttarkashi is in the main market, directly across from a small restaurant called the Shangri-La (which serves delicious Tibetan bread). This trekking shop is kind of expensive so I kind of wish I had bought some trekking gear in Rishikesh but we find a military shop that has rain coats for about 400Rp ($8 USD). My running shoes won’t be enough to protect my feet from the snow and the uneven ground so the owner of Monal has told me to look for ‘Hunter’ boots which are pretty much just canvas boots with a thick rubber sole. They cost only 400Rp as well. Hand-knitted woollen socks from a small stall cost 100Rp ($2 USD).

Some Godfather beer can be bought from a little hole in the wall just past the fruit market. It is so discreet, I almost miss it but the blackboard lists all stock and prices and the customers move quickly, trying to keep their purchases hidden. It feels like such a splurge to be buying beer, but we have to wait a few hours for it to cool down in the fridge as it is still warm. The guest house is a beautiful respite and I could almost stay a little longer since their evening dinner of paneer masala and dhal is so delicious.

 

Day 118 – Gangotri, the town in the clouds

The forest office doesn’t open until 10am so there is time this morning for a long practice. Instead of adhering to the ashram rule of meditating at the same time every day, I go back to spontaneous meditation. After breakfast, the moment of inspiration grabs me and I find half an hour of stillness easier than it has been for a long time.

The share jeeps leave from Uttarkashi until 2pm in the afternoon. It is only 4 hours to Gangotri up a steep, narrow road but it is dangerous in the dark. Each seat costs 150Rp ($3 USD) so to avoid being squashed in with 3 other people, we rent the whole middle seat between two of us. I will later be forever grateful for this decision when I step out of the jeep and see the mass of bright yellow vomit sprayed all over the side from out of the back seat window.

As the jeep travels up to over 3000m above sea level, I get a little bit dizzy. Once again, the mountains have me completely captivated and I have to make a concerted effort to keep my mouth closed. When I see snow for the first time I almost want to do a back flip out the window. Above me is the whitest white I have ever seen and below the sharp drop of the cliff, the road is lined with cherry blossoms, pines and birch. The car seems to fly around the corners as it weaves up higher and higher, but it seems I have misplaced my fear because all I can feel is wonderment. I slowly layer my clothing as the cold creeps in, but nothing could have prepared me for the icy air that envelopes my bones when we arrive in Gangotri. Running straight to the first guesthouse we find for only 300Rp ($6 USD), it takes only a few minutes to realise just how horrible it is. Rookie error: forgetting to check for holes in the widows. It is freezing in here! When I finally take a proper look around, I realise that the blankets stink, the pillows are stained dark grey and the toilet, which is a curious mixture of Indian-squat/Western-seated commode, has mysterious brown flecks staining it.

The market sells some second hand trekking coats and I pick up one that is filled with feather down for only 550Rp ($11 USD). It is like wearing a doona! Woollen beanies, socks and gloves cost me only 200Rp ($4 USD). After chai, coffee, hot chocolate, ginger-lemon-too-much-honey tea and any other hot liquid we can find, the only place left to be is bed in the hope of getting warm. I go to bed fully clothed because I don’t want to actually touch anything in this room and fall asleep thinking of home.

Day 119 – acclimatise

Morning time, the sun is out showing off the glory of the snow-capped peaks around the town. For some reason I could hear a chainsaw at 1am last night so I had horrific nightmares of amputated limbs. We need to move rooms but first we need to warm our insides. Trying to drink a litre of water this morning gives me a stomach ache so we find a small café facing the sun. I stand outside, trying to dry my boots. For some reason they just feel perpetually damp. In the new room which we have bargained down to 500Rp a night, we check the blankets for strange smells, the windows for holes and the toilet for stains. Everything seems to check out so we get a bucket of hot water to shower with. I don’t even want to take my shoes off and stand on the freezing tiles, but eventually I realise that I can sit with my feet in the bucket of hot water. I remember it was only a few days ago I was so hot that I had to sit with my feet in the coolness of the Ganges and feel that same sensation of temperature rising up through my legs and coursing through my whole body. This week I have to let go of my attachment to being clean, because it is way too cold to actually wet any other part of the body than the bare necessities.

