Monthly Archives: February 2010

no debt, no regret

Recently I had one of those conversations with a friend about living a life of leisure and never having to work.  Of course, secretly, or maybe not so, a life of leisure wouldn’t suit me at all.  I definitely need to keep myself busy and be passionate about something, and if I get paid for it, then even better.

But in this conversation, we hit upon an important point.  To work because you want to, and not because you have it, is a really small but majorly significant thing.  For some of us, it means the difference between misery and happiness.  Knowing that you are doing what you do because you love it is an intensely rewarding experience.

Which brings me to the subject of debt.  It’s probably not a surprise to anyone (or actually, maybe it is), but I used to carry a large amount of debt.  Embarrassingly, it’s not even “good” debt, but more the accumulation of random spending sprees on nothing important.  But it adds up when you don’t pay attention, and my creditors loved me.

They still love me, but maybe not so much now that I net them no interest (on the other hand, they don’t have to worry about my defaulting…).   I paid off my debts in a very short amount of time, once I decided it had to go.   And it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

Because here’s the thing.  There’s nothing wrong with random spending sprees on nothing whatsoever.  What’s wrong is when you don’t actually have that money to spend.  Living on borrowed funds isn’t much more fun than living on borrowed time.

Ironically, being in debt was helpful for my ability to save – once the debt was paid off, the additional money went into savings, and frugal lifestyle changes I had incorporated managed to stick.  There’s room to breathe, of course, hence my current 2 month vacation, but there’s also a sense of fiscal responsibility (even on vacation) that I think will always stick with me.

So today, when I walk into the restaurant for dinner, I’m going to order whatever sounds tastiest, and not have to worry about whether I can afford it.  Because I can.  No regrets.

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after the ecstasy…

Jack Kornfield has this amazing book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.  It is about what it sounds like – life after enlightenment, and all the little things you still have to do to lead your life.

In some ways, I’m reminded of that book right now as I sit here in an internet cafe. I’m halfway through my decadent yoga holiday, in which, for two weeks, I do nothing but sit on the beach, do yoga, and eat fish curry.

All of which I am doing (though less fish curry and more banana lassi and thoran, I find).  But that’s not all.  I also diligently sweep my room and clean my bathroom every day, and wash my clothes (by hand) every few days.  I’m also planning next moves (ie, Borneo and Korea), job hunting, getting my eyebrows threaded, figuring out how to pack everything, working out my finances, and basically everything else I do when I’m not on yoga holiday.

Which all leads me to think two somewhat different but in some ways similar things: 1) that “vacation” is an exotic-sounding term we use to describe something that is NOT our regular lives (and therefore, in some ways, an unattainable nirvana), and 2) who needs vacation when we can transform our seemingly mundane daily lives into something more profound?  I mean, if I still have to do laundry and wash my hair and assess my finances in nirvana, why wait til nirvana to feel like I’m on holiday?

The laundry has to get done anyway.  And on vacation, I have to wash by hand – far more work than my washing machine back home.  So instead of making some false distinction that makes more sense in fantasy than in reality, maybe instead I’ll take my normal, every day life and turn it into a permanent vacation.

Which I guess is a long-winded way of saying that instead of waiting for some idealized perfection in some distant future that will never happen anyway, we can just enjoy how things are in the moment, because you know, enlightenment isn’t that great.  You still have to do laundry.

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downtime

So after a few hectic weeks of travel, I’m on the beach in Southern Kerala – Kovalam to be exact.  I’ll be here for 2 weeks, doing yoga twice a day and generally just relaxing.  It will be a welcome break before I head to Malaysia for more hectic travel.

Kovalam is pretty touristy, but I’m sure it is nowhere near the scale of Goa.  Still, it’s pretty hard to avoid sellers, tour operators, money exchangers, restaurant hosts, etc, haranguing you to come and “have a look” in their shops.  I’ve already succumbed and had chappals made, and a couple pairs of pants.  Tomorrow’s errand might have to be the post office….

The ocean is gorgeous, though I haven’t brought myself to go in it yet.  Maybe tomorrow. 🙂

In the meantime, lots of fruit (even mangoes!), fish, coconut, lassi, and fresh lime soda!

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simple religion

The more time I spend in Kerala, the more different it seems from the north of India.   The people look different, the food is different, even the clothes are different.   And most striking to me, is how religion in the South, particularly in Kerala, is unlike much of the rest of the India.

For starters.  Kerala seems to have managed to find a way for its various religious adherents to co-exist peacefully.  One of the big roundabouts in Trivandrum has a massive cathedral, impressive mosque, and humble temple all within spitting distance of each other.  No one has to sneak in, no guards are visible, and traffic bustles along as if this were some every day scene.

But in India, and much of the world, this isn’t ordinary.   Religious and ethnic groups the world over collect in their little groups, and tend not to mix so overtly.  Not so in Kerala, where “syncretism” seems to the catchword.

The theyyam is a great example – it seems to pre-date established Hinduism, reaching back to some murky roots of animism and shamanism.  But it’s managed to incorporate Hindu deities (many of whom I’ve never heard of before).  Granted, Hinduism is a religion that easily lends itself to consilience – explanations of the divine tend to revolve around so-and-so being an incarnation of Shiva/Vishnu/Parvati.