In relative comfort, I sit under the blanket with the sarong draped over my head and meditate. This is surprisingly easy. The deep breathing is helping me to acclimatise and breathing under the material has created a warm little cocoon that I just don’t want to leave.

On the suggestion of a guidebook, a great Paneer Butter Masala can be found at Hotel Gangaputra, which is close to the Shiva temple at the Eastern end of Gangotri, but prices are surprisingly expensive at 50-100Rps per dish ($1-$2 USD). By midday, the clouds have descended upon the mountains and it feels as though the world has been pushed directly up into the heavens. I make a point to note that rain starts at around 1pm, so we need to leave pretty early tomorrow to avoid getting wet. I just can’t wait to start walking. Moving in the cold has got to be better than sitting around and waiting for frostbite to rob me of my fingers.

 

Day 120 – trekking from Gangotri to Bhojbasa

Before 7am the sky is covered in clouds and it is only my feet that don’t want to get out of bed. I get up and use pranayama to ignite some internal fire, but I promise you even my soul is freezing over right now.

We finally start walking at about 7.30am, but we walk through the temple and take the first path we see. By the time we are facing a huge boulder, we realise the track has ended and we need to double back. An old man points up a steep goat path and tells us that Gaumukh Road begins up there. It takes about fifteen minutes of steep rock climbing to reach Gaumukh Road and looking back along the path, I realise that it must start somewhere around the Western end of town. Great start. Everything else has to be easier than this, since all the guidebooks and other travellers assure us this trek is a gradual incline.

Only an hour and a half past the forest office where we show our permits and give a deposit for the plastic bottles and bags we are taking, there is a small signpost that says 15kms to Gaumukh. We have already walked three!

The first part of the hike is 14km to Bhojbasa and although most of the way is gradual, there are enough steep up and downhill sections to leave me more than a little breathless. The air is so thin up here, 2:1 breathing goes out the window and I am just sucking in oxygen anywhere that my body will take it. If only it were at all possible that my belly button could inhale! There are enough rocks on the path that I have to keep my head down and watch where I put my feet, but I take frequent opportunities to stop and look around. I have never seen such beauty. The snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas seem to roar in silence and the pine trees sway, worshipping the chilling sky. After allowing my lower mind to give me more than a hundred reasons why it doesn’t actually like trekking and why walking uphill in the cold, thin air is NOT so fun, the sound of the river, our steps and the loop of my breath fall into a rhythm and eventually there is a hush. I look around at where I am, what I am doing and the beauty, the glory of this place stuns me into silence.

There are no more signposts until we are about halfway, at the 10km mark. After this, the last 3km seems the hardest. My left hip has started to ache with every step and I can’t take my fingers out of my pockets because it is so cold; even in gloves they will go numb. I want to stop but every time we do, we cool down too quickly so Yon just keeps walking and we keep going. We come across a sadhu in orange robes and sandals. He gives us each a peanut and it is the greatest legume I have ever had the privilege of consuming.

At 2kms left until Bhojbasa, my head is starting to pound from the altitude and I feel a little nauseous. Every corner I am hoping that this town will be just on the other side. I look down at my feet and remember each step is for someone I love. I don’t think I even know enough people for all the steps this is taking, so I guess I am sending love to people I don’t even know.

When we finally see a flag and a rooftop in the distance, our pace picks up with the thought of chai, blankets and maybe a fire. The valley comes into view and the corrugated iron buildings that make up the ashram, GMVN guesthouse and the police quarters of Bhojbasa is the most beautiful site in the world. We are some of the first to arrive and within five minutes of sitting down for some 2-minute-noodles and a cup of way-too-sweet chai, the snow starts to fall. I feel too sick to keep eating and I eventually just take a headache pill and go to sleep for a couple of hours, curled up in a little ball under the thick blankets of the dormitory, holding my icy toes. I am terrified that the frostbite is already kicking in.

When I wake up in the metallic dorm room, I can feel my toes and my body has regained some warmth but my head still hurts. Apparently sleep is the worst thing to do for altitude sickness so I need to walk around and breathe.

The snow has not stopped falling all afternoon. It is the most beautiful, magical sight to see tiny flecks of pure white blanketing the ground. It’s like god is sifting flour all over us. There is no winter fire place or even a tin can, so I just keep pacing, stopping every few steps to look at the white rain that descends, bring heaven down to earth. Or is it bringing earth up to heaven?

A part of me can’t believe I haven’t yet died of hypothermia but my head has at least stopped hurting so we sit down in the thin metal dining hall for hot chocolate and a game of cards. We meet some of the other people making the trek. A couple we saw at the start of the trek arrive later; they had to trek through snow for an hour and almost considered stopping in a cave for shelter. I am so grateful we didn’t stop! They turn the generator off by 10pm and I retreat to my position under the covers, realising for the first time how hard this mattress really is. I have never been so cold in my life.

 

Day 120 – Gaumukh, the source of the holy river

I didn’t sleep. I think I might have dozed off a couple of times, but the cold and the excitement pretty much kept me awake for most of the night. I really do not want to trek for 9 hours under-slept but I also do not want to stay here in the cold for another night.

The final 4km trek ascends about 200m in altitude, but does not feel like too steep of an incline. When we get closer to the glacier, my pack starts to feel lighter, my feet are steadier and I pick up speed. It is like the descending force is pulling me towards this mass of ice.

The sun comes out from behind the mountains around 8am, when we are at the glacier itself and the snow sparkles in the light. I sit on a dry rock to get used to the fact that I have actually arrived at the source of the Ganges. After the idea has settled in and I can wipe the awestruck look off my face, I make the small climb over the snow-covered rocks to reach the mouth of the glacier. As I look to my left I see that the massive wall of ice beside me is actually part of it. I am actually standing in and on the glacier! I’m not sure that pictures, words or any human expression can truly capture that feeling of unity, of oneness, of extreme awe at coming face to face with the divine. Staring into the flowing water where ice becomes river, I make an offering and a prayer.

I look up at the towering giant of blue and white ice before me. I touch the icicles and write my name in the snow. Then I am ready to give the Ganges something that I have been holding on to for too long. I am ready to let go of the past, those negative emotions, memories of arguments and disappointments all the past associations and attachments that are holding me back. I can’t keep them any longer. So, hum… I throw it all into the water, right at the mouth of the glacier.

My heart is beating out of my chest. I sit down on a rock and hold my mala.

108 breaths. 108 hum so.

The past is not real, the future is not certain and all I have is right now, right here.

Part of my prayer is for sunshine. We still have to get all the way back to Gangotri before the snow or rain starts to fall. All I can do is pray and believe that this divine force will keep us in the light of the sun. We are walking back with an Italian and a Spaniard who have the beautiful presence of mind to start picking up rubbish along the way. We fill up the plastic bag before we even get back to Bhojbasa. If everyone who did this trek brought a plastic bag and picked up rubbish on the way back it would make up for the few people who still throw their plastics into this sacred, natural space.

The trek back is easy enough to hold a conversation for most of the way and the sun blesses us all day long. At one point we stop to marvel at a huge tree that seems to be holding the entire mountain up from the path. I stop to listen to it and it feels like I am hugging my mother. Stopping to hug a tree is like learning the secrets of the earth, embracing her and feeling infinite love. I hold the trunk for a while, feeling the subtle exchange of energy.

By the end of the trek, we can stand in the sun in t-shirts. The sun has answered my prayers and stayed with us the entire way. Gangotri, for the moment, is actually warm in comparison to where we have just been.

I have just trekked to Gaumukh, the source of the Ganges and back. I have seen snow for the first time in my life. I have stood in the mouth of a glacier and felt complete union with the earth. I have done this.

 

Day 121 – the long road down

It takes four hours in the share jeep to get back to Uttarkashi. We stop for lunch and buy some fruit before grabbing a taxi down to Rishikesh. The share jeeps only go to Dehradun, which is still an hour out of Rishikesh so the 3000Rp ($60 USD) taxi seems the better option for two extremely tired and dirty trekkers.