More interestingly,  theyyam also includes some popular Muslim figures, many of whom who have been deified themselves.  Not something you see everyday.   And then there are the various warriors, wronged women, ghosts, etc, incorporating an astonishing complexity of social justice as well.  Af ter all, unlike the rest of Hindu rituals, the theyyam is dominated by lower-caste families, and not Brahmins.

But there is more.  The Sabrimala temple plays host to a massive pilgrimmage every year to honor Ayappas, a god not mentioned in any Vedic texts, but revered by Malayali Hindus all the same (some stories of course claim him as an incarnation of Vishnu).

Kerala has its history of religious violence, but always perpetrated from the outside.  The Christians trace their history back to St Thomas, who visited India after Jesus’s death (which means Christianity came to India before Europe).  In the 4th Century, they aligned themselves with the Syrian church.  When the Portuguese came centuries later, they brought Roman Catholicism in all its violence with them, converting by the sword, so to speak.  Eventually religious fervor calmed, and today both Catholics and Syrian Christians worship peacefully.

Islam has a strong presence in Kerala as well, with strong ties to the Middle East.  There are madrassas here, and also Dubai’s own religion – capitalism (which melds seamlessly with communism here).  Kerala is the would-be poster child for utopia.

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pictures

Some long awaited pictures of my travels in India here.

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darshan

Kannur was an idyllic 3 days. after which I headed back down to Trivandrum.  There, some family friends picked me up and brought me to their house, where I dozed a bit before hopping a bus to Kanyakumari, at the very southern tip of India.  Kanyakumari is in Tamil Nadu, and it is located at the confluence of 3 seas.  Inevitably, the sunset/sunrise is gorgeous, and I managed a fabulous picture of the former. Kanyakumari is the sight where Gandhi’s ashes were set adrift in the ocean, and where Swami Vivekananda meditated on the social justice aspects of Hinduism.  Both events are commemorated by excellent memorials.

Then I hopped an overnight train to Rameshwaram, which I shared with about 10 other people, all elderly.  It was nice to be in A/C and have the compartment to myself.  At the very early hour of 5:20 am, we arrived, and I departed and wandered my way through the dark to the main temple of Ramanathaswamy.

There are 4 main temples in India that form the Char Dham, sites of pilgrimmage undertaken by all Hindus in their lifetime.  Two of them I’ve seen – Dwarka in the west and Badrinath in the north.   This third one is in the south, and I decided, since I was in the area, that I would go visit.

So, before sunrise I showed up, and made my way to the water to take a quick dip (or rather, dip my toes).  Then I dried off to some extent, and made my way into the temple.

The temple is enormous.  I walked the corridors for quite some time (coming across an elephant in a pen at one point), stopping for darshan at various points.  Then I meandered my way to the center (after considerable wandering and getting a bit lost) for a brief puja, and then made my way out again.  Then I hired a rickshaw driver to take me to the end of the island, where I could just barely make out Sri Lanka in the distance.

At Rameshwaram, it is said that Rama took his steps toward Lanka to free Sita from the demon Ravana.  It is also said that Ravana’s brother surrendered here, and offered penance.   After defeating Ravana, Rama offered penance for his sin of killing a Brahmin.

After leaving the temple, I made my way to the bus stand, to take the bus to Madurai.  Just as a note, always ask about where the bus stops…. in my case, it took almost 5 hours to arrive as we kept stopping everywhere…..

Madurai is the home of the Sri Meenakshi Temple – a blinding display of S Indian architecture.  Also huge.  Tonight, I take the train back to Trivandrum, and find some way to Periyar…..

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divine mysteries

I left Kochi a little sad, as my friend had departed the day before for her yoga teacher training in Goa.  I was on my way to Kannur, a town in the northern part of Kerala, where tourism is growing, but hasn’t yet reached the proportions it has further south.

But Kannur definitely has its reputation, and I certainly saw tourists.  But the beach was empty for the most part, and even the big draw in town was blissfully free of foreigners.

Kannur is known for its annual theyyam festival, which runs for almost half the year.   Theyyam is a Malayalam word that is supposedly derived from daivam, meaning god.  During theyyam, a performer, one who has trained all his life, induces a trance and takes on the persona of a deity.

Not just any deity – the theyyam ritual is specific.  Only certain people within certain families can perform it, and even then, they invoke only specific gods at specific temples at specific times of the year.

The performer dances, often with props such as swords, fire, staves, etc, and in his rthymic motion, induces the trance.  When he glimpses himself in the mirror, he no longer sees himself, but his god or goddess.  The change is measurable – even the casual onlooker can sense the presence of a different persona.

The ritual is not unlike spiritual possession found in so many cultures, and is itself a syncretic mix of Hinduism, animism, and even some Islam.  The gods are not strict to the Hindu pantheon, but can also be warriors, unfairly accused girls, and deities from other religions.  But whoever the god is, he or she is an integral part of the family who performs that theyyam every year.