Morning practice in the cold has been reduced to just pranayama to warm up, so I am looking forward to getting back down to the ashram and feeling enough warmth to lie on the floor and stretch. The backs of my calves are sore, but amazingly my back is fine after carrying my pack for two days.

When we finally arrive in Rishikesh, it is almost 8pm and dark. We meet some friends and despite hunger, we are so excited reliving the adventure, we barely even eat. Chantal has met a number of people who have made meditation their whole life and is starting to feel like the only progress we can make is through hours and hours of daily practice. But after what I have felt, walking up the Himalayas and every moment of life that I have breathed in India in this past month, isn’t it possible to make your whole life meditation and make every hour a practice in itself? I refuse to believe that life and meditation are mutually exclusive. The more time I take out of each day to stop and meditate, the easier it is to move back into the day with that same sense of awareness and consciousness. If every breath is felt with purpose and sensitivity then even sitting around talking to friends and cracking peanuts can be a meditation, right?

I am washing my clothes and waiting for the shower water to warm up. I hover over the bucket, deeply impressed by the almost black water I am squeezing out of my clothes. I start an internal dialogue:

“Liz, that was amazing. Look at what you did! If you could do anything, anything at all, right now, what would it be? If money, work, family, home, study was not an issue and you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do?”

The answer comes as a small surprise:

“Go to Africa.”

“Seriously? Um, ok. If you want, let’s go to Africa! Why the hell not?”

It is a strange feeling to still be travelling and already feeling the intense need to go somewhere else but I have faith- if I can manifest sunshine and walk 4000m up into the sky, what can I not do?

 

Day 122 – displaced in the anywhere

I wake up with excitement to get back into the regular pranayama, meditation and asana practice. The air is warm and I am the only one in the meditation hall this morning. It feels good to be back to this place I called home for three weeks. Home? I actually feel like this is home right now. They say that home is where the heart is, but once you have direct contact with the cave of your heart, home is within. Home is enlightenment. Home is where the true self lives. So home is always anywhere that you happen to be?

I need to do a fair bit of writing, so I take my little laptop into town and sit down with an iced coffee, looking over the Laksman Julle bridge. The distractions are kind of hindering the typing, but eventually the channels of my fingers open up and the words flow. I stop to write a message and then have a sudden urge to call mum. My mum is beautiful, generous, kind, caring and just one of those universal mums that would adopt anyone I brought through the door. She takes in students while I am away and has just taken on an extra one, giving away my room. Well, the room I would sleep in when I went back to Sydney. It seems I have no home to come home to. I don’t want to upset her, so I promise it is fine. I get to stay with my brothers, which I love doing anyway, so realistically it is not a problem, but I can’t help feeling this niggling emotion. I stop typing to observe what this thing is tugging at my sleeve.

Witnessing this emotion is strange because it has come up from underneath the veneer of being the tough, travelling, nomadic who likes a simple life and few belongings. I realise that I feel displaced. I feel a little lost, a little sad that I don’t get to just go sleep in my own bed, in my own room among my own things. There has to be a reason for this, but I can’t see it yet because the damn emotion is clouding up my head. I wonder through the rest of the day in Laxman Julle trying to stay in the now so that I don’t worry about the uncertain future, but this strange feeling of displacement gets stronger. It was only this morning that I felt like the ashram was my home. Why do I care so much about this Sydney ‘home’ if I have already felt that home is within? By evening I decide I want a beer. There is apparently one place in Rishikesh with alcohol, called the Bandhari Swiss Cottages, right at the top of High Bank. We arrive only to be told that the boss has the key and the beer cannot be accessed yet. It’s just one of those days…

Suddenly I am laughing deliriously because I realise that despite these apparent setbacks, I am in India and I am outrageously happy. I am happy because suddenly I have no issues of home or family holding me back. I can change my study schedule for the rest of the year. I can go back and work hard for a couple of months and make more money. So now that I have no attachments holding me back, I can do whatever I want.

Ok universe, what are you saying? Go to Africa? Keep travelling? Keep searching, keep finding. Keep on keeping on. The world is my home.

Name: Elizabeth Major

Address: Anywhere

 

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