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slowing down

I’ve been in Kerala over a week and I kind of don’t want to leave.  It’s not only beautiful here, but the people are friendly and welcoming.  Plus the food is good.

We’ve seen and done a lot here, and I’m hard-pressed to name my favorite part.  But one thing in particular stands out – life moves at a hectic pace here, but still slower than our usual day-to-day.  Here, I feel like I can slow down a bit and enjoy what I’ve seeing and doing.  True, we are going quickly, a day here, a night there, but at the same time, I feel like we are taking the time to really appreciate our experience.  There has been more than one day of just wandering around, sitting reading a book, and obviously, checking internet.

Tonight for example, I’m sitting in my hotel room watching star movies and eating tapioca chips.  Tomorrow morning I take an early train to the northern part of Kerala, less visited and maybe more pristine.  There, I will sit on the beach and relax, but also try to see a theyyam ceremony and maybe another backwaters tour.

Regardless, I’m planning on only relaxing and doing nothing, and the small backwater villages are the place to do it.

But even the bigger cities in Kerala afford an opportunity to slow down in a way not really seen in the rest of India.  Here in Kochi, I can just wander around, popping into shops, watching the fishermen on the beach, and sipping coconut water, while the city bustles around me.

It’s really not surprising that this is always a top destination choice when people come to India.

Yesterday, on our random wanderings, we came across a women-run cooperative selling spices.  Seven women, tired of being shafted working for the man, and watching shoppers get fleeced on prices, decided to open their own store.  The owner we met was a wonderful woman, and very helpful.  For less than $10, I picked up some delicious vanilla pods, something I’d estimate would cost over $40 back in the US (and something close at the more touristy shops here).  Plus, I got to support a local women’s initative.  Not a bad time indeed.

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unintended consequences

For anyone who has read the LP guide to India, the Kerala section mentions that the state government has been off-and-on Communist.  Apparently, the relatively high rates of literacy and other social indicators can be attributed to this phenomenon.  But so, apparently, can the high rate of alcoholism and suicide, because communism stifles ingenuity and people turn to substances and death out of despair.

The solution, it seems, is to build up Kerala’s tourism sector, and because they are all communists, everyone gets a piece of the pie.  Seems so easy…..

And as always, the unintended consequences raise their ugly heads.

The push for tourism has been quite successful – it is high season now and we see a lot of tourists here.  The tourism board has created a great system, and are very helpful.  Kerala is a wonderful place to travel.

Too wonderful, maybe.  Because Kerala’s highlight is the backwaters, miles of rivers and lakes that stretch parallel to the ocean, and lend themselves to lazy canoe rides and houseboats.  The houseboats are simply bigger canoes with coverings, but at some point, some enterprising soul discovered he could put an outboard motor on one, and run trips overnight.  And of course, putting the motor on the boat meant they could get larger now.

So, for about 100 bucks, you and your sweetie can lounge on the deck of a boat while a chef cooks you meals and you motor down the river for a day or so.  You, your sweetie, and about 1000 other people, that is.  Because the houseboats all leave from Alleppey, and the channel is only so big, and at any given moment, you can stand on a jetty and watch about 10 massive boats pass you by, their motors churning the waters and leaving chaos in their wake.

And diesel residue.  So the channels are polluted now, and the government in their infinite wisdom has walled the channel to prevent flooding, thereby killing the last of the mangroves.  And so, while tourism provides jobs and livelihoods, tourists kill the ecosystem.

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where everyone hugs instead of tugs

There are a lot of gurus in India.  Some of them are probably charletans, out to get your money and good intentions.  Some of them are genuine, but maybe mediocre.  And some of them attract such an immense following that the sheer energy of the group is overwhelming and maybe something exceptional.

Amma, Mata Amritanandamayi, is one of those.  At face value, there’s not really anything extraordinary here.  Maybe she’s performed a miracle (who hasn’t?).  Maybe her story bears a remarkable similarity to Krishna’s and St Theresa’s (not surprising given Kerala’s religious makeup).   Maybe she’s a genuinely nice and compassionate person.

But she displays no amazing phenomena.  Really, she’s just really touchy-feely.   Her gig is hugging, and hugging she does – hours and hours and hours on end.  Once, for 27 straight hours.

But in this seemingly mundane, ordinary act, maybe there is a glimpse of the Divine Presence.   Maybe the universe, in its infinite grace, pauses a moment in this human body to convey compassion to its multitudes of lost souls.  Maybe so much Love can build up in one person that the only way to release this energy is in the simple joy of touching another human being and acknowledging, “we are in this together, you and I.”

I am not a mystic.  But Amma’s ashram in Amritapuri holds a kind of magic, where a Benetton ad in white sits in lawn chairs and watches her hug person after person for hours and hours.  Amma’s darshan is this touch, and watching it is like receiving a blessing.

Of course, receiving a hug itself is a special kind of blessing.  I can’t say my life was changed in any way, but I was not annoyed at waiting nearly 10 hours for a few seconds in Amma’s embrace.  Whether or not she can really cure your ills, or offer you peace, or heal the world is probably forever up for debate.  But that one person exists who devotes her life selflessly for others is enough evidence of divinity for me.

